Art for the common man

The culture I grew up in can be typified as the quintessential Hollandish culture. It lacks the exuberance and apologetic nature of the southern Catholics, the self-importance of Amsterdam, the ever present Germanic tinge of the east, or the distinct Northern “atmosphere”, for lack of a better description. It is a culture deeply rooted in values, traditions, complete bluntness, hands on mentality, and completely averse to public emotion or drama. You might think “Ah! Rotterdam!”, but that’s where you are mistaken, Rotterdam has co-opted this culture, flaunts it mercilessly, but is nevertheless a strange and mysterious place in the view of people of my culture.

The culture in which I grew up has missed a few developments, perhaps by choice, perhaps as it was an isolated village. One of the developments that was missed was the crossroads on which High Art decided to go left, and Crafts, or “applied art”, decided to go right. This distinction, so commonplace  in Western culture, has found few followers in my hometown. Now, we might leave it at that and enjoy the view of the beach and it’s quaint boulevard, but there is more.

It is in this retention of the idea of craftmanship and art as inseparable that we see an interesting phenomenon: the appreciation of art as a part of popular culture. Now, you might think the true appreciation of art can only be done by people with an exotic dress sense who muse silently over the deeper meaning of a can of human faeces, but that begs the question: why? Why should the appreciation of art only be limited to a select bunch of people with red rimmed spectacles and delicately draped scarves?

The first exhibition I was a part of was visited by a mere twelve hundred people, in three days. Now for all you artists out there, let that sink in. And those aren’t “strange numbers”, but completely normal where I come from. No, I am certainly no Rothko, or Hirst. People from the artworld think I am exaggerating, and I routinely challenge them to host an exhibition in my hometown. No one dares, apparently..

The philosophy of seeing Art as a natural extension of craft and craftsmanship is somewhat of a contentious topic in the art world, as it, drawn to its conclusion, completely negates the development of Art in the last century or so and dismisses virtually all concept-based art.

Still, this philosophy was commonplace in Europe and the world up until a few centuries ago. Think about it, a couple of centuries ago a visitor to the Netherlands reported that even the common butcher had a painting in his shop. Dutch society as a whole supported and funded an art mega-industry, the products of which still comfortably dominate Western art history. Why was this? The explanation is quite simple if you see look through the lens of “art as an extension of craftsmanship”.

For it is then that art becomes an amalgamation of two thoughts, namely “art is the hallmark of the master”, and “If I become good at what I do, I can reach art as well”. It doesn’t reject the occasional octogenarian watercolourist as a hobbyist, it welcomes him as a co-traveller. The needlework lady becomes an artist in her own right. Through this lens, buying an artwork is not an act of culture, or worse an investment, but an act of appreciation.

The self-imposed boundary between those who are in the know, and those that dabble falls away completely. Suddenly, the artist is taken from his pedestal and becomes one of us. This allows the viewer to appreciate Art as something within reach, and allows him/her to freely speak their mind without fear of humiliation. Comments change as well, and in stead of the infamous “my three year old sister could do this”-remark, suddenly you are confronted with compliments ranging from “artful” (which harkens back to the old-Dutch “constigh”) or even the slightly embarrassed “I couldn’t do this”. Now don’t underestimate the importance of this comment, for it implies the equality of artist and viewer or at least an equal starting point.

Seeing and promoting art as deeply rooted in craftsmanship forces the artist to look at his own work fresh eyes as well. It is taking the viewer seriously, with a serious effort to meet him on his turf. It requires you to embrace your heritage, for even a sideways glance at art history will result in the inevitable conclusion that all the great masters saw themselves as, you guessed it, craftsmen. The grand names of Dutch painting peddled their craft to an audience that didn’t hesitate to give their “unsalted” opinion about it, and didn’t view art as separate and strange. It also requires that the artist look at him or herself, and doesn’t view himself as “something special”: that has been done and only suits a select few.

As a result, in my hometown, a house is not considered complete if it is not adorned with one or more artworks. Imagine what would happen if that became the dominant culture in Europe, what would it do to art? Now, granted, not all works of art you see there are of top notch quality, but that has more to do with supply then demand. The demand is there, it is just a question of “who will supply?”

In conclusion, I often wonder why a lot of artists find it difficult to connect with an audience, or despair at the ultimate unwillingness of a larger audience to view and discuss their works. But then, might the difference be that I don’t want to set myself apart from them and I don’t see myself as better or superior to my audience? With my ideas and still-lacking techniques I try to sing for my audience as best as I can, with the tools granted to me.  Firmly rooted in the belief that I am a part of that society, and that creativity is not reserved for a strangely dressed elite.

Art for the common man is not a marketing term directed at increasing sales toward untapped markets. It is looking at your art with fresh eyes, and not producing to scratch your own mental itch. It is celebrating your craft as an artist and welcoming your audience on a level playing field.

Art starts when the craftsman knows how to make his materials sing” – P. Bekker sr.

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