The Laws of Nature

Thursday, October 6, 2011

NWS and more!

Image: Fourier's Law by Katharine A. Cartwright; watercolor on Arches paper; 26"x 19"
Time flies when you're having fun (who said that??) and I've neglected this blog. However, there's good news to report. My recent work (see image) was just juried into the 91st Annual Exhibition of the National Watercolor Society (NWS) ... and ... it won the Loa Sprung Award for the best abstract painting ... and ... it will go on tour for one year .... and ... I earned Signature Status from NWS! This is a fantastic honor, and I'm thrilled to be part of this most prestigious watercolor society.
"The Laws of Nature" series continues. I've painted 15 so far and will keep going for many more years. This work has also caught the attention of major collectors and publications. So, I'm enthusiastically moving forward.
Additionally, I've had the joy of teaching many students over the summer the rewards of creating authentic work - painted expertly in their own voices. I look forward to working with more students and creating an individualized experience for them.
Otherwise, we're readying our home for winter. It was 20 degrees this morning. And, I'll leave for Los Angeles in two weeks to attend the NWS award ceremony.
Life is good! What's new with you?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Avante-garde, kitsch, and propaganda

Art and Culture: Critical Essays
By Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)

Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Garde and Kitsch

While I know far less about the history of art and art theory than Clement Greenberg, I do know an elitist when I encounter one. After finishing the first section of Chapter 1 of this book, I’m fairly certain it’s written by en elitist who believes that the “lower classes” is limited in its ability to understand art and appreciates only kitsch while the "privileged elite class" support and protect the “fine art” produced by the avant-garde. Phooey! I’ve been in many poor and working class homes that hang prints of great works of art on their walls. True, they can’t afford the real thing, but they value it enough to stick it in a frame and hang it on their walls.

But, there are some interesting ideas in this book. Greenberg gives us insight into the control of World War II politics on art, especially Hitler’s rejection of fine art in favor of kitsch, and Stalin’s use of kitsch for propaganda. This led me to think about how I, as an artist, would react to absolute control over my work.

Would I continue to paint if forced to produce kitsch and/or propaganda? Although the urge to make art would be irrestistible to me, I wouldn't want to produce propaganda. At least, I’d like to think that I could be that pure of heart and deed.

What about you?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Art and Culture: Critical Essays
By Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)

Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Garde and Kitsch

Image: Kitsch Biennale, 2010 Palazzo Cini

According to Greenberg, kitsch arrived on the scene at the same time as avant-garde art: Kitsch is a product of the industrial revolution which urbanized the masses of Western Europe and America and established what is called universal literacy. Before that time, the literate class was culturally separate and considered more “refined” than the “folk culture.” Once the country peasants moved into the cities and became literate, they had more leisure time, but didn’t share the tastes of the more elite class. Nor were they interested in folk art any longer, since it didn’t fit their new urban sensibilities. It was in this setting that “kitsch” was born.

What, exactly, is kitsch? Greenberg describes it this way:
Kitsch is the source of its profits.
Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas.
Kitsch is a vicarious experience and faked sensations.
Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same.
Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.

Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time.

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system and discards the rest.

Since its inception, kitsch has become ubiquitous. It exists in nearly every culture all around the world and has displaced folk art to a large extent.

Greenberg asks us to consider why kitsch is virulent – nearly irresistible. And, why is it much more marketable to “fine art?” His explanation has to do with the viewer’s ability to reflect and digest art. That is, fine art requires the viewer to do some mental work and kitsch is predigested by the artist giving the viewer a shortcut to pleasure.

What are your thoughts?

Next time … the links between avant-garde and kitsch.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The avant-garde

Art and Culture: Critical Essays
by Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)

Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Garde and Kitsch

Image: Pablo Picasso

Greenberg begins this section with his theory that the emergence of the avant-garde artist is attributable to the inevitable break up of accepted notions in society over time. He sees the gradual evolution of society into one of stagnation and decay – where controversy is avoided and the arts are limited to tradition so that the only advancements are in the form of “virtuosity in the small details of form.” Variation on the same established themes become the norm and nothing “new” is produced.

It is in reaction to this stagnant condition that Western bourgeois society produced avant-garde culture around the time of the Western scientific revolution. A criticism of society and history emerged – one that challenged the established norms and examined cause and effect. A new viewpoint arose, one that places our present society in a succession of social orders over time. This challenged the former notion (Alexandrianism) that recognized only one timeless form of society. It is no wonder that the arts would stagnate under such a philosophy!

So, the avant-garde had to emerge from a group that viewed society in a new way – one that allows for challenge (criticism) and change. This required courage. “Courage indeed was needed for this, because the avant-garde’s emigration from bourgeois society to bohemia meant also an emigration from the markets of capitalism, upon which artists and writers had been thrown by the falling away of aristocratic patronage.” Ah…. The emergence of the starving artist! But, there was a compromise. The avant-garde remained attached to bourgeois society because it needed its money.

Eventually, every revolution must resolve itself in a new stable form of society. “Hence it developed that the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment,’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence. Retiring from public altogether, the avant-garde poet or artist sought to maintain the high level of his art by both narrowing and raising it to the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point.”

It is in this way the “Art for art’s sake” emerged and remains with us today. This IS the credo of the avant-garde and the foundation for abstract non-objective art.

“Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miro, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cezanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in. The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.”

We now have an art form that “moves.” It can change and evolve with society. In Greenberg’s opinion, this is what justifies the avant-garde’s methods and makes them necessary. However, a problem exists. The avant-garde can only exist through the patronage of the “rich” who support them. As that patronage shrinks, so do they. What does this mean for the future?

Next time, we’ll look at what Greenberg has to say about kitsch and its relationship to the avant-garde.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Art and Culture

Art and Culture: Critical Essays
By Clement Greenberg (1961, 1989)

Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Guarde and Kitsch

Image: Clement Greenberg, 1909-1994

A book discussion on this blog is long overdue! So, let’s begin another. I’ve chosen Art and Culture: Critical Essays (1961, 1989) by Clement Greenberg, the distinguished American art critic.

In this book, the author addresses the following topics:
Culture in General
Art in Paris
(various individual artists)
Art in General (primitive through modernist art)
Art in the United States (various individual artists and movements)
and, Literature (I probably won’t review this section)

A review by the Washington Post appears on the back of this book: “This book should be read by anyone who is interested in modern painting and is willing to look at its spectrum through the vision of a tough-minded, rightfully opinionated critic.”

Another review appears by the New York Times: “Clement Greenberg is, internationally, the best-known American art critic popularly considered to be the man who put American vanguard painting and sculpture on the world map … Jackson Pollock’s triumphant international recognition is also a triumph of this critic’s courage, eloquence and creative sense of action .. . An important book for everyone interested in modern painting and sculpture.”

And, so we’ll begin with Part 1: Culture in General, Section 1: Avant-Guarde and Kitsch.

According to Greenberg, the avant-guarde and kitsch are both on the order of culture and products of society. But, are they related? And, from what perspective can we view culture to see that relationship? Perhaps, he postulates, the answer is found through the examination of the relationship between aesthetic experience of the individual and the social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place. And, that’s where the author leads us … in my next post.

