The Perpetual Act of Making
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.
“...I had never really, really asked myself: Why am I making art?”
— Kara Walker, interview from Episode 9, "What Is Art Good For?"
We don't really have a clear answer for why our species, of all of the species that have called this oblate spheroid swirling through space home, started to make art so long ago. But we do have answers as to why other art was made. Whether it was for communication, propaganda, displays of might and wealth, most art created as a whole by a civilization can be seen to have a purpose to that society. In most societies, artists have largely toiled in anonymity, working at the behest of someone with power. Even the great artists of the Renaissance, while throwing off the shackles of anonymity, remained chained to the whims and will of the rich and powerful. Something that most of these societies understood was that even if art was not owned by the people, it ultimately belonged to the people – to the culture. Slowly, these systems of support for art eroded, at least in the form that they once took.
Expectations for artists used to be clear. Do what your patron wants, do it well, and be willing to repeat it over and over again. In those days there were no starving artists, an artist worked at the behest of Royalty, or was in service of Religion (at least at those times when they weren't one and the same).
I feel most of us are in the same boat as Kara Walker in graduate school, continuously asking ourselves “Why am I making art?” Or, worse yet, never asking at all.
I say this not because as an artist I long to be bridled in the service of some Cardinal somewhere (although guaranteed income for skills I’ve been honing my entire life would be nice), but because it is important to recognize. One of the complaints I hear most from people about Modern or Contemporary Art is that they don't understand it. They look at a painting by an Old Master, and since they recognize everything contained within some extent, they are content to walk away believing that they understood the content of the work. But there are also styles and characteristic subject matter that pervade a society's art that a sophisticated viewer may recognize across many works by many different artists.
So much of what has been produced since Modernism really hit its stride is indecipherable without an accompanying wall text. Much of it does not provide recognizable imagery as an entryway for a casual viewer. This leads people into an often antagonistic relationship with Modern and Contemporary art. I think this situation is unfortunately even worse regarding Postwar and Contemporary art. Maybe it's just a matter of not having enough temporal distance to recognize unifying trends, but it seems that our current time is a plethora of pluralism. Where Modern art was all manifestoes and movements, artists of our era are all individuals set adrift on a sea of colliding cultures, a morass of options. I feel most of us are in the same boat as Kara Walker in graduate school, continuously asking ourselves “Why am I making art?” Or, worse yet, never asking at all.
In times like these, it is hard to ask myself why I am making art. Because it is hard to justify it, even when it is the thing I have devoted my life to absolutely. Much like Soichiro Fukutake, I have always felt that art is “religion-like”, going to an art museum is my church. Art is astoundingly important, this is something I know in my gut, but it is something I cannot fully explain with words. And not having that ability to explain fully why art is important causes me pain. Seeing families ripped apart simply for trying to escape desperate situations by my own country is devastating. Witnessing the fear of friends and family as hatred towards them is on the rise, and the specter of losing the basic equalities that they have fought so long and hard for is horrifying. In these times it is hard to see how art has the power to help in any way, it's hard to not feel demoralized in one's profession when it seems so trivial to so many.
I look at a work like Ai Weiwei's Law of the Journey, and all I can think is that if someone can view the footage from the news that such a piece is inspired by, and remain callous – then what good does that installation do? Whose mind does that change? I know that if I were able to see that work in person, to experience it, I'd most likely be emotionally moved, I'm sure that the size and the scale and the smell and the sounds are all quite affecting... but the news itself has already affected me. This is a problem I ponder frequently with art like this, my deep fear is that it is preaching to the already converted, while my deep hope is for more.
The opening words of this episode are: “What can art do when horror comes calling? What can art do when civilization itself is lost?” These words are similar to those that often reverberate through my skull; it is a crisis of faith I suppose. My answer, at my most despairing moments is “not much.”
What can art do when horror comes calling? It can offer a respite. It can allow children to be children in a climate where they have been stripped of the rest of their humanity.
But the story that follows of Friedl Dicker Brandeis and the art supplies she snuck into Terezin, and the children who used them to create such moving images answers those questions much better than the rest of the entire episode to my mind. I don't know to what extent Brandeis or the children were aware of their impending doom, but there is no doubt that fear and uncertainty were gripping their hearts. And still these images were created; this art was made by these children. What can art do when horror comes calling? It can offer a respite. It can allow children to be children in a climate where they have been stripped of the rest of their humanity.
People make the mistake of thinking of art only in terms of grand, large masterpieces. Art with a capital A. But this dismisses our innate human need to create.
In my own life as an artist it is well known that I am quite particular in what I like and expect out of art; when other artists ask for critique I always make sure to warn them that what they get will be the unvarnished truth and it may well be devastating. I admit all of this freely, I am a snob when it comes to art.
But this is only with others who want to be, or are, professional artists. Things are different once one decides to cross that threshold, and my attitude is that professionals should strive for mastery and perfection of their craft.
But everyone should make their own art. I try to encourage it wherever I can. It is important to our species. It is a need that we have, one that we engage in freely as children, and then are slowly encouraged to avoid, until by the time we are adults most of us no longer bother.
When the worst of the worst comes calling, and darkness descends, we are all still mark makers, we are all creators. We may not always know why we are making art; the important thing is to continue doing so.
Nikos Fyodor Rutkowski is an abstract painter based in Columbus Ohio. In that capacity he is represented by the gallery Contemporary Art Matters. He is also a special effects artist and co-owner of Cave Bear Studios, making monsters and such. He often hopes that the two authors he was named after have had no effect on his temperament, and to that aim has never finished any of their novels. He is married to a brilliant hospice social worker. Together they have three beautiful boys.