Post from May, 2011

Art Shouldn’t Require Explanation!

Sunday, 29. May 2011 23:46

Last weekend I attended the opening reception for the Kinsey Institute Juried Art Show 2011. There were a number of interesting things about the show, but one of the things that struck me most was the differences in the title cards that were mounted near each piece. I suppose that is to be expected; since the show is an international juried show, the artists would have diverse opinions about what constituted a proper label for their pieces. (As some of you know, artist statements and titles are topics that I have discussed before.)

Some title cards were very simple: the name of the piece, the year of creation, the name and location of the artist. That was all. Several of those titles were interesting or clever and did, in some instances, add to the meaning of the piece; others were obvious, and may as well have been “untitled,” a label that was also used.

Some added details about the work, commenting on materials and processes. These did not add to the meaning of the work, but were interesting and informative.

Others consisted of very long paragraphs (that was all the room there was—all the cards were single-sized) that explained the work. In a few cases, I had to look back at the work and then re-read the explanation because I was pretty sure that the words had nothing to do with what I was seeing in the piece.

Finally there were the longest ones which included a somewhat general statement about human sexuality and the repression or suppression or celebration thereof, which seemed sort of gratuitous, given the context of the show. These were more general artist’s statements that did not aid in understanding the pieces or add to their meaning, but were things that the artist needed to say.

Some have observed that the artist statement gives the artist the opportunity to extend the work, to convey even more meaning. And background on the piece is often useful in understanding the milieu that produced it. But it seems that unless the art is designed to be part image, part text, as in the work of Taryn Simon, the fact that it needs explanation suggests that the piece is weak or somehow lacking. Just as the playwright who demands that there be voluminous program notes explaining the play is acknowledging his/her play’s weakness, so is the visual artist who has to rely on words to make his/her statement. Those artists who really have a need for text should consider blogging or at least a Facebook page.

Additionally, what happens if the little card falls off the wall? What if someone looking at the piece and the card can’t speak the language on the card? What if the viewer neglects to read the artist’s statement? Can the audience not enjoy the play if the programs and notes don’t get printed? There are all sorts of issues connected with art that requires explanation.

All these issues are resolved, however, if the art work, whether it is photograph, painting, sculpture, play, poem, novel, is be complete in itself—without props or explanations or apologies. While explication can, at times, expand or enrich a piece, art must be able to stand on its own.

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

The Medium is Not the Message…But It’s a Big Chunk of the Experience

Monday, 23. May 2011 1:37

In his book Beauty, Roger Scruton maintains that meaning in a piece of art is “bound up with, inseparable from” the medium through which that meaning is presented. This means, of course, that the art cannot be reproduced in another medium and have the same meaning.

Although I have already discussed the difficulties I have with art reproduction here and here, two relatively new forms of art have been on my mind recently. These forms really seem to make the case for Scruton’s ideas even stronger.

The first is the lenticular image. For those who do not know, a lenticular is a fairly obscure medium (in which I work from time to time). Lenticulars can be based on photographs or other media; multiple images are interlaced and fused to a lenticular lens to create the illusion of movement or three-dimensionality as the viewer approaches the work. While the lenticular is not new technology, it is a relatively new art form. Many people have never seen one that was not an advertising piece.

The problem with lenticulars is that there is no way to reproduce the image electronically, so they cannot, for example, be viewed on the web. A simulation can be made with an animated gif file, but it is only a simulation and cannot reproduce the experience of walking past an image in a gallery that appears to move or to come out of the frame.

Interestingly, the animated gif is the vehicle for the second form. It is the cinemagraph, and its foremost practitioners are a team, Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg. You can see these images, which have been hailed by The Atlantic, Huffington Post and many others, on Beck’s From Me To You Tumblr. These images are essentially still photographs with movement added in isolated segments.

Despite the artistry involved with cinemagraphs and the stories they tell, they also have a problem. Cinemagraphs require an electronic device capable of displaying animated gifs. They can never hang in galleries unless those galleries are appropriately equipped.

These are just two instances where the art work seems completely inseparable from the medium; there are many.  For example, there are images etched in metal. A photograph of the etched image can be made, but that is a weak representation of the real thing. The same can be said for images printed on glass, another medium that cannot be adequately reproduced.

