After making a comment on Facebook regarding the "à la kitsch" animation of Van Gogh paintings I was asked the following questions. (As serious answers to these serious questions were too long for FB, I submit them here) :
First, the questions :
How is it OK for musicians to take an existing song and play it in a different way but it is not OK for artists to take a painting from a known artist and create an animation from it? Both are derivatives of the original work, no?
Short answers :
To the first question : (Short form) : May be OK. . . but.
To the second question : Not necessarily. And therein lies the danger.
Long answer to all:
Music has forever been a medium of “other” interpretation - not just one of appreciation of an original score or a creator’s unique perspective and presentation. Throughout time, it was orally transmitted and eventually was printed out for general consumption. But because of the haphazardness of gone by transmission methods, personal interpretations could not but become the norm. This does not mean that the original score was disrespected. The original score’s intent remained and remains the same despite all allowable variations on a theme. And, today, as the law(s) of the land on copyright stipulate, the use of an original to create another “like but not exactly the same as” is acceptable - but a royalty fee is required for that privilege to be recognized - just as the standard “use” of an original by another also demands a fee. Misusing an original is another matter. And now, it’s time for me to ask a question :
How do the above situations relate to the animating of an original still image?
In the visual arts, an original creator interprets a subject or concept they encounter. Their interpretation is theirs to lay down as a personalized composition who’s elements are positioned according to the individual roles played by each of the elements within that construct. In a master’s hands, such a compositional structure creates a relatable and impactful story which, in turn, emanates from the intention of the creator of that artwork. And yet, a creator of an artwork already acknowledges and expects to have their work “other-interpreted”. As in music, this has been a standard since time immemorial.
But how, in relation to the visual arts, is this legitimately done?
a- through someone simply looking upon the creation and determining through observation that they will “read it” in their own personal way or
b- through the creation of another separate yet related artwork by someone who also wishes to “replay” this scene through "their own eyes" but still use the intent of the original. The only area in which there could be serious questions of legitimacy is when an “other creator” copies an original and signs the name of the original creator - rather than their own or ascribes the original artist's intent to "their new interpretation". Therein lies my "cringing" in regards to this animation project. It "appears" to come close to doing exactly that. . .
My main concern relates to the validity (of interpretation) of any project which, through its manipulation, alters the intent of an original creator by imposing upon that creator’s work an intention or focus which was never the original artist’s. I therefore question the validity of an end product which says : "this is Van Gogh's work" - as seen by "me".. This manipulation implies that the alterations within the animation retain the integrity of Van Gogh's intention(s). How is this possible when a viewer's eyes are being "re-directed" (through additions of and alterations of focus - and this, to lesser elements of the primary composition? Should the new work not be signed by the animators and not attributed in any6 way to Van Gogh? The focal point rendering the artworks "worthy" of animation (having being "reconfigured"or ignored completely ) certainly dictate that this should be so.
That the determination of a message communicated by an artist’s original work must always remain with the artist and not with the newly prescribed intention of an “alterer” is, in my estimation, not that complex a notion. IF an alterer wishes to re-direct the attention of viewers to other elements, that is his or her right. BUT. . . the artworks so altered can no longer be ascribed to the original creator.- and should not be presented or promoted in any way as such.
The role of a viewer / listener
But let’s step back to more clearly explain my concern. Artworks, whether musical or visual, have always included every individual viewer’s, listener’s, interpreter’s perspective as an integral part of their very “existence”. This participation of each and every individual is what gives life to an artwork created. Without this ever-expanding sharing, this ongoing artwork becomes nothing more than a hermit’s cry into an empty wilderness.
But. . .
The animation used to “bring life to Van Gogh’s work” (and that is my contention) irreparably alters the artist's intent; i.e. : that a viewer's capacity to know the real intentions of the artist has been played with and that by imposing a directed viewing via the animation, the animator project has imposed a directed (lessening of the original creator's intent) viewing of the original work itself.
Antidote to the disease of actually thinking and musing
I argue that something which is tantamount to an "antidote to” and therefore an eradication of an audience’s wonderings about an artwork is an act of aggression on the original. A concept which not only redefines, if not outright eliminates the initial intent of an artist, also eliminates the capacity of participating viewers to play a unique part in the revelation and evolving of the particular original idea - and this by creating a “generic interpretation” to which most if not all of us are made to subconsciously adhere to.
In part, this is done by redirecting and intensifying the viewer’s focus (via animation) and leading the eye to and highlighting (individual) details within an artwork which, in the original, are not the primary compositional elements to which the original artist was directing the viewer’s attention. But through this new interpretation, secondary or complementary elements are suddenly given a prominence which they did not deserve in the original composition. This, in turn, deforms the primary intent of the original artist’s concept. It disintegrates a masterful composition by throwing its elements to the wind - thus depicting the whole as nothing more than a lesser “general environment”. In essence, it turns an original composition into a banal stage setting upon which the starring roles have been diluted and lesser players elevated to “positions of importance” by animating them.
