Memes are like genes — they carry characteristics from one generation to the next. Unlike genes, memes don’t hang out in chromosomes, they live and thrive within the culture and environment. In studies of various religions, for example, we find that faiths are generally passed from one generation to the next. If your parents and community happen to be Mormon, there is a high likelihood that you, at least at first, will also be one. Social scientist Richard Dawkins has noted, “Different schools and genres of art can be analyzed as alternative memeplexes, as artists copy ideas and motifs from earlier artists.” In other words, the subject matter we choose, the style in which we work, the attitudes that we hold, are based on our environment, history and familial prejudices. In the wild and wonderful world of art, what we do is somewhat predictable.
Just as with religious people, we artists are inclined to measure our preferences against what we habitually know. Unless one is very broad-minded indeed, the schools we choose will often be in line with our memetic beliefs.
In a Darwinian sense, where you have natural selection happening, art evolves from generation to generation at glacial speed. This is okay, honouring as we do the traditions of care, craftsmanship and technique. On the other hand, mutant artists, like the statistical ten percent of Mormon kids who go astray, may become the pioneers of new ways of looking at things. Mainline or mutant, it’s survival of the fittest.
It’s been my observation that the artistic pot doesn’t get stirred nearly enough. This is one of the reasons I’m so much in favour of artists trying to understand and appreciate all art forms. It can’t be heresy for a fixated floral painter to expose herself to the joys of conceptual art. In my books, “comparative art” should be part of the personal curriculum. It’s exhilarating and it’s liberating.
At the same time, labeling what you are is not a bad idea, even when the label may soon be peeled away. The value of labeling is that you can more easily see outward to areas of fertilization and growth. Wider understanding gives creative power. This may even lead to finding a specialty that is, as they say, “truly you.” It’s the fit that counts. As you broaden your mind, you are likely to thrive in your more natural pew.
PS: “Tread softly, because you tread on my memes.” (Richard Dawkins)
Esoterica: The British Virgin Islands, from which I’ve just returned, form a relatively isolated artistic memeplex. The going memes of painting and sculpture include the gay colours of Caribbean tradition — craftwork with heavy emphasis on brilliant lizards (there’s a variety of them running wild), fish, birds and briny beasts. As well as the inevitable swashbuckling patch-eyed, parroted pirates, there’s a healthy supply of palm-shaded beaches graced with hip-swinging natives in calypso mood. “Stylized” and “naive” might be words you could use to describe this art.
By contrast, where I am now in St. Barts, a department of Guadalupe and France, the wealth meme is evident. In this jet-set playground, the memes of Paris, New York and London grace gallery walls and luxury villas. I’m trying not to use the word “sophisticated.” Let’s just say that the wealth meme travels and makes art homogenous.
All art is derivative
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I believe all art is derivative. There is no form of art that is totally original, though occasionally there is a “mutant” artist who comes along that is seemingly out of step with what is being produced in the mainstream at that point in time. By looking at and being familiar with all types of art, you are filling your brain with influences that may or may not show up in your painting. Over time, if you paint a lot you will find what type of art best suits you. This infatuation with ‘originality’ is a modern art construct… a silly concession to marketing concerns.
Good to get bored
by Mary Ann Laing, Victoria, BC, Canada
Finding our “true selves” as artists is facing the reality that as we evolve, so will our work. It changes slightly and constantly. I find that I don’t even take notice of the change in my work until I look back at what I’ve done before. It doesn’t even have to be done long ago. No two paintings are identical, close, but not. I suppose there is a limit to what I will challenge myself to produce, but I hope not. I can see how I am influenced by being a West Coast Canadian. If I lived in Paris, I would be painting entirely different work. It’s a good thing to get bored, it forces me to do something different and hopefully exciting.
by Diane Williams, Calgary, AB, Canada
I’m curious. Is there a reason Mormons were part of this writing? Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said that people leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone. People I know who have left the Mormon church are certainly not breaking new creative ground. Most are busy managing their depression, anxiety and dysfunction. Do you know some who are doing otherwise?
When forced to be silent
by Jeanne Rhea, Raleigh, NC, USA
There are so many art discussion groups on the Internet that do not allow discussion on religion or politics. It is difficult to find one where artists who are influenced by religion and politics can participate fully. For me it is impossible to always separate art from religion and politics. I find myself wanting to do political cartoons just to make commentary when I am not allowed to voice an opinion. Maybe that is how many artists become so good. They have to make the art when they are forced to be silent.
Floating through memes
by Miranda Gray, Santa Fe, NM, USA
I’ve always likened art schools to religious denominations. Each art school has its doctrine, its belief structure, its ideas of how one could backslide and go to hell. I went to a conceptually-based fine art school. When I moved to New York and became a textile designer to make a living, I got a great deal of flack from my former classmates who’d gone on to gaining teaching positions and gallery representation. Many years later, I’ve gone full circle, back to painting, but I incorporate patterns in my egg tempera paintings. Memes. I changed denominations, strayed from the faith, but later created my own “religion” from all the memes I’ve floated through.
Pushing the envelope
by Cathy Johnson, MO, USA
As a teacher, I often try to allow my students to see that experimentation is indeed broadening — and liberating. How many times have we heard, or been told, as artists — usually by a gallery owner or someone who has a vested interest in our staying the same — that we need to SETTLE on a style or medium, or we’ll never be taken seriously as artists? We must find our niche, our area of expertise, and stick with it.
Nuts! Yes, if you MUST sell to a specific audience, perhaps — but if you want to keep growing as a creative being? I’m always looking for that edge of the envelope to push — and then grab the letter opener.
Break out and free yourself
by Marie Lyon, Summerside, PEI, Canada
I’m at a point of disinterest in artists who are technically adept in a subject and/or medium and pursue it to the ninth degree, never trying to find out what it’s like outside the box. I, in my no-doubt biased mind, want to shake them out of their safe spot. It’s like decorating in ‘safe beige’ or buying your art to match your couch. Break out and free yourself, I want to yell. It will be like a breath of fresh air and you will grow.
I paint weekly with two groups, one is mostly in ‘cautious mode’ while most artists in the other group are exploring and willing to benefit from mistakes, often getting exciting results from these accidents. It’s much more rewarding to be with the second group — you benefit from their attempts.
Same old stuff?
by Lana Schuster, BC, Canada
I teach fashion design and textiles in high school. Currently I am taking an online course in textiles through UBC. Our class is reading on and having a discussion on creativity, and ‘is there anything original produced any more, can there be?’ or do we just keep producing the same old stuff in newly combined ways? In one article we read by Marvin Bartel’s (2006) titled Teaching Creativity. We learned how these re-combinations of other things can only be used to create something truly original if we add something from ourselves into it.
Longing of the senses
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
C. S. Lewis says, “What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.” I think philosophy is the sometimes blaring, sometimes subtle grid through which we accept or reject the memes of our surroundings. “Learning from experience” is a powerful tool for artists, whether it be our own experience or the experience of others who have found excellence and passed it own. Lewis also says, “What the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses. Even in this life, matter would be nothing to us if it were not the source of sensations . . .” Artists of all mediums bear a great responsibility to produce work that is based on Truth because this longing of the senses shapes our culture.
“… nothing in which the art is uppermost is worth the art expended upon it.” (George MacDonald, Guild Court: A London Story)
Searching for the process
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
As I look back at my creative past I am reminded of Goldie Locks and the three bears. I seem to try different approaches to my art yet none of them fit just right. I am often swayed by some strong outside influence, usually a person or philosophy that has come into my life at that time. Then I will take in their influence for a while until I see that it does not fit with my personal sense of truth. Having tried this and that, I am still unsatisfied and searching for the process that feels “just right.” I do seem to have those just right feelings intermittently, but once they come too easily, and my challenge is reduced, I start getting antsy to move on.
Exploration appears to be the answer after all. Play is a big part of being an artist. Children explore, play, get bored and move on. As adults we know we have to persevere to pursue excellence, but deep down I think the child rules.
Conceptual art helps realism
by Linda Walker, Bemidji, MN, USA
Throughout high school, college and my early relationships with artists from the La Cienega, I had been prodded in the direction of avant-garde art. Finally I had the pleasure of 2 years of intense instruction in the basics of realism. I find that when painting realism the ‘sense memory’ is a great part of the pleasure. I am able to recall the treks my parents and later my husband took me on to parks and wilderness areas and as well as my travel to Europe and Africa. While I gained the education to know what I like in the world of conceptual art I find totality in what I do. Even setting up a still life takes on meanings of familiarity and painting wildlife and landscapes take me directly to their place of origin.
by Carol Morrison, Oakville, NS, Canada
As a fan of Richard Dawkins, I was very interested in your last letter in which you talk about his concept of “memes.” I was a contemporary of his at the same university, and remember seeing him while taking a special course in animal behaviour, although I did not (unfortunately) get to know him. When my laboratory closed I took advantage of a retraining grant to develop my other passion, painting, and completed my BFA two years ago. I would encourage artists to read Dawkins books, starting, probably, with Unweaving the rainbow. Dawkins writes clearly, and explains the wonder of the world around us very well. It is much more mind-bending stuff than science fiction and, I think, gives you some idea of why most of us try to connect with other living things.
Breaking the tradition
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA
I come from a long line of non-artists in my family lineage. My family’s art was that of the mind. They were thinkers and writers, not visual artists. Where I came from may have been an explosive renaissance of sorts. I acknowledge that breaking tradition has great merit, and it offers a freedom, that by design happens naturally it seems.
But I have to admit, I take exception to the notion of labeling. I find labeling to be our culture’s obsession with having to neatly define everything it sees. I don’t want a label for my art, just an appreciation from the heart, more than the mind. I want my art to be experienced, to be taken in and consumed emotionally. Too much thinking can interfere with that process in my opinion.
Unlocking the mystery
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Almost every topic goes back to that nagging question: why do we create art? There are many theories and who cares whys, but the question still keeps coming back at me. Somehow I keep thinking that unlocking that mystery is essential, and at the same time I know that I never will.
I find two distinct types of art that I create. One is for the joy of the process — I truly do not care how the thing looks at the end as long I enjoyed the process and learned something along the way. This is my “experimental” stuff which I happily toss into a dark cupboard or a file (honestly I used to agonize over these, but not any more).
The second type is the art with which I desire to touch someone. It can be ugly or full of mistakes, I don’t care if I feel that the end result gives me, and thus someone else too, a kick in the heart. Obviously this is an attempt at communication — but why? How is that special communication different from the “normal” one? Why do the artists nurture it and why is it important? Is that just our lizard brain or our mammalian brain sending out garbled messages? How come that many non-artists appreciate this, but some don’t? If there is a box of paints (musical instrument, pen and paper, chunk of clay…) laying around, why do some reach for it and some don’t? More importantly, of those who reach for it, why do some go to a room and never come out, and some inflict their doing on the public (no, it’s not the money, money can be made in larger quantities with less effort, and it can buy a lifestyle).
Enjoy the past comments below for Creative memes…
acrylic on linen painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Bill Skuce who wrote, “I find it somewhat incongruous that in drawing parallels between artists, religions and religious people you do so in the embrace of ideas advanced by Richard Dawkins who has set himself up as the high priest of atheism in his recent book, The God Delusion.”
And also Frances Stilwell of Corvallis, OR, USA who wrote, “Jeez, you’re good. I just returned from NYC–the last place I ever wanted to go. But Wolf Kahn was teaching his once a year workshop and I finally had the wherewithal…”
And also Jenny Vorwaller who wrote, “I usually feel so inspired by your words, but today it’s almost like I’ve been let down by a good friend! I find this a really untactful and just plain bad metaphor to compare a group of people leaving the Mormon faith to the progression of art!”
And also JanetToney of Greeneville, TN, USA who wrote, “Unlike following a religion to save our souls from hell fire and damnation in the next life, art is to feed our ‘souls’ while we are living.”
And also Kim Rushing who wrote, “When I began to sing other styles of music, I found this deepened my singing of my preferred style (jazz)… improved my voice, deepened my concepts… There is something powerful in opening up and embracing what we may think we recoil from.”
And also Gene Black who wrote, “I agree that what we do is somewhat predictable. But when we let go, when we let the inner child out, when we PLAY, then we become unpredictable and often exceed ourselves.”
And also Dave Brown who wrote, “As usual, reading your e-mails and visiting the clickback is for me a much anticipated pleasure and learning experience. It’s sort of like a very pleasant tea and biscuit or beer and pizza session with good friends… recently like listening to really fine jazz musicians or a concerto — a theme is set out and then the fun begins.”