Post from February, 2011

The World is Going to Pieces and the Artist Needs to Respond…or Not

Sunday, 27. February 2011 23:58

A quote by Henri Cartier-Bresson crossed my desktop the other day: “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” I find the quotation offensive on several levels.  The first level is the arrogance it takes to make such a statement.  Now it is true that Cartier-Bresson was no slouch as a photographer, but I can see no reason, other than arrogance, for him to think that he was the arbiter of the proper use of world-class photographic time and talent.

The immediate implication of the quote is, of course, that Adams and Weston were not spending their time as photographers “should.”  My assumption is that Cartier-Bresson would have preferred that they be out documenting the world going to pieces and somehow photographically commenting on the situation or at least making it known to others.

As to what events comprised the world “going to pieces,” I can only speculate, but can see no reason that Adams and Weston needed to be recording it. There were many others doing that.

Also implicit in the statement is the notion that a photographer’s work ought to be political or social, or, at a very minimum, editorial or documentary. I can find no reasonable basis for such a belief. Ansel Adams believed that his work was of benefit; he responded to Cartier-Bresson’s statement by saying, “the understanding of the inanimate and animate world of nature will aid in holding the world of man together.” So far as I know, Edward Weston did not respond.

To take the question out of a historical context, does the quote suggest that because the world is going to pieces today (or so it seems), all artists should have a social or political component to their work? I hope not. Artists do what they do and make the art they make because it is important to them. Sometimes there is overtly editorial content; sometimes not.

For many artists, some photographers, many not, making a social and/or political statement is very important. Some statements are obvious; some subtle. Some are strong enough to elicit public reaction. Some political/social art is very good. But it’s not what all artists do, not what they want to do. I cannot think that adding another political/social voice in the creation of art is a proper approach for everyone.

There are many ways that you can make your voice heard politically and socially, and, certainly, there is no need to enumerate those ways here; you know what they are.  Art is a personal statement about whatever the artist needs it to be about. It may be political, or social, or something else. There are many aspects to existing in this world and any of them, all of them, are the proper subjects of art. Surely politics and society are important, but so are other things, other aspects of the human condition, other aspects of living.

Art is not what one artist decides it should be; it is what each artist decides for him/herself. As Seth Godin has said:

Art is what we call…the thing an artist does.

It’s not the medium or the oil or the price or whether it hangs on a wall or you eat it. What matters, what makes it art, is that the person who made it overcame the resistance, ignored the voice of doubt and made something worth making. Something risky. Something human.

Art is not in the eye of the beholder. It’s in the soul of the artist.

Category:Creativity, Photography | Comments (8) | Author:

Art as Salvation—Creating “in Flow”

Sunday, 20. February 2011 23:42

This week Hazel Dooney published a very intimate post called “Art Saves” on her blog, Self vs. Self. Dooney is dealing with the recent death of her father and wrote a brief comment on how art has been her salvation in this time of grief. She mentions the routine, the “almost mechanical tedium” that helps keep her sane.

While I do not doubt that the tedium and the routine serve to engage her mind and body, I suspect that there is more to it than that.  There are many opinions about Hazel Dooney, but no one would challenge her creativity.  Creative people, when they are working, enter what amounts to an altered state. Their bodies and minds are fully engaged in the work before them, whether that work is pure creation or the filling in of detail on a piece that already exists.

Some would call it “concentration,” but it is much more than that. It is total mental (and sometimes physical) engagement—to the exclusion of nearly everything else.  In theatre, we call it “being in the moment.” Athletes refer to it as being “in the zone.” Psychologists call it “flow.”

Beginning artists, I find, often don’t know about this phenomenon, much less how to achieve it. It is a difficult thing to teach, and perhaps a more difficult thing to learn. However, once you have experienced it and practiced it, it becomes second nature. You don’t think about it anymore; you just shift into it when it is required.

For example, when I walked into the theatre tonight for rehearsal, I had a number of things on my mind; the day had not gone as I had planned. We set about the rehearsal and I did my part in shaping the play currently in production. Only at break did I realize that the rest of the universe had completely vanished for the duration of the first portion of the rehearsal. I was fully engaged. There was nothing on my mind except the production. There was nothing else in the world except the production. Everything in my being was engrossed in making the play the best it could be.

