The Task of an Artist

As If In A Dream II by Khrysso Heart LeFey

For years, ever since I decided to start thinking of myself as a visual artist, I have been thinking about what an artist’s task is in the world. What are we here to do?

A lot of people think that we are here to create beauty. People put art in their spaces in order to make them more beautiful. Right? Art is not art if it is not beautiful. “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” Art is supposed to be likeable. Right?

What I have learned as an artist is to look, and to look again. Being an artist is about taking second looks, about doing double-takes all the time. It’s so easy to miss things, even for people who are pretty attentive. What sets artists apart is that we look at things again, to see what we may have missed the first time, to see things in new ways.

One of the ways many artists use to look is to reproduce what we see, to capture with brush or pencil or charcoal or film, or to form in clay or stone or wood. The resulting reproduction is frequently beautiful, because what we want to look at again is frequently something that caught our eye the first time around because it was beautiful, and because those of us who capture what we see are invested in capturing it well.

But not every piece of art is beautiful. It may be sobering, or pathetic, or ironic, or melancholy, or gruesome, or macabre. All these ways of being deserve second looks, and it is up to artists to look at them a second time. So what artists capture may be any of these un-beautiful things. It is not an artist’s task to make sure that what is captured is beautiful in the first place.

Nor is it an artist’s task to take something that is not beautiful and turn it into something that is beautiful. The artist may decide to do such a thing, but that is not in the job description. It is just one course of action that the artist may take in order to look.

I do have projects in the works that are specifically about taking something that is not beautiful and turning it into something that is. For years I have been collecting the detritus of my life as a diabetic person—used syringes and vials and bottles and packages and caps, for example—with the express objective of taking something sad and horrible and creating a thing of beauty of it. I suppose it will be an installation of some sort when I finally get around to it.

What will make it beautiful will not be my skill so much as my eye, because I will look at everything in a new way. I use anywhere from two two five syringes a day for my insulin injections, and each of those syringes has a cap on it in bright orange. The orange is really quite vibrant, and while it is to most people just waste—hazardous waste, at that—after the syringe has been opened, a whole collection of round orange things can be beautiful to look at. Repetition is powerful and satisfying to the eye (and to the ear, for that matter—I like to use repetition in poetry).

Photojournalists capture the horrors of war, for example, and what they capture may not be able to be spun in any beautiful way, but it is art nonetheless to the extent that it requires deep looking and sensitivity to capture something, to represent it faithfully and responsibly. Photojournalists may not call themselves “artists” (well, some do and some don’t, I’m sure), but what they do requires an artist’s eye.

Art is often filled with feeling, but it does not necessarily exist to be about feeling. During the 20th century there were two notable trends in Modern Art that were specifically about feeling: Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism. Expressionism began in Europe early in the century and was characterized by expressive images. A famous example was Edvard Much’s The Scream.

Expressionist art included art that captured and represented images. Art that is recognizable as an image is called several things, one of which is “representational.” (It can also be called figurative or objective.) In the 20th century, modern art began including pictures that didn’t depict anything. Such pieces are, it follows, referred to as “non-representational” (or non-objective).

Many people use the word “abstract” to refer to non-representational art, but “abstract,” in the strictest sense, refers to a measure of distortion of the actual image. Photos are probably the least abstract depictions of objects. Even the most realistic drawing contains some abstraction, even if it’s the fact that not all the hair in a portrait is shown strand by strand, but symbolically. Art that contains a lot of symbols is abstract, but it may also be representational. A cartoon is highly abstracted, but you can tell what everything is in it. A “smiley face” is recognizable as a face, but it is just two dots and a curve. It is very abstract.

Modern art included a complete departure from representing images, which is total abstraction. While Expressionistic art could be both representational and full of emotion, the later movement, Abstract Expressionism, which began in the US in the 1940s, didn’t concern itself at all with representation—it was about pure emotion. In the case of Abstract Expressionism, it happens that “abstract” and “nonrepresentational” did overlap completely. We know from earlier Expressionistic art that they didn’t need to.

Non-representational art is obviously not about capturing images, and it may not be at all about capturing feelings... but it is about looking. In both my paper collage/mixed media work and my digital work, I nearly never represent anything, but I look all the time. My looking may involve seeing the decorated margin of a flyer and thinking, “If I had a whole bunch of them, I could create a cool repeat pattern.” My looking involves looking at the media I’m working with and seeing how they may serve me in both old and new ways. Non-representational artists may look at the world, but they don’t necessarily depict what they see; they may choose to show something about their media, or, as I aim to do, about color, pattern, texture, and such. First they show it to themselves, and then they show it to others.

If we are about sharing our work (as I am), then success means that we get others to look and to look again. Success for me often means that the observer never seems to run out of things to look at: patterns, relationships, juxtapositions that seem not to be about relationships at all but from which you can’t look away.

If people like what they see enough that they want to see it often, in the spaces where they live or spend a lot of time, they may choose to purchase art. But ultimately, artists don’t want you just to buy art. If that were the case, we’d just be salespeople, not artists. What buying art does is allows artists to continue to cover living expenses while we spend our time looking. It’s the looking that counts.

©November 26, 2018 Khrysso Heart LeFey

16 Blocks," paper collage by Khrysso Heart LeFey with black mat with black core (no white border line) and black metal frame, January 2017, 22" x 22