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Archives for April, 2006

Why is it so difficult to be an artist?


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

To be an artist today is to confront continual uncertainty. There is economic uncertainty, and also uncertainty of purpose. Modern society seems to value art — art is preserved in museums, and purchased for large sums by “collectors.” And yet the normal artist is strangely disconnected from the top levels of success. Compare this with other professions. A competent pilot, trained at a good flight school, is more or less assured of a successful career. He or she might not get the opportunity to fly the biggest and newest commercial planes, or fancy jet fighters; but a stable career is a reasonable expectation, certainly compared to what an artist can hope for.

The profession of art has not always been so uncertain. For example, Cennino Cennini discusses the motivations of those entering the profession in the 14th c. “There are those who pursue it” he writes, “because of poverty and domestic need.” In 17th c. Holland, parents would encourage a talented son to pursue art as a profitable and respectable occupation. Nowadays, “poverty and domestic need” would better describe the results of becoming an artist, rather than causes for becoming one.

There is far more wealth in the world today to purchase art than in any time past. The difficult position of artist today is therefore something of a mystery.

If there is a general appreciation of art, and money to buy art, then why is it so difficult to fulfill the role of artist?

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Related:
Is art school worthless?
Fall of the Art World

Internet as Frame part II, Minimalism


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

The design of web-pages for displaying art is a matter of great practical as well as aesthetic importance. One design that I find striking, because of its boldness, is Jannie Regnerus’ web-page. This site is minimal to the extreme. It is so unlike what one is used to in a web-page that at first it seems confusing. But it is precisely this unusual quality that makes the layout a successful frame for Regnerus’ photography. One has the feeling of having left the noisy bustle of the internet and having arrived in a quiet place.

I say the design is bold is because, by departing from expectations, Regnerus takes a risk that visitors may be confused and leave the site before they see anything. For those visitors who do look more closely, the simplicity of the layout serves the intended role of providing a quiet context for the artwork.

Is minimalism inherently good for the internet?

Is Regnerus’ site a model for other internet sites?

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Related:
Internet as a frame
Fall of the Art World

Art & Imagination, part II


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

Cennino Cennini devotes his Il Libro dell’ Arte (late 14th c.) to a practical explanation of the materials and techniques of painting. And yet Cennino also writes of painting as an occupation that deserves “to be crowned with poetry”, because the painter has the ability to compose from the imagination, “presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.”
It might seem there is a mismatch between focusing on the physical aspects of the work, and at the same time emphasizing the role of imagination in creating art. But this combination of the mundane and the fanciful is appropriate for a simple reason: an artist creating from the world of the mind must nonetheless work in the world of the materials. The physical nature of those materials, and the way the artist uses them, will inevitably influence how the inner world of the mind is discovered and expressed.

Contemporary artist Hanneke van den Bergh recognizes and makes use of this interplay of the imaginary and the physical in her clay sculpture. She explains “I like to make the heads by moving a little lump of clay until I can just see the face. I like this quality of the imaginary form beginning to emerge from the raw material.” Van den Bergh does not attempt to disguise the properties of her materials. In the example shown here, Danae III, she leaves visible the coils with which she constructs the main form. The contrast of the repeating pattern of coils with the rhythm of the body contributes to the expressive effect of the work. “By avoiding too much detail,” she says, “I maintain the contrast between material — the physical — and the imaginary.”

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Related:
Art and imagination: Cennino says…

Art and imagination: Cennino says…


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

. . . this is an occupation known as painting, which calls for imagination, and skill of hand, in order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to give them shape with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.

Here Cennino Cennini, in Il Libro dell’ Arte, describes his profession. Many have written “how to” books about art, but Cennino, because of his vantage point (14th century Florence) and his broad technical knowledge, holds a special place. He describes in detail the most basic tasks like how to make a quill pen. And yet he does not neglect the larger goals. Practicing with the humble pen, he explains, will make you “capable of much drawing out of your own head.”

For Cennino, the power of art to convey the imaginary is its most important role. Painting, he writes,

. . . justly deserves to be enthroned next to theory, and to be crowned with poetry. The justice lies in this: that the poet, with his theory, though he have but one, it makes him worthy, is free to compose and bind together, or not, as he pleases, according to his inclination. In the same way, the painter is given freedom to compose a figure, standing, seated, half-man, half-horse, as he pleases, according to his imagination.

Cennino does not neglect studying form nature, or the importance of style. But the power of art to present “to plain sight what does not actually exist”, to give form to the imaginary, remains the guiding motivation.

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Related:
Art & Imagination, part II

Internet as a frame


plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

Every artwork must be shown in some physical place, if it is to be seen at all. That place could be a gallery, a museum, or a living room. And of course, it could be on a computer monitor as well.
How does an individual artwork fit in the physical place where it is exhibited? The fit might be poor, but the artist usually has limited control of where his or her artwork will be shown. The frame is the practical solution to this problem. A frame provides a local context for an artwork, which to some degree can isolate it from its surroundings. A well-chosen frame will enhance the best qualities of the artwork, and protect it from being overwhelmed by what is around it. Good frames are difficult to find.

Exhibiting art on the internet does not take away the importance of the frame, but the nature of the frame is altered. The web-page itself acts as a frame for an artwork on the internet — the layout of the page, the font, the color of the text, these take the place of wood, carving, and gilding of a normal picture frame. Thus even if an artwork is shown on a web-page without a “normal” frame, it still has a framing context which surrounds it wherever the web-page is viewed.

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Related:
Internet as Frame part II, Minimalism
Fall of the Art World

Appreciating the ginger pot

Here is one of Hanneke van Oosterhout’s recent still-life paintings. She is focused on ginger pots at the moment. These glazed ceramic pots were in the past used to store candied ginger. They could be imported from China until a few years ago. Hanneke bought this old pot at an antique market in Haarlem.

I have to confess that I never saw much in these ginger pots until Hanneke started painting them. Now that I am looking at her pictures, I begin to appreciate the contrast of different materials — the transparent ceramic glaze, trimmed from the bottom of the pot to expose the rough clay; the woven reed straps. This particular painting almost has the character of a portrait.

Judging an artwork: “who?” versus “how?”

The question, “Who made an artwork?” affects the way we judge that artwork. I argue that the question “How did the artist make it?” is of equal relevance. My point is that the focus on “Who was the artist?” is an example of a more general question: “How was the artwork made?”

“Who made it?”

Imagine it were proved that the Mona Lisa on display in the Louvre is a copy of da Vinci’s original. This would be major news. It would not change the work on display, but it would change the way we view it. The value of the picture would be greatly reduced (especially if the original came to light).

This imaginary example demonstrates the obvious, i.e., who made a particular artwork is a critical factor in how we look at the artwork and judge its value. Perhaps this should not be the way art is judged. But in the real world, the importance of authorship is an inescapable reality.

“How was it made?”

Imagine, in another example, that a set of genuine da Vinci drawings were found, studies for the Mona Lisa. Imagine these drawings demonstrated that the Mona Lisa is an imaginary portrait, with the face based on drawings of a fifteen year old boy. This would be major news. From a technical standpoint, it would not be shocking; indeed, it would fit with normal Florentine practice of using male models for female figures. But from an aesthetic standpoint, we would never look at the Mona Lisa the same way. Our appreciation of this painting might not be diminished, but it would inevitably be altered.

We do not so often focus on the question “How was an artwork made?” Part of the reason may be that it is difficult to find answers. But as the above example shows, the answer to this question could be no less important than for the question “Who made it?” The reason, I think, is that the questions are related. “Who made it?” is simply a specific version of “How was it made?”

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