(Excerpt from Athol Fugard’s play, “Master Harold”…and the boys)
This question spawns other questions of categorization (Is it fine art?) and particularization (What is creativity?), and so on. In other words, any answer leads to more questions, without complete resolution.
Many have concluded simply that art cannot be defined. Modern art philosopher, Morris Weitz, concluded that there is no essence to artwork of itself. He suggested that what makes a work “art” is based upon its resemblance to other works or paradigms that have been decided upon as “art.” He notes that to give an essential definition of “art” would inescapably rule out art-making as a creative activity because future works would be limited to the definition. But isn’t his “resemblance” qualifier just as limiting? And the context that decided prior works to be art hopefully changes so that the conditions that determined “art” at one point are not there at the next. Even “art” that seemingly transcends trendiness, may simply be a persistent trend dependent on enough universal conditions that have not remarkably changed—yet. Just as we think of cave paintings more as artifacts of our early ancestors than as “art,” distant generations living in an entirely different context may one day deem the Mona Lisa a similar curiosity.
Weitz and other anti-essentialism art philosophers dismiss even the act of making as a qualifier, Weitz giving the example that an unaltered piece of driftwood could be considered art if displayed in a gallery. Of course, there is a “making” aspect through the display, which then evokes the “resemblance.”
I reject that art cannot be defined just because we cannot sufficiently articulate a realization that something is “art,” or because doing so would stymie future creativity (there may be no stronger creative force than rebellion). I reject that definitions must be enduring rules rather than temporal ascriptions, so that the Mona Lisa will always be “art” for its time and context. I reject that the definition has to be universally understood or applied, adopting instead a fluid understanding best summarized in the famous legal standard deciding pornography, “you know it when you see it.”
I suggest one basic definition that I believe can withstand the vagaries of changing context and debate concerning what constitutes creative content (for instance, artifactual versus conceptual): Art is the objectification of experience. Art is taking an experience (an emotion, observation, idea, or merely the passage of time) and transposing or relating it in an objective form (a painting, film, novel, musical composition, etc). Accepting this basic definition we accept that art makes an experience sensorially accessible to others in some way. From there we can ask and argue whether it is “good art,” “fine art,” etc. to avoid the inevitable problem that this definition could lead to everything being art. But maybe everything is; as Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata admonishes, “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”
In 1913 the Balkan Wars were still a thing. The dissembling of the Ottoman Empire was stressing Europe. Russia was allying with the emerging Slavic groups, the shift threatened the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sent ripples of concern across Europe. Having just undergone industrialization, new ways of looking at economic and political structures were taking hold and giving rise to revolutionary movements against traditional monarchies. The art world was responding with its own revolutionary reordering—the Modernist art movement was reaching a crescendo with Picasso’s cubism.
Against this backdrop, avant-garde Russian architect, Vladimir Tatlin visited Picasso’s studio and was inspired by his edgy experimentation. Seeing Picasso’s fracturing and reordering of perceived content led Tatlin to the realization that art does not necessarily create the content, but that the content can create the art. Hence the eventual five principle’s of the Realistic Manifesto (as written by artists and brothers, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner, 1920) that articulated the constructivism movement.
This seemed to track the new bottom-up world view that was the Marxist engines of Bolshevism, placing more importance on the elemental or “proletariat” constituents of a subject than the ultimate illusion. In a new iteration of the truth, Constructivist art stripped a subject to its basic shape and function.
Between Tatlin’s studio visit of 1913 and the Manifesto of 1920, Europe’s destabilization accelerated with WWI (raging between 1914-1918, with continuing treaty work until 1924) and the Bolshevik Revolution (October, 1917) that replaced the Russian monarchy with Leninism. Certainly this turmoil reinforced Tatlin’s and his Constructivist followers’ drive to find basic truths in abstraction and to rely more on modern methods and materials than traditional media. And again, this tracked with emerging economic reactions to industrialization by using the shapes, materials and methods that had exploited the worker as media reconstituted in work that revealed the modern circumstance, its problems and possibilities. The use of unadulterated patterns, shapes and even materials was not well received by the art critics of the day, and one inadvertently gave the movement its name when he insultingly reported that work by Alexander Rodchenko looked like “construction art.”
The Constructivists embraced this moniker and sought to manifest it literally, considering art as a means to construct a utopian future. Constructivist art actualized through Tektonika, exploitation of industrial matter as media, and Faktura, in the context of promoting utopian communism or social change. Again, this is happening at the time of hopeful transition from ineffective monarchism to energetic Leninism, so that the Constructivists were using the geometric building blocks of visual art, recognizable and available to all, to extol the fundamental value of the basic people as building blocks of society. This revolutionary and egalitarian approach is often characterized as unemotional or sterile, but arguably its absence of a dictated feeling leaves room for a future one either to be determined collectively or decided by the individual viewer.
A group of Constructivists took this to an extreme—that artists should do their work in industry, that true constructivist art is applied art. This group formed a movement called Productivism that rejected Constructivism’s focus on solving the more esoteric artistic problems of spatial and rhythmic relationships. The progression of thought that true art must be useful seems to have been tracking the political tightening of Russia’s iteration of communism into an oppressive regime.
The Constructivists and Productivists thought art should serve to secure the new social order that would be communism, and should not be merely an intellectual or spiritual exercise in and of itself. Although their art was premised upon advancing the revolution, as the revolutionary government evolved, the artists and intellectuals who were essential to the cause came under suspicion and eventually their work was rejected or purged. Ironically, the political machine they brought to power would reject them while co-opting the political usefulness and geometric strength in the restyled genre of Soviet Social Realism (a state approved art movement that glorified Soviet dictated values and propagandized for Stalinism; not to be confused with general international Social Realism that is critical of such propaganda and manipulation of the masses). In an ironic twist the Constructivist’s once progressive visual themes were used as a means to convey oppressive propaganda to the masses with its then maudlin and familiar appeal, harkening back to the hope and promise of the revolution. Thus the movement journeyed from its intent of liberation to a weaponized art form.
Constructivist art is marked by a commitment to total abstraction and a wholehearted acceptance of modernity. Often very geometric, it is usually experimental, rarely emotional. Objective forms which are thought to have universal meaning are preferred over the subjective or the individual. The art is often very reductive, paring the artwork down to its basic elements. New media and unexpected media are used. For the original Constructivists, the context or Faktura was crucial; they were seeking a new order of art, rejecting the old order that had culminated in World War I, and promoting a world of more understanding, unity, and peace. This political component of constructivism, often was omitted from later abstract art, but has had a recent resurgence in street art (e.g., Banksy and Shepard Fairey). Today, purely rooted Constructivism, as well as its ironic usage, is as relevant as ever. Think of hackers or fake news generation—using contemporary elements as media to shape thought or further an agenda. As with any provocative or political argument, the reception is dependent upon whose ox is getting gored, and when and where.
In the gallery (through April 8, 2017), we have two Ukrainian artists whose lives and artistic training were influenced by their country’s active history with Constructivism (e.g., Ukrainian Louise Nevelson is an exemplary Constructivist artist who advanced the movement and its progeny in the west). Both multimediaist Andrey Maslov and photographer Guennadi Maslov have a geometrically muscular sensibility to their work. Both consider the contemporary circumstance and, whether intended or not, their art provokes a response to it, either in the discovery of what is, or the thought of what could be.
Other Representative Constuctivist Artists:
Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Kasimir Malevich, Robert Adams, Alexandra Exter, El Lissitzky, Wassily Kandinsky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Lyubov Sergeyevna Popova, Louise Nevelson
Germany was the site of the most Constructivist activity outside of the Soviet Union (especially as home to Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, a progressive art and design school sympathetic to the movement), but Constructivist ideas carried as well to other art centers, like Paris, London, and eventually the United States. Gabo, Pevsner, and El Lissitzky brought Constructivism from the Soviet Union to the West. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy came to Germany from Hungary, Theo van Doesburg from the Netherlands. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent English Constructivist. Josef Albers and Hans Richter encountered the movement in their native Germany but were also instrumental in its international dissemination.
Mary Heider is an independent curator whose work includes exhibits at Brazee St. Studio, 506 Ash Gallery, Carnegie Art Center, and Cincinnati Museum Center. Mary also is Assistant Dean Emerita of University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine, where she developed the course “Art and Medicine.”
In the past, I’ve invited you to exhibits I have curated and shows of artists I’ve followed. Today, I must to tell you about a gallery exhibit that is worth a trip to see in the cold of January. It isResolutions: 1. More Art which just opened at Wash Park Art, 1215 Elm Street, downtown next to Music Hall, on the streetcar line. The show runs through February 18, 2017. See hours at www.washparkart.com.
Holly Doan Spraul, gallery owner and curator, offers in Resolutions, a super exhibit that can show those who collect or simply enjoy a diversity of art just how effectively in a very small space – possibly similar to our own homes – a range of art and photography by 19 artists can be presented. She has created an exciting, mentally challenging and visually pleasing exhibition.
If you haven’t been to Wash Park Art, it is an old, elegant shot-gun style home, and in it Holly links and unifies this exhibit from your first step into the former living room through the dining room and finally the kitchen. Resolutions is about living with an eclectic collection. Holly has done it right!
The exhibit’s complexity makes a short description here incomplete at best. Large and small groups of work, plus pairings within groups are in all rooms and are intriguing, unexpected. Paintings and photographs usually aren’t hung together vertically – but here it works! In Resolutions, these combinations speak to one another in their color, lines and shapes, and rhythms. Both figurative and abstract appear and meld. Viewing the show is like a good puzzle you enjoy working on that comes together as your realize what has been created for you. You look forward to seeing what is in the next room. For instance , one sees immediately in the living room a large surrealistic figurative by Thomas Towhey that speaks to an abstract architectural by Cedric Cox on the opposite wall, but then you discover the adjacent groupings interact with these larger works as well as within their own group. There is a texture that emerges through the rooms and ends in the kitchen with the final bold punctuation of Mel Toledo’s exquisite photo-realistic floral oil and then the big, bold, other-worldly blue-toned “gas mask” eyes of Kurt Grannan’s painting in juxtaposition to a final unexpected darker blue-toned photograph/painting grouping of Guennadi Maslov and Robert Hebenstreit, respectively. There are many memorable images, many artists whose work was new to me but very welcome, and offerings in new styles from familiar artists (e.g., photographer Kent Krugh).
A couple of other points: Holly has provided interesting, relevant information about each artist, often including how the artist came to be exhibited. All works are for sale and pricing comes with a welcome range.
There was a good feeling in the response of the crowd that came January 6. They welcomed this exhibit giving it serious study and discussion. Holly takes risks. I hope she takes more if they are this well executed.
(Thomas Hieronymus Towhey, Catchechism, oil on canvas, 60″x 72″, $4,000)
In 1924 French poet, André