Tag Archives: insight

Feel the fear and paint it


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.

Physics Envy: or why art theory isn’t

The September issue of Frieze art magazine is all about ‘theory’ or what appears to pass for theory in the art world.  The whole issue reads like some undergraduate magazine or

Confucius 02

He understood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

papers prepared by graduate students with too much time on their hands; political polemic blends with obscure language, which even core Frankfurt-school-istas would find hard to follow.  All this is to be regretted, as underlying this enterprise is an important problem, namely what are the theoretical, as opposed to philosophical, underpinnings of art itself.  Unfortunately, what might have been an informative examination of the problems of theory and art is really just another barrage of intemperate criticism.  But is anyone listening or is this just so much solipsism?  What’s an intellectual to do?

Physics envy is the desire to have the theoretical rigour that characterises physics.  Many will reject this in the art world, but why else would they confuse theory with philosophy if they didn’t see theory as bestowing rigour, logic, structure, and deep meaning?  The whole issue of Frieze waffled back and forth between the two terms, citing as theorists people who wouldn’t recognise the word, and citing theorists whose theories lack any basis for verification or falsification.  The leap from philosophy to theory is a big one, taken by science years ago when it ceased to be called ‘natural philosophy’.  Politics got rebranded ‘political science’,  and economics has always had ‘physics envy’.  What now for art?

The other distressing theme running through the issue is the Western-centric mind-set; they are still fighting the tiresome battle between Continental philosophy and Anglo (sic) analytical philosophy.  In this myopic battle they miss wider philosophical progress. Readers may enjoy the challenges ranging from Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature to VS Ramachandran & William Hirstein, The Science of Art: a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7, 1999):15-51.

What we have is something vaguely called “critical theory” even more vaguely a “theory of artists’ minds”; I guess the word ‘critical’ suggests serious self-reflection when it really is quite empty. The ‘theory’ it ain’t.

But perhaps cultural studies sounds more scientific, (physics envy?) and less, well, less philosophical, and its practitioners more legitimate (in the sense Habermas would use it).

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Tu m’: me pense que…

Tu m’” by Marcel Duchamp is a good example of how this artist played with our sensibilities.  Karl Gerstner, in his Puzzle Upon Puzzle, which examines Tu m’ in exquisite

detail is an example of an analytical critique that may just miss the point.

I read this book through with great interest, as the author constructs page by page, the Tu m’ layer by layer.

However, from an artist who disdained art itself, we find a game being played with the viewer.  My guess is that this painting is, partly as Gerstner suggests, about perception.  But the real analysis must be done in 3D — we actually should think of this like a blueprint for an object.  The clue I think actually lies in the bolt in the middle.  If you get this misoriented in space, all is wrong.  It is not flat to the painting plan as G. suggests.  Indeed, if the painting is perspective-neutral, then no one fixed point of reference is available to the viewer.  Excitingly, of course, this is the point that relativity makes about the relativity of frames of reference.

The painting was designed for a specific location on a wall, hence its size, and that suggests it may have been intended to be a projection into the room space itself.  That there are shadows from outside the frame of the painting hint that they are ‘in’ the room.  A projecting 3D object would naturally interact with objects in the room in this way.

Or perhaps it is an anamorph of sorts (Craig Adcock has commented on this)?  Keeping in mind the period of the painting (1918) and the scientific zeitgeist of the period, this may be seen as a play on the same scientific roots of cubism, that is, of course, relativity theory.

Whether the title itself is solipsistic, or self-referential, usually adding a verb so the title to become “you bore me” or something else, is another matter, unless the ‘you’ is art, and the painting is the anti-painting made form.  But there are many ways of forming a sentence in French in ways that use this partial construction.  Perhaps the verb is more about the passing of a form of perception than an attitude itself.  For the period, too, the personal use of ‘tu’ suggests intimacy with the perceptions involved, so they must be ‘mine’ in some form.  It could also be “tu m’appelles”, avoiding the cynicism and embracing the possibility that this is less a rejection than a hinge-point for Duchamp. The ultimate label.  Or perhaps ‘tu’ is the patron of the work, and Duchamp is saying that she “gets it”.

As Fermat might say, the rest is left for the reader to work out.

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The arrow of time & art

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...
Image via Wikipedia

Should we see art history as linear, with the phases, fads and movements embedded in the moment, or can we continue to learn from them, revisit them over time.  Indeed, can all of art exist simultaneously?

There is a bias toward linearity in art history, but it is tiring and probably unhelpful in the end as it suggests constant endings and beginnings, transitory moments of insight. From a structural perspective, it sees previous art as being a foundation for what follows (was that the point of post-modernism, with or without the hyphen?).  This view traps us within the arrow of time view of … time.  That what is past is past, and we move forward in some way, through the present.  Just when you thought you understood something, it morphs into something else, and then that has its day and we all move one.

What was exciting about cubism was its efforts to understand relativity theory, and the new understanding of the physical world that emerged at the same time.  Did Picasso and Einstein ever have coffee together?  But today, few artists have come to grips with the quantum nature of the world, and the possibility that time may not even exist.  That of course doesn’t mean that history doesn’t exist, but it does suggest that a temporal view of historical learning may not make much real sense.  From an art history perspective, it suggests that we might grow more artistically if art were seen simultaneously rather than in periods.  Yes, we have evolved new tools and ways of seeing, but that confuses the technologies of art with the insights that artists bring.  That styles change reflects sensibilities and the economics of art.  Some art requires electricity, some big walls.

McLuhan did say there was a difference between the medium and the message.  Perhaps we have become confused.

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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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Art & Economics: Bruno Frey

Bruno Frey writes about the economics of art.  His work is provocative and challenges many assumptions about how the art world operates.  I quite like his observation of the challenge facing gallery owners who, striving to make a living, only represent artists who are likely to sell, while at the same time, wanting to bring new artists to the public.


I’m now subscribing to Turps Banana, a London-based art magazine published by artists.  They held a fund-raising event to ensure the financial security of the magazine and provide editorial freedom from advertising.

My hope is that the magazine’s writing will be accessible rather than the art-babble that so often is found in magazines; almost rivals the nonsense in classical music programmes for vacuous commentary.

The world does need more and better magazines on art, that increase public access to art, especially in cultures that do not generally buy original art, feel it is inaffordable, or that they would be ‘posh’ to hang original art on their walls.

If Turps were an art gallery, now what would it look like?

Today is also my late parents wedding anniversary; they never really got to see what happened to me.  I wonder if they’re eavesdropping now?

Abts, Hodgkin, Rothko, Twombly, Newman & Chou En-Lai

Today I’m thinking about the work of Tomma Abts and her highly geometric abstractions.  Her colours are delightfully muted.  I am thinking about whether I like the machine-like perfection (despite her saying these works take a long time and betray their provenance).  I do like the layering, of past incarnations being replaced and the lines showing through — I do this and feel it adds to the history of the creative process. I also respect her for working with a fixed canvas size — I was chided once for using the same size and similar marks (or lack thereof) and wondered why that was a problem.  I don’t get criticism about the ’sameness’ of my handwriting which is quintessentially mine, too.

I am also thinking about Howard Hodgkin, whose work is tremendously provocative and elegantly cavalier in form.  His bold designs and titles are thoughtful.  I like this, and feel that titles are appropriate to a work of art, more ‘user friendly’ than ‘untitled number 342′, which feels like you’re eavesdropping on a private experience.  Why many artists avoid titles seems petty — certainly we’d feel quite differently about Shakespeare if ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were simply ‘untitled number 24′.

I still find Rothko interesting and thoughtful.  I’ve read his words, and what others have written about him and looked at his work up close and personal as he would like as well as from afar.  Was he really so mythic?  He did choose rectangular shapes, vaguely outlined albeit so background and foreground are ambiguous (is the foreground the bit in the middle?).  What was Rothko thinking?  That is the question for me.

Finally, today’s ‘thinking about’ brings me to Cy Twombly (a variant on my own last name, I wonder…).  This former cryptographer’s fascination with codes is evident, and the playful nature of the works are refreshing.  Is Twombly the last abstract expressionist, or is there hope for those who think this approach has more to say?

Granted, the art community does view things in a rather primitive linear manner (post-modernism and post-post, and post-post-post notwithstanding), that with art you can’t really go back — Cubism has no more to say despite having its genesis in Einstein and relativity theory, something we’re still learning to understand — so can we really say that the last ‘art word’ has been said on cubism?  I think not.

I’m still trying to make sense of Newman’s Onement.

As Chou En-Lai said when asked what he thought the historical significance of the French revolution was: “Too soon to tell”.  Perhaps the problem with art is that the attention span of the art thought leaders is too short — perhaps on the same order of length as the folks who look for the next big thing in music.  It is the sustainability of the message that is probably important than the novelty. (So much for YBA…)