Focus, Energy, Concentration, and Presence

Monday, 6. April 2015 0:24 | Author:

The difference between Broadway actors and student actors is often not talent—at least not completely. It is the energy, focus, presence, and ability to exist in the moment for the length of the show and the length of the run. These are things that are difficult to teach and difficult to learn, at least to judge by what we see in the classroom—and on stage. However, I recently saw an outstanding example of these qualities in an actor, and that caused me to rethink.

What happened was that I accepted an invitation to a final dress rehearsal of a children’s musical. The cast was made up of acting instructors, mostly members on Actor’s Equity, one child lead, and an ensemble made up of selected students. Never having seen a children’s show by this particular organization, I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know who was involved, since there were no programs at this rehearsal. I was pleasantly surprised. Production values were excellent; I had seen some of the adult performers work before and was not disappointed in this production. The ensemble consisted of 15-20 kids of varying ages; all had wireless microphones, indicating to me that they were not just background, but were expected to really sing and be heard. And they acquitted themselves well. The identical precision that one sees in a seasoned ensemble was missing, of course, but what replaced it was a youthful energy and individual interpretation of direction and choreography that revealed a great deal about each actor’s mindset and level of development (a blog for another time, perhaps).

What really struck me was a single member of the ensemble. This was a young woman of about 14 (her age was later confirmed). When the ensemble was singing and dancing, she most often occupied a position immediately left of whichever principal was featured in the number. She did not need the propitious positioning to be noticed. It is difficult to remember any performer who exhibited more focus, energy, concentration, and presence than this teenager. I later learned that several other audience members had a similar response.

In every number, she was fully engaged, focused, and performing with an energy that is seldom equaled. And she did it number after number. So rare is this type of performance that I found myself waiting for her next stage appearance and concentrating on her more than the principals. If there was music playing, she was channeling it with her whole body whether she was singing or not. When there was no music, she slipped convincingly into whatever character she was playing at the time.

Some would say that the director should have asked her to tone it down. I have to disagree. Given that she was working with professionals, the director should have asked those professionals to step up their game. This was not a case of “the kid was cute;” this was a case of the kid was superlative.

Why take the time to write about an ensemble member I do not know in a children’s show that has already closed? Because what she did was exactly what we who teach want actors to do: exist in the moment, completely focused on the role, hitting the stage with outstanding presence, and performing with unflagging, almost preternatural energy.

A more important question is why this teenager exhibited these characteristics and other same-aged members of the ensemble with the same teachers did not. My guess is that she not only listened to her teachers, but somehow had the internal mental and emotional mechanisms to put it all together.

That is the part that nobody I know knows exactly how to teach. We all say essentially the same things about concentration, focus, energy, presence, mindfulness and the necessity of these qualities. We provide exercises and methodologies. But only one in 50 (if that many) will put it all together. Those are the ones who get the work. Those are the ones who, when they are on stage, we must watch.

These are difficult qualities to instill in students. One wonders if we just haven’t yet figured out how to teach our students how put it all together, or if it is inborn and we just help develop it. My suspicion is that it is a combination of several factors: the instructor’s ability to clearly explain these difficult concepts coupled with the students’ ability to absorb information and the individual student’s mental, emotional, spiritual makeup, plus all those other factors, unique to each student, that determine the level of the student’s commitment and his/her willingness to implement new ideas.

Whether I have an acting class or not, this subject occupies my thoughts frequently. If you have any related thoughts you would like to share, I would certainly appreciate hearing them.

Category:Education, Theatre | Comments (1)

How Far Should the Interpretive Artist Go?

Sunday, 22. March 2015 23:49 | Author:

In a discussion with a fellow director not long ago, the question of how far we can stretch in terms of interpretation of a playwright’s work came up. Of course, as we both freely admit, interpretive artists (directors, conductors, choreographers, actors, musicians, dancers) can’t not impose their own views on the material. The real question is how much can we impose.

It seems to me that there is a point at which the interpretive artist can impose a view that diverges from the playwright’s view to such an extent that it is no longer the work of the playwright, but rather the artist doing an original work that derived from or based on the script. At that point the artist is no longer an interpreting, but rather is creating an original, albeit derivative, work.

This position, of course, stems from my belief that the person interpreting the material owes a debt to the originator, that the production of a play or a piece of music is merely a (often asynchronous) collaboration with the playwright or composer. If the originator of the piece is not present to express his/her opinion of how the work should be interpreted, then the director or conductor is obligated to try as much as possible to create a true collaboration. Thus the research and reading and studying. Thus the necessity of dramaturgy to perhaps discover what the play or composition is really about and what the playwright intended.

And with collaboration comes the responsibility of the collaborator. In an earlier post, I described that responsibility this way: “each member of the team must be sure that he/she is consistent in terms of his/her contribution to the project and that he/she is moving in exactly the same direction as all the other artists in the project. Anything less is inappropriate, insufficient, and likely to cause the project to be far less than it might have been.” The playwright, like it or not, present or not, is a member of that creative team.

This is not meant to exclude all creative input from the director; there is still plenty of opportunity for that. Sometimes that opportunity is the interpretation or reinterpretation of a piece to make it more relevant to a modern audience. That is certainly legitimate, provided that it does not alter the meaning of the piece. My belief has always been that the goal of the director is to realize the intent of the playwright in so far as he/she is able to determine it, not to supplant that intent with his/her own.

Of course interpretation or reinterpretation is far easier when the playwright is dead; live ones have a tendency to have an opinion—that may, in fact, vary from that of the director. Recently there have been instances of at least one playwright forcing cancellation of his plays because of the director’s interpretation.

In another earlier post, I called playwrights and composers “the most vulnerable of all artists” because they must rely on others “to understand the nature of their art and pass it along to the audience.” This puts them in the position not only of being misunderstood, but of having their work “modified, and perhaps distorted.” I believe it must be up to the interpreter to insure that such distortion does not occur.

And that, to my mind, describes how far an interpretive artist should go: only as far as he/she can without modification or distortion of the originator’s meaning and intent.

Category:Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0)

Want to Work? Consider Arts Other than Fine

Sunday, 8. March 2015 22:56 | Author:

“I want to be a Broadway star,” and “I want my work to be shown at the Tate” are phrases that one hears often from young artists. What those phrases really mean is, “I want to be famous.” That’s a much different thing from “I want to be a great artist.” Being a star in any of the arts requires quite a different set of skills from those required to be a great artist. Sadly, many great artists remain “undiscovered,” precisely due to the lack of those (networking) skills or choosing to work in the wrong branch of the arts.

By “wrong branch” I mean one of the branches that is not considered “fine art” within a contemporary time frame. Those who have studied the history of the arts realize that the division between “fine art” and all the other stuff is fairly modern and completely artificial. This is not to say that everything that is produced within a particular genre has artistic merit; there is some truly atrocious work out there, but there is some very good work as well. This has always been the case; we just have different labels for it.

As mentioned in a post last month, beginning artists in schools, particularly in the visual arts, are cautioned to make their work non-commercial. This is the case with some, but not all, performing arts as well.

As a result of this kind of thinking, we spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to get into this show or that show or this showcase or that showcase or this gallery or that gallery, all so we can take the next step and be accepted in the upper tier: The Armory Show, Art Basel, select off-Broadway theatres, and then be represented by a name gallery and/or agent in New York, London, Miami.

It is my feeling that this approach does a serious disservice to the beginning artist, or any artist for that matter. There are many paths other than “fine” art that will offer satisfying careers, and perhaps, more importantly, an income. Consider poster art, calendar art, book cover art, industrial shows, theme park performance and design, voice acting, advertising art and performance, and commercial arts in general.

And in addition to satisfaction and money, there may be galleries and showcases in those areas that were not available even 20 years ago. For example, there is growing recognition of (and museum/gallery shows and auctions featuring the work of) Maxfield Parrish, Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, Bunny Yeager, Peter Gowland, Norman Rockwell, Peter Max, and Jack Vettriano. There are now exhibits of pulp book cover art and even graphic art. And with the exhibitions and sales come artistic vindication, a measure of fame, and more money.

So in discussing futures with theatre students, the phrases that are most pleasing are “I just want to work,” or “I want to do good work.” Those statements come from only one type of student—the one who is driven, the one who must do the work in order to survive, the one that art has chosen. Those statements comes from a person whose sole interest is in making art, in creating.

And like those students, we may not be able to find our way directly to London’s West End or MoMA, but regardless of the current “fine art” fad, we can create and show good work that says what we want it to say. And that is worth doing.

Category:Uncategorized | Comment (0)

Sixteen Blogs You Should Be Reading and Probably Aren’t

Monday, 23. February 2015 1:25 | Author:

One of the problems of the 21st century is the glut of information. How do you know what to give attention to and then how do you separate the worthwhile stuff from all the rest? My solution is fivefold:

  1. Use a good news reader to aggregate the articles that you might be interested in and keep them in one place. There are a number of newsreaders out there that can be used on your smartphone, tablet, or desktop; most are free, but you might put in a little time researching since different readers have different features, and you want to be certain you get the one that fits you.
  2. Use your reader software to subscribe to worthwhile websites and sit back and wait for the information you want to arrive.
  3. Scan the headlines and articles of interest. Read only those that really make you pause.
  4. Scan regularly; otherwise you will be buried in information.
  5. Prune from time to time. Sites appear, move, change, and disappear, so updating your list in a timely fashion will ensure that you are getting the information you want.

To help you on your way, I have listed here (alphabetically) my favorite arts sites with a tiny explanation of why I think they are worth considering.

  • Art Attack” is a collection of Houston Press art and culture blogs and stories. These range from local to international and include some regular “columns” that are worthwhile.
  • Art Biz Blog” is a blog where Alyson Stanfield deals with topics related to the business side of art: everything from practical “how-to” articles to thought-provoking articles related to the business of art.
  • Artist Marketing Resources” is Maria Kazalia’s blog which features articles designed to address all aspects of the art-marketing problem. She presents lots of sound advice and useful resources.
  • Arts and Letters Daily” Daily in-depth articles about subjects related to arts and letters. It gives you a teaser so you can decide if you really want to read the article.
  • Arts on Huffington Post or “Huffpost Arts & Culture” is a compendium of arts news from around the world. This is one that you have to pay attention to for a couple of reasons: first, almost anything that is anything in the contemporary arts world is reported here. Second, if you don’t watch it, your news reader will collect hundreds of posts from this feed; the number of daily postings is astounding.
  • Arts Journal: Daily Arts News” is another aggregate site, but instead of whole articles there are summaries and links which makes your scanning and evaluating even faster. This site will often have the stuff that Huffpost doesn’t.
  • The Art Newspaper” is a collection of up-to-date international art news.
  • Austin Kleon” is a blog named for its author, Austin-based poet, writer, and artist. Kleon always has something worth reading, whether it’s his latest blackout poem or observations and advice on creativity.
  • Beautiful Minds” is Scientific American’s blog on the mind by Scott Barry Kaufman. Well-researched and documented, these are complete in-depth articles.
  • Brain Pickings is Maria Popova’s outstanding site that provides articles on art, thought, and creativity. Popova documents heavily and scatters pithy quotes throughout. Her site should be required reading for all thinking artists.
  • The Creative Mind” presents Douglas Eby’s writings on creativity and the plethora of issues and conditions associated with creativity.
  • Glasstire Texas Visual Art News” offersTexas arts news.
  • Juxtapose Magazine” is an in-your-face collection of articles and features about contemporary art, or art that is making contemporary news. Some of the work covered is a bit edgy.
  • The 99 Percent” presents articles and interviews by a variety of writers. The common thread is that all the articles are about ideas and creativity. Some interesting stuff can be found here.
  • Self vs. Self” is Hazel Dooney’s blog. Subtitled “Outside the White Space,” the blog contains the passionate and insightful writing of this successful Australian artist. Dooney has not posted since 2013 for a number of reasons (search online if you really want to know), but this archive contains eight years of worthwhile reading about the role of the individual artist and his/her relation to the gallery system as well as other thoughts on art-related topics.
  • Seth’s Blog” is Seth Godin’s daily musings and advice. The proponent of tribe theory has daily suggestions for marketing and shipping the work as well as keeping the business side of things running effectively and efficiently. He always provides food for thought, usually in very small doses.

