Yesterday, J. Kwegyir Aggrey of Ghana wrote, “In my society there is no single word for ‘art.’ We have no distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft.’ All are creative activities requiring skills and a sense of aesthetics. The aesthetic qualities of arts are not only determined by the language of art (i.e., rhythms, balance, shapes, lines, texture, etc.) but by the ethics or values of the people. Several art forms can be combined for a purpose. For example, music, sculpture, pottery, painting, textiles and dance may be used simultaneously. (A man may dance to a drum while wearing a mask and a special costume with his body partially painted — while carrying a ceremonial pot.) Art is a necessity, an integral force and a part of living — an essential role in everyday lives of Ghanaian communities. A particular work of art may be destroyed after use, no matter how beautiful or expensive it may be. We also have taboos: A blacksmith should not strike a person with his bare hands. A carver should not work when annoyed. Tools and materials need respect. The arts are not the privilege of a few selected people.”
Thanks, Kwegyir. I’ve never actually been hit by a blacksmith, but it’s handy to know that when I am, she’s liable to do it with her ball-peen hammer. What is evident from Kwegyir’s information is just how universal and yet how particular are one’s attitudes about art. Both relief and insight are here. By contrast, in Western cultures it’s safe to say that art is often relegated to an elite activity — for the benefit of insiders. Broadening this base would mean inviting art into our human totality. In both cultures, art is a part of the way we understand things. In this sense we are brothers and sisters. We, the windows to our cultures, struggle daily with the same sorts of challenges — to understand, modify, and remake our worlds in our own way. Alone, but not always alone, we perform our dances.
Art need not be precious. Art’s a doing thing that sometimes gets commercialized — even in Ghana. Investment in, speculation on, and the private coveting of art are not prerequisite in all places. One might conclude that the introduction of commerce adds an odd spin to the act of art. But it’s still the ideas, tools, process and spirit that make art. For the people of this planet, art is as perennial as joy.
PS: “The visible universe is a storehouse of signs to which the imagination assigns a place and a relative value; it is a kind of nourishment that the imagination must digest and transform.” (Charles Baudelaire) “Everything that exists is the seed of that which will be.” (Marcus Aurelius)
Esoterica: Yesterday I also received a note from Duane Dorshimer of Raleigh, N.C. He asked, “What is your artistic mission? To express? To communicate? To decorate? To idealize? To profit?” Thanks, Duane. Writing these twice-weekly letters has helped me to realize that there’s more than one reason to make art. In my case it’s everything you mentioned, but that stuff came later. When I was a kid I saw shamans who danced to a different drummer. I wanted to be like them, to have their power. I admired what those magicians did — and the skill and craft required to do it. It seemed to me to be a good thing, a good life.
Art stays, fashion goes
by Norman Ridenour, Czechoslovakia
Western art has indeed become a marketing game but that is not new. Rubens once remarked that there were only three men in Europe who could afford him. Sadly the result, as with serious music, is to drive a wall between art and people. This is compounded by the industries’ need to sell kitsch and limited lifetime goods. Art stays and fashion goes. Too much design and “art” is only fashion and fad. The second trend is to separate art from society and its rituals. In Ghana art is still an integral part of society and its rituals. In America, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer on the door at Christmas does not make a spiritual statement to the inner man or woman.
Long live the few
by SR Sopha, NH, USA
While I do believe art is a universal thing, I can’t, and never will consider ceremony or the implements thereof as art. Being raised American Indian, I am often insulted by people who would term Native American pottery and costume as art. These things are implements of our society, some decorated, some not. There’s an enormous difference between craft, decoration and art. This world is already inundated with images — the computer, television, book covers, album covers, graphic designs on everything — should we consider this as art? Should we consider everyone an artist? To remove the idea of innate talents and genius from the title Artist is an unfortunate road to be going down. I think this will lead to a complete disregard for the fine arts and those (once) few who create it. I for one have always felt honored and privileged to be a part of something so small and incredible as that of art. I refuse to be put into the same context as a decorator, craftsman, ad campaigner, or occupant of a ceremonial procession. The fine line must not be crossed, and we as artists must not push for its crossing. Long live the few.
