Blog / 2009 / Down-to-earth

November 19, 2009

At the end of October, I went to see Ellen Dissanayake speak. The lecture was open to the public, but Dissanayake had been invited to Portland by the applied craft MFA program of both the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Art and Craft so there were a lot of artists in the audience.

Dissanayake started the talk by saying how pleased she was to be there among “down-to-earth people,” and a ripple went through the crowd as everyone tried to figure out if she was being sarcastic or if she was just plain stupid. In the modern world, artists aren’t exactly known for being practical, logical, or even sane.

But Dissayanake meant what she said. Usually, she talks with thinkers—art therapists and anthropologists—so she was excited to be speaking to doers. Artists are people who actually make things with their hands.

painted portrait of the art therapist Frances Kaplan with the moon in the background
Gwenn Seemel
Frances Kaplan
acrylic on canvas
22 x 19 inches

An art therapist friend of mine (pictured here) introduced me to Dissayanake’s work a few years ago and I was immediately taken with her theory that art is about “making special.” Though I don’t think it’s the root definition of art, I do think it goes a long way towards explaining why we create. What’s more, I appreciate what the theory implies: that everyone is an artist because anyone can “make special.”

Dissayanake’s very anti-elitist approach to art helps her sidestep all the most boring arguments in art today. For example, an artist in the audience asked her what she thought about beauty as it relates to art and to calling an object or an action “art.” Dissayanake responded that beauty is too subjective—that something that looks pleasing could be beautiful, but something that looks fierce could also have a kind of beauty.

Art isn’t about making something beautiful. It’s about “making special.”

And, in this way, Dissayanake neatly avoided the wasps’ nest of decisive opinions and pontificating egos that is a discussion of aesthetics, bringing the topic back to what really matters. Very down-to-earth indeed.


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