Saturday, August 30, 2008


The Artist's Muse was recently awarded the "Creative Artist Award" by Laketrees, the noted art blog and resource. Thank you Kim, I am greatly honored.

When is a Frog not a Frog? -- Freedom of Artistic Expression

The Theotokos and the Pomegranate
an oil painting by Sharon A. Hart, 2008

Edward Hopper, the American painter, believed, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Artists have long used symbols to convey greater truth that can not be fully communicated via the spoken language.

But, exactly what is a "symbol"?

The word symbol derives from the Greek verb symballein, meaning "to throw together"; its noun is symbolon, meaning "mark," or "sign." Symbols are means of communication.

A symbol is classically defined as an object, animate or inanimate, that stands for or points to a reality beyond itself. For example, a butterfly or a rainbow are often used as symbols of hope. However, a butterfly can also represent a more specific concept --- hope forged in transformation.

Symbols are used by writers and artists to indicate and represent ideas, concepts, or other abstractions. However, it is important to understand that symbols are rich and complex and, therefore, have many layers of meaning. According to the philosopher and symbologist Rene Gueron there are few “universal symbols” because signs and symbols are culturally defined. For example, a dragon in the Nordic European tradition is understood as something “evil”, whereas in the Eastern Asian tradition, a dragon is accepted as a symbol of wisdom.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, whilst addressing the relationship between art and symbolism, offered this gem of information:

“ The greater part of modern aesthetics assumes (as the words “aesthetic” and “empathy” imply) that art consists or should consist entirely of such unintelligible shapes, and that the appreciation of art consists or should consist in appropriate emotional reactions. It is further assumed that whatever is of permanent value in traditional works of art is of the same kind, and altogether independent of their iconography and meaning.” Symbols

Recently, a symbol of the cross and crucifixion has caused a furor in a cultural milieu defined by religious beliefs. According to, “A cross is a geometrical figure consisting of two lines or bars perpendicular to each other, dividing one or two of the lines in half. The lines usually run vertically and horizontally; if they run diagonally, the design is technically termed a saltire.

The cross is one of the most ancient human symbols, and is used by many religions, such as Christianity. It is frequently a representation of the division of the world into four elements (Chevalier, 1997) (or cardinal points), or alternately as the union of the concepts of divinity, the vertical line, and the world, the horizontal line (Koch, 1955).”

The cross has often been used as a sign of suffering. However, for Christians it conveys a very specific understanding of suffering and a finite event --- the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth at the hands of the Romans over 2,000 years ago.

Crucifixion (hanging or nailing someone to a cross) was a well-known and commonly practiced mean of executing criminals in the ancient world. Herodotus, the noted Greek historian, documented the Persians used crucifixion as a form of extreme punishment. Additionally, other equally valid historical sources reveal the practice was common among the Assyrians, the Scythians, the Thracians , the Celts, the Germans and the Britons. It is a historical fact that Alexander the Great had 2000 survivors of the siege of Tyre crucified along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Because of this rich history of crucifixion not being restricted to a single event or culture, some artists have drawn upon the symbol of the cross to convey concepts beyond the limited scope of representing Jesus suffering on behalf of humanity. A prime example is a wooden sculpture which is entitled Zuerst die Füsse (First the Feet) by the late German artist Martin Kippenberger. The sculpture dating from 1990 depicts a frog approximately 1 meter 30 cm high nailed to brown cross and holding a beer mug in its right outstretched hand and an egg in its left hand.

I suspect that Kippenberger would have agreed with Edward Hopper who whilst, speaking of artists in the sole context of painters, once shared, “I believe that the great painters with their intellect as master have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions.”

The subject of personal and collective torment was a topic which Kippenberger addressed in many works; he considered Zuerst die Füsse a self-portrait illustrating human angst. More specifically, it symbolized his personal anguish concerning to our society that projects perfection but is actually hypocritical. He drew upon his experience within a society that at the end of the day drinks beer in bars and unbends to distasteful comments about sex and uses obscene language. He stated the crucified frog represents the bestial nature of humans that drink to the point of demeaning themselves, and who are unable to liberate themselves from the cross of alcohol lived as a plague. Through this sculpture, Kippenberger attempted to actively condemn a society that, on the one hand claims to be Christian and on the other, right under and before the very Christ that it reckons to venerate, can only express its worst side. Essentially, the frog represents humanity demeaned by alcohol addiction, constantly “nailed” or fixated by sex, while the egg, an ancient alchemical symbol, represents the betrayed perfection of creation.