Are you interested?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

I paint because ...

Very recently, a notable fine art museum curator decided to spend time with my new series, The Laws of Nature, which now includes fourteen paintings. Her questions were astute and delving: my developmental history as an artist, what I paint, how I paint, and ... especially, why I paint. At the end of her examination of me and my work, I was astounded by her praise and proclamations of "genius." I don't think of myself in that way, nor will I ever.

We artists typically view our work in a more practical way. We LIVE in, through, and by our artmaking. It's not our second nature, it's our first nature. We can't imagine life any other way.

Explaining myself compelled me to think about this a little more:

I paint because ...

I can't effectively express what I really want to say in words or music,
I see everything in pictures,
I must paint,
My life is incomplete if I don't paint,
I've always painted

You paint because ...

Friday, July 22, 2011

What's in a Name?

Fourier's Law
by Katharine A. Cartwright
Watercolor on Arches paper
26" x 20"

What's in a name? I began to think about this after reading your great comments yesterday. Influences upon our viewpoint about the relative value of art include not only outside "experts" and our own personal opinion, but also the title assigned to the work and (sometimes) the gender of the artist if the full name is revealed.

The title of a work of art often influences what we think we see and also the overarching concept that the artist wishes to convey to viewers. But, there are times when the title doesn't match what I'm getting out of the painting or sculpture. So, the name (title) can be confusing. For instance, my own work based upon the laws of nature led me to interpret each law according to what I see in my mind's eye. No one else has that viewpoint, so why would anyone look at the painting shown in this post and remark: Hey! That's Fourier's Law! Nope ... it wouldn't happen.

So, I must consider the importance of the names (titles) of my works. In this instance, they're essential. But, should that be the case? What would happen to my series (which is a comment on man's inability to create the perfect machine because of the limitations imposed upon us by the natural laws) if I named each work "Untitled"? I doubt that anyone would get it.

And then, there's my own name to consider. For this series of paintings, I decided to sign them all "K. Cartwright" because either sex could have created the work and it shouldn't matter which. Viewers are influenced by the sex of an artist when considering relative value and the "seriousness" of the artist.

So, it seems to me that names are very important when it comes to fine art.

What do you think?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Who's to Say?

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent

Thanks for all your substantive comments to my last posts! I want to pick up a thread laid down by our good friend Robin . She wrote: I always wonder who determines how meaningful one's work is anyway, but I guess if it matters to at least one person (me) that's enough. This is a good point to explore.

Who does determine if our work is meaningful? As Robin suggests, it does begin with the artist her/himself and then perhaps at least one other person who “gets it.” Generally, we often look to directors, curators, critics, and art historians to identify the meaningfulness of works of art. But, those influences are extrinsic to the individual experience of just standing before a work of art and connecting with it.

In March 2010, we discussed here Robert Henri’s book “The Art Spirit.” In it, he writes: The man who has honesty, integrity, the love of inquiry, the desire to see beyond, is ready to appreciate good art. He needs no one to give him an art education; he is already qualified. He needs but to see pictures with his active mind, look into them for the things that belong to him, and he will find soon enough in himself an art connoisseur and an art lover of the first order.

I think that’s really the bottom line. The discovery of meaning is a subjective experience and one that can’t be left to outside influences if it’s to be real. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve read (or heard) from an expert about the importance and meaning of a work of art before actually seeing the original in person. Unfortunately, I can’t forget what the expert said when I finally get to the museum, but I do try to personally connect and shake off the voices of others.

Then again, when we go to museums, we are automatically influenced by the notion that the works of art in it are meaningful and important enough to be archived and displayed in a building worth millions of dollars. And, works of art appear in newspapers and magazines with articles written by “experts” who dissect them for meaning.

But, maybe we need experts to tell us what we can’t learn on our own. Or, maybe we need only to heed Henri and make the whole thing subjective.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Your Contribution to the Dialogue

Painting by Richard Diebenkorn

Frequently, I ask my workshop students to consider how their work contributes to the global dialogue of art. This means examining their work for its purpose. Does it truly reflect their own view of the world or is it imitative? The former lends authenticity to the work and has the best possibility for contributing to the dialogue. Each artist has something unique to share, even if the medium and techniques are traditional. What we have to say and how we say it are essential, in my opinion, to creating work that is truly meaningful.

I was never taught this in college, or even in any of the art workshops I took years ago. We students were given assignments that led to the mastery of technique and little attention was given to helping us develop our unique viewpoints. I never thought about it much until fifteen years ago. That made all the difference. I make no claims toward greatness, only that my work truly reflects how I see and think. That’s satisfying.

Recently, I saw a painting in a nearby art museum that had several technical flaws, but the overall effect was intact anyway. The viewpoint of the artist spoke to me and evoked a feeling. So, I started to wonder about the importance of the technical aspects of the painting. I’ve always felt that the best way to effectively dialogue through my art is to eliminate as many technical errors as possible so the viewer doesn’t miss the message. Then again, artists who are only technicians bore me to death. There’s a fine line there, somewhere.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Return and Other Things

Images: (left) workspace in studio (middle) extended view of studio (right) gallery wall in studio

At long last ... I'm back!! Our move to our now permanent home in Maine was epic in proportion. Not only did we move during the worst winter in recent history, but we had to install heat in the house first and also complete the interior of my studio (which is in a building separate from the house). Now ... after seven years of waiting ... we also have access to high speed internet and so I can rejoin the blogosphere.

Many, many thanks to all of you who emailed me during my long absence to encourage me to return to our wonderful discussions. I'm looking forward to reuniting with you (big smile).

Many great things have happened during the past few months: lots of teaching (concept development in art and technique) and lots of really terrific students, painting sales at an all time high, public speaking, and several shows (some solo) now and next year. It's exciting and rewarding.
Now, onto more important things. Lately, I've been thinking about the importance of wearing blinders as I continue to paint the "Laws" series. It's so easy to get distracted by other ideas or even succumb to the influence of works/ideas by other artists that appeal to me. I've always had to battle the distractions, and the further I get into a series the more myopic my artistic vision becomes. Is that helping or hindering me? I'd like to think that it's helping, but maybe it's retarding my creativity.

Edward Hopper once said: I find in working always the disturbing intrusion of elements not a part of my most interested vision, and the inevitable obliteration and replacement of this vision by the work itself as it proceeds.

