Post from October, 2010

Direction, Aesthetics, and Post-Processing

Sunday, 31. October 2010 21:49

For the last week, I have been lost in a sea of post-processing choices, and it has been a very educational experience. Let me explain. I am working on a series of images with which I am not yet completely satisfied. So I decided to play around with post-processing choices.  If you have ever used Photoshop®, you are probably aware that there are more than a few such choices. There are adjustments, actions, filters, layers, blending modes, variable opacities, variable fills, masks, not to mention plug-ins. And the list goes on and on.  Some choices are rejected from the outset as being too-this or too-that, but then there are all those others… There are so many choices that it can be impossible to decide what to do. The combinations are literally limitless.

The problem is that we, as artists, sometimes don’t know exactly where we are going—at least in a way that can be articulated. I know that it’s blasphemy to admit this publically, but it’s true. Sometimes the embryo of an idea is there, but it has not germinated, much less blossomed in our imaginations. Then the only thing for it is to experiment. And with so many choices, that can be like entering a gargantuan labyrinth from which there is no exit.

So I have, from my week’s experience discovered a couple of things.  First and obviously, it is best to know where you are going before you start, or you may never finish, at least with post-processing.  This does not mean that you should close yourself off from any serendipitous accident that might occur, and it certainly does not mean that you cannot try out ideas and methods to discover if something better or more interesting exists. Certainly discovery is always a possibility and is one of the most delightful features of the artistic endeavor. It does mean, however, that you should have some idea of the destination before you wander off into the maze of multiple possibilities, never to surface again. With no notion of your desired destination, you have no guide for deciding which discovery is the one that will complete the piece.

The second discovery is that post-processing experimentation is an excellent way to tune your personal aesthetic, particularly for those of us who have never bothered to verbalize our aesthetic, or at least to verbalize the details of it.  As you experiment, you begin to learn about yourself. For example, I began to learn what I consider acceptable for a photograph of mine and what I do not. I discovered that some of the nuances of my aesthetic I have never articulated, at least consciously, so this particular exercise, aside from being frustrating, was very self-informative. I now know that there are things that are just not acceptable for photographs that I make—if I am going to continue to call them photographs and claim author status.

Then I began to wonder how many of us, artists, aficionados, and critics, are wandering around the universe with detuned aesthetics. How many of us lack a fully articulated concept of what, for us, constitutes a good photograph, painting, illustration, sculpture, play, opera, ballet, composition, novel, poem?  Oh, we say that we recognize quality when we see it, but then we can’t say exactly how we do that or what constitutes “good.”  Maybe we, like Persig’s Phaedrus, need to take some time to meditate on the components of quality, or do some experimentation—perhaps with post-processing.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

Thoughts on Artists’ Assistants

Sunday, 24. October 2010 22:00

This past week Hazel Dooney was trying to hire an assistant and someone evidently questioned her about it, as evidenced by two defensive tweets.  It caused me to rethink some questions that I had had previously about artists’ assistants and their functions, and when that becomes a problem for artistic integrity and when doesn’t.

In defending her position, Dooney maintained that Hirst didn’t paint his own dots and that “Warhol signed many works he never touched.”  My feeling is that is one of the reasons that some critics hold those particular artists in contempt. The list goes on: Maurizio Cattelan doesn’t build his own art; the same can be said for some of the work of Lichtenstein and Robert Longo.  In some of these cases, we are talking about artists whose place in the art world is questionable, or controversial at the very least.  However, there are some more respected artists who have contracted out some of their work. Donald Judd comes to mind, but he too was challenged by Mark di Suvero‘s assertion  that “real artists make their own work.” While many will challenge Hirst and Cattelan and even Warhol, few will challenge the artistic mind of Judd.

What makes the difference?  I don’t think that it is the fact of assistants. Many artists use assistants. Some cannot do their work without them. I’m thinking now of theatre, where, in addition to the director, there are actors, scene designers, costumers, light designers, sound designers, stage managers, and a myriad of crew people. The same may be said of dance, or practically any performing or collaborative art.  But what of those artists in fields that are traditionally individualistic: painters, photographers, writers? Often those artists have assistants too; photographers have assistants who help with the lights or other aspects of shooting and post processing. I have personally worked both with and as a photographic assistant. Painters and ceramicists have studio help; writers have editors.

The history of artists’ assistants is well established. They used to be called apprentices or artisans.  In a recent exhibition of Fabergé pieces in Houston, I noted that the actual designers and makers of the pieces were fully credited, even though the pieces were originally sold under the single name Fabergé.  No longer.  Assistants may still think of themselves as apprentices, but often they are simply nameless employees whose job it is to help the artist, or in some cases, do the work for the artist, before the signature is affixed.  Damien Hirst defends this factory approach; he “sees the real creative act as being the conception, not the execution, and that, as the progenitor of the idea, he is therefore the artist: ‘Art goes on in your head,’ he says.”

I cannot agree. Art may go on in your head, but it also goes on in the act of creation. I think the bigger question is:  when is the use of assistance an abuse of artistic integrity and when is it legitimate.  Not an easy question.  In collaborative work, this question does not come up, as in the cases of editors, lighting assistants, second unit directors, assistant choreographers.  Sometimes, however, the practice is questionable. The artist who only has the idea and does nothing toward the creation of the work is, at best, a designer, not an artist.

Legitimacy seems directly proportional to the amount of control the artist exerts over the process and inversely proportional to the commoditization of the art work.  If the work is designed primarily to sell, then it becomes a commercial process, regardless of how many and what level of collectors are interested. Assistants often become factory workers producing manufactured products.  If, however, the aid of assistants is a function of getting the job done in order to satisfy artistic ends, with the artist being directive to the point of controlling the outcome and participating in creation to the extents of his/her ability, then the work can be said to be legitimately that of the artist and the participation of assistants part of the artistic process.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

The Discomfort of Creativity

Sunday, 17. October 2010 21:19

The other day, a woman was telling me how much she enjoyed the show that I had just directed. In the course of the conversation she said, “It looked like it was fun. Was it fun?” Of course, I lied and told her that it was a great deal of fun.  I was pretty sure that she was not ready to hear the truth, that it was one of the most painful directing experiences I had had in a long time.  While there is a general interest in the psychoses of famous artists and their lives, I think that most viewers don’t want to know about the inner doubt or pain an artist may have had in creating this or that piece. They are not much interested in hearing that the delightful comedy they are enjoying was wrought with great worry and difficulty.

That inner doubt comes with every project. I don’t recall ever doing a project and not having, at some point, a really terrible feeling that the venture was likely to be a complete disaster, that it may have been a mistake to begin it at all.  But you keep working, and the feeling passes, and the project is completed, and you move on to the next one and repeat the process.  The only difference is the point at which those feelings attack you; it’s never twice in the same place.

For a long time I thought that these kinds of feelings with regard to creative projects belonged only to me and were a reflection of my natural insecurity.  They may be, but I have slowly discovered that almost everybody who is involved in any kind of serious creative endeavor has a problem that, if not identical, is certainly similar. Just last night I ran across a tweet by the quite successful Australian artist Hazel Dooney in which she says that “anything worthwhile requires discomfort and uncertainty.” It seems to be universal.

This brings up two questions: why does this happen? And why do we continue to do the sort of work that brings repeated levels of discomfort and uncertainty? The answer to both questions is the same: because it matters.

It happens because we think that what we do matters, if to no one else, to ourselves, and because it matters we want it to be the best it can be. Even though there may be precedents and guideposts, this is creative work and each project is a unique one-of-a-kind instance. That being the case, there is always doubt about the outcome. If, added to that doubt, there are unforeseen difficulties, it only exacerbates the situation. Given these potential problems, it is remarkable that anything ever gets made at all. But we push ahead in spite of the anxiety to create an object or an event as close to our vision as possible. Sometimes we succeed.

Why do we continue to do this sort of work, knowing that each project will bring disquiet and angst? There are hundreds of answers to this question, but they all boil down to the same thing: doing the work is important—definitely to us, and maybe to others. The work matters. We get to create. Some of us have no choice; we have to create.  And in creating, we get to entertain (in all the meanings of that word); we get to provoke thought and/or feeling; we get to comment on events, movements, fortunes, misfortunes, actions, inactions; we get to set forth our viewpoints; we get to evoke responses from people we may never meet. And that’s worth the pain and frustration; that’s worth doing.

Category:Creativity | Comments (1) | Author:

Artist Statements, Program Notes, and Curtain Speeches

Sunday, 10. October 2010 22:05

Not long ago, Bill Davenport posting on Glass Tire called the artist statement the “scourge of the contemporary art world” and encouraged other artists to not do them.  He also pointed to another posting by Daniel Grant on The Huffington Post which indicates that almost no one has any use for them.  Count me among them.

