Monday, 1 October 2012

An addiction that is the life-feeling of being an artist

This post is drawn from an online discussion with James Elkins and others, via his blog [1] and Facebook page. At time of writing Elkins is seeking views in relation to a revision of his book Artists With PhDs. At one extreme, the views emerging show a readiness to accomodate explicit intellectuality; at another, they attest to a desire to keep it out of art altogether.

Elkins makes some very interesting points about the reflexivity he associates with undertaking a PhD, and whether or not it hinders certain kinds of artistic production. The examples he cites are interesting, too.

I like his inclusion of 'cartoons and post-pop', because I think that to address our situation today we do need to consider broad fields of artistic production. I wonder, for instance, whether the kind of emotional drive Elkins attributes to early German expressionists would today be most productively invested in painting. I mean, who would notice if it was? Were those early expressionists addressing their art world, or society at large? If the latter, then we might ask: what, today, is the relation of painting to society at large? What is expected of painting, by whom, and why?

I would say that film and music (especially combined) have shown that the visceral and seemingly intuitive can coexist with the intellectual in an artistic work. Of course, a lot of thought, planning and a high degree of craft are required to balance these aspects, and there must be as many of examples of banality and crudity in film and music as in painting (or any other art form). What I'm really wondering about here is the basis for objecting to explicit intellectuality in and around particular art forms. Are certain forms regarded as the ground for an especially precious kind of intersubjectivity; or are they associated with a kind of practice that some artists are especially attached to, or guarded about?

It's fine for artists to make art for themselves and their circle, even producing and sharing among themselves what Clémentine Deliss has called an 'initiate knowledge'.[2] Saying this, though, invites questions about the wider social legitimacy of art. That, to my mind, is something that artists could reflect continuously on, whether or not they keep explicit intellectuality out of their studios.

Elkins's thoughts on what Cézanne's writings do or do not reveal about his painting processes make me think about what intuition might actually be, especially as invoked by artists describing their working practices. In this context, intuition could just be thought which leads so quickly to action that it is not apprehended before the action creates its own feedback. That feedback - in the form of a higher-than-usual demand to coordinate sense inputs and motor responses - possibly inhibits more reflexive thought. Among some of Elkins's respondents there seems to be a perception that the converse of this - interrupting the cycle of sensory input and motor response, to reflect - will hobble the act of creation.

I know as an artist that sustaining a state of action just at the edge of the rational can feel thrilling. It's very like playing music or (as another of Elkins's correspondents suggests) dancing. Mind and body feel fully engaged, to the exclusion of anything extrinsic. I believe this can be indulged in quite knowingly, again and again, as long as certain preconditions are maintained (here, "the studio" is both axiomatic and talismanistic).

None of this is unproblematic. What I've just described can also be like an addiction that, for some, defines the life-feeling of being an artist. In such a case, being an artist would primarily be about attaining a particular mode of being. And perhaps this would not run counter to a tendency to inflate the inherent value of certain kinds of artistic outcome (mark, effect, or art form); I mean if that inflation helps maintain a legitimating argument for a deeply desired way of life.

[2] Clémentine Deliss, 'Privacy + Dialect = Capital', in On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, ed. by Maria Hlavajova, Jill Winder and Binna Choi (Utrecht: BAK, c2008.), pp. 50-66.

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