The role of the artist is often misunderstood – being seen solely as “a creator of beauty.” While artists frequently create works of beauty, the artist’s role is something much more significant. The artist is an interpreter of the world around her – both a product of her time as well as a conduit for new ideas. The artist takes her own values, ideas, beliefs, and experiences and combines (or contrasts) them with those around her to create a unique perspective. This collection of ideas and distillation of surroundings is what makes the artist a valuable cultural asset. Artists that are remembered are not the ones who created the most beautiful works, but those who best represented the values of their time and culture.
As artists, we need to be cognizant of the things that are happening around us. We need to make work that not only makes sense to us in our present time, but also serves as a clear reminder of where we were when people look at it years from now. We must walk the fine line of creating work that is both timeless as well as “in-its-right-time.”
I saw an Edward Hopper painting at the Cincinnati Museum of Art a few weeks ago and was a bit confused when I noticed what appeared to vintage cars in the picture.
I had to look at the date on the painting to realize it was painted in 1934. I knew that Hopper was no longer a contemporary artist, but his work seemed so fresh that I had always assumed it was much more modern than it actually was. I suppose that Hopper’s work had always looked so fresh to me because of the “emptiness” of many of his urban landscapes. There were few reminders among the objects in the paintings that served as place markers for dates and the cars he included in this particular picture really jumped out at me as a reminder of the age of the painting. All he would have had to do to make the painting appear brand new is to paint in a Honda Accord.
All too often, artists (myself included) end up romanticizing the past. When we see famous paintings or photographs, they feature older styles of fashion, they depict older buildings, older vehicles. It can be easy to forget that the objects in these art works were painted at the height of their modernity. As unsexy as featuring a Honda Accord in the background of a painting may seem, if we want to have work that is relevant to our own time and hold up to future scrutiny, we need to include those “signs of the times” in our work.
As you create your work, you must be consciously aware that you are creating work that is relevant to the present – to now. I’ve been guilty in the past of being a bit too much under the influence of earlier artists to the extent that I was making art that would have been cutting edge in the 60s, but looked vintage to anyone who was familiar with the work of those artists. Of course, it is entirely impossible to create new work without considering and weighing the influence of previous artists, but we must be considerate to update their concepts to the modern world. For example, an artist influenced by Japanese woodblock prints would do herself a disservice if she used the techniques to recreate scenes of feudal Japan. However, using the style and techniques of Hokusai or Hiroshige to create images of shoppers in a local Wal-Mart could be an interesting spin on a familiar style.
Another great example of updating an inspiration is George Lucas’ Star Wars films. George Lucas was heavily influenced by the samurai films of Kurosawa as well as western movies. Rather than make a film set in Japan or the wild west, Lucas remixed both genres, combining them to make something (almost) brand new. Darth Vader’s costume is almost entirely inspired by Japanese armor (see the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Dressed to Kill exhibit currently on display if you need further convincing). Samurai swords are replaced by light sabers. The pistols of the wild west are futurized by converting them to laser blasters. By remixing and modernizing these conventions, Lucas was able to keep all of the things he loved about both genres of filmmaking (the action, honor, bravery, swordplay, gun duels) while making something that felt new and creative.
In short, learn from the past. Build on the techniques and concepts of artists that came before you, but be sure that the stories you are telling are relevant to your own time. Remember, you are telling your story. Make sure that your story makes sense in its present context. Ask yourself – Is this new? Has this been done before? How can I make this make sense in today’s setting?