Douglas Witmer, a Philadelphia-based artist and blogger, participates in the Artists Interview Artists Project. Below Douglas responds to another artist's five questions (Alexandra Silverthorne from D.C.). In order to participate, Douglas had to provide me with five questions for some other artist to answer. The assigning of questions to artists is completely random. If you're an artist and interested in participating, let me know.
1) How has your art contributed to society? Do you think it's important that art gives something to society?
I take it for granted that well-considered, well-executed art, aspiring to high aesthetic ideals, presenting a purity of feeling or expression, or any combination of the above contributes to society simply because it is. Saying this doesn't mean I release any responsibility on the part of the artist. Someone once told me a story in which a mentor advised his student: "make the way as narrow as possible for yourself, and as broad as possible for everyone else." I take this to mean attempting to get specific about my aspirations for my work. Some are connected to personal issues, some more public, and some are purely visual. My experience has been as my aspirations become more deeply recognized and personalized (and this happens simply through working them out), I tend to worry about them less while I'm making the work, and they in turn come through the work more clearly. I think that shows through in other people's work, too.
I would say that contemporary (American) society places great emphasis on speed, layering of information, and complexity (despite a charade of "convenience"). In constrast to that I'm working toward slowness, distillation, and simplification/purification. My intention is that people can use my work as visual situations for contemplation and pleasure.
2) What is the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid to you regarding your art work? What about the greatest insult? How should an artist respond to such compliments and insults? Is it easier to talk about the compliment or the insult?
A few years ago I was invited to show at my collegiate alma mater. It was a two-person exhibition and the other artist was a potter who was a classmate of mine. The college had just opened a new arts building with a large beautiful gallery space. My work occupied the walls and his was spread throughout the gallery on pedestals. We had finished installing the show and I was the last one left in the gallery pointing the lights. It was a Saturday afternoon as I remember. Someone sauntered into the gallery and was talking with me as I went up and down my ladder. They loved the pottery. They couldn't get enough of the pottery. Then they said, "so are you a student here?" I said, "no, I'm the painter." They said, "wow, it must be a lot of work to keep this place painted." I said, "no, I mean these are my paintings." I had several paintings that were 4 x 5 feet and another that was 5 1/2 x 6 feet, plus half a dozen other paintings. But it was very clear by the look on the person's face that up until that moment they literally had not seen any of them. I felt a little bad for them as they scrambled for something to say. And a bit angry.
We deal with rejection constantly. Rejection comes in all forms including insult. Right when it happens it always feels extremely personal. Sometimes there's something to learn from it, and sometimes the thing to learn is that it really isn't about you or your work. I think the problem in the story I just told is that the person didn't have a lot of art knowledge and therefore had no consciousness of my work. They didn't see it because they were simply unable to. I don't blame them or anyone for that. It works the other way, too. It's possible to see and consider so much art that you get heady, cynical, and at risk of becoming blind to a moment of real meaning and beauty. In other words, I've come to think that what is possible for you to actually see depends upon your consciousness.
I find it helpful to suspend the notion that my work is art in and of itself. Obviously it is art to me because of my relationship with it. But when I put it out into the world all I can do is hope that what I intend for it may be understood by other people. Much of the time you never really get to find out if it means anything to anyone. But then from time to time I'll get a note or talk with someone and I know they understand and value the work I do. I consider that a true compliment.
3) What exhibit that you have seen within the last year has most influenced you? Why?
Field of Color : Tantra Drawings from India at the Drawing Center in New York. It connected me directly to the idea of a communal use of power inherent in pure visual forms. This was perhaps an ideal of Western modernism, but I don't believe it was ever broadly realized.
4) What question would you like me to ask you?
Why did you banish the word "viewer" from your vocabulary?
5) Why do you read "Thinking About Art"? How, if at all, has it contributed to your growth as an artist?
Nothing surprising or unique here...I read it like I read any and all art publications. Weblogs, though, unlike magazines, are much more interactive. The internet has allowed someone like myself who doesn't and cannot get out frequently to maintain active conversations with people from around the world. I like written communication, but I miss the tactility of writing on paper.
Juno Doran (questions by James W. Bailey)
Josh Feldman (questions by Joseph Barbaccia)
Lisa Stephenson (questions by Whitney Lynn)
Joseph Barbaccia (questions by Josh Feldman)
James W. Bailey (questions by Matt Hollis)
Matt Hollis (questions by Juno Doran)
Carol Es (questions by James Leonard)
Alexandra Silverthorne (questions by Ami Lahoff)
Christine Buckton Tillman (questions by Carol Es)