What is Art?
That has to be one of the most discussed and least settled on questions ever asked. I know I have made art, been called an artist, enjoyed art, bought art, sold art, and even taught art, but still can not define the slippery beast!
For many years I worked in the corporate world making “commercial” art (aka Graphic Design). It paid my grocery bills and car payments, it allowed me to use all those elements of design I had learned in school. My art satisfied a need. It helped some people get rich(er), it helped make people aware of products and services they needed (or didn’t know they did!). It was problem solving and satisfying for the most part. Was it art? Who knows.
When abandoned by the corporate world due to economy and age, I turned to what many would define as craft, not art. For seven plus years I bought hundreds of thrift store sweaters, then surgically removed the arms, the necks, and strategically cut the rest to make hats, sweater coats, scarves, gloves, etc etc. It was satisfying. People responded to them and bought this “art” to incorporate into their daily lives.
It was so fun to take my wares across the country and see people try on one after another. Some people had saved up their money to buy that one special art-to-wear garment. Others bought two or three, just as they would buy at Macy’s! I am sure the painters and sculptors in the booths around me (often waiting far longer for a sale) often though that my work was not real art. But people were choosing and noticing the colors, the textures, the technique and the overall uniqueness… isn’t that art? And it was so personal compared to the corporate art. It was personal to both me as I would drape a sweater over their back, and to them as they twirled in front of the mirror. Something aesthetically pleasing was giving them joy: Isn’t that art?
Now I am doing fiber art. Some are still slow to consider that an art media, but I will leave that discussion for another day. I have painted and made prints. I can honestly say that working with fiber has every bit of the same demand for aesthetic choice and technical knowledge that they did. But my audience and the “raison d'etre”has changed.
The corporate work was done primarily to meet the demand and needs of the client (within my own design voice and choices) and were by their nature both timely and ephemeral. The garments were made with a general demographic in mind and the cost/profit ratio, as well as the artistic merit, was important with each thing I made. They were meant to be used and used up. My fiber art is self-directed and I am, in many ways, the only audience considered during creation. I do not do commissions, and will do themed shows only when the theme speaks to me. It is the kind of art that is somehow deemed precious because it goes on walls with no apparent use other than aesthetics.
People do respond to my fiber work, and for that I am grateful, but it is always both a bit of a surprise and causes a bit of anxiety. Their response is so unplanned by me; I was working on something personal, and for them to respond is almost unnervingly intimate.
I want people to see my work and, as I have said, the stitching and fabric help to show “how I as an artist see” - but I have no preconception of what they will see, or if they see what I saw. Some respond to the subject matter. Some respond to the color choice. Some respond to the intricacy. Those are all valid, but all dependent on their history, aesthetic taste, knowledge of process - all things I do not control or anticipate. It is a strange thing, this thing we call fine art. The art that is not marketing, not utilitarian, not commissioned. It has been a hard concept for me to embrace.
I have been asked to give workshops, or presented with other opportunities. That is also something I tried a couple times, but haven’t gotten my head around. When I was a Graphic Designer, I also taught. I taught design concepts, color theory, printing processes, etc. the nuts and bolts. When I was making sweaters, I was fine with sharing my technical knowledge about how to serge knitted fabrics, or my process. It was not proprietary and the construction was, in many ways, the idea of it all. It had no internal value to me. That was all knowledge I gladly shared without any problem.
But now? What would I share? I use my design concepts, etc. but that is not what makes my work unique, nor my expertise any greater than many. I use a machine and various cutting and sewing processes, but that is not my interest or focus, they are merely a means to an end. I don’t even know what brand thread I use (or should use!). My process is “whatever it takes”!
How would I convey that intimate sound my heart makes when I know something is right. How do I explain that shiver that goes up my spine when the right stitch makes the right texture. How do I communicate how after looking at twenty five of my photos, that one says “I am the one you need”. That is all good and fine, and I am loving that is what I am able to do now - with little thought to profit or demographic appeal, but in many ways, it is very ego-centric and almost art masturbation. But it can be seen for some reason, as some higher level of art, but I don’t think it is.
Yesterday this girl came into my studio. At the gift giving season, I revert to the selling mode of my garment making days and make some earrings, gloves, and this year, holiday themed masks! The girl looked at my table of goods and picked out a soft cashmere pair of gloves. She didn’t care about the “fine art” hanging in my studio, she wanted those gloves in her life. She got them. I can honestly say that no one who has bought any of my “fine art” ever has expressed the pure joy of having it in their life, that she did for these gloves. Isn’t that art?
11/23/2020 09:18:20 am
I still love the quote “Art is in the eye of the beholder....and everyone will have their own interpretation.” E. A. Bucchianeri.
11/23/2020 09:40:31 am
You have justified my approach - or made me feel it is justifiable. I create for myself - and often wonder what drives me. Just the need to be creative, I think, and no need to find a label for it. Currently, my joy is watching the amblers passing by my isolated living space, and pausing to enjoy the seasonal art created from patio canvas that I hang in my outdoor gallery (by my garage and under the walkway roof). Some even send messages. The interaction makes it art that communicates and that does it for me.
Sometimes I wonder if questioning purpose is a natural part of the aging process. Purpose, reason for existence or the question of a scared gift are all married to that "what is art" conversation in my mind. I too, have no real interest in trying to suss out what I might find to teach from my art practice. (Now, if you want a workshop on writing a mission statement, creating an efficient or effective meeting structure, or writing bylaws - give me a call.) The basic skills I use to construct fiber art are the same that everyone else uses, and I am certainly no expert in any part of that process. However, what I think makes my art stand a little apart is the processes that I can't describe - which of my photographs are begging to be the inspiration for a piece, how I know when I've found the right base fabric, how I know what other media is necessary to build the work (wax pastel, color pencil, ink, etc), or when I know it is finished. Those aren't really teachable as they are intensely personal.
11/23/2020 05:52:14 pm
11/23/2020 10:33:31 am
Ah graphic design, you have to educate the client as to why something works. and sometimes if you have an ignorant boss you have to educate him. A sometimes impossible task. He who has the gold rules! My art is just because I want to! I have an idea and I am excited to see where the path leads me and how the piece finishes. I am a lucky girl. Loved you on Quilting arts, I got to understand all that goes into your work.
11/23/2020 05:53:22 pm
Thanks so much, nice to hear from another former Graphic designer!
11/23/2020 11:36:45 am
Oh, Jill. I so get you on this topic. I would have never called my work "art" or called myself "an artist" - until someone else did first. (I had a serious case of imposture syndrome going on.) Then it happened, a couple of decades ago when I had donated an art quilt for auction for Planned Parenthood benefit. When I arrived at the event, I was given my name tag with a ribbon emblazoned "Artist" in gold lettering. It brought tears to my eyes. I still have it. When my work gets rejected or isn't appreciated, I no longer care. I still make lots of crafts for commercial purposes, but the art I make is an expression of me. If someone wants to buy it, that's just a bonus.
11/23/2020 05:54:30 pm
Bingo!! (and thanks again for the sweaters!! Snagged some good ones at GW today!)
11/23/2020 12:43:14 pm
I loved how you described the feelings you have when you find just the right materials, stitch, composition. I have no formal art training, but I do feel that great satisfaction when a piece comes together. I'm always surprised!!! Thank you so much for this lovely post!
12/8/2020 07:31:41 am
I love this post - a career adjustment bringing about new opportunities - hits pretty close to home. Your work is so special. I often have my mid-level students write about 'What is Art?' - to get them thinking beyond what may happen in the classroom (cooking, auto repair, construction, quilting, etc.). Also to think about making in terms of therapeutic practices. Be well & Thank You.
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