To see or not to see
Its all the same!
Artwork created today, whether figurative, abstract or non-representational, often tends to cause the same reaction. “It all looks the same”. And where it is figurative, it is referred to as flat; resembling more “a photo copied” than a unique artwork created from life or photo reference. Why is this? Is it possible that we have stunted our career paths by being too enthralled with tools and the technical aspects of self expression? Is there a stage beyond which we can be recognized for more than the proficiency we espouse? And if so, how do we get recognized for creating something which goes beyond the medium itself - as more than an awesome technical exercise? How do we get to the point of mesmerizing people with the stories behind our subject matter? How do we get viewers to stop looking for perfection in rendering and get them to actually see what we are visually trying to say? Finally, how do we stop viewers from repeating the same old, same old : “Wow, that’s so real!” “It looks like a photograph!” or the sneering : "My kid can do that!"
And when people say these things, what are they actually saying? Is it our fault that viewers can’t connect with anything more than the “thing” they see before them? The answer to that is : Maybe yes. . . And maybe no. . .
Today, it is not so much what viewers see in our work but rather how they look at artwork. Often, what they are looking at is how much “visible effort” has gone into a piece - not necessarily how much skill is required, but how much skill is implied. They react the way they do because that’s how the world now values everything. If it looks like a “brand” and has a “recognized” logo, it’s better. If it’s unrecognizable, they are leery rather than curious or excited. If it looks complicated and something they can’t do, it automatically elicits an exaggerated “awesome”; whether the work is good or bad.
Also, we live in an era of spontaneous gawking with a concomitant 10 second attention deficit time frame which, more often than not, leads to reactions of “whatever”. As a contemporary collective we focus more on tech-toys than on the poetry they can produce. And therein lies the crux of the matter in both the creation and viewing of artwork.
Most people today cannot “read” visual statements. We’ve all gone to school to read words, to define life in a quick reference-symbolic mode rather than in an appreciative and meditative mood. By the time we reach grade one, the idea of pictures and images have been relegated to the kindergarten gouache on newsprint garbage heap. And with that, our inability to see beyond looking is sealed. Actually, if there is art in our artwork, most viewers don't recognize it or avoid it because of an odd discomfort in the “feelings” area of their brains. To contemporary viewers, it is less threatening to be taken in by the technicalities of the “how to” in artwork then to be awed by the “sensations” of the “what is” which tries so desperately to speak to them.
In past centuries general populations of the world were illiterate, (no one could read except scribes and monks). Nonetheless, even the considered least within a society were visually and oral history astute. They understood messages emanating from the paintings and drawings they looked upon. They got their news from neighbours and town criers. The content offered was then “sub-contracted” through repetition networks which eventually took on colours of their own. At times the “news” was even retold expansively through grandiose paintings recalling (and often mythologizing) the feats of leaders; kings, queens and warlords.
In essence, the news back then was no less propaganda then it is today, where we continue to espouse more the entertainment value of information than appreciate actual “knowledge”. All this to say, that the press of bygone eras was nonetheless more visual and oral; using pictures and imagination to stoke discussion and allow viewers and listeners to “read” into the information provided. The advantage of those times was that all the proffered “news” was taken in and processed by less connected individuals who, on their own, decided whether the contents were worth being analyzed, trusted and/or laughed at.
Today, with our quasi total dependence on ipads, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, selfies and digital pics created by the billions. . . there is little time for taking in, wondering about or analyzing - only time for spontaneous reaction and regurgitation. In our times, information is codified to “chicken feed” us all the same data through millisecond captures. All information is tabulated, chewed and digested for us. We no longer have to think or feel on our own. And anyway, it’s deemed "safer" that all of us should receive and respond to the same things as “one voice”.
And so, in regards to images, we simply don’t need to, nor do we have time to, "see" anymore. All we have time for is a “split second look” while, almost at the same moment, yet another image pops up for the instant gratification demands of our "millisecond appreciation" capacities. But how does this make us visually illiterate? With seeing so many “pics”, are we now not ahead of the curve in this area of expertise?
A devolutionary process
Ironically, through this 21st century glut of visual stimuli, we are possibly the most visually illiterate generation since the beginning of time. With 24 hour a day news and instantaneous search processes on the internet, tons of information (and next to no knowledge or fact related to it) blinds us to actual connection and "seeing". Where once cave dwellers, smelled the winds, sensed the rains coming days before their arrival and recognized danger from miles away, we have become a race desensitized from that which once assured us security as well as truth and mostly a life which encouraged evolution and progress. Where long ago we discovered new continents, not so long ago we set out to discover new worlds. But today. . . we plug ourselves into hearing voids which allow us to jettison our "selves" into cocoons of oblivion. We avoid reality through cell phone disseminated visual entertainment entrancing us as life lived fails to. And so, blind and deaf to what actually is, we walk into traffic and crash into telephone poles in a quest to discover the virtual nirvana sold to us as "the" salve for our stunted egos and a “boring” world. Whatever!
