"…For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
I have a flat file back in Philadelphia. It sits there, untouched for almost four years now. Books, catalogues, screenprints, riso prints and drawings that I made, all lay alone in darkness. Just like the thousands (tens of thousands?) of iphone photos on my icloud account. It’s doubtful if any of them will see the light of day or screen again anytime soon.
As I return to work as a freelancer, a question that I often struggled with has returned: why create anything at all? Why should I add more work to that flat file? What’s so important about what I create, that I should contribute to what is already an overwhelming multitude of content in the world? What is the point of making art?
Have you ever been to an art museum or gallery and left with a sense of dread? I have. It was insane to me that I could visit Maxxi in Rome, The MoMA in NYC, the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City and the Kanazawa21 in Japan, and see the work of the same artists in all of their permanent collections. The feeling exponentially multiplies when I look at instagram. Despite the incredible range of freedom that the internet presents to us, we somehow manage to see the same things over and over again.
There is a deeper personal question to be answered. What am I contributing that actually improves our existence? There are people much smarter than me, who can code, who can build things, who can do useful things that have an effect on society or a life changing impact on an individual. They work in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. They are doctors or soldiers. They create things like dropbox or work on astrophysics. Or they work on the international space station.
What is the place of my simple creative output in all of this? Is making it just for myself reason enough?
Leaving A Mark
At first, the production of artwork has evolved from man drawing on caves walls with rocks, to sculpture and painting. These static artworks existed alone and in a specific time and place, both culturally and physically. You had to be present to see the drawing or to read the text. This changed with the first major revolution, Gutenberg’s printing press. Suddenly many copies of one text could be printed and sent to different places, effectively spreading ideas like a virus. See the protestant revolution.
Film cameras would later transform the dynamics of painting in a similar way. But the next truly massive change was the advent of effortlessly copyable, instantly distributable, not to mention often easier to create, digital media. Thanks to computers we have created more digital images than we can possibly ever look at. Art also expanded into formats like video games, digital photography and paintings, audio recordings, virtual reality - the list will continue to grow. The thing that sets these apart from painting and sculpture is that the original isn’t important, and the work can be easily copied and distributed around the world in seconds. Authorship itself begins to matter less. We still don’t know what the social and cultural ramifications of this are, although expecting something similar to the profundity of the Reformation seems possible.
This incredible and invisible mass of data swirls around us at all times. It lives in the cloud and touches us when we voluntarily beckon it into our minds via our digital devices. We are told that the internet makes it easier to reach an audience, but the sheer amount of data, its perceived mass, makes me feel that the chance of having any sort of impact is near zero.
The odds seem stacked against me. Yet somehow I still have this drive to write these newsletters and to create small books, and to collaborate with other on design projects. Again I ask… why?
We Don’t Need a Logical Answer
I asked my girlfriend why she worked as an architect. Her answer came immediately, without reservation. She liked doing it, simple as that. I asked her to elaborate. She said that she enjoyed playing with geometry and derived pleasure from creating spaces for humans. Like an annoying three year old I asked yet again, “But whyyyy?”
“Maybe you are looking for some deeper answer,” she said “but for me it’s just like preparing food or anything else humans do. I could say that taking care and designing the space we live in is as old as humans are, and that it’s amazing to be able to create the room that other people will walk into and experience. But I also just really like playing with geometry.” She doesn’t need a logical reason why. The feeling of creativity is simply a part of her, and that is enough.
The Difference Between Art and the Art World
“Many reasons can be proposed for considering something valuable; it’s rarity, it’s pristine condition, whether or not it has a seal or a signature. However, none of these factors have an inherent connection with beauty.” –Soetsu Yanagi
Soetsu compares what people perceive as beautiful, with what is actually inherently beautiful. He argues that there are a lot of reasons why people collect art; to become famous; to make money, to attain social status, etc. None of these reasons are valid, but none of them take away the quality of beauty from true pieces of art.
In the same way, it’s important to recall the differences between the art world and the world of art. The world of art is older than the art world. The tremendous amount of money, effort, waste and exploitation that goes into creating exhibitions and fairs, and the superfluous cultural and social baggage that is part and parcel of the modern art world does not diminish the underlying value of art itself, nor does it erase the fact that making art is a fundamental human activity.
What Do I Get Out of It?
The most rewarding moments for me are when I receive an email from a stranger who has encountered some work of mine, a magazine or a book, or the newsletter, and found some insight in it that was unique to their experience. Or when someone recalls a workshop that they attended, and they remember some small remark that I made, and tell me what an impact it had on their work or life. This is why it is important to never be careless in word or deed, because you do not know what effect it will have. This is the incredible power that imagination and art has. It creates a circle of empathy where the creator and viewer are on equal footing, both bridging the gap between their lived experiences and finding common ground.
If I have to give one answer as to why I am an artist and a designer, that would be it; the ability to connect with others and tell a story.
Why Ask the Question at All?
If we think back to those caves with artwork made 41,000 years ago in current day Spain, it is easy to speculate that the humans who made the drawings of their hands simply wanted to leave a mark. Asking why is as mundane a question as asking why we eat or why we have sex. We simply must do it in order to exist as humans. It’s hard to say if the people who made the cave paintings cared if others saw what they did, or if the whole point of the act was the simple making of the mark in and of itself. I like to think they wanted to transmit their story into the future, they longed for us to see their hand prints.
Or we could take Heidegger’s word for it. That by making our art, we create a clearing of sorts that allows truth to enter the world. He says “the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work, almost like a passageway that destroys itself in the creative process for the work to emerge’. It’s a stark contrast to how we view influencers or celebrity artists today, who desire the fame and fortune associated with art world success immediately. Their personality and brand come before the work itself.
I know now that my over-identification with my work in years past was the wrong way to go about my practice. I asked questions about the validity of producing art not because there was an issue with the act of making art itself, but because there was an incongruity with how I related to this aspect of my personality and of humanity. It was a question of confidence really. I wanted to identify myself too strongly with my work, and the work had me instead of me having the work. Now I am fine tuning the relationship between my creativity and the rest of my life, and in the process I hope to become more skillful, aware and patient.
In the end, there isn’t a single answer to my question. Instead it’s a process of making, and experiencing glimpses of what could be called truth. This is not a solid state. I cannot have expectations that the answer will be complete. Having a single idea and believing that it is static and complete, will only result in being misled. There was no room for progress, because I had filled up all space for expansion with the one idea that I had that I was sure was correct. Instead I must consider art, design, creativity and all that comes with it as a gift that must be utilized. It’s not about me, it’s about what flows through myself to others. Trust this. The question for me now is the how, a question I will leave open for a future post.