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Is Everyone an Artist? #2: Getting off the Fence

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Toilets of Famous Art Galleries (detail). Multiple digitally-printed A3 photographs, block-mounted. 2000-04. Stephen Riley
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog which featured a Richard Wentworth-esque photograph I took some years ago, of a banana skin left on a railing, close to the Serpentine Gallery in London (see click-thru). I went on to speculate on whether the anonymous banana-skin-placer had known of Wentworth’s work and had self-consciously quoted same. Wentworth’s 'Making Do and Getting By' series of photographs goes back several decades, now, and within the art fraternity is very well known. So, it is possible that someone had deliberately ‘done a Wentworth’; it is also possible that someone had just, quite innocently, made do and got by. But, due to the location, I leant towards the former possibility. From there I posited – quite playfully, I felt – the Joseph Beuys proposition that ‘everyone is an artist’. I then linked the blog to various social media sites with the heading ‘Is Everyone an Artist?’.

Twitter and Facebook produced almost no responses. However, one of the art groups on Linkedin did. What I want to do in this tract, therefore, is to get off the fence and explore this topic in more depth, and to do so in the light (or darkness) of some of the responses that that Linkedin posting stimulated.

For the last couple of decades, I have worked in college or university art departments, and that has meant that any such questions were discussed within a largely empathic, informed group. I say ‘largely’ because that has not always been the case. I have taught in art departments where attempts to discuss art-related ideas have been met with defensive hostility from some members of staff, who see things such as research, scholarship and unfamiliar ideas as anathema and any attempt at discourse as a threat, and endeavour to complete a 40-odd year career as a lecturer without any study beyond that which they were forced to do as students themselves. You don’t believe me? Read my book Barsteadworth College, for a case study. But, hard cases aside, I am generally used to discussing these things with reasonably well-informed groups of people, with some kind of understanding of the issues and contexts. What arose when I linked my blog to social media is therefore of interest, because of the differences.

Those who responded were obviously a self-selecting group, about whom I know nothing, but they were not necessarily uninformed people, either. Their listings connected them to their credentials and most seemed to be artists, educators or both. If not from ‘all over’ the world, they were from many locations, usually beyond our shores, including North America and Continental Europe.

One aspect that quickly struck me was the degree of vehemence and sometimes aggression that characterised some of the comments. Many artists were affronted that those without palpable talent could be categorised in the same way as themselves. I also felt that some (perhaps, most) individuals had responded just to the title and had not read the article. Maybe this is an aspect of the medium: perhaps an instantaneously materialising digital message demands/provokes an instant response. After a time, as the article got physically, as well as intellectually, further away from the leading edge of column of the comments, responses seemed to have even less to do with its contents and became largely reactions to other contributors' reactions.

Among the more thoughtful responses were those that reminded readers that at least part of this revolved around the matter of definitions. I concurred with a contributor who hinted at this and agreed that semantics were an important starting point.

To my surprise, this produced an angry response from someone who felt that introducing semantics demeaned art and artists. I replied by saying that I did not see how this point demeaned anyone, and it was just necessarily the case that if you want to decide who is an artist and who is not, you need to be clear about what an ‘artist’ is: what would fall inside the definition and what would fall outside of it. The same contributor amazed me further by now, effectively, sarcastically accusing me of intellectual bullying. Were it not for the sarcasm, I would have felt quite sorry for him. The point had been set out in no more complicated terms than it is here.

Another contributor, simply answered ‘no’ and ‘it is a stupid question’. This individual had evidently never come across the adage that says that ‘there are no stupid questions; only stupid answers’; i.e.: it is often the case that questions that appear most naive lead to the most revealing answers. This same point is often made with reference to the way children ask questions: lacking knowledge of taboos, social niceties and self-censorship, they often ask questions that are guileless, disarming and (embarrassingly) penetrative. This response is also one of those where it is most starkly clear that the contributor has not read the article, as the rejoinder only fits the headline question.

The blockheadedness of this contribution signalled a point where the remarks were going downhill to the point where little more worthwhile could be gleaned – indeed, many contributors were by now bickering amongst themselves and insulting each other – so I have more or less stopped reading the posts and I will return, here, to getting off the fence and trying to answer my own questions.

So, back to that semantic question: how do we define the term ‘artist’? Do we mean someone who works with the traditional stuff of art – brushes, paint, clay, chisels and the rest, plus the conceptual artist’s ‘tools’, as broad and enigmatic as they may be – or should we apply the term more broadly? Most, I think, would agree that a chef could be an artist; commentators talk about the artistry of the most gifted footballers; and few would argue that the Sydney Harbour Bridge, though built to meet practical needs, is not an aesthetic wonder. And what is architecture, once it has gone past the point of providing shelter, if not some form of art? These are obvious examples, places where ‘artist’ can mean someone talented and creative but acting outside of the usual meaning of the word and with skills unlikely to be provided and ratified by a Fine Art degree.

But what about everyman and everywoman? Are not the acts of choosing and combining clothes, carefully applying make-up or ‘doing’ hair forms of artistry? Here we are probably in the realm of personal and value judgements; some would accept the artistry in this; others would see these examples as too banal, though it needs to be recognised that the profession of ‘Make-Up Artist’ exists; though here, again, things get slippery, as there is a gulf in skill between someone who makes a bride look her best for her big day and someone who creates, convincingly, a Hollywood monster’s face. Maybe the latter is an artist, but not the former.

But then, perhaps these kinds of artistry amount to ‘technicianship’, not ‘art’. But then, again, Orlan and Leigh Bowery are artists whose work centres on the making-up of the self. Cindy Sherman is another artist whose work arguably strays into that area. The key distinguishing feature between these artists and those who just colour and smooth the face of a bride is concept. What we expect to see in the work of an ‘artist’ is the expression of something, even if what is being expressed is hard to articulate.

We could, perhaps, see art as a graph with concept at one end and handicraft at the other, and a 45 degree angle running between the two. At one end we might see Sol Lewitt, whose work is all concept and who himself might not touch anything in the process of its making. Indeed, much conceptual art eschews skill and objecthood altogether. At the other, we might see the output of a Sunday painter, whose work contains craft but no other concept than ‘I saw this and wanted to paint it’. Somewhere around the middle, containing both skill and concept, we might see abstract painting: an endeavour to express something through the sensations produced by form and colour without making any literal statement. Good photography might also be here: it requires a good deal of skill, if not the physical craft of painting, and it expresses something about what it captures.

Views about this were expressed amongst the posts I was discussing above. A representational painter wanted to eliminate conceptual art from the ‘art’ canon altogether. This is not an untypical view. Many untrained or partially trained artists see depiction as the only ‘true’ art, and have a philistine view of anything else; particularly anything hard to grasp. As alluded to above, I would probably tend towards the opposite view: that art with no concept is probably only technicianship. Someone capable only of recording what they see and without the skill or understanding to apply a coherent interpretation becomes little more than a human camera, firing automatically with no photographer present.

No-one in the posts I read picked up on the Joseph Beuys theme. As mentioned above, I think few read the piece and most responded just to the headline question. Beuys’ view that ‘everyone one is an artist’ is different from and more subtle than any of the discussion above. This Beuys quotation is indicative:

"Art alone makes life possible – this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms… …I would say man does not consist only of chemical processes, but also of metaphysical occurrences. The provocateur of the chemical processes is located outside the world. Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being… …Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art if it is a conscious act." 1

Beuys’ views were utopian and, I feel, an attempt to lead rather than interpret what already exists. He wanted to see humanity live in a changed state. I think Beuys is referring to a particular sensation an artist can experience in making art: the sensation that might be termed ‘being in the zone’; of being so absorbed in one’s creative work that it just seems to ‘flow’, almost effortlessly. Ideas and their application appear to come from somewhere else, passing through one’s mind and body as though one is a conduit. Don’t get me wrong; in coming to my own understanding of the phenomenon Beuys describes, I am not suggesting anything mystical, even though Beuys might ("located outside the world"); I am not suggesting this comes from some place other than the self. I am describing that point one reaches when one’s ideas, skills, training and personal inventiveness are all working in harmony and all external mental noise is eliminated, and ideas flow freely. Dancers fluently interpreting music through their bodies surely experience this, as must concert musicians, who are totally absorbed in the music during a performance.

This is what I think Beuys was getting at: that artists have these moments and everyone can have these moments, if they learn what it is to get into that zone; thus, everyone can be an artist.

So, is everyone an artist? Even on Beuys’ broad terms, everyone has the potential to be an artist, but not everyone is an artist. If one mindlessly peels that potato, one is not an artist; but if one peels it whilst feeling the soft sensations of the peel coming away and seeing the beauty of the shapes one is making, then for that moment one is an artist.

Ironically, it seems to me that, on these terms, whilst some individuals we might not call ‘artists’ are artists, some individuals we might call ‘artists’ are not: the ones who mass-produce invented, clichéd Mediterranean scenes onto multiple identical canvases as souvenirs for holiday-makers, for example, or those who just copy down what they see, without either the act of seeing or doing ever really getting under their skins. These kinds of artist might never experience what we are describing here and would not be artists in Beuys’ terms.

On Beuys’ terms, it is the creativity and sensitivity with which one lives and experiences life that makes one an artist, not the artefacts one produces and not even the mastery of certain crafts.

So, back to getting off the fence: what are my views on this (if anyone might care about that, but since I asked the question, I feel the obligation)? I would go mostly with the Beuys view, though I would sidestep any supernatural references he may be making. I also think there is a contradiction in Beuys, in that there is this ‘everyone is an artist’ statement that is generally attributed to him, but when one unpacks what he says, it is that everyone can become an artist, which clearly means that not everyone is an artist.

What I think Beuys is getting at is what might be called ‘mindfulness’ in another context; that state of being fully engaged and aware in any act. Thus, someone completely engaged in the act of, say, painting can be an artist, and so can a conceptual artist who is fully present in the act of creating a situation where studied non-presence is key to the meaning of whatever is produced.

Beuys extends this, however, so that anyone engaged in a creative act, mindfully, is being an artist. I have to say that, if, for example, I wash in warm water and feel the sensations on my skin and smell the soap and fully experience everything about the process, the sensation feels equivalent to what it feels like to be working fluently in the studio: my consciousness is in the equivalent zone. Conversely – and I think many other artists experience this – if I go into the studio having not been in there for some time, everything feels alien and I am scratching about, looking for something, waiting for things to fall mentally into place. At that stage, little worthwhile is produced; but after a time, fluency and mindfulness return and I understand once again what it is I do, and why.

In conclusion: I think that not everyone is an artist, because not everyone can get into that zone of mindfulness. But I also think that not every artist is an artist in these terms, as some artists will produce something, but never really get into that state of presence. One might expect to see this manifest itself in clunky, unconvincing work. Perversely, then, in these terms, someone who has never picked up a paintbrush in his/her life may be an artist, when someone who considers him/herself an artist, and even has some practical artistic skills, may not be.


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1 Beuys' quote on the metaphysical power of art, source: an interview with Willoughby Sharp in 1969; in “Energy Plan for the Western man – Joseph Beuys in America –”, Four Walls Eight Windows in New York, 1993, p. 87 ( German Fluxus artist, famous for his art performances like ‘I like America and America likes me’ – with a Coyote, ed.) from http://www.quotes-famous-artists.org/joseph-beuys-famous-quotes [online] [ accessed 10 10 2015]