by Christopher Hutchinson
Ownership of Material
There is a tendency by artists to believe that they have ownership privileges given to them due to the fact that they have been using a certain material for a long period of time. Artists come to believe this delusion when their work has not yet achieved an honest dialogue. Instead, they rely heavily on specializing in a material or a specific skill. When one’s work is in this underdeveloped state, everything appears to threaten his/her creative process. This artist will often have a bunch of “if I had the right ______” or “if I could afford______” and especially “I have been using this for years now–how can someone be using this material without my consent?” The truth is that it was never their material to begin with, and everyone has access to it. To believe that because you ordered this material from some catalogue or Sam Flax that somehow this is your unique material/process is just not valid. To what end are you seeking ownership of a specific medium? Many artists can afford better materials and still not achieve an honest dialogue within themselves about the work.
This is not encouragement to go and appropriate your fellow artists’ work materials, methods, processes, or ideas. In fact, it’s the opposite. The time spent appropriating is time spent away from the honest work necessary for an artist’s own development. This is where the focus of ownership should be, not on a particular material or skill. In many ways appropriation is an avoidance of the diligent work necessary to become a master of one’s own narrative. Each and every material added to your piece either clarifies or masks that narrative. That should be the primary concern with choosing a medium/material–not because it’s shiny, red, large, or because it’s been used it for a number of years. The question is: how well does this material/skill clarify this current narrative?
Ownership of Narrative
Another major illusion by many artists is the ownership of a narrative so broad that it cannot be owned. These artists have been doing this specific subject matter for years but only achieve getting swallowed up into a larger narrative that has nothing to do with them at all. This is easily uncovered by challenging why they are interested in this topic at all. After the challenge it soon becomes readily apparent that this was merely a reactionary or conversational interest that can only be used in decoration. There is no way to craft your own narrative out of something like slavery, jazz, identity, and the sensationalized black body. If used, these narratives usually end up in a very generic commemorative type of work that references external commodity–not an artist’s own interest.
An artist’s job is to make a narrative clear, as well as present, responding to this moment. Certainly artists must practice their craft, often by copying the masters. But then he/she must use that understanding to push the past to this present. “This work reminds me of _________” is not a compliment. It means that artist has not done enough to separate and master his/her own narrative.
Ownership of the figure
Again a serious delusion and hypocrisy occurs when a painter paints an image that is not his/her own. The irony is that these same artists, because they use technical skill to appropriate the image from photo to painting, believe they have achieved a more honest dialogue than a Richard Prince. In truth Richard Prince’s direct appropriation is more honest than the copy of an image painted and decorated with one’s so-called individual style. While your technical skill may place that image out of copyright law danger–that narrative does not belong to you.
When an artist begins an artwork in which an image or narrative does not belong to them, it is impossible to make that image or narrative, through said artist’s own manipulation and style, into honest ones. The artist has now created a massive obstacle to his/her own truth. Many artists who practice this never actually get to that truth, not recognizing that they themselves are the cause of their own stagnation. They mostly succeed at making knick knacks of popular iconography: horses, chickens, American flags and the like.
Artists that develop their own honest narrative are not paranoid about fellow artists coming into their studios. They are not paranoid about people appropriating their technique, because it will be so obvious that the appropriator must cease and desist. Even if the appropriator doesn’t feel any guilt, he/she cannot sustain their art-making anyway because that dialogue was never theirs. Many artists do not continue to create after art school because all along the way technique, material, and imagery got in the way of their ability to access their own narrative. Artists that ignore their personal narrative are doomed to reduce their work to notions and gestures, something that looks like art but only succeeds as empty decoration.
Christopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.