Gaining perspective on our
own work is a challenge. The
two hardest questions for any
artist to answer are “What are
you doing?” and “Why are you
doing it?” In times of trouble
we can look at older artists
for their advice.
Looking for Answers
Last Thursday I was digging through Myron Barnstone’s library. His books represent over sixty years of artistic education. Perfectly distilled, they have almost every answer an artists could need from antiquity to today. The challenge, as the bindings look back at me, is figuring out “Who” has the answer to my question. On that morning, I was in search of an artist who was clear on their motivations for making art. I find that artists who write manifestos or proclaim a greater purpose for their art, often fail. They tend to be overly political, forced messages that usually lack artistic merit. In short, the message is much better than the art. But there must be an artists who understood what they were doing and why they were doing it.
Has anyone ever asked you what type of pictures you take? Do you ever feel like you give them a good answer? If you feel at a loss for words, maybe its time to consider why you use a camera? Sounds easy enough right?
Most great artists simply make work. They have a strong sense of purpose and never question where or why the motivation was born. In many cases it does not matter. As their careers progress the body of work eventually speaks for itself. But this is the exception rather than the rule. As a photographer or artist, most of you life will be spent answering these questions:
What type of work do you make?
What is the point of your art?
Why should I buy it?
These simple questions, which any first year marketing student could answer, will stump an artist for a lifetime. The problem is that as artists and photographers we are not trained to answer for themselves. The translation from the Visual Language to the Linguistic Language is complex. The conversation about catering to a market, commoditizing one’s work, or selling out overshadow a very useful exercise. We might benefit from a few hours in front of the mirror which would allow us to communicate, in simple terms, why we chose to be artists and photographers.
As you can imagine, this article is not going to solve all of your artistic problems. But while I was in Myron’s library, I did find a quote by the 19th Century painter Alphonse Mucha. He broke art making down to three components: Realistic, Stylized, & Abstract. By combining the world we know (Realistic), our personal touches which are unique to our combined life experience (Stylized), & the underlying concepts ranging from philosophy to geometry (Abstract) we create pieces which are suited for the visual language.
In his lectures on art Alphonse Mucha suggested:
“Exterior form is a language which appeals to the senses
as the art of music, which to give pleasure, should be
harmoniously directed to the different nerves of hearing,
avoiding all combinations of sound that tire these organs.
Similarly the arts of painting sculpture and architecture,
being addressed to the eyes, should fulfill the conditions
which are most agreeable to them.”
What is Mucha saying to us?
Mucha was a painter, illustrator, occasional architect and jewelry designer. He was not a writer. Even in his lectures, he speaks is long, complicated sentences that could have benefited from an edit or two. But in the mess of words exists a clear message. We, artists and photographers, deal primarily in objects for the eyes. It would be to our advantage to understand the lessons artists accumulated over 50,000 years of visual history. If we understand the DNA of the visual language we stand a fighting chance of using it to produce something worth looking at. Mucha knew how the eyes can be swung around a canvas. Any of his images demonstrate an artist who uses visual tools to engage the viewer.
On this lazy Sunday, let us consider Mucha together. As we prepare for the week ahead, spend a few minutes looking into the genetic frame work of our images, our motivations and desires. We may not reach any breakthrough conclusions today, but when we initiate the ideas, we will eventually reach a greater understanding of ourselves, our connection to an artistic past, and an appreciation for those who came before us.
To learn more about Alphonse Mucha check out the Mucha Foundation.