Tag Archives: science

Art and Identity

Subtitled, What can we learn from art about our sense of identity, this short article explores some of the themes of the Wellcome Collection’s (London) show Identity: 8 Rooms, and appeared in Art of England (issue 67, 2010).

In today’s world, people have multiple identities, particularly with the Internet — our Facebook persona is not the same as our LinkedIn persona, and that is different from my Twitter persona, but then who goes to work, is a parent, does the chores, types this blog?

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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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End of Kodachrome and a way of seeing the world

English: Kodachrome 200 reversal film package,...

Gone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kodak has announed the end of production of Kodachrome film.  Those who still use film will know Kodachrome film for the quality of the colour and indeed I suspect many of us used Kodachrome as our reference film for documenting the world around us.

Film tracked the industrial revolution, documenting virtually all of the past 150-odd years of history.  The information revolution we are now in is less sentimental, images are chopped and cropped mercilessly in computers all over the world, and for many film is in the too-difficult box, while digital is almost trivial.

Is digital an art form?  Who knows, but film certainly produced enduring images over the years.

A worthy history lesson is to look at the photography books produced in 1920s-30s for sheer tour-de-force black and while images, and the discovery of colour itself producing excitement and experimentation — kids with new toys — look for books published by Kodak, in particular a short-lived series on applied photography in the early 1930s, with images that while dated still resonate.  Think of O Winston Links trains from the 1950s, and then look at product photographs of farm machinery taken at night.  Makes some advertising today look positively primitive.  Browse back copies of Vogue for the cutting edge of fashion photography, and then marvel at the Magnum’s photojournalism — still going strong.

End of an era, and perhaps an end of a way of seeing, too.

And on the way out, let us remember Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome.

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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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Linking my own artistic vision to my professional work presents challenges, partly in working with the abstract concepts of policy work, which pays the bills, but finding client receptivity to the representation of concepts visually.

On a work visit to Toronto, I encountered a firm, Infonauts, which specialise in visual representation of data, on maps.  I like this idea, as it brings together our own notions of time and space with powerful visual images that we can take in quickly.

In art, there is a tension between pure representation and abstraction.  With maps, though, we are reminded that the terrain in not the map.  Abstract visualisation helps us explore the maps of reality more thoroughly than just painting pretty pictures of vases.