Inadvertently, through this process, the old composition is “erased” or mentally eliminated in the minds of viewers, thus causing a disconnect between the original interaction and the newer one which now focuses on a lesser quality interpretation of a story. By reasigning the focal point and other elements of a once master composition, a much lesser compositional expression is created - and yet still ascribed to the master creator! And because this is the result of manipulation of a “master creation” it is difficult for me to not have a problem with this.
Appropriation rather than interpretation
An appropriation of intent is the definition of my worry in this case. Appropriating intent misleads viewers through a deconstruction of original compositional elements. Appropriation is that which destroys the ability of a receiver of an artwork to imagine based on the original”s “raison d’être” - to use his or her own soul to “see in their own way”, to take in, to be touched or moved “by the original creator’s greater statement”.
Please allow me a cogent example of what I am so struggling to say. . . when I worry about content manipulation.
If we look at Van Gogh’s painting “Boerin aardappelen opgravend” (Farmer digging for potatoes) we can see all of the compositional elements which make this work powerful.
The rural setting is hot-heavy in the mid-day sunlight. The season? Fall. The potato plants are already dry and yellowed. Whatever is left as feed is being gathered for the winter. The main subject (the focal point) is obviously the farmer bent over digging, reaching, grabbing, pulling, harvesting. . . . Secondary and tertiary elements towards the center and deeper perspective (the bent gnarled trees hinting at the effects of such hard work) lean heavily as the farmer does. Time is highlighted in the large knothole scarring the main secondary element in this composition. Two trees hint at the back-breaking long hours of bent-over effort. The woman’s back cannot but ache, yet after all of this she must head back to the homestead to cook and clean and care for all that her family needs of her. . . Her position in the quasi center of the composition speaks not only of her but the symbolism that is her - the representation that she is, as well, all of those “others” who must do the same, day in and day out. The stiffness inherent in the work being done by the farmer is as much the main subject as the farmer herself. Even the contrasts, the dark colours of her dress, are integral to those of the background, suggesting she is of the earth and is the earth’s wealth creator. . .
And. . .
These are simply personal musings on a wonderful painting. . . They speak to how a viewer takes in what has been presented to them by a "master story-teller". How another would view this same painting might be completely different and yet just as much an inspiring, awesome matter in the mind of another.
But wouldn’t an animation of the composition add to the message; intensify it, make it easier to comprehend the whole? Would the gnarled branches of the curved tree elements, shown “actually” waving stiffly due to their struggling with an early mistral wind be a better depiction of the story? Isn’t “actually” swaying in such a wind not more poignant than imagining it? Would this not simply add power to the heavy intent of the piece?
On the other hand, would such a notion not detract from the original focal point which already, through our own individual vivid imaginational powers, is the farmer and not the tree?
Would the additional animation of the flowing skirt edge, the moving clouds and fluttering leaves not be that much more intense in their emulation of the daily struggle? Or would they simply become the “new and improved” false focal point - taking away from the actual and more real efforts of the farmer’s exertion? In the original, Van Gogh’s tree(s) repeat the bending in such a way as to subconsciously elevate the farmer’s struggle to a high pinnacle of respectability and grandeur. Our eye remains on “her” - that woman, that farmer, that struggle, those aches, her determination, her grunting and straining. Would it not be amateurishly insulting to that hard worker to give all the credit and attention and glory to trees, a skirt’s flutter, a flitting leaf? Sometimes, all animation does is divert attention to what is real, belittles rather than elevates the original statement of such "an already powerful" Van Gogh.
The killing of imagination
I therefore contend that animation, used in this manner is an "attention grabber" - but rarely, from what I have seen - where that attention should be focused. My contention is that the animation, as presented via Youtube and other social media venues, “deforms” the original intent of Van Gogh while offering up too much information for individual viewer imaginations to do their work. Such animations do effect (reconfigure) viewer “participation” in such a way as to render it a passive rather than active exercise - with no need to think or feel about what the eye and mind see and feel. The result, if not the intent, causes viewers to abandon the initial impact of the original work in order to focus on and take in the superficial importance of actual rather than spiritually induced movement and rhythms and tension and balance of light and colour and form based on the creator’s “real” story.
The logical versus what is
Animation, as utilized in contemporary advertising and propaganda and in projects such as the one at hand is more a diversionary tool than a sharing tool. It has the power to simplify, to render facile and artificial a once shared grand “visual” thought - whose sole purpose, once, was to reach out to us, to deeply move and touch us - to animate our imaginations. Animating it "real", in this case, basically eliminates the need for us to even exist at all as uniquely qualified to think and feel as viewers. It renders us side-show lookers-on who are allowed, through pre-determined cues, our cursory “oohs and ahhs”.
