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Carthetic Art


I was at a gallery opening yesterday visiting a friend whose
sculptural work was being featured. Among her sculpture were
several 2D artists whose work hung on the wall. My husband
wandered over to one of them, while studying it closely, the
gallery owner came over and began to explain about the work. It
was sort of a sculptural 2d piece with two hands, a river rock
and some feet in reddish tones. The artist, the gallery owner
explained, had been tortured in Vietnam and the painting
represented his efforts of escaping the war by climbing through
jungles and over rocks until his feet and hands bled.

Dave had been admiring the skillful and artful way in which the
paint and rocks had been applied and composed. He was completely
enjoying this painting until he heard the story and then was
totally turned off.

Later that night we got into a long discussion about carthetic
art and the need for an artist to express those hidden feelings
in a manner which (hopefully) allows us to stay off the shrink’s
couch. It wanders into my dicourse on how much and how little my
work, if expressing an emotional experience, needs to be
explained, and, most importantly, who is going to do the
explaining. There is no way that I could experience the pain of
the artist in Vietnam, and my husband, a potential buyer for that
artwork, unless he was a Vietnam vet, could understand. I
created a body of work in artschool, which for me, was a
carthetic piece working out an experience when I was in a fire
and was badly burned. It was a spooky piece (as my husbands
states), and I think the piece was more for me than anyone else.

On the other hand, I have a huge painting in my living room (no
it doesn’t match my sofa) called Prison Fire. This painting
completely resonates with my experience from the visual and
rather dark subject matter. It is the only painting I have ever

Now that I am starting a new long-term body of work, these
questions keep popping in my mind. Although I can’t think of
anything in the new work which could be labeled “carthetic”, when
I step back, I realize that much or all of it is. But the work
comes more from a place of joy and humor and metaphor.

So I put it to you folks, what are your thoughts if any?

Karen Christians
10 Walnut St.
Woburn, MA 01801

Current Artwork:


Karen, Interesting topic. I have long wanted my work to be more
than just a “pretty thing” and have struggled with the content.
Sometimes a series will have a lot to say and since I often have
used words in my jewelry, it isn’t always subtle. Other series,
such as my current work, have more to do with the joy I find in
the materials that I am working with. I think that whatever the
content/intent of your work, the fact remains that once it
leaves your possession it is in the power of the viewer to
determine it’s meaning. - Deb Karash


Karen, First, I think that the word you meant to use is
"cathartic". I don’t think that it much matters what part of
one’s soul the work emenates from, the important thing is that it
comes from your soul, from your guts, that it be of and from
your core. I also think that the gallery owner should let the
person veiwing the work experience it for themselves. Everyone
experiences things in their own way. Imposing and verbalizing the
"artist’s intent", I think, can diminish one’s own experience of
the work. If we have to verbalize it why don’t we just write
about it or record a message instead of creating a sculpture or a
painting or a piece of music, etc? Those are my thoughts. Joel



Karen, Art is whatever you want it to be. Once it is created, it
is no longer in control by the artist. It takes on a life of its
own. Critics, gallery owners, the artist and …citizens,
interpret the work based on their past experiences. And since we
each have different past experiences, the piece of art possesses
different values and meanings. For some it is just form,color and
composition. For others, it is what is written on a piece of
appraiser’s paper. For a few souls, it is cathartic. But rarely
is art an experience a viewer shares with the artist. An
experience like that of your Husband’s at the gallery.

As to whether art needs to be explained in order to be…what?,
experienced, understood, sold? last weekend I was given a ticket
to the Monet Show at the Phoenix Art Museum as a birthday
present. When we got there we stood in line for a set of
headphones attached to some sort of a hand- held digital guide.
Press a number that corresponds to a number next to the painting
and Voila! an explanation of what you were supposed to
experience. I went through the show twice, once with the
headphones and once without. I enjoyed both trips. Ironically,
the most interesting piece in the show, (to me), was not one of
Monet’s paintings, but a photograph of the Artist Himself, a cool
looking dude taking a cigarette break in his beautiful self- made
garden of paradise. I wonder what you and your husband’s
experience would have been had you met the artist or seen a
photo and read a bio on the man, instead of getting it from a
gallery owner who probably loses very few sales. By the way, if
you keep talking about the piece long enough, and if the price is
right, you will end up buying it. I have a feeling that the
artist would appreciate such a gesture. Best Wishes
for the New Year, Will Estavillo



My feeling is to best leave things to speak for themselves.