The death of feeling
Where once the mysteries of complexity stoked our curiosities, “modern” times dictate obsession over passion and easy and fun over what once guaranteed not only individual but collective survival and thriving. And that is partly why we are functionally visually illiterate. Seeing is just too complicated and definitely not fast enough for the contemporary absolute necessity of our existence : fun. Another ignored facet of seeing literacy is the sensual aspect of it. To see beyond looking we must still be able to “feel”, to sense, to know the smell and sound and taste and touch of each other. And because we have so abandoned ourselves to the nether worlds of technology, to the tools which pleasure our numbed brains and hearts, we are fast losing our ancient natural capacities to survive and achieve the delicious orgasms provided by actual rather than virtual communication and touching. In essence, we are quickly becoming immune to the heart rhythms of others and of ourselves. And, as a consequence, the sharing inherent in creative acts, and in the “art” which seeks to reach out, to connect, to speak with us we are fast approaching our best before dates in the area of human dignity. One day, no one will be touched or moved by another’s human reaching out. And when that day comes, we should all hope that our batteries and electricity don’t die out.
Complexity over simplicity
Today, as in the past, much of artwork is rather simple if not simplistic to read. All of us are creative. But not all are poetic or visionary. Artwork therefore demands much in the area of superficiality - of decor and “pleasure” and ever less in the areas of appreciation and respect. But in much artwork there is a possibility of art hiding within. Are we ready for it? We must recognize that its message is not always, or rarely is, “easy” to read. When art transcends artwork it is more often than not a complex and awe-inspiring vision which has the capacity to move, to engage the extraordinariness hidden (if not stifled) within us all.
And so to read art; to see the essence of imagery, sophisticated observational, spiritual and emotional skills are required. We have them. But today, we often abandon them to the cluttered storage sheds of our minds. And so, images in the 21st century easily become cursory add-ons to the entitled silliness that is "moi"; toys, colourful curtains to brighten up and frame our life’s frosted windows. Pictures, today are often nothing more than colourful nonsense, entertainment, advertising based propaganda. And with life satisfaction ebbing, compensation through self-generated narcissistic selfies reassure us that we actually still exist and that the world (at least for an instant) does revolve around our navel-gazing importance. The concept of the late television show Seinfeld was correct. We’re slowly falling into ourselves, in a world modeled on nothingness, submission and superficiality. Where we go from there is anybody’s guess.
And then. . . there is even more of "moi"
In essence, images no longer say anything to us unless they are about us. . . and even then, they increasingly fail to convey the sought after feelings of security since the non-integrated and assimilated imagery we speedily embrace no longer “says” anything to us which is reassuring, intriguing, curious or exciting. With no imagination left and no more a capacity to “see” what someone else has said, we, over time, become lonelier and lonelier as communication means less and less. Taking in and analyzing and actually “thinking” on our own becomes more and more impossible as a desperate need to "be" loses the intensity of its desire while virtual life redefines the parameters of our ever narrowing confines. Fun and easy, we forget, is for Disneyland. Without a depth of thought and ability to take in, there is no capacity to then "share sharing". And without that, no community. And without that, no capacity to be is possible.
A high priest calling !!!
Visual artists, musicians, creators, makers. . . These are the real high priests of life. When it is good they can pat themselves on the back as their role is to reflect what is and what can possibly be. When things are bad, as they so often are today, their role is the same - to reflect what is and what possibly can still be. Are we then all artists? No more then all of us are geniuses. But as creators, intending to communicate “something” through artwork, we have our work cut out for us, lest we become one with the hordes who no longer see or wish to. We are lucky. We can still create, disseminate and distribute any way we can, including via the world wide web. But this is not the total answer. Being launched into space does not mean we are reaching Mars. The questions at hand are : Are we really talking the talk? And lastly, does talking at all matter?
To simplistically prove a point, not long ago, I created an unscientific yet telling experiment. At an exhibition, I stood near a painting of an old woman smiling beautifully. The artwork was not Michelangelo-ish but it had a lot going for it in the area of communicating warmth and reaching out to others. Approximately 100 people passed by this artwork; noticed it and commented. Of those who did, 95% instantaneously referred to the yellow teeth in the woman’s mouth, then moved on. . . Few if any stayed long enough to “see” beyond that perceived to be negative nor did they take the time to try to “get” what was actually being conveyed by the work.
Was that the fault of the painter or the viewer? Possibly a bit of both.
To be or not to be
As stated before, today’s viewing public is more in tune with what is physical or tangible - obvious, therefore non-threatening. Today, artwork is nothing but a product to be looked at. “Seeing”, to see more than the physicality of a thing, takes effort beyond a simple stare or glance. Today’s viewer often has no idea that, possibly, there is more being offered them - an actual “artistic statement ” which may be worth considering, wondering about or discovering. Maybe, hidden within the artwork being “criticized” rather than critiqued there's something worthy of our time and a blessing to our being. But taking the time to realize this is impossible since more often than not we have already moved on. If truth be told, in a split second we are probably already texting “nothing nothings” to some invisible data receiver.
Therein lies our new position, our new problem as visual artists. We are having to work ever harder to reach a visually illiterate public engrossed in so many nothing activities about nothing that noticing something about something is just too complex to fathom.
And so, transmitting something spiritual, sensual, tangibly mesmerizing, enigmatic or wondrous is not as easy as simply wanting to - no matter how skilled we are.
Nonetheless, we are crazy creatives. Despite still being in the acquisition and assimilation of skills phase of our lives (where we learn the elements which make up the visual language we wish to speak) we still wish (crave?) people would be touched by the stories we tell and not simply look at the pencil, brush or chisel strokes we lay down. Visual artists at their best are dreamers, thinkers, and players in the field of connection. We crave saying and sharing with like discoverers and appreciators. But sadly, as long as viewers (and we) are more mesmerized by our pencils or brushes and how we use them, they (and we) will be forced to remain in the staring (or not) phase to which they (and we) have become accustomed.
The freedom to create
The simplest answer is that we must give our work the freedom to say something beyond even our own comfort level. It must convey intensity, softness, aggressiveness, power, gentleness. It must be emotional and impactful to the senses, not simply emotive. The artwork has to say more about itself than we do about it. It has to say more about itself than about us. Art, beyond artwork, happens when we not only acquire knowledge and skills but assimilate them. And therein lies the creation of the freedom to create.
When we not only acquire but assimilate skills, they become a total part of who and what we are. They become a language and we become it. And because this phenomenon occurs, skill usage becomes automatic. We apply those skills without even thinking. And through that functional ease a freedom to express emerges. And through that freedom “art” is given an open door to show itself - if it is there t all within the artwork being created. And if and when it chooses to, art will transcend the physicality of the artwork - becoming the mystical entity that it is - becoming the shared source of life in which it encourages us all to “do” more rather than simply “be”.
All of this happens when our work goes beyond academic effort and in so doing becomes poetic, whimsy and magic; raising questions rather than submitting pat pc answers. Transcending occurs when what we say is so well said that it becomes thunderous and ethereal. For all intents and purposes, physical artwork is created with the tools of a trade. Art emerges from this created physical product - proving beyond a reasonable doubt that life is ever more than we pretend it to be. And that is only “seen” to be through the most primordial talents we possess : our senses. Logic allows the world to be understood. Sensuality allows the world to be wondrous and worthy of being lived.
Oftentimes we interpret the world as annoying because it is complex when in fact what we mean is complicated. Yet, life is quite simple to embrace (to act upon) though complex in its make-up. To be van Gogh-ish, Rembrandt-ish, John Singer Sargent-ish, Rothko-ish, even Warholish we must unquestionably assimilate skill sets - i.e. : have them become such a part of who we are, we no longer have to think about them when we wish to say something above and beyond the ordinary. But all in all, this process is a simple matter of “doing it”, mastering what needs to be mastered in order to speak eloquently. Though all of us can paint, we all wish to be heard and seen as more than simply brush handlers or chisel pounders. Assimilated skills free us to move beyond object creation and to whisk us into the realm of mysteries that “art” affords us all.
And art IS willing to “happen”. It happens when our hearts and souls embrace the ideas of touching and being touched, of moving and being moved. Art is about connection and communication. When it is only about us it never rises above being a physical ego thing, a therapeutic product, artwork at its least creative.
But skeptics in the painting of “reality themes” (that element of the contemporary art world made up of the most numerous practitioners) still cries out that their realm, their ideas are being shoved aside - are not seen to be "real art". So does that eliminate them from potentially being seen to be artists or their work art?
I don’t buy the whole premise of some things not having the potential to be artistic or tangibly powerful. Some of the simplest premises are the most complex and the most alluring.
Think Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Gary Greene, Eakins, Serov and the Glasgow Boys, amongst others.
And, let’s take the work of one of the most famous examples of American ultra-realism, other than Andrew Wyeth. This man took the most ordinary of ordinary people and made them icons. He even used the most cliché of interactions, events, situations and environments as his primary subjects. And when he painted anything, it was “photographically, illustratively real” to us.