In the end, animation does not make things more real because they are “animated”. It simply tells our minds to shut down - to allow the predicated images to tell us what logically “should / will” happen next - not emotionally, spiritually, psychically or any other way - but logically. But as life is not often predictable or logical, animation of such a nature negates the need for any of us (viewers / appreciators) to be individuals in the enigmatic realm of “seeing” things differently. It eliminates the need for our own life experiences as they might relate to our thoughts and meanderings in an exercise of looking at and actually “seeing” the wonders of artwork worthy of the title “art”.
A danger lurks
The greatest danger, in such a questionable exercise being repeated, is that our thinking, musings and wonderings, opinions and thoughts over time can eventually become redundant or homogenized, molded into a more “acceptable” collective interpretation of things - of art and of life, and its being thought about, and its being reacted to, and acted upon. And over and above the present topic, this very idea of redefining / i.e. : eliminating original intent (through a homogenous redirection) is rather a frightening thing.
To render generic, to “impose” an interpretation of a work of art through manipulation of content elements is to deny any of us the right to interpret the actual “meaning or mood” of an artwork in any other way than that “directed by” an animator. Subsequently, and ironically, this “manipulation of what is” renders false even the aforementioned animation since by its own action it denies from the start the source of the initial originality.
But by the time we become used to such subterfuge, will it not be too late for any of us to tell the difference? When laugh tracks were incorporated into television sitcoms in the 1950s to tell us when, where and how hard to laugh, the idea was a silly oddity. Today, we’ve become used to being told when and how to feel. . . when to laugh, when to cry, when to clap and especially what to “buy”. . .
J.F. Martel, the author of the acclaimed "Reclaiming Art In The Age of Artifice” warns us that the complete colonization (submission?) of the mind and soul is the final frontier of capitalist domination. He further adds that the greatest art presents the world through mystery rather than manipulation. . . that art reading “. . . calls for a visionary return to the imaginal. . .” (Not the generalization of intent).
A superiority complex or just a need to render logical what is not
In essence, re-interpretation through elimination of individual imaginations implies that (according to the manipulator) the original interpretation was “not good enough” (or possibly not readable) due to our inability to do so - (i.e. : our contemporary visual illiteracy). Therefore, does animation of a noted artist’s work imply that he was not “good enough” to reach us through the “life-affirmations” of his visuals? Does it imply that the inclusion of techniques (such as animation) “fixes” what is missing in Masterworks? I doubt this was the intent of the animation studio but the result remains the same. Everyone will see “what has been intended they should see” whether that was Van Gogh’s intent or not. . . And details of the original artwork which are not animated (the rest of the painting - and even its intended focal point) will be subordinated, subjected to a lesser role as a support environment - i.e. : to be a stage setting for the animation requirements of the newly “reconstructed” composition.
When all is said and done, where are we? Where are we going with all of this?
In fact, what such technical wizardry tells us is that in our era individual imagination skills fail us more than they stimulate us. It implies that we need Disney-esque “moving” visuals to move us; to “correct” our lack of visual acumen. And so, we are reminded again and again that digital add-ons to an original thought emphasize that our capacity to “see” is no longer a viable human attribute - nor a natural to our psychological and emotional DNA. It insists that only a virtual “re-animation” of seeing (as generic as it is) can up the ante a notch. . . or in the not too far distant future - replace it.
In the end, the imposition of generic thinking on us viewers of artwork does all of the following :
- It denies us a capacity to imagine, to be a part of a gift of someone’s genius.- It blurs our interpreting, our capacity to integrate and assimilate content, or intent.
- It inadvertently “forbids”, in a world of adherence to political correctness, individual thought, musing and wondering about another’s individual thoughts, musings and wonderings.
- It promotes, if not emphasizes, that there is only “one definitive way” to see anything; i.e. : what is new and improved upon. And,
- It stresses that human connections are of no value unless homogenized through an acceptable entertainment mode which comforts us in the knowledge that everyone will also love it (i.e. : know it) just the way we do.
All this to say : Some of us, today, need our interpretations of reality to be romantic and easy and to eliminate as much as possible any stress in having to cope with something "different".. To those who do, I bow to their preferences to enjoy and swoon over manipulated images à la Van Gogh. : I’ve even supplied one of the fun and easy videos below.:
But, for those adventurous spirits who still appreciate life as a one time challenge and wondrous exercise and who care about the value of their own thoughts and abilities to ponder, I suggest the following film “The complete life of the artist Vincent van Gogh” ":
I am a painter and writer who's whole life has been influenced by one precept : "thinking each our own thoughts makes us relevant and relevance makes us powerful."