Tuesday, May 11, 2010

about the personal in art

I received an email today from a reader ( I love those) asking me what I meant in my last bullet point when I used the description "personal" when I talked about art. I will see if I can make some sense of that.I usually think of it as a good thing from an artistic standpoint, but it may not be in the market place. Sometimes it is, but often it is not.

By personal I mean highly individual and often expressing the personality of the artist or their deep concerns or quirks rather than having universality. If your work is personal in a good way often it looks as if only you could have made it and no one else. That is it is individual. Van Gogh would be an example of an artist whose work was highly personal. After he was dead it came to be appreciated for its power, but most people of his time thought it odd and a little too tortured and uncomfortable.

If you are working out your personal demons or using imagery that is meaningful to you but puzzling to the larger world you are being personal. If you are polically concerned and that is an element in your art, many people will see it as a statement of your beliefs but not necessarily want to hang it in their home, even if they agree with your point if view. Bizarre religious imagery, psychedelic surrealism, illustrations for your own unpublished fantasy manuscript and photo realistic depictions of your mother ironing laundry underwater are all going to be difficult to sell. They may be meaningful to you and they might be good art, but their appeal is mostly because you think they are cool. Others may look at them and think "what the hell is that all about?"

Art schools have, for years, encouraged their students to make highly personal, or art that looks as if it might be highly personal without warning them of this drawback. Those teachers are often not out in the art market and may even have contempt for those who are, except for the most celebrated of the modern guys in New York. They see as no part of their purpose raising up students who can make a living in the gallery world. Shows in galleries are for them about communicating who they are and what they have made, rather than paying the rent.

If that is what you want to make you will have a harder time selling your art. Fewer dealers will want to handle it and there will be fewer customers. I don't mean none, just fewer. You might want to ask yourself if you should be out in the market place at all, you might be happier teaching and making your art for your own enjoyment and getting shown in non retail venues like museums. Some artists are repelled by the whole art market thing and choose to find another means of support so they can make the personal art that they want and not have to be in the commercial galleries. There are avant garde galleries out there that feature very personal art though. In New York and a few other places that sort of thing can be highly valued.

I am lucky in that the kind of art that I am excited to make is appealing to a portion of the clients in some galleries . I have worked to find my own individual way of doing things and make my own statement. That is how I work to make personal art. I hope that when people see my painting they will know it is mine. I often ask myself;

WOULD THIS BE A BETTER PAINTING IF I PUT A BURNING PHONE BOOTH IN IT?

I have arranged to interview an art dealer I know who did her masters dissertation on what art sells and why. I am going to turn her loose on Artelasticum Pepsi-Colas questions and see what she has to say. I think she may have a lot of insight. Like most dealers she meets a lot of artists who hope to have her show their art, and must reject most. She has been on the other side of the equation and I am looking forward to what she has to say. I am hoping that that will happen tomorrow night. Till then I will lay here on the floor beside the computer with my arms at my sides trying not to think.

29 comments:

willek said...

Stape, your posts have been truly enlightening for me over the past year or so and I hope they never stop. (Easy for ME to say.) You really know how to hit a nerve judging by the response from the last few posts. As long as you can keep it going, there will be much appreciation.

Philip Koch said...

Good art is personal- it has a distinctive and unexpected quality to it and yet it somehow "makes sense" even though often we're at a loss to explain exactly why it feels so convincing.

There is a side to all of us that is hard to access even when we want to. Most people call this the unconscious. Good art reaches into the artist's unconscious and pulls out something interesting both to the artist AND to other people. It can be as simple as an unusually beautiful chord of colors.
The Rembrandt print Stape chose for this post has some of this kind of rightness to it. It feels convincing long after it was done.

Other times the artist reaches in and pulls out something that is just idiosyncratic that makes no sense to anyone else. Generally this second type of art isn't as strong and isn't likely to be valued a hundred years from now.

Deborah Paris said...

Good point here about personal, idiosyncratic work being hard to sell and less likely to stand the test of time. On the other hand, work can be highly personal but have universal appeal. In fact, I think that's an ingredient of much great art whether it be painting, poetry, fiction, etc. The artist taps into something on a personal level which gives the work both authenticity and power AND which resonates with the viewer/reader.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I agree good work can be very personal, but it has to be personal in a universal way to be what I think of as great art. I would also add that it should be uplifting.
Art school was all about the personal in a private and depressing way most of the time. As much as you might think it might be interesting to read your sisters diary, when you actually pry it open and have a look it is pretty boring. Most of the Masters Thesis art shows were like this. Lots of Boo Hoo, woe is me kind of stuff.
The 'personal' has to be bigger than the individual.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

Also, while the burning phone booth might not add to a painting, if you filled that phone booth with formaldehyde, floated a dead shark in it, and then set it on fire you would really have something.

mariandioguardi.com said...

Lots here to think of this morning.

I agree with Philip in that good/great art does have a very personal component (or quality) . Maybe I am wrong but I think this quality is synonymous with "authentic" wherein the art created has a genuine part of the artist's heart and mind in the art.It's part of the gift and artist gives a viewer. A viewer can recognize and respond to this authentic, universal, emotional,achetypical,beautiful or unconscious chord (to use Philip's word here).

