Four words every artist should avoid, with responses by Steve Lambert, Jim Duignan, Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertröm Lappalianen, Harrell Fletcher, and Mary Mattingly.
Steve Lambert kicks off our Growing Dialogue with his essay, “No Longer Interested”! Keep an eye out for new posts from Jim Duignan, Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertröm Lappalianen, Harrell Fletcher, and Mary Mattingly throughout the month of April.
We welcome your questions and comments! Please join in the conversation in our Comments section, below.
I realize I’ve asked you to have a conversation with me about a fourteen page essay I wrote around the 4 word phrase; “I am interested in”. I really do appreciate you agreeing to read the piece to begin with because, described as above, it sounds like it could be the scrawled manuscript of a lunatic. However, I am not a lunatic and, as you’ve discovered, my essay uses this phrase as an entry point to a larger discussion about artists and power, how that power is undermined by others, and more importantly, how we undermine our power ourselves.
In our conversation, it would be all too easy to get lost, focused on all the ways artists yield their power in our culture and the many ramifications. I value this conversation too much to let it turn into that. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the powers artists do have and ways they can be nurtured and encouraged.
Toward this end, in “No Longer Interested” I have suggested something small – finding better words. And something big – setting clear, horizon-level goals and taking real steps toward them through our work.
So let’s begin by hearing your thoughts, big and small, on how artists can move in this direction.
I’ve worked to strike the phrase “I am interested in” from my vocabulary. It is not easy. For years I have heard fellow artists explain their practice beginning with:
“I am interested in notions of…”
“I am interested in the intersection between…”
“I am interested in questioning…”
I searched for the phrase “I am interested in” in connection to “artist statement” and was embarrassed at how far reaching this crutch phrase is among my peers.
Here’s some examples from the search, pulled in the order of the search; names removed to protect the guilty:
I am interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected – of being a part of something larger.
I am interested in painting as it helps me remember.
I am interested in, how the male is represented and constructed in culture, with all its stereotyping pictures and its suppressing mechanism.
Hang around artists long enough, especially when they are talking about their work and you will hear this opening phrase over and over and over again.
As noble as the artist’s projects may be, the “I am interested in” preface is maddening not just because it is grammatically inaccurate — like a pet peeve around misusing “literally” or “ironically” — or because it’s another cheap method artists use in puffing up their descriptions of themselves. No, “I am interested” culturally isolates artists, obscures their goals, and handicaps their ability to act in the world.
If you’re a doctor say, “I’m a Doctor.”
When artists introduce topics with “I am interested in,” it’s needlessly vague. Let’s look closer at the examples from earlier:
I am interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected – of being a part of something larger.
That certainly is interesting, but I would ask this artist; are you interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected, or are you actually creating those places?”
I am interested in painting as it helps me remember.
Again, are you interested in painting, or do you, more simply, paint because it helps you remember?
I am interested in, how the male is represented and constructed in culture, with all it’s stereotyping pictures and it’s suppressing mechanism.
And again, are you interested in how males are represented, or are you working to change it?
Saying you’re interested is hardly descriptive. Are you interested or are you studying? Or researching? Or investigating? Are you interested in a method or testing it? Are you working within it? Or playing with it toward some end? Or moving towards something? Or fighting for something? Or defending it? Developing? Changing? Destroying? Building?
There are so many better words, why list interests at all? Everyone is interested in things. An artist’s interests are just as inane or compelling as anyone else’s. When asked to describe you and your work, starting a sentence with “I am interested in” and making a list, or restating the “tag cloud” from your blog doesn’t do that well.
Everyone wants to know what you’re doing.
Let’s imagine I meet a woman at a party and ask “so, what do you do?” She answers, “I am interested in the body, healing, and science, and how those intersect within institutions and the public.” Fascinating right? But why not cut to the chase and say you’re a medical doctor? In the non-art world, people talk about what they do. Describing what you’re doing instead of your interests moves the conversation forward. It’s more clear.
Why be so forthright? Because artists are already too cloistered off from the rest of our culture; isolated in elite institutions, appreciated by small numbers, and/or segregating ourselves in confusing social difference alone as some kind of admirable attribute. Around 45 years ago John Berger disparagingly called this phenomena the needless “mystification” of art. If we want to change this, and we should, we need to speak clearly in a language people can understand – not by adopting academic language for institutional appeal or trying to cover over our insecurity with pompous nonsense.
