Alaskan Artist - Elise Tomlinson
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04/06/2005: "Process or Artifact?"

technorati tags: philosophical

Yesterday a friend and I got into the age old artistic debate about which is more important, the process or the artifact.

I think they both are, but if forced to choose I’d fall soundly in the artifact column. I know most artists would say it’s “the process”…but I find that nearly impossible to believe. To me it makes as much sense as saying that the pregnancy is more important than the actual baby!

My friend said that in one of his studio classes they decided to destroy anything they produced for an entire month, but when it came down to it all of these “it’s the process” artists, couldn’t go through with it.

We like having something to show for all our hard work, even if it only acts as a cautionary tale (we need to be free enough to try things and fail too )...Which happened repeatedly to me this weekend by the way.

It reminded me of a great scene in Awakenings where the researcher Kaufman explains a massive project he was on trying to extract a decigram of myelin from four tons of earthworms.

Kaufman: “I was on it for five years. I was the only one who really believed in it. The rest of them said it couldn't be done.”

Employer: “It can't.”

Kaufman: “Well, I know that *now*. I proved it.”

Replies: 18 Comments

on Wednesday, April 6th, holly said

You bring up some interesting points that would make good discussion starters for my students. I think it depends on what the artifact is, but in most cases, I think the artifact is most important. But then there are artworks like the incredible sand mandalas painstakingly made by Tibetan monks, then destroyed with a sweep of the hand. They are *meant* to be temporary, it's their purpose. Also, I never cared for Jackson Pollock's work until I saw the film clip of him working- wow! It totally changed how I looked at his ouevre. I think he found himself through technique.

But in order to destroy what you create, you need to be a nihilist of sorts, a Medea prepared to kill her babies. Most artists I've met are all about creation, exactly the opposite of process-central artists. Interesting...

on Wednesday, April 6th, Elise said

I was thinking about that, ephemeral art, performance art, installation...but even with those type of works the artist usually record the event in some way, either on video or through phtography...which is another kind of artifact.

You're right about Pollock, watching that video where they filmed underneath him while he slathered paint onto a piece of transparent plexiglass was sure an eye opener.

on Wednesday, April 6th, greg said

Great topic! A new slant: The debate I see going is what is the motivation, the purpose - why be an artist who does art?

Is it Self-expression: what one does to purge their creative instincts?

Or is it Social expression: where a creative mind finds a voice to communicate to others and engage them in a vision of the aesthetic?

It seems to me the former is a lot like selfish masturbation, and I see many artists doing it this way.

For me, its all about the latter... and as you say "the art-i-fact!" It IS like a baby born into the viewer's mind/heart after a ... um, trying to be professional in my metaphor ...a willingness to engage with the artist's work ... like it's a love thing :blush: y'know?

on Thursday, April 7th, Howard said

I'd have to side with process on this one.

I think Holly's reference to Tibetan sand paintings is great. In the end all art work is just a sand painting. Over time most of it will be lost or destoryed and simpley forgotten about.

The artifact is more about the viewer than the artist. Art leaves the artist and becomes part of the larger world. If the work is sucessfull it takes on a life of it's own that has very little to do with the artist who created it.

As for comparing the artistic process to "selfish masturbation", you could argue that a lot of western culture is based on simillar types of selfish behaviour. There's no need to single out the artist.
The whole art market with the outragously inflated value and status placed on the artifact is just as selfish.
I think you could also argue that siding with the artifact has a lot to do with ones own ego. I'd like to see my work be sucessful in the world as much as anyone else but in the end I have to move on to the next piece and that's all about process.

on Thursday, April 7th, Howard said

Excuse all the spelling errors. I didn't notice them until I posted. It's way too early and I havn't had my coffee yet :crazy:

on Thursday, April 7th, greg said

Art and Tibetan sand mandalas are two different animals. The mandala is a personal reference point and philosophical/religious excerise specifically to relate to lifes ephemeral properties. Unlike the spectacles we see today in the west by visiting monks, it was not something meant to be public!

How you can say a "successful work of art ... has nothing to do with the artist" is beyond my reason. Really, who goes to a museum and admires a work without any inkling or consideration that this is a public offering of beauty, and was created by someone, somewhere. While the viewer may not know the name or true motivation of the artist, and may even not care about anything other than "what does this say to me!" the painting still didnt jus pop up on the wall via some impersonal fiat of nature!

on Thursday, April 7th, greg said

I should clarify the statement you quoted me about the artistic process as selfish masturbation ... I consider this true only when it is the means which are intentionally the ends, i.e. the retired CEO who golfs and paints to unwind. Sure that is all fine - like Woody Allen said "There is nothing wrong with masturbation ... it's at least sex with someone I love."

However for a serious artist, I think there needs to be a social contract, and a duty even, with the ends to beautify, inspire, calm, shake-up , or whatever!

on Thursday, April 7th, Howard said

Whether or not an artist thinks a work is successful has nothing to do with anyone else, or at least it shouldn’t. There have been many times where something I made was less than perfect, but everyone else just loved it and of course the reverse has happened to. Should I tell someone they can’t like some of my work because I don’t think it’s quite as good as another piece? Once something goes into the public domain I’m no longer in control of it’s fate.

Yes art is made to be a public offering, but that doesn’t mean it automatically ends up in a museum. Other people decide whether or not the art belongs in a museum not the artist. You said yourself the viewer might not know anything about the artist and still enjoy the work. This is what I mean about the work having a life of it’s own beyond the artist. That viewer might be a well known art critic who writes a favourable review that attracts more people to the work. These new viewers seek out the work because of the critic not the artist.

