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Saturday 17 October 2009

Art for My Sake!

Henry Darger's Me to the Moon

Back on the 3rd of April this year I posted a poem of mine looking back to an obsession I had in childhood with a make-believe world of subterranean tunnels, caves, vertical shafts and the like. I had dreams about this world. Indeed, although I can no longer be sure, I think it may have all begun as the result of a dream. The world became an essential part of my my play world, though the games that resulted were for just one player. Me. I had fantasies about this world and about it dozens of secret entrances, all cunningly concealed, each by a different device, mostly natural, such as an old tree stump covered in ivy. I drew intricate plans and maps of my world, made several large paintings and at least one model. At that time I was suffering a lot of bad health and had to spend long periods in bed. I developed ways of folding and rolling the bed sheets to model my underground tunnels and built caverns between sheet and blanket. I suppose that had my obsession lasted into adulthood the appropriate response to it would have been for me to build installations to interpret to others what was going on in my head.

Earlier this year the Haywood Gallery in London held an exhibition of installations purporting to do just that. The exhibition was called: Walking in My Mind. Ten internationally recognised artists prodused works by means of which they hoped to convey to the gallery's visitors just what it was that was taking place inside their heads.

That seemed hopelessly optimistic to me, but now there is a gallery dedicated to going well beyond that brief, but paradoxically, with a somewhat greater chance of success - or so it seems to me. The Museum of Everything, newly opened in a disused dairy close to Regents Park in London, displays works made by artists for themselves and for themselves alone. These are works that for the most part were made for the artists' eyes only, works that spring from and feed the artist's fantasies and have no other purpose. Many of them are whimisical it seems, some verging towards the dark. But I stress: the one thing they have in common is their intended privacy. There is, or was when they created their works, absolutely no intention to communicate - and is not that intention an essential element in the making of a work of art? The exhibition contains, for example, works from a vast collection that was discovered by the late artist's landlord. No one other than Darger knew of their existence prior to his death. Henry Darger has since become rather well known - given that that was not part of his game plan - for his Vivien Girls, delightful creatures, nude for the most part, who are pursued through his paintings by absolute evil on account of their intrinsic goodness.

It was in reading about this exhibition that I was reminded of my childhood indulgences. Among the 95 artists whose works are currently on display are Calvin and Ruby Black, a couple who lived in the Mojave Desert where they created their own miniature world, a wind-powered city with the endearing name of Possum Trot. (Sounds like the name of a blog, does it not?) They populated it with lovingly made wooden dolls dressed in beautifully hand-crafted clothes. The parallels with my subterranean world seemed amazingly close, though in my case the population changed a few times: originally it was inhabited by the military, a special military with a brief to save the world, later it was given over to International Rescue (yes, really, I was the first, though there were no rockets). Then a mutant strain of humanity who had been subject to a death ray that had not quite worked. None of these proved as satisfying as the army, however, so finally they recaptured it.

So what is all this nonsense in aid of, then? I have already given a clue in a question I raised earlier: Is not the intention to communicate an essential element in the making of a work of art? I have been trying to think of precedents, but I have not exactly come up with an armful. What other examples can you think of for art-making in which no thrid party is involved, just the artist and his work? Where the art work has no role in communicating something? I thought of Cave art, but we cannot be sure what that was all about. Magic has been suggested, to give the hunter greater skill and more success. But the bones in the caves were not from the same animals as depicted on the walls - in many cases. Spirits are another suggestion. The works were not meant to be viewed, not even by the artist, which is why they were painted in such inaccessible places. The important fact - the only fact that mattered - was that they should exist. Somewhere. In and for themselves. Rites of passage is another suggestion. In which case they would be expected to convey something, to communicate. But we don't know. Ikons, I thought of, but then decided that of course they communicate, not something new from the artist, something familiar via the artist, but they communicate all the same. Child art, I thought of, and then found myself argueing against myself. I began by thinking about my tunnel-world. I never did think of it as art. Not even the paintings I made of it. And then it struck me that I didn't think of any of my other paintings as art, either. Not until... and then I realised that I have no idea at what stage I first began to think of my paintings as art. We all know that the child is a fine artist. And then he stops. Why? Could it be because he begins to think of his art as art? Begins to think in terms of others, trying to say something to others, and loses the freshness of having to satisfy only himself?

