Art Has a Life of Its Own

During the last month, I’ve done a couple of posts about certain classes of artists who have to let go of their work in order to have it completed by others [here and here]. It finally occurred to me that all artists have to let go of their work, although some, like over-protective parents, cling to their progeny with worry, blogs, essays, statements explanations, rationales (some of which have been previously discussed).

The fact is, regardless of what the artist was trying to do or not do, the art object, once completed, exists apart from the artist. It has its own life. It exists in the world, sometimes long after the artist is gone. The piece says what it says, and means what it means, and no amount of explanation or history or background or knowledge of the creator will alter that.

As the painter, Robert Oliver, in Elizabeth Kostova’s novel about artistic obsession, The Swan Thieves, declares, “I don’t think painters have the answers about their own paintings. No one knows anything about a painting but the painting itself.”  It would be easy to dismiss Oliver; he is, after all, just a fictional character. Perhaps it would be more difficult to disagree with an acknowledged real-life artist. Jackson Pollock said the same thing much more simply:  “the painting has a life of its own.” And it does.

What matters is what the art work itself says, what it does, what it means in the eye of its audience.  Certainly artistic intent is important, but mostly to the artist. When you get to the bottom line, artistic intent matters little, if at all. Does the artist’s intent show through? Maybe. That very much depends upon the artist and his/her abilities, how clear he/she may or may not be trying to be, what he/she is attempting to do.

Often the artist gets so bound up in process that he/she may not concern him/herself with message of the piece. The goal may be to get his/her ideas and feelings onto the canvas or into the stone, not necessarily to make the painting or sculpture communicate those thoughts and emotions to others. Again, Pollock speaks to this: “The method of painting is the natural outgrowth of a need. I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.

Sometimes, the work will say far more (or less) than the artist thinks it does. I have known artists, who, upon revisiting their works after a period of time, find things in the work that they did not knowingly put there. There is a whole body of thought that holds that the unconscious plays a terribly important part in the creative process, that the artist’s whole being bends to the task of creation and essentially subconscious magic happens. I do know that it is easy to get lost in the process (a subject for another time), and maybe this unconscious, subconscious effort is part of what really pays off in terms of what the art work says and does.

So, adding elements both consciously and subconsciously, the artist creates the work and then must set it free.  (No wonder many compare making art to giving birth.)  The art object, like an emancipated child, then begins its life, speaking to the world without reference to the artist, repeating its message, if it has one, saying what it has to say. Some will get it; some will misunderstand. But ultimately, the work speaks for itself; the work stands on its own.

Date: Sunday, 19. December 2010 23:55
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Creativity

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  1. 1

    When Pollock says he wants to express his feelings rather than illustrate them, he seems to be explaining why he is an abstract painter. However, so-called realistic artists can also be primarily concerned with expression.

    Pollack’s quote reminds me of one from Arthur Machen: “It is not the business of the sculptor to chisel likenesses of men in marble; the human form is to him also a symbol which stands for an idea” (Hieroglyphics 88-89).

  2. 2

    I can see how you might interpret Pollock’s comment that way, and perhaps it was an unfortunate choice of quotation. However, taken in context with other things he said, it seems to me that Pollock is saying that he is more concerned with putting on the canvas what his thoughts and feelings are rather than making those thoughts and feelings comprehensible to others. He repeatedly talks about his and what he calls “modern art” having an internal rather than external source, so I perceived him to be discussing how he deals with that internal source (as opposed to the way some others might). I can find no reason to think that he perceived all modern art as abstract; he does not seem to use the words interchangeably.

    I do fully agree realistic artists might also be concerned with expression, as are artists of a number of schools. Just today I read an author who said that all art is about expression; I don’t know if I fully agree, but the writer made a strong case.

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