Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Artist Statement

(This is a paper I wrote for graduate school where I was asked to expound and clarify my artist statement. This is not yet complete but I figured I would post it and see how people respond to it.)

How to write an artist statement? It feels a little incestuous quite honestly. It feels a lot like a first date where you’re always trying to say the right things to impress, regardless with how it aligns with the truth. Or perhaps it has more similarities to a qualification on a resume embellished from working at Subway to that of being a “sandwich artist.”

I also find occasion for a good laugh after reading others artist statements. To see how many impressive words can be strung together to tell you how profound and talented they really are. If someone has to tell me how good he or she is at something then my first conclusion is that there work couldn’t do it by itself. I dislike selling myself and can get equally embarrassed if others laud my praises.

How is this to be done? I think to honestly write a statement about why I create art I must analyze why I create art the way that I do. Then I must reevaluate how I talk about art. Do I criticize or praise? Do I point out my faults or focus upon my strengths? Should the underlying motivations be the concentration of my efforts? Do I compare and contrast my works to those of others and explain how I am relating to or redefining the medium?

So why do I create my art in the way that I currently am?

I had the advantage/disadvantage of being raised in a protective little bubble in a small rural town in Idaho. You knew all your neighbors and didn’t have to lock your house or car doors. I was never once offered alcohol, tobacco or drugs during high school. Our brand of getting in trouble was along the lines of skipping out on a church dance and going to play pool or toilet papering a neighbors yard. There were few if any issues regarding race, sexual orientation, abortion, feminism or religion. Life was simple and straightforward. People knew what needed done and for the most part were content with fulfilling their roles.

Not long after graduation from high school I moved to Florida for two years to serve a mission for my church. My first area was in Orlando; while there I had guns pulled on me, barely missed stumbling upon murders in progress, discovered we had numerous gay neighbors (Which was quickly brought to our attention since missionaries serve in companionships and two guys living together did not go unnoticed) neighborhoods where we were the only two white guys for miles (We were commonly accused of being the police.) and a street named Orange Blossom Trail that at that time had 45 strip clubs or houses of ill repute and a hot dog stand named Bikini Weenie’s. I had definitely left home.

I returned from my mission and within a few years I discovered photography while attending Utah Valley State College. I then promptly transferred to Brigham Young University (A university owned and operated by my church) where I acquired my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. The focus of the school was in traditional commercial photography.

Right after transferring to BYU I took a trip with the photography department to San Francisco. While on this trip I saw two images that had a profound impact on me: First was Brett Weston’s Mendenhall Glacier II and second was Paul Caponigro’s Running White Deer. These images provide a good indication of my visual biases as I began to photograph. Up to this point I had been exposed to very little in Post-modern photography and had even less explained to me.

These images were entirely about form and aesthetics. There were no external references made or implied. They embodied the quest to establish an ideal world of aesthetic bliss with no negative or unpleasant components. They are a prime example of beauty for beauties sake. These preferences and these experiences are what laid my photographic foundation.

Considering this upbringing it should probably not come as a surprise that my photography has a traditional flair. My psyche and intellect is laced with idealism. My religious upbringing contained the doctrine that of all the churches on earth ours was the only one that contained a fullness of the truth. Other churches contained portions of the truth but due to a great apostasy that allowed doctrines of men to intermingle with scripture and then be passed off as truth not one of these churches contained a fullness of truth. This is a very bold declaration in a Post-modern society that no longer believes in a universal truth or utopian lifestyle. On the contrary, it runs on the philosophy of either no utopia or multiple utopias to account for the many subcultures in society and as a result there are multiple truths and paths.

My life experiences have left me in a unique position. Not many people in my age bracket had a full experience of living in a world based in simplicity and idealism (similar to the aims and goals of modernism) and then transition into an art world fully established in the post-modernist realm. I have seen both worlds in great depth. I feel caught in the middle between seeing the merits of my two worlds. First my old world complete with a right and a wrong and the lofty expectations established for myself and for society and an ideal manner for all of us to act. Secondly, my new world that accounts for many rights and many wrongs and the breaking down of ideals so that other people have room to create there own ideal society. Both sides have merits that should be applauded and faults that need to be addressed. I find myself living in both worlds but married to neither.

There have been periods in my life where I could care less what the rest of the world is doing photographically or what critics and academia has to say about any of them. During other periods I am truly inspired and motivated as I study the bodies of work that have been produced. This bipolar mindset about artistic intellect causes me to ponder how much I should let the whims and trends of my medium dictate my own course of action. Conversely, ignorance of ones own medium limits any potential growth exponentially.

These opposing ideas have become a roadblock that requires reconciliation for me to progress. The more intellectual I try to make my images the staler my thought process becomes. The more I decline to acknowledge art theory and academic influences within my work the more ignorant I appear. Currently if I had to give an example of an oxymoron it would have to be creativity or originality. One evaluation of my art work that has been proffered to me far too often recently is that my work is too similar to (fill in the blank) and to correct this I should be more original and try to do work more like (fill in the blank). How is that being original?

The real crux of being original is that it requires others work to use as a point of departure or as a comparison. I struggle with the inherent definition of originality because it requires the direct involvement of others. I used to think that to be truly original you would have to be born in a blank room and never interact with others. Lately I have concluded that to be original requires avid research and selective amnesia. Or in the words of Laurence J. Peter “Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it.”

I used to not think about why I took pictures; I took them as I reacted to my subject. It was a completely intuitive and reactive process not laden down by thoughts of how my current process was relating to or contributing to photography. Neither did I wonder what theoretical components were being introduced nor what period or movements will these images be classified into. I simply wanted to photograph my subject in the most compelling way I thought possible and then be understandable to the average person. Those other thoughts felt so removed from what I was trying to accomplish their contemplation tended to hinder rather than help any creative process. When I began to worry about what people would think my motivation was or whose work people were going to compare my images to I lost the motivation to go out and photograph.

Originality was not a motivation for me. Museums and galleries were not a motivation for me. I remember at one point thinking that what I really loved about photography was the actual process of taking a picture. It was not seeing the finished print nor the making of it that I enjoyed. I would have been happy pushing the button and simply assuming that I had created a masterpiece without having any future justification for this reaction. That particular instinct has dwindled considerably but not vanished. I love the instinctual chase to find a location where all the elements combine in a way that I feel compelled to photograph. It is almost as if I didn’t take the picture I would leave a piece of me behind.

As I look to study my own art I find the motivations to be the most critical. First is the subject matter. I want to find something to photograph that strikes an emotional chord within me. I want to find something that I have a vested interest in or concern for. That way the success of my pictures is not weighed against themselves but by what they represent. I like to choose a subject based on my strengths and capacity to communicate it. I find it foolish to place myself as an expert on a subject that I know little about and I don’t enjoy others doing the same.

I like to choose a subject that has a message that is not being shared or that people simply don’t hear. I like subjects that invigorate me and make me enjoy life. I seek subjects that help me forget the superficial aspects of my life that bog me down and reengage the aspects that make me glad to be alive. I like a subject that reminds me of what I love about photography even if it is simply a reaction to someone else’s photograph. I think love of photography can be as legitimate a reason as anything. I believe that creation of art can be summarized in the saying, ‘we are what we eat’. We are heavily influenced by images we like as well as images that we don’t like. To take a photograph because the scene reminds us of another image is an honest reaction.

As I look at my motivations I notice some gaping holes. Never once have I wanted to take a picture based on what a critic has said. Never once have I wanted to take a picture based on what is popular at the time. I don’t consider if a gallery, juror or museum will like what I am photographing. I rarely consider what historical context my images will be placed in. From what I have seen even if I did consider those things others will make the final decisions to all those questions. That is the job of critics, not mine. My job is making photographs. If these factors mentioned are the motivations for why I photograph then I am creating others pictures not my own. If originality is such an admirable trait in an artist then this is where I glean my originality from, focusing on my intentions not others.

I have been told that a weakness of photography is how literal a medium it is. That photography is not an art because you are simply capturing what is there. I find this notion silly, I know how visually dishonest the medium is. The idiom is true, a picture does not lie but unfortunately the picture is merely a vehicle for what the artist wants to say and artists are compulsive liars. We see the artists lie and accept it as truth merely because it is a photograph. This is not a fault inherent in the photograph but in the audience.

I find the most logical way to talk about my work has been from the perspective of the subject. I find it difficult to analyze my work from the perspective of art theories since this is not the direction from which they are created. As I pigeon hole my images into categories created to support theories I find my images lose the meaning I intended for them. It is hard as a creator to intentionally destroy my intent to satisfy the objectives of other artists. I will attempt this anyway just as parents should really think about what junior high kids will do with the names given to their children.

One viable lens is the creation of art as ritual. When you look into religious and tribal ceremonies one aspect of both that we can focus on is how ordinary objects or gestures are embodied with great significance. They take something of a mundane or simplistic nature and endow it with a symbolic reference that a large community or group holds in common. When you have a shared belief system in a ritualistic setting you give power and meaning that elevates ordinary items to a higher status. This phenomenon will garner an understanding very similar to when artists portrayed ideas by giving things symbolic meaning in their paintings.

However, when these symbols are removed from their context and presented to a new audience the power and meaning that they are endowed with can vanish. The shared belief system, which gave the objects their power, is the significant component. If you remove this system then the object reverts to simply being an object. I feel that a museum can destroy these artifacts easier than they can glorify them. Putting them in a museum separates the thing from the idea and subsequently from its power. It is simply an object that points us to the understanding of the culture that produced it. Knowledge of intent is crucial to understanding the objects and their creation.

This is the danger I find in classifying ritualistic artifacts as art using the same qualifications employed with a Serrano or a Pollock. Ritualistic objects were created to buoy up the belief system of their culture, whereas now the popular motive seems to be breaking down and redefining our culture. Once an object is placed within a museum it begins a new life dictated by the intents of the critics and the curators even the presentation method will affect the viewers interpretation, the artist’s intent is secondary at best.

I find more correlation with ritualistic theory in how people tell me why my pictures were created and what their meaning was rather than the working practices of ritual and myself. I am embodying paper and pigment/silver with references to something else. I am pointing the viewer to a place, a person or an idea. There experience is then dependent upon their belief system and how they react to the image. A stronger correlation can exist for those people that share common interests and aesthetics with how they will respond but on the whole the meaning will be individual. Ritualistic art seems to depend on the culture being intertwined with the practice or creation of the works being discussed. I do not try to intertwine my images with culture. I would have to classify myself as being selfish in this regard since I intentionally disregard what society wants in preference to what I want.

When analyzing my artwork connections to theories that I find the most apparent are within the imitation, cognitive and formalist theories. I aspire to an aesthetically pleasing end product. I seek out light form and an arrangement of the two that promotes an internal harmony. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I want people to respond without evaluating the objects purpose. Instead I want people to respond to the aesthetics and upon establishing that hook then the underlying meaning can become apparent. For me without the aesthetics the meaning will be lost because that is how I respond to others photographs. If I don’t like the look then I don’t bother waiting around to listen to the idea. If I want ideas without the visuals then I will read academic papers.

“Life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.” Grandma Moses

I like the utopian ideal to an extent. I believe we can create a better world, if not perfect at least better. If our focus is solely on the negative and problematic then we create a world that is pessimistic and depressed. If we have an ideal that motivates us to greater things then we leave potential for growth. Failure is not found in the missing of a goal it is found in the not attempting one.

I am ok with Thomas Aquinas assertion that “ Beauty was an essential or transcendental property of God, like goodness and unity. Human artwork should emulate and aspire to Gods marvelous properties.” I would also agree with John Dewey that “art has a function in our lives and should not be remote and esoteric.” I like art that helps me understand and appreciate reality and all that comes with it. I don’t feel the need to create a new world that I feel disconnected with. Unfortunately there is no one piece of art that is capable of portraying all of these varying attributes. Art is a reflection of reality, not reality in and of itself, and as such we need a multitude of artists and a diversity of creations to do justice to life.

