Learning and Remembering

calla’s curl, photograph

“At some deep level artmaking integrates the things we learn to be true with the things we have always known to be true. Finding that correlation between instinct and experience is the key to drawing out universal truths from particular experiences. It’s all a matter of learning and remembering.”

– Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door

We all infuse the totality of our personal experience into each piece of art we make, but one of our aims is to create something that appeals to others. They might have had similar experiences but no one is exactly like us.

At least part of the dialogue between artist and viewer takes place through the medium of universal truths. We tap into those truths through instinct. The more successful of us know how to take something very personal and render it in a way that communicates easily to others.

When I start a new work, I’m usually focused on the specific object and my own experience of it. It’s what inspired me to take the photograph and what caused me to select it for reproduction. But as I consider how to make the image beautiful, how to use it to express something more than it’s origins, I find myself drawing from a deeper level of understanding than that felt at the moment of inception. At a most subtle level, there is remembering going on. If we had to rely solely on the learning our individual experience gives us when creating art, it would be hard to explain the universal appeal and power of communication that art achieves.

There is an interesting talk on TED.com by Denis Dutton in which he presents a Darwinian explanation of art’s universal allure. While we need not agree with his specific explanations, he supports the view expressed by Orland that there is a stratum underlying our specific cultural norms of art that we, as artists, draw on to create and that others, as viewers, rely on to appreciate.

It’s an interesting perspective to take on the process of creation that we all undertake, seeing it as drawing out universal truths from particular experiences. Maybe it can helps us feel a little less isolated as we pursue the sometimes lonely act of making art.

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