Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What is "creative authenticity"?

Well, for one thing, it's the title of this book I read a while back, by Ian Roberts:  Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision.  As someone who teaches about the creative and design process, I read these sorts of things when I come across them.

You can see from the number of post-its sticking out that I found much in this book to respond to.

There is lots here that I like and agree with.  Roberts acknowledges the connection between art and the spiritual.  He writes
In the face of beauty, we are silenced, because beauty expresses silence. . . .A work of art is like a visual form of prayer.  The depth of the artist's attention, the prayer, is what we respond to. . . . Our response comes from the power of the prayer that contributed to the making of the piece.  The artwork lives.  If we are left unmoved by a painting of the Virgin, it is likely because the artist was unmoved in the act of painting her.  The subject matter is mostly irrelevant; it is important only as a vehicle for the artist's feelings.  And this is the key to how much silence, consciousness or attention that the art reflects.  (pp. 29-30).
I have felt for a long time that the works of art that move me most are those that possess a strong sense of necessity, an inherent right to exist, a lack of contrivance or arbitrariness, a direct emotional appeal--and this comes from the artist's complete commitment, even surrender, to the piece.  Do not be put off by Roberts' use of the word prayer in this context; what he really means is a quality of deep, heartfelt attention.

As someone who has been working with imagery of the Virgin Mary lately, this particular passage hit home.  I do worry that I am mining a tapped-out vein; that imagery of Mary is completely irrelevant today, a relic of a musty religious past that most people no longer feel connected to or moved by.

detail, 6th century icon of Mary, Santa Maria Francesca church, Rome; inspiration for my Mary series of tapestries
Later in the book Roberts writes:
We cannot appropriate the power of past images by using them today.  We can't assume that because they had a primal and elemental power when they were created that they will convey that power to a viewer now if we include them in our artwork.  Such a work would become an artwork "about" a symbol.  We aren't making art about someone else's symbol nor can we invest it with original power.  That's why so much postmodernist art is so detached.  (p. 158)

It's true that it is lazy and artistically bankrupt to appropriate an image from another work of art wholesale, plop it into one's own work, and expect it to convey "original" meaning and emotion. That's just plagiarism.  But it is also true, as Roberts elsewhere acknowledges, that artists have been inspired by other art for millennia.  Presumably artists return again and again to the same symbols, subjects and stories because they feel they have something new to say about them, that they are engaging with them in a fresh, personal, contemporary way.  Symbols remain symbols because they speak so deeply to human experience.  Artwork can be "about a symbol" if that symbol is one that is meaningful to the artist.  It can be invested with new, not just borrowed, power.  You don't have to be a practicing Christian to find that images of Mary speak to notions of what it means to be a woman, a mother, and a daughter, even in the 21st century.  Mary's shadow is very long.

I was heartened to see this wall text in the Vik Muniz show recently at Atlanta's High Museum (for more about that exhibit, click HERE) :

Yes, appropriation is a postmodern practice, and yes, it is done with eyes wide open, fully aware, even self-consciously so, of the weight and power of all of art history.  In my view one hallmark of a serious contemporary artist is that he or she is aware, but not constrained, by that history.  As Muniz' work demonstrates, art that employs appropriation can be witty, clever, insightful, and moving all at once.

What do you think about appropriation?  Have you ever consciously borrowed from other artists in your own work?

PS.  Social media update:  You can now follow me on Instagram @mpelkind and Like my Facebook page, Molly Elkind Handwovens.  Hope to see you there!


  1. What a thought provoking discussion! Someone once asked me how artists managed to do what they do without being influenced by other's works. My answer was that we are most certainly influenced by other's art -- it's impossible to not be to at least some degree or another -- but that there is a significant difference between being influenced and copying or plagiarizing. And that all works of art are "descended" from what has gone before, if nothing else in terms of materials, compositional design, etc. If one studies art history it becomes apparent that art builds upon itself. I tend to think of this as being similar to the way the earth itself is comprised of geologic layers. Each layer gives rise to subsequent layers in an ongoing dynamic -- albeit excruciatingly slow -- process. In art, one idea or concept or technique gives rise to more ideas, concepts and techniques. No two artists will ever express themselves in an identical way, but no work of art has ever been created entirely independent of the vast body of art that has preceded it.

  2. I like the geologic metaphor, Lynn. Now you've got me thinking in terms of earthquakes, erosion and other forces that affect the accretion of layers! Hmmmm.