We take heart from form in art because in the last analysis it is a convincing metaphor for wholeness in life. Even when life seems broken.
Robert Adams, Art Can Help
The renown photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson, often spoke of the geometry of the picture, which is another way of saying composition or form. For there to be a convincing metaphor of wholeness, the shapes, lines, tones, contrasts, shadows and color must work in concert to evoke truth and reveal the universal in the specific. The best pictures—those worthy of being called art—point beyond themselves.
Photographs, in particular, remind us of what once was and is no more—the loved ones now gone forever, the places we knew now irrevocably changed, and the shared experiences with friends and family we can never repeat. Photographs exist in the now but are always about the past and future. They help us locate who, what and where we are in our journey, and where we may be going.
Art is not utilitarian like a shovel or a frying pan, but it is indispensable to a life of meaning, awakening, joy and beauty, and it helps make us whole.
“Religion and Art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and Art are strangers.” Willa Cather
There is much speculation about how the art world will survive the Covid 19 pandemic. Most of what I’ve read centers on the financial devastation that will be incurred. Many galleries and museums are closing, art events and exhibits are being cancelled indefinitely, many university art programs will cease to exist, and thousands of artists are losing income. When the pandemic ends the world economies will have little, if any, funding left for arts and culture
But art and art making will survive. People made art long before money was conceived; long before the concepts of marketing, finance and economics were thought of; long before art was commodified and artists turned into production workers; long before art became a profession and universities offered Master of Fine Arts degrees.
Art making will remain available as a form of meditation or prayer. It can be a therapeutic practice—a way of expressing feelings—a way for the individual, or a group, to express joy at being alive. It can offer respite or a means of protest. It can be bartered for goods and services. It can be done just for the fun of it. Moreover, one’s artwork need not be sold to be valid and meaningful. Art making is its own reward. Nonetheless, artists should expect and demand fair prices when their artwork is sold. And the serious artist must work with integrity and self respect.
One revelation I take from the Covid 19 pandemic is that solace, meditation and joy may be found in drawing and painting. But for most artists drawing and painting necessitates studio space, tools, materials and storage which can be impossible to acquire or secure in the challenging circumstances we are now experiencing.
For the past few days I have been using the Procreate application on my iPad to make digital paintings and drawings. Until recently I had dismissed the iPad as a serious art tool and medium. But I came to realize it offers an efficient, forgiving, flexible, mobile, economic, and aesthetically pleasing way to work. The Procreate application, combined with the Apple Pencil and the iPad’s touch screen permits the immediate capture of nuanced and pressure sensitive marks and strokes. And there is no paper, charcoal, graphite or paint being consumed. Nor do the resulting jpegs (or Tiffs, PSDs) require a flat file for storage. Moreover, the final art can be shared online or printed out, singly or in editions. It can also be used to make books, presentations and animations.
Everyone has an opinion about what Art is or isn’t. When asked to explain their opinion they may say art is whatever the artist says it is. Or, I don’t know much about art but I know what I like. Neither response is satisfactory and each is a protestation of ignorance.
But what then elevates something to the status of art with a capital A? In the Balinese language, for example, there is no word for art or artist, even though the Balinese people produce exquisite paintings, carvings, weavings, music, writing and dance. In their culture artistic expression is an inextricable part of their religion and rituals.
And then there is the question of beauty. Many people, probably most, would aver that art must be beautiful. But what constitutes beauty?
In his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” His words posit that the measure of art is how close it brings us to the truth‚ regardless of whether that truth is pleasant or disturbing. So a truthful painting, depicting the horror of war, may be a beautiful picture brilliantly executed by a skilled and passionate artist—a genuine work of art. But it will not be pretty or pleasant to behold.
The following are some of the many questions about what is art that defy definitive answers but are worth pondering:
How broad and inclusive can the definition of art be before it becomes meaningless?
For something to be a work of art, must its maker have intended it to be art?
Marcel Duchamp said of his work, “It is Art if I say so.” In today’s art world this is an accepted dictum. But, is art really whatever the artist says it is?
Can one become a legitimate artist just by proclaiming that they are? Am I a chef because I can scramble eggs and brew coffee?
If everyone can be an artist, and art is whatever the artist says it is, what meaningful measures of artistic quality and excellence can there be?
Is art always political?
When a work is fabricated by skilled craftspersons and technicians, following the artist’s specifications, are they all the artist?
One of the most difficult decisions for an artist to make is what to charge for her or his work. Let’s consider the following example of a hypothetical painter.
Janine is an experienced but not well-known artist. She has spent most of her adult life living in a small town in a “flyover” state. In the town there is a frame shop that sells the work of local artists, and a member supported cooperative gallery that limps along on membership fees and grants. Janine has a deep knowledge of art history and has honed her painting skills over a period of more than 20 years, but she lacks formal credentials—having not so much as an Associates degree. But she is not a Sunday dauber. And though she lacks formal art credentials and the recognition of the art world, she is, nonetheless, a real artist. When she can’t make art she suffers—like a mother torn away from her child. It is art and art making that gives her meaning and purpose. And though her art brings her joy it sometimes plunges her into despair and self doubt, causing her to question why she follows this path that demands so much sacrifice.
Janine’s paintings are not conventional, pretty, cute or clever. They are non-representational. She doesn’t paint pictures of adorable puppies or stunning sunsets. She does not study what sells and then conform her paintings to the demands and preferences of the market. She does not make a fetish of technique. She does not paint for an audience and acclaim. She is not an entertainer. Janine paints to express feelings from the core of her being. She finds solace in art making. She uses her art to express and share what is otherwise ineffable. For her painting is visual poetry and inquiry. It is a form of breathing; of being.
So asking Janine, the artist, the price of any one of her paintings is to ask her to place a monetary value on part of her soul—something she (or any artist) should never undervalue.
I came of age before the personal computer was common. I learned to draw and paint using ink, charcoal, pencils, watercolors, acrylics and pastels. But in the 1980s, as a young graphic designer and photographer, I incorporated a Macintosh computer into my studio practice and was an early adopter of the PhotoShop and Adobe Illustrator software programs. Eventually I transitioned from using film cameras to using digital single lens reflex and mirrorless cameras.
My experience with traditional mediums and the digital environment has made clear to me that art making, designing and photography remain open to the full range of tools, methods and technology, whether old school or new, in any combination, analog or digital.
Recently I have been using my iPad, Apple Pencil and the applications Procreate and Sketchbook by Auto Desk, to develop sketches for paintings I may later do with real paint on canvas and as finished art files to be used online or printed.
Cosmic Eggs, shown above, is one example. This image also incorporates one of my photographs.
Line is fundamental in the visual arts. It is a principle element in design. Yet there is no line in nature. It is an epiphenomenon like the shadow—something perceived as being but which is actually the byproduct of something else.
The simplest definition of a line is a mark that stretches between two points and has the properties of width and height (thickness). But in our daily lives and conversation there are many kinds of line. We hear and speak of: bus lines, party lines, border lines, crossing the line, firing lines, lines of fire, fire lines, starting lines, finish lines, family lines, assembly lines, toeing the line, tow lines, timelines, clothes lines, battle lines, sight lines, blood lines, and shore lines. But never is there a specific, physical thing that is a line and nothing else. A line is always determined and perceived in context.
The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, which is located on the campus of Michigan State University, is, quoting their website, “Expressly dedicated to exploring contemporary culture and ideas through the probing gaze of international artists, the MSU Broad is a place where artists’ ideas, words, and actions create a vibrant center for questioning and understanding the world.”
Housed in a stunning building that was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the 2004 Pritzker prize winning architect, and financed by the largess of Eli Broad, the “Broad,” as it is called around here, has generated a range of reaction. Some people love it. Some loath it. But few who know about the place remain indifferent to it.
A museum, by definition, is a place in which objects of established historical, scientific and cultural significance are housed and exhibited. So then how can there be a museum of contemporary art? How can art being made in our current social and cultural milieu already be deemed worthy of preservation and veneration?
The Broad, in its current guise, succeeds in provoking thought—encouraging the visitor to ask such questions as:
Is what I am seeing/experiencing Art? Why or why not?
Am I open to seeing and perceiving in new and uncomfortable ways?
Does the Art reside in the object? Or does it reside in the guiding concept?
Am I, the viewer/experiencer, necessary to complete this art by my presence?
What knowledge of art should I bring to this encounter?
Do I need to broaden my thinking about what art can be?
The Broad, however, continues to struggle with its identity. Who is it for? What is its fundamental purpose? It calls for people to come and be culturally and artistically enriched, even as it confronts them with art that is often alien to their life experience, comfort level, knowledge, education, tastes and values. This, of course, is a good thing—provoking curiosity and learning—expanding the individual’s horizons. But it is also the privileging of the artistic values and tastes of the museum directors, curators, art collectors, dealers, investors and the art press who decide what will be shown and promoted and what they currently consider a good investment. But, contemporary art by its very nature is not art which has been proven worthy over a period of decades or centuries.
In my opinion the Broad should not be called a museum or pretend to be one. It cannot promise that what it shows today will be remembered as significant one, five, ten or a hundred years from now. Instead it should call itself what it is—The Eli and Edythe Broad Contemporary Art Center.
This past year I was in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. There I stood rapt before Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Primavera, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation and Brunelleschi’s dome crowning Santa Maria del Fiore. I was surrounded by much of the greatest art and architecture ever conceived by the human mind and made by human hands—most of it done at the behest of rich, ruthless and proud patrons seeking to aggrandize themselves and extend their power.
The Florentine ruling families of the Renaissance, the Medici and Strozzi along with the Cardinals and Popes of the Roman church, used the greatest artists and architects of their time to enhance their image and assert their authority. This art and architecture, however, was not the free expression of its makers. It was not done to further artistic ideals and exploration. It was done as a service to those who could demand and pay for it. It was commercial art.
Nonetheless, what I saw in Florence filled me with an awe albeit tinged with sadness. So much skill, sweat and talent had been expended on furthering the aims of the wealthy and powerful.
Today, we as tourists come to admire these frescos, paintings, sculptures and buildings that were commissioned by rapacious, amoral patrons some 500 to 800 hundred years ago—works depicting scenes of battle, beheadings, poisonings, rape, and murder—works done to adorn the halls of power and walls of churches—churches ostensibly dedicated to Christ’s teachings of love and compassion.
Five centuries from now will people travel the world to admire the art and architecture commissioned by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Mussolini? Can something done to further the regime of a tyrant or to glorify the pain and suffering of war truly be a beautiful thing—genuine Art? If so we must concede that certain machine guns are exquisite in their function and form and deserve to be appreciated as art and their creators as artists. If so Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK47, would then be the artistic equal of Leonardo Da Vinci. Surely his invention has had as large an effect.