Post from January, 2011

Truth in Art: a Necessity

Sunday, 30. January 2011 23:54

Recently I advised a group of actors that they needed to be honest in their characterizations and portrayals, which was essentially asking them to be truthful. That, on the surface of it, seems a rather strange request to make of actors, whose business it is to portray persons other than themselves. Yet we all have seen performances that were not truthful, that were not honest, that were not very good.

It had never occurred to me to generalize this idea to other arts until I ran across this quote by Stephen King in the Afterword to Full Dark, No Stars: “But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth—as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion—all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt.”

Not long after that, I was reading a short article about novelist, Julian Barnes. “He said about literature: ‘It’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts.’ And he said that a great book ‘is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths — about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both.’”

So I thought about it. It seemed to me that, of course, the artist had to be truthful, had to be honest or otherwise produce art that was somehow fraudulent. Interesting theory, but was it valid? In the verbal arts, that was far more easily seen than in visual arts or arts that are considered more abstract, further removed from words. Did that exempt those arts from this requirement of truth? My instinct was that it did not. I found that others agreed.

In Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie, The Black Swan, choreographer Thomas Leroy comments to dancer Nina Sayers as they watch alternate Lily’s dancing, “Watch the way she moves—sensual—she’s not faking it.” The movie comes to be about, among other things, Nina’s search for that truth in herself that will enable her to dance the role of Odile without faking it. In ballet, at least Aronofsky’s version of ballet, truth is evidently important.

And then I found a CBS News article that quotes renowned street photographer Joel Meyerowitz talking about Vivian Maier: “She’s ruthlessly honest about what she sees. And I think she should be taken seriously.”

In his essay, “Art, Mere Things, and Truth Requirements” Michael Brady takes a more general approach as he discusses the necessity for truth in visual arts. While I have problems with some of Brady’s conclusions, he makes the point that visual art does indeed have a truth component, does, in fact, requires a truth component. With this I agree.

Not just writers of fiction and ballet dancers and street photographers, but all artists worthy of the name, must tell the truth as they see it. Whether it is some variant of verbal art, performance art, three-dimensional art, or visual art, it should be imbued with the artist’s truth. Although some approaches to art may make this honesty difficult to see, it still needs to be there. Part of what makes art worth our time is the artist’s truth that it displays and the connection that we, the audience, have with that truth. It’s a necessity.

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

Fine Art Photography: the Search for a Definition

Sunday, 23. January 2011 23:57

In talking about Vivian Maier last week, I quoted Kevin Moloney as saying “I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity.” There is no question that Kevin Moloney thinks that Maier is an artist. That would, of course, make her work fine art photography. That is where I got to in my thinking before I decided that I needed to have a working definition of fine art photography. Like any 21st century person, I turned to Wikipedia. The answer is “photographs that are created in accordance with the creative vision of the photographer as artist.”

That definition was unsatisfying. It seemed too broad. It seemed to encompass things that I would not necessarily have considered fine art, so I looked further. Everywhere I looked I found the same definition, or one so similar that they were indistinguishable. Some web sites noted that defining fine art photography was confusing or difficult. That seemed to be true, but not at all helpful. Some said that the subjects of fine art photography were supposed to be beautiful. This I rejected almost immediately. The notion that any sort of fine art was meant simply to be beautiful was ludicrous. Art can be defined any number of ways, but beauty is not a defining characteristic, so it could not be for fine art photography.  I should have realized at this point that some of my biases were getting in the way, but I didn’t; I went on with my search.

Some sites acknowledged difficulty in defining, and then went on to hedge their definitions. Not satisfactory. Some, like the one on were more comprehensive, stating the basic definition and then going on to provide detailed examples and discussion of the topic.

The ehow article pointed out my problem, which was, of course, was that I wanted the definition to say something about the value of such art, and it did not. I had wanted a definition that excluded those things that I did not consider to worthy and include all those things that were up to my mark. My mark! How arrogant could I possibly be—demanding that a definition include my personal values?

I started to wonder if there were reasons other than the lack of inclusion of value that I found the definition hard to accept. And, of course, there were.  First, a disclaimer: I love fine art photography. I love to look at it, study it. I love to make it. And it seemed impossible to me that the definition of an art form that I hold in such high regard could be so simple and inclusive. I had been expecting something more on the order of the definition of abstract expressionism. The long time I have spent in academia also prepared me for a complex definition, but I got something that was, to me, amazingly simple and comprehensive.

