Tag Archives: aesthetics

Feel the fear and paint it

rothko__seagram_mural__maroon_and_orange

Was he afraid?

Marion Milner, a celebrated child psychoanalyst wrote of her own creative anxieties in her book On Not Being Able to Paint (Heineman, 1950, but still available). Fear is embedded in much of the writing on creativity, mainly because creativity is a public expression of internal life. It is a form of exposure, and ever mindful of judgemental others, we often are more afraid of what this exposure, than the actual creative results themselves. In most cases, despite self doubts, we are proud of our creativity, but know where it is deficient — we’re just nervous about hearing that from others.

Milner’s point rested on various assumptions about preconditions for the production of a work of art itself, namely technical mastery of materials. This is obviously in contrast to whether the creative results are personally satisfying, or articulate well what we are thinking. Art is form of expression, not just a meander across a canvas or a lump of clay deformed by idle hands.  This despite some art being of this form, of course.

Henry Peacock, in his excellent book Art as Expression (Whalesback, 1995) observed that of his art students, the ones that drew well were the least creative as artists, as they were more intent on replicating the form of what they saw, whereas those who drew less well were more inclined to engage with and interpret the external world. Peacock’s book is important as it is provides inspiration for people to explore their creativity without the fear and anxiety of mastering technologies first (like pens and ink, and paint or clay).

All these issues are well-addressed in Art and Fear (Image, 2001) an excellent tonic by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

Taken together, the fear that drives many to avoid creativity is actually self-imposed and has no bearing on whether we are actually able to express ourselves through various artistic approaches.

Now, as an abstract artist, I would like to encourage creative souls to shrug off their attachment to what things look like and think about how to let your inner perceptions dominate. The art world has its cycles, from loving the realistic paintings, with figurative precision through to inscrutible abstract constructions which for many may bring on a headache. Abstraction is the true form (sounds like a mantra…), it excites and challenges the mind, is obviously much harder to do, as it requires real honesty and elegant presentation of complex inner thoughts. For others, it is easier to paint the vase and the flower and I accept that for many people this is enjoyable and satisfying. I’m only saying, there can be more.

Art methodologists and historians may see artistic periods like the tide — new ideas come in and wash away the old. Once done, it can’t be done again. Some think of it as the shock of the new, as all art history must be constantly rewritten from the perspective of current artistic tides. That does not mean that these perhaps passe modes of expression have nothing to say, otherwise why do we keep them on show in art galleries and museums.

So, as Julia Cameron says (this is her site for The Artist’s Way or you can find her book on Amazon ), take an artist’s day out and visit the gallery, but look at the abstracts instead. If you wear glasses take them off and look at them unfocused. If you don’t need glasses (lucky you!), find a spot on the painting and lose yourself in it so you see the rest of the painting with your peripheral vision. Or find a sculpture garden and wander around it feeling the work, not looking at it.

Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself.

 

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The mind in another cave

Another early scratching of an early human endeavouring to capture the external world has been found in Wales (2011). What was this person thinking, and why did he or she even do this?

English: English version of Brain in a vat. Fa...

hmmm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is particularly interesting, and assuming this is about 14,000 years ago, is that with visual forms, there is a need to abstract from the external reality an interpretation of that reality in the mind. Having done that, this person then had to decide what they wanted to represent and how. In addition, they had to choose something to do it with, which suggests perhaps that this wasn’t or might not have been the first time, either.

As an abstractionist, I encourage people to explore the mind’s natural way of seeing the world, rather than the highly socially constructed one we normally see. The brain naturally likes to construct patterns, and one assumes that a 14,000 year old brain did, too.

This is exciting not just for the discovery itself, but further affirmation that even in our earliest days as more than mere beasts but as maturing sentient beings, we sought to interpret the external world.

The other question, of course, is what did others at the time think they saw when they looked at this, and did it have a purpose? After all, if it was a form of communication, this artist needed to have some theory of mind — in particular, that those viewing it were like themselves mentally.

What is ‘altermodernism’?

Tagging: Maldives Style
Image by nattu via Flickr

The inmates have escaped again and flooded the world with another wind egg.  Called ‘altermodernism’, a term as ugly as its definition, we are now to be persuaded that a new improved artistic sentimentality has burst upon the scene.  Some people really do have far too much free time.

Coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, who is occupying space at the Tate in London, we should not be surprised, given his past association with Flash Art.  Perhaps the term will take a clue from the magazine and be merely a flash in the pan; but oh dear, perhaps that itself will be evidence of altermodernism?  Such self-referential nonsense is hardly helpful and perhaps premature.  But Bourriaud seems to be in the business of naming, having brought us relationism, too, but someone’s got to do it. (Relational art is perhaps just the art ones finds juxtaposed in, wait for it, art galleries, where people and artists relate, but perhaps not….).

My view is that the term describes the breathless arguments put forward by those advocating globalisation, better defined through economics than culture.  Despite this, we will continue to live in small worlds, and with the recession we are now enjoying thanks in part to globalisation, enjoy a new localism, live more compactly, more locally.  In that respect, his argument for creolisation is misguided; the counterargument from NB would be that I am simply trapped in my own binary world, but I’ve worked in too many cultures to fall for that.

But we must recognise that some global context is emerging as people connect to each other through the simplifying technologies of YouTube, and Facebook; these may lead more to superficiality, than depth and in the end be less emotionally satisfying.

