Post from August, 2012

The Art of Presentation

Sunday, 26. August 2012 23:34

The problem is not the art, but the presentation. “Context Matters,” posted earlier this year, discusses the impact of the environment on how we perceive art. But a series of recent experiences has suggested that the problem might be even more immediate than the room in which the piece is being shown or the temperature of the theatre in which we view the performance.

A very good friend of mine who teaches art at a university has said that the one skill that is lacking from almost every art curriculum is that of presentation. He teaches, among other things, printmaking.  While paper selection is a part of the art work proper, whether to frame or not is a question of presentation. Once that decision is made, the question becomes what frame. Then there is the issue of matting: to mat or not to mat? If so, how wide, what color, what shade of that color, what material, what spacing and proportion?

While the questions may be different, these sorts of decisions are not exclusive to printmakers. It is a problem that is encountered by almost everyone in the arts. What sort of pedestal do you want for that sculpture? What sort of border do you want around the digital art on the web? How can you best display your set or costume designs? And still it is ignored in almost every kind of arts class.

The artist/teacher mentioned above goes to great lengths to incorporate presentational considerations into his courses. In his classes he always brings up the question of how the students will present their work to the world. Others of us do a similar thing in other arts skills classes. But, unfortunately, we are in the minority. And there exist very few courses devoted exclusively to developing presentational skills. For example, many colleges and universities who train actors offer no courses in auditioning, the primary way actors present their abilities to directors. In a quick search, I could find only one that had a course exclusively in auditioning. I’m sure that there are others; I hope that there are others, since auditioning is so fundamental to the profession and requires a completely different set of skills from acting.

There are many approaches to solving the presentation problem, almost all of them trial and error. An acquaintance of mine, a photographer, has decided to print all of his images on canvas wraps, which represents to him a clean, easy way to present his images. Whether this will work for him I don’t know; we will have to wait and see. While it is easier and less worrisome to find one way to present and then forget it, I cannot imagine a single method of presentation working for all images—unless, of course all the images are very similar.

Many experienced artists continue to experiment and explore different methods of presentation. What worked last year, or even last week, may not work today, or for this body of work. The goal, of course, is to present their work in the best light possible, knowing that audience acceptance is what engenders success in the arts. And why wouldn’t you want to take the time and effort to present your work in the way that would make it most appealing?

“The work should be able to stand on its own without worrying about how it’s presented,” is a wonderfully idealistic and somewhat naïve view. The fact is that presentation does matter. Experienced artists take this into account and spend a great deal of time making decisions about the best method of presenting the work that they have created.

So, whether you are a school-trained artist or self-taught, or some combination of those, finding the best methods for presentation of your particular artistic vision, of your particular talents and skills may require a fairly significant investment of time and energy. The results may well be worth it in terms of developing your audience. As Hazel Dooney says, “It’s not enough just to create. Professional artists need to figure out how to show people their work. Without an audience, art is a hobby.

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

Why Art Really Matters

Monday, 20. August 2012 0:14

Last week’s post dwelt upon the need for artists to work within a very imperfect system. As I thought about it further, I realized not only that art should matter, but that art does matter, perhaps not the way Hazel Dooney wants it to, or as much as we think it should, but it does matter right now, even in our very imperfect world—in lots of ways.

The arts are good for business. For example, the arts bring consumers to downtown areas. Just google “art helps downtowns” and you can read article after article about how this event or that production boosted downtown businesses. The arts are significant for other businesses as well. The National Governors Association in a 2012 study entitled “New Engines of Growth” has recognized the impact of the arts and culture on economic development and has suggested ways to incorporate the arts, culture, and creative businesses into economic development plans.

Those plans take into account that employers are interested in talented people with creative abilities, particularly for higher-level positions, and creativity is something one learns most easily by being associated with the arts. Moreover, a creative, cultural environment helps attract and retain those people, which opens the door for even more creative employment.

And arts employment is significant. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, as of 2009, 2.1 million people in the United States were artists. By anybody’s standards, that is a lot. You should also be aware that that number includes only actors, announcers, architects, fine artists, art directors, animators, dancers, choreographers, designers, other entertainers, musicians, photographers, producers, directors, writers, authors. The list does not include a number of other occupations which depend upon the arts and artists for survival: agents, gallerists, curators, box-office staff, press agents, publicists, auction-house employees, and technicians, just to name a few.

Another aspect of the business-art partnership is that companies purchase art. “Commercial art,” you say. “That’s not real art.” It is real, and it is art. Just ask the artists who made it.  Yes, there is some factory-manufactured stuff hanging on walls and decorating reception areas, but the more successful and high-end the business, the better the art that they display. And it’s not just prints and knock-offs. Much of it is real, artist-made one-of-a-kind or limited edition art.

And those are just some of the economic reasons why art really matters. There are other reasons as well, just as important as economics. Some would say more important.

Studies link arts instruction with higher IQ scores and higher intelligence in children. Research “shows tight correlations between artistic endeavors and cognitive abilities.” Essentially, “performance or practice of any of the art forms” can “influence cognition, including attention and IQ.” And this finding is confirmed by a number of studies.

Art not only improves cognition in children, but can improve adult brains as well. It can often do this by presenting us with problems in ethics, philosophy, or design to consider.

But perhaps the biggest reason that art really matters is in its ability to enrich our lives by fostering empathy and understanding, helping us see connections, and putting us in touch with ourselves and the rest of the world. As the late Robert Hughes said, “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.”

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

Art Should Matter

Monday, 13. August 2012 0:25

Hazel Dooney began a recent blog posting entitled “Art Matters,” with a quote by Robert Hughes: “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.” Dooney goes on to detail what she perceives to be the relationship between art and society today, and she finds much wrong. She starts with the commodification of art, mentions branding and celebrity, and notes the lack of funding for “public and institutional galleries.” Dooney wants art to matter—to the public. She says that we “have to regain a public fascination for it, maybe even an awe of it.”

Though certainly no expert in art history, I cannot think of a time when the public had a fascination or awe for art. Patrons of the arts, regardless of the period, have always been different from the public—more monied, more refined in their tastes, more exacting in their demands. When art attempts to appeal to the public, it becomes what Dooney decries: “just another form of easy-to-consume entertainment.”

It has always been so. Shakespeare, perhaps the most revered playwright in the English language, whose work is held up as example of written and dramatic art, was writing for that public. He was offering a commercial entertainment that had to compete with the bear-baiting entertainment just down the street. Because we, like Shakespeare, live in a material society, much of what we see and hear is that which makes money, and technically, it is some of the best work available. It may not be profound, but it is certainly of high quality. When a product has to compete, quality is often one of the results.

Public art, Dooney says, has been replaced by advertising. It’s true; when public art is not entertainment, it’s advertising. (Sometimes it’s both.) Again, this is historically what has happened age after age. Some of the best art we know of was created in the service of those who were able to afford it and supported whatever cause or interest was important to those patrons. Whether we call that cause advertising or propaganda or religion or politics is immaterial.  Much of the work, which we today consider “fine,” was created to satisfy some ulterior purpose, not just for display and contemplation.

“For art to matter again,” Dooney says, “it has to be seen everywhere, every day.” She goes on to note that “many [artists] are trying to make their work more accessible – more apparent – to those who care about it.” She continues, “street artists are probably the ones who best understand this.” I would add that advertisers and producers of commercial “art” products also understand this very well.

Unfortunately, unless you are one of those street artists, the easiest way to make your work accessible is to participate in the commodification of art. You sell your work as best you can. If you become collectable, then you can participate in the investment commodification of art to which Hughes was referring. Selling out? Maybe. But, no matter how profound your work, if it is not accessible in some way, it’s not going to impact anyone. (Note: this does not mean making your work appeal to everyone; see “Making Your Art Accessible Is Making a Mistake.”)

And Dooney understands this. And while her work may not appeal to everyone, she has worked for years to make it accessible to virtually anyone who has a computer and internet access. (This is discussed at length in her blog.)

And she is right; there is much wrong with the art world, but then there is much wrong with the world in general, and much of what is wrong with the art world is a reflection of that larger theatre in which it operates. And unless we manage to change the system, or somehow circumvent it, it is within this system that we in the arts must work.

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

Titles Are Important

Sunday, 5. August 2012 23:23

Titles are on my mind again. Although some will say that titles don’t matter, I know that I think about them, and when I have work that needs them I try to find something that really does connect with the work in some way. I do this because I have repeatedly watched people look at art work, then look at the title card, then look back at the work, and then, usually softly say, “Oh…” like they hadn’t gotten it until they read the title card.

Patrons really do expect names on things, sometimes relying on those names to guide them in their judgment of the piece and its purpose or meaning. That makes the title important. That a viewer needs guidance may represent a failing for the piece of art, or it may speak to the amount of mental work a viewer is willing to invest. And while I don’t believe the title should explain the work, I think perhaps a bit of guidance is not unwarranted. And certainly connection between the title and the work is necessary.

Sometimes the name of a piece jumps out of the work spontaneously, making it so organic that it’s difficult for the artist to think about the piece without about the title. Other times, it’s more difficult. Sometimes, it seems impossible.

The immediate cause for my concern is a new diptych. Unfortunately, the concept of each piece taken individually is complex, so putting the pieces together just compounds the complexity. That intricacy is, of course, the source of the problem. I refuse to have a title that “explains” the piece or tries to summarize the subtext, and I think that falling back on “untitled” is a cheap way out.

At the same time that I was trying to name the diptych, I spoke with an artist who finds naming difficult and who was fretting that he had given a piece a “wrong” name. The name, he said, not only provided no insight into the work, but actually misled viewers. His solution was simple; he renamed the piece once the show that it was in closed. And I had to agree, the second name was far superior to the first.

Of course, there are people who are good at naming things. Damien Hirst comes to mind; in fact, some would say that Hirst is better at naming art than creating it. For example, how much better could a title be than The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living? A touch long perhaps, and it may or may not actually be relevant to a dead shark in a tub of formaldehyde, but it is a great title.

Not everyone has Hirst’s facility for naming. A number of artists have great difficulty titling pieces, regardless of whether they are verbal, visual, or plastic. It is evidently a significant enough problem that there are numerous internet how-to pages on naming art; for instance, there are articles on wikiHow and,, and Most of these pages offer very simple to-the-point methodologies for naming. In some cases, unfortunately, the advice is not only simple, but simplistic, which will result in titles, but not very good ones. But at least it’s a starting point.

Irrespective of the source, the title and the art work need to be unified; that’s almost as important as the title itself. And in order to attain that unity, we must attempt to generate titles that come as close to that ideal of the self-generated organic name as we possibly can.

Category:Communication | Comments (1) | Author: