Wanting to do Better

Between FotoFocus, MACAA, the Maker Vault, Double Vision, community council projects, and other things on my plate, I've had a pretty busy few months.  Within a seven day period, I talked/presented my work before two different groups, converted all my slides for the web, and uploaded them to Instagram, relocated video files I thought I had lost forever, and landed an interview with top executives at a design firm.  Surprisingly, I have mixed feelings about my overall performance under the spotlight….  Though I've clearly done at least a few things right, I also feel like I've failed to say many of the things I really meant to say.

The difference between art and craft, for example.  I think what distinguishes "artists" from "crafters" is a just matter of approach.  When I entered art school as an undergraduate student, I wanted to learn every possible technique an artist could employ and I wanted to push myself to use every material an artist could possibly incorporate into their work.  I not only wanted to learn to carve in stone, cast metals, fire kilns, and erect monuments, paint, draw, print, and write, I also wanted to make films, I wanted to perform, to design functional objects, create immersive installations, animate computer graphics, map three-dimensional forms, generate vectors, rehabilitate living and working environments, and more besides — anything and everything an artist could possibly do in every possible situation.

I expected my arts education to train me in these skills, or to at least facilitate the learning process necessary for me to acquire these skills.  But the reality is that no institution in all the world provides an education like the one I was hoping to pursue.  Realistically, it would be impossible for any school to train their students to excel simultaneously in every possible area of the arts in just four years.  It may not even be possible for students to simultaneously excel in every area of contemporary art school curricula, as we now know it, but it is possible at the very least for an ambitious student to learn a few techniques from each of the most common disciplines: painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, sculpture, and ceramics.  (Curriculum may not encourage it, as a matter of fact, so an individual student has got to be pretty motivated to make it happen.)

My ambitions were logistically impossible, beyond a doubt.  They were not, however, unfounded.  Early 20th-century artists, particularly among the historical avant garde, are known to have experimented with theater, music, film, architecture, fashion and industrial design in addition to creative writing, journalism, philosophy, activism and politics.  Even religious ritual was within-bounds for exploration by artists of the early 20th-century.  They didn't operate within the disciplinary silos and taxonomy presently enforced by prevailing institutions.

The fact is, the definition of any given word is only as powerful or meaningful as the people who use it believe it to be.  Language is a living thing, a social construct.  So any distinction between "artist" and "craftsperson", between "art" and "craft", between "fine art" and "applied art", or any other term of taxonomy is entirely up to us to decide.  The power to fix or un-fix meaning does not lie with any one person, institution, or publication — that power is shared across culture and influenced by everyone who takes an interest in the subject.

For the time being, I am content to think that artistic practice is driven by a preoccupation with "concept".  The education I received in art school seemed to predicate that "art" is first and foremost an intellectual pursuit.  And for better or worse, I have come to accept that premise.  Many of the artists whose work I admire (or whose work I sometimes emulate) appear to operate on the same premise.  And a consequence of framing artistic practice as an intellectual pursuit is that "concept" drives all other creative decisions, including the application of technique and the use of materials.  From this point of view, I have come to expect that an artist may choose to employ any technique or material that would best serve the concept or subject matter they are presently exploring.  An artist my even hire other people to execute projects on their behalf, without necessarily undermining the integrity of their work.

For the time being, I am content to think that the practice of "craft" is driven by a preoccupation with technique and/or materials.  The education I received in art school seemed to predicate that "craft" is first and foremost a technical pursuit requiring manual labor and skill.  And through that lens, I see little distinction between an oil painter and a potter, a concert violinist and a tailor, especially when one uses their preferred technique or material as a descriptor of identity.  But in contrast to the freedoms afforded to artistic practice, any craftsperson who employs other people to execute their work is in serious danger of sacrificing integrity for expediency, because the practice of craft is predicated on individual skill.  The traditional craftsperson, from my point of view, could be content to execute the designs of others for the rest of their lives, like the parents of Louise Bourgeois who practiced the restoration of historic tapestries.

I think it's possible for an artist to be a highly skilled craftsperson, and for a highly skilled craftsperson to be an artist.  For that matter, I think it is possible for almost any activity a human can perform to translate into artistic activity.  If an artist can "artify" any object, surely an artist can "artify" anything.  But a certain degree of intent is necessary.  Concept, motivation, or purpose must play some role in driving an activity for me to recognize within it the practice of art-making.  And I suppose this puts me at odds with some theories of art, though perhaps not all…

When I reach for a definition of "art", I gravitate to the following description of Kung Fu:

A great poet has reached kung fu.  The painter, the calligrapher — they can be said to have kung fu.  Even the cook, the one who sweeps steps, or a masterful servant can have kung fu.  Practice.  Preparation.  Endless repetition.  Until your mind is weary and your bones ache.  Until you are too tired to sweat, too wasted to breathe.  That is the way — the only way — one acquires kung fu.

(quoted from Marco Polo, a Netflix original series)

Substitute the word "art" everywhere you see the phrase "kung fu", and I think it works.  Because "art" is more of an activity than any category of objects, to my mind.  I also don't think anyone familiar with kung fu would deny that every martial art is just one of many artforms.  What does one do with an artform besides practice it?  Practice it and master it as a methodology.  … I wrote the following on this subject during my graduate studies:

Just as anyone can learn to apply the scientific method, I want everyone to experience the possibility of creative practice in their own lives.  This leaves two imperatives.  First, to expand the concept of art in common vernacular to be as inclusive as possible.  Second, to draft terms and codes of conduct that distinguish professional practices that are meant to serve society (in the way that lawyers, doctors, and other professionals do) from personal practices that serve to enrich the practitioner's life alone, and perhaps also from commercial practices that conform to any existing market conditions for traditional art objects and related materials.

A personal art practice, in my view, is self-indulgent, undertaken for personal pleasure and/or catharsis, in the interest of personal development and the general enrichment of daily life.  Anyone, regardless of background or education, can practice art-making on a personal level at any time.  And everyone probably should.  Commercial art practice, in my view, is market-driven and often proprietary.  Making work for the gallery, for museum exhibitions, elements of design, merchandising opportunities, making work in editions for private sales, or making work-for-hire, public monuments and murals, these are all forms of commercial art practice, in my view.

Both personal practice and commercial practice can be pursued in isolation, I think, since the intent is to serve oneself.  But professional practice cannot occur in isolation, because the intent is to serve society.  Professional art practice should be undertaken as a demonstration of what is possible for an artist to accomplish or to explore.  The "professional" artist shares their practice with others, perhaps as a thought leader, a role model, or even as an employer, mentor, or educator.  The professional artist must engage in some degree of "open making", sharing in the responsibility for shaping and preserving our collective culture while simultaneously contributing to it.

Having a professional art practice doesn't rule out either personal or commercial art practice, the way I see it.  In fact, I think a professional art practice necessarily arises from personal art practice; the establishment of one must precede the other.  By the same token, I don't think professional and commercial art practice need be mutually exclusive; the practice of one may benefit from the existence of the other, in terms of exposure, opportunity, and recognition.  And I can point to countless examples to illustrate what I mean, artists who are widely recognized and celebrated, who have made work for personal reasons or for profit while also featuring prominently in arts discourse.  (I just don't want to bog down this blog entry with a long list…)

Because there are so very many artists whose practices may be cited to illustrate my meaning, I don't feel obligated to make an example of myself that others should follow, like a prescription.  I do, however, feel I must make an effort, consistently, to apply what I believe to be true to the decisions that I make in my own practice.  Ethically, my actions should serve to represent and reinforce my beliefs, rather than contradict them.  And among the most important things for me to do, in that light, is to engage other people in collaboration, conversation, shared activities and opportunities, to participate in and/or contribute to the shaping and preservation of our collective culture, and to call myself an artist.

I have set out to practice art-making both personally and commercially, of course, and to maintain these activities to the best of my ability.  My artistic activities are not (yet?) profitable enough to sustain themselves, unfortunately, so I seek out employment opportunities where I can.  I work for clients in a freelance, contract, or consulting capacity.  To save money, I use my home instead of a studio, most of the time, or else I work wherever I find myself (in other people's homes, borrowed studio spaces, public spaces, national parks, hosting institutions, etcetera).  I recycle, repurpose, and reclaim materials from my environment.  And my permanent home is financed in large part by letting out rooms through AirBnB.

Annual earnings from running the house as a bed&breakfast are in the tens of thousands annually, and these funds are spent almost entirely on keeping the house in a condition fit for guests (utilities, repairs, landscaping, laundry, groceries, housekeeping, and home decor).  Not a single dime from the bed&breakfast goes to purchase tools, materials, or other supplies for my artistic activities.  I am also very diligent about keeping any spaces in the house which may be accessible or visible to guests clear of any mess or untidyness associated with the things I produce.  Though my practice is sometimes a topic of conversation with guests, and many AirBnB guests are also artists, it is important for the house to be perceived by guests as a place of accommodation rather than a site of artistic production.  Because poor cleanliness ratings can hurt sales by discouraging new bookings, and I can't afford to let that happen.