All About Process
The Theory and Discourse of Modern Artistic Labor
All About Process
The Theory and Discourse of Modern Artistic Labor
“This is an elegant, clear text that will serve as an excellent primer for anyone interested in the histories of thinking about making and the artistic process. Art students as well as students of aesthetics and history of art will benefit from its careful, thoughtful synthesis of an array of complex, foundational texts pertaining to the theme of ‘process’ and making.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
This astute account of the ways in which process has been understood and addressed examines canonical artists such as Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, and De Kooning, as well as philosophers and art theorists such as Henri Focillon, R. G. Collingwood, and John Dewey. Placing “process art” within a larger historical context, Grant looks at the changing relations of the artist’s labor to traditional craftsmanship and industrial production, the status of art as a commodity, the increasing importance of the body and materiality in art making, and the nature and significance of the artist’s role in modern society. In doing so, she shows how process is an intrinsic part of aesthetic theory that connects to important contemporary debates about work, craft, and labor.
Comprehensive and insightful, this synthetic study of process in modern and contemporary art reveals how artists’ explicit engagement with the concept fits into a broader narrative of the significance of art in the industrial and postindustrial world.
“This is an elegant, clear text that will serve as an excellent primer for anyone interested in the histories of thinking about making and the artistic process. Art students as well as students of aesthetics and history of art will benefit from its careful, thoughtful synthesis of an array of complex, foundational texts pertaining to the theme of ‘process’ and making.”
“All About Process brings a wealth of art-historical knowledge and perceptive theoretical insight to analyze the crucial but elusive concept of artistic process and makes a powerful argument for its importance, not simply as an indispensable tool for creating more interesting art objects but as part of the essence of art itself. Kim Grant’s book provides a welcome resource for resisting the forces of commodification while closing the gap between art and life.”
“This book is essential for libraries supporting graduate programs in art history or curatorial studies and is recommended for schools of art and design.”
Kim Grant is Associate Professor of Art History and Chair of the Department of Art at the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of Surrealism and the Visual Arts: Theory and Reception.
Introduction: Process as Value
Chapter One: Conceptualizing the Artist’s Labor Prior to the 19th Century
Chapter Two: Art, Craft, and Industrialization
Nineteenth Century Philosophical and Theoretical Views of the Artist’s Process
The Arts and Crafts Movement and Artistic Process
Photography and Artistic Process
Chapter Three: The Artist’s Process from the Academic to the Modern
Chapter Four: New Conceptions of the Artist’s Process
The Artist’s Labor in Time -- Series and Stages
Modern Art and Industrial Processes – Purism
Physicality and Matter – The Modern Artistic Process and the Artist’s Medium
Chapter Five: The Artist’s Process as a Means of Self-Realization
Chapter Six: The Artist’s Process at Mid-Century
Artistic Process and Amateur Artists
Changes in Artists’ Education
Chapter Seven: Art and Social Processes
Chapter Eight: Process Art
Systems Aesthetics, Series, and Conceptualism
The Artist’s Work and the Artist’s Role
Process Art and Craft
Artists’ Education and Process after 1960
Chapter Nine: It’s All about the Process
Process as Value
I really did believe that process would set you free. . . . A signature style is about how it happened, not what is made. I think of myself as an orchestrator of experience.
Process invites risk, uncertainty, vision, unpredictability, concentration and blind devotion.
The elevation of artistic process over product has become a, perhaps the, central cliché of artists’ statements in recent decades. Like most clichés it has a basis in truth; many contemporary artists employ processes that preclude or eliminate the production of durable objects. The ubiquity of the cliché, however, suggests that artists’ devotion to process is far more meaningful than a simple descriptive statement. The fact that so many artists consider themselves to be primarily engaged with process, albeit understood in varied ways, reflects widely shared assumptions about the meaning and purpose of art and the work of the artist. The embrace of artistic process is a value claim, and it is the purpose of this book to explore the history and significance of process as term of value. How and why have so many artists embraced process as the most significant aspect of their activity? How was artistic process perceived and valued in earlier periods of Western art? How has the creation of art objects been theorized and evaluated in comparison to the production of craft and industrial objects? What general social and cultural attitudes have contributed to the elevation of artistic process? Finally, what does the high valuation of artistic process indicate about the place of artists and the arts in contemporary society? This study is intended to provide answers to these questions and others in its careful examination of the meaning of artistic process.
