Archive for post-structruralism

Art Student Handbook, Part I.1: Expression and Self-Expression

Posted in Art Student Handbook, Social Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 21 June, 2010 by endlessslug

Artists should never express themselves in art.

This was one of the first lessons ever taught to me by almost all of my art professors.  “What?” you say…  Part of the problem with the arts and artists today – and here I’m referring to not only painters but also writers, musicians, and dancers – is the overuse of the concept of “expression” in their work.  We have been brought up in the contemporary world to hold a certain high esteem for any art work which is decidedly so unique to be a direct “expression” of what the artist must be feeling.   How can you trust this?  Art has become so self-centered over the last 40 years that a great disaster of a painting or sculpture is quickly defined as aesthetically pleasing.  Not because a disastrous painting is actually pleasing, but because such paintings invoke some sense of mystery or wonder in the viewer combined with some sense of:

Observation 1: It is ugly.

Observation 2: I don’t understand it.

Observation 3: The artist made it to show me.

Observation 4: Everyone else seems to be “getting it”.

—Deduction 1: I must be missing something.

—Deduction 2: The “art” must be coming from somewhere from which I am unaware.

Observation 5: It is expensive.

Observation 6: My confidence in the art world is insufficient as is my ability to directly criticize something because I do not want to look like either an idiot or a jerk due to immense public social pressure.

—Deduction 3: My sense of aesthetic must be incorrect.

—Deduction 4: Ugly must be beautiful when it is unknown to the viewer.

—Conclusion: Art, then, must be something out of reach of the common person, which I do not want to be, and entirely an expression of some instinctual utterance of thought and emotion, combined.

=========

Sure, there are some logical gaps up there, but I hope you see the point.  The problems in the art world today are complex and not easily solved, but I believe starting with new students brings the art world some hope.

Most art student’s I’ve met over the last ten years see no problem at all, other than the difficulty in being able to show their work at a gallery and believing that past artists had the same problem (this is untrue).  Following Harold Bloom, most of what we are told about art and artists is wrong or misunderstood – a misreading of the material from the past under a contemporary “lens”.  Let us begin to fix this misunderstanding with defining what exactly “expression” in the arts means:

Definition: Expression does not refer to “self-expression,” but is the act of making art itself; the act, not the resulting image.

Definition: Self-Expression is therapy and is not art.

Jeffrey Jones (Copyrighted for Education only)

I always refer back to a discussion between Jeffrey Jones, George Pratt, and David Spurlock.  For those unfamiliar, these men art contemporary illustrators of fantasy, sci-fi, and comic books, but they were both exceedingly well-trained artists from academies, universities, and the study of the old masters.  The following is an excerpt from Jeffrey Jones Sketchbook, compiled by Jeffrey Jones and George Pratt, Vanguard Publishing, 2000.  ISBN 1887591109.

[snip]

J:…This is one pet peeve I have with art – I never get time to talk about it.  It’s about self-expression being called art.  I think the worst – I’ll call it art for the sake of communication – the worst possible kind of art is that art that comes from self-expression.  The second worst is symbolism, but we’ll get to that later.  The worst is self-expression.

Art is all about communication.  It’s about what we have in common, not our differences.  The more different I am than the rest of the people, the less interested they are in what I have to say.  The more I can show them how we, as human beings, all see something, feel about something, experience something, the more valid it is as a piece of art…

…As an artist, it’s our job to somehow put this down and communicate it so people can look at it and say, “Thank God I’m not the only one!” That’s what makes art noble.  It includes people into places they’ve never been included before.  This is not a conscious thing at all – you just know it.  If you look at art and you feel good, it’s because you feel a part of something, not because you feel excluded.

P: You’re talking their language.

J: Exactly. And that’s why I hate people calling art “self-expression.”

P: It’s masturbation.

J: It is.  It’s self-abuse.  You’re sitting there talking to yourself.  It’s fine, it’s therapy – it’s not art.

S: Can you make an example of a well-known piece that’s self-expression?

J: If more than two people can relate to it, then it’s not self-expression.  By it’s very nature, it wouldn’t even be out there.  Woody Guthrie said it very simply, “All I do is tell people what they already know.” And that’s what artists do: they tell people what they already know.  That’s why self-expression is therapy and not art.

[snip]

I’ve always enjoyed this conversation and think to it frequently.  The best thing a student of the arts can do for him or herself is to learn:

1) how to draw.

2) how to use color, beginning with browns and earthtones.

3) how to draw anatomy of people

4) how to draw landscapes

5) how to use the technical materials of illustrators and painters

6) how to keep the therapy in the sketchbooks, which are later burned, and not sold online as “painting-a-day” bullshittery.

This will take time, and delightfully, these are craft skills, meaning that everyone, everyone, can learn them.

=========

Let’s return briefly to what expression means.  Expression in art is how one wishes to communicate.  I express a communication through paint or ink, sometimes comedy, for example.  The word “expression” is the best word that the current art world has for the act of making art.  The English language has a number of deficits due to our need to restrict the evolution of the language.  The art world, for English-speakers has always suffered due to our lack of emotive words and efficiency of though.  There is a connotation with the word “expression” though, that suggests that an expressed artwork is something thrown up publically for approval.  A serious artist should already know what the public ought to think about the work before any work is displayed.  When I hear the lay public refer to an art work as expression, it is very clear that they understand the word as self-expression with that mode of public shock or approval intrinsically attached to it.  But somehow, somewhere, at some time, art shifted towards appeasing a public eye, rather than communicating and dialogging with it.  Now, artists must shock or entertain, paint celebrities, paint pain, paint ugly, paint horror – in order to keep a mis-informed public interested enough to go into the galleries.  I hypothesize that if galleries accepted academy paintings again, we might see a slow reversal of public interest and hopefully, over time, a general increase in sales and profits for all, both in money and in beauty.

I urge you, new artist, not to bend to the whim of peer pressure, not to give up on developing your skills as an artist (it may take 20 years!), not to feel the need to masturbate your personal therapy at us and inundate the world with your quickly-decaying spunk, but to be patient, learn, listen, and experience the world in such a way that you can, one day, communicate back more universal experiences to us all.

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Bejart Vs. Tori Amos: War of Postmodernisms

Posted in Contemorary Art, Criticism, Dance, Modernists, Pop-culture, Social Science, Technique, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 December, 2009 by endlessslug

Did you like what I did there?  I’m using a postmodern style of titling to set up a discourse on postmodernism in the contemporary arts.  I even used the word “discourse” in the previous sentence – very postmodern.  In fact, this manner of writing, whereby I talk directly to you, the reader, is exactly one of the many problems with the postmodern movement: a lack of consistency and structure, and a shift in attachment to works from a universal general detachment to a directly personal, seemingly identity-building attachment between artist and reader with the work forming only a momentary adhesive.  Some readers, you perhaps, will find the way I am writing right now to be invasive, irritating, and downright insulting.  Other readers, you perhaps (which you?), will find the way I am writing right now to be caring, direct, connecting, and unpretentious – a place where you too can speak with me, not against or under me.  Writers, painters, choreographers, dancers, actors, sculptors, and so on, work in this direct style now for a number of reasons, one of which we’ll highlight here:  Fear in a consumerist production society.

Tori Amos performed a live Facebook concert Friday afternoon.  It was amazing.  I am only going to discuss the postmodernisms within her work though, not the concert itself.  I was alerted to the finite differences between Tori’s older music, newer music, and newest music by a colleague of mine who is a much bigger fan of Tori’s ensemble than I.  But I agree – Tori’s music has always been exactly what postmodernism is supposed to be: a break from tradition (such as modernism), with a firm base of tradition (structure), with an attempt to create new things for a mass audience but at a personal level for individual audience members (postmodernism).  Postmodernism, then, is not simply a movement, but a dialogue still continuing from what the modernists were doing.  The postmodernist ought to struggle to discover new ways of doing old things in a way which is meaningful and not simply done to do it, or not in an anti-meaning sort of way (cf Beatniks).  In a contemporary, globalizing, mass-media, consumerist sort of world, we strive to find things which have lasting meaning to us, but we ought to find those things which could have meaning to others as well.  My grandmother’s freezer has been working fantastically since the 1940s.  It’s not really an antique, but people today would classify it as old or antique anyway.  Instead of taking the freezer one day, most of my family will probably just want to throw it out and get a new one or sell it.  This is unfortunate as the freezer is huge and works like a charm.  There’s no need to replace the thing and lots of people in my family have memories attached to it.  In fact, I would claim that if any family had a freezer like this (a huge trunk-type freezer you could fit a small cow in whole), you would also have memories and meaning instantly created.  This need to replace with the new is a salient cultural feature of suburban Americans, but where does this behavior lead?  An inability to ascribe meaning to things due to the fleeting feelings attached to purchased consumer goods.  Essentially, if the thing does not strike a personal chord with me, there’s no point in the thing’s existence.  We’ve reversed meaning!  We are our own Emperors and Empresses needing our decrees to be followed by the rest; self-made monarchies of absolutism.  It’s no wonder personal prosperity theologies are so dangerously dominant here…

I’ve been watching OVAT lately again.  This past week and all next week they’re doing a “Battle of the Nutcrackers” fan-choice contest.  The whole idea that contests allow fans to vote is ridiculous anyway.  Fans vote on what they’re given, and what they’re given dictates what the fans will enjoy, so having a fan-choice is simply a reaffirmation for the creators of the pop-culture non-sense.  Always remember, they care nothing for you, only your money.  Anyway, the week started off well with the Bolshoi Ballet classical production of the Nutcracker.  Critically speaking, there were some small faults that I blame on postmodern dancers, but all in all it was fantastic.  Last night was the Bejart Nutcracker.  I was excited for another rendition of the ballet, so I sat patiently and waited.  I was instantly punched in the nuts.  Apparently, Bejart used the Nutcracker (or selected aspects of it) to tell his own life story consisting of an estranged pseudo-sexual relationship with his mother, his own sex and gender identity problems, and his genius-ness of dance choreography.  Directly, this is utter bullshit.  This is what we tend to find as postmodernism today: entirely self-interested diarrhea of word and art, self-aggrandizing – making our personal monarchy public.  Bejart himself even appears in the ballet on a giant black and white monitor over the stage, narrating his life as the dancers dance parts of the Nutcracker.  Bejart has taken a classical work – which works quite well still, see the Bolshoi – and turned it into a tool and medium to talk about himself in a grandiose way.  What an asshole!  My criticism: Had this nutjob simply used some of his contemporary symbolism to add a modern depth or alteration to the ballet, it could be tolerated, possibly enjoyed.  Less is more!  Who was the audience for this? I can only guess 1,500 community college students believing that this is somehow fine art.  Did we forget what that “fine” part of fine art is for?  Refinement!  After a few millennia of dance, you would think this wouldn’t be a problem, but there it is.  When did we, as a world-wide culture, begin to care one bit about one person’s struggle of life?  That statement might make me sound heartless, but as an artist, I can say nothing else.  Mr. Bejart, art isn’t about you, no one cares.  You need to produce art that is about my experience, his experience, her experience – something which folks can relate to.  Having dance-sex with your mother, supported by two drag-queen Faustian angel-fairies on a public stage is art only as a criticism attacking other post-modern art which tries to do the same thing but less well.  If the point of Bejart’s work is to criticize postmodernism, then it is brilliant although needs to be more clear that this is the intent.  Thus, I believe the guy is serious and therefore fails.  I was ashamed for the dancers while watching this mess.  I can’t blame the dancers, they need jobs, but I’d like to know how many went home later and cried.

Due to my crap training in writing, I can’t help but to write also in a rant-style postmodern method.  Although I do know it when I see it.  Luckily, this blog was never designed as a completely professional publication so I can break my structure a bit and rant.  At least I know when I can and can not.  Tori, do a Nutcracker.

Victory! (for me, sorta)

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Artists, Contemorary Art, Criticism, Film, Literature, Music, Pop-culture, Social Science, Technique, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 September, 2009 by endlessslug

I had an unexpected epiphany today: I was right, damnit.

About five years ago at an embassy dinner, I was put on-the-spot by a number of other Americans because, apparently, they were offended by a comment I had made to another person earlier that day. I had said, “[serious] painters should not work to sell, but should work to communicate.” This statement was made to a girl who had no idea about fine art as we were looking at some total street-crap local art being sold by some opportunistic ex-pat geared at selling at tourists. Of course, the statement was perverted by this idiot to “he said artists should never sell their work,” which was not only what I said, but it also suggests a plethora of other related meanings that make me sound like the idiot. Well, this all came up at this dinner at a table of about 20 intellectuals, made up mostly of excellent graduate students and some government officials. I was really very unprepared for an argument and was in the middle of marking down some field notes when all the sudden I was fighting for my artistic life. Partly, I couldn’t remember what I had said exactly, because I have stated that I don’t think artists should sell work – but at the student or amateur level as a means to make them think a bit more outside their little selfish boxes. The point when I lost the argument came when my attacker said, “So, you’re saying artists should not sell their work, then what about choreographers? They live only by hiring people and showing otherwise there’s no art…” I really didn’t have an answer to that and clearly had lost the argument by then. This has always annoyed me because I could never explain myself. But today I figured it out.