With the Tibetan sand Mandela’s I was referring to the length of time they exist for. I think the modern art market has this misconception that somehow art will last forever. Most art made today will be gone in a hundred years, lost or destroyed. Some artist may have very successful carers and once they are dead and there names forgotten so will the art. Even the ones that are remembered their works will disappear one by one. Stretched over a long enough time all art that exist today will be gone. A sand Mandela may last for an hour and a painting for five hundred years in the end it’s really not that much different.

The artefact is about one hundred years from now and the process is about right now. Worrying about the artic fact that might exist a hundred years from now is about the ego, Will I be remembered? An artist doesn’t really have any control over this, in fact it can become such an overwhelming concern that it might halt the artistic process all together. In the end all the artist has is the question, What will my next piece be? And that’s process.

on Thursday, April 7th, Howard said

The masturbation comment reminded once when a friend stated that classical music was just "mental masturbation". The mind boggles.

on Thursday, April 7th, Elise said

I think your're both right...For example:

If an artist is working on a new technique and that is the *entire* point of the piece, i.e. it is an exercise meant to learn a specific process, in that case process would win out…but I’d hasten to add that work born of process alone lacks the personal and emotional connection of the artist, which would call into question (at least for me) whether or not it qualifies as “art” at all.

On the other hand, if an artist is trying to express something and the only way they can convey it is through a technique they haven’t mastered or figured out yet, then the exploration of trying to find the right medium to externalize their artistic intentions makes the process and the eventual finished product, equally important.

But let’s say you’ve already found your artistic voice and though you explore different themes, you use the same set of tools (more or less) for producing each new work. The art you make is really about the content of each new piece, and has little or nothing to do with the process (unless you consider one’s life experiences etc. as part of the process…but I’m talking more about technique here)…

Howard, do you remember when you had the two pieces in that group show and one of them broke on the way to the gallery? How upset you were (and rightfully so)? I don’t believe you were so upset because of your ego, or worry that the piece wouldn’t be around in 100 years or that your name would be forgotten, I think you were upset (and again, I’m just guessing here) because that piece was a part of you, something pulled out of yourself; we grow attached to our pieces and want to keep them safe and see them end up in good homes where people will love and value them the same as we do. In the great majority of cases, visual art has some kind of physical form...and whether it lasts 10 minutes or 20,000+ years (ala Caves of Lascaux) their matter, matters to us.

on Thursday, April 7th, Howard said

You're right of course and I'm not saying I'm all about process either. Both are important and I care about my own artwork as much as anyone else would care for their own. I was just arguing on the process side.

on Thursday, April 7th, Elise said

Usually *I* play the Devil's advocate roll, so I do understand where you're coming from Howard. It's fun to have philosophical debates from time to time though.

There are so many aspects of the “official” art world scene that seem like total bullshit to me… but I have total respect for people who have a sincere passion for understanding why we create and what it all means in the end....

on Thursday, April 7th, ChasCreek said

Interesting topic.

Now I do not allude to the 'heady heights' of considering myself an artist any longer. Although trained as a fine artist and graphic designer and having worked for many years as both I now fall into the hobby doodling bracket, too young to be retired but let's pop me in that bracket of 'someone who paints etc to unwind'.

For me the most important part of the creative process is the doing of it. The joy is in the creation of something out of nothing, in crafting, and I have to say even in the use of the materials themselves.

There is satisfaction in finishing and looking at the finished piece but after that the journey is continued onto the next piece and the enjoyment starts all over again.

The finished piece may also be pleasurable to look at but it is now dead and done with and records a moment in time or an emotion and while maybe satisfying it does not hold the same importance or pleasure as creating something new.

In fact for me the real pleasure now is not in long worked over pieces but rather in the instantaneous capture of every day things through quick sketches.

on Thursday, April 7th, Elise said

Thanks for another perspective ChasCreek,
I agree that there is raw joy from the creative process itself.

I wonder how my own work would change if, say, a magician put a curse on me that everytime I finished a piece, it would instantly turn to dust.

I know I would continue to work...because there is something wonderful about the process.

That said, I'm glad my work doesn't evaporate, because while I *love* making it, I think I get even more satisfaction knowing that it brings others (maybe not *a lot* of others, but some at least) happiness.

on Friday, April 8th, holly said

Art and Tibetan sand mandalas are two different animals. The mandala is a personal reference point and philosophical/religious excerise specifically to relate to lifes ephemeral properties. Unlike the spectacles we see today in the west by visiting monks, it was not something meant to be public!

Whoa. I beg to differ. Those monks aren't artists? Like monks who slaved over vellum and gold leaf and hand ground pigments to paint manuscripts weren't artists? Like the metalsmiths who created pieces to be buried with Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon kings weren't artists? Like the Egyptians who created Pharaohs' burial trappings weren't artists? So if something was not created for public parade it's not art? Holy shit! I just threw away $100k on an education studying Un-Art History!
*smacks head*

on Saturday, April 9th, Elise said

I'm not at all an expert in this area, but maybe Greg was only referring to the (original) purposes of the sand mandala in particular; created as a spiritual undertaking towards reaching enlightenment...whereas their current manifestations (in the states at least) are more political and seem almost like performance art.

But I agree wholeheartedly with you Holly that the various master craftsmen you mentioned *were* indeed artists of the highest degree. I doubt anyone would argue with you on that! (in fact, better not argue with holly at all, have you seen those biceps?)

So worry not, your 100k (did you really spend that much? Holy shits *are* in order!) was not thrown away on a bogus edjumacation.

on Wednesday, July 13th, George said

Not Kaufman, Sayer :)

on Wednesday, July 13th, Elise said

Yes, you're right George, it was Malcolm Sayer. I was thinking of the right Dr., just mixed up the names.