The art beyond sweat equity

Last post was a meditation on the Chuck Close quotation about the value of hard work. Chuck’s idea that the best ideas (what I would have no trouble also calling “inspiration”) often come during the process of work unfortunately gets phrased as “Inspiration is for amateurs”, which seems like a raw deal for inspiration if not a contradiction. The shortened quote suggests that inspiration itself is a problem and not merely waiting for inspiration that should be discouraged.

Be that as it may, it also seems possible that there truly is important art beyond the mere fruits of sweat equity. The pace of art sometimes unfolds without our noses firmly planted on the grindstone. There are different ways of viewing professional art practice that are more holistic and inclusive. Not every artist requires an unswerving total personal commitment to workaholism. In fact, some art exists simply as its own organic evolution, and no special ‘showing up’ is required to make it happen. Not all art is based on how hard we worked for it. Sometimes it is the idea. Sometimes its how we look at things that otherwise are normal, mundane, and routine in our worlds. Sometimes it is a confluence of different people’s contributions. Sometimes the art happens on its own, and merely needs to be set in motion. Sometimes there is an important art simply in how we live our lives. And just what does that say?

You see, art isn’t just an object. Its more than an object. Its also sometimes less than an object. Its only when we see it in these limited physical terms that the sweat we pour into it becomes an overriding justification. Perhaps its only in the interest of an art market that art gets whittled down to an object that can then be thought of as a commodity. Art is fundamentally also an attitude about the world. As Chuck Close says about the dreamers, they may not end up making very many things, but is that such a bad thing? Are we only interested in adding material things to the world? Is our sweat equity the only important thing our art has to offer? This seems like an important question.

And just after I posted my response to Chuck I read something very interesting that I would like to share with you. The following is a guest post by my friend and fellow ceramic artist Adrienne Lynch, copied from a post on her newly minted blog. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you read her other fascinating posts. She is an extremely thoughtful person and courageously tackles some very provocative ideas. Here is her post:

Relationalism (or, On Pad Thai and Being Tamed)

During my time in art boot camp – a.k.a. grad school –
I studied with a brilliant firecracker-fashionista of a scholar, known
by the mere mortal name Dr. Susan Ryan (I’m pretty sure she’s some kind of
higher life form; I mean, she could blow your mind repeatedly over a 1.5 hour
period while wearing gold platform tennis shoes, so…my theory’s got ground). Dr.
Ryan, a scholar of contemporary art, introduced me to Relationalism, an art
movement originating in the early 1990’s that took human relationships and
social interactions as its subject matter (I know this sounds like the beginning
of an art history lecture but…stick with me – I’m going somewhere with this).

Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija put Relationalism
on the art-world map by using his 1990 solo exhibition at NYC’s prestigious
Paula Allen Gallery as a platform for a dinner party. Everyone who happened to
wander in on opening night was invited – for free – to gather round a
large dining room table and feast on home-cooked pad thai, prepared and served
by Tiravanija himself.  He had transformed the gallery into an open kitchen with
an adjacent dining room. Normally, you go into a gallery to look, and perhaps to
buy. Instead, Tiravanija wanted you, as viewer, to become both recipient
and participant. He wanted to give you an experience, and to allow the
traces of that experience (empty bowls, bottles, and chairs, and cluttered
countertops) to bear witness for future viewers to the uncommodifiable
value of shared human experience. This was a radical move in the
art world, given that a big name gallery kind of needs to be able to
sell some art objects from time to time to stay afloat.

Learning about this Relational Art movement
unsettled me. I had been raised going to soup kitchens in the poorest parts of
Pittsburgh and Atlanta, bringing along fresh-baked bread and helping cook up and
serve soup to grizzled men who scared me a little, but who I was assured were
people just like me who just happened to be down on their luck, and who deserved
respect, kindness, and basic provisions. As much as I (adult-me, I mean) loved
making and sharing my own art work, and as much as I relished poring over the
work of others in museums and galleries, I always balked at the apparent
disconnect between all the selling, buying, and to some extent, elitism,
inherent in the art world, and this huge part of me that wanted to use my
creative work to connect with all kinds of humans – not just those who felt
comfortable entering a gallery, and not only those who could afford to purchase
work. I wanted to be a part of a dialogue that went beyond an economic exchange,
and that is precisely the sort of dialogue Relational Art set out to initiate.

I think my study of Relational Art planted a
seed. As I learned more and more about artists doing work that was socially
engaged and/or generous in some way, and as all prior notions of what art
was or could be shed like brittle skins, I began to see that just as art, by its very nature,
can manifest in any form or format its maker can dream up, so, too, can the shape of one’s
life. Artists create their own terms. With each new body of work, an artist determines a
relevant set of rules by which the work will operate. Do we not, as humans,
have such a power to choose how we envision, structure, and spend our own lives?

In an age when we’ve been conditioned never to
expect to get something for nothing, and in a culture in which workaholism is
celebrated as the pinnacle of all virtues, there is almost nothing more
preposterous than inviting visitors to one of the country’s most prestigious
museums to slide down a partially transparent tube that snakes through three
floors and spits them out they know not where, as others look on, or to greet
said visitors with an atrium full of bird cages where live canaries dangle and
sing. And yet, in the name of art, that’s precisely what German artist and
former scientist Carsten Holler was able to do at NYC’s New Museum
as part of his 2011/12 show Experience.

So I think what I’m saying here is two things.
First, art holds a space within which it is possible to question, to dream, to
experiment, to innovate, to play. To me, that domain is sacred and vital to the
soul, psyche, and future of humanity. I think one measure of a culture’s wisdom
should be its appetite for the absurd, and its willingness to entertain that
which is neither essential to physical survival, nor pragmatic, nor logical, nor
capable of being neatly summarized or readily grasped. Within this freeform
domain, ideas like the LifeStraw are born. Within this sprawling wilderness, a
man can create his own Sun and share it with museum-goers in a city desperately
short on Vitamin D and that sensuous experience of light, heat, and humid
moisture on the skin. And within these generous parameters, a woman can cover
the gallery walls and floor in cornhusks and fill an antique cradle with moth
larvae, corn meal, and cotton cloth, creating a theater of metamorphosis and
quiet unraveling that becomes a meditation upon the cyclical relationships
between man and nature.

And second, Relationalism placed art’s ability to affirm human relationships through social
encounters, generosity, and play, above art’s value as a commodity. In
time, this radical shift rippled over into my personal life. About two years
after my initial encounter with Relational Art in Dr. Ryan’s class, and about
one year out of grad school, I began making choices that would have branded me
a verrrrrry bad artist by most of my artist peers. The work-work-work(-and-work-some-more)
lifestyle I’d learned and practiced so faithfully and hopefully for so long,
led me to a joyless place, and found me feeling barren and heavy with
exhaustion. No matter how much fulfillment I found in the process of making art,
what my final products reflected back to me was a deeply sad, weary woman who
longed to shed a hard-to-name heaviness she’d carried for too long. I decided to
start doing preposterous things like, get enough sleep, leave the studio when I
knew I’d had enough, spend time outside, and explore this mysterious notion
known as “leisure time” (months into practicing these new habits, they still
inspire an initial guilt and anxiety – a testament to the depth of my
indoctrination as a workaholic). I decided to try dating again, which meant,
making room in my schedule for that most “Relational” of all pursuits (cue more
anxiety and guilt).

I would have flunked out of grad school if I’d
applied this logic then. To say you’d rather spend two hours watching the A-Team
and eating neon orange popcorn from a Christmas tin with the man you love (oh
yeah, I found him– and that’s a topic for a future post), than squeezing two
more hours of studio productivity out of yourself from time to time, is pretty
much a cardinal sin in the world of emerging artists. And yet, I can say with
confidence that the moment I began to operate as a Relationalist, so to speak,
in my own life – the moment I championed my human-ness over my net production
value – was the moment my life started to change for the better.

…Which leaves plenty of unresolved questions. Has
choosing to spend less time in the studio severely impacted my career prospects?
Quite possibly, at least for now. Has merging my life with that of my beloved
limited how far I’m willing to move for that long-sought full time college
teaching job? Yep. And while these consequences were hard to accept at first,
now, they almost feel like a relief. Instead of living by the generic template
for “how to succeed as a ceramic artist and college art teacher”, I am forging a
template of my own – one still very much in-the-making. I feel like the fox in
the classic French children’s story The Little Prince. I have become tamed, which is to say, singular to someone, and while that means I am no longer “wild” – no longer open to as many professional possibilities, no longer willing to submit to quite so many
sleep-deprived hours of work – it also means I have the opportunity to
re-envision my life’s purpose as part of a team. As much as this limits me by my
previous terms, it opens up new possibilities for shared experiences, a new
definition of what’s most valuable to me, and the ability to take different
risks and explore dream projects like this blog thanks to the nurturing support
of my partner, and the amplified power of two. Like the fox tamed by The Little
Prince, I am willing to accept the sacrifices inherent in this irreversible
alchemical bond.



Thanks Adrienne! That was wonderful!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The art beyond sweat equity

  1. Pingback: Will Artificial Intelligence ever create Artificial Art? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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