How about you? What keeps you on track?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Simple Explanations and Your Tax Dollars

Occam's Razor by Katharine A. Cartwright Watercolor on Arches paper 26" x 20" If two theories predict phenomena to the same accuracy, then the one which is simpler is the better one. Moreover, additional aspects of a theory which do not lend it more powerful predicting ability are unnecessary and should be stripped away. The simplest explanation for my extended absence from blogging is lack of high-speed internet access. Moving to Maine has only one "down side" and that's it! Time-Warner won't string cable to our home, Hughes satellite is too expensive and unreliable, Verizon's MiFi doesn't get a signal, and local WiFi access is a fifteen minute drive. So, I'll post when I can and apologize for not visiting your posts!! In the midst of settling in to our new home, I managed to add this painting to the "Laws of Nature Series." My interpretation of "Occam's Razor" is that the "singularity" that theoretically gave birth to our universe is the simplest possible explanation for the laws of physics. Our complicated and elaborate attempts to modify what naturally occurs leads to chaos and can only be imperfect. So, the razor cuts through our efforts to reveal the primordial singularity in the ancient sky. I intend to stick with this new series for at least five years and will interpret all the laws I've already painted and visit some new ones. There's always room for improvement and new ideas. On another note, I'd like your opinion about public support for the arts. I was having dinner with some folks the other night and someone made the comment that he didn't want his tax dollars used for the arts. I strongly disagreed with him for many reasons, but would like your opinions. Should public funds be used to support artists and art projects? Why or why not? To what degree?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Adversity and great art

Sincere thanks to all of you who wished us well during our recent move from NY to Maine! We arrived at our new home a little over a week ago and are settling-in. Although there’s still a great deal left to do, we’re comfortable. A new buyer for our NY home appeared within one week of relisting the house, so now we’re awaiting a new closing date. That’s a relief!

We had hoped to persuade the cable company to run wires here so we can access high speed internet. Being unsuccessful, we’re subjected to the glacial pace of modem and dial-up, which explains my absence from the blogosphere. Wifi access is available at the library about a half-hour away, so I’ll take advantage of that every now and then.

I’ve begun a new painting in my series “The Laws of Nature.” It’s entitled “Occam’s Razor” and should be completed within a week. There’s more pressure to produce now, since I’ve been offered a solo show in May. Somehow, between now and then, I need to complete ten more paintings!

This leads me to the theme for today’s blog: the importance of adversity.
Since we have no access to TV yet (another long story that involves Direct TV and its inability to provide us with someone to install the satellite dish that still sits in its box in our garage) we watch old DVD’s. I have the complete set of all six seasons of “Northern Exposure.” Near the beginning of season three is an episode about Ed’s discouragement with his film-making. General store-owner, Marianne, advises Ed that adversity is important for the development of great art. Without it, artists cannot significantly improve their work. That’s been my experience about everything, but that’s probably because I’m one of those people who seem to mostly learn from trial and error.

How about you?

Monday, March 14, 2011

What I have learned & Moving day

Thanks, all, for your wonderful comments to my posts. My last post, Understanding Art, included a comment that challenged me. Our good friend, Mark Sheeky, asked me “After years of analysis Kathy I wonder what you understand about art?" That’s a great question and one that deserves an answer.

My answer is contradictory: I’ve learned that I know very little about art and also all there is to know. I know little of the entire history of art, the myriad of materials and techniques used in all art forms, and the personal lives of artists past and present. There’s an ocean of information and my knowledge is just a drop in that ocean.

On the other hand, I know all there is to know about my own artmaking: I know why I paint, what I paint and how to paint it. I know my own world and can navigate it. In practical terms, that’s all I really need to know. (Sorry for all the "I's")

So, why bother to spend years reading about and discussing art theory?It's to satisfy my need to expand my understanding of my chosen profession. I no longer want to function as an artist in a vacuum, and need to connect with the art community and its roots. I’m curious. This has been a satisfying experience that has lead me to all of you! How great is that?


Personal update: We’re finally moving to our home in Maine on Wednesday (16th). We would have moved earlier, but were waiting to close on the sale of our NY home. Just a few days ago the purchaser backed out (only one week before closing!). We were upset, but have learned to make lemons out of lemonade and are moving on. The house is back on the market and in the good hands of our realtor and a friend. It'll have to sell without us.

So, Wednesday is moving day followed by settling-in. I’ll try to check in whenever possible. Thanks for staying with me over the years and during my frequent absences. You’re all so dear!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Understanding Art

It’s mind-boggling how many books, essays, and articles have been written to instruct others on how to understand art. Analyses of technique, composition, materials, meaning, etc number as many as the stars in our galaxy and yet we seem to need more of them every year. Art has been put under a microscope. Although we artists hope our work will draw attention, but do we really need someone to act as an intermediary between our creation and its viewers? Do we really need someone else to explain to the public that which our art naturally speaks for itself?

One could argue that we all need to be educated into understanding art. Certainly that would be true for learning about materials and techniques. Perhaps it’s also helpful to the viewer to learn about the circumstances surrounding the creation of a work of art, and many analyses offer this type of instruction. Since I spent most of my career as an academic, I can’t argue against instruction. But, as an artist, I want my work to speak directly to viewers without the interference of an intermediary.

And, when you think about it, who really understands “art” anyway? I like this quote from an Ezine article by Redi Zartey:

Understanding art in its totality is almost an impossible task for a human being. There are over 3,600 terms in art to be understood. And these are not definitive in nature. Art is when you are free to redefine these.

What’s your opinion?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Painting Workshops: The Season Begins!

A brand new season of painting workshops will soon begin, and I’m ready to teach. Yippee!! For me, the season begins in May and ends in October. Venues are spread from coast to coast (California to Maine) and I’m always thrilled to work with new and returning students.

My lessons in painting match my personal philosophy: All great paintings begin with a great concept, and that concept must come uniquely from the individual artist! It’s all about helping my students find their own voice and then effectively expressing it in a way that’s technically masterful. It doesn’t matter to me which medium my students select, it only matters that they’re willing to engage in original and meaningful artmaking.
It’s taken me awhile to develop a good method for helping my students to find their own voice, but it really works. I challenge them to tap into their own relationships with the world around them and apply their intuition and imaginations to their interpretations. This means turning away from imitation and strict copying of photographs.

What I really love about teaching is witnessing how my students respond: lightbulbs turning on! I never grow tired of it, and am anxious to begin the new season. So, materials are being packed, airline tickets are being purchased, and anticipation builds as I look forward to working with a whole new batch of students.

If you’re interested in enrolling in one of my workshops, the schedule is listed here:

Come join us!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Starving Artist" - Myth or Fact?

Lately, I’ve been interested in finding facts about the status of professional visual artists in this country. Is the “starving artist” a commonplace condition or a myth?

This led me to the NEA website where one may access their publications on this topic and more. To see the list and read the research publications, go here.

Research Report #48 Artists in the Workforce: 1990 - 2005 (which is a follow-up of Research Report #37 Artists in the Workforce: Employment and Earnings 1970 – 1990) provides us with a scenario based upon statistics from census data. Therefore, Americans who declared their primary career as “artist” make up the data base for this report. “Artist” includes all forms of art (e.g. literature, theater, music, visual arts, etc) but I’ve chosen to focus upon the visual arts in this report. We are listed as “fine artists,” which is defined as “art directors; craft artists; fine artists include: painters, sculptors, and illustrators; multi-media artists;animators.

Here are some interesting findings about the state of professional fine artists in the USA between 1990 and 2005:

We make up 11% of the total population of artists in this country between 2003 and 2005, which is a total population of 216,996. (Designers are 39%, Performing Artists 17% Architects 10%, Writers/Authors 9%, Producers/Directors 7%, and Photographers 7%). The total population of artists in all categories numbered nearly two million.

Between 1970 and 1990, the number of artists [in all categories] more than doubled from 737,000 to 1.7 million—a much larger gain than the labor force as a whole—but between 1990 and 2005, the number of artists grew by 15.7 %, compared with a 17.4 % increase for the overall labor force.

There have been shifts among artist occupations. Between1990 and 2000, the number of artists grew by 11.6%, an increase of about 200,000 artists. Over that period, the number of designers rose by 130,000 while the number of fine artists decreased by 47,000. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of designers again increased, this time by about 30,000, while the fine artists continued to decline by another 15,000.

Not surprisingly, most artists during this time lived in California, New York, Florida, and Texas. On average, in 2000, there were 68 artists for every 10,000 people and 8 of those were fine artists. However, in Vermont and New Mexico, 15 were fine artists, followed closely by Hawaii and Montana with 10 or more.

As you would expect, opportunities for employment as an artist are greater in metropolitan areas. Half of all artists live in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But, the homes for fine artists are (in order of highest to lowest population):

Santa Fe, NM
San Francisco, CA
Santa Rosa, CA
Los Angeles-Long Beach,CA
New York, NY
Barnstable-Yarmouth, MA
Stamford-Norwalk, CT
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA
Fort Collins-Loveland, CO
San Luis Obispo-Atascadero-Paso Robles, CA

It looks like we mostly like to settle along the East and West Coasts.

Gender , Age, Race, and Education

I was unable to find the statistics for these categories in the “fine arts” so the following statements apply to artists in all categories:

Artists in all categories are more likely to be men than women.

In 2000, the median age of artists was 39, the same as the median age of the U.S. labor force, both up from 37 in 1990. As the baby boomers aged, the median age rose to 40 by 2005, for artists and for the labor force as a whole.

In keeping with the labor force as a whole, most artists are white, but again like the labor force, the artist population is quickly becoming more diverse.

Artists have higher education levels than the labor force as a whole. In 2000, 51% of artists had bachelor’s degrees or a higher level of education, compared with 26% of the U.S. labor force and 64% of professional and related occupations. In the 2003-2005 data, over 5 % of artists had bachelor’s degrees or higher, suggesting that the proportion of artists with degrees is rising.

A report of the American Community Survey, 2003–2005 indicates that Fine artists, art directors, and animators had a total population of 216,996, 47.4% of are women, 15.8% are minorities, 44 is the median age of the population, 25.7% are under the age of 35, 51.2% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 5.8% are enrolled in school.

Employment and Income
Compared with the American labor force as a whole, artists are much more likely to be self-employed. Almost one-third of artists were self-employed in 2000, compared with less than 10% of the labor force. About half of fine artists and writers were self-employed.

The 2003-2005 data indicate that the numbers of self-employed artists are increasing, with 35% of all artists self-employed, and each artist occupation showing more than 20% self-employed.

Compared to other professionals, artists are less likely to report full-time employment in their field (more than 35 hrs/wk and 50 wks/yr).

In 1999, the median income for fine artists was $25,000/year. By comparison, the median income for artists in all categories was $30,000/year.

The median income for artists in 2003-2005 was $34,800, or $29,700 when adjusted for inflation to represent 1999 dollars. Full-year, full-time artists earned $45,200 (unadjusted) while the median income for full-year, fulltime professionals was $52,500. Producers and writers who worked full time had incomes above $50,000, and the median income for full-year, full-time architects was higher, at $63,500. For the 45 percent of artists who did not work full time all year, however, the median income
was $20,000. The 2003-2005 median income for all women artists was $27,300, or 65 percent of the $42,000 median income for all male artists.

A report of the American Community Survey, 2003–2005 indicates that among Fine artists, art directors, and animators 51.5% are full-time full-year workers, 55.6% are self-employed, 39.0% are in the private for profit employment sector, the median 2005 income is $30,600, for men that income is $37,800 and for women that income is $22,600. The median income for full-year, full-time workers is $42,800 (51.5% of fine artists).

Returning to my original inquiry about the “starving artist” image it seems that it is a myth – at least for men. It looks like women must live on a much smaller income that can’t support a reasonable lifestyle in an urban area where most artists live. So, women tend to fit the "starving artist" image. But, you can form your own conclusions.

What are they?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Pyramid

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Image: Composition VII, 1913 by Wassily Kandinsky

The Pyramid

The comments to my last post over the past week are well-worth a second and third reading. They reflect some profound truths and insights that transcend many of the best art theory books I’ve read and I’m grateful to those of you who have taken the time to write them!

Since I began reviewing this book exactly one month ago today, I’ve been captivated by the responses of my readers to it. Many of us appreciate and even revere the ground-breaking work done by this pioneer artist. WK’s rebellion against the traditional extrinsically-sourced art that preceded and surrounded him gave rise to what we artists do today. It allows us to freely express who we are as individuals – the intrinsic source of inspiration.

But, many of us are turned-off by Kandinsky’s elitist notions. The existence of a hierarchy among artists (whether or not it’s real) is especially abhorrent to us Americans who operate outside the social class system. We consider ours a land of equal opportunity and our philosophy negates the possibility of class by birth. At the same time, we recognize that some achieve to higher levels than others. It’s a fact of life. However, what is the source of the highest level of achievement in art? Is it genetic? God-given? Hard work and determination? I don’t presume to know nor would I guess at an answer.

This leads me to the last part of the first section of WK’s book: “The Pyramid.” Here, the author addresses all forms of art. He writes that in his day, the arts contain “in each manifestation … the seed of striving towards the abstract, the non-material. Consciously or unconsciously they are obeying Socrates’ command – Know thyself.” Because of this, WK notes that there is a convergence among the arts – a “drawing together” of process and purpose. Most notably, he compares music and visual art, which interests me a great deal since music, along visual art and also science, have been my professions.

“With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound,” Kandinsky writes. So true! Late in my somewhat mediocre career as a pianist, I hired a concertizing coach. Her constant admonition was to paint with my music – add colors that represent the moods of my soul. It made all the difference in my performances as well as in my paintings.

He adds: “This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental…. The artist must not forget that in him lies the power of true application of every method, but that that power must be developed.” Here is the real challenge! When we examine our motivations as an artist, what do we find to be fundamentally true? What should be fundamentally true? And, how dedicated are we to developing it? Here, WK reminds us that art is a discipline and that it requires real work, beginning at the psychological level.
Speaking to readers of his own time, Kandinsky writes “Painting today is almost exclusively concerned with the reproduction of natural forms and phenomena. Her business is now to test her strength and methods, to know herself as music has done for a long time, and then to use her powers to a truly artistic end.” Amen!

In the next section of his book, “About Painting,” WK turns his attention to color theory, form and color, and other matters. That’s where I’ll begin next time.

What are your thoughts?
P.S. To those of you who have been following the events of my life, here's an update: We've moved all of our possessions (except for one mattress) to our home in Maine as we await the closing date on our New York home. So, we're camped out on that mattress in an empty NY house for at least two more weeks. All of my art supplies are in storage, but my mind is at work. Hubby is still recovering from his surgery six weeks ago and should be approaching normal in another three weeks. Meantime, we've had record snowfalls, so I've been doing a lot of shoveling!!

Monday, February 21, 2011


Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Image: Jaune Rouge Bleu by Wassily Kandinsky

Returning to Kandinsky’s book, I’ve begun the next section entitled “Spiritual Revolution.” Any revolution involves rebellion against a prevailing condition. In this case, WK identifies the prevailing condition as the masses who inhabit the lowest level of the spiritual triangle (discussed earlier). These are the unimaginative, uninspired, hypocritical, economic Socialists according to Kandinsky. Those who inhabit the levels directly above this group are only slightly “better.” By contrast, those few at the top of the triangle are the spiritually creative problem-solvers who value science and art. It is from this lofty position that the rebellion is launched against the prevailing condition of the levels below.

But, the leaders of the rebellion are insecure. They know history, and therefore understand that visionaries are first revered and later reviled by society. Rejection is the ultimate reward. They struggle with their role and become tentative. What saves them? Their souls.
The artist owns the spirit of the future. The artist can tap into inner truth and reveal it. WK writes: Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.

Artists speak through their own spirits and to the spirits of others. The connection, therefore, is purely on a spiritual level and not a material one, according to WK. Somehow, this seems too simplistic. After all, art is also an industry. It’s assigned a monetary value and traded as a commodity. Art and money are conjoined.

Although my distillation of WK’s dense text is somewhat overly simplified, his argument rests on the notion that some artists (the geniuses at the top of the pyramid) lead the rebellion against the uninspired, unspiritual legion of others whose influence demands conformity. As the rebellion gains strength, others on levels below join it.
But, if the rebellion succeeds, doesn't the new condition become the "norm"? Does this mean that the inspired at the top of the spiritual triangle become the condition of the lowest portion of the next triangle? (Remember Kandinsky’s discussion on the movement of the triangle.) At one time, the Impressionists were at the top of this triangle. Now, there are a host of imitators. Impressionism today is ordinary and passe’. Or, is it?

Kandinsky was a revolutionary in art. No doubt about it. But, he has a myriad of imitators today. Are they unenlightened??

What do you think?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kepler's First Law and Other Universal Principles

Kepler's First Law
by Katharine A. Cartwright
watercolor on paper
26" x 19"

The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci.

Somehow, in the midst of moving, I've managed to complete another painting in my series The Laws of Nature. Painting keeps me sane, even if the results seem a little insane. I think the word is therapeutic. Although I haven't had the chance to return to Kandinsky's book, I continue to ponder his ideas and motivation. Is the act of creating art always therapeutic for the artist? Is this a universal condition? I'll test that notion over the next month since all of my art tools and materials are now in storage until this moving transition is complete. This will be the longest period that I haven't painted and I wonder how it will impact me. Will I resort to thumb-sucking? At least I still have my sketchbook.

What does artmaking do for you?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What is the future of art, now?

Sometimes it’s good to step back and reflect. This is one of those times. I’m truly enjoying the challenge of reading Kandinsky’s short but dense book (or, maybe I’m the one who’s dense). In either case, it’s time for reflection. Our good friend Casey Klahn commented on my last post about the future. He wrote: “For Kandinsky, the representation of the same objects again and again was the past, and pure abstraction the future. What is the future, now?”


Personally, I think the future is controlled by whoever is steering the ship.
Do visionary artists, art critics, or marketing geniuses control the future of art?

Will artists of the future, who now directly exhibit and market their work through the internet and self-publishing, control the future direction of art?

Will grass roots level artists, like me, ever have any opportunity to steer this ship, or will we remain passengers in the cargo hold?

What do you think?

I’ll be away for the week to make the last preparations to move into our winter wonderland home in Maine (image) and will check in now and then if I’m lucky.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kandinsky, Moses and the Golden Calf

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Image: Painting With White Border, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

Part 1: The Movement of the Triangle

I’ll complete this section of the book today so we may move along to his next section about the “spiritual revolution” of his time. In the last two posts, we discussed Kandinsky’s hierarchical segmented triangle in an attempt to classify artists, their works and viewers. Vertical mobility up and down the triangle occurs over time as artists feed upon their own psyches for inspiration or starve. Of course, WK places himself and his work in the apex segment of this triangle, a place reserved for innovative geniuses who are misunderstood and ridiculed. This is a lonely place, indeed.

Wrapping up this section, WK complains of the dark periods in art when spirituality is lost in favor of materialism. He writes: “At such times art ministers to lower needs, and is used for material ends. She seeks her substance in hard realities because she knows of nothing nobler. Objects, the reproduction of which is considered her sole aim, remain monotonously the same….. Art has lost its soul.” He continues, by adding “In the search for method the artist goes still further. Art becomes so specialized as to be comprehensible only to artists, and they complain bitterly of public indifference to their work. For since the artist in such times has no need to say much, but only to be notorious for some small originality and consequently lauded by a small group of patrons and connoisseurs (which incidentally is also a very profitable business for him), there arise a crowd of gifted and skilful painters, so easy does the conquest of art appear. In each artistic circle are thousands of such artists, of whom the majority seek only for some new technical manner, and who produce millions of works of art without enthusiasm, with cold hearts and souls asleep.”

This, of course, leads to unhealthy competition between artists as they fight to be at the top of the heap and leave in their wake a confused public. Despite these negative forces at work in the art world, WK optimistically believes that the spiritual triangle continues to move upward over time. There is no holding back true spiritual advancement in the arts. He attributes the cause for this upward advance to those artists who occupy the apex segment and, from time to time, descend from their lofty perch like Moses descending from the mountain, to impart wisdom to the worshippers of the golden calf. At first, the voice of the visionary who resides in the apex isn’t comprehensible to these lower artists who only replicate what they see and focus on technique. But, eventually some begin to understand and follow the call to aim for expression of their “finer feelings.” A spiritual awakening occurs when artists express internal truth.

And so, this section of WK’s book concludes. His dogmatic form of expression is a little off-putting but I agree with the central message which is core to my own teaching. I am a child of Kandinsky’s ideas. I do believe that the concept, or idea, behind the work is far more important than reproduction, materials, and technique. Unique and meaningful art comes only from authentic individual expression of the artist’s ideas – not how well he/she can use materials or make a rose look just like a particular rose. So, I’m grateful to WK for his ideas and for stridently defending them.

What do you think?

