Artist & Writer, San Francisco Bay Area

Paradox of the Holon

Artists and Object-Making in the Art Market

Notes for Subject A, Semester One #StudioMFA. from Leonardo’s Brain by Leonard Shlain

I hadn’t heard the term before I read Leonardo’s Brain; the holon concept is sourced from the 1964 book The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler. “The holon is a self-contained entity, yet simultaneously it is a component of something else that makes up a greater whole… In considering any aspect of reality, we shift our focus back and forth between the individual component and the greater gestalt. It is the figure/ground distinction every artist confronts.” I don’t know that it’s something every artist confronts (surely there’s a way to bypass it?), but it’s something I consider in my work visually as well as conceptually. In my current artist statement, I say I’m interested in relational themes. I like looking at the qualities that make one part unique, then zooming out to see connections and context. I don’t look at it as a tricky paradox; I’m comfortable with this perhaps contradictory way of looking at things. It seems like everything in life, from micro to macro, is made this way.

I work with this idea in individual artworks (visual elements that I arrange) as well as when I place each artwork in a series. I consider how each series fits in the oeuvre of my work. I’m trying to place my art life in the context of my whole life. I already place my life in the context of my family and my family in my community; I see we are part of our national community, then the whole world of human communities, then earth itself and the heavens.

These expanding circles of concern and consideration burden me but I can’t let it go. I feel so responsible. My understanding of my part in the human community makes me feel I should be taking action to make it better. Working at making art feels like an infinitesimal action. Can it be that the little things I make serve a purpose somehow? Is it possible to let myself be taken with this making of artworks? It feels sort of small. I’m just so aware of the bigness around me that the things I make feel insignificant in comparison.

Last night as I fell asleep, I found an alternate way to think about it. What if, instead of comparing my small art actions with the big world around me, I instead compare them with the millions of small actions that make up the big world? (I’m afraid I’m getting a little too sentimental here to be taken seriously, but oh well.) There are so many little things that matter a whole lot.  Hugging my little boy. Sharing a meal with a friend. Tasting a perfect plum. And there’s so much more. They are the components that make up the greater whole.

When I think of my artwork like this, I feel a lot more at ease. I don’t like thinking about making some grand thing that I will have to prop up to market and sell, advocating for its importance, wishing people noticed it. I feel really tired by that perspective. It’s not that I was getting carried away with thinking like that, but it’s that I’ve been stuck when I haven’t been able to put my art making into a context that makes sense to me. So: The Holon. My artwork is important in its smallness. It is one of many. And that is good.

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