Being an Artist; Being a Mystery; and Media Literacy

In the most simplest of terms, being an artist, a visual artist, that is, is nothing more than a person who does the simple human activity of creating an image. Why does that artist make THAT, we ask? I could do that!, people exclaim. What’s the big deal? There’s no value to it and it’s meaningless, we think. And artists resort to their private worlds because large groups of people don’t care, relate or understand and see no point. Yet other artists we are in awe of. Other artists ‘make it’. Other artist’s images change our lives, help us make decisions, show us something about our world, become part of what we believe and see everyday and we use to convey messages to the next generation. So why these relationships? Why all the mystery about being artistic? What’s going on? Why all the money for artist celebrities and/or the lack of it for the starving artist tradition? What makes creating an image so different than any other human activity and occupation that artists have a reputation of not being understood? Well, I believe it’s really not a mystery as people believe. And I believe that the mystery, misunderstanding and relationships are, to some degree, unnecessary.

Don’t get me wrong. In the height of the information age, as I believe we are living, there is a lot to understand about what is going on with creating images in our society and who are the image creators now because now everyone is and can do it and what IS everyone doing? Everyone can be a visual artist. Images are so plentiful. The tools are easy to use. The results can be sent across the world and can be copied millions of times…… and yes, so important to our lives in so many ways.

Remember, it use to be only special people, visual artists, were creating images and slowly over years, more and more other people with different tools, different purposes and different names and titles for their work also began creating images in different ways with different rules. The painter got replaced by the photographer. The photographer got replaced by the cameraman. The cameraman got replaced by the cinematographer. The cinematographer got replaced by the computer image technician. But no longer do we have just these special occupations, all occupations now involve computer dealing with electronic image. Yet visual artists identified by occupation are still the special image creators despite how image making has infiltrated almost every occupation and everyone’s life. Anyone can create images with the new technology for different purposes. Everyone is using it in their jobs and even doctors are making life and death decisions about health based on image technology that didn’t exist until recently. Images of the brain are the newest discoveries and supposedly tell us who we are and how we function in a way only religious authorities had done in the past.. Scientists have moved from making discoveries in nature to discoveries by distorted and created images of life not by direct observation in life. Yet the artist still remains the mystery and the original image creator. So I think it’s high time we move back to basics, understand the artist, the history and proliferation of image makers and the relationships we’ve inherited and are now living with because of and over the one simple human activity of creating an image that has developed into a thread that is interwoven into all our lives in all sorts of ways and is what our children are spending their educational years living and breathing in a way no one has before to exclusion of other activities.

Being an artist is losing it’s mysteriousness yet evolving into new forms.

In our society, before internet, computer and desktop publishing, creating an image and having that image published or seen by large audiences was a very privileged activity and only a handful of people were involved in the producing of activities related to that basic image making activity. Most all of life and work existed beyond and unrelated to that small group of people who created an image. And before television, film and camera, even more so. The portrait artist was once alone. At one point before that skill developed, no images existed at all (unless you looked into a pond or body of still water and later a mirror or glass) so relationships and social structure and communication were entirely different. Think; there was no self image or images of each other, out of time and place, or an image of anything at all to think about! No image of a polar bear. If you weren’t there, you didn’t see one. Imagine a world without images. The occupation being unnecessary. No visual artists in existence. No drawings. No letters. No numbers. No math. No science. No Books. No religion. No philosophy. No writing. Imagine where you really had to be with someone to know them. Imagine you really had to be at the location of an event to see what was there. Image your only source of knowledge came from your direct relationship to the environment. Imagine what did not exist there. In some ways, This is what an artist has – a direct relationship to creating image apart from all that image making that already exists. And all This means there’s been a monumental change in thinking, what we think in the abstract, in human relationships, occupations and the environment as related to the basic human activity of creating an image. The computer is just the lastest and greatest image technology that has changed human lives, activities and social relationships – drastically – by having a new tool to create digital image in so many forms and ways that we can all (well, almost all of us) use. Is it any wonder why ROTFLMAO stands for what use to be a whole string of words like the ones I am using now. Letters now stand for words.

This – the topic; what I am speaking on – is called media literacy. It is the subject of learning about and learning to understand and read media and images rather than just soak it up in a state of being oblivious to who, why, how and what is and has been created and how it is impacting you and what you are doing with it. Media, as I use the word here, is actually the ‘form’ in which the image is communicated through. The term media (singular) and medium (plural) has been used for artist tools such as oil paints and pencils, and is also understood to be anything from all book forms including textbooks, radio, television, films, movies and magazines, newspapers and of course, computer disks and dvds. Anything that is the direct result of and means of creating, presenting and accumulating images and producing them in some form to present to others. Media also forms the channels and are part of our communication systems.

