Monday, 10 September 2012

Art: The spontaneous creative impulse and critical art practice

In 2009, I interviewed Greek-born artist Janis Rafailidou for Art Fist magazine. During the interview, we had a lengthy discussion about the compatibility of a critical art practice with spontaneous creative impulses. Only a small part of the discussion made it to press, but it is an issue that both myself and Janis felt was deeply problematic, and one which is often sidestepped as a legitimate concern. As Janis noted in her interview: “How does one fit into the other, conceptually?”

Today it seems that spontaneous creativity is the last thing on an art school’s mind. Artists have been trained for so long to think about their work in relation to others’: whether it is to use theoretical texts as a launch-pad for producing work or responding to the work of other artists or the current trends in visual culture, the simple fact is that if we are all drawing from the same tainted well, we are going to be poisoned, no matter how we prepare the water. Even when we start from a spontaneous place, it seems that we need to apply a wider explanation after the fact – often distorting our original intention to fit with wider concerns. As Janis observed, “I go through phases where I create a lot and then I look back and try and analyse it, I try and situate it with what is happening with contemporary art.”

Is it possible that the academic training provided by today’s art schools and universities is actually stifling creativity? Is it possible that the emphasis on self-criticism, art theory and placing our work within its context is actually preventing any radical change? Are we as artists just adding to an already existing discourse rather than creating our own?

How many artists have we seen whose work draws on the ideas of psychoanalysis, post-colonial theory, structuralism, or other branches of cultural studies? It’s almost become a cliché that a work with sexual imagery will be situated within the context of Freud or Jung; a work which deals with race should probably be peppered with the ideas of Said; and anything which plays around with letters or words should probably throw in a bit of Derrida. It is contrived at best, and at worst it is limiting the questions that can be asked of or by artistic practice.

The demand for artists to explain our work is the root of the problem. The artistic statement, which has become a necessary evil for the artist, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes our creations more accessible and easier to comprehend, but on the other, it serves to restrict the possibilities of artistic experimentation. Surely an art object itself should be its own explanation? If we are constantly having to explain what we do, then nothing is opaque, nothing is mysterious and there are no puzzles left to solve. In fact, it might be better just to submit an artistic statement and be done with producing objects altogether. Jacob Epstein said it best when he was asked to explain his sculptures: “My work rests in silence.”

In the end, we come to a quandary: can art practice ever be separated from art theory? The issue is that theoretical concerns are so entrenched in the language of art that it is almost impossible to think of art objects not relating to theory.

What we need is to take stock, and ask ourselves why we are working the way we are, and whether we are stuck in an eternal loop, as if we are all stuck in the final turns of chess game, taking turns to move around in different but incredibly limited ways, but ultimately unable to finish the game. Perhaps we should be looking to play different games altogether.

This arcticle was originally published by

Image: Jon Cronshaw, 'Post-Lapsian', (poster-paint on canvas)

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