The exercise also reminded me of something I have long known and even written about: that taste is individual and is connected to a great number of things and has nothing to do with the genre of art under consideration.  Within this very general definition of fine art photography is room for all sorts of subject matter and all sorts of taste, some of which will appeal to me, or you, or whomever, and some of which will not. Just as some paintings are trite or ill-conceived, some fine art photography will be too. But that’s a topic for another time.

It’s a good lesson to have re-learned.

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

The Vivian Maier Phenomenon

Sunday, 16. January 2011 23:17

In case you haven’t heard of Vivian Maier, she was a nanny who also did a significant amount of street photography in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily in Chicago and New York.  Maier shot well over 100,000 images of people and places she encountered on the streets, and as far as anyone can determine, never really showed them to anyone.  Some of her work can be seen in a couple of places, along with what is known of her story. One site is a blog run by the discoverer of Maier’s work, John Maloof, who owns the majority of her photography.  A second site is operated by Jeffrey Goldstein, who holds the balance of her work.

The discovery and publication of Maier’s work has triggered a multi-faceted discussion on the internet: Who was this woman and why was she so passionate about street photography?  What was her life like? What was she like? What did she know about photography? Why did she not try to show her work while she was alive? How good is her work compared to other contemporary street photographers? Compared to all street photographers?  Why is the discovery of her work significant, or is it?

Some writers broaden the discussion: What is the point of street photography? How is her photography connected to her life? Is her work important? Is her work good art? Is it art at all? What makes it art or not? What are the differences, ultimately, between amateurs and artists?

Of course, it is far too early to determine where Maier fits into the world of American street photography, or American photography in general, but indications are that she is beginning to be considered important and, according to David W. Dunlap, writing for the Lens blog of the New York Times, is being compared to contemporary masters. If you want to know why, Dunlap advises that you take the time to look at her pictures, and suggests that you will then know why.

And Kevin Moloney, for one, is convinced that Maier’s work is definitely art: “I believe Maier’s work is art because of its absolute purity….Hers is the work of an artist who worked only for her own satisfaction. The opinion of friends, relatives, editors or critics was never sought.”

While I agree that Maier’s photography is art, and that some of it is quite remarkable, this story has some other interesting implications. Maier, the photographer, was discovered because John Maloof bought her work in an auction a few years ago. Since then, thanks to Maloof, the world has learned of Ms. Maier. Before it is over, she may become one of the most famous street photographers ever, simply because of the way her work is now being marketed. Works are released slowly on the web; a one-woman show has been curated and mounted; a documentary film is being financed through internet contributions. The story has enough mystery to be continually intriguing. Her work is obviously worth looking at. All the elements are here. What she chose not to do during her life, others are now doing for her and to great effect. As Kevin Moloney observes, “What is accepted as art and who is defined as an artist is as much about marketing our narratives as it is about anything else.”

It causes one to wonder how many other Vivian Maiers there are out there with their negatives and prints filed in storage boxes, their canvases stacked in attics, their sculptures covered in garages. How many are there who don’t have the know-how to market themselves, or don’t have the interest. How many are there who make art only to please themselves. One wonders what other great art we are missing…

Category:Photography | Comments (1) | Author:

Art: the Original Asynchronous Communication

Sunday, 9. January 2011 23:24

This week I got a couple of comments on older posts (here and here). I responded, but not right away. I read the comments some hours after the person had posted them, then I thought about the comments for a day before I responded.  A considerable amount of time passed, but at no time did the thread of the conversation get lost.

My approach is not unique. We live in a world of asynchronous communication: tweets, text, email, discussion boards, blogs and comments. Regardless of what the detractors say (and there are many who view asynchronous communication as somehow dysfunctional), asynchronous communication seems to be very natural. Much education has moved to the asynchronous model, and some has been very successful. We find the electronic forms of this communication easy and natural to use.

Of course, there can be a real-time component to a number of the communications media mentioned. Tweets, text, and email can all be responded to in real time, but many of us do not, because that is the convenience of those media. Ever notice how your volume of phone conversations has dropped? People now discuss when it is convenient for them, not necessarily when it is possible to “get together” in real time

Art was, of course, the original asynchronous communication. Excepting art involving a live performance, the product is created in isolation (assuming a single artist), usually in a location remote from the other party to the conversation. Then the artifact and the audience are brought together; the communication cycle is complete. Sometimes the audience discerns what the artist was saying, sometimes not.

