Its the year 2139, ten years into the war with an alien insect race, and human resistance has faltered. There are just a handful of safe zones that have not been overrun.
Johnson straps into the harness of the one technology that has made survival even a glimmer of possibility. The tech doctors check the connections and monitor his output levels. The readout starts scrolling on the monitors. For seven years at least Johnson has given his best each and every shift. The Intention Translator has turned all his nastiest intentions into reality, and this alone has kept the ravening hoard from the gates. Otherwise, Old Chicago can kiss its a-s goodbye.
Dr Evangeline smiles down at him as the ‘nasties’ start flowing into existence just beyond the far perimeter, engaging with the advance elements of mechanized insect units. Johnson’s twelve hour shift has begun.
A warning light flashes briefly on Evangeline’s screen. She checks Johnson’s vitals. Nothing out of place. But as she leans over him she hears an unexpected sound. Johnson’s stomach is rumbling.
Warning claxons blare overhead as the stream of ‘nasties’ doing battle with the alien invaders is suddenly replaced with first a giant Big Mac, then a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and next a Krystal burger.
“My God!” screams Evangeline, “He’s thinking about food! If he can’t keep his mind on nasty intentions we are doomed!” Pandemonium breaks loose as the entire defense complex prepares for an immediate emergency evacuation.
Then, from the corner of her eye, Evangeline notices something different on the huge screens displaying the conflict: The aliens have stopped their advance. They are all eating the burgers. As the red warning lights strobe in the chaos Evangeline turns and sees a thing she had almost forgotten was possible, even as part of her deepest dreams: The aliens are retreating!
Within the week all aliens have taken to their ships and departed the solar system. He’s done it! Johnson has won the war!
So the previous post explored an idea that what makes art ‘art’ is a specific sort of intention, maybe just the intention for something to be ‘art’. Perhaps things like that get said for good reasons, based on what one has thought about the power of intentions and the idea of art. It sure seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? Except that if you look at the nature of intentions more closely you can see that they are generally superfluous. They fly all over the map, and they often have very little to do with results. They don’t always have staying power. Other people get different things from what we intended. Sometimes they are necessary, yes, but not always.
The difficulty is that intentions are part of conscious behavior, and the link between what we are thinking in the moment and what actually happens is often a bit tenuous. Never mind that what you are intending and what the rest of the world sees is not always on the same page. You might say that intentions are only really alive in the mind of the person intending. The situation for art is generally more complex than the influence of simple intentions.
Results are complicated by a number of things. For instance, we change our intentions, we have bizarrely unrealistic intentions, and there are a host of unintended consequences to almost all of even our most important actions. Never mind that we are subject to influences that are beyond our conscious control or even awareness. Many of the better things we do happen on auto pilot (in other words, without our consciously intending them). Intention is similar to our ability to pay attention: We have a limited capacity, and deal with competing demands to focus in the ‘right’ place. It wavers from one thing to the next. It can be undone by the next intention in line…….
I could talk about intentions all day. In fact, I practically did. Then I changed my mind and erased eleven whole paragraphs of rambling. The intention that started this post was to talk about art’s ambition. If that intention got compromised along the way, perhaps the ambition for it survived. And that seems like an interesting point. A good illustration of the difficulty we are faced with too……
‘Ambition’ seems like a related word. What about that? How are ambitions different from intentions?
Well, I think it is safe to say that many fine artists have the ambition to be ‘fine artists’. Whereas intention is in the conscious moment, and thereby subject to radical and instantaneous change, ambition is a slow burner that can be present beneath the surface when we are doing other things. We say that we intend to eat a cone of chocolate ice cream after dinner, but when we get to the shop and see they have 52 flavors plus daily specials we change our intentions and get one scoop of the coconut and one of the blueberry cheesecake. Intentions are like that. They flicker in our mind’s eye as we are drawn first one way and then another.
