Monday, January 19, 2015

The Artist and the Honey Bee

Impressionist?  Or maybe, contemporary realist?  As a painter, what do you call yourself?  Artists often worry about this.  But does it matter?

Consider the honey bee.  They are one of over 20,000 different species of bees.  Some, like the honey bee, build huge hives of wax combs, often in hollow trees.  Others, like the bumblebee, live in smaller colonies underground.  There are even solitary bees that go it alone.  Scientists have studied these bees to determine how they are related, how they evolved, and have given them labels like Apis mellifera.  But of course, the honey bee doesn't care about any of this.

A label is shorthand for a complex set of characteristics and relationships.  Much useful information gets discarded for this convenience.  Like the honey bee, you as an artist don't need a label to do your job.  But lacking the artistic equivalent of honey bee DNA, you do need that discarded information.  You need to know what your influences are if you're going to evolve.  For example, the knowledge that you use a palette loaded with bright colors like Monet but apply thin glazes like the Flemish painters may help you take your next evolutionary step.  Granted,  often we integrate these influences unconsciously  and do manage to stumble toward a greater art, but if we recognize and understand them, we may progress more directly.

There are, of course, advantages to labels.  Having a general idea of one's relationship with other artists, both past and contemporary, helps us go through the world with more confidence.  And the right label can provide a marketing advantage, too.  But calling myself a "contemporary realist" doesn't even begin to describe the richness of my journey.  Nor is the label particularly useful to me as a guidebook for my next destination.

I love the thought-provoking title of Gauguin's great painting:  "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"  Gauguin poses these questions to humanity, but we we can also pose them to ourselves as artists.

Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
Paul Gauguin 1897
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

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