The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Art of Being Artless

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)

Chapter 2: The Art of Being Artless

Yesterday, we engaged in a good discussion about chapter 1. The central theme of this book is to encourage us to keep our eyes open, to be more alert to the serendipitous events that can inspire our work. These events occur within our everyday lives and may well be disguised as seemingly unimportant if we fail to look closely or to pursue them. The author also urges us to consider the fact that we can learn, among other things, that a life lived with art in mind might itself be a kind of art. What a beautiful thought!

In the case of Bonnard, his muse was Marthe. According to Kimmelman, Pierre dated the birth of his painterly identity to shortly after they met. To a lesser degree, I, too, can point to a specific time when my work significantly changed and I suspect there will be future times that will be marked as a turning point as well.

In Chapter 2, Kimmelman discusses unintentional art. Sometimes art appears unexpectedly. It doesn’t arrive through the front door. It sneaks in the back, the more startling for being the result of dumb luck. Several interesting examples are provided, but the one that caught my attention is a photograph by Anonymous that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a picture from the 1930’s of a woman with one leg propped on the running board of a car with the man in the car looking out at her. There’s a surprising beauty and symmetry to this photo. Clearly, the photographer was an amateur and probably had no idea that he/she had created a work of art. The author speculates that the photo may have made its way to someone’s attic, and eventually to a dumpster or flea market where it was scavenged by a dealer-collector. Eventually, Thomas Walther at the Met acquired it.

This discussion is preceded by an interesting journey through the transformation of photography from a solely professional activity to a popular amateur one thanks to the invention of the Kodak camera by Eastman. As an aside – I was interested to learn that the name “Kodak” was made up by Eastman because “k” was his favorite letter and he thought the name would be easy to remember. The early popular cameras didn’t have viewfinders, so the results were often accidental. The popularity and affordability of these cameras produced a sea of shutter-bugs and a few accidental masterpieces.

Kimmelman also discusses Bob Ross, TV’s art guru. Ross did not get bogged down in the issue of whether his cheesy paintings were actually good. Nor did he really care whether anybody even painted along with him… Ross’s message was: You may feel hemmed in by work or by family, but before an easel you are your own master... His purpose was as much to massage souls as it was to teach painting... He sold hope. I remember watching several episodes in Ross’s series and, although I didn’t like the paintings he executed, I was entranced by his sincere joyfulness about the act of painting. "Happy clouds" "Happy trees"! It was soothing and encouraging. Perhaps this is why he had such a large following. The books mentions that only 3% of Ross’s viewers actually painting along with him. So, the other 97% may have been, like me, attracted to the soothing aspect of his delivery. Nevertheless, did a few accidental masterpieces result because of his influence? Maybe.

The point is, a masterpiece doesn’t necessarily occur at the hands of a master artist. It can be the product of an amateur. I’m wondering if Kimmelman is changing the meaning of the word “masterpiece.” Webster’s defines the word in terms of a piece being produced through extreme skill. This implies expertise and intention. But, Kimmelman feels that a masterpiece can be an accidental product of an amateur without skills. I’m not certain that I agree, but will think about it further.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,
The little light went on in my head about Bob Ross. It reminded me, I have had the honor of teaching watercolor painting a couple of times at the local level. I felt that if I was able to give someone a moments insight to the creative act that becomes art, I was successful. And, the students surprised me. What they were able to produced showed great potential. Perhaps novices can execute exceptional art; maybe because they have had the "vision" in them all along.

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - you offer a wonderful insight!! I agree. Thank you.

-Don said...

My first thought based on your last paragraph was, "If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then is a masterpiece determined in the mind of the beholder?" But, that just seems to simple and even dismissive. I do feel that Mr. Kimmelman is onto something about accidental masterpieces - anyone COULD create one, whether they mean to or not. At that point though, doesn't the creation of the masterpiece actually occur in the observation of the viewer and not the intent of the creator? (Which is, in effect, exactly what you allude to about him changing the meaning of masterpiece).

My brain hurts. It's too early for this...

I do love the sentiment of "...a life lived with art in mind might itself be a kind of art." I think I'll go live a little art now.


hw (hallie) farber said...

I can never decide whether all of life is coincidence and accident, or there are no accidents and coincidences.

What if Anonymous photographer spent several days waiting for the correct lighting, hired his cousins and posed them, took 20 shots, printed one, and never mentioned it?

I am living in art today. My clean white house is wrapped in plastic and the roof is being sprayed red. Looks like Cristo is in southern VA. I'm getting the camera out.

Unknown said...

Hi Don - I see your point, and should offer Tylenol to anyone who reads my post (sorry!). It seems to me that the assignation of the word "masterpiece" to a work of art has always been in the purvue of curators, art historians, and critics. It suspect (but don't really know) that they include mastery and genius (inventiveness) in their criteria. This implies intention. But, anyone can challenge the meaning of a term and change it. Perhaps that's what this author is doing. Thanks for your comment!

Hi Hallie - you make a good point. TWO good points. To me, life is a series of events (contingencies) and my response moves me in a particular direction. So, my life is a series of shifting directions that led me to this point. I certainly could have made other choices (and sometimes should have!). Oh - do take a picture of your house and post it! Neat!

Anonymous said...

Yes- I think there are accidental masterpieces. I also think we read things into art that weren't intentioned by the maker.
Here is an interesting link to some thoughts on symbolism in literature:

We see what we want to see after all.
My hubby always felt Bob Ross ruined his paintings. He said he should have stopped at the half way point.
Bob Ross was passionate about teaching others how to paint. The painting end product was never his intentioned masterpiece. He was more concerned with connections to others.

Elizabeth Seaver said...

Bob Ross certainly made painting accessible (to all appearance anyway.) I teach art to young and old, and the older students, especially, have lots of junk from their past to get through in order to put art materials to work and have fun. I spend a good deal of time reassuring them that they have not made a mistake, that it's only paper, canvas, paint etc., and to approach the project fearlessly and with a sense of adventure.

I might have a quibble with the author about "masterpiece" vs. a good painting by an artist who may not repeat the success of that one painting. I think "masterpiece" suggests a superior skill with composition, color, materials is at the ready each time the artist is at work.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - thanks for the interesting link! I agree about Bob Ross - he was making an emotional connection with his audience.

Hi Elizabeth - I like your message to your students and share your philosophy. After all, many paintings (if not most or all) are experiments and will probably not find their way to a prestigious museum. The materials aren't sacred. And, I agree with your notion of what constitutes a masterpiece, at least in the traditional sense. Thanks!

Gary Keimig said...

really great comments. And I can't agree more about the Bob Ross message.

Unknown said...

Hi Gary - thank you for commenting!

Casey Klahn said...

This accidental nature idea reminds me of the time a guy came out of nowhere and climbed, for the first time, the heinous north face of Mt Rainier - that is a feat of fantastic proportions and no small danger. The regular climbers in the northwest didn't believe this butkis could steal this feat, so he went back and did it again, this time taking pictures for proof.

Why do we take ourselves so seriously?

The story of the accidental photo resonates with me.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - you provide a good example of an "accidental masterpiece!" Kudos to the butkis. Why do we take ourselves so seriously? Maybe we can blame that on how we were raised - that is, if our parents had no sense of humor about our mistakes.

Mark Sheeky said...

Why do we take ourselves so seriously? The first person to take you seriously should be you.

I like the word masterpiece. If I go to my room to do some masterpainting I might be misheard. Such superlatives are in the domain of the critic, and therefore the more the merrier. For me it just means the final examination work of a student or apprentice. As a term it should humble all artists then, because only students can paint them. Tee hee!

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - you have a wonderful way of weaving a logical path to an interesting end! Fun :-)

Eva said...

Maybe masterpieces are in the eye of the beholder. I have a few amateur pieces painted by my beginner senior students, that reveal many contemporary so called masterpieces. They are honest masterpieces to me.

Unknown said...

Hi Eva - I think that's true in light of the subjectivity associated with judging art. Sometimes a masterpiece isn't recognized during the lifetime of the artist who created it, and it could be a century or more before the art community deems it as such. Thanks for reminding us!