The Laws of Nature

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Creative Authenticity"

Friends, you've probably noticed by now that I have a passion for both creating art and reading about it. So, I've started reading a new book that I suspect many of you have already read: Creative Authenticity: 16 Principles to Clarify and Deepen Your Artistic Vision by Ian Roberts (2004). If you're interested, let's examine it, beginning with his first chapter entitled "Searching for Beauty."

We've discussed "beauty" in art before on this blog without reaching a consensus. Roberts, in his search for a definition of beauty also was unable to find a consensus. And, he suggests that in the contemporary art world ... beauty is suspect as an aim in art. It's almost a dirty word.
Roberts asks us to consider beauty, not as pretty or sweet, but as an emotionally moving experience. That is, the subject matter may be as horrible as depicting Christ, bloody and dead nailed to a cross or a woman weeping over her drowned child, but the passion and emotion that it evokes in the viewer makes the work beautiful. To me, this implies that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and not in the hands of the artist at all. As I read on, I don't think that Roberts meant to imply that, since what he later writes is contradictory.

The author objects to artists who "knock beauty" by reducing it to meaningless superficiality and an outmoded idea. It is his experience that producing beauty in art is actually quite difficult and that those who dismiss it lack understanding. He goes further to predict that artwork that is destined to last is probably going to have to address beauty. Roberts believes that the role of beauty in art is to uplift society. This argument is supported by noting the beauty of contemporary architecture - something that's not only desired but also valued.

What conditions are necessary for the creation of beauty in art? According to Roberts, the artist needs to engage in quiet time and exert patience when creating it. In other words, stop and smell the roses. He feels that, to express beauty we must engage in silence because visual beauty produces silence in us. I had that reaction the first time I stood before The David in Florence, Italy. I could neither speak nor take my eyes off the statue. A friend of mine wanted to take a picture of me standing in front of the statue, and I said "No - no pictures. The beauty for me is in remembering how it felt. A picture can't capture that."

So, the title of this book is Creative Authenticity. What's the relationship between authenticity and "beauty"? Roberts finds authenticity in the depth of the artist's feelings, which are the sole means by which beauty can be infused into art. By contrast, he brings up my favorite "poster child" for kitsch - Thomas Kinkade. Although the "artist" has a large following and is laughing all the way to the bank, his art isn't authentic. It's a manipulation - a product for commercial consumption. But, you might ask, what about Andy Warhol? Didn't he aspire to do the same thing and yet his work hangs in world-class museums. The difference is in the meaning - the intent of the artist. Warhol's work is about society's relationship with commodities. Kinkade's work, although he says it's about "light," is really about cashing in. He could be producing cute widgets and the effect would be the same.
At the beginning of this chapter Roberts defines beauty in art as an evoked emotion of the viewer. Here, he says that beauty can only be infused into a work of art through the depth of the artist's feelings. I'm having trouble bridging the gap in his logic, because an artist's expressed feelings might not necessarily evoke feeling from the viewer. For instance, in my earliest endeavors to paint, my subject matter might have been a flower from the garden that struck me as glorious! So, I passionately rendered it on canvas only to find that the work was received with great indifference by viewers. We've all had this experience in one way or another. Or, is Roberts saying that there's no chance for the viewer to find beauty in a work of art if the artist didn't have deep feelings when creating it? If that were true, then his example of Thomas Kinkade fails because the multitudes of people that buy his work have passionate feelings about it, even if Kinkade didn't.

In this chapter, Roberts expands on many of the historical facts and ideas that we've hashed over when hiking through Williams' book, so I won't elaborate here. However, his central point is that the world is awful enough - just look at the evening news. And, technology is impersonal and empty of emotion. And, artists have spent the past 150 years dismanteling the old standards set for fine art by agreement. Therefore, he argues, the contemporary artist must return to the standard of transcendent beauty as a basis for expression. And, he states, beauty comes from giving personal expression to deep currents within us. That perhaps even wrench us in their telling.

So, I agree that the artist produces authenticity by embuing art with personal expression. But, I'm a little perplexed when Roberts lumps the use of modern technology as a medium together with ugliness and emptiness. I've seen some digital photography that evokes strong emotion, and light displays with digital music that induce real feelings. Therefore, I must ask - what's so sacred about the standards that were set 150 years ago? And, were these really universal standards for ALL art? I don't think so. The biggest catalyst for many historical art movements was a reaction against the standardizations in art imposed by the academies. As for beauty ... well, I suppose that's always in the eye of the beholder.

And now... your thoughts, please :)


Leslie Avon Miller said...

I have really enjoyed this book. My copy is well underlined. I just ignore his obvious dislike of non-objective work, as I ignore the same bias from Robert Genn, Painters Key. Why can't we just agree that for some artists and art lovers objective work is what makes their heart sing, and for some it is non objective work that makes them (me) feel euphoria? For me, non objective work is beautiful.

layers said...

I started painting watercolor landscapes 30 years ago-- transparent watercolor-- and my sole interest-if I had any thought at all-- was technique--how to copy the scene as prettily as possible--when I went to shows I stood in awe of the beautiful washes and renderings-the glow--the detail. About 15 years ago I watched a demo by Alex Powers-painting a model with pretty ribbons and colorful clothes-but Alex who does not paint much color left that all out-as he painted I started to feel this strong emotion, this strong attraction-- it was not a pretty painting-not beautiful in the technical sense of a traditional watercolor-but the emotion I felt watching him paint it overwhelmed me and my eyes teared up-- and ever since I have been more concerned with feeling, emotion, personal content and my paintings evolved into acrylic non-objective works

Mark Sheeky said...

I've seen lots of beautiful computer images, and photographs. I'm not sure if beauty can be equated to "an emotional reaction" because it has to be a pleasant one! I think that some things are inherantly beautiful but not all beautiful paintings have to be pretty, like Thomas Kinkade's (who, ironically, inspired my Christmas card a bit!) In fact his art is quite emotionless, but is popular because most people, I now suspect, most people want pretty but emotionless pictures to decorate the room. Most people want a picture to decorate, only art collectors want art.

Sad or upsetting subjects can be resolved peacefully through beauty, I think. I'm back to the idealist debate! The very problem with most art from the 50's onwards is that IT IS UGLY.

Casey Klahn said...

Authenticity? I am still trying to wrap my mind around the subject of "truth" in painting. I'm afraid I'll have a farther ways to understand authenticity.

At base, authenticity in art to my mind would just be (this is very banal) art done by an artist. But, the question is authenticity in creativity - now I'd have to look at creativity and try to understand that word.

Anyway - I'm sorry this comment isn't rising to the quality of the three I read above, but these are my thoughts!

hw (hallie) farber said...

When I saw Brancusi's Muse and Bird in NY my reaction was much like yours on seeing David. I could hardly breathe and felt absolute joy (the only time I've felt that way). I just stood and felt I could fly. I had drooled over his work for years.

When I saw Bacon's work (as a sculptor who knew little about painters) I was mesmerized and stood for a long time--his paintings were not beautiful but touched me deep in the soul--actually hit a nerve. (I'm not sure his paintings will uplift society.)

These two artists are so different--maybe creative authenticity can be sensed. For me, the beauty is in the feeling which comes after the seeing, and it does not happen often.

As for Kincaid, I know people who own his prints; they are convinced the pieces will appreciate in value--I hope this accounts for some of his appeal.

We can all paint a soup can but I think Warhol's is creatively authentic--ours would be a copy.

Unknown said...

Hi Leslie: good point! Thanks.

Hi Donna: What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing this. I can see that influence in your work. Beautiful is the appropriate word!

Hi Mark: Yes, I can see the idealist in you, and appreciate your viewpoint. Although I've seen some pretty ugly art I still try to find a connection to it - an underlying message that I can relate to. If we artists reflect and react to the world around us, and if part of our world is ugly, then perhaps some paintings should reflect that. Just a thought :)

Hi Casey: I think you raise a good point, and make no apologies! These questions need to be raised. I've been struggling with the same concept, but since I've only read two of the sixteen chapters in the book so far, I'm waiting to see if Roberts makes this clear. Thanks for adding this comment!

Hi Hallie: Again, you provide us with a unique insight and your background in sculpture brings breadth to this conversation. You make sense, and I'll think this over awhile along with all the other comments.

Thanks, all! Nice analysis.

M said...

In 2003 the Stern Gallery in Tel Aviv presented an exhibition called "Regarding Beauty". The essay in the exhibition catalogue gives a great synopsis of the development of theories about beauty in art. When addressing the role of beauty in contemporary art, the writer makes a number of points that are interesting.

- artists do not necessarily strive to imitate or represent natural beauty
-think of beauty in art as providing an experience of beauty
-this experience embraces everything considered in the philosophy of art including: the object of art, the artist and the spectator
-this is a merging of objectivity and subjectivity which also introduces the truth of the artist and his intentions
- beauty satisfies a human need
- the absence of beauty in our lives has many social and cultural implications
-beauty counters evil and makes the world a better place.

What does all this have to do with Roberts?

