Post from March, 2011

The Value of Art in Secondary Schools

Monday, 28. March 2011 0:10

Recently, I was asked to talk at a high school fine arts banquet. The invitation came with a predetermined subject: I was to talk about the value of the arts, particularly in high school and in the community. That’s a tough assignment. It’s not something I think about every day.  And the addition of qualifiers made it that much more problematic.

My first thought was about how an early start could establish a good foundation for those who would become professional artists or arts educators. Many artists credit their high school teachers as the ones who first inspired them to follow the path that they did and develop into the professionals that they had become. But in this situation, there would be many in the audience who would not become professionals, who might not pursue their art past high school graduation. What of them?

This forced me to think about how participating in the arts in high school impacts the individual. The arts teach lessons that are worth learning whether one is going into art as a career or not. So I thought about what is taught by all arts: the joy of being able to express oneself, the feeling of accomplishment at having created something that wasn’t before, the ability to see and observe, the ability to manipulate media, the ability to impact others, the opportunity to tell one’s story or the story of one’s family or culture, the chance to share one’s thoughts and emotions without fear.

Then I thought about the qualities that participating in collaborative arts can help develop in individuals: teamwork and interdependence, give and take—the sharing of ideas and building on the work of others, learning when to lead and when to follow, and development of a sense of timing.

Arts can also give those students who don’t fit in anywhere else a place to belong. It is the one place that I have always felt comfortable. I think that others may have the same feelings. Everyone is looking for somewhere to fit in, and the absence of that somewhere is often a cause for considerable angst among high-school aged students. Finding their place, or their element as Ken Robinson calls it, can be one of the most important events in their lives. Suddenly there is a reason to go to school, a reason for doing something besides video games and Facebook, a reason to live.

But perhaps the most important thing that the arts teach is creativity itself.  Daniel H. Pink says in A Whole New Mind, “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind–creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. This is really what the arts can do for the individual student.”

And everybody benefits: students involved in the arts actually enjoy at least part of their day. They want to be where the art facilities are. A student who wants to be there is always less of a problem than one who wants to be anywhere else. On top of that, that school gets to showcase the art produced on its campus, whether that is a dance recital, a display of visual art, a play, or a concert.

Artists, young or old, find that they cannot function completely in isolation, so the joy that they experience in creating their art cannot help but spill out into the community. It may simply be the sharing of artwork with the community. Or it may be that as artists develop, they become more observant, more empathetic, more careful of their surroundings. Quite simply they care more. And that’s something the community will notice and appreciate.

But in my opinion the greatest benefit derived from young people participating in the arts is a better life. Art adds value to life, not only for those who make it, but also for those who get to see it. A world without the arts would be a sorry place indeed. Fine arts at the secondary level must continue.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comment (0) | Author:

Avoiding Clichés – the Easy Way or the Other Way?

Sunday, 20. March 2011 23:30

The other night I ran across a Twitter discussion which mentioned cemeteries as photographic clichés. One tweeter said that they were on his list of forbidden shots. It reminded me of conversation I had not too long ago with another photographer who ruled out all shots involving railroad tracks for the same reason.

There is no question that there are many clichéd photographs involving both cemeteries and railroad tracks. But, there are a number of subject areas that invite cliché work: animals, flowers, landscapes, seascapes, children, weddings, portraiture. In other words, almost every area of photographic subject matter contains the possibility of cliché. That said, I can see no reason to proscribe whole categories of photographic potential.

There are wedding photographers who produce event images absent cliché. William Wegman manages to produce animal pictures that are anything but formula. Robert Mapplethorpe produced beautifully original images of flowers. Anne Geddes has become a virtual industry by making innovative images of children (some of which have become clichés themselves because they have been so often copied). The listing could continue with names of photographers in each classification who have reached far beyond average and created novel works regardless of the category in which they are working.

It’s not easy, which I think makes the effort all the more laudable. It’s one thing to stay in an area that is relatively free from cliché, and it’s entirely another to shoot what you like regardless of the danger. Choosing this path forces the photographer to be imaginative and original to avoid the formula images that are visible everywhere.

Avoidance of an entire area or subject is a safe way to deal with the problem, but it seems to me that a better answer is to embrace all possibilities and then search for the viewpoint, the insight, the creativity to convert the potential photographic cliché into a really unique image. And that originality, regardless of the category, regardless of the temptation to do it the same way everyone else has, is what separates the hack from the real artist.

This notion is not exclusive to photography. In every art, one of the options for avoiding clichéd work is to limit your choices to “safe” areas. And like photography, every art has areas that lend themselves more to formula work than others. That doesn’t mean they should be avoided; it simply means that each artist should approach his/her subject with his/her own voice, a voice that is unlike any other. Sometimes that may take more work; sometimes you may have to sit at the keyboard or the easel and ponder which direction to take. But that can make the successful creation all the sweeter.

There are those who say that it is no longer possible to create anything original. That may be, but it is still possible to create art that is not clichéd. And it is possible to do that without avoiding entire subject areas. You may not sell as many greeting cards, and you may have to work a little harder, think a little more, but the results will be worth it.


