But Is It Art?

card endAnd Why I Doodle (It’s Good For My Noodle)

Lately I’ve been insisting: I’m not an artist; I’m a doodler. And I’m not mock-modest-fishing-for-compliments. Honest. I will confess, though, that I have been reflecting on art for a while now. And I’m wondering how we decide if a given creation is art. Does Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment on pornography, “I know it when I see it,” apply to art, too? Maybe it’s a matter of identity: If you consider yourself an artist, then the objects you create are art. 

Let’s try on this definition: It’s art if the maker improves it by removing material. Consider a sculptor working on a piece of marble. If the chisel slips, creating an unintended divot in, say, some statesman’s forehead, removing more material is the only way to fix it. When I write, editing almost always results in fewer words in the piece, not more. I would like to know how this definition aligns with painting, or jewelry-making, or music composition, or crocheting, or any one of many, many other art forms I could name. If I were an artist, I could rough out a sketch, then refine it by simplifying.

It’s a funny thing: God moves us closer to perfection by removing things from us. We’re passed through the flames to burn off the impurities, like silver or gold is purified. [And may I invite us to reflect on that? God could have set everything up so that we became more godly because He added to us.] We’re cleansed of our sins, instead of, say, sprayed with really good sin-obliterating camouflage.

But when I doodle, I camouflage my goofs by adding more. More lines, more squiggles, more colors–no matter. I load on more elements and pretty soon, the mistake doesn’t demand my attention anymore. For example: the doodle at the top of this post is all done.

But look at its ignoble beginnings. Crooked, curvy lines. Crazy lopsided stuff. Bits that aren’t good enough. 

card start

But they are the beginnings I had. I went with them because they could be embellished to fit. I wove them into this little bit of flotsam because I made a commitment: These drawings are for recreation. It’s about process, not product. I never throw one away.

And so, you might reasonably ask, what process are these doodles about? If you asked me that question, I would give you a long, rambling answer that would go something like this:

When I was in grad school, writing my dissertation, sometimes my brain got “stuck” on a concept or idea. To unstick my brain, I would jump on my bicycle and ride from my lodging near the UCLA campus to Hermosa Beach and back–a distance of about 36 miles (I always thought it was a 50-mile ride, but I just consulted Google Maps, and it’s only 36. I hang my head). There was something about focusing on the road, traffic, the water remaining in my bottle, the glowing brownosity of the eyes of that guy in the Maserati at the intersection (did I say that?) that dragged my brain far, far away from data analysis. And almost always, when I returned to my unspeakably modest student housing, the problem I had been considering had solved itself. My thoughts were no longer stranded like some tortoise balanced on her plastron atop a pinnacle, urgently clawing at the air in an exhausting, useless effort to move on.

The thing is, at this stage of my life, 36-mile bike rides really aren’t in the cards. But I still need a way to distract my mind from sticking problems.

The search for some pinnacle-unsticking diversion led me to doodling. And now folks are insisting it’s art I’m making and I do not want it to be art because I need it to be process, and not product. 

Desperation drove me to card-doodling. I’m a word person, see, not visual, and the sentiments in the cards I found for sale didn’t resonate inside me. So I took to doodling on blank cards.

card middle


Then I started sending them off to friends and family. I posted a few pictures of them on Facebook. And so now I’m struggling with my own crisis of art vs. not-art. I’m sending them off to people I love.  I’m sharing photos of the doodled doodles once I’m done with the doodling–that all feels very product-focused to me. Maybe it’s time for me to let myself consider them art and continue to brandish a pen when I need to stop clawing at air, pull in my limbs, and toboggan on my plastron right down off that pinnacle. 

People have asked to buy them. Can I sell my doodles and still convince myself it’s the process I value? Will I need to find a different process to unstick myself? Or is it a both-and proposition, wherein I can accept the doodles’ artiness and still find the process a mind-unleashing diversion?

If you were me, would you sell them? If you were you, would you buy them? 

rabbit conga


And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The Lord is my God.

Zechariah 13:9 (KJV)

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