inspiration series: Jacob Collins

untitled? landscape by Jacob CollinsI sometimes take photographs and write about things that aren’t Open Science, and although I am trying to do something somehow meaningful — and I even think I’m getting better at it — I have a very hard time saying just what that “meaning” might be.
I’m going to start collecting pictures and words that either resonate with me and whatever it is I’m trying to say with my own pictures and words — or that annoy me into talking about it. In the latter category, here’s Jacob Collins, from an article in Columbia Magazine (thanks, Abbas):

I always wanted to do two things: to be skillful and to make beautiful art. I never had any confusion. Not that I am so skillful. I’ve been looking at Holbein drawings, Diego Velásquez portraits, and ancient Greek sculptures my whole cogent life, and you can’t look at those things and really feel good about yourself. The other thing that interests me is to make things beautiful. Often, when you’re in art school you get people saying, ‘Sure, this is pretty, but let me see what your ideas are.’ When I was a kid I didn’t know why that bothered me, but later I realized that it’s based upon the fallacy that beauty isn’t an idea. Beauty is a set of ideas, it is vastly complicated, and to understand whether something is beautiful, you’re using anthropology and psychology, and culture and nature, and even biology. You have to understand what ‘beauty’ is to know why you think something is beautiful.

Foses, Jacob Collins 2003I have nothing against classicism or realism, but if the galleries on his site are anything to go by I don’t care for most of Collins’ work. I find it somehow — pedestrian; more conventional than classical. (I liked Maureen Mullarkey’s description of Collins’ nudes: “McNudes for the carriage trade… fastidious erotica to go with the Jado bidet and high-thread-count linens from Yves Delorme.”) I don’t know whether that bit about not feeling good about himself is false or real modesty, but take a look at his drawings. Lack of skill is not the problem, even if he’s right and doesn’t compare to the transcendent examples he chose. A large part of my reaction to Collins is his choice of subject — I like him best when he applies his “high art” methods to quotidian objects, or when he gets out of the way and lets a portrait speak for itself. I like him least when he is rehashing ideas of beauty that have been imitated so much that they have become stale.
I originally started writing this as the other kind of inspiration piece, on the basis of the quoted comments above. I like Collins’ idea that beauty is sufficient as an end, that it is a complex statement in and of itself. I just disagree with him on the particulars of which things are, in fact, beautiful. If there’s any point to saying more about art than “I like/don’t like that”, then I think Collins’ rather impersonal portrayals of rather standard subject choices must qualify only as pretty — decorative — and not really beautiful.
So, in writing this out, I find at least one thing I’m trying to do with what, if I were not intensely self-conscious about it, I would call “my art”: I want to make beautiful things, and I want to understand why they are beautiful to me. But that’s hardly satisfactory, being so broad a comment that it probably applies to anyone who makes anything. I’ll keep trying.
(Hat-tips: Andrew Walkingshaw, whose recent musings on creativity and compartmentalisation struck a chord with me; and my old friend Ralf, who always takes “my art” just seriously enough.)

One thought on “inspiration series: Jacob Collins

  1. Hi, Bill. Interesting post. I appreciate the work you’re doing with open access, but a lot of your science-related posts are either over my head or not something in my focus. This was something I enjoyed reading and I look forward to more.

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