Who Makes Art?

Unreviewed along the way in this article:

  • The Death of the Artist by Karrie Fransman
  • The Dawn of the Unread project
  • Frontier #6 by Emily Carroll
  • Exit Wounds by Rutu modan
  • The Park by Oscar Zarate
  • The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis (again! I like this one)
  • The Applied Cartooning Manifesto by The Centre for Cartoon Studies
  • The Generated Detective by Greg Borenstein
  • Six Word Story by Ernest Hemingway (and others)

What is Art? It’s a huge question with very little boundary or frame of reference. In fact, it’s massive – it has no edges whatsoever. So, I’m going to sidestep it altogether here, and look at something much more tractable. Who makes art, and why?

Our society generally subscribes to the myth of the Lone Artist – a special individual with a unique vision that they need to impart to the world. And having subscribed to that idea, we see what we want to see, even when reality is otherwise. Even our publishing institutions get stuck in this way of seeing things – as Sarah McIntyre’s recent writings and campaigning on the treatment of illustrators ably demonstrates.

Art can indeed be made by remarkable individuals, or even by collaborations between small huddles of remarkable individuals such as a writer and an illustrator, but even that isn’t the only model.

Art can often work when it reaches out beyond the originators’ own concerns, to touch a wider audience. Good art often works by requiring audience participation, letting the reader/viewer/imbiber (you are au fait with these new edible comics, aren’t you? they’re all the rage!) bring something to the table, to actively engage in the experience. A bit of ambiguity or open-endedness can be very satisfying – recent examples I’ve come across in comics include Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds, Oscar Zarate’s The Park and Rob Davis’ The Motherless Oven – all of which leave the reader guessing as to what happens after the story’s finished. In the case of “Exit Wounds”, a fraction of a second after the story finishes, as we leave the protagonist jumping/falling out of a tree. In the case of The Park, even the parting symbolism is ambiguous – are we looking at a heart, or a broken heart? Either could be very apposite, depending on how the conversation we’ve just drifted away from concludes.

One can go one step further, and engage with the audience during the creation of a work. Surrendering control early on in the creative process can be a remarkable experience. The Applied Cartooning Manifesto is certainly an eye-opening read, pointing to uses of cartooning in service to the community, as well as to the inner artist.  The Dawn of the Unread project, which released it’s final section yesterday, is a great example of this, harnessing a diverse collection of creators in the service of public libraries (which perform a great service to us all), in a completely bananas, un-po-faced way (head on over to their site for details: in a nutshell, famous figures from Nottingham’s history rise from the dead to stalk the streets in search of boooksss!) There are a number of stories, covering quite a range of styles, and a variety of local characters including thieves, preachers and of course, being Nottingham, Robin Hood. It’s all available to read online, at the link above.

Community-driven art projects like this de-emphasise the role of the individual artist, but I don’t think they diminish them – when an artist engages with the community, something quite powerful can happen. Joe Sacco, Daryl Cunningham, “Bad Doctor” Iwan Williams and Ravi Thornton all spring to mind.

(Quick aside and plug: this has been my own experience with the work I’ve done with Kendal Community Theatre at the Lakes Festival last year, in improvising a photo comic strip. I decided that I had to surrender control before I met the theatre crew and photographers, and arrive without a clear storyline or plot, just a bag of themes and ideas to get things started. It’s been eye-opening, and really helped me grow as an artist. Watching key episodes in the story I’m creating unfold from the antics of a teenager, a middle aged person and an older person, for example, has been way better than pulling things out of my on creative pipe. I’ll write more about the process of that project some other time – back to the topic at hand now…)

I’ve been sitting on this article for a week or so, and have come back several times with further examples of creative work that wasn’t undertaken by a lone heroic artist. In the interests of space and time, I’ll just list them here:

1. Tribal art e.g. Australian aboriginal art. This has become quite collectible in the international art world in the last few decades, but the art world really has struggled with the concept that the art isn’t the product of an individual, but of the community, the language group, and spiritual traditions.

2. Loveable graffiti-ist Banksy’s work has become collectible in spite of the fact that it’s often rooted to large immovable structures, and he’s had quite a bit of fun with the fact that he’s anonymous and an art-world celeb, and blurs the line between vandal and  high artist.

3. Lennon & McCartney published all their songs for the Beatles as co-written. There’s an endless fascination with dissecting these, figuring out who “really” wrote which ones. Does it really matter?

4. 1930’s mathematician Nicholas Bourbaki was actually a pseudonym for a group of well over a dozen mathematicians, writing collectively about Set theory (and yes, I’ll argue interminably that maths is at least partly a creative venture!)

5. Cut-up and repurposing of old art in new forms can be powerful. Pioneered by the surrealists (Max Ernst’s Week of Kindness is a good comics-related example!), this has made it’s way into fairly mainstream culture with, for example Steve Martin’s (and Carl Reiner’s, and Rachel Ward’s, and many others…) Dead Men Don’t wear Plaid. Often still the work of one or two auteurs, drawing on older material from previous creatives takes the artist outside themselves, and brings in other influences.

6. Digitally-generated narratives such as Greg Borenstein’s Generated Detective take the cut-up approach of injecting random outside influences a step further, by surrendering control of the elements of the art to a computer-driven algorithm. (I’ve dabbled with this too, FWIW, although it appears not to have aged very well, with several panels since being removed from Flickr!)

7. Karrie Fransman’s comic book experiment The Death of the Artist is a collaborative piece of work between five artists, each telling part of a true story – in radically different styles – that involves them all as protagonists. Or is it? Or (…wait for it…) is it?!

I’m going to take a detour into Fransman’s work at this point, and look at it in a bit more detail. Trust me, by the time I’m done, I’ll be back on-topic. (Oh, and the next road sign reads “spoilers ahead”, I think that’s part of internet etiquette these days, isn’t it?)