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

It’s the Audience, not the Artist

Sunday, 13. March 2011 23:45

Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct argues that in fiction there is a “communicative transaction between reader and author.” Citing Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” Hazel Dooney presents a very different view, maintaining that “a creator’s role is to produce and neither to explain nor to try to control the response to their work. It’s the reader (or viewer or listener) who gives it meaning through their individual interpretation,” a notion which is also explained here.

While I cannot argue with Dutton’s assertion that the author is “trying to control the show—the interpretation of characters, their actions, and the events that befall them,” I must agree with Dooney when she says “Even if people understand the concept of a work, their interpretations and deeper, emotional responses are always at a remove from the creator’s.”  My experience is that both are correct.

For example, in a recent rehearsal of a musical, an associate and I were discussing how an actress rendered a particular song. He was struck by the intensity of the piece while I was concerned that she had missed the feeling of the piece entirely, and, being the director, made a note to correct the problem. For a time I was convinced that our differences were caused by our differing functions on the show, but I came to realize that it was just that we, because of our different experiences, backgrounds, and internal reference materials, had interpreted what we saw very differently.

I have experienced similar reactions with audience members. Sometimes I am able to see their point of view and sometimes I wonder what show they have seen, because it wasn’t the same show that I saw, and it certainly wasn’t the one that I directed.

So what has all of this got to do with anything? All that holds true for fiction according to Dutton and Barthes and all that holds true for theatre according to my experience holds true for all arts. We make photographs and paintings and sculptures and collages and write haikus and novels and short stories and we have no idea how they will be received. We have no clue whether our audience will “get it” or not. We will attempt, in Dutton’s words, “by persuading, manipulating, wheedling, planting hints, adopting a tone” to control the audience’s response. We will fail.

There are simply too many factors outside our ability to control. There is all the stuff going on in the audience’s mind when they encounter our work. There is the experience of the audience, their education, their belief structure, their aesthetic. There is all of that and more. There are ins and outs and corners and nuances that we could not possibly know about or plan for when we built our art.

And no clever titles, explanations, artist statements, biographies, statements of philosophies will ever convey to them exactly the interpretation that we think they ought to give our work. Dooney has said that’s not our job, and she’s right.

We make our art and it is what it is. No matter how much we try to “control the show,” we will always fall short. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying. It just means that we must recognize that the audience brings its own baggage to the party. Our work will always be viewed through someone else’s filters, interpreted in ways that we cannot imagine. Things we have been careful to insert will be missed; things we had not consciously intended will be seen. It will always be so.

The best that we can do is to continue working to create our visions, to manipulate the materials so as to minimize misunderstanding, to make our work sufficiently clear that our message is unmistakable. Then stand out of the way.

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

Elements of Style: the Untaught Part of Art

Sunday, 6. March 2011 23:59

Yesterday afternoon I was reminded of one of the skills of a stage director that seldom gets noticed or discussed: deciding the how and when of giving specific notes to actors. For the words you say to actors to be maximally effective, ideas have to be couched in the right phraseology and then timed right. You have to know when to cajole, when to confront, when to use humor, when to be severe. It’s a thing that most directors do instinctively, although sometimes I find myself calculating so as to have the most impact. It is also a thing that is never, to my knowledge, taught in directing classes. Most of us learn by trial and error that developing these skills will allow us to become better directors and produce better shows.

This conversation caused me to start wondering how many things there are that fall into this same category: skills that are never taught in formal training and are hardly ever noticed or mentioned. Every once in a while you will run across a reference to something that “was not taught in art school” or “is never discussed in a seminar on photography” or was never explored in any teaching/learning environment, but not often.

For example, I know from experience that order in processing images matters, that  performing individual adjustments to an image in a certain sequence makes the process easier to control than doing it another way, yet no one, it seems, teaches that. I am sure that in every art there are skills and procedures that are analogous to image processing and giving notes.

So the question is, how do these untaught things impact us? And the answer is that they are elements of style. The way that you talk to actors, the way that you process images, the way that you handle the clay, the order in which you assemble phrases, the way that you layer the paint are pieces that, when assembled with other pieces, comprise your personal style. Aside from your vision and your subject matter, it’s what separates you from all the other directors and photographers and ceramicists and poets and painters. It’s part of what makes your art unique.

These untaught things may not influence the way that you see the world, but they certainly impact the way you express what you see. The fact that they are evolved rather than learned is reason your style develops rather than appearing full-blown when you begin your art career. Every day that you work adds to your experience which adds to your style. The things that you develop yourself, whether they are built on a foundation of formal schooling, apprenticeship, or self-education, become part of the work that you do, become part of your style, become part of your art. As Berenice Abbott has put it, “You have to evolve on your own.

And these untaught things may be the most important part of your art, the part that makes your art distinctive, the part that makes your disparate works form a cohesive whole. Hans Hofmann said that a work of art “is a world in itself reflecting senses and emotions of the artist’s world.” Your style is, in large part, responsible for that reflection, for the delineation of your artistic world. No matter what you have learned from others, your style, that you have evolved yourself, is what defines your art.

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