When artists state that for them it is all about the process, they are saying many different things. At the simplest level it is a declaration that they are dedicated and attentive to their creative labors. This is probably the most common use of the phrase, and one that stresses artists’ commitment to their own work rather than external goals. It is the doing of the work rather than the outcome that is the most important thing for such artists. A common corollary to this attitude is a desire and intention to create work that is not predetermined; the artwork is a natural outgrowth of the artist’s working process. If that were all there were to the concept of process in contemporary art discourse, it would be simple to paraphrase it as follows: artists like to work at making art, and the art they make reflects their attention to the way they work. Accepting this paraphrase, however, fails to acknowledge the extent to which artists have taken refuge, so to speak, in the concept of process. It has become a strategy artists use to preserve their integrity in the face of a seemingly endless onslaught of theoretical interpretations and critical positions. Rather than assuming the position of an intellectual theorist, many artists prefer simply to assert the fundamental motivation of their work as located within the making of the work itself.
It sounds simple, but it is not so straightforward. Militating against a naïve return to uncomplicated making is a high degree of consciousness, which may not affect every individual artist but certainly colors the art world perception and understanding of artistic process. Artists’ statements consistently show that process is a considered approach; it can even be the point and purpose of contemporary artworks, as demonstrated by Jason Rhoades’s 2001 Costner Complex (Perfect Process), which he described as “not meant to be viewed as an object, a performance or even a goal-oriented activity, but simply as a perfect process.” Process reaches far beyond the artist’s studio to comprehend a multiplicity of approaches, connections, and relations embraced by contemporary artists in their work. In this sense “process” becomes a term that reveals the extent to which contemporary artists are engaged with situating their work within the world—not just finding it a physical location, but siting it much more broadly in terms of social relations and cultural significance. Studio processes are only the beginning of a topic that expands to embrace the purpose and meaning of art at every level, from the local to the global (and even the universal), the biological to the artificial, the secular to the spiritual. The artist’s process takes its place in the interlocking processes that make up the world, a microcosm of activity in time.
The extreme malleability of the concept of process in relation to art poses certain difficulties for analysis. Limiting the concept to the literal physical processes employed by artists reduces it to a narrow consideration of technical concerns, while the concept’s potential for virtually infinite expansion threatens to render it too broad for meaningful discussion. In order to understand the appeal of process as a key concept for contemporary art, it is necessary to take a wide view of its significance in terms of both its present and historical usages and implications. In this study the concept of process is understood and examined in several different ways specifically relevant to visual art. Of primary concern are the ways the artist’s working processes have been conceptualized and valued in the Western tradition, particularly during the modern period. This topic is connected with much broader issues raised by labor in general, especially the relationship of manual work to both intellectual and mechanical labor. Integrally related to conceptions of the artist’s working process are also conceptions of the artist’s identity as an individual engaged in work processes. Understood in this way, the artist’s identity becomes a model for conceiving the physical, psychological, social, and philosophical significance of labor, often specifically manual labor. Considering artistic working processes also leads to examination of those who engage in artistic processes but are not necessarily considered artists, such as craftspeople, students, and amateurs, and the effects such engagements have on both the definition of art and artists, and the social role of art making.
Accompanying the recent prominence of artistic process is a corresponding decline of the artist’s product as an object of independent aesthetic interest. This places concern for artistic process in counterpoint to formalist approaches derived from Kantian concepts of beauty and disinterested evaluation, and it challenges the commodity status of artworks. As far back as ancient Greece the art object’s status as a commodity contributed to the low social status of the artist-craftsperson. In accordance with a widespread cultural suspicion of industrial production and commodification in the modern era, artists increasingly stressed the distinctions between artistic and nonartistic processes of production in ways that elevated the significance of the resulting artworks. The artist became a very special type of maker, engaged in important human processes. The art objects produced were increasingly valued as signs of the artist’s distinctive processes of making rather than independently valuable commodities. Considering art in terms of process is thus to trace a history of the strategies used to define the value of art outside the scales of value usually employed for other luxury commodities. In broad terms, the artist’s process becomes the site for a distinctly human, nonutilitarian, purposeful activity of immense value in itself. Its products are mere traces and remains of that physical and mental activity; they are in themselves of little to no value to their creator. In this way the artist is freed, at least theoretically, from directly engaging in commodity production.