The Death of the Artist is a contentious, polarising book. Gut reaction first – I didn’t enjoy reading it, I didn’t like the characters, with their petty self-absorptions, artistic pretensions and back-biting. In the final chapter, with Vincent’s death, something big and portentous has happened in their lives, and it doesn’t seem to be processed by any of them properly. Along the way, drugs are consumed, casual hook-ups are had, and they wallow in their own unpleasantness. After the first reading, I was scrabbling for some connections between the pieces, wondering what they all made of each other after telling their stories, whether they’d moved on at all from that overarching point of view that life ends in your mid-twenties, that responsibility and creativity are mortal enemies. I wondered why it had been written, why only one of the five contributors had her name on the front (“and friends”), what the royalty split was, what the owners of the cottage (who are named) would think about the debauchery going on at their place, and so on. My buttons were well and truly pushed, and I realised that I was really enjoying the awful spectacle of it, and the grubby little feeling of superiority! So I went off to wash the dishes until I got over it.

A couple of weeks or so rolled by, and Richard Bruton’s excellent review of the book came out, and got me seriously wondering whether the five characters were real. I’m tempted to say the other four – Karrie Fransman’s real, she does courses for the Guardian, and I watched her very good TEDx talk on youtube a while back, before getting the book. But I’ve also read an interview with a couple of the other protagonists in it – they fight amongst themselves rather realistically, don’t they, but it’s almost too neat? And there’s no reason that the real Karrie Fransman is the character called Karrie Fransman depicted in the book – Paul Auster‘s played that game before, and I doubt he’s the only one. Coleridge blurred the lines between fiction and reality in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s original introduction. Italo Calvino and John Fowles played cat and mouse games with the reader in some of their writings (and if you like horror, check out Emily Carroll’s XXXX industrial-strength-fourth-wall-breaking scary story in Frontier #6, which made me switch on the night light at night for a couple of days after reading it, I’m not ashamed to say!) Borges wrote fiction under all kinds of disguises – encyclopedia entries, accounts of dreams, even book reviews (so watch out!!)

So if they’re not real people, what’s going on? Bad stuff’s happened by the end of the story – whatever I might think of Karrie and co, they’ve lost a friend, and could have maybe done something to stop that happening – and that’s a hell of a lot to deal with, and there are hints that they realise this. Is the book a cathartic re-working of traumatic events into something else? Like that mega-button-pushing epicentre of modern art controversy, Tracey Emin’s bed (which I do not hold in high regard, for what little that matters), is this a bold reinterpretation of the artist’s shortcomings and human failings, a refusal to dress life up with a civilised or aesthetic veneer?

And of course, the portrayals in the book are not completely real people, they’re marks and cut-out photos on paper, with word bubbles in their mouths. The presence of an editor, shaping what is presented, is evident. Are we being invited to consider the real nature of art, to look at the multitude of hinges and mirrors that get in the way of someone else trying to communicate their experience, even when it’s as warts-n-all as this? Is the apparent naivete and self-absorption calculated to get a response, and, if so, to what extent can they (or the “she” behind the fictional “they”, if that’s the case) really see beyond it? As a forty-odd year old, can I recall how I felt about life in my late twenties? Did I understand the balance between responsibility and creativity in the way I do now? What will I see when I’m sixty?

For an unlikeable, flimsy piece of work, it sure raises a lot of interesting questions! And they don’t come easy, I feel like I’m having to do a lot of work to pull them out. Am I just a lazy reader, who prefers to be spoon-fed my profundity?

This is the point where we rejoin the main road. (If every book review followed a car journey metaphor, things would flow more smoothly altogether, in a roundabout sort of way.) By goading the reader into taking their own baggage with them, is Karrie Fransman reaching out to her audience, so that each reader experiences the work differently? Is surrender of the aesthetic polish a necessity to achieving this? Is this, in fact, a valid kind of community art?

I really don’t know. From the way I’ve couched the questions above, it undoubtedly is. To the extent that it focuses so heavily on the role of the artist, and subscribes to the myth of the Lone Artist as Special Person, then no, I don’t think it is. For my money, art about art is often narrow and exclusive – I know many interesting people for whom artistic aspirations/status are really not an issue, and, while I enjoy the company of other artists, I wouldn’t want to limit the reach of my own work just to that circle. Given this book’s ephemeral nature, I don’t think it can be pinned down as exclusively reaching out or looking inwards. Can it only achieve this ambiguity by being so insubstantial? Is less more? – another big unanswerable question.

So I was going to leave it at that when another thought occurred to me. It’s none of the above, it’s a colouring book. On closer inspection, a lot of the pages are already coloured in, and the paper’s quite shiny – my crayons had trouble taking to it. So, maybe not – I had to rethink. Slumped across my desk in an etch-a-sketch induced stupour, the real answer came to me. It’s actually a puzzle book.

A quick search on TripAdvisor combined with google maps brings up the exact location of “Ben” and “Nicky”‘s house in the Peak District, cross-reference those with the positions of the local millstone grit features known as “The one-eyed Welshman” and “The Hags”, and we get a triangle some 30km along each edge. Overlaying the mirror image of the (quite literally) painted lady in the photo story on the map, lining up her eyes and nose with the boundary fence of the pub with the same name, highlights a particular spot in a nearby field. Fortunately, it’s quite close to the home of my long-standing friend Maddy Updike. I gave her a call with the information above this morning, and her two sons went up there with their shovels and unearthed a marvellous golden terrier, on the side of which was inscribed the real meaning of the book. But I had my fingers crossed when I read it, so it made no sense. Do I get my five pounds now?

Confound it, if I’m going to get any sense out of this book, I’ll have to put some work into it, so I might as well have some fun getting there!

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