Chris Meighan: With The Head Or With The Hands - An investigation into the dilemma of concept versus action in artistic practice

Mentor: John Heymans

Independent reviewer: Jorinde Seijdel

Enschede, 2008 


From these very first words as I write them, I am fighting against my own instincts. I see my workbench with a few works-in-progress through the window at the end of the room, and I realise how much I would rather be hunched over it, getting my hands dirty and making something new. This exercise appears so much less and interesting and productive by comparison. I think this way because I am a "doer"; I am, like many artists perhaps, the type of individual who prefers action to thought and analysis. However, I am not so naïve as to believe that this alone will get me very far in the serious business of art-making, a business which demands theoretical insight as much as it does sweat and cut fingers. This brings me to the central issue which I intend to investigate in this thesis. What is of concern to me is a strange paradox which appears right at the heart of art practice; art must be cerebral and yet also instinctive. There is a need for content as well as flair, for thought as well as action, for the head as well as the hands. To elaborate, it is necessary to admit that I am making some assumptions about what constitutes value in art. Principally, there is some clarification necessary about the terms "cerebral" and "instinctive". The first of these refers to the necessity of the presence of meaning in art. This has been true since before even the development of art criticism as a discipline, since the earliest cave drawings or Egyptian tomb-paintings were doubtless made with the intention of communicating some sort of message regarding power, religion, or at least the state of things as the observer saw them. Even when the intention is to convey an utter lack of meaning, this constitutes a meaning in itself; absurdity and nonsense has its own peculiar kind of sense. In essence, an artwork is simply a (re)action until it is supported by an intellectual component. The second addresses what may be called the visceral component of art, its indefinable quality drawn from the application of desires and feelings by the artist. It is indefinable in that it defies rationalisation, being identifiable only in the result of its presence (the artwork); it is not in itself visible or otherwise detectable. Nevertheless, it is as equally important as the rational aspect, and is doubly essential. Without it, the work will remain outside the artistic domain. What appears to me as paradoxical or incompatible about the necessity of these two factors is that they demand quite opposite skill sets, divergent ways of working, and are perhaps suited to very different approaches to viewing life and existence in general. The impulsive optimism that may drive a person to hitch-hike to Nepal of a morning is unlikely to be as suited to the reading and analysis of philosophical texts, and conversely the insight and attention to detail that may aid the latter are unlikely to lead one to undertake the former. It would perhaps not be so far-fetched to assume that this applies also to art practice, with its manifold approaches and requirements. The issue at question having been laid out, it now remains to explain why and how it shall be examined. Perhaps not surprisingly, my principal motivation is a practical one; I wish earnestly to be able to better understand the realm in which I find myself working, and from this be able to gain some useful insight into how I may improve my own practice. By considering a question which vexes me on a daily basis, it is my intention to be able to do something towards resolving the problems which it generates: on a practical level, the question of how one can best expend one's time and energy in the production of art, and more generally the problem of identifying a place and a role for oneself within the landscape of contemporary art practice. Secondly, the question of methodology arises, and in a way which serves as a timely practical illustration of the central point. This is a written text, a work of theory, and certainly no work of art in itself. Therefore, it belongs squarely in the "cerebral" domain outlined above, with none of the latter category of "instinctive" influence. Its execution must therefore be in a considered, logical, and justifiable manner. However, this text is to be very much about art, and above all about the making of art, and so owes its existence and relevance to the same. The approach employed must therefore be chosen with care, and with proper consideration for the difficulties inherent in the subject. In keeping with my self-confessed status as a doer, I have identified a series of investigative actions which may contribute towards a better understanding of this phenomenon. Firstly, it will be necessary to examine the theoretical foundations of the central problem. This will take place by examining this issue beyond the field of art in a wider philosophical context, and by tracing the roots of the question to the great thinkers of that realm. Few things exist in isolation, least of all art. It is for this reason that connections to philosophy and its more general theories and answers should prove useful in building a base from which to proceed with a more practical and specific methodology. This degree of contextualisation should in turn then aid the return journey to the specifics of art, and to a localised application of prior established theory. Secondly, I intend to examine a variety of practical approaches employed by working artists. This will take the form of two parts, these being dedicated respectively to those who may be termed "thinkers", and to fellow "doers", by way of opposing descriptions. I will outline the working practices, oeuvres, and where necessary the critical reception of artists from both camps, and attempt to draw some patterns, parallels, and distinctions within and between these two approaches. Having examined the theoretical basis and the practical application of the thinking/doing duality, it should be possible to begin drawing some conclusions about what solutions and compromises may be be sought and applied in bridging the gap between the two. There are undoubtedly methods of working and artists who employ them which can happily deal with both roles, and it must be hoped that these can be identified. However, the variety of approach which appears to exist suggests that there is unlikely to be one universally-applicable solution, or compromise which does not in itself of a manner compromise, dilute, and diminish. In the light of this, it will be appropriate to give some explanation and analysis as necessary of the problems which resist attempts at solution. The text up to this point will have concentrated on abstract aspects and upon the work of others. In keeping with my earlier-stated motivations, and with my assumed role as an art practician acting as a theorist, I will apply the concepts discussed in earlier sections to my own personal practice. I will outline my own theoretical and practical line of approach to my work, how this relates to what has proceeded, and how I intend to carry forward this process into the future. In this way I will make a direct connection between the doing of by artistic practice, and the thinking of this written work. There will be then, if nothing more, at least one way in which I may stand in both camps.