Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What is Art?

I have always worked at my full potential in my classes, despite my enthusiasm level for the assignment. Performing at my best is always the goal, and I am usually well recognized by my professors for this effort. Perhaps I've been spoiled to mild critiques, but a couple weeks ago I received the harshest response to my work I've experienced since my freshman figure drawing classes.

The professor I am taking Photographic and Digital Applications for Printmaking with is the same I took last quarter during Intermediate Lithography. We have always had a friendly relationship, and she seemingly enjoyed my work and dedication to the classes. I can strongly say that I am one of the more responsible students in nearly, if not all, the courses I have taken, and printmaking has been no exception. The technical issues are always difficult to slog through, but I never cut corners or give up, and I always turn in progress work, as well as the final, with all points checked off the list. Two Tuesdays ago was no exception, as we were having a progress critique on our newsprint proofs. Most of the class was absent, and of the few of us there, only about four including myself, had something to hang. I was the only student to hang three proofs, having success with all of my plates in printing. Naturally, I felt confident about the seemingly informal critique that day. At my turn, I briefly explained my piece, saying that I wanted to make something for a dear friend of mine who is having a baby soon, because it is exciting and the first person of my age I've known well to have a child.

My professor proceeded to delve into a lengthy explanation of distaste for not only this piece, but my entire body of work to-date. In front of the attending class, she unleashed an interrupted monologue discussing why "client-based" work is not "real" art. She told me that she would keep cutting me off when I tried to respond because she did not want me to defend myself. There were so many points made during those long, shocking minutes that I could never manage to repeat them all, but the general message was clear: I was not creating art because my work had a client in mind. She told me that I needed to create "selfish" work, that then it would be truly mine, and I had never successfully done anything this way. Apparently, if the outcome of the work is dictated by another person's taste, then its legitimacy is called into immediate question. The only words I got in edge-wise were to explain that the "client" never expressed any opinion on the final outcome because she was completely unaware of the project at all, seeing as how it was meant to be a surprise gift, and I had chosen everything on mine own, from the color, to the image and the concept. She said that did not matter, because the work was for someone else, and finally wrapped it up by glazing over the fact that my technical abilities were fine, and moved onto the next student.

After the critique was over, I attempted to move on by accepting her statement and continuing to work. I went into the hall to pick up supplies from my flat file drawer, and my professor followed me. She asked if I understood what she had said. Finally able to express myself, I said that I understood her point (which is true, I do agree that an artist should be getting something personally from their work), but I did not understand that I was not doing so in my own. I love creating work for other people, it makes me happy, and I have never felt incomplete in doing so. I argued that illustration is different because we have clients, to which she heatedly delved back into the same points once more. She told me that she once created work for others, and did not realize how unfulfilled she was until she stopped creating commercial art. She referenced the piece I made for my father, which was the closest I had gotten to success. I told her that ironically, I felt that the piece she mentioned was probably one of my least favorites visually, and she seemed to find that either pathetic or saddening. In an attempt to seem supportive rather than attacking, she told me not to be afraid to create "ugly" art, to stop playing it safe, and that she would not be telling me these things if she did not care (she told another student this almost verbatim in a later critique about the same issue). At this point in the conversation, I felt so confused and off-track that I became emotional, making my professor take the "uplifting and supportive" approach even more. The conversation ended on a accomplished note for her, and a defeated one for me. She tied it in a nice little bow by telling me that "in addition to illustration, [I] can be an artist." As if I am not one.

I spent the rest of the week feeling completely conflicted and generally off. It was such a struggle to first believe I was completely wrong in all my years creating art, or rather, not art, and to then realize that I am doing nothing wrong, and my professor is simply a person with an opinion. I had never experienced first-hand the looking down upon by fine artists onto illustrators. We are selling out and hopelessly uninformed in many of their eyes (I say many, not all, as I have plenty of painter and printmaker friends who have been entirely supportive about this situation). The hardest point to come to was understanding that a professor's word is not gold. They are here to help and teach, but because art is so subjective, they are not always right. I am creating art for myself, because making other people's hearts warm makes mine even warmer. So, I wrote this response in my artist's statement that was handed in with the final work:

" Nothing makes me happier than to see someone who has been moved by the art I create, especially if I create the art specifically for them. In general, nothing makes me happier than to make someone else happy. I do not see this as neglect for myself, but rather a selflessness that I can be proud of. Or perhaps it isn’t even selflessness, because I do get much out of my work. I have a passion for creating art that others can relate to, cherish and love. My work feels whole, exciting and new to me, and when I make art for someone I am close to, they share that feeling. That is why I chose to create a piece to give to a friend and soon-to-be-mother.
As well as always loving to show my warmth for others, I have also, since I was quite young, been fascinated with the connection between a woman and her child, and pregnancy in general. My friend Michelle is the first person of my generation that I have known well to carry a child, so it was very moving and monumental for me to observe her transformation. I wanted to create a work that she would forever be able to look at, with her baby Henry, and know the love and excitement I have for them. I feel I do not need to create deep-seeded symbolism in my art to express this, but instead pour the energy into the piece as I create it. If I care about the work, it is clear in the work. The imagery is straightforward, light, and jovial; a celebration, if you will, and an opening of arms. Michelle will know this, due to the way our lives are connected through friendship, and nothing fulfills me more than to solidify that by my craft. Perhaps any other onlooker would simply find the piece emptily “cute”, but that does not matter, because the work is not for them, but rather for Michelle and Henry, for me, and for us.
This piece is something I care about, just like the rest of my work, as I am always finding some source of excitement for every assignment I complete. I can feel the steady rhythm of my art, regardless of its purpose, and I feel whole because of it. I am confident in myself as an artist, illustrator, and printmaker, each of those titles being synonymous with the next. Aside from forever growing technical skill, I know I am doing everything the way I need to in order to be my happiest. My art is for me, and it is also for the people I keep in mind when I create it. This work, “Happy Birthday,” is no different than the spirit of my art previously, presently, or in the future, and it couldn’t make me a happier artist."