And what does this have to do with the mystery of being an artist? Well, once you understand media channels, and media forms, and you understand the artist as the original visual creator, you might be able to see that the mystery comes from the unexplained and sometimes conflictual relationships between the visual artists as creators and their relationship to others in society as uncounted image creators and controllers – especially other media creators and forms whether created a long time ago or in the present. Often artists speak to others, visually, about the whole world of creating image to begin with. They speak visually about what is going on in the world of image creation. So you have Picasso who visually spoke what Einstein said. You have Warhol who spoke visually about iconic Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup. You have Impressionists who visually spoke about developments in science and as a direct result of the camera’s replacement of their own job of accurate visual representation. Artists visually speak to other forms of art as well. But mostly what general society has learned about artists comes from those who do not identify themselves as artists, and, finally, what we have learned about artists comes from a very specific, special group of persons who by privilege named and claimed the descriptions by that power and their own in-group of certain activities as superior ‘art’ and had the power and ability to produce their images, ideas and knowledge to the masses of people through what is now understood as art history and art historicans while excluding the masses no matter what activities they did and  at the same time along with many other creations that could be called artistic as well as people who were doing ‘other’ artistic creations. So the result is we have some confusion, mostly in the words about identities and work because the words really don’t fit anymore.

Now that I spelled this out. We can look at our environment and move out of the confusion by naming what was overlooked in a way that includes everyone’s lives.


Was this hard to understand? Too complicated?


Ah well……I really tried to keep this simple. Now…

Not to blow your mind completely here, but I need to inform you that writing is built on and is the ability to draw letters and numbers, and yes, drawing letters by hand, goes back to and is the same original activity done by special people that weren’t playing baseball, putting out fires, baking bread or hiking a mountain but instead were creating mark on some form to make a visual representation of something which is what all images are and what drawing is. Artists are considered the professionals of this activity but everyone that writes is drawing symbols. Writing letters and numbers are just a different branch from the same roots if you look back at the huge steps that were built from the origins on the tree of the development of that basic human activity done to create original visual creations done by humans that have, in the end, formed our alphabet, our language, our thoughts, our knowledge, our cultural environment and social structures. Also, in the more recent centuries, all young people are forced, by not wanting to leave others out, to draw early in life and with each generation earlier and more than the previous one. This is opposed to, say, teaching all children how to grow food as a primary tool of survival or build a home for shelter. Creating image is extremely valued in our society and a basis of how we function at every level and relate to our world and each other. Schools are built on the foundation of both the results of and the continuation of the activity and the ability to write and draw and read what others write and draw and read based on what others have written, drawn and also involves study of all those who did it for many years before we are born. Most people that have been drawing by writing letters and numbers do not think they are actually drawing because it is a specialized form that must be copied in a particular way and has particular meanings rather than making your own and everyone is doing it. The artist is singled out as someone who draws freely.

Yes, I’m far from the discussion of being an artist in some ways, but not really. Point is….writing, and our visual symbols of letters and numbers as well as paintings, drawings, photographs, film, video and now digital with the latter as to what we usually think of as visual images, all these have a close, intertwined, evolving relationship to each other in the ongoing process of the basic human activity, as I see it, and all stem from the basics of creating some line, form or mark, color or dot of some kind that becomes a visual representation and using that representation for representation for something in our world.

At first, Images, way back when, did not move and weren’t easy to copy. They were made connected to the environment and stayed in one place and you had to visit them and I don’t mean by way of website! I mean you had to travel to where they were housed, usually a church or special building owned by the wealthy who could afford them. They were highly valued because of their rarity, but many things have changed and of course, many things rooted in the past, remain stuck there as well. There’s a significant history to all this. I think it’s important for all people to know some things about image creation because it impacts their lives on every level and in every way today, even when totally unaware of it.

Until recently, only a handful of people had the power to create image. There were gatekeepers and controllers of images and I’m not talking government. I’m talking a social network and channels of what could be created, produced and then seen by the public and who could do it and who said they could and how. It was these channels that gave us all the information we were raised with. It was these channels, by no coincidence that produced things like Bug Bunny. We still have those channels, but they’ve loosened quite a bit and expanded. In fact, some are actually falling apart from the changes. Whenever you have privilege which gives some few folks vast amounts of power over others (here, to create image), and money involved, you have fabricated mystery because mystery serves to keep that power in many ways…and, for example, to keep others out. Lots of unnessary confusion exists. This, I believe, is the state of our current society.

The confusion is a result of not understanding the relationships because if it were all understood, power and privilege would be lost. So many people think that they aren’t smart enough too often. or not talented by exlucion. Many people think this and more is in terms of people’s understandings, talents and brain smarts and it’s not true. It’s more about privilege, power and lack of information and the power to create it, intentionally and unintentionally. With the privilege, there is always power to control people and beliefs and dare I say, the mind of another. The privilege to create image includes the privilege to name, create, control and describe some part of the world on their terms and get people to follow that and sometimes, serve you – and if fortunate, can involve lots of money and be remembered in history too. This has been the privilege of some artists. But it’s also been the privilege of some politicians, some actors.

Unlike the artists, however, most other occupations from astronauts to neurosurgeons and farmers , the purpose of their work is clearly understood. Artists don’t carry this clarity. On top of not being understood, Part of society’s attitude towards artists is that we ‘tolerate’ them cause they are ‘different’. What makes an artist ‘different’ is the fact that the artist is often confronting and creating images and understands the relationships in contrast to the images that have already infiltrated society by way of other occupations like public relations for politicians or textbooks for scientists and this altogether has created the relationships that are already current and the cultural environmental we are in.  What happens when we count that we are all creative beings, that we have vasts amounts of artistic people who don’t identify themselves that way or don’t count their work as art? What happens when we all have the ability to create and publish images?

More on all this….to be continued. For now, my image

More Words that Create My Self Image



3 thoughts on “Being an Artist; Being a Mystery; and Media Literacy

  1. Hi, Karen,
    Nice to see you out there. I’m not a very visual person. Sound is what moves me. So I have a quite different perspective on artistry. I disagree with very little of what you’ve said, although I might quibble about writing letters or numbers being part of the visual arts. Obviously calligraphy is just that, where the medium is intended to be more than the utilitarian needed to convey a verbal message. But we learn writing and numbers by rote in order that we lose the consciousness of what it takes to make the number or letter forms. The idea of being literate or numerate is to reduce the visual to a tool that we use “without looking” The visual artist does the opposite, looking hard and with discernment at every visual image s/he creates, and cultivating that activity.

    Back to sound…You might find Richard Rorty’s work “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” and interesting antidote to the “blind spot” of seeing everything through a series of visual metaphors. We say, in order to convey understanding, “I see what you mean.”, more often than we say “I hear what you are saying.” If you spend a bit of time examining (looking at) the metaphors we use most commonly, they are sight-oriented rather than sound-oriented.

    In a way, the musician’s art can be more radically “artificial” than that of the visual artist, who must struggle, if that be his/her desire, to escape the visual arts’ grounding in representation. For composers and musicians, the gold standard is not mimesis of a natural object, such as a sunset, a rock, or a human being, or even of an imagined image (still based on an “inner vision”). It is the sound of the human voice, which is not represented for itself, but for what it can express in sound. The musician attempts to move the listener directly, more viscerally (through the gut) than through the ear.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog. I look for more.



    • HI Brian

      Thanks for the response. Surely, I wasn’t described the whole universe, just some aspects of the visual image making. I absolutely agree with your point about writing and I didn’t mean to insinuate what you pointed out. I was merely speaking about the actual ‘act’ of pen in hand as drawing versus riding a bike. I agree with the differences you pointed out.

      As for music and sound, yes, I agree…it’s an entirely different world and one that I love, btw. I always loved music and sound more but drawing came naturally and there was an opening for me. With music it’s always been a struggle. I love to hear more of what you were saying. Do you blog about music like that? Hope to see you again sometime. It’s been quite a while.


  2. I don’t blog on anything at the moment. If I did, I’d blog on virtuoso love-making, not virtuoso artistry in other realms.

    And music always came easily to me. Music involves more senses than does the visual arts. As I said, music can depend for its effects upon a gut-level connection with the listener. It can, in a word, touch the listener. This is literally true in a way that is not true for the visual arts. This “touch” can be metaphorical, as with the visual arts: the excitation of our feelings/emotions. But music is actually perceived with the entire body, not just the aural apparatus. Visual stimuli are what visual arts provide, but music is both aural and tactile.

    Drawing never came naturally to me. I still resent the time wasted in “Art” class at school. Instead of teaching us how to express ideas, the grammar, if you will, of visual representation, instead of teaching us how to see carefully and translate that to marks on paper, we were urged to “be creative”. This works fine if you already have the tools, instinctively, or because of a previous interest, but for myself, it was like being told to write a story without knowing how to write words.

    With music, once we were out of nursery school random drumming and whistling, music came with some sort of form, an artistic constraint, if you will. We were never encouraged to just make music, but to realize music from scores, or sing remembered songs. Music was inseparable from a given form, and while that is not the path to musical creativity, it is the path to basic musical literacy, which is needed for much in the way of creative expression. Perhaps I could have “created” visual art, but I needed to know how to make “the notes.”


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