So: Can you think of any other examples of private art? Non-communicative art? And is it art? Can it be? Or does art have to be at least endeavouring to communicate? If so, what objectively distinguishes the two conditions?


Tabor said...

This brings up another dimension of art and artist for me. I always thought that artists completed their works because they had to. It was like breathing or eating or going to the bathroom. It satisfied them internally and communication was ancillary. So perhaps the art that is not shown would mean they didn't need to share it to satisfy their process of creation...or perhaps it said something about them that they did not want to reveal?

I do think art does not have to communicate anything to be art. Art is. We, the observer, start the communication.

Barry said...

I agree with Tabor, some art may be private because it said something about the artist they did not want to reveal.

So, art that was private because it contained some element of shame.

As sub category of that would be art that was considered to be practice or experimental but which was retained by the artist for sentimental reasons.

San said...

Dave, this is something of a stretch, but I believe our dreams are our personal Museum of Everything. They communicate to us, yes, but in such a personal way. They are our deeper selves making art, just for the dreaming eye.

Tess Kincaid said...

I like San's take on the subject.

I can remember being fascinated with living in a hollow tree after reading "My Side of the Mountain" as a girl. I'm far too claustrophobic for it now. I do have recurring dreams of a tunnel getting narrower and narrower. Maybe a right of passage gone wrong?

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think of childrens' art - and indeed about things children say too - when do they stop being so spontaneous, so rich, so full of vitality - I think it is when they start having to conform - when peer group pressure makes them behave just like everyone else in order to fit in. And maybe artists in the real sense manage to not do this - or rise above it - and keep producing good art.
If you were to produce a beautiful piece of art and immediately lock in up in a box so that no-one but you had seen it - that wouldn't stop it being good, nor would it suggest that the artist wished to communicate.
Oh dear Dave - mny brain is going into overload with such convoluted thinking. Tha answer to your final questions is probably I don't know!

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

I too was under the impression that artists create because they have to. Certainly, it might be nice if others like it and are willing to buy it, but I'm not sure that's the reason behind its creation. As for communicating; with folks like me around, any intended message may well not get through!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave King said...

I can see the logic of that. It may be that it comes down to a question of semantics: What is art. I accept your "Art is" proposition. I have to say, though, that for me art has always involved some form and some degree of communication - successful or not. This is a new potential vista for me.

I can easily accept your last proposition. For me your first raises the interesting question as to whether talking to oneself is a form of communication - I would suggest that it can be.

I can live with that - without too much of stretch.

So do I.

The dream you describe is a classic, which raises questions of how personal a dream can be if it is a universal phenomenon - I do accept that it is personal in some dimension, but I also think there is a problem there.

You raise a couple of good points there - no wonder you went into overload! Your theory re when do children stop being so creative deserv es a great deal of thought. Indeed, it merits some research.

Your parable about the secretive artist is fascinating. There are instances of poets secreting their works away because they thought they were not yet good enough, for example, but the same can b e said of scientists - Darwin kept his theories secret until he realised there was a chance others would get there first. - But of course the intention to communicate was always there.

I don't altogether buy that, having read enough of your comments and posts to know otherwise! There is a compulsion for many artists, certainly, but is it a compulsion to paint or write or a compulsion to say something, to communicate?

@ctors Business said...

Hi Dave great post that has stimulated a cracking dialogue. What is Art? Hmmm that's loaded question.There's truth in all that has been said I tend to view "Art" as a way of being in effect we are all natural artists, the fortunate who want it, get paid to do this. In Chinese the word Art is comprised of two characters - skill and technique.
We all poses skills and techniques, even if the individuals don't think so. Some artists are driven to create and show perhaps becuase that is the medium they are most comfortable with when expressing themselves and their thoughts; others I agree are artists for themselves and have no intention of airing their art. We are surrounded by art and as such maybe we take this for granted from nature itself, man-made skylines, municipal and public art, to the ever changing landscape that we walk through. Maybe I am romanticising or being naive. But I like to think of Art as ongoing and it should not be "secularised" and removed from our being as religion and faith has become. Art should be both public and private - message that is up to the beholder, there is no right or wrong. If you take something from a painting or sculpture great.

steven said...

hi dave - a rich and fascinating post. your dreams are now a series of books beginning with "tunnels", followed by "deeper". check it out online. art for oneself. yes i have a heap of works in the basement of this house that have never been seen. that might change one day. i am going to dig into the museum you mention and see what i can see! have a peaceful day dave. steven

Jinksy said...

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder - it doesn't have to be something created by another specifically to be 'art'. On the other side of the coin, any person who has the urge to create, be it with brush, pen, fabric , metal, clay etc etc, does so for their own enjoyment primarily, but the resulting artwork may be appreciated by others, or not... but will still basically remain a work of art, even in hiding.

June Calender said...

Thanks for a thought provoking post. I saw a big exhibit of Darger's work and did not ask the questions you asked -- I appreciate being pushed to think further. I feel with a couple of others that art is made because the artist has to make it. I think in most cases it is to communicate with others but clearly not always, that's how I weigh in on that question.

Of other art that was not to communicate but often made for others there is quilt art, like the women of Gees Bend [and many unknown quilters] who created beautiful utilitarian objects, sometimes spontaneously and without great skill and other times with consummate acquired skill. These were not always seen as art; so we're at the "eye of the beholder" question. Likewise most private diaries were not written to communicate. While the majority do not rise to the level of art, some do because the author exhibits skill and imagination and deep feeling.

Love it when I read something that gives me lots to mull. Thanks again.

gleaner said...

Always thought provoking posts - I'd not heard of the term 'outside art' or Darger, whose wiki page illuminates a fascinating but sad story..'he mourned life itself'...

I think once someone else sees your art it changes or takes on a transformation - so rather than wanting to hide something because of shame etc.. perhaps its to keep the creation untainted and allows the artist to hold the work in a certain position in their mind before allowing it to take on another's perspective. Its center being the core of our imaginative mind.
Reminds me of some of the studies of the great minds who as children never talked or their speech was delayed beyond what was considered normal milestones - the creative workings of the imaginative mind not needing to voice their dreams etc.

Rachel Fenton said...

I do not believe that an artist creates art. A person is called an artist only once their work has been received by another/s and it is their input/projection/whatever you want to call it, which transforms that thing created into art. I am not an artist, I am a painter, a writer, a creator.

I used to try to paint my dreams. When you do that you realise what it is about them that makes them dreams and not thoughts: their dream quality is such that they are virtually always impossible to paint as they were experienced.

To your question: by virtue that it is called art, art must be communicating.

I really enjoyed this post, very thought provoking. Thank you, Dave.

Dave King said...

Gwei Mui
Interesting your comparison of art with religion as some artists have seen it as a replacement for religion in what they see as a secular society. A secular religion, in fact. I do not think you are being overly romantic. I would not like to see the romantic totally excluded, either from art or religion. Many thanks for the points you raise. There is fodder to chew on there!

Thanks for that steven. I shall look forward to hearing the results of your dig!

I think the points you raise certainly would be true of most folk. Not sure that they would apply universally, though.

Hi and welcome to my blog. I absolutely agree with your first paragraph. And you are absolutely right about the "craft" arts, if I can call them that. (No disparagement intended, of course.) Diaries, too, is a very valid point. I must confess I had overlooked that one. Many thanks for your contribution.

More fascinating points! I certainly think a work of art takes on a new aspect in another person's mind, but don't quite see how or why that might change it for the maker. Yet even as I type that it ocurred to me that it might apply to naive or primitive art. That's not logical, I know, I shall have to chew the cud on that.

Maybe it's not so much what we call the maker, we give him/her a title for convenience of speech. What matters is what we say of his product. I think you are saying that if it does not (fails to?) communicate it can't be called art. Am I right in that?

Jim Murdoch said...

Before anything else I'm a poet. My view of my poetry is that it is something discarded; it is what is left after a certain process has been undertaken. On one level you could say that that process is one of creation, something now exists where once there was nothing, but I see the 'creation' as being purely internal and the words are what I work through to work out whatever I need to. Essentially its use has been served; it is a cast off.

If I can illustrate: I'm ill just now, my wife thinks it's a sinus infection but whatever it is it began with an excruciating pain down the right side of my head and neck, a pain that refused to give way to paracetamol, ibuprofen or codeine. Thankfully that has passed. I'm working my way out of a fever at the moment. However in the middle of all that pain – and seriously I do not exaggerate when I call it 'excruciating' – I sat down and wrote a poem. That poem was for no one but me. I was trying to comprehend this "certain kind of pain" to covert it into words so that I could cope with what I was going through. Now, if anyone else gets something from the piece if I ever publish it then fine but that was absolutely not its purpose.

I have not painted very much in my life. I have no skill freehand and so everything is measured and drawn with rulers and compasses – 'techie-drawing' coloured in is how I think of it – but not one of those pictures was meant to mean anything and I never gave any of them titles, not even numbers. I just drew objects and coloured them in but I wasn't trying to express anything to anyone. It never occurred to me.

A Cuban In London said...

Ah, dave, once again coincidences in the blog world! I'll explain. The video I uploaded today on my blog is John Cage's 4'33. I think that answers your last question. Secondly because, isn't every, or almost every child's dream to have a key to an underworld they themselves have created? I think the origins of this could be traced back to the womb, but I don't want to get too Freudian here. I loved the anecdote of your childhood, yet, what I enjoyed the most was that it came out later on in a poem (which I read, thanks for the link). That nexus was there and you were clever enough to exploit in a creative manner. Many thanks for the information about the Regent Park project. Had not heard of it. The big cynic in me would like to ask: which of the works if genuine and which ones are nothing but a show-off of the supposed genius the artist's mind is? :-)

Greetings from London.

Dave King said...

Thanks for an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the creative process as it effects you. I must confess that I had never before considered the physical outcome to be a kind of by-product of that process, but you make it easy to understand how that can be. No doubt it is for many others, too. You are saying that the process is all and the artefact of little or no significance. The example you give almost makes it a kind of therapy. I can live with that, it is an example of making art that I did not delve ito, but one in which I have a great interest.

Thanks for that - and for the Cage. I have to confess that the cynic in me did toy with your question, but chickened out and decided to leave it to others to raise! We do live in a world inwhich certain individuals are given to doing things in secret and then outing them.

Dave King said...

Apologies. I got too carried away by your thoughts and quite forgot to wish you a speedy recovery. Sounds horrific. Hope you will soon be feeling more like your old self again.

Unknown said...

At the creative centre where I paint, many of the artists who engage themselves in creating their artwork store it, like Steven in the basement. Like Steven, I have several paintings in my basement.

I think a painting is never finished. A painter always wants to add or change something. Even after signing, I always want to do this or that. My teacher says paintings can be over done and being an artist is knowing when you've reached the point of satisfaction. In other words don't mess with it too much.

Painting is expression first as is blogging. How many blogs are kept in the "new blog" box and never see the light of day? Some blogs are more artistic, expressive, thoughtful, impressionist than others.

Wouldn't that be an interesting Meme... show us your hidden blogs.

I have the dream of the house where one room leads to another and the house never ends.

Rachel Fenton said...

I think my point, Dave, was more that communication is not a solo act...a painting/poem etc - "it" - cannot communicate by itself, it is only when it is "received and a diologu arises from it that it becomes art...I'm going to stop now, for fear of sounding like an artist!! :)

Really stimulating post!

Dave King said...

