Living the Questions
The part of being an artist that few people honestly talk about is finding their artistic voice. You can train, practice art-making skills, but the most challenging part of creating art is finding your “voice,” part of finding your “style,” and then using that consistent voice to create a body of work.
Over the past couple of months, I have thought a lot about my voice, which inevitably led me to think about the purpose of art. When I did some internet searching, I found a gross overview of art’s purpose. For clarity the “goog” identified five types of art; ceremonial art, part of rituals or religious ceremonies; functional art, design used in everyday activities; persuasive art promoting ideas, narrative art illustrating stories, and artistic art, expressing emotion....but this feels like a deeply oversimplified view. All “artistic art” tells a story and in many ways promotes ideas. Art inherently helps us uncover hidden truths, sometimes about ourselves, at other times about our culture.
Edward Degas, of Impressionist fame, once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Marcel Duchamp echoed those sentiments 50 years later saying, “What art is, in reality, is the missing link, not the links that exist. It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.” Picasso argued the reverse, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
American designer and writer James Baldwin also believed the purpose of art was to reveal the truth, “laid bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” It reminds me of that line from Rainer Maria Rilke, “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Where am I going with all of this? As a woman living in Utah, I am constantly challenged by sexual stereotypes and the culture of “nice.” The longer I am in the culture, the more I feel like a volcano: all my power, stuffed into my underground, creating a crucible. And then there’s all that “sitting and watching thoughts practice” and realizing, it’s my habit to rebel. There is most certainly a neural highway that leads there, well worn over 53 years. The more I feel like I am in a box, the greater my desire to shatter the expectation, to upend your world, to shout, “because you can’t limit me, define me... I will rise higher,” or something like that. It’s neither pretty nor nice, just a large <insert favorite curse here> in there.
How does this translate into art-making? The cultural expectation for female Utah artists is to create pretty florals, pretty pictures of Utah’s stunning landscapes, paint pictures of families, and sun-kissed children, to sell at local art markets, largely populated by female artists. (Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome for the vibrant art community in Utah, AND this needs to be said...) The unspoken expectation is we must uplift, inspire, support our families and communities. I agree. But here’s my rub: I want more than flowers and landscapes. I have raised five children, been married nearly 30 years, put my career on hold all that time, and I’m tired of holding my breath. I’ve done so much uplifting and inspiring- now I want to feel, think, examine. I want you to feel, think, examine. I want you to take a deep dive into the parts that are harder to consider. I want you to get comfortable with the unknown. I want you to feel. Not just for your community or your family, but for your heart, the stranger’s heart, the heart you don’t understand. I want you to see our interconnectedness with the land, the sky, your neighbor, the stranger.
Yes, like Van Gogh, I want to touch people with my art. I want you to know I feel deeply, tenderly feel. But I want my work to be less about me and more about us. I want to reveal questions, covered by answers. Like Francis Bacon, I want to deepen the mystery of life. Like Georgia O’keefe, make my “unknown, known,” and mostly I want to help you live everything, live your way to the answers in your soul.
In closing, thank you for taking this journey with me, as I wrestle with my questions and my rebellion. Thank you for being willing to hold my hand as I step into my unknown, rummaging around in the shadows to live my answers and find my artistic voice. May we inspire each other in all our interconnectedness and being. May we be brave, compassionate, and honest.