This is probably the last thing artist Raymond Saunders said to me as we walked away from an exhibition in California many years ago. It is a koan, which I have been chewing on ever since.
|Raymond Saunders, Jack Johnson (RS15-019) mixed media on wood panel 30 x 24"|
At first, I really didn’t understand what he meant. I thought in response, “But what I make is who I am.” As an artist, my life was about what I made. It was about what I put into the world, for people to see, experience, discuss. It was about what I said with my work.
As I thought about his words, I began to question the focus of my work, my methods and priorities. It reversed my orientation from outward to inward. From the object, to the human.
I began to think about what it really meant, not just to make art, but to embody art.
In a letter published in True Perception, Chogyam Trungpa writes,
The basic problem in artistic endeavor is the tendency to split the artist from the audience and then try to send a message from one to the other. When this happens, art becomes exhibitionism. One person may get a tremendous flash of inspiration and rush to “put it down on paper” to impress or excite others, and a more deliberate artist may strategize each step of his work in order to produce certain effects on his viewers. But no matter how well-intentioned or technically accomplished such approaches may be, they inevitably become clumsy and aggressive towards others and toward oneself.
Trungpa’s notion of aggression is a subtle form of projection. When we put something into the world as artists, we often embed a host of expectations in the work. It carries our ego. Which is why, when our work is critiqued, we feel personally attacked. When it is copied, we say something was stolen from us.
For Trungpa, this approach to art is clumsy because it carries the anxieties of a child. It is aggressive because it holds us and our audience hostage.
But what is the alternative? How can one make things free of this aggression? Perhaps, the answer lays somewhere in Raymond’s challenge. "I want people to like you—not for what you make—but for WHO YOU ARE."
What do we stand for? Which values do we embody?
Raymond’s koan has, in a way, been my undoing as an artist in the conventional sense. It has been nipping at the edges of my creative conscience for so long, that I have now come to a stage where I sometimes cringe at being called an artist. Being called an artist implies that there is a separation between something that is artist and that is not artist. There is a pretentiousness, a distancing, an arrogance or exotification that happens.
I prefer Trungpa's definition of art.
The way you dress yourself, the way you brush your hair, the way you brush your teeth, the way you take your shower...all of those basic activities are works of art in themselves. Art is life, rather than a gimmick. ...art in this sense includes your total experience.