Recently I’ve been preoccupied with the question of what happens to art after it’s created. The tendency to paint a canvas and then say “ok great, ready for the next one,” and then go out and buy another seems problematic. Meanwhile, the first canvas likely languishes in the corner of the house gathering dust. What is it about artistic items that makes us want to, and makes it okay to, keep them for a long time? Especially when we’re not actively using or appreciating them. If it’s not on our walls, and we’re not keeping it for our professional portfolios, than why keep it at all?
Art relies heavily on the materials used to create it—before making any piece of art, the necessary supplies have to be acquired. Michaels, the U.S.’s largest arts and crafts retailer, has more than 1,000 store locations in the U.S. and Canada. To put that into perspective, compare that number to 1,872, the number of Staples stores in the U.S. and Canada. Clearly, there are a lot of people buying art supplies.
But I’m wondering: where does it go?
In my experience at least, most arts and crafts items have one of the following fates. First, they might never be used for anything after being bought and instead might just gather dust somewhere, waiting to be used. Next, they might get made into something, which then gathers dust somewhere. Or finally, these items might get made into an art/craft piece and sold, after which it might very well just gather dust somewhere. If it’s just going to sit somewhere and not even be looked at or enjoyed, then what is the point of keeping it? Why not disassemble the piece and recycle or reuse it? Instead of buying a new canvas each time we fancy expressing ourselves, maybe we should take one of our old canvases, paint on it and create a new work of art from the old.
But we don’t. Which suggests that, for example, painted canvases and newspapers are somehow intrinsically different. They’re both made out of a fiber-based material and have information encoded on it in pigment. But, newspapers are recycled—in fact, in Durham it’s prohibited to put newspapers in the trash. We don’t typically recycle painted canvas; I’m not even sure it’s physically an option. But reusing painted canvas, by painting over what is already there, is an option.
The items that we most typically recycle or reuse are items we value for their utility. An understanding of instrumental value determines how we feel about items and how we interact with them. We value newspapers, glass bottles and aluminum cans only so far as they are useful to us and provide us with some sort of service—informing us of the news or holding a beverage. After an item is done providing this service, we have no qualms about trashing, recycling or reusing it.
However, we do not value art for its utility. Sure, the arts and crafts can provide for us the service of self-expression. But, if that were the sole reason we valued the items, then we would just throw things out after creating them, just like recycling a read newspaper.
Rather than appreciating art’s utilitarian value, we appreciate its intrinsic, aesthetic value. Which really isn’t that surprising, since for many people, art is defined in terms of aesthetics. Intrinsic, aesthetic value is difficult to quantify, making it difficult to determine when this type of value has diminished. But nonetheless, somehow this difference in valuation leads us to save things even when we are no longer actively appreciating their aesthetic value.
The paintings we create on canvass may be beautiful, and we might enjoy looking at them. But then why do we let them gather dust behind some dresser somewhere? Speaking from my own experience, as an artist and lifelong crafter, I have collected quite an assortment of projects over the years that, once finished, were never looked at again. And, to me, this seems to be a problem.
But also, as an artist I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t save art pieces for at least some length of time. Yet I’m still left wondering: If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if there is no beholder, then what is beauty?
Hannah Anderson-Baranger is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.