Art Student Handbook, Part I.1: Expression and Self-Expression

Artists should never express themselves in art.

This was one of the first lessons ever taught to me by almost all of my art professors.  “What?” you say…  Part of the problem with the arts and artists today – and here I’m referring to not only painters but also writers, musicians, and dancers – is the overuse of the concept of “expression” in their work.  We have been brought up in the contemporary world to hold a certain high esteem for any art work which is decidedly so unique to be a direct “expression” of what the artist must be feeling.   How can you trust this?  Art has become so self-centered over the last 40 years that a great disaster of a painting or sculpture is quickly defined as aesthetically pleasing.  Not because a disastrous painting is actually pleasing, but because such paintings invoke some sense of mystery or wonder in the viewer combined with some sense of:

Observation 1: It is ugly.

Observation 2: I don’t understand it.

Observation 3: The artist made it to show me.

Observation 4: Everyone else seems to be “getting it”.

—Deduction 1: I must be missing something.

—Deduction 2: The “art” must be coming from somewhere from which I am unaware.

Observation 5: It is expensive.

Observation 6: My confidence in the art world is insufficient as is my ability to directly criticize something because I do not want to look like either an idiot or a jerk due to immense public social pressure.

—Deduction 3: My sense of aesthetic must be incorrect.

—Deduction 4: Ugly must be beautiful when it is unknown to the viewer.

—Conclusion: Art, then, must be something out of reach of the common person, which I do not want to be, and entirely an expression of some instinctual utterance of thought and emotion, combined.

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Sure, there are some logical gaps up there, but I hope you see the point.  The problems in the art world today are complex and not easily solved, but I believe starting with new students brings the art world some hope.

Most art student’s I’ve met over the last ten years see no problem at all, other than the difficulty in being able to show their work at a gallery and believing that past artists had the same problem (this is untrue).  Following Harold Bloom, most of what we are told about art and artists is wrong or misunderstood – a misreading of the material from the past under a contemporary “lens”.  Let us begin to fix this misunderstanding with defining what exactly “expression” in the arts means:

Definition: Expression does not refer to “self-expression,” but is the act of making art itself; the act, not the resulting image.

Definition: Self-Expression is therapy and is not art.

Jeffrey Jones (Copyrighted for Education only)

I always refer back to a discussion between Jeffrey Jones, George Pratt, and David Spurlock.  For those unfamiliar, these men art contemporary illustrators of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic books, but they were both exceedingly well-trained artists from academies, universities, and the study of the old masters.  The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey Jones Sketchbook, compiled by Jeffrey Jones and George Pratt, Vanguard Publishing, 2000.  ISBN 1887591109.

[snip]

J:…This is one pet peeve I have with art – I never get time to talk about it.  It’s about self-expression being called art.  I think the worst – I’ll call it art for the sake of communication – the worst possible kind of art is that art that comes from self-expression.  The second worst is symbolism, but we’ll get to that later.  The worst is self-expression.

Art is all about communication.  It’s about what we have in common, not our differences.  The more different I am than the rest of the people, the less interested they are in what I have to say.  The more I can show them how we, as human beings, all see something, feel about something, experience something, the more valid it is as a piece of art…

…As an artist, it’s our job to somehow put this down and communicate it so people can look at it and say, “Thank God I’m not the only one!” That’s what makes art noble.  It includes people into places they’ve never been included before.  This is not a conscious thing at all – you just know it.  If you look at art and you feel good, it’s because you feel a part of something, not because you feel excluded.

P: You’re talking their language.

J: Exactly. And that’s why I hate people calling art “self-expression.”

P: It’s masturbation.

J: It is.  It’s self-abuse.  You’re sitting there talking to yourself.  It’s fine, it’s therapy – it’s not art.

S: Can you make an example of a well-known piece that’s self-expression?

J: If more than two people can relate to it, then it’s not self-expression.  By it’s very nature, it wouldn’t even be out there.  Woody Guthrie said it very simply, “All I do is tell people what they already know.” And that’s what artists do: they tell people what they already know.  That’s why self-expression is therapy and not art.

[snip]

I’ve always enjoyed this conversation and think to it frequently.  The best thing a student of the arts can do for him or herself is to learn:

1) how to draw.

2) how to use color, beginning with browns and earthtones.

3) how to draw anatomy of people

4) how to draw landscapes

5) how to use the technical materials of illustrators and painters

6) how to keep the therapy in the sketchbooks, which are later burned, and not sold online as “painting-a-day” bullshittery.

This will take time, and delightfully, these are craft skills, meaning that everyone, everyone, can learn them.

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Let’s return briefly to what expression means.  Expression in art is how one wishes to communicate.  I express a communication through paint or ink, sometimes comedy, for example.  The word “expression” is the best word that the current art world has for the act of making art.  The English language has a number of deficits due to our need to restrict the evolution of the language.  The art world, for English-speakers has always suffered due to our lack of emotive words and efficiency of though.  There is a connotation with the word “expression” though, that suggests that an expressed artwork is something thrown up publically for approval.  A serious artist should already know what the public ought to think about the work before any work is displayed.  When I hear the lay public refer to an art work as expression, it is very clear that they understand the word as self-expression with that mode of public shock or approval intrinsically attached to it.  But somehow, somewhere, at some time, art shifted towards appeasing a public eye, rather than communicating and dialogging with it.  Now, artists must shock or entertain, paint celebrities, paint pain, paint ugly, paint horror – in order to keep a mis-informed public interested enough to go into the galleries.  I hypothesize that if galleries accepted academy paintings again, we might see a slow reversal of public interest and hopefully, over time, a general increase in sales and profits for all, both in money and in beauty.

I urge you, new artist, not to bend to the whim of peer pressure, not to give up on developing your skills as an artist (it may take 20 years!), not to feel the need to masturbate your personal therapy at us and inundate the world with your quickly-decaying spunk, but to be patient, learn, listen, and experience the world in such a way that you can, one day, communicate back more universal experiences to us all.

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One Response to “Art Student Handbook, Part I.1: Expression and Self-Expression”

  1. Very nice article. One of the best so far! Keep it up

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