Discovering Art – with a Medium
Part 3 of 6
What is a medium? Broadly speaking, it is the stuff we create with – the means, resources, materials and tools with which we make art. For a musician, instruments; for a poet, words; for the sculptor, chisel and stone. On the one hand, artists cherish their medium. This is evident when they call their guitar “baby”, and every jam session becomes a tryst. On the other hand, artists are frustrated with their medium. They become bored by it, dissatisfied with it, or blame it. Let’s take a brief world tour and browse a collection of artists, considering how they relate to their media.
On the 19th of November 1863 two men gave speeches, one of which is considered a great speech of U.S. history. The primary speaker, Edward Everett, was a renowned orator. He created with words, and on this particular day he used over 13,000 of them. He spoke for two hours, and within two minutes had already propounded terms like reposing, eloquent, obsequies, interment and votive. Fancy? Yes. The next gentlemen spoke for two minutes. He used 272 words – about ten sentences – and only 21 of them were more than two syllables: continent, liberty, dedicated, proposition, created, altogether, consecrate, remember, unfinished, remaining, devotion and government. Fancy? Hardly. Even if consecrate and proposition are elevated, neither is as decorative as “obsequies”. The man of simple, and few words was Abraham Lincoln, whose Gettysburg Address is hailed by today’s writers and orators. Why? In part, because he utilized the basic elements of his medium. Lincoln did not plumb the depths of his dictionary, but chose a simple vocabulary and arranged it with economy and clarity. Everett created with a profusion of recherché libretto, forming an interminable oration; but his speech did not echo through time. I am not saying Lincoln’s was better. But, I am saying that an abundance of apparently high caliber media are not necessary for quality creating. Lincoln’s speech was great because of how he used what he had.
One of the most famous artists in the UK is a Scotsman named Andy Goldsworthy. He travels the world and creates with natural materials. Not natural like organic breakfast cereal or eco-friendly sweaters, but sticks and stones. Whatever mother nature has to offer. If you watch his video documentary, Rivers and Tides, you will find Goldsworthy biting icicles so that he can join them into a skeletal ice snake. You will also see him roadside, harvesting flowers, or kneeling over a pile of sticks in a rainy Scottish pasture bemusing the nearby cattle. His fashionable beaver dams and floating leaf trains are personal favorites. At one point Goldsworthy is tenderly stacking stones on the beach when they suddenly collapse. It’s the fourth cave-in and Goldsworthy is frustrated; but he’s not frustrated with the stones. He doesn’t say, “Damn rocks never stay up.” Instead, he explains that each time the stones collapsed, he understood them a bit better, how they worked, balanced and rested. He says, “I obviously don’t understand them well enough yet.” Mr. Goldsworthy does not blame his medium; he learns about it. He practices cooperation, not damnation. Furthermore, he makes remarkable artwork with materials most of us would normally treat as kindling.
Let’s spin the globe for a moment. Some of the best fish I have ever tasted was in Panama, where a troop of natives took me by canoe to their village. I found myself sitting in a thatch hut, six feet off the ground, smelling fire-smoke when a woman placed a package of smooth, green leaves in my hand. It was warm. She gestured, and I unfolded the leaves to find two steaming pieces of fish. No salt, no pepper, no lemon, but I enjoyed the flaky white seafood and licked my fingers clean. When she brought plantains, they did not disappoint either.
I have also found myself far from the jungle in a Boston high rise. Seated fifty stories above the ground, smelling a glass of wine, a server placed a smooth white plate on my table with a set of razor cutlery. I was in the mood for seared tuna, and the dexterous construction plus a tight grid of char-marks erased any regret. But after one taste of the purple-pink flesh I was disappointed. Now, the meal was not foul or spoiled. I did not ram my knife into the tabletop, cuss the server out and throw my bottle of wine into the kitchen. (I have actually never done this in public. Only my own cooking has prompted such barbarism.) I mean, hell, I even ate the whole thing. But I was unsatisfied.
Why am I telling you this? I consider both the Panamanian cook and Boston chef culinary artists. I will not take space here to defend cooking as culinary art; let’s simply say they create meals with artful intentions. What I do want to consider are their mediums. What did the Panamanian create with? She had fire, island-smarts and a jungle. What did the Bostonian have? A $3000 dollar grill with a small armory of utensils, an inventory of herbs and spices, and a culinary degree. One created a delicious meal; one created an unpalatable meal. Their art was less dependent on their resources. It was more dependent on how they used them.
We frequently create in Panama – that is, with “lower quality” tools – and we become dissatisfied. “I only have fire, thick leaves and a half-smooth stone. What am I supposed to do?” We dream of the Boston kitchen, with knives dripping from the ceiling and our choice of ovens, ranges and fryers to burn. Now, if your passion is not food or Scottish botanicals, what about digital technology? You want another screen, a faster processor, some sexy application. Or you may wish the art store relocated into your bedroom. An endless warehouse of brushes, lenses and adhesive. Will you not become bored, dissatisfied, and betrayed by these too?
Is creating really so contingent on what you have, or more about how you use it?
Who, or what, creates? And which do you hold responsible?
You or your medium?
If you think you need a more apt word, an instrument with better tone, or a finer piece of equipment, you may be correct. Sometimes our medium cannot fulfill our vision and we need an alternative. If the phrase, “a mixture of black and white” dissatisfies you, then hunt your vocabulary until you find, “grey”. And if boredom percolates – the same old stuff has you in a rut – it may be time to push boundaries. But, your medium may be capable. Can you use your materials in a new way? Is it time to innovate rather than invent? Cooperate rather than curse? You may be discontent, bored stiff, or even ready to impeach, punch, and incinerate your materials. But before your discontent paralyzes or ruins your creating, and certainly before you blame your medium for your shabby art, consider how you use what you have.
Post-script: Objections on Seafood
Lest there be any dissenters, let’s address two objections regarding my fish story. First, “The Panamanian had fresher fish! In Boston, the fish was bad, not the cook.” Fair. But those restaurants fail or flourish on their food, and alcohol, so top quality ingredients, especially with seafood, are a priority. If they do have lower quality fish, it’s prepared in dishes that mask it (e.g. soups, thick sauces, or ordered “well-done”). Second, “This is subjective. I might think the fish in Boston was better.” Again, fair. But have you had a similar experience? Where a primitive meal totally surpasses the super-resourced, sophisticated spread? I am willing to bet you have. I am also willing to bet that if you shared both meals with me, you would agree. As a matter of fact, I would bet a Panamanian fish dinner on it.