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Truth: A Necessity for Good Art

Sunday, 7. October 2012 23:40

Not long ago, a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video entitled “Why I Do Theatre,” which is a brief talk by Patsy Rodenburg. It is a must-see for anyone involved in theatre. Actually, it is a must-see for anyone who makes any kind of art. Rodenburg has packed so many ideas into this six and three-quarter minute video that it will likely become a source for several other posts. But her main point is that she does theatre because theatre allows actors (and playwrights) to tell the truth, whether the audience likes it or not, and that is worth doing.

Not only do actors and playwrights get to tell the truth, but so do painters, and poets, and photographers, and dancers, and sculptors, and writers. So do we all in the arts, if we are brave enough to not care whether the audience likes us or not, and actually put the truth as we know it on the paper, into the sculpting medium, on the stage, on the dance floor, into the film, on the canvas, into the music.

This seems obvious for photojournalists— at least the good ones—as any display of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs will attest. This is also true of their counterparts who work with words. But what about the rest of us who deal in works of drama, or fiction, or non-realism? How do we present the truth? The answer, of course, is that we wrap it up inside our fiction or whatever it is that we create and present it to our audience and hope that they see it.

This is the case with the actress that Rodenburg discusses who “made a sound” that was bitterly truthful and impactful—in a production of a fictional 2400-year-old tragedy. It does not matter that a play (or any art work) is fictional; it matters that the emotions and feeling and ideas that it contains are truthful and portrayed in a way that communicates that truth.

This idea of presenting the truth inside a fiction has been put forward by all sorts of artists from Stephen King to Pablo Picasso. King said Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Picasso’s statement is a little more complex: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.

Aside from the problem of developing the techniques to persuade others of the truthfulness of our work, there are two problems in putting truth into what we do as artists. One has already been mentioned; it is the knowledge that if we are truthful, some in our audience may not like us. Many artists equate being liked with sales and so will do nearly anything to make that happen. Perhaps they have forgotten why they got into art in the first place. Or, as I have said before, perhaps they just have not found their tribes yet. It seems to me that for the serious artist, being appreciated is far superior to being liked.

The second problem is that in order to put the truth into our work, we have to recognize the truth, and that can be very uncomfortable. Sometimes, we have to recognize the truth in ourselves, and to integrate that into our work we may have to expose ourselves. That can be even more uncomfortable. It can cause a disquiet that many of us would rather do without. But then again, I can’t think of anyone I know who became a serious artist because he/she thought it would be comfortable.

Art does not have to embody the truth, but probably all meaningful art does in one way or another. Some think that truth is one of the things that makes good art good. But incorporating truth in our work may not be the easiest thing we ever do. As Hazel Dooney points out, “Art is not truth. But it is more powerful when it is based on truth, especially the truths we find most discomforting.

Category:Audience, Communication, Creativity | Comments (1) | Author:

The Artistic Balancing Act

Sunday, 2. September 2012 22:51

On a recent episode of Project Runway, Michael Kors commented that fashion is always “about balancing art and commerce.” He went on to tell the emotional Elena Silvnyak, “this is your shining moment that you found the balance.”  Nina Garcia followed up with idea that successful design is “not about stifling creativity,” but about “being creative and taking chances” and balancing that with customer appeal. (This last phrase is my wording, not hers.)

Substitute “audience appeal” for “customer appeal” and the same statements could be made about not only about any of the performing arts, but about virtually any art. Certainly film must appeal to an audience if it is to be financially successful. Live theatre too has to fit within the range of audience acceptance, which, as any theatre practitioner will tell you, is contextual. Dance is the same way, as is music.

The same concept applies to visual and plastic arts as well. There are endless stories of paintings, photographs, and sculptures that received critical acclaim and did not please their immediate audiences. The photography of Robert Mapplethorpe jumps to mind, as does the David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly.”

And, of course, much that is written, whether it is words or music, does not find an immediate audience beyond critics and a tiny group aficionados, sometimes for less than artistic reasons—consider the publication history of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Some of the art that was not initially well-received, or was prevented from being received at all by authoritarian intervention, has had to wait for years for general acceptance. Some has never received it, at least in certain localities, particularly if the subject matter is religious or sexual. For example, Nagisa Ôshima’s film, In the Realm of the Senses, released in 1976 and considered by some to be a cinematic masterpiece, still cannot be shown completely uncensored in Japan.

The fact that some art is not immediately accepted by a general audience certainly does not mean that that the work is not good, merely that it has not (yet) found its audience. The question for the artist is not about the quality of the work, but whether he/she has been able to balance creativity and the appeal of the work to a purchasing audience. Being ahead of your time may produce some masterpieces, and certainly some controversy, but often it won’t pay the bills. So the problem for the practicing artist—at least for the majority of his/her work—is to find that balance that Michael Kors mentioned, the equilibrium between artistic vision and audience appeal.

And finding that balance is difficult, regardless of your art. If you move too far in one direction, you find yourself pandering to the audience instead of really creating. You quit making art and start making artless commodities. Your work becomes all about chasing the dollar, or yen, or euro and not about all of those things that you used to think art was really about. For musicians, and maybe for others, it’s often called “selling out.”

If you move too far in the other direction, you lose your audience, and you may run afoul of censors, whether official or unofficial. You make things that may or may not garner critical acclaim, that appeal to a tiny segment of arts-appreciating community, but you move so far beyond the majority of members of that community that you find yourself unrewarded financially.

If you are compelled to say things with your art that will prevent that art from being appreciated by a paying audience—and many artists are—by all means do so, but with a full understanding of what you are doing. If, however, you want to say what you have to say and get paid for it, your dilemma is exactly the same one that Elena Silvnyak and every other artist with a strong point of view or a clear artistic vision faces—how to find that place where everything balances, where one can follow one’s vision and create, yet at the same time incorporate that creation into a form that an audience—and it certainly does not have to be a huge one— can understand, appreciate, and pay for. It may not be easy, or even doable, but it’s worth your time to investigate the possibilities.

Category:Audience, Communication, Creativity, Presentation | Comments (3) | Author:

The Art of Presentation

Sunday, 26. August 2012 23:34

The problem is not the art, but the presentation. “Context Matters,” posted earlier this year, discusses the impact of the environment on how we perceive art. But a series of recent experiences has suggested that the problem might be even more immediate than the room in which the piece is being shown or the temperature of the theatre in which we view the performance.

A very good friend of mine who teaches art at a university has said that the one skill that is lacking from almost every art curriculum is that of presentation. He teaches, among other things, printmaking.  While paper selection is a part of the art work proper, whether to frame or not is a question of presentation. Once that decision is made, the question becomes what frame. Then there is the issue of matting: to mat or not to mat? If so, how wide, what color, what shade of that color, what material, what spacing and proportion?

While the questions may be different, these sorts of decisions are not exclusive to printmakers. It is a problem that is encountered by almost everyone in the arts. What sort of pedestal do you want for that sculpture? What sort of border do you want around the digital art on the web? How can you best display your set or costume designs? And still it is ignored in almost every kind of arts class.

The artist/teacher mentioned above goes to great lengths to incorporate presentational considerations into his courses. In his classes he always brings up the question of how the students will present their work to the world. Others of us do a similar thing in other arts skills classes. But, unfortunately, we are in the minority. And there exist very few courses devoted exclusively to developing presentational skills. For example, many colleges and universities who train actors offer no courses in auditioning, the primary way actors present their abilities to directors. In a quick search, I could find only one that had a course exclusively in auditioning. I’m sure that there are others; I hope that there are others, since auditioning is so fundamental to the profession and requires a completely different set of skills from acting.

There are many approaches to solving the presentation problem, almost all of them trial and error. An acquaintance of mine, a photographer, has decided to print all of his images on canvas wraps, which represents to him a clean, easy way to present his images. Whether this will work for him I don’t know; we will have to wait and see. While it is easier and less worrisome to find one way to present and then forget it, I cannot imagine a single method of presentation working for all images—unless, of course all the images are very similar.

Many experienced artists continue to experiment and explore different methods of presentation. What worked last year, or even last week, may not work today, or for this body of work. The goal, of course, is to present their work in the best light possible, knowing that audience acceptance is what engenders success in the arts. And why wouldn’t you want to take the time and effort to present your work in the way that would make it most appealing?

“The work should be able to stand on its own without worrying about how it’s presented,” is a wonderfully idealistic and somewhat naïve view. The fact is that presentation does matter. Experienced artists take this into account and spend a great deal of time making decisions about the best method of presenting the work that they have created.

So, whether you are a school-trained artist or self-taught, or some combination of those, finding the best methods for presentation of your particular artistic vision, of your particular talents and skills may require a fairly significant investment of time and energy. The results may well be worth it in terms of developing your audience. As Hazel Dooney says, “It’s not enough just to create. Professional artists need to figure out how to show people their work. Without an audience, art is a hobby.

Category:Audience, Communication, Photography, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Art Should Matter

Monday, 13. August 2012 0:25

Hazel Dooney began a recent blog posting entitled “Art Matters,” with a quote by Robert Hughes: “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.” Dooney goes on to detail what she perceives to be the relationship between art and society today, and she finds much wrong. She starts with the commodification of art, mentions branding and celebrity, and notes the lack of funding for “public and institutional galleries.” Dooney wants art to matter—to the public. She says that we “have to regain a public fascination for it, maybe even an awe of it.”

Though certainly no expert in art history, I cannot think of a time when the public had a fascination or awe for art. Patrons of the arts, regardless of the period, have always been different from the public—more monied, more refined in their tastes, more exacting in their demands. When art attempts to appeal to the public, it becomes what Dooney decries: “just another form of easy-to-consume entertainment.”

It has always been so. Shakespeare, perhaps the most revered playwright in the English language, whose work is held up as example of written and dramatic art, was writing for that public. He was offering a commercial entertainment that had to compete with the bear-baiting entertainment just down the street. Because we, like Shakespeare, live in a material society, much of what we see and hear is that which makes money, and technically, it is some of the best work available. It may not be profound, but it is certainly of high quality. When a product has to compete, quality is often one of the results.

Public art, Dooney says, has been replaced by advertising. It’s true; when public art is not entertainment, it’s advertising. (Sometimes it’s both.) Again, this is historically what has happened age after age. Some of the best art we know of was created in the service of those who were able to afford it and supported whatever cause or interest was important to those patrons. Whether we call that cause advertising or propaganda or religion or politics is immaterial.  Much of the work, which we today consider “fine,” was created to satisfy some ulterior purpose, not just for display and contemplation.

“For art to matter again,” Dooney says, “it has to be seen everywhere, every day.” She goes on to note that “many [artists] are trying to make their work more accessible – more apparent – to those who care about it.” She continues, “street artists are probably the ones who best understand this.” I would add that advertisers and producers of commercial “art” products also understand this very well.

Unfortunately, unless you are one of those street artists, the easiest way to make your work accessible is to participate in the commodification of art. You sell your work as best you can. If you become collectable, then you can participate in the investment commodification of art to which Hughes was referring. Selling out? Maybe. But, no matter how profound your work, if it is not accessible in some way, it’s not going to impact anyone. (Note: this does not mean making your work appeal to everyone; see “Making Your Art Accessible Is Making a Mistake.”)

And Dooney understands this. And while her work may not appeal to everyone, she has worked for years to make it accessible to virtually anyone who has a computer and internet access. (This is discussed at length in her blog.)

And she is right; there is much wrong with the art world, but then there is much wrong with the world in general, and much of what is wrong with the art world is a reflection of that larger theatre in which it operates. And unless we manage to change the system, or somehow circumvent it, it is within this system that we in the arts must work.

Category:Communication, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

Titles Are Important

Sunday, 5. August 2012 23:23

Titles are on my mind again. Although some will say that titles don’t matter, I know that I think about them, and when I have work that needs them I try to find something that really does connect with the work in some way. I do this because I have repeatedly watched people look at art work, then look at the title card, then look back at the work, and then, usually softly say, “Oh…” like they hadn’t gotten it until they read the title card.

Patrons really do expect names on things, sometimes relying on those names to guide them in their judgment of the piece and its purpose or meaning. That makes the title important. That a viewer needs guidance may represent a failing for the piece of art, or it may speak to the amount of mental work a viewer is willing to invest. And while I don’t believe the title should explain the work, I think perhaps a bit of guidance is not unwarranted. And certainly connection between the title and the work is necessary.

Sometimes the name of a piece jumps out of the work spontaneously, making it so organic that it’s difficult for the artist to think about the piece without about the title. Other times, it’s more difficult. Sometimes, it seems impossible.

The immediate cause for my concern is a new diptych. Unfortunately, the concept of each piece taken individually is complex, so putting the pieces together just compounds the complexity. That intricacy is, of course, the source of the problem. I refuse to have a title that “explains” the piece or tries to summarize the subtext, and I think that falling back on “untitled” is a cheap way out.

At the same time that I was trying to name the diptych, I spoke with an artist who finds naming difficult and who was fretting that he had given a piece a “wrong” name. The name, he said, not only provided no insight into the work, but actually misled viewers. His solution was simple; he renamed the piece once the show that it was in closed. And I had to agree, the second name was far superior to the first.

Of course, there are people who are good at naming things. Damien Hirst comes to mind; in fact, some would say that Hirst is better at naming art than creating it. For example, how much better could a title be than The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living? A touch long perhaps, and it may or may not actually be relevant to a dead shark in a tub of formaldehyde, but it is a great title.

Not everyone has Hirst’s facility for naming. A number of artists have great difficulty titling pieces, regardless of whether they are verbal, visual, or plastic. It is evidently a significant enough problem that there are numerous internet how-to pages on naming art; for instance, there are articles on wikiHow and about.com, ehow.com, and artpromotivate.com. Most of these pages offer very simple to-the-point methodologies for naming. In some cases, unfortunately, the advice is not only simple, but simplistic, which will result in titles, but not very good ones. But at least it’s a starting point.

Irrespective of the source, the title and the art work need to be unified; that’s almost as important as the title itself. And in order to attain that unity, we must attempt to generate titles that come as close to that ideal of the self-generated organic name as we possibly can.

Category:Communication | Comments (1) | Author:

Art in Motion: Motion in Art

Sunday, 24. June 2012 23:38

Recently wandering through the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I encountered Jennifer Steinkamp’s projected installation, Mike Kelley. Not only is the Steinkamp installation a projection; it is a moving projection, an animation,  twelve feet high and sixteen feet wide; it’s message is not complex, but the image certainly is, and mesmerizing.

Mike Kelley is not the only animation in MFAH’s collection.  Across the hall from the café, five screens play Chiho Aoshima’s City Glow. The 2005 animated piece is similar to Steinkamp’s in that it is a cyclical animation. Some might argue that Aoshima’s piece is narrative, telling a story. But it doesn’t tell a story in the same way that a narrative film or an entertainment animation does. Here the message is more abstract, leaving room for viewer interpretation, and repeated endlessly.

Seeing Steinkamp’s and Aoshima’s installations in the same day caused me to consider the role of motion in fine arts, a role that seems to me to be growing. I’m purposely not considering film in this discussion; that is another topic all together. Rather I am talking about the world that is usually inhabited by painting, sculpture, and still photography, a world that that is becoming increasingly motion-oriented.

Some of this I have mentioned before. In an post about art online, I mentioned s[edition], which allows anyone to purchase limited edition digital pieces by very well-known artists.  In my estimation the works of Mat Collishaw are some of the most successful on the site in that they take full advantage of the animation capabilities of the digital medium and, instead of consisting of a movie of a work on a turntable or a film of an activity, fully integrate the motion and the subject matter.

There were also discussions of both cinemagraph  and lenticular images. The former is essentially a still image that has been selectively animated. This minimal animation adds interest and dimension to a photograph (or other illustration), and modifies what and how that image communicates with the viewer. Most of these are made in a gif format and can only be viewed on a computer. But they could also be projected or viewed on very large screens. In other words, they are not really limited to the relatively small computers and tablets that are currently their homes.

Lenticulars are the non-electronic entries in the trend to add motion to images. In a lenticular, “multiple images are interlaced and fused to a lenticular lens to create the illusion of movement or three-dimensionality” as the viewer walks past the work.

The most notorious recent example is the lenticular work by Derrick Santini [Note: all links in this paragraph are NSFW.] which are part of his show Metamorphosis and which are based on the Leda and the swan myth. What makes this example notorious was the widely reported incident of a London Metropolitan policeman seeing one of the works in the Scream gallery window and, with a fellow officer, demanding that it be removed because it “condoned bestiality.” Interestingly, the gallery had had no other complaints.

Art is always in motion, but now motion is moving into art. The ability to digitize makes it possible. But it’s still not easy. I have made lenticular images, but the process is not for the faint-hearted; it is complex and exacting both on and off the computer. Any sort of animation, while perhaps easier than it used to be, is still quite intricate. Regardless of the complexity, motion in art is here to stay; it gives the artist ways to say things in a fine arts framework that otherwise could not be expressed.

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Make Your Work as Important as Your Next Breath

Sunday, 13. May 2012 22:54

One of the most difficult, yet basic, tools for the actor is the character objective. The objective, which goes by several different names, is that thing which supplies the motivation for a character in a play. Objectives not only serve to ground the character’s motivation, but to give the character consistency.

Those beginning the formal study of acting typically have trouble with objectives. Two things stand out as causing the most difficulty. These are: (1) finding the “right” objective, i.e. one that will work for an entire scene, an entire act, or an entire play, and (2) making the objective sufficiently important so it will really do what it is supposed to do. Even if the actor is successful in resolving the first problem, he/she will find that it is one thing to understand the objective intellectually, and another thing entirely to make it important enough to support a believable performance.

In trying to communicate the necessary level of importance of the objective to acting, I finally came to the statement, “Your objective has to be as important as your next breath.” That not only communicates its significance, but the ongoing nature of the objective in the work.

Recently, it became apparent to me that the idea of objectives might well apply to arts other than acting. Having a strong objective and making it as important as breathing brings a character to life and makes the actor’s work compelling. Isn’t this exactly what we want to do when we create a sculpture or painting or print or photograph or dance? We want to create work that is alive and compelling.

Having a strong objective and making it important adds clarity to our work. Toward the end of his recent book, Con Art: Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can, Julian Spalding details several qualities that he believes artists must possess. Among these is clarity; he notes that “the task of artists is to make their meaning clear not to show off their technique, though many lesser artists throughout history have been content to do just that.”

Some may think that using a strong objective and making it important might make the process of art-making grim or mechanical. It does tend to make the process more serious, but certainly neither grim nor mechanical. And it does not inhibit the enjoyment of creating; if anything it enhances the process. This same strong goal and importance is precisely what keeps children involved and focused in play.

Another misconception is that having a strong objective will remove ambiguity and mystery from a work of art. On the contrary, having a clear objective and letting it inform your work can clarify and focus the ambiguity or mystery that you want the work to exhibit.

Another thing that consciously using objectives in your work can give you is power. A former student, an actor, told me recently that she had been able to make a seasoned director cry with a one-minute audition piece. To her, that was confirmation of her power and ability as an artist—regardless of whether she got the role or not. When you realize that you are able to impact others to that degree, you begin to understand just how much power your art can have.

Working with objectives successfully is difficult for many developing actors. This is probably the case for other artists as well. If it’s something you haven’t considered, you may want to give it a go. Where to start? Read an acting book or talk to an acting coach. Then adjust the theory and advice to fit your own work. Then implement what you have learned. Don’t expect it to be easy. The results will be worth it. Make your work as important as your next breath.

