One Why Does Not Fit All
There’s only what works for you.
Before we get started, I’d like to ask you a few questions. There are no wrong answers here, I’d just like to get you thinking about them because they’re part of what has inspired this particular Iteration.
Do you believe that you should ever compromise when making your art?
Are you the only audience that matters when it comes to your art?
Is there a difference between art and product? If so, should the approach to making those two different things be different?
While you’re thinking about the answers for yourself, I’ll share my answers to each of the questions. And keep in mind, these answers are just for me and your mileage may vary. I’m actually going to answer these in reverse, and I think by the end you’ll understand why.
So, is there a difference between art and product? For me and my current approach to making that’s a definite yes, but with a pretty big asterisk attached.
I have come to believe that the art is in the doing, not in the end product, partially because the end product is so subjective. Though it’s taken me a while, I have come around to thinking about art as a verb, not a noun. When I go into the studio, the goal is “to art” or to put it another way, to be artistic. For me, art is about being in motion—think of it as purposeful effort directed towards making. As for whether or not the results of that making are Art, that’s up to the viewer.
One of my favorite stories to help illustrate what I mean is when Robert Rauschenberg erased one of Willem de Kooning’s drawings. As Rauschenberg tells the story, “I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels and went up and knocked on his door, praying the whole time that he wouldn’t be home and that would be the work. But he was home. And after a few awkward moments, I told him what I had in mind. He said that he understood me but that he wasn’t for it. And I was hoping then that he would refuse and that would be the work.” But de Kooning agreed and told Rauschenberg that he didn’t want it to be easy for him and that he wanted to give him something that he himself would miss, which I always thought was interesting. I’ve often wondered whether de Kooning ever thought about the piece in terms of what it could have been had Rauschenberg not erased its beginnings. For Rauschenberg the work, or the Art, was also in the effort required to get to the actual doing—first in the initial idea, then the approach, then in the ask—and that always stuck with me, though it never really made sense until a few years ago.
When I was in college I desperately wanted to be an artist with a capital A, which meant that my work had to fit into a very narrow band of acceptability. I thought it had to be in museums and I thought that it had to be important. Unfortunately, I made the realization that I didn’t have the voice or the vision or even the skill required to be the next “insert famous artist here”, so the likelihood of those things happening was pretty slim. I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know. So I quit and I didn’t pick up a brush again for almost 20 years. And here’s the thing, nobody cared. The world went on spinning and the only person who was affected was me. I lost 20 years of growth and experimentation and exploration and transformation and improvement—all of the things that I should have been focused on if I really wanted to be that or any other kind of artist. And I can’t get those years back. When I finally did pick up a brush again in 2007, it wasn’t because I had something profound to say. It was because I read a book called Digital Art Studio: Techniques for Combining Inkjet Printing with Traditional Art Materials. I was fascinated by the work in the book and I wanted to try to create my own hybrid analog/digital workflow. It was the process that brought me back.
As to the question of a difference between art and product—and that’s art with a capital A—I no longer really think about seeing my work in museums as much as I think about it seeing in galleries, because galleries can lead to living rooms, office lobbies, hotels, or even the pages of a magazine. That’s not to say that I would decline an offer from a museum. It’s just not my motivation. I am motivated by the process of making and the idea that someone may get joy from having something that I’ve made in their home or office or wherever. And if someone comes to me and says, “Can you make me one of the Cell Damage pieces in colors that match my sofa?” I’ll happily say of course and at that point, my art becomes product—a shared vision between me and a potential customer. It would be the same if I was doing something for a magazine and working with an Art Director. And to be clear, I don’t believe that either of these cases dilutes what I’m doing at all. In fact, I think being able to see my work in multiple ways (and potentially as multiple revenue streams) is a good thing. As Adrianne said recently, “I think there are very few situations where rigidity is the best option.”
Where I am with the question around a difference between art and product makes answering the other two questions easy—and actually both answers are the same: It depends on the why. For example, if I’m creating a body of work with a specific narrative I’m trying to tell or because I want to use a particular set of assets as I did with The New Propaganda, vol. 1, I’m making that body of work simply because I want to see it in the world, which means I don’t have to compromise and I am the only audience that matters. However, in making those choices, I also have to accept that the tone of that work may only find a very small audience—if it finds one at all. By contrast, with the Grid Variations series form last year, or the Cell Damage series I’m currently working on, I’m still exploring similar ideas and materials and techniques that I use in my narrative work and I’m still making the work I want to see, but I’m also thinking about its potential for having a much broader appeal. In each of those cases, I considered a potential audience—which is a far cry from what Bowie called “playing to the gallery”—and tried to come up with work that could stand on its own as originals or prints (art) and as the basis for things like throw pillows, coasters, or even jigsaw puzzles (product), while still feeling like it could stand alongside my other work.
This is tough stuff, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. There’s only what works for you and that may change over time for you as it has for me. I think what is important is to occasionally reflect on the questions and not to get tied to answers that might ultimately keep you from making.
After finishing the first episode of The Last of Us on HBO Max (which was terrific, regardless of whether or not you have played the game), I was scrolling around looking for something else to watch. A grainy thumbnail of what appeared to be a young Mel Brooks caught my eye. The thumbnail was for a 2021 film called The Automat which according to the blurb on the page is “a documentary focusing on the popular 20th century vending machine that offered freshly cooked meals.” I haven’t watched it yet, but about 30 seconds into the trailer that features a 95-year-old Mel Brooks singing about the coffee at the Automat and I knew I was in.
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