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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:

Artistic Success: A Matter of Definition?

Sunday, 26. May 2013 23:47

It is very evident that the student’s comment that he wanted to “live an artistic life” engendered much discussion. The meaning of the phrase was, according to the student, to support himself by doing his art. One person with whom I discussed this suggested that the student’s was likely to produced art of diminished quality. Further discussion revealed that the idea was based on two suppositions. The first was that the student would cling to the notion of supporting himself through art without regard to the quality or level of work produced. And this, of course, is based on the other supposition: that certain types of art are superior to other types.

For many, the question of the superiority of one type of art over another was resolved by the postmodernists, who declared very loudly that there was no high or low art, or if there was, there was no difference between them. Of course, not everyone accepted this idea. We sometimes hear photography instructors criticize a student’s work as “too commercial,” which somehow makes it unworthy, or music instructors who are certain that if a piece is less than 100 years old, it cannot be possibly be considered art.

To be sure, some works of art are of higher quality than others. Some are more difficult, more complex, more sophisticated than others. Some exhibit a higher degree of craftsmanship than do their counterparts. In those ways they may be superior. But to say that one type or form of art is inherently superior to another is nothing but bias and snobbery. Certainly within every category of art are those qualitative differences that exist in almost every area of human endeavor.

The other consideration is whether the student in question is willing to reduce the quality of his work in order to make a living from his art.  Some would say that if the student were to be a soap opera actor rather than performing Shakespeare, he would have become an actor of diminished quality. If he had set out with the goal of becoming a Shakespearean actor, that might be the case; working on a soap opera would certainly represent a failure to achieve his goal. If, however, he had set out to be a professional actor, he would have succeeded admirably.

Likewise, if what you want to do is sing for a living, and you front a cover band, and that pays your bills, you are indeed singing for a living and thus succeeding in making a living from your art. Thomas Kinkade, according to most critics, failed at painting fine art masterpieces; however, Thomas Kinkade succeeded wildly at making a living from his art.  Whether the artist, in his/her attempt to earn a living from artistic work, succeeds or fails depends on how the artist defined his/her artistic goal in the first place.

Will this student be able to support himself doing art? We don’t know yet. Will he have to figure out exactly what success means to him? Of course he will. Will that demean his art? I think not. So far, it seems that he does not aspire to act Shakespeare or sing Wagner; he wants to sculpt and make music and perform; some might consider what he does lower forms of art. He doesn’t; it’s his art and he loves doing it. And, I suspect there is a market for it. He just has to find it.

Category:Creativity, Productivity, Quality | Comment (0) | Author:

Living an Artistic Life

Monday, 13. May 2013 0:03

In dealing with students, one of my standard questions is, “what do you want to do [in your life]?” This is not a request for a definitive statement, but rather a question designed to cause the student to think about the future, and perhaps begin to think about goals and preparation. In answer to this question last week, one student, who is amazingly creative and very talented in at least three media (and probably several others that he has yet to discover), responded, “I just want to live an artistic life.”

Upon reviewing the conversation, I realized that, although I had heard him and understood the words, I really had no idea what he meant. Did he mean he wanted to live a life devoted to art? Or did he mean he wanted to live a life producing art? Or did he mean that he wanted to surround himself with art? Or did he mean that he wanted to adopt the lifestyle attributed to the romantic notion of “being an artist”? Or did he mean that he wanted to live a life that could be described as “artistic”? Or did he want to live a life patterned after some historical artist? Or did he want to live in “artistic poverty”? Or did he want to live the life of a rock star artist? Or did he want to live a life experiencing and studying art? The list of possibilities could be infinite.

Instead of following the sensible path and asking the student what he meant, I mulled it over for a while. I thought about what that statement would mean if someone else had said it, if I had said it. What does it mean to lead an artistic life? Why would you want to? Or would you want to?

So I asked a variety of people about it. Everyone had a different answer encompassing almost all of the possibilities mentioned above. Some of the responses seemed to be related to age and experience, although that was far from universal. It was a decidedly unscientific sampling.

Since “living an artistic life” seems to mean something different to everyone, I wondered if all of those possibilities had something in common. The only thing that I could find was that in each case, one’s living environment was significantly touched by art in some way. At one extreme is complete immersion; at the other is just having some around. So, at a minimum, “living an artistic life” means having art in your life in some way, even if it’s only a few pieces.

Having art around seems to have been the case for a number of artists. Indeed, in the Surrealism Installation of the Menil Collection is an entire room entitled “Witness to a Surrealist Vision” devoted to artifacts that were collected from the homes and studios of various surrealist artists. These objects “range from ceremonial costumes and masks to bird specimens, surgical tools, astronomical instruments, and fetish figures,” and are reported to have “captivated and inspired these artists.”

This brief exchange has caused me to consider my own environment and whether I should try to make it more “artistic.” While I think that having art in one’s life is a desirable thing—particularly for those of us who work in the arts—I do not think that any of us have to move to a different house, or spend a lot of money modifying our décor. But it does seem to me that there are things that we can do to, even if it’s simply hanging a new print by the place we work. Or we can change a little at a time, perhaps reducing clutter, perhaps rearranging the pieces that we have. Regardless of what we might choose to do, we probably should do something to insure that the environment in which we live and work helps feed our artistic souls.

Category:Quality | Comment (0) | Author:

New Beginnings

Sunday, 6. January 2013 23:47

This time of the year we hear a lot about new beginnings and modifying our lives, our businesses, our art. It seems that it’s a time to evaluate where we’ve been and adjusting so that the next year will be better. Some will create lengthy lists of resolutions, but most of us realize that, with a few exceptions, resolutions fail. Other pundits, Like Seth Godin, suggest that we make an inventory, as “a way to keep track of what you’re building.” What is curious to me is that you never hear about this sort of thing at other times of the year.

Why is this time of year the season for appraisal and adjustment? Certainly, nowhere on the planet are we even near the rebirth phase of the natural biological cycle. We are, in fact—at least those of us in the northern hemisphere—just about to step into the depths of winter. Perhaps that is it; this could well be considered “dead time.” Several artists I’ve talked with recently regard January, and perhaps February as “creative time,” which, so far as I can determine, means that they choose to spend this time making art—perhaps because of the unfriendly weather and lack of other activities. This means, of course, that they have already done their evaluation and path-setting, so now they are able to move forward.

Still there exists the question of why the majority of people use January as the marker for judging past performance and setting standards and goals for the coming year. The answer is simple. Most people’s lives are not segmented, but continuous.  They go to work, come home, eat, sleep, relax a little, and do it all again. The cycle is the work week, with months overlaid and seasons providing a sort of background. But almost all cultures celebrate winter holidays of some sort, and these holidays seem to last a little longer than others. So things slow down, and in slowing down there is time for reflection. And then there is that event called the “New Year.” Yes, just another day, but a day when we get to hang a brand new calendar on the wall—which looks for all the world like a fresh start, a new blank page. A new beginning.

And that is something we all crave. Humans, at least those in western society, seem to need to fresh starts. And as artists, we have more of them than most people, because we—and it does not matter what kind of artist—work on different schedules from the majority of the population. Each artist may be a little different, but we all work on projects, and projects have ends. Dancers, choreographers, actors, directors, scenic and costume designers work on “the show.” The production is conceived, rehearsed, performed, and closed. The painter or photographer or sculptor works on a piece or a series, which also has a completion arc. Writers work on the book, the poem, the short story, the essay, the blog entry. None of these conform to the calendar year.

And even though many of us (if we’re lucky) move from project to project, there is usually a point at which we can look back and evaluate what we’ve done, and perhaps discover ways to improve our working procedure or efficiency or whatever might need adjustment to improve our output. Performing arts production teams often hold “post-mortems” to evaluate procedures and approaches. Individual artists rarely do anything so formal, but we do have an opportunity not available to all: evaluating our work and adjusting on a per-project basis rather than once a year. It’s up to us to take advantage of those opportunities.

Category:Productivity, Quality | Comment (0) | Author:

Less than Successful as an Artist? Consider Reducing your Output

Monday, 12. December 2011 1:38

As you may know, there is currently a glut of advice to artists. It doesn’t matter what sort of artist you are, or what medium you work in, advice is abundant and easily found. Some advisors want to charge you for their words of wisdom; others will happily give you their opinion for free. Almost all of the advice out there boils down to one thing: be prolific; produce and then produce some more. This is always followed by sales advice, which is a whole subject unto itself. Lately, however, I have come across suggestions that perhaps high-volume output may not be exactly what we need to be doing.

This is not to suggest that you can become an expert in any less than the 10,000 hours that studies suggest are required to gain expertise in any field. But it is to suggest that in order to be successful, or influential, or even famous, you do not necessarily have to produce a new piece of art every week. Real art takes time, and often requires repeated tries to get it right. And unless you are a hack, my guess is what you want to put out into the world is work that is right, or as close to right as you can get it.

And I am serious about the successful, influential or famous part. Consider, for example, that Dutch painter Jan Vermeer produced less than 40 canvases during his lifetime, or that award-winning poet Grace Paley produced only three books in her thirty-year career, all three of which were critical successes. Robert M. Pirsig has written exactly two books, at least one of which may be the one of the most influential philosophical writings of the twentieth century.  Harper Lee produced a single book: To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Leonardo da Vinci completed “only about 15 paintings in his whole lifetime.”

There are a number of reasons for this level of output. Some artists may have said what they have to say and feel that to keep making unsubstantial work is a waste of time and energy. Some are involved in other equally important activities. Such was the case with Grace Paley: “Part of the reason she had such a small output is that she was busy with other things , not just raising kids but working as a peace activist.”

Sometimes it’s the nature of the work. Daniel Grant in his article “The Art World’s Slowpokes” lists seven contemporary artists with relatively small annual output: William Beckman, Barbara Dixon Drewa, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Candace Jans, Scott Pryor, Douglas Safranek. All of these artists are photorealistic painters, an art which require painstakingly detailed painting, which, of course takes enormous amounts of time.

Christina Patterson says that, based on his writing in his notebooks, Leonardo “thought, like all great artists, that nothing he did was ever good enough. He knew that people who thought their work was good enough were nearly always wrong.”

So it’s a matter of quality and judging what is good enough to show other people, at least according to Leonardo. It’s a novel concept in an era when every image that a photographer produces and every painting that an artist makes appears instantly on Tumblr, or whatever the current “in” website is. And if we’re so busy producing that we lose sight of quality, maybe it’s time we reevaluate. Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Maybe that’s something that we should all think about.

 

 

Category:Quality | Comment (0) | Author:

Arts Awards – Really About Excellence?

Sunday, 19. June 2011 23:59

In a conversation about the Tony Awards this week, someone said, “I expected you would blog about it.” It had never occurred to me to write about the Tonys. It’s not that I don’t care about Broadway, it’s just that I don’t have much to say about them. I do not see much New York theatre, so I can’t really comment on the comparative quality of the shows. I didn’t watch the awards live, so I can’t comment on the show itself, except those portions I watched on You Tube.

What I can comment on is the idea of awards in the arts. How can you be against recognition of excellence—if that’s what the awards are? And there are some: the Pulitzer Prize comes to mind. As does the Booker Prize, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. But then there are those awards that come with nationally televised presentations and lots of advertising: the Tonys and certainly the Academy Awards.

Unfortunately these sorts of awards are subject to heavy campaigning in the media. This, of course, has to do with the privilege of being able to put “Winner of x number of some kind of award” in the advertising for the play or the movie in question. So the awards become something other than recognition of excellence.

Now I am not naïve enough to presume that no politics enter into deciding the awards in other arts, but it seems to me that they are less subject to advertising and activism. At least the jockeying for prizes, if there is such, is much better concealed from the public.

What I object to about such awards is not that they are used for financial gain. Film and theatre are, after all, produced in order to make money. Hopefully there is some art along the way, but the ultimate goal is financial, and awards help producers reach that goal. What I do object to is that heavily publicized awards seem to turn their respective arts into contests; that is what art is not.

The result of the most recent contest is that The Book of the Mormon and War Horse have become more marketable commodities. However winning multiple Tony Awards did not cause them to become suddenly more accessible as works of art. The upside is that more people now know about the productions, and potentially more people will see them. The downside is that the publicity will attract detractors and uninformed criticism, some of which will be the result of attendance by those who are not ready for the art of these two shows.

The role of the audience in any theatrical production (or any art) is not completely passive. You have to bring something to it, if you are to fully enjoy it. And often the more you can bring, the richer will be your experience.

Art is not easy. It seems that the better the art is, the more that is required from the viewer, and the less appeal to a mass audience it has. Many artists work very hard to make their meanings clear. Some artists, on the other hand, work very hard at making meanings obscure and allusions oblique. Neither approach guarantees the intended audience will appreciate that meaning or its expression. Neither does the winning of awards.

It may be elitist, but it is true that to be able to access to the very best art, one must have some education and background. This is hardly the case with mass-marketable commodities, which is what the highly publicized awards attempt to create.

Unfortunately for those trying to commoditize it, art is difficult. And worth it.

Category:Quality, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author:

Amateur, Professional? Both!

Sunday, 6. February 2011 23:41

It all started last week when I submitted two images to two different competitions. Both entry forms asked if I was a professional or an amateur.  I didn’t hesitate; I have been doing photography for a long time; I am competent; my attitude is professional, people pay me money for images. Then I got to the definition. One of the entry forms had provided an explanation of the term, professional; it was “the majority of your income is derived from photography.” Guess I’m not a professional after all; although I receive income from photography, it is not a majority.  This, of course, caused me to wonder about the term professional. I suddenly wasn’t sure whether I was one or not, but I was pretty sure that I didn’t like being labeled amateur.

The next day, I ran across an article on empty easel.com by Aletta de Wal entitled “Hobbyist, Amateur, or Professional Artist – Which are You?” Wal seems to be in agreement with the entry form and believes that professional artists are those who support themselves with their art; hobbyists and amateurs do not. In just a few days I ran across another blog post by Wal on another site, this time on Lori McNee: Fine Art & Tips. This post, “When Are You Ready to Call Yourself a Professional Artist?” has a slightly different take on the subject. In this article, Wal presents a checklist of seven items that establish a person as a professional artist. As one reader, Will Johnston, points out, she does not mention getting paid for creating art as one of the criteria; Johnston says getting paid is the actual definition of a professional, but he makes no mention of how much of one’s income is involved.

Then I ran across this tweet by Jack Hollingsworth which provided another perspective: “When i refer to ‘amateurs’, I’m referring to occupational status, not skill set.” This is fairly clear; if one’s occupation is not making art, one is an amateur. But notice the implication that an amateur might well be as skilled as a professional.

This idea is also presented by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element. In a chapter called “For Love or Money,” he examines several cases of people who perform at professional levels in a number of arts areas, but have chosen, for a variety of reasons, to make their living some other way. He echoes the definition of professional as one who earns his/her living in a field, but he also states that “the terms amateur and professional often imply…something about quality and expertise.”  Robinson discusses the meaning of the word amateur and opines that amateurs “do what they do because they have passion for it, not because it pays the bills.” In this discussion he distinguishes between amateur and amateurish, the latter, of course, indicating a lack of professional quality and probably a deficit of expertise.

The distinction between amateur and amateurish finally clarified the matter for me: I had not remembered that professional is both a noun and an adjective.  In addition to being what I had considered a practicing professional for a number of years, I believe in and teach professionalism; I think that in any art, particularly one about which you are passionate, you should have a professional approach, attitude, and demeanor whether you are getting paid or not; I think that you should attain the highest skill level you possibly can, if for no other reason than to satisfy your passion. In other words, I think that you should be professional even if you are not a professional.

All of this made me consider the other side of the duality and wonder about those artists who were not definitional professionals. The list of artists who made their living doing other things is long. It includes Henry Fielding, Charlotte Brontë, Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pablo Neruda, Anton Chekhov, and there are many others.

Not bad company. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be an amateur after all—so long as you are professional about it.

Category:Photography, Quality | Comments (1) | Author:

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