Idiosyncratic art is indeed lacking to all but the artist.

But likewise, art that is technically fine, a "universal subject" subject (still life, landscape, seascape etc.) but feels formulaic,from a photograph, emotionally flat and void of the authentic artist's self has the same effect as idiosyncratic art. I have watched people walk right past this type of fine competent art.

Simone said...

Stape, thanks for bringing this up. Good food for thought. But after reading the post and thoughtful comments I still have only a vague conception of the difference between universal and personal. Some things I know are clearly personal. I painted a still life with a ca. 1930's penguin shaped cocktail shaker just because I thought it was cool. I know that is personal. And I know there is probably not a huge market for that. That's okay. I wanted to spend some painter's time with it.

But I am still not sure I know when something is universal. If one lives in a town with two big old ca. 1920's pink hotels, are those universal motifs? Everybody paints them. At what point does that become mundane and redundant? Or palm trees, or marshes or barns, everybody paints those. Is that because they are universal or does make them universal? Is universality in the motif or the treatment? Seems very elusive. Don't forget, I have a degree in structural engineering so I may need extra help understanding something so intuitive.

Philip Koch said...

Was just thinking again about this art question of how to tell what's personal in a good way. Like so many other things (color, composition, expressive emphasis, etc.) one can sharpen one's senses by looking long and hard at the art of those who have gone before us. The great old painters literally can teach one to see.

Of course there is a danger in getting stuck in the habits of the old painters. It happens to some contemporary artists. But I think the risk of ignoring the work of the old artists is even greater.
I can't imagine being a painter for example without studying (and enjoying!) Degas.

alotter said...

Oh my! the discussion of "personal" art has raised an issue that really bothers me, and that is the many calls for art with message. I've seen some message art and to me, most of it is ugly. I have my favorite causes, and my number one is the environment. But do I want to paint some horrific scene of violations being done to an environmental jewel? Absolutely not! I prefer to paint a beautiful picture of, say, a pristine wilderness. Isn't message "art" advertising? Is there is a difference between fine art on the one hand, and illustration/message art/advertising on the other? Where is the line that separates illustration from fine art?

A painting in the NH Art Assn exhibit at the Currier last year was such a piece of message art, and I could not even figure out what the message was. But it was judged Best in that Show, which I think was intended as a show of fine art. I could be wrong about that.

Karla said...

There is personal art, which I rarely feel connected to and there is universal art that is nice and appeals to most people and then there is art that is so fantastic that when you stand before it you cannot move or speak. That is great art.

Jeremy Elder said...

Thanks for the clarification, I was wondering what you meant too.

I am looking forward to the upcoming interview - it should be interesting.

Steve Baker said...

"personal in a universal way", exactly. I think of it as 2 types of art. One type is about comunicating, a visual idea or an emotional response, the other is about epressing "ME". The first I think of as art, the second masturbation. Maturbation can be very satifying, but few people really want to watch.

D. Malcolm said...

Stape, thanks for all your knowledge and insight. I'm a huge fan. Personal art is like the artists voice which speaks in a language others understand, but with unique and original qualities that distinguish themselves from others. When art becomes too personal it alienates those who view it.

Terry said...

Hi Stape, Catchin' up here, what a great series of posts!
Your amazing daughter is an inspiration for all of us artists. She sees a way to benefit the lives of others with her talents. She works in terrible conditions to be where the they live, without thought of financial reward, she believes her work will make a difference, which gives her courage. And the results will endure for generations.
This is a promising attitude for all of us, focus on the best we can do and let God take us where we need to be. Unlike so much art I see, the 'look at me' work, that is bought by 'look at me' people.
This is such a great group of people you have brought together, I hope you never tire of us!
Terry

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek;
Thank you.I don't intend to quit any time soon. There are vast areas that I still want to write about. I do like the discipline of it. And I am building up a body of writing.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Phil;ip:
The measures is of course not what the artists intention are, but what he expresses.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deborah;
The personal can be a strength or a weakness. Depends.
.............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Richard:
I am going to tell your sister! Did she mention me?
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

No burning sharks, I believe they are a protected class.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Marian:
Universal can be good or bad too. It is all in the handling and presentation. The important thing is not what it is a picture of but how.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Simone:
Like I said above, it is not so important what it is a picture of, but how. Do you think that Hopper could have pulled a good picture out of the hotels. You bet. So it can be done.But you would have top be interested in painting them or they might be WEAK
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip:
I think not knowing their historic art is the most common downfall of many contemporary painters.
..........................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

alotter:
I personally am not much interested in message art. All I care about in painting is the way it looks.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Karla:
Their is also selfish art that gives nothing of value to the viewer, seeking only to impress them with what a fine person made it.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy:
I think that is going to happen tonight.
.............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Steve:
What is masturbating?
..................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

D. Malcolm
Thank you. I like having a fan.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

terry:
the 'look at me' work, that is bought by 'look at me' people.

What a great quote. I wish I had said that! First.
..................Stape

stanka said...

Personal, with Integrity.