Artist: Barbara Melnik Carson
BMC – Coffee (cream), The Barrett (did not eat pickle wedge)
SRS – Coffee (black), The Kenna
I’m so glad Barbara Melnik Carson reached out and we were able to meet up for breakfast (“This is actually lunch, right?” said Barbara) at Mudgie’s this week. Barbara is a narrative sculptor, she messes around with found objects a great deal, she makes things that look like dolls and toys – in other words, Barbara is right up my alley. She came ready to play with some existential questions on her mind, and I think some of what we covered bears repeating in detail.
Firstly, Barbara wanted to know if I thought that the opinion of certain people is more important than others, when it comes to art. I think this is a good question. It seems that the art world is a series of gatekeepers, and getting a pass from the right person is required to access certain spaces and wider levels of recognition. And yet – and I think this may be an unpopular opinion, as far as academia and high art is concerned – art is subjective. It. Is. Subjective. Everyone is entitled to engage with it in whatever (hopefully nondestructive) way they choose, and by participating, you become right. Probably your opinion is easier to respect and attend to if you have done some research or strive to put any given piece of art into a wider context, but you know? It’s not always necessary.
That’s because it’s important to know your audience. If you want a solo retrospective at the Guggenheim, then yeah, you’re going to need to pass a lot of gates. If you want the children in your neighborhood to feel imaginatively engaged and empowered to develop critical thinking skills, you can probably just go out on your front lawn and get to work. If what’s most important to you is making art, the way it makes you feel and the freedom it allows you, then congratulations – you are your own audience and the only opinion that matters is yours. Do what you will. But remember, in that case, it is delusional to think that your Fairy Artmother is going to turn up and demand that you participate in the Whitney Biennial, and it’s inappropriate to allow bitterness to creep into your game when that doesn’t happen. No matter how cool and effortless people might make it look, anyone in a high-visibility position within the art world has worked incredibly hard to get there, and has to do a lot of things that have nothing to do with freedom of expression or even, frankly, art.
This connects to another thing we talked about, which is having a personal definition of success. Part of what is fun about art is being able to follow your creative impulses – Barbara was talking about how a 3D clay form she was working on just wasn’t working out, and she used a rolling pin to flatten it out, in order to reclaim the clay, inadvertently discovering the relief form that has become a major mode for her work. I have my own thoughts about whether or not such things are inadvertent or simply a higher part of the brain struggling to get ideas into the world. It takes an acute degree of self-awareness to actually understand why we do things, a lot of the time. Art is one of the ways of working that out, and the feeling of making a new connection or discovery through art can be a powerful kind of self-actualization. Something to remember about big-name artists is that a lot of their time gets taken up with things that have nothing to do with feeling. It seems to me that in order to meet all the responsibilities of a high-octane art career, one has to spend as much (if not more) time self-promoting, networking, organizing, negotiating, and managing details than making the actual art. That’s fine, if art is really just a means by which you hope to have a high-impact professional career. But if you actually like the part about making things, especially in an instinctive and unfettered way, you may find that fame and fortune come at a difficult cost.
Hey, this is good news! It is so, so easy to allow outside metrics to govern your self worth. It is awfully common to accept the idea that you need to do X and Y if you want to be a “real” artist, or support yourself through your creative pursuits. In reality, that is prescriptive, lazy thinking, and lacks the power you have to imagine a path all your own.
What’s the best way to find that path? I dunno, guess you’ll have to be creative.
Good thing you’re an artist.
You can check out work by Barbara (and others) here, at The Ann Arbor Women Artists opening on Friday May 20th 7-9pm at the UM Union: