spring garden, photograph
“Art is like a butterfly fluttering in a meadow. Analysis of art is like a butterfly on a pin. Each has its value, but we must always be aware of the difference, and what is gained or lost.”
– Darby Bannard
I like this analogy a lot – we can learn so much about a butterfly from observing it in the meadow and equally as much in the laboratory, as a specimen. It’s just that we learn completely different things. Both have their place.
But, as Bannard points out, we need to bear in mind the differences and understand the limitations of each. Neither offers the complete picture and confining oneself to one side of this equation or the other denies us a deeper understanding of each.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed classical music – often I will hear a piece and love it without knowing anything about it, who wrote it, when it was written, the musical structure underlying it, etc. I can appreciate it as is. At times I’ve studied music and music history and the understanding I’ve gained in doing so can deepen my appreciation of a piece and make me like it even more. On the other hand, if I really don’t like it, knowing more about it will not cause me to suddenly change how I feel. What I gain is understanding, not necessarily enjoyment.
For me the approach that works best is one of balance. In my last post, I referred to a review of my work in which a theorist seemed only able to look at the work from a theoretical and historical perspective. I do appreciate that viewpoint but it must be balanced by a perspective which enjoys the work on its own merits.
So I do like to learn about art theory and history, but don’t rely on them for my enjoyment of the arts – rather I look to them to further the enjoyment my direct experience offers me.
water marbles, photograph
“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.”
– Edgar Payne
During a portfolio review recently a reviewer told me that all photography is inevitably a collaboration with the work of past photographers and that I should understand my role in that collaboration. In other words, I needed to know the work of others and be able to explain my work in relation to theirs.
I know many artists struggle with the issue of the influence other artists have on their work. We all want to find our own voice and yet we all want to learn from others. A strong argument can be made that all art is to some degree derivative and that it is only in modern times that originality became so important to artists.
But this reviewer was making a slightly different point – they weren’t commenting on whether the work was original, but whether there was any reason to be doing it at all. Their point was that art must be understood and can only be evaluated in its historical context. The question posed by the reviewer was “Why, given what others have done with this type of work in the past, are you doing it now? What are you trying to say that is relevant today with this subject?”. The implicit assumption was that if I couldn’t explain this, the work had no meaning.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t necessarily care what others have done with similar work or why they have done it. I may be interested in the work as a source of inspiration, ideas, techniques, etc. But I don’t really feel that I need to be engaged in a conversation with other artists, living or past, about my work. The conversations I’m more interested in art is with myself and with others who view my work. I suppose some of them are familiar with specific artistic traditions and may want to know how I fit in.
I’m afraid I may need to let them figure that out for themselves.
calla trio, photograph
“Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”
– Tallulah Bankhead
I struggle all the time with who I am as an artist. Not only have I done many different types of photography (landscape, figures, still life, floral, etc) but I also have done several types of painting mediums. On the surface, there has been little consistency in my output – lots of different stuff done different ways.
Is there something that runs through all this work that makes it uniquely mine? Is this even possible given that I am not (hopefully) the same person I was 10 or 15 years ago? Is it something that guides me or something that is discovered after the fact? Is such a thread of cohesion even a desirable thing or does it limit us in some way from new creation?
For me part of the excitement of creating art is the opportunity it gives me to do new things, to explore new ideas and new forms of expression. When I start a new project, I am motivated to not approach it as I have in the past. Most (not all) of the time I am hoping to become a different artist than I’ve been before. Without that possibility I would be weighed down by Sisyphus-ian angst.
Of course, after the art has been created and I consider whether I achieved my objective of transcending myself, most of the time I do see something familiar there. I may have put a new spin on things but it’s rare, if ever, that I can’t see myself after all. Contrary to the quote above, I find I have trouble not being exactly, or at least, somewhat, like me.
But while it may not be possible to reinvent our artistic identity completely, the attempt to do so keeps our work alive, so I’ll keep trying to be not exactly like me.