The Laws of Nature

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Identity and Authenticity

work by Julio Cesar Morales

Art Without Compromise, by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2, section 5: "Identity and Authenticity"

An underlying assumption is that the expression of a single cultural identity brings authenticity to a work of art. In this section of her book, Richmond, an American, struggles with finding her own cultural identity. How, she asks, could she make powerful work if she doesn't belong to a single culture? Richmond reached this crisis after viewing the work of artist Julio Cesar Morales, who documented Tijuana street vendors' customized pushcarts.

Troubled, Wendy turned to a friend who said, "You do have a cultural identity, and it is an amalgamation of cultures. Culture is like chocolate at 98 degrees. It's sticky and you can't help getting it on you." We Americans are culturally diverse, and share the various elements of our cultures with each other. That IS our culture, and one that I strongly identify with.

So, Richmond discovered and embraced her new-found identity, and began to see herself as "as a collection of fractions, borrowed from an infinite array of sources." This, she feels, provides lots of opportunity for unique work that can be powerful. But, she also realized that cultures change, and concludes this section with the text from Morales's exhibition: "He understands first-hand the ways consciousness shifts and morphs as it moves between languages, cultures and political systems."


And now, for a bit of fun. I took Wendy's advice about finding some non-precious time in the studio yesterday and let loose.
Title: "Palette, Dynamite, Fuse, Match."
Medium: watercolor on paper


Sandy Maudlin said...

Your new watercolor makes me think that maybe the egg shells got dressed up to dance the tango! Wonderful.

Stan Kurth said...

I am the sum of my fractions. If I am authentic, I work from this experience. Here is a quote by the late Edward Betts:

The best painting comes out of compulsions and obsessions, out of deep love or hate, out of intellectual or emotional involvement with something that lies outside the painting itself.

I love your painting Kathy. In a Duchampesque vein, I might have entitled it, "French Curve Exploding".

M said...

I love the swirling energy of your painting. Imagine just whipping this up in "free" time!

Stan's quote from Edward Betts nicely sums up where our best work is born.

I rarely think about culture when I create work but when I stop and think about it, I know that there are strong influences especially from my younger years. Newfoundland has a unique culture because it is an island and because of the early settlement patterns from England and Ireland. it is only in the last 20 years that the term multi-cultural can reference our population.

Mark Sheeky said...

Wow love that painting. it's so filled with action. How long did it take you? Ahem. Please say weeks or I'll be very envious of your abilities. Tee hee.

Unknown said...

Hi Sandy - what a fun interpretation. Thanks!

Hi Stan - a great quote by Betts! It shows how important the underlying meaning is to a piece of art work. The power comes from the emotion. And ... yes ... I suppose the french curve title is more appropriate, but it was just a lark anyway.

Hi Margaret - I don't know much about where you live, and am always interested to learn more. My family has been in this country so long that I no longer feel it's European ties, and since I live in a culturally diverse neighborhood I rarely think about my roots. We're all just "people."

Hi Mark - I hate to ruin your day, but the painting took me only 4.5 hours from pencil sketch until the bitter end. It was very spontaneous.

hw (hallie) farber said...

"Palette, Dynamite, Fuse, Match;" I guess there was quite a bit of emotion behind this work. Glad you let loose with this painting.

I'm stuck on culture being sticky--not sure I agree.

Angela said...

Well I totally agree with the 'stickiness' of cultures. I try to be very conscious of the 'why' behind the decisions I make, the way I live, the way I teach, create...everything. I hate the idea of just doing anything because that's 'just the way it's done' without making sure it makes sense.

But even though I try to be so conscious of doing things for my own individual reasons, the whole starting point for my thoughts are the people I've been surrounded by...what they did, how they handled different situations, how they lived, talked, breathed...why...and then whether it makes sense to me or not, is something I want to emulate...or perhaps something I want to make certain never to do...

And what is culture besides the people, the stories and the actions that surround you? How could anyone not have at least one influencing them? And yes, in the US you're more than likely going to get another stuck to you every few steps!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful watercolor Kathy! Amazing that you did it in such a short time. Masterful.

-Don said...

First - What a spectacular bit of fun you obviously had with "Palette, Dynamite, Fuse, Match"! The explosive energy created by the composition is wonderful. My personal take on the subject matter is, rules are meant to be broken.

Second - Growing up in a very migrant family I experienced several US "cultures" in my youth - Maine, North Carolina, Connecticut, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma (mostly rural, but some urban) - but, I never got a sense of anything except the fact we were all American. I don't know that I have ever consciously tried to create something based on my cultural identity. I'm sure it infuses my work somehow, but I think Stan hit my way of working my identity into my work more on the head with his Edward Betts quote.


Mary Paquet said...

For me, doing an abstract if more difficult than something from life. This one is masterful. I love the colors and curves, and the light pattern running through it. Spontaneity paid off big time!

I'd be curious to hear more from Hallie on her doubts about culture being sticky.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - I'd love to know more of your thoughts about stickiness
and culture!

Hi Angela - I agree. The people around us have the greatest influence, but there are those who leave a lasting impression after only a brief encounter. It's all about "people."

Hi Pam - thank you! I had a great deal of fun and maybe I should have fun on a more regular basis

Hi Don - thank you! I had no idea that you've lived in so many places. Your point of view is informed by so many experiences. Perhaps that shows in your masks, which are "culturally" diverse, in a sense.

Hi Mary - thank you! I'd like to know more about Mary's comment as well.

Dan Kent said...

I absolutely love your new watercolor! Wow. I am going to study it for "depth" to inform my own experiments with the medium.

