Creating art is a two step process; first you obviously have to make it, but then you also have to show it and present it to the public, and hopefully leave an impact on the world (preferably for the better).
But these two steps could not be further apart in both their methodology and all-around nature. The real problem is that making art is a predominantly personal and intimate experience, but showing and presenting it requires an entirely different skillset.
So, in today’s blunder I would like to explore the act of creation and presentation and — with a little help from psychoanalysis, theory of mind and history, all sprinkled with a few down-to-earth examples — show that even though it seems like they are two very disparate things, in order to master either of them, we really “only” need to master one thing: ourselves.
But first; let’s talk about making art.
First we need to figure out the basics and touch upon what we are actually making: Art is an experience, embodied inside an object or subject (like a painting or a performance piece). Its sole purpose is to communicate something, anything, and this purpose always stays the same, whilst the core message and even how it is conveyed changes constantly (think how different styles, motifs, art eras and political ideologies change the purpose of any particular art piece, but the basic idea of any one piece still stays the same — propagation of ideas).
But, at the beginning of our path as artists, art is primarily an exploration of self and not that much about communicating anything. We first have to find our message in order to then concern ourselves with communicating it, and this is where a strong distinction occurs: the distinction between artisan or craftsperson and artist.
The artisan or craftsperson does not posses a message, they do not wish or know how to communicate whatever it is they would like to propagate into the world with their creations. They only create.
Be it out of an urge to make beautiful things, to make functional things or just to play and create for the sake of creation, I’m not really saying that their creations are void of anything — beauty is a message, and so is play — but there exists a strong difference between those that imbue their creations with life, and those that merely bring into life whatever they create as a consequence of creation itself.
To create a table for example, I do not need much in order for me to make my object become a table. I can take a few planks of wood and at least three (but preferably four) sticks and attach them to the planks and call it a day.
Most people would probably agree that I have made a table — albeit a horrible and probably even dangerous one if it were used, but the point is, it could be used as a table and therefore it is one.
So, making a table isn’t that hard and it’s the same with making a chair, a sink and so on. The only difference in making any utilitarian object is the amount of technical expertise one needs to adequately make one (let’s call that part 80% of any particular object).
It is of course harder to make a car or an aeroplane, but as we humans know how to group-up, roll-up our selves, and since Ford demonstrated the incredible efficiency of labour division, even such a feat is doable in the long run and given enough time and resources.
But what about the rest? What about the extra 20% of anything we make, and that basic mathematics so eloquently describes as being quite important for any thing to be a whole “thing”, rather than just a work in progress?
The extra 20% is the semantic value, the meaning of a thing. That part cannot be fully constructed individually or in a group when the object is being built. It can only be made collectively; it needs creators and spectators to come together and ponder over whatever has been made and how it relates to their surroundings and themselves.
And even without the creator present, the object always has a certain semantic value, but it is never present in the object itself. While a bit convoluted, the point is: a chair is not a chair because there exists a heavenly blueprint of “The Chair” somewhere in god’s warehouse of stuff, with IKEA, OBI and MÖMAX fighting epic battles in order to obtain that immaculate rendition for the perfect chair to up their quarterly earnings.
A chair is only a chair because people have collectively decided to call it that and give it its now defined specific purpose — to be sat upon. It is a part of our belief system, and when that system changes, so does the semantic value of the chair (and all other objects, that are part of that system).
If we look at old pottery for example, the first time white long-necked vases were found in Greece, they could’ve been considered to be just that, vases. But as researchers explored them over time (and because they weren’t ignorant people), more detail and context was uncovered pertaining to these peculiar yet ordinary objects. Soon they found that such vases were actually urns, originally filled with the ashes of deceased children and were painted in white, because they symbolised their innocence at death.
And exactly this is the punchline: to symbolise. Only by uncovering context (we could also say the collective amalgamation of beliefs that the researchers uncovered from that time and of those people) could the function of those vases be determined — even if only approximately, because one can never be 100% sure about anything that has happened, especially if it happened in the distant past.
So, in order to find the meaning of anything, we first have to find the context in which it was created. Only by understanding how any object is connected with its surroundings (physical, cultural, etc.) can we really know what that object is.
Without context, you get a Plumbus (the Plumbus is an oddly shaped imaginary object that has no functional application or description of what it is useful for, that appears throughout the popular animated series Rick and Morty on Adult Swim).
