The Laws of Nature

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shaping Content

Bridget Riley

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 5: "The Medium Controls the Message"
section 1: "Shaping Content"

When it comes to considering "content" in a work of art, there's no better book written than The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn. We discussed this book on my blog beginning on October 15, 2009, and it was fascinating. So, when I first read the title of this section of Richmond's book, I wondered what she could offer that Shahn had not already written. I found something.

Returning to her teaching experience at Harvard in this section, Wendy writes that "one of our goals in this course was to explore ways to use media and technology to maintain the integrity of content. In other words, it is important to know that before all the filtering begins, there is an intention, a story that someone wants to tell, and specific content to be delivered." In this section she describes a concept that was explored by her class using a number of different technological tools, and then evaluates the outcome. It's interesting and moves a little beyond Shahn's book.

However, I'm reminded of Don's comment yesterday: "every generation of artists has had new tools and technologies to either embrace or reject." If I expand that comment to include the fact that the goal of each artist throughout time has been to tell a story, then it appears that nothing has changed. As Stan wrote: "Art will continue to be created in new and different ways, but its purpose will never deviate regardless of the course of history and or technological advances."

Given the myriad of ways in which an artist can express her/himself through both content and media, it appears to me that the selection process is critically important. It's like being a kid in a candy store: too many types of candy, too enticing, and too hard to make a decision. Richmond's artistic creations explore the digital age in a relevant way. Her latest exhibition is electronic and deals with communication through the cell phone. I admire her work, but find my desire to create art with traditional materials like paint and paper or canvas overwhelms any thoughts about becoming "digital." Am I out of touch? Is my work less relevant? Have I failed to expand my horizons so that my work may speak to future generations rather than my own? These are the questions that run through my mind as I read Richmond's book. My conclusion is that if my work is irrelevant, then it will have to remain so. The reason is this: I've answered Ben Shahn's questions "What kind of person am I?" and "What kind of art coincides with who I am?" and THIS is IT for me. Will IT change for me in the future? I don't know, but am willing to venture through the myriad of pathways that are intricately connected in my pscyhe to find out.

What are your thoughts?


M said...

"What kind of person am I?" and "What kind of art coincides with who I am?"
It took me awhile to come to terms with what kind of art I wanted to create and I still have my doubting days. I think this discussion refers back to authenticity in art. I see younger artists creating work in many different media but when you enter into a discussion about why and what they are often adrift in their thoughts. I put it down to finding yourself.
Starting my art career later in life did not provide many years to find myself so I had to come to terms with the process quickly. I instinctively knew that believable art came from the interests of the artist. Like writers, visual artists produce the most convincing work when they begin with what they know and for which they have strong feeling.

-Don said...

Kathy, I don't know that I could put it any better than you just did. So, I offer a resounding, "Amen!".


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,

I love your thought provoking discussions on art. I was immediately taken by your question of relevance in the digital age. I have the capability to do digital work and yet I embrace the traditional. I have a need for the tactile experience of pencil on paper. I hope the tactile experience will always be relevant because it communicates so directly.

M said...

I agree with Peggy. I can't imagine creating artwork that did not involve direct contact with the materials (even if through latex gloves). It's the physicality of mixed media that pulls me toward it.

tess stieben said...

Interesting thoughts. I have always been a tactile artist with many interests. Computers and digital images were not in the list, but it snuck up on me. Interested came in a round about way. First I needed reference of birds for a memorial painting of my father which I then painted some and printed others out on printing paper and collage them into the painting. Photographing and painting birds has spurred an avid interest in birding as now I was actually noticing them. Which in turn has sparked an interested in computer manipulation of images as a base for my paintings. I admit I am not computer and technology adept. It is a struggle, yet also a challenge I have given myself to learn in 2010. Where it will lead I know not, but what an exciting adventure to be on.

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - Yes, this is about authenticity, and I agree that very young artists are still in the self-discovery process. Does it ever end, though?? You arrived at "believable" art very quickly, indeed. When I view your work there's no doubt in my mind that it truly comes from your heart.

Hi Don - thanks!!

Hi Peggy - I have the same feeling about art, and I suspect that most artists who read this blog feel that way too. The tactile aspect is sooooo important to many of us. Thanks for adding that!

