The Hand-Made's Tale
24x36 oil on birch panel - with apologies to Tiny Tim (Google it, kid...) - this is "Strip Toe Through The Tulips."
Have you ever wondered why people still collect fine art? In a time when we're awash with digital images, what accounts for the enduring allure and value of the analog work of art? No doubt, some collectors hope to secure a measure of financial security. But for most collectors, beyond an appreciation for beauty, having a hand-made object of art in the home is also a way to reconnect to one's own humanity.
Our world is mechanized and mass-produced like never before. Virtually every object you touch or see in the run of a day is the result of computations and automation and all manner of process meant to strip out the imprint of the human hand.
But original art flouts this type of homogenization. It is, most often, the product of a mind given to the notion that the hand-made is superior to the mass-produced. Put another way, most painters have little to no interest in the democratization of art. The notion that we should all have mass-produced prints of - insert your favourite subject matter here - on our walls is anathema to most artists.
The cynic would point out that painters have a not-insignificant financial stake in the outcome of this debate. But, let's be honest: for the vast majority of creatives, making art by hand is just about the worst get-rich-quick scheme in history. And maybe, just maybe, there is much more at stake beyond money here.
What does it mean to be human? Well, in part, it means that if you are like most people walking around this rock you probably have good days and bad days. Wins and losses are part of your life. And you are - in some measure - part perfection, part imperfection.
This past December, I created a couple dozen small works for the upcoming spring shows. Some were great. Some very much less so, I felt.
What I came to realize over the course of that three and a half week painting jag is that the pieces that didn’t quite come up to the standard tended to correspond to those days when I would walk into the studio and be feeling low on energy. The weakest stuff, in other words, was a testament to the painter’s humanity and vulnerability to all the eddies that buffet a person over the course of a day, a week, a year, a lifetime. And, as someone who loves a good story, I think that’s wonderful.
This variability isn’t a weakness. This is the strength of the hand-made object. It doesn’t seek to eliminate the “humanness” from the equation, but rather to celebrate it regardless of the creator's intention. Look for it the next time you find yourself in front of a work of art.
A recent exhibit of Monet’s later works at the Vancouver Art Gallery provided a wonderful example of this. At the height of his powers, Monet was practically an art making machine - producing exquisite work after exquisite work. In the process, he built one of the art world's most enduring "brands".
But, as he aged and his eyesight began to decline, his work changed into something very un-Monetish: virtually abstract expressions of his former subject matter. If you’ve never seen these, they can be quite jarring. But if you do get the chance, take a good look. You’ll see all of the former mastery is still there - just expressed differently. Not worse. Not better. Just... a bit more human.
The hand. Making the thing. Telling, consciously and unconsciously, the tale of the maker’s humanity. In art - as in life - what could be more valuable?
See you around the studio.