To make art and show it to the world is a generous act. Art is not just for the artist (that is called art therapy), but also as a means to participate in the broader culture and move it forward. To do so, we need to take seriously how we communicate to audiences through art, and in how we talk about our work.
Artists aren’t interested, they’re building reality.
You may wonder, why shouldn’t an artist be a little vague and leave some mystery to the description of their work? And so what if an artist uses language inaccurately – we all do it. (I admit, after years of effort I still have a difficult time avoiding “interested” in my speech.) And who cares if the language is a little imprecise, we’re talking about artists, not writers – what’s the harm?
Because it changes the work we make.
Saying you are merely interested in something is being non-committal. If I’m interested in something, I’m not necessarily taking a position on it, much less any action.
But most artists are not just passively observing. They make work that challenges our view of everything – from shape and form to concepts and beliefs. Most artists don’t stop at being interested, they are truly changing the way we perceive, think, and act in the world – thus changing our very reality – in deliberate ways. To believe any less continues to falsely undermine and diminish the power of artists and art in our culture.
By prefacing our own descriptions of what we do in the world with “I am interested in…” it positions us as artists at a safe and cerebral distance from the rest of the world. This follows a justification that academics, critics, and administrators use to explain their positions and their institutions because in these spheres keeping a critical distance gives one legitimacy. It’s also the outlook of a consumer browsing the aisles, taking an interest in a product, examining it and moving on. These perspectives have somehow bled over to become a dominant model for artists. While this approach may legitimize an academic, or entertain a consumer, it does not work for artists. It is disempowering and strips us of our agency.
When artists are describing their work first and foremost as “an interest” in a set of issues and topics, it’s more than an inaccuracy, it lowers our artistic ambitions and blinds us to what is possible. Going back to an example from my web search, if the artist has said they are “interested in creating places where people have a sense of being connected” then any exploration of that interest is a step towards success. For example, building a tree house, or drawing one, or simply reading and thinking about tree houses could be an expression of that interest. It doesn’t matter what the effort changed, how many people it reached, what those viewers believe as a result, or if there is an outcome at all because the goal has been set so low and can be achieved too easily. When we state our intentions so ambiguously we’re cheating ourselves.
When goals are stated explicitly, it brings a sense of clarity and purpose. Goals give you focus. When you articulate to yourself and your friends and family in concrete terms “I am going to complete the Bay to Breakers Marathon this year” that is fundamentally different focus than saying “I am interested in running.” The former means you need to start training and if you don’t, you know you won’t be able to complete the run. Whereas, if the most you’ve said to yourself and others is you are “interested in running,” you won’t accomplish much because you haven’t decided you aspire to anything more ambitious. It’s well established that focusing on outcomes and creating clarifying goals works for athletes, businesses, communities, and us in our every day lives, and for some tragic reason we believe doing the same in an art practice is crass and limiting. By framing their work around interest, artists are unwittingly putting a ceiling on their ability to operate in the world.
The tragedy of “Interesting Projects”
Especially disappointing is watching how this unconscious handicapping impacts the art that gets made.
I’m most familiar with how this plays out in the media art circles of which I’m part. There’s so much new technology enabling art works that weren’t possible 10 years ago, sometimes even 1 or 2 years ago. The software and hardware itself is so novel it provides a layer of “interesting” distraction for the artist and audience. While a research fellow at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center I had to review reams of residency applications over the years that fell into this trap.
For example, take a newly introduced circuit-board based micro-controller, add some sensors, write a program that collects air-quality data, take it on a solo bike ride around a polluted district, throw in a little theory (maybe) and mix them together for an interesting project. Pretty good, right?
Or combine live social media feeds with a 3D visualization of the earth and you have an interesting project.
Or combine any new technology with an ancient one. Run Twitter into a typewriter and you have an interesting project. Combine 3D video with stereoscopic photographs of the 1800s and bingo, you have an interesting project.
Or 8-bit graphics, or a Kinect 3D motion sensor, or a 3D Printer, with… anything, really.
I could go on, but I’ve already come dangerously close to describing work made by good friends… and myself.
Any of these examples could be the beginnings of a great, challenging, and world-shifting work of art, but when any creative person orients their work around an “interest” in materials, methods, or a few topics it’s all to easy to just toss them into a pot and stir it up for a while. Making projects that meet the standard of exploring an interest is fairly easy.
