Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I've been feeling lots of (irrational?) anger about Art lately; worrying that the act of making art is narcissistic, that I should be doing More To Help The World, that while the drive to create in and of itself is a beautiful thing, the exchange of goods and money for those creations evokes contrary responses in my head that I have a hard time resolving. Not because I undervalue myself or my time, but rather because I have a hard time justifying In This Economy the act of making an object that is not entirely useful or economical -- or expecting my friends to buy it.

Recently I had a conversation that made me step back a little and think kind of hard about the scope of the impact I want to make. Maybe it doesn't need to be huge and world-shaking. I talked briefly with a boy in the coffeeshop the other day. Typical tired-eyed college dude, waiting on me at the counter; I was in a chatty mood, and told him I liked the little turtle figure he wore around his neck. He thanked me, told me where he'd bought it, and then his whole face changed as he said "but I made the cord."

It was a hemp knotted cord, you know the kind. The kind College Dudes That Work In Coffeeshops wear; that kind of frayed-gray color that comes of wearing it every day in the shower and stuff. But I was struck by how fucking excited he was about it. I leaned in closer to look and nodded appreciatively. "That's awesome," I said, truly meaning it. "It looks really good."

He babbled on for a minute about how he did it as he retrieved my change from the drawer. As I left the exchange I was really touched and amazed by the complete and utter transformation I saw. The moment he started talking about Something He Made, his face became animated, he was proud of his work, he wanted to talk about it and share it with me.

This is going to sound pretty sappy or maybe even Sark-esque, but at that moment, that interaction was enough. I wonder what would happen if more people had these moments -- moments in which, even at your minimum wage job, even when you're not 100% thrilled about where you're standing or what you're doing, you can feel pride because you know you're capable of making something. Something tangible, something that requires skill and time and care. Something you can show off a little.

On a similar note, I am part of a small sewing circle and my mother made a special guest appearance. Besides being a talented glass and jewelry artist, she is also an accomplished seamstress, and was all kinds of useful helping the women to learn the basics of their sewing machines and get around frustrating moments. Again I saw this shift-in-expression: the look of elation when the machine is threaded properly and making a nice, even line, the realization that that line could easily become part of a curtain or skirt.

I believe this moment of elation is what my annoying high school math teacher used to call an "aha! experience." I'm pretty sure I never had that in high school geometry, but I've had it while making art. And seeing other people have it, it's a pretty remarkable transformation. I think that living in a time where we can buy or scavenge much of what we need, and where most jobs don't seem to entail a gratifying learning of skills and production of a well-crafted article, the very notion of realizing you can make something yourself is, while maybe not revolutionary, at the least pretty empowering.

Now back to your regularly scheduled cynicism. I have to go empower myself to finish all this stuff for our embroidery show on Friday.


  1. I'm glad you blogged about this. Making something from concept to artifact is empowering and transformational. So many people don't have the confidence, skills, or gumption to make something. They can only see themselves as consuming something pre-made. If you want to help the world, inspire others to DIY. Which, by the way, you already do.

  2. Thank you for writing this post. (And for the a-ha.) You know that I'm not An Artist, even though I like to think and do and make. But sometimes I struggle with the as-yet pretty marked discrepancy between my ideas and the quality of their execution--quantity too, now that I think about it. So your words are inspiring.

    p.s. I can always tell that whatever's rolling around in my mind deserves more attention when I find myself mentally capitalizing various phrases.

  3. It's as if you and I are related. :)

    I often have had similar thoughts about art and music. I think my biggest battle in school was whether I should go with my heart (music) or my brain (something else). It's that same argument between an item created for aesthetic value and one created for function. Is one more valuable? Is there a time and place for each? When, as you noted, our economy is poor, should only cheap, functional, durable goods prevail?

    It would be ideal if we didn't have to even ask these questions. We know, being those who like to create and make beauty (even if only to ourselves), that doing so enriches us and those around us. I see all the folks who comment enthusiastically on your artwork. And on others' artwork. And those who write rave reviews about concerts they've been to, exhibitions they've seen, and events they've experienced.

    To your point, even if it may not be possible to create a livelihood from art, the necessity for its existence is still there. Our culture doesn't value art in a way that allows it to flourish for its own sake. Instead, we allow capital to dictate what is "good" or "necessary." That's pretty sad. We've dug into quite a nasty hole.

    What's even more sad, is I think we could all enjoy our jobs more if we understood that creating amazing interactions is almost a form of art in itself. Think about the experience you had at the coffee shop. How did Turtle Boy respond? I wonder if he went home and felt really good because he had such a cool person stop in that day and chat with him; someone who didn't demand an order or just pay and go. You shared a moment together. When we remember we're all human, and interact as such, it makes life more interesting. (Heck, it might even help the business at that shop, right? Most of us prefer to go to places in which we have good, inspiring and positive experiences.)

    You've had your battle with Art recently. I continue to have mine with Business. For a long time, I felt like I had to be two different people. Then I realized I could actually act in a way that made me feel ethical at work, and yet I could also not get fired for it. In fact, I may have even inspired a few people along the way. (It's strange, working for a consumer electronics company. The more I'm there, the more I have no interest in having electronics in my home. Heck, my electricity bill last month was $8.50, which I'm totally stoked about.)

    Maybe the time is right for localized, community-based living. Maybe the impending economic explosion will actually guide more people to living in a fulfilling, sustainable way; placing value on the contributions of all types of those living around them. I'd love to believe it's not wishful thinking.