Wandering the Gallery: Survey before evaluate

This next Thanksgiving week, my wife and I will be traveling back to our old stomping grounds in Northwest Arkansas. I was hoping to visit the recently completed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (funny video announcing their opening) if we could squeeze it into our trip. Sadly, you need to reserve tickets to get in before January, and the day we’ll be down there is already sold out. Regardless, the opportunity started me thinking about my own gallery experiences again.

I’ve recently come to realize that I like to survey an exhibit or gallery before intently viewing individual works. I’m trying to decide if this is just a part of who I am or if it’s an unfortunate symptom of a culture too fast paced for its own good. Maybe some of both.

Of course, this means that some of the time I don’t get back to viewing individual works. I’m curious to hear how other people approach a museum of art, if they’ve ever thought through it.

Our misguided art education

I was going through my drafts this morning, trying to decide if there were any worth posting, and found this one. It’s appropriate mainly because my wife just gave me the book that historian and critic Daniel Seidell comments on for Comment magazine:

There are few cultural practices more misunderstood and misinterpreted than art. The misunderstanding starts in grade school art classes and is affirmed every step of the way through adulthood. We are taught that art is fun, it is whatever you want it to be, anyone can do it if they really wanted to, and that it expresses your individuality and creativity. What is more, we also learn that professional artists are quirky creative types that don’t quite “fit in” with the rest of us. We are also taught that art is a nice decoration to have around but thoroughly unnecessary for daily life. Yet we are also told that “the arts” are important for our local communities. And, perhaps most problematically of all, we are told that even though we don’t know much about art, we know good art when we see it.

This is a fantastic synopsis that, in essence, summarizes a number of things said on this blog over the past few years. Read Seidell’s article in its entirety, a review of Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World, via this link.

Tornadoes as inspiration, not necessarily being glorified

It’s been a positively nutty tornado season so far this year, the exclamation point being the so-called super outbreak this past week in the deep south, in Dixie Ally.

Contrary to what viewers of my own process and artwork might think, my creating sculptures of supercells and tornadoes does not necessarily equate to glorifying these storms. While an artist’s subject matter is can usually be tied directly to personal interests or experience in some way or another, that which the the painter or sculptor portrays is not necessarily the same thing as what he believes in or wants to commend.

Let us remember artwork that has portrayed objects, ideas and situations that we would not call good. Guernica for instance, among other depictions of war. Mountains, in context, were not something always considered beautiful or pastoral, but thought of in the traditional understanding of the sublime they were feared. Thunderstorms are what I’d also call sublime. They are also something I think of as a part of our fallen world. Such violent storms are not the “world that ought to be” to use the words of the International Arts Movement.

From a distance, the form of a thunderstorm billowing up into the sky can be absolutely stunning. And they can also produce destructive tornadoes. Part of what I’m drawn to is the contrast of this beautiful form and its colors — as the sun sets on the towering anvil — with the unyielding power under the meso.

Tornadoes have been a part of my life since I was very young. As a child I was afraid of them, actually, until I was about 12 years old. That said, I don’t create storm-related artwork to glorify these destructive natural events.

As storm chasing has become ever more popular, I have to wonder if some people do chase, photograph and take videos of these monsters in order to glorify them. From what I can tell, this seems to be the case with amateur chasers more often than professionals. The professionals have a much better grasp of what they’re dealing with. I had the chance to talk with photographer Ryan McGinnis — who tagged along with the Vortex II team — last month which helped confirm this assessment. Pros like Ryan have a much better handle on the science and risks associated with supercells and tornadoes than some of the rabble posting crazy videos to YouTube. Even professional showboats like the Discovery Channel’s Reed Timmer keep the science a priority (which you can tell from his Twitter feed). Although I sometimes wonder about Sean Casey.

Something very fascinating which stood out about yesterday’s event is that, aside from their very violent nature, so many of the tornadoes had numbers of horizontal vortices coming from the sides of the tornadoes themselves, as well as satellites from above. This is not something commonly seen, with maybe one or two tornadoes per year displaying these characteristics, and usually more subtly than the examples from yesterday. Obviously, the environment over northern and central Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia was perfect for these kinds of freak tornadoes.

Show, don’t tell: Numb3rs

Lately the wife has been watching the crime fighting television program Numb3rs.

Numb3rs seems to me a fantastic example of telling, not showing. The dialog in parts of the first season that I’ve seen with her is almost comically overt at times. It almost sounds like an advertisement for mathematics.

It’s somewhat appropriate that I found this clip for The Aesthetic Elevator. Despite being poor at math in general, the Golden Ratio has fascinated me as an artist and designer since high school.

Thoughts on the NEA, government, the arts

I’m almost always a smaller is better type of guy when it comes to government, but two things in the past two months had me reconsidering the value of the National Endowment for the Arts. One was a Makoto Fujimura comment on Facebook (that I’m not going to have the time to go back and look for) and the other was an article titled Barack Obama and the Arts: A disappointment. I’m wondering if I can flesh out my thoughts with a few words here.

Reasons the federal government should support the arts financially: It validates of the arts in our culture. It shows the government believes the arts have value. They are putting their money where their mouth is; talk is cheap, especially when it comes from Washington D.C, and at the least I do like seeing artwork in public buildings.

Is this worth it though, is the next question? Should taxpayer dollars, public dollars, be spent on the arts (outside of new art for public buildings)? This is quite a wriggly can of worms. It brings up questions such as “What is art?” or “What is good art?” Just because you might want to spend money on that sculpture doesn’t mean your neighbor will.

Of course, when it comes to legislation and divvying up tax monies we could also be asking “If the monies are spent on such and such, why aren’t they should be spent on the arts too?”

Or should the government stick solely to infrastructure and defense of country? I don’t have answers.

Where does content in an artwork come from?

Image Journal featured artist John Frame in their last newsletter. Frame’s work is fascinating, and slightly disturbing, and in an interview he says a couple of things I felt the need to respond to in some form or fashion.

The subject matter of art can be anything that the artist chooses. The content however will always and only be who the artist has made him or herself into.

There is a lot of truth in this statement. I’ve said before, particularly when talking about painter Thomas Kinkade, that the subject matter of art is not something I’ll debate with an artist. I may not appreciate every subject, I may not be drawn into every subject, but subject matter is up to the artist. Frame’s point about content being separate from subject matter is not something that I’ve considered, at least not using those terms.

Subject: An object, scene, incident, etc., chosen by an artist for representation

Content: Something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing, or any of various arts

In general I think of the subject of a work of art as a tool for conveying what Dictionary.com suggests as the content (more commonly referred to, it seems to me, as the message or meaning). Frame’s comment about content seems to born out of Modernism, which commonly glorifies the individual. Curiously though, his observation seems somewhat aloof — if I can make this kind of judgment based such a brief video interview. For some reason, the comment comes across as academic more than personal.

This is an age-old debate really, one that is not a stranger to The Aesthetic Elevator. How much of the artist should come through in a work? Is serious artwork self-expressive or reserved? Is the content of a painting negated by the raucous lifestyle of of the painter?

We expect each artist to have his or her own style. We each work a little bit differently. We each respond to inspiration around us in our own way. Each artist has their own process. We each come from different roots that color our approaches, our choices on subject matter and so forth. Each artist has a different passion that will show up over time in their style. But is this, “who the artist has made him or herself into,” really what amounts to content, the meaning of a work? Frame talks about meaning a little later in the interview.

When people ask what the work is about, the real answer is that it isn’t about anything and that’s not to say that it’s meaningless rather than it carries its meaning in its own way and on its own terms. And I really think the only way to understand that meaning is by looking and letting go of thinking.

Again there is truth in what the artist says, but I can’t agree wholeheartedly. I’m not going to argue with an artist about whether or not there is intended meaning in a work. That’s for the artist alone to know, and share if he likes. Of course, content, meaning, comes through regardless of an artist’s intentions. I appreciate Frame’s emphasis on looking, but I’m not certain why letting go of thinking needs to be part of viewing art.

I do agree that our own roots, preconceptions, baggage as it were impede looking. If he means that we should let go of or carefully moderate these sometime hindrances while viewing a sculpture or painting I agree. If he’s suggesting that we should check our intellect at the door of the gallery, I disagree.

Still, it’s a good interview and fascinating interactive sculpture. Have a look.

Does church life stifle your creativity?

An encouraging word from a recent post on Donald Miller’s blog titled Is Church Life Stifling Your Creativity?

There is a difference between what “the church” wants you to do and what God wants you to do. Do what God wants you to do. Go and create, even as you were made to create.

In the brief entry he looks at how David’s Song of Solomon, a beautiful poetic work, would be viewed by Evangelicals today. The criticisms Miller imagines are all too realistic. Read his short entry via this link.

“It’s hard to create things”

So instead of responding to something we may not like through crafting a response, we merely don a cape of criticism suggests Donald Miller in a brief blog entry titled The Fear of Doing.

Today I read an article on a blog about a creative project, and how some people liked it and some people didn’t, and I kept wondering, when I was reading the comments from people who didn’t like it, why their response was to comment about not liking it rather than to create something better. Nobody stands around a negative comment and talks about how great it is, or how well it’s written, or how it’s going to change the world.

But then I also understand why people do and say such things. It’s hard to create things. It takes confidence and resources, two things that don’t come easily or naturally.

Read the short piece in its entirety via this link.

Ubiquitous cameras and copyright. Again.

Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q

A brief article from the New York Times, When it’s illegal to photograph artwork, suggests it’s illegal to photograph any other artwork under any circumstances unless the work is in the public domain. The impetus for the article was the writer’s own thought that a cheap way to obtain artwork for your home would be to blow up and frame a photo you took yourself at a gallery. Which my wife pointed out — I was very proud of her when she said this — isn’t at all the same thing as actually hanging a work of art on your wall.

My apologies to Karen Krull Robarts. And as a sidenote Karen, I think I dreamt about owning one of your works last night. Some day I will make it a reality!

The comments on the Times article are what makes this all worth posting on. I’m going to relay a few of them here and let the rest be hashed out in the comments, if you feel as though there’s anything to hash.

  • You should research architecture copyright. Can you legally take a photo of a building, even with someone standing in front as a tourist?
  • Yet another discussion of copyright issues that totally ignores the legal concept of Fair Use. [sigh]
  • Contrary to the wishes of many rights holders, all unauthorized copying of copyrighted works is not infringement. Fair use is a public right vis a vis all works. Taking a photo of a work for personal or academic use would likely be found to be a fair use. Similar to sending a xerox of a newspaper article to a daughter.
  • And all those young artists with sketchpads sitting in museums whom we have seen over the years?
  • Think of the large, flat-screen televisions hanging on millions of living-room walls. Most of the time the TV is dark, like a missing tooth. Now imagine that the TV is connected to a web site that has thousands of high-quality art images available to be viewed. What a wonderful experience it would be to have those images available, perhaps through a monthly subscription. If Google can scan millions of books, it surely could scan at most a hundred thousand key works of art. The museums that own the art would receive a recurring payment stream.

Modern art evokes more emotion

A Miller-McCune brief alerts us to a survey recently published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. That sounds like something I need to subscribe to. It also sounds like something over my head.

The survey, conducted by the University of Rome, suggests — I can’t make myself use the word “concludes” when they only talked to 137 people — that visitors to museums exhibiting modern art are more likely to engage the artwork emotionally, while those viewing classical works use their brains.

A sound work of art will invite a viewer to employ both their emotions and cognitive skills. Both are valid responses; as humans we’re both emotional and thinking creatures. Imagining myself walking through a gallery, I can’t separate my own responses. A well crafted still life or portrait elicits just as much emotion as a modern work, and vice versa.

Some artwork will, admittedly, evoke emotion more easily than others. And that’s OK. The model for the following sculpture was the sculptor’s six year old daughter. In the context of the title of the work, it’s entirely appropriate.


Guernica by French artist René Iché. Image from Wikipedia.


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