Examining the discourse of artistic process is to study the discursive relationship of artistic making to other forms of making, notably utilitarian and industrial production. Distinctions between art and craft are also a key topic for analysis, as these distinctions often shift with the changes in emphasis on artistic process that characterize modern and contemporary art. Certain themes arise repeatedly in discussions of artists’ working processes, most notably those associated with extreme dedication and difficult labor. Related to these, and often overlooked in discussions of visual art, is the physicality of the artist’s labor. The artist’s process inevitably engages the artist as a physical embodied being and almost as necessarily concerns the artist’s connection to the experiences of material reality. The artist’s hard work often takes place without a clearly defined goal, thereby rendering the artist’s labors endless, and any results resistant to external evaluation. Thus, unlike working processes directed toward the production of a known utilitarian object, the modern artist’s process becomes a self-sufficient activity directed toward no certain end. One significant effect of the increasing focus on the artist’s process as the locus of value and meaning is that the possibility of external standards of evaluation disappears. Experience becomes a, and often the, primary value—and experience is a value that resists standardization and critical evaluation.
The centrality of process in contemporary art discourse must be viewed, in part, as an attempt to redress the oversights and omissions of previously dominant ways of discussing and understanding art. The first of these is a historical neglect of the significance of the artist’s activity and experiences. While the artist has often taken priority over the artwork in terms of public interest, the artist’s role is commonly reduced to that of a character rather than that of a creator whose primary concern is the activity of creation. It is the personality of the individual artist as divined from biographical information that attracts the attention of the general public, while the concerns of the working artist and his or her relation to the work produced are neglected. The formalist approaches that dominated art world discourse for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century take the opposite tack. They are directed solely to the analysis of the artwork itself, typically the aesthetic effects of the artwork as an object, rather than consideration of who made it or precisely how it was made. This approach derives in large part from the Western tradition of philosophical aesthetics, which is concerned almost solely with beauty and the artwork’s effects on the viewer. As we will see, there are connections between formalist approaches and the artist’s process, but these have not generally been given the degree of attention that has been lavished on the aesthetic effects of artworks’ formal qualities.
Since the 1970s, conceptual art and theoretical concerns have dominated contemporary art discourses and have offered more interpretive distractions from artistic process. This is particularly true of the forms of conceptual art that elevate the idea over any form of making. The earliest articulation of this position is usually credited to Marcel Duchamp’s definition of the “ready-made,” which reduced the artist’s activity to the act of choosing an object, based on total aesthetic and moral indifference to it. Joseph Kosuth’s 1969 text “Art after Philosophy” as well as his series of works presented under the title Art as Idea as Idea redefined art as purely conceptual, further reducing the importance of the artist’s process. It should be noted, however, that engagement with process is a significant aspect of some conceptual art, as will be discussed later in this book. Process also remains outside the purview of some structuralist and post-structuralist approaches in which artworks are valued primarily for their engagement with theoretical issues. This position is perhaps most strongly represented by the artists associated with simulationism and the appropriation art of the 1980s, such as Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman, whose works are often interpreted as extended glosses on conceptual approaches initiated by Duchamp.
The recent embrace of process by many contemporary artists in their public statements as well as their work often, but by no means always, reflects a rejection of the notion that artists are subservient to critical theory and ideas. This is a position that has also been adopted by recent craft theorists as a means to determine the distinction between art, defined as reliant on conceptual approaches, and craft, defined as primarily concerned with making. For many artists and craftspeople, claiming a primary engagement with process is to assert that their work is not the mere illustration or manifestation of preexisting theories and agendas. It is an attempt to reclaim the significance of what artists do and how they do it.
