Musings on Photography

Artists are not special.

Posted in the art world by Paul Butzi on May 27, 2007

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Doug Plummer’s excellent  and insightful comment on a recent post was the core of one of Doug’s posts over on Art and Perception.  There are some interesting comments there, many of which I disagree with very strongly.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco, for instance, writes in part:

My conclusion is that for ordinary people, it is impossible to see the Real World. It’s an artist’s job to uncover it for them.

I don’t agree that humans are separated into two classes, the artists who can perceive the real world directly and the ordinary people who can’t.  I think that’s arrant nonsense.  I think it’s worse than arrant nonsense, I think it’s a bunch of bigoted, pompous, arrogant, unsubstantiated and unsupportable crap foisted on our society by a bunch of self-serving, destructive ignoramuses who are in love with the idea that, because they’re artists, they’re somehow the anointed ones.

You don’t need an advanced degree or special Artist Mojo to experience reality.  It’s right there.  It is, as the early Christian mystics wrote of God, nearer to you than breathing.  Bang your hand on your desk – it feels solid, and when your hand strikes it, the resulting vibrations are reflected to your ear as sound.  Walk out into the rain, feel it wet your face, and feel the cold trickle at the back of your neck.  You don’t need to work hard to find reality, you need to work quite hard to ignore it.  You can’t escape it. 

The difficulty with reality is not that it’s hard to perceive.  The difficulty with reality is that it’s easy to perceive but damn hard to understand, and when we finally do manage to sort out some of the rules they all seem so utterly unfair.  And, I’d point out, it certainly isn’t the case that artists have some special edge on understanding either the rules or the lack of fairness.

Sadly, this myth that artists are special is a lie that quite a few people who don’t consider themselves artists have bought.  It’s so prevalent that when I see a show about artmaking on TV, I expect to see a disclaimer at the beginning, along the lines of “This show depicts the actual process of Artmaking, which involves direct contact with Reality, is very dangerous and could result in serious injury or death.  The Artists shown are experienced professionals.  Do not under any circumstances attempt to make Art at home, by yourself.”  I think that’s sad because I think that if everyone had a little artmaking in their life, we’d find it a lot easier to get through the day.  Because this ‘artists are special’ myth tends to discourage people from ‘doing it themselves’, I think it’s a really destructive thing.

Let me just close with a little quotation from Ted Orland (in The View from the Studio Door):

What it all comes down to is that art is not made by a special breed of people, but by ordinary people who have dedicated a piece of their lives to special work.  Art is much more the product of a commitment made by ordinary people than the product of unique talent possessed by some chosen few.  Doing special work can become a routine part of your life – in fact, it almost has to if you’re actually going to get any work done.  Artists are not weird people who work only when inspiration strikes.  (Well, OK, most of them aren’t)  Artists are regular people who work all the time, and lead real lives all the time as well.  Annie Dillard nailed it when she wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  Artists are not exempt from that truism.  Fix breakfast, cut the grass, do the laundry, write a poem.  That is the real life of an artist.

4 Responses

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  1. Derek said, on May 27, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    I’d agree that everyone can create artworks in their spare time, but there are also “Einsteins” of the art world, geniuses whose work is amazing.

    That’s just a fact of life. Regardless of the profession or occupation, 99.9 percent are average joes who are generally competent, but then there is the occasional genius who stands above the crowd.

  2. François Colou said, on May 28, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    Art help us becoming free. Like philosophy, art questions the reality. At the same time you feel a piece of art with intensity, it gives you a perspective on your own reality.

  3. paul said, on May 29, 2007 at 5:16 am

    I think that the “Einsteins of the art world” are very few, if they even exist. For the most part, I don’t believe in prodigies. Mostly every artist that I know of, got there through an extremely diligent work ethic. Their more notable paintings/photographs became ‘famous’ after they died and it would seem that everyone takes away the ‘work’ part and bestows some magical property (talent, prodigy, genius) upon them.

    I would have to agree with Paul in that there are no have/have not classes. Artists are simple every day people who have a need to make art. They have no special powers, vision, intuition, or anything other than a desire to portray their particular version of reality.

  4. gus23 said, on June 3, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Hey Paul, Jeffrey Augustine Songco here. It’s totally interesting to read something I wrote on another blog–first time for me. A big habit of mine is to come up with the perfect “the world is made up of two kinds of people…” line, but so far I have not yet figured it out, because there always seems to be that third category of ‘those that fit in both’.

    It hits hard to read that my comment on A&P was “bigoted, pompous, arrogant, unsubstantiated and unsupportable crap”. Your response to it reminds me to question myself and ask, “who am I to say anything”. I’m a puppy in life, and I’m learning a lot, so I thank you for splashing some cold water on my face.

    If you check out my work on my website, you’ll notice that my work revolves around the documentation of my everyday life–my clothes, my furniture, my bedroom, my body. The last thing I want to project is a destructive attitude to individuals who want to be creative–as if they could never do such a thing without some kind of ‘anointing,’ as you put it.

    All I am is an ordinary guy trying to make sense of the world around me. But I have to question myself sometimes and ask, “why the hell am I trying to make sense of this world? Why can’t I figure out the difference between Art and Life? Why do I want to be an Artist, capital a”.

    A great scene from “What the Bleep Do We Know?”, a fairly recent movie about String Theory and Quantum Physics describes a shaman. A physicist reveals to us that when Columbus’s ships were nearing the shore, the native people could not actually ‘see’ the ships. They saw waves and ripples, but the fact that ‘ship’ was not in their understanding of reality, they could not perceive it. So the shaman mediated and meditated until one day, he finally saw the ships. It was this vision that he had to pass along to his people. In some way, I associated this shaman with an Artist, and the people who he had to make ‘see’, as ordinary people.

    All I want to do is, as second paul (lower case p) put it, “portray their particular version of reality”. What is great about “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and you, is that both suggest that we can all see It, capital i. But what is It? Who is supposed to suggest even thinking about It?


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