A case for drawing as a perceptual tool
This is another post in which I'll attempt to make the case for learning, acquiring the hard won skills, to draw well; no, more than just well. Excellently. Not taking a few courses, but putting in ten thousand (count them) hours. In the instructing that I did, I always felt that many students didn't really want to spend much time on drawing but rather wanted to get on with painting and applying pretty colours, or being clever with ideas. Because I think that drawing is a foundational skill for visual artists I felt I had to 'pitch' drawing to students to create an enthusiasm for the practice. Here is one line of approach to the subject I would make before we picked up our crayons.
I've always thought of three primary ways of looking at drawing.
1/ As an art form.
2/ As a design tool.
3/ As a perceptual tool.
1/ Drawing as an art form is quite self explanatory. A drawing can be a work of visual art in the same way as a painting can. Or a movie. It can be enjoyed for what it is with an aesthetic that can be enjoyed and found engaging and illuminating. Drawing is an aesthetic that is not as common as the more universal pleasure derived from observing paintings, but just as intense among those who enjoy looking at drawings. I suspect most people prefer the easy rewards of pretty colour arrangements vs. the more complex returns that can be eked from described form. It is generally a rarer sensibility that relishes drawing as an art form, but drawing is an art form nevertheless. Personally drawing as art form is my primary lens through which to perceive described form. In the fine art drawing classes I taught, this is also the primary point of view of drawing, during which we learn the technical facility required to turn mere mark making into drawing. There was a time, and there still might be places, where spectators still lavish their attention to drawings for their value as an art form. 'Come up and see my etchings'.
A case for drawing vs. making marks
I hope to make a series of posts about drawing, and why I think it is as valuable as many other disciplines, As mentioned somewhere on this site I was never a full time art instructor, but I took my greatest pleasure in teaching when I was sharing what I knew and thought I'd discovered about observational drawing. It was the teaching of the very basics of drawing that I enjoyed most. If drawing were a universe, the very first fractional moments of one's lifetime spent drawing, the Planck Epoch as it were, the very beginning, would be most interesting and energetic, as is allegedly the case with our real universe. I almost envied my students for their 'beginner minds', and working along with them brought back my own beginner mind and the wonder of drawing. For me, everything learned in those first few 'moments' (ie. classes) of pursuing an artistic vision seems to simply scale up. It often seems to me there is no such thing as an 'advanced drawing' class. Advanced drawing is simply taking basic skills of observation, comprehension and dexterity and applying them in a more complex and/or skillful manner.
I make my case for drawing because I studied and then worked at a time when taking the time, thousands upon thousands of hours, to learn how to draw...how to look...how to describe form...was expected of a visual artist. I'm making my case for learning how to draw because I learned how to draw very well, through instruction, practice and years of work. I became a 'delineator of rare skill' as far as the general population is concerned, as did most or many of the artists of my era. Lots of occupations require rare skills, and it seemed and still seems appropriate to me that the occupation of visual artist might require a foundational rare skill and that drawing could provide this. This might be similar to how the skill of solving and producing mathematical problems would be fundamental to the occupation of a physicist even if even if they were to use computational machines.
I draw, so I appreciate and have great respect for drawing. If you don't draw, you can't fully appreciate drawing or have the same kind of respect for it that I, or someone who also knows how to draw well, does. Most of the many contemporary artists/instructors, who suggest that you 'don't need to know how to draw to be an artist', or diminish drawing's value, don't actually know how to draw. This makes sense, in the same way that it makes sense that someone who actually draws well would consider drawing essential to being a visual artist. Both extremes are justifying opportunities provided and choices made to end up either learning to draw, or not learning to draw. In this post, at a deep level, I am justifying the opportunities I was provided and the choices I made that resulted in my learning to draw well.
I'm trying, above, to acknowledge and inform you of my bias for drawing (because I draw) but also identify the bias of those 'against' drawing. If you are already biased against drawing being an important skill you'll find what I have to say disagreeable or banal. If you do draw well you'll appreciate much of what I struggle to express in this post. If you are sitting on the fence you will have to make a decision about the viability of the contents of this post compared to what detractors of drawing might suggest. It is important for you to know that the contemporary art world, much like contemporary work places, has become 'de-skilled', that is, recognition and emphasis is now being placed on intellectual knowledge not skills-based knowledge. Perhaps a way of describing this is that it is more important to know how something is done than to actually do it. This often means describing what is being done in words, explaining it, a facility that is emphasized in an academic education. So, if you take the enormous amount of time required to learn how to draw well it will not generally be appreciated or even recognized in the contemporary visual arts, certainly not to the same extent as holding a degree, or better still a post graduate degree in visual art. Strategically, as an artist today, you would do better to not concentrate the enormous amounts of time and energy required to learn how to draw well. I find this distressing and perplexing. Generally, in the contemporary art world, skills like drawing aren't just de-emphasized, they are usually considered menial and quaint at best, and held in derisive contempt at worst.
Referring to drawing as 'mark-making' is a signal of how drawing might have been degraded by the ideology of contemporary art. You could not invent a better term for diminishing the value of drawing. Mark-making might be anything from producing stains on your underwear by shitting yourself to inadvertently leaving blood stains on the carpet in your living room whilst dragging a dead body across it. Why has contemporary art adopted this vague and useless term to describe drawing and painting? Of course, I don't really know, but the fact is anyone can make a mark. But not everyone can draw well. I believe the primary function of this term is to highlight the notion that a vector/curve/line produced by someone with a hard won ability to draw has at best the same value as a scrawl by a non-drawer. As such the term it is utterly demeaning of drawing.
The recurring interest in the alleged genius and creativity of children and naive artists also plays into this notion. Piaget has shown that children's drawing progresses more or less from scribbles, to circular forms, to cephalapodic heads sprouting stick arms then torsos and over the years gradually refine form and complexity. The progress of drawing skills is so similar and predictable that Piaget was able to make estimates of the maturity and age of drawers, at least up until around 10 when most children stop drawing, when, in order to improve further they must deal with three quarter views of their subjects, perspective, and foreshortening. Children's drawing is fascinating, and I'm always interested in their descriptions of form. But it really shouldn't be take seriously as art, regardless of what doting parents think.
Learning to actually draw, vs. making marks, is not easy. Learning how to be an artist should not be easy. Too many people today, coming to art as a kind of self actualizing hobby, later in life particularly, think that they should be able to pick up a stylus or a brush and just let creativity gush out without any kind of apprenticeship or practice. They presume visual art skills, as 'mark-making' suggests, are something that anybody can apply. They take themselves far too seriously for their actual ability. This attitude to visual skill is further facilitated by the notion that what is the most discriminating attribute for a contemporary artist is their academic qualifications. Since anyone can make art it's the academically qualified who are the only ones whose drawing or visual art is significant art, and this is generally justified in the back story of their education revealed in both their credentials and also in signals, 'code words', found in written explanations for that art. These code words might be words like 'informed', 'trans/multi/interdisciplinary', 'research', 'practice', 'intesectionality'. There is also signalling in the content and subject of graduates work that is often based on fashionable and in-vogue social commentary and engineering. These subjects and signals are at the center of a university art education and become a way for graduates to signal to each other and technocrats of their value and worthiness as contemporary artists.
Drawing skill seems a low value signal in today's art world, and I'm neither comfortable or enthusiastic about this perplexing reality. This doesn't mean I think academic, contemporary, ideas-based approaches are without interest or value. I just think the hegemony of academia and word-forward thinking is myopic and misguided for not appreciably recognizing and equally valuing the non academic image-forward thinking, exhibited in skills such as drawing, by working visual artists.
I have experienced personally and intimately how the powers of drawing skills can effect perception, vision, and understanding of the world and can be just as capable of generating ideas as the domain of language.
Jean Metzinger, 1911-12, La Femme au Cheval (Woman with a Horse)
'And then it happened.
He had never felt this outside of the Zone, and even in the Zone it had only happened two or three times. Suddenly, he seemed to be in another world. A million smells assaulted him at once - smells that were sharp, sweet, metallic; dangerous, caressing, disturbing; as immense as houses, as tiny as dust particles, as rough as cobblestones, and as delicate and intricate as watch gears. The air turned hard, it appeared to have surfaces, corners, edges, as if space had been filled with huge course spheres, polished pyramids, and gigantic prickly crystals, and he was forced to make his way through all this, as if in a dream, pushing through a dark antique shop full of ancient misshapen furniture.....This only lasted a moment. He opened his eyes and everything disappeared..This wasn't another world - it was his same old world turning an unfamiliar side toward him, revealing it for an instant, then immediately sealing it off, even before he had a chance to investigate.'
Red Schuhart, a 'Stalker', Roadside Picnic, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Red Schuhart seems to be having an extra-dimensional experience in the above quote, and the vision is much like that of a Cubist painting or drawing.
The fantastic thing about stories, about narratives, is that they can contain information as well as just being entertaining. Roadside Picnic has an enormous amount of metaphors and allegorical informational qualities to take note of; the whole story and aspects of it can allude to, and be transferred to, other subjects. My first reference to the book in a post below was thinking of the mysterious and incomprehensible alien artifacts found in the Zone similarly to art, which when at it's best seems to me to be mysterious and incomprehensible. In the quote above, where Schuhart seems to see space unfold like paper revealing novel dimensional surfaces and intricacies, I see a link to Cubism, 'hyperobjects', or 'hyperobjectivity'. I think of Cubism as hyperobjective perception; it wasn't just a style it was a relatively formal analysis of objects and the space surrounding them from multiple viewpoints. I like to use the word hyperobject for form viewed from various locations, viewpoints, perspectives, in space. Or, for forms moving through space so that their aspect or viewpoint changes infinitely from a fixed position. Or, for forms in which the delineation between the object and the surrounding space becomes ambiguous. This seems to be what is happening to Schuhart's vision in 'Picnic'; he seems to be describing a momentary Cubist vision of the world in which primal or occult forms and dimensionality appear to override his standard perceptual model of objects in space. It's not so much a fabricated hallucination but a dimensional revelation from an altered mental viewpoint. Schuhart could be describing a Cubist painting; compare his description in words to the image of Metzinger's La Femme au Cheval above.
Anyone who has put in the thousands of hours to learn how to draw has spent time not just describing form, but looking at it intently and, at a subconscious level, studying it's peculiar nature, as well as the peculiarities of our perception of the stuff that the world appears to be made of. Anyone who has spent hours beginning to learn how to draw for (in the classes I used to instruct anyway) learned how to accurately measure angles and proportions of their subject on an imaginary 'projection' beside their easel and transfer the information from the projection 'beside' their easel and onto their paper. As angles are measured, the construction lines sketched vector off into the surrounding negative space. The initial working drawing executed in this formal manner, a measured planar drawing often looks very 'Cubist'. It takes very little imagination to take the chiseled planes that describe the form and project, them off into space and reciprocally have negative space invade the form through these channels. I suspect this very analytical kind of 'constructed' and measured drawing might have informed Cubism; indeed early Cubism was called Analytical Cubism, a clue that it wasn't just a stylistic flourish but a measured way of seeing the world.
First steps in a constructed drawing from a 'Planes Of The Head' can often have a Cubist appearance.
But there are certainly other fairly obvious precipitating factors that helped establish the Cubist vision, and indeed the vision of the society of the time. Photography for example. In the years and decades prior to Cubism's inception photography emerged into the visual domain and stop motion photos and multiple exposures revealed how form traveled through space adding a distinctive new dimension to visuality; time. Practically this allowed, for example, the discovery of how horses run. Our narrow perception doesn't allow us to comprehend the rapid movement of a horses legs and the placement of their feet when they gallop; prior to the camera horses running were ridiculously depicted as though rabbits hopping. This was not the fault of the human artist, but rather the limitations of human perception. Photography; stop motion photography, allowed more than a glimpse into another dimension, and effected the vision and perception of artists of the time and therefore the imagery they produced.
A painting by the artist, anatomist and observer of all things equine, George Stubbs, shows how hopeless it is was for even an observant human trapped in a narrow perception of time to try and depict a galloping horse.
With the advent of photography with fast shutter speeds Edweard Muybridge was able to solve 'The Galloping Horse Problem'.
There can be little doubt that Cubism was precipitated in part by trying to suggest an extra-dimensionality. Think of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase; Duchamp is almost certainly depicting various imagined planes on a figure constructed similarly to a planar drawing as they project through space as the figure/object/form moves through space. This creates a fascinating, wonderful, dizzying effect, also not unlike Schuhart's brief vision of the world.
Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase; structural planes moving through space.
For comparison to 'Nude Descending'; diagramatic illustrations of human movement plotted in space from 'Patterns Of Human Motion, a cinematographic analysis, ' by Stanley Plagenhoef, 1971. These were produced by scientific researchers decades after Nude Descending.
There were other ideas in the realm of physics during this time challenging the nature of matter, of substance, of the stuff we and our world is made up, the stuff artists spend vast amounts of time drawing and staring intently at. Physicists were starting to challenge the meat and potatoes structure of Newtonian physics. They were starting to discover, through theoretical, mathematical and experimental processes, an astonishing vision of how the universe is working outside the scale of human existence and perception...not dissimilar to how photography revealed a horses legs and hooves moved through time when galloping. However, if the movements of a horse were comprehensible when the dimension of time was applied to imagery, in science things were weirder still. The bigger things got and the smaller they got the more unusual and unhinged from the mechanics of Newtonian Physics they became.
Imagine these, and no doubt other, streams of understanding from the arts to science forming a confluence during the early 20th century and think of what it resulted in.
Back to La Femme au Cheval. Neils Bohr, the physicist who discovered the principle of complimentarity in quantum theory bought the painting, after previous ownership by a poet and a collector, and installed it in his office. Bohrs had allegedly read the book 'Du Cubisme' which outlined Cubist principles, of which Metzinger was an author and was inspired to realize that objects, such as atoms, as objects, appear quite different when viewed from different vantage points; for example appearing as either a wave or a particle. The perception of matter was dependent on vantage point; it might be here or there; it might occupy space or not. I have no idea of how quantum theory works but I see images of space folding or curling and overlapping with time and other inconceivable dimensions. I see, through imagination, the form and matter we daily take for granted transform into something that looks like a Cubist painting, or something akin to Red Schuhart's vision.
La Femme au Cheval in quantum physicist Neils Bohr's study.
What I find so extremely interesting here is that an analogous understanding of objects, space and dimensions can emerge simultaneously among people who are skilled at observational drawing, and people who are skilled at mathematics and physics. Both seem to have contributed to an new understanding of reality. Both are, in their respective ways, describing form and space. For me it shows that valuable knowledge can be obtained not just by academic study but by developing visual skills.
This anecdote isn't the only example I've discovered that suggests that skills based visual artists, observational drawers, were and are capable of contributing to scientific understanding of the world and how it's perceived; I'll put up another post showing how I think artists might have made and used discoveries early in the 20th century that weren't subsequently discovered and documented by research psychologists for decades.
In a contemporary art world where I believe drawing, the describing of form, has been devalued to mere 'mark making', I find great solace in these early and significant contributions of skilled artists to the human body of knowledge.
When I began my training to be a visual artist in 1976 the art world was a very different place than it is now. The difference is not in the appearance of visual art itself, in fact it could be argued that not much really novel, conceptually, has been created since the early 20th century. The difference was in the supporting ideology and what art now means to people and especially those in 'the arts'. Few individuals seem to have noticed this, or at least made the effort to comment on the astonishing changes, but I feel compelled to offer some observations from the point of view of a working artist. Observational commentary and philosophy about the visual arts seems to have muted what working artists think, and amplified what those in the domain of educated 'experts' and academics think. I think the point of view of a working artist should also be of significant value, and included in, the overall comprehension of visual art and meaning of an artist and so I'm emboldened to offer some of what I think.
There were periods over 40 years during which I personally didn't feel aware of change; I was too embedded and too preoccupied with working. Developing the skills for the making of visual art and then applying them is an enormous amount of work. I couldn't easily see the forest for the trees. But I'd regularly come up for air and take a look at the topography of the visual arts in general and notice that massive changes were afoot. For example, my old art college was jockeying to become a degree granting institution and bring in art academics and cut loose artist-teachers. In the later half of my working life it became even more apparent to me that the visual arts had in fact changed radically, most particularly for artists. Only working artists my age might be able to make comparisons to what art was like...for an artist...to what it has become. Younger people have only experienced the recent so experiential comparisons of what was and what now is are not possible, nor are the noting of observable changes over the last 50 odd years.
So here's some observations; bear in mind they are conjectural for being anecdotal subjective experiences filtered through memory. But I don't think this subjectivity rules out their value.
-When I went to study art it was more about training. This is not to suggest there was no education in the process, but the most significant thing you could learn was skill. In fact, by learning how to do something you learn a lot about it. If you just learn about something you don't necessarily learn how to do it, and are lacking insight into the actual process. This is a recurring concern of mine regarding drawing; there is a huge difference between knowing 'how to' draw and knowing 'about' drawing, and it is the latter that is severely lacking. If you are studying drawing today, at a university, the first thing you might ask yourself is ' is your professor excellent at drawing'?
-The flagship visual art institutions for study in Canada in 1976 were colleges, not universities and they were difficult to get in to (about 300 per year would be accepted by my college out of about 3,000 applications, I have been told). As well there were not a lot of major art colleges. People often went to universities to study art because they couldn't get into a college or because they wanted to study art and receive a steady and relatively lucrative income as a high school art teacher. Some students would leave art college and go to university for academic studies in art and then, with a degree, go to teachers college. I recall it being said at the time, quite cruelly in retrospect but with some degree of truth, 'those who can't, teach'.
-The art world seems to have been colonized by academia in the last 40 years or so. I would venture to say that academia holds an almost complete hegemony over the visual arts, particularly at the institutional level, in my community and country.
-Academia, universities, as an 'organism' or 'entity', don't recognize things that aren't of themselves. They are utterly blind or oblivious to capability, knowledge and skills gained from other locations in society, for example, the workplace ( I have worked for animated film directors who got a job painting animations cels after grade ten and continued working in an 'animation factory', doing layout, storyboard, design over the years). Or, self study. They only acknowledge the fiat currency of credentials and are blind to commodity currencies such as skill. Increasingly over the years, as the arts technocracy was filled by credentialed individuals, the blindness to the achievements of those from outside the university system has increased. An obvious reason for this is, of course, that by taking courses, programs and pursuing formal study universities make money and their employees receive relatively high rates of compensation.
-My instructors in the 70's were generally working artists, or had been. They might work as illustrators, costume designers at the opera, create displays at the museum or science center, and, in the Fine Arts Department where I studied, they would also be exhibiting at commercial and public galleries. Most were teaching part time. The teaching, for working artists, was a relatively well paid gig that could make the difficult and fickle existence of being a working artist a bit more secure, as well as providing the satisfaction of passing on skills to a new generation. In fact, I returned to my art college to instruct drawing and painting for a period of about 5 years whilst exhibiting and working as an art director and background painter for animated films. It still seems sensible to me that occupational artists should teach artists. It seems very different today. The visual arts now seem to be taught largely by a technocratic cadre of full time or aspiring-to-be full time 'regularized' or tenured professional 'art educators'. They are usually not full time working artists and who might never even have tried to earn their crust as an artist; perhaps they do a bit of their own art on weekends or holidays and call it research. This new model actually deprives working artists of potential supplementary income instructing. Furthermore, if whoever teaches art to a new generation defines art for that new generation consider how the meaning of art might change when it is instructed by professional teachers and not working artists.
-The 'New Model Artist', the sort of artist who most students probably aspire to be is someone who teaches art full time at a university and is ultimately paid a steady upper middle class salary. They do their art in their spare time similarly to how university professors publish in their spare time. Because of a secure teaching position and salary there is no obligation for their art to be a commodity. So it is easy for art educators to produce non marketable ephemeral art forms such as installations or projections. The institutional public gallery system, also colonized by academia, has fetishized this sort of conceptual art and I often notice in their literature, demean the notion of producing art that can be a commodity. It has been my experience that art educators very often do the same thing.
-Artists are criticized by the technocrats for trying to make a commodity out of the product of their labour...their visual art...but the same criticism is not to be leveled at the technocrats who sell the products of their labour. It is quite all right for technocrats to make a commodity out of their professional services to the arts, their teaching, their arts administration, and their curating. Why should artists be treated differently?
-Some of the 'new' nomenclature in art clearly suggests how art has been defined in recent decades by 'professional' educators. Artists invariably now have a 'practice'...like a lawyer. There is a preoccupation with the word 'research', as with an academic or scientist. Contemporary artists are inter/multi/trans disciplinary; another academic shibboleth. Signalling an academic education is paramount in any artist statement; they 'hold' BFA's, and 'received' MFA's, which, due to educational inflation are becoming a minimum requirement for any self respecting contemporary artist. I have been told my old art college, now a university, won't look at anything below a Phd in hiring an instructor.
-The academic emphasis in arts education has plunged the visual arts into the domain of words, to which images seem to hold an inferior position. This has created a demand for the explicable at the expense of the inexplicable. If an artist (or student) cannot create an image that can be compressed into explicability then they are often considered to have failed. I have often detected in younger spectators of visual art, or film, a sense of...almost outrage really...at not 'getting' what an image or a movie is about. It is almost as though they are being cheated. They fully expect explicable meaning. People who view contemporary are now, generally speaking, 'educated' and they have expectations that they should effortly receive meaning from what they are viewing. It seems inconceivable that they should not understand an image. As someone from the 20th century I feel quite the opposite. I feel that the domain of images is irrational, surreal, and communicates to very different areas of the brain than what can be described in words. I don't expect to necessarily understand images at a logical, rational or conscious level (although of course I try to. Or rather that part of my brain does). I can still happily walk away from an image or film stimulated but perplexed and confused, or 'dumbstruck', but I find this is something that fewer people can tolerate.
-Returning to credentialism; when I was a student the diploma I received, the piece of paper, after four years of art college, wasn't the most important take-away. What was important was demonstrated competency through a portfolio. Your 'bag' was everything. Highly competent drawing was still valued as evidence of having taken the time to study and describe form, something that was considered essential for a visual artist. Drawings might not be the be all and end all of a portfolio but they seemed essential to demonstrate visual competency. If we view the visual arts as an economy, decades ago the strongest currency was the 'commodity currency' of demonstrated competency. This now seems to have been replaced by a fiat currency of paper credentials to indicate their capability. The fact that a dim view is today generally held of skill based commodity currencies such as drawing means it can be almost impossible to determine 'how good' someone is by looking at their work alone. I have piled art images from high school students, undergraduate students and graduate students into files and mixed them up and looked intensely at them individually. In all honesty in many or even most cases I cannot discern, by looking alone, to what level of education an image belongs. Only when I read what is written about the image, or a statement by the artist do I realize the level of education achieved by the author. This is demonstrated, of course, by the use of what are essentially fashionable code words/signals written in an obtuse post modern style by artists who have received a university education.
-There have never been so many people calling themselves artists per square kilometer in human history. Not just astonishing numbers of people who now decide to go to school to study visual art (and this is truly a huge difference between the past and present) but all the millions of people with no training, no idea, who suddenly become self declared artists, perhaps when they retire, for example. Everything is art. Everyone is an artist. This doesn't make everything interesting, it just makes most art boring rubbish.
-The flow of value in the visual arts now seems to be primarily away from artists. The arts are no longer a model where, primarily artists produce art which is consumed by others. Artists now spend vast sums of money on obtaining an education, and then continue to spend considerable sums of money paying for materials, paying to exhibit online or in galleries, join galleries and organizations, and purchase arts services. Juried exhibitions are an astonishing example of this; they have become a business model for fundraising by fleecing artists in the vague/vain hope of exhibiting and receiving exposure. You pay to play, and in return get only the hope that your art will be included in the juried exhibition. The model is really no better than a lottery. Working artists, and as I've suggested there is not shortage of them, have been reduced to consumers. It is the artists themselves who primarily fund and float the arts economy.
-It seems to me there was a time when visual culture was in large part defined by artists themselves. Not completely, of course; academics, aesthetes, collectors and critics all had their input. However, artists had a profound role in the definition of what visual art was because they were valued and their opinions respected. in the past culture transpired from those who produced the artifacts, it was more of a 'bottom up' process, more authentic, more 'self propelled', and the non artist contributors role seemed in large part to describe what was taking place on the ground more than trying to control it. There seems to have been a significant change in this respect. Artists don't seem to be having much of a say in defining art anymore; it's the professional art educators, the curators and arts journalists. If the visual arts is an intellectual economy it is now a kind of Soviet supply side economy that is steered by bureaucrats. Artists themselves are mere interchangeable fodder, Proletariat, in this contemporary regime. I just need to observe how my local public gallery operates to confirm this theory.
-In the past, skilled artists made art. Now, anyone is capable of it. In our local public gallery, people apparently come off the street and are regularly 'engaged' in 'make art' projects. Anyone can make art! Who needs artists? This engagement is often described as a kind of accessibilty issue, that everyone is open to the 'opportunity' to make art. Or, as an issue of equality; all attempts at art are somehow equal. But why are accessibility and equality demanded for the making of art when it isn't for the curating of art, or the teaching, at universities, of art? Teachers and professors work behind formidable gate-keeping unions and professional organizations and consider their professions exclusive. How would we feel about anyone off the street flying airliners or performing brain surgery?
The final element of art I used to introduce to students of drawing, painting or design was form. Form was my favorite because I like drawing and drawing is fundamentally describing form. Shapes are 2D forms. As usual I would try and show how the elements of art work at a visceral and emotive level, consciously or unconsciously. I wanted to show how powerful, suggestive, and manipulative of perception shapes and forms can be. And I wanted a bit of a Voight-Kampft style presentation to provoke human (not replicant) responses. Here is some of the stuff I used to like to show and talk about.
Having worked in animation as a background painter and art director I had taken notice of the form of characters, both 'good' and 'bad'. There are particular qualities to their design depending on their 'alignment'. For example, I worked on a direct-to-video sequel to Beauty And The Beast. Weird story. Sort of a cartoon manifestation of The Stockholm Syndrome or a bad marriage. The male holding a woman hostage is a beast but she fervently believes 'I'll change him...' Regardless, here's the prince in his more palatable form.
Notice his large eyes and flat face. He's exhibiting traits of a juvenile primate or mammal, despite apparently being a mature adult capable of reproduction. These childhood, or paedomorphic traits, when retained in a mature specimen, are called neoteny. Compared to other primates and apes, humans generally exhibit neotenous traits. Humans might retain these traits for various reasons. Perhaps curious and flexible childhood brains come with the neoteny package. Perhaps because humans have evolved to work together in groups the neotenous traits might make individuals easier to collaborate with. Neoteny is also a condition that domesticated mammals exhibit through breeding. Their behavior is less 'wild'. Perhaps humans are more 'domesticated' compared to other primates. It has been speculated that there has been increasing sexual selection for neoteny, as in 'cuteness', during human mating. Males in general might seek younger 'cuter' females as sexual partners as they might be more fertile, pushing the species as a whole toward neoteny. In B&B Belle herself is without doubt 'cute' and neotenous, and the same might be said for the Prince, above. But compare the prince after he has transmografied into 'The Beast'...
...Proportionally smaller eyes, pronounced chin, receding forehead. Obviously he's less domesticated, more animal-like ('wild"), even ignoring the sharp gnashers and plush fur. He now exhibits traits of form associated with gerontomorphism (also called peromorphism). These traits are the opposite of neoteny. Take a look at the two chimps below; on the left an adult and on the right a 'child'. Notice the difference in form. We respond far more positively to the neotenous juvenile on the right because it is 'cute'. Flat face, big eyes and bulging cranium. Immature mammals aren't just cute, they are curious, engaging and affectionate. We have a strong positive emotional response to their form and instinctively want to pick them up and perhaps even nurture them. This is probably a visceral, emotive and mammalian evolutionary response to perceived infant forms. A warm positive response from a subject to an immature mammalian form would suggest they are not replicants and capable of reacting emotively and humanly to an element of art; form. With onset of adulthood chimps, like the one on the left become gerontomorphic, as well as more aggressive and dangerous. We correspondingly respond more cautiously, even with some alarm, to wild looking gerononmorphic forms.
Below is a human baby, exhibiting 'cute' paedomorphic traits; if these traits existed in adulthood they would be neotenous. Likewise with the 'cute' cat in the photo below the baby. Can you sense that you are responding similarly to the two images?
Below are a couple of adult fox photos I found online. The top photo is a wild red fox. The bottom photo is allegedly a domesticated, probably Russian Siberian fox. The Soviets bred domesticated Siberian foxes, that is, they selected them for neotenous traits of being more tame, docile and less 'wild', in order to farm them for their fur. Unfortunately the white coats became mottled with dark spots; in fur bearing mammals this (often) black and white or mottled colouring is indicative of domestication and made the fur less desirable; it didn't match the wild specimens. Domesticated dogs, cows, and horses exhibit similar patching on their fur; Dalmation dogs, in black and white, are a striking example of this. Livestock are of course domesticated in order to become more docile and manageable and also exhibit the mottled fur colouration. Pets are bred to be tame, docile and affectionate, but also to look 'cute', which involves big eyes, flat faces, and floppy ears. This is a casual observation, but it seems that dogs with longer snouts and more gerontomorphic features do seem more aggressive, as in Dobermans. Notice the structure and form of the heads of the wild and domesticated foxes below.
Directly below is a classic gerontomorphic human head. Compare to the adult chimp. The traits associated with the form of wicked witches are exactly the kind of traits that I noticed would be exhibited in 'bad characters' in the animations I worked on, and also in the animated film and television I watched to stimulate my own on-the-job background painting treatments. It is as though if you want to make a character 'bad' you give them these traits. Gerontomorphic traits are often projected on to racial groups, for example Jewish people; depictions of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice are/were often designed to fit this 'bad character' appearance. Arab 'Evil Viziers' in cartoons also demonstrated the same approach to form.
Here's some more animated villains all showing gerontomorphic traits in the form of their heads...
The casting and/or make-up of live action characters often projects the same features onto villains.
There is a real downside to all of this. We can't help the way we look, we're born into our features. Or age into them. Someone with the misfortune of having more gerontomorphic features probably won't be treated as well as people with 'cute' features. Think about how cute and attractive school children might be treated by teachers with more consideration and affection than 'unattractive' children, and how they may well go on to do better in life as a result.
One last note on the effect of villainous characters whose form signifies bad alignment; often evil doers are also given scars and disfigurement, as if it somehow suggests a disfigurement of their personality. Again, as with 'unattractive' qualities, this is really quite a cruel treatment for those who have had the misfortune of being disfigured. But it speaks volumes to our psychic makeup that art repeatedly uses these forms to provoke an emotional response. Shakespeare gave Richard III a hunch back and withered arm although in fact his discovered remains show he just had scoliosis.
There are some interesting exceptions where authors and filmmakers play with the notion of gerontomorphy. Perhaps Beauty and the Beast, is one (although I still think it's more suggestive of The Stockholm Syndrome) in that Belle might be seeing through the physical form of the beast to the more Beautific soul of the young prince.
In Studio Gibli/Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle animated film the 'good' protagonist is a young girl with a spell cast on her which turns her into a very dear and determined old lady with gerontomorphic features, turning the tables on villain stereotyping.
Miyazaki also played with the notion of disfigurement in Porco Rosso, the Red PIg, an animated aviator who is kind-hearted but rough around the edges and looks like a pig. Perhaps his physical form is an allegory of his being a burn victim in an earlier plane crash.
I should wrap this up just with the observations on the human head, but in class I'd often include some other examples of the power, and significance, of form as an element of art. Some of these I'll cover again in a post on biomorphic shapes, but consider what cellular and multicellular life forms consist of; enclosures, erections and sphincters.
I'd personally recognize these forms and the 'engineering' of life in much of the biomorphic abstract art of the 20th century. I'd also see them in architecture; perhaps the womb like enclosure of St. Peter's in Rome with the cervix like colonnade of Bernini out front that might draw in the devoted in like sperm cells. Or, better still, at ground zero in Toronto, the Doom Stadium, and enormous womb-like enclosure with a sphincter-like retractable roof cheek and jowl with what was at one time the worlds biggest free standing erection. Womb, cock and cunt.
Paul Arden, working for Saatchi and Saatchi created an astonishing series of adverts for the cigarette called Silk Cut which turned it into the best selling brand for women. There can be little doubt as to what the this image of a 'slit' in fabric below alludes to; a silk cunt. However, we apparently pay little conscious attention to advertising and so few of us notice how it affects us at a subconscious visceral level. This lack of attention is probably what makes it work so effectively in our consumer choices.
Below again is another clever poster for Lars Von Trier's film. These are powerful and suggestive visual forms whether we are actually aware of what they suggest or not.
To indicate how valuable forms are to a brand, I'd often show automobiles. Some would be high end and some low end. But it is often the shape of a car, a Jag, a Merc, a Cadillac, a Rolls, or the shape and design of some specific design component of them, like the grill, that defines the brand. Grills on family cars are often passive and pleasant but in sportier models, or trucks, often snarling and aggressive. This old VW ad, which I remember seeing regularly as a teen in magazines, makes a nice comparison to the film poster above. Arguably both are neither shapes or forms in that they are vectors, or lines, or curves, however they allude to a shape and therefore appear to describe form, as in a drawing.
You should know the shape of the Citreon, if you're of a certain age. Often regarded as one of the finer auto designs. It is often used in the advertising of other products for the design prestige associated with the form. But look closely in the ad below; there is a motif that is a 2D form, a series of shapes which, if you're Canadian, should suggest something you are quite familiar with.
That would be the CBC logo. The forms in the Stella beer ad with the Citreon were too close for comfort, so CBC apparently sued and the ads were withdrawn. As well as the Voight-Kampff-like effects on the human psyche, or perhaps because of them, forms have high proprietary value and can be copyrighted. Think Coke bottles. To me, this is a further indication of how powerful form, as an element of art, is.
Colour My World
Few would doubt the visceral effects of colour and it was easy, when instructing, to use a sequence of images with vivid colour, an element of art, that would register an emotional human response much like a Voight-Kampff test. Sanguine livid red was an ideal choice.
From Kubrick's The Shining
From Coppola's The Conversation
From De Palma's Carrie
Red seems to be one of the most provocative of colours if you present it in the right way. People can tend to 'oooh' and 'aaaah' over bright colours in a painting that have literally been just squeezed from a tube, an act requiring little or no discernment or ability.
Colour, strait out of the tube, is an easy way to get attention, and I'm always a bit suspicious that artists who use bright chromatically pure primary colours are hitting a lowest common denominator. I love Van Gogh's drawings and spent many many happy hours poring over them as an art student. I'm not so keen on his paintings. I might be wrong to be unmoved by his painting: I often told students that I like a lot of bad art and dislike a lot of good art for completely subjective and personal reasons. However, I could argue that it's the bright colours and a hundred years of public relations that have cemented Van Gogh's position in the art historical canon.
Use of colour can be nuanced and complex, particularly in decoration and decorative art. I certainly took colour seriously when younger and painting for a living. But decoration wasn't generally what I had in mind when I thought of the kind of art I'm drawn to, hence my bias against 'decorative', pretty or overtly pleasing pictures. I was often obliged to use livid and primary and secondary colours in animation work. But generally I've been more interested in what is inside of the colour wheel, all the taupes and cool greys effected by colour. These are the dirty colours that emerge from mixing primary and complimentary colour. These are wonderful colours to model form with.
In the extreme through, as a result of my love of drawing, I'm even more interested in the absence of colour. I see a red door and I want it painted black.
Komar and Melamid are a couple of Soviet-era emigres to the US who did a survey which would allow them to patch together 'The Most Wanted Painting'. They asked for favorite genre, subject matter and contents, and which colours were preferred. The end results were fairly similar in various countries; in the US landscape was preferred with averaged out proportions of sky, land, water, grassland, trees, high ground, and lowlands, animals and a historical figure.
Do bear in mind that really, the whole project is almost certainly a conceptual joke and isn't really meant to be taken very seriously. The idea of crunching data on taste into a representative painting can be done but the results are absurd. It's quite possible that Komar and Melamid are mocking art, surveys, not to mention ordinary people and their tastes. Here are the survey results for favorite colours.
Let's go back to 'seeing red', because it's such a provocative colour and can provide us with a powerful example of the impact of colour as an element of art, particularly when designed to do so, by nature or by humans. Red in nature and in human social life might be a way of signalling. Although a red stop sign or fire engine can signal danger, and certainly catches the eye, often red seems to be used for signalling for reproductive purposes.
Find the opening portal for The World's Most Wanted Painting HERE.
Red catches the eye of insects and hummingbirds seeking nectar in a feeding/fertilizing relationship between flora and fauna.
Above, Georgia O'Keef's paintings of flowers (and mimics of them) often appear like female sexual organs and O'Keef often deploys red.
Below, lipstick catches the attention and turns the mouth into something lividly sphincter-like which is generally considered an exciting form of sexual signalling.
In some species of primate females display anogenital tumescence during estrus, which is likely a kind of signaling of sexual fertility and receptivity for males. Reds, or pinks, seems the signalling colour. There's something of an analogue in the art historical record where artists wish to bring attention to sexuality.
male and female figures by Louise Bourgeois
A couple of figurative works by Egon Schiele using colour to accentuate sexuality
In introducing the elements of art, and colour as an element of art to students, I was trying to elicit a strong emotional response and not simply provide an inventory of dried goods. The response might be disgust, repulsion or or pleasure, desire or anything in between including amusement. I think art, certainly art from the era I was imprinted in, was often designed to provoke. Of course my provocative approach to the elements of art might not be for everyone, but no single approach can be, and to the best of my knowledge no one was mortally offended or psychically damaged. And if they were they were perhaps they discovered they might be better suited to studying interior decoration and not visual art.
One final note on colour and the colour red. Not surprisingly red, or redness is often the colour cited by philosophers of mind as an example of the sensation of something. As in experiencing red. Or heat, or cold, or pain, or the fragrance of a rose. The sensation of the way things seem, the instance of how red is experienced by us in body and mind, has a name; qualia (singular quale). There's a lot of disagreement among philosophers, neuroscientists and psychologists about just what qualia are and even if they exist. If qualia exist they are intrinsic, private and experiential. But they are also ineffable and this makes the notion of them hard to pin down. This problem of definition perhaps isn't very different from consciousness, and possibly related. You know, or at least believe you are conscious, and you also believe you experience qualia as part of consciousness. But do you really? Perhaps it's most significant that we believe we do, we believe we are embodied minds experiencing reality.
Below is one of my own prints which I called 'Qualia'. Don't think for a moment I was trying to illustrate the notion of qualia; I do NOT want to make illustrations. I don't like the notion of art illustrating ideas, even though I think art is full of ideas. It's why generally I don't like conceptual art. Conceptual or illustrative, I believe that art that tries to explain something becomes narrower. Titles can be a problem in this respect. I'm usually forced to give images titles for identification purposes; often I would provide a completely misleading title although sometimes I would have trouble identifying the image in my mind's eye when the title was misleading. But qualia was straight up what came to mind when I applied the blodge of red, by hand and brush, on the print surface to fill a vacuum of space that seemed to require filling. I think that all the figurative drawings I made, whether quickly sketched life drawings or considered images tried to convey a sense of what it means to inhabit a body and experience the body in the world through the senses. I think most figurative artists are often trying to convey this, and when something in an image successfully strikes a chord in the viewer it is perhaps more successful than not.
Below another print with visceral figures and hints of red.
below another print in which I use some red tinting to try and increase, perhaps, 'tingly' sensation and embodiment.
Below another print with a bit of colour, but not red this time. I find the combination of black and yellow alarming. It's often a motif on warning signs. Perhaps this comes from the colouring of some stinging insects and the evolutionary effect on our psyche. I find wasps alarming, like most people. They make an alarming, and perverse and interesting subject for a drawing. The colour juxtapositions heighten my senses and don't put me to sleep like more decorative colouring might.
I'll wrap up this blog post with one more of my prints. Again, these images just happen, there might be vague foundational notions, but in no way do I intend to illustrate. Meanings are usually found retrospectively. Obviously this is something abstractly wound-like on a landscape of sorts, and that was generally all I cared to know about it. It occurred to me to use red, which might make the sphincter-like form more wound-like, but red-red isn't actually very vibrant or a pure hue; it's not a pure red as in the magenta used in commercial print processes (along with cyan, yellow and black). So I used something close to magenta. I once spent a lot of time looking at punk rock LP covers and black and white xeroxed posters on telephone poles and these were usually a lot of black and white accented with livid magenta-pink so this might also have effected my choice of colour in this print for the purpose of highlighting. The colour was right out of the tube...
This post is another installment in a short series on the elements of art, taken from some of my classroom instruction, in which I would try and show how the elements of art exist fundamentally to provoke emotional responses. The elements of art might often be deployed subtly and with nuance but I wanted to provoke strong trigger responses to visual cues, much like the oral Voight-Kampff test as used in the movie Bladerunner. In the movie a flat or indifferent response to what are usually emotionally provocative cues for humans indicates that the subject isn't human but rather a replicant. In class I simply wanted to show how how emotionally humans/students might respond to elements of art. Texture was quite straightforward with projections like this:
Showing the slide above, not surprisingly, always provoked a response ranging from mere disgust, to repulsion and, occasionally, genuine fear. For people who have trypophobia, a fear of multiple holes or bumps, this image triggers a more extreme response.
Trypophobia has only recently been recognized as a phobia, and there are questions as to how real and how manufactured it is. It seems a phobia that has a cult following, which is interesting in it's own sense, because there are social media groups, members of whom are allegedly trypophobic, who deliberately gross themselves out. There is an aesthetic around discomfort precipitated by the aversion. In a way, this cult aspect might be similar to the cult of inflicting and being inflicted with pain, as in sadomasochism. Trypophobia has perhaps come to greater awareness due to it's use in the horror film genre. I find it interesting that a manifestation of an element of art has a strong sensual aesthetic following that actually results in the sharing of artfully created imagery.
Those who express extreme disgust/repulsion/fear are likely to have discomfort looking at strawberries or honey comb or wasp's nests or coral.
Apparently it's hard to know what 'causes' a strong trypophic response in people. It might be a evolutionary based fear of the contents of the holes which might be pathogenic or pain inflicting organisms, they might suggest disease or bites, or it might just be something to do with the frequency and size of the holes. If evolutionary, many fear and startle responses might be useful for survival under certain circumstances; fear of heights, fear of snakes, fear of shadows in the dark. Why not fear of holes? Regardless of why we respond as we do to the texture of many holes, I thoroughly enjoyed attempting to make the case that another element of art can provoke a strong visceral response.
Bumps are apparently part of the trypophobic spectrum and although I'm not fearful of holes or bumps (unlike heights and confinement) like most people I definitely respond to them. As a child I found Daleks disturbing and mesmerizing for a number of reasons, but one was the alarming regular arrangements of convex orbs on their lower exterior cladding.
Of course, not all texture has to be a panic inducing aversion trigger, but it can provide a profound sensual element to be deployed in visual art, both fine and applied, and it would not take long for anyone to find stimulating examples that are attractive or repulsive in the art or film making they enjoy. Think of how artists often go to great lengths to elaborately render hair, feathers or wood grains in their art.
In Space No One Can Hear You Scream
This post will be one of several about an approach to introducing the notion of The Elements Of Art to students. As a student myself, many years ago, we were generally taught by full time working artists, not full time art-educators. At the time there weren't really text books for art, and in retrospect there was no clear or monolithic curriculum; the artist-teachers simply taught what they knew about the subject from their work experience in the field. Teaching was more about art and less about pedagogy. The instruction at that time was more practical and visceral than theoretical and cerebral. Similarly I wanted to instruct and showcase art concepts in a visceral and practical way. I wanted to try to generate emotional responses to art. I wanted to make art a trigger again.
The urge to trigger was especially prevalent when introducing students to the notion of The Elements of Art; form/shape, texture, colour and space. I didn't want to present these as dry goods. The elements of art can be quiet, nuanced and subtle, but I wanted to demonstrate how powerful an effect on the psyche art images can have. As a denizen of the visceral twentieth century art millieu, I wanted to demonstrate that art wasn't necessarily just about pretty pictures or refined theoretical concepts.
I've always been interested in advertising. I think there are strong similarities between art and advertising, and the trajectories of ad people often pass through a thorough study of art. Art concepts are often evident in advertising, and indeed advertising often refers to the visual arts. I think that the best advertising and art is excellent primarily due to it's exemplary execution; it's art and craft. But also it's ability to engage at a deep psychological level. Great art (and great literature) and great advertising often seem to deal with hidden irrational emotions, two of which are fear and desire. If I recall correctly, Marshal McLuhan's folklore of industrial man, The Mechanical Bride identified these emotions in adverts. Edward Bernays, who established modern methods of advertising and public relations, has some wonderful folklore surrounding his early twentieth century success promoting the smoking cigarettes by woman for a large corporate client. Apparently after paying a large sum to consult a prominent psychologist he devised a 'Torches of Freedom' campaign, based on the psychologists suggestion that women might challenge men's power by smoking cigarettes because cigarettes represented a penis. This seems a hilariously alarming suggestion in retrospect, but one that apparently worked. You can view a short clip from Adam Curtis's documentary Century of the Self relating the story HERE.
A still from archival footage shown in The Century of the Self.
The Torches of Freedom campaign might seem excessive, but there are no shortage of things we fear and desire related to how and why we consume mass produced products. We desire to signal success. We fear emitting unpleasant odors. We desire to look attractive. We fear evidence revealing bodily functions like the discharging of waste fluids or gasses. In some way, almost every advert will pay some kind of attention to our deep seated irrational fears and desires, something great art can also do. Perhaps a significant difference between advertising and art is that we don't pay attention to advertising? We glaze over. But with art we actively look. Might this be why exposure to advertising has a greater subliminal effect on our unguarded minds? Exposure to art, even if it works on the subconscious, is a deliberate act. Perhaps visual art might sometimes be a creative kind of 'exposure therapy' in which patients are exposed to sources of fear and anxiety that can be experienced in a safer environment. I always enjoy showing provocative advertising images alongside movie stills alongside great works of art.
Desire in a real advert.
Fear in a parody of advertising from somewhere on the internet.
A metaphor for the slide show that I used to demonstrate the elements of art might be the Voight-Kampff Test used to discern humans from Replicants in the movie Bladerunner. A Voight-Kampff machine is used by a technician who asks test questions and provides scenarios designed to elicit an emotional response in the subject. The machine apparently measures responses by measuring the aperture of the iris of the eye. Artificial humans, or Replicants, had a different response than real humans. Of course, I wasn't trying to test to see if my students were human. I presumed most of them were, and that they would respond appropriately to disturbing depictions of the elements of art. I just wanted to solicit an emotional response from them to examples of the elements of art.
Holden administering a Voight-Kampff test to Replicant Leon at Tyrell Corporation's headquarters
Production design drawing of a Voight-Kampff Machine from the movie Bladerunner.
Space is usually supposed as The Final Frontier but I made it the first element of art I'd throw the class into because I find deep space is hard to convey powerfully in 2D projected images in a classroom. So it would be hardest to provoke an emotive response from students. I would therefore work my way through the elements from least to most compelling. Had I the opportunity to put the students on a roller-coaster, or take them to an IMAX film, I might have be able to better impress upon them the power and effect of space. I could of course, mention these sort of experiences and most would share and recollect similar experiences with traces of the original emotions. I explained that I took up rock climbing and mountaineering to experience and hopefully tame my own excessive fearful and agoraphobic response to space. Mountaineers and climbers talk of 'exposure' and how they have to gradually acclimatize themselves to it. This was what I was attempting to do myself; quite literally a form of self directed 'exposure therapy'. Crags and mountains aren't necessarily a safe environment to experience sources of anxiety and fear, but careful attention to procedures with ropes, harnesses and 'protection' (anchors to prevent a ground fall) create a much safer environment than would otherwise be the case. In time the confidence required for free solo exposed scrambles high in the hills might be achieved.
Exposure to heights and space didn't eliminate my fear and anxiety; for good reason. Fear of falling keeps climbers alive. But the 'exposure therapy' did keep a lid on potentially dangerous fear induced uncontrolled responses. In retrospect I would consider that experiencing the powerful psychological effect of space was a profoundly scaled up and fully immersive variant of perceiving space in a work of visual art.
Of course, there is the other end of the spectrum, also a product of space, or rather lack of it, the claustrophobia of confinement. I'm claustrophobic too ha ha. I can panic when zipped up in a mummy sleeping back when camping, and it requires mental effort to stay calm. I get the same panic response at the back of a crowded bus. Between these two extremes and the the womb and the tomb lie an incalculable number of visceral iterations of psychic responses to space, both large and small, comforting and disturbing. In class we might look at some projected examples of art and identify examples of a sense of space, either abstract or by illusion. Nineteenth century sublime landscapes always provided excellent examples of the illusion of discomforting space.
Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich
We might look at Cubism, always something of interest to me, in which form invades space and space invades form turning an object, or what remains of it, into a hyperobject. Of course, there is architecture, perhaps the most applied art form for space. A lot of architecture, built at great expense by governments and other powerful organizations, is surely designed as to function as a way to crush the individual, or at the very least make the individual feel very small and insignificant in the presence of some higher order. Think of Cathedrals, for example, whether Byzantine, Romanesque or Gothic. Or we might also look to minimal art of the 60's in which special circumstances could make empty space into something. Within our universe the vacuum of empty space contains energy. The nothingness outside of the universe and existence is another matter; there would not even be space for nothing to exist in.
Ground Outline, sculpture by Peter Kolysnik
After showing examples of space as an element of art I hoped I had elicited some strong psychic responses and always hoped that I had demonstrated that the components of visual art weren't just dry theoretical assumptions but also manifestations of forces that can be used to elicit animal visceral responses from our psychic architecture that has been modeled by evolutionary forces over enormous periods of time.
If, regarding the art element 'space' I had failed in this objective I still had colour, texture and form with which to attack the student's visual sensibilities, and I'll put up posts about these other elements of art in days to come.
A cover of Roadside Picnic appearing to depict an artifact called a 'Full Empty'.
In 1973 the Soviet Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky was published. The movie Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky was based on the novel. In the novel, aliens have very briefly visited Earth; passed through as much as passed by. The locations of contact, called 'Zones' have been littered with technologically advanced incomprehensible artifacts with mysterious and often dangerous qualities. The original use for the objects is not known. So-called 'Stalkers' take risks to enter The Zone and retrieve artifacts abandoned by the aliens. They then sell them. Scientists access the artifacts and experiment with them at great risk of catastrophic results. However, they are sometimes able to find applied uses, for example as energy sources or as medical interventions. The novel title is a metaphor, outlined by the character Dr. Valentine Pillman. It is as though aliens have pulled over at the side of a highway and they...'light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.' None of the litter left behind makes any sense to the resident life forms.
The Roadside Picnic is a wonderful metaphor for the imagined existence of technologically advanced alien artifacts, but it also seems an excellent one for visual art and images. We have no idea why we make visual art (certainly I don't), and very little knowledge of the inner 'space' (vs. outer space) from which it comes. Traditionally Muses (aliens of a sort) delivered inspiration as ineffable as the artifacts in the novel, and the Muse could be dangerous and destructive to the person possessed by them. During my formation as a visual artist the notion of an artist at risk of damage by inspiration still existed and could be witnessed. It was as though the artistic process was destructive of the individual seized by inspiration, as though knowledge and vision was an 'information hazard', and indeed the art itself could be viewed as dangerous. Twentieth century artists seem to regularly plunge to Nihilist depths of alcohol and drug addiction. Danger and risk seemed to be a byproduct of the art occupation and even the powers of art itself.
Art objects and images had and perhaps still have great power. We find uses for them such as to sell products in advertising, hang on walls to fill space, put on plinths, not fully knowing the where they come from or why they function as they do. Sometimes it is their sheer uselessness that makes art objects so mesmerizing; art for arts sake. This is not so unlike the artifacts from The Zone in the novel; the 'So-so's', 'Shimmers', 'Jolly Ghost's', 'Empties', 'Rattling Napkins', and 'Lobster Eyes' observed and retrieved by Stalkers.
As a denizen of the mid to late 20th century when Roadside Picnic was written I readily accept that visual art, including film making should not be explicable. I relish the ineffable and irrational nature and mysteriousness of visual art and images, of how they can communicate mutely, without 'saying something'. I can still leave a movie or an art exhibition with no clear understanding of what it was about and be grateful to have simply experienced exquisite craftsmanship and feel stimulated to have glimpsed some meaning or even truth, as through a glass darkly. In ages past those Muses who delivered inspiration were aliens of sorts. Our own minds seem like aliens. We have no clear idea how our minds work, transmit insights or have powers. More and more research psychology and neuroscience suggests that we are not as self aware and conscious as we delude ourselves into believing, and that our tiny slivers of awareness simply rationalize what we do unconsciously and automatically. I have no clear idea what I've been doing for 40 years as an artist and I'm not sure I actually want to, because I believe it would be counter productive magic notions and ineffabilities still attached visual art.
After a usual frantic life humans lead I'm now in my final years. Despite being convinced for most of my working life I knew what I was doing I now realize I have no clear idea what my persistent creation of drawn, painted and printed images was for or about. I was like a stalker in The Zone fetching imagery from aliens. The quality of the loot was unpredictable, sometimes an applied use could be found for it, sometimes it was useless or even dangerous. Roadside Picnic, The Zone and Stalkers might be useful metaphors not just for art but for life itself, and the life of the artist.
A poster for Tarkovsky's Stalker movie.
A Brush With Virtual Unreality
A screen grab of one of my VR drawings.
Some years back, around 2018, I was invited to take part in a 'research project' at the local public art gallery to use Google Tiltbrush virtual reality at a local VR arcade. Several years later, after experimenting with novel text-to-image AI find myself reflecting on disturbing (for me) aspects of the VR experience, of technology in general. I spent many hours down at the arcade experimenting with drawing. Participating artists weren't paid for their work, but received 300 dollars I believe it was, for 'engaging the public' at an art opening for 'Constant Change' at the gallery. As a working artist, I insisted that my 'actual' work, which was printmaking, also be included in the exhibition alongside the virtual. As well I suggested the other artists be able to do the same. As well as the AI artists, in the main gallery a MFA graduate had an exhibition which consisted of perimeter wall painting of what might be large pixels suggesting a digital environment and in the middle of the gallery a circle of electrical cords with a vacuum cleaner robot operating with a dog bowl on top. The artist wept during her art talk. As well children were exhibiting in the gallery under the title of 'Calling All Robots'. These were young students in a robotics program. All artists gave a short talk which was printed. Here's mine which I've edited in a bit of what I took out for brevity.
As someone trained in and deeply committed to a skill of the eye, mind and hand (drawing) I'm probably more suspicious than most of the benefits of excessive technology. I've nevertheless been curious enough to casually follow developments of the last few decades in both 3D modelling and more recently 'virtual' drawing and painting. So it was a fortunate and welcome opportunity to experiment briefly with VR drawing thanks to Matt Adamson of VRSpaces and the CVAG. I was pleased that curators Denise Lawson and Angela Somerset have seen fit to show examples of not just the virtual work of the artists involved in this project, but also their actual work.
Seeing and drawing in 3 dimensions was a novel experience, but not overwhelmingly so. VR did not open up a new psychic domain because drawing, whether 2D or 3D, is describing form and/or shape with points, lines and planes, so the shift from 2D to 3D was fairly seamless. Conceptually and even practically Tiltbrush drawing is not much different than drawing with pencil. A drawing on paper that employs linear perspective arguably creates a virtual space.
I wanted the 3D virtual drawing experience to be an extension of my drawing and printmaking aesthetics, styles and motifs. This precluded using colour and patently extravagant brushes. I settled on a line quality that seemed to imitate crayon. The Tiltbrush is a very coarse medium relative to traditional drawing materials and 2D digital drawing materials such as the Cintiq. Obviously this will improve in the future.
The onslaught of digital technologies in recent decades has made the mass production of images ever more frenzied, and this effects the value of images and how we experience and perceive images. This necessarily effects the perceived value of artists as well. The experience and appreciation of even relatively modern visual mediums such as theatrical film are being rapidly degraded. As film maker David Lynch has wryly observed '...it's such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone!' We could apply the same sentiment to drawing, painting and other visual art forms. Will VR provide a deeper and more considered visual experience as a result of the spectator being able to immerse themselves in drawing or painting? Or will its capacity for endless digital replication relegate VR to the ubiquity of other profligate digital media? At the moment VR enjoys a modicum of novelty and therefore perceived value. How long before VR art joins today's interminably replicating epidemic of images? How can the working artist make a commodity of VR? The very existence of trained working artists requires what they produce images, objects and artifacts of value. Mass production, and especially digital mass production are so excessive they undermine this aspiration. Whatever existential impacts technology and constant change will have on the artist will be part of what it has in store for the future of all meaningful work, for human dignity, culture, civilization and even our survival as a species.
At the time I did not what to appear ungrateful for the three hundred dollars, the opportunity to use the VR technology and exhibit some of my prints, but I hope you can sense a tactful questioning of, and less than enthusiastic endorsement of the technology. For the most part none of the other artists or children or their teachers seemed to fundamentally question the technology and it's effects on artists specifically, and humans in general. There was a giddy enthusiasm from the participants including the gallery. In retrospect, after the fact, the whole thing seemed surreal, or at best unreal. Why throngs of children in a public art gallery? How can an adult visual discourse take place in their presence? My David Lynch quote was censored which reduced it's fucking effect. (The issue of children in art galleries will be the subject of another post). None of the children seemed to have been made aware of how robotics have in the last few decades undermined the value of human workers and caused job losses and social upheaval. Would they like their mummy and daddy replaced by robots? Like all the spectators at the opening, the children were deprived of an awareness of the negative consequences of technology that might have been provided by the artists, the gallery technocrats, parents or teachers. The show was unbalanced if not completely unhinged. A public art gallery had essentially become an advertising platform for a large tech corporation and high tech in general. I presumed the dream of the children and especially the parents was that they might one day become the highly valued well paid employees of these corporations. Certainly not to become visual artists. I was confused and even disgusted for days after the event and the experience. I found it hard to believe that a contemporary art institution and artists working in it's confines should have been reduced to such conformism and malleability to the promises of technology. It appeared that, in my own community and perhaps in general, we could no longer look to the arts or artists for sober second thoughts and reflection.
If you want to view David Lynch's i-phone 'commercial' click HERE.
If you'd like to see what other participating artists said about the VR experience you can still find the CVAG's page on the project HERE.
For comparison, above, a screen grab of my Tiltbrush VR drawing with an actual drypoint print I was working on at the time. I think it's fairly obvious that both images suggest the possibility of the unleashing of some kind of miasma, plague or technology which I felt was appropriate at the time.