The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Finding a Way Home

For several years, I've been trying to find answers about how and why we artists arrived at this way of thinking and painting. Sure, I've taken courses in art history and read a bunch of books, but that really didn't answer my existential question. I learned about who created what art and when. You might wonder why this even matters to me. It's because I learned how to paint through formal instruction: lectures (one person's interpretation), rules, critiques (subject to one person's opinion), and studying paintings in museums and galleries. So, you might say that I just learned to accept what I'd been taught and didn't pull back the curtain to see what's behind it. If I don't pull back the curtain, I can't understand enough to find my way in art. After all, it wasn't until Dorothy saw Oz' "wizard" unveiled that she could find the way home. I'm trying to find my way home, too.

A few years ago, when I was teaching a college class, I briefly interrupted my own lecture and asked my students: "Do you believe what I just said simply because I'm the prof and I said it?" They sat in silence for awhile before someone offered the opinion that I was the expert and so it made sense that they should believe what I say. I told the class that, while I appreciated their respect, they should always challenge me. Ask me "How do you know that?" And, challenge themselves - do some additional research and see if I am correct. Maybe I'm not. After all, I don't know everything so the probability that I'll make a mistake is pretty high.

So, I'm challenging what I've learned and searching for answers. I found the book Art Theory: An Historical Introduction by Robert Williams and it's leading me down a path that might help me arrive at my destination. Perhaps you've already read it. The author is concerned with the history of "thought" about art and I'm beginning to understand how we artists got HERE. How I got here. Most of you are probably way ahead of me and know this stuff already. But, for those of you who aren't, I hope you'll travel with me through these next posts as I strive to find the answer. I realize that this book is the opinion of only one man, but it makes a great deal of sense to me. So, let's take a look at the deep roots of art "thought":

One thing that struck me is the enormous influence of ancient Greek and Roman art theory throughout millenia. Talk about having an impact! These ancients valued the artist's ability to create images in 2-D that seemed like the real thing in 3-D. They also valued paintings that moved beyond the suggestion of physical forms to express emotions and passions. And, they valued story-telling in art. All of these attributes of art are valued even today in one way or another. I'll guess that this is because it's human nature to find pleasure this way.

Today, we're used to superstar artists who are rich and famous. That occurred in ancient times, too, but only rarely. For instance, the artist Zeuxis got so rich from his paintings that he had his name embroidered in gold thread around the hems of his togas. The "rest" of the ancient artists were considered manual craftsmen and didn't make much money.

It's also interesting to me that artists back then weren't considered eccentric, like many are today. Instead they were deemed competitive, arrogant, and obsessive. Hmmmmm....

The over-arching thought was that art imitates nature. But, the ancients didn't just try to precisely replicate what they saw in their paintings. Instead, they believed in creating "ideal" forms. According to Plato, the "ideal" is also beautiful, and beauty was the goal. But, Pythagoras - who lived a century before Plato - believed that beauty is found in mathematics, and that math gives us the perfect proportions and symmetry of beauty. Actually, his thought wasn't original because a sculptor named Polykleitos, who lived in the mid-fifth century BCE, produced the Canon, which is a perfectly proportional statue of a man based upon mathematics.

There's more which I'll discuss later. So, what parts of ancient thoughts about art influence me today?
  • creating 2-D illusions that have both emotional and story-telling content
  • beauty in mathematics applied to art (proportion and symmetry)
  • beauty? yes and no to that one

I'll string these threads through the next posts until we get to "today!"

P.S. The title of the painting I posted is The Egg Came First. This w/c painting was in response to a painter friend who thought the chicken came first. My argument: a fertilized egg is the product of sexual reproduction where chromosomes from the male and female must combine to form a new chicken. So, at some point a unique combination of chromosomes within an egg gave us the first modern chicken.


The Artist Within Us said...

I do not have anything profound to say this morning, rather I shall hold my thoughts close to the chest, awaiting tomorrows continuation before conducting a composition of folly, in the meantime I do think we are all in search of the path that leads us back home.

Warmest regards,

Mark Sheeky said...

Yes, you've expressed the egg coming first exactly there! And well done on painting those DNA rungs too. Art history isn't the foundation of a lot of art... apart from anything else prior to the 20th century it was hard to see many paintings unless you travelled the world at great expense. Perhaps most artists up until then painted mainly from life experiences, not knowledge of classical art. This begs the question: Is knowledge of the art of the past useful to the artist at all? I look forward to reading about your book to find out :)

Donna B. said...

Hi Katharine, I just discovered your blog and really enjoyed your post. I am always intrigued to learn more about Art. I love the subject. I have no degrees or awards in Art or writing, I just enjoy it and finally have to time to pursue it and to hopefully improve my crafts. I have found in my experience, that too much lecture on technique sometimes stalls my creativity and motivation. I become to rigid and my art suffers, and I grow impatient or discouraged. In many ways, I prefer to braille my way through it. Yet, I am still drawn to those with more experience and expertise to soak in all I can. I found a quote by Anatole France: "In art as in love, instinct is enough". The instinct, or the need to express, is what I find so fascinating. What do you think?

Unknown said...

Egmont, I look forward to your comments and insights!

Mark - you raise a very interesting question that I should address in tomorrow's blog, I suppose. My immediate response is "yes!" knowledge of the art of the past is important if you've been trained to accept principles from the past. At the very least, you should know WHY and then you can make informed decisions about continuing to adoopt those principles or to discard them. Thanks for asking this question.

Carolyn Abrams said...

Hi Kathy, your entry today got me thinking as to how I got where i am in art and the only thing i can add to all of this is that somewhere deep inside me i have always had the desire and passion to create. From crayons and my big whale coloring book at 4 years old to today there has been something inside me that longs to create something out of blank sheet of paper and a marking instrument. So...i don't know where this will all lead but i will be interested to have you once again fill in the blanks for me!

Unknown said...

Hi, Donna, and welcome! You ask about the role of instinct and I'll say that I regard painting, along with all the arts (music/dance/visual/prose) to be a discipline that also allows for individual expression. I believe in the discipline, but maybe not all the principles. For instance, an actor or singer wouldn't perform without first rehearsing and refining their art. A writer imposes discipline, or structure, on what is written. One who composes music follows certain principles and structures, etc. In other words, the artist makes many conscious decisions during the process. I don't think that instinct leads one to a coherent composition, but it's essential to the added element of self-expression. That is, to impart to the constructed work of art the unique thoughts or personality of the artist. Bottom line for me, is that both discipline and instinct (or intuition) are important.

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn, I suppose I've opened a can of worms, but my voyage as an artist has brought me to this point. Will I find all the answers? No ... but first steps are important. I think each of us has a different set of answers to who/why we are the artists that we are.

-Don said...

Hmm, I, like Egmont, will continue to study on this and respond more fully as you delve deeper into this.

One thing I notice, though, is that this is focussing on the European path to how we got here. What about the Asian path? Or the African path? Or the Polynesian path? Or the Native American path? I'll admit that most of my knowledge of Art History follows the European path, but, I feel that to be fully versed in how we got here as artists we should understand their thoughts on the matter, too. Now I'm going to have to go do some research! Thanks a lot!!! :-)

Now, here comes my challenge to you Prof: It takes more faith for me to believe that a male and a female chromosome happened along in their swim thru the primordial goop to create an egg than it does for me to believe that a higher being created all living creatures, and in His infinite wisdom created them to reproduce and fulfill certain roles in all creation.

And finally, I had to laugh out loud when I read that the artists of Greece and Rome were considered competitive, arrogant and obsessive. There really is no new thing under the sun...


hw (hallie) farber said...

I am still studying your previous blogs and wondering if you ever sleep or take a break. I came across two quotes:

"As soon as a true thought has entered our mind, it gives a light which makes us see a crowd of other objects which we have never perceived before."--Chateubriand
"Not only is there an art in knowing a thing, but also a certain art in teaching it--Cicero.

What an artist you are!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I'll be looking forward to your posting. Since I don't have a "formal" art education, I'm interested in what you have to say. It is fascinating that the Greeks and Romans still influence us so profoundly. They must have been pretty perceptive.

I like your chicken/egg painting! Made me chuckle! Oh, I guess I giggle rather than chuckle.

Unknown said...

Hi Don, I'm focusing on the path European art right now because I'm a Western artist and that is my path as well. And, that happens to be the book that I'm reading. But, you are wise to bring up all the other geographic areas since the West doesn't have a monopoly on art!
As for the origin of the chicken - well, everyone's entitled to their own opinion. I selected to adopt the philosophy of science rather than religion. However, I respect all beliefs. Thanks for adding another perspective :)

Unknown said...

Hi HW - thanks so much for adding these great quotations! And, no ... I don't sleep as much as I should :)

Hi Peggy - Thanks so much for your comments. I'm no expert on art history ... not by a long shot. But, it's a part of this journey I'm taking right now, so I'll embrace it. Always something else to learn!

Unknown said...

Only a Prof comfortable and confident with not only their knowledge but themselves can solicit his or her students to challenge him or her. Bravo! I wish there were most instructors who had the courage to do just that.

Unknown said...

Only a Prof comfortable and confident with not only their knowledge but themselves can solicit his or her students to challenge him or her. Bravo! I wish there were most instructors who had the courage to do just that.

M said...

Your Prof anecdote brought back memories of a similar conversation with a group of education students I taught. They wrote everything I said. One day I made an outrageous statement to see what the response would be. No one said a word. I used the incident to highlight the importance of critical listening and the importance of questioning sources. With so much learning happening via the internet this is even more important than it ever was.

No art comments today. My mind is too tired to even consider what you wrote. I'm working part time for two weeks and it's more tiring than I remember. Better days ahead and hopefully more sensible responses on my end.

Unknown said...

Hi Sheila - thanks so much!

Hi Margaret - Hope you get plenty of rest!

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

Wow - PAMO! That's the best possible outcome from blogging
"the more I learn about creating art, the more art I create".