Academic Writings

Pondering my Art -- Popular and Not

Pondering my Art – Popular and Not

I think about my artwork. Which pieces continue to resonate within me long after they have been packed away? Why? Is it because they are the pieces that received the most critical acclaim/attention/praise? After I have received such positive reinforcement of such pieces is it possible for me to maintain my relationship with them, my artistic objectivity about them? And what of the others; those that are misunderstood/criticized/ignored? Do I still love these unpopular characters? Cherish them because of their ability to stand proud against – or simply survive – criticism? Stand by them because they are outside the magic circle of critical acclaim and, therefore, more alive within me because it is the only place they have been allowed to come alive and live?

I think about my critical orphans as I read Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s essay Cézanne’s Doubt. He says, “If a work is successful, it has the strange power of being self-teaching... The painter can do no more than construct an image; he must wait for this image to come to life for other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist in only one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.” This is a good thought, but, in my opinion, flawed. I think the piece of art is living within the artist. It lives its unique existence within the body/soul/mind of the artist. Is this the same life that it will live within others that bring it to life? Assuredly not. Will its life within the artist be the same after other people have brought it to life? Assuredly not.

I love my “Canned Shit.” I created this piece at a time when I was deep in doo-doo. In its artistic lifetime, it has repulsed more people than it impressed. However, it resonates long and lovingly within a few – myself included. If I was the only one that appreciated its existence, it would be enough. That it touches others and dwells undivided in our minds is nice; it reminds me of the bonds humans share, the connections that can be made through my art. It makes me rejoice for my cans of shit; even though they live a strong and healthy existence within me, I am glad they come alive within others… it gives them added dimension, another perspective, more life than I alone can provide.

The popular pieces are a completely different situation. They are stars. They shine. Many people connect with them on many different levels. My relationship with them, once so intimate and private, becomes fractured by the interpretations, input, comments of others. On one level they do unite the separate lives of their admirers, but on another, they seem to shatter into myriad meanings and lodge into each life particularly and uniquely, driving them apart rather than closer. They are wrenched away from me in a hail of glory. I tire of hearing about their conquests, their connections, their many grandiose meanings. Our relationship is forever changed. I can no longer love them simply for being mine because they are not. They now belong to others.

Merleau-Ponty contends that “It is not enough for a painter like Cézanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others.” I agree that it is important to awaken the experiences that allow the viewer to make an idea take root in the consciousness of others. But is it necessary for this idea to be my idea? Of course, my idea is essential to me and my idea is essential to leading the viewer to an idea – their idea. But I don’t think it is possible for my idea to ever become someone else’s idea completely, or in many cases, even partially. It is only possible for my art to provide the fertile experiential ground in which an idea can take root and flourish. This, I think, is a monumental challenge.

But it is important to remember, too, that through the act of creating my art, I must first awaken the ideas within myself. I must forge my relationship with each piece in order to give it a chance in hell to make a connection with others. My idea, my reality, my life must give existence to the work first. It must resonate within me before it has enough energy to come to life for others. But whether a piece stays only with me, with a few, or with many, it lives on in me in some way on some level. It would be insincere to say that critical acclaim doesn’t affect my relationship with my pieces -- for better or worse -- but it doesn’t drive my relationship with my pieces. This is good.
--April 23, 2003

© 2021 Carol Hummel