What Is Art?

detail Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." or "Elle a chaud au cul" ("She is hot in the ass").

Detail of Duchamp's "L.H.O.O.Q." or "Elle a chaud au cul" ("She has a hot ass").

A couple weeks ago I went on a Bee Gees kick (stop snickering) and this week it’s Barry White, specifically “Love’s Theme.”  I’m on a big cheesy bend right now and when I’m out on my morning scooter ride it is THE perfect song — that “ka-wacka-chaka” and swooping melody is the ultimate tune for flying along on a scooter with the wind in your hair, cutting huge curves across the pavement.  It’s the best music for swooshing and swooshing is the best for thinking.

Today I was thinking (wacka-chaka wacka-chaka!) about how much my identity is tied up in being “an artist.”  Right after I had Nico there was a Period Of Freaking Out because it was just about damn near impossible to paint with any regularity.  Cue full blown identity crisis.  An artist is someone who makes art — so if I’m not making art, what the hell am I?  To add fuel to that psychic fire I went to an art opening and was looking around thinking “Boy, my work would fit right in here, why aren’t I in this show?”  I went up to the curator and said “Hey, great show — why aren’t I in it?” and got this amazingly patronizing pat on the shoulder:  “Isabel, everyone knows you’re taking time off to have a family.”

WTF?!?!  I’m doing what because of what?  How did I miss that press release?  That unfortunate turn of phrase led to three years of kicking into extreme overdrive — every gallery that asked me to show got a “Hell yes!” and I ended up doing between twelve and sixteen exhibitions a year for three straight years, at which point my brains were kind of leaking out of my ears and I realized I’d missed years of my own life (not to mention the lives of my friends and family).  I was the artistic undead, a completely brain dead zombie.


Every weekend was spent in the studio, and there was always another deadline looming over my head like a swinging pendulum axe.  I would lay awake in bed at night with the sensation that a cinder block was sitting on my chest, pressing all the blood out of my heart.  For years any time anybody called to ask how things were (and they had to call because I didn’t see anybody, ever) I found myself always saying “I’m really fried right now.”  It was like my mantra: “I’m-really-fried-right-now-I’m-really-fried-right-now-I’m-really-fried-right-now.”

Fortunately, around the same time several of my favorite gallery owners and my favorite guy all started saying the same thing:  you’d have more impact (and more sanity) if you took those twelve to sixteen paintings and put them all in one big show instead of spreading them out in group shows all year long.  This is the kind of thing other people need to tell me, the kind of thing I am apparently incapable of coming up with on my own.  That completely restructured my life because it cued me in for The Big Revelation: that as much as I need to paint, both for my sense of self and sanity but also because that weird little monkey inside my head keeps throwing ideas against the inside of my skull — as much as I need to do that, I also need to have some kind of life.  When I’m laying on my deathbed at the end of my days I kinda doubt I’ll be saying “Boy I sure am glad I blew off my best friend’s birthday so I could stay home and work on that painting!”  Don’t get me wrong, the painting is muy muy importante, it has to come out, the ideas pile up and they need to be expressed, to be decanted and allowed to breathe, but there has to be time to hug the people you love, and write rants to Congress, and bike to the beach, and cook amazing food, and maybe even catch a movie every once in a while.

But it does make me wonder about the creative process and art making — where the need to make it comes from and why some people feel it.  And when I say “art” I’m thinking of all the creative pursuits — music, writing, dance, visual art, anything that requires you to take something from deep inside and pull it up out into the sun for everyone else to see/hear.  We do these things because we NEED to, because we want to touch someone, or we’re trying to communicate something.

Austin Kleon: "Our Sad Inability To Communicate Mind to Mind"

Austin Kleon: "Our Sad Inability To Communicate Mind to Mind"

I’m not even going to touch the whole “what is art” hot potato.  Periodically some magazine or book will ask me “What is lowbrow art” and I can’t even answer that question let alone the larger one. But other great thinkers have debated the topic:

Mostly I think not so much about “What is Art?” but “What is an Artist?”  There was a really interesting article in the New Yorker a while ago about invention vs. creation by artists. If invention is something bound to happen that anyone can do, and art (at least “masterful art”) is special and un-duplicatable by a room full of creatives, I find that both sort of comforting (“Ha!  Try and do THIS you mooks!”) but also, you know, it feels like pressure.   So if an artist is someone who makes art and I don’t make art every minute of every day, then what the hell am I?

I think the answer turns out to be “an artist who struggles with time management issues.”  It’s a big club.


One response to “What Is Art?

  1. Awesome post.

    I remember those years. I never had the crisis of identity you’re talking about, but the art/life/family/friends thing hit me hard.

    Then my kids started school and a large cloud bank lifted off the coast of my brain, suddenly I could see far distant islands I hadn’t seen for years.

    If it means anything to you, during those years you speak of, everyone I know admired the hell out of you for living the life we had only discussed over tables in all-night diners after shows.

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