To Remain Silent / the Worth of What we Create

When the pressing need to keep talking overrides the vital perspective that what one has to say isn’t worth saying, or, that saying something just for the sake of saying something is less educational than knowing when to keep quiet.

The old saying: “if you don’t have something kind to say, don’t say anything at all” ties in to this, but I don’t mean this to be about kindness.

Another linked idea is “art for arts sake”, which in this case should be more accurately stated “art for the sake of the artist”. How many artists out there are making things because NOT making things feels like failure? How many of us are filling the void with acts of creation? How much of humanity at large has been about bringing things into existence simply because it makes us feel less alone? Because the act of creation feels like an accomplishment, feels like a clear mark of achievement? This is at least partially about developing taste, the discernment required to understand the worth of what we are putting out into the world. To be able to make use of our creations as stepping stones towards our ultimate purpose.

I must be speaking from a narrow pocket of reality here. I must be one of the few artists whose creativity has been put to use for internal purposes, to explore my relationship to the world in which I find myself. In that regard, the purpose of my art can be analyzed apart from the market and the world of the consumer. For many other artists, the act of creation is the end goal, is their livlihood. To create is to live. They are making art which they enjoy for the use of others. There are no deeper questions here, no barometer for philosophical growth.

Does that excuse us, or alter the frame? What of the engineers and inventors, the food scientists and writers? Is the act of creation always a worthy end in itself? Or, should we consider the cradle-to-grave implications of anything we hope to call into being? Can we reframe our unique nature as creative beings to include increased discernment? What would it mean to only call into being that which passes layered levels of vetting, perhaps moral, aesthetic and philosophical?

Is this a saving grace of the looming meta, to give us a place in which our creations can flourish apart from “real world” impact? Of course there is still a footprint, but beyond that, in a purely zero-impact world, is there reason to consider why we feel the need to create and what purpose it serves? Is there potentially fruitful ground to cover when considering our sense of taste? Do we really know what questions we are trying to answer? Do we really know what avenues to pursue? Will the work we are following deliver us closer to our goal, or is it being subverted in service of someone else’s expectations?

If we aren’t creating, even if we are continuing to learn and grown and mentally “pursue”, can we still call ourselves artists? Do we need to adjust this term to separate those who produce work, from those who are merely seekers or philosophers?

James Elkins is a professor of Art theory, criticism and history at the School of Art Institute Chicago. He is a fascinating writer who has spent a good portion of his time exploring what it means to teach art including art theory and history. He is by no means fully on board with the way in which art is taught, and offers up some very interesting critiques about the state of art education, including the way critiques are conducted. Much of his writing is available from his website.

Along with the literary work he has provided for free, he has also made available a wonderful collection of youtube videos comprising a survey of key topics in art theory and art history. Watching these vidoes, each of which is generally about 20 minutes long, is essentially to attend lectures for an introductory survey class. The intention of this series is to provide general introduction for artists so that they can identify potential areas of interest and study which might inform their work.

Each video is categorized as either a theory or history video along with clear topic, so it is easy to find any topics that one might be interested in. Along with providing a solid background of where the ideas tend and originated, he does a great job highlighting developments of thought while providing resources and authors who might be useful to investigate further.

James Elkins – Concepts and Problems in Visual Art video series.

In the course of his series he takes time during video C28 to consider whether or not it is helpful, or desirable, for artists to study these theories at all. In the course of encapsulating his thoughts he presents two slides which summarize why it might be that students should avoid learning theory (or history). The slides below were taken from his video.

I found myself surprisingly indignant as he outlined these points. Though he does add some more context with his voiceover for these slides, the general bullets stand by themselves.

Without going into each one in detail I would like to highlight how they seem to fall into a couple of broad categories.

The last argument about learning history, and the first argument against learning theory both bring up the idea that when we are exposed to novel information, we run into the danger of being side-tracked by that discovery. Like falling down a wikipedia hole into the MCU, the multiple dimensions of art theory and the ever proliferating array of art movements already comprise too much academic information for anyone to meaningfully take in. As professor Elkins notes it can take a significant amount of study time for any student to get a solid grasp upon the core theory with which they feel their own work is trying to engage.

Perhaps a bit like someone learning a new language can’t be expected to read novels or write letters right out of the gate, an art student who sees potential in engaging with gender theory, post-modern aesthetics or questions of identity probably won’t feel confident creating work that expresses itself effectively in those areas until they have deepened their connection to the context.

Don’t we want those who are engaged with crafting our shared culture to do so mindfully? Don’t we want students who have spent time thinking about the ideas and work of other artists who have come before?

Elkin’s main fears for this point seem to be that diving into these vast subjects will take the artist away from the studio. It may sidetrack them from the creation of their own works.

Is time spent in the studio the best way for artists to discover themselves? It seems to be the general thought. University art departments, while often requiring the general education requirements for other degrees, still provide a silo of studio work time as the backbone. Art institutes, like the one Professor Elkin’s teaches at, provide even less extra-disciplinary experience for the artist to draw on. There is a lot to be said for becoming a master of the material, and for learning everything that it can and cannot do. I might argue, however, that the most interesting growth in any area comes when one must step beyond the traditional boundaries.

Which brings me back around to my initial questions. Is creating work for the sake of creating work a good end in itself? Is creating work even the best or most effective way to discover oneself, or one’s voice?

In an age of humanity that threatens to drown itself within its own creations, is there value in remaining silent? Is there honor in spending a lifetime crafting one piece, rather than hundreds of half-formed ideas? Can this be fulfilling or sustainable? Would anyone still call themselves an artist?

I don’t have answers to any of this, but these thoughts have been rattling me.