Just because there is a legitimate place for and logic within the art world for images that are shocking or vulgar or controversial and that I feel required to acknowledge such does not require me to make place for these practices within my own art work. I propose beauty is not dead nor can it be killed. If we must allow room for the unpleasant then I feel justified in maintaining a place for beauty. You cannot have one without the other since the definition of one is often comprehended by analyzing the other.

I do find it important to know how I relate to the postmodern world that I now find myself a part of. I also feel a need to acknowledge my part in living in our current artistic society since this is a factor I cannot control but I do not feel the need to allow this period to dictate my actions since this is something I can control. In the not to distant past I considered myself as far away from appreciating postmodern as was feasibly possible. I even purchased a web address entitled after a long discussion with some students where I stated the closest I would ever get to postmodernism is by making modern photos of posts. (Tongue in cheek intended.)

I think the problem that I was encountering was how people would tell me that an image was modern or that it was postmodern without giving me a definition or an explanation of either. Since this was all I had to go on these isolated images became my definitions. Coincidently the images I liked were given the modern tag and the images I disliked were classified as postmodern. Without understanding either period but having a strong opinion on both I had all the tools necessary to develop my own style of artistic prejudice. As soon as I saw an image that I did not like, all my arguments for disliking postmodernism came rushing to the attack.

I made the mistake of allowing an academic classification to define the art I saw. I found it inconsistent to create art one-way and view it another. I dislike the academic approach in creating my images but now I had found myself implementing it in looking at others. I have recently discovered a new way of understanding postmodernism. One aspect of modernism that I did not understand was its quest for a utopian society at the exclusion of anyone or anything that did not fit into their proscribed mold.

Society had reached a point where people that did not fit into the utopian model demanded change, and rightfully so. No people’s happiness should be dependent on others goals or aspirations. A large portion of the population finds their happiness in the worlds definitions. If the world’s definition excludes you then you can either accept it or seek to redefine it. A redefinition was chosen. Laws, attitudes, stereotypes, roles and perceptions needed to be altered so that the utopian ideal could either be destroyed or vastly expounded.

Blacks sought civil rights. Women sought equal rights. Gays and Lesbians wanted marital rights. Every subculture within society wanted their voice heard and represented equally when compared to their polar opposite: Blacks and whites, women and men, gays and straights, even students and adults. Subcultures started to realize that the portrayed dream of a husband and wife with two kids, one boy and one girl, a Buick parked in front of a suburban house with a white picket fence was not feasible for a great portion of our country.

The world began to realize that one answer could not satisfy the multitude of questions. There had to be allowances for different ideas and who could say that there idea was more important or valid than another. This phenomenon was occurring not only in society but also in the art world. Art is a reflection of society and idea. Artists put what they know into their creations and then critics put what they know into their interpretation of that creation. Just as there were multiple subcultures needing representation there are multitudes of artists each with their own agendas and interpretations on society.

Artwork represented this fact very clearly. Everything that had not been represented was now being featured. Photographic style had been completely revisited and practices once considered the norm where now considered taboo. The reactionary phase of postmodernism rebelled just as any child would from parents. Any time parents forbid something the children will interpret it as an invitation. Thou shalt not lists turn into check lists.

Opposing voices now become the norm and tradition becomes shunned. The open door invitation by Arthur Danto was readily accepted and a new policy of anything goes was initiated. This was a movement that needed to happen to offset the intolerance that existed. The problems of the Modernist mindset were brought to the forefront and attacked thoroughly. We were in the process of creating our brave new world where acceptance was in. Evidence of this transformation can be found in how important being politically correct is in our culture. You cannot publicly slam a special interest group in today’s world without incurring the wrath of the media.

With no ideal to aim for or to compare to, pure freedom and artistic initiative could be employed. There were minority races and ideas that had been oppressed for far too long and were now free and encouraged to make themselves known publicly. They championed that idea that ‘art is defined by the artist’ and anything can be art with the right situation and theory. This opened Pandora’s box to the creatively inclined and the limits to this theory needed to be pushed and questioned to find out what the limits are. The limits have and will continue to be pushed.

The inherent problem with this movement is how the oppressed has a tendency to become the oppressor. The artistic liberties that were being enjoyed by the revolutionaries were not always extended to those that still found themselves adhering to older philosophies. There is a movie called Mona Lisa Smile starring Julia Roberts as an art history teacher in the early 50’s. She actively tries to break down stereotypes of women and encourages her students to open their minds to potentials in their future and not readily accept the roles that society has created for and expect of them.

One part of the movie that seemed to get overlooked involves the character played by Julia Stiles. Julia Roberts asked this character if there were no restrictions for a career what would you do. Upon discovering a secret interest in being a lawyer Julia Roberts gets and submits application forms to Harvard for her student. Thinking she had opened this girls future to untold possibilities she became devastated to find out that the girl had eloped and had decided to become a house wife after all. Julia Stiles defended her self by turning Julia Roberts arguments back on her saying that they had been encouraged to be open minded and upon studying both options thoroughly she chose to be a housewife and that now the teacher was being close minded for not accepting the path that she had knowingly and willingly chose.

Feminism addressed a problem in the stereotyping of women’s roles and that women should be free to choose what they will do with their life without the repercussions of an ignorant society. But, the teacher was not offering her student the same freedom to accept the stereotypical role that she had in rejecting it. Being open minded is accepting a persons right to choose and not criticizing them for their choice even if it disagrees with our own: especially if their choice is not in harmony with the “enlightened” mindset of the day.

I like the quote by Paul Strand: “Whether a watercolor is inferior to an oil, or whether a drawing, an etching, or a photograph is not as important as either, is inconsequent. To have to despise something in order to respect something else is a sign of impotence.” I am more than willing to accept stylistic approaches that others employ I only ask for the same consideration in return. I can’t say I will like all approaches but I will make the effort to try and understand them. I will question and am willing to be questioned in return.

My images contain an idealistic sense of beauty. I seek to create an alternative interpretation of our world that draws from its strengths not from its failings. I like creating an escape from the drudgeries of life that people can look to and relax for a few seconds while looking at my image. I want to create a standard that would, if at all possible, inspire people to actively improve and enjoy there life and their surroundings. My favorite images have been where the focus has been on light, forms and subtleties. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo Da Vinci

I realize my images do not readily fit into today’s academic or artistic classifications. This does not bother me since that was never my objective. I do not do this ignorantly for I have studied many styles and approaches to photography and after seeing my many options I chose the old-fashioned romanticist approach. I do not expect my art to stagnate and never evolve. I constantly try new ways of refining how I photograph to further accomplish my goals. Who knows, perhaps in a decade I will make a drastic change in my approach and divorce myself of all the ideals I currently hold onto; then again, perhaps not. Whatever happens the change will not occur without me being convinced through and through of my own choice not through external pressuring.

I am a strong believer in the importance of craft and the pursuit of excellence. I do not encourage distancing the medium from the viewing public to satisfy our own agenda. I believe in the idea that photography is a form of visual communication. The best way to communicate is by speaking a language that both parties can understand. The best communicators are the ones that refine the language in the most eloquent way. The vehicle for my communication should be the photograph. It should not be the artist statement, it should not be the critics’ interpretation, and it should not be the museum that decides to display it.

In Serranno’s Piss Christ it took a lot of critical rationalization and justification for any appreciation or at least acceptance to grow on my part. Images like this make me believe that we live in an artistic society where the means no longer justify the end; instead we use the end to justify the means. We must rationalize and justify why what we did was ok. If others find fulfillment in this approach then I encourage them and am curious to see what they discover. I personally do not want to spend a lifetime explaining or justifying a 1/30th of a second exposure.

I applaud and hope to apply the wisdom set forth by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in the solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”


© 2012 Travis Lovell Photography - All Rights Reserved