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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.

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

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.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity | Comments (4) | Author:

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?

 

Category:Aesthetics, Originality | Comments (4) | Author:

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:

An Artistic Philosophy–Why it’s Important

Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30

If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.

This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.

He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.

And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.

That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.

The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work.  We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.

What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.

 

 

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It Ain’t About Pretty

Sunday, 4. November 2012 23:37

A while back, a friend of mine went to work as a studio assistant for a high-dollar photography studio.  After hearing about how people would travel across the country and pay enormous amounts for headshots, I went to the studio’s web site to see what was what. Everything was pretty. And I do mean pretty. Very slick, very commercial, very pretty—technically perfect, in fact—but completely soulless. All of the images of a type looked alike, down to the makeup. The photographers had found the formula for commercial success, but not necessarily for creating art.

Art may be pretty, but that is not a necessity. In fact, many artists bypass pretty, and attempt to create art that is beautiful. And beauty is an entirely different animal. Beauty goes far beyond mere pretty; for some, prettiness actually interferes with the beauty of the art.

Many artists believe that to be truly beautiful, something must have some strangeness to it.  This sentiment has been expressed by artists as disparate as Karl Lagerfeld, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sir Francis Bacon. The poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire has said “’I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which is no melancholy.” Author Stephen Crane has gone so far as to defend ugliness in art: “I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment.”

Although there is little agreement among aestheticians on what beauty is, there is general agreement that it conveys something meaningful and significant to the viewer. Regardless of the medium, if you ask knowledgeable people about the best art, the most beautiful art, you are very likely to get answers that include plays and poems and novels and paintings and sculptures and films that are anything but pretty. They may be uplifting or depressing or breathtaking or sad or heartwarming, but they are likely not to be attractive, and they certainly will not be superficial.

The artists who created such art will have told their audiences the truth. And even though that truth may be uncomfortable, it will have been presented in a way that invites contemplation, consideration, speculation, thought. Even art that appears initially to be whimsical or humorous does this. Art, good art, does not worry about being pretty; rather, it tells us something, often something that we need to know—although we may not want to hear it—and it tells us in a way that strikes a resonating chord within us.

Sometimes I hear [visual] artists say with reference to the art they make, “but no one will ever hang this on a wall.” (The equivalent for the writer is “no one will ever publish or produce this.”) They say this because the art they make is not pretty. If they want to produce pretty, then perhaps they should be into the more commercial illustration or decoration business.

Art is a different thing. And most collectors of art know this and dress their walls accordingly.  Just in the last week, I have seen hanging in residences images that tell stories about relationships, memorials, ambiguous abstract ideas, abandoned buildings, cemeteries, nudes, burned homes, flowers, complex concepts. Only a few were pretty in any kind of conventional sense; some were not even attractive. All were beautiful. All were compelling. All invited contemplation. They were not only art; they were good art.

And that’s just two-dimensional visual art. We haven’t even touched three-dimensional art, music, dance, theatre, film, or the various written genres.

Sometimes in art there is a place for pretty, sometimes not. If you are an artist, make the art you need to make. Make it the best you can to say what you need to say, what your audience needs to hear. And, if you are tempted to dress it up a bit here and there, remember: it ain’t about pretty.

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