Does History Matter?

Wood, Elements #8 ©2009 Wendy Edsall-Kerwin

How important is the history of a piece to your enjoyment of it?  How important is the cultural environment surrounding an artwork—the when and where of its creation?

I was at a meeting of the Creative House of Lancaster last night and we were participating in a grad student’s project involving a free-form discussion based on different theories.  There was a series of quotes taken out of context for us to riff off of.  One of them particularly struck me and made me think of the questions at the top of the post.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking one element:  its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.  …the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity…the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.

—Walter Benjamin  The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)

One of the most important parts of my artworks to me is the part of its history which no one else who sees it will experience.  The creation of the idea and the process of designing and physically making the piece are very meaningful to me.  This is a part of the work’s history.  But then it moves forward, following its own path.  It might be in exhibitions.  It might be in a book or magazine.  It might be work by one person or by many.

But when you look at a piece of artwork, does any of that matter to you, or is it how it makes you feel in that moment?  Does knowing the history of a piece change your relationship to it?  Go ahead and get existential in your comments.  Start a conversation!

2 thoughts on “Does History Matter?

  1. Hi Wendy,

    For me, the history matters a lot, that is, what went into the birth of the idea for its creation and how it evolved into the finished piece. I admit that I am strongly influenced by my mentor, Lexi Erickson. However, my growth as an artist and the feedback people have left on my blogs about my works has demonstrated to me that the story/history behind my works does matter. People like to know the story behind something. A person who left a recent comment for me said she would never think about another piece of jewelry in the same light because the soul of the artist who created it was present in the work. Lexi has shared that all of her pieces tell a story….they have their own story. And I have found that happening with mine too. I like that. If you have an opportunity to tell a piece’s story to a potential collector, now you have made a connection with that person. I find that very cool.

    Very cool, thought provoking post Wendy. Thanks! Kathleen

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  2. your work is beautiful. I have seen it somewhere in our travels. Some of my pieces have a strong history… one is associated with the passing of a a good friend, another by an 8 day silent retreat.

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