General Thread on Artists and Art

I’ve been watching several documentaries about art and artists, and instead of writing a review for these films, I wanted to start a thread for general thoughts and reaction these artists and art in general; basically a repository of notes on these topics.

3 thoughts on “General Thread on Artists and Art

  1. The Last Art Movie–How Art is Passed On (2012)
    Dir. Jake Auerbach

    John Zorn, the experimental musician, published a series of books with musicians talking about their music. I believe Pat Metheny wrote a short review of one of them, wondering why there aren’t more books like this, noting that artists have a better understanding of their art, or at least their process, more than critics. I thought of that remark as I watched this film, which is essentially an artists talking about their art, art in general, art education, and other related issues. The film also features quotes from famous artists.

    There are two things I wanted to comment on. First, there was a section where several of the artists mentioned really talented artists they knew in college who really never amounted to much as artists later on. The sense I got was that ambition seemed to be the decisive factor. That is, talent isn’t enough. If people with great artistic talent didn’t have the drive to be a great artist, then they would never be a great artist. What’s surprising is the extent to which I was surprised to hear this. I know that ambition and drive to be great is critical in any endeavor. If you asked me before I saw this, I would have said as much. So why did I react with some surprise? I’m not sure. When I think of the great artists, for some reason, I just think they have great talent–I don’t think about how hard they had to work, or their drive and determination to get to where they’re at. I’m not sure why this is.

    The second comment I’d like to make involves a Picasso quote. Picasso commented on people questioning the meaning of his some of his work, and he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that when you hear a bird singing, do you ask what is the meaning of the singing? Or if you see a sunset, do you ask the meaning of the sunset? Sometimes seeing or hearing is enough.

    There’s some truth to this. The key word is “sometimes.” I think sometimes asking or searching for meaning has value. Behind every work of art there is the artist’s intentions, whether conscious or sub-conscious. There are reasons or motivations for what was done. That’s not really true with nature–not aesthetic reasons…or maybe that’s wrong? If so, then we could ask the same question for nature. In any event, to understand these reasons and motivation is to get closer to the meaning of the work, at least in some cases. And I don’t really mean that an artist has to explain these reasons. I would say the most important reasons or motivations can be gleaned from the art work itself–if one is perceptive and patient.

    1. Talent and hard work sort of work in art as they do in athletics, although with art the measure of success is entirely different, because it’s not about winning or losing, or length of career or volume of output.

      I knew a lot of talented artists in college too, but whether or not they “amounted to much” beyond that is tough to say. What if they had ten great creations in them and got them out of the way in four years of undergrad study? Is that amounting to more or less than the career artist who puts out twenty good-but-not-great works beyond college?

      Hard work is almost an an inescapable part of the creative life. Look in an artist’s sketchbook (I mean literal or figurative) and you’ll see pages and pages of hands. Hands holding hands, hands holding pencils, hands pointing, hands raised. They are the hard work — hours of late nights through bleary vision just trying to capture either the realistic representation of a hand or just a believable representation (there’s a reason most cartoonists draw four-fingered hands — how do they get away with its not being a distraction?).

      It’s honestly the one consistent I’ve seen in all the writers’ conversations about writing. Writing is hard work by itself. Good writing is the product of lots and lots of it.

      Two quotes I carry around with me:

      “Begin anywhere. Preferably right now. And if greatness should ever accidentally stumble upon you, let it catch you hard at work. Hard at work, and sane.” (Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear)

      “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.” (Madeleine L’Engle)

    2. Talent and hard work sort of work in art as they do in athletics,…

      Not just in athletics, but almost anything. What endeavor doesn’t involve these two elements in terms of achieving greatness?

      But I’m actually not talking about hard work specifically–but ambition or drive. Hard work is a by-product of ambition. Ambition can be the desire for fame, fortune, greatness of the combination of all three. Greatness can involve excellence in a specific field or doing something extraordinary. My sense is that Lincoln had this ambition–he wanted to leave his mark, to do something that would get him into history books.

      By the way, competitiveness seems like a very close cousin to ambition, if it’s not essentially the same thing.

      In any event, I’m not sure why I was a little surprised by the notion that ambition also played a crucial role for artists. Why wouldn’t it? For example, I think I had the impression that for someone like Mozart, his music was just a function of his great talent. It never occurred to me that ambition drove him. Same with musicians like Miles Davis. My reaction is odd.

      I would say if we examined any great or successful person all of them would have great ambition. Maybe the exception would be someone who is great in a spiritual sense, although maybe their ambition would be an ambition or devotion to God or a higher power. ?

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