The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Along the Road Home

Heartfelt thanks to all of you who choose to walk with me as I follow the path of the history of thought in art to find my way "home." Your substantive comments to yesterday's blog really made me think! Mark Sheeky asked: Is knowledge of the art of the past useful to the artist at all? This is a great question. My answer is "yes" and "no." Certainly, the lack of that knowledge doesn't matter in terms of the ability of an artist to create original and important work. In fact, it could be an asset not to learn about art history. But, I'm well past the point of not knowing since I was schooled in art. So, for me, one who's been exposed to and influenced by tradition, the answer is "yes."

But, there are a few more points I'd like to make in answer to Mark's great question. First, our work is evaluated by art critics, gallery directors, museum curators, and savvy collectors who judge us in comparison to our contemporaries as well as to historical artists and art "isms." These people make decisions with a knowledge of art history, so I think it would be an asset to every artist to know what those who pass judgement on our work know.

Second, this is my journey and so I have a personal reason for taking it. Here's an anecdote to illustrate my reason why. Two decades ago I had the unfortunate experience of divorcing after a twenty year marriage. During the separation period, I was eating a bowl of ice cream (no longer on my diet!) and suddenly - in a flash - thought "why am I eating this flavor?? I don't even like it!" That's when I realized that I was eating that flavor because he liked it and insisted that we eat it at home. The rest of the realization was that I had acquired all kinds of habits and preferences that were his and that I had almost completely suppressed myself. So, I began the painful process of examining and questioning everything I did in order to "find Kathy." It took years, but once I found myself, I sprang to life and rapidly improved and advanced my life and career!

My development as an artist is similar. I was trained by others - told how to work and think. Yes, I was allowed a certain latitude for creativity, but the influence loomed large. So, now I'm looking at this "bowl of ice cream" and saying to myself: WHY do I think this way as an artist? Where did these art theories, which were instilled in me, come from? How did they originate? How have they influenced my work? If I can figure this out, then I have a better chance of advancing.

Another great question comes from my good friend Don Michael, Jr. ( who asks why I'm examining Western Art when there's a whole world of art out there. The reason is because I am the product of Western art theory, so that's what I must examine in order to understand the roots of my thoughts.

So, back to Williams book. I'll make this brief since I've already written a lot.

Yesterday, I quickly moved through the Ancients, and stopped right before Medieval art, a time when artists were still preoccupied with ancient themes, but made them more elaborate. Because the leading thinkers of that period were members of the Church, the value of art was defined in religious terms. So, they were sensitive to the psychological function of images, which led to a preoccupation with signs and symbols. This preoccupation has waxed and waned over the years, and seems to have a foothold in today's art scene from what I've witnessed.

I'll make a quantum leap to the Renaissance. An Italian named Leone Battistsa Alberti published a book in 1435 called On Painting. I mention this because it's regarded as the first work of early modern art theory and nearly every idea that it contains was taken up, elaborated, and codified over centuries later. And, it's a major influence on my work. Here are the notable aspects of his book:
  • an explanation of the optical and geometric principles governing "perspective"
  • description of the science and mathematics of painting to "add intellectual dignity to the craft"
  • insistance that the artist represent emotion, character, and ideal beauty
  • division of the processs of painting into: circumscription (drawing of outlines), composition (arrangement of forms) and reception of light (modeling and coloring)
  • emphasis on the narrative aspect of a painting (content)

Alberti's idea is that the painter's ability to orchestrate an irresistable emotional response from the viewer is an indication of his psychological insights and philosophical depth. And, this was considered a very important goal. I recognize the influence of Alberti's ideas upon my own training and way of thinking. And, I now know that his work developed in response to the necessity to organize and formalize very elaborate Medieval art - to get it under systematic control. Imposed order - yeah, I get that!


The Artist Within Us said...

Your metaphor as part of the road home is wonderful. It brings to mind so many of my own demons, the luggage we all carry with us.

Individuals senior to ourselves having imparted upon us their views we needed to guide us through the varying stages of our life, are a blessing and a curse from which we cannot truly escape from.

Only later in our own life are we able to dismantle the walls that were build around us so that we may see another horizon and learn there are other views and even ideas contrary to our own.

My education has been a Western one too, but for many decades I have rebelled against it, always fighting for the underdog. In doing so I have learned much but at the price of losing my own identity that was compounded by my being uprooted and transplanted into another culture when my parents moved from Europe to the US.

For 45 years I have searched for an identity and only last year realized I cannot escape my roots, but they no longer lead to home.

In my art this has been reflected more than once. I have made peace but the pain still is there. Creating the art is a pleasure as it is painful, maybe that is why the first part of the word painting is pain.