P.S. Please excuse my infrequent attention to this blog. We’re in the final three weeks of moving to our new home in Maine during a terrible winter and my husband is recovering from a difficult operation at the same time. It’ll take me awhile to sort out everything, but I’ll try to keep up.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Movement of the Triangle, continued

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: Aglow byWassily Kandinsky

Part 1: The Movement of the Triangle

This section of Kandinsky's book is most difficult to navigate, and yesterday our good friend Wm. Cook correctly reminded us to view WK's words in light of the time and circumstances in which they were written: Here it is a hundred years later looking back on a guy who stood at the forefront of one of the main cultural shifts of human history. It was a left brain to right brain shift, and is still going on, thankfully. Indeed, this was a major shift in artistic expression. External sources of inspiration for the artist had been dominant (e.g. landscapes, portraits, physical objects, etc) and now artists like Kandinsky began to turn inward to find their inspiration. The psyche was the source of spiritual food for their work.

As I continued through this dense text and WK's elaborate explanation of the spiritual triangle I got bogged down. So, the scientist in me emerged to handle it and I drew a diagram of what I think Kandinsky means. Here it is, and here's my explanation:

The apex of this triangle represents the highest level of spiritual achievement for an artist and the base of it is the lowest. At each level, I've indicated three conditions:

1. the artist's source of inspiration (external or internal)

2. the artist's work on the basis of how much it's understood by others

3. acceptance by the viewers on the basis of popular opinion about the artist and his/her work.

On the lowermost level of this triangle resides the least spiritually developed artist whose works are inspired by external references that are easily recognizable to viewers and gain wide popular acceptance.

As the levels progress toward the apex, artists depart more and more from external references and become more inspired by internal ones (their thoughts and emotions). Progressively, the audience understands less about the work and so it's not as popular.

In the apex resides the most spiritually developed artist whose works are entirely inspired by internal references that are unrecognizable to viewers and unaccepted, even ridiculed. Only a few visionary prophets from lower levels can recognize the genius in these works.

As WK advances his philosophy, he writes of the "spiritual food" that sustains artists at each level. This food can act either to nourish or poison the artist. If the artist eats too little of it, he can sink to a lower level on the triangle. And, if he eats too much of it too quickly, he'll drop like a rock to the lowest level. My interpretation is that this food is introspection. If we tap into ourselves enough, we'll create unique and meaningful art. If we aren't introspective enough, our work will become shallow or vacuous. If we are too introspective we'll go nuts and our creativity will be destroyed. At least, that's my interpretation of all this.

Those of you who have read this book might want to offer another opinion. I'll digest this awhile before moving on to the next paragraph!

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Triangles and Webs

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: Gelb Rot Blau byWassily Kandinsky

Part 1: The Movement of the Triangle

Kandinksy begins this chapter by comparing the “life of the spirit” to an acute triangle that is divided along the horizontal into segments that become narrower toward the apex. Each segment of the triangle from base to apex represents a state in the artist’s spirit, understanding, and situation. Without going into the numerous spiritual iterations offered by WK, I’ll focus on his central idea:

“The greater the segment (which is the same as saying the lower it lies in the triangle) so the greater the number who understand the words of the artist.” Therefore, those artists who have moved into the apex segment are least understood through their works. This smallest of segments is usually occupied by only one artist – a misunderstood visionary. This artist is doomed to loneliness and ridicule that commonly besieges those who are misunderstood. The only ones who can understand and appreciate them are those few “prophets” who occupy lower segments and see beyond their own limitations. These are the ones who help “the advance of the obstinate whole.”

This philosophical fabrication, like the Aristotlean Ladder, stands only because of its oversimplification. Before I move further into this text where WK embellishes this construct, I’d like to explore what I think he means.

Kandinsky saw himself as a visionary – a genius. He felt alone. He felt that only prophets could recognize his genius. This may all have been reality, but it was also self-imposed. It’s human nature to feel misunderstood and alone. But, it’s not helpful. Artists are particularly vulnerable to this feeling and it’s a pity.

I see artists existing in a network, a web-like structure. All of us share this web; we’re interconnected. I don’t believe that what we produce is “equal.” Some, obviously, are more innovative than others and their work becomes historically significant and, therefore, more valuable to society. If someone is isolated, it’s because they want to feel isolated. That’s how it seems to me.

What’s your opinion?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Four Categories of Artists

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler
Painting: Painting with Three Spots, Wassily Kandinsky, 1914

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Although I’m only three pages or so into this section of Kandinsky’s book, it’s apparent that he has rejected materialism in favor of primitivism in order to connect with what he feels is worthy of artistic expression: our innermost thoughts. Anything external to that is a distraction and, in his opinion, evil. Taking an extreme approach may be distasteful to most people and seemingly unrealistic but I think WK needed to do this in order to find focus and innovate. So, I’ll continue reading.

Kandinsky instructs us about the motivations of artists and viewers through contrasts. He categorizes them:

1. Artists who use their work for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment. Schumann’s definition: “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” These artists produce (usually commissioned) allegorical work from an external source.

2. Competent artists (technicians). Tolstoy’s definition: “An artist is a man who can draw and paint everything.” Kandinsky notes that the works of these artists evoke admiration from viewers for their skill, but are lacking spirit. He writes, “But hungry souls go hungry away.”

3. Artists who produce “art for art’s sake.” Viewers of these works find them “pretty” or “nice” but vacant of meaning. According to Kandinsky, these artists are sell-outs who paint just for material reward and to satisfy vanity and greed. This leads to competition, over-production, hatred, jealousy, and so on.

These first three categories of artists, according to WK, produce “barren art.” He writes, “This art, which has no power for the future, which is only a child of the age and cannot become a mother of the future, is a barren art. She is transitory and to all intent dies the moment the atmosphere alters which nourished her."

And then, there’s the fourth category of artists and viewers:

4. Artists whose work springs from the spirit of contemporary feeling, which is capable of educating further. This work is uplifting and meaningful to its viewers.

Clearly, WK supports this fourth category and values it above all others. He’s an idealist and I admire his ideals. We may argue that any form of idealism is too limiting for something as nebulous as “fine art.” But, that’s up to the individual artist. In forming a philosophy, Kandinsky’s concern was not with commercial success, but with the spiritual aspect of his artmaking. Most of us professional artists must be concerned with commercial success in order to support ourselves. And, this is where Kandinsky finds fault with many artists: seeking commercial success compromises the creation of spiritually authentic work.

It IS a struggle. These two competing forces pull me in opposite directions as I struggle to keep my work spiritually pure. So, I think WK has a point but I can’t adopt his strict philosophy. After all, I am the product of this time, place, and culture. My concerns are uniquely my own.

How about you?

Monday, January 31, 2011

What's worthy of expression?

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: On White II, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Moving on past the first two paragraphs of this section, Kandinsky expresses his despair over the “harsh tyranny of materialistic philosophy” that “divide(s) our soul sharply from that of the Primitives.” These diametrically opposed entities are defined as the difference between being purely external with no future (materialism) and being internal containing the seed of the future within itself (primitive). This philosophical distinction should be interpreted within the context of Kandinsky’s psychological transition at the time.

