The Laws of Nature

Monday, March 8, 2010

Concentrating on Context

Edvard Munch

Art Without Compromise" by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 5: "The Medium Controls the Message"
section 2: "Concentrating on Context"

The weekend is over, the Oscars were fun, and I'm back on task reviewing Richmond's book. This section of Chapter 5 begins with the recognition of artists' desire to exhibit what we've created for others to view and appreciate. She also recognizes that artists can't control the meanings assigned by others to our work. And, in this age of innovative ways to reproduce our work, we artists have a hand in changing how our work is perceived. Richmond writes: each iteration moves a little farther away from you and a little bit deeper into a new context, and therefore, a new meaning.

Wendy's central point here is that an artwork's context can cause a change in perception and meaning. Context may be subtle, sometimes even invisible, but it is never neutral. That is, although I (the artist) know the meaning (content) of my work when I create it, once it leaves my hands and is displayed in a new environment, or once it's reproduced in a different form (context), the work can be perceived differently by others and the meaning can change.

I couldn't think of a better example of Richmond's point than The Scream by Edvard Munch:

The Scream by Munch

Here's Munch's statement about the content of this painting: I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature. He later added: for several years I was almost mad…You know my picture, ‘’The Scream?’’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.

And, here's how we've changed Much's intended content:

The Simpsons cartoon, funny poster, doll:

Tote, mug, travel mug:

Clothing, tee shirt, tie, and thong (!):

I think that Richmond makes an important point in this section of her book, and would like to add a question. First, I'll add that this question considers the activities of the makers of fine art rather than commercial art. Although Munch did not endorse the many forms his painting has taken, nor did he live long enough to see the appropriation of The Scream in this way, many artists today are making the decision to reproduce their art in the form of greeting cards, ceramic tiles, and posters as well as some of the products shown above. I'll assume that this is done mostly for the purpose of bringing attention to their work and making more money. If that's true, does this mean that this type of artist subordinates the content of their work to its commercial value? And, if so, does that turn the artist into a commercial artist, or is that boundary fuzzy anyway?
Your thoughts??


Deborah C. Stearns said...

You pose some interesting questions here. I think that context matters in the experience of art, but I'm not sure how to predict how the context shapes our experience of art. How is my experience of "The Scream" different if I see it in an art book, in a framed poster on someone's wall, or on a t-shirt? This reminds me of when a world-famous violinist played in the subway system here in Washington, DC. The question was whether people would recognize and appreciate the wonderful music in the same way they would in a concert hall. The answer? Most people walked by without noticing, much as they would for any street musician. Context matters -- it tells us what to pay attention to and how to interpret the information.

That being said, I honestly had never read Munch's intent for "The Scream" and that alone changes how I view the image. Given the ubiquity of this image, I suspect that the sheer familiarity of certain images influences our experience of it. Seeing it more often will probably make us like it better (the mere exposure effect), but I wonder whether we think about it differently beyond that (e.g., maybe we think about it in less depth or complexity, due to its familiarity).

What do you think -- does the mass popularity of some artists result in a shallow liking of, but less intellectual and emotional engagement with, their work?

Anonymous said...

Kathy- you just continue to bring us great topics to mull over!!! I don't have anything to add at this point- but I'll be thinking. Thanks to Deborah- I'm still stuck on introspection.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Though this has been used in almost every conceivable way, I believe the image touches everyone--we know the feeling. Since Munch made several versions of this scene and a lithograph; maybe he'd be happy with its use. From what I've read he enjoyed printmaking because he could rework his art (and make money). When you see all of his work you see that loneliness, sickness, anxiety was his message.

Munch is one of my favorite artists, and his boundary was fuzzy.

I sold an anti-hunting painting--a deer skull among flowers titled "Run like Hell"--to a hunter's wife. It hangs in a room with deer head trophys. The wife told me she was buying it to show her husband that, although she doesn't like hunting, she appreciates his love for it. We can't know what our work will mean to another.

Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting subject to contemplate. If I follow your train of thought, "The Scream" and similar works have become more than the artist's simple expression. These works are a part of our cultural symbolism; they're iconic. Perhaps it's an artists conundrum: on the one hand, it's great for so many to recognize the work of art. On the other hand, the original meaning becomes overshadowed by the larger, cultural meaning.

Whoa! Just out here on the west coast thinking...hoping not to over-think! :)

Mark Sheeky said...

Tricky questions. Part of an artwork IS the context.

Mass popularity of an artwork will change its context. Art that is seen by nobody is useless to nobody but the artist... you could argue that such a thing is selfish and that more popularity for an artwork is always good (unless the artist needed the therapy!) but if so even the most tatty Scream or Mona Lisa merchandise is good for Munch and DaVinci because it helps educate and inform people about the real artwork... in that case you could say that it's promoting the real artwork and not changing it negatively.

Perhaps the proof that merchandising is good lies in the quantity of people who rate Edvard Munch as an artist.

M said...

When artists choose to reproduce their work in various ways I'm sure the decision is based on monetary gain. Some of my friends have greeting cards printed and do reproductions of their work which are then sold at art galleries that are also framing shops or they sell through various online venues. They certainly make more money from their art production than I do but I have chosen not to go that route.

I have difficulty explaining why I made that decision so early in my career. All I can say is that there is something about reproduction that makes the image very accessible and therefore common. When you start to see an image all over the place you cease to think about it in a critical way- it's just accepted. I like to think about my work as "one of" created for one home.

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - your insights are most interesting! In answer to your question, it seems to me that becoming accustomed to seeing an image of something (like Munch's painting) on a frequent basis can reduce it to something similar to "background noise." Emotionally, it fits into our environment so we accept it as part of our lives, but we don't give it a second thought after awhile. It's like when I first saw a decoration for my house that caught and delighted my eye, but after hanging on the wall for several years I don't even see it any more. Hey - maybe that's what happens to my original paintings, too!! Hmmmmm... more to think about.

Hi Pam - thanks for checking-in. Always good to see your smiling face and eyes hidden behind sunglasses :-)

Hi Hallie - I agree. We can all connect to the raw emotion in this painting, which explains its popular appeal. I have a biography of Munch and thought it amusing and sad that he called his painted canvases his "children" and that sometimes they were very bad so he had to punish them by leaving them outside, propped against the shed in the snow and cold. Thanks so much for relating the story of your painting. Although it's hysterical -you make an important point: "We can't know what our work will mean to another."

Hi Peggy - another good point to add to our conversation. Thank you. I guess we could ask the question: "Should it even matter to the artist when others assign a meaning to the work other than that intended?" Personally, I don't care but maybe others do. Mostly, I'm delighted when folks can connect with my work on some level.

Hi Mark - you make interesting observations, and I agree that there's also a silver lining to this cloud. Incorporating art into our every day lives is important, in my opinion, no matter what the form.

Unknown said...

Great post Kathy! I took pause and thought of what you asked at the end regarding subordinating our work if we decide to make it commercially available from mousepads to G-strings.

I do have some images that I do think are more commercially viable available in They are mostly the ones that I painted for the fundraising I did last year.

It wasn't until now that I realized I never put any of my more "serious" paintings there. So perhaps, unconsciously I recognize some of my work being pure "fluff" and others I hope to be regarded as fine art.

I think Kincade should be the poster child for commercializing his work. I have seen his art in almost every women's magazine as a music box, jewelry, ornament and even being hawked on QVC.

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - it is an interesting decision to make as an artist, and I guess there's room for both approaches (e.g. reproduction or only originals). As you point out, it's a personal decision.

Unknown said...

Hi Sheila - we're back to Kincade again! It seems like we mention his name a lot, but it definitely applies here. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

Mary Paquet said...

The only reproduction that I have made of my art is for greeting cards I make available at shows. I use them as a means of advertising (yes, they are a commercial). I have had people buy a card and at a later show buy a painting; not necessarily "the" painting. I believe it helps them remember my art and keeps them coming back to see my latest pieces. Perhaps context matters. These cards are available only at art shows, and I believe that people associate them with my original art.

If I did not sell my original art (also a commercial activity), I would not reproduce my art on cards that are for sale.

Stan Kurth said...

Hi Kathy,

I've never really seen most art up close and in person. No way can I make that many pilgrimages nor can anyone else, unless you're in that income bracket that allows you such and then you should buy my art. And who's going to make a pilgrimage to see a work that's never been seen? You may go to an opening at an established gallery representing an established artist, but I'm pretty sure there is an accompanying post card, brochure or catalog to entice and promote. So the best glimpse we're going to get is one of reproduction. However, TV cartoons and plastic toys are kind of iffy(I love the Simpsons). As for context, if the mass portrayal points to the real thing in a fashion that creates an interest in that work and that artist, then it has served its purpose well. I think it's kind of a perpetual cycle at that point and maybe even scalable to the quality of work and major reviews. Whenever I'm intrigued by art, I almost always want to know more about the source. I want to know what that artist has to say about content, general philosophy or just about anything they have to say. For Example: I think I mentioned somewhere before on your blog that I discovered Frida Kahlo in The Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton along with his comments on her work. Her work was interesting enough to me that I became somewhat of a follower. I discovered that she really didn't consider herself a surrealist or subscribe to their philosophy: "They are so damn 'intellectual' and rotten that I can't stand them anymore....I [would] rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those 'artistic' bitches of Paris."
Frida Kahlo, (on Andre Breton and the European surrealists) letter to Nickolas Muray, 02-16-1939

"I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality." Frida Kahlo

However, the source may not always be reliable. I still don't have a clue as to what Salvador Dali was babbling about, but sure did like a lot of his work, especially during his classical period.

Myrna Wacknov said...