The next class I arrived early to finish up a few things that were due, and my professor found me. She said that my artist statement seemed really defensive. I told her that it was more of an explanation of the work, since I never had the chance to really express how important it was to me, and she went into the same discussion one final time. Thankfully, I was much stronger in my viewpoint by this time, because, despite its shorter length, this conversation was even harsher than the first two. She reiterated that she had created work for other people before, making "home decor, and [she'll] admit, it pleased [her] for a while," but then one day she realized she was not making real art, because it was not being selected or sold in galleries. She just wanted to tell me what she wishes someone had told her. I then realized that this issue was hardly about me at all.

And that, in her opinion, what defines art is its purpose and where its sold. Selfish gallery work is art, commercial work for other people is not. Therefore, I am not an artist.

Never before had I been scolded about not being selfish. It is such a baffling concept to me. I feel like it should be a good thing that I get as much joy as I do from pleasing others.

Never before had someone questioned my identity or career choice.

Never before had I been essentially told that I am not a successful artist.

Now I am stronger in my passion for what I do. Is this not paint on my desk? Are those not brushes in my box? Have I not been praised for the images I create by people who understand their purpose? Do I not create beautiful things with my mind and hands?

Does this not look like art to you, with its color, brushstrokes, and pattern?

"Happy Birthday," Lithography, 2011.

Does this girl not look like an artist, sitting at a desk full of fresh paper and supplies?

I think she does. I know she is. And I know that all things creatively made are art, whether that be paintings hung in a gallery, buildings on my street, the movie coming out this weekend, fabrics we wear every day, the book you are reading at night, or illustrations on a billboard advertisement. The purpose of the school I attend is to prepare creative careers from artistic skills. Your goal here is to be able to pay the bills doing something you love.

Be passionate about what you do, and never let someone tell you that it is invalid. If you create something, you are an artist. Just not a snob.

That's all for now,


Anonymous said...

your art embraces love and joy."others" may seek "selfish art" but always be true to your own heart.

Arielle Katarina Chorman said...

You're an amazing artist Caitlin! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. "Get your work out there. They can't stop you" -Sue Coe

Tati said...

I wasn't there to hear everything that happened firsthand, but I have the impression that your professor made two mistakes: 1) she was bitter about her own past and she took it out on you, 2) she meant fine art instead of just "art" (which is the word she used.)

The addition of the word "fine" can make a whole world of difference.

In a nutshell: Illustration is art but it isn't fine art.

But then, that doesn't mean illustrators aren't artists (hell yeah we are!) We just aren't fine artists.

I have heard this from multiple illustrators before and I have come to agree with them. It is actually part of the reason why I enjoy illustration so much.

I spent A LOT OF time in high school making fine art around classmates that also only made fine art. And it began to tire me, because there was no point to it other than self-fulfillment. "Yeah you draw pretty pictures but what are they useful for?"

And I think that is what your professor meant. "Hey, I like drawing cats, I'ma draw me a cat, son!" (fine art) vs. "I need a cat drawing for a bag of cat food." (illustration)

And that's really just the very basics of it, there is SO much more than can be said on the subject, but anyway. It just sounds to me like it could've done a world of good to that critique if she had made the distinction between "fine art" and "art" from the get-go and the fact that she didn't make that distinction was not fair at all to you and surprisingly ignorant of her.

I'm glad you took a stand against her comments though, because that is proof enough that you're an artist. If you think for yourself and not just accept what others say, if you know what you feel inside of you about creating art is real, and if you are able to hold your ground for yourself AND your art by backing your argument the way you did, then this is more than enough proof that you are, in fact, an artist.

When you are able to do that, who is anybody else to tell you otherwise? :)

Paula said...

Wow. Interesting post, Caitlin. I would certainly be rattled if a prof went off on me like that (no less THREE times)! From your take, it did sound like the instructor was dealing with personal issues. You gleaned good stuff from the experience though. It got you to think deeply about YOUR purpose and pleasure for doing what you do. Yes, this happened almost a year ago and you're well over it and off doing what you love, right? Looks that way from perusing your blog. Love your work, by the way. : )

Caitlin said...

Aw thank you, Paula. I just now saw this comment. Yes, you're right-- a year later, and I'm pursuing what I want in life, and couldn't be more happy or confident with my work as of late. :)