From Venus of Willendorf to Leonardo da Vinci: In Praise of Art That’sLess About Concept and More About Story and Craft

I love to make things, as anyone will tell you who’s known me very long. My two favorite kinds of things to create are written pieces, be they argumentative, explanatory, illustrative, narrative, and so on, and are usually essays; and artworks, now usually picture quilts, but for many years drawings, paintings, and occasionally sculptures. Though I’ve long loved the written word, my oldest creative love is art.

I’m also a populist by instinct, in the sense that I care a lot about sharing my life with many kinds of people, and relatively little about fitting in with or impressing a small, select group. When I’m in a scene that feels too cliquish, too elite, too cool, too exclusionary, too, well… ‘scene-y’, then I’m out. Not to say I don’t care about community: I do, deeply. But when it comes to anything I think is wonderful and lovable, the more widely I want to share it. That’s what I’m all about as a writer and as an artist.

And that’s why I’m just not that into conceptual art, on the whole. By conceptual art, I mean that which is created more with the intention of referring to or hinting at abstract concepts, and less for purpose of telling a story or of being a thing of beauty. The more conceptual a piece is, the more it leaves me cold, because to me, conceptual art is exclusionary in nature. This type of art is really only meaningful to, and therefore meant for, an exclusive circle, people who spend a lot of time in that sort of art culture, or in a moneyed elite, or in certain academic circles. (I value and respect academia, but to me, it fulfills a very different function than art does.) It’s made for people in a position to ‘get it’. Conceptual art speaks in jargon, in secret handshakes, in code, in insider-ese, in the language of moneyed leisure. All well and good for those who enjoy this sort of club atmosphere. But of art, I want more.

I want art that’s more like music, or poetry, or architecture, or myth: even if it’s originally meant only to communicate within a culture, it can and does communicate across time, space, culture, socioeconomic status, and language. To me, the more soul-stirring the art is, the more comprehensively it tells a story (in both senses of the word ‘comprehensive’). It’s that sort of universal human communication, like tears, laughs, sighs, or smiles, that makes art transcendent, that bridges those gaps between each other and between ourselves and all that exists, which we all ache to cross. 

I love folk art, and I love craftsmanship. They are the two sides of art that I think communicate most universally. 

By folk art, I mean that which is meant to communicate a story: of a person or persons, of an event, of a myth, of belief, of history. It can be crude or it can be finely wrought, but what makes it good is its ability to communicate to anyone, from anywhere or at any time, what’s going on in the mind and heart of the artist. 

By craftsmanship, I mean the art of creation which requires a high level of dexterity and skill, and which demonstrates the countless hours of practice and of mastery that demonstrates the artist’s deep love of the creative process itself. We all make things, so we are all able to recognize and appreciate, on some level, whatever level of care and ability that went into making the thing we see. And as makers, we invariably encounter the limits of our abilities, and in doing so, we realize how difficult it is transcend our own limits and make something well. When an artist accomplishes this superbly, we’re impressed, and delighted.

On the whole, I think the world of conceptual art is suffering too many of the ill effects of its own excesses. Craftsmanship is not valued nearly enough; indeed, I’ve heard artworks rich in it dismissed time and time again as not really art, they’re ‘just crafts’. Representations of people, places, and ideas that are widely recognizable are dismissed as ‘too literal’. I really think that most people who walk through galleries these days are often jaded, or bored, or amused, or bemused, and, as a whole, tired of being talked down to by artists and gallery curators. The public is getting tired of the art world’s pretensions: it often looks as if just about anything can be fastened to the wall, demanding the public’s praise and appreciation so long as it’s accompanied by a description that sounds obscurely profound enough. Conceptual art, on the whole, has grown too elitist and too removed from the most fundamental emotional needs that art, at its best, can fulfill.

I grant that there are some things of value in conceptual art, too. For one thing, as my husband points out, when it was a new movement, it allowed artists to break down artistic boundaries, many of which should have been broken down since they placed too many restraints on innovation and creativity. (I can always count on Bryan to play an effective devil’s advocate, to find the weak and missing points in my arguments; thanks, as always, for keeping me honest, babe!) There are subtle points that conceptual artists can make that are of value and difficult to express fully or eloquently through other means of communication. Sometimes, the concepts explored are important or interesting ones, even if they are too obscurely or affectedly expressed. There are also accidents of beauty and visual interest that occur when an artist is playing freely with materials trying to express something else. And so on and so on.

But nonetheless, I feel that the conceptual art world needs more critics. It needs some competition, it needs some opposition, and I feel just fine in my overall feeling of antipathy to it as it is right now. Conceptual art (with its cousin, abstract art) has its defenders in plenty: namely, nearly every art gallery and museum and patron with deep pockets out there. The representational artists, the visual storytellers, the communicators in paint and clay and fabric and stone and wood trying to reach the widest audience, they’re not honored so much these days, except in the hearts of the grateful public who’s always happy to find artists who are direct and honest with them, who desire to satisfy their longing for beauty and love of a good story. In short, conceptuality in art has become the new paradigm, the new standard, the new orthodoxy. Conceptual art doesn’t suffer from one less champion; the rest of the art world could do with more.

So from the roughest cave painting of our earliest human ancestors to the most finely wrought work by Leonardo da Vinci, from the earthy Venus of Willendorf to the most exquisitely sculpted Michelangelo, from the doll’s dress of the youngest stitcher-in-training to the Parisian couture gown, and from the memory rag-quilt sewn in the half-light of a bayou shack to the most intricate, hand-stitched fine textile work fit for a queen you ever saw: I want to say, I love you the most. Thank you for the joy you bring me, the delight to my senses, and most of all, the communion with the wider world of things and people. Thank you for bridging the gaps.