A problem with focusing attention on the artist’s working processes is the danger of narrowing the discussion to topics and technical issues of professional concern to artists rather than topics of interest to the nonartist public. The artist’s manual labor, the techniques employed in the making of an artwork, often holds little interest for those who are not themselves artists. However, an aspect of the artist’s process that has attracted general interest in the modern period is the creator’s psychological experiences. While psychological studies of specific artists and their art are typically connected to biographical and iconographic concerns, some attention has been given to the more general topic of the psychological attitudes and experiences of artists at work. Interest in the psychology of the artist as a creative person is not simply an academic topic. The artist has increasingly come to represent the fully realized human being, and the experiences and psychology of the artist are often considered a model for everyone who aspires to full self-realization. A broad cultural attitude developed during the course of the twentieth century that defined the artist as the exemplary modern personality; and as a corollary, what artists do, the processes they implement and undergo in the creation of artworks, became compelling subjects for general public examination. The enormous increase in amateur art production beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing up to today’s DIY (do-it-yourself) culture is one aspect of this phenomenon that will be discussed in this book.
One of the most influential early descriptions of the artist’s labor and the difficulties that accompany it appears in Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 tale The Unknown Masterpiece, which became a defining text for many modern artists. Cézanne, Picasso, and de Kooning are all known to have felt affinity with this story’s account of a profoundly dedicated painter whose work is ultimately a failure. In the 1920s Picasso created a suite of etchings to illustrate an edition of the story published by his dealer Ambrose Vollard. Balzac’s tale, set in the seventeenth century, describes a painter named Frenhofer who labors ceaselessly in private to create his masterpiece. Passionately engaged in the process of creating this single painting, into which he attempts to bring the accumulation of an entire life of learning, philosophy, and artistic mastery, he is unable to separate himself from the work in order to see it objectively. For ten years he paints the figure of a woman, adding layers of paint to perfect the image; as he proudly states, “Some of the shadows in this painting cost years of my life.” When Frenhofer finally shows his masterpiece to two painters, however, all they can see is a foot. “They were petrified with admiration for that foot, a fragment which had escaped from the slow, steady process of destruction which had overtaken the rest of the painting” (52). Revealing his painting to viewers breaks the spell of his labor. In seeing their reactions he perceives the failure of his work, and that perception destroys him.
The story has a broad range of significance, including a commentary on the limits of the Western artistic tradition’s goal to record visual experience in paint. In terms of the artist’s process Balzac’s tale is a cautionary one; it warns of the dangers that can threaten artists whose dedication to their work is unregulated. The artist needs external goals and limits in order to create effective artworks. Balzac emphasizes that Frenhofer was “a sublime painter! but unlucky for him, he was born to riches, and so he [had] leisure to follow his fancies” (28). This great and talented painter had too much liberty and was able to indulge in the excesses of inspiration. Such unrestrained inspiration can carry the artist beyond what is possible to realize in a work of art. Thus the artistic product as a practical end must be kept in mind as a means of regulation.
Too much theory is also a serious danger: “For painters, practise and observation are everything; and when theories and poetical ideas begin to quarrel with the brushes, the end is doubt. . . . Work! painters have no business to think, except brush in hand” (28). To attempt to go beyond the boundaries of what a specific art can achieve is to destroy the possibility of aesthetic achievement. Artists must accept the limitations of their art form and work within them. This is an early manifestation of what will become a cornerstone of formalist modernism—dedication to medium specificity—but it is also a simple injunction to the artist to be concerned solely with the processes of making. It is the latter significance that concerned artists such as Cézanne, Picasso, and de Kooning, who will become exemplars of total dedication to the processes of painting. For them, Frenhofer’s intense solipsistic devotion to his painting will be emblematic of their own process. The danger of excessive theorizing is a constant through the history of modern art, and one regularly countered by artists’ statements insisting on the purity of their process. As we will see in the pages that follow, modern artists such as Matisse who described their working processes claimed they were not reliant on theories. They presented their work as fully engaged with the processes of making necessary and appropriate to their medium, untainted by external theories and ideas. The injunction given to the young painter in Balzac’s tale to work without excessive theorizing indicates that the successful artist’s process has long been perceived as an undistracted and total engagement with making.
Balzac’s story also portrays the traditional artist’s dependence on the public who evaluates the products of his work. It is clear that Frenhofer believed his work was a success. He is convinced he has created a masterpiece and is proud of the shadows “that cost years of his life” when he shows the painting to his fellow painters. Their inability to see any image other than a woman’s foot in the painting both reveals Frenhofer’s self-delusion and destroys it. Upon realizing the failure of his masterpiece Frenhofer cries, “So I am a dotard, a madman, I have neither talent nor power! I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress, I have done nothing after all!” (56). Although engrossed with his working process for many years, the final goal for Frenhofer was the production of an art object that others would understand and admire. Failing to meet that goal invalidated all his previous labor. He concluded that he had merely “worked” without producing anything. All his labor was the trivial self-indulgence of a wealthy man, a hobby. It is likely that Cézanne’s intense self-identification with Frenhofer included a fear that he, too, would be judged as engaged in pointless labor, a rich man’s pastime.
By the middle of the twentieth century, attitudes had changed markedly. Where Balzac and Cézanne saw tragedy, de Kooning saw absurdist humor. For decades now, and perhaps increasingly, artists have taken a position directly opposed to Balzac’s tragic Frenhofer. It is, they claim, the process, not the product, that defines them as artists, and thus their work cannot be evaluated solely in terms of its products. For many serious contemporary artists a successful artistic product has become a triviality. The admiration of art world peers is now directed to something intangible, an experience the artist is presumed to have had that is implied by the artist’s labor. The contemporary artist’s product, when it is a material object, often serves to represent that labor and experience rather than having independent aesthetic merit. Frenhofer’s protracted effort, rather than being a symbol of the desperate folly of artistic self-delusion, has become the contemporary artist’s greatest achievement. Years of dedicated work that do not produce a valuable, aesthetically appealing object can now be considered both successful and highly meaningful.
There are, as we will see in the course of this study, many factors that have contributed to the recent elevation of process over product. For now, however, we must be satisfied with a few brief observations in relation to Balzac’s tale. Contemporary artists often no longer accept even the basic assumptions that underlie The Unknown Masterpiece. Not only has the presumed goal of naturalistic representation been long defunct, now the conception of the art object as a valuable, aesthetically satisfying commodity often evokes anxiety and suspicion. In a world of beautiful, mass-marketed luxury items, the creation of more extravagant commodities seems meaningless to many artists (although artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons have been very successful at creating just such commodities that simultaneously parade and mock their own extravagance). Art has come to stand more and more for intangible values rather than obvious tangible ones, and the identity of the artwork as the result of and occasion for experience has gained enormous ground over the artwork as a self-sufficient object. Artistic success, long equated with readily identified, tangible, and more or less stable signs—harmonious composition, virtuoso brushwork, masterful carving, and so forth—has retreated to the imponderables of subjective perceptions, the provocative thought, the critical concept, the frisson of emotional response.
More than one hundred years after the publication of The Unknown Masterpiece Frenhofer’s fictional painting was realized as the ultimate contemporary artistic success. Hailed as “action painting” by Harold Rosenberg, the art of New York school painters, particularly Willem de Kooning, represented an authentic form of creative struggle made visible. Illegible layers of paint became the index of true artistic effort, the physical manifestation of artistic process. Over the course of a century, unregulated inspiration, solipsistic labor, and a lack of rules and limits had been transformed from barriers into meaningful characteristics of artistic achievement. Unlike in Balzac’s day, there were philosophical and artistic discourses that made it possible to value and appreciate the signs of unresolved creative struggle. It is the development of this discourse, the shift from considering artistic technique as a means directed toward an end product to considering the artist’s labor an adequate means of signification in itself, that is one of the main subjects of this study.
The working processes of certain modern artists have received serious attention from critics and scholars, but there has been no attempt to synthesize these accounts into a broader picture of the development of conceptions of the modern artist’s process. This study rectifies this lack. It carefully analyzes the published discussions of the working processes of prominent modern artists that formed common conceptions of the artist’s labor. This examination helps us to understand more fully what the artist’s process means and what values contributed to its recent status as a dominating concern. In addition to analyzing the discursive representation of the working processes of modern artists such as Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Giacometti, and de Kooning, this study also examines the work of philosophers and art theorists who addressed the working processes of modern artists. These include Henri Focillon, R. G. Collingwood, John Dewey, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. All these thinkers, to varying degrees, addressed the physical as well as the mental and psychological aspects of the artist’s process. In their writings the artist’s process is an experience that is exemplary of fully realized human experiences in general. The integration of mind and body achieved in the artistic process as described by prominent thinkers thus became emblematic of a successfully engaged relation between a human being and the physical material of the world.
Henri Focillon’s highly influential text The Life of Forms in Art, originally published in 1934, is an early example of a theoretical discussion of the artist’s process. It forms a bridge between traditional conceptions of the artist’s labor as primarily directed toward the production of art objects and a new attitude more concerned with the profound significance of the artist’s working process that derived in large part from debates surrounding Surrealist automatism. This approach would be more fully developed in the 1940s and 1950s in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological discussions of the artist’s labor, which focused specifically on Cézanne and Matisse. Focillon conceived the physical artwork as a “graph of activity” that manifests the artist’s metamorphoses of matter. He insisted on the importance of studying artistic techniques because they allow the viewer to see “the heart of the problem, by presenting it to us in the same terms and from the same point of view as it is presented to the artist. . . . In viewing technique as a process and trying to reconstruct it as such, we are given the opportunity of going beyond surface phenomena and of seeing the significance of deeper relationships. . . . [Technique is] a fundamental element of knowledge that reiterates a creative process.” Key to Focillon’s thinking is the point of contact between the artist and matter, the hand and its touch. The artist’s touch gives the artwork life, imposing its own vital structure on matter. Focillon elaborates a connection between the artist’s creative touch and the fundamental activity of the human mind. “The mind is a design that is in a state of ceaseless flux, of ceaseless weaving and then unweaving, and its activity, in this sense, is an artistic activity. Like the artist, the mind works on nature. . . . Now the artist develops, under our eyes, the very technique of the mind; he gives us a kind of mold or cast that we can both see and touch. . . . Perhaps, in our secret selves, we are all artists who have neither a sense of form nor hands.” For Focillon the artist’s manual work is the physical manifestation of mental processes common to all. Perception of the artist’s technical labor is a means to view the instantiation of thought, which is in its very nature ceaseless creative activity engaging with the world.
Evident in Focillon’s discussion and Harold Rosenberg’s later description of action painting is an attempt to elevate the artist’s technical process to the level of primary meaning in the understanding of the work of art. The artwork represents a direct encounter between artist and material, and the outcome of that encounter is most significantly an index of its occurrence, not an object that may be appreciated in isolation from its creation. But who are the viewers capable of perceiving the significance of the indications of artistic process? In stating that the artist’s technique mirrors the activity of human thought, Focillon suggests that there is a natural aptitude inherent in all viewers to appreciate the artist’s process. Perhaps only the knowledgeable and reflective viewer is consciously aware of the effects that the artist’s technical process have on the final work, but implicitly even the most technically ignorant viewer is affected by the residual signs of artistic labor.
In a broad sense, the psychological and emotional engagement of the viewer by the indexical effects of artistic process replaces the long Western aesthetic tradition of engaging the viewer through the convincing depiction of emotionally affecting figures and scenes. Instead of scenes representing the sad nobility of Socrates’s suicide or the ravaging barbarism of the Massacre of the Innocents, what attracts the viewer’s attention are the nuances of a contour line as it forms a shape, or the variations in paint handling from impasto to vaporous washes. This is a species of formalism, but one that implies consciousness of the artwork as an object situated in the world, an awareness often considered antithetical to formalism. Elevation of the perception of the artist’s process in the artwork does not merely attempt to explain the material genesis of formal qualities such as line, composition, texture, and tone. It insists on the viewer’s consciousness of the artwork as a human-created object. As such, the artwork becomes a locus of communication, a sign of a complex, motivated activity intended to provoke a sense of shared humanity. In this way it is possible to consider the artwork, viewed as the result of a creative process, as a point of intersection bringing people together in mutual recognition of their roles as active makers. Rather than the distanced admiration traditionally associated with the perception of beauty, a focus on creative process is less likely to be considered a means to transcend materiality in aesthetic exaltation. Viewer response may be more often associated with a desire to reciprocate with an act of making, a common reaction to art and one rarely addressed in aesthetic discussion except when studying poems inspired by encounters with artworks.
