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A Question of Actor Ethics

Sunday, 20. May 2018 22:40

In my “Development of Cinema” course we discuss some questions of actor ethics. Such discussions usually revolve around the question of whether African-Americans who worked in the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s did an ethical thing since most of those moves dealt in racial stereotypes; whether Stepin Fetchit’s choice to portray a stereotype in the 1930s and 40s was an ethical choice; whether actors, because they are role models for many young people, are obligated to consider how they might influence youth with a role choice. It’s all academic, all classroom discussion, which, as usual, has very little to do with real life.

A real-life situation occurred a few weeks ago in New Orleans. A Louisiana utility company held hearings to gauge support construction of a gas-based power plant. Professional actors were hired to wear shirts that advocated this position, and sometimes to speak with a prepared script and to vocally opposed “any conversation about renewable energy alternatives.” This was not a stage, not a sound stage, but a political “town hall” meeting. The actors were hired to influence public opinion both during the meeting and in video clips which would inevitably appear on television. That actors were hired was confirmed by the energy company, but the blame was put onto the PR firm.

While news outlets are questioning the ethics of hiring actors to falsify public opinion, a practice called “astroturfing,” I am more concerned with the ethics of the actors who took those jobs. Some of my students argue that portraying a character, however bad a role model that character might be, is an actor’s job and that most audience members can distinguish between reality and movie fiction.

In this situation there was no movie fiction; there was only the pretense of real life.

This is not the same question as should an artist take commissions that are contrary to that artist’s personal belief or do work that supports this or that viewpoint. We have no way to know what the opinions of the hired actors it this instance were. The questions is rather: should actors use their skills to “actively mislead the public and corrupt the democratic process?”

The actor’s job certainly is to portray characters not him/herself. Mightn’t the performances given at the public meeting in New Orleans constitute performance art? Does dramatic art really require a fictional framework? Does appearing in a public hearing as a grassroots activist constitute legitimate acting work?

Starving artists might do anything for a dollar. Is it more legitimate to portray a “citizen” at a hearing than to sell plasma at a blood bank? If the question is survival, is there an ethical line that one might not cross, or is survival all, and one does whatever one can to continue?

You are observing that this post has devolved into questions. It has—because the ethics of acting, the ethics of any art are, to my knowledge, not taught in any school of any art, at least in the US. (I have no knowledge of arts education in other countries.) And there is a larger question: is the question of ethics in art even a valid question?  Artist are supposed to explore, to challenge, to question. Should an artist’s ethics even be a topic of discussion?

Your thoughts?

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The Significance of Juxtaposition

Monday, 7. May 2018 0:39

A piece of mine that was just in a juried show was displayed in the center of a panel with two works on either side. To the left of my piece was a smaller piece, a watercolor, that was sold. Now, this particular show did not use the discrete quarter- or eighth-inch dots indicating that a piece was sold; rather they used red dots one inch in diameter. There was no question about whether the piece sold or not. What was apparent, however, was that that red dot influenced not only the piece to which it was “attached,” but the rest of the panel as well. It said, “Someone has paid hard cash for this piece, but not for the rest of these pieces.” It also said, “This piece is sold. Won’t someone buy one of these others?” It made viewers look at the other pieces on the panel differently.

Viewers were almost compelled to compare the pieces on the panel in ways that they normally would not. There was no question that the sold piece was good, but its status caused the viewers to examine each of the other pieces on the panel to determine whether they were actually of lesser quality, or whether the purchase was strictly a matter of individual taste. The red dot seemed particularly to invite comparison to the piece beside it. The pieces were not only different thematically, they were different media. No one would have ever thought to compare the two, except for that “sold” sticker.

In another part of the show, there were two pieces on an endcap. One was a framed oil painting approximately 24”x30,” and on a pedestal probably a foot away from the endcap wall was a sculpture about a foot high which was exceptional. I paused to look at the sculpture several times before I ever realized that the painting was there. Not only was it there, but it was excellent, and, incidentally, by the same artist who had done the sculpture. What was interesting was that the juxtaposition of the two pieces gave almost all of the focus to the sculpture. Had the painting been located anywhere else in the room, it would have been a stand-out. As it was, it was consistently upstaged by the piece of sculpture.

As usual, after I got home, I went through the catalogue of the show, and, as usual, found pieces that I don’t remember seeing in the exhibition hall. Now I wonder if I saw them, but they were located beside other pieces that took focus, either because of placement or quality or perhaps because of a red dot placed on an adjacent piece.

In a juried show, the artist has very little, if any, say over where or how his/her pieces are displayed. Likewise, the artist has no control over which pieces sell and which ones don’t; indeed, a piece may attract no buyers in one show, but sell immediately in another. The takeaway can only be that how work is displayed and what the adjacent pieces are is in no way a reflection on the artist. Similarly, whether a piece sells may also be a function of placement and juxtaposition and not a reflection on the artist.

Several years ago, I wrote a post called “Context Matters.” Now I find that that idea may now need to be expanded and refined to say “not only does context matter, so does juxtaposition.”

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“That Works” Is Insufficient

Monday, 23. April 2018 0:34

Years ago, if memory serves, Jack Lemmon on Inside the Actors Studio expressed an intense dislike for the phrase, “that works.” He did not explain. At the time, I thought it was a curious comment since it’s a phrase that is heard constantly in artistic endeavors. It is applied to not only acting, but also to painting, composition, sculpture, directing, photography, and many other art genres. What could be wrong with that phrase? It indicates when things “click,” when they mesh, when parts come together and make a whole. Generally, the phrase is used to indicate acceptability or success.

In the last post I discussed John Chamberlain’s 1982 artist statement, wherein he says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.”  Chamberlain initially seems to equate intuitive thinking or intuition with editing ability: “I’ve done pieces, for example, on which were piled as many as 40 to 50 parts, but none was totally interlocked, or welded. That is the sexual fit. Intuition, however, may have made me remove some, or many, of the parts.”

But for Chamberlain intuition is more than just editing; he goes on to say, “Intuition will indicate when something is not acceptable, even though it might work. That it works is not necessarily enough. It can be acceptable, but something more is needed. The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or, it is a piece of work. “

So for Chamberlain, and I expect for Lemmon, “that works” is insufficient. It is that something beyond acceptability which makes a piece into a work of art instead of being just materials, or in some cases junk. The problem is that we have no name for that something. It is certainly not perfection. Hardly anyone who is a serious artist expects perfection. If not perfection, then what?

How about excellence? “That works” does imply success or acceptability. However, excellence goes beyond mere success or acceptability. Excellence means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” So Chamberlain, and one assumes Lemmon, expected to produce work that was not acceptable, but work that was excellent. That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that is being met only part of the time by a portion of artists. If you attend any art show or theatre performance you may see work that is excellent, but you are very likely to see work that is just acceptable. The reasons, I think, are many: a de-emphasis on excellence in artist training, the pressure to put work out in order to be seen and known, the emphasis on showing rather than on working. Chamberlain resisted the impulse to produce work quickly, or at least so he says: “If I were zippy and worked hard all the time, what I’d create would be of little value; I’d make too many mistakes.”

Perhaps we should adopt Chamberlain’s attitude and resist the impulse to “get the work out.” If producing is our goal, we are more likely to create work that is merely acceptable, about which we can say only “that works.” Perhaps instead we should take a little more time and a little more care and refuse to settle for work that is less than excellent.

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Words Matter

Sunday, 8. April 2018 23:53

Art agents, marketers and galleryists, both physical and digital, are quick to tell artists that the story behind the picture will help the sale. The story, they say, engages the viewer in a way that just studying the piece cannot. Artists, therefore, should be ready and willing to tell the story behind each image. In fact, Austin Kleon had a recent blog giving writing advice for artists and visual thinkers. Obviously, these art world figures think that words matter.

Because of my theatre background, I have always taken issue with this approach, and have been very vocal about my feelings concerning curtain speeches and program notes. Naturally, I extended this thinking to the story behind the picture. My opinion was that— just like theatre—an image should speak for itself. I may have been a bit hasty.

Since last weekend was a long weekend, I spent some time in Marfa, TX (which I recommend to nearly everyone). One of my favorite things in Marfa is the Chamberlain exhibit in downtown Marfa right beside the railroad tracks. (For anyone interested, the hours/days of opening are quirky and subject to change without notice—in fact, they’ve changed in the week since I was there.) Having seen the exhibit before, I was not surprised by anything except the laminated artist statement that was available for pickup near the entrance.

In his artist statement, written in 1982, John Chamberlain says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.” There were other things in the artist statement that were of value (and may appear here at a later time), but the comments about making decisions based on the sexual aspects of his psyche caught my eye. Two caveats, however, must be put forward: 1. this statement may not mean that sex is the topic of the sculpture but only that the pieces that he puts together to create his sculptures have a “sexual fit.” 2. Chamberlain was possessed of a wicked sense of humor, so he may have put sexual references into his artist statement just for fun.

So it’s difficult to tell whether or not he was being serious. No matter; the important part is how much those words mattered, even when they were somewhat suspect. I found the artist statement after I had made my first round of the exhibit. I read the statement and then went through the exhibit again. The pieces had changed! Or rather my perception of them had. The words had made a difference in how I was looking at the pieces and what the pieces seemed to be saying.  And it was not just the sexual references in the artist statement, but the whole of it. What was essentially a statement of Chamberlain’s approach to making art, somewhat ambiguously expressed, had altered my understanding of the pieces.

Still, I cannot fully recant my position. My position on curtain speeches and program notes has not changed. This is probably because a play by its nature speaks for itself, and if the director feels s/he has to explain the play, it probably has not been done well. And I still hold that visual art, whether it be two- or three-dimensional, should speak for itself. Like performances, if it must be explained, it’s probably not successful. However, if there are notes about artist’s procedures or ideas that are available, and those notes are absorbed by the viewer and then applied to the viewing of the art, they may well modify the viewer’s appreciation and more fully engage the viewer (regardless of the art genre). Whether this is good or bad, I cannot say; what I can say is that it’s true. Words matter.

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Do Your Chores

Monday, 26. March 2018 1:14

Last week a commencement address by Admiral William H. McRaven appeared on my Facebook feed. The sound was off but I did watch the closed captions for a few moments. McRaven suggested that we should begin every day by making our beds. His reasons were many and included accomplishing the first task of the day which sets us up to accomplish even more during the day; he also talked about the feeling of satisfaction when you come back to the made bed at the end of the day.

Some of what McRaven had to say resonated with me; I am a bed-maker, but not necessarily for the same reasons. I have not always been a bed-maker; it is something I evolved into. And certainly I would cast no disrespect on those who are not bed-makers; in fact, some of my best friends are not bed-makers. They just don’t see the importance of it.

For me, it’s just one of the many chores I do during the week. It goes along with vacuuming, and cleaning the kitchen and working in the yard and all those mindless tasks that one does during to week to “keep things up.” Those chores have value, and not just the value of “accomplishing a task” or making the environment a little neater. The value is in the mindlessness of these tasks.

It’s essentially down time, a time when the mind can run free, a time when creativity can happen. Like many who work in the arts, down time is when ideas appear. It’s a time when the conscious mind is occupied on the—usually manual—task at hand; occupied, but not very deeply. It’s a perfect time for the subconscious to whisper ideas and suggestions to that consciousness. The things that get whispered might be solutions to ongoing creative conundrums, or “brand new” ideas, or new approaches to older problems.

And those of us who make no room for down time are likely to find ourselves burned out. Down time is necessary. Every artist needs some down time, usually every day.

Some artists have found a variety of ways to create down time. For example, some artists walk; this is true of Wallace Stevens, Thoreau, Ingmar Bergman, Austin Kleon, just to mention a few. Some artists get their ideas from dreams. Some meditate. Others find that the shower it the place where ideas can be found. The list could go on, but what all of these things have in common is that the artist is occupied doing something, usually physical, and the artist is not actively creating or developing ideas. Given the importance of downtime, many artists try to make such time a part of their daily routine.

But some of us have very little time in our schedules for meditation or walking. But how can we possibly work that into our schedules? Well, there are also showers and dreams, but dreams have proven unreliable and showers don’t work for everyone.

There is yet one other solution: we can do our chores. This (usually) makes our environment just a little more pleasant, and at the same time provides time for our creative minds to idle and listen to what’s going on subconsciously. And if new ideas don’t come every time, we will at least have given our creative minds a little rest, which can only make our work better.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

STEAM

Monday, 12. March 2018 0:59

Sometimes two seemingly unrelated things come together and form a completely unexpected blog post. That happened to me this week. Like most Americans, I have been reading about the #NeverAgain leaders, the survivors of the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL. What comes up again and again is how passionate and articulate these young people are—to the point of having been accused of being paid “crisis actors.” The second thing that happened was a discussion of some ongoing issues in Houston Independent School District and what that meant for English teachers; a part of this discussion was the current emphasis on STEM education. STEM, for those who don’t know, means “educating students in four specific disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.”

The emphasis on STEM education, which began in earnest with a federal government initiative 2009, is to meet a perceived need: filling the great number of STEM-related jobs that are anticipated in the very near future. Once again, US public education reconfigures itself to prepare workers, not necessarily thinkers. At the same time public educations budgets are stretched and trimmed, in many cases cutting out all enrichment programs and many extracurricular activities that do not directly support the educational fad du jour.

This is not the sort of education that the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School received. It turns out that the school has significant resources and an affluent student body. It also turns out that Broward County Public Schools, of which Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a part has a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” And it happens that the state of Florida has a very successful civics program that reaches down into middle school. Not only that, but the student leaders who have spoken so forcefully and eloquently beneficiaries of extracurricular programs in drama and journalism. That’s right, the #NeverAgain movement is being led by drama kids.

So those leaders of the #NeverAgain movement were trained by an unusual (for most of the US) collection of curricular and extracurricular programs for what they are now doing. These are the programs that made them articulate and eloquent and able to stand in front of cameras and debate with senators. Drama kids. I won’t bother to list here all the things a student can learn by participating in theatre; if you are reading this, you already know them. Suffice it to say, those skills are numerous and significant.

So while the rest of the US is training workers, Broward County Florida is training leaders. Yes, of course, that’s an exaggeration, but not by so much if you think about it. And yes, we do need technicians and engineers and doctors and physicists, but those technicians and engineers and doctors and physicists need other skills too, skills that can only be had through arts education.

Fortunately, there is a movement to insert arts into STEM education. It’s called STEAM and the A is, of course for “arts/design.” The program is being headed by one of the most prestigious arts schools in the country, Rhode Island School of Design. The good news is that, at least according to the STEM to STEAM website, STEAM is being “widely adopted by institutions, corporations, and individuals.” The bad news is that it’s not being adopted widely enough. So please support STEAM—any way you can.

Category:Education | Comment (0) | Author:

We’re All Commercial Artists

Monday, 12. February 2018 2:31

In his review of Phillip Boehm’s Alma en venta (Soul on Sale), D. L. Groover proclaims, “I guess Arcadio [the protagonist] never heard of a professional artist. Isn’t that their calling? You paint and people buy. Van Gogh wanted to sell his work, Rembrandt wanted to sell, Picasso wanted to sell. I don’t think they were troubled by their soul being appropriated.” All artists want to sell what they do.

The commercial nature of the practice of making art is not readily apparent. Most of us got into the arts world because it satisfied some need. We did not think about bringing in money when we first picked up a pencil or a paintbrush or a camera or a hammer and chisel. We talk about process and creation; we talk about technique; occasionally we talk about artifact. But we don’t talk about selling.

Except for those of us who choose to study “commercial art,” a specialized field which freely admits that talents and skills can be used to make bespoke art in exchange for money. Other arts that freely admit that a box office is part of the equation are theatre and film, but even then there is the division between art that sells well and readily (musical theatre and adventure films) and “serious art,” which sells far less well and for which there “should” be an audience, but sometimes isn’t. It’s still all about selling.

The only difference is whether an artist is tailoring his/her product [artifact] to a specific audience or whether s/he is making it for other reasons and tailoring it only to artistic and aesthetic needs, hoping that someone will like it enough to pay money for it. The second type of artist would say that the first type is commercial and pandering; the first type would say that the second type is being snobbish and unrealistic. No matter what you call it, the bottom line is that ultimately it’s still all about selling.

