Thursday, January 17, 2008

Writing, Chewing Gum and Bliss

Last week a question was posed on a popular artblog “Why is it so many bloggers write as if they're chewing gum?” Frankly, at the time, I was too busy painting to compose an intelligent answer to the query. However, in the interim, I’ve considered the question and arrived at an answer dissimilar to that held by the art critic who initially asked the question.

It became evident to me that the critical issue is essentially a struggle between the word and the image. George Orwell, in his essay “Politics and the English Language”, warned us that if a writer “is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming…he is not really thinking.”

While the artist attempts to communicate one’s inner vision through the choice and rendering of materials, the writer is forced to use the medium of language. Logos—“meaning” can be derived from both experiences but will be expressed differently because of the media chosen.

Consequently, words, images and logos often enter into battlefields such as artblogs, websites, and even the production of artist’s statements. While marketing gurus encourage artists to take the plunge into the blogging experience, citing the importance of increased exposure, there is no consideration of the negative impact of poorly constructed or maintained presentations when this suggestion is tendered.

One of the other problems facing artists when considering blogging is the very real consideration of how one spends one’s creative time. Does one write or does one focus on one’s principle artistic endeavor?

Perhaps we’d do well to follow Joseph Campbell’s advice,”…. if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Tellers of Stories~~Weavers of Dreams

While watching Charlie Rose’s show, A Memorial of those who died in 2007, I was struck by a question he variously posed in several of the interviews :“ What job-title do you want engraved on your tombstone?” One of the individuals declined the suggested appellations tendered, choosing instead the descriptive story-teller.

In The Four Truths of the Storyteller, published by the Harvard Business Review, filmmaker Peter Guber detailed what he believes are the four facets of storytelling that are crucial to its success: truth to the audience, to the moment, to the mission, and to the storyteller. It is interesting to apply these same principles to an understanding of narrative painting and determine whether or not the moment can be a universal moment or must be restricted.

It is my opinion the voyeuristic nature of humans also lends itself well to art, especially when considering Alfred Hitchcock’s comment, “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look.” Despite this, in today’s art market there is a distinct absence of narrative painting, such as demonstrated in Jan van Eyck's masterpiece, The Marriage of Giovanni Arnofino.

On a positive note, there are still some contemporary artists, such as Dana Schultz and Drago Persic, who have embraced this rarified genre and embed tales in their images. One is led to ask whether or not the reasoning for the contemporary absence of narrative painting is determined by something greater than a philosophical shift in the art world towards formalism.

Blake Gopnik, in an article in the Washington Post, Is Cubism's Revolution Behind Us? If You Think Picasso's Work Didn't Last, Keep Looking, addressed the issue of cubism’s impact on modern art. He offered several astute observations:

“Cubism realizes that all great art demands some generosity on the part of its viewers. Look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and you know you're not really looking up at God creating Adam -- and that it's worth pretending for a minute that you are. Cubism pushes that idea about as far as it could possibly go. It asks you to forget about what pictures can really do and to try on some artist's confounding new notions of art's capacities and goals -- "to make the best of that obscurity, and finally to revel in it," as Clark says. We all know a cubist picture fails to represent the world in anything like useful or coherent ways. But there's something to be gained imagining it could. Cubism marks art's greatest "because I say so" moment, and thereby launches the history of fully modern art. Cubism says it's going to rewrite art's rules for representing things, and demands we go along with the unlikely fictions it creates. And that frees every later artist to make a similarly daring, even arbitrary move.”

The reality, however, is than in the thrust towards freedom, artists abandoned the narrative for the implied, the form, the obscure, and the inane. One might contend that it was easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the challenge of narrative painting is in trying to provide a convincing relationship between form and content. The viewer must fully participate and have some sense of what is being conveyed by the artist, or alternatively be given permission to “create one’s own understanding of the story”. This sense of participatory relationship was noted in a press release about one of Drago Persic’s shows:

“The viewer is invited, indeed obliged, to participate in an effort to patch together the clues and fill in what is not actually there. Anything consistent that we might perceive - erotic or sinister, harmless or harmful – in fact takes place in our own imagination. The artist himself does nothing more than suggest.”