I studied tribal African art in college. Everything was/is not only symbolic but the symbolism is known by the fact it serves as a language. Western art does not have this "universal" understanding, so each artist has their own unique expression. Unless the artist specifically writes about the meaning of their piece, everyone who views it brings their own interpretation to it. A few years ago I went to an exhibit of sculptural forms by an artist. It was at a winery and many of the people in attendance were friends of the artist's parents, not art patrons. The sculptures were unusual, (actually strange, in my opinion). She had covered most of them with a flesh colored latex which gave them the appearance of an unknown body part. The most fun was watching people view these sculptures. It sure engaged the viewer! You just knew they were making certain associations. The sculptress' parents said they were based on sea and ocean forms. Ha! Although I thought these giant flesh colored sculptures were a big waste of time and I couldn't image any place where they would be installed, I was extremely impressed how they captured the attention of people who had little or no interest in art and kept them engaged for a very long time. Also how these pieces started conversations and how memorable they are, even now. Hmm, maybe not such a waste of time after all.

Celeste Bergin said...

Over the last couple of years a couple "curators" have told me that they thought I should do giclees. hmm. But, I am an oil painter, I protest...and oil painting by it's very nature equates to "just one." No, no--they tell me--do giclees and people can have zillions of them and you'll make money! It's never made sense to me..because I am very hung up on that "just one" thing. I LIKE that I've done just one. I don't begrudge anyone their cards and giclees..but I am not going to do it. I already dealt with mass communication in my former life (graphics) and I LOVED it and saw the value of it. Indeed--I think communication art is as beautiful as fine art. But as a fine artist--I really go for the just one deal. Oh, and I don't have much money. lol Not surprisingly.

-Don said...

I keep showing up late and missing a great discussion. At least I get to read all the wonderful comments...

I'll admit that when I saw all of the marketing items with Munch's work on them I shuddered. I'm glad Hallie mentioned Munch's willingness to reproduce his work - although I'd say that a print created by the original artist is much closer to the original context of the work than some graphic designer 100 years later applying it to a coffee mug.

An artist that came to mind as I read the original posting today is Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip which was a phenomenon of the late 80's and early 90's. Watterson fought against merchandising his work for fear it would devalue the characters and their personalities. Personally, I think he made the right call for his work. There was a depth to those characters that would have surely been made more shallow by taking them out of their context.

I've been avoiding giclees up until now, even with much pressure from other artists. I'm just not sure if they're a route I want to take. I won't buy someone else's giclee, because it's not an original. With that in mind, maybe I shouldn't sell giclees for that very same reason... hmmm.... I'm still torn... and, money does have a loud voice, doesn't it. To add to my confusion, I had a fellow artist ask me over the weekend if I would please have a giclee made of one of my paintings because he wanted some of my work hanging in his home, but couldn't afford the original. But, that wouldn't be my work. It would be a reproduction of my work. Is that the context I want my work seen in?

OK, It's late and I'm rambling. Sorry...


Unknown said...

Hi Mary - you raise a good point that, these days, we artists must advertise our work in order to sell it. Interesting!

Hi Stan - I've been a Kahlo devotee' for many years and have several biographies in my library. It seemed that Kahlo had little confidence in her abilities as an artist but was determined; and with the encouragement and support of her father and also Diego Rivera she gained confidence. Hers is a fascinating story. As for Dali - well, I love his paintings but I think his public persona was a complete fabrication. (is that a form of surrealism as well??)

Hi Myrna - what an interesting story! You make an important point about how art speaks even if we don't like the message. The lasting impression is what every artist strives for. Also, I'm very interested in what you wrote about the universality of the African symbols vs. the esoteric symbols in our art. Good point!!

Hi Celeste - I made giclee's only twice and haven't since. The first time was an experiment to see what it was like, and I didn't sell that many. The second time was a fund-raiser for a charity who wanted to sell multiple images of one of my series. They did very well with that, but I have no intention of doing it again. Like you, it doesn't suit my vision for my work. But, I don't have any objection to the practice. Your work is really striking and I'd think that you could sell every piece you paint!!

Hi Don - two demerits for being tardy to class :-D
I didn't know about Watterson's decision to control the marketing of his work. Interesting!
As I just wrote above, I don't have any problem with making giclee's, I just haven't found them all that profitable (they're expensive to make). But, it's an individual decision.

Art Trip said...

Marketing and money is the mantra of the contemporary art scene.

Unknown said...

Hi "Art Trip" - sad but true!!

Anonymous said...

If an artist markets their work via giclees or art cards, etc. and it has their stamp of approval on it- then everyone who owns one of those reproductions becomes familiar with the artist and their work. That familiarity then makes the artist more familiar and makes the original work even more valuable.
I respect if an artist chooses not to do those things- but if you're in this field to make money or become well known in order to make money- then marketing is a good idea.
I understand this sense of trying to control our ideas and images - I think about it every time I post an idea or thought to my blog (don't you)- but then I realize that no idea is truly original- it is the execution of those ideas that is original.
I personally don't believe it devalues your work to market it. My husband really struggled when I began marketing us and our business on our website and through emails- sharing our personal stories and ideas. My marketing approach has always been one of example- not the "hard" sell. I told him that if we don't sell ourselves- no one else will. And it's worked. Now he's a believer. On the other hand, we still make judgments on exactly how and what to market- we still have standards.