WRITING + art, people, life

 

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A couple Thursdays ago I gave a talk at ETSU about art writing, which was also my first time doing anything like that. Thankfully I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this subject so I had plenty to say and organization of the overall lecture came fairly easily.

In my own experience as a writer and an artist, I have noticed there are a lot of overlapping characteristics between the two roles. To make the prospect of writing about art more approachable, I thought using a known frenemy for illumination would be helpful. 

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1. There’s no substitution for doing the work — Exactly how it sounds. If you’re not in your studio working, you can’t hope to make improvements as an artist and the same goes for writing.
2. Self-motivation is necessary — No one cares if you stop writing or making art once you graduate, except for maybe a handful of people who love you. It takes time and diligence to keep yourself going.
3. Seemingly unrelated assignments can get you closer to your goals / interests — I like how Neil Gaiman described this necessity when talking about the early part of his career:

Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.

Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.

4. Opportunities are sought, but also created — Opportunities exist for artists in a lot of different forms, such as juried exhibitions, exhibition proposals, grant proposals, etc. but there is also some creative problem solving required. Once we’ve made the work, how do we share it with people? How can we take steps toward our respective mountains?

I used Vision magazine, a student-run independent art publication in existence between 2007-2010 at ETSU, as an example. Robert Prowse, at the time a communications major who was friends with a lot of art students, recognized a deficit in art writing and exposure. Since he had experience selling advertisements for the East Tennessean, had taken some journalism courses and had connections with writers as well as artists, he was able to pull together strengths in various individuals (especially Ben Townsend Hamm, the art director of the magazine) to create a product that benefited many.

I wrote a few feature articles on students that they later used when applying to grad schools, which I also used when applying for writing jobs. When Jennifer Culp took over as editor, she was later able to use that experience for editorial and writing jobs. Some students learned about interviewing or reviewing subjects, other students learned about being interviewed and seeing their work discussed publicly in print.  It was a support structure that was needed and created within the community. No one gave them permission to do it or handed them the tools.

5. Communication with a known and (hopefully) unknown audience — Bouncing off of the above point, well, even good things that people love can fall apart. One of the primary reasons that Vision didn’t survive was because it kept speaking to and pooling resources from it’s known audience. Students are by default a transient demographic. Narrower still are the fine or studio art students.

During my talk I quoted Scott Contreras-Koterbay’s article, Elephants As Free Radicals, on Dennis McNett’s visit to ETSU  —

“I find myself often thinking at art world events that the only people who are there already approve of what’s being done; rarely do outsiders find their way into an art event, intimidated by the cliquishness of the community. Art that is for the art community merely speaks to the converted…”

Something I did not anticipate needing to do in regard to this talk was tricking artists and art students into caring about it. If we cannot stand to communicate or see ourselves translated for an audience, how can we possibly hope for anyone else to care? And if we only intend to speak to ourselves, to the converted, then what exactly is the point?

6. Engagement = Growth

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I ended my talk with two examples of how intentional and unintentional engagement with my community, which always involves some degree of willful vulnerability, stimulated questions, discussion, and growth. One worked out really well and the other did not.

When you’re writing about art and allowing it to exist within a larger context, it’s complexity and connections within vast territories grows. When you’re writing about art, you should be writing about people and life.

Solitude vs. Isolation

I often seek external and indirect permission to do things. Sometimes it takes an embarrassingly long time to realize that I am doing it.

A lot of the fumbling that I do with blogging comes from asking myself, constantly, “Should I be writing this? Is it worth sharing? Why does it matter what I think or feel?”

The truth is that it doesn’t matter. Yet while I keep waiting for a worthwhile excuse to share or, even better, for at least a handful of people to say, “I’m interested in your thoughts and feelings,” the fact is I’m not sharing anything and writing less often than I feel inclined. Personal momentum carries me far, but with about a third of the way left to run, I start to think, What’s the point?

The like follows:
Where could this possibly be published?
Am I wasting my time?
Is it useful to even worry about where the writing ends up?
It’s nice to get paid. How do people get paid for things they write?
I don’t want to write short opinion pieces that simply amplify the latest outrage. So what should I hope to accomplish with my writing? What are realistic goals?
Is any kind of writing in service of Writing? 

I don’t know answers to all of those questions, but I’m fairly certain the answer to the last question is Yes.

In college, it was really hard for me and most of my peers to grasp that there is no way around the unglamorous, diligent work of being an artist. No matter how well you draw or how mature you are conceptually, your practice is just that – a practice. It wasn’t until, a few years in, I took a Figure Painting class that I observed first hand how beneficial it was simply to work regularly. Is painting a foot over and over conceptually rather dull? Yes. That is unless you can get over yourself, stop fantasizing about your future masterpieces, and earnestly take up the tremendous challenge of seeing and translating.