This list is far from exhaustive, and it’s only a starting point. It contains the arts sites I already scan on a regular basis, but I would really be interested to hear your nominations too.

Remember, you can never have too much information—if it’s the right information, and if you can manage it.

 

Category:Creativity, Education | Comment (0)

Where is the Line?

Monday, 9. February 2015 1:10 | Author:

Some artists have been told in school that their work is “too commercial.” Some have been told their work is “not sufficiently polished,” which is another way of saying that it is “not commercial enough.” Ultimately, most artists do what they want to do and try to express their inner vision. But somewhere down the road, they decide that selling to an audience wider than friends and family seems desirable, and unless they have already established a practice that produces salable artifacts, they may be faced with the decision on which direction to take their work. Advice is always forthcoming—often from many directions and with zero consistency.

The questions confronting an artist in that situation are always which direction, if any, to go and how far. And exactly where is that line that indicates that he/she has gone too far?

These are questions that producers of both film and the theatre know well, as do other theatre and film artists. Playwrights, actors, and directors all want to do edgy work. If the work is too bland, it won’t be appealing to the artists. On the other hand, general audiences want material with which they are comfortable, and that usually means less edge. If the audience gets too much edge, they close their pocketbooks.

One might think that the solution is to find a niche audience, and that does help for some artists, but regardless of the size or specificity of the interests of the audience, these questions must still be answered.

These questions are just the beginning; others follow: how much, if any, am I willing to change what I’m doing? Will the potential change still allow me to say what I need to say? Will it allow me to better say what I have to say? Will a change really benefit me as an artist? Am I selling out?

Of course “selling out” is not really selling out. What it really means is “trying to reach a wider audience.” This sometimes means the artist modifies what he/she does in order to do that. This happens often with bands. The band signs with a label and suddenly are faced with the prospect of a larger audience. They play larger venues. They record in a different studio with a different producer. They may develop different concerns. Somehow their work is no longer “pure” in the eyes of their old audience. The band probably thinks it is just trying to reach more people with its music.

And the ultimate question, of course, is “where is the line?” and that is a question with many dimensions: where is the line that separates “real” art and “commercial” art? Where is the line between “real” art and self-indulgence? Where is the line between staying true to oneself and “selling out?” Where is the line between “just enough” and “too much?”

Like film and theatre producers, the individual artist who is interested in selling art must try to determine where that line is, or if the line even exists. And then, of course, comes the question of whether that artist wants to approach the line or just stay where he/she is. Maybe that depends on why the artist is making art in the first place and how widely he/she wants that art distributed.

Only the individual artist can answer. Where are your lines?

Category:Audience, Presentation | Comments (1)

Beauty: A Working Definition

Sunday, 25. January 2015 23:09 | Author:

Last month I posted an article entitled “An Absence of Beauty.” In a comment a friend and colleague asked what my working definition of beauty was. An excellent question. Like many people in the arts, I use many abstract terms and am confident of their meaning without ever bothering to define them in words. Now I was being forced to do that—a good thing.

In his comment, my friend suggested, perhaps facetiously, that Keats was right, that perhaps beauty was simply truth. While one might expect that a Romantic poet would know the nature of beauty, Keats’ “definition” seems to leave much unsaid—and yet the more I thought about it the more it seems that he certainly had the core of it.

For those who don’t remember, in the last two lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats’ idea is at least as old as Plato, and perhaps older than that. Plato did not use exactly the same terminology, but the idea is the same. Age, of course, does not make the idea valid. But there does seem to be something to it.

Unsatisfied by Keats, I asked around to see how others in the arts defined beauty. A number of people stammered, searching for words, so I gave them time to think. Those who had ready answers needed at least a few minutes to put their definitions into words (I found this somewhat comforting). Once collected, the definitions represented a wide spectrum of thought, ranging from very simple to complex, qualified answers. One thing they all had in common was none even mentioned the word pretty.

Some said that a work is “beautiful” when everything works exactly right, for example, everything in a stage production goes perfectly (certainly a rare thing). This is the beauty of a fine watch, and while it does relate to aesthetics, it omits reference to meaning. Others say beauty means “aesthetically pleasing.” Still others say a work of art is beautiful when “it touches my heart, my soul.” And some combine those two ideas: “it is beautiful to the eye and moves my inner being.”

None of these seemed to provide the wording that I needed to express my non-verbal notion of beauty. Some seemed to miss the mark entirely; others were not sufficiently definitive. For example, some works of art can touch the viewer, but they don’t seem to rise to the level of “beautiful.” And stripping it down to the simplest terms (Keats’) doesn’t seem sufficient either. This example would be some war photographs which present the truth of the moment, at least from the photographer’s perspective. But this truth again may not qualify as “beautiful.”

The wording finally came from Steven King. Although he was talking about something else, the words were exactly what I was looking for. In Wolves of the Calla, Jake Chambers notes “pure joy” on the faces of those in his group, the result of “the ecstasy of perfect recognition.”

And there it was. I expanded King’s phrase to the short version of my definition: “the ecstasy of the perfect recognition of a fundamental truth.” And often that truth is more felt than rational. Sometimes it comes in flashes, a truth about humankind that appears in the midst of a novel. King’s own work is a good example of this. Or it might appear as an exquisite metaphor in a violent novel by James Lee Burke. Or it might be a complete work, an entire poem or painting or photograph or novel that manages to convey truth in a way that connects to the heart, mind, and soul of the audience member. And because it generates this reaction, the audience member wants to return to the piece again and again.

My definition may not work for you, but give it a try and let me know what you think. Here is the full version: a piece of art can be considered “beautiful” when it presents truth in a way that is fresh and carries with it a momentary perfection, the result being the ecstasy of perfect recognition of that truth.

Category:Aesthetics | Comments (2)

Write it Down!

Sunday, 11. January 2015 23:51 | Author:

If you adopt only one resolution for the New Year, make it this one: write it down.

Here’s the backstory: a number of years ago, I did a lenticular that was accessioned into the permanent collection of the Kinsey Institute. Since creating lenticulars is a painstaking, complicated process, I printed only one, which I labeled as #1/5. Recently, I decided that it would be nice to have the other four, or at least one more. Since I no longer have the original printer, the interlaced image file was useless to me; files would have to be recalibrated for the current printer. Moreover, when I looked at the multilayered base image in Photoshop, I realized that I had no clear idea of how I had put the integrated image together. The upshot was that I had to reconstruct the entire process to create the additional prints. And this had to be done without reference to the original piece.

This taught me that when one has developed a process or a plan or a multi-stepped technique, writing it down would be a really good idea. Reinventing the wheel is a silly way to spend our time when there are so many new and interesting things to be done. This message was driven home when I realized that I have a number of images that if required to do again, I would have to reconstruct the steps I took to arrive at the end product. I can, as with the lenticular, look at the layers in the original file and infer what was done to arrive at the final image, but the details of the process, the order of the steps involved is completely lost—unless some memory is triggered when I look into the file. If I want to use that process again, I have to reinvent it.

Some might say that my lack of memory is simply a function of my age. It’s true that I’m not the youngest person on the planet, but a recent discussion with a much younger artist confirmed that making records of a process is worthwhile for people of any age. He told me that because he does so many different things, he has, when creating a process to do anything, developed the habit of stopping and writing down the steps to that process, whether it involves the steps for a new artistic technique (He works in many different subcategories of different media.) or installing a complicated piece of software for someone else. He writes down the process and stores it—because he doesn’t want to have to reinvent that process the next time he has to reinstall that same software after a system crash or use that particularly involved art technique a second or third time at some future date.

Reviewing my current procedures, I realized that I had been moving toward this idea all along, but had not really formalized it the way he has. Rather, I had simply made notes, usually in a notebook, as I went along. So I had already unconsciously begun this procedure; I had just not taken the next step.

That next step I also learned from my younger colleague; this is to store all these lists and procedures in one place. That way there is no question of where to look. The few lists and procedures that I had compiled were scattered everywhere: various folders on various computer, in notebooks, on sticky-notes. I have now begun to consolidate these and record them electronically. Then they go into subject-specific subfolders of a single folder called “Procedures.” If I can make myself write down the procedures as I develop them, I will have them always and will not have to reinvent or recover or rediscover the next time a similar problem comes along.

So far it seems to be working, so I have to suggest that you might consider adopting this system as well. Life is too short to keep reinventing. Write it down!

Category:Creativity | Comment (0)

An Absence of Beauty

Monday, 29. December 2014 0:47 | Author:

A friend of mine, an artist, mentioned to me that he had looked up the most beautiful video games and had found several that appealed to his aesthetic. The comment surprised me in three ways: the first was that one could actually look up “most beautiful video games” and get responses. I tried it and found not only that there were a plethora of results, but that rewording the search just slightly resulted in a different list with only a few overlaps.

The second thing that surprised me was that there were not just one, but several people out there compiling lists of the most beautiful video games. Best single-shooter, best action, best story line, most violent, sexiest characters—yes, but a “most beautiful” list took me completely off-guard.

The third surprise was contained in something else my friend said; he said that there was a subculture of game designers, players, and critics who thought that the beauty of the game was more important than game functionality. I had always thought that the whole point of a game was its functionality for the player. Some neat graphics wouldn’t hurt, but that was hardly the point. Obviously, I was wrong.

So I started poking around and discovered that indeed aesthetics were very important to several game design teams. There are online discussions of aesthetics in game design. Some writers as well as academics are beginning to wonder whether video games might be art (here and here, for example).

Now admittedly, it is not completely clear that those compiling the lists were using the same criteria for “beautiful” games. Indeed, almost none of these list compilers disclosed the criteria they were using to make these judgments. Upon examining the lists, however, it became apparent that visual appearance played a big role in arriving at these lists. And “visual appearance” does not simply mean that the visuals of the game were pretty (some were and some were not), but that they followed principles of composition and design and that their physical beauty was integral to gameplay. Not only does such integration occur, it can occur on a very sophisticated level.

What is the point of all of this, you may ask. There are several points: one is that aesthetics are important to all sorts of creators, not just the ones who call themselves artists. A second is that a large part of the aesthetic being used to judge video games is made up of two major components: the presence of visual beauty (determined by classical standards of beauty) and the integration of form and content.

A third point, and perhaps the major one, is that while video game designers are very concerned with aesthetics and beauty in the artifacts they produce, the same does not seem to be true of “serious” artists. This last point is based on observation of the pieces I see hanging on walls, sometimes in juried shows, sometimes in galleries. Some pieces try to say something, to present a truth, but very few attempt at the same time to be beautiful—pretty perhaps, but not beautiful.

Much art has become editorial and/or political, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that—so long as quality is maintained. A component of quality is beauty, and sadly, much of what I see being produced lacks that. This is a situation that needs to be corrected. We, as artists, need to think about beauty, I believe, and recognize that part of our job is to bring it to our audience.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity | Comments (4)

The Self-Taught Artist

Monday, 15. December 2014 0:05 | Author:

Recently I was considering the term “self-taught artist.” Several things about the use of the term arouse my curiosity: why would anyone other than an academic care who taught an artist? Many academics have a thing about where people went to school, but it seems to me hardly anyone else cares—if the art is any good, that is. And the truth is every teacher and mentor has students who succeed and those who do not, so while knowing the teacher might tell us something, it certainly cannot predict the quality of the art a particular person produces.

Another question I have is whether the term is pejorative or complimentary. Is it better to have gone to art school or is it better to have learned on one’s own? Or does it matter? More importantly, why would an artist want to label him/herself anyway?

Evidently some see the label “self-taught” as a matter of pride. Not long ago a former student, now a scenic painter said, “Everything I know, I taught myself.” It was said proudly rather than complaining. It should have been a complaint; this person has attended two different schools and is currently trying to get into a third, curious behavior for someone who is learning only from himself.

And the statement is untrue. And while there is little doubt that much of what this person can do is the result of experimentation, that experimentation is based on a foundation acquired in educational theatre shops. There he learned the basics of color mixing and the fundamentals of basic painting techniques; along the way, he learned more about the materials and how they work.

