Art history fascinates me. Here, I find the origins of the tangle of ideas around art that have so confused me today. I was thinking about my initial approaches to psychology the other day. I started out both attracted and hostile to the field. The first time I saw a shrink, they terrified me. Each of us colluded in a bunch of ideas such as they knew more than I did, and that their opinion was more informed, more rational, more accurate than mine. I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve learned the language, and I can use it with the best of them. I’ve learned about factions, arguments, reforms, and a complex if very short history of the field. It’s been highly empowering. I still have those two basic reactions- attraction and hostility. There’s great wisdom in it, and terrible harm and ignorance. Knowledge has given me what I need to be able to navigate it and choose what I will take on for myself.
In art I’m terrifyingly ignorant. I was the first ‘PES’ art student in the 20 year history of my school. I got a perfect score, but with almost no education in art history. I did patchy research on Dadaism and Van Gogh, but had no broader contexts, no frameworks for my understandings. Later in my first aborted attempt at uni, I found the lecturers deeply embedded in a Post Modernist framework that utterly alienated me and I dropped out after 3 weeks of being told that any art that has been commissioned is not ‘real art’, and that technical skill is irrelevant.
I like frameworks. They are how I make sense of my world. Understanding the ones I’m using and the ones other people are using and where they come from and how they intersect is incredibly useful to me. It maps the terrain and gives me information about perspectives, motivations, and the massive and all too common communication challenges when we’re all speaking different languages and making different assumptions about the world. In art and the art world, I’m blind. I don’t understand the territory, I haven’t known the history, and therefore I can’t navigate. My most important goal of operating ethically cannot be achieved if I can’t articulate the context of my choices. When faced with moral problems in the field – should I accept money from drug companies? Is my work sufficiently useful to the community to accept grant money from councils? and so on- I can’t make decisions because I do not know what the broader implications will be. Without a clear framework for ethical action, I freeze up and withdraw. I can’t engage if I can’t engage ethically.
So I’m loving art history classes, because I’m starting to see the broader context and the frameworks that underlie my confusion. Yesterday our researcher part turned up and read half the internet looking for answers to two simple questions – what is art, and what is an artist. Fascinating. I’m working on a thorny essay question that sounds simple at first:
Investigate the available data on the visual arts as part of the wider arts industry in Australia. From your research, how do visual artists fare financially compared to their fellow workers from other areas of the arts? What strategies have been applied to help remedy this situation? What additional initiatives could be used to improve the financial outcomes for artists?
Dig a little and you’ll find an embedded series of assumptions that direct the way people even think about this question. Question those assumptions and the whole field really opens up. How do we define an artist? How do we define a professional artist? How do we define the arts industry? Why should this ‘situation be remedied?’ Who by?
What is art? What is an artist? The answers are implied but there’s so much more to explore. What I’m finding is that the answers to those questions are dependant on the context in which you ask them. Art has many domains, some entirely distinct, and some overlapping. As I tease them apart and articulate them individually, so much of what has confused me becomes clearer. I’m starting to understand the territory, and with that, starting to gather the knowledge I need to act, to position myself, to function in relationship to it.