A good example of an artist who never explained his motivations
or symbolism was Francis Bacon. Whose work was fervently
discussed and diagnosed by critics and historians. He insisted,
allbeit obliquely, that there was nothing being ‘Expressed’ yet
his biographer has revealed quite a horrible childhood/adolesence
which resonates in the imagery. Bacon believed that the work was
cathartic and came from his emotional spontenaety and best be
left up to the viewer to find meaning or the lack thereof.

In practical terms most people see images not intended by the

Does that mean that they’re wrong or that the artist revealed a
subconscious, primal image?

There are hundreds of great works of art that artists have left
without explanations. Does that limit our understanding or give
us the opportunity to reflect on the impact that the work has on
us as individuals?

I suggest to most salespeople not to run off at the mouth about
artistic meaning or import. A discussion of technique, background
or sucess of the individual artist has merit to the potential
buyer of course. But i think it is demeaning to the potential
collector to feel the need to lead them by the hand and tell them
what and how to see a work of art.

kim eric lilot


Karen is there any Art that isn’t? I hate to open up this long
stored can of worms, but for me this is the dividing point
between art and craft. Unless the work (craft) is mechanical
like copying someone else’s design . It must by the nature of
the process, express who the maker is. Expressing where they
have been and what they believe even if it is only in an
esthetic. Even when a work of art does not evoke emotion and
relies on an intellectual response it still expresses the basis
by which the artist finds meaning in this world. This is also,
in essence why I believe in a loving creator. No matter how
messy we make it; this is still a wonderful world. John


Karen, you raise a very interesting issue. My first remark is a
plea for the proper spelling of the word describing the topic:
rather than “carthetic,” I think you mean “cathartic,” from the
term, “catharsis,” defined as “purification or purgation of the
emotions … primarily through art” (Webster’s Ninth New
Collegiate Dictionary). This is not a criticism – I am on
another Internet list, not at all related to jewelry but to my
professional field. The folks on that list are much better
spellers but so often they seem cranky, not like the folks on
Orchid who are unfailingly kind, helpful, and a lot more
laid-back. That’s why I enjoy Orchid more than the other list
and wish to add my thanks to Hanuman for all his work on Orchid.

As for cathartic art, I have mixed feelings about knowing what
the artist had in mind. Like your husband, I may enjoy an art
work until I find out the artist’s intentions. On the other
hand, knowing an artist’s background and intentions may add
greatly to my enjoyment of the work. One can, of course, decide
on one’s own reasons for liking an art work and stick with that
(although I think it would be pretty hard to get an
interpretation like torture in Vietnam out of one’s mind, once I
had heard it).

For over 8 years, I worked on Middle East peacemaking (primarily
the Arab/Israeli/Palestinian conflict) for a pacifist group.
Like Vietnam, it was a depressing issue, especially watching US
foreign policy supporting the most hawkish positions on all
sides. (This was partly balanced by getting to know great, great
people on all sides.) My point is that when I was deeply
involved in the issues, as bad as things were, I could bear it
better, because I was working directly on the issues. Now that I
am much less involved, I find it difficult to read or think much
about the horrible things still going on. I think that is part
of the problem with cathartic art – the reminder of horrible
things may bring up within a person many different feelings,
among them a kind of guilt that one was/is not able to stop the
horrible things. It is natural, I believe, not to want to feel
that way.

There may be several ways of dealing with this. (A) Don’t
purchase the artwork. (B) Rejoice with the artist that he is
alive and able to make such an interesting thing out of what was
obviously a horrible experience – in that way, the work is a
symbol of hope and life. I’m sure others will weigh in with
other ideas!

Judy Bjorkman


Everyone responds to art out of their own experiences.
Therefore, the same object will indicate different things to
different people. And it might symbolize something totally
different again to the artist. I don’t think there is anything
wrong with the artist explaining meanings, if so inclined. I
have found that when folks are uneducated about the art they are
percieving, or intimidated by it, they often want it explained
to them. It’s an opportunity for the gallery owner or artist to
educate someone and usually makes the viewer feel much less
intimidated - or, at least, makes them feel that they understand a little better.
Just my 2 cents! Gini

The artist, the gallery owner  explained, had been tortured in
Vietnam and the painting represented his efforts of escaping
the war by climbing through  jungles and over rocks until his
feet and hands bled. 

Alarm bells.

Any Vietnam veteran would be in his late fifties or older now.
Is that how old the aritist is or else when was the artwork
done at a date that would corrobrate evidence that the artist
really experienced the torture. Now the artist can claim
artistic interpretation and empathy but the impression given
here is “personal experience”.