In that sense, most of us are “self-taught.” We take what we learn from mentors and teachers and make it our own, modifying, adapting, and experimenting once we have the fundamentals in hand. This is, I’m sure, part of why no two artists who train with the same people in the same place develop the same way. There is influence, to be certain, but our skills develop according to our native talent, how much time and effort we are willing to put in, and our personal aesthetics and artistic vision.

The term “self-taught” applies more accurately to those artists who, for whatever reason, have not trained in a formal school situation. It is a short cut for saying “I did not attend a school to learn what I know.” But, my bet would be that most of them have had instruction of some kind. They may have attended workshops and seminars; they may have read extensively; they may have studied the work of others; they may have done some sort of informal apprenticeship or have been in a casual mentored situation. But it is highly likely that some sort of information and perhaps guidance came from outside themselves.

The difference then between a self-taught artist and any other is simply the formality of the situation in which the artist trained. The term (or indication of an arts degree) says nothing about the nature of the art the person is likely to produce, nor does it say anything about the artist’s skill level or sophistication in handling tools, materials, or ideas.

Regardless of how we obtained our basic skills and artistic approach, it is more than likely that we took that as a starting point and went on to improve those skills and build on what we already knew. Artists are not simply the products of their training; they are visionaries who develop over time and whose work usually gets better the more they mature and the further they move from that source of initial education.

Wonder why we even have the label?

 

Category:Aesthetics, Originality | Comments (4)

The Art of Transition

Monday, 1. December 2014 0:32 | Author:

As I was listening near the end of an older Stephen King novel (Yes, I am addicted to audio books), I realized that King is, among other things, a master of the transition. He knows when and where to put them and, more importantly, how to make them work so that the reader is moved from one place/time/idea to another seamlessly and unnoticeably. As I think about it, it is one of the things that makes King so very readable (or in my case, listenable).

Whether he/she works in fiction, non-fiction, essay, or poetry, every writer is (hopefully) aware of the transition and the attendant difficulties. The good writer does exactly what King does, move the reader smoothly and effortlessly from one place/time/idea to another. And if those transitions can be made invisible, or at least transparent, so much the better. Anyone who writes seriously knows how difficult that is.

Mulling over King’s ability, it occurred to me that all artists have to deal with transitions. Certainly composers do; they must move the listener from one section of their music to another. Likewise the instrumentalists and vocalists who interpret that music must make those transitions as well. Similarly, all theatre artists (playwrights, directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers) must do the same thing in moving from one scene to another, one stage picture to another, one look to another. And certainly filmmakers (directors, editors) must master transition: not only must the dramatic units transition, but the camera shots must transition as well, and on a much more frequent basis

All this talk of transitions make sense in arts that take place, at least from an audience perspective, in a time sequence, but what of other arts? At first I thought that transition was a function of story or argument, then I realized that it exists in non-narrative art as well.

My own photographic work is an example: most of my recent work is gridded abstract collage. Even though these pieces fall into the category of meditation rather than story images, there must be transition between the pieces in the grid or the overall piece will absolutely fail. Likewise there must be transition between the parts of any visual or plastic composition. While each part may be interesting in itself, those parts must relate to each other and to the composition as a whole to tell the story or complete the meditation. Thus the transitions can make or break any piece art.

Given their importance, a reasonable expectation would be that transitioning would be taught in arts schools of all varieties. My experiences is that it isn’t. And when I read about art technique, I seldom find it mentioned. The single exception is film editing/directing, where it is not only taught, but the methods have names. It is as if once those of us who are not film editors or directors get out of those freshman composition classes, it is presumed that we know all that we need to know about transitions.

And that is not the case. Sometimes we find the piece that we are working on isn’t coming together the way that we want it to, and are not sure where to look to correct the situation. We would do well to look at the transitions, particularly if the work seems inappropriately fragmented or lacking in cohesiveness. In more cases than you’d think, that’s where the problems are, and so that’s the place to start repairs. Perhaps we should even take a little time out to study and learn how to transition better. After all, anything that results in better work is time well spent.

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