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What We Really Want to do is Make Poetry

Monday, 14. August 2017 1:14

In reviewing the photographic work of Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer and poet, who ended his life earlier this year, I realized that each of his photographs is a visual poem—much in the same way that the late poet/songwriter/composer/performer Leonard Cohen’s songs were poetry. Note that here I am using the secondary definition of poetry: “a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems.” And those characteristics are specifically, “a concentrated awareness of experience” created with elements “arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”

One often hears about the poetry of a Tennessee Williams play, or the poetry of a particular ballerina, or the visual poetry of any number of painters and photographers. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the iconographic work in every genre of art, indeed in every sub-genre, is poetic in nature, i.e. they have some sort of concentrated awareness, the elements of which are arranged to work intricately with each other to generate a specific emotional or intellectual response.

A simplistic explanation would be that the “poetic” artist is simply following the Principles of Design. Although sources provide many different lists of these principles, the Getty list is a solid one and lists nine principles of design: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. And yes, these principles do contribute to poetic possibilities of a work of art.

But that’s not enough. Many artists work to use all nine elements in their work, and that work (including poetry itself) may qualify as “good” or even “very good,” but it never quite rises to the level of poetry that I am talking about. We have all seen plays, movies, dance productions, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and have heard songs, concerts, readings that, upon analysis, did use all of the principles of design, but only a few reach that iconic level that I am calling poetry.

The question is why. If all the pieces are there, what prevents the work from reaching its absolute potential? The answer, I think, is all of those elements must not only be there, but must be interconnected and work together—along with form and content—like the wheels and cogs in an intricate mechanical device. Indeed these elements must be melded together integrally so that it is almost impossible for the viewer to isolate any one individual part. This fusion of all the components of the piece creates a beauty that is larger than the sum of the parts.

And that is what we who claim to be artists are trying to do—make work that transcends the components that we manipulate to create the work. And even though the Ren Hangs and Tennessee Williamses and Leonard Cohens make it look easy, it isn’t. (And if you dig, you‘ll discover it wasn’t easy for them either.) But, like them, we want our work to be the best it can be, and that requires constant effort and self-evaluation. But with effort, we too can make work that may not be perfect, but is certainly poetry.

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Conceptual Art or Intellectual Exercise?

Sunday, 2. July 2017 23:58

On June 21, the New York Times reported that Jeff Koonswould donate a monumental sculpture, a hand holding a bouquet of balloon tulips, to the City of Paris to honor victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks.” It turns out, however, that “Mr. Koons donated the concept, not the construction,” and that the city needed to raise $3.9 million to make and install the 30-ton work.

The whole notion of conceptual art is controversial and has been since its inception. An internet slide show about it defines conceptual art as “art that is intended to convey an idea or concept to the perceiver and need not involve the creation of appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting of sculpture. (Dictionary)”

Some say that all art is conceptual, at least all good art. Such work has something to say and says it with greater or lesser measures of success. “Conceptual art,” as a movement, simply values “the ideas over the formal or visual components of art works.

Implicit in any definition or discussion of conceptual art is the idea that there must be a physical manifestation of the concept. Even some of the more extreme examples, such as the text work of Lawrence Weiner has physical manifestation, albeit lettering on a wall (here, for example).

While no one is challenging the value of a great idea, whether artistic or technical, the question becomes whether it is legitimate to call such an idea art. A concept is no more than a theory or idea. It must be realized to become art. Anyone who works as an artist knows that there are many ideas or concepts that die in the attempted realization. This fact has driven a number of artists to adopt new media to their service—because the need to realize the idea was so strong.

Even with that, some concepts seemingly defy adequate expression: an idea just doesn’t work as a stage or screen play once you try to express it in dialogue. The thought cannot be realized fully in two-dimensional space. The concept cannot find proper expression in any plastic medium.

Whatever the reason, an unrealized concept is just that—unrealized. It’s an idea, a vision, and nothing more. And attempting to pass off an unrealized idea as art turns that art into an intellectual exercise, or, at worst, an art-world in-joke which is really about cleverness and ego rather than anything that could reasonable be called art.

What Koons attempted to “donate” was the idea of a sculpture, not the sculpture itself. He wanted to give Paris an idea. This is not completely unprecedented; Sol LeWittsold wall drawings that buyers then executed on their own.

Although opinion is divided about the Koon’s “gift,” the majority seem to fall into the negative column. These responses may be best summed up by Isabel Pasquier, an art critic at one of France’s leading radio stations: “Whether you appreciate his art or not, Jeff Koons is a businessman, and we quickly understood that he was offering Paris to himself as a present.”

Good art must, I think, communicate with the perceiver. Conceptual artists would argue that what is communicated is an idea, a concept. While that view is certainly valid, it is also valid that art might communicate an emotion, a feeling and be just as successful. The one thing that is certain—at least in my mind—is that whatever art communicates, that art must be realized in the physical world, no matter how ephemeral that realization might be. Otherwise it’s not art; it’s a dream.

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Art is Powerful and so are Artists

Tuesday, 7. February 2017 0:37

This week a conversation with a friend who is an actor and a writer turned to politics, as so many conversations do these days. He said that he was being very cautious lately because “Federico Garcia Lorca was shot in the street.  You know that sometimes they take the poets first. Why do they do that?” “Because artists are powerful,” was my response.

I was thinking at the time about Patsy Rodenberg’s comments in the video Why I Do Theatre. She says much the same thing as my friend, that often repressive regimes want to suppress the artists first, because artists are powerful and use that power to tell the truth, which is something intolerable to those same repressive governments.

Make no mistake, art is indeed powerful. And that power ranges from the trivial (Hitler’s toothbrush mustache was reportedly copied from Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy) to the profound  (Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, among others moved people with their photographs of American farmers during the Great Depression. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a response to the witch trials of 1950s McCarthyism. Shepherd Fairey’s Hope poster became for a time one of modern America’s most influential and imitated pieces of art.)

And powerful art is not limited to the US. Leo Tolstoy has been an influence on a significant numbers of other writers, philosophers, and politicians. Anouilh’s Antigone “became a symbol for the [French] underground during WWII). Rodenberg’s South African actors had all been imprisoned, presumably because they spoke the truth and had influence, at least in the view of Apartheid.  Ai Weiwei continues to make art that is “highly and openly critical of the Chinese Government’s stance on democracy and human rights.

And the power of art translates into personal power for the artist. In a Tiffany’s ad during the 2017 Super Bowl, Lady Gaga says that her transformation into an artist was due to the power that she felt; she goes on to say that talking about how creative one is is “empowering and important.”

Perhaps it’s time that we too recognize the power that we have, that we understand the nature and the potential influence of the creativity we possess. The artists that produced many of the Super Bowl 2017 ads did just that. In addition to making ads to influence buying, several made ads with political content, one of which was so powerful that Fox Sports deemed it “too controversial” to present in full so it ended with a web address where viewers could see the conclusion. The ad generated enough traffic to the 84 Lumber website where the entire ad was posted to crash the website. That’s power.

Certainly all of us do not set out to make political art—but it may be anyway. Nobel winner Toni Morrison has said that “all good art is political.” And she makes a pretty good case for there being no other choice. Morrison is not the only person who thinks this is the case. Regardless of whether we agree, we must remember that by virtue of being creative and artistic, what we make is important and influential and we, ourselves, are powerful. How we use that power is up to each of us individually.

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The Line Between Art and Not

Sunday, 29. November 2015 23:56

Where is the line between Instagram and fine art photography?

Where is the line between popular fiction and literature? (Anyone who says that popular literature has nothing to say about the human condition has read neither Dickens nor King.)

Where is the line between flash mob and ballet?

Where is the line between “tired businessman” theatre and real dramatic art? (We are taught that Shakespeare’s work competed with bear-baiting for the tired businessmen of his day.)

Where is the line between greeting card or newspaper verse and poetry?

Where is the line between sketches, illustrations, and cartoons and visual fine art? (And if there is a line on which side of it do Ralph Steadman and Banksy fall?)

Where are the lines between pornography, pinup art, erotic art, artistic nude, and fine art?

Where is the line between commercial film and art film? (So where do Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen belong?)

Where is the line between movie music and symphony? (Then where does John Williams fit in?)

Where is the line between professional wrestling and performance art?

Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra speaking in Kristoffer Diaz’s Pulitizer finalist play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity says there is none. He speaks passionately about the art that is professional wrestling. Luis Galindo, the actor who portrayed Macedonio in the Stages Repertory Theatre production of the play says, “Ultimately, the play is about art.” Even Wikipedia recognizes professional wrestling as a performing art. There is no question that it is performance, but where does it fall in the art continuum? Where are the lines?

Even though the postmodernists said that there is no distinction between high and low art, many who are in the arts act as though the opposite were true. Perhaps it is because many of us in the arts are snobs. Maintaining this position is becoming more and more a difficult in a world where everything is open to investigation with the click of a mouse.

It seems to me that the question is not so much where the line is, but whether there really is a line at all. Is it all just about labels?

Penn Jillette says in Every Day is an Atheist Holiday, “Ron Jeremy has the same job as Picasso and Bach. I know that the mall Santa is the same as Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn.” He seems to equate art and show business and says, paraphrasing Billy West, that there is only one show business and all artists and performers are in it.

Of course there is art that is more sophisticated than other art. There is art that encompasses what it means to be human in a much more profound way than other art. There is art that is more expensive than other art.

So perhaps the line should not be between high and low, but between more and less sophisticated or more and less profound or even more and less valuable.

However, the fact that some art is more something-or-other than other art does not prevent the less something-or-other art from being art from speaking to people. Perhaps those people have less education, less sophistication, less money. That does not mean that art that appeals to them is worthless. It just means that those of us who spend our time thinking about art have to think about it all, not just the parts that we think are worthy or the parts that we like.

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High, Low, and Hot

Sunday, 6. September 2015 23:59

The first time I encountered the question of high and low art was in college. When I questioned a professor on why Erskine Caldwell was not critically considered, I was treated to a very interested dose of double-speak, which boiled down to he didn’t know but felt obligated to defend the position of those who did. Since that time I have learned several things, not the least of which is that Caldwell’s books had, in fact, “won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among Southerners.” Perhaps the problem was that I went to the college in the South.

For those who haven’t encountered the terms, “high art is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste. Low art is for the masses, accessible and easily comprehended.” It’s an idea that has its origins in the 18th century, and quickly became the “’correct’ way to classify art.”

We read over and over again that the distinction between high and low art has been eliminated. First it was the post-modernists. Then it was the French New Wave. Then it was Andy Warhol. And there were others, but the idea persists. In fact, the idea is so persistent that Ivan Hewett, writing for The Telegraph in January, 2015 asks “Is it time to end the distinction between high and low art?

Hewett is not the only one. Michael Nirenberg in “It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps” reviews the book by the same name specifically discussing the cover art work on men’s adventure magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Nirenberg makes the point that Mort Künstler, Norman Saunders, Clarence Dore, George Mayers, George Gross, John Styga, Joe Little, Walter Popp, James Bama, and Norm Eastman have created cover art that is nothing short of amazing. “Each page is a study in classic fine art illustration….These artists were able to harness the high art aspirations of American realism and apply it to what was considered low culture values at the time.”

Huffington Post Senior Arts and Culture Editor, Katherine Brooks also wants to end the distinction. In “I Beg Of Your, Please Stop Saying ‘This Isn’t Art” she says, “one man’s trashy art is another man’s masterpiece.” Her assertion is based on scientific studies which find that our aesthetic experiences activate brain areas “that are largely constant across individuals. But these areas are responsible for mediating our subjective and personal experiences.” She concludes that Kant’s idea that beauty is subjective is, in fact, correct and that “humans are capable of having very, very different tastes in art.”

So, at least according to these writers, it’s not about the subject matter or the appeal of the work (although some would say it is about the quality of the work). The division between high and low art is completely artificial, having grown out of a period when the classification and sub-classification of virtually everything was thought to be imperative.

It isn’t. Whether we appreciate Claude Monet or Robert Crumb or Steven King or Leo Tolstoy or Neil Gaiman or Pablo Picasso or one of the “pulp artists” listed above is not important. What should be more concerning is that there are people, educated people, cultured people, people of great taste who appreciate each of these artists. Indeed, there are some who appreciate all of these artists and many more. The question is: what to those who appreciate it all know that we don’t? Perhaps we should be learning whatever that is.

(The title? It came from a radio show that I listened to when I was quite young and radio station offerings were an eclectic jumble of shows that would appeal to different audience segments at various times of the day. “High, Low, and Hot” was an afternoon show that featured blues, jazz—old and new, and R&B, with complete disregard for which were considered high and which low. It was, I am discovering, remarkably influential in forming my personal aesthetic.)

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The Problem with Porn

Tuesday, 14. July 2015 23:23

One of the Terms of Use of a web-site hosting company to which I was planning on moving my web sites is “No adult content.” That phrase is usually code for pornography, but still, it is an ambiguous term that is open to a lot of interpretations. Since some of my work is not appropriate for children and because I didn’t want to make an expensive mistake, I asked for a clarification. They asked to see my work so they could make a determination. I sent them links to my photography web site and to a couple of projects that have not yet appeared on the web. They concluded that my work was definitely not pornography and that they would be happy to host my site.

