Why I write about art

Once you’ve said everything you can say using the language of other disciplines, there are still some stones left unturned.

As a high school student, I drew in sketchbooks. In college I’d spend entire days making pictures appear on photo paper in trays of chemicals. (That never stopped being magical!) In grad school I made sculptures out of bricks and pennies and glass tumblers. They looked like they might fall, but they never did.

“I was going for a look of stable precariousness.”

All along, there was something I was trying to express. I knew I was going for a look of stable precariousness but I couldn’t quite get my finger on why. I’m better with words now, so I can squeeze it into a nutshell: In a place and time where we don’t all share the same beliefs, values or perspectives (This, I’d learned in college, was called the Postmodern world) how do we take all that? Is truth relative? What foundations are there to rely on? Who says? And what do we do about it? Despair in the void? Revel in the freedom?

I didn’t know the answers, so I tried over and over to illustrate the questions. I made photographs that looked like abstract paintings with no discernible subjects.

Here’s one of those abstract photographs with no discernible subject.

People liked them, and I liked making them, but they didn’t get me any closer to communicating my questions.

Eventually I realized that creation and communication aren’t necessarily the same thing. Visual artists usually aren’t trying to make a declarative statement. They’re getting at something else, something behind the scenes of linear expression. Once you’ve said everything you can say using the languages of other disciplines, there are still some stones left unturned. There are still some things we perceive and think about and try to organize and make sense of. Art is the kind of undefined territory that’s perfect for processing all that miscellany and ephemera.

Again, no discernible object.

Every artist creates their own line of inquiry, their own processes, their own visual language. That results in a practically infinite variety of forms of expression.

When there are so many different types of expression, it’s easy for a disconnect to form. Art can start to look pretentious and exclusive. And I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes art is pretentious and exclusive.

Understandably, that’s a huge turnoff for many people, but it’s actually a necessary part of the art world’s structure. For art to be made on a professional level, it has to be sustained. The most practical way to sustain it is to sell it. For art to be sold, it must have value to someone. Some art is valued for the ideas it represents, some for the way it looks, and some for the cultural cache that comes with owning it. Either way, those layers of exclusivity and pretentiousness are part of the whole system that helps artwork maintain its value and continue to exist.

Defending all that exclusivity and pretentiousness, however, is not my job. My job is to get at the creamy middle of what actually is going on here. I did eventually decide how I wanted to proceed in a world that doesn’t agree with itself. I write about it. I talk to people who form bottles out of clay, make screen prints, teach animation or run museums, and I write about what they’re thinking and doing in a way that’s approachable to people outside the art world and informed enough for people inside it. In between those layers of pretense, there’s also a lot of humanity.

You’ll see this phrase out there a lot: “Art is what makes us human.” I don’t buy that. (Scientists don’t agree entirely on what actually makes us human, but art isn’t in their Top 10 lists; it’s stuff like upright posture and complex opposable thumbs and language.) But art does do something important. It can help us connect with each other, show each other that we matter, give us interesting ways to be heard or understood or appreciated.

A lot of what artists are thinking about is the same stuff that’s on everyone’s minds, whether they go to museums or buy paintings or wear black and air-kiss at gallery openings or not. My goal is to bridge the gaps and illuminate the similarities, one story at a time.

Thanks for reading! I’m an arts and culture reporter in Reno. If you like your art commentary delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to Double Scoop Art Blog. To read more about Reno art visit my Reno News + Review author page.

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