Updated: Apr 20, 2020
So I was in Portland, Oregon last week, which explains my hiatus from writing, and I got to visit Powell’s books which is the world’s largest independent bookstore. This place was super awesome and has absolutely nothing to do with this article aside from fueling my ever growing obsession with art books and me wanting to give them a shoutout. But anyways, while I was there I bought this tiny book, maybe 5x5”, called Basquiat-isms and it’s literally just a book of quotes from Jean-Michel Basquiat edited by Larry Warsh. That’s it, just 93 pages of quotes about the varying stages of the artistic process. At its core it might be one of the simplest books on the market but it got me thinking about how much art has changed since their voice as started to matter.
When we look at the great “geniuses” of classical art, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, all of the usual suspects, our knowledge of them is built almost entirely around their art. We don’t really know about them as a person, we just have loose timelines of when things were painted and maybe a few documents that can tie them to a certain place at a certain time. Our scopes of these artists we look to so often are largely inferred because we just don’t have enough personal information on them and that’s mostly because artists weren’t regarded as celebrities or people of status. They were just workers, specialized workers, of course, but that didn’t make them famous. Art was regarded as a job, like a bricklayer or blacksmith, and so they didn’t have an “artistic voice” like modern artists do.
The term “artistic voice,” may seem rather challenging or confusing but it’s really simple, artists today are able to speak on their work, market an idea, display more than just an image but an idea. The ability for artists to speak and actually have people care about what they’re saying has allowed art to grow to the massive reaches that we have today. This little book of quotes really opened my eyes to how much I cared about what an artist was saying about a piece or their process and how if I like a work, hearing what the artist has to say about it might make me like it even more. Or, inversely, if you don’t like a work, hearing what the artist has to say about it might give you some level of appreciation for it.
Think about how much art has changed since we started listening to what artists had to say. Impressionists decided they didn’t want to just paint representationally anymore, and instead push the boundaries of what they saw or their medium and when people heard that they started to appreciate the artists’ individual vision. All forms of expression were met with puzzled looks at one point or another but since the artists were allowed to express their ideas along side the piece itself, people began to understand and appreciate works that they might not have otherwise understood. Minimalists marketed their work almost solely as an idea, saying that image was hardly needed and while I’m not a fan of minimalism personally I understand that this art movement and a lot of others wouldn’t exist, but artists’ voices allowed them to exist.
Without people listening to artists, we’d be without a lot of the institutions we’re used to today as well. Art used to work through apprenticeships because there wasn’t theory behind it, it was learning a craft. Something like a modern art school would fail miserably in classical settings because they weren’t learning ideas or concepts they were learning canonized proportions and tools of the trade. But now art has become more complex than that, great thinkers have evolved the art world and they’ve bestowed their knowledge and techniques to develop thoughts upon younger generations which is why modern schools are able to be successful. Then, even further, they’re able to remain successful because those ideas and techniques are ever changing and evolving. Artists aren’t just learning a craft anymore, they’re learning the idea process, how to develop craft and concept in harmony, and how to have a voice that people want to hear. Sometimes in today’s art world the artist’s voice can even outweigh the work, which is an unfortunate celebrity status thing but I digress. Artists can make careers just traveling and talking about art beyond just making it. It’s quite baffling sometimes just to think about how much art has changed in the modern era.
When cameras became a readily available thing, art evolved past just a representational means and became something far more ambiguous. Suddenly artists had to do something different, and explain why what they were doing had merit. Then suddenly people started wanting to hear what artists had to say and now there’s a profound importance behind it. Modern art has allowed artists to be more than just artisans working for a contractor, but people with strong ideas and symbolism that are sought after. I think some of the aspects of the “celebrity status,” for artists are a little fucked but we’ll save that for another day. For now what I’ll leave you with is this; artists are all trying to say something, initiate a conversation, and you should listen to it. Engage in that conversation and be a part of the movement that pushes art in a new and inventive direction. You never know who will change art (or the world for that matter) and you could be a part of the movement if you take the time to listen for just a moment.