When the sculpture was first on display at Museion, a museum of contemporary art in Bolzano, Italy, Antonio Lampis explained “a crucifixion is always an invitation to reflect on suffering” – claiming that – “in any event of contemporary art you will find more or less strong works on religion. It is part of people’s life, it is normal for it to become an ingredient of art. Society is getting used to being hypersensitive about certain themes but nobody can feel offended by a work of art”.

Despite this, numerous people have, indeed, been offended by the work which they believe to be a tasteless variation on the theme of the Christ’s death. The work has actually caused a polemic; even Pope Benedict XVI has chimed in on the subject! The Vatican released a letter in the Pope’s name, stating the sculpture “wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God’s love.” Ignoring the complete history of crucifixion, key members of the Magisterium have further declared the sculpture to be “blasphemous ” although the artist in no way intended to mock the cross or the experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

In response to the polemics against Kippenberger’s sculpture, Claudio Strinati, a superintendent for Rome’s state museums, was quoted in an Italian newspaper as follows:
“Art must always be free and the artist should not have any restrictions on freedom of expression.”

Interestingly, after significant discernment the board of the foundation of the Museion recently voted to keep the this controversial artwork on display, despite the immense pressure from the Vatican to censor Zuerst die Füsse.

While I personally do not appreciate art that is specifically designed to desecrate or shock, I fully recognize that many people may be hypersensitive about certain themes and, therefore, may be offended -- especially if they are not educated with regard to the artist’s intent and understanding of the symbols used in their work. One does not need to be in agreement with or even sympathetic to the message conveyed, but careful consideration of what is actually being communicated is essential to one’s perception and interpretation of any artist’s creation. This is true whether or not we are speaking about modern art, religious icons or even the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.

While one may rage against Kippenberger’s expression, perhaps those who do are doing so at society’s ultimate peril and one day the Vatican will renounce their recent declarations, as they needed to do centuries after declaring Galileo Galilei. a heretic.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How to Price Artwork

Marshlands, Paludes
a watercolor by Sharon A. Hart

Vincent Van Gogh once told his brother, "No painting ever sells for as much as it cost the artist to make it." I've yet to meet any artist who could prove him wrong!

It is always difficult to determine how to price a painting. Some artists arbitrarily price solely by the dimensions of the artwork, some artists calculate the time it took to create the piece, while others "quantify" the value of the artwork's perceived "quality." One of the most creative methods I've ever heard used to establish pricing was developed by the Baroque Era Italian painter Giovani Grancesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino, who was renowned for his innovative compositions and profound psychological insight. He based his prices upon the number of figures in the composition---even pro-rating for three-quarter or half-length figures. Obviously, there is no set formulae that works across the board for all artists, as our costs, working methods, experience and skills are decidedly different.

St. Luke

In truth, sometimes a visually simple painting is harder to do than a complex one. An oil painting is always more expensive to create, but a watercolor is more difficult to control.

Consequently, my prices are not "fixed" but are an alchemical blend of all of the factors mentioned above to help determine a fair market price for each piece of fine art one would wish to add to their collection.

My price guidelines are just that --- guidelines that will give my patrons and aspiring collectors an approximation of what the piece may cost, depending upon medium, subject, and rendering. Each artist finds their own method of pricing and (for the most part) we do try to be fair. Furthermore, any piece of art is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it;the true arbiter of its value therefore is always the buyer.

While you read about record prices being set at auction houses like Christies and Sotheby's most of us aren't Prima Donnas commanding millions of dollars or pounds per each piece we create. Instead, the majority of artists fail to enjoy a living wage solely from their art, yet they continue to pursue their creative endeavors with the understanding that the process of creativity provides greater rewards than money---although that's appreciated, too. Let's face it -- most artists are passionate about creating art. If they were more interested in the business of money-making, they'd be bankers or venture-capitalists!

I agree entirely with the sage words of Kurt Vonnegut, "The practice of art isn't to make a living, it's to make your soul grow." What more can anyone ask for?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

All That Glitters is Not Gold

One of the early concepts for the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing (北京) considered incorporating the work of artist artist Cai Guo-Qiang. He is noted for his "fireworks painting" – where he draws the outline of a picture with gun-powder and then ignites the powder, creating a three-fold painting effect --"original painting," "fireworks painting" and "ash painting”.

The design team tested their idea out by selecting Picasso's Guernica, an oil painting condemning war atrocities. Performers stepped into a huge remake of the frame, poured gun-powder along the lines of the painting it enclosed, and thus turned it into a line drawing of Guernica. They then ignited the gunpowder from one corner of the painting; the fire soon spread to the entire piece, burning an outline of the artwork into the surface, and leaving behind beautiful ashes in the same shape.

However, the International Olympic Committee rejected the concept, as Picasso's Guernica might rightfully remind the spectators of war, not peace, thereby subtly communicating a truth they chose not to unveil to the masses. Additionally, the Chinese creative design team questioned the reliability and safety of the artform and were not prepared to experience embarrassment on the global stage. Therefore, after continuing to pursue this concept for half a year, they pursued other creative ideas designs for the opening ceremony.

It is sadly ironic that the initial concept of using Guernica was abandoned, for as millions throughout the world watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic games Russia and Georgia veered closer to all-out war, Mauritania experienced a coup which overthrew the democratically elected president, Pakistan continued their constitutional crisis that threatens its increased instability in the nuclear-armed state, and the remainder of the world continued with its interminable fighting and injustices that have become the “norm.”

The Chinese made inspired choices in their Olympic opening ceremony design team-- Zhang Yimou as artistic director and Zhang Jigang and Chen Weiya were selected as deputy artistic directors, Yu Jianping as director of the technology group and Lu Jiankang, production director. Anyone who watched the performance could not but be impressed by the sophistication, elegance, and state of the art technology used to produce the show. The lighting, music and human performances were meticulously coordinated; at times it was easy to forget that one was witnessing a spectacle extravaganza that was being delivered from a third world nation.

Early in the evening, I called a dear friend to remind her that the ceremony was about to begin. To my amazement, she announced that her husband was going to be watching “Hellboy” on their television instead. The Olympics from Beijing versus a movie? I couldn’t believe the choice he was making. However, I wonder in retrospect if he made the wiser decision based upon history.

The Games of the XI Olympiad were held in 1936 in Berlin, Germany. The German government saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to promote their ideology, particularly its promotion of the superiority of the "Aryan Race"; Adolf Hitler used the Olympics as a tool for propaganda.

While reflecting upon the exquisite pageantry of the Olympic Opening Ceremony at Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, I recalled that Dr. Jeffrey Seagrave , Professor of Exercise Science, Dance, and Athletics, at Skidmore College. wrote a fascinating essay on 1936 Berlin Olympics that includes a brief examination of how even the architecture played into the propaganda machine. Check it out at:

When we consider how Hitler used the Olympics to imaginatively sway public opinion and promote his political agenda, is this any different than the Chinese using the opening of the 29th Olympic Games for similar ambitious purposes?

Let’s look at the basics of the four-hour show. It consisted of two parts: the first half, entitled "Brilliant Civilization," highlighted the past 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, and the second half, "Glorious Era," focused on the great achievements and portrayed the Chinese as a nation seeking to building harmonious relationship with the people of the world.

Of course, it was flawlessly executed with great artistic beauty within a framework of a Chinese scroll, on which performers demonstrated the development of Chinese culture through time.

On this high-tech stage, "moveable type printing," "Confucius' 3,000 disciples," "The Analects of Confucius," "Zheng He's ocean voyages" and "Chinese ritual music" were artfully synchronized and showcased. I particularly appreciated how the opening was orchestrated with the use of Fou drums and thousands of drummers, designed to impress, as well as to initiate a form of biofeedback perhaps of which only musicians, magicians or advertising agents would be acutely aware. Truly the entire performance from start to end was a stunning display of pyrotechnics and pageantry.

It is unfortunate yet interesting that 5,000 years of Chinese history all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often ran afoul of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China's human rights problems, blatantly skipped modern historical events such as Chairman Mao’s ascent, the horrors of Tian'anmen Square massacre, and the more recent conflicts and controversies of note.

Too often, society has forgotten the power of art and its ability to move and inspire. Yet, it is far to easy to be distracted by beauty when we are immersed in an environment that begs us to examine the realities of injustice and suffering. Richard Mandell addressed the Berlin Olympic ceremonial as "an obscuring layer of shimmering froth on a noxious wave of destiny."

Perhaps those of us who watch and or report on the 2008 Summer Olympic games should heed the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”