Here’s the double-edged sword of looking to others’ art for inspiration:
You are undoubtedly going to start making comparisons of their art to your own.
And yours will, inevitably, be found lacking.
A month ago – oh my God, where did the time go? – I went to a convention hoping to help spark my creativity by surrounding myself with creative people and the products of their creativity.
I’ve had a pretty positive creative start to 2019 – I didn’t hit my January goals, but I made real progress, and I’m making progress on my February goals, as well. So I was hopeful, going in, that I would find an additional boost of inspiration for future projects – maybe fresh subject matter, or a medium I hadn’t tried before, or new ways of using familiar art tools.
The convention did not disappoint. I came away with a wealth of writing and poetry resources, and having absorbed and observed a myriad of visual art of all styles and mediums. I came home aching to create art.
And I did. And they’re probably technically among the best pieces I’ve ever created.
And it is still so, so hard for me to bring myself to call them “art.”
Objectively, I’ve seen similar looking pieces in gallery showings before – bold bright colors, kinda kitschy – not so identical to other works as to be derivative, per se, but alike enough to say, hey, this is recognizably similar to these other pieces. Pieces I would refer to as “art.”
So what separates, in my mind, my work from theirs? Especially the work I’m mostly proud of?
That’s what I really want to emphasize: this is work that I think looks good. It’s not the most skilled artistry, but I’m a beginner, and on an aesthetic front, I find it pleasing.
So why is it that I can’t bring myself to think of it as anything more than the concrete manifestation of a self-conscious shrug?
And actually, I think I kind of, sort of might have actually figured it out. Or at least figured out part of it.
None of my art… “means” anything. It’s not political or deeply personal or intellectually challenging; it’s never going to be controversial, or have people arguing over the creator’s intent, or be interpreted or analyzed in an art history class. It’s visual doggrel. It’s ephemera.
It’s just some paint on a canvas.
But why isn’t that enough? Why can’t I just splash some paint on a canvas and create something that… makes you want to look at it? That makes your eyes hungry for it? Something that you can consume, enjoy, and move on?
I drew all the time as a kid; I was not an amazing artist, but I was pretty good for my age. Peers, teachers, and friends would often compliment and comment on my work, and I had pictures hung at art fairs and won school awards, and drawing was fun. It was enjoyable for me, as an artist, and it seemed to bring pleasure to those who saw it.
It wasn’t until I took studio art in high school that suddenly I had to, like, validate my art with an explanation. And that’s not to deride or delegitimize people who produce highly personal, political, or otherwise “meaningful” art – it’s just to say that, up until that point, the act of creating in and of itself was enough. The aesthetic pleasure it brought to others was enough.
But then suddenly, I had to defend what I produced – what was the inspiration, what did it mean, how long did it take? Suddenly, the measure of worth was placed on how “deep” the “meaning” of the work was, or how labor intensive it was to produce.
You know, sometimes you see a color and want to paint with it. Sometimes, your brain just goes, “You know what’s awesome? FRICKIN’ ROBOTS,” and you want to draw some damn robots. Sometimes you spend days laboring over a painting; sometimes you commit a ten-minute doodle to your sketchbook. None of these things is inherently more or less valuable than the others.
I want to go back to the days when “making art” was about having fun, and bringing someone joy. Hell, even if that someone is just me. Why do we devalue our own pleasure so readily? My happiness is important. When I find something that brings me joy, that should be celebrated. That should mean something.
And if you think that broadening the definition of art somehow devalues labor intensive art made by technically skilled or trained artists, then I have to ask you why you think we have to withhold respect from any group of people in order to give it to another. Respecting and recognizing someone or something as valuable is not a limited resource; we don’t have to ration it. I can deeply appreciate, and even be in awe, of the beauty and skill inherent in a work of classical art, and still cling to my graphic novels (and in fact, this works the other way as well – I can be in awe of the skill and beauty of a classical work of art and still feel no personal pull or connection to it. You cling to what you connect to, and you can’t control and shouldn’t be shamed for whatever the object of that affection is).
I can get pleasure from a Van Gogh painting and a comic book; a Carravagio and a cartoon. They are different kinds of pleasure – sometimes life-affirming, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes a quick chuckle, sometimes a belly laugh. We need all of them. The experience of one form of pleasure does not dull the others.
So I’m going to try to take all this to heart and go back to painting pretty pictures. The technical piece (which I do need to work on) will come in time, with patience and practice, but I can’t promise that the subject matter will get any deeper. I just really like painting robots, and gems, and bones, and birds, in bright neon colors.
That’s ok. Someone will like them. Even if it’s only me.