Post from January, 2012

Making Art is Irrational

Sunday, 29. January 2012 23:57

Last week I quoted both Picasso’s comment about a painting speaking its own language and Hazel Dooney’s about her newfound interest in feeling over ideas in art. In the intervening week, I have thought about this a lot and have run across two other artists who work in completely different media voicing similar opinions.

Asked if he works out ideas by writing songs, Leonard Cohen told Dorian Lynskey in an interview for The Guardian:

I think you work out something. I wouldn’t call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans…. but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It’s just my experience. All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience.

In a different Guardian interview, playwright Yasmina Reza told Elizabeth Day, “Writing…. [is] not at all intellectual. Well, for me, at least.”

If such a variety of artists are so adamant about the non-intellectuality of art, why do so many people feel the need to explain art in intellectual terms? There are, I think, at least two reasons for this.

First, for every artist who thinks that art is not about ideas, there is another artist who thinks that that’s all art is about. Probably the best known contemporary artist who falls into this category is Banksy. Almost all of his work is commentary, much of it political. And no matter what you think of his art, it is easy to talk about—because it is primarily intellectual.

And that is the second reason: it’s easier to talk about the art of ideas than it is the art of emotion or the art of vision or any of those other irrational things that don’t really communicate in words. This is not only true of visual art, but of all other art as well. Sir Ken Robinson says in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, “The meaning of an artwork is only available in the particular form in which it is expressed.” So, if the work is bound by form and medium, it automatically becomes difficult to talk about in any kind of way that is logical.

The ease in communicating rational ideas and the difficulty in communicating everything else poses a special danger to those who teach in the arts. It is really easy discuss the ideas presented in a work of art, and fairly easy to talk about the form, but verbalizing how the marriage of the two communicates the emotions and vision and meaning on multiple levels at the same time is very difficult. Again, Sir Ken Robinson comments, “We don’t only respond to a poem, or a play, or to music, line by line or note by note. The complete work is more than the sum of its parts.” And that “more” is the part that’s difficult to touch in logical discourse. Unfortunately, many arts instructors take the easy way out and insist that rational verbal meaning and explanation to be attached to each work created by students, which, in turn, leads students to think of all art as merely the communication of ideas.

There is no doubt that analysis of a work of art is a valid academic exercise and is very useful in the editing phase of making art. But analysis, like creation itself, must not concentrate solely on what an artwork means, but on how it means, and on how the combination of the two generates a multiplicity of meanings and references and reflections and insights which is the real reason we treasure art.

Category:Communication, Creativity, Education | Comments (2) | Author:

A New Set of Criteria for Contemporary Art?

Monday, 23. January 2012 2:13

How I Became 100 Artists, a TED talk by Shea Hembry, has proved to be very creative, very funny, and, if one considers the comments attached to the video, very controversial.  In his talk, Hembry proposed two criteria for contemporary art:

  1. The Mimaw test. This involves explaining a work to his grandmother in five minutes. If he couldn’t explain it in that length of time, the work would be considered “too obtuse or not well-enough refined.”
  2. The Three H’s: Head, Heart, Hand: the work should have “interesting intellectual ideas and concepts.” It should have “passion, heart, and soul.” And it should be “greatly crafted.”

Although in explaining these criteria, Hembry uses himself as an example, he states that these are the criteria for contemporary art, not necessarily his contemporary art. One wonders then if they apply to contemporary art, wouldn’t they also apply to all other art as well?

Many before have tried to establish criteria for art, and the only theories that could be called successful have been so vague as to be nearly useless or so complex as to almost defy understanding.  The alternative, of course, is to say that art is anything the maker says that it is. I am already on record as being absolutely opposed to this view. Hembry’s criteria are fairly clear and decidedly lacking in complexity, and, on the surface, seem quite reasonable, so maybe they occupy that elusive middle ground in the world of artistic criteria.

The Mimaw Test: If it can’t be explained in five minutes to a grandmother, it’s too obtuse or not-sufficiently refined. Setting aside the issue of what a grandmother might or might not know about art, might not the reason that it can’t be explained in five minutes be that it’s just too complex. I recently saw a video of a person explaining a painting by Picasso. In five minutes, the person managed to discuss all the parts of the painting, but had not yet begun to talk about how all of those parts work together to produce the effect they produce. Another question would be, of course, one that was mentioned last week. Why does the work need an explanation at all? Can’t Grandma decide what she thinks of the work herself without an explanation? What Picasso said about painting can certainly apply to any art: “As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”

The Three H’s: Head: The work should have interesting intellectual ideas and concepts. The immediate response to this notion is “well, of course.” But there are some artists who are not so much interested in communicating intellectual concepts as they are in communicating emotion or beauty. Fortunately, that is an idea that is still alive and well and far more prevalent than you may think. Even the most cutting-edge artists may be moving into this camp. Consider this recent tweet from Hazel Dooney: “I used to be most interested in art for the ideas behind it. Now I only want to see art that makes me feel something.”

