Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Art and Materialism

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" — Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Is it possible for artists to live a completely scientific, materialistic or objective existence? Or does our willingness—perhaps our necessity—to visit the often fantastic and intangible realms of our imagination force us to abandon the materialism of the modern world?

Our predominant cultural tendency, more than likely a leftover from the culture shock caused by the aggressive spirituality of the abstract expressionists, is to assume that fine art is solely a virtue of the metaphysical mind*. This assumption is so entrenched within our cultural identity that it informs not only how we come to view ourselves as artists, but also how we perceive the entire artistic process.

*We need to make sure to note the distinction that fine art seems to necessitate a spiritual origin or message, but no such designation is necessary for commercial art. The cultural impact of the spiritual expectations of art has seemingly altered our current distinction between commercial art and fine art just as much as where the paycheck is signed.

The idea of art necessitating a spiritual element closely connects itself to the concept of artistic talent being driven by an unknowable, external force; which can be extremely destructive in regards to artistic production and confidence. More importantly, the expectation of artists to openly embrace the spiritual or transcendental casts a cultural pall over art in general by limiting our definition of fine art to only that which contains spiritual qualities. Limiting the definition of art in any way is at it's worst regression and at it's best stagnation.

In order to overcome this obstacle, we need to quite simply rethink our terms.

First, we should look at the relationship between art and science. Two disciplines who—though historically related—have in modern times become perceived as diametrically opposed. Both art and science aim to understand and explore the world and our relationship to it. What exactly is the difference? Science is the method for understanding the external world through observation and experimentation, while art is the method for understanding our personal relatedness to the external world through individual reaction and interpretation. The fundamental difference is that science ultimately aims to minimize the role of the individual in the process, whereas in art, the individual is absolutely central to understanding.

An analogy would be that if science was an explanation about how the lunar orbit affects the tides crashing into a shoreline, the concurrent erosion of that shoreline and the surface tension of a leaf carried in on the water, than art would be the way that the waves feel against your feet, the aesthetic beauty of the coastline, and the fact that the leaf reminds you of your ex-girlfriend/boyfriend. Critical to understanding is that though neither method produces the same result, nor intends to, both methods aim to explore a deeper understanding of the world and our relatedness to it.

However an individual artist chooses to interpret that information, whether they believe that the leaf was merely blown there by accident or sent by fate, only alters the interpretation. Their is no prerequisite spiritual element. Art does not necessitate spirituality. All art necessitates is some modicum of individual human experience*.

*Art is not created in a vacuum. Even that which seemingly generates internally is borne from an experience of your [or a] world, real or spiritual in origin.

Secondly, our biggest fear perhaps, the often unspoken fear which lingers long after many artists have given up on religion and spirituality in other aspects of their life, but continue to cling to it for artistic purposes; that if we dared to disown the spiritual in our work, it would become flat, lifeless and dead. This is a real fear, justified countless times over by the vapidity of pop and commercial art that we're bombarded with on a daily basis.

Clearly, artwork that aspires to be more than just eye candy, must be imbued with something special. This is often mistaken for the point which necessitates the introduction of spirituality into art. However, that something is really just a description of your own personal filter. The lens through which you view life. Art is our reaction to the world as interpreted by the individual, and it is actually the personal filter or lens you use which selectively permeates your interpretation with that something. Whether that something is a belief in the individual, or humanism, or transcendentalism, it only matters that you try to work in a way which is true to yourself as an individual and your personal experiences.

Be free to visit the places within you that you see fit and do not conform to popular notions. The most telling, beautiful and wonderful art is going to be that which was created to serve your vision honestly. If you are not a spiritual person, do not pretend to be. If you are not a scientific person, do not pretend to be. Your job as an artist is to react to the world as seen through your own lens, and your job as a person is to keep trying to figure out exactly what that lens is.

- Z. Gorman

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