Post from August, 2013

New Beginnings

Sunday, 25. August 2013 23:19

If you have an academic day job, as I have, you know that it is the beginning of the new school year.  It’s the time for meetings and planning and looking ahead. People have ideas about how to do it differently this time. They are certain that this year will be better and that more and better education will occur. Almost all of my academic colleagues are of the same mind. And even if you have a twelve-month gig, as I do, it’s still very like the New Year. Everyone has new resolutions, new approaches, new techniques that they are anxious to try. And the good news is that we also get a new year at the same time everyone else does, because—at least in most places—the New Year brings a new semester, and we get, yet again, to start over.

But academics are not quite as lucky as artists. As artists we get to have a new beginning every time we start a new project. Never mind that there are three projects in limbo and two others in progress, every new one offers a brand new beginning, so every time we have an idea that we decide to pursue, we have the opportunity to make it better than we ever have, adding new ideas and experiences to this newest piece of our work.

Actors get a fresh start with every new role. Each new production is a new beginning, even if they have played the role before. There are new things to learn, new approaches to the character, new techniques for communicating the new insights to the audience, and again, new life experiences and new ideas to bring to the stage or screen this time around.

As it is with actors, so it is with directors and choreographers: a new show means a new approach, a reevaluation of old ideas, a fresh canvas, a new opportunity. A new production means a new beginning, even if it’s an old problem, a work that has been done before repeatedly. And if it’s a new piece, that’s even better. Even if you’re working with the same actors or dancers or singers that you collaborated with on the last project, there is new opportunity that can only happen with new material. And that new material provides an even more exciting chance to try out new ideas, new methodologies.

So it is for painters, photographers, sculptors, print makers. Artists are fortunate. Unless they are remarkably imaginative, most non-artists are confined to one renewal a year—on January 1; academics often get two. Artists get to have a new opportunity every time a new project comes up, which, thankfully, is quite often. Even if it’s the same subject matter, or the same series, or the same technique, or the same philosophy, each new work presents the occasion to do something new, something different, something that will advance our art.

There are many advantages to being an artist, not the least of which is the structure of the work. Many jobs require continuing attention to an ongoing never-changing stream of data or sales or development or whatever. Art, on the other hand, while equally never-ending, divides itself conveniently into projects. And in that is salvation. As artists we are not confined to the treadmill of continuous mind- and soul-numbing repetitive work. Rather, we originate, develop, and complete a project, then move on to the next one. And each interval between provides a respite, and each new project provides a renewal, a freshness, a new beginning.

We are indeed fortunate to be in almost constant renewal. What other profession presents that possibility? So let’s take a moment to appreciate the structure of our work. Here’s to new beginnings.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

It’s for Our Own Good

Sunday, 18. August 2013 23:37

We all stand in need of protection. At least it seems that way if you keep up with international arts news.

Until someone called attention to it in print, Hamlet was censored in the British Library because the text contained “violent content.” Yes, I would say that it does. Now, whether the literary violence in Hamlet could possibly incite someone to commit similar acts, or perhaps somehow interfere with his/her proper growth and development is, in my estimation, doubtful. The British Museum, however, defended its censorship “saying that it wanted to protect the children visiting the building from content ‘such as pornography and gambling websites.’” If you’re sitting there trying to connect pornography and gambling to Hamlet, you begin to understand the difficulty I have with their position.

In Australia an exhibition of international documentary photography was “heavily censored” by the New South Wales government tourism agency because the images were not “family-friendly.” Further, it was reported that the choices of which images to be removed from the show were “puzzling,” which seems to mean that the rationale was not at all clear. Never mind that “the photographers for the festival had been selected ‘expressly for their integrity and compassion and commitment to human values. Their work admonishes society about the effects of violence and conflict, poverty and oppression, and the real consequences they have for real people.’” Never mind that one of the works removed had won the World Press Award and another had been featured on the cover of an international magazine; both had been seen by millions of people.

And lest you think that this movement is belongs strictly to the British Commonwealth, perhaps the most extreme case reported recently was the alleged censoring of  Koliivschina: Judgment Day, a mural by Volodymyr Kuznetsov, by the director of the Kiev Museum—with black paint. There seems to be no denial of the censorship, but rather the museum’s defense of the action:  it censored work that played “into prejudicial viewpoints,” which was “not in keeping with the spirit of the exhibition.”

In all three of these cases, some person who had power or influence, had taken it upon him/herself to predetermine what the audience of a particular venue could and could not see, and had decided that certain pieces had the potential of offending or somehow damaging some segment of that audience. This is the sort of thing that George Orwell ran into when he initially tried to publish Animal Farm. This fear of offending someone has permeated much of the artistic universe—at least on the part of non-artists. Salman Rushdie recently spoke in Scotland about the new “’culture of offendedness’. . . saying that people increasingly ‘define ourselves by hate.’”

Artists are impacted as well. Recently in a discussion on LinkedIn, fine art photographers discussed limiting their online offerings for a variety of reasons, all of which boiled down to not wanting to offend. Such thinking indicates that Rushdie may well be right.

In “All Art is Censored Art” I argued that the only artistically valid censorship is self-censorship. But sometimes even that validity can be called into question. If Rushdie is right and people are currently defining themselves by what they hate instead of what they like, we, as artists, are not required to play into that; we are not required to worry about whom we might offend. If children need protection, let their minders learn where the off switches are and how to control what the child is and is not allowed to see—not because the material is or should be censored, but because the child’s activities are properly monitored and he/she is taught what is and is not appropriate.

And, most important, if the artist puts it out into the world, and curator puts it into the show, then let the audience see it. Audiences, on the whole, do not need the protection of some self-serving demagogue deciding what is and is not appropriate for them to see. Let them see it and decide for themselves, and their children.

Category:Audience | Comment (0) | Author:

The Cup Exercise

Sunday, 11. August 2013 23:09

Like many people, I have a coffee cup collection—rather had a coffee cup collection. It was not a conscious collection; I didn’t scour shops for the correct cup to add to my assortment. Instead, it sort of built itself over time: a gift here, a souvenir there, a gimme at a conference. Probably it was much like your collection. But recently, I decided I really needed the cabinet space other uses. Since cups hardly ever lose their utility, I decided to give them away, and as I pulled them off the shelf I tried to think about who, if anyone, might find a particular cup interesting or engaging.

Most of the cups were dated or lacking in potential appeal to my target group of recipients. As I took down one cup, however, I immediately thought, “This belongs to Freddie.” The cup is white porcelain with an enameled rainbow wrapped around it. The rainbow ends in cup-colored bricks with no fill colors. Beside the unfinished structure is a little sign that says “Under Construction.” Why the immediate connection? Freddie (not her real name, of course) is a young, very talented, multi-disciplined artist, who day-by-day is building her future in art—and who also happens to be transsexual. The cup, over 30 years old, was originally an idealistic statement about building a beautiful future. It still is, but because the rainbow now has additional connotations, it has acquired an overlay that both enlarges and modifies that meaning.

The larger thought that came from this exercise is about how art stands up through time, or doesn’t, or, as in the case of this cup, takes on different meaning. It’s worth thinking about, because art, good art, lasts. Good art, while it decidedly speaks to its immediate audience, continues to speak through time.

This is the reason that we make pilgrimages to see the Pietà, or Starry Night, or any number of other works. It’s why we marvel at the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, not because he was able to do such excellent work with such primitive equipment (although that too), but because his images still speak to us. It’s the reason that we keep coming back to stare at The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Ongoing appeal is certainly not limited to visual and plastic arts; we find it in performing arts as well.  It’s the reason that Jean Anouilh was able to make the story of Antigone have a special significance for the people of occupied France in 1944. (Why the Nazis didn’t pick up on it is completely beyond me—it’s not all that subtle.) And it’s why theatre companies continue to produce the plays of Shakespeare—in a variety of settings, time periods, and styles. Aside from amazing language, the stories and characters speak to people of all times.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the appeal of any of these will continue, but I suspect that it will. And that is because these works exemplify the epitome of artistry and because they continue to touch on issues important to humans and the human condition. Whether an artist can set out to create art that does that and be successful at it is open to discussion, but I doubt it. Those attempts usually come off as abstract and not very engaging. Instead of trying to make “art for the ages,” we should, like all of the artists mentioned above, focus on making the best art we can, very specific art that will speak to our own time and culture.

Some of it may live on.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

You Gotta Get Your Stuff Out There

Sunday, 4. August 2013 23:34

An artist I know has just begun to put some of her work on the web. There were two reasons for her hesitancy: (1) she makes some very complicated pieces and was, for a long time, concerned about having her ideas copied before she could get them fully developed.  (2) She was somewhat influenced by another artist who refuses share his work in any way on the internet due to fear of theft.

What finally convinced her to put work on the internet was the advice of a mutual acquaintance who said, “You just gotta get out there and shake your booty. You want people to know who you are, and the only way to do that is to show off a little, put your stuff out there and be ready to tell people why they need to take it home with them. ” Sound advice I think.

But there are some legitimate concerns associated with putting your work out there, the first and foremost being that people will steal it. There are many on the internet who know nothing of copyrights and others who simply do not care. If it’s out there, it’s free and available, so they take it.

The other side of the coin is that if you don’t put it out there, nobody knows that you have made it, and that means that nobody except those you show physically become at all familiar with your work. Now that may be fine with you. Many of us ultimately make art for ourselves, but most of us would be pleased to sell a piece once in a while. The odds of doing that are much better if you have a larger audience.

Sure people will pin your work and like your work and make desktop backgrounds of your work, all without your permission or supervision. But some of them may like your art enough to reach out to you and negotiate the purchase of an original piece. Again, the odds of that happening are far greater if more people are aware of your art. Several artists I know say that their goal is to sell art to people they don’t know—to make work that appeals to people who are not family or friends. That can’t happen if those strangers don’t know what you do, and as stimulating as showing your work physically might be, whether it’s in a group show, solo show, or gallery presentation, you cannot possibly reach as many people as you could with carefully placed postings to internet sites, including your own.

Now it becomes a question of how much of it you put out there, and how you represent yourself. Once we make that decision to put our stuff out there, we take responsibility for our internet presence: what we show, how we show, and where we show. There is certainly no requirement that we put everything we make on the web or provide unrestricted access to what we do publish electronically.

And, of course, there are those aspects we can’t control: who’s going to pin it, who’s going to like it, who’s going to link to it, who’s going to steal it. But there a significant number of aspects we can control, and there are many tools available to make this job easier.

What those of us who decide that we want to show and sell online have to do is balance our own comfort level with the necessity to publicize what we do. It’s not easy because there are opportunities—and scams—everywhere. Of course, there is still the bricks-and-mortar approach, but those opportunities are scarce and put our work in front of far fewer eyes. There is, however, no reason that we cannot use multiple venues and multiple strategies to offer our work. But regardless of the approaches we choose, we have to take the first step: we gotta get our stuff out there.

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