Essay 13: Why I Make Art

The simplest answer to the question of why I make art is that I do so because I’m good at it, generally enjoy the process, and because people seem to respond positively to my work.

One could easily turn the question to any other field. Why do people in other professions do what they do? Obviously, many of them do their jobs in order to make a living. But while many professions—doctors, farmers, medical workers, garbage collectors—serve immediately obvious and beneficial purposes, one wonders about the ranks of middle managers, sales people, lawyers, and such, who seem to be leeches on society. No one asks them their purpose in what they do, since their purpose is to make money. I think the reason people question the choice of art as a career is because of the perception that there is no money in it.

To a large extent art is like any other field: populated by a majority of people with a modicum of talent or skill and a strong desire to succeed in their chosen career. They are competent players and have learned the rules of a particular game. If they decide to apply themselves to success in another field, their chances are just as good. This type of person is characterized by acting on desire, where the attitude runs along the lines of “I really want to be a something,” where the something is their career of choice and the motivation comes from the person’s conception about what it is to follow that career and become that particular something.

Many people—especially a certain breed of Canadians—think art is superfluous, a luxury. Jewelry designer Benny Sung described Canadians as on the whole pragmatic. They buy a car, a house, a cottage. In that order. Then they take care of their kids’ education and their own retirement. Only if there’s any money left does the budget turn to luxury goods—art, jewelry, clothing—but travel often wins out over these material luxuries. (Sung in Huang and Jeffery 1992)1 In such a climate—especially the socio-historical milieu I grew up in—it is natural to ask why people make art. My home province of Saskatchewan was settled by a combination of temperance colonists, European peasant farmers lured by offers of free land, and assorted adventurers and profiteers. Most of these people found art irrelevant, foreign, or anathema. These immigrants displaced or disenfranchised a native population that had its own cultural interpretation of what art is and what it’s for. Given this strange and diverse mix of cultures it’s little surprise that artists of my background are often saddled with existential angst.

From one direction comes this angst induced by the attitude that art is of questionable relevance. Another nail in the coffin of artistic respectability is the romantic conception of the artist as a bohemian renegade loner starving in a garret. This trope gives the mistaken impression that all artists are social deviants that have no redeeming value in society. Artists who see it as their purpose to actively antagonize their audience do not help the sitation. Nor does the proliferation in contemporary art of work which is rarely interesting to look at, conceptual art work that is banal, and art that should take its socio-political agendas out of the gallery and into a more effective public space. In contrast to the activities of groups such as the Guerilla Girls and movements such as Fluxus a great deal of so-called art that masquerades as activism is simply a passive sardonic commentary, done by people dabbling in activism. Were these so-called activists truly interested in changing things or making an effective statement to a broad public, they’d choose media with more widespread distribution than galleries dedicated to contemporary art.

Politics and agendas aside, a more honest answer to the question of why I make art is that I make art because I can’t not make art. In contrast to those who pursue a career out of desire, I see myself as someone following a calling. My work is a passion, a consuming need, and as I’ve said Essay 10 (Craft and Audience), it is by no means always fun and games. I count myself lucky that this double-edged gift of talent comes with a strong desire to pursue art as a career, especially since I know that there are people who have desire without talent and others with talent who have little desire to become artists.

Cultural values in my hometown may cause people there to question the importance of art, but my travels—especially to countries with long histories—confirmed what I had already suspected and had occasionally read about. I found that no matter how cosmopolitan some its residents find it, a city in the middle of the Canadian prairies—or any other place distant from major cultural centres—is not representative of the rest of the world and it is especially not representative of the places where artists are able to thrive creatively and financially. Therefore, the desire to pursue a career in the arts, while assumed in one milieu to be a renunciation of cultural norms in the blind pursuit of hedonistic excesses, is seen as a valid and respectable pursuit in another.

I prefer this “old world” notion of the artist as a respectable contributor to society and choose to pursue art even though I have other career options which on the surface may appear to be more secure. My high degree of skill in a number of other fields—among them web development, graphic design, cooking, and editing—could each lead to a decent career if I desired it. I have also been told that I would make a decent arts administrator. Each of these would garner a certain measure of professional respect, and some would lead to financial rewards and the attendant social acceptance. But who am I to ignore my calling in the pursuit of desire? Each of these fields has practitioners who are there for the same reasons I make art: they cannot not do something that wells up naturally in them. Their careers are a product of who they are rather than what they want to be. To turn my back on art in order to follow a desire to be something else would be to throw my lot in with all of the wanna-be’s in those other fields of practice. It’s possible that I would be able to rise to a high level in a non-art career, but just as with athletes there is a distinction to be made between what makes an Olympian and what makes an also-ran. Notwithstanding what I say in Essay 4 (Processes and Issues of Practice) about East Asian beliefs in repetitive practice leading to abilities that seem supernatural, no amount of desire and training will take a highly skilled individual to the level of naturalness that is achieved by someone with innate talent and aptitude who has spent time developing that talent.

This whole idea of actions stemming from desire is made plain in the recurring theme in twentieth-century art of the corruption of society, wherein people were seen to be turning away from inward practices towards outward materialism, greed, and dishonesty. Lipsey, talking about this phenomenon, discusses the twentieth-century quest for meaning in a society that has had its monotheistic, monocultural foundations undermined from many directions—industrialization, mass media, scientific inquiry, contact with other cultures, and so on. He talks about how there is a lack of an “orthodox spirituality in [the twentieth] century, and the culture at large has been amazingly unreceptive to the spiritual aspect of the artists’ thought and work.” (Lipsey 1988, 3) This absence isn’t just about spirituality and art, and though pervasive in the increasingly secularized West, is not as pronounced in less industrialized countries. Perhaps the phenomenon Lipsey describes is a problem of the culture of individualism. But how can we lament a lack of shared values when those very values stress the individual over the group? It seems hypocritical to bemoan the decline of common values while at the same time championing the rugged individualism characteristic of Western capitalist societies. It makes me wonder how people in group-oriented cultures feel about these issues.

This isn’t the place for a description of the Japanese education system, but my experiences in Japan and its cultural emphasis on groups led me to believe that some industrialized cultures do have shared values among all of their people. I know that in the Japanese education system there is a recognition that some things aren’t working. The rigidity of the system is blamed for drilling the creativity out of the culture. And in general—not just in Japan—the scientific method of rational hypothesis, experiment, proof, and repeatability, has contributed a great deal to the decline and discrediting of magico-religious phenomena that have a greater social function than mass delusion and control.

In many ways I believe that we have barely advanced beyond the nineteenth-century in our attitudes and understanding of the world. We have more technology, more knowledge, more data, longer life spans, and a belief that we are better as well as better off, but we suffer from many the same problems as we did a hundred years ago: materialism, inequity and inequality, ignorance (willful and otherwise), a lack of self-knowledge. Yes, the lives of many who previously would have been trodden on have been improved. But the attitudes feminists and civil rights activists—among others—fought against are still pervasive, and much of the energy that was previously spent upholding these inequalities has since been diverted into religious and political ideologies which in many cases seek a return to the dark ages.

This vicious cycle—or perhaps it is a continuum—is no better demonstrated than by the quest of artists to find meaning in a baffling world. Lipsey describes it thusly:

The search of twentieth-century artists for a wise art—an art both beautiful and true—has taken many detours, lost its way again and again, yet persisted. We haven’t infallibly known what wisdom, beauty, and truth mean in an era that has seen so much stupidity, ugliness, and falsehood. To ask a search to show the confidence and finish of an accomplished culture that has had centuries to find its way is to ask too much. On the other hand, to ask nothing is to ask far too little. (Lipsey 1988, 461) [my emphasis]

In the early years of the last century, this quest was a reaction to the horrors of World War I. Parallel searches for meaning occurred repeatedly as the century progressed and artists—not to mention the rest of society—had to come to terms with further horrific events. Quests for meaning have not gone away, indicating that we still can’t fully comprehend contemporary life. I, too, am interested in making art that matters. Despite the fact that I focus my practice on evoking the ineffable, I’m willing to look at tough issues when necessary. However, just as Picasso didn’t spend all of his time making work like or derivative of his masterwork Guernica—which is often trumpeted as an example of modernist painting that makes a political statement—I’m not interested in focusing my entire practice on specific sociopolitical agendas.2

My obsession with aesthetic beauty, honesty, and craft is a voice against—and an answer to—the stupidity, ugliness, and lies that are pervasive in our world today. This is what I seek relief for in my work. Even when the work does not literally illustrate an activist agenda or overtly deliver a socially redeeming message, the act of making work is political in and of itself. I have always felt that our society—which generates so much negativity—is in dire need of anyone capable of creating beautiful objects. Those who have the strength to eschew—even for brief moments—the combination of sardonic commentary and bafflement caused by contemporary life should be given as much support as they need in their drive to tip the balance in the direction of balance itself. It bears repeating from the Introduction to these essays and from the artist statement in my 8 Bodies in 12 Years:

My work is about beauty, enchantment, and mystery, and is guided by the belief that art should transcend the mundane.


  1. I may be misquoting Sung here. I’m paraphrasing from memory an interview he did for a Huang and Jeffery’s book of interviews about prominent Chinese-Canadians, which I read many years ago. ^
  2. Guernica is the poster child for modernist art that makes a political statement. A large painting commissioned by the Spanish Republican government for the 1937 Paris International Exposition, it was Picasso’s visual reaction to the horrors of the firebombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Germans during the Spanish Civil War. The piece, done in black-and-white and painted in the cubist style is almost three-and-a-half metres tall and nearly eight metres wide.

    The painting depicts suffering people, animals, and buildings wrenched by the violence and chaos of the carpet-bombing, as well as the outline of a skull formed by various objects. This large canvas embodies for many the inhumanity, brutality and hopelessness of war, and the cruelty of bombing civilians. (Wikipedia 2006: Guernica) ^