That’s Not Art
Comics. That’s where it all started for me. The stories, the characters, the drawings, that strange floppy book—and even Marvel’s distinct moiré patterns (in the ’80s): I loved every part of that experience. I wanted to create things that looked as good as the comics I admired. No matter what form this took, I craved to play some part in that world. So, I drew.
I lost track of my teacher’s instruction because I was doodling. I didn’t start weekend homework until Sunday night, because I was drawing. And, of course, I spent more time on the cover than the book report. None of this was about making something as serious as “art.” It was about the excitement that came from making something of my own.
By high-school, I figured I should go into commercial art. This seemed like a real career path—that allowed you to draw. I liked logos, and visual things that folks would see in their everyday activities. My instructor urged me to think bigger, though. He wasn’t excited about commercial work, and encouraged me to paint. In time, I grew to love painting, too—and even managed to sneak into art school to pursue this interest.
Art school was weird, though. There were classes in which we had to weigh dragons. In others, we had to radiate from our navels. In yet others we debated the nature of art. This sort of screwed me up. I went from loving the act of making to feeling lost.
That “what is art?” debate messed with my head. At the time, art seemed to be about an idea and how well you defended it. The ability to render something well wasn’t important. Installations were popular, but I didn’t ever feel moved by one of them. Similarly, folks at art school liked talking about vague concepts. Again, I found myself lost in this. I figured that if the average person couldn’t relate to art, the act became elitist.
This question about what art is, resulted in another—more toxic—question: What isn’t art? And for that, I had many answers. Those wildlife painters? They didn’t make art! They were doing what a camera could do. That guy painting planets with spray paint, for tourists? Disgusting! Selling out his craft like a cheap amusement. Jana Sterbak’s meat dress? That wasn’t art! That was more “wanksterism” aimed at securing Canada Council funding. (I can go on, but I think you get the picture.)
By the time I finished art school, I mostly called myself a painter. I didn’t feel comfortable saying I was an artist. In time, I acquiesced, simply because I was tired of saying, “pictures, not walls.” Still, though, that description felt lofty. I didn’t believe I deserved to use it.
Lately, I find myself looking for a word to describe what my friends and I do. Some of it is design, or at least involves design. Sometimes it’s more startup-like, but not always. At times the end-product might hang in a gallery, but mostly not. For lack of a better term, I find myself calling this “work,” but that feels clumsy. It sounds like a verb—and a form of joyless toil. So, I find myself increasing using that word: art.
We often think of art as that stuff you find in a gallery. But, be honest, when did you last go to a gallery? Right. I thought so. (I’m no different.) Part of this relates to fear, and the questions that come from it: “Am I the only person who doesn’t understand this stuff?” “Am I too dumb to be in this place?” “Can they tell that I don’t have enough money to buy anything here?”
This was my problem with art: it felt like a world of insiders. Some had the money, social capital, and knowledge to be a part of that world. Most didn’t, though. But what if that 1900s idea of “what art is” doesn’t matter any longer? Given how few actually took part in that world, one might argue that it never did.
I say it’s all art: The comics, the logos, the hyper-realistic wildlife paintings, tourist mementos crafted on the sidewalk, conceptual works, and those many indefinable side-projects. It doesn’t end there, though. It’s in the doodles, graffiti, craft-making (which is too often disparaged as trivial), screen-printed posters, television programs, podcasts, inventions, memes, code… It’s all art.
Whether others “get it” or not doesn’t matter. The part that matters is the making. Art is not binary. There is no good art or bad art. Quality is subjective, and quite probably irrelevant. There will be critics. There will be people who say what’s in and what’s out. Perhaps we needn’t pay them much attention. They were never the interesting part, anyway.
When I look at art from this vantage point, it all becomes wonderful. So many people doing cool things, just because they want to. That’s amazing, and we should celebrate this practice. We needn’t define, shelter, or hide from art. It’s fluid. It’s for all of us to enjoy. And we shouldn’t leave art-making only to those who call themselves artists.
P.S., A visit to Colossal is a great way to find new art.