And there are others: physical collage only works if you can really see the texture of the items being collaged. Paint buildup is an integral part of many paintings that simply does not show up or certainly has less impact in a photograph of the painting. Sculpture defies reproduction in any kind of meaningful way except perhaps as a series of images or a video, which still falls far short of adequate reproduction. The same is true of dance or any other live performance art.

Actually, the same is true for all works of art. We can photograph them, we can describe them, but we cannot fully express the experience of them without reference to the media in which they were originally created.

Scruton, it seems, is correct: the content of a work of art is not really translatable to another medium; the medium is an essential part of the experience of the art work. And with these newer forms that union seems even stronger.

One can only wonder what the future holds.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Photography | Comments (2) | Author:

Encountering Obstacles in Realizing Your Art? Improvise!

Sunday, 15. May 2011 23:39

Just four nights ago I was sitting in the director’s chair not seeing what I wanted to see in the auditions that were in front of me. As I locked the theatre, I began to think about what I might do to salvage the production. I didn’t have the actors I needed, much less the actors that I wanted for the roles, and the play’s production dates had already been announced and tickets sold, so cancellation was not an option. I had another night of auditions, but I wanted to be ready just in case.

This is something that directors in noncommercial theatre do all the time. We all have our procedures for precisely this situation. Often those procedures save the project, although sometimes we have to modify the project to fit the personnel available.

And the problem not just limited to noncommercial theatre. Consider how many movies have been made with someone other than the star originally cast. When we think about those movies now, it’s difficult to imagine what those producers and directors were originally thinking.

Nor is the problem limited to the performing arts. Many times a photographer is faced with a “now or never” situation. Sometimes the environment won’t cooperate, or you get there at the wrong time of day. What do you do then?

Some give up on the shot or come back another day if that’s possible. Others, like world renowned landscape photographer Peter Eastway, do exactly what directors do—figure out a way to save the project. Consider his image “photographed just outside Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.” In the March 2011 issue of AfterCapture Eastway discusses how he managed to create the image that he wanted even though the lighting at the site was not what he hoped for.

This caused me to wonder how many other artists face similar problems. In how many other art forms do things not go the way the artist wants and then he/she has to figure out what to do to salvage the project. My guess would be most.

So what do you do in those circumstances? You can be the rigid artist that demands that everything be “just so,” in which case you can become very frustrated. Or you start looking for ways to realize your vision with imperfect pieces. You implement your emergency procedures. You decide that the image can be manipulated in post processing. You improvise.

Many are the reports of an artist discovering a new direction in the middle of making his/her art, and all for the better. Far more than a “happy accident,” such a discovery is the result of talent, skill, creativity, and the ability to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself.

And that, I think, is the key. Creativity does not come into play only when you envision the project, but when you attempt to realize your project as well. Flexibility and improvisation are tools that serve any actor, but they also serve the director, the photographer, the painter, the poet, the playwright, the choreographer.

And they can serve you. You can only help yourself by staying open, flexible, and willing to improvise.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author:

Worried About Your Art? Trust Your Instincts!

Sunday, 8. May 2011 23:39

In one of her books, Julia Cameron talks about how work has to be nurtured and protected while it is being developed. As you may remember from a previous post, I mentioned that I was working on a new project with a completely new approach. I did as Cameron suggested, not discussing the project with anyone, while working away. But recently it became time to let the project see the light of day, at least in a limited way.

Since I waffle between confidence and insecurity, as I’m sure many of us do, I decided to show a set of 8 images to 5 acquaintances whose opinions I generally respect. Because this work, which is in abstract photography, is so different from what I have done in the past, I had no idea what the responses would be. The idea was to discover whether there might be a market for this sort of imagery or whether I was going to have to continue making these sorts of pictures exclusively for myself.

Admittedly, this was not a scientifically valid test. It was just an attempt to get reactions—to validate my instincts as it were. My “group” consisted of another photographer, an art professor, an English teacher, a graphic artist, and a theatrical designer, all of whom have seen my past work.

The request was simple. Individually, I handed them an iPad with the images on it, told them what size they would eventually be printed, and said, “Tell me what you think.” There were no explanations, no artist statement, no nothing else.

The results were as varied as the audience. Here is a summary of the responses:

  • All pointed out things they liked; some pointed out things they disliked or found disturbing for some reason.
  • Two people were very specific in verbalizing why they liked what they did and did not like what they didn’t.
  • Two offered thorough critiques, one detailed and one summary.
  • One person “liked” only one image and felt that that image was far superior to all the others.
  • One of the viewers offered some excellent constructive criticism and some suggestions which caused me to look at my new approach in even newer ways.
  • One felt compelled to guess at the technique/process and guessed incorrectly, which may have colored her initial response.
  • One person “loved” two of the images, found one “creepy,” and one significantly less good than all the others.
  • One person ranked his favorite four and gave explanations for the order, some of which had to do with the images, and some of which had to do with his aesthetic.
  • One auditor seemed to understand at least part of what I was trying to do and verbalized it perhaps better than I could have.
  • Two saw “faces” in the abstractions, in different images. This seemed to be disconcerting to them. (There were no intentional faces in the images).
  • Everyone had a favorite, but no two people had the same favorite.
  • Two people expressed an interest in owning one of the images, or one like them.

What does all that mean? To me this means that I’m doing something right. I would have been very surprised, and I think a little distressed, if all these people “loved” everything I put before them. It means I can continue to trust my instincts and move forward in the development of this idea.

Although I thought I needed reassurance, I should have known to trust my instincts. You should too. Make your art. Do your photography. Write your play. Make what your instincts, your guts, your soul tells you to. As Anatole France has said, “In art as in love, instinct is enough.”

Category:Audience, Creativity, Photography | Comments (1) | Author:

Life Getting in the Way of Your Art? Use It!

Monday, 2. May 2011 0:06

This was the week to read the journals of the students in the acting class I am teaching. They are asked to write every day of the semester something related to acting. The task is intentionally broad and has a number of purposes: to get them into the habit of thinking about their art every day, to provide them with the opportunity to verbalize ideas about acting and theatre, to provide a safe vehicle through which they can communicate thoughts they might not otherwise express. (Nobody except the writer and me reads the journals).

Going through the journals is always an interesting exercise. One of the things that I find is that there is direct correlation between the quality of work that the students do in class and the complexity and frequency of the thoughts that they put into the journal. Another thing that I find is that there are, particularly among those who are not yet fully committed to any of the arts, a number of statements that run something like, “I didn’t get a chance to think about acting today because [fill in excuse here].”

It is fairly well documented that successful artists are thinking about art, if not all the time, certainly every day. They may not be thinking about their artistic specialty, but sometime during the day, ideas about art, or their practice, or art business, or some aspect of art will have play in their minds. Some, like Minor White, try to make this a habit; he said, “I am always mentally photographing everything as practice.” Others just recognize it as habitual. Many have no choice; they can’t not think about art.

Reading journals this week set me to wondering how many of us who consider ourselves practicing artists make the same justifications for not at least thinking about art or our art practices on a daily basis. As these acting students will attest, it’s hard to keep your art on your mind every day; there are other things to do. And for us who are no longer formal students it is no different; there are a thousand other things that demand our attention: families, bills, chores, day jobs, and the list goes on and on. For some it is not situations that divert them from art, but mental or physical states: exhaustion, frustration, depression, anxiety, love, physical pain or disability. The distractors are manifold.

We can’t presume that those who are “successful” in the art world are living lives without all of those same distractors. All practicing artists have physical bodies and lives that are not perfect. Regardless of our situation, and we have to deal with it and keep making our art. Susan Holland makes this point very clearly in her blog “When Life Gives you Lemons…Paint!” on Empty Easel. Holland says that when life “kills the motivation to create,” the artist should “paint about it.”

The advice holds for any artist, of course. When life gets too painful or too distracting or simply in the way, incorporate it into your acting, or your directing, or your photography, or your novel, or your poetry, or your dance, or your music, or your choreography, or your sculpture. Use it. That’s what all those artists you admire have done. Think how disordered their lives are/were. Theirs, like ours, are/were messy and imperfect, but they have managed to create art anyway, sometimes even masterpieces.

If they can do it, we can do it too. If we are to call ourselves artists, we must.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (4) | Author:

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