It’s true that some art can be complex and difficult to understand, but explaining in words what you were trying to do seems a really weak substitute for creating art that speaks for itself.  Not only are there innumerable ways that an artist statement can reflect poorly on the artist or artwork, but artists themselves, at least all the ones I know, hate them, and hate that many shows and galleries seem to demand them.  Artists would much rather let the work be judged on its own merits and not colored with verbal explanations or philosophy. My feeling is that if my own work really requires explanation, I have the wrong audience or I have done it badly.

Program notes serve much the same function and are just as bad.  They usually give the director’s take on the play or composition, or other performance piece. But I wonder at any art that by its very nature seeks public exhibition and yet requires explication.  If you can’t see it in the performance, what does it matter what the director thought about what he/she was trying to do or what he/she thinks this particular piece “means” or why he/she wanted to do the piece in the first place. The only legitimate function of program notes is to help pass the time while waiting for the show to begin.

Dramaturgical notes are marginally better. They, at least, provide some historical, sociological, or psychological background, usually based on real research.  Occasionally they are interesting. But again, if the piece needs explaining, why bother to show it to a public that you think will not understand it?

Curtain speeches are perhaps my least favorite type of extraneous verbiage in the art world.  They come in a large variety: some are simple begging speeches attempting to get you, the viewer, to give money or some other type of support, some attempt to flatter the audience, some are gratuitous discussions of the cast and/or producing organization or staff, some are program notes delivered orally.  In any case, they, like the other forms of art explanation, come between the viewer and the art. Just when you are getting ready to settle back and enjoy the performance, you have a director, or producer, or fund-raiser on stage in a follow-spot telling you why you should give, or subscribe, or underwrite, or understand, or some other-such thing in order to really show your appreciation for tonight’s performance. By the end of it, you are so put off that you have to do a full mental reset to put yourself back in performance-watching mode. Let the audience enjoy the show they came to see!

If it has to be explained, write an essay instead.  If you are making art, then make it, unapologetically and un-explicated.  If the world doesn’t get it, it doesn’t get it, no matter how many words you make up to go with it.

Art should be able to stand on its own. If it cannot, maybe it’s not good art.

Category:Audience, Creativity | Comments (2) | Author:

Into the Realm of Books

Sunday, 3. October 2010 22:17

Jason Wilson wants to push the arguments in The Real Thing and More on Art Reproduction into the realm of books, and raises the question of preserving the author’s intent in electronic reproductions, citing as an example Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. I had not meant to exclude any art, but his point is well-taken.  In forwarding his argument, Jason quotes Cliff Gerrish’s Echovar, which suggests that the reading experience is, for Gerrish at least, about more than the words on the page; he is concerned about line breaks and the placement of words. Gerrish’s concern is well-founded; written art seems to lend itself to alteration by electronic reformatting, and there are books that would be completely ruined by reformatting

If the line breaks were all that mattered, then 10hotdogs8buns’s suggestion that an electronic reader capable of displaying a constantly-formatted page, such as could be rendered in a .pdf file would answer the issue. When I read Gerrish’s comments, I have the feeling that he is talking about more than just the arrangement of words on the page or the line breaks; he is talking about the experience of a conversation with the work. And just as in conversation with old friends, there is more to the experience than just the words. There is the camaraderie, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the sense of familiarity, the overtones and undertones, the environment that contribute to the communication that “conspire” with the speaker, or reader.  This sensory environment is very eloquently described by Charles Anthony Stewart quoted in Menachem Wecker’s Sept 23 Iconia:

The three senses were overwhelmed….the large books, as big as a desks [sic], covered in their ancient leather bindings; pages filled with ancient notes, smudged finger prints, and candle wax–and the smell resembling soot and offal; the texture of the parchments, rough with the pores, some still with attached hair. But in the midst of these earthy materials, were golden images and vibrant colors, as bright and brilliant as the day they were made! Somehow, I was transported back in time.

Obviously, there is much more going on here than just experiencing a book. The environment makes up an important part of the experience. The primary significance, however, is, in Gerrish’s words, a conversation between the viewer/reader and the work.  Once we reduce the experience to the interaction of those two elements, we are getting to the essence of the art experience.

If what the viewer/reader is interested in is gathering information, then advanced technology may be the way to go, provided that the presentation is at least adequate; it’s inexpensive and convenient. But those who are seeking the experience that the author/artist intended, who are seeking a real interaction with the work, will, if possible, want to experience the work in the format and medium that the author/artist initially chose. That viewer/reader will want to experience the page layout, the typography, the brush-stroke, the shifts in tonal values, the texture, the structure, the movement. That viewer/reader will want to experience the real thing.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism | Comments (1) | Author: