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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?


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.

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

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.



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

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.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Criticism | Comment (0) | Author:

Self-Knowledge: An Artistic Necessity

Sunday, 29. July 2012 22:03

In the middle of last week, one of my favorite ex-students came by to visit. An actor, she is currently in a show locally and wanted to give me a comp, which I happily accepted. And, of course, we talked—well, mostly she talked. But she always has really interesting things to say, which are usually about her journey as a theatre artist. She was pleased to report that she had finally found out what she needs from a director. At the same time, she acknowledged that she knows that she won’t always get it; however, simply knowing allows her to ask the right questions. It also allows her to become less frustrated when she doesn’t get what she needs, because she is now aware of the source of the frustration.

Two days later, I sat down to watch, via DVR, the season premiere of Project Runway only to hear Gunnar Deatherage say that the reason he was among those cut in the first episode of the last season was that he didn’t know who he was. He made reference to this idea several times, at one point changing the statement slightly to say that last year he didn’t know who he was as a designer. Another time he said that he knew who he was now. Regardless of what you think of Deatherage, his comments are important.

What is significant in both cases is the recognition of the importance of self-knowledge. We in the creative universe often talk about what we need to know—our media, our equipment, our message, our tribe, our potential clients, our business plans. We often hear ideas that hit close to the need for self-knowledge without actually saying it: “know what you are comfortable with,” “know where you fit into the market,” “know what is required of you,” “find your direction.” Very seldom do we hear this most basic and necessary of advice: know yourself. What better advice could there be for anyone in the arts?

Many people have no idea who they are. Some have never considered the question, while some have gone to great expense and trouble to “find themselves.” I am one who does not necessarily believe in finding yourself, but I am a great believer in learning yourself, finding out who you are. If you have no idea who you are, what you are about, how can you possibly hope to produce a coherent body of creative work? You are lacking a basis for your art.

But the self is not something that we can come to know once and never have to look at again. The self can be as dynamic or static as our emotions and intellect, but regardless of how fast if might be changing, a fairly stable core develops, and that is the part we need to get to know first and best.

Then we can and must look at the changes. These changes can modify our creative work. And sometimes, our creative work can change us. Once we develop some self-knowledge, we can then begin to sense when we are changing, what those changes are, and how they might impact the work that we do.

That we can only know our conscious mind should not suggest that only our conscious mind is involved in artistic creation. No matter what we do or do not know about ourselves, our work will still come from the same areas of the brain as always— the unconscious/subconscious as well as the conscious parts. However, with more self-knowledge, we may better be able to focus and direct the conscious part of our creative process so that our work better reflects both us and our message. Those who know who they are, at least as artists have, like this season’s Gunnar Deatherage, a point of view. They are no longer working only from the need to create, but from the additional need to say something, to express something, and they know what that something is. With self-knowledge comes direction.

And, armed with that self-knowledge, we, like the actor mentioned earlier, are in a much better position to decide what questions to ask, to determine what input we need to fuel our best output. Like her, we may not always get the answers we want or the input we need, but we will at least now know where to look.

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Should Provocative Art Carry a Warning Label?

Monday, 16. April 2012 0:09

In case you were not aware, Houston has been home to the Fotofest Biennial for 26 years. The festival turns the entire city into one huge photographic art studio. And there are as well a number of activities both for photographers and viewers. Usually I try to get to as many of the spaces (97 this year) as I can. So yesterday a friend and I wandered through several spaces looking at contemporary Russian photography.

Every time I visit Fotofest, I come away with new ideas, feelings, and opinions. This is not a recounting of this year’s—I’m not done yet. Rather it is a look at one incident that occurred yesterday. Reactions to most of the images we saw were fairly predictable: liked some, disliked others; appreciated some, not others; discussed some, left others uncommented.

Then we got to a piece named “Abortion.” The piece was series of nine or ten photographic images of a young woman undergoing an abortion. The photographer had then drawn on the photographs and made notes (in Russian, of course). The images were numbered and then placed out of sequence.

My friend said, “This piece tests the limits of open-mindedness. I think that I am offended. There should be a warning sign.” She went on to say that you consider yourself open-minded and then you see something that goes over the line—and you didn’t even know that there was a line. She acknowledged that art had provoked her before, but this offended her. That, she declared, was a unique experience because it was the first time in her life that she had ever been offended. And she didn’t quite know what to do with the experience.

Later conversations revolved around whether photographing something, drawing and making notes on it, arranging it, and hanging it on a wall constituted art and on the photographer’s intention. We agreed that we couldn’t decide exactly what the he was trying to do. Although the piece certainly had impact, it was not a convincing anti-abortion piece, nor was it effective pro-abortion propaganda. It was not reportage. Perhaps not being able to read Russian was preventing us from understanding. This, however, was not an issue with other images and series of images we saw that day.

But my mind kept going back to her comment that there should have been a sign. The images were too small and placed too high on the wall to be examined by young children, but the question of adults was something else entirely. How is one to determine whether the art you make will be offensive to someone when there are so many people who are easily offended?

Or is this a curatorial issue? Many theatres will warn audience members when the subject matter or language of a play is considered “adult.” Movies, at least in the US, have ratings. Both of these approaches allow potential viewers to make more informed choices about whether to see the work or not. And I have been to exhibitions of visual art (usually photographic) that have a sign notifying those about to enter that the images will be graphic or explicit or whatever. I’m sure that some people appreciate such warnings. It would seem odd, however, to label individual pieces with such warnings.

Although I have made up my mind, whether the piece was art or not is certainly open for debate, as is the question of whether it is good art. It did do one of the things that I think art should do: provoke the viewer. I don’t think this is the only legitimate goal of art, but it is certainly one of them. And if it provokes to the point of offence, maybe it’s something you shouldn’t see, but then, maybe it is. And if it teaches you that there are limits to what you are willing to view, then perhaps that is useful information.

There are things that we all prefer not to look at, but perhaps, once in a while, confronting something that makes us uncomfortable may not be a terrible thing.

What do you think?

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Photography | Comments (3) | Author:

A New Set of Criteria for Contemporary Art?

Monday, 23. January 2012 2:13

How I Became 100 Artists, a TED talk by Shea Hembry, has proved to be very creative, very funny, and, if one considers the comments attached to the video, very controversial.  In his talk, Hembry proposed two criteria for contemporary art:

  1. The Mimaw test. This involves explaining a work to his grandmother in five minutes. If he couldn’t explain it in that length of time, the work would be considered “too obtuse or not well-enough refined.”
  2. The Three H’s: Head, Heart, Hand: the work should have “interesting intellectual ideas and concepts.” It should have “passion, heart, and soul.” And it should be “greatly crafted.”

Although in explaining these criteria, Hembry uses himself as an example, he states that these are the criteria for contemporary art, not necessarily his contemporary art. One wonders then if they apply to contemporary art, wouldn’t they also apply to all other art as well?

Many before have tried to establish criteria for art, and the only theories that could be called successful have been so vague as to be nearly useless or so complex as to almost defy understanding.  The alternative, of course, is to say that art is anything the maker says that it is. I am already on record as being absolutely opposed to this view. Hembry’s criteria are fairly clear and decidedly lacking in complexity, and, on the surface, seem quite reasonable, so maybe they occupy that elusive middle ground in the world of artistic criteria.

The Mimaw Test: If it can’t be explained in five minutes to a grandmother, it’s too obtuse or not-sufficiently refined. Setting aside the issue of what a grandmother might or might not know about art, might not the reason that it can’t be explained in five minutes be that it’s just too complex. I recently saw a video of a person explaining a painting by Picasso. In five minutes, the person managed to discuss all the parts of the painting, but had not yet begun to talk about how all of those parts work together to produce the effect they produce. Another question would be, of course, one that was mentioned last week. Why does the work need an explanation at all? Can’t Grandma decide what she thinks of the work herself without an explanation? What Picasso said about painting can certainly apply to any art: “As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”

The Three H’s: Head: The work should have interesting intellectual ideas and concepts. The immediate response to this notion is “well, of course.” But there are some artists who are not so much interested in communicating intellectual concepts as they are in communicating emotion or beauty. Fortunately, that is an idea that is still alive and well and far more prevalent than you may think. Even the most cutting-edge artists may be moving into this camp. Consider this recent tweet from Hazel Dooney: “I used to be most interested in art for the ideas behind it. Now I only want to see art that makes me feel something.”

Heart: The work should have passion, heart, and soul. This is a criterion with which I have no argument. Interestingly, this aspect does seem to be absent in some contemporary work embraced by the art establishment. There exist a number of pieces which are merely clever or which are strictly intellectual. These, in my opinion, are lacking.

Hand: The work should be greatly crafted. Again, no argument.  Technical quality is, in my opinion, a requisite for art. The artist’s skill certainly does not need to call attention to itself, but it must be there.

Hembry’s criteria for contemporary art seem to be an oversimplification of a very complex subject. In fact, while they may work for the pieces that make up his biennial, they certainly do not work for the whole project, which is quite intricate. After all, his TED talk, which is delightful but does not explain the entire project in full detail, took over sixteen minutes.

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

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