Joy in the process
by Fay Bohlayer, Dawsonville, GA, USA
One would have to catch people before they are forced to ‘stay within the lines,’ but wouldn’t it be fine if everyone naturally and regularly “made art”? Ah…”make Art, not War!” Much more effective than to admonish one to “make Love…” — making love requires another person and reciprocal action, whereas making art only needs one do-er and whatever fantasies and joy you have within. It increases my joy to make it, regardless of the art piece’s fate. Some are given, some are sold, most relegated to the lower closet, perhaps to be recycled or, as in the case of the 6″x 8″ oil rejects, to make swell shingles for the doghouse. The joy’s in the process, not the product.
Art has been splintered
by Pat Hart, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
J. Kwegyir Aggrey’s letter made me realize how Western societies have splintered the thing called Art. We call it ‘The Arts.’ Other societies are still closer to their ancestral roots, when ‘the Arts’ were considered a vital link between the physical and the unknown, but strongly sensed non-physical. I wonder what kinds of music, song, dance, and costumes accompanied the making of the cave paintings. Some modern installation and conceptual art is making a few connections, but the ‘soul’ and original intentions are not there yet.
The creative urge we humans feel from birth — to draw, paint, sing, dance and decorate ourselves and our surroundings is largely stifled by left-brained, bottom-line driven education and lifestyle. In North America particularly, art and music are only electives in post-elementary education. Perhaps this is why so many folks are intimidated by art galleries and baffled by ‘classical’ music.
Art for dummies
by Barbara MacDougall, Paris, ON, Canada
Art already surrounds us in its totality. I challenge anyone to point to something that hasn’t been designed by someone somewhere, from a toothbrush to a toilet to the roll of toilet paper to the car to the computer — every single fabricated thing and a lot of so-called natural things in the world, including our very appearance, have been designed, or redesigned, and started existence as pieces of artwork. I once heard about the principal of a public school saying he was cutting the funding for art classes because “art was for dummies.” Those kids doodling away in the back row (and I was one of them) may never grow up to be a Picasso or an Emily Carr, but with encouragement and training instead of constant putdowns and, yes, vilification, could grow up to be prosthetics designers, bridge engineers, furniture designers, surgical equipment designers. In the end it’s all design, and the design either works or it doesn’t. Why does our culture persist in separating art from function? Art from craft? Lauding one and sneering at the practitioners of the other? As a culture our aesthetic sense is shaped — and more often than not dulled — by what we see around us, because given our collective wealth and education at the start of the 21st century we truly are surrounded by a preponderance of bad design and eyesores upon the land, in our homes and in the media.
(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. For some tips on design from Architectural visionary Christopher Alexander see the clickback Pattern language or for quotes on design have a look in our Resource of Art Quotations: Design category.
Dark side of the dream
by H. Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA
In all my years as a horse owner and artist, I never met one female blacksmith! Regarding the commercial aspect of art, Western society has converted almost everything into a money transaction. It is a form of control, of course. Some artists can work it out, but many flounder. In Santa Fe, we have artists looking good to the public and in galleries, but then filing for bankruptcy. It’s the dark side of the dream. Western society doesn’t seem very creative when you look at our art, compared to our supplies and resources.
Rescuing the world
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
The most ancient societies have the wisdom of tens of thousands of years. Art is not separable from life — it is the expressive ability of man. Any man can sing, write stories, put paint at canvas, but “art” we call the best results of such handmade activity because simple forms of craft were given to the new machines. Prices decreased.
In a wonderful way it appears that the arts are naturally combining and J. Kwegyir Aggrey confirms it with the many-thousand experiences of ancient folklore examples that the place of each separate art is among other arts. It is simple: artists of images, music and language expression join together to rescue our world for mankind.
And the gardener that doesn’t think of himself as an artist… shaping gardens, using textures (brick, wood, stone, iron) and then choosing his subject as to what flowers, and where for color and height. When the gardener thinks he’s expressed himself with his choices, he frames it all with a carefully groomed area of grass. It’s obvious — art is all around us and everywhere… my conclusion — art is!
