Art vs. Hobby

Comments are a pretty rare thing on this blog. I have a few hypotheses as to why this might be: readers are afraid I'll chastise them and launch a tirade about the Internet diluting the collective intelligence of mankind if they type something utterly inane like "LUV it!" (I might), nobody 'luvs ' anything I write (quite possible), or perhaps nobody reads this blog (the most likely theory). So when a comment does appear it is a puzzling moment for me. I ask myself, "Why would someone take time out of their precious life to sit down and type their thoughts on to a computer with the sole intention of tossing this information out into the electronic ether?"  Then I have a 'one hand-clapping' sort of moment.

A good friend of mine posed a series of exceedingly thoughtful questions in his comment to my post about the real world struggles of exposing a piece of artwork to a greater public. I've included an excerpt from his comment below:
While I'm not trying to be facetious, as I read this post I couldn't help but think that if you had replaced 'art' with music or sports or fishing or gardening that you would simply be describing a hobby. Yet most people don't associate hobbies with being activities that "stamp meaning onto their mortality." I'm wondering what, for you, separates making art from being a hobby and being an activity that instills meaning in one's life. Where do you draw the distinction between the two? Or, even if you're willing to call art a hobby, do you think the significance it brings to the artist's existence is less if not recognized publicly? How is the meaning stamped exactly?
These questions have scratched away at my waking hours for the past few days and caused me to seriously consider the origins of some personal beliefs regarding art and the making of art. I must confess that upon seeing the sanctimonious station of art hypothetically dropped to the corporeal realm of hobby I grew a bit offended. Countless people have joined me, and will continue to join me, in significant monetary debt to attain a college degree that certifies them as a professional artist. I don't see anyone seeking out a BA program in model railroading. Nor can I conceive of anyone accruing as much financial burden in order to push for a monumental scale to their macrame projects (and, if someone did, they would be labeled an artist anyway). But such a visceral response falls prey to a cultural value system that erroneously correlates monetary worth with spiritual/societal/personal merit. It is this cultural value system that has isolated art from the general public in the first place and contributed to the ivory tower that I'm so quick to initially defend. However, if the importance of art was based solely on capitalist dogma then I would feel little compulsion to classify myself as an artist, so I can't rely on my degree to create the dividing line between art and hobby.

Perhaps it is easier for me to dissect the idea of a hobby then it is to directly quantify the essence of art. I have fewer assumptions about hobbies and hobbyists than I do about art and artists. A hobby is something that a person pursues in their leisure time because it brings them some joy, satisfaction, or proves distracting. Many hobbyists regularly engage in their past time of choice after the other obligations of life (employment, family, social service, etc.) have been met. Like artists, hobbyists tend to enjoy relating with other people who share their particular interest, and more often than not, the hobby itself requires a special set of tools and/or skills. So on the surface, there are many similarities between artists and hobbyists.

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It is the way that an artist perceives the "other obligations of life" mentioned above that begins to separate him/her from the hobbyist. For the artist nothing trumps the compulsion to create. The making of art usually precedes some, if not all, the other obligations of life. For example, creating art is the only employment an artist ever feels at peace with because it is the thing that holds the majority of their attention. An artist might have a perfectly well paying, socially respectable, job with good benefits, but if that job isn't the making of art then it will always be viewed as a barrier to making artwork. For the artist, 'art work' transcends our narrow cultural definition of work (i.e. the simple exchange of time for money): it is imbued with a spiritual fulfillment that a simple paycheck will never be able to provide.

Many people go to college to become nurses, firefighters, social workers, teachers, engineers, etc. because they have a deep commitment and passion for their particular industry. These people are allowed to work in the field that inspires them and receive a straight-forward paycheck because society happens to value their work. Undoubtedly, some of them will have hobbies as well, but they aren't looking to overthrow the source of their paycheck with their hobby because the hobby isn't what fulfills them spiritually; that's the role of their job. 

I think most artists would be over-the-moon if society would afford them the opportunity to pursue their passion with a bi-weekly paycheck, but this has never been, and I suspect never will be, the case. Instead, truly committed artists are forced to scrimp and show; always on the lookout for handouts from the public or donors, while trying to market themselves to galleries that promise a periodic sale. This is an exhausting way to survive at the poverty level, and it comes as little surprise that some of our best contemporary artists entered the art world with a healthy trust fund to feed them as they created— they became influential and culturally important because of, not despite the fact, that they had the luxury of time to develop as artists.

While I've fixated a bit on employment here the desire to devote oneself to art doesn't just affect perceptions of monetary labor, it can also impact decisions made about family and social service. Certainly there are many artists who manage to have families as well as make art, but there are reasons that Michelangelo referred to his artworks as his children, and this directly correlates to his prodigious creative output. Many of the artists I know do have meaningful relationships but I bet that most of them would also refer to their creative practice as a sort of relationship: one that will span the entire course of their life.

As for social service, well, herein lies the greatest difference between the artist and the hobbyist. In the 2oth century, with the rise in academic opportunity across the class divide in first world countries, a new sort of perception about art began to take root. At the outset of the 1900's the artist was no longer a valuable provider of a requested commodity: photography had taken over the role of physically fixing time and place in tangible form and the painter/printmaker/draftsman was left with a skill set in need of new meaning. The artistic world fended off redundancy by responding to, and exploring, new perceptions of time, space, and emotion (specifically within the Cubist, Futurist, and Dadaist movements). Larger than life personalities like Picasso and Duchamp came forward to champion an expressive depiction of reality that cameras couldn't manage and almost overnight art became the purported world of cultural visionaries. Instead of being a product of culture, like nearly all art prior to the 20th century, artists became instrumental in producing culture, and this message got disseminated through colleges until it became part of public perception. So today, whether or not contemporary culture has any interest in what artists are doing (which, I must be honest, is highly debatable), the artist continues to operate under the assumption that the proper role of the creative individual is to work towards shaping culture— hence the perpetual push to show artwork to the greater public. The hobbyist has no such social imperative to share their hobby or have their hobby challenge the status quo.

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But what do I mean by art "stamping meaning onto [an artist's] mortality"? The answer to this question would undoubtedly vary by artist, but for me it has nothing to do with public vindication or financial success— I seek those things out of obligation to that perceived societal expectation mentioned above. Rather, making artwork focuses my complete attention, in fact my whole being, on a single moment or perception. As a thunderstorm is raging outside at this very moment it seems fitting that I use the image at the top of this post as an example.

Long after my father and I stood on his tiny balcony in Boise, ID and watched the sunset turn the bare branches of a quivering copse of trees a fiery orange against the roiling black of a summer storm, I sat in my studio and relived that moment hour after hour. As I worked on this drawn recreation of that experience my thoughts wandered all the tangents that erupted from that one instant. I found myself pondering the effects of time and distance on parents and children. I considered the Biblical story of a burning bush. I contemplated the effects of contrasting extreme lights and darks and then I teased that metaphor out farther. I remembered other storms that had rolled through my life and I anticipated storms to come. In short, I completely altered any future complacence I might have experienced towards storms, sunsets, groves of trees, visits to Boise, and prophetic visions. In developing this drawing I had developed myself and made my own experience of reality deeper and more magical. 

As the sky bangs and cries outside right now some part of me is still out on a little deck considering the majesty of nature with my father. My life has been stamped with this impression, and it is only one moment of thousands that I will ink in my lifetime. 

1 comment:

michelle ross said...

While it is an indirect correlation, Nabokov is helpful to me in these matters. Particularly the short stories collected in "The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov" by Vintage Books. See: The Fight, La Veneziana, Terror and many others.

I admit I am a novice Nabakov reader but I think he has a way of making the concerns of the author like a transparent veil through which you read the story.
Here he points to his task of recording the details and speculates that it is these seemingly trivial aspects of his story's atmosphere that are what matter most.

"Or perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all but, rather the play of shadow and light on a live body, the harmony of trifles assembled on this particular day, at this particular moment, in a unique and inimitable way"

This reminds me that the artist like the hobbyist on some level understands that it is the act of recognition and placement that pinpoint time - placing the maker in time and place. And that is why we do it, to be present - despite the greater human concerns with metaphor and meaning.