My fine arts training sometimes trips me up.
I earned my degree in a fine arts major where art (and the artist, no matter that said artist status was a month old) was taken deadly seriously and endless lazy hours were spent on “critique” where the most subjective and inaccessible thoughts were encouraged, the best absurdities were rewarded with conferrance of validity.
“Validate your forms.”
“Is this piece ‘caress-able’?” This discussion went on for two cringe-filled hours.
It took me years to deprogram myself. I had to remove myself from that environment and clear my head with the work of real life; I had to re-configure everything I understood about being an artist, what art was for, how to relate my art to other people, whether to make my art relatable to other people. It’s a bewildering labyrinth and many who contemplate its meanderings never emerge in this life. Pity them.
So I’m making handmade books, a craft item. Fine craft, but a practical thing. First, it has to function properly and be durable. Then, as a craft, it should be agreeable in appearance. It should be beautiful, or intentionally and attractively unbeautiful, or have some “look” which is effectively rendered.
That’s it, right? Simple.
No. For instance: I’m designing a woven-pattern collage and the elements used for the collage are strips from calendar pages with classic Japanese prints…I’m cringing while I’m cutting up a copy of this print. I am mutilating the wholeness of this great work of art. I am then having the audacity to reconstruct upon this savage act of deconstructionism; having destroyed the original’s integrity, I am then using its helpless, now separate, elements to throw together some poor purrty picture of my own. It’s arrogance. It’s sampling. It’s postmodern. Help me.
I could say I’m exercising the privilege given me by the Pop movement, boldly appropriating public domain images, cutting them up and imposing new contexts upon them. But the shock of a surprising context or strange juxtaposition isn’t what I’m aiming for.
I remember the early 80’s discussions in the airy towers of culturethinking. The earnest discussion over the “Art of the 80’s” installation, installed in 1980. Do we have the right to use established works as fodder for our own? That question was answered with an easy “yes” at the time but the ramifications of what that meant (another fun labyrinth) were not dismissed. And since I tended to side on the negative answer to that question, I burdened myself with an extra layer of responsibility to honor the works as they are, as they were meant to be.
See what I mean? I trip myself up. I put obstacles in my own way but I cannot do otherwise. It’s hard to dismiss all the arts training but it’s impossible to remove the artist from the artist. I am an artist, I think like an artist in ways I don’t examine or even recognize. It’s part of me. I believe art matters, and that it is intrinsically valuable. We would all do well to understand art better.
I’m trying to make a utilitarian item which is also visually stimulating. A humbly useful object which is pleasantly unique and likeable. I don’t want it to inspire caresses, but I want you to be happy you’re holding it and happier you’re drawing in it.
I do not want to make books as objet d’art –books in name only that are so arted-up that they cannot function, that you dare not touch them. Sitting open under glass, tassels and bones hanging off the spines, unusable cryptic pages inside, obtuse phrases on the title cards. I kinda hate those. Even worse are the books which appropriate precious and beautiful old books, massacred and mutilated, to make nothing more than a statement that the artist is hipster enough to trash any culture he finds useful in building his persona.
But am I doing the same? It’s not my intention. I want the elements to come together and create a wholeness, the parts to work together to make one effective image. I want the original qualities of the elements to shine, the artist’s intentional beauty to contribute to the whole. I am not putting on display, for irony’s sake, my attempt to dismember books and juxtapose the clash of disparate intentions .
Maybe it’s simply a different look, or maybe the intentions are worlds apart. My best teacher at art school said that the intention of every artist was on display with every work. If so, if what we make always tells what we mean to make, then what I’m making should be clearly different than the trendy hipster books. I do hope so.