Joel Christiansen

Keith Johnstone: Self-Expression

July 8, 2023
Impro, 1979:

We have an idea that art is self-expression–which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of that Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they wanted to see the God's. When Eskimos believed that each piece of the bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there–and this is crucial. When he'd finished carving his friends couldn't say "I'm a bit worried about Nanook at the third igloo", but only, "He made a mess getting that out!" or "There are some very odd bits of bone about these days." These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It's no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It's not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.