Creation of the Aesthetic Self

Lim Lay Koon

Excerpt from thesis submitted to the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore 2000/2001

Chapter 6.4     Self-Taught Artist: The "Uncertified Creator"


All except one of my interviewees are trained artists who have graduated from art institutions, this training gives them a concrete license to call themselves artists. As for the self-taught artist, NW, he constitutes the case study here given his unique position. The relevant question is: How does he justify his creations as art and himself as an artist? To note, his main profession is an eye surgeon. Describing his installation work:

  The first piece of work was called "God Created". I spent a lot of time getting thousands of discarded X-rays and looking for elements of which had biomorphic features. Even though they were parts of the human body in X-rays, ... placed together, they give a certain different imagery. They represented the spiritual creation of the world. You have God, explosions like the Big Bang, creation of Nature, ... You could do that by a number of techniques... collage...take another picture...varying the degree of darkness. You can make it... I had it lit behind a light box, so it was good...

He managed to remove the X-rays, presumably belonging to the hospital, and presenting it as art in a new context within the aesthetic sphere. How is this modification possible? This is achieved by extending the authority of medical science with the inclusion of a "new" framework that has a more persuasive impact to challenge the viewer's taken-for-granted perception. Religion, science, and nature, with their universal appeal, provide NW with a strong case for argument, though in a rather exaggerated manner, as a "new" mode of representation. On this basis, artist meanings are constructed and internalized within the work itself. This confidence is evident, given the ease which he talked about the artistic production in such mechanical terms. Another approach is by interrogating the dominant ideology of art itself:

   - As an artist, you want to be in the same room as a scientist, as one ready to take on responsibility to lead and to question. An artist is like a court jester who has the role of questioning the king.

   - Lots of artists say you can show the beauty of the world by painting a beautiful butterfly, and the aesthetic properties of the world are important, but an artist must search out his place and have something important to say, whether it's about beauty or "bioethics".

These two separate accounts are taken from his personal web page. Artistic diversity and uniqueness are not inherently in contradiction to dominant aesthetic discourse, but the way this "bioethics" for example was invented, it was set up to negate that same commonly-held discourse. Thus, if there is any contestation against the latter, it will be made manifested in this invented negation. In this double strategy of inclusion and exclusion, the limits of art is being tested and disrupted simultaneously. It also becomes a self-justifying statement.

   ...some people may feel negatively... thinking..."What is this guy trying to do? He's neither an artist nor a doctor?"...But I feel two things I'm very comfortable with...consciously positioning myself as an artist and doctor... because the relationship between the two makes my work more powerful...I can take my insights and inspirations from... appreciation of biotechnology, the medical aspect and the ethics... I can still appreciate all the familiar that are more traditional... It was natural to do that...make a terms of myself and convince people that I can do it.

This is a rhetoric of persuasion to convince others that his seemingly unconventional position is an advantage, since he has a wider range of "insights" and "inspirations" to draw upon. It is against the traditional aesthetics style that he is trying to break free from and his principal grounding lies with the ability to introduce "new" works.

    I'm more interested in construction, fabricated rather than painterly works... be a world-class artist... forefront... basically, you must be the chief exponent of a new perspective, a new medium of work that reflects the culture that is to come... What defines a visual art... is really perhaps the staging, labeling, and the packaging. Now if I drive my Toyota into an art gallery, and position the car in such a way that it brings a new perspective, that's art... So to me, the boundaries are no longer there. I don't really feel that I... anymore need to go to be a full-time artist.

To him, art is nothing more than the ability to (re)present something as "new", whether in creating an "original" object or that the simple act of taking an existing ready-made object and placing it in the museum granted this object the status of work of art. Therefore, there are no intrinsic values or meanings in Art so to speak, but an intentional position to create it as such. Paradoxically, this "new" approach provides NW with a reasoning against the need for art institutional training to be recognized as an artist:

   Even artists would say that that's not (Art), but If feel very much that I'm doing a piece of art. That's a piece of huge installation, whether it's virtual and it's commercial, so what?

     I understand what are and where lie  my strengths... As an artist, formal training in the foundation of art is helpful. But formal training in other fields is also useful if you know how to make use of it... As an eye doctor, I learn about... visual phenomenon... perception, eye movements... how the physical window goes to the brain... For me, this is art. The eye surgery that I perform is art if you process and present it as an experience...

Suffice to say, the figure of the artist, formally trained or not, is inevitably a "fictional" character. Here, specialization of skills in another formal institution is appropriated for his own self-validity purposes as professionalization of the artistic self.

   On a different note, it is tempting to read artist's practice as an indication of the self-disciplinary subject at work, that being principally connected to an ethos of individualism has beguiled them into a vicious cycle of self-deception. Taking the possible risk in pursuing art as a career should not be dismissed simply as a foolishly romantic decision. There is a specific question of the qualitative experience of "work". Making artworks is still different from working in an office or a factory because the artist's "work" is being "aestheticized" as well, and stands distinct from the general, mundane, and repetitive activities in the capitalist workplace.