Authority is a word on a list of guidelines and intentions for my work that I made a few years ago, to help me when I critique my paintings. These purposefully open-ended concepts and ideas are springboards for thought while I contemplate whether a painting is finished, if it's working or not working, and why. (There are other words like presence, connection, and complexity on the list, each focusing on a different aspect of any particular painting.) For me, a painting that conveys authority is decisively made, expresses an inner logic, exudes creative power, and engages the respect and interest of the viewer. To me these are worthy goals, and a challenge that I enjoy.
Authority is on my mind at this moment after reading a recent blog post by Nancy Natale
, about meaning in art--with specific mention of artists working with encaustic who fail to move beyond experimentation with technique into work that has consistency and a conceptual basis. Like encaustic (hot wax), the medium I work in (cold wax) can also be very seductive in the range of techniques available and effects possible. It is easy indeed to relax into "play" mode with cold wax and put aside more formal concerns or rigorous self-evaluation. I certainly know that beginners in any medium need to fool around and experiment, and I also value spontaneity and experimentation as integral to the overall process. Yet I agree with Nancy that there is also a time to move past the completely experimentation phase, to find something to say, and to say it well. When I teach my workshops in cold wax medium techniques, I make a point to talk about intention, sources of ideas, developing personal style, self-critique and so on, in an effort to motivate this kind of higher level work as a goal once the basic methods are learned. Whether ideas and meaning are brought into the work or whether they grow from within the art-making process, discovering and developing them are crucial for growth as an artist and the ability to involve an audience.
In this context, it's interesting to contemplate the word author, the root contained in "authority." What does an author do but hone in on an topic, convey a clear idea or story line, edit and make choices for the best possible combination of words--and in many other ways, say something of meaning and importance (or at least tell a good story) while employing a distinct "voice" or style? Though an artist's language is visual, this is not a bad model at all.
The word authority conveys the idea of being in charge, of taking responsibility. In the artist's case, this is taking charge of what one creates, not simply allowing it to happen without direction. It means bringing in order, structure and meaning, to balance spontaneity and intuitive mark-making. And in the work of experienced artists, even spontaneous marks often convey decisiveness and intention, for the underlying structure and meaning have been well established.
Authority also implies power--in this case the creative power of the artist. I think of this power as being earned by the artist through years of focused, diligent practice, and by persistence in seeking a unique voice. Power is also conferred on the artist by others who appreciate the work--who acknowledge the artist's power to move and engage them. All of this takes time, patience, hard work and trust in the processes of creativity.
Finally, authority also means being an expert on something...and I love the idea that each of us is the world's leading authority on our own work! Given that, I believe that we artists should be able to discuss our own art with intelligence and insight, and that the paintings we exhibit should display technical mastery, even as we are continually learning and experimenting with new ideas.
The painting above, Trails, 10"x10", has, I like to think, a degree of authority despite its small size (10"x10".)