Why do artists do all day?
Why do artists still call themselves artists? Art no longer has a cause or purpose, art has become everything an earlier art fought to destroy. Art is now a lifestyle choice, just another consumer item.
When I started making bowls I liked to think of myself as following in the footsteps of the artist Marcel Duchamp. From 1918 till the end of his life he stopped making art his passion in favour of full time chess playing. He described this as “..a monk like existence”. And that chess “..has all the beauty of art – and much more. It cannot be commercialised. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.”
At the height of his chess playing career he was considered to be a chess master, later on he started flogging signed copies of his earlier work. As he said ‘nobody’s perfect’
Yet, Duchamp’s legacy seems now to focus on his role in the reinvention of art. How he brought to art a new language of expression, mainly through his invention of the found ‘readymade’, as with the infamous Fountain. Most interpret these art objects as being chosen by him deliberately to shock. Critics often ignore the fact that Duchamp’s choices may have also been about a search for beauty, ‘free from the corruption of rational and personal expression’. Far from being deliberately controversial he probably saw in the urinal a beautiful form and symbol. His temporary departure from art may have been motivated by this misunderstanding of his work. Art it seemed to him, was thwarted by the minds effect on the hand (and societies interpretation of that fact).
By removing himself from the ego motivated, retinal art-making, he felt closer to art.
I see in bowl turning a similar thing. A hand-crafted bowl is about as far removed from any idea of art as one can get. Like most people I struggle to see any art in it whatsoever. And yet I think my rustic battle to master it has revived my belief in art.
When I started wood turning I thought of myself as an artist who ‘occasionally’ makes bowls. I was a hobby craftsman taking a break from more important professional art stuff. In fact the truth is far from this delusion. I put much more time into bowl making than art making. I worried then, as now that this was time wasting
I was originally motivated by an arrogant belief that they would be easy to make. That I would in a flash of brilliance, master it and quickly move on to higher things. In reality most, if not all of my early bowls looked rubbish and were rubbish. They left me feeling humiliated and defeated.
I have since learned that traditional bowl turning is defined by strict rules which need to be mastered. The art-form is restrictive, but encourages a focus of the imagination. As Giacometti said all wonder can be seen in a glass alone, why seek a temple. In this aspect bowl making is much like Duchamp’s chess, but more like the art of bread making. The best and most simple bowls look like sourdough bread. I suspect that the appeal of this loaf is partly so due to the efficiency of its making, which demands a process of more haste, less speed. As with good bowls they are the result of managed simplicity. I see them as sophisticated by virtue of being absent of fuss. I like the fact that such zen-like reductionism can also be so liberating.
I came to this craft as a disenchanted artist. It is tempting to see recent art as bourgeois and capitalistic. The art establishment I see appears to be as snobbish as ever. Art is now commodified and commercialised for the benefit of the public, via self-interested curators and councils, keen to buy into arts coolness.
Artists are drip fed by this system though grants, advertised commission and open-exhibition opportunities. It makes me laugh that a once anti-establishment medium such as art now conforms to a role of cultural entertainer. Instead of holding up mirrors to our times”, or throwing bricks at the establishment we now dance to the tune of of such clichés as to provide ‘edginess’ on demand. Or worse, be commissioned, for example to ‘promote and interpret the message of environmentalism..’ Or worse still, to serve only to collaborate with and work with the community..’
The new challenge of art is to bite this hand that feeds, because it pats our heads so condescendingly.
Artists, it seems to me are failing in that they are now so integrated with the system that they cannot any longer hold up mirrors to it. In order to reclaim art for artists we need to make the present system irrelevant. And remember why we do art?