Art in the true sense
by John Rocheleau, BC, Canada
I totally agree that all creation is art in the broad sense. Certainly the artisan who creates with an inner sense and feel for his creation is producing art. I am a painter and sculptor. I also make briar pipes and market them online. Whether it is a painting or a pipe, the same expression, artistic skill, and emotional involvement gives rise to the creation. The term “practical art” comes to mind. My customers always convey to me their appreciation of these qualities, and so it completes the circle. My forms arise from deep within me, and emerge into the briar quite naturally. The forms are never preplanned. I connect within, and allow my hands to follow that feeling, interacting with the nature of the material. Together, the material and I arrive at the final creation. I consider them art in the true sense of the word.
Intimidation of art
by Germaine Savo, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
I live on Gabriola, a small island off the coast of British Columbia and we are getting ready for the annual Thanksgiving studio tour. Every year, I see people come into studios as if into a spaceship: Am I welcome? Will I get put on the spot about my knowledge of art, or lack of? Will I have to buy something? What are the expectations “ordinary” people feel when they enter an art space, even a very welcoming studio with the scent of spiced cider warming on the stove?
I know that many of my non-artist friends have feelings of inequality, ignorance and intimidation around the art that they are drawn to. “Is that framed watercolour worth the price that is being charged?” Like there is a secret book somewhere that only certain people have access to and that the rules about art are carved there in stone. We like to talk about the freedom and importance of making mistakes in our culture but in reality most of us fear this happening. This anxiety is often present for a person who doesn’t feel “in the know” about art but wants to participate as a viewer and possibly a purchaser.
This reminds me of the way some artists allow the gallery/dealer/collector/critic scene to become so intimidating that they would rather meet the aliens from the spaceship and face the dreaded anal-probe than face a gallery owner. How can we welcome viewers who might wish to investigate our process?
(RG note) Thanks, Germaine. Useful material on letting someone else share the magic for you can be found in the clickback Gallery joy.
Theory of distraction
by Marie Renfro, Allen, TX, USA
I found your theory of distraction very interesting. I had recently realized that some of my best paintings were demonstration paintings in front of an audience or class. I never had decided why, unless the added pressure to do a good job made my senses sharper. I am an intuitive painter and so other than really think about what I am going to do, for example, colors, shapes and design, I don’t have a definite plan. After 35 years of painting and teaching I think it is interesting that it took me this long to realize this. I was also amazed to read your letter about the issue. I thought I was alone in this!
Photographer not upset
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
Today I received a letter from the photographer Pat Morrow — reprieving me from my ‘crime’ of painting from his Tibetan Man!
Meanwhile Frank (down the hall) and I have undone my website and are re-making it from images that are not infringement-prone paintings. Pat Morrow has appeased my anxieties in this matter. He wrote, “Hi Dave, nice renditions of the old man in the Chinese Pamir (he’s a Kirghiz Muslim, not Tibetan Buddhist). And thanks for your concerns about copyright, etc. In the context that you used the imagery, there’s no problem. And in such a situation, I’m not even worried about getting a credit. So, all I can say is, keep on painting those great images! Pat”
Also, I just thought I’d let you know that I have written to Brad Rines and thanked him for helping me to give due priority to copyrighted stuff — which I am intending to esteem as taboo henceforth — in order to avoid unwanted nervous dilemma. I sent him a copy of Pat Morrow’s letter as well.
(RG note) Thanks, David, Pat, Brad and Frank (down the hall). You’ll find a variety of opinions and information on this subject in the clickback Am I plagiarizing?
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Linda B who wrote, “Ghana… nirvana… seed, sower, harvest… art… all beautiful, in the Hindu tradition of nirvana.”
And also Nancy Moskovitz of Ocala, Florida who wrote, “It’s the picture on the wall art that is considered elite. Put the same picture on a gourd and consider it sold! Better yet, make a purse out of that gourd.”
And also Barbara Cruikshank who wrote, “Please write more about the shamans you saw as a kid. What were they actually doing? What did you think they were doing? What was the result of what they did?”
(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. I was talking about the work of painters such as John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell and James Tissot, and others that first took my eye. There were also local painters with a professional approach: Will Menelaws, Lawren Harris, Jack Shadbolt, Walter Phillips.