Forgive my rambling, your post has unearthed the ghosts of my past.

I just looked at my word verification and it reads 'trappi' — trap!

Mark Sheeky said...

I totally identify with the italics in that last paragraph. Your self-analysis seems to have come from a rebellion against control, passion from art from that anger... perhaps feelings like that are more self-imposed than imposed by others. Despite thinking in a very similar way I started painting without any knowledge of art and I've not felt controlled or pushed at all, but I still felt afraid and lacking in confidence. Much of my motivation in life and art is fear, and my art used to expose fears and create confidence. It seems that this is and was the way with many surrealists.

On art history there is a great weath of mythology that is useful to any artist... an apple means what..? With knowledge of Adam and Eve, or William Tell, or Isaac Newton there is meaning. The dandylion means the passion of Christ because of art. Without art history each artist would need to develop a new language of symbols, and provide a dictionary for everyone else. But that can happen. A blue sky might be a universal symbol for freedom. So is being understood by lots of people a sign of good art..? In a way yes. It has to be fathomable I think.

Unknown said...

Egmont, You've honored me by generously sharing your thoughts about art, your life, and your experiences. Truly, you've traveled a difficult path, and adapting to a whole new culture can't be easy. I suppose we're both deconstructionists to a certain degree ... tearing down walls and rebuilding according to our own specifications. And, I think you're correct in saying that we can't escape from our roots - we DO carry luggage. But, I think that creating art is an optimistic act! It's not only liberating, but gives a sense of new possibilities, hope for the future. Feel free to "ramble" any time, Egmont. You have a lot to teach us!

Unknown said...

Mark - your comments are so substantive and informative! I don't know that I feel anger, although it may appear that way from what I've written so I can see where you might reach that conclusion. Rather, I've reached this amazing point in life - the "older" Kathy - where the many distractions of youth have fallen by the wayside and I spend more and more time living in my mind. I've always been analytical, and definitely full of questions and challenges. So, this is second nature to me. However, I respect the authority and experiences of those before me who demonstrated that they knew what they were doing. However, what was "right" for them isn't necessarily "right" for me.
I'm surprised to learn that much of your motivation is fear. I wouldn't have guessed it looking at your work - which is bold! But, being an artist is tough work ... everyone is a critic. So, we have to develop a thick skin. There's a temptation for us to feel like imposters - it's called "imposter syndrome." But, we ARE legitimized by our artistic creations, so we don't have to feel that way.
And, finally, you raise yet another interesting question: does art have to be fathomable? Boy, that's a tough one. I mean, look at Duschamp's display of a urinal at the 1917(?) exhibition. I'll have to think about your question for a long, long time. Thanks!-

Unknown said...

I read and reread today's post. I could relate with your metaphor in my personal and artist life. I enjoyed reading Egmont's "ramblings" and all your follower's comments. I feel like we should all be sitting around a virtual fireplace with a glass of wine to continue our conversation.

Unknown said...

Sheila - great suggestion! I would love it if we could all sit around a fireplace and chat for hours about art.

Manon said...

I very much enjoyed your post! Your work is beautiful!!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much, Manon. Hope you'll join in the conversation!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I know where you've been. From your beautiful open stairway painting, I know you're moving up and your route is clear. You left that closed door behind (on one of those nodes).

M said...

The signs and symbols in Medieval art have always fascinated me and I often slide symbolism , especially flower symbolism, into my own work. Much of this same symbolism extends into Renaissance art too. These symbols provided a basic visual language to convey information to the majority of people in the middle ages because most were unable to read print. Much of this symbolism based on Christian ideals, and the need for it, is lost in today's society. Our recognizable symbols are mostly related to business and imparted through advertizing or else are forms of order and control, e.g., traffic signs etc.

I haven't come across Leone Ballistsa Albertie thesis On Painting.... but you have convinced me that it is an influential document even for today's artists. The statements you highlighted from this book make great sense. I'm particularly interested in "represent emotion, character and ideal beauty" I am interested in hearing more about your interpretation of "ideal beauty". Is it defined in terms of mathematics?

As I've indicated in posts on my blog the struggle in being an artist is as Alberti's says "the painter's ability to orchestrate an irresistible emotional response from the viewer (and) is an indication of his psychological insights and philosophical depth". This is definitely where the impostor syndrome enters into play in terms of my own work. I feel I create a lot of work that doesn't even come close to meeting this expectation. One can only strive.

Dan Kent said...

I think we all struggle with a duality - On the one hand, I am consistently looking back through art history and studying artists that came before. do not have your benefit of a formal art eductation, but I read, have a pretty good knowledge of the impressionists and beyond, and have recently bought books on earlier art history (I am reading a book on Titian) to fill a gap. I am also examining modern artist's work. And I learn from artists I see on the web.

So at this stage I find myself imitating in order to learn, but at the same time I constantly yearn not to imitate - to create something that is my own.

My thought is that just as technology builds on the past, so that an inventor today starts at a place far ahead of Edison for example, an artist cannot begin in a vacuum, must study what has been, before he or she can move on. Then only some artists can manage to move on and only a very few can do so to an extent so that the path of art history will change through his or her influence on future artists.

Dan Kent said...

Yup! Didn't proof read very well on the last one. Must be my lack of art eductation, er, education.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read! I feel like I've just gone down the first few miles of this creative road. So, it's nice to get a peak at the road ahead! Exciting!

-Don said...

Wow, Kathy! What a great conversation you have started here around our virtual fireplace. I raise my glass to you, take a sip, and now open my big mouth...

I absolutely love your ice cream metaphor. I am glad you disposed of that old yukky flavor and went looking for Kathy. I'm especially glad you found her, because look what we would have been missing.

I hope my question yesterday did not come across in any way adversarial. When you had mentioned your existential question about why artists arrived at a certain way of thinking and painting my mind immediately went "big picture". I started thinking in terms of every human being and whether this is an innate characteristic in all of us and why some find painting, or any other art form, as a means of expression. And when they do find and choose this source of expression, why do they then paint, or in any way create, the way they do? My mind went first to the primitives, then to all the ensuing cultures and tried to wrap around that existential question from their perspectives. I allowed this to distract me from your conversation about your own personal journey - and for this I apologize.

I had not studied Leone Battista Alberti before today, but I now find that everything I was taught in college came straight down from his pen. When you wrote that his idea is that "the painter's ability to orchestrate an irresistable emotional response from the viewer is an indication of his psychological insights and philosophical depth", I felt I had found the definition of what I've been trying to do without even knowing it was out there. Believe me, I will be studying on this concept for quite a while... I may not even sleep tonight because of it. So, when my family asks why I'm so cranky tomorrow I'll be blaming you. :-P


Unknown said...

HW - oh, you're very observant! Thanks :)

Margaret - the notion of "beauty" during the time of the ancients and even into the early Renaissance was based on the "ideal." Artists were encouraged (required) to interpret what they saw in nature with ideal measurements and proportions rather than what they actually saw. Therefore, all imperfections were ignored. I'll talk about that later, but thanks for bringing it up! Great comments!

Dan - I agree with your comment that "an artist cannot begin in a vacuum, must study what has been, before he or she can move on." That's true for most of us. Only rarely does someone create art in a vacuum ... the best contemporary example is an Indian woman names Sonabai. Check her out!

Unknown said...

Don - I never take what you say as adversarial - to the contrary. You've shown yourself to be a truly supportive and caring person who's also a deep thinker (even though you claim it gives you headaches!). I value your opinion and look forward to it.
I'm so glad you connected with Alberti - I did too!! Hundreds of years have passed and we're still under his influence. I never knew that until I read Williams' book.
As for which particular art a person engages in, I've found that many of us engage in more than one discipline, both inside and outside of the "arts." I know of many many scientists who are also painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers. I fall into that category, but I also found that fine art and the natural sciences both require conceptualization, so it makes sense that they're tightly linked. But, in addition to painting, I'm also a classically trained pianist. How many of us painters also play musical instruments? A lot, I'll bet. I also like to dance ... but I'm terrible at that (two left feet). My point is, if you're creative, you're probably creative in a myriad of ways.

Casey Klahn said...

Such a great post, Kathy. I have followed this series of posts and enjoyed it.

No one ever gets this analogy, but bear with me. I idolized a famous man named Royal Robbins, and after a few years I met him and continued to see him - he got to know me by name.

His rock climbing mark in the world (among many feats) was to climb the first particular climb of a certain hard grade near Idyllwild, California in the late fifties. The climb of the decade regarding difficulty.

Still with me? It didn't take me long to climb the same grade as that breakthrough climb of Royal Robbins, and any dedicated contemporary rock climber will do the same. Why? Because we stand on the shoulders of our fore bearers. No less so in art.

It is too easy to forget the magnitude of breakthroughs, such as perspective or the incline plane, re: Alberti. I have no problems with dedicating myself to the masters, but at the same time I recognize the stunning work that the recent masters have given us (Matisse, deKooning).

Sorry to crash in and ramble on. Must be the wine...

Thank you for the great posts!

Unknown said...

Hi Casey! Thank you for contributing a great analogy to this discussion. I agree! Oh ... I'll get to the modern and contemporary artist pretty soon. They influenced my work a great deal!
And, you're not crashing at all... you're a part of us :)