gnōthi seauton (know thyself)

by cjdown

working drawing, gouache and oil pastel on paper, 2011

Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. (Bayles and Orland, Art and Fear, p. 5)

I think that being an artist demands a certain kind of relation to the “self”. By this I mean a kind of tapping into the resources and experiences that form a person on many levels, not a kind of “self-expression” in the sense that is often used in pop-psychology. I make this distinction because I think that art-making is actually the exact opposite of the narcissistic individuality and quest for instant gratification that is such a driving force in our culture.

For me, the value of art has to do with how the self is revealed or thrown into question by the experience of it. I believe that self-knowledge is a tool for understanding the world and for acting on it. Understanding our own strengths, weaknesses, desires, aspirations, limits etc. is the first step in building the world we want to live in. It is also the first step towards compassion for others.

This is a knowledge that is distinct from the “content” or “subject” of a work of art. It has to do with the way that you become a different person through the experience in ways that can’t be predicted or accounted for.

A  humbling example is the first time that I really paid attention to the paintings in the Matisse gallery at the New York MoMA, about two years ago. Before that experience I had always felt Matisse was a bit lightweight, following the art historical truisms I had imbibed as a student. But when I allowed myself to really look, the experience turned my understanding of Matisse’s work, my own work, and the work of other painters on its head. It fundamentally re-oriented my conception of painting, of what I sought to achieve in my own painting, and through that my own values and world-view. The embarrassment comes from realizing the arrogance of writing off an artist like Matisse in the first place, based on nothing but hearsay and a misunderstanding of his intentions – a presumptuous belief in my own un-tested, un-examined knowledge.

Henri Matisse, The Piano Lesson, 1916

I wouldn’t say that I am now converted to Matisse’s position, only that I now have to consider his position whereas before, it didn’t register. I would contrast this to Marcel Duchamp, whom I have to consider because of the influence his strategies have had on contemporary art in general, not any particular experience I’ve personally had with his work.

Slightly different kinds of transformations occur in the production of an artwork. Artists are changed by the process of making their work: the failures, the leaps, the small observations about the way material responds to certain conditions, the boredom, the discoveries, all accumulate in the experience of artists. This in turn  leads to different kinds of choices, different results, new concerns or altered ways of thinking about old concerns. In short, new ways of thinking about the world.

The results of art making depend on, and are added to, the resources of the self. That is, artists draw on their reserves of skill, memory, interests, emotions, attitudes in order to make their work, and the manifestations of that effort become part of those reserves for future work.

The activity of mining these resources can be fraught, however, because they demand a kind of scrutiny and honesty that can reveal one’s own shortcomings, not just as an artist but as a person. This sort of introspection also tends to bring to light a wide variety of painful memories, regrets and bitterness. The cultivation of self-knowledge, however, can be a powerful antidote to a fabricated “individuality” that exists primarily as a marketing tool. It also might lead to “making art that matters to you”.

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