Roberts asks us to consider beauty, not as pretty or sweet, but as an emotionally moving experience. This fits with a very subjective view of beauty first introduced by David Hume who wrote in the 18th century: " Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind that contemplates them, and each mind perceives a different beauty." Kant around the same time refers to beauty as giving pleasure. These Aesthetic theories boil beauty down to personal taste. Your comment, Kathy, about subjectivity and the control being in the hands of the viewer is right on the mark.

Roberts believes that the role of beauty in art is to uplift society.
This statement is one I agree with. I know artists create all kind of art based on social, cultural, political, religious interests/concerns and that much of it can be harsh and in your face. I don't need that from art, I get it from the news. We all know the world can be a terrible place but I choose not to dwell on the negatives. Don't get me wrong, I'm not burying my head in the sand. I'm with Roberts on this one.

As for the conditions necessary for creating beauty in art, I feel it is a very individual thing and that it's useless to try to write a recipe for it.

You can usually tell when art is created for superficial reasons, but sometimes it takes the observation of quite a bit of the artist's work to reach that conclusion. The work of an artist can be authentic and still be received with indifference because the subject matter or techniques use are not of interest to the viewer.

Roberts is naive if he thinks going back to the beliefs of 150 years ago is the answer for contemporary art today. It's not that simple.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy and All Above, Your comments are wonderful and insightful. I have not contemplated beauty and authenticity enough, I think. But, the discussion reminded me of when I saw Picasso's "Guernica" a few years ago. I was surprised when I saw the painting in person that it is not "beautiful" in the traditional, pretty way. Might even be called "ugly" at first glance. It is a huge, gray, flat painting. I remember being taken aback by the flatness...this from someone who paints "flat". It did, however, have inner beauty, power; quietly screaming. Have you seen it? It still has power and beauty to me. It was mesmerizing.

The point? Well, perhaps even if beauty and authenticity are hard to define, they are definitely communicated.

-Don said...

Well, Mark, I never painted anything before the 50's... so what are you sayin'? =)

Wow, Kathy! This is some deep stuff. What is beauty? Is there really a way to truly define it beyond it being "in the eye of the beholder"? I think every one of us would have a different definition. Here's a thought, the same media that force-feeds us all the negative news in the world also force-feeds us what is beautiful this month. Look at all the many manifestations of what is considered beautiful in the fashion industry just in the past century. How many of us have looked back at pictures of ourselves from 20 years ago and not said, "what the heck was I thinking???"

Now authenticity is something I can get my teeth into. If a work creates an emotion in me it's authentic to me. If, when I'm creating, there is something I want to express and I put it to the canvas, then it's authentic to me. Will someone viewing my work have the same response to it that I did creating it? Maybe... maybe not... But, if I did my job correctly the artwork will give the viewer pause to absorb the what, the how, the why, or any combination of these. And in this response lies the authenticity. At least, that's what I think...

In 2006 I had the opportunity to finally make it to the MOMA in NYC. The moment I walked into the room with Picasso's "Girl Before a Mirror" everything around me disappeared. Nothing else mattered to me right then except that painting. My mouth fell open. My face got flush. Tears started flowing down my face. For lack of a better way to describe it, it was almost a religious experience. I had NEVER had that experience in front of a work of art before, nor have I since. One of my best friends was with me and she told me she just stood back and took in my moment. She told me that she thought my reaction was beautiful. Hmmm... maybe that's where the beauty in art lies, in the viewing of the viewer authentically responding to the work...


Unknown said...

Margaret: you wrote an impressive essay and response to this post! Thank you for taking the time to elaborate and present us with both the Stern Gallery's exhibition synopsis and an examination of all the points in Roberts' first chapter!!

PAMO: nicely stated! You've uncovered what it means to be "genuine" and, therefore, "authentic"!

Peggy: Yes, "Guernica" is one of my favorites! I never actually thought about it in terms of beauty, but the powerful feeling that it evokes is a beautiful thing - that is, to make me feel something so deeply. Thanks!

Don: Nicely stated! Your experience with Picasso's painting says it all.

Again, thanks everyone for taking the time to express your well-developed thoughts and experiences. You've made this post a great one!

Celeste Bergin said...

Kathy, I have this book..I wonder where it is?'s here somewhere in the stack of other books that I haven't read. From the discussion here, I see it is time for me to find it and sit down with it. I have his composition book and it is first rate! I have seen his composition dvd too and I was blown away by his clean clear teaching style. He is a superb are you! I'll be reading, digesting and checking back in.

Unknown said...

Hi Celeste - I don't have his book on composition or DVD, but I'll look for it. It's nice to have a recommendation from you. Thanks!