The making of marks and images is embedded in human life. From the blown ochres outlining handprints on cave walls to the ceilings in Renaissance palaces to the production of every form of visual material in today’s world productivity seems never to have faltered. Some of the most extraordinary art is made using the human body itself as canvas. Before modernity, in hunter-gatherer/horticultural societies, the artistic impulse seems already to have reached its full potential. Without modern technologies, artists (almost everyone) understood how to obtain natural sources of colour (ochres, pipeclay, charcoals, earths) and how to use different media to mix and fix them to the body, to walls and onto the ground. Although designs were usually inherited and traditional there was always room for innovation. This is art in its purest, cleanest sense. It has no environmental negatives and links the natural and bodily worlds in the deepest way.
Is art-making exclusively human? Do animals make art? There are some amazing examples, although they seem to be limited to very specific circumstances. [accessed 7/2/14]
Art, its existence and practice, raises complex philosophical and psychological questions. Freud and post-Freudian theorists have proposed theories about art and its meanings which are not widely known, let alone accepted, in the art world. The political meaning and function of art has received more attention. The changes in the significance and function of art in era of technological modernity (and near universal commercialisation) are closely related to this question, under the influence of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Many resist any attempts to traverse these fields and assess their implications. Meta-theory is not necessary for the practice of art which always transcends philosophy. But for anyone trying to practice art under contemporary conditions it can offer stimulus and insight.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the human commitment to art-making is how absolutely useless it is. There is nothing to be gained from it in terms of the usual requirements for survival: it can’t be eaten, built with, or made to do anything other than to signify and please. Yet the desire for aesthetic pleasure seems embedded and the ability to respond to it seems part of the cognitive system. Wherever it is possible to decorate something people will do it. Making a basket to carry produce doesn’t require the intricate modes of weaving which so often appear, but there they are. As soon as survival is assured and people can live somewhere above a bare subsistence, art-making appears.
Today’s systems of production mean that images are everywhere so nobody needs to feel obliged to make them in order to experience them. Many feel they can take art or leave it. But for others, it is something they are simply drawn to. There are all kinds of art-making, some recognised and rewarded far more than others, but for art-makers one or more forms of expression seem to be pulling at the heart, or maybe the soul, with so much power that it can’t be resisted.
Art-making is a challenge as well as an intensely gripping activity. I often feel the paintings I want to work on are actively demanding my attention, as if they already exist somewhere and are revealing themselves through me. My ability to respond is limited by my inadequate technical understanding and lack of training. Being able to make better art will meet the desires of my conscious, and unconscious, life process.