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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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New Wine

Sunday, 19. October 2014 23:04

It may be that you have never even thought about photographic formats, and you probably did not expect to be reading about them today, but a recent experience caused me to think that there may be something valuable to be learned from them.

Those who know my photographic work know that I do abstract work, much of which is sort of a photographic collage that assembles separate images of parts of a subject into a new image wherein the relationships between the parts are changed. In order to present these ideas I often arrange the images in a variety of gridded structures which allow me to examine and modify those relationships.

Let me hasten to say that I do not believe that there is anything wrong with the single-image square or rectangle (in any number of length-width ratios). Many photographers would never consider using anything else. I use them myself, but for this recent work, more complex formats provide a better structure.

This gridded structure was what I had in mind as I began work on my latest project. The photo shoot was challenging and quite lengthy, and I recall thinking at one time that the subject matter was unlike anything I had ever done before. I did not realize how different until I looked at the images in LightRoom.™ As with almost all of my shoots, there are a few images that I want to print just as they are, with no collage, no restructuring. And in this shoot, there were those. However, among the other images the potential relationships that I am used to seeing and restructuring were not there.

My first response was something close to panic. I had no idea what to do. Once the panic subsided, I realized that I would have to find new ways to deal with this material. This subject matter and the formats I had thought to use were simply not a fit; existing structures, at least those in my repertoire, would not support this imagery. What to do?

Take a flying leap into the unknown: create  new structures. Find new ways to talk about the relationships of the parts. Think not just out of the box, but out of the warehouse.

This could have been devastating. Instead it was exhilarating. The old structures were comfortable and provided a known framework on which to hang images and ideas. But this material demanded otherwise. New forms were necessary to allow the communication of the ideas and emotions I was going for.

So I set out to develop new structures, new ways to present the material, and I am still developing. It is definitely a work in progress, and currently I am at the stage where I don’t like much of anything that is “completed.” So I have decided to let images sit for a time before I go back to them for editing or reconfiguring or trashing and starting over. But since I can’t quite let go of the project, I am using that “dead time” to write about it.

The lesson? Regardless of our medium (it is not such a big jump from photography to other arts), we must not confine ourselves. Yes, sometimes it is both comfortable and exciting to work within the confines of a given form, to find the limits or to find variants of those forms that might work better for certain subject matter. But sometimes even a complete reworking of old forms won’t do the job. Sometimes, the structure of the containers themselves must be different in order to reflect the uniqueness of the subject matter. Perhaps we may even want to consider new forms and structures every time we do a new project. New wine requires new bottles.

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

Art and Reality

Sunday, 29. June 2014 23:49

Tim Crouch writing in The Guardian maintains that reality, any reality, kills theatre, particularly reality in the form of working clocks, running water, fire, and kisses, not to mention full nudity, children, and animals. He feels that those things, precisely because they are so real, break the illusion of the theatre and essentially stop the show.

He’s right of course. Reality can intrude on the narrative flow of a performance. But the causes of the stoppage can vary. In the King Lear example he cites, the cause of the stoppage was not, I suspect, the Edmund-Goneril kiss, but the young audience’s lack of maturity: they were unable to distinguish between the reality of the kiss and the fiction of the kiss. Experienced actors can pull off the fiction of a stage kiss, or nudity, for that matter, but they have to have an audience sophisticated enough to make the distinction.

In other instances, it certainly can be an acting or directing problem. One of my earliest lessons in theatre came in a notes session after a rehearsal of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. At one point in the play, the character Mick throws props about, wrecking the room. The director told the actor that he had to pull back because he was too real, and in being too real would threaten the audience. Once threatened, they would no longer be watching the play.

This incident contains the kernel of a principle I have used ever since: once the audience stops worrying about the character and starts worrying about the actor, or themselves, you’ve lost them. And often you don’t get them back. And if you are working before an audience that is not sufficiently mature to handle the material, then it is up to you, the actor or director, to adapt the work to your audience—if you want to keep them.

Where I think Crouch is not right is in his assumption that artists want to put more reality into art. To make his case, he quotes the beginning of Reality Hunger by David Shields: “Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.” A brief examination of the history of western art will demonstrate that this is not true, not to mention that in artistic traditions other than western there is often no attempt at reality.

What is true is that since the beginning of time artists have tried to put into their work more of what they think is true. Truth and reality are not the same thing. Artists who work in figurative styles, which, according to Crouch would be some older painters and theatre practitioners, usually aim for verisimilitude, not necessarily for reality, and most would agree that verisimilitude is very different from reality. A quick comparison between the movements of theatrical Realism and Naturalism make the point quite clearly.

Crouch notes that “the visual arts left this figurative dependency behind years ago.” And there is a reason for that. Visual artists learned that there were better ways to present their vision of truth. Some performing artists have attempted to abandon “figurative dependency” as well—with varying degrees of success. Embracing reality is but one of the ways that can happen; the result is, as Crouch suggests, performance art, not theatre.

At the bottom of it, we all know that Matisse was right. It is not a woman, it is a painting, or a photograph, or a narrative performance, or a ballet, or a musical composition. It is not reality; it is an artistic representation of truth.

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Art is Not Just a Matter of Preference

Sunday, 15. September 2013 23:44

When I was an undergraduate, I had an English professor who said that the accomplished student of literature should be able to read a poem and separate the quality of the work and whether or not it was personally appealing. The implications, of course, were that not all poetry is created equal and that liking something has nothing to do with whether it is good or not.

This has not been a popular position in the postmodern world, where all work is pretty much equal. And although postmodernism is, according to some, dead, it left a legacy. Daniel C. Dennett has said, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

And as elevated as the egalitarianism of postmodernism sounds, most of us who work in the arts know that it simply isn’t true. There is good acting and bad acting, good directing and not-so-good directing, good writing and bad writing. There are, in fact, qualitative differences in the performing arts. And other arts are no different. Given that, the problem is articulating what constitutes good art and less good art, and that, in turn, requires that we be able to distinguish art from non-art.

Although many have attempted this, novelist Leo Tolstoy is one of the few who not only distinguished art from non-art, but articulated the conditions which determine the qualitative levels of art. Tolstoy collected his views in a book called What is Art? It is not an easy read. Fortunately, Maria Popova has summarized and presented Tolstoy’s ideas in a recent posting to Brain Pickings. Essentially, Tolstoy said that art is a union between the artist and viewer or receiver of the art that allows the receiver to feel and experience the feelings and experiences that the artist put into the work. Additionally, this union works not only in one era, but across time and cultures. He says that what distinguishes real art is the presence of this infectiousness.

He goes on to say that the stronger the infection, the better the art, and that the degree of quality is dependent on three conditions:

  1. The individuality of the feeling being transmitted. (More is better.)
  2. The clarity of the expression. (Clearer is better.)
  3. And the sincerity of the artist. (Sincere is better.) This is the most important condition.

Sincerity in Tolstoy’s view is what gives art it’s power and is the source of its infectiousness: “The chief peculiarity of this feeling is that the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else’s — as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express. A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.”

Whether or not we fully agree with Tolstoy, or even understand him, most of us instinctively know that all art is not created equal. There is excellent work and there is crap, and there are all sorts of levels in between. Most of us know that. It’s time that we quit pretending that it’s all about individual expression and acknowledge that Tolstoy has a point. Art is not just a matter of preference.

Category:Aesthetics, Quality | Comments (1) | 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: