There is No "I" in Art

Oscar LuckettAugust 5, 2020Fun and CreativityFeatures
There is No "I" in Art

Artwork by Pragya Natarajan

COVID-19 has fundamentally ingrained a paradigm shift for all residents of this planet; we are all going and have gone through a collective culture shock right now. A shock that necessitates a whole new way of going through life: navigating a world filled with contradictions.

Where homes create both sanctuary and captivity. Where neighbors are to be feared as well as relied on. Where grief can be as concrete as the virus infecting you or a loved one, and as abstract as the crushing existential fear for the future.

For me, a fantastically escapist means of bringing normalcy to my life has been attending classes, albeit online. In the salvaged semester of virtual school, my teachers have tried endlessly to bring some degree of routine to this utterly, generation-defining, extremely abnormal time. With homework assignments and the holding of semi-regular class times over video chat, my high school experience from mid-January has been, to an extent, replicated. Attempting to bring a historical lens to what their students are going through, almost all of my teachers have explained a department-specific anecdote of creation in isolation, voluntary or not. It was explained to my fellow classmates and me that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra while quarantined during London’s 1606 plague. We learn about how Sontag and Khalo, Bishop and O’Keefe, all advocated and practiced working in extended stretches of isolation. Or how the secret to Newton’s two years of genius was being stuck in a bucolic estate 60 miles north of Trinity College. At times I have questioned what is stopping me from picking up my notebook and becoming the next Newton, or at the very least reorganizing my closet. At the very beginning of my social isolation, I began asking myself why I couldn’t bridge the gap between forced isolation and voluntary creation? I no longer have to hypothesize how my creative process would perform under isolation. My speculative musings, coupled with my lived experience, has shown me it doesn’t.

To better understand the mechanics of the creative process, and, in my case, what impedes it, we must first dissect and atomize the process as a whole. I found three discrete and unmissable pieces in every creation of art: intake, rumination, and manifestation. This is the process that has cycled and endured through the creation of all new art. In assessing the solitude of the creative process, it is crucial to realize that each phase of creation can exist under its own form of solitude, both conceptually and physically.

Within the lens of a pandemic, our process of artistic intake has changed only in subject. The process of gathering creative inspiration has always been solitary and involuntary. Any viewer’s connection to a work or an artist has always been parasocial, with the viewer creating a one-way emotional attachment to the work and, by extension, the artist. Even those who went from attending galleries every weekend to seclusion, at best, have access to the same art digitally rendered or the natural world, and, at worst, can find a different form of stimuli in the world around them. In his essay on art criticism, Ways of Seeing, John Berger explains the innate, constant relationship between a viewer and the visual world they encounter: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

It is this viewership and interaction with the world that informs our worldview, existence in society, and inspires us to create. Whether or not you have a conscious and active drive to create in response to something viewed, the lived experience of interacting with that thing, even minutely, passively informs you as a person and how you approach that creative endeavor.

In the perception of human-manufactured art, Berger argues there are two lenses that obscure one’s understanding and the art itself. “Every [man-made] image embodies a way of seeing… The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject. The painter’s way of seeing is reconstituted by the marks he makes on the canvas or paper. Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing. (it may be, for example, that Sheila is one figure among twenty; but for our own reasons she is the one we have eyes for).”

The end result is a collaborative interpretation between viewer and author of that photograph, poem, rock opera, etc., that directly informs the next step of the creative process: rumination. Potentially the most abstract of the art making process, thinking about art allows the viewer to take an active role in how public perception of that art propagates. Thinking about art merges the two worlds of social isolation and physical isolation. Without someone to talk with about that Kandinsky you just saw, you lose any conceptual insights they might have. It is here that thought and speech merge, counterintuitively, if you view art as a means of expressing what words can not say.

The predication of words upon shared social understanding presents an inherent challenge in self-expression, especially in the expression of complex concepts. In his 1953 book Philosophical Investigations, linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein posed a thought experiment prodding at the issue of shared, assigned value. In this experiment, Wittgenstein imagines a group of people all with a box. Inside each box is a thing they each call a “beetle”. No one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box yet they are allowed to freely discuss “beetles” without knowing what others have in their boxes, or if they contain anything at all. In this world, the shared public meaning of the words “beetle” is dictated by the common use people have of it, rather than what is actually in each person’s private box. Wittgenstein extended the beetle-in-the-box analogy to then include the words we have for human sensations. like “green” or “pain.” He argued that the words we use are more reflective of the meaning we teach each other rather than some introspective, private truth. Not only are words inadequate to express the most ineffable sides of the human condition, they misconstrue and warp our own self-reflection. Perhaps then it is worse to be an established art critic, entrenched in the vocabulary of the critics that came before, than to be an uninformed dilettante. The layman’s point of view has come to be valued in the art world, delivering us the genre, “outsider art.”

This same linguistic flaw is mirrored in the conceptualization of new art. If there exists an idea, emotion, or concept larger than words, it is the job of the artist to create that art, rather than explain how the inner workings of their brain are manifested in that art piece. In this sense, it is an impediment to be surrounded by others’ opinions when reflecting on art.

The final and most important part of creating art is actually creating it. No matter which medium you use to express the thoughts in your head, without manifestation those thoughts disappear into the void. If Shakespeare thinks out every line of King Lear in his head, but never writes it down or even tells anyone about it, did it ever exist? Because of this, the notion of conceptual manifestation becomes an oxymoron, and the divide between types of isolation falls apart. All we are left with is the question of whether or not social isolation is beneficial for the embodiment of an idea. At the heart of the issue is the question of who art is for? The artist or the audience? The reason we hear these great minds come forward about their successes with isolation is because that isolation is temporary and controlled. We never hear about the artists who create for the sake of creating, with no audience in mind, as their work is never publicized.

I find that in writing this piece, my perception of isolation has shifted dramatically. Isolation has gone from a walk alone in the park to months on end without seeing anyone who doesn’t share my last name. Truthfully, my relationship with KidSpirit has not changed much. This article was not written in isolation any more than anything else I’ve written for KidSpirit. By the time it is published, it will have gone through multiple rounds of peer-editing. And once it is put out in the world, it is at the discretion of the internet, the least isolated platform that has ever existed. This quarantine has demonstrated to me that isolation is only beneficial when deliberate and reversible. Even in my relative isolation (I’m far from isolated virtually or conceptually), I find myself grateful for being able to have the space, the means, and the time to create. It is a privilege that perhaps even offsets the stumbling blocks of isolation. Even still, I can’t help but look forward to the days when I can once again gather with my fellow musicians, museum goers, and KidSpirit Ed Board members.


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC and Penguin Books.

Dickson, Andrew. “Shakespeare in lockdown: did he write King Lear in plague quarantine?” The Guardian.

Levenson, Thomas. The New Yorker. “The Truth About Isaac Newton’s Productive Plague.”

Popova, Maria. “Elizabeth Bishop on Why Everyone Should Experience at Least One Long Period of Solitude in Life.”

“Talking Point: Making Art in Isolation.”

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Philosophical Investigations, Section 293.” Stanford University.

Oscar Luckett is a rising eighth grader at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys any kind of math, jazz, board games, and running.