The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Making Sense of the World

The View From the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 1: Making Sense of the World

Have you ever wondered why ours is the only species on the planet that makes art? I have, and so has Orland. Is it because we ourselves define art in a way that limits it to human endeavors, or is it that our minds and sensibilities are so uniquely different from other animals that we need to make art? I’m not talking about the elephant whose trainer puts a brush in its snout and lays out a few cans of paint and a canvas while suggesting that the beast dip and spread. Rather, it’s about why we deliberately make art and are conscious of what we’re making. Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all; we just do it. Orland attributes this to our highly distilled state of self-awareness, or consciousness.

As one neurosurgeon pessimistically noted, “If our brain were simple enough to be understood, we’d be too simple to understand it.” I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep over this.

For some reason, humans need to make art or, at least, experience it. This leads Orland to query What are we actually doing when we make art? Resolving uncertainty? Giving form to our experiences? Seeking emotional release? Declaring what we believe important? Expressing our belief system? For me, it’s all these reasons and more. I don’t question it – I just DO it.

The first half of this chapter is devoted to speculation about existential matters that are interesting, but not particularly practical or helpful. In any case, each artist sees the world a little differently. As the author points out: Perhaps art succeeds precisely because it remains ambiguous enough to allow others with wildly different mental sets to invest themselves in it. Maybe this is why art seems so dissimilar from “fact.”

Making sense of the world is an individual act. My sensibilities may be entirely dissimilar from yours, but perhaps you can understand mine anyway. My artmaking may be entirely different from yours, but perhaps you can understand it anyway. We have the capacity to do this and even enjoy it.

But while artists seem inordinately prone to bouts of uncertainty, really good artists also have strong internal compasses that send them dependably (if often intuitively) in the direction of those particular uncertainties that must attract or terrorize them. We are curious and creative beings, and that creativity, according to Orland, comes from seeing – from making sense of the world around us.

What are your thoughts?


Casey Klahn said...

My thoughts are that I instantly started looking for art in the animal world...such is my contrarian state.

One that I found (in my weird state of mind) is the coyote. He is, among predators, an artist. I once wrote about the differences in the dog and the coyote, and I can infer dogs here, too.

Okay, I went pretty broad, there. Certainly the canis latrans doesn't paint. I think we can all agree on that. But, the idea of perception and the world viewed next to art is a great train of thought. I look forward to this study. OTOH, I just picked up Kandinsky's Essay for Lorie's Kindle, and am tracking with that at the same time.

I wonder if coyote can do that?

Anonymous said...

It does seem a bit egocentric to think that humans are the only species who possess the fortitude and insight to make art. I don't think we can conclude this with overwhelming certainty.
I also believe that some really gifted artists, those who seem to have an innate, genetic ability, are not necessarily making art due to some highly distilled state of self-awareness or consciousness- they do so because that is what they do.
Unfortunately, this first chapter does not bode well for the rest of the book. I can't stand it when we artists act like we are so friggin special, we have to have some fancy way of defining ourselves. Let's get over it already.
OK- all done now. Feeling grumpy this morning.

Robin said...

The example about the mushroom hunter really struck my sense of how what I see differs from what you see.
We all have a common sense of the sky being blue, grass being green, etc. but not all people are fascinated by the clouds in the sky or the weeds amongst the grass.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,

For me, the need to make something is visceral. I would continue to draw and paint even if there was the prospect of never showing or selling. If I am kept from drawing or painting for awhile...I find my way back. I don't understand the need.

Art is so funny; it's hard to define or quantify. Maybe it's in the need that makes human art experience different. Most animals are existing at a level where their concern is the basic needs: food, water, shelter, and passing on the DNA to the next generation.

That being said, some animals are pretty creative problem who knows?

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - there are so many ways to examine this, but I think that something is deemed "art" because a human being calls it "art." We initiated the concept and have applied it almost exclusively to our endeavors. Therefore, if we see something that looks like an artistic creation by another species (e.g. your predatory coyote) it may be art to us, but not to the coyote. This is just my opinion, of course. I'll have to take a look at Kandinsky's essay ... it's gotta' be interesting!!

Hi Pam - I agree that there is no certainty, but also think that art is a human construct. I don't think Orland means to be an exclusivist snob; rather, he's trying to help us identify the motivations to make art. He wants us to take a deep look inside and connect. But, his style of relating won't appeal to everyone.

Hi Robin - I liked that example as well. Thanks for mentioning it! Indeed, we all perceive differently and it's fun to see how others perceive things, too!

Hi Peggy - "visceral" is a great way to put it! I agree, and I agree about the uncertainty about other species. We know so little.

Eva said...

I think Pamo said it all and very well :)

-Don said...

This is a great start to the book. I love everyone's comments, so far. Pam, I wouldn't call you grumpy - just pragmatic and a touch skeptical... I can relate to both.

Kathy, as you mention, "each artist sees the world a little differently". So, I'm going to approach this from a perspective different from any other so far today. In the book of Genesis we are told that God created the animals, after which he created mankind in His image. Personally, I believe that is where we get the ability and the desire to create. And everything that you spoke of in reviewing this chapter just reinforces that for me.

Now it's time for this beast to go "dip and spread"...


Robin said...

Will you be reading a chapter a day?
Need to add this into my planning:)

Unknown said...

Hi Eva - Pam always has gems for us :-)

Hi Don - I appreciate and respect your perspective although I don't share your religious views. There's plenty of room for all! Thanks.

Hi Robin - how nice! I usually post a new chapter each weekday when I review a book. That is, unless something gets in the way.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Sometimes I think making art is a dysfunction of the brain. Other people seem to be happy just ambling through life--traveling, sitting on the porch, happy hour, etc. I'm always scrambling to find time for the next painting or sculpture; it's just something that I must do--something I've done my whole life.

When I see birds' nests made with touches of colored paper or string, I imagine them decorating their nursery.

Carolyn Abrams said...

These thoughts are all very interesting and varied. I tried to remember back as far as i could to when and why i felt the desire to create. I seem to remember back to when i was 4 or 5 years old and looking for anything to color with or draw on. It simply made me feel good. I continued to express myself but never felt "special" enough to think of myself as artistic. As i became an adult i thought why not and i continued to enjoy the art process. As to whether anyone sees it, likes it or wants to possess it doesn't really make a difference as long as i am able to express myself. of course, someone liking it, and buying it would be a plus. Arent you glad you asked for our thoughts? mine are pretty simplistic!!

Dan Kent said...

Again Pamo states more succinctly what I feel myself. What I may recognize as art - created expression - may have a different definition for another species. A species with intellect - a dolphin, perhaps - may have art of a different kind. But we lack the ability to communicate and so we do not know.

Even among people the universal quality of art that you refer to exists only in part, as much is lost in translation. The artist's message may be different from what the viewer receives. Across cultures the gap is wider as there need to be certain shared experiences for art to be understood, if not fully appreciated.

What many of us do share though, as the authors point out, is the need, for whatever reason, to create. And the "ambiguity" of art allows us to appreciate art even if we do not fully understand.

Robin said...

Robin #2 here -
Recently I read this book and it reminded me why I do what I do, and why I will continue to make art, and continue to do what I do. It does get challenging at times... being an artist that is, but it's wonderful to have a place (blogging in this case) for support and encouragement. I appreciate your ability to encourage us here, Kathy.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - you have such a wonderful way of putting things! Thank you.

Hi Caroline - Yes! I am happy that you shared your thoughts with us. Thank you. I feel the same way.

Hi Dan - you remind us of a discussion we had last year on this blog about cultural differences and misunderstandings -especially if the artist elects to appropriate cultural symbols without recognizing what they mean. Good point!

Hi Robin - thank you! The reason I keep posting is because ALL of YOU make this a great experience. I learn as much from all of you as I learn from the books I read and review.

Wen said...

We are SEE the world though our own perspectives. Some of us are artistic. We see intense blues, or apple reds. We see animals in clouds and landscapes in patterns of ice. It just happens. We can practice techniques to become better at projecting our vision, but our vision is what becomes our art.
Is this unique among humans?
I think spiders webs are artistic but I think the spider casts them out for dinner.

Unknown said...

Hi Wen - I agree. It's really about how we perceive things. After all, what we deem to be "art" is a human construct. Thanks!