And there are, of course, artists who take positions all along the line from one of the above extremes to the other. Some artists take the “fine arts” approach and enter show after show, trying to gain recognition, increase their exposure, find their tribe, and ultimately sell, whether it be to individual or institutional collectors. Some show their work in online arts communities. Some narrow their work to specific niches, trying to find an audience. Some broaden their subject matter, trying for the same thing.

Other artists take a more direct commercial approach. They shift their focus from “fine art” to commodity art, creating wearable art which is often shown and sold at street festivals. Some make their work available in prints, posters and household decorative pieces sold directly to consumers through internet storefronts. Some hang out shingles and do wedding photography or commissioned work. The goal is the same: sell.

We all make art for different reasons, and we all have something to say with our art. And regardless of how significant or trivial our message, we all want our art to communicate, to be accepted, and ultimately to sell. We take many different paths, and money may not be the most important outcome, but it surely is one of the outcomes we seek—either directly or indirectly. At the bottom of it we’re really all commercial artists.

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Glimpses

Monday, 29. January 2018 2:41

Photographer Sally Mann in her memoir, Hold Still, describes her process in making the controversial pictures of her children that were published in her book Immediate Family. According to Hold Still, she would get a glimpse or even sense of a picture [read “publishable art photograph”] in perhaps a snapshot or in another image that she had produced with her constant companion, an 8×10 view camera, or even in multiple photographs. Then she would attempt to generate that picture with “dogged intent,” which sometimes resulted in shoot after shoot after shoot, occasionally with discomfort for both the model and the photographer. She goes on to talk about the feeling of exultation experienced when all the pieces come together. She likens it to “the one true sentence Hemingway writes about in A Moveable Feast.”

This post was originally intended to talk about Mann’s self-described process in creating those images—from the inspirational glimpse to the finished product, including all the attempts, the multiple failures, the almost-had-its with all the attendant discomforts and disappointments. And then I read more and thought more and decided that there was something more important to be had from this story—the glimpse.

We all have experienced it, I think, at one time or another. We’re reading a book or watching a movie or a play and suddenly there are these words or actions or a combination that resonate with us so strongly that we sometimes characterize it as “a moment of truth” in the work. It will often cause us to underline, or pause/rewind or stop the car and write down a phrase and maybe a time marker so we can go back to this truth we discovered and do something with it.

But we usually do very little with it besides appreciate it. But that, in turn, might cause us to read more by that author, see more films by that director, and I suppose that is doing “something.” If we appreciate, it becomes part of our psyche, which does influence our artistic output, and that certainly qualifies as “something.”

However, it occurs to me that we could do so much more. We could, like Mann, pursue it. We could take that little piece of truth or beauty or the suggestion of a significant image and build on it. Use it. Let it become a springboard toward the development of our own art—if we thought to do that. And there, I expect, is the problem. We seldom think to do it because we don’t see the possibilities. Mann says that she did not see the potential of her family as subject matter for a very long time because she had removed her “photography eyes,” her term for the sensibility that allows the artist “ecstatic vision,” the “intensely seeing eye” that allows the photographer or the painter or the sculptor or the director or the actor to see parts of the world as proper subject matter for art.

My takeaway from all this is twofold: (1) we need to keep our “intensely seeing eyes” open all the time lest we miss a significant opportunity. (2) When we do get a glimpse of truth or beauty we do something with it more than just jot down a note. We can use that glimpse in any number of ways to enhance and develop our own art, and if we do not, we miss the opportunity to make our work all that it could be.

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Own It

Monday, 15. January 2018 1:43

In a recent conversation with a friend who is both an artist and teacher, I asked whether she was producing any personal work. She said that she had some ideas, but lacked the time to realize them. In fact she joked that she really needed to be a student again to find the time to pursue personal work. This person is a conscientious teacher and has a rather serious computer hobby on which she spends uncountable hours.

While there may actually exist those who honestly do not have the time to produce art, most people, like the artist above, do in fact have the time if they choose to use it. But they have other priorities.

Since teaching art is how the artist mentioned above makes her living, it stands to reason that she would do something else for relaxation. That being the case, it’s disingenuous to say that she doesn’t have the time to work on personal work. Of course she has the time. What she doesn’t have is the motivation. She could easily work on personal work using a portion of her hobby time but does not. It’s just not a high enough priority.

“I don’t have time” is the often-used excuse that really means “I have other things that I want to do more.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. But why not just admit it? It almost seems that people who use the “don’t have time” excuse somehow feel that not having sufficient time for whatever  sounds somehow better than not wanting to do whatever. And that implies, I think, a little guilt for not doing whatever.

Or maybe instead of guilt, it’s a case of “shoulds.” The artist/teacher feels that s/he should be producing personal work. After all, it is expected, right? Maybe not. Maybe teaching is what that person needs to be doing and producing art is not.  Certainly there is no law that says that just because you have training in art-making of some variety that you have to produce. Some who are trained as artists are much better at teaching or researching or producing or selling or curating.

Almost everyone in the art world started as an artist, a maker of artifacts. Along the way, however, some discovered that their interests and even skills lay in what we would probably call ancillary or even art support vocations. So they put away their paintbrushes, their chisels, their poet’s pens, their cameras and got to work in their segment of the art world, contributing in ways that promote the art but don’t involve creating artifacts. And they’re good with that.  Beginning with wanting to make art does not imply a life-long commitment.

On the other hand, I know some teacher/artists who do produce art. Some are prolific and are constantly turning out work. Others produce only a small volume, but that work is usually of very high quality. This makes them no better than those art teachers who do not produce; it’s just who they are and what their priorities are.

If you are a person working in the arts who has decided not to produce artifacts or to produce just a few, good for you. Whatever your decision on making art is, own it. Don’t lie to us or to yourself about your lack of time or whatever. And since there really are no “shoulds,” there really should be no guilt. You’ve made a decision and a valid one; own it.

 

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It’s All in the Details

Sunday, 31. December 2017 19:38

One of the first things that we teach beginning scene painters is that they cannot use the detail that they would if they were painting a canvas for wall display. To begin with, the nearest audience member is likely to be at least 20-30 feet from the scenery while the farthest is likely to be over 100 feet away. This shift in perception is confusing to some new painters until they understand the viewer’s perspective. Once they figure that out, they begin to realize that we are not really asking them to omit detail; rather we are asking them to change the way they think about it.

In acting training we seem to do the opposite. We ask that actors learn everything possible about the characters they are portraying, even though some of the things they learn may not be directly useful in the show. The rationale is that the more the actor knows about the character the more thorough his/her performance is likely to be. One of my acting coaches said, “When you know whether your character likes oatmeal cookies with or without raisins, you know the character well enough. Until then, you do not.” Yes, an extreme statement, but he made the point—again asking students to change the way they think about detail.

Not only is detail important, but knowing how much to apply to any particular artistic creation is critical. Like the well-prepared actor, we may know of lots of details that relate to the subject at hand, and like the well-prepared scene painter, we can then choose whether to incorporate those details directly or hold them back. This is true in every art. Too much detail can clutter the composition and prevent proper focus on the part of the viewer. Too little detail may make the work appear barren and plain or, worse, unfinished.

And it’s not just a matter of quantity. Sometimes the trick is know exactly what detail to include, and to be sure that the included detail has just the right characteristics. I know a fine-art photographer, for example, who will spend significant time and energy modifying the color of a single fingernail. Looking at some of her intermediate proofs, I have been able to see how the color choice impacts the entire image and understand why she goes to such extremes.

And she is not the only one. Both stage and film directors spend enormous time and money on effects or props or sets that are visible to the audience for just minutes (and in some cases seconds). In the minds of these directors, those details add significantly to the meaning of the piece, justifying the expenses.

The argument that a detail is too small to be of concern, especially when it’s a tiny part of a larger, more complex work simply does not hold. The fact is that detail can make or break a work of art.  Too much and the work becomes confusing; too little and the work can be bare and unfocused. In either case, the success or failure of the work depends ultimately on the detail.

We, following the examples of the directors or actors or scene painters noted above, may need to change the way we think about detail. We need to be sure that in every piece of art we produce there exists the precise detail that not only contributes, but makes the piece. I can almost guarantee that the time and effort will be worth it.

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

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