Disenchanted with the effects of materialism, Kandinsky saw it as the catalyst for the expression of the basest human emotions and behavior. In contrast, removing oneself from the pursuit of materialism awakens the “subtler emotions” that, when expressed in a work of art, “give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”

Before moving on to the rest of Kandinsky’s explanation, I’d like to explore this part. I’m interested in Kandinsky’s fascination with the Primitives. He seems to equate “primitive” with “simplicity” - an unsophisticated and uncomplicated state. Apparently, without the complications of our materialistic society we artists could more easily tap into ourselves to reveal our “lofty” emotions. Kandinsky elevates our emotions to the noblest level, worthy of artistic expression to the exclusion of all else.

At least, that’s how it seems to me at only three pages into his short book. Kandinsky looks to our motivations in artmaking. He challenges them and looks for value or worth. So, what is worthy of artistic expression? What do you think?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Revivals, Soullessness, and Depth

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: Harmony Tranquille by Wassily Kandinsky, 1924

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Kandinsky begins this section with Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. His point is that art is produced within a culture at a specific time that can never be replicated. Therefore, a revival of any past art form is a dead exercise since we can’t relive the past.

This is so true. About a decade ago, while I was still teaching at a nearby liberal arts college, I witnessed the revival of the hippie culture. My students began to wear knock-off clothes from the 60’s and adopted the language and attitudes. However, they had no understanding of the time and our disillusionment with the war in Viet Nam, the “establishment,” the sexual and drug revolutions, and the push for civil rights. We lived in a riotous time of fear and passion that these students hadn’t experienced. I remember standing before a class and asking them “What would you die for? What cause do you care so much about that you would give your life for it?” They looked completely confused and had no answer. They didn't understand.

Similarly, Kandinsky points out that our art must reflect our time. We can’t relive the past and we can’t revive the past in a meaningful way. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks, he writes. In the same way those who strive to follow the Greek methods in sculpture achieve only a similarity of form, the work remaining soulless for all time. Such imitation is mere aping.

Nevertheless, the human condition is timeless. There are internal processes and emotions that transcend time and inform artists throughout the ages. It is these “fundamental truths,” as Kandinsky puts it, that link us with the past and are worthy of revival and expression.

When we think of works of art that are deemed a “masterpiece” it seems that they must possess two characteristics: technical mastery and a depiction of some aspect of the human condition. These works evoke emotions from viewers of all ages and cultures. They reflect what we all experience: love, hate, vengeance, lust, solitude, companionship, disease, hopelessness, hope, and so on. This statement may be too general, but there’s an element of truth in it.

I’ve covered only the first two paragraphs of Kandinsky’s first chapter but it’s enough to reflect upon for awhile. When I look back on my body of work, I need to consider its depth. Depth … an important and interesting word.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Birth of a Philosophy, Kandisky's transformation

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler
image: painting by Kandinsky

Continuing where I left off (the introduction written by the translator, Sadler) it’s interesting to learn about what transformed Kandinsky’s early work into “groundbreaking” work. Changing careers and moving to Munich to study painting in the 1890’s was critical to this transformation. At that time, younger German artists had broken free of the academy-dominated art world and began a new style called Jugendstil, noted for its simplified abstraction and beauty. Therefore, Kandinsky was able to simultaneously engage in traditional painting at the university and the avant-garde art practiced by his contemporaries. This was an important influence on his later painting style and philosophy.

Rather than discussing all the details of Kandinsky’s professional life, I’ll run through the transformations in his work as he developed his distinctive and original personal style:

Initially, the Jugendstil influence led him to interpret fairytale narratives with bright colors. A little later, feeling the need to travel extensively, Kandinsky was exposed to the early exhibits of the Fauves which had a lifelong impact on him. According to Sadler: in their paintings, he saw the liberation of color, and the artist spent the rest of the decade absorbing and incorporating the implications of this freedom in his art.

This led to a major breakthrough for Kandinsky when he moved back to Munich in 1908 at a mountain resort. There, he combined Fauvist color with the primitiveness and directness derived from his Russian heritage. At first, he produced expressionist landscapes and then moved into abstraction. During this time, Kandinsky aligned with the group Der Blaue Reiter because their focus was to express their inner selves rather than conform to a single style. The artist stated: I value only those artists who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise. Thus, Kandinsky’s artmaking became a search for spiritual reality through art and his philosophy was born.

We’ll delve into part one of his philosophy next time.

Reading this progression in Kandinsky’s philosophy made me wonder more about my own evolution as an artist. There are some major influences, but I can’t quite put my finger on more than one or two “aha!” moments. I’ll have to spend more time reflecting on this.
How about you?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
By Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

It’s time to review another book! I’m reading Concerning the Spiritual in Art written by the famous nonobjective painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) as an explanation of his theory of painting. The book is divided into two parts: part one is “a call for a spiritual revolution in painting that will let artists express their own inner lives in abstract, non-material terms” and part two is a discussion of “the psychology of colors, the language of form and color, and the responsibilities of the artist.”

Today, I’ll begin with some background information provided by the book’s translator, Sadler. Most of you already know that Kandinsky was born in Moscow to an aristocratic family and was raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, which influenced him during his entire life. Successful in academics, he studied political economy and law at Moscow University where he was appointed lecturer in jurisprudence. By the time he was thirty years old, he was offered a professorship at another institution and turned it down to travel to Munich to study painting. Quite a change in direction, but a little predictable since he had been fascinated with the arts since childhood.

In 1895, Kandinsky was profoundly influenced by an exhibition of the French Impressionists in Moscow. When he saw Monet’s “Haystack” he said: “I had the impression that here painting itself comes into the foreground; I wondered if it would not be possible to go further in this direction.” So, that’s why he moved to Germany to study painting.

I’ll stop at this point in Kandinsky’s life in order to reflect upon the importance of early influences coupled with opportunity. This artist was very lucky to have been born to wealthy parents who provided ample support, education, and exposure to many art forms from his earliest years. Often, I’ve reflected on how much my parents encouraged me to become an artist, even before I entered kindergarten. Likewise, there was a specific painting that made me imagine what could be if I pursued art as a professional.

How many of us have a similar story to tell?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Imagination and The Box

Image on right: The First Law of Thermodynamics by K.A. Cartwright, watercolor on paper

Imagine” is the most powerful word I know aside from the word “love.” It’s essential to artmaking and the process by which we conceive ideas for our work. Webster’s defines imagine as the ability to form a mental image of something that is not present or that is not the case.

Joseph Joubert once stated that “Imagination is the eye of the soul.”

Muhammad Ali said “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

and, Napoleon Bonaparte felt that “Imagination rules the world.”

The power of imagination cannot be overstated. For artists, it’s our greatest and most essential asset. So, I’m wondering why we often choose to underutilize this asset. Here are a few self-imposed reasons:

1. Inhibitions and fears
2. Biases and prejudices
3. Lack of confidence in one’s own imagination (which leads to conformity and imitation)
4. Unwillingness to expand one’s horizons to learn about more possibilities
5. No sense of adventure

Perhaps you can add to this list.

Since childhood I’ve indulged my daydreams. I think they deserve lots of my time although only a small fraction of my imaginings become works of art. But, being a daydreamer as a child was difficult. Teachers, and sometimes parents, scolded us children to stop daydreaming and pay attention; to "get our heads out of the clouds." It’s as though society conspired to beat the imagination out of its children so that we would all think alike and “behave.” We grew up to become unimaginative adults and then face the confusing task of contributing to “think tanks” when we enter the work force. “Think outside the box” is our mantra. Well, who built the box and put our imaginations into it??

Where is the key to unlocking this box? We’ve had it in our hands all along. As adults, we control how much or little we use our imaginations and our art reflects our choice. My persoanl fault is in allowing inhibitions to interfere and that’s something I’ll continue to work at.

Our old friend, Anonymous, once said that imagination is intelligence having fun. Are you having fun?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chasing rabbits and losing direction

Have you ever spent years working on just one series of paintings and then abandoned it? I have, many times. The "All Cracked Up" series (image) includes over fifty works in watercolor, acrylic, and oil that took five years to complete. I've sold all but a dozen of them and decided that was enough. Well ... never say never. Lately, a lot of folks have shown interest and so now I'm considering returning to it, or at least working at it on the side while I continue to paint "The Laws of Nature" series.

Most of you are probably thinking: "duh!" OK, I admit to being a little dense but I like to compartmentalize my creativity so that I don't get lost in it. I think we all have more ideas for paintings than time and energy. It's easy to chase a whole herd of rabbits down their maze of individual holes and lose focus. I used to do that when I started painting, but soon learned to hone in on one or two ideas and do them well.
There is no one correct approach to artmaking, so it's really a matter of finding a process that matches how we think. I can stick with the same series for at least half a decade and not get bored. There's always something new to "say." Other folks would find this tedious and a creativity killer.

Now that I have so little time to paint, I have time to think about the next steps. I think these steps will be working on my new series while resurrecting two previous series. I'll chase three rabbits and, hopefully, not lose direction.

What's your process?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"European definition of art is absurd"

Recently, I was reading an article in “The Art Newspaper” online entitled “European definition of art is absurd.” (click on title to read entire article) Of course, any article with that kind of title catches my attention since we’ve spent so much time on this blog discussing what IS and ISN’T “art.”

The catalysts for this European controversy are two video works installed at the Haunch of Venison contemporary art gallery: Hall of Whispers, 1995, by Bill Viola (image) and Six Alternating Cool White/Warm White Fluorescent Lights Vertical and Centred, 1973, by Dan Flavi. Last August, the European Commission determined that these works of art are merely equipment. That is, they are “DVD players and projectors” as well as “light fittings” and not “art” at all. Naturally, this meant that the works were subject to higher taxes and customs duty rather than a greatly reduced rate that would normally be applied to art when it’s imported for exhibition. But, the money really isn't the issue.
The real issue is what makes something a work of “art”? Defenders of the “this is art argument” state that “it is the content recorded on the DVD which, together with the components of the installation, provides for the modern art”. Personally, I agree because I believe that the artist’s intent is critical to making something a work of art.

However, the Commission “rejected the classification as sculpture because it is not the installation that constitutes a ‘work of art’ but the result of the operations (the light effect) carried out by it.” The author of the article asks: “Does this mean that if a Flavin is switched on, it is a work of art, but if switched off, it is not?” Good question!

You may read the rest of the article yourself to get all the details. I’m just getting to the heart of the controversy and speculating about what this decision means for artist and art in general. Do artists who use electronics as a medium fail to make art? I mean, does the medium really matter? I just use paper, canvas and paint. Louise Nevelson used scraps of wood she found on the street – parts of old chairs, desks, tables, and crates. Isn’t that art? What’s the difference here?
P.S. Sorry for the long absence. Hubby had operation, house is up for sale since he just retired and we're moving to Maine, and lots of other stuff going on!

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Rose is Not a Rose

My job is to see what other people have seen and to find something new in it. I heard this on a video about scientists the other day and wrote it down because it applies to artists.

There’s plenty of redundant subject matter in art. Here’s the typical list for paintings: landscapes, seascapes, flowers, portraits, still-life settings, allegorical and historical scenes, and non-objective. Most of us can say “been there, done that” when it comes to these subjects. But, the reason these subjects are so popular throughout time is because that’s what people want to see. So, how can we continue to produce artwork and avoid pointless redundancy? By, as the scientist stated, finding something new in what everyone else sees.

For example, many paintings of roses exist. But, here are some unusual examples that best illustrate that these artists were able to find something “new” in a rose:

by Georgia O'Keeffe

by Wayne Theibaud

by Salvidore Dali

Years ago, I became aware of the fact that I was only painting “pretty pictures.” There was no substance, no unique viewpoint, and no indication that I had anything important to add to the dialogue of art. This realization occurred during my first semester of studio painting in college three decades ago. The professor commented that my work was worthy of a department store and not much else. It was unoriginal and ordinary - vacuous. His comment was critically important to making me realize that I was a technician and not an artist. I had great painting technique – and that was all.

It’s taken a long time for me to find my voice and express it effectively in my paintings. I see it as a life-long quest and look to my dear friend as a role model. She’s an 84-year-old sculptor/painter. Each year, without fail, she expands her repertoire by creating something entirely new that expresses her unique ideas. Her work appears in venues around the world every year as she pushes it out the door. She’ll persist until she takes her last breath. I aspire to this, myself.

What about you?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Self-censorship and Fine Art

In this country, censorship is a controversial act. On the one hand, it’s used to protect society (especially children) from that which is deemed too violent, lewd or indecent. On the other hand, the act of censorship infringes upon our guaranteed individual rights and freedoms. In the world of fine art, censorship is extremely controversial because the artist’s freedom of expression is valued to a certain extent. So, society is more tolerant and even outraged when artists are censored on occasion.

Extrinsically imposed censorship isn’t today’s topic, however. Instead, I want to focus on intrinsically imposed censorship. That is, how and why do we artists choose to censor our own work? Do we adopt the same standards as external censors? How do we censor our work? And, why?

Shock artists specialize in rebelling against imposed standards. In the grand scheme of things, they are few in number but they do push and even blur the boundaries that define fine art. Although it seems ridiculous today, remember the controversy that surrounded John Singer Sargeant’s painting Madame X? A single strap fallen from the shoulder of a married woman was scandalous! He was forced to repaint the strap back up onto the shoulder. Today, no one would give it a second thought. So, the line between what is moral and “decent” and what is not is ever moving. It’s subjective and changes with time. Artists from all disciplines are frequently the catalyst for this change.

So, when we self-censor our work, are we artists guilty of inhibiting the advancement of the arts? Does advancement necessarily occur by challenging the social norms? I often think about this because the status quo is so comfortable, but if I want to grow artistically I have to shake up my world. I need to question it.

For instance, I have uncensored thoughts all the time. But, before I speak, write, or draw them I make them more socially “acceptable.” I think about whether or not my thoughts will offend others and modify the expression of them to something more palatable. I’m polite. Maybe, too polite. Should I be?

Furthermore, if I find self-censorship to be necessary for my own work, will I impose my standards on the works of others? Should I?

What do you think?