Category:Communication, Creativity, Theatre | Comment (0) | Author:

Making Your Art Accessible Is Making a Mistake

Monday, 13. February 2012 0:01

The question of art accessibility is one of those topics that are always under discussion somewhere. It came up again recently in a piece on Empty Easel. In “If Art is a Language, How Well do you Communicate?Niki Hilsabeck says that artists who “want to resonate more with the buying public should learn the buyers’ ‘language’ and adjust their artwork accordingly.”

In other words, if your potential buyers don’t get your work, perhaps you should modify your work so that it expresses your intent in a way they can understand.  This would seem to reduce the artist to either a manufacturer of commodities on one hand or little more than a teacher on the other. And perhaps some artists are both of those things, but to say that an artist is no more than that is a gross oversimplification of the art experience.

Hilsabeck asserts that art is a conversation. I disagree; art is an expression, perhaps an assertion itself, and sometimes it starts conversations, but often the artist is not involved in those, nor should he/she be; that’s not his/her job.

Hilsabeck’s rationale seems to be that since art is communication, anything you can do to aid that communication is a good thing. It’s a concept I have trouble with. Much of what art is about, much of the very complicated way that art communicates is tied up with how the work communicates. Good art is multi-layered and complex, and out of the reach for some people. Because of the interconnectedness of form and content, modifying how an artwork speaks to its audience must, in turn, modify what is communicated. So in trying to make your art more accessible, you can’t help but change your message as well.

You have to decide whether having another sale is worth changing what you are saying. It’s very much like politics: you can get the support you want if you will change your message to be what those supporters want to hear. The real question is: is what they want to hear what you want to say?

To put this whole argument into perspective, think for a minute about Jackson Pollock trying to make his mature work more accessible. It becomes completely different work. I, for one, am very glad that he did not attempt to make it easy for us.

So what is the artist to do? There is a natural desire to sell your work; at the same time you need to say what you need to say in the way you need to say it. The process is far more complex that the mere need to communicate. You don’t need to modify what you are doing; you need to connect with those who get what you do. There is really no “public” that you have to appease; rather there are people who, if they knew your work, would like it, and perhaps purchase it. The marketing part of your job is to connect with them, or facilitate their discovering you. You need to, in the terminology of Seth Godin, find your tribe.

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

Making Art is Irrational

Sunday, 29. January 2012 23:57

Last week I quoted both Picasso’s comment about a painting speaking its own language and Hazel Dooney’s about her newfound interest in feeling over ideas in art. In the intervening week, I have thought about this a lot and have run across two other artists who work in completely different media voicing similar opinions.

Asked if he works out ideas by writing songs, Leonard Cohen told Dorian Lynskey in an interview for The Guardian:

I think you work out something. I wouldn’t call them ideas. I think ideas are what you want to get rid of. I don’t really like songs with ideas. They tend to become slogans…. but I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart. I never set out to write a didactic song. It’s just my experience. All I’ve got to put in a song is my own experience.

In a different Guardian interview, playwright Yasmina Reza told Elizabeth Day, “Writing…. [is] not at all intellectual. Well, for me, at least.”

If such a variety of artists are so adamant about the non-intellectuality of art, why do so many people feel the need to explain art in intellectual terms? There are, I think, at least two reasons for this.

First, for every artist who thinks that art is not about ideas, there is another artist who thinks that that’s all art is about. Probably the best known contemporary artist who falls into this category is Banksy. Almost all of his work is commentary, much of it political. And no matter what you think of his art, it is easy to talk about—because it is primarily intellectual.

And that is the second reason: it’s easier to talk about the art of ideas than it is the art of emotion or the art of vision or any of those other irrational things that don’t really communicate in words. This is not only true of visual art, but of all other art as well. Sir Ken Robinson says in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, “The meaning of an artwork is only available in the particular form in which it is expressed.” So, if the work is bound by form and medium, it automatically becomes difficult to talk about in any kind of way that is logical.

The ease in communicating rational ideas and the difficulty in communicating everything else poses a special danger to those who teach in the arts. It is really easy discuss the ideas presented in a work of art, and fairly easy to talk about the form, but verbalizing how the marriage of the two communicates the emotions and vision and meaning on multiple levels at the same time is very difficult. Again, Sir Ken Robinson comments, “We don’t only respond to a poem, or a play, or to music, line by line or note by note. The complete work is more than the sum of its parts.” And that “more” is the part that’s difficult to touch in logical discourse. Unfortunately, many arts instructors take the easy way out and insist that rational verbal meaning and explanation to be attached to each work created by students, which, in turn, leads students to think of all art as merely the communication of ideas.

There is no doubt that analysis of a work of art is a valid academic exercise and is very useful in the editing phase of making art. But analysis, like creation itself, must not concentrate solely on what an artwork means, but on how it means, and on how the combination of the two generates a multiplicity of meanings and references and reflections and insights which is the real reason we treasure art.

Category:Communication, Creativity, Education | Comments (2) | Author:

Narrative. It’s Not Necessary

Monday, 16. January 2012 0:03

The other day a colleague was talking about movies that he liked and those that left him cold. It very quickly became apparent that what made a movie “good” to him was story. He is a fan of plot-driven film and those that are lacking in that department do not interest him at all. Needless to say, he is not fond of Bergman or Fellini.

The conversation caused me to wonder about the place of narrative, particularly in the visual arts, although the issue comes up with other arts as well; another friend once remarked that the ballet was a “terrible way to tell a story.” That may well be true, but I guess I never thought that narrative was the sole purpose of the ballet or the only reason for appreciating it.

And that, I think, is the question. Is art simply a story-telling device or does it do other things and communicate in other ways? The phrasing of the question suggests that of course it is not just a story-telling device, but many artists think otherwise. There are numerous art professors who start a critique with “What is the story here?” demanding, of course, that there be one. Painter Hilary Harkness has said, “I think the core of painting is story.”

We have become so used to this idea that it seems natural. We expect there to be a narrative. Perhaps this is an extension of our repeated viewing of photojournalism, where the goal is definitely to tell a story. Whatever the reason, many have come to expect each piece of art to convey a narrative, and when it isn’t there, we are either disappointed, confused, or we pretend there is one.  For example, Judith Barter of The Art Institute of Chicago said of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, “You believe there’s a narrative there, but there isn’t. I mean, you can’t read the story; you can’t complete the action, so that makes it both a successful painting but a difficult picture to talk about.”

Some are less circumspect in the way they view the connection between visual and narrative. Garry Winogrand said, “Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.”  And Mat Gleason with his usual soft touch has opined “Narratives are illusions, constructed in hindsight, often by the blindfolded.”

As harsh as Gleason’s statement is, it may be true. If an artwork is narrative, that narrative should be able to be expressed easily in words. But, unlike Harkness, some artists do not think that stories, at least stories that can be told in words, form the basis for art. They go even further. Edward Hopper has famously said, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Photographer Lewis Hine has said much the same thing about photography: “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”

Some critics recognize the validity of lack of narrative. For instance, Barbara Smith has called Brigitte Carnochan’s photography “visual haiku.” The notions of “narrative” or “story” do not come into play at any point. It occurs to me that you could describe the work of a number of artists similarly. Some create lyrics, some epics; some are making sonnets, all without words or narrative intent.

Just because we are used to thinking that all art is narrative does not mean that that is the only way to think, regardless of how natural it seems. There is a place for lyric painting, for photographic haiku, for cinematic meditation, for dance that is evocative rather than narrative. We would have far richer aesthetic lives if we stop trying to force art into a predetermined mindset of what it is “supposed to do” and accept and learn to appreciate what the artifact itself presents. We might even learn to expand our thinking and appreciation.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication | Comments (2) | Author:

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