A lot of people on Facebook have recently been excited about art critic and historian James Elkins’ analysis, in a recent Huffington Post chronicle (“Exploring Famous Unfinished Paintings in Google Art Project”), of what it means to ‘finish’ an artwork. It’s a well-written and beautifully illustrated piece, but it’s not unproblematic if you think in terms of other creative genres than art.
“How does an artist know when a painting is finished?”, Elkins asks. I’m not sure I really understand what the problem is. When I write an scholarly article, it’s by definition finished when I send the proofs back to the publisher. That doesn’t mean my thinking is finished; the article will most probably be followed by another article, and yet another article, and then maybe a book. Most scholars see their articles/books etc. as finished partial products in a network-chain. But this never-ending, unfinished intellectual process doesn’t change the fact that each individual article is finished when the proofs have been sent off. One way to make Elkins’ analysis meaningful outside the narrow field of art is therefore to ask if there is a deeper difference between article production and artwork production.
I guess this also means one has to weigh in ownershap as a parameter. If the artist is in physical control of his/her art work, well then it is still open for change. But when it is sold, it is, for all practical purposes, finished. A more interesting question is therefore how the market situation affects the closure of the work.
An even more interesting problem is whether a bioart work is ever finished! Oron Catt’s tissue cultures continue to grow and defy his alleged attempt to closure.