Monday, September 5, 2022

Ambition in Art

Brant and Black-bellied Plover on Nummy Island. Moku hanga print by Ken Januski, Copyright 2022.

One of the hazards of writing anything online is that eventually someone will read it. Of course the purpose of a blog, much more than social media I'd say, is to have people read it, not just like it but read it. The problem, at least if you're a person somewhat like me, and have some sense of conscientiousness, is that I may find that I disagree with what I've written, sometimes almost immediately after writing it.

What got me started on this was mentioning "ambition" in my last post. I mean exactly what I said. I missed the ambitiousness of much of my abstract work once I switched to more naturalist work. I also missed it in printmaking, especially moku hanga, at least my own moku hanga. One of the rewards of the International Moku Hanga Conference was seeing ambitious work by others. The same could also be said for the work at the annual exhibitions of the Society of Wildlife Artists, in which I've often been fortunate enough to exhibit.  Both have examples of ambitious art.

So what's the problem? Well the problem is that there is a lot of art that I like and admire that is not particularly ambitious. And there's also the problem, which I'll spare you showing visual examples of from my own work, where ambition just leads to constipation. It can become very stilted!

Leaping Eastern Cottontail at SCEE. Sumi brush pen and water brush painting from memory by Ken Januski. Copyright 2022.

The very quickly done(3-5 minutes) drawing from memory above is very exciting to me. It tries to capture, and does I think at least to me, the living leaping rabbit in front of me. I saw this rabbit at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education last week where it was here and gone in less than 30 seconds.  But is this drawingt ambitious as the term is usually used in art? Probably not. But what could be more ambitious than trying to get a feel for the actual encounter with an animal, or a person for that matter? But I didn't consider it ambitious when I did it. It was just something that I wanted to do. And I think that there is a lot of similar art, though probably much more 'realistic' than mine, which couldn't care less about ambition but just wants to capture something of what it sees, and perhaps feels.

On the other hand I think that there is a large audience for art that mainly values the subject, in my case animals most of the time, but has little or no reaction to how it is portrayed except perhaps by a photographic yardstick. "OMG I thought it was a photo!!" Though this is an honest expression of appreciation most times, or so I'd guess since I've never used it myself, it probably is not exactly welcome to the ears of the artist, unless he or she is trying to imitate a photo.

Many artists, and I'm sure also musicians, actors, and also craftsmen of whatever sort, can get bored with the language/tools they've been given to. work with. Almost as soon as they put pen to paper, chisel to stone, tomato sauce in pan, etc., etc. they fear that they're creating a cliche. I'm sure this doesn't affect all artists and craftsmen but I think it does affect a lot. Those artists want to refresh their art. What they do is first disliked my most, even their peers, eventually accepted by their peers, then by the general public, then appears on shopping bags and in commercials, where it is not even truly seen or heard anymore and some new artist will try once again to freshen the medium he uses. This is what I would call the good side of ambition in art. It really is a passion to express something that the language of the art currently doesn't seem to be able to say. (As and aside I most recently read about this in an explanation of Charlie Parker and his music. He wanted to play what he heard in his head but wasn't being played by anyone else). That is ambition born of passion.

There's also ambition I'm afraid born of the academy, and every age has its academy, though it may not know what it is. The Impressionists were the enfant terribles of their day, reacting against salon painters. But every age has an academy and many artists are ambitious within the constraints and goals, spoken or unspoken, of it. This to me is a bad type of ambition because it really is just art that tries to mimic other 'successful' art of its time. I'm sure most artists can think of examples of artists they know, sometimes successful ones, who seem more to be copying more or less someone who is currently successful, rather than developing their own artistic voice.

I haven't been to art school in ages so who knows what is taught today. But I wouldn't be completely surprised to hear at least some teachers suggesting that artists develop their own voice. This is something I'm pretty sympathetic to but I'm not sure every artist will fare well with that goal. "Uh, oh, is this really me? Am I copying someone else? Is it slightly derivative? Etc., etc." I did spend some years in graduate school where such questions seem to turn artists into deer in headlights, sometimes including myself. I don't want to go to far afield but I would say that this can be another example of ambition in art being bad for some artists.

Perhaps some artists should just do what they love and go from there. The Society of Wildlife Artists mentions something about 'encouraging appreciation and delight in the natural world' on their web site. I think this means to highlight nature rather than art, though I could be wrong. And in some ways I think I must be because much of the art shown there is delightful, and that delight I think is created by a collaboration between artist and nature. The artist has to notice what is delightful AND find a way of expressing that. This is another form of ambition in art, but one like ones I mentioned earlier that stems from passion.

And on that SWLA note I should add that I'm quite happy to have had two of my works chosen for the annual show in London in mid-October. My new moku hanga of the Brant and Black-bellied Plover at top of this post is one of the works. The other is my next to last moku hanga: Bobolink at Dixon Meadow shown below. I was tempted to submit my more recent Nashville Warbler on Bean Trellis in Winter, which I still really, really like! But it doesn't seem to have been particularly popular  and the costs involved with shipping and couriers have made me limit my entries to just two.

Bobolink At Dixon Meadow Preserver. Moku hanga by Ken Januski, copyright 2021.