Post from June, 2011

The Downside of Arts Competition

Monday, 27. June 2011 0:20

This could be considered a clarification of the last post, or perhaps a continuation of some of the thoughts that were presented there. As I stated in that post, one of my objections to highly publicized awards is that they turn their arts into contests, which I think is contrary to the whole idea of art.

There are many definitions of art, but in none of them do you find the idea of competition. Of course there is some, but one would hope that when an artist sets out to create a piece, he/she does not do so with the idea of besting another artist, but with the idea of creating a piece that says what he/she wants to say and of doing so to the best of his/her ability.

Some arts have a built-in competition, for example, the audition process for actors and dancers. This is supposed to ensure that the best person for the part gets the role. (Although we find that in many situations, the audition is replaced by negotiation.) Once the process of putting performers in roles is done, competition is set aside in favor of creating the vision of the producer/director, in other words, creating the best possible performance.

Of course there is the question of arts contests. There are, for example, numerous photography contests, many of which offer prize money. Such contests seem to create competitiveness where none exists naturally; how do you compare an abstract photograph to a conflict photograph? In the world of commercial photography, competition certainly exists, and it may be well to know who is the best wedding photographer or the best advertising photographer. But in the world of fine art photography, this sort of competition makes no sense. With whom is Miru Kim competing?

Even the art contest that gives the largest cash award in the world claims to be about more than the competition. That contest is ArtPrize, and it tries to be more than just a contest among artists: “Part arts festival, part social experiment–this international contest …. is designed for you to take it into your own hands and make it what you want it to be. The outcomes of ArtPrize are infinite… ArtPrize is a platform for creation.

The emphasis on competition that one finds in arts contests also exists in some arts education. Texas, for example, has a one-act play competition among “similarly-sized” high schools to discover who has, in any given year, created the best play. The University Interscholastic League, which sponsors the contest, says that “it continues to be a major factor motivating increasing numbers of schools to offer theatre arts as an academic subject.” This, of course, suggests that Texas secondary schools are academically motivated by competitive triumphs. Texas theatre students learn that what is important is beating the other companies.

Compare the North Carolina Theatre Conference’s High School Play Festival which provides “an opportunity for students at NCTC member schools to showcase their work, learn from others, make new theatre friends and celebrate their achievements. Schools present 45 minute shows to adjudicators, who provide knowledgeable and encouraging feedback.” North Carolina theatre students learn to do good work.

Secondary school systems are not the only organizations that foster the competition in the arts. This competitive aspect was one (but only one) of the problems with Bravo TV’s “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.” This aspect so colored the shows that it led some to say that the series became more of a design competition than a show about art.

These lessons should not be lost on us.  Art is not football. The social aspect of the internet has facilitated a lot of sharing of art. There seems to be little in the way of competition, even among the pieces that are for sale. Art is offered for comment and evaluation, for possible purchase, not to challenge another artist. This is as it should be.


Category:Education, Photography, Theatre | Comments (1) | Author:

Arts Awards – Really About Excellence?

Sunday, 19. June 2011 23:59

In a conversation about the Tony Awards this week, someone said, “I expected you would blog about it.” It had never occurred to me to write about the Tonys. It’s not that I don’t care about Broadway, it’s just that I don’t have much to say about them. I do not see much New York theatre, so I can’t really comment on the comparative quality of the shows. I didn’t watch the awards live, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except those portions I watched on You Tube.

What I can comment on is the idea of awards in the arts. How can you be against recognition of excellence—if that’s what the awards are? And there are some: the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind. As does the Booker Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. But then there are those awards that come with nationally televised presentations and lots of advertising: the Tonys and certainly the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately these sorts of awards are subject to heavy campaigning in the media. This, of course, has to do with the privilege of being able to put “Winner of x number of some kind of award” in the advertising for the play or the movie in question. So the awards become something other than recognition of excellence.

Now I am not naïve enough to presume that no politics enter into deciding the awards in other arts, but it seems to me that they are less subject to advertising and activism. At least the jockeying for prizes, if there is such, is much better concealed from the public.

What I object to about such awards is not that they are used for financial gain. Film and theatre are, after all, produced in order to make money. Hopefully there is some art along the way, but the ultimate goal is financial, and awards help producers reach that goal. What I do object to is that heavily publicized awards seem to turn their respective arts into contests; that is what art is not.

The result of the most recent contest is that The Book of the Mormon and War Horse have become more marketable commodities. However winning multiple Tony Awards did not cause them to become suddenly more accessible as works of art. The upside is that more people now know about the productions, and potentially more people will see them. The downside is that the publicity will attract detractors and uninformed criticism, some of which will be the result of attendance by those who are not ready for the art of these two shows.

The role of the audience in any theatrical production (or any art) is not completely passive. You have to bring something to it, if you are to fully enjoy it. And often the more you can bring, the richer will be your experience.

Art is not easy. It seems that the better the art is, the more that is required from the viewer, and the less appeal to a mass audience it has. Many artists work very hard to make their meanings clear. Some artists, on the other hand, work very hard at making meanings obscure and allusions oblique. Neither approach guarantees the intended audience will appreciate that meaning or its expression. Neither does the winning of awards.

It may be elitist, but it is true that to be able to access to the very best art, one must have some education and background. This is hardly the case with mass-marketable commodities, which is what the highly publicized awards attempt to create.

Unfortunately for those trying to commoditize it, art is difficult. And worth it.

Category:Quality, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author:

The Most Beautiful Part of the Picture is the Frame

Monday, 13. June 2011 0:00

G. K. Chesterton said, “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” Frame has a number of meanings, but they all carry with them the idea of limitation.

First, of course, is the literal meaning of frame. Look at frameless images of paintings on the internet or in books and then examine the same paintings framed and hanging in a museum.  Aside from the difference of being in the presence of the real thing, you will find that the framed image actually looks different from the unframed one.

The impact of framing can be seen in something as simple as deciding what mat board and frame to put around a print. The mat and the frame so modify the image that many fine art photographers and print-makers demand only white mats and the simplest frames surround their images. For the same reason, many contemporary painters show their work sans frame.

The second meaning has to do with what is included within the boundaries of an image. Photographer Gary Winogrand said, “Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put 4 edges around some facts, you change those facts.John Sexton also talked about edges: “And then as I frequently do, some times I’ll peek out from underneath the focusing cloth and just look around the edges of the frame that I’m not seeing, see if there’s something that should be adjusted in terms of changing the camera position.

This notion applies not only to still photography. Martin Scorsese has said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” And that is the essence of the matter for all arts. What is incorporated and what is left out determine what the art work is and what the art work is about. So framing is really editing: deciding what is to be included and what is to be excluded. It is a problem with which every artist is familiar, and perhaps one of the more difficult things to do in any art.

And third there is the idea of frame meaning the framework or the structure of the piece. Organizing the information of the artwork into a structure alters the facts of the art work. Again, as Winogrand commented, “putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it.”

We can see this in nearly every art. The “wrapping,” the form of the piece transforms and controls the content of the piece. The ideas contained in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets is also are also found in some of his plays, but how different the experiences of reading a sonnet and watching a play are.

This is true even within a genre; one can find many different poets who tackle the same subjects, yet organize their poetry into different formats, which, in turn, modifies the meaning, creating unique experiences for their readers. Compare any of the first-person novels of Kazuo Ishiguro and the first-person novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. Yes, there is a difference in material, but, more importantly, there is a great difference in the framing of the novels in question. Consequently, the novels impact the reader in very different ways.

Even a thing as simple as deciding where to put the act breaks in a play can significantly change the experience, if not the meaning of the play. Ask any producer who has tried to squeeze a three-act play into two acts with a single intermission.

So the issue of frames becomes not only how a piece of art is framed and the nature of that frame, but what the artist puts in and what he/she leaves out of the piece. And it also includes how that material is arranged and formatted. It’s an area of art that is discussed very little, but one that should be.


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

Avoiding Cliché the Art School Way

Sunday, 5. June 2011 23:27

A photographer friend of mine says that art school drilled “no flower pictures” into her head as well as “no railroad track pictures.” I suppose that in the eyes of the professors, those two subjects had been shot to death, and there was no way that a student photographer could produce an image that was not a cliché.

One wonders about the reasons for these prohibitions. Did the instructors really believe that their students were incapable of creating non- clichéd images?  (And that raises the question of whether the teachers’ opinions of their students’ creative abilities were justified.) Or were they just tired of seeing images of these subjects? Or did they believe that those subjects were completely exhausted in terms of artistic potential?

One also wonders what other taboos such a school might establish. And aren’t we glad that Robert Mapplethorpe and numerous other artists never heard such admonitions? Admittedly, some areas of photography seem to be more filled with cliché than others, but is that any reason to forbid them entirely?

Extending this idea beyond avoiding railroad track and flower images, would we also prohibit nudes, and landscapes, and architecture, and decaying infrastructure, and street photography? We have all seen clichés in these areas. My guess is, however, that we have also seen non-clichéd images in each of those categories as well. In fact, I cannot think of any area of photography, or any other art for that matter, that does not have its share of clichés, and, along with them, its share of original work.

A better way to approach this problem, rather than proscribing an entire category of subject matter, is to learn how to avoid the clichés. This, of course is more work, both for the student and for the instructor. You have to be familiar with enough of the work in any given category or subcategory to know what the clichés are and thus what to avoid. And that takes some time and some effort—perhaps more than the average student (or faculty member) is willing to invest. Then there is the requisite effort and imagination that goes into creating something new in those areas.

But the results are worth the effort. We are all familiar with photographers (and other artists) who work in areas that are rife with clichés, yet somehow manage create art that is refreshing, original, and often stunning.

And if those photographers can do it, why can’t those students who are improving their craft in art schools? Well, of course, they can. There may be no Mapplethorpes in the class, but there are likely some talented and original individuals who deserve the opportunity to test their skills and imaginations, no matter what area they decide to tackle.

And what is true for the students is also true for the rest of us. We might avoid a certain area of photography (or whatever our particular art is) because it’s not something that interests us or because we have nothing to say in that area, but to avoid it because we might step into cliché seems to be nothing but artistic cowardice.

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