The commonplace as creative strategy: an introduction to visual literacy for artists
What’s your approach to the banal as an artist?
In the preface to his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, the American philosopher and art theorist Arthur C. Danto claims that, the metamorphosis of the banal and ordinary starts in the visual arts with M. Duchamp, for
“(…) it would have been he, as a matter of art-historical precedent, who first performed the subtle miracle of transforming, into works of art, objects from the Lebenswelt of commonplace existence: a grooming comb, a bottle rack, a bicycle, a urinal.”
Taking the banal and turning it into art! I find this mind-blowing, don’t you? Mind-blowing and completely real. Tell me, how many times have you looked at Duchamp’s first readymade, Fountain, from 1917? And how often did you ask yourself: how can a urinal be art?! And why??
In this blog post I’m going to reveal the secret behind the process of transfiguring the banal. The secret that doesn’t start with exhibiting the object, nor does it end with it. The secret that starts in the mind of the artist, continues when the object is perceived by its viewers, and culminates with the “canonization” of the object as a work of art.
Duchamp exhibited a readymade urinal, which he turned to 90 degrees. But he didn’t make the urinal. He didn’t even alter it except for signing the object with the fictional name “R. Mutt”, dating it to 1917, and naming it Fountain. This is crazy, isn’t it? Crazy ingenious, indeed!
So, what did Duchamp actually do? He provoked the world to think about the true meaning of art. Beyond the conventional thinking-grid. Beyond constrictions. He made the Fountain into an art manifesto.
Duchamp made a urinal into an object of art because “he CHOSE it (…) and created a new thought for that object.” (The Blind Man, May 1917/2) He transformed the banal into art by seeing and naming it differently. Through his unique perception of reality. Because he saw art wherever he was, and he understood the power of art to change the world.
Duchamp’s Fountain is a reminder that art exists independently of its works. It's created under the influence of our ideas and expectations of it, which are never static and never valid for all time.
So, how can you transform the banal? How can you turn the ordinary into art? Here’s the secret.
1. Take a pause and make space in your mind
Look outside a window, or take a walk in the nature. Bring your focus to the present moment. Breathe deeply and, with each breath, expand your chest further. Move gently away from the turbo-paced lifestyle out there. Let your mind empty and your heart open.
I grew up with music. I played piano since I was four years old, and I had the privilege of taking piano lessons from a remarkable Belgian concert pianist and music philosopher, Bernard Lemmens. Among many things, maestro Lemmens taught me the concept of holds and longer pauses in music. This is how I learned to breathe properly and relax deeply.
Holds, also known as fermatas, indicate the extension of a sound or a silence. Longer pauses, called caesuras, show a suspension of pulse - time stands still for a divine second. Perhaps two. For me, these are magical moments. And there's more. Caesuras can be extended with fermatas (which can be drawn right above them in musical scores, see the picture below). They’re like extended wonders. Pure bliss!
Take a pause for contemplation, a rest, an interval of silence … like in music. Imagine that you’re writing a musical score of your everyday existence. Live in moderato. Switch to adagio occasionally, and include regular fermatas. There's nothing wrong with some allegro, but never forget the caesuras!
2. Look slowly with an impartial eye and forget the names of the things you see
Slowly observe your surroundings with an impartial eye. As you dissociate what you see from words and any judgment whatsoever, you break free from the limitations of what is, to the infinite possibilities of what can and could be. Away from what is, from conventional forms and functions of things. Away from labels and clear-cut answers. Away from the constraints!
“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees”. (Lawrence Weschler)
As I pointed out in a previous blog post entitled "How to see like an artist: 8 highly effective strategies", the form itself is inherently pure. Because it's devoid of content, and there's no word to convey meaning. It can be a contour line, a few brush strokes, or something more descriptive, though still abstract in its essence. That is to say, the form itself can be anything and nothing when words are missing.
3. “Look like an improv performer” and see from within
Insight is a conscious and intentional exploitation of the banal, familiar, and ordinary in its abundant ways. A quiet and empty mental space enables observation and puts you in the mood for looking slowly, which ultimately leads to insight – the power of seeing from within. The power of transforming the commonplace into something unique and different.
What is your approach to banality? Here’s mine.
I’m open to my environment: everything in my environment can be a pretext for creating art; and everything has the potential to be art. To paraphrase Rob Walker, I “look [around me] like an improv performer”.
My colleague Lawrence Good, actor, improv expert, and English language trainer, taught me some years ago the famous “Yes, and …” rule: whatever the person you're speaking to says, you accept and build on it. This rule can be extended further to: whatever your surroundings suggest, accept and build on it.
“Practice this kind of openness to your environment. Look for flickers of human individuality amid the routine of the everyday. Imagine how that flicker could be amplified and extended, how a fleeting moment can be remade into an unforgettable one. Engage with your world and say, “Yes! And …”. (Rob Walker)
As an example, let me show you what my local Tennis Club's changing room looks like.
I can hardly imagine anything more boring. You? Last week, I promised myself that I would embrace this space and I would say "Yes! And...". And the changing room answered me. Creativity and inspiration followed suit. This is what came out of it (pictures below).
Yes! And ...
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Recognise your pointlessness and keep creating!
From Germany with love,