Category Archives: Blog

And from a child … true abstraction

Aelita Andrea is very young and yet she is showing us what goes on in the mind of a child through her art. See her website here.

No pictures for this one. You just have to go and enjoy the insight and enthusiasm she shows for her work. Likened to a young Jackson Pollock, some describe her work as a combination of Absract Expressionism and Surrelism. Perhaps more of the former, than the latter.

And let’s reflect on Picasso who opined that he spent a lifetime trying to paint like a child.

What is just a delight is her chosen form is abstraction, some further evidence that the natural, unsocialised mind is comfortable with the abstract. It is only through the destructive process we call primary and secondary education, that our natural creative inclinations are stilled, in some cases forever.

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Artistic Plagiarism: a commentary

Learning to steal?

Learning to steal?

I wrote an opinion piece in the Art of England (issue 77,  January 2011) on the issue of artistic plagiarism called “On Learning to Steal”. I start by musing on the usefulness of students learning art by copying works in art galleries. You know the story, littered around the floor are art students busily copying, sketching some work or other. As I note in the article, they seem more like a piece of performance art to a failing art education system, than serious learning. I make the point that this only encourages further theft: “bad artists copy, good artists steal”. They are learning how to steal.

But more worrying, of course, is artistic plagiarism, and I draw attention to a recent high-profile example in Australia. I come down hard and negatively toward artists who maintain an atelier where their job is signing finished works of art (I call them signaturists). I observe that these artists themselves sense this is a con, otherwise, why would one well-known artist preface recent work by saying the work was done personally.

Plagiarism in all its forms is not to be trifled with. In the visual arts, copying is rife, not helped by the ease of cut-and-paste off the internet.

Nevertheless, we must be vigilant of artists who fail, as one artist put it, to adequately reference their sources.

Should art have footnotes?

Want to know more?

An overview of artistic plagiarism by Denis Dutton

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The Vampire Art Schools: a commentary

Main entrance of Ringling School of Art

An art school: I wonder what goes on in there?

I wrote an opinion piece on failing art schools in the UK in Issue 75, November 2010, of Art of England magazine.

Are students in art schools actually getting an education worth paying for. Considering the stresses in higher education funding, and the appalling career opportunities for many art school graduates (upwards of 90% never work at their core art competencies after graduation), that some art schools appear to be failing, not just their students, but also in the quality of the work they do, is a clear waste of money.

One of my suggestions is that some university art schools be downgraded to non-degree colleges, with a sharper vocational focus. The other is to widen their appeal to support the learning needs of older folk, to attract later-blooming artists, of which there are many. The problem for the universities is that at some level art-making is essentially vocational; university art studies really are less on the practice of art-making as on the scholastic study of art (an often confused and obscure activity with its own obfuscating terminology, but that is another matter). If artists are to enjoy the benefits of academic positions, they should be contributing to the advancement of knowledge at some level.

No doubt these failing institutions will argue that they offer value, by way of research, but research-led institutions are fine but not if the students are trying to build practical careers in which case you have a serious mis-match. Research in art in my view is important, but is not advanced by students spending the bulk of their time in studios. We need people who understand and can research art as it contributes to civilisation, and how art is made as a function of brains at play. As I wrote in this opinion piece, if students want to paint, they can keep a studio at home. This would eliminate, perhaps to much acclaim, the graduate art shows of frequently pointless academic art.

While not a heathen with respect to universities, I have a doctorate and have been a senior lecturer, there are some things better done for the learner in more accessible and less puffed-up learning centres. The current educational system doesn’t incentivise them.

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Dirt! a commentary

Vermont dirt, up close.

Now dig in.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an opinion piece, “Dirt” in Art of England, July 2011, I explored the problem, issue, challenge of artists who do not actually make their own work, but hire others to do the work.

I am concerned that the authority of the artist is becoming simply the act of the creation of the thought, and not the execution of the work itself, a bit like having your word processor start your sentences.

A book by Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making, approvingly examines the artists who don’t actually make anything.

The creative process isn’t just about having a good idea, indeed having a good idea isn’t good enough, any more than a writer with a good idea can hawk the idea around for a few thousand dollars. (Ah, but they do apparently sell tag lines in Hollywood, which may explain why many of the films are so bad!) With art, there is the need, I suggest, for the authority of manufacture, if that is the right word, something that says “I made this”, full of agency and intent.

The downside fear is this. Imagine you only need to put some whatever into a computer software programme and out comes something. Think of 3D printers, and whether they can actually produce art. Then again, maybe someone will eventually invent a word processor that starts sentences.

Keep in mind that only human faces can smile, and only brains and minds can create.

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The digital future of 21st century arts organisations

A debate started on the Arts Journal on Leadership/Followership raises a number of challenges for arts groups.

In my view, the simple lead/follow dichotomy is not helpful as arts organisations are both repositories of a society’s culture (on behalf of people) and a way to placing before the public new ideas in way that engages and informs (on behalf of new ideas).

Bruno Frey has commented that people may not need to see the original piece of art itself but perhaps a print would do.

You are there!

Taking that notion further, why are exhibitions not online?  An opening could be a simple ‘app’ instead, and the show curated with additional content and searchable features, individual pieces could be zoomed and viewed in the round.

It would not cease to exist when the exhibition closed — a problem for exhibitions in the real world, and poorly captured in the exhibition catalogue. Few people can actually make it to many openings, and moving art around can damage the art itself. The modern world is increasingly location-independent with the use of smartphones and tablet computers making where we are less important when accessing information, people or events; this is likely to evolve further. Thinking past the current fad for social networking (and something will follow Facebook!) leads to a world where intelligent software ‘agents’ can help individuals find and view the art they are interested in, alert them to new shows.

Perhaps some people may be in a position to attend in person, but generally this is not true.

Digital technology allows time-shifting, so I can view the exhibition when I want and probably reduces my carbon footprint at the same time. The openings can be teleconferenced, so people can attend in real-time or listen to later. If I instead choose to attend, then the app becomes my personal guide, which I can annotate and keep.

Ah, but imagine a gallery of giant video screens, the real art protected. It does challenge us to reflect, as Frey does, on what it really is we want to see when we view art: is the experience of the art object itself (if so, why bother buy the catalogue or art books), an experience few really can have, or is it the art (in which case the sale of posters is explained).

It seems to me that arts organisation leadership might benefit from a dose of ‘disruptive’ thinking to embrace modern possibilities. We now have, for instance, galleries with searchable online catalogues, and we find some degree of interactive art itself, but this is a feature of the art not of the art experience. I wonder if today, the “2 second advantage” (to take from a book of that name) for arts organisations offers a clue on how to move beyond the collection idea to something rather different.

The notion of capturing artistic interests in ‘real time’ would enable a ‘video-enabled’ gallery to be able to anticipate art interests (though mindful that much needs to be made of the random ‘shock of the new’ that accompanies the joy of discovering a new artist), and assemble art for the individual in a way that helps them experience the art more personally. I miss not being able to visit some galleries which house art I like because I simply can’t afford the airfare to visit them — the ability to be telepresent in these galleries would be wonderful and at $£€4.99 worth a lot more than the book.

As I’ve said elsewhere, there’s an app for that.

Just a thought…….

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Censorship and Arts: a commentary

"Study drawing shows the allegorical figu...

Do we applaud the reading or censor the nudity? A censor’s job is never done!

In Art of England magazine (Issue 78, February 2011), I wrote an opinion piece exploring arts censorship in the context of WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks saga is important for a number of reasons I have explored on my policy blog (The Cognologist) in particular what I call ‘digital exceptionalism’. This simply means that for arts, an art show in a bricks and mortar gallery is not the same thing as the same exhibit on the Internet — images in a gallery can be pulled from the wall, while once on the Internet, they are there ‘forever’. Authorities and lawmakers are grappling with this distinction, which in my view is fundamentally specious, but which is driving a considerable amount of excessively intrusive conduct by governments and enforcement authorities. Of course, there are sensible reasons for this: mainly the ease of access to the material, frequently by vulnerable and impressionable or young people. But such illiberal conduct in the past has been justified on similar grounds.

The real reason for concern lies in an observation by Nicholas Negroponte in his book Being Digital: the Internet facilitates the one to many relationship between an individual and the rest of the world. Individuals have much greater social reach and with appropriate search engines, just about anything can be found within a reasonable period of time. Contrast this with the pre-Internet world, of bookstores which stocked only so many books and you had to specially order some, or libraries with paper-based card catalogues — if you didn’t understand the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal filing system, you might not find what you were looking for.

So in this brave new world (Huxley said it first) the censors have found new energy. The real problem is that in the Internet WikiLeaks type world, it is becoming harder and harder both to hide and to keep secrets. It is almost like living in the film The Invention of Lying, or Liar Liar. It used to be much easier to be duplicitous — the chances of being found out have escalated considerably.

In the article I note that the arts have always attracted the attention of officials particularly during times of crisis (now, perhaps?). Artists in the UK during the 1914-18 war were viewed with considerable suspicion — marine painters were virtually banned as the paintings of ships might aid the enemy, as might a landscape painting reveal the relationship between buildings and the lay of the land. We are perhaps a bit beyond this today, but the censorship of artists remains a real concern in some countries where freedom of expression is curtailed.

While I have always held the view that some artists seem at a loss for something to say, and produce appropriately poor work, other artists express deep political and social commentary, threatening to regimes depending on terror and repression. And some art is just socially challenging and fall foul to political correctness, a socially enforced form of self-censorship.

We are not yet free — even Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn, the most banned book in the US, has had a rewrite to remove his use of certain terminology which today is seen as unacceptable. The Soviet Union used to rewrite history like this and were justly criticised. While the faces have changed, the objectives remain the same.

Hinge-point: the social media and technology revolution in the art world

“Hinge-point: the social media and technology revolution in the art world”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 65, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Recently, I went to an exhibit of a friend, who with colleagues, produced a piece called “Cases” using iPod videos as an installation probing the nature of health and the senses – son et lumière for the iPod generation. Their work resonated with thoughts I’d been having of the impact of new technology on art. Art and technology have always been linked, but it seemed to me as I looked at the iPod videos and listened to the eight different ‘cases’, that something potentially more disruptive might be on the horizon.

What interests me is that new and emerging technologies enable art to be made by a wider range of people, through a social-democratising, accessible and open process. “Who is the artist?” becomes a very interesting question.

Some food for thought…

Commuters crowd many corridors across the city during the morning rush-hour, all is hustle and bustle. Their sighs, words, movements, are captured by sensors, and translated into real-time images which animate the otherwise naked walls. The work is called “I’m thinking of you right now”.

My hand flicks, a gesture in space, and a coloured beam races across a wall embedded with nano-particle sized LEDs. I toss the Wii-Art wand into the air and another light curve spreads across the ceiling. The room will remember what I have done, but I can always change it later.

The 3D printer buzzes on the table beside me, chunks and bumps while a 3D sculpture takes shape made of polymers, resins and colouring. I have created a probably impossible object from samples of space that I bundled together with my smartphone camera and downloaded to my computer.

Slouching in my comfy chair, I put on the headset to have my thoughts read. I call up the latest issue of Art of England on my Plastic Logic e-reader. The computer records what I am thinking and produces a picture which I can play with later, or print out on canvas. Apparently, some people still use paint – how yesterday!

The artificial intelligence, called Alicia, shares my likes and dislikes. Alicia is my writing buddy and editor as I work on my next novel; she has a real instinct for narrative. My friend’s AI, he calls his Boris, is a painter and together they are an artist collaborative. Alicia apparently wrote Boris a poem. Should I be jealous?

One hundred people link their smartphones and flash-art a sunset, capturing what they see and collectively producing a single painting from 100 different perspectives at the same time. The image appears on YouTube and is viewed by 100 million people. 100,000 people buy the image for a pound.

I am less concerned with how artists today are using technology. Artists always adopt and test out new technologies, e.g. watercolour, acrylic paint, plastics, video, computer animation, digital printers, PhotoShop or GIMP, and so on.

What is significant is that new and emerging technologies lower the costs and time of art-making, and reducing these hurdles increases accessibility for people who in the past found the existing technologies (of paint, canvas, stone, clay) formidable. I think we’re at a hinge-point in art and art-making because of this and which could radically alter what we think of as the ‘art world’.

In the end, anyone can be an artist. Technologies will facilitate creativity to enable more people to have artistic expression. The Web and social media make collective art-making possible as we move beyond individual authorship. There will be implications for art schools – whom and what they teach; commissioning bodies — whom they support; galleries – what they are like; and artists – what they are for.

And the meaning of art will change. Art is often thought of as special, in public places, commissioned, housed in galleries where you can’t touch, exclusive, remote. Art can be obscure, requiring specialist interpretation; it is often inaccessible and mute to the majority of people. Through technologies, art will become embedded in the fabric of our lives; it will be ambient and ubiquitous. It will be social and shared as much as individual. By democratising art and art-making, new technologies and social media will make it more important and relevant.

Please touch the painting.

Flowers are not the only late-bloomers…

“Flowers are not the only late-bloomers…”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 64, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

We live in an ageing society. There are for example more people are over 65 than under 18. But many baby boomers, a factor in this, are still in their 50s, so imagine the social changes to come over the next 10 or 15 years. What if they all wanted to become artists?

A recent report (“The Future for Lifelong Learning” by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and chaired by Sir David Watson) has found that 86% of the £55 billion annually available for public funding of adult education is actually spent on people in the 18-25 age group, leaving the growing numbers of ‘older’ adults with very little. The report observes that our priorities are confused and that the resources should be oriented more toward the post-25 age group, and perhaps more importantly toward those closer to retirement and older. I would add that with increased pressure on the public purse, the best use of this money is also a new imperative.

Without falling into ageism, I believe the art community is trapped in a constellation of assumptions about the origins of creativity and when artistic talent can bloom. Clearly not all important creativity comes from the young. That much is indeed obvious. Could this be seen as a ‘cult of youth’, or of the worst sort of ageism?

I was feeling pretty depressed at this point when Art of England surprised in the August 2009 issue with an article, “Second Life”, on the painter Nasser Azim, , who is renewing himself through art, following a career in the financial sector. Nasser is not alone in his endeavours, as many people are similarly motivated to do what he has done.

Indeed, with the ageing of the population, increasing numbers of older folk may be late-blooming artists. What I wonder about is whether the art community is ready to embrace them, despite stories such as this about Nasser Azim?

In education, art programmes are built around the needs of younger, first career artists, not adult learners. Serious part-time programmes are limited, while many adult education programmes approach art recreationally and do not offer opportunities for late career development. Grant programmes can be selectively discriminatory. Art galleries are looking for that special new (young?) talent, and the art community feasts on the “graduate art shows” with their often inscrutable products, despite evidence that very few graduates actually pursue careers in art. And so it goes.

I was interested to watch the new television show “Design for Life” which has no contestant over 35, yet the host, Philippe Stark, the real genius is clearly older, and apparently more creative, insightful and energetic than the “designers” (I’m being polite) chosen to be on the show. Indeed, one of the first contestants to be sent home hadn’t even finished his university studies. Of course, television isn’t about the real world, is it, and perhaps design isn’t art?