Broad consideration of artistic process must also include reception as integral to the aesthetic experience. Instead of viewing art as a cognate for an object, process extends the concept of art to include the object as one point in a complex web of intersecting activities, comprising the artist’s process of creation, the object, and the multitude of responses to that object. In this fashion, the understanding of the artwork becomes extended through space and time, and the accretions of experience fundamentally affect the work and its meaning rather than being considered dismissible historical accidents. Process emphasizes that the artwork can be an integral force within both individual and social human life. It is this function of art that has become particularly compelling in recent decades for artists seeking to determine a significant role for art in postindustrial, late-capitalist society.
The expansion and centrality of process in contemporary art is greatly indebted to the development of feminism and its enormous influence in the art world. Process as conceived and articulated within the historical context of the modern Western artistic discourse is dominated by the ideas of the male artists, critics, theorists, and philosophers who set its terms. It is not until the latter half of the twentieth century that women become significant shapers of that discourse. Prior to that time, artistic process was conceived and discussed in terms of the “gender-neutral” and presumed universal male artist. Aspiring female artists worked to achieve access to the same training received by their male peers, although this was often not possible for certain aspects of fine arts education, particularly those requiring study of the nude. Despite pervasive institutional separation, ambitious female artists typically conceived their processes as no different from those of their male peers. This was often a requirement for public recognition.
Putatively feminine qualities of artistic expression could be important ingredients in a female artist’s success—for example, that of Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Berthe Morisot—and these qualities affected conceptions of the artist’s process to a degree, but they were rarely discussed or analyzed in depth. Feminine was a broadly descriptive term akin to romantic and expressive and was used to describe artistic qualities linked to a wide range of artistic techniques and processes: the finely nuanced modeling of Vigée-Lebrun, the loose brushwork of Morisot, the delicate precision of Rachel Ruysch, and the vaporous color pours of Helen Frankenthaler. Feminine qualities were also commonly linked to the types of artistic production that women most often practiced professionally and as amateurs: design, illustration, and the so-called minor arts and decorative crafts. These were art forms in which technical processes were considered predominant, rather than the conceptual concerns that distinguished the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Widespread efforts to locate and define specifically female forms of art and art making accompanied the rise of feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s and had an enormous effect on the growth of interest in the creative process as a subject and focus of contemporary art. Artistic processes traditionally associated with women’s crafts and amateur art became a site of great interest for contemporary artists such as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro who adopted and elevated long-devalued forms of art making. They drew attention to the extent to which profound engagement with artistic process was not limited to the narrow category of socially recognized artists, but was in fact a pervasive social activity. Feminist artists also challenged the prevalent modern image of the artist as a solitary male genius and reinstated collaboration as a valuable component of the artistic process. In addition, feminists’ emphasis on the value of personal experience led many artists to examine their individual creative processes in depth and to expand these well beyond the traditional boundaries of object-oriented production. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s maintenance art, Carolee Schneemann’s eroticized performance art, and Linda Montano’s wide-ranging experiential performances provide highly influential examples of the myriad ways the processes of common activities previously unassociated with art or art making can be both the subject and the object of significant art.
In the contemporary art world, anything may be a work of art. This is often understood by those who are not seriously engaged with the visual arts in a limited fashion. They may know enough about modern art to shrug with indifference or disdain as they acknowledge that art can be anything. But when asked to consider how this is the case, many, perhaps most, people will respond that anything a person thinks is beautiful—be it a urinal, a pile of rags, or a sunset—is a work of art. This conception marries the traditional association of art with beauty and aesthetics to a misunderstanding of modern art’s subversive rejection of traditional concerns. It is accompanied by another related and widespread conviction—that anyone may make a work of art. Thus the cook, the gardener, the knitter, even the housecleaner may in common parlance be declared artists when they devote an exceptional degree of care, attention, and inventiveness to the production of something beautiful, be it a meal, a flower bed, a sweater, or the arrangement of a room. This is a true democratization of art and an intriguing public response to the growing distance between institutionalized contemporary art and the general public. It seems that as institutionally recognized artistic activity becomes incomprehensible to the public, the more that public embraces traditional notions of art-making activity in their own lives. While for many people this type of artistic activity is closely linked to the creation of beauty (understood broadly as anything aesthetically satisfying), that is by no means its sole concern.
Particularly important are the pleasures to be derived from engaging in the creative process itself. In the 1970s Daniel Bell observed that making art had become associated with personal fulfillment, and similarly that there had been a corresponding shift from objective standards of evaluation to merely personal responses, presumably of the sort represented by the cliché “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” According to Bell, “With the expansion of higher education, and the growth of a semi-skilled intelligentsia, moreover, a significant change has taken place. . . . Large numbers of people . . . now insist on the right to participate in the artistic enterprise—not in order to cultivate their minds or sensibilities, but to ‘fulfill’ their personalities. Both in the character of art itself and in the nature of the responses to it, the concern with self takes precedence over any objective standards.” What Bell described is the expansion of the Romantic notion of self-expression throughout society. In the late twentieth century, finding an outlet for one’s personal creativity became a widely embraced (and often therapeutic) goal. While Focillon had distinguished the artist from the nonartist in an implicitly essentialist manner, he had also suggested the existence of a common human creative impulse to manipulate physical materials to create forms. Such activity may be seen as primary, an intersection of mind and matter fundamental to human experience.
Conceived in this fashion, the dedication to the creative process expressed by so many artists may be understood as a final, inarguable justification for their activity. Inarguable, because it asks for no external validation, it is no different from why a person hikes or swims. The artist, like the hiker and swimmer, will probably have specific reasons and goals, but the activity is its own purpose and does not require further justification. Ultimately, what dedication to process provides is an occasion for experience, and there is now a tradition of understanding experience as the kernel of artistic activity, both that of creation and that of reception. The most well-known discussion of this topic is John Dewey’s 1934 Art as Experience, a book that, like Focillon’s, has been very popular with both artists and the general public and remains in print. Dewey’s pragmatic approach has recently attracted renewed interest among scholars, most notably Richard Shusterman, who has used Dewey’s ideas as a basis for his “somaesthetics,” an approach to aesthetics that emphasizes the role of bodily experience.
Shusterman’s revisions of traditional Western aesthetics are part of a general reassessment of the meaning and purpose of art sparked by widespread changes in late-capitalist, postindustrial society. In recent decades, art history and criticism have accepted the limitations and failures of Western aesthetics and its methodological offspring, formalism, to comprehend fully the significance of art. What has largely replaced traditional approaches have been critical theory and contextual analysis, both of which are primarily concerned with situating art and culture in relation to broad social and political concerns. Serious philosophical efforts to reconsider the role and purpose of art in relation to experiential concerns, like Shusterman’s, are rare. This may be because, as Shusterman and others argue, Western philosophy is fundamentally biased in favor of the mental and conceptual rather than the bodily and experiential. Language and concepts for addressing experience have been relatively neglected in the Western intellectual tradition, and this has had a serious effect on the establishment of a developed understanding of the significance and role of process in the arts.
It is the purpose of this study to provide a foundation for understanding how the artist’s process has been conceived and valued in the Western artistic tradition, beginning with a historical overview and then analyzing the topic more specifically in relation to modern and contemporary art. A primary goal for this book is the careful consolidation and analysis of the material on this topic. There is a long history of critical and theoretical texts addressing the artist’s process, particularly in the modern period, which have not always received the attention they deserve because other issues and concerns have taken precedence. These are not obscure texts by any means. Most of the texts and artists that will be discussed in the pages to follow are well known and have been highly influential. What is not always clear about them is how their explicit engagement with process fits into a broader picture of the purposes of art, particularly in the modern industrial and postindustrial world. Artistic process and its relation to the meaning and purpose of art are a primary consideration for artists. Critical theory in its varied forms provides many valuable ways to examine art, but these often have little or nothing to do with what matters to artists or many of their viewers. It is my intention to provide a concrete outline and analysis of the ways process has become a central concern for contemporary artists and their viewers.
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