Tag archive for » plastic arts «

Quit Your Whining!

Sunday, 26. July 2015 23:33

Frequently, I hear artists complaining about the lack of support the arts receive in today’s America. Theatres, except those on Broadway and a few select others, are running at less than capacity; some run at such reduced capacity that a half-house is considered good. So we whine.

Older artists will tell you that this was not the case in the past, that there was a “golden age” when all seats were full and paintings flew off the wall. How long ago that was depends largely upon the age of the artist making the statement. And there was a time—within my memory—when theatres had far more audience support that we see today. That, of course, was before 200+ channel cable television and the internet. Now we have not only the competition of cable television, but of multiple web sites streaming video and games on demand 24/7.

So those who were just looking for an entertainment to fill their time now have more choices than they can consider. Why would people dress to go out and sit with other people they don’t know to see actors perform when they can sit at home in their underwear watching the best that Hollywood has to offer? In terms of entertainment, many audience members see little distinction between live theatre and streaming video, so live theatre artists whine.

What also seems to be gone are the days when buying original art was popular, if such days ever existed. Walk through any gallery; visual and plastic arts are not moving, particularly those pieces that are priced in the three-digits-plus range—at least until one gets to the multi-million dollar level. (And those auction purchases seem to be not so much about art as about conspicuous acquisition and investment.) The vast middle-ground moves very little original art, and for much the same reasons that theatre doesn’t: reproductions are everywhere. If a person is looking for decoration (and, face it, most people are) there are thousands of pre-framed lithographs of both famous and unknown work, “original oil paintings” mass-produced in “painting factories” in Asia, illustrations, internet images. So why pay for the real original vision of a living artist? The artists whine.

But whining about today’s conditions is not productive; neither is longing for the “good old days.” Those days, if they ever existed, are gone; now we have to deal with it what is.

A multimedia artist I know says that acquiring art is like making a love connection and I think she may well be right. The collector sees the art, connects with the art, wants or needs to have an on-going relationship with the art, which means, unless the art is available to view on the internet, that the collector must buy the art. So the art goes home with its new owner to continue the love relationship.

And we know there are all sorts of “love connections,” some deep and long-term and some shallow and temporary. Different aspects attract differently, and most know that we can change those to attract a different sort of interest from a different sort of person. Likewise, the artist can modify his/her output to attract a different kind of collector.

That’s one way of dealing with things. Another way is to remember why we got into art (or art got into us) in the first place. It wasn’t about money. It was likely about having something to say or having a need to create. If we remember why we do it, and recognize what the market conditions really are, we can produce our art, put it out into the world, and quit our whining.

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New Beginnings

Sunday, 25. August 2013 23:19

If you have an academic day job, as I have, you know that it is the beginning of the new school year.  It’s the time for meetings and planning and looking ahead. People have ideas about how to do it differently this time. They are certain that this year will be better and that more and better education will occur. Almost all of my academic colleagues are of the same mind. And even if you have a twelve-month gig, as I do, it’s still very like the New Year. Everyone has new resolutions, new approaches, new techniques that they are anxious to try. And the good news is that we also get a new year at the same time everyone else does, because—at least in most places—the New Year brings a new semester, and we get, yet again, to start over.

But academics are not quite as lucky as artists. As artists we get to have a new beginning every time we start a new project. Never mind that there are three projects in limbo and two others in progress, every new one offers a brand new beginning, so every time we have an idea that we decide to pursue, we have the opportunity to make it better than we ever have, adding new ideas and experiences to this newest piece of our work.

Actors get a fresh start with every new role. Each new production is a new beginning, even if they have played the role before. There are new things to learn, new approaches to the character, new techniques for communicating the new insights to the audience, and again, new life experiences and new ideas to bring to the stage or screen this time around.

As it is with actors, so it is with directors and choreographers: a new show means a new approach, a reevaluation of old ideas, a fresh canvas, a new opportunity. A new production means a new beginning, even if it’s an old problem, a work that has been done before repeatedly. And if it’s a new piece, that’s even better. Even if you’re working with the same actors or dancers or singers that you collaborated with on the last project, there is new opportunity that can only happen with new material. And that new material provides an even more exciting chance to try out new ideas, new methodologies.

So it is for painters, photographers, sculptors, print makers. Artists are fortunate. Unless they are remarkably imaginative, most non-artists are confined to one renewal a year—on January 1; academics often get two. Artists get to have a new opportunity every time a new project comes up, which, thankfully, is quite often. Even if it’s the same subject matter, or the same series, or the same technique, or the same philosophy, each new work presents the occasion to do something new, something different, something that will advance our art.

There are many advantages to being an artist, not the least of which is the structure of the work. Many jobs require continuing attention to an ongoing never-changing stream of data or sales or development or whatever. Art, on the other hand, while equally never-ending, divides itself conveniently into projects. And in that is salvation. As artists we are not confined to the treadmill of continuous mind- and soul-numbing repetitive work. Rather, we originate, develop, and complete a project, then move on to the next one. And each interval between provides a respite, and each new project provides a renewal, a freshness, a new beginning.

We are indeed fortunate to be in almost constant renewal. What other profession presents that possibility? So let’s take a moment to appreciate the structure of our work. Here’s to new beginnings.

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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) | Autor:

Yet Another Skill Artists Need

Sunday, 9. June 2013 22:43

When it comes time to put those pictures or that sculpture that you have so carefully produced on the wall or on a display stand, the question arises of what to show where and what to hold back for that other show. It’s a question that, without significant experience, is almost impossible to answer. It’s nearly as difficult as the question of what pushes a collectors over the purchasing threshold, and what holds them back regardless of how much they like the piece.

Unlike performing arts audiences, if the visual and plastic arts audience doesn’t like what you hang on the wall or put on the stand, they don’t tell you; they just pass on by. So the artist is often left with questions about what appeals and what doesn’t, or to whom it appeals and to whom it doesn’t.

What it takes is curatorial ability. Brienne Walsh, in her article “Social Butterflies” in the June issue of Rangefinder, calls it an intuition, the ability “to decide what would appeal to other people.” And perhaps it is. It certainly seems that determining what will appeal to others is an instinct that some have and some don’t.

During my brief flirtation with DeviantART, I attempted to figure out posts would appeal to viewers, and I found that I was not particularly good at it. No pattern emerged, at least none that I was able to discern. Perhaps had I stayed with it longer I would have developed the skill, but given where I was at the time, I wasn’t willing to devote the time it would have taken. And I wasn’t sure that I would ever see a pattern.

Of course, one way to get around the problem is to publish everything at once. Then there is no question of what to show here or there or when or any of that. For some, particularly the prolific, this seems to work. If you follow any artists on Facebook or Tumblr or Pinterest, you have seen what I mean, but even that is curated, at least according to Walsh.

The answer, I think, if there is one, is to find out who your audience really is. For example, the initial audience in a juried show is comprised of the jurors. Sometimes I have successfully curated pieces in order to secure a place in such shows. Since most jurors’ names and information are not only published, but advertised, it is rather easy to research them and discover who they are and what they’re about, which leads one to make a more intelligent decision about what to present. Jurors like work that is in some way akin to their own, or, perhaps more importantly, reflects something of their philosophies. So knowing the taste of the jurors can guide you in what pieces to submit or, in some cases, tell you to save the entry fee because your work has little chance of being appreciated.

We should be able to apply the same principles to our individual potential audiences. Admittedly, the application will be far more difficult. Potential collectors are not likely to give us their backgrounds, interests, or philosophies. But if we start looking at what, beyond the superficial, our collectors have in common, we may begin to get a picture of exactly who, in a more abstract sense, our collectors might be. Once we know that, it is only a few steps to finding more people like that. And once that happens, we are well on our way to developing a tribe of collectors.

Category:Audience, Marketing, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

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) | Autor:

Great Art Requires Great Craft

Monday, 26. March 2012 0:04

It should be self-evident, but somehow it isn’t. If you want to be great artist, or even a good one, you must master the use of your tools. You must develop the humble craft side of your art as well as lofty artistic side. It’s the part that no one wants to do. Hardly anyone wants to spend hours drawing body parts, or painting still lifes, or learning the intricacies of photo processing software, or doing acting or dance exercises, or singing scales. But it’s necessary.

Often beginning actors want to perform significant plays before they learn to analyze character, visual artists want to paint collectable images before they learn to draw, dancers want to dance Giselle before they can successfully execute a pirouette, photographers want to win a national photography award before they master all the controls on their digital cameras. The fact is that doing all those exercises that build craft is simply unappealing—it’s work, and sometimes unpleasant work.

But regardless of the appeal or lack of it, mastering craft is necessary; it is the base upon which art is built. When you examine the work of acknowledged masters, regardless of the medium in which they excel, one of the things that literally jumps at you is the obvious mastery of the medium. This has nothing to do with the ideas or emotions they manage to incorporate into their work, and everything to do with having put in the time and effort to learn what the medium can and cannot do, and how best to manipulate it in order to say what they need to say.

The impetus for the rush to bypass craft seems to be the desire for instant celebrity. Because there are some very young, relatively inexperienced people who are successful in some arts, less-experienced artists have come to believe that there are shortcuts that will make them famous faster.

It does seem, however, that this instant fame occurs less frequently in arts that require significant investment on the part of their audiences, e.g. reading a novel or contemplating serious visual and plastic art or watching live theatre. I want to read novels by writers who not only have something to say, but know how to tell a story and how to make a metaphor. If I am going to pay $120 for a theatre seat, I want someone with the acting chops of a Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willie Loman, not someone who has been catapulted to pop fame because of an outstanding profile and someone else’s skilled direction and editing.

And to obtain those chops in acting or any other the art, you have to build up a set of skills. You have to know how to handle your medium. And, unfortunately, development of skill requires time—time to make mistakes, time to let your voice and body mature, time to experiment with various aspects and various approaches, time to practice. That’s the way artists learn. Because it’s not just what’s in the imagination, it’s what you do with that imagination and how you present it to the world that matters.

Yes, mastering a craft can be tedious. It can seem endless, and it can seem difficult, but it is necessary. If you are to make the art of which you are capable, if you are to make something of worth, you must not only be creative, but you must have a means for presenting those ideas and feelings to the world. To try to do so with a skill level less than mastery is to do a disservice to yourself and your art.

 

 

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