I agree with your tutor that the "art" of painting - or any other creative excercise, I guess - is knowing when to stop. But I am like you in that I nearly always want to carry on fiddling with it, be it a painting or a poem. Just occasionally something (usually a poem) appears, as it were, fully formed and I have no desire to change it. They are the ones I regard as my successes
I also agree that the hidden blog idea would make a good meme. I'd have a wager (if I was a betting man) that some would prove very popular.

Yup, you sound like an artist, but what's wrong with that? Interesting proposition. I think you ought to work it up into a post. It definitely has potential. I think I agree with you, but I'd like to hear more.

Carl said...

I am reminded of "If a tree falls in the forrest and there is no one there to hear it did the tree fall"

Short of a hermetic arist cut off from the world.... And some of us feel like we are just that sometimes. I can't think of art not meant to communicate something to humanity.

hmmm. Interesting stuff as always Dave.


Art Durkee said...

So, do you know about the shaman's entrances to the Lowerworld, the tunnel, and the world beneath and within? Your dream sounds remarkably like that.

I also think of Piranesi's Carceri.

Art Durkee said...

Art has no need to communicate. The art is made by the artist for the artist's sake, for the sake of making the art. If there is communication that happens, it comes later, afterwards.

Most art I have encountered that is overly self-conscious of The Audience, whoever that is, during the making ends up being distorted, and often projective in the worst sense: that is, projective of the ego's fears rather than the artist's deepest archetypes and being.

That art must communicate is a SOCIAL definition of art, not an aesthetic one. It is a valid definition, of course. But only if the art is publicly seen. Most outsider art was made just to be made, not for an audience but for the maker's satisfaction, compulsion, and/or desire. It only gets "discovered" and labeled "art" later. But I still call it art, because art is the product of making. An art-object is the end result, when abandoned (Paul Eluard: "A poem is never finished, only abandoned."), of the creative process. Art-making is a process without a goal; making art with the goal of having an object at the end of the process is the root of the self-consciousness I mentioned before. The reason it can lead the maker astray is because it can lead the maker to caring too much what others think about the art-object that is the product of the creative process; and this can kill the creative process. Why? Because the maker has stopped listening to his or her inner voices, inner guidance, and is imposing an outside direction upon the process. I have worked as both a commercial artist and a fine artist, and I can tell you that the process IS different. Commercial art, illustration, advertising art, all of which I have made, are made for a goal, for a purpose. The fine art that I have made has been made for no other reason than that I saw or heard or felt something, and it needed to be transcribed. My best photographs are accidents of being in the right place at the right time; which actually happens uncannily often to me. Why? Because I listen to my intuition about where to be, and when, so see what there is to see. And so, by being in the right place at the right time, I am able to make photographs such as these, which I could never have intellectually PLANNED, or self-consciously intended. You see the difference?

While there is some truth that it is other people, mostly galleries rather than viewers to be honest, that label something as "Art," I nonetheless have no problem calling someone who makes art for no reason an artist. The social definition has severe limits, and presupposes that human interaction is critical to the making as well as the defining. But in fact it's not at all necessary to the making; to be honest, many artists never think of anything but the making, while they're doing the making. The labeling, and the social interactions and definitions—these all arrive later, after the process is done.

I'll say this is true even for jazz. Because even within jazz, and its spontaneous creative composition built on the interaction of the musicians, doesn't need the audience to be present for the energy to be there. If the vibe is there between the musicians, the audience can witness that or not; but the audience's presence, or non-presence, is not what makes the art happen. You can hear it on studio recordings: the band got into the groove, and that's what made the recording so amazing, so powerful. The tree feel, even though only the woodcutters were around to hear it.

Art Durkee said...

If other insist on demanding that art be in communication with humanity, then remember: the artist is a human person. The only communication required for it to be art is for the artist to be communicating with his or herself. Which is WHY art can be made in social isolation, and still be recognized as art, later on.

Also, I find it fascinating the human-centeredness of these definitions. As if the only beings who can recognize or define art are humans. As if the only beings who can MAKE art are humans.

This human-centrism has already been disproved, time and time again. It only persists because of out anthropocentric arrogance.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra

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