This incident led me to think about pornography—what it is, how it works. So I did a little informal research. One of the first things I discovered was that no two people have the same definition. Even dictionaries disagree about the definition. I discovered that almost everyone has an opinion. Some I asked even took the discussion beyond definitions and opined about various sociological and psychological impacts of porn. It also became apparent that the range of activities that constitute porn also varies from person to person.

Definitions seemed not only to revolve around content, but around treatment as well: “intercourse filmed for commercial purposes,” “impersonal recording of sex,” “a visual recording of sex that has no artistic merit,” “it has to do with intent.”

Some could not frame a definition and were of the “I can’t really give you a definition, but I know it when I see it” school of thought made famous by Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio. (Obviously, the sales staff at my new hosting site are in this camp.)

Interestingly, almost everyone—except those whose ideas included an extremely wide range of “offensive” behaviors—had a definition that contained at least one element of the Miller Test, although no one quoted it directly or stated it in exactly the same way. (I’m sure that some I asked had never even heard of Miller v. California.)

Why is that important? Well, one of the elements of the Miller test that was mentioned had to do with art. The respondent said that porn is a work about sex “having little or no artistic merit.” (Actually Miller is considerably broader than that.)

It turns out that no one knows what that phrase means either—mostly because no one can articulate the components of artistic merit. Again, they know it when they see it, or so they say; they just don’t have the words to define it. In this case, however, I may have a clue. A couple of people that I talked to suggested that one of the problems with pornography is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. A slight change of wording yields “pornography does not engage the imagination of the audience.” And that, I think, in addition to being true, is the key.

The next step for me was to look at pieces of art that are non-pornographic in terms of content. Of the pieces that are, to my mind, very good, those that exhibit significant artistic merit, in some way engage the audience’s imagination. It may be that the audience wonders how the story ends; it may be that the audience tries to discern the meaning of the piece; it may be that audience spends some time putting the elements of the piece together; it may be some entirely different thing. There are certainly many ways to engage an audience’s imagination.

But some artists don’t bother. Art that falls into the less-than-significantly-good categories, even though it adheres to the principles of design and all of the corollaries, does not engage the viewer’s imagination. This seems to hold true for all media, at least all that I examined. It’s a simple thing—engaging the imagination of the audience—but a very important thing. It is something of which all artists should be aware if they are not already.

So the problem with porn, or at least one of the problems with porn, is the same as the problem with much art that we find lacking: it fails to engage the imagination of its audience. Engaging the imagination of the viewer may not be on our minds as we create, but perhaps it should be. Perhaps it should be foremost in our minds—that is if we want our work to be the best it can be.

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Gaming the System, Part 2

Monday, 20. April 2015 1:00

Last year I posted and article called “Gaming the System” which began with the notion that if one studied a given juried show sufficiently, one might be able to develop a recipe for acceptance. So I decided to try it, and found that it might not be as easy to do as to say. In the past I have done somewhat similar things such as picking pieces for juried shows based on knowledge of the juror. This time it didn’t work. However, my lack of success taught me several lessons:

  1. Hubris never goes unpunished. This is something I should have known from reading the Greek tragedies or just from living, but it is a lesson that we often forget, particularly when things are going well, and we have a string of successes. We think we have it all figured out. We don’t. And is well to be reminded of this from time to time.
  2. There are always variables that we do not take into consideration. In this case, one (and maybe two) of the jurors was different from the years prior. This means that the flavor and focus of the show became unpredictable. Not everything can be anticipated.
  3. Likewise, there are always details that we miss or misinterpret; sometimes those little things matter more than we know.
  4. Risking failure is good for us, and if there are no occasional failures, there is no real risk. And this was, at least by my standards, a spectacular failure. There was a significant investment of both time and money, and while, in my estimation, the resultant images were very good, they do not really fit with the rest of my portfolio, so I am not really sure what, if anything, I might do with them. So, yes, this project could definitely be considered a failure.
  5. The biggest lesson that I learned, however, was that even if I know the parameters required, I cannot make art that does not at least try to match my personal aesthetic. It became apparent as early as the planning stage for this project that I am not able to create art to satisfy requirements completely outside myself. Even knowing the recipe, I had to make the pieces my own, had to make the say what I really thought. Probably this is something I should have known about myself before, but I did not, and least consciously. Then I had to reconcile my new learning concerning my aesthetic and the fact that I often direct plays that are aimed at a particular type of audience or prepared for a particular venue. The difference is that once the play is selected for whatever reason, what I do with it during the rehearsal process is to shape it in accordance with my own personal aesthetic. Again, this is something that should have been obvious, but, for some reason, was not.
  6. Evidently, I do not have what it takes to game the system in the way that Dan Colen, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst seem to. This may not be a terrible thing.

So my grand experiment in gaming the system resulted in six valuable lessons. Even though the project was a failure, these lessons make it—to my mind—a worthwhile endeavor, an endeavor worth writing about. As a result of this experience, I will do exactly what I have encouraged other artists to do: continue to risk, sometimes fail, learn from the failure, move on.

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Beauty: A Working Definition

Sunday, 25. January 2015 23:09

Last month I posted an article entitled “An Absence of Beauty.” In a comment a friend and colleague asked what my working definition of beauty was. An excellent question. Like many people in the arts, I use many abstract terms and am confident of their meaning without ever bothering to define them in words. Now I was being forced to do that—a good thing.

In his comment, my friend suggested, perhaps facetiously, that Keats was right, that perhaps beauty was simply truth. While one might expect that a Romantic poet would know the nature of beauty, Keats’ “definition” seems to leave much unsaid—and yet the more I thought about it the more it seems that he certainly had the core of it.

For those who don’t remember, in the last two lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats’ idea is at least as old as Plato, and perhaps older than that. Plato did not use exactly the same terminology, but the idea is the same. Age, of course, does not make the idea valid. But there does seem to be something to it.

Unsatisfied by Keats, I asked around to see how others in the arts defined beauty. A number of people stammered, searching for words, so I gave them time to think. Those who had ready answers needed at least a few minutes to put their definitions into words (I found this somewhat comforting). Once collected, the definitions represented a wide spectrum of thought, ranging from very simple to complex, qualified answers. One thing they all had in common was none even mentioned the word pretty.

Some said that a work is “beautiful” when everything works exactly right, for example, everything in a stage production goes perfectly (certainly a rare thing). This is the beauty of a fine watch, and while it does relate to aesthetics, it omits reference to meaning. Others say beauty means “aesthetically pleasing.” Still others say a work of art is beautiful when “it touches my heart, my soul.” And some combine those two ideas: “it is beautiful to the eye and moves my inner being.”

None of these seemed to provide the wording that I needed to express my non-verbal notion of beauty. Some seemed to miss the mark entirely; others were not sufficiently definitive. For example, some works of art can touch the viewer, but they don’t seem to rise to the level of “beautiful.” And stripping it down to the simplest terms (Keats’) doesn’t seem sufficient either. This example would be some war photographs which present the truth of the moment, at least from the photographer’s perspective. But this truth again may not qualify as “beautiful.”

The wording finally came from Steven King. Although he was talking about something else, the words were exactly what I was looking for. In Wolves of the Calla, Jake Chambers notes “pure joy” on the faces of those in his group, the result of “the ecstasy of perfect recognition.”

And there it was. I expanded King’s phrase to the short version of my definition: “the ecstasy of the perfect recognition of a fundamental truth.” And often that truth is more felt than rational. Sometimes it comes in flashes, a truth about humankind that appears in the midst of a novel. King’s own work is a good example of this. Or it might appear as an exquisite metaphor in a violent novel by James Lee Burke. Or it might be a complete work, an entire poem or painting or photograph or novel that manages to convey truth in a way that connects to the heart, mind, and soul of the audience member. And because it generates this reaction, the audience member wants to return to the piece again and again.

My definition may not work for you, but give it a try and let me know what you think. Here is the full version: a piece of art can be considered “beautiful” when it presents truth in a way that is fresh and carries with it a momentary perfection, the result being the ecstasy of perfect recognition of that truth.

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An Absence of Beauty

Monday, 29. December 2014 0:47

A friend of mine, an artist, mentioned to me that he had looked up the most beautiful video games and had found several that appealed to his aesthetic. The comment surprised me in three ways: the first was that one could actually look up “most beautiful video games” and get responses. I tried it and found not only that there were a plethora of results, but that rewording the search just slightly resulted in a different list with only a few overlaps.

The second thing that surprised me was that there were not just one, but several people out there compiling lists of the most beautiful video games. Best single-shooter, best action, best story line, most violent, sexiest characters—yes, but a “most beautiful” list took me completely off-guard.