So how did viewers go from saying that his work was nothing more than a photo to falling into a total reverent silence when standing before one of his emotionally charged paintings? Norman Rockwell took the most ordinary, the most realistic subject matter and raised it to a level of sensual pleasure, sensual malaise, sensual laughter, sensual propaganda (?) - so much so that his artwork continues to move even the hardest of hearts today. Like us, like several of the Impressionists, Rockwell used photos extensively as reference tools - but never as images to copy. His secret? He was more interested in telling a compelling story than creating a perfect picture.
Perfection vs excellence
To be a visual artist we must recognize that the idea of achieving perfection is born from without. As such it is an imposed expectation (based on the rules of another). Excellence on the other hand, comes from within. It feeds a self-nurturing concept which promotes the idea of being the best we can be today, while encouraging us to best even that tomorrow. Where perfection in creativity is rigid and final, excellence is fluid - a never-ending becoming. It offers up a tingling feeling of eventually, possibly, maybe, hopefully, one day achieving our goal of realizing a masterpiece.
But in the end, whether we are eventually seen to be artists or not, whether our efforts are called artwork or art is irrelevant. What counts is the journey and just maybe turning a viewer into total jelly upon seeing one of our grand artworks. :)
Finally, there are 4 things to remember as drawers, sketchers, painters, sculptors - visual artists who wish to achieve better than yesterday:
1) Art is always artwork. But artwork is not always art.
2) Artwork always answers its own questions. Art, on the other hand, is always impishly asking yet another.
3) To create “art” from our efforts we need to be disciplined enough to free ourselves to be free.
4) For art to eventually emerge from our artwork, we must free it to say (without interference) what it is that it wishes to say. And if, in the end, it says nothing. . . Maybe there is no message. Or maybe our agitated and overloaded minds are not yet calm, quiet enough for the hidden message to be received, to be taken in, to be “seen”.
Style vs Styles
There are 2 ways of looking at style : style as defined by the parameters of our expression - in regards to what is “out there” - for example : Impressionism, Realism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. These are collective styles, representational idioms which are sometimes (erroneously) called “genres”. Then there is having a “personal style” which for all intents and purposes identifies us as having our own recognizable graphic way of saying something visually; as we so often do in a written form through a personal handwriting. Ironically, personal hand-writing styles are disappearing. Many in younger generations have no idea how to hold a pencil or pen let alone how to use them. Because of keyboards that men would never have admitted to using not so long ago (that was for "secretaries!". . . ) whole generations are no longer identifiable through a hand-writing style.And as we crave perfection rather than excellence in our drawing and painting styles, we will soon, logically speaking, no longer have a drawing or painting style. . .
Collective styles we can choose to embrace. The latter, the personal style, emerges from within. And, this emergence occurs once we have not only acquired but assimilated the skill sets required to speak a specific language. And once these skills are assimilated, we begin to apply them without even thinking. This, in turn, allows us a freedom of expression unknown to us prior to these tools having become a part of us. And when this happens, we suddenly, again without realizing it, begin drawing, painting or sculpting in such a personal way that viewers come to recognize the "who" of a visual statement above and beyond the "what" of the visual statement itself. This is how we differentiate the works of Michelangelo from those of Picasso, Caravaggio, Rockwell, Parrish, et al.
In his own inimitable style (no pun intended), Dali said it best : He explained that it was a waste of time to chase after or crave a personal style since that style will happen despite all efforts to hunt it down. In essence, personal style happens when we stop trying to be unique and simply let the naturalness of our strokes and expressions be themselves.
But once we have this "our" style (or as some esoterics refer to it : a “voice”) does this guarantee we become an overnight sensation? Sadly (and realistically). . . no. Sales do not suddenly multiply when our style makes itself known. As in all selling games, the marketplace determines whether it will accept or reject how we say things - not us. We can present our style and the styles we use it in, but we can’t impose it, anymore than we can impose a style upon ourselves. If we try, we will be denying who we are. If we obsess with a goal of creating our own style, we will end up being as J F Martel indicates in his seminal book : “Reclaiming Art In The Age of Artifice” : creators of pastiche - superficial artworks that never become “art”.
Are we stuck with a personal style? No. We can deny it, throw it away, try to become something we are not. But that isn’t going to get us a legitimate place in the world of the arts. Can we change the styles in which we work? Absolutely. We can paint in whatever style (or “ism”) we want without denigrating or rejecting our personal style. Picasso, for example, always remained Picasso no matter what he did or how. He played in stone, ceramics, paint, drawing and more - and yet we always recognize his work. His personal style; his hand-writing, never wavered. What did change was the representational styles in which he worked. Much like when he spoke French or Spanish, the language spoken changed but the man speaking was always recognizably Picasso. He never pretended to be anyone else or to say anything in any other way than his own. That's what made him Picasso and style is what makes us "us" - in whatever language we speak.
Bernard Poulin. . . I paint, I draw, I write