Choreographers are illustrators they are not painters.

Here’s some explanation: For years, I’ve followed the social science of Levi-strauss, Geertz, and Bourdieu, meaning structuralism (with a hint of functionalism), interpretivism, and very early post-structuralism. I, like these people and most other humans, polarize and categorize the world around me. One of the most misunderstood aspects of polarism is that the poles always represent the extremes which most people are not – most people fall somewhere in between and are made up of millions of interrelated polemics which affect one another – much like a gene structure. An early painting teacher turned me on to thinking of art in a polemic – there are painters and there are illustrators, with drawing students somewhere in the middle but more towards painting and watercolorists more toward illustration. The basic distinction is not the materials used because uneducated people believe that whenever you use paint in a painting that makes you a painter – this is untrue. The distinction is in the function of the work, is it having a conversation with me or is it simply telling me something? We converse with Van Gogh’s color and movement, Rothko’s panels, Degas’ atmospheres, Hemingway’s doomed protagonists, Maupassant’s surprises, Dante’s longing, Pavolva’s rending Dying Swan, and literally with the humor of Pak Edy’s Punakawan puppets (wayang kulit clowns). We are told what’s happening in comic books, mystery novels, children’s books, modern public murals, social-commentary art, computer-aided art, and musicals. This is not to set firm categories which are unchangeable, but to acknowledge that there are general categories. It’s called observational data (science!). We must also distinguish between the stuff we personally just ‘like’ vs. the stuff which everyone should be able to converse with at some time or another. Every male American should be able to understand and enjoy Hemingway at about 30 years old, if not, 40. Every college student should be able to understand and enjoy Shakespeare in most of his levels. I’ve noticed the aging artists tend to really enjoy ballet – I’m not a huge fan but I do respect it greatly and look forward to the experience. Yes, I am a master of sweeping generalizations, but then again, that’s what science and art are all about. The “fine” part of fine art is the refinement of the generalization in the attempt to develop something akin to scientific laws. We want the laws of art because we cannot always explain why certain works evoke a conversation or emotion and why other works do not. As we teach in my anthropology courses, fine art is the ability to communicate something efficiently, which is otherwise impossible or too complex for simple vocal conversation (words). The poet manipulates language for efficiency in emotion, the short story author gets to the point, the novelist takes us on a journey, the novella author – well, nevermind this, no one knows what a novella is anymore, the painter evokes feelings long lost, the dancer gives us hope, the musician makes us move – they invoke.

So, what does the choreographer do? In the modern world, the choreographer gets much of the ‘props,’ which is something I did not know when entering my argument years ago. Why? Because we live in a world where the people require immediate gratification and complete knowledge of every aspect of the show they’re going to see before, during, and after they see it. The dancer has been removed as the central point to the dance. It is now in the hands of the director, producer, lighting guy, stagehands even, everything except that person on the stage doing all the work. As an acting teacher of mine said many years ago: “[Dancers, like] actors are taught their parts. An actor is just portraying what they’re paid to do and only the best actor for a part is hired by the director. Thus, there are bad plays and bad directors, and thus there are no bad actors. However, there are great actors who go above and beyond the part, bringing it alive and communicating with the audience in front of them. Essentially, to be an actor you must play the part. To be a great actor, you must become the part.” This is how it was. Great movies and great plays still are defined greatly by the actors, although many film friends of mine might say differently. Really, a film, play, or dance, is created by all of it’s parts, there really is no ‘one thing’ which defines it, and I think this is where the public generally is. The public doesn’t know why the liked something, they don’t need to, but they want to, leading to millions of water-cooler conversations about aspects of movies the public thinks made it a ‘good one you should see, man’.

So here it is: The choreographer instructs the dancers on every aspect of the dance, the whens, hows, whys, wheres, and so on. It is their job to make sure that the show looks good to bring in future audiences. I would never claim these people are not artists, they surely are. But their art falls on that illustrator side of the pole. They are putting together a show to tell the audience something based on a script. They cannot create a communication as a lone dancer can. They can set the stage for it, literally, and hope it happens, but it stops there. Their job is to bring in the clients, by making art, yes, but they don’t do it for free. And this was my point in that argument five years ago. Fine artists who are creating something powerful, are often aware of it and create it to create it for themselves and others, not because they’re looking for a sale. “I’m painting this because I want to talk to you. ‘You’ being humans for the next 500 years.”

As a final note, here’s a quote from Anna Pavlova about her dancing: “What exactly is success? For me it is to be found not in applause, but in the satisfaction of feeling that one is realizing one’s ideal. When, a small child rambling over there by the fir trees, I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong. Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.”

If you think everyone can be an artist, and that all artists are fine artists, you think as a child.  But this is fine, it simply means that there is much more for you to learn.

I win.
Nooge.

The Sad State of Figure Art: Jenny Saville

Posted in Artists, Contemorary Art with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 August, 2009 by endlessslug

Today,  I picked up a copy of Jenny Saville‘s figure work from Amazon.  Utter crap.  It’s such a shame that someone who has some very nicely refined skill at figure drawing blows it on deformity pseudo-paintings.  One of the worst forms of fine art painting in the world is the “shock-art” movement.  I did not get a chance to read through much of the text but I did get some good skimming in.  Apparently, there are some sort of homage ideas in these works reminiscent of rare works by other famous artists such as Renoir and less rare work like those of Francis Bacon.  Saville’s work, however, is a far cry from either, but in our contemporary setting of inane art criticism and baseless comparisons, the common person might be easily misinformed.  There is a place for shock art: a single room, in a single gallery, somewhere in the world which is labeled “shock art”.  One can go to it if one wishes, but they will not see anything except reason after reason that shock art is more personal therapy than anything otherwise functional for the public – or any other audience except the artist him or herself.  Really, no one cares but you Jenny.

I picked this book up because I was interested in contemporary figure painters since I like to think of myself as one as well.  I’d like to find some peerage out there.  Rarely do I read amazon reviews, because again, we have the common schmo emoting all over a webpage but sometimes a little gem of awareness peeks through.  In the reviews for Saville’s book, one nice reviewer had mentioned that her new work was no where near as abrasive and interesting (my words, I don’t recall the actual words but go to the link above if you wish) as her preliminary body of work.  And therein lies the problem of shock art: the emotion fades as one triumphs over the emotion that created it and moves on, never to look back one moment to the painting made.  Don’t artists have sketch books anymore?

Of course, we cannot expect everyone to be a master artisan.  My reviews, rants, and criticisms tend to make me sound like I have very high standards and that everyone should be a little learning Leonardo – this is not the case at all.  However, there should still be some sort of standard education in the foundations of art and what art means.  We do have definitions of art that work very well and have worked for centuries.  Our contemporary world likes to think that the rules are too constrictive, that they can disregard them – sure you can, it’s how we evolve – but we need to know what the rules are first before we break them.  Instead, I hear hundreds of horror stories from art students about their professors letting them ‘paint what they want’ leading to an army of inconsistent, unprofessional, meaningless producers of low-grade consumer aesthetic commodities.  This is how the bills are paid now-a-days.  Produce so much that something must sell, forget the quality.  And, when something does sell, now we find confidence in creating more of what sold, further de-fining the craft of fine art into a conveyor line of totally pointless – but “original” crap.  On that note, I’ll post about Audrey Kawasaki very soon; another fine example of mass-production of totally emotive, pointless crap designed to placate a very ignorant and simply gratified public.  She wins!

Art Today

Posted in Contemorary Art with tags , , , , , , , , , on 2 August, 2009 by endlessslug

The state of art today is crap.

I left the art world back in 2000 because the state of art at that time was essentially “whatever you think about [x] is the best answer and nobody can argue you because everything is opinion”.  During my art training, it was made very aware to me that art is not opinion at all but is a carefully designed conclusion to observed social phenomena.  The lessons of post-structuralism were completely lost to a public who can walk down to Blick’s and pick up some paint and throw it on a canvas telling the world that all art is pure expression.  Granted, it is nice that most folks have access to the materials of an artist, but most people lack the knowledge of what to do with them.  I recall a past where ideas were rampant and the ability to communicate these ideas with people was the limit.  Things are seemingly reversed in our contemporary world.

Artists are taught today that everyone’s idea or question is important.  This is untrue.

Artists are taught that they should express.  They should not.

Artists are taught just to draw anything as fast as they can.  This is terrible, it’s called sketching, not a work of art.

Unfortunately, the public has learned this nasty little word: elite and it’s application as elitism.  The moment anyone who has knowledge about the function and behavior of art attempts to criticize work, they may be labeled an elitist simply because the artist or others in the area disagreed.  There is no personal confrontations, no dialog, no communication, no discourse.  Simply ideas tossed around with no sense of support, analysis, testing, or conclusions.

Yes, I now have a firm background in science and have learned how important the study of science is to everyone, including artists.  Make conclusions people, not clownish emotive messes.