How Autobiographical Should Your Art Be?

2014 Artwork Should you be autobiographical sketch

Although I’m not a fan of conceptual art (and I pretty much agree with the Stuckists about the whole subject), I ended up randomly watching an old documentary about Tracey Emin on Youtube a couple of weeks ago.

I guess I ended up watching it because I wanted to daydream about being a glamourous, extroverted “rockstar” artist in the 1990s (even though I’d actually absolutely hate to be a celebrity of any kind- seriously, my imagination can be a very contradictory place sometimes).

Anyway, one of the interesting things which Emin mentioned in the documentary was that all of her work was very autobiographical in one way or another and this got me thinking about the whole subject of how much of themselves an artist should put into their own work.

Creating art is, by it’s very nature, a very introverted and introspective activity. Most of the real work involved in it takes place in the private world of the artist’s imagination.

But, at the same time, both translating those thoughts into something which can be put onto paper or canvas and translating them into something which other people can actually understand is a slightly more extroverted and extrospective activity.

Actually publishing it (either online or traditionally) is even more extroverted thing to do.

So, there’s this strange duality between introversion and extroversion involved in creating art. This is probably why it attracts both introverts and extroverts.

Still, how autobiographical should your art be? First of all, this is something which can vary from person to person – some people are a lot more comfortable with telling their life stories than others and some people have more interesting stories to tell than others do. So, there are no real “rules” here – but there are a few things which are worth thinking about:

Although there can be nothing more satisfying or cathartic than creating something autobiographical and seeing a piece of yourself and your personal history represented in pictorial form, it’s worth thinking about whether you actually want to share this with literally everyone or not.

If you don’t, then there are a couple of things that you can do. You can still make your autobiographical art and keep it private or you can hide the autobiographical elements of your art in a variety of clever ways (such as through symbolism).

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this painting that I made a couple of months ago:

"Sacred Relics" By C. A. Brown

“Sacred Relics” By C. A. Brown

To the untrained eye, this just looks like an ordinary still life picture (albeit with a lot of stuff in it). But it’s actually an extremely symbolic painting about the story of my life between the ages of about fourteen and nineteen.

Everything in this picture stands for a part of my life when I was younger. So, if you don’t want to share the details of your life story with everyone, but you still feel like telling it, then you can do it through symbolism or by creating something that evokes the same emotions you feel (but with none of the details of why you feel this particular way).

Secondly, there’s the question of quality. A work of art can be the most personal and meaningful thing in the world to you but, if it can’t stand on it’s own merits, then it isn’t worth publishing. If you’re not sure about this, then ask yourself “if someone didn’t know a thing about me, would they still think that what I’ve made is good art?”.

If the answer is “yes”, then put your art online and/or try to see if you can get it into a gallery. If the answer is “no”, then your art probably either needs reworking or revising.

Thirdly, there’s the question of meaning. It’s worth thinking about whether you want the exact meaning of your artwork to be obvious to everyone. It’s ok to leave things to your audience’s imaginations or to make your autobiographical art slightly mysterious (especially if you don’t feel like sharing literally everything) – but you shouldn’t make your art too confusing or indecipherable.

Fourthly, remember not to libel or slander anyone (or violate anyone else’s privacy) if you’re making anything autobiographical. The exact laws about this vary from country to country, so be sure to do your research first.

Finally, because all of your art comes from your imagination and because your imagination is informed by your memories, some autobiographical stuff will almost inevitably end up in whatever art you create, whether you want it to or not.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting šŸ™‚

One comment on “How Autobiographical Should Your Art Be?

  1. […] a recent article, I briefly referred to my imagination as a “contradictory place”. At the time, this […]

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