Sometimes I look at my work, my visual artwork, and think, “Someone is going to wonder where this came from.” The answer generally is, “I don’t know.”
Not satisfying, I know. When we look at work and get curious about what it “means,” and want to know what the artist had in mind during the process, we want answers.
That’s often not how it works. On more than one occasion I’ve talked with creators of one kind or another who have not been interested in elaborating on their work. “It’s all in the work.” or “It’s all in the book. I don’t have anything else to say.”
Frustrating. But I get it, their perspective, and increasingly so as I make more and more artwork. And I’m also usually conflicted on being the chief resource about the work, and letting it stand alone so that anyone who looks at it can engage in their own way. I’m a curious person and I appreciate others’ curiosity.
I too like the workings of things behind the curtain. It’s what I do as a podcaster. While I don’t rudely say it this way to podcast guests, the gist of my urgent curiosity is as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you did X and accomplished Y. But what I really, really care to hear about is why, and how you feel about it, and what led you to it, and what you’ve learned from it, and who you are as a person because of it and … ?”
Many times I’ve thought I ought to write about each of my works simply as a record for myself, for my own memories. I rarely do.
Not long ago, my wife, Becca, told me that someone saw one of my pieces and asked her about a particular significance to one of the elements in it (I’d included the number “181” within the abstract). She told the woman that, knowing me and my generally intentional, thoughtful approach to things, there likely was.
When Becca came home and asked me what it meant, I could only laugh at her reasonably presuming I would have an answer, but then had to admit that I wasn’t sure anymore, that I’d forgotten whatever meaning it might have had in the moment it came about.
On one hand, I want the record of where the work came from, to the extent I can know. (Some things, a lot of things, flow intuitively by the muse and light of the gods. That either sounds like airy-fairy absurdity to you – or you know that you know you know what I’m talking about.)
On the other hand, the meaning of a work evolves over time. What it meant to me when I made it isn’t what it means to me as the world changes, as I change, as my perspectives change.
I am evolving as a human (as I hope you are), learning and growing. How could the meaning of the art I make stay the same as I look at it over time? My unique personal lenses on life change, the seasons change, the weather changes.
This gets at the heart of the value of art in the world. It’s about our interaction with it as readers of the work at any and every moment we engage with that work. It’s our present place within ourselves, our perceptions of existence as filtered through our processing (or not) of our experiences.
What I hear in a song or understand in a movie I first knew 30 years ago resonates quite differently now, as a middle-aged man, a husband, father and so on. And so do our feelings for an artist’s work. As a viewer of an artist’s expression, the answer to what it means can only come from within ourselves. It’s the spark for something more, deeper, better.
Jeff Koons has said, “The job of the artist is to make a gesture and really show people what their potential is. It’s not about the object, and it’s not about the image; it’s about the viewer. That’s where the art happens.”
Koons talks about the life of an artwork existing within the viewer, not in the art itself. When the galleries and museums close for the night, the works aren’t doing anything there, aside from in a Ben Stiller movie. They only are in action within the reaction and response, the emotive connection, of a viewer engaged with the work.
Art only has meaning so far as it ignites something within the viewer’s story, ideas and emotions. In this way, it doesn’t matter what the “answers” are to any given work of art or where it comes from within the artist. We can stop looking for answers there. The only answers that mean anything, and even these are fleeting, are in our own feelings as evoked and stirred by a creative work.
Koons credits viewers of art as the final element that completes the work. In that way, every work of art is an interactive co-creation. … Typing out loud here, with that line of thought, I’m thinking it also seems reasonable to conclude that you, me, any of us, as a viewer of art, become the art itself.
The artist’s expression is necessary for sparking our experience with it, for giving it life. But in the end, our experience of an artist’s work really is the experience of ourselves.
When the galleries and museums close at night, the sculptures stand and the paintings hang, watching the realest of art walk out the door.
Trippy to think about. Next level. And true. That’s the essence of art. It’s not logical. It’s visceral. Words and intellectual descriptions then are illusions, fleeting and lacking.
Maybe art and answers to creative expression can only spring from the airy-fairy absurd. It’s at least a significant ingredient.