It was a few months before “The summer of love” when I saw the headline “6,700 hippies expected this summer” in San Francisco. My older, wiser, and worldly sister had sent me a ticket for my 16th birthday to come visit her. It was my first time traveling on my own, my first airplane ride, and my first time in a place where 95% of the people were not birthed from either a Scandinavian or German heritage!
She worked as a nurse during the day, so I was free to explore the city. She gave me directions to the art museum, and off I went. I come from a wonderful family, but our art was TV; literature was the Encyclopedia Britannica and Reader’s Digest; music was the local AM station and Lawrence Welk.
I already knew I wanted to be an artist. I had sought out some of the art being done locally in the fantastic print department of the University of WI (Dean Meeker, Warrington Colescott, Walter Hamady, Ray Gloekler, et. al.). I had purchased a well-worn copy of Janson’s History of Art from the UW bookstore. But short of that I had never been exposed to “real art”.
I approached the museum with no idea what to expect. I walked in the door and was stopped dead in my tracks. If I had been older, I might have dropped to my knees, or fainted, but at sixteen I turned and ran, tears streaming down my face. Inside the door was one of Monet’s waterlily paintings - about 6-foot square. My mind was quite literally blown. I had looked at his work so many times in that dog-eared Janson book. Some black and white; some very small reproductions. I guess the measurements were there, but they had never sunk in.
I did go back, in a day or two, and tour the museum. Had tea in the tea garden. Road the trolley cars. Ate seafood on the wharf. All were great I suppose, but I have never forgotten, and still tear, up at that Monet.
Last week I was reading a book by John Berger “Ways of Seeing”. It is an old book (1972) that I have read before but wanted to revisit. He talks about the difference of seeing art in situ, vs reproductions.
“The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable, but it could never be seen in two places at the same time. When a camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result, its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings…. Having seen this reproduction, one can go to the National Gallery to look at the original and there discover what the reproduction lacks. Alternatively, one can forget about the quality of the reproduction and simply be reminded… that it is a famous painting of which somewhere one has already seen a reproduction. But in either case, the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique, its first meaning is no longer to be found in what IT SAYS, but in what IT IS.” (Emphasis added)
Considering these words were written before the proliferation of many of the t-shirts and coffee mugs now sold in art museum gift shops, memes made from art works, Pinterest, and Google, he is only talking about the tip of the iceberg! What made me now think about this were the many virtual events and exhibits that are now seeing us through the pandemic. I cannot say enough about how I appreciate what many galleries and exhibits are doing to keep art sales and artist exposure alive and well during social distancing. Personally, McGuffey, SAQA and Visions Art Museum are notable in this, and are appreciated, but they have also raised some concerns.
Before COVID, many artists, myself included, expressed concern for show and exhibit jurying being done electronically vs in person. The efficiency of doing so is obvious, and the history of judging via slides is long, but it does present questions. Those questions have been validated by the number of times I have heard the exclamation “your work is so much better/different/more intricate in person than online or in print.” But nonetheless I totally understand the need to jury hundreds of entries electronically rather than the logistics of gathering/storing/returning the actual artwork at that stage, as it is being done by professionals who also use and understand the realities.
However, that platform is now being embraced for the next step; the final show for the general public. Again, during COVID restrictions, that is both understandable and appreciated, but will it continue into “after”, and if so, will it have an effect on the artwork produced? Will it become a normal adjunct to a show to have an online component? Or will the virtual completely displace the actual in some venues. Could this actually change what artists will make/enter in the future, or at least who would be juried in? Will it change the public’s idea of art? We are getting more and more comfortable with buying products on-line. Will we get comfortable in viewing our art that way? Will the actual experiences of shopping or gallery viewing become obsolete?
I have been chastised in virtually every art museum I have visited. My nose evidently gets far too close to the canvases when I am trying to discern the brushstrokes or glaze applications. But how else is one to see exactly how that glint of eye was accomplished? The same in fiber shows. It is not possible to see the intricacies of stitch, the loft of bat, the layers or types of fabric in the majority of virtual or print reproductions. Thus, the subject matter and the gross (impact not quality) forms of the composition become paramount to the viewer rather than the smaller, but possibly more significant, elements of the piece.
Even when “detail images” are included they are at a pre-chosen distance from a pre-chosen area, perhaps not one of the viewer’s choosing !
This morning, on Facebook I saw an announcement for “The Sistine Chapel in St. Louis”. A full “life sized” reproduction will be installed in St. Louis for tours at America’s Ballroom on the second floor of America’s Center. Here is their description:
“Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition recreates the awe and wonder of arguably one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements while allowing its visitors to experience this art from a new perspective.
