For The Love of God…What Do Artists Do?

Damien Hirst's "For The Love of God"
Damien Hirst's "For The Love of God"

On the one hand, they take materials in hand and make something.  Craft, craft, craft.  Depending on their discipline, they maneuver the materials they need (paint, voice, clay, what have you) to create objects, experiences, and ideas that alter something of the way we perceive and navigate our world.

On the other hand, sometimes they just do stuff that’s odd, arresting, or lots more interesting (says who?) than whatever regular folks do (whatever a “regular” folk might be).

Referencing again Newsweek’s article on The 10 Most Important Artists of Today, not one of them is primarily standing in front of a canvas painting.  And they are certainly not interested in making your living room look better.  And–at least the ones Blake Gopnik is talking about in the Newsweek article–they don’t much tell stories, as in beginning, middle, and end.  If, in the beginning of the 20th Century, Picasso and company informed us that asking “What is it?” about a canvas with paint is barking up the wrong tree, then what are these artists telling us at the beginning of the 21st Century?

There’s lots of photography, little of it about anything remotely leaning into what I consider capital “B” Beauty, which isn’t a complaint, as much as an observation.  Here’s a list of stuff: photos of the artist in realistic rubber masks of family members (Gillian Wearing); a “24-hour montage of film clips about time and it’s keeping”–I think it may have been mostly images of timepieces from the description (Christian Marclay); a series of responses to a boyfriend who “dumped” the artist “by email” (Sophie Calle); videos of “a deaf choir grunting out a Bach cantata (Artur Zmijewski); a video (I’d love to see this) of a man pushing “a huge block of ice through the streets of Mexico City” until it is all melted and he kicks the last little ice cube away (Francis Alys); a “diamond-studded platinum skull” entitled “For The Love of God” that the artist sold to a group that included himself for $100 million dollar (Damien Hirst).

From Sophie Calle's "Take Care of Yourself"

Frankly, very little of this is going to come into the consciousness of the folks hanging out on Facebook or trying to survive the difficulties of living in Texas, Africa, or South America.  Will any of these people be revered the way Van Gogh is revered today?    Honestly?   I doubt it.   (Seems pushing the block of ice might be a decent metaphor for hoping this bunch will last.)

From Francis Alys' "Paradox of Praxis"

But what are these artists doing that gets them (and others like them) the accolades and notoriety that lands them in the major museums of the world?

I don’t know exactly, but I do know they are taking their crafts and doing something vastly–wildly–different than trying to “please an audience.”  One major artist I was listening to yesterday made this statement: “I’m not trying to satisfy an audience.  My responsibility is to the idea.”

What do artists do?  For better or worse, they take the ideas of their time (be they questions or assertions) and flesh them out in material in such a way as to alter the perception and understanding of the world.   In his description of Marjetica Potre’s work (building “dry toilets for Latin American slums and promoted a water jug for Africa”), Gopnick claims that Potre “has taken the idea that art can change the world and made it come true.  Sure her art-world actions don’t do that much actual good.  Instead, they do what art does best: they talk about how the world might be better.”   (emphasis mine.)

What do artists do?   They incarnate.   They put flesh and bone and material onto ideas that march right into our cognition, our spirits, and our forever selves and -nesses, and they change things.   What kind of things?  Oh…how about behavior, belief, action, thought-life, capacities for compassion and love…make your own list.

Gopnik starts the article by saying “We live in an excellent moment for art.”

If you’re an artist, spend the day seizing this excellent moment for art…

2 Replies to “For The Love of God…What Do Artists Do?”

  1. The recent documentary, Exit through the gift shop, forces you to reflect on this topic too. On Netflix streaming so no excuse for not seeing it:) Artists incarnate, when so many celebrities copy or imitate art as a cheap facsimile.

    The hard work for the artist is not merely doing the art, but having the work done to them. Many, such as Van Gogh, are come undone in the process.

    1. Hey, Michael,

      I’ll have a look at “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” I’ve heard of it, but haven’t seen it yet. Can we always tell when we’re incarnating and when we’re more cheaply imitating? I think your idea of “having the work done to them” may be key. Tracing a picture through transparent paper is easy. To see and do a freehand transfer can be exhausting. Why not just trace (crosses, especially) and get a “good job”? (Who knows…you might even make someone cry.)

      Incarnation is back-breaking. But isn’t it also the best kind of back-breaking?

      Thanks for stopping by.



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