Process vs. Product

I told you back in December 2009 that I wanted to talk about this, but it’s taken me almost 2 years to get around to it. Sorry about that!

I’m very process oriented.  I make pottery, sew, paint, make books, build things out of wood and metal, cook, etc. for the joy it brings me in the moment of creation. Yes, there is a great satisfaction that comes from completing a really amazing piece, but for me the satisfaction comes from knowing I created it, not from having it on the shelf.  I think that’s why I’ve settled on clay (for now) as my primary meduim. Clay is amazingly, literally, hands-on.  At least the way I work.  Whether my pieces are wheel-thrown or hand-built, I use my hands more than any other tool, and you can see where my fingers touched each piece.

Artists are people who create artwork, right?  But what does it mean to create art?  There are two components to making a piece of art (or a cake or a building):  conceptualization and construction.  If an architect designs a building and a construction team builds the building, we give the architect creative credit for the building, no question.  But if a violinist plays a brilliant rendition of Bartók’s Violin Concerto, who gets creative credit?  We might divy it up between the composer and the violinist?

What about visual artists who conceptualize their pieces but don’t actually do the physical work of creating them?  Chihuly, for example, does something like this, and a bunch of really skilled craftsmen turn it into something like this.

The same can be said for Jerram and his glass microbiology (I talked about him in that post two years ago). As far as I can tell, he has never actually made anything out of glass–he just tells the glass-artists what he wants and they make it for him.  But you’ll notice on his website that the glass blowers are named, which seems right to me.

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist who works in a wide variety of media, particularly installations, political and cultural commentary, and architectural works.  An entire village made 100 million sunflower seeds out of porcelain for his installation at the Tate Modern. Slip-cast and hand painted.  A small pile of seeds was displayed here in Portland, and the Museum of Contemporary Craft.  They are perfect little sunflower seeds down to the pattern of black and white stripes (video here).

Obviously, sculptors who make huge metal and stone sculptures don’t do all that work themselves. Mark di Suvero makes huge, brightly painted I-beam sculptures (there were two at my college).  It would be impossible for one person to make something at that scale without help.

So why am I listing all these artists? Why does it matter to me whether artists have a physical hand in the creation of their artwork?  In my gut, I feel like they are less responsible for the piece of art than if they had made it with their own hands.  As I’ve explained, for me the act of creating the work is inseparable from the work itself.  The marks my fingers leave in the clay are part of what the piece is about.  The act of building a sculpture transforms the sculpture into something different from the piece I may have initially envisioned.

Maybe it’s dependent on the medium? Work in clay is inextricably tied to the process of creating the work.  Painting, likewise, is a process of physically adding layers of color to a surface.  The directionality of each stroke determines the effectiveness of the finished painting, so it’s not something you can just have someone else do for you.  Giant welded steel beams are more conceptual.  The mark of the maker is less present, or perhaps not physically manifested in the piece at all.

I don’t have a conclusion–this is just a train of thought that I’ve been pursuing for the last few years.  I’d love to hear feedback from those of you who consider yourselves artists, and those who don’t.  I’d especially like to hear from you if you are an artist who outsources production — do you feel the same about the pieces you outsource as the pieces you make with your own hands?

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One Response to Process vs. Product

  1. Judy Maule

    As always, I enjoy reading your blogs. I agree that there is a difference between an artist developing an idea and having others fabricate the work versus an artist who conceptualizes and executes his or her own work. Both are artists, but in different ways. Are the fabricators artists or skilled technicians? Perhaps this depends on the medium and the degree of independence the fabricators have to interpret the basic designs.

    There was a local potter here who started with tiles, expanded into decorative and functional pottery, and then into scarves and other items using the same basic designs. I was disappointed when I learned that she was hiring people to throw & glaze her pots in order to meet the growing demand for her work. I guess that may become necessary for people who need to make a living from their artwork. Later her designs were outsourced to China for high-volume production. So sad because although the basic design concepts are the same, the quality is nothing like the originals. Really cheapened her work – literally and figuratively.

    There are painters here in the Gorge whose work I greatly admire. When I see new artists copying their styles, I have mixed feelings. Some of the copies are really beautiful, but don’t strike me as original work. Certainly the way to learn is to copy and practice techniques seen in the work of other artists. I’m exploring drawing, and painting with watercolor, acrylic and pastels, but I won’t feel like I’m doing my own work as an artist until I can move beyond the step-by-step follow-the-directions stage, and draw from my own inspiration and refine my own techniques. Admittedly, it’s very hard at these beginning stages and it will take more time than I’m currently devoting. I’m constantly inspired and impressed by other artists’ ability to see the beauty and interpret it using their chosen mediums. Knowing how hard it is to actually produce works of art is frustrating, and gives me a better appreciation of other peoples’ work. I am continually awed by the natural beauty of the landscapes I’m fortunate enough to see every day.

    That said, I think I’ll go outside and enjoy the fall sunshine!