Some of the responses to my last blog post made me realize I was careless about what I said. There’s a perpetual confusion about what the word “artist” means, because (in my opinion, anyway) there are two meanings to the words “art” and “artist”. The first, which is what I usually mean, is an inclusive one: it refers to someone who is doing something creative, regardless of skill level or degree of external recognition. If you’re making something creative, you’re making art, and you’re an artist.
And then there’s Art with a capital “A,” which is the stuff you see in museums and galleries, possibly accompanied by the Artist, typically someone with a list of exhibits, museum collections, etc. next to their name. What I would describe as “a career artist”.
I would certainly describe myself as an artist, and I have very little doubt that, given time and effort, I could succeed as an Artist. But that’s not where my interests lie. I don’t feel disillusioned about Art, exactly, but after two years as Board President of an Art museum, I feel I have a better idea of what it is and isn’t. Let me explain.
As someone newly interested in things artistic, I wasn’t entirely sure what Art was, or how it differed from the art I saw in day to day life. As a result, I shared the fairly common belief that Art was the best quality art, selected by curators for preservation in museums. And thus, that being an Artist represented achieving the pinnacle of artistic quality, and was something that, as an artist interested in producing good quality work, becoming an Artist was something I should aspire to.
This isn’t an uncommon belief, and there’s a nugget of truth in it: one rarely sees crappy art in museums, because museums exhibit things that people want to see, and people rarely want to see crappy art. But museums don’t necessarily display the best art, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s impossible to determine what art is “best,” because everyone uses different criteria. Second, museums aren’t out to display the best art. They want to display the art that most advances their mission, and which brings in enough visitors to keep them in business. The San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, for example, focuses on art in textile media, because that’s our mission. We aren’t going to exhibit paintings, even a Renoir or a Picasso, because that’s not what we’re about. You could create the world’s greatest bronze sculpture, and we would still reject it, because it’s not what we collect or exhibit.
Similarly, art galleries are interested in exhibiting things that will eventually sell enough to keep them in business. Again, they won’t sell crappy art, but they aren’t out to sell the best art, either. So yes, being exhibited in a museum or a gallery is a sign that your work isn’t terrible, but it isn’t a sign that your work is the best, either.
Another trend in modern Art over the last century or so has been the “de-skilling” of Art. Ever since Marcel Duchamp produced his piece “Fountain” in 1917 – a commercially made urinal signed with a fake signature – the trend has been to emphasize concept over technical skill. As a result, a lot of modern Art is about message, not technical skill, and there’s even a certain undercurrent that suggests that a piece that pays too much attention to technical skill isn’t “really” Art. I’ve seen many exhibits by highly skilled Artists, but I’ve also seen a lot of exhibits that, while powerful Art, are technically primitive – as in, I could probably have executed some of the pieces, even though they aren’t in my medium.
Given that I care very much about technical skill in my work, enjoy pushing the edge of what can be done with a technique, and don’t particularly care to put an explicit message into my work, it seems that my work is unlikely to make it significantly into the Art arena any time soon. I might be pleasantly surprised, but I’m also not planning to pound on the door of the Art world demanding recognition. They’re going in one direction and celebrating a particular thing, which is not my thing. Three or four years ago, that would probably have bothered me. Today, it doesn’t. I think two years as Board President at an Art museum has really helped me gain perspective on this. I’m pleased about that, though I’m not sure it’s an insight I’d have sacrificed two years of my creative life for.
(Not that I regret becoming Board President for one moment – but I’m also very happy to have stepped down to Board Vice-President as of a few months ago. Now maybe I can do some weaving again!)
The last week and a half has been spent finishing up the filming for my upcoming class, Color Courage for Weavers. I’m a little nervous that I may be including too much material for one class, but since I plan to offer a online workshop version as well as a content-only version, hopefully those who would like more guidance will be able to get it in the workshop version. It’s now looking like the release date may be early December.