Art is, after all, ambiguous. This does not disqualify it as communication. In fact, most communication is ambiguous. Otherwise why have courses in how to communicate? (And we all know there are plenty of those.) It is just with art, as with newer forms of communication, the interaction is not taking place in real time. Most people think of asynchronous communication as a very modern phenomenon; it has been around ever since the first man scratched the first image on the wall of a cave.

And just as with modern electronic communication, audience reaction to art, both emotional and intellectual is often delayed; it is felt, considered, thought about before being “published.” But unlike most communication, that reaction is hardly ever communicated directly to the person who created the work; more likely the response is transmitted to another audience member, or to some other community, but only rarely, if ever, to the artist, and if then, long after the viewing experience—a delayed retweet, if you will.

Art has several other aspects as a communication medium, one of the most important of which is that it allows complexity; many of our modern forms of asynchronous communication do not. Indeed, we must be careful in the world of tweets and texts to be sure that our comments are clear and properly referenced by the other party if they are to be understood. Some artists work with this same sort of concern; many do not. Many rely on complexity and ambiguity to create works that are not easy, works that are multi-leveled and intricate. It is left to the audience member to “get it” or not.

The ability of art to communicate complex and complicated ideas and emotions to great numbers of people over vast periods of time is unparalleled. No other asynchronous communication medium can touch it. Nothing can approach its calculated ambiguity, its fullness, its richness. Art may not only have been the first asynchronous communication, it may well be the ultimate asynchronous communication.

Category:Audience, Communication | Comment (0) | Author:

Forget the Resolutions: A List for the New Year

Sunday, 2. January 2011 22:24

Here it is the end of one year and the beginning of another—and not just the beginning and end of the year, but the end and beginning of a decade. That causes all sorts of looking back and looking forward. It is the occasion for numerous “best of” and “worst of” lists. All sorts of things are being resolved. But resolutions tend to be vague, amorphous things that come to rest in a desk drawer, forgotten within a few weeks. “Ship something” or “Be productive” are not really motivators to action.

Better to make resolutions that contain specifics; better yet to make concrete plans that implement those ambiguous resolutions. Then the resolutions can be safely forgotten, because you will be too busy executing your plan to worry about those generalizations you dreamed up during the last days of December. “Complete four projects and begin three more” is certainly more specific and doable than the far more general “be productive.”

The problem with plans is that they take work. And you have to have a foundation of some solid goals and definite direction. Having goals and direction is probably as, or more, important than the plan itself. These allow the plan to be a working plan that can be modified as conditions dictate, and a really adaptable plan is better than two drawers-full of resolutions.

It is also a time for reevaluation, and that means a lot of things. One of the things that it can mean is taking the time to reflect on basics.  This can ground you; keep you from getting completely lost in the day-to-day.  I recently had the good fortune to have a series of long conversations with an artist/teacher whom I respect a great deal. In the course of these conversations, we covered many things, one of which was our individual definitions of art. He made two points: one was that having such a definition was necessary if one wanted to really call oneself an artist. The other was that his, at least, was a working definition.  He noted that as one matures and acquires more experience and education, one’s definitions are likely to change, or at least undergo some modifications. I agree.

It has been a really useful experience to, through discussion and thought, reexamine my own working definition of art and note what changes I have made over time and what fits within the definition and what without.  It is really difficult to get more basic than that. And that, in turn has caused me to revisit a number of my basic artistic philosophies and ideas, which caused me to think about what I am doing and why I am doing it, and whether that’s how I really want to be spending my time.

So my list of suggestions for this changing of the year, of the decade, has only two items:

  1. Revisit your fundamentals, being sure that they are solid and reflect who you are now, not who you were five years ago. And you may want to consider classifying your philosophies as working philosophies, adjusting and adapting as need be.
  2. Make a concrete plan of action for the coming year based on those fundamental ideas and philosophies.

Follow these suggestions, and you won’t need any resolutions. Implement your plan and get busy providing yourself with a wonderfully productive and satisfying year.

Happy New Year!

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