Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Why I Make Art (Part 1)

It is typical for artists who become serious about their work to seek out venues to display it. As with writers seeking publication, there are certain processes which have evolved. Writers may grumble about the query letter process as inefficient, but it does serve a useful purpose. The managing editor can determine from your query whether you have the ability to convey a coherent thought, know how to structure sentences or have an idea that is suited to the publication.

At a Duluth Art Institute Nexus meeting last month, Curator David Hodges outlined a system for presenting proposals to gallery curators for consideration. Samples of one's work and a resume were important. An "Exhibition Statement" was also a piece to include. And finally, a statement regarding your personal philosophy toward why you make art and what you are trying to say. Here's my first stab at an Artist's Statement.

Miscellaneous Thoughts About Why I Make Art

Every artist works within a context. My early development occurred in the Sixties and Seventies. There were so many cultural currents at play during those years that I studied painting and drawing at Ohio University (1970-74). Pop was becoming vogue, but most of us were not attracted to it. Abstract expressionism held sway over many of us. The minimalist movement was reaching its climax (zero) and conceptual art was receiving nods of approval from the critics. Then there were those who pushed the notion that artists are the vanguard of the revolution, and to ignore political purposes in one’s work was to be irrelevant.

My own personal quest at the time was to find my own voice, to not imitate trends that might be here today and gone tomorrow. Being a creative being was in my blood, in my genes and my soul. The question then was how to express these creative urges in a manner which was personally meaningful.

One of my driving motivations was to be like Picasso, not in his style or modes of expression, but in creating a life that was original. I saw Picasso as a stone that had been thrown into a pond, his imitators being the ripples that flowed outward, influenced by the stone’s collision with the surface of the water. I aimed to be a my own stone, making a singular splash. If I did not create ripples, followers, or have influence, the important thing was to make my own splash in my own way.

During my college years I filled more than 50 sketchbooks with drawings and produced nearly 200 paintings. I participated in a number of shows including a Morristown, New Jersey competition by invitation. My work was reviewed by a New York gallery and I was invited to be part of a three-man show in Manhattan. Several leading New York publishers evaluated my work and one wrote that it would be interesting to see where I would be in 5 years, that she would not be surprised if I were the next Peter Max.

When I finished college, however, I was not prepared for the transition from the academic culture to the “real world” off campus. I had not developed a plan, and fell into a self-destructive period which ultimately resulted in the burning of my sketchbooks and the destruction of most of my paintings. This period of my life has been summed up in the opening paragraphs of my short story Terrorists Preying, which has now been translated into French by Aude Fondard.

Although I'd been an art major in college -- mostly painting and drawing -- I became discouraged with it shortly after graduation and gave it up. I was living with my family on Long Island at the time and for some while afterwards I still visited the New York art galleries, making regular tours of the Whitney, the Guggenheim and the Modern.

What finally got me out of art was the whole directionlessness of it all. No one seemed to know what art was about any more. DuChamp started it, of course, with his Readymades. It took the rest of the world a half century to catch on. Everything was art, the critics were saying. For myself, their steel-firm logic stubbornly taunted everything I'd built my life around, leaving me creatively disabled, impotent, and broken down. In the end, I became the essence of minimalism, and ceased to exist.

These were the typical difficult years of youth when dreams get shattered and the meaning of one’s life is tempest-tossed. And they were likewise difficult years for the art scene, which had become splintered by a whole host of movements, each vying for critical approval, acceptance, relevance.

One hundred years ago Andre Gide, Nobel Prize Winner for literature, gave a lecture titled The Importance of the Public in which he argued that it is a dangerous thing for art to separate itself from life, “dangerous for both art and life.” His prescient words were disregarded by the leading edge of the arts community with the ultimate result that art galleries became increasingly barren and the “important” artists of the art schools becoming objects of scorn in the public, a byword, if noticed at all.

And yet, young artists continued to dream, each striving to create something both authentic and important. Why?

It may be that we create because we as persons are creative beings made in the image of God. God’s very first act in Genesis 1 was to create a world. It is in our genes to be creative, to think creatively, to generate original ideas, and express them in original ways.

Perhaps, at least in my case, it is to some extent habit. I’ve been drawing since I was two. (According to my grandmother I never scribbled when I was a child.) At age four I was enrolled in art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I had an eye for it at an early age and was incessantly curious about what would happen if I did this or that, a curiosity which has remained even to this day. It is always fascinating to see what will emerge after even the briefest time in my studio.

In the late 1950’s I used to watch Jon Gnagy’s art classes on television. I think it was something akin to learning new magic tricks, a fascination I shared with my brothers. Understanding perspective, creating the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface, the use of line, shape, shading and color… Every aspect of making pictures was immensely engaging.

As for the significance of my work, who is to say what is and is not significant? Or even that everything we produce needs to be important? Today, historians have changed the manner in which they study history. They look not to the notes and diaries of generals, but the observations of common soldiers or citizens to obtain a more vivid reflection of previous eras. In this light, every artist is significant, for their work reflects the times, the culture, the world they live in.

Artists work within a context. Ours is one that reflects rapid change, hopes, fears, idealism, disillusionment and a deeply human need for connection. My creative explorations reflect a variety of aspects of our times, as well as my inward vision, and to some extent the content of our mutual souls.

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