Hi Teresa - like you, I learned some of the technology out of convenience and necessity. However, I'll forever lag behind everyone else, mostly out of sheer stubborness and lack of time :)

hw (hallie) farber said...

When we can no longer tell our story using traditional tools, we'll learn new methods.

I have drawn and painted using Corel--I like the pieces but, to me, it doesn't feel like "art."

Stan Kurth said...

Are you kidding me? Art needs only be relevant to its purpose, not to its means! It cannot be confined to equation or "if, then". Is Picasso no longer relevant? Are the artists of Lascaux not relevant?

Some "relevant" quotes:

"My contribution to the world is my ability to draw. I will draw as much as I can for as many people as I can for as long as I can. Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since prehistoric times. It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic."
Keith Haring

"There is no must in art because art is free."
Wassily Kandinsky

"The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel."
Piet Mondrian

"The fine art of painting, which is the bastard of alchemy, always has been always will be, a game. The rules of the game are quite simple: in a given arena, on as many psychic fronts as the talent allows, one must visually describe, the centre of the meaning of existence."
Brett Whiteley

"The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."
William Faulkner

"Art is spirituality in drag."
Jennifer Yane

"Art for art's sake, with no purpose, for any purpose perverts art. But art achieves a purpose which is not its own."
Benjamin Constant

"I didn't decide to be an artist, God put it in me. Can you imagine the turmoil within, having a father who had no interest in art?"
Stan Kurth

Kathy, I'm beginning to think you are much more introspective than you let on. ("but am willing to venture through the myriad of pathways that are intricately connected in my pscyhe to find out.") Remember back when we had the introspection discussion and there was a majority opinion that one shouldn't be too introspective? Hogwash! How do you know who you are, but not too much? I truly believe that deep introspection is what all artists must do to answer the that question, in spite of apposing cockamamie psychoanalytic theories of imagined versus real introspective discoveries. Does anyone besides me see the conflict of interest with introspection and psychoanalysis?

Peace, Love, hugs and kisses everybody!

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - good point: our desire to express our stories won't be repressed by tools.

Hi Stan - You're "on" to me. I'm extremely analytical and introspective. I've frequently been criticized for "thinking too much." Who I was as a scientist is tightly linked to who I am as an artist. That being said - I belive in exploring all avenues of thought, even the uncomfortable thoughts. As a human being, I suffer from the full range of emotions, including psychological constructs like confidence, intimidation, and doubt. Therefore, I project more than one aspect of myself because (1) I'm fairly open about myself and (2) it's more realistic. So, when I question my relevance I think about it in terms of the ability of my work to communicate with future generations. Should that be a real concern for me? No. But, it's a thought. Thanks for all the great quotes (including your own!).

Angela said...

There was a time when I thought digital art was absolutely made to be my medium - I love to really 'look' at the world, the way only little children and artists seem to - capture it with my camera, and then I love every moment of manipulating it...heck, my OCD brain even enjoys simply fixing tears and blemishes in old photos, pixel by's almost zen-like...

...I loved the way that I could take whatever it was that I was 'seeing' in my mind's eye and show it to the rest of the world EXACTLY the way I see it. I could still do the other 'hands on' art skills that I loved - drawing especially - and incorporate them into this. I thought I had found the perfect way to get to the purpose of art - showing the world something you want them to see.

But it just never felt as satisfying as I thought it would and knew it should.

I found that, for myself, I need the paint, paper, fallible hands and an environment where accidents can seems to be going out of fashion to enjoy 'happy accidents' and collaborating with your medium...but I need all of that to stay interest. I found that in order to be productive, creative and excited I need to NOT know exactly where a finished work will end up, I need the constant thought involved when you're working on something and you can't be totally sure how it will dry or turn out...I love finding out that I'm done by finally seeing a finished painting in front of that I've never seen before, not even in my minds eye.

That's why watercolors are my medium...they remind me to re-evaluate where I'm going often and keep me thinking, they remind me to not bother planning too much.

An artist with different intentions, different aspirations and different things that they are satisfied by could absolutely create art with more technology...but I just can't imagine human's that don't appreciate colors, shapes, expressions and messages in any form...even archaic ones like paint and paper!

I'm just sure the means has to satisfy the artist first if they're going to work at or with something enough to get anything across to an audience.

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Dan Kent said...

I have read you every day, but cannot comment during the weekday, and the last two nights I collapsed after the workday in utter exhaustion (no art, no computer, nada). So I am so glad this comment relates to yesterday's!

First, going back to "The Work in the Exhibit" - I just wanted to say that I cannot imagine where I would ever get information like that at this early stage in my development without your blog. Thank you so much for that.

Re this post and the last: Sometimes I use the cell phone to snap surreptitious pictures of people, and sometimes they are good enough to paint. Then I blow up the photo on the computer to see it! I envision doing this more and more because sketches of people in the field are just that, sketches, and I want to do better than that. Beyond that, let's just say that I prefer acoustic musical instruments and traditional art materials. Even though I explored Adobe Illustrator, I really have no desire whatsoever to "get modern".

Celeste Bergin said...

I like digital art --but for myself the tactile business of painting is key. I love everything about physically painting. I love the smell of paint and medium. I love the paint stains on my sweatshirts. Artists who paint today share a lot with the painters of the past. I love standing in front of a painting in a museum and thinking--I am standing right where he stood..right in front of this painting. I am looking at that very mark that he made. It is a connection that just doesn't seem that tangible in digital art. Are we out of touch? Maybe--but the digital artists will ask the same question in 20 years.

Unknown said...

Hi Angela - I like the way you express your relationship with your medium. I think that's what we've all been trying to say in one way or another. It's like have a relationship with another person: not completely predictable and there's a give and take. Like you, I have that relationship with whichever medium I choose and love the "happy accidents" as well as the plans that actually work!

Hi Pam - you always offer gems! You said it right when you wrote "the only art that is irrelevant was probably not art in the first place." Thank you.

Hi Dan - I think you're in the same boat as most of us when it comes to technology and preferences. I hope you manage to get some rest!!! Sounds like your really need it. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, especially with your exhausting schedule.

Hi Celeste - yes, there is a luscious quality to paint - even when it's smeared all over my smock, floors, walls, and tables. Like you, I prefer to engage all my senses when I make art, and the smell, feel, look, and sound of painting is fulfilling. You're right about the generations of technologies. Thanks!

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Stan's comments about introspection are perfectly timed, as I just finished writing a blog post discussing the limits of introspection:

I don't think anyone is arguing that introspection should be utterly thrown out, but I do think it is important to realize that introspection is not infallible. Sometimes what seem to be personal insights may just be confabulated stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our feelings and behaviors. I think the real issue is how to distinguish between accurate self-knowledge and confabulation, but I'm not sure how we can do that effectively, as we tend to have high confidence in our confabulations.

I'm probably biased here, because I'm not terribly introspective. I think a great deal (I have a high need for cognition, as we say in psychology), but it's rarely about myself. So in my creative process, I'm very likely to think about what the piece means, how I want it to look, what choices I can make to meet my goals for the piece -- lots of very analytical thinking, but little of it is introspective in the typical sense of the word. I'm not asking questions about why I feel as I do or what caused me to make this or that choice. My inner eye is directed outward most of the time. In fact, my current blog project about my mother is an unusual project for me, in that I am trying to focus on personal memories and meanings, something I rarely do.

Maybe my lack of introspection means I'm not an artist, something I've long suspected. (I tend to self-label as a craftsperson rather than an artist.) Like Celeste, I'm jazzed by the tactile aspect of creating. I like the feel of the textiles and sparkle of beads, the joy in haptic manipulation. I'm not opposed to digital work in any way, and I use digital tools in aspects of my work, but I don't get inspired by working in a purely digital environment. On the other hand, I'm not opposed to using technology; I love my sewing machine and serger, and I think digital photography has helped me a great deal in improving my "eye." But in the end, I want to work on something that has a tactile quality.

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - I was hoping you'd chime in since your insights into psychology help inform this discussion. I like what you wrote about introspection and confabulation, however I don't know to what degree most artists are introspective. Clearly, some are to a large degree but is it a prerequisite to creating art?

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Unknown said...

Hi Pam, I can't comment much on introspection since I'm no expert. However, I do think there are a few standards for applying the term "artist." The need or desire to create art doesn't mean that one will create art. And, without creating art, one isn't an artist. So the necessary definition is the one for "art" and whoever creates that is an artist. Of course, the definition for art is both simple and complex. Lately, I just look at what the IRS says about declaring oneself to be a professional artist. It does have to do with intent, but also effort, product, and efforts to produce an income from that product. I suppose we could have a long philosophical debate about this, though :-)

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Pamo, I agree that introspection needs to be defined. I use it to refer to the process of looking inward to understand one's self. Whether introspection is accurate or inaccurate depends largely on what we are asked to identify about the self. Most people can accurately identify their own feelings and emotions, so I agree that introspection to understand how we feel will be generally accurate and useful. Even here there are individual differences, though -- some people are unable to identify their own emotions (a condition known as alexithymia). They feel emotions, but are unable to identify their own feelings. Some people are going to be better than others at connecting with their own emotions. This is part of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence.

Introspection is less consistently accurate, though, in identifying our cognitive processes, particularly those that occur rapidly and outside of conscious awareness. Although most of us can tell you what we are feeling, we may not be able to accurately tell you *why* we are feeling that way. We can say which sculpture we like better, but not necessarily *why* we like it. We can say that we like a person, but we may inaccurately identify the reasons for our liking. We also aren't necessarily accurate at predicting our responses -- we often misunderstand the causes of our feelings and so we expect to feel happier or angrier or sadder than we actually do.

I'm not saying that introspection is never accurate -- it is clear that we can garner accurate self-knowledge through looking inward. But there is quite a bit of research to indicate that this knowledge is not infallible, and may well be inaccurate. But I think your pattern of checking with another person to verify your own self-knowledge is a great way to check your own introspective process. I have gained a number of valuable insights about myself from the perceptions of those around me.

I hope I have clarified what I'm trying to say, but feel free to keep asking me questions -- I'm really enjoying the discussion, and it's helping me better understand the issues.

Kathy, I like the simplicity of saying that an artist is one who makes art (just as "a writer writes"). Of course, that still leaves us in the sticky situation of defining art (a topic we were discussing a couple of weeks ago). Part of the reason I embrace the term craftsperson is that much of the work I do doesn't fit into the stereotypical "art" category for most people. But here's a further complication. How much art does someone have to produce? If I make one piece of art, does that make me an artist? If I used to make art, but don't any more, am I an ex-artist? A retired artist? As I said, I'm comfortable with the term craftsperson, which seems less complicated.

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Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - all I can do is offer my preference for defining "artist" and so I have no doubt that most people will disagree with me. Personally, if I stop ALL my endeavors to create and market my art for a significant period of time (more than three years, let's say) I'd remove the title "professional artist" behind my name but I don't think I'd ever stop thinking of myself as an "artist." The difference lies in the word "professional" and that's what the IRS is interested in. Margaret and I had a couple of posts on that topic months ago and defined some of the national and international standards for applying the term "artist" to oneself. It's worth reviewing if you're interested.

Hi Pam - you ask another great question: how does this knowledge assist us in our artistic quests?" My personal view is that self-identification as an artist is critical to becoming an artist. It's foundational, in a sense. For instance, if I made buttons every day but denied myself the label "button-maker" I probably wouldn't be dedicated to it heart and soul. And, I think that art comes from the heart and soul of a person so we must identify with that monicker. Again, I'm no authority on psychology, I'm just speaking from personal experience.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

Pam, if you sing, but don't sing well, we would simply call you a bad singer. I agree with Kathy that engaging in the activity is part of what defines the person: A singer sings . . . but not necessarily well. The artist makes art, but not necessarily good art. What do you think?

Kathy, I totally agree with you that the way we define our identity can have a profound effect on the choices we make. On the other hand, there are the "outsider artists" who often don't define themselves as artists, but their work can be lauded in art circles. I think the term "professional" has two meanings -- that of earnings (if you are paid for something, you are a professional), and that of skill or mastery (if you are good at something, you are professional). Of course, someone can be very skilled and dedicated without receiving remuneration or doing any marketing (and vice versa), but in our capitalist society, we tend to assume that they go together. Interesting issues to think about -- I'll also go back and check for the prior posts you mentioned. Thanks!

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