A prime characteristic of Modern art was its interest in materials and processes. This was liberating a hundred or more years ago because it allowed artists to be free of the overarching concern with accurately representing their subjects. After photography, what was the point? With an emphasis on materials and processes whole new realms of artistic expression opened up. Well and good. But what came with this liberation was a type of elision: artists could think less seriously about what they were producing: what would it look like? what impact would it have? what was it supposed to do? Yes, some asked these questions, but one could also wallow around in the materials, enjoy the process, and only give an afterthought, if that, to what you actually produced and the impact it might have on others.
Today, if you want to explore the world of high-horsepower technology combined with loose ideas check out The Creators Project. It’s the home of pointless yet clever mashups. Raphaël Rozendaal, who “doesn’t care if something is art… only if it is interesting,” combines modernist painting with flash animation. Or Martin Messier’s orchestra made of sewing machines. Or Gleithero’s project using songs, turned into computer punch cards, and then knitted into scarves. All of these are creative projects and indeed interesting, but they don’t transcend their own materials and cleverness because there’s nothing at stake beyond being interesting.
The irony here is that all this vague “interest” in high-tech materials and creative process does do something. The Creators Project, according to their website, is “founded by a revolutionary partnership between Intel and VICE…” The purpose of the Creators Project is not to move culture forward and further great art, it’s mission is as a “showcase” of “artists whose works are inspired and enabled by new technologies.” The purpose here is looking and consuming – it’s to capture your interest as a viewer. It’s a matter of taste, but to mine, finding truly challenging art works is the exception. On the Creators Project, it’s wow and hollow spectacle over all else. And brand recognition for Intel and Vice.
Understand the high art world is not different. They just conceal it a little better due to who the work is interesting to; wealthy collectors. The idea that the purpose of your life’s work may simply be as a supplier of alternative currency and high-end home decor for the ultra rich is not something many artists want to confront.
We are more than interested, we are powerful.
While the field at large may have self-esteem issues around this, artists are the best equipped at shifting the perceptions, attitudes, and actions of the cultures they are embedded within. Unfortunately, propaganda and advertising have cast long shadows on these practices and there’s a natural reluctance to have any association with this sort of cultural manipulation. However while artists – creative people without an ulterior motive or corporate backing – have retreated, marketers and propagandists have filled the void.
If artists are going to change culture for the better, we need to step up and begin admitting we 1) have tremendous power 2) have largely not engaged it, and 3) handed over our cultural role to marketers and corporate-backed entertainers by default.
As artists we need to reclaim our agency and our position, articulate what we mean beyond being “interested,” and be clear with ourselves and others about what exactly we want to do. Whether it’s painting landscapes or avant-garde performance, challenging fundamental societal shortcomings or sharing beauty through form and color, if we ever want to get anywhere significant with our work we need to take control, elucidate what we’re striving for in certain terms, and periodically adjust and calibrate those aims as we move forward.
Clarity in purpose is not clarity in art.
When it comes to art there are some powerful myths about lives of artists that come into play. The “starving artist,” “the madman,” “the misunderstood genius,” “the navel-gazing recluse,” “the addict,” “the freewheeling dandy,” and there are others. These are not healthy models. Setting goals and making plans about your own life, much less your impact on the broader culture is not part of, and in many ways runs counter to, those myths.
Approaching other areas of our lives with intention comes quite naturally. If you’re over 25 and looking for a place to live, you have a budget, an ideal living arrangement in mind, a distance from the other key locations in your life you don’t want to be too far from. Planning out how and where you will live comes naturally. There’s room for the unexpected, but just “doing my thing and seeing what happens” will probably land you on the street. It wouldn’t be hard to find an artist with a detailed plan and vision for finding the perfect studio situation, but reluctant to put these same tools to work for their art. There are few helpful models, few coherent paths for artists that are empowering in this way, so it’s much easier to believe in the myths about libertine artists and not follow through with intentional thinking.
But these myths, combined with the “I am interested in” detachment, have subtle but strongly disempowering effects. A smart person can infer by speaking with artists, reading a few contemporary art magazines, catalog essays, or artists statements that having lucid ideas about what you’re trying to achieve with your work, much less a connection to the audience, goes against the grain. For art students who don’t read between the lines, it’s common to be told not to speak in such direct terms about their work. Or worse, told this is not art, or not what artists do.
The error here is conflating clarity in one’s purpose with clarity in one’s artwork. Clarity in purpose is a great thing. Knowing who you are, why you do what you do, what you’re working on, where you want to go with it: this is highly personal and beneficial work that we all do as we grow. Having unambiguous goals for yourself, your work, and it’s role in culture – provides direction. With a point on the horizon to move towards, it’s easier to filter what’s important versus what is getting in the way.
Clarity in artwork – having one message that is unequivocally understood by most or all viewers – is usually terrible. Mystery, a little ambiguity, uncertainty, contradiction, multiple layers and meanings, these are powerful agents to be used and leveraged by artists.
But you need clarity in your purpose in order to actualize the power of mystique in your art. In this way, art functions like a prism. It is able to project layers of colors only when light is focused upon it. Clarity in purpose enables the spectrum of meanings and subtlety on the other side.
Even the most formalist, abstract painter can benefit from clarity of purpose. The main subject of their work may be light and color, but the purpose is more likely to create a meditative or revelatory experience in their viewer, or to alter the viewers experience of reality, or to inspire deep contemplation and a basic recognition of emotions or our humanity. That kind of thing. The last thing I would advocate for is an artist like this to alter their course and start shoving a direct and unequivocal message down their viewers throats – make no mistake, this is not what I’m saying. But, they do need to be clear, publicly or privately, about what they’re striving toward and what their purpose is in order to come reasonably close to achieving it.
Getting caught in the “I am interested” state of detachment is a rookie’s mistake. We’re drawn in to art making through an interest; an interest in the practice, in the sensory experience, and the magic of conjuring from inert materials. In order to begin, one needs to pursue those interests. But being interested is the first step, the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s the least you can do.
Eventually interests die off. They’re fleeting. A young artist learns later on how to sort through a collection of interests, evaluating and organizing as he or she gravitates towards the ones that resonate. As we grow, we also learn what matters to each of us the most. Eventually we have to figure out what we are not just interested in, but invested in. When you are invested, there’s more involvement and commitment. You have a position, an outcome in mind; a way you’d like to see things play out. Exploration, experiments, and failures happen along the way, but a point to strive for remains.
Anyone who has embarked on some creative project also knows there is a moment when you need to commit if it is going to get done. Whether it’s personal drive or an external deadline, eventually you make a promise to yourself to see something through or feel an obligation to something larger. You’re determined to complete what you’ve started and you carry something into action. Then there is action. Getting out into the world and altering it in some way. You make a contract with yourself and then perform the deed. This is where things happen.
This is different than interest.
Committing to more than interest is scary; just like stating your big goals and deciding to take control is scary. It may feel too grandiose to say “I am going to make people feel interconnected through my sculpture” or “I will make paintings that cause people question their existence.” More importantly, everyone can see that this has not happened. They will know when you’ve failed. To avoid this one can play it safe and deal in interests: if your only articulated goal is to express an interest in a topic, then no one knows you’ve failed – not even you. How comforting.
Of course, if all you want to do is “wow” audiences with hollow spectacles, that’s fine too. But be clear to yourself and everyone else that you are an entertainer. As an artist you can do more, so make sure you’re making a conscious choice.
You don’t make great art by staying comfortable. Doing what is important is never comfortable. Stating your goals, expressing your dreams, and actively striving toward them through an art practice that threads its way into the broader culture is far riskier than pondering a few ideas and playing with materials in your studio. But at least you know you’re being honest about what you want. And with this honesty you can begin moving toward those dreams.
While setting a point on the horizon might give you direction, it does not make an easy path. Yes, artists have power – super powers even. But like Peter Parker learns from his Uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Looking deep within yourself, pushing beyond your interests, getting invested in outcomes, making a commitment and taking action with your artwork – whatever kind of artist you are – feels much more high stakes.
It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. And you’re without a doubt more likely to fail. But the only way you’ll get close to the experiences, the culture, the world you are striving to create, that point on the horizon, is through action. Interest is an important step, but only a first step. The way forward is doing.
Artists; find better words. Be honest about what you want from the hours and resources you pour into your practice, and push it as far as you can. Help make our everyday culture something of your dreams. Because once you strike “I am interested in” from your vocabulary, suddenly things get way more interesting.
Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested
“No Longer Interested” by Steve Lambert – April 1, 2014
Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.
Steve Lambert’s Tell The Truth from “It’s Time to Fight and It’s Time to Stop Fighting” at Charlie James Gallery, September 2012.