With special expertise and care, the ceiling paintings from the Sistine Chapel have been reproduced using state of the art technology. In order for the observer to fully engage and comprehend the artwork, the paintings have been reproduced in their original sizes. The overwhelming impression for the observer will be the dimensions of the art, the closeness to the picture and the modern style of the exhibition. [I am not sure those were Michelangelo’s hopes for the “overwhelming impression”] As a result, the visitor can explore the artwork up close at a distance impossible to achieve in the Sistine Chapel.”
My question is how do you replicate the “awe and wonder” when you have also made the images accessible, and taken out of the sacred edifice and in a convention center?
They go on to say:
“Visitors who have never seen the originals will be intrigued and inspired to visit the Sistine Chapel at some time in the future. Guests who have already visited the Sistine Chapel will find a new way of observing the art.”
And that, dear reader, brings us right back to Berger’s statement, “... its first meaning is no longer to be found in what IT SAYS, but in what IT IS.” [Emphasis added]
Recently I posted this photo of a pepper on Facebook. It was sitting on the counter after Jon had finished making our salads... just sitting there staring at me. Yes, I am familiar with the phenomena of pareidolia, but I just found this humorous.
When I posted this, one of the comments that appeared was "You see art in everything". That statement took me back for a moment and made me think for a couple of days. Yes. Yes, I do see art in everything. It takes my breath away when I look around. I am amazed that that a brick and weed and the sun light can compose the perfect still life. I think the cigarette butt on the sidewalk is both a statement and a story - as well as an interesting composition. I am easily amused and impressed. The edge of that brick building against that blue sky is the perfection of complementary color. The fog that shrouds that parking structure, while letting the dried weed be in extreme focus, is more than I can comprehend replicating.
On the way home from my studio tonight, I saw this image in a bank drive through. Eat your heart out all you abstract expressionists. Frame it, put it in the east wing of the National Gallery and let the critics opine.
They can write a missive on the tension between the lines vs the splashes, the contrast of the darks and lights. The significance of the shapes, or maybe they would discourse over the need for a pop of color. They would check the title for political or social significance. And contextualize it based on the culture from which the artist came.
Was it art before or does it take validation or reproduction to be so?
As I thought more about this, I thought about the very real discomfort I feel when some says, or asks if, I am an artist. Okay. Whatever. If I need to be qualified or quantified, you can call me that.
But, as I have said before, I prefer "maker". I make stuff. It wasn't there. It didn't exist and I birthed it. I used my intellect, my heart and, occasionally, serendipity to do so. I made it.
As I thought more about this, I decided that, perhaps, the real aim of an "artist" is not the product they make, but the continued attempt to make others see the art that already exists around us. I make for my own sake. Maybe we are - or should be - translators. I do believe people called artists see and appreciate differently; just as scientists, or mathematicians, or musicians, or chefs view their world differently. Then we attempt to use our human talents, venues, media, and connections to try to get others to see what and how we saw (or tasted or figured). It is how we write. It is how we solve equations. It is how we bake.
Some of this we learn through academics. We spend hours and years in drawing classes not drawing the cube we know exists, but instead, the cube as we see it. Then we move to foreshortening in life drawing and still life compositions where we talk about the space between not just the objects. We learn to see with our eyes, not our head. Once we can do that, we start to understand how what we see exists for only a moment: a tilt of the head or the cloud momentarily over the sun can change the reality. How our specific moment and object of focus is a reality that no one else experiences in the same way.
We are constantly saying "CAN'T YOU SEE THIS TOO?" and "OH YOU MUST SEE THIS". The landscape painter tries to capture and explain the moment of clarity they had when looking out on nature. The portrait artist doesn't paint just the resemblance, but the inner person as they saw or felt it. The photographer captures a moment that perhaps only they had the acumen/patience/luck to witness. The abstracters capture essence or movement or the core of something that needs no subject.
I am about to stop my studio work for a period of six months. Part of this is because I have been having one of those "what does it all mean? Why do I do this? Who cares?" periods we all go through. I still have the compulsion to make, but at this time of my life, I am not trying to monetize, I am not trying make statements, I have no great affinity for mastering a specific craft or media, so what to do with this compulsion, and where is it best directed. I am thinking this chunk of driveway might be a clue.
My life and heart are full and amazed just walking down the street; nature or concrete or people or whatever is before me surpasses most of what I could ever make. I often feel that trying to make art is futile and the real goal I am striving for is just to see what is already out there.
So now to figure out how or if I can or should just improve my seeing, or if I also try to translate to others.
And if so, how.
Of course, Degas figured this our long before I had my own "ah ha" moment:
"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."
If you are really into history, click here for blog posts prior to 2014 !