Archive for youth

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.


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.


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.

Another Bags Sighting!

Posted in Pop-culture, Social Science with tags , , , , , , , , on 27 February, 2010 by endlessslug

For those of you following this ridiculousness, I posted about a “Bags” arcade game a few months ago and the post drew a number of emails of sightings of these things across the country.  I just found yet another machine while picking up some lasagna from the local Pizza Hut.  This brings the number of Bags machines within 5 miles of me to 5.  Yes, five.  I would love to see the sort of revenue these things actually pull in.

Shallow Experiences and Imagined Communities

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Criticism, Pop-culture, Social Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 January, 2010 by endlessslug

How do we define the difference between rich or deep experiences and those experiences which have little to no direct impact on our lives?  Secondly, how do we make another understand that there is, in fact,  a distinct difference?  And further, how do we explain that these richer, fuller experiences do not have to have anything to do with religion although people often immediately point at some sort of spiritual or religious explanation when having a meaningful relaitonship with an experience.

These are some thoughts which keep me sleepless sometimes.

It occurred to me one day that these new generations of people are very ignorant with no change in behavior in sight.  We are constructing a culture of pure ‘stupid’ in the full definition of that word – I do not mean it as a slight but as an observation.  I consider myself rather stupid when it comes to using Adobe Illustrator, for instance.  But the difference between me and the rest of the society I seem to find myself in, is that I strive to improve on that stupidity, at least when I am aware of it.  And thus, my epiphany: When unaware, the public continues as if there are no problems in the world at all – which relatively, there are not.  We cannot argue.  The cell-phone and text-message phase of human evolution is a dangerous step towards extinction.  I don’t mean extinction of the species, but of something else: extensively shared meaning.

Sit in a Wal-Mart sometime and watch the teens walk around with their cells.  Try not to be creepy, please.  You’ll observe that the act of being with friends at the store, the act of being at the store at all, and the act of meeting people is far outweighed with the personal interest involved in the text messages which will erupt on their phones every few seconds.  This is because there is a much more intensively personal imagined community occurring in their minds (cf Benedict Andersen).  Why would anyone pay attention to the world they are currently walking around in when much more important things are happening between the space constructed mentally between texts – the text-web, as I sometimes call it.  So many experiences of life are being completely ignored – so many social skills are going unlearned, undeveloped, as people Twitter, ironically, about what they are currently doing, sometimes so quickly that the Twit is posted before the action even occurs.

One might argue that with new technologies and innovations, new behaviors and identities will form.  Sure, I cannot disagree.  I also text message, use Facebook, obviously blog, and have occasional public conversations on my cellphone.  But with the use of these handy tools, I understand a certain context for them.  I have had life experiences which did not include these things.  I have had many experiences which were deep to the core of my character and have developed me in much more rich and powerful ways than I expect any of these kids on celly’s will ever in their lives – and I am sad for them.

-To a point.  Instead, I look elsewhere, for others like me.  I thought I could find them in the art world, where they used to be, but the art world now is ridiculously involved with itself and its little shallow messages to itself.  Fine art today is like a sad kid who sends himself text messages in a language he does not understand, but up high so all can see.  Bravo.

Moral: Get off your damn phone and talk to a human you don’t yet know.  Then, get their number.  You are not anywhere near as important as the act of direct interaction between people is.

A Note on New Legos

Posted in Art, Toys with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 10 November, 2009 by endlessslug

I thought a small rant about Legos would be perfectly in order for a blog about the state of fine art today.  Legos are not necessarily a very refined art, but Legos are a hell of a lot of fun to play with when not in the studio.

Construction Legos

I was watching Nickelodeon today when a commercial for the new(ish) construction Lego sets came on.  I’ve seen this commercial a few times before but today the commercial struck me as odd so I paid a little closer attention.  Why would Lego make construction Legos?  The toy is a construction-based toy.  They’re just advertising in a literal fashion, what the toy is for.  This seems redundant and really can’t be selling well.  Let’s say you are a kid with tons of legos sitting around – are you going to purposefully NOT finish a few sets in order to create a construction theme scene?  Construction sets seem to communicate a message of “please, only half-play with me”.   Now, I am mostly criticizing the idea of creating construction zones in your playset.  The trucks themselves (cranes, bulldozers, steam-rollers, etc.) are all just fine to have around.  Countless hours can be lost running your little protagonists after your villainous antagonists through construction sites, so in this respect, these toys are just fine.  But we really don’t need half-built buildings.  We have many other sets we can just leave unfinished instead, and with better parts.  So, Lego, lets rid ourselves of the buildings and just sell the trucks.

“Modular Design Sets”

Legos, until the early 2000’s were lots of fun to build.  Buy a set, dump the pieces into a huge box (usually provided), and then spend hours sifting loudly through hundreds of little plastic pieces as your little construction grows from chaos into form.  It was always a pleasure to see how the Lego designers would come up with new ways in which to use old parts and how they would solve construction problems.  Less is more.  Unfortunately, through the 90’s, Lego began introducing many pieces which were form fitted for specific purposes.  How they are able to afford so many specialized pieces is beyond me.  Due to the special purposes, many of these pieces are functional for nothing else, ultimately limiting your creativity with them.  Also, over the last ten years, Lego has shifted to this Modular Design idea.  The MD idea is that you build a model in smaller parts and then assemble all the smaller parts into a larger set at the end.  Not only does MD kill creativity, but it also makes the models much less stable, less thought out, less enjoyable to build, and less fun to play with.  I note specifically the Y-Wing for the Star Wars sets – the Ultimate Collector’s version.  In this model, you build the cockpit, fuselage, and engines all separately and then snap it all together.  It was only minimally interesting to build,  but the final model was very unstable.  I had it on display for a couple months in my old apartment and every day, someone would knock the table and the whole thing would collapse.  Over time, the side engine pods weighed down so much that they noticeably sagged and could easily become detached.  A $150 building toy/model should not fall apart constantly and generally look like shit on display.  The same could be said of the Tantive IV.  The UC Tantive’s engines were barely connected.  It was just ridiculous.  Whoever designed that should be fired out right.  Finally, the Star Destroyer UC was hollow.  It’s plates were connected by magnets!  This is a damned Lego set people, I paid for LEGOS not for magnets connecting a lego false front.  Of course, I wouldn’t expect the thing to be solid plastic, that’s also nutty, but seriously… this was the best design?

New Town Models

In positive news, Lego has been putting out these new town-based sets for the past few years.  These include the Green Grocer, Market Square, and Cafe Corner as well as a few other new ones and similarly themed sets.  These sets are all really well designed except for the lower floors of some of them which are only half-built.  By half-built, the floor is a split-level which would normally go below the street level, but since Lego hasn’t come out with their sewer sets yet, the floor only appears as if it goes below the street from the windows but is actually cut-off at the street level like any other model.  While it doesn’t matter too much, you are making toys folks, not purely models.  Or at least come up with some sort of noticeable differentiation.  The modular design of these models works generally well, but again there’s something “missing” from building the sets.  I think it’s the fun value.  Still – awesome sets and I hope to see many more.

Numbered Bags

What the hell?  New Lego sets come with bags with numbers on them.  The numbers indicate the order by which the Legos inside are to be built.  I don’t remember being 8-12 years old, but I seem to recall that I never had a problem with this before.  In fact, I’ve seen new kids actually use the numbered bags and do everything by the book because they don’t know any different and choose to follow the directions instead of the chaotic method.  Again, something is lost here.  It seems geared toward quick construction as opposed to working out problems, finding the correct pieces, shape differentials, and time management.  Knock it off Lego!  Let them make a huge mess!


Modigliani and iCarly (gets punched in the face)

Posted in Art, Artists, Pop-culture, Social Science, Studio Work with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 9 August, 2009 by endlessslug

Yesterday, I received my new Modigliani book in the mail.  You really cannot beat an 80 cent art book from Amazon.  For those of you reading along, the book is Modigliani: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculptures, edited by Werner Schmalenbach, Prestel Press 2005.  This is a little coffee-table sorta book but since I was lacking both finances and an in-house book on Modigliani, I could not pass it up for the price.  It is a cute little book though, full of good photos, good interviews – including a very entertaining appendix where a number of famous people explain their relationships with the artist.  The early portion of the book includes a number of essays on Modigliani and a number of photos of work by his influences – something I wish I would see more of in some of these books.  As a younger art student, it would have been very helpful to have some influential reference work right in the volume.  Now that I am professionally versed in many of the worlds artists over the last few thousand years, I no longer need references.  However, still always something is new.  Through this book I discovered a new favorite painter whose work will one day be another blog post – once I can afford one of his many $400 books…  Until then, he shall remain my secret.


I study many things – too many things according to most who know me.  One of my areas of concern is television and other media directed at certain demographics, namely young adults and children.  As I age, I get more and more concerned with the nature of this entertainment as people who used to make this sort of programming because they wanted to give way to people doing it because they’re paid to – and paid to fit certain requirements.  A quick example, since this all has little to do with my blog as it is, would be the Dora the Explorer show.  It recently came to my attention that this terrible disaster of children’s programming was in fact created after paying some show designers to make a new show.  There were no previous ideas, no preliminaries, nothing – just “here’s some money, make us a hit”.  Once I head this, I wanted to go huddle around Fred Rogers’ grave.  Point being, there are few very authentic-feeling shows that really know what kids need to learn these days replaced by what I see as mindless placating of behavior kids say they want.  Most of the quality and refined-ness of things in the world today are being slowly pecked away by the need to bring the consumer directly in line with the producer.  But what do consumers know? They consume anything.  Some of us consumers are more aware than others, but I still do not usually make my own clothes, kill my own cow when I’m hungry, or create my own livingroom dramas.  Actually, I have done a number all of those things, but not regularly.  We live in a society where we believe we have input on the things around us – which, to some degree we do.  I believe we have this extensive input at the sacrifice of developmental refinement and quality.  Where are our standards?  Dora just keeps looking at me and yelling things in other languages… it’s so weird.  What happened to my cigarette-smoking tom-cat and his trickster mouse?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the ‘new’, I just wish it didn’t suck so much.

I constantly research.  There’s no point in criticizing something when you haven’t experienced it or have some sort of data that might suggest a certain idea about what you’re criticizing.  After complaining about kids’ TV lately, some folks suggested that I check out iCarly on Nickelodeon as it seems to have some sort of “pulse” of the youth.  I watched one episode and barely got through it.  On the plus side, the show is hip.  The use of internet publishing and video-streaming is very innovative and cutting-edge, while maintaining a certain connection to an occasionally viewing young adult audience.  The language is contemporary and seems like the dialog is actually written by folks that either are younger or have some kids in high school, or at least did some field research.  On the downside, the humor is lame, in the way Saved by the Bell was lame, although I’d prefer to watch iCarly still.  The show writers hint at, frequently, some very good lessons or ideas to get across to the upcoming youth population.  Upcoming meaning, soon-to-be-adults.  There does seem to be a certain sense of responsibility with this show, and that I commend as well – but again, it’s just stupid overall.  The show reflects a reality, I believe few kids can relate to, but I might be out of my element in that claim.  I did notice a high number of code-switched phrases and idioms.  For those of you unfamiliar with this phenomena of linguistics, a code-switch is simply the use of a word as a direct replacement for another word but unlike a metaphor or simile, the words switched have exactly the same implied meaning, not a relative one.  The code-switching, I believe is part of the show’s success.  The language sounds legit, and it is, but it’s spoken the same way that kids speak around or near their parents or other disapproving adults.  So, that illegal substance or sex reference you made as a kid is hidden in a reference to another word with no known symbolic shared reference except contextually in that moment.  “We are going to get naked tonight” encodes to “we are going to get silly tonight,” for example.  There is a sense of metaphor, but we really have a simple replacement.  From the couple episodes of iCarly I’ve now seen, it seems to excel at this behavior.

The point of everything: iCarly got punched in the face!

I will probably never watch this crap show again.  However, I did have to watch the episode last night where the leading character gets punched in the face, twice!  I was skimming through the post-modern essays in my Modigliani book when I heard the fight sounds from the episode.  I was put into an already delightful state of intellectual bliss with a couple of Modigliani’s nudes, when I look up to see Carly all hyper and happy, jumping with her friends in a mindlessly manga-style way, right before a fight she thinks is fake.  She gleefully hops into the ring, puts her little mouth-piece in, smiles, and then the handy-cam shot of a fist comes hurtling into her mouth.  Carly is wide-eyed and shocked, when BOOM, fist #2 impacts her face.  This event of Modigliani’s nudes coupled with a crap kids’ TV star’s face-punch was a moment of artistic catharsis pour moi.  Back to the studio I go.

Now, if only I could make Spongebob’s sun explode…