Zach LeBar

Personal ramblings on a wide array of topics. "But, you know,
I could be wrong."

Art, Artists, and Artifacts

— Or, How What We Make Isn't Exactly Who We Are

Austin Kleon wrote about this the other day, quoting his friend John T. Unger:

Art is the fossil record of the artist.

I can’t stop turning this idea over in my mind. I think it applies to everything I do and create. I love how this sentence so succintly articulates how incorrect the expectation of complete understanding based on a finished work is. A finished work of anything: a painting, a piece of music, or even a website.

You can look at a modern website and think you understand the designers or developers: where they’re coming from, what they did well and what they did wrong. I know I do this, I think a lot of us in the industry do. But you can’t truly understand. You weren’t a part of it. You don’t know what the people involved were like, what the company cultures were like. You weren’t in the room where it happened, hearing the designers discuss UX options and visual style choices, listening to the developers debate implementation methods, or watching the client shut all the most interesting options down because of some business goal or metric.

That’s why this metaphor works so well: what you see is just a fossil. You don’t actually know what a T. rex looked like, do you? Maybe they looked like they did in Jurassic Park, or maybe they had feathers!. You don’t have the complete picture, even though you might think you do. You have to extrapolate, adding imagined flesh to the bones. All extrapolation is going to be subject to our own imperfect estimates and reckonings. We’ll never be able to get the full, true story from the artifacts.

This is so freeing to me. I don’t have to worry about “putting all of myself” into a piece. I make something and it reflects me in an incomplete way. I’m allowed to be a more complex and nuanced person in actuality.

I’m greater than the sum of my art.