I was at the Mall in Washington DC in '89 and you wouldn’t
believe the number of healthy young buskers who claimed that
they had been traumatized by service the Vitenam War and
therefore unable to earn a living. At their age they would not
even have made it to being a shoeshine boy let alone old enough
to carry a rifle.

Uniformed servicemen of the buskers’ age, and Washington is full
of them, chuckled at the number of well meaning tourists who
dropped money for these “poor things”. The servicemen knew

Kelvin Mok (@Kelvin_Mok1)
Home: (780) 463-4099 | Home FAX: (780) 430-7120


all this folderol about motivation for work reminds me of an
answer i gave to someone at a museum art show. a woman came into
my booth & picked up an intricate piece of jewelry. she looked
at it, & then looked some more & for a period of time she stood
there looking at it & listening as a couple of more customers
came, bought & went. finally she asked me if i picked the
such-n-such gemstones because of the spectrum of color from dark
to light to represent the dadadada of striving dadadada & the
design dadada breaking free. when she finished i looked her in
the eye & informed her, “nope, i used them because i got a hell
of a good deal on them.” she bought it. (both ‘its’) ive

    A good example of an artist who never explained his
motivations or symbolism was Francis Bacon. Whose work was

I’ve always had difficulty with people analyzing artworks, and
annoyed with lengthy explanations by some artists of their works.
This is one reason I seldom buy Metalsmith magazine. Sure there’s
some great pieces in there, but alot of times there are pieces
that are extremely simple with 42 paragraphs on what the piece
represents. Give me a break! Art is, period. If it takes more
than two sentences to explain a piece of art then somebody is
selling something. The Mona Lisa doesn’t need a book to explain
it, its there to see and people will all react differently, every
one, to what it makes them feel inside. Art isn’t intellectual in
its effect. It can be intellectually created but, art is
emotional and no one will see the same thing as someone else even
if its described by the artist in an essay. If art could be
described then everyone would think cactuses were ugly and roses
were beautiful. I like cactuses myself :slight_smile: Dave


I have to admit (confess??) that I enjoy art exhibitions as much
for the opportunity to watch people reacting to the art as for
the chance to experience it myself.

When I was in my photography phase I entered some of the local
photo competitions. I enjoyed eavesdropping on people commenting
on my work without their knowing it was mine. It was about the
only way to get an honest critique from other photographers (a
problem I also have as a jewelry hobbiest [maybe that should be
a seperate thread]). It was also interesting to see how
different the responses were from non photographers who were
just reacting to the images.

My photos were usually kind of abstract since I liked to move
inside from the easily identifiable outlines of an object and
photograph the elements that make something what it really is.
At least that was my grand self-delusion. People often thought
that they didn’t like them because they couldn’t immediately
know what the subject matter was. Folks who would breeze through
the exhibition lavishing high praise upon the myriad of
perfectly composed blooms covered with ersatz dew would stop by
my stuff, talk about them while trying to figure out what they
were looking at, wonder how some people were ever allowed in to
an otherwise classy event, maybe talk about what they liked or
how they felt, and continue on their way. A lot of them would
return after viewing a few more of the sunsets and cute kittens
and puppies to look and talk about my stuff some more.

Of course some people did appreciate what I was doing.

I found it gratifying to know that I could produce images that
people felt compelled to stop to view, and discuss.

When talking with people about my work, they often asked what
the object of the photo being was. Many times their interest in
a photo would immediately wane upon finding out that they were
looking at the track of a catepillar tractor or a fire escape
stairway or part of a stack of spare chairs in the corner of a
conference room or whatever mundane thing it was. After a while
I stopped telling people what it was and just asked that they
let the image stand on it’s own.

I always thought it interesting that people seemed compelled to
try and fit the images into some slot or another and seemed
uncomfortable in not knowing what it was, but l ost interest
once it was identified.

Chunk Kisling


Hi, Excuse me if I sound obtuse – but we studied a type of art
like this as undergrads;it was called, however, “cathartic” art,
as in catharsis, which means a purging, Greek roots. Could this
be what you mean? -Madeline


I just did an experimental abstract painting on one of my
deerskin pouches. I had great fun and am really pleased with it.
I’ll be putting it out for sale at this weekend’s show. I just
realized that people are gonna want the “story” behind it. There
isn’t one! So here I am: do they lose more interest by my not
having a story to go with it, or do I make something up (haven’t
tried that one yet). Will someone buy it if there’s no damn
story? Will my feelings be hurt if they don’t?

