Art is by definition something that has been created with intention; it can be a story, performance, design, sensation, picture, object or relationship. It can also be a number of these things layered on top of and interacting with one another. Art pays attention to emotional aesthetics but can look like anything, using a myriad of methods, media and forms to achieve its desired effect. When it is interesting and valuable, it has the power to engage creative faculties and inspire the focused thought and attention of those who experience it as creators, critics, or readers. When it is boring, it replicates dominant cultural forms and conforms to expectations about what is defined as beautiful.
In the last few years I have been thinking a lot about creative work, trying on the one hand to place enough emphasis, value, and focus on my own creative projects (whether visual or written, culinary or relational) so that they develop but also struggling with conflicting feelings about what it means to do art and think of myself as an artist or writer. I have tended to shy away from calling myself an artist or my creative work art. Instead, I’ve tried to think of myself as someone who notices things and for whom weaving the things I notice together into patterns of work and narratives of place and relationship feels very important. More recently I have started to call my creative work art because it connects me more easily to other people who are also thinking seriously about their own creations. I do, however, remain critical and ambivalent about the way that people engage with the concept.
I guess that part of my ambivalence is due to the perceived exclusivity of the artist. There is a danger that conversations about art begin to reek of a bourgeois narcissism in the way that the concerns of the individual artist are amplified while their connections to others and the political implications of their circumstances are often ignored. It can be tempting for a certain kind of earnest radical to reject art all together as if following an expressive impulse and taking it seriously is synonymous with the narcissistic individualism inherent in post-modern capitalism. Doing that, however, cedes a lot of rhetorical ground and ignores the importance of creative autonomy in any liberatory moment.
I am interested in the space that is held for creative work by people who call themselves artists but I am not interested in the idea of an artist as part of an elite class, or the way that ‘artist’ and ‘art’ (or writer, dancer, poet, musician etc.) are often used to describe people and works that are highly specialized and separate from the vast majority of people; narrow fields of rarefied interest and exertion that most people have little access to. If art as a concept is going to have any currency with me, then it has to be as something that is considered universal.
Unfortunately there is often a disconnect between the creative impulses of most people and the kind of critical feedback and focused energy that can exist in communities of self-conscious artists. Figuring out how to do art, of any sort, without contributing to this sense of exclusivity can be challenging. Being critical of the way that a piece is received and still being enthusiastic about the quality of the work itself is difficult to do at the same time.
It can also be difficult to find a way to express appreciation for someone else’s art without also separating them from the world. It is not surprising that cults of personality can tend to spring up around creative people. The distance imposed by even small scale celebrity reinforces a narrative around talent and ability that encourages most people to think that they are not artists; that some people have the ability to creatively transform the world while most of us do not. Many people who do not see themselves as artists either stagnate in or give up on crafts and projects that might otherwise have connected them more fully to themselves because they are not in communities where those things are taken seriously and considered valuable.
Another reason that many people do not end up following their creative impulses is because they do not have enough time. Time and space are needed to do any sort of focused creative work: time for both reflection and composition. People reflect on what they have experienced and turn those reflections into something else. Whole episodes and sets of conflict with people can be reframed and understood better in light of patterns that we recognize in ourselves and things become visible that we could not see several days before.
Often, the price of living means that you either have no time left beyond the most basically recuperative or that the changes you make in order to buy the time and space you need are traded for anything that might serve as inspiration. It is also easy for more commercially viable enthusiasms to take over the time we do have and for self-doubt to convince us that pursuing our creative impulses is not valuable.
One of the most important functions of art for the artist is the way that composing a piece allows for thoughts, ideas and impulses to be worked out. Living in a world where everyone has the time and space to be creative and reflective in these ways would necessitate a radical transformation of the world. The fact that we don’t live in such a world has more to do with the interests of powerful systems than it does with the limits of our own capacities.
A continuing problem for anyone who wants to remain critical of hierarchical domination is figuring out how to negotiate the desire to be fully human with systems of power that seek to chop us up and squeeze us into their machines. People who are trying to be artists in the world often resort to selling their art in some way in order to buy themselves the time to continue pursuing the questions and projects that interest them. This is not necessarily a bad strategy, and there are many examples of people who make it work, but it does come with a price. If your ability to eat depends on your ability to be paid for your art then a certain part of your creative output must conform to what is a marketable commodity in the context of capital.
Many people do not seem to question the larger societal power dynamics that subtly shape their efforts; conforming their work to the demands of the market and encouraging a limited aesthetic definition of what can be considered beautiful. Thinking of art primarily as something with cash value encourages people to see themselves as either producers or consumers of artistic products, to equate monetary compensation to motivation and to link the value of the work to the price paid.
Breaking out of this logic is difficult to do. Whole aesthetic movements built in opposition to this commodification have been successfully repackaged and sold to people as an elite taste. One thinks most iconically of Dada and Surrealism but I am reluctant to believe that any art scene has escaped this entirely. I find myself falling into patterns of not valuing things that I am not doing for compensation of some sort, where the productivity of the work is clearly measureable; if not rhetorically, than in the seriousness with which I pursue them, in the sense of being accountable for work accomplished.
Despite this, many people do find ways to do creative work that is not recognized or encouraged by the market in any meaningful way. The art that I am interested in creating and experiencing is not principally about hustling or productivity, whether or not some hustling and production has gone on in order to bring it into the world. The art that I am interested in is about being emotionally engaged with life in intuitive and irrational ways and communicating the power of that engagement to other people who, like all of us, often struggle to find it in their day to day lives.
When we are able to live in ways that allow us all t
o be creative producers without immediately turning that production over to the economic machine, we actually begin to build spaces where social relationships and existential experience can be transformed. So much of our lives are marked by a poverty of the imagination; of not being able to conceive of lives and relationships that do not revolve around meeting the needs of the system. In many ways, the value of art is its ability to feed that imagination and make all sorts of things seem possible that otherwise wouldn’t.
There is no reality worth living in that does not allow people to engage their creative faculties. Well crafted words, music, visual and tactile art grabs hold of conceptual space and fixes the spinning shifting beauty of the universe in time in an intentional way.
There is a connection between posture or affect and falseness that is often mentioned, but I am also interested in the connection between how we carry ourselves and sincerity, especially when it involves transformation and becoming. Physically, when we stretch and try to have better posture, we can often breathe more deeply and our joints and vertebrae are less prone to dysfunction. Creatively, when we stretch to imagine new projects and hold ourselves as if those projects are possible, we are transformed into beings of our own creation.
On some level, doing creative work of any sort is about deciding that the work you want to do is worth doing. This involves developing some system for assigning value and meaning to the world. If we are critical of institutions of power and have rejected the narratives of those institutions, then we must form our own subjective systems of value based on the strength of our own power and informed by the stories we choose to tell ourselves about what is possible and important. Living our lives as works of art has the power to salvage the concept of art from obscurity. Doing this allows art to be something that reminds us all of our own creative power
It is important to emphasize that there are radical artists who do creative work in ways that are expansive, who remain critical of hierarchical systems of value and carry themselves through the world as if everyone that they encounter has a story or emotional charge that they could compose and express.
I want to live in a world that affirms the autonomy and creative power we all have and is also critical and self aware enough to force us to refine that power and shape those creations in ways that continue to challenge us. Spaces and communities that are intentionally creative can certainly be pretentious and banal but they also have the capacity to make the worlds we inhabit less exclusive, specialized, and marketable and to allow for the collaborative development of new and amazing ways to think about and transform our experiences with each other.