Perhaps the best thing (or at least, my favorite thing) about the development of art is what some call the “deskilling” of art and the gradual shift away from “the artist as craftsman” after the end of the Renaissance. Perhaps the worst (and my least favorite) development, in contrast, is the idea of “the artist as individual,” in that the artist is both a mysterious, tormented Gogh-like figure and a genius whose mind and work should be exalted. All of these nuances are confusing, and thinking about them gives me a headache.
It doesn’t help that we have thoroughly latched onto various views of the “artist” such as these, many of which contradict: Artists are naturally gifted and draw inspiration from thin air. Artists are geniuses with an insane repository of imagination floating up in their head. Artists should be humble. Artists should be proud of their accomplishments. Artists don’t do any real “work.” Art that takes less “work” to create is worth less than art that did. Art is a labor of time. Art is an inspired creative act. Art is a skill and physical activity. Art should come from the heart. None of this is any good.
In actuality, it’s simple: people make stuff, art or otherwise. People look at stuff, art or otherwise. When you look at interesting stuff, it influences what you want to make and look at. When you make different stuff, that influences the stuff you then want to make and look at. This is true whether you’re writing a research paper or speaking in public or digging holes in the dirt of your preschool playground or vomiting former meals onto the bathroom floor. Art is like all these: it’s an exercise in experience. More experience gives us the breadth and depth of knowledge to generate new, hybrid experiences. That's it. The only time it may seem otherwise is when you forget: when a non-artist sees an artist and thinks they pull from either thin-air or their own genius, or when I look at an artist I admire and wonder how they thought of ideas so beyond my own, or when someone sees an artist’s work and either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the value the work has to that individual. This simple mechanism is why some artists latch onto social/political statements, while some latch onto representation, while some latch onto form or technique, while some deviate wildly, while some do their own thing. The inner mechanism is simple, yet the aggregate results are complex and interesting.
This may still seem like an unnecessary argument. You might be right. I may come off as angry or sassy. You might be right again. Though, if I am, it’s not at any thing, person, or institution in particular. Maybe you think I’m just trying to be humble, in which case I’d like to point you to the beginning of the essay and ask you to reread from the top. Or, maybe this is just common knowledge—I’m just saying obvious things. But this is my essay about contemporary art, and this is me speaking about something as general as possible while still drawing from experience. And my experience tells me that this is not common knowledge and people do not think these things are as simple as they are. The fact that we often overcomplicate (myself included), perhaps indicates more about our attraction to overthinking simple things and applying patterns to chaos, than about the overwhelmingly simple act of making and looking. I think we’d all be better off if we just simplified things a bit.