A few artists are strikingly original and I don't pretend to that. In fact I don't care if my work looks like Brice Marden meets Piet Mondrian. I'm happy if it looks like somebody else's if it's good.
Many artists today are totally uptight. They might be sophisticated but they aren't relaxed. It's not much fun for them. It's like a business. They're like bureaucrats. Eager to get ahead in a competitive field, they get degrees in art. They keep their files, send out their applications, and issue bons mots like "Picasso had a Rolodex." Picasso spent most of his time making art. He didn't waste much time using a Rolodex because he had little competition. Remember his story? "My mother said if I went into politics I'd be president. If I went into religion I'd be the Pope. But instead I went into art and I became Picasso." That's beyond Rolodexes. Every artist should be Picasso in her own mind. Art isn't about competition.
Because I don't compete I don't try to be different.
I'm not particularly responsive to the present moment. I've been a full time artist for only a couple of decades but I was an artist when I was born. All children are artists but at about the age of twelve I had the vocation, and that was the Fifties. Hence I was formed by the art of the Fifties. I'm not an artist of the Fifties but I am not an artist of the successive decades either. To that extent I may be original, but it isn't intentional.
I always liked modern art more than anything else. I looked at everything, as any curious kid does, as I listened eagerly to all languages and all music. Without knowing it had inspired Braque and Picasso I liked African sculpture and masks.
During the Seventies I was struggling to come back into art after a long absence. A lot of the Sixties and Seventies in art had passed me by and I'm still not responsive to some of the art that's peculiar to those decades.
The Eighties was a great time because business was booming. It was a period of exuberance and chutzpah in art and I was inspired by the young superstars and the neo-expressionists. That was when I got going again, the year I was back from Morocco, and just when I began to have some artwork people were there to buy it. People had money and were buying art like crazy and I got in on the fun. But by then I had no fantasies about becoming rich or famous. I just wanted to make a lot of work and sell it -- some of it, anyway. The timing was right and it worked. I was also in love and that inspired me. .
By the time the bottom fell out of the market in 1989 I was set up enough to continue anyway.
To some extent I've been hampered by my lack of fame. Some people have heard of me or think well of my work, but I have no clout. The advantage is that I'm under no pressure to produce or be profound or to outdo or copy myself.
I never claimed to be good at anything as an artist or to excel in any other field. The USA is rife with stultifying professionalism in art, with a bourgeois bureaucratic mentality, and with an obsession with technique. Some artists are great technicians; some are not. It makes no difference. Those who are good, are good neither because of nor in spite of their technique. Technique isn't what makes you good or not good but merely a starting point, or a finishing up point. It's just there, or not there. Technique is superficial: it should just disappear. One who dazzles with technique is a distracting, bad kind of artist, and likely to be a flash in the pan. It's better to have too little technique than too much, as shown by the artistic merit of the art of children and primitive people. But technique provides people too timid to talk about ideas with something to discuss. They see an artwork and don't know what to say so they ask: What technique did you use? This is always a safe topic. You can politely ooh and aah about somebody's technique when you otherwise don't understand or like her work. In the bureaucratic world of artists today confrontation is to be avoided and safe topics are to be sought.
If a painting, or something, is wonderful, it's natural to wonder how it was done. But what good will it do you to know? So you can copy it? So that everyone can use similar techniques and their work can all look more or less alike? (It will anyway.) In fact, if an artwork is wonderful, how it was done is none of your business. And you'll never really know. You won't grasp the essence of it; you'll only do a creditable imitation or, what is better, something quite different. But to talk about the technique of a masterpiece again is a safe thing to do. It will give you something to talk about when the essence or meaning of the work eludes you.
So it is true that originality means a lot in art, but you can't pursue it, I don't think. It is largely an issue that's out of our hands. Trying too hard to be original will only try you into triteness or oddity.
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/