So how are we to make sense of the late-blooming artist? For such people, they may be seeking an opportunity to put away the career choices they made as a younger person, and embrace what might have been a lifelong artistic desire, never fulfilled. But a late-blooming artist is not an oddity of nature. I think they could be a major source of renewed vigour within the art community. I see these older artists providing challenging alternative artistic perspectives, as they put mature ideas and images before us. Such art may speak to us in ways that much art now fails. Is the art community prepared to listen?

Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?

“where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?”

(title from the song with lyrics by Peter Sarstedt, 1969, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRDaeLs69i4 )

Originally publised in Art of England, Issue 76, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Fantasy, imagination and dreaming have been acknowledged sources of artistic inspiration as well as scientific discovery. Dreaming is particularly interesting as we all experience it, doesn’t require a university degree, or that we consort with the assorted wildlife in the art community.

Many artists have drawn on dream states in their work. In Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep (2001) we learn:

  • Albrecht Durer’s 1525 watercolour of a storm came to him in a dream;

  • William Blake’s “Young Night’s Thoughts” (1818) is a dreamscape as is his “Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting His Dreams” (1819);

  • Edward Burne-Jones’ pre-Raphaelite paintings frequently depict dream states, such as “The Rose Bower”.

The Surrealists were consummate dreamers – Paul Nash’s “Landscape from a Dream”, Dali’s “The Dream”, Max Ernst’s “Dream of a Girl Chased by a Nightingale”, and others. According to Barrett, Dali developed specific methods which he encouraged artists to use to facilitate entry to and exit from sleep in such a way that the dreams would be remembered – the trick here is to wake up before you go into REM sleep.

And not all dreams are pleasant. Goya’s paintings frequently document nightmares; “The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters”, in his Los Caprichos (1799), is one example as are his lesser appreciated ‘Black Paintings’. As dreams these provide an additional layer of meaning, extending on the more rational interpretation that he was depicting the state of man. However, these works were originally painted on the interior walls of his house, as though he were creating an immersive environment for his mind – perhaps to live in his dreams rather than the real world. They were subsequently removed (placed on canvas) and hung on walls in the Museo del Prado, but this is the vandalism of art historians and their failure to grasp the subtlety of their genesis.

As someone who prefers the abstract, dreaming is particularly interesting as our dreams are pure creations of our innermost self. The brain (the bit our minds live in) likes to create patterns, likes to play, and do this much more than people realise.+

We all wonder what dreams mean, and whether they carry messages to us from ourselves, like we were whispering life’s little secrets. But beneath, or above, all this sits the mind itself, quite independent of degrees from art schools, or social status. That we all dream bestows democratic creativity on everyone and not just the chosen few.

Despite or perhaps because of this, we can be mystified at the sources of artistic creativity when we get to journey with it. Charles Saatchi’s television and artistic disaster School of Saatchi (remember?) showcased chronically insecure self-promoters failing miserably to produce anything of anything, but perhaps that is the point that Saatchi was making – and in the end the joke is on us for taking all this seriously.

Do we think differently about art if we knew the artist were documenting a dream, or were instead probably insane like in Wittgenstein’s later work? In such cases, do we become mere voyeurs of madness, safe in our own smug sane little worlds?

But many of the ‘dream’ artists, do challenge us with the sensitive and intelligent translation of inner visions into outer thought-provoking imagery. The Dulwich Picture Gallery show “Twombly and Poussin” illustrates the contrast between the abstract and the figurative. And we are left wondering what dream Twombly was suggesting in his The Mathematical Dream of Ashurbanipal, but mathematicians offen solve problems in their sleep so why not the rest of us?

And so, underneath all the analyticity of so many figurative artists, or the safe critiques of well-grounded critics, lies the murkier and far more interesting idea generator at the centre of our own being. Finding our way into ourselves is always harder and perhaps scarier and that is perhaps why art today can be often be so uninteresting.