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Ambiguity in Art, Part 2*

Monday, 15. October 2018 1:12

In his book, Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that at the end of the silent era, successful American movies followed six rules, one of which was that movies should be comprehensible and unambiguous. But times change. Now we have sound, and color, and more than a handful of ambiguous movie endings. And if you look at any of the lists, you will discover that these are very well-known and respected movies. Things seem to have changed.

And this change is not just a recent phenomenon. Many critics consider the ending of Casablanca to be at least a little ambiguous. Going even farther back, the enigmatic and ambiguous smile in the 515-year–old Mona Lisa still intrigues scholars and critics today. As a matter of fact, the more we look, the more ambiguity we find in art. For example, most of the paintings of Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano rely on ambiguity, as do the sculptures of John Chamberlain. Sally Mann’s photography can be ambiguous, and so can the work of Edward Albee and Sam Shepherd. The lyrics and poems of Leonard Cohen can be filled with ambiguity.

So while ambiguity exists in much art and has for centuries, it certainly isn’t found in all art, probably not in a majority of art. My guess would be that ambiguity would found in only a small minority of art works. (Look at how few movies endings are marked as “ambiguous.”) One can speculate that there are two reasons for this: (1) the majority of audience members still expect art to follow Robert Henry Stanley’s rule and be “comprehensible and unambiguous.” Things are easier that way: the audience members know exactly what the artist means and often express their appreciation with their pocketbooks.

(2) The other reason that ambiguity is found in a minority of art works is that ambiguity is difficult to do and must be controlled. If the artist is not careful, ambiguity can easily slip into vagueness and confusion, which is not at all appealing. So ambiguity in art must be handled delicately so that just enough comes through to the audience members to make them think and talk about the work, but not so much that the work becomes obscure.

Am I suggesting that we find a way to introduce ambiguity into our art (if it isn’t already there)? I think that depends on the artist’s goals. If the artist is interested in selling as many pieces as possible or making a very strong statement, perhaps not. Americans seem to spend more for art that is unambiguous. Clint Eastwood’s movies are not ambiguous. Banksy is not ambiguous, nor is Neil Simon. These artists are very direct and do very good work. They have been rewarded by their audiences.

If, on the other hand, the artist wants to let the audience member participate a little more, s/he might be less direct, perhaps leave things in the gray rather than black and white by introducing some controlled ambiguity. It may not make the work better, but it will make it start different sorts of conversations and appeal to a different audience, albeit a minority.

So it comes down to how the artist wants his/her work perceived and to which audience s/he want to appeal. And while I am a fan of ambiguity in art, I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for all sorts of art or in all situations. So I think the artist must take into consideration the sort of art he is making and the audience for whom s/he is making it.

 

*”Part 1” was entitled “Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art” and can be found here.

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Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art

Monday, 17. November 2014 0:52

In his book Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that Americans don’t like ambiguous endings on their movies. And he’s right. A number of Americans (and probably people of other nationalities as well) dislike ambiguity, particularly at the end of movies. Talk to any three people about the ending of the movie Inception. Indeed, if you plug “Inception ending” into Google, you get 36,000,000 hits, so something must be of interest there.

This is one of the reasons that many audience members are troubled by the endings of Edward Albee’s plays or what are perhaps the most ambiguous of the arts, abstract painting, sculpture, photography.

None of this is new and interesting; we all know that some people don’t like ambiguity, and some people don’t like abstract art, and many of us have formed opinions as to why that is, often citing lack of sufficient education. However, there is a new and interesting development in this area; it is two related studies done by Antonio Chirumbolo, Ambra Brizi, Stefano Mastandrea, and Lucia Mannetti. This psychological research team reports that that “people with a strong need for cognitive closure—that is to have quick, definitive answers to vexing questions—are less likely to appreciate abstract art.”

Even more interesting is that one of the studies suggested that the “desire for certainty is a constant for some people, it can be induced in others,” which means that “if environmental cues are unwittingly prompting this mindset, they are effectively making people less open to abstract art.”

And what does all that mean to us? If we are artists who produce abstract art or who produce art that leans ambiguous, we need to be worried about how that art is presented to our audiences. We can probably do nothing about those who have an inherent need for closure, but we need to be concerned about the state of mind of everyone else in our potential audience, and that means the environment in which our art is shown.

The study showed that if and when there are too many distractions, tolerance for ambiguity is reduced, so ambiguous art becomes “unpleasant and displeasing.” Pacific Standard Magazine reports “’Curators of exhibitions of modern and abstract art should take into account environmental factors which may induce greater need for closure in visitors, and thus negatively affect viewers’ implicit evaluation of the artworks,’ the researchers write. Anything that reduces viewers’ cognitive load, from simple-to-navigate galleries to clear, understandable explanatory labels accompanying the works, will help.”

Except for the in-gallery or lobby bar dispensing alcoholic calmness, there is little to be done if audience brings their distractions with them in the form of long to-do lists, or emotional turmoil. But if our ambiguous, abstract work is to appeal, it would be well to find a way to reduce those internal distractions.

Practically speaking, if we are in the business of trying to have our work seen and perhaps purchased, in the business of tribe-building, then this information is invaluable; potential patrons may not be able to like our work simply because of the environment. Solutions may not be readily apparent or easy to implement, but just knowing what is going on in the minds of some of our potential audience can lead us to explore new paths and find new venues for our work.

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