what artists make happen

I love this quote from Jeremy Deller:

art isn’t about what you make but what you make happen.

In response, JL asked,

but do you have to void one to validate the other?

No. Still, I conceive of what you make happen to encompass so much more than what you make. To try to work out what I mean, I started sketching a diagram. This is what I’ve come up with (so far):

Christine Wong Yap, diagrammatic study about what artists make and what artists make happen: how objects, events/situations and possibilities intersect to create exhibitions, practice, communities, dialogues and engagement.

Christine Wong Yap, diagrammatic study about what artists make and what artists make happen: how objects, events/situations and possibilities intersect to create exhibitions, practice, communities, dialogues and engagement.

I’ll attempt an explanation:

Artists make objects. The very activity of manipulating materials with an openness to their possibilities is the development of our own practices. We use imagination, courage, and will to take creative risks and sustain activities and engagement that can lead to enjoyment and flow (see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow).

Many artists make exhibitions, which are events/situations for engagement between the artist and viewer via the object.

So, largely, I think what artists make are objects, exhibitions, and practices that are opportunities for personal aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional engagement. (See Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson’s The Art of Seeing for more on the four dimensions of aesthetic experience.) The engagement is personal—for artists, via our activity with objects and their display, and for viewers, via those objects displayed.

What artists make happen, though, seems to expand beyond what artists make.

Artists also make events/situations (which are not object-based exhibitions) happen. These are spaces—physical or psychological—for attention or interaction. Participatory projects, public interventions, and of course, happenings, are some examples.

Some artists also make possibilities, and some artists make possibilities happen.

Artists make creative possibilities happen in terms of their personal development (object + possibilities = practice). We also make creative possibilities happen in terms of the development of the field, when our object-possibilities are accepted into the cannon, and they shift what constitutes contemporary art, therefore advances knowledge (see Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity). In this case, what artists make happen is a result of what artists make.

But artists can also make the field’s expansion and evolvement happen. We do this by creating events/situations with openness to possibilities—from new opportunities for artists, spaces, viewers, and interactions, to cultivating new art worlds and displacing old ones.

When other artists or viewers attend these events/situations with reciprocal openness, new communities and dialogues can emerge. For example, Obsolete Californias, by Shipping and Receiving (the moniker of collaborative duo Torreya Cummings and Heather Smith) was part-exhibition, part-event space/social space/store/wrestling mat. Amanda Curreri‘s Jean Genet in the Aunque  is a conversation in the form of a participatory reading; parts are available for all attendees.* These events/situations were more like platforms for artists and viewers to enact possibilities alongside each other. In this way, artist and viewer roles can be shed for the roles of citizens of temporary communities, or dialogists.

So what artists make happen are opportunities for shared aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, and communicative engagement and action. The engagement is shared, as there is mutual investment of attention and space for cooperative action.

This week, articles in the Village Voice and the NY Times bemoaned the vast influx of money in art. Art auctions, art fairs, and mega-galleries that show works collected by the 1% are part of the art world, but equating them with the art world (as the Voice writer did) or only reviewing those exhibitions and fairs (as some NYT writers tend) are mistakes.

As Csikszentmihalyi points out, our most valuable currency is not money, but psychic energy—in other words, our attentions.

There are multiple art worlds. In mine, art auctions, secondary markets, and multi-million dollar transactions are on the periphery. I focus my attention on the center, which is abundant with artists, especially those who make things happen.

*Included in The Aunque, on now through February 16 at Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco, CA.


3 thoughts on “what artists make happen

  1. Timothy Foss says:

    Hello Christine, This post is fabulous. Right in line with much of what I’m getting involved with in Minneapolis, MN. Check out my dear friends at I love your diagram. Engagement is the core.

    I subscribed to your website, but prefer an email subscription to blogs I like over RSS feeds. Anyway you’d consider adding that to your blog? I add blogs to feeds, but then I never make the time to visit my reader…HA.


    • Hi Tim, Thanks for the kind words, and the suggestion. There’s so many things to consider across all these platforms! I appreciate the input. The newsletter that you’ll receive with an email subscription on my website includes a section with links to recent blog posts. I only send email newsletters once a month at most, so RSS is the timeliest way to hear about blog posts. I also try to Tweet and post links to my Facebook page…

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