Heart: The work should have passion, heart, and soul. This is a criterion with which I have no argument. Interestingly, this aspect does seem to be absent in some contemporary work embraced by the art establishment. There exist a number of pieces which are merely clever or which are strictly intellectual. These, in my opinion, are lacking.

Hand: The work should be greatly crafted. Again, no argument.  Technical quality is, in my opinion, a requisite for art. The artist’s skill certainly does not need to call attention to itself, but it must be there.

Hembry’s criteria for contemporary art seem to be an oversimplification of a very complex subject. In fact, while they may work for the pieces that make up his biennial, they certainly do not work for the whole project, which is quite intricate. After all, his TED talk, which is delightful but does not explain the entire project in full detail, took over sixteen minutes.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Criticism | Comments (4) | Author:

Narrative. It’s Not Necessary

Monday, 16. January 2012 0:03

The other day a colleague was talking about movies that he liked and those that left him cold. It very quickly became apparent that what made a movie “good” to him was story. He is a fan of plot-driven film and those that are lacking in that department do not interest him at all. Needless to say, he is not fond of Bergman or Fellini.

The conversation caused me to wonder about the place of narrative, particularly in the visual arts, although the issue comes up with other arts as well; another friend once remarked that the ballet was a “terrible way to tell a story.” That may well be true, but I guess I never thought that narrative was the sole purpose of the ballet or the only reason for appreciating it.

And that, I think, is the question. Is art simply a story-telling device or does it do other things and communicate in other ways? The phrasing of the question suggests that of course it is not just a story-telling device, but many artists think otherwise. There are numerous art professors who start a critique with “What is the story here?” demanding, of course, that there be one. Painter Hilary Harkness has said, “I think the core of painting is story.”

We have become so used to this idea that it seems natural. We expect there to be a narrative. Perhaps this is an extension of our repeated viewing of photojournalism, where the goal is definitely to tell a story. Whatever the reason, many have come to expect each piece of art to convey a narrative, and when it isn’t there, we are either disappointed, confused, or we pretend there is one.  For example, Judith Barter of The Art Institute of Chicago said of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, “You believe there’s a narrative there, but there isn’t. I mean, you can’t read the story; you can’t complete the action, so that makes it both a successful painting but a difficult picture to talk about.”

Some are less circumspect in the way they view the connection between visual and narrative. Garry Winogrand said, “Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.”  And Mat Gleason with his usual soft touch has opined “Narratives are illusions, constructed in hindsight, often by the blindfolded.”

As harsh as Gleason’s statement is, it may be true. If an artwork is narrative, that narrative should be able to be expressed easily in words. But, unlike Harkness, some artists do not think that stories, at least stories that can be told in words, form the basis for art. They go even further. Edward Hopper has famously said, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Photographer Lewis Hine has said much the same thing about photography: “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”

Some critics recognize the validity of lack of narrative. For instance, Barbara Smith has called Brigitte Carnochan’s photography “visual haiku.” The notions of “narrative” or “story” do not come into play at any point. It occurs to me that you could describe the work of a number of artists similarly. Some create lyrics, some epics; some are making sonnets, all without words or narrative intent.

Just because we are used to thinking that all art is narrative does not mean that that is the only way to think, regardless of how natural it seems. There is a place for lyric painting, for photographic haiku, for cinematic meditation, for dance that is evocative rather than narrative. We would have far richer aesthetic lives if we stop trying to force art into a predetermined mindset of what it is “supposed to do” and accept and learn to appreciate what the artifact itself presents. We might even learn to expand our thinking and appreciation.

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

Seeking Arts Career Advice? Be Careful

Monday, 9. January 2012 0:00

Over the last six months, I have purchased two books and enrolled in one online seminar, all designed to help me better my photographic career.  Both the books and the seminar came highly recommended by various magazines and blogs.

Unfortunately, none of them lived up to their promise. One of the books offered advice that most practicing photographers already know. It has a nice layout and some pretty good images, and it attempted some interesting concepts. But the writer, perhaps unsure of his audience, reduced the concepts and their application to convoluted inanities. I tried a few chapters only to find that same approach throughout the book. Needless to say, I did not continue.

The second book that I attempted had information that was better; however, the writer had made the presumption that his readership was only marginally intelligent. Constantly on the edge of talking down to his readers, he over-explained everything. There was never any doubt about what he was trying to say, but he said it in the most simplistic terms possible, which, regrettably, got in the way of what good information the book contained.

The online seminar was superior to either book in that it neither talked down to the participants nor was so vague or simple that it had no meaning. And there were multiple presenters, which introduced some variety. There were occasional pieces of information that, properly applied, could be quite useful, but a good portion of the information was recycled, so I’m not sure that I really got my money’s worth.

These three instances are what Mat Gleason calls the advice industry. Gleason, in an excellent article entitled “Twelve Art World Habits to Ditch in 2012,” says:

You gotta do this, and you gotta do that, and most of all you have to buy the art advice book on how you can make it on your own as an artist by doing all of this stuff on your own. Advice is now an industry. Just make the art and sell it for whatever it takes to get it out of the studio and make more. Don’t buy the book. It is probably rehashed if not flat-out plagiarized from the other books. There is no blueprint for a masterpiece and there is no blueprint for a successful art career.

And he is right. You can find people to tell you how to market your art, how to sell your art, how to find a niche, how to modify your art to fit the market. You can, in fact get advice on any aspect of your art career. The problem is that a lot of it is simplistic, vague, overdone, out-of-date, non-applicable, or recycled.

There are some writers who offer worth-while advice. I find that they fall into two distinct categories. The first group is made up of those are likely to make you mad by telling you things that you don’t want to hear or things you haven’t thought of yet or things you thought of but were afraid to attempt. They are not trying to sell you this or that system to insure your success. They are presenting opinions that you are free to adopt or reject, and they provide their reasoning, so you can make an informed decision. These are the Seth Godins and Julia Camerons and Mat Gleasons, and Hazel Dooneys, to mention a few.

The other good advice comes in the form of very specific information presented with the reasons and the results. These are how-to’s that can be quite useful in areas where your technique is weak, regardless of the level at which you are working. (Most photographers recognize Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski  as this type of advisor.) Once you master the presented procedures, you are free to use them as you will.

It’s the people in between that you have to worry about—those who comprise the “advice industry.” They are happy to advise you on any aspect of your art—for a price. So before you buy this or that that guarantees to make you “successful,” do your research. You may find out that the information you are seeking is already available for free, or that there are better choices, or there are no magical answers.


Category:Education, Marketing, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

Want Art? The Gallery Will Come to You

Monday, 2. January 2012 0:19

Not long ago, Jason Wilson sent me a link to an article on The Bygone Bureau that proclaimed 2011 as “the year the art world went online.” The writer of the article, Kyle Chayka, noted a number of online art world activities that occurred during the year, including a couple of very high profile ones.

One of the projects noted in the Chayka article was the online VIP Art Fair, founded by James Cohan. The Fair hosted its first interactive art show in January, 2011, and plans a second show , which will represent over 2000 artists from 115 “carefully selected” galleries worldwide, for February 3-8, 2012. This event brings together galleries and collectors from all over the globe and allows the collector to see many works of art and have conversations with the dealers without leaving home.

The second project is, which is backed by Larry Gagosian, Dasha Zhukova and others. The website, currently in “private beta,” is essentially a search engine of fine art from over 250 galleries and museums in over 40 different countries which “will analyze users’ taste in art and show them other works and artists that they might like.”

Not only can you buy physical art pieces through the internet buy you can now buy signed, authenticated, limited edition digital art by some very famous artists. In addition to works by Shephard Fairey, Isaac Julien, and others, you can purchase an original Damien Hirst for $12.00. Prices range from £5 to £500 and increase as editions sell out. There are even plans for a secondary market—handled by the same site, of course.

While these projects involve the most famous artists and the most prestigious galleries, there is art for the rest of us online. A number of artists, of course, maintain their own websites; on some of these, the art is displayed and the viewer directed to gallery representation for sales, and on others, the work can be purchased online. Then there are the online galleries that are not as new or exclusive as those discussed above. For example, both Zatista and 20×200 sell only original and limited edition art. Other sites, such as Art Gallery Worldwide, sell originals and open edition prints. Others sell only prints, although some deal in limited editions. Then there are the print-on-demand sites, which reproduce digital images in a number of media, ranging from “art prints” to tee shirts.

And we have not yet touched on the educational use of digital media in the art world. For example, there are a number of initiatives by museums to allow patrons to use their smartphones or computers to get more information about the artwork. There are already virtual tours of museums available online through various portals. The Google Art Project provides virtual access to 17 museums and expects to add many more. Gagosian Gallery has published an iPad app which is essentially a free digital version of a quarterly art magazine; there are also a number of other apps which provide art reference, generally for no monetary investment.

There are some of us, however, who have reservations about the digital rendering of visual art. The digitization of art is on the increase , even though color calibration is known only to artists who used digital production methods. From an educational and a sales point of view, digitization of physical art or original digital art itself makes a great deal of sense. Still, because of the differences between color rendition on various devices, you never know whether you are looking at what the artist intended or not. Because of economic and marketing requirements, art digitization is no longer optional; still, I wonder, aside from sales potential, what artists think about having their work represented in such an uncontrollable way.


Category:Audience, Education, Marketing, Technology | Comments (1) | Author: