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Art, Drawing and the Tyranny of the Medium

Are You Being Defined By Your Medium?


performance installation at an art festival

'The Hallway' by performance artist Miranda July at Yokohama Triennale 2008 on September 13, 2008 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. Boundary-crossing art is often only experienced at specific venues.

Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
Are you being defined by your medium? Limited by your art major? Perhaps you define yourself as a painter, pastelist, cartoonist or digital artist? It's not unusual. Many of us focus on a single medium, and can find ourselves subconsciously defined by it, discarding ideas before they are even fully formed, because they don't fit our usual way of working.

Often art majors are selected according to medium: painting, printmaking, photography. Drawing - 'general' and 'life' (figure drawing) may be separate streams in support of those majors. In some respects it's a good idea - artists often work in one medium or another, and the technical skills needed by each stream can be conveyed by expert practitioners.

But at many points the division breaks down; I remember the bemusement of printmaking staff when a student presented a portfolio of paper sculpture; subtle, beautiful things that were regarded as small masterpieces and given a high mark - but which were, incontrovertibly, not prints. It also quickly locks art students into selecting a technical specialty, before they've fully explored their interests.

Self-taught artists can fall into the same trap, setting out to learn a particular skill, then identifying themselves by that skill, rather than seeing the skill as just part of their whole creative expression.

Flicking through a recent 'Art Monthly' magazine and astounded by a particularly beautiful and complex installation piece depicted in its pages, I wondered whether the artists responsible would consider themselves to be sculptors. Artists often still describe themselves in terms of their craft: painter, printmaker, video artist. But a look at the most interesting and dynamic art being produced today will soon tell you that defining yourself by your craft is incredibly limiting. An artist's vision is capable of being so much more expansive, and the role of the artist is no longer to 'make a painting' (for consumption of the rich patron) or to make a printing plate (for reproduction for the masses or the media).

Contemporary fine art is centered upon the idea, the 'High Concept' that may be clearly articulated before the work is executed, or may emerge as the artist explores their medium. Certainly the form in which you choose to explore or express ideas depends upon your craftsmanship in that medium: for me, a video clip will be a challenge; a welded sculpture possible (especially if I employ a technician to assist in its construction) and a lithograph or watercolor quite easily achieved. But to define myself as a painter or printmaker immediately limits my imagination to something that I can readily express in that format. I have an idea that, contrary to my first-year sculptural ineptitude - I envision as a suspended structure constructed of polished copper. I'll possibly never make the sculpture - it won't get far beyond a sketch in my book - but by allowing myself to conceive of the sculpture rather than forcing the idea to translate into a two-dimensional piece, I've removed heavy fetters from my imagination.

Do you define yourself by your craft, or by your art? Could a shift in perception open creative possibilities? Have your say.

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