The same thing happens when I am involved in shooting photographs or sitting at a computer editing them. Getting the image “right” is the only important thing. For the time it takes to do the work, the world disappears. Time evaporates. There is only the work.  These are not the only indications that you are “in the moment,” just the most obvious. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, originator of the term “flow” has identified ten factors that accompany the experience.

So I certainly understand when Hazel Dooney says “Art saves;” it has saved me in times of severe emotional stress. The very act of creation takes the artist out of the world, out of him/herself. The only existence is in the work—at least for a time. And there is no question that the discipline of showing up at the studio, computer, theatre, easel, and starting to do what needs to be done, entering into the routine and the potential tedium, aids the artist in slipping into the flow experience.

Susan K. Perry maintains that when you “create in flow” you are more creative, the work is easier, and you are more likely to produce good work. I would not disagree. I would even go one step further and say that unless you are “in flow,” unless you are completely engaged, it is likely that the work you produce will not be excellent; competent, perhaps, but not outstanding in any way. And Perry is absolutely correct: once you move into flow, the work is easier, the product better.

Art, practiced this way, can indeed save you—from the world, from your cares, from your worries, from yourself.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (1) | Author:

All Art is Censored Art

Sunday, 13. February 2011 23:14

Censorship has been a big topic lately in the art world. First there was the situation at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery involving a 4 minute portion of a film by David Wojnarowicz and the disapproval of the religious right.  Martin E. Sullivan, the museum’s director said that the offending film was removed in order to protect the rest of the exhibit. Then in Los Angeles, there was the whitewashing of the wall art of the Italian street artist Blu instigated not by any political body, but by the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art who said that the art in question was insensitive, given its proximity to a VA hospital and war memorial.

In both instances the reasons given were not accepted by bloggers and pundits. Cries of “No censorship!” were heard throughout the land. Instead of being swayed by the opinions of the internet writers, I tried instead to gather the facts and decide if the logic put forward by curators was valid.  Would the wall in Los Angeles really have offended veterans and their families? Would that have been a bad thing, or does that matter? Did removing Wojnarowicz’s piece from Hide/Seek in Washington really save the rest of the exhibit from further censorship?  Was it worth it? There is really no way to know.

Theatrical producers have always made these sorts of judgments: if they exceed the audience’s expectation by too much or fall short of audience expectation by too much, ticket sales dwindle, so producers bring to the stage plays that fall into that “acceptable” range of audience appeal.

The American film industry followed suit over a century ago, and chose self-censorship as the best option available. The MPPC, through its National Board of Censorship decided that if the movie industry could successfully censor itself, the government would not. They were right.

There are other examples.  Galleries and museums hire curators to decide what to collect and display and what not. That’s what curators do, and unless there is public controversy, they do it quietly and efficiently, and sometimes artfully. This is nothing more than institutional censorship in the person of the curator.

Sometimes, however, outside influences intervene; Cynthia Freeland in her book, Is it Art? notes, “But if a corporation is funding an exhibit, museum directors and curators may feel restricted in what kinds or art can and cannot be shown.”  We all know this, but it’s the way art is exhibited, so we say nothing.

Editing is used to shape the final version of the story, novel, poem, collection of images. This, you say, is not censorship; this is editing; it’s different. But is it? Editing, by definition, includes “selection…correction…and other modification,” deciding what to leave in, what to leave out. It’s just curation on a smaller scale.

Even before our work gets to an editor, we self-edit, that is we self-censor. We decide which images to show and which to throw away. We censor ourselves for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes those reasons can be less than artistic: “That won’t sell.” “This is not representative of the niche I am trying to establish.” “This will confuse potential collectors.” Sometimes there are other issues; consider Charles Darwin: “It took him a long time to publish his ideas, mainly because he was afraid of being attacked as an atheist.”

Some would argue that we should be afraid of nothing, that we should eschew self-censorship as much as outside censorship. I have to disagree. Not all of our product is of the highest quality. We must edit our output in order to exhibit only what we deem worthy of show. Self-censorship is part of the artistic process; it helps define who we are as artists. Indeed, self-censorship is the only valid censorship.

Category:Creativity, Photography, Theatre | Comments (1) | 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 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: