As stated in the previous blog entry, it is important for artists to engage in their art.
However, when speaking to younger artists it’s not entirely uncommon to stumble
across a remark like the following:
"To ask of an artist today to explain his or her work within the context of one or more contemporary art theories seems like a misplaced exercise, at least for the artist. After all, we’re dealing with something which in the first instance is a visual creation. And besides, it’s not like Michelangelo or Rembrandt or Picasso ever cared for art theories."
Let’s analyse this by separating our focus on the three assumptions being made:
1) Engaging in your own work as an artist is not part of what it means to be an artist.
2) Conversing verbally or via the written word about a work of fine art is not important because the primary flow of information takes place visually, i.e. through the artist from the work of art towards the viewer.
3) Great artists from the past didn’t necessarily have extensive knowledge on the art theories of their times nor were they influenced by them.
1) As stated in the previous blog post, failing to be able to engage in your art damages your credibility as an artist of note and consequently it also has the potential to diminish the credibility your work carry as art. If you don’t know, or worse, if you don’t care what makes your art relevant, chances are that neither will those who view it.
2) To argue that someone’s understanding of what they see cannot be furthered by another faculty is a fallacy. Those who are to view or read your art are likely to further their understanding of your work were you to verbally guide them along the way by engaging in your art. Also, to better understand how ideas and/or information are communicated visually it is perhaps best to turn to semiotics, which happens to be amongst the most relevant contemporary art theories.
It is not my intention to go into the nature of semiotics here, so if you’re not familiar with terms such as sign, signifier, signified, denotation, connotation and myth then I would recommend you pay a visit to David Chandler’s website Semiotics for Beginners.
3) Western art history can be divided into four epochs based on four core ideals that have been strived towards since the dawn of art. Each of these epochs can be divided into periods and movements and further subdivided into multiple branches.
Without going to any detail here, what is important to bear in mind is that each of the artists who are regarded as masters within the canon of Western art practiced their profession with a very distinct understanding of the main stream art theories and notions of what translated as good art.
Have a closer look: these artists were inducted into artistic immortality either for their esteemed contribution to a particular artistic field within its set theories and pursuits, or they are revered for going against the main stream and establishing a celebrated alternative or changing the course of the artistic mainstream altogether.
Case in point: Pablo Picasso understood the implications of Paul Cézanne’s pictorial fragmentations and why Cézanne’s artistic endeavours steered in this direction from
Impressionism. Picasso sought to further Cézanne’s quest for a new visual language
and the new possibilities it would open to Western art.
Throughout his expansive career Picasso broke countless artistic boundaries, went against the establishment, became the new mainstream only to leave it altogether and head off in a different aesthetic direction. This was possible through his detailed knowledge and grasp of the art sentiments and theories of his times and this allowed him to reinvent and adjust himself as an artist many times over.
Using Picasso as an example, here are some links to the first short segments of online documentaries which illustrate this point in depth.
In conclusion then, and in contrast to the quoted sentiment, it is important for you to be able to explain your work as an artist. It is equally important that you put this ability into practice. Not only is it not a misplaced exercise, but an essential skill you could dearly benefit from. And finally, as an afterthought (just in case you were pondering on any other excuses), from an art historical perspective, having a firm grasp on contemporary art theories is by no means a new phenomenon.
Francois Pretorius is currently working in Suji, Yongin, South Korea as an illustrator and teacher as well as working part-time on his Masters Degree in Art History & Theory.
You can also follow Francois’ own blog at 'The Aspiring Artist'