A friend who used to know the late Charles Loloma (sp?) once
told me that he used to sometimes make up great stories for his
customers about his jewelry pieces (“the Kachina god came to me
in a vision and told me…”). He used to sell the heck out of
his pieces of course, and for big bucks.

Serena Mankiller


Hi- A story is part of the package. People love a story and it
makes them want to buy. And Reality is a strange thing who knows
what happens on other planes of existance? So if you needed a
rationalization for " making up" a story there it is. People love a

 do they lose more interest by my not having a story to go with
it, or do I make something up (haven't tried that one yet). 
Will someone buy it if there's no damn story?  

I find that one of my favorite things about making jewelry is
the story that the customer tells about the piece. They are so
much more moving than anything that I could tell them about it.
I once had a woman buy a pair of earrings (abstract woman
figures) and she said that she was giving one earring to her
daughter and the other to the daughters best friend because they
had to move away from the friend and the daughter was so sad.
It made me cry then and it makes me cry now. I think jewelry
carries a lot more stories with it through the years than almost
any other art form. Some of our most precious moments are
marked by the giving of jewelry. - Deb


Dear Karen, Thank you for your post about cathartic art. Most of
my art work is not cathartic however on occasion I step on a
purely emotional path. At those times when the soul purpose of
the art is to work out something emotional it is just that,
emotion. The process is great and often I can then let go of the
emotions that are troubling me. There is only one draw back the
finished piece really sucks, I mean PU, I mean really badddd
art. Stuff that I don’t want to see again much less have anyone
else look at it. I am speaking for myself only.

When viewing art one really doesn’t know if a work of art was
cathartic for the artist or not. Viewing art is a delicious
subjective experience. After an artist finishes a work it has to
be let go to have a life of its own.

Cathy Wheless


Hi Karen: I hope you don’t mind if I begin by correcting your
spelling. The word is cathartic (like ex-lax, a rather amusing
and apt comparison, since we’re talking about what comes out of

As a retired “shrink”, the subject you raise has always been of
interest to me. I maintain that when you are an artist you
cannot separate your self from your work. While even you may not
be able to verbalize what motivates you to produce certain works,
your body of work reflects your personality and all the
experiences you have lived through. Many people respond to art
without attempting to understand why the artist made it. If you
are drawn to it, it probably mirrors something in yourself. I
expect that this thread can go on for a long time. Frances

Visit me or “beam me up” at:


Here is a quote form Ananda Coomaraswamy which is found on page
30 of the second edition of B. S. Dunham’s ‘Contemporary

“The basic error in what we have called the illusion of culture
is the assumption that art is something to be done by a special
kind of man, and particularly that kind of man whom we call a
genius. In direct opposition to this is the normal and human view
that art is simply the right way of making things, whether
symphonies or aeroplanes. The normal view assumes, in other
words, not that the artist is a special kind of man, but that
every man who is not a mere idler and parasite is necessarily
some kind of artist, skilled and well contented in the making or
arranging of some one thing or another according to his
constitution and training.” …

If this is true then real art itself is not subject nor product
of the catharsis but rather the product of normality? The emotion
would be the byproduct of the stress of trying to normalize one’s
life in the face of institutional and cultural resistances which
try to make us into useless, idle consumers?

    do they lose more interest by my not having a story to go
with it, or do I make something up (haven't tried that one
yet). Will someone buy it if there's no damn story? 

Wow, that sure sounds like sour grapes. Why are you making
jewelry in the first place? There must be some inspiration behind
each piece or are you just throwing findings and stones together?
I listen to the stories the sales people tell in the most
successful jewelry store in town and they sure don’t just say
"here’s a ring with an amethyst." They tell about the artist, the
cut of the stone, the metal, and they paint a very pretty
picture. Customers love that stuff and I think its important. But
then again this store sells artist made jewelry, not mall crap.
My work surely has a story behind each piece since I’m not making
souless mall jewelry, and even if the piece didn’t start out as
some fanciful inspiration I describe the technique involved which
is often my first attempt at that technique. If you have pride in
what you make then your pieces have a story to tell. I once met
a man in my beginning silversmith class who would co-teach
sometimes and this guy was an absolute master of inlay technique
in the southwestern style. HIs work was flawless. He couldn’t
give the stuff away though. This guy was a technician and had no
sense of art. His patterns were ugly and senseless. He had a chip
on his shoulder against galleries and the public in general
because they wouldn’t buy his work and I think this ultimately
crept into his work too. If you can’t come up with a story at
least you can say how the piece was made, where the stone is from
etc. If you have imagination enough to design and make a piece
then you have imagination enough to tell the story of your