And what is most important for us artists, we can also create context for any one object or subject yourself, either by taking something that has an already established function and purpose in society and reappropriating it for our own means, or creating something new entirely (the best way is usually to combine both worlds, so as to make our art seem novel while still being accessible enough for people to understand the newly created object).
And one of the parts that is incredibly important for us is exactly this process of creating, because it is the process itself that actually stands as a temple to the human condition and capability — without our ability to create, we would have gone extinct as a species a long time ago.
In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes this process as an ever-present, ever-revolving wheel that just keeps turning throughout human existence.
From Genesis, the Bhagavad Gita to the stories of Buddha, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, the Babylonian and Mesopotamian creation myths, Egyptian and Greek mythology; all such stories tell us more or less the same thing: How a person can become the hero of their own world, or to say a bit differently; how a person can acquire the mental and physical tools to bend reality to their will and become a true creator.
Starting ones journey because of the call to action, stepping into the unknown and even dying (albeit a metaphorical, spiritual death, rather than the non-amendable physical variety), finding the demons that dwell in ones mind and soul and slaying them, only to rise again into the world forever changed; such is the evolution of The Hero archetype.
I butcher Campbells book by only giving it this much space in today’s piece, so please read or listen to it if you’re interested, because it is an incredibly amazing piece of literature — almost as incredible as the guy who wrote it (just type his name into YouTube and enjoy the ride).
But my point in mentioning all of this is that the process of creating art is nothing else than the reenactment of what Campbell describes in his book: the Monomyth. In order to create any one art piece that can actually have an impact on people, it has to come from a deep place of understanding and a strong foundation of courage for its creator to even be able to get to that place of knowledge (or enlightenment if you will) in the first place.
It’s not a coincidence so many artists go crazy, commit suicide or just sink into the depths of depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. It’s not that artists are incompetent alcoholics and junkies, it’s the process of making art that takes such a toll on many people.
And the irony of this example is in the fact that most “outsiders” view art as a safe heaven from the “real world”, where adult children can play and not be fretted by words like job security, pension fund and mortgage. But we all know (or at least I hope we do) that there is no such place, and what may be even more important, there is absolutely no such place in art.
Art is a mirror to the world, but not a gross mirror that directly shows a copy of what is in front of it, it’s an exposé, a dissection of reality that takes what it is pointed towards and rips it apart, exposing the bare flesh and inner workings underneath. And it does so without prejudice, without presuppositions and without constraints. Even if we’re not prepared to see what really hides inside ourselves and the objects we are studying, the mirror does not care.
This is the part where one ventures into the abyss, into the dark forrest where the ogre lives, that devours people whole. And this is also the place where many loose a part of themselves — the truth is, we never know how courageous we are, until the time comes when we are tested to our limits.
The point here though is not to stop and never even dare to peek inside the dark places of life. The whole idea is only to be self-conscious and humble enough to know that whatever was, is not all that can be — regardless of how horrible or great we think life is, nothing is static and everything can be changed. If, and this is a big one, if we are willing to pay the price (and as so eloquently described in any old myth or story, the heroes never know the real price, the only thing that keeps them going are their courage and their iron will to go on).
And sure it sounds easy and maybe even stupid, but Basquiat, Van Gogh and Modigliani thought so too. Or maybe they didn’t; regardless, the real point is that we all should respect the process of making art and not take creation lightly, at least if we’d like to one day have a steady and comfortable life, paid for by our art.
Because only the courage to stand and fight in the darkest of forests and in the deepest of nights can conquer the demons that inhabit our hearts and souls. And even if one thinks there are none there, I can assure you we all have them; leeching on our hopes and dreams and silently turning childlike awe and wonder into despair, depression and the monotony of the 9-5. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year. But all of us, if left to our own devices, eventually end up there whether we like it or not.
It’s a choice that is undeniably hard, but righteous and well worth it in the end.
And the best part: the same courage that we can use to create art can then also be used to show art — or better put, is absolutely imperative to show art. Because when we create that piercing mirror and put in into the world, we inevitably become reflected inside of it too. And when that happens, when our exhibition has opened and the spectators come, it’s not only our creation that is judged, but all that we are, even all we wish to become.
And to stand pure judgment, to weather the storm of anonymous critique and the potential of being seen as a failure in the eyes of the people we care about, those we strive to impress, we have to be strong.
To be frank, we have to stop impressing completely and ourselves become the impression. And the only place to find the strength, courage and the tools to even try to do so, is in the darkness that lives inside of us all.