The Laws of Nature

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Seeing Your Work in a Historical Context

Lee Krasner, 1935

Chapter 2 of Wendy Richmond's book is entitled "Culture's Frames and Filters," and the first section in that chapter challenges us to describe our work in a historical context. The underlying assumption for this is that artists should understand their own work as deeply as is possible. Personally, I don't know if I agree with that assumption. Nevertheless, it's worth exploring.

Richmond gives us a method for arriving at a view of our work in a historical context:

1. describe the history of your own work

2. describe the events and circumstances during the time you were working

3. identify the influential events in the history of your artistic field.

The first question that comes to my mind is: Why? This seems like intense psychotherapy and I don't know that the answers will be particularly beneficial. Ms. Richmond provides one rationale that makes sense: doing this may help me find where I first discovered my passion. And, by looking at the works that were important to me and how I constructed them, I may be able to return to my inspiration if I've strayed from it. This could yield greater personal satisfaction and better results. OK, that makes sense.

I won't go into the details of this particular section of the book because I think that the method speaks for itself. However, I'm reminded of our previous conversations about the role of our unconscious or intuition in creating works of art. Some of us rely on it more than others, but I think we all use intuition to some degree. As much as I admire Ms. Richmond's methods, it appears that she challenges herself and her students toward a more conscious approach to making art. But, I'm only on chapter 2. While it's true that I consciously design my paintings before I begin slinging paint, eventually intuition takes over. When it's time to critique my work, conscious thought takes over. I don't know that I would attempt to view my work in a historical context as it's presented here. But, I may be wrong. Enlighten me.


M said...

I know that when I first painted it was a naively fulfilling experience and I loved every minute of it. If my finished work looked somewhat like what I was representing I was satisfied- no, elated.

As my skills grew the lovely rendition wasn't enough. I began to read art history to get a sense of why artist's work looked the way it did and why. This led to an understanding of how history influenced the work that was created. It helped me understand themes in art and I was certainly more conversant about my chosen profession. My work is part of that history.

My interest in flowers led me to read widely about their history in art especially in contemporary art where this content was shunned for many years. That knowledge did not keep me from painting flowers, it gave me the words to discuss why I continued to do it in the face of what was current thought. I found artists who felt strongly about the things I am interested in and this gave me the confidence to do what I wanted but to know why .

Unknown said...

it is very interesting to follow your publication and the coments

Casey Klahn said...

I guess I'm a history nerd, and value it enough to want to fit myself in the context. That is very vain on my part, though.

The question I would ask, were I the author, is what are your visual experiences? I remember very well seeing a loose print (remember when books had hinged prints?) of a van Gogh when I was young. That made a deep impression on me, and is part of my personal visual history.

Another question I ask myself is what good does it do me to jump back 2 or 3 "movements" and identify with them? Does this make my work (if it associates with Modernism or Abstract Expressionism) out of step?

Stan Kurth said...

The more I read this book the more fascinated I am with Wendy's approach. As I mentioned before much of this introspection is particularly daunting, yet I find myself thinking a lot more than I have in the past about what my art is all about. Now that I've thought a bit about it in a historical context (not completely by an means), I can see major periods in my work and why it may have evolved in that direction. I came off a bit defensive in my last post, probably because I really don't have all the answers to what I'm beginning to think might be important questions for me to answer.

Carolyn Abrams said...

I can really resonate with Margaret. Basically that is how i painted for years. But then one day i realized it wasn't enough. I began to give myself a crash course in art history. I was then hooked on reading about past artists and their work. Which led me to Kathy to help me fill in the gaps of not having a good academic foundation. Now that i am halfway through this course of study with her I can see where my process will be foundation first, intuition second, back to foundation to critique and intuition to finish it off. This dance of going back and forth is really beginning to make sense to me. Were i to go back to my early works i believe i would see some technique (not very polished) and
a lot of intuition!

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret- I've enjoyed reading the scholarship behind your work on your blog and can see how in touch you are with your subject. I agree that it does make your more conversant, and that's a good thing!

Hi Lila - welcome! Please feel free to join our discussions.

Hi Casey - excellent questions!! And, your second question is an important one when it comes to how we should use the past to inform the future, rather than just returning to our past. "Out of step" is a good way to put it.

Hi Stan - it would be interesting to know how you answer these questions should you ever wish to share. I do look at my past work, but it's very easy for me to identify where I've been and the context for it since I've written so much about it. However, I'm rather allergic to delving into it too much. And, I doubt that any of us will ever have all the answers. However, if you ever do, please post it ;-)

Hi Carolyn - I like the way you refer to this process as a dance. That's really what it is. But, the proportion of intuition you use will change with time. After you've mastered a great deal you'll rely on your intuition more because what you've learned will be somewhere between your conscious and subconscious thinking. It's like time travel :)

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm following and thinking.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - do share your thoughts when you're ready! We love reading them.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I had two thoughts here. One is that these questions would be very difficult to answer for an artist early in their development. The questions seem more relevant to someone who is already a fairly mature artist.

But the second thought relates to some of the current research in psychology that questions whether introspection results in accurate information about the self. Timothy Wilson (among others), claims that we may confidently believe that we have access to our inner psychological world, but, in fact, our self-knowledge is often inaccurate. Many cognitive processes occur outside of conscious awareness, and we may just not have access to them. In those cases, introspection simply leads to confabulation -- we make up reasons for our behavior that seem reasonable, but are not derived from real self-knowledge. In short, this research states that introspection can be unreliable, and reliance on this inaccurate information can lead us to poor decisions at times.

To the extent that our creative and artistic processes may also be outside of conscious awareness, introspection may lead us to develop false beliefs about our artistic goals or processes or development. These incorrect beliefs might then cause us to take our work in another direction, to be consistent with the story we have created for our own artistic history.

So I see this in two ways. At one level, I tend to support research and self-reflection. Greater knowledge of one's artistic context and development might provide new inspiration or ideas for one's work. At the very least, it would assist the process of writing an artist's statement!

But the danger is that we lead ourselves astray by overthinking the process. We decide that our work is inspired by this historical event or that artistic movement, and now we feel pressure to be consistent with the newly-identified origin of our work. And what if that insight is wholly incorrect, derived merely from the logical brain's attempt to make sense of the emotional brain's decisions?

Maybe the answer is one of balance -- some thought, but not too much. Or maybe we simply need to be less confident in the accuracy of our introspective knowledge. Or maybe there are individual differences here, with some artists working in a highly conscious, articulated process, and others working in a less conscious fashion.

Regardless, this does throw a new curve into the whole question of whether we should strive to understand our work as deeply as possible.

-Don said...

Yeah. What Deborah said...


Celeste Bergin said...

what hwfarber said

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - beautifully stated!! I agree, and perhaps this is why I'm unwilling to engage in self-analysis that goes this deep. Your comment really makes me think, and I'll need to re-read it to glean more. Thank you very much!

Hi Don - ditto, here

Hi Celeste - :-)

Casey Klahn said...

My compliments to Deborah for her points. I would say that navel gazing can work when you put it to the test of experience. How did your conclusions (hunches) play out through new experiences?

The compliment to introspection is action - which has less patience for experience, but needs the same tests.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

In case anyone's interested, I posted an expanded discussion of the limits of introspection on my blog:

It isn't specifically focused on artistic process, but I try to provide some suggestions for how to deal with the limitations of introspection.

Unknown said...

Thank so much, Deborah. I've read your post and it's filled with gems. I highly recommend it to the rest of you.