a few thoughts about work and the meaning of an artist's residence Inspired by the Saari Residence ——– Teemu Mäki Teemu Mäki is an artist, director, writer, Doctor of Fine Arts and Chair of the Board of the Artists' Association of Finland. Mäki worked at the Saari Residence in the winter of 2017.
i know how good art is made I know what method to use to make good art. That does not mean that I succeed in making good or even passable art. Artistic work is demanding because no amount of talent, knowledge or hard work can guarantee a good artistic outcome. The outcome may in fact be worthless even if the maker has put everything he has into the game, worked hard and in the heat of the moment, believed he had made a work of art that will bring great joy and wisdom to himself and others. Things are different in almost all other professions and fields. In their case, work always produces something useful, bread, for example. A skillful baker may make bread that is especially tasty and an efficient bakery may produce bread especially costeffectively but even a poor baker can produce bread that is edible. A poet on the other hand may struggle for weeks to scribble a few verses without writing one line of printable text. A painter can waste weeks painting a square meter piece of canvas over and over but not make any progress. It is not about having set the bar too high but about the artist knowing that the bad poem or bad painting is simply and utterly worthless, a waste of time and materials for both the artist and the audience. Information can help an artist. What I mean is “normal information” that we most readily can identify as knowledge. It is the kind of rational knowledge that can be fully verbalised and justified with words and numbers and even proven. Poets can improve their chances of success by reading comparative literature or philosophy, for instance. A painter can study chromatics, psychological theories of reading images, art history and theories about contemporary art which a pure theoretician or an impure thinker like myself has scribbled. I dare say that artists who have improved their level of understanding the world this way, or “learned artists”, are on average better than other artists. But only on average, from a statistical point of view. In the case of an individual artist, verbalised factual information (normal information) does not guarantee better artistic results. An artist with exceedingly good knowldege of theory can produce poor works of art which his fancy words can conceal only momentarily. On the other hand, a selftaught ignoramus can create exceedingly great art even if he has no understanding of the theories of art. This is not a mere romantic fantasy, it is true: in art knowledge does not guarantee anything nor does ignorance. Why is knowledge so unrealiable in art? There is no mystery to it. It does not mean that knowledge is futile or that knowledge alone would not suffice for anything. Instead, the simple reason is that the types and forms of knowledge applied in art are so verstatile that it is difficult to manage them and define them to any degree of certainty. A great work of art does not arise from ignorance but from a desire to know and a skill to acquire and apply many kinds of knowledge, of which only a part can be verbalised or fathomed.
But what is the “method that produces good art” that I bragged I know at the beginning of my text? It is this: A great artistic method is based on empathising and keeping a distance. What makes it difficult is that empathising and keeping distance are opposite to each other. They cannot be fused into a single act, instrument or system. When artists approach their subject and artwork with empathy, they allow intuition or non-verbalised emotion to guide their choices: their brush, dancing body, lyrical pen or musical instrument. They throw themself at the subject and the art work, engage in a sort of close combat to get as close as possible or inside of what it is like to be an other being, what is the potential of a lump of clay and what images language could create out of nothing. When artists approach their subject or work of art by keeping a distance, they attempt to see it from a birdseye view, distant enough to see it as clearly and as coolly as possible as a whole. This perspective enables them to assess reasons, consequences, structures and potential rationally and analytically. This means that there are two doubles in use. The artist wrestles with his subject or “research question” both by empathising and by keeping a distance. Both of these take place through working on the piece, which itself is both empathic close combat and evaluating the situation from a critical distance. How can empathising and keeping a distance be used together when they cannot be combined? They must be used in turns or side by side. This means that artists first paint with intuition and emotion, shunning all strict rules that determine colour, lines, forms, rhythms and hues. Then they step back and view their work from a critical distance, attempting to evaluate it with the eye of an outsider and analyse meanings and emotional states that have appeared in the painting. Being critical means openminded and evaluative qualitative assessment. “Is this good like this? In what sense good? What part of the painting should I change and for what reason exactly? What ideology, concept of humanity or experience of existence does this unfinished painting convey or personify? What does this painting say about me and the world and what do I base this interpretation on? And would I want it to say something else?” Following critical evaluation the artist returns from afar to close combat – and engages in it more with intuition, immediate impulses and sensations rather than under the close guidance of a critical and verbalising intellect. Good practice is jumping back and forth between these two opposing modes. Some also know how to use them side by side, to some extent, at least. In some arts such as music that emphasises improvisation they have to be used simultaneously. Both empathising and keeping a distance are difficult tasks. It is especially difficult to become good at both and to make them cooperate. Numerous methods have been developed for this purpose, one of which is the so-called artist residence. what hopes do artists have for artist residences? An artist residence is an artist’s temporary home and studio that someone else pays for partly or in full. Most residences have several artists at the same time but there are solitary ones, too. Why do artists seek residences? Do they not like it at home? What is wrong with their own, permanent studio?
1. An artist looks for peace in a residence. For many artists, the most important aspect of a residence is that it is not their home but a temporary space, something between a hotel, voluntary imprisonment and a retreat in the wilderness. Concentrating in something for a long period at a time is perhaps even more difficult today than it used to be because there are more people, stimuli, information and communication than ever before. The more noise and less empty space there is in the world, the more important will artist residences become if they offer a safe haven from stimuli and the ubiquitious flood of information and a chance to withdraw. For me, the most rewarding residence has been Villa Karo in the Beninese village of GrandPopo in 2008 because it did not (yet) have internet service. On average, artists do not have shorter attention spans nor are they less able to concentrate than other people but many artistic tasks pose an especial challenge to concentration. When poets face a blank sheet of paper or painters an empty canvas, they also face a number of problems and research topics that cannot be exhaustively defined, specified or verbalised. Artistic work dwells on problems such as “What is it like? How does it feel? What do I want? What am I afraid of ? Who are the others? How should one live and why? What system of government would be best – or just better than the current one? Why should one live in the first place? How can I learn to appreciate life more and enjoy it? What is my relationship with my own fallibility, suffering and mortality? what is a good life and how does one live it?” In addition to these, artistic work can also deal with more simple or concrete topics such as refugees, racism, climate change or fair income distribution, but the value and strength of artistic work is in its comprehensiveness, in its handling of many topics at the same time from many different perspectives. Art refuses to put strict limits on or settle its research question and method because the most important questions about morality, and quality, meaning and purpose of life cannot be treated individually. Instead, they must be encountered withing existence as a whole, as its different aspects that must all be handled simultaneously or at least in the same session if you want to get a solid grasp of them – or of life. The ambiguity of this task and the plurality of its challenges make artistic work difficult to concentrate on because a blank sheet of paper or an empty canvas offer no obvious task to carry out or self-evident or reliable method to apply. A good residence gives an artist patience to endure the creative frustration that such ambiguous tasks cause, the lack of direction and the indecision that are elemental and perpetual to artistic work. Obviously, an artist's work also entails a lot of everyday grind, stages of work where what to do and how is clear and obvious. These stages require the patience and work ethic of a carpet weaver. The tranquility of a residence is helpful here, too. 2. An artist looks for change and motivation. Many believe that artists need much more variation and motivation that other people because it is their job to create new and extraordinary things and that means they must also new new building materials – after all, who can keep creating anything new just by scraping together material from the same old places? I assume this is true but also in
this sense the modern world is so different from those that came before because thanks to the internet and the general increase in affluence, artists usually have access to more variety and food for ideas that they can use, even if they never travel. The variety an artist can find in a residence is therefore often very mundane but inspiring because it cannot be attained through the internet: people walk differently, speak about god in strange tones, the bread is different and so is the whisper of the wind and its smell, too. What is more, in the tranquility of the residence the artist has time and energy to grapple sources of inspiration that at home are available, in principle, but get pushed aside by other, more pressing things. In its simplest form this means that you leave a book on the nightstand for years that you are going to start very soon. In the tranquility of the residence you finally manage to read it even though you have always known it is especially inspiring. As far as inspiration goes, the most rewarding part about the residence is not necessarily the new things it has to offer but the refreshing distance to old ones. As I mentioned earlier, keeping distance and self-critical analysis are the most difficult aspects of art. Staying in a residence is immensely helpful in this sense because when you are taken away from familiar settings, you may see the themes of your own work, including unfinished works, in a new light, with strange eyes in a sense, in a fresh way. 3. An artist looks for a place to stay and a living in a residence. Some artists apply for residences because they have no housing or studio at all, neither temporary nor permanent. Besides artists who are refugees, this also afflicts many artists from affluent countries. Even many Finnish artists, especially right after graduation, apply for residences anywhere in the world because they do not have proper housing and cannot afford a studio. Becoming a residence nomad can be a solution. Some try to stay “on the road” for year after year, jumping from one residence to the next. There is nothing wrong with that and it can lead to especially active work. Sometimes the result is negative: the artist makes only superficial observations of constantly changing locations and cannot really get a hold on life anywhere. In a financial sense, residences can be put in two categories: wealthy ones that pay the artist's expenses and may even provide a grant, and poor ones that collect rent or other fees in return for the use of the residence. The fact that many poor artist also apply for residences that charge fees shows how destitute many are. 4. An artist looks for contacts and rewarding discussions in a residence. Artists who live in remote areas may often be the only artists around. They may not even be any artists in the neighbouring towns. Such rugged professional solitude may suit some artists but most yearn for collegial company and critical discussion. On the other hand, some feel that the company of works of art is sufficient. When you write books, paint paintings and dance dances and then read books written by others, see other artists’ paintings and experience dance performances by other dancers, that is artistic conversation in the most profound sence of the word. Many also simply want to sit down and have a chat with colleagues. In the past, before digitalisation, that is, residences were the answer to this need.
They were an opportunity to meet other artists and become part of a community. It is different now. e-mail and skype are always open and most artists have more contacts than they could ever keep alive in practical terms. When an artist attends a residence in a major city, nothing really changes. They add a dozen or two new “friends” but it is not easy to start any real interaction. A large part of residences are in remote areas, however. Staying in them is always like a retreat, a withdrawal to peace and less than normal stimulation. Being in such a residence can also be especially fruitful for contacts and discussions because when half a dozen or so artist live in the same house or around the same yard for a few months, they are usually forced by circumstances to take each other more seriously than they otherwise would; they truly have to engage with each other. With the internet, most of them will stay in contact with others, too, but bodily presence and daily encounters in surroundings where there are not very many other is a very strong experience. An especially important aspect of residences is that they are “blind dates”. An artist cannot know or influence who they happen to share their residence with. It can be fun when a friend or an artists you don't know but whose works or methods are immediately inspiring comes to the same residence. It is likely even more inspiring – if not necessarily as much fun – to have to meet strangers, artist you do not know, strange works, methods, world views or ideas of humanity. They may, at first at least, be uninteresting or even repulsive and that is why in other circumstances you might easily dismiss them. At a residence, you have to encounter them. Is is like mental stretching that increases understanding of other beings and at the same time forces you to evaluate your own convictions and habits anew. Even if your convictions and habits do not really change, meeting another person at least forces you to work on the reasons why you hold on to them. And if these reasons are not just circular arguments and attempts to justify sentimental choices with sensible-sounding drivel, deepening the reasons will also change and enrich what is being reasoned, which is your own artistic, philosophical or political convictions. Art is an exceptionally specialised field. Artists are highly trained specialists and one of the greatest achivements of Western art is the idea of artistic freedom – that an artist should be independent of the wishes of the audience and the financier, that artists should study what most intrest them, using the methods they find most rewarding and present the result of the work in the form of works of art irrespective of the message or form the audience may wish or like. Often the result of such defiant and self-centered toil is inconsequential; often it is brilliant even if many will not immediately notice the brilliance. Brilliant results cannot be achieved when the audience or financier is in control. The other side of artistic freedom, which could even be called irresponsibility, is that when an artist – just like most philosophers – takes his (artistic) musings as far as he is able, many in the audience cannot follow because they do not have the time, energy or ability to sufficiently focus on such extreme art. Of course some extreme art may, despite its sophistication, be in some part very easy to understand and immediately pleasurable even to someone unfamiliar with art, but this flexibility only applies to some of the extreme and challenging art. Artistic specialisation and its side-effects are also visible in multi-artistic residences: authors, artists, music-makers and performance artists are often completely ignorant of each others work. Scratch the surface, and you may reveal typical and embarrassing
prejudices hostile to art or other fields of art. They derive mostly from pure ignorance and lack of exposure. Closing these gaps is an important mission of multi-art residences. When artists from different fields have to encounter each other face to face at the same table week after week, they have to talk about their art and the methods they use and about their goals as if from a clean slate, starting from scratch. Yet they are not talking to children or know-nothings because the others are likely to be more or less equally competent in their own fields. This “starting from scratch” adds understanding between artists from different fields and offers new ideas and materials for their work. On the other hand, the internal and self-reflective meaning to each party of such discussions is at least as significant. When you tell others about your work you place yourself with your back against a wall in a good sense; “What is the purpose of my art? What are my methods and why? How do I measure my success? What view of the world or humankind does my art represent? How do I explain all this in simple terms? How receptive or deaf am I to feedback and what other forms of art can give me?” Such self-reflection is normal to artists in other circumstances, too, of course – the more, the better – but when you have to engage in it in the company of other professional artists and take responsibility for how meaningful it sounds to the intellect and experience of other artists, it can be especially intensive self-reflection. • I spent the first two months of 2017 at the residence at the Saari Manor. I mostly concentrated on writing a book of essays. In the peace of the residence I was able to both immerse myself in my work and keep a critical distance. I also made new friends and new ideas. I was happy. And the book became much more wide-reaching and I believe better than it would otherwise have become. The Purpose of Art – Essays was published by Into Kustannus and came out on 13 October 2017. Lapua, 31 December 2017
In 'Saari Ahoy! Saari Residence 10 years'.