Chances are, when you explain what your job is to someone the response isn't, “you get paid for that?” It's a legitimate question for some professions, but I'm an illustrator. On top of that, I refuse to work for free. You wouldn't put in eight plus hours at your place of work for no pay would you? Most people don't consider what I and other artists do to be legitimate 'work.' I'm having fun, so how can it be possible that I'm also “working?” It's possible to have fun while working, but the process of making art is not always “fun.”
When art is exhibited, you rarely see what it took to get to the final piece. There's an assumption that artist's pieces are born “as is,” that there were no stops along the way, but that is rarely the case. Even for art pieces that are based on chance, a certain amount of success and failure had proceeded their birth. In fact, the failures are important to get to the success.
One constant across the full spectrum of artistic success and failure is process. The artistic process varies from artist to artist and throughout different techniques. This is where a lot of the “work” occurs. The process varies from artist to artist and across mediums, but it's a necessary building block. The process can be enjoyable, but most often, it is a time of intense concentration.
I took up throwing my last semester of undergrad. The element of process is long in ceramics, and it requires just as many mistakes and flukes to get “good at it” and find a form that works. However, throwing the form is only half the battle, because the glaze you choose may or may not turn out the color you want it to because of heat fluctuations in the kiln. The final project was to create and design a dinner set for at least four people. I chose to create a set for my family of six. The set contained 18 pieces, each setting had a bowl, a tumbler, and a plate. In order to get a uniform height for the tumblers, I threw fourteen. I threw twelve plates and picked the six best for the project. I was fortunate with the bowls however, and only threw eight. Had I only chosen the first thing I made, the end result would have been disastrous. The process was required to reach a point at which the craftmanship of the work was satisfactory.
Revealing the artistic process is somewhat a modern convention. In time past, viewing an artist's sketches prior to the completion of a painting or sculpture was rare. In addition to that, the “proofs” of editions created by printmakers were kept within their printshop studios. By viewing these articles, we can see the work that led up to the final piece, and the planning involved in its creation.
Master printmaker M.C Escher's mathematical lithographs are absolutely mindblowing to view, but what I found even more interesting were the proofs of some of his work. I had the opportunity to view an exhibition of his process prints to see the history behind some of his works. One piece, a woodcut print, had many color changes before finally becoming complete. Another old master who's work I admire viewing is Albrecht Dürer. The intaglio print The Holy Family underwent several plate changes to increase the amount of shadow and detail in the image. The surface of the plate can be altered with chemicals resulting in what is called aquatint. Each change to the plate requires a test image or “proof” to be printed to judge the effectiveness of that change. Reaching a level of satisfaction in the level of craftsmanship in ones work is of great importance. That is why artists spend an intense amount of time honing skills and refining their work. Printmaking is one of the best mediums to view the differing levels of refinement.
I've tried my hand at intaglio with some interesting results. For a project which I titled Red Riding Hood, I made an edition of 36 prints each belonging to a set of six images.Determining exactly how long to soak the cotton paper I was printing on, how much ink to rub off of the plates, and what pressure to use on the press were things that I had to keep track of while manipulating the plates. I went through almost 20 proofs to get the plates to their final states, and that didn't include the ones that got messed up once I began printing the edition! My plates were far less detailed than Dürer's and nowhere near as precise as Escher's lithography. Again, the process was required.
Fine art such as painting and drawing does hold basic respect from viewers depending on the complexity or detail present in the work. Evidence that it "took you a really long time" to get to the finished artwork will rake in more respect. But what if it didn't "take a long time?"
A toddler could do that!
Even though fine art is not always considered a form of “real work,” it does garner more respect than conceptually based artworks. Conceptual art is often snubbed because of a perceived lack of creativity. For example, modernist Jackson Pollock's work is either worshiped or ridiculed. I fall somewhere in the middle in my admiration of him. I could very easily duplicate Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), but that is not the point. I appreciate the thought process behind the paintings. The physical action of painting was the motivation behind his art, everything added beyond that has been speculation. However, Pollock’s drip paintings are the least avant-garde things that have popped up in museums. Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairsis simply a wooden chair, a printed definition of the word chair, and a life size photograph of the chair. Photographer Cindy Sherman’s early work featured her as an actress/model in “untitled film stills.” A few years ago contemporary artist Jason Lanka visited my alma mater for a week. He recreated part of a site specific sculpture piece titled “The Vacuum of Sound.” The instillation consisted of tall wood poles which were driven into the ground. The poles marked an unbeaten path through the “lawn” surrounding the art building leading up to its entrance. Upon seeing the instillation for the first time, my brother declared it a “ridiculously stupid waste of time.”
What is overlooked in each of those pieces, and of the artists themselves, is the actual work it took to get the finished product. I do believe that there are artists out there (and I won’t list them) who are sensationalists, but the majority of us are not. Assuming that there has been no planning process on the artist's part is insulting. Kosuth's One and Three Chairs is about language and its limitations. Sherman's Untitled Film Stills leave the viewer to determine their ambiguous context. Lanka's The Vaccum of Sound is about the sublime beauty of Wyoming's prairies, and the needle forms represent the human figure within the landscape. Each of those artists were traditionally trained, and they indeed knew exactly what they were doing when they decided to turn away from classical conventions.
The revolution will NOT be televised
Experiencing art is not like watching television, you will need to turn your brain on and focus. Not all artwork will assault your senses the way a tv or computer does. Not every artist sticks to the “rules.” Art doesn't make itself, there is an artist who gave birth to it (take that as literally as you'd like), and that art has meaning and worth. Appreciation and understanding will occur once you look past the painting on the wall.
I've been asked, “if it's so much 'work' why don't you just stop and make it a hobby?” The same question wouldn't be asked to anyone working in a different field. I love my chosen career, I couldn't ever think of quitting, and it's part of who I am. What I and other artists do is definitely work, but I would not change that for the world.