The third surprise was contained in something else my friend said; he said that there was a subculture of game designers, players, and critics who thought that the beauty of the game was more important than game functionality. I had always thought that the whole point of a game was its functionality for the player. Some neat graphics wouldn’t hurt, but that was hardly the point. Obviously, I was wrong.

So I started poking around and discovered that indeed aesthetics were very important to several game design teams. There are online discussions of aesthetics in game design. Some writers as well as academics are beginning to wonder whether video games might be art (here and here, for example).

Now admittedly, it is not completely clear that those compiling the lists were using the same criteria for “beautiful” games. Indeed, almost none of these list compilers disclosed the criteria they were using to make these judgments. Upon examining the lists, however, it became apparent that visual appearance played a big role in arriving at these lists. And “visual appearance” does not simply mean that the visuals of the game were pretty (some were and some were not), but that they followed principles of composition and design and that their physical beauty was integral to gameplay. Not only does such integration occur, it can occur on a very sophisticated level.

What is the point of all of this, you may ask. There are several points: one is that aesthetics are important to all sorts of creators, not just the ones who call themselves artists. A second is that a large part of the aesthetic being used to judge video games is made up of two major components: the presence of visual beauty (determined by classical standards of beauty) and the integration of form and content.

A third point, and perhaps the major one, is that while video game designers are very concerned with aesthetics and beauty in the artifacts they produce, the same does not seem to be true of “serious” artists. This last point is based on observation of the pieces I see hanging on walls, sometimes in juried shows, sometimes in galleries. Some pieces try to say something, to present a truth, but very few attempt at the same time to be beautiful—pretty perhaps, but not beautiful.

Much art has become editorial and/or political, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that—so long as quality is maintained. A component of quality is beauty, and sadly, much of what I see being produced lacks that. This is a situation that needs to be corrected. We, as artists, need to think about beauty, I believe, and recognize that part of our job is to bring it to our audience.

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The Self-Taught Artist

Monday, 15. December 2014 0:05

Recently I was considering the term “self-taught artist.” Several things about the use of the term arouse my curiosity: why would anyone other than an academic care who taught an artist? Many academics have a thing about where people went to school, but it seems to me hardly anyone else cares—if the art is any good, that is. And the truth is every teacher and mentor has students who succeed and those who do not, so while knowing the teacher might tell us something, it certainly cannot predict the quality of the art a particular person produces.

Another question I have is whether the term is pejorative or complimentary. Is it better to have gone to art school or is it better to have learned on one’s own? Or does it matter? More importantly, why would an artist want to label him/herself anyway?

Evidently some see the label “self-taught” as a matter of pride. Not long ago a former student, now a scenic painter said, “Everything I know, I taught myself.” It was said proudly rather than complaining. It should have been a complaint; this person has attended two different schools and is currently trying to get into a third, curious behavior for someone who is learning only from himself.

And the statement is untrue. And while there is little doubt that much of what this person can do is the result of experimentation, that experimentation is based on a foundation acquired in educational theatre shops. There he learned the basics of color mixing and the fundamentals of basic painting techniques; along the way, he learned more about the materials and how they work.

In that sense, most of us are “self-taught.” We take what we learn from mentors and teachers and make it our own, modifying, adapting, and experimenting once we have the fundamentals in hand. This is, I’m sure, part of why no two artists who train with the same people in the same place develop the same way. There is influence, to be certain, but our skills develop according to our native talent, how much time and effort we are willing to put in, and our personal aesthetics and artistic vision.

The term “self-taught” applies more accurately to those artists who, for whatever reason, have not trained in a formal school situation. It is a short cut for saying “I did not attend a school to learn what I know.” But, my bet would be that most of them have had instruction of some kind. They may have attended workshops and seminars; they may have read extensively; they may have studied the work of others; they may have done some sort of informal apprenticeship or have been in a casual mentored situation. But it is highly likely that some sort of information and perhaps guidance came from outside themselves.

The difference then between a self-taught artist and any other is simply the formality of the situation in which the artist trained. The term (or indication of an arts degree) says nothing about the nature of the art the person is likely to produce, nor does it say anything about the artist’s skill level or sophistication in handling tools, materials, or ideas.

Regardless of how we obtained our basic skills and artistic approach, it is more than likely that we took that as a starting point and went on to improve those skills and build on what we already knew. Artists are not simply the products of their training; they are visionaries who develop over time and whose work usually gets better the more they mature and the further they move from that source of initial education.

Wonder why we even have the label?

 

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