It’s All About You – Expressing Your Identity through Art

February 20, 2018

Written by: Brandon Long, Visual Arts Director

Every year in January and February, several hundred children and their teachers visit our New Year New Art exhibit as part of our free museum field trip program. The premise of the show is simple – I invite a ton of regional artists to show work that they’ve made since August of the previous year – allowing us to start (as the title of the exhibit implies) the new year with new art.  It’s always exciting to see what the artists have created, and many of them can get quite experimental with their work, since there isn’t any particular theme (other than “new art”).

Explaining a room full of unrelated art to an entire class of third graders can seem a bit intimidating, but several years ago, we hit upon the idea of viewing the exhibit through the lens of identity.  Each artist who presents a piece in the exhibit expresses their identity – whether or not they intentionally set out to do so. 

There’s no way around it – if you are putting yourself into your art, your identity will shine through. Creating art – YOUR art – is a great chance to share your viewpoint on the world with your audience. Sharing your identity is a vital part of creating meaningful work.

What is identity? That is one of the first questions we ask the kids visiting the Art Center to view this exhibit, and we get lots of different responses – your name, what you look like, your information – but I explain it rather simply.  It’s everything about you.

Not only your name, what you look like and your information, but everything – from the hobbies you have, your political viewpoints, your religion, the type of music you listen to, your sense of fashion, your personal history, the friends you hang out with, and anything else you could possibly come up with.  It can be not only the way you see yourself, but also the way others perceive you.

Art is a great way to express your identity.  Sometimes, I think if you boiled away all the formal rules of art and stripped away the academics of it all, you would find that art at its very core is all about sharing identity – whether it’s personal identity or a cultural or community identity.  Even if you look back at the cave paintings, you could imagine the artists creating the sprawling animals by candlelight expressing, “We like to hunt.  And we’re also really good at it.”  And what do we know about these early cultures today?  They were hunters and gatherers.  But they’d far rather illustrate and boast about their hunting skills than their berry gathering.  Maybe there are some cave paintings about berry-gathering, but if there are – I haven’t seen them.  

In viewing the exhibit, we ask the children to select an artwork in the gallery that they best feel aligns with their identity.  This can be a bit tricky because the students are depending on someone else’s art to represent themselves.  Sometimes, I’ll catch a number of them crowding a painting because that’s the one their friend chose.  I’ll explain, “this isn’t about which one your friend likes.  This is all about you.  Which one expresses your identity?”  Then the crowd of friends will disperse as they all dig a bit deeper into their own preferences.

 After they select a piece, I’ll allow them to become the expert on the artwork and explain to the rest of the group why it’s such a great piece.  Sometimes, the answer is simple- yet valid, “I like horses,” but other times they will come up with some really great reason – sometimes quite personal.  Allowing children to select a work of art and explain it is a very valuable experience.  Too often children (adults too) are told what to think about art, what’s good and what’s not. Allowing them to reflect on why this piece is valuable to them is important because their reaction to the work is a very personal and real thing.  It doesn’t matter if they’ve selected the worst piece in the gallery (and there’s not a bad apple in the bunch), the fact that the artwork caused any reaction at all is reason to celebrate.

Expressing your identity in your work is absolutely essential in creating meaningful art.  

 If you’ve not been honest with who you are, your work will not carry the impact that it needs to cause any level of response in your viewers.  I explain to the visitors to the exhibit that if your art can get a response from someone, it’s a powerful thing.  It can be an “I love it!” response or an “I hate it!” response – as long as the response isn’t an empty “meh,” you’re doing something right.  Sometimes, I fear that artists are going about creating art in an almost backwards fashion.  Rather than creating art that is genuine – coming from our truest identity to create real responses in our viewers, we sometimes try to go at it from the other direction by creating the art that we think that our audience wants to see.  Or sometimes artists trying to go against the grain, will make art that they believe will shock their audience.  More often than not, the work comes off as trite, unoriginal, and entirely too predictable.

Rather than asking, “Will my audience like my art?,” instead ask, “Do I like my art?”  

You have to make things that you are personally interested in, or the entire endeavor is likely to be uninspiring to everyone involved.  If you are making art that you personally consider to be new, groundbreaking, and exciting, you are more likely to be happier creating it, and that creative spark of joy is something that will shine throughout your work.  You must always consider, “does this work represent me? Is this something that has come from within me or am I trying to impress someone else?”  

Artists are often in a tricky spot that lies somewhere between creative visionary and product marketing expert.  Those that are most successful have proven themselves in both fields, but the artists that are most groundbreaking and memorable are those who were true to themselves and their own identity throughout their entire body of work.  Does your identity change over the years?  Of course it does.  The things and values that you hold dear now are probably vastly different from when you were a child, but if you regularly evaluate yourself and question your honesty in your work, you should have no problem keeping yourself on the track to making the best art possible.  

Remember, anyone can make art, but only you can make YOUR art.