On Creating “Works” and “Makes”

Archive from June 23, 2015

During the creation phase of this site, I was playing around with several titles for the “Works” and “Makes” pages, and was surprised by what a challenge I found it to agree on which terms to use. In my head, it’s pretty obvious the difference between the two: one page is for projects I have worked on, and the other is a page for items I have made.

But wait… aren’t these the same thing? For me, not necessarily. For others, perhaps, or perhaps not at all. I think each person’s answer is founded in their own subjective views of what constitutes as art, or not.

What is art? It’s a question almost as old and longstanding as art itself. Why is something art, and another thing not? Can something transform into art? If so, how? When? Can it revert from art into something else? Kitsch? Who or what decides? Although there are many examples in history to choose from, I love the story of when Monet put up his paintings for the first time in the French Salon. Although this story is not singularly Monet’s. Often the French Salon was shocked by other renegades such as Manet and Cezanne (where are those guys now, anyways?), but when he did, the art world was transfixed. Our rubric for evaluating art was being challenged! Here were works that were so against everything we understood to be art, and yet they compelled us. They captured our attention. We hated them. We loved them. We were reacting not only to the work but to its creator’s radicalism.

Fast forward some years and Duchamp is placing a urinal with a fake name scribbled on its side onto a plinth. Several years later, Piero Manzoni cans and exhibits his own feces, and in our present century, Jeff Koons is running a factory of workers who produce all his art for him…. the question of what is art? is posed again, but from different vantage points. In the case of Duchamp, he is proposing all it takes is a mark – the artist’s mark, or signature – and anything can be art. Manzoni pushes this further by presenting the excrement of the artist, suggesting if Duchamp is correct then perhaps the concept of art, or art itself, has gone to shit. With Koons and his artistic team, we are left asking who is the creator, really?

What is interesting to me about Koons is not just his concept but how his hand seldom touching the work he exhibits upsets certain viewers. Many contemporary artists come under fire for working with a  team of employees. Damien Hirst will receive the same silly criticism every now and again, usually after he has a blockbuster turn out to one of his exhibits. And it is a “silly criticism” because this form of production has been in effect since the age of the guilds (if you think Michelangelo painted the entire Sistine chapel by himself, you are grossly incorrect). That one man conceived the idea but then outsourced the production of it is no different than anything else mass produced. In our time of hyper consumerism and mass manufacturing, his work could not be more astute. What I think Koons’ work reflects on is how deep concepts of ownership and possession run with people in stark contrast to what they believe art should be. His concept isn’t new. It’s all too familiar. It’s ‘transaction’ and ‘commodity’ on display. No matter how badly we’d like to believe art and consumerism are mutually exclusive, Koons reminds us they never really have been.

So what is art, then? What does this have to do with my “Works” and “Makes” pages? I think I have lost track. Let’s see if I can bring this home.

There was a professor I knew who had a very successful, active art practice outside of teaching that took them all over the world, exhibiting in national and international galleries. What a dream! To teach art and make art, and through which have the means to live. This same professor also worked under a pseudonym making and selling popular wall art for business/hotel lobbies — a lucrative and equally successful endeavour.

I mention that not to necessarily condone this choice, but to question it for my own purposes. I feel the choice to create under a different name is out of embarrassment and I guess I don’t completely understand why. Is it so shameful to be equally successful at making mass produced art? Does it make you a true artist if you only show in galleries? Is it an impediment to one career to be known as well  for a very profitable other? If art is, at the base, a commodity, why does a pseudonym even need to exist? It’s creation whichever way you look at it. Can you make things and create works as one persona? Or must they be mutually exclusive? Can you create as artist and …artisan?

As I have mentioned before, I have so many things to share with the world through different avenues of expression. I enjoying making and creating, and I hope that I can do so from a place of intention that represents me, wholly and completely. I’m not trying to be a purist, and I’ll bet this may be read as slightly smug by some. That is a fine assessment. On some level, I guess I admit I hear it to. I understand that in one circle my works will be accepted and in another, perhaps not, but I have no intention of hiding either. Art is… so many things and I intend to work. And make.