We can intend to eat a skyscraper. Briefly, perhaps, and maybe because something got us all riled up about it. There is no accounting for what we can intend given the right frame of mind. In a calm moment we can think better of it. Or we can get distracted and now intend to yell at the stranger who splashed mud on us as he drove through the puddle next to where we were standing.
But what if I had the ambition to eat that skyscraper? What would that mean? Well, I might wait long enough for the city to tear it down and then go to the site and grab some rubble and fine dust to sprinkle on my breakfast cereal. I could walk in the building each day and strip some of the wallpaper to chew on. Or I could go the easy route and start with the freestanding things like pencil erasers and potted plants.
Ambitions are less in the moment and more a sign of commitment, no matter how bizarrely we direct those ambitions.
Ambitions differ from intentions in that they are not necessarily conscious and that the duration they have is not measured by how well we are paying attention to them. The ambition to be a fine artist may, for instance, involve going to school, graduating with good enough grades and a decent portfolio that they will admit you to grad school, finishing grad school without having gone insane, and then parlaying the connections you made to introductions into the professional field, and, of course, bedding in with the art market and developing a brand that makes the work acceptable to the relevant gatekeepers. That’s one way of doing it, for sure. A very well trod and clearly delineated path for ambition to take us. We see the ends we want and the means are presented to us in prepackaged form. “How appealing!” some might say.
The interesting thing is that none of that need apply. That’s not the only way to become ‘an artist’. Its not necessary to drink the cool aid to make decent art. We don’t need institutional sanctioning for what we are doing creatively to be seen as or in fact to be art. And more importantly, we don’t have to ‘play the game’ at all. One sort of ambition about art will definitely take the acolytes through the system and smooth the rough edges, manicure all their habits and skills into officially sanctioned ‘art’. That’s what the institution does so well: It gives you ‘Art’.
But the odd thing is that art seems to also happen outside the official corridors. The ambition for art doesn’t always aim at the ‘art game’ that seems to define some professionalized ideas about it. Amazing photographers have been discovered with troves of previously unseen work. Poets have kept their poems hidden in drawers and random boxes in closets. Novelists have written obsessively for their own benefit and never shown their work to people beyond close family. Painters have been consumed by painting and yet never sold enough (or cared to sell enough) to keep them from starving……..
The point being that the ambition for art is sometimes less about the infrastructure of the arts game, its rules and its police, and occasionally more about the work itself, that the person is trying their best to do their best, is exploring the fruits of their unique imagination and perspective on the world, and that they are driven by the need to see where all this expression is going.
It doesn’t necessarily ‘make one an artist’ that we can sell a piece or two. The ideal of a professional can’t be what hangs us up. What makes us artists is that we care enough about our practice that it simply needs to get done. The ambition to be an artist isn’t always the ambition to be a ‘professional’ who makes their livelihood doing it. Its not just the ambition to get hung in a gallery, entombed on a pedestal. Its not simply the ambition to look up the official definition of ‘art’ and do that. Sure, that’s one great way to do it. That specific ambition can be rightly honored. But it isn’t necessary.
Nor is it the only way of doing things. Art happens all around us. It doesn’t need the sanctioning of gatekeepers. The ambition for art is more about who we are and what we want to leave behind for the world. Its the ambition to change the world by expressing ourselves. Artists express themselves creatively. This is the ambition behind what we do. It pours out from the hidden corners of our being. And we don’t need people to listen, necessarily. At the very least the small corner of the world we inhabit has changed. If we are doing the best we can, then we ourselves have changed.
Something I always try to tell my students is that the pottery projects they are working on are all very interesting, but the real project they have is to mold themselves into better creators: The real project they are working on is themselves.
Does that sound like something we can get behind? Forget the destiny of individual art objects: What is more important is what happens to us. That, my friends, seems to be the real ambition for art: Discover who we are as thinking creating beings. Discover it through learning better how to express ourselves. If we do that right, how can we not end up with art?
Make beauty real!