Wednesday, September 20, 2006

:: Will-To-Art ::

Mondrian, Red TreeAt art class on Monday, a man who teaches a different section of bronze casting was there working on his own project. He introduced himself and asked how long I'd been doing bronze casting. I smiled and said, "Since last Monday." He asked what I was going to make for my first sculpture, so I showed him the two little pieces I had worked up in wax. As I showed him, I apologized for them: "I'm not an artist." He looked up at me and said, "Maybe you don't do art, Maybe you haven't practiced, but you're an artist. You couldn't have made this otherwise." It's a teaching strategy I sometimes use with my own students -- the ones I know have the desire to write well but who aren't there yet. It's never a lie when I tell them they're writers already, so when he said this to me I couldn't help but smile inwardly.

I spent yesterday between doctors' offices -- the dentist first and then a dermatologist/cosmetic surgeon who was biopsying an odd little mole on my belly -- and while I waited in uncomfortable chairs awkwardly close to other patients, I read Joseph Frank's essay "Spatial Form in Modern Literature." The argument he makes isn't relevant to my posting today (though if you're interested, I can fill you in), but something he included in his discussion of the so-called "plastic arts" (things like painting and sculpture) is. It's the idea, taken from the philosopher Wilhelm Worringer's "Abstraction and Empathy," of Kunstwollen. This cumbersome German term means "artistic volition" or "will-to-art." This concept stands in contrast, according to Worringer, to the notion of art as a skill -- it suggests that artists create art not because they are good at it or have technical expertise but because they have a desire to create art -- to form something artful.

If you know me, you know I have this will. My mother will tell you I've had it all along and, if she's being honest, she'll tell you that unfortunately for me, I've never had the technical expertise to which this will, in Worringer's schema, stands in contrast. As such, not much that I've ever made has attracted anyone else's attention.

Picasso, Pitcher and Bowls

According to Worringer, Kunstwollen disregards all conventional canons of beauty and asserts itself most strongly in artistic periods of abstraction rather than realism. This, it seems to me, isn't quite right. It seems to me, rather, that most artists -- whether they are technically skilled or not, whether they create abstract or realistic art -- have artistic volition. Just like people who fix cars or build airplanes or design buildings have mechanical or other types of volition. Volition just means intention -- volition is the act of choosing or of making a decision. Most people who create do so, I think, intentionally.

What seems a stronger -- if much more controversial -- claim is that technical ability and level of abstraction stand in relation to one another. After all, we've all stood in art museums in front of a postmodern painting -- say a giant red square painted on a white canvas -- and though, "Jeez. I could do that. That's not art." When we say it isn't art, what we mean is that it's not realistic art and that it doesn't seem to require technical skill. I have a plain red square I painted on a canvas using acrylic paint, painter’s tape, and a plastic bag for texture that took me about 15 minutes to make. No proficiency or skill there.

But the claim becomes more controversial when we return to Worringer's own claims about so-called primitive art. Do we really want to say that "primitive art" doesn't require technical skill or that it "isn't art" in the same way that we say the red square on the white canvas painted with a Target bag "isn't art"? That's definitely not a claim that I want to make. And what about other forms of abstract art, like Piet Mondrian's Red Tree (pictured at top) or Picasso's Pitcher and Bowls (pictured second above)? These are abstract and yet seem to have required technical expertise and a will to create art.

So basically, I just can't quite buy it, this idea of Worringer's that the will-to-art is stronger in periods of abstraction. I think the will to art is strong in lots of people and that it manifests itself in artists of great technical skill in whatever form they choose -- realistic, abstract, or somewhere in between. But perhaps I do believe this: that in people who have the will to art but who, like me, do not have the technical expertise, it can only manifest itself abstractly.