Tuesday, November 25, 2008

If You Can't Make It Good...

8. If You Can’t Make It Good...

One of the truisms I heard in graduate school was, “If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it shiny.” Which, of course, implies that “good” objects are small and matte. It also implies that what we are trying to do with our art is impress the audience, to give them something to “Wow!” about, by any means possible. Unfortunately, ugly made large does not become beauty.
Every time I see a large, shiny work of art I have to chuckle to myself and really look hard at it to understand if it might also be “good.’ Is it really worthy of praise or only impressive because of its size? Is it really attractive or just noticeable because of its shininess?
I remember discussing work with other graduate students and hearing “Do you think it would look better if it were larger?” We had to be very careful to focus on the piece and to understand its particular relationship to the audience, because scale is an important design issue and not just a cheap trick to be impressive.
I even made a six foot tall cast iron sculpture specifically as a test of a sculpture class reading assignment about scale and its effect on a viewer. The argument ran that objects smaller than ourselves are somehow insignificant. Objects larger than ourselves are monumental and dominating. And only objects the same size as the viewer can be equal to ourselves with equal personalities. Based on the iron sculpture and my other work to date I think I agree with the theory. I also need for there to be some such logic to scale in my work, a logic beyond the capitalist arts maxim, “Be impressive, impressive sells.”
As graduate students, our truism may have been a lesson, a warning, or a joke, but it brings up fundamental and constant issues about judging our own work and that of other artists. What do we see that is truly virtuous, and what is mere smoke and mirrors, scale and sheen? Does the public sit beside you in the studio whispering in your ear to do this or do that, or to make your objects larger and flashier?
Have the artists who make large scale public and museum work simply taken the easy way out? Is working large really an easier path to fame or does it demand better technique and a bolder spirit? Do larger projects somehow prove your artistic merit? Are there small objects that succeed artistically specifically because they are small? Perhaps the jewelers in our midst would have something to say about that.
Viewing the subject cynically, for some artists audience response is the only issue and they achieve it by whatever means possible. Even when an individual artist defies the market and works only for their own selfish satisfactions, scale and finish remain important choices. Why do we make the choices that we do? Some artists choose not to know. For myself, this is why I’m drawn to furniture and utilitarian art. Function tells us more about appropriate scale than ego and applause ever will.

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