Furthermore, the artist must demonstrate acute skill in the rendering; a story's power to captivate and inspire is directly related to the technical skill of the narrator. It is difficult to balance cultural or historic meaning, use formal elements reveal the meaning of the artwork, and effectively manipulate scale, composition, paint application, color, and contrast to create a persuasive narrative. A good tutorial about narrative painting, using William Frederick Yeames’ painting “And When Did you last See Your Father” can be found on the internet, courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery.

One must not, however, presuppose that narrative painting is the purview of American or European artists. In fact, the narrative painting has a time-honored tradition found in Oriental and Aboriginal art. It has also been explored within the context of Ethiopean artwork.

It seems to me that if an artist is skilled in their technical abilities and has imaginative faculties and is willing to not climb on board of the train leading to the familiar territory of abstraction, the realm of narrative painting is a wide-open field awaiting exploration. Perhaps this is the next frontier of postmodernism.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Courage versus the Blank Canvas

I find that starting to paint is equally the most exhilarating and also the most daunting aspect of the creative process. While ideas percolate in my mind long before I pick the brush or palette knife, and I long to express myself, the very sight of the blank canvas often intimidates me. In talking with other painters, I’ve discovered I’m not alone, as most of them share this emotion. The trick is to prevent one’s feelings of intimidation from allowing too much time to pass before the inspiration is devoured by loss.

W. H. Murray, the writer and explorer offered words advice for those of us who hesitate in his book, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition:

'But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money--booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!'

Getting started often is nothing more than seizing the moment and either sketching one’s idea on the canvas or paper. Sometimes even covering the pristine white canvas or paper with a wash of color is sufficient to drive intimidation from the room and allow courage to sully forth.

The burning passion to express one’s self will emerge and ultimately may be met by genius. Truly, Goethe was writing from experience!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Time, Art, and Sacred Space

Memories entwine, a skein of visions, half-recalled moments, bits of poetry and prose until there is a need to pull something specific from the tumbled masse. Even then, one is sometimes surprised by what is delivered to the conscious awareness.

Salon recently published an article by Cary Tennis entitled Go away, can't you see I'm writing?! that sent me on an internal journey to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique. Theoretically, they are connected by a root of feminist philosophy. While this is true, their relationship is deeper for me, however bleak.

The arguments Virginia Woolf introduced over seventy-four years ago in her slim but monumental A Room of One's Own, are still relevant today. When I first was led to the book, I felt the way countless other women felt when they read Betty Friedan's book---someone had articulated a problem facing women--my issues--and once the problem was "identified", it would not , could not, be silenced. Regardless of which field of art a woman is attracted towards, the reality is that it remains a struggle to seek and retain resources of time, money, and the peace delivered by "A room of one's own" in the pursuit to create.

The need to have a "sacred space" to create is vital for artists, but often women share their "creative space" with others, putting their own expressive needs aside to make room for dinner, children, or a myriad of other interruptions that delay or entirely halt the creative process. Woolf beautifully offers justification of space as a key element for the woman writer :

"One goes into the room –– but the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room. The rooms differ so completely; they are calm or thunderous; open on to the sea, or, on the contrary, give on to a prison yard; are hung with washing; or alive with opals and silks; are hard as horsehair or soft as feathers –– one has only to go into any room in any street for the whole of that extremely complex force of femininity to fly in one's face. How could it be otherwise? For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated with their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics."
---Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
(New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1957) 91.

While one might put pens, paper, or even a computer aside, it is yet more difficult for the artist whose medium is something other than language. Material considerations flood forth, and the
issue of space then keenly competes with the reality of costs associated with one's art. Is it any wonder why most individuals are hard-pressed to cite the names of ten women artists when you recognize the Atlantean struggles women painters and sculptors have had to endure to create then have their work be noticed?

There was an excellent article in the UK's Telegraph about Claude Cahun, a talented surrealist photographer from the 1920's whose work remained lost to us until the 1990's when it was re-discovered. How many other women artists are lost in the mists of time, their work destroyed, unappreciated, or simply unknown?

Distraction... invention... experience....even the discounting of one's own worth are part of the "recipe" women bring to the creative expression. Moments stolen in time are alchemically transformed into a visual mandate for vita, life.

Many years ago I stumbled across a poem that has haunted me ever since. I've danced with the poem over the years and now understand what words and images will never touch. The poem follows:

Woman Enough

Because my grandmother's hours
were apple cakes baking,
& dust motes gathering,
& linens yellowing
& seams and hems
inevitably unraveling
I almost never keep house
though really I like houses
& wish I had a clean one.

Because my mother's minutes
were sucked into the roar
of the vacuum cleaner,
because she waltzed with the washer-dryer
& tore her hair waiting for repairmen
I send out my laundry,
& live in a dusty house,
though really I like clean houses
as well as anyone.

I am woman enough
to love the kneading of bread
as much as the feel
of typewriter keys
under my fingers
springy, springy.
& the smell of clean laundry
& simmering soup
are almost as dear to me
as the smell of paper and ink.

I wish there were not a choice;
I wish I could be two women.
I wish the days could be longer.
But they are short.
So I write while
the dust piles up.

I sit at my typewriter
remembering my grandmother
& all my mothers,
& the minutes they lost
loving houses better than themselves
& the man I love cleans up the kitchen
grumbling only a little
because he knows
that after all these centuries
it is easier for him
than for me.

~~ Erica Mann Jong~~

Friday, January 4, 2008

Art, Ethics, and Honor Amongst Thieves

"William Blake is damned good to steal from! "--Henry Fuseli

Earlier today I was faced with an ethical quandry. One of the e-groups I lurk upon had a post by a professor of Art History at an American university. She posted this message:

Dear All,

Here's a photograph and artist's statement of a Sofiia icon that one
of my students made through a difficult print-making process on raw
silk in 16 plate layers. The photograph doesn't do this piece
justice, but I love her interpretation of what Wisdom is and how to
portray it. The dominant color after all the layers were laid down
is a soft of warm lavender-grey (maybe jasper is the best descriptor).

Just thought you'd like to see it.

When I followed the link she had provided, I was astonished to recognize the work was plaigerized from a painting of Mary Magdalene by Richard Stodart that had been created in 1995 and has been widely distributed via the internet on various websites. How does one respond to this, especially when you consider we are considering the issue of grades as well as professional ethics?

As far back as 2001, issues of intellectual property and artistic license were discussed on the internet. In an article published by Wired, entitled Is It Art, or Memorex?, Reena Jana offered these key pieces of information:

"The laws aren't black and white. The nuance lies in the real purpose of the artwork using the borrowed images," said Barry Werbin, a partner at Herrick, Feinstein, a Manhattan law firm in which he heads a department focused on intellectual property and the Internet.

"If someone borrows an image and uses it non-commercially for educational purposes, then it's fair use," Werbin said. "But if an artist does so without permission to promote their own work, there's no question it's an infringement."

So, does that excuse the student's theft of the image? I'd suggest not, firstly as she promoted it as her own work, even if the medium used differed from the original piece of work. Secondly, it would be my contention that the understanding "educational purposes" would apply to the use of the image by the instructor and not the clandestine theft by the student. Most universities and educational institutions have established, and sometimes enforced, policies with regard to plaigerism, including use of intellectual property /ideas. Students are made aware that if an instructor can demonstrate the student has purloined material, the culprit will be dealt with appropriately by the institution.

As a friend reminded me, character and talent are two distinct entities. While we seek to enjoy creative expression within the arts, it is increasingly rare to discover talent teamed with innovation, for that is the essence of artistic genius. Art shows and galleries showcase works of art that are often nothing more than derivative pieces of work. One might quickly suggest that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but any art that is produced as a "copy" should be noted as such and proper credit attributed.

In the case of the student, the instructor hadn't taken the students to a museum to "copy" a masterpiece and learn from the experience. Instead, the student quite simply had plaigerized the work and apparently believed no one would be the wiser. [According to Black's Law Dictionary, the definition of plaigerism is "The act or instance of copying or stealing another's words or ideas or attributing them as one's own."(Black's Law Dictionary, West Group, 1999, 7th ed., p. 1170) ]

Jonathan Lethem published a noted article in Harpers, entitled "The ecstasy of influence: A Plagiarism" in response to Something Borrowed, an earlier article on the topic that was published in the New Yorker. Lethem's article deftly points out the thin line between influence and plagiarism. I have heard it argued at even Picasso and Matisse "copied" the works of others, and Andy Warhol would likely be the recipient of a litigious suit in our society if he were to offer his paintings in today's market.

In the 14th century, Petrarch answered these "justifications" and offered wisdom concerning plaigerism, although his focus was on the written word:

"He who imitates must have a care that what he writes be similar, not identical . . . and that the similarity should not be of the kind that obtains between a portrait and a sitter, where the artist earns the more praise the greater the likeness, but rather of the kind that obtains between a son and his father . . . we (too) should take care that when one thing is like, many should be unlike, and that what is like should be hidden so as to be grasped only by the mind's silent enquiry, intelligible rather than describable. We should therefore make use of another man's inner quality and tone, but avoid his words. For the one kind of similarity is hidden and the other protrudes; the one creates poets, the other apes."
-- Petrarch, Le familiari, XXIII (14thc), quoted in Gombrich, E.H. Norm and Form: Studies in the art of the Renaissance, Phaidon, 1971 (2nd edition), February 18, 2000

James Dean, an electrical engineer and artist, successful has presented renderings of "Old Masters" that humorously incorporate his cat, Pete. When one views the oeuvre of Dean, there is no mistaking these pieces as "original" in concept, even if homage is made to better-known works of art. Perhaps those artists and students who wish to purloin "good ideas" should reconsider such nonsense and but learn from Dean's approach.

Recently, there has been an increase of works "appropriated" via the internet, reproduced in some form by other hands and then sold through global channels. Legal steps have been taken by individuals as well as groups such as the Art Renewal Center to stop this activity.

It was with this body of knowledge that I debated what to do about the student who had copied Stodart's "Mary Magdalene" and submitted it for a grade to her instructor. Ultimately the question of artistic integrity versus technical process seemed to be the primary issue that plagued my mind. Consequently, I fired off an email to the instructor, citing Stodart's work, citing his website as well as one from another site that had been archived on the internet since 1999. This proved earlier "provenance" and I included a .jpg of his image for the immediate reference of the instructor.

Within hours of sending the email, I received the following response:

Dear Sharon (if I may):

Thanks for sending the image--it's beautiful. It seems my student lifted the idea. Very sad, especially as I watched her produce all 16 layers of her serigraph on raw silk and it's very beautiful. Anyway, I much appreciate the beautiful image.

Which "beautiful image" does the professor appreciate, the original one by Richard Stoddart or the serigraphed copy by her student? Ah, the nuances of words! As if to play a "trump", the instructor appended her name with a reference to her Ph.D, and a composite list of her credentials as a professor of art history at the university. I'm not sure what to make of it all, and I suspect the instructor will do nothing with the information I provided. If this is the case, the student will have learned much about art history, for its chronicles are filled with tales of art thefts and honor amongst thieves.

Please note: Within this blog I intentionally have not given appropriate attribution to the cited written words of the Art History instructor. This is because I wish to protect the identity of the individual, and I hope that a culture of shame isn't necessary for her to take appropriate action. One might also contend the concept of "fair use policy" herein applies.

NB: Legal Info for artists

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Is the Laborer Worth His Wage?

A couple of weeks ago Ed Vaizey, the UK Shadow Minister for Culture, published an article in the Art Newspaper entitled "Artists are apolitical, leaning to the left but embracing right-wing standards". The article asked and attempted to answer some excellent and timely questions posed by the UK's Art Fund, including "Has contemporary art sold out? Have contemporary British artists sold their soul to Mammon?"

While I disagree with Mr Vaizey in his contention that artists have a responsibility to be political in their art, I fully appreciated the honesty expressed in his statement, "The contemporary art trade is exactly that—a finely honed, global business." As implied in my previous post, it was more than evident at Art Basel Miami that art and business are intimately entwined on a global scale. Furthermore, if one watches the art auction scene, you can witness numerous performances at the Theater of Absurd Pricing.

Several months ago an associate indicated they would like to purchase one of my oil paintings, Boscastle Memories. Of course, one's ego always enjoys hearing that one's work is appreciated so I was pleased to hear this voiced. However, when I unashamedly stated the cost of the painting, the individual was rather taken back and asked me to repeat myself. I, of course, also gave them a graceful "out" of the purchase offer. This experience reaffirmed the general public has no conception of the actual material & time costs incurred by artists in the process of creating their works. Consequently, a "fair price" may appear to be astronomical to someone who isn't familiar with the realities of our profession.

Artists certainly have a responsibility to other artists to not under- or over-price one's work, but to ensure the prices established are fair and reasonable. Too often, emerging artists under-price their work, hoping that it will gain notice and they will recoup some of the monies they've invested in the work. It's not a trade secret that co-op galleries are wonderful places to pick up "steals" because many of these artists don't possess the confidence to ask a "fair" price, thinking it "too high" for their town/region/country/self. Sadly, in doing so, these artists fail to understand six words from the Gospel of Luke also apply to artisans in our day and age, "The laborer is worth his wage." (Luke 10:7)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Emperor's New Clothes

Rudyard Kipling wisely contended, "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." Words can draw you in and seduce you---they are the Mata Hari of the marketing industry.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why every profession I am aware of elects to develop its own "jargon." Language serves to act as a barrier against those who are "not amongst the chosen membership". Relatedly, one's lack of knowledge of the jargon or inappropriate use of the language will quickly alert the profession's sentinels and elitist hound dogs meant to keep outsiders at bay.

In a recent article published by the New York Times, Roberta Smith accuses the art community of leading the charge on "obtuse language." Interestingly, I forwarded the article to a dear friend who is "outside" of the art world, and many of the language usages were unfamiliar to her astute and learned ear. Truly, Ms. Smith hit a nerve, for I was unaware that "ArtSpeak" has been so cloistered that it continues to prohibit entry for even the more cultured mavens of our society.

"Symbolical Head, Illustrating the Natural Language of the Faculties."
(Image from Wells, Samuel. How to Read Character. New York: Wells Publishing, 1870. p.36.)

I couldn't help but reflect on my experience at Art Basel Miami---the monstrously proportioned and equally prestigious art fair, with more than 20 fairs that piggybacked on the main event held at the Miami Convention Center. The fair is billed as "the most important art show in the United States." Collectors, artists, VIPs and gallery owners are aware that this is the place to view and sell contemporary and modern art -- works whose intent and meanings are seemingly secret, posed in riddles, and decipherable only by the cognisenti.

Most individuals attending the larger fair darted from booth to booth, exhausting themselves rather than entering into full appreciation of some of the fine art that graced the pristine white walls in the 200+ mini-galleries from all over the world. I was acutely aware that the largest percentage of attendees at the fairs were happily oblivious to what they were actually viewing--so much for the import of artistic meaning and metaphor! Indeed, ArtSpeak was heard frequently at Art Basel Miami this past December; I quickly ascertained that the word of the week was "edgy". By the end of the fair, I came to re-define "edgy" as "over-priced schlock."

More importantly, however, it appeared to me that many people who were actually buying art are more concerned with potential profits from a future sale of the piece than the craftsmanship, skill and message of the artist. As an artist, this offended me. I want my patrons to love my work---and not just buy it as a tax dodge or as another commodity in their investment portfolio. Perhaps it would have been different if the artists were present, rather than the agents and gallery owners who mastered the art of ArtSpeak , psychology and economics; I really don't know.

But I suspect individuals who purchase art as investments and have no concern with regard to the artist's process or inherent meaning of a given work are often the same individuals who would be heartily surprised to discover the reality of the Emperor's new clothes. Perhaps this is why art critics tend to write in Modern ArtSpeak?