7. April 2004
Working Artist'sJournal
Ann L. Conti
San Francisco
Why make art? What is it good for?
Here are a few of my favorite explanations of art-making: . "Life is difficult, as perhaps everyone knows by now. It is to escape from these difficulties that I practice the pleasant profession of a painter." Max Beckman . "I believe that the great masters, with their intellect as master, have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this aim leads me to boredom." Edward Hopper . "It is the function of the artist to evoke the experience of surprised recognition: to show the viewer what he knows but does not know that he knows. Helnwein is a master of surprised recognition." William S. Burroughs, about Helnwein . "Although art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. The first aims at representing reality objectively and the second subjectively." Piet Mondrian
April 7, 2004
Recent readings have made me think again about a question I've chewed on for years, "Why make art? What is it good for?" I don't think we'll ever know. The compulsion to make pictures, sculptures, stories, or music has been part of being human since prehistoric times. What changes are the explanations we come up with to explain or justify our behavior. We have to come up with an explanation that will convince people to leave us alone so that we can keep making art. Or better yet, an explanation that will convince people to support us in making art. But if you dig deep enough, the truth that comes out of almost every artist is, "I have to - I can't help it." Maybe it's some kind of soul virus.
Still, the way we explain it to ourselves influences the way we practice art. I've heard hundreds of justifications for making art (tried a few myself) and they seem to fall into three main categories:
1. Inner-directed, process oriented
2. Outer-directed, communication oriented
3. Commodity or goal oriented
Artists can shift between these categories, and hold more than one of these views at the same time (it's the nature of the creative mind.) But I think the reasons for choosing and defending a particular view of art have more to do with the personality of the artist than the essential nature of Art.
My favorite examples of inner-directed, process oriented artists are Agnes Pelton and Chuck Close. Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield are less obvious examples of artists who pursue personal visions with little or no concern over "interpretations" by the viewer.
outer directed
Alice Neel was just as driven and committed to her vision, but she had something to say and she wanted to make sure you understood it. Other examples of outer directed, communication oriented artists are Chester Arnold, Ben Shahn, and Judy Chicago .
Andy Warhol is the obvious first nomination for commodity or goal-oriented (fame!) artist. Others are Salvador Dali, Leroy Neiman, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons.
Here are a few of my favorite explanations of art-making:
"You ask why I paint? Why do I breathe?"
Joyce Treiman
"I got into this because it was something I had to do. Poetry is a way to drive a wedge between myself and things I find unbearable. To me, success is nailing down some kind of question. Some poets find success in publications, getting reviews, etc. But for me that's not the purpose. I write poetry in order to live."
Carl Phillps, interviewed by David Bonetti
"Annihilation is an existential fear; the common fear that some part of you dies when you stop making art. And it's true. Non-artists may not understand that but artists understand it all too well. The depth of your need to make things establishes the level of risk in making them."
David Bayles
"One of the primary motives of my work was to reveal the inequalities and pressures of modern life in the psychology of the people I painted."
Alice Neel
"The artists role is to create, among people, and to be a bridge or instigator for developing a sense of reverence and beauty. Art is a way of replenishing the soul."
Satish Kumar

"I believe that people have a great need to understand their world, and that art clarifies reality for them. Artists have two responsibilities. The first is to express themselves and the second is to communicate. If artists don't communicate, they have either been unsuccessful in thier attempt or they are being self-indulgent by not trying."
Audrey Flack
"One of the purposes of art is to show the transformative nature of reality. It can empower a person's capacity to change."
Alex Grey
"My goal is to tell the truth in such a way that other people might see it and be transformed by it."
Judy Chicago
"The main thing is Americans don't like art, they won't pay for art, they don't deserve art. That's just a fact. This is a Puritan republic in which nobody gives a shit about art. When I came to the art world, there were maybe 2000 seriously committed people who would do it whether they got payed or not. Today there are about 2000 seriously committed people who would do it whether they get paid or not."
Dave Hickey, from Zing Magazine

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