What Artists Actually Do (Besides Internally Sparking)

Last week, in a class about evolutionary psychology, my professor was making some introductory comments about what it means to study human nature from a scientific perspective. He was discussing what separates science as a discipline from others like art or engineering, when he said something to the effect of:

“The work of a scientist is about building on the work of previous scientists . . . that’s not the case for art. One painter can’t be said to have ‘built’ on the work of another painter. He simply saw the world in a different way.

Somehow, that’s hard for me to buy.

I’m not an art history major, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than saying “different people had different ways of seeing the world.”

On a very obvious level, I’m going to guess that something about the existence of this:

mona-lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa” (c. 1517)

probably played some role in the later existence of this:

L.H.O.O.Q. (1919). Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919)

in a way not totally explained by artists having completely unrelated ways of seeing the world (not to mention all the development and rejection of aesthetics in Western Art that happened in that time gap).

I appreciate the overall point that science is not better, worse, or in conflict with art, just different. And sure, art isn’t on a linear, teleological track towards absolute truth, the way some would argue science is (which is perhaps what he meant by “building”). Obviously individuals’ unique perspectives are a crucial part of artistic expression. But lets not pretend that these perspectives are happening in an ahistorical vacuum.

Could Balanchine have created the ballets he did without Petipa’s aesthetics to stretch, twist, accelerate and stylize? Would Elizabeth Streb be sending people off of giant spinning ladders if Trisha Brown hadn’t twisted the assumed relationship with gravity by walking down the side of a building? Would American rock music as we know it exist without jazz influences? Insert examples from your discipline of choice.

Yes, artists express themselves, but they do so in conversation, progression, or opposition with what already exists (which doesn’t necessarily mean any particular artistic cannon, but can be whatever line of expression the artist has engaged with). Maybe it’s not a consistent “building up” so to speak, but it certainly can “build out” in one of an infinite number of directions.

I’m not so much bothered by the one offhanded statement in an otherwise good lecture, as much as by the overall prevalence of this type of assumption. There is an all too common sentiment that art simply springs from “genius” or some “inner spark,” without any need to develop one’s craft, learn about the past, or engage with current conversations in the field or the world.

I don’t want to discount the value of personal insight, but giving it exclusive credit provides a suspiciously convenient excuse to avoid investing in art and art education. Why should artists be paid decently if what they do simply involves “inspiration” rather than actual work? Why should a university create programs for artists to study when we’re really just waiting for the next “genius” to be born?

The idea of the innately “genius” artist brings in some extra baggage, since we are more likely to associate genius with men, while attributing women’s accomplishments more to hard work. So when organizations are searching for the next “greats” to fund and promote, guess who is likely to get overlooked.

So yes, artists have sparks and insights and feelings and personal perspectives. But most of us also have influences and training and histories and dialogues too. Let’s not erase any of that.

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