Perhaps the faddism that seems to characterise Bourriaud’s thinking reflects a surface grasp of the world, seen from a helicopter, rather than lived in its earthy reality? Certainly the works assembled to illustrate altermodernism were superficial and vacuous, art for the Twitter generation?

NB has said: “It is an idea that was actually the core of Relational Aesthetics already, the Marxist idea that there is no stable “essence” of humankind, which is nothing but the transitory result of what human beings do at a certain moment of history. I think this might be the cornerstone of all my writings, in a way.”

That does seem to be his point.

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Do artists think?

Pencil

Drawing Machine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When an artists ‘does art’, what are they thinking?  Are they merely in the moment or are they constructing some sort of story (narrative for the remaining post-modernists out there)?  I continue to have a problem with art that is mute, because it makes me wonder if the artist was also mute, perhaps without thought even.  The challenge for artists is convincing dispassionate viewers of their work that they have engaged cognitive faculties within the artistic process.

 

What would it be like for there to be art without mind behind it?  Easy.  Attach your computer printer to a computer running a programme that produces various images, pictures, etc. in an automated mode.  Digital art, without the evidence of intelligence behind it.  A bit like the room full of monkeys at typewriters (remember those?) inadvertently producing Shakespearean prose.

 

The problem art critics have is that they must assume that there was intelligent life in the studio when art was being produced.  The evidence that this is not always the case is the never ending efforts by critics and art historians to find the artistic merit in often quite mediocre works.  Indeed, to ascribe high artistic values to work of technical quality, perhaps (I’ll grant them that), but of quite mindless content.  Academics can slag off mediocre writing by calling it journalistic; other writers can be accused of writing pulp.  Bad visual art is, what?

 

So the evidence for me that some artists do not think is that in other fields of human endeavour we have ways of making sense of this, but in art, it seems anything goes.

 

Do you recall the film, The Moderns, where the actor John Lone as Bertram Stone says: “I don’t give a damn for your silly opinions on the value of art. There is no value except what I choose to put on it.  This is art because I paid hard cash for it.  Don’t you understand?  Your precious painters mean nothing to me.  I could have Natalie’s mutt shit on a canvas and if I pay five thousand dollars for it, you critics would call it a masterpiece.”  The joke, if you know the film, is on them.

 

Maybe Bruno Frey is right.

 

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All that is real, isn’t, really

Black Square, 1913, Oil on Canvas, State Russi...
Image via Wikipedia

I am still trying to make sense of Malevich.  His book, commented on in an earlier posting, published in English in 1959, but dating much earlier, still feels fresh and insightful and I continue to be taken by his approach to ‘treating’ realist painters, by prescribing the medicine of Cubism.  Some artist friends say that they can’t see anything but a tree when they see a tree, while I not only know that it isn’t really real (thinking as a physicist), but that it is really colourless, to the extent that the light bouncing off it does depend on specific types of sensors to ‘see’ the colours themselves.  One only needs to put a deep red filter over a digital camera lens to learn that hampered in this way, digital camera sensors pick up the infrared end of the spectrum.  Lie on the ground, and look up at the tree through a camera so equiped, and voila, gone is the green and gone is the “tree”.

I was thinking of the notion of the “abstract imagination”, when perhaps I should be thinking of the “realist imagination” to the extent that what we see is a fabrication, while what we imagine is directly constructed by our mind.

To that extent, then, abstract works really must be completed by the viewer, in a dynamic relationship between two worlds, the artist and the viewer, as their minds overlap through the work.  The problem for many abstract works is that the viewer is unable to complete the work, it remains senseless either on the canvas or sitting on the floor, requiring interpretation by a third party (suitably qualified of course at such matters and usually suitably incomprehensible terminology).

Such works are silent, but not brooding, merely vacuous.  A bit like reality.

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Russian unorthodox: Malevich

Malevich is almost rediscovered! His book,”Non-objective World” paints a surprising contemporary vision of art.  I like the idea of prescribing a dose of Cubism to died in the wool Cezannista.  I discovered a book by Noah Charney, “The Art Thief” which features Malevich in counterfeit form.  Having worked on the problem of counterfeit drugs, the parallels with art are thought-provoking.  But perhaps Frey might say there are no fakes, only poor copies.

Malevich reflects a mode of thinking popular at the time (like Picasso’s Cubism emering out of relativity theory), with a new way of looking at the world.  Bertrand Russel’s Principles of Mathematics led with a logical underpinning of mathematics, picked up by others such as Frege and we find ourselves here today.

Malevich to me seems to be anticipating modern physics of superstrings, branes and Neil Turok’s Endless Universe.  There is much to learn about the unreality of the world and the importance of artists in helping us visualise this.

Rothko @ Tate Modern

The Rothko exhibit is a bit of a disappointment.  Perhaps too many pieces, so people trying to figure out which painting will give them the spiritual experience they’re supposed to have.

I found the forensic part of the exhibit unpleasant, and to some extent unhelpful.  My reaction is almost, “so what”.  One painting was hung so you could walk around it and see the back.  Maybe some people found that useful, I thought Rothko would have probably puked.

The works on paper, though, were wonderful and displayed with sympathy.  They provoke, as did the small sketches Rothko did for other paintings.

Overall, as someone who keeps asking, “what was Rothko thinking”, when I look at his work, I left thinking, “what was the Tate thinking?…”