In my Material Culture class the other day we were discussing the importance of the artist’s biography in traditional art history studies, why we should (or shouldn’t) care about that information, and why that doesn’t seem to be the case for creators of the decorative arts.  The whole thing got me thinking about identity in art.  Personally I think the artist’s biography can be important, depending on what it is you want to learn from the piece (I include decorative arts objects as well).  No matter how hard you try, your life has impacted who you are and what you do, so it’s nearly impossible for it not to have some influence on your work.  But how much does knowing this background affect one’s understanding of a piece?  The artist has left a piece of him-or herself on the canvas (or in the sculpture, photo, chair, whatever medium of choice), so it shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s an important part of what makes the piece what it is.  However, it also shouldn’t be fetishized and become the main focus at the expense of all else, which has been the case for some old-school art historians.

On the flip side, I think the biography of the audience can be just as important as that of the artist.  The history of the artist is important in understanding the creation of a piece, but the history of the audience is important in understanding the piece’s initial and continuing relevance.  I think perhaps this is even truer in the decorative arts, where the pieces may not have a distinct subject to study.

Overall I think it really is a two-way street – art can tell us a lot about the people who created and bought it, but the people who created and bought it can also tell us a lot about the art.  Not artist or work of art is created in a vacuum, and it’s important to take all the outside influences into consideration when studying such things.

I’d be interested to hear from any artists reading this their opinion on the idea.  How much do you feel your biography influences or is necessary to the understanding of your work?