As time goes by and
our gadgets shrink, dissolve, and
meld with us
As our bodies become passwords and
our minds meet
meld with one another
will we still have use for our pockets?
Photo source: www.armandbartos.com
Collection of Ninety Drawings, 1988/1993
Graphite pencil on museum board
As a recent graduate from an art program, much of my focus has been centered on ideation for series of works. While in school, we are frequently told that successful artists work serially, and that having a “cohesive” body of work is crucial to success. Why is working serially important? Is it a necessary component of a thorough exploration of an idea? The vast majority of solo shows that I have viewed are comprised of 10-20 pieces that have a strong enough sense of visual similarity for people to feel assured that they are one, by the same person; and two, clearly the result of organized thought patterns around a specific topic or theme. Even many shows that label themselves “cutting-edge”, “boundary-pushing”, and “contemporary” adhere to this model. When I show people my work, they commend me for having a “distinguishable style” and they often structure compliments around the fact that, even though I have a lot of variation in my work, they can tell that it is “still me.” Sometimes it feels like they are trying to reassure me that there isn’t “too much” variation in my work, as if that is something that I should worry about and try my best to avoid.
In writing about their own art, it is encouraged and, therefore, common for artists to pinpoint a (few) theme(s) that are of interest to them. While defining interests can be self-affirming for the artist and helpful for the audience, definition often - if not always - comes with an element of exclusion and limitation. Further, I would argue that this reflects a cultural attachment to appearing stable and consistent: as entities that move through time and remain unchanged. If an artist is constantly changing, can we ever claim to “know” them, their true interests, or their work? Changes in artistic content or “style” evokes fear because we place so much value on “knowing” each other in specific ways. When we discuss art, it is almost as if we are discussing more than just the outward characteristics of an object: we are describing something far more personal and personified.
The idea that art embodies something deeply individual and personal is reflected in the construction of language around art. For example, if someone were to purchase a piece by Picasso, s/he might say “I have a Picasso.” In stating this, it sounds as if s/he were buying a copy of the artist himself, when in reality s/he is not even buying a piece of him: s/he is buying a piece by him. We are not only drawn to the idea of purchasing some piece of a [preferably famous or esteemed] person’s essence; it is also important that the work be clearly and authentically theirs. Collectors find cohesiveness among works reassuring, in part because it serves as “proof” of the object’s source.
Beyond wanting something that is distinctly of or belonging to someone else, cohesiveness in series is rooted in capitalism. Creating and displaying a series provides the opportunity for a limited- or single-edition art object to be purchased that is both unique and clearly part of a larger group of similar art objects. This gives each work value by being unique, but also by belonging to an exclusive group of works that are similar enough to be clearly recognized as the work of a specific artist. If an artist and her work gain a sense of visual identity through repeated forms, media, and/or topics, her pieces become significant, in part, because of their relation to others within the series and within her entire body of work. Unity creates monetary value, but also turns the artist into a worker that produces a particular, personal brand of products.
While artists need to live and eat in our ego-driven capitalist system, the expectation that we make works that are distinctly “our own” discourages fresh thinking, mutability, and adaptability. Sometimes an artist might want to explore an idea and/or medium that, in their own thought process, is not particularly well-suited to their established “style.” What then? How much deviation from their own personal norm/brand is acceptable? It is funny for me to hear that people associate being an artist with being free because the more I have grown to understand the art world, the more it seems to trap people in set roles — much like any other job.
“What are you going to do with that major?”
As a young person with a liberal arts degree in art, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked this question. Not only is it mildly irritating because of its not-so-subtle suggestion that my interests and qualifications are worthless or worth less than others, it also actively works to sustain this strange, existing hierarchy that regards some academic disciplines — which later turn into life pursuits — as more valid, valuable, and important than others. This bullshit hierarchy hurts so many people on so many levels. I feel fortunate to have finally arrived at a place where I feel progressively more comfortable, grounded, and confident in the value of my own developing skill set and my ability to make a positive contribution to the world, but it makes me sick to see friends and acquaintances struggling to see their own worth in this career/success-driven culture.
Here are some interesting distinctions between “important” and “unimportant” academic/career pursuits:
1.) “Important” pursuits often deal with numbers, while “unimportant” pursuits tend more toward words (or other mediums and modes of communication).
2.) “Important” pursuits frequently rely heavily on a specialized understanding of terminology. Often the concepts are not terribly difficult for the everyday person to understand — the main barrier to understanding is the language constructed around the discipline.
3.) Those who choose to focus on “important” disciplines are often promised jobs straight out of school, or at least led to believe that they won’t need to worry much about having a successful career post-graduation. This is often a false promise (and a subject for another blog post).
4.) Most of the “important” fields have traditionally been male-dominated, in part because the types of problems that are addressed demand rational and concrete solutions: traits associated with dominant forms of masculinity.
5.) Many of the “unimportant” fields work with problems that have complex and not-so-straightforward solutions. Sometimes solving these problems requires intuition: the amazing ability that most humans have to “know” or “understand” on a deeper level without the need for rational, highly conscious, data-based reasoning. Other times, effective solutions demand a form of interpersonal or emotional intelligence. Some may argue that the traits required for problem-solving in these fields closely resemble characteristics associated with dominant forms of femininity. The close relationship between misogyny and the distinction between "valuable" and "less valuable/not valuable" is no coincidence (but it is also a potential tangent and a subject for another post).
6.) Some “unimportant” fields are subject to the bias that work done with bodies is less valuable than work done with minds. These fields often require a great deal more mind power than is immediately evident, but that is beside the point. Skills are skills, and all skills - physical and mental - are important.
“Important” fields are often categorized under the STEM label. Now don’t get me wrong — I am not trying to put down the STEM fields or insinuate that they are less important than the arts, trades, and humanities. I am only saying that STEM fields are not any more important than anything else. We need to stop hierarchizing skill sets because that is all they are: things that we can do, not who we are. With the widening gap between the rich and everyone else and the divisions between “valuable” and “worth less/worthless” becoming more and more defined along these arbitrary lines, shit will soon hit the fan if it has not already. Recognizing the beauty of diversity in all of its forms and questioning and changing what we deem valid, valuable, and important is an important step in reversing this process.