Category Archives: philosophy

On Thinking in Pictures & other articles by Michael Craig-Martin


On Thinking in Pictures

by Michael Craig-Martin

“Thinking in pictures,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” In other words, thinking visually is at the foundation of thinking itself. This statement stands in contrast to the belief held by most philosophers – in fact by most educated people – that to think is to use words. Most forms of education from the time we are four or five years old are based on this assumption. The development of verbal competence is considered the essence of education itself, and this constant reinforcement means the most verbally adept become the best regarded and most successful in our society. Since the development of visual intelligence is generally dismissed and ignored, even the best educated in society are usually visually illiterate, while those whose instinct and abilities favour visual intelligence are likely to find themselves patronised and marginalized.

Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographer, believes that the Austrian’s philosophy is one essentially concerned with perception. For Wittgenstein, to think, is to understand, was first and foremost to picture. It was fundamental to his thinking that not everything we can see, and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp, can be put into words. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,”  he said. But he also believed that those things about which we have to be silent are the most important. To grasp these important things, it is not enough to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!” And by this, he means to look both metaphorically and literally.

At the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he called ‘the understanding which consists in “seeing connections.”’ He was fascinated by the phenomenon of ambiguous figures such as the duck-rabbit. What changes when we alternately see a rabbit or a duck is not the picture but rather the way we look at it. He sought to show us that our capacity to see things differently is critical in perception and therefore in understanding. Wittgenstein believed that our understanding of complex ideas depended on our mental ability to assemble multiple, possibly very different, perceptions.


On directness

by Michael Craig-Martin

 To me, the most obvious characteristic of Americans is directness, and I believe the same is true of American art. I remember as a student having a tutor who used to say, “Simple and direct – follow your traditions, simple and direct.” The British, on the other hand, are determinedly indirect: social behaviour is coded with meaning that is never explained or overtly referred to. British art is often similarly indirect. The distinction is seen clearly in the difference between Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton. The latter once told me how impressed he was the first time he saw American Pop art in the early 1960s because it had a directness that his own work lacked. The British equivalent to directness is a highly developed idea of common sense: no nonsense; the obvious; straightforward; simply the way things are.

I try to draw my objects in a way that is both as direct and as commonsensical as possible. If you take the most ordinary light bulb, one of its characteristics is that you do not notice its design – you forget it. It is the other light bulbs that look designed. The one that embodies one’s idea of ‘light bulb’ gives no sense of being designed at all. I was trying to find a way of drawing that was equivalent to that notion of ‘not designed,’ of how things look before anyone gets round to drawing them.


On the autonomy of art

by Michael Craig-Martin

In 1960, a very earnest young woman asked the seventy-two-year-old T. S. Eliot, “In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” when you said “I am Lazarus, come from the dead/Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all,” what exactly did you mean?” Eliot smiled and replied, “That poem was written forty years ago. I have to tell you that I can’t even recall writing it. When I read it today it is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. The poem has to stand for itself – that is what it is.”


On art as metaphor

by Michael Craig-Martin

It might seem self-evident that the more intelligent art is the better it is, but it depends on one’s definition of ‘intelligence.’ Great art is always emotionally intelligent, but rarely rationally so. That is why it eludes so many educated and intelligent people. Intellect can open doors, but it can also lock them, shutting out vision, leaps of the imagination, instinct, insight, daring.

Art as metaphor – poetry not prose. It presents truths through artifice. The greatest crisis of the present time is the resort everywhere to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the result of the failure to understand and appreciate poetry. Fundamentalists always reject the arts because, unable to grasp them, they instinctively fear them.

The Bible and the Koran are poems, not documentaries. If you lose the ability to understand, as their authors did, that poetic truth – the truth of metaphor and the imagination – is the highest expression of the truth, you turn instead to the impoverished language of literalism. The stories in the Bible are poetic metaphors. The narrative that God made the world in seven days describes the unimaginable creation of the universe in terms we can all understand. Scientific discoveries have not undermined religious belief, they have simply rewritten the poem. The same people who cannot see the Bible as poetry cannot accept the scientific explanation as fact.

Similarly, the art critics who have been most apoplectically upset about An Oak Tree always treat it as literal rather than poetic. Is that how they look at all art? Perhaps that is why they find that they despise so much.


Advice for an aspiring artist

by Michael Craig-Martin

“By far the most important characteristic for anyone wanting to be an artist is desire: the passionate, inexplicable desire to make art. This desire is more important than talent. To have enviable talent but qualified desire is not enough; to have little obvious talent but overwhelming desire may lead to success. Desire can be encouraged but not taught. In my experience, a driven person lacking any recognizable talent may, out of necessity, invent a way to work at which they excel. This is what we call originality.

Pleasure in doing is the essential basis for making art. When you love what you do, no effort is too great, no time too long. We are all capable of doing a lot of things for a while, but not for long. Art can only come from what we are able to sustain.

I would never advise anyone to become an artist. If you have another option, take it. Most people who end up as artists rarely feel they had an option. Art is the only endeavour I know that models itself around the abilities, experiences and needs of each individual who engages in it. It is entirely accepting, respects everyone for who they are, offers no strict rules of right and wrong. It enables one to turn everything about oneself, one’s limitations as well as one’s strengths, into advantages.

Much of the best art has been made by those who failed to succeed in other more conventional activities. For art to work for you, you must work at it in the ways that give you the greatest satisfaction, that reflect your interests and your passions, that occupy your time without effort, that change with you as you change over time.

Don’t try to be too inventive. The more your art reflects you, the more it will speak to other people. If you are not sure what you should do, just do whatever comes into your head or catches your imagination. Gradually, it will lead you to where you should be. Making art is a path not a destination.”


On passion

by Michael Craig-Martin

Anyone can have a passion in their life: a lover, art, music, food, nature, family, one’s job, helping others, learning. In my years of experience, someone with talent but lacking passion will not get far.

Passion arises from pleasure – it arises from what comes naturally to each individual, from whatever comes easily. Often people take for granted what they find easy, even denigrate it. This is a great mistake. What comes easily is at the heart of who one is, and should be treasured and nurtured. The potential for passion exists in everyone, but to be developed productively it needs to be recognised, valued and worked at. Passion produces energy. A person with passion is more likely to succeed. My own view is that if you are enjoying your art, be yourself. If you follow someone’s else’s talent, you may deprive us all of your own.


On being vulnerable to the world

by Michael Craig-Martin

There is nothing that happens in an artist’s life – whether good or bad, no matter how dramatically important or apparently trivial – that cannot be turned to effective use in their art. Any crummy part-time job, any minor incident, any childhood memory. Other people can read a book for pleasure or enlightenment. An artist may read a book and it can alter the whole course of their life’s work. Artists are unusually vulnerable to the world in this way. And they, in turn, use their work to seduce others into valuing what they value.


On one’s relationship to the work

by Michael Craig-Martin

After many years of teaching, I came to believe that the key to a student’s success lay not in the work itself but in the relationship between the student and the work. My own work has the character it does, looks as it does, deals with the issues it does not just because of decisions I have made but because it comes naturally to me, and although I am not its subject, it is a manifestation of me. If someone seeks to make work like mine, my work will always be better, because it cannot come from them as it does from me. Steal from me yes; copy me no.

It is not only necessary to recognise and use one’s strengths, whatever they may be, but also one’s weaknesses and limitations. I have watched many students turn what in other circumstances would be considered a disadvantage into an advantage in their art. Art gives us permission to turn the tables.

Students often feel under pressure to work in a certain way. Sometimes this pressure comes from outside – from a teacher, a parent or a peer. More often it comes from within, in a form of self-censorship, anxiety about self-image. Students worry that what they really want to do is too banal, too obvious, too weird, too unexplainable, too uncool. I have had floundering students admit that they had done secret work at home that they would never bring to school or show anybody because it embarrassed them. Invariably, this work is better than the ‘serious’ work done at school because it is born from a passionate engagement the other work lacks. The nature of the relationship between the artist and the work is always expressed in the work. The expressive power of art should never be underestimated.


On my work

by Michael Craig-Martin

Manufactured common objects were what interested me. I began to draw every object the same size, regardless of scale, using A4 paper. Whether it was a safety pin or a table, I made it fit the page, trying to find a way to be nonjudgmental. I used a fine line, and then I found a way of drawing with tape—to make everything look as neutral as the objects themselves. When you buy a chair, you know there are thousands of them, all identical, though your own chair is individual.

The irony is that, over the years, my neutral kind of drawing, which was meant to have no style, has become recognizable as my style. I draw exactly the same way now, and what I’ve realized is that it is not only a visual language, but incredibly flexible, and can be used in many different ways.

A philosophical text by Robert Sokolowski pointed out that the image of a hammer doesn’t look anything like a hammer. If I’m making a drawing, I’m not making a hammer; but if I show you my drawing, the first thing you’ll say is, “That’s a hammer,” because you and I both have this unbelievable capacity to read an image and experience the presence of an object, which is actually not there. This is not very different from the glass of water and the oak tree.

The capacity to be able to see an image of a thing as the thing is one of the most profound of human abilities, and it predates language in human development. Think of the use of pictures in teaching a child to read.

Michael Craig-Martin quotes:

‘Understanding’ art is like having a sense of humour – if you don’t have one, no amount of explanation is going to make you laugh.

I thought the objects we value least because they were ubiquitous were actually the most extraordinary.

I try to make images that have the immediate presence we take for granted in objects – a chair, a shoe, a book, a Judd – and compose them like sentences.

The art world, of all worlds, has room for everyone.

Whatever happens to the art world, art will go on regardless. As for obscurity, it looms just over the horizon beckoning us all. Why worry.

In the late 70’s I started to make drawings of the ordinary objects I had been using in my work. Initially I wanted them to be ready-made drawings of the kind of common objects I had always used in my work. I was surprised to discover I couldn’t find the simple, neutral drawings I had assumed existed, so I started to make them myself.

I have been using the computer as a work aid since the mid-90’s. It is extraordinarily well suited to how I think and work and has transformed my practice. Nearly everything I have done in the past 15 years would have been impossible without it. I use the computer for drawing, composing and colour planning everything, from postage stamps to paintings to architectural-scale installations.

I have never understood, for instance, why some people see contemporary art as divided between ‘painting’ and ‘conceptual art’, as though this represented a genuine division.

I came to painting through sculpture, to images through objects. I think that images sit in the middle, somewhere between objects and words.

I was poorer than anyone I’d ever met. But it was a great time to be a young artist – I remember it as a period of exceptional creative freedom and adventure, when one was regularly presented with works of art unlike anything one had ever seen before.

There is a complete difference between art and the art market. Prices are high now for the simple reason that there are people are willing to pay them. The market dominates the art world today because at the moment collectors call the shots. Like everything else that won’t last forever.

I do think I paid a price as an artist, and I am trying to make up for it now – I work six days a week in the studio, and I’ve never been happier.

The internet has extended the possibility of making art to more people, and particularly of enabling it to be seen by others. I am sure the internet is having a profound impact on art, particularly those who have grown up with it, but making good art will remain as difficult (and as easy) as it ever was. Having a lasting impact may become more not less difficult.

The complexity of the language of images is disguised by the ease and rapidity with which we read them. I’ve tried to make work that is as transparent and simple as possible. No matter how much I strip away the result is always more complex to me than I expect.

I am personally happy for artists to make as much money as they can while they can to carry them through the times when they can’t.

Where [some] see disjunctions, I see connections. I believe totally in the democracy of art. Years of teaching have taught me that the only essential requirement for someone wanting to be an artist is the passionate desire to make art. Art education cannot turn someone into an artist, cannot make someone more or other than they are, but it can help them find their own voice.