Picture of the cover of on being an artist by michael craig-martin

It doesn’t take long for Michael Craig-Martin to cite a major influence behind his book ‘On Being An Artist’. Rather than a single narrative, Michael has written a collection of vignettes, structuring ‘On Being An Artist’ in a similar way to ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)’. However Craig-Margin has filled each depiction with considerably more depth than the one-liners found in the Philosophy of Warhol.

It would seem that this additional depth stems from Michael’s long history within University art departments. I found this academic history, especially his undergraduate life at Yale fascinating. Mostly because his education in the arts was a juxtaposition to my own studying engineering. I never really knew what happened within the art buildings that I trudged past on my way from things like ‘Vector Calculus and Differential Equations’ to ‘Kinematics and Dynamics’. Everything about the class structure seemed different:

At the beginning of each class, we put up on the wall whatever work we had done, both exercises and free studies, and Si Sillman conducted a group criticism. These crits were the backbone of the teaching. They were based on and encouraged visual comparison and cross-reference, praise as well as criticism, trust in the evidence of the eyes, and experience in speaking clearly about visual concerns. My memory is that praise was neither stinted nor lavished, and that the heaviest criticism landed on the glib, the obvious, the easy solution. There was an atmosphere of serious mutual endeavour and support combined with intense and forthright competition.

Not to mention the attitude towards ‘correctness’ which is the polar opposite to what’s expected within engineering schools, where precision and tidiness rule above all:

Making changes or correcting ‘mistakes’ was not allowed: we were to learn from our errors, not hide them. Visual clarity and decisiveness were valued over precision or tidiness.

At times ‘On Being An Artist’ trudges off into the academic thickets. You know, the sort of rhetoric infamous within the art world. The sort of stuff that makes you feel like a total idiot. I found myself happily reading along, laughing at anecdotes and enjoying well described concepts. Until. Whump. Michael hits you with something like:

Pictures do not merely refer to the pictured, but make the pictured present.

I still don’t really know what Michael Craig-Martin is trying to describe with that one. Although to be fair, my favourite passage within ‘On Being An Artist’ is fairly philosophical:

But because this sense of self is buried so deep within us, not hidden but invisible because of being so familiar and seemingly obvious, it is often difficult for us to recognize and therefore value properly. What we assume to be most commonplace about our own perception, or thinking, or feeling may in fact be our most unique characteristic. What seems ordinary to use maybe a revelation to others.

So uhhh. I guess there were some academic thickets I enjoyed more than others? Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I was able to grok some thickets easier than others?

Picture of the plate page featuring 'an oak tree' within On Being An Artist

Michael Craig-Martin created ‘An Oak Tree’ in 1973, a conceptual piece comprising a glass of water on a shelf with accompanying text. The text, a fictional interview between Michael and the audience goes on to describe how the glass of water is an oak tree. It is all a bit of a brain twister, but the text is well written and light hearted. There was also this wonderfully Australian experience when Michael Craig-Martin ships An Oak Tree to Australia in 1976:

I arrived in Brisbane two days before the opening. The gallery director explained anxiously that although the crate containing my work had arrived safely, it had been impounded by the Ministry of Agriculture - without explanation. We went immediately to try to obtain its release. I asked the customs official what was the problem. He thrust the bill of landing in front of me and pointed to the item listed: ‘An oak tree’. ‘No plants allowed’, he said firmly, with the satisfied confidence of a man stating the obvious.

I love how the Australian Government unwittingly provided proof that Michael had succeeded in the transubstantiation of a glass of water into an oak tree. More proof than the fictional interview included with the work or the eventual acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia. The glass of water isn’t an oak tree because of Michael Craig-Martin’s claims, but because it got tangled up in Australian customs law.

I give Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘On Being An Artist’ 3.5 stars out of 5.

3.5 stars out of 5.


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