Creativity and Life Cycles of Artists

I read this paper (see below) with interest because it has given me a different insight into the way I work.

Ginsburgh and Weyers propose that conceptual artists achieve career success earlier than, what they call, experimental artists. This is an interesting idea in itself and concurs with much of what I think and articulates my position as artist with a degree of clarity. However, there are many caveats to what they say arising out of their definitions and more importantly, their methodology.

I will not go into the details here but just outline the thesis. Artists who draw are conceptual because they work out the mechanics of what they do before doing it. Artists who work directly with the material experiment as they do so. This in itself is very reductive and they apply their thesis to painters only. These assumptions are based on theoretical ideas that bear little or no relation to reality. The paper limits itself to considering dead artists for whom documentation has survived and divides them according to a very limited list of methodologies. The second assumption is made on whether artists are successful early on or later in life. The researchers base this on written records of sales and critical attention. The end result is that the mean difference between early and late success is a matter of only a few years. This is all well and good, but artistic outcomes cannot be quantified in the way they are in this paper. Alas, this is the bane of academic research in the arts that seeks notice from what is essentially a science-based paradigm orientated audience. However, I do agree with the final conclusion, with which they sweep aside all the shortcomings of the study: that artists are neither wholely experimental nor wholely conceptual and that they may be both at the same time or flip between the two modes throughout their career.

What I do find interesting, though, is that such a distinction is made in the first place and that the principle descriptions of methodologies seem to stand regardless of what the data suggests in given cases. A primarily conceptual artist does something with a largely predetermined purpose, often in response to external demands – [which may be hidden in the subtext of the practice]. This means that a) the outcome is defined by that purpose, as the best fit for the job b) the outcome is not necessarily personal c) consequently it does not matter whether the work is done by the artist or someone else or in collaboration. In the first instance, the idea takes precedence over the making. The consequence is that there is a tendency for the conceptual artist to become a designer and loses an element of authorship in exchange for a wider and more accessible market.

The experimental artist, on the other hand, blooms later because the internal goal or purpose to the work may be less well defined at the start. It takes longer to work out what those are and express them. Work is often left unfinished as each work is often seen as a transitory state to something else, a preparation for the next rather than being a finished project in itself often with external specifications. Therefore the outcome is seen as more personal with a more restricted market/audience.

These two views are obviously extreme ends of a spectrum but they have helped me articulate what I am about much more clearly under these terms. It surprises me that I turn out to be an experimental artist, elaborating ideas as I work but who needs to plan because of technical challenges. The ideas emerge out of reflection on what I have done, rather than being thesis or purpose led. But once a thesis has been established, the work continues to largely conform to what has emerged and it can be difficult to move out of a given trajectory. That is why it is important to experiment and let go and ‘start again’. All this is highly personal and does not easily conform to external demands such as commissions, curated call outs, etc. But now that my ideas are much more readily accessible to me, I am able to frame them in terms that can be interpreted in contexts other than my own. For instance, the project proposal can be seen as a response to the Anthropocene and isolation. These are not ideas that were uppermost in my mind but undoubtedly bubbled under the surface in some other guise.

This goes to show, that quantifying qualitative things, does not necessarily of itself give an accurate picture of how things really are. However, in the process of identifying and defining elements and their interactions, a notional clarity can ignite thoughts that give rise to insights that were not there before. Things in the real world are too complex to summarise in a few tables and graphs, but they do add to awareness if not immediate knowledge about certain phenomena.