Now, to Ms. Richmond. I am getting a sick taste in my mouth, frankly. Much ado about nothing, I think. I am the sum of my cultural experiences. I can't help it! Whatever's in there will come out in some form or another I guess - my biases, my values, my experiences. I see no reason to dwell on it and create an editorial on my life. The result, I think, would be "culturally aware" or politically correct. Or preachy - much like this paragraph.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - you know, I was thinking the same thing about Richmond's topic today (much ado)! But, when you have to satisfy a publisher with a book of so many pages, I guess you have to find a way to fill them with something .... anything! In her defense, parts of this book are quite good and interesting. Happy drawing!

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I agree that we are influenced by our cultural context, often in ways we don't even consider. On the other hand, how we are influenced can vary from one person to the next -- the process of development is complex and dynamic. This strikes me as the same issue of frames and filters she discussed earlier, in that how we view the world is shaped by our experience.

But this raises another question that plagues me from time to time, that of cross-cultural work. Given that I speak from my own cultural background, is it authentic to use elements from other cultures in my work, or does that become a type of cultural appropriation and distortion? There are many people who feel strongly attracted to the aesthetics or icons of a culture other than their own. Can these elements be used, authentically and appropriately, in the artwork of a non-native or does such use become superficial and stereotyped? Are there certain prerequisites to the use of such elements (spending time in that other culture, doing research), or can one simply use them freely without any risk of cultural appropriation? Think of the popular use of artistic icons from Native cultures (e.g., Kokopelli) and Asian cultures (e.g., Chinese characters). Can these be freely mixed into work by a white American artist who has no personal experience in these other cultures?

In the vest I am currently making, I'm using a pattern for a Tibetan panel vest, with handwoven mud cloth from Mali (Africa), decorated with bone beads from Kenya and cowrie shells. It's exciting to live in a global economy, where cultural artifacts from all over the world are easily purchased in my home city or online -- I can use whatever inspires me. But is it inauthentic (or possibly even inappropriate) for a white, American woman to be working with traditional African textiles and embellishments, using a pattern for a traditional Tibetan garment?

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - you raise an interesting philosophical question. My opinion is that we are all "citizens of the world." That is, we have unprecedented access to other cultures outside of our personal environs via the internet, media, and ability to jet around the world quickly. As we connect with other cultures we are influenced or inspired by certain elements they possess. It seems to me that the artist's job is to relate how he/she views the world. An artist may or may not understand the underlying cultural meaning of an object or symbol, but may find it aesthetically pleasing enough to appropriate it for their own work of art. Or, and artist might gain understanding of other cultures and use that to inform their work. In either case, the artist's work is authentic because it expresses a unique viewpoint. On the other hand, if an artist is appropriating a cultural symbol or object for the sole purpose of marketing, that would seem unauthentic to me, like kitsch. Maybe some of you have another viewpoint about this.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Re: sticky culture. I think it sticks only if we allow it. Some seem to plaster it onto themselves; then use it as an excuse or a badge.

Deborah's question is interesting. I think Morma Kamali appropriated the mud cloth design for her clothing back in the 70's. Fashion designers do it all the time. And there's Picasso and the African masks. Maybe it's okay as long as there's no pretense of being part of a culture.

-Don said...

I use other cultures' objects all the time in my work. Not because they come from another culture, and not because I'm trying to embrace any specific culture, but because they intrigue me. As Kathy put it, I find them "aesthetically pleasing".

My country has been called a "melting pot" of all cultures. Since I am a product of my culture I feel that the work I create from these diverse cultural images are authentic.

I've had the good fortune to communicate with several people from whose cultures I have borrowed these images. Thankfully, in every case they have been very receptive and supportive of my use of them. Hopefully, it will continue to stay that way...


Unknown said...

Hi Hallie- I like your explanation. Makes sense!

Hi Don - yes, your work is a good example of what I was trying to explain. Thanks!

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Thanks for all the responses to my question. The consensus seems to be that borrowing elements from other cultures is common and acceptable. I think my concerns come out of two issues. One is that a borrowed cultural element will be used in a way that is inappropriate or offensive to those who are familiar with the cultural meaning of that element. The icon might have a religious significance we are unaware of. That Chinese character doesn't mean exactly what we thought it meant. The examples are endless. When we speak from our own cultural knowledge and using our own cultural elements, I think we can be fairly sure that we have access to the meaning and significance of our artistic materials (at least in a basic sense). When we stray into other cultural materials, we run the risk of conveying unintended messages. Here I think the answer is research -- knowing a bit about the elements we are using will help us avoid the mistakes that stem from cultural ignorance.

The second issue is cultural appropriation and exploitation. There is a long tradition of taking elements from less powerful cultures for the profit of more powerful cultures. I'm thinking of the mass-produced items with Native symbols which only profit non-Native peoples, and the handmade goods from developing nations that are bought cheaply from their makers, only to be sold at a handsome price that profits the importers. The theft of cultural artifacts and icons is often part of the exploitation of less powerful cultures. We can avoid this by making sure that we support fair trade companies who pay the artisans a good wage for their work and by giving back to those communities whose cultures inform our work. There are a number of artists whose work has been inspired by Native populations who then give a portion of their profits back to the Native communities, for example.

I like to continue to be mindful of these issues as I work, to challenge myself and think about the implications of my choices.

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah,
I agree with both of your concerns and feel that they must be taken into consideration when appropriating culturally derived material into one's work. We do have a responsibility to become informed and to avoid exploitation. The tricky part is lacking the ability to understand nuanced meanings or meanings that are deeper than what is communicated to us as foreigners. There are always unintentional accidents. I always find it interesting that so many non-Asians are fascinated with Asian symbols and cultural items that they incorporate into their works, and I wonder how informed these artists are.