I could write privately in my journal – actually, I do, all the time – yet somehow I still feel the need to send out my thoughts and feelings. Maybe that’s weak or narcissistic or petty. I would like to think it’s because, sometimes, I need to be reminded that while I am working in relative solitude, I am not in isolation.

So, I’m going to try something new and different for me. I am going to write when I want, about whatever I want, and worry less about future masterpieces or permissions or appearing “poorly” to The Internet. I may regret this later and drop the whole thing. But for the time being, Hello.

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Dueling Lovers: Words + Art

The writer in me has a hard time leaving images alone, the artist in me keeps smacking words away. And there are so many words. Direct, poetic, truthful, manipulative — they occupy various roles and in within those functions carry degrees of weight and sharpness. I feel each one in an attempt to decipher its necessity. The artist in me shakes her head regardless, unimpressed, even though writing is so much part of the process of creating the image in the first place.

Words are also a big part of how people interact with art. Stand by and watch people in an art museum — they will look momentarily at the work, then look for a label, read the label and possibly the description if there is one, then look back at the art object. If they’re still having difficulty with the object, they might return to the writing or move on. In galleries, they tend to seek out an artist statement or bio. Art institutions spend a lot of time and money attempting to offer the right kind and the right amount of information to their visitors. People expect words because a room full of art objects is terrifying.

One of the powerful aspects of viewing art is how intimate it can be if you simply walk up to the object and look. Really look. Instead of worrying about that crabby lady wearing an American flag fanny pack behind you, trying to rush you along so she can rush along onto the gift shop, or wondering if anyone thinks you look stupid wearing red eyeglasses, or whether or not you should like the art because it’s very old or made by some famous white dude, you can give yourself over to that moment and look at an object that demands nothing from you.

Literally nothing.

If you get something from the object, it’s because you allowed yourself to see it, you allowed yourself a response. I would like to say art is for everyone, but frankly, it’s not for people too lazy or busy to peel an orange. It’s not for people who hate cats because they don’t rush at you with an abundance of love and acceptance the way dogs do. I’m sorry. Correct me if I’m wrong, please. But some people are just not wired for loving art. At most, they may appreciate a very selective and limited range of art.

While they may not be in the same boat as the rest of us, they are definitely coasting along in the same river. Movies, television, YouTube videos, video games, advertisements, magazines — an excess of media fills our everyday lives. Yet Americans are not particularly familiar with art. Two people are more likely to bond over a funny commercial on television than they are to enthusiastically talk about their experience viewing a Vermeer or Titian. That’s not a judgment call I’m making. That wouldn’t be fair. It’s easy to find yourself near a television or magazine, even if you generally avoid them. You might not like the Kardashians, but you’ve heard of them, right? Maybe even talked about them?

In the cacophony of daily life, where art may or may not be recognized, it makes words and writers, including and excluding critics, potential lightbringers to the dim. Throughout history, many writers of varying backgrounds and agendas have offered their words to art: Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Donald Judd, Roberta Smith, James Elkins, and Jerry Saltz. Some artists write about their own work or include text within their work itself, such as Jenny Holzer, Tracey Emin, Christopher Wool, and Carolee Schneeman. And let’s not forget a grand, romantic, and sometimes embarrassing history of manifestos. (I’m looking at you, Futurists.)

When I first read Marlene Dumas’ writing in Suspect, an earthquake of feeling and purpose shook my body. I didn’t know I was allowed to write. (I also didn’t know that I was secretly seeking that permission.) Have you ever read Kara Walker’s writing? It’s like laughing while being stabbed. On the opposite end of the word appreciation spectrum, if you’ve read a fair amount of artist statements and writing, you’ve undoubtedly had some moments when you inwardly rolled your eyes, laughed, felt baffled, or some combination thereof. Maybe it caused you skipped the writing (and the art) altogether.

Last year Jerry Saltz visited East Tennessee State University and he talked a bit about art writing during his lecture, which I asked him to elaborate on during the following reception. He said artists can’t really be critics because we want to write in support of our friends, “not unless you can be an asshole about it”. What I forgot to ask was, “How the hell do I write at all?”

If you offer any words, they will be attached to the interpretation of your work. Even if you are writing about a boxing match and your art is safely tucked away on another website minding its own business. The writer in me has already made peace with this while the artist in me resents explanation. The writer is not concerned with how neatly the fragmented pieces line up. The artist is considering how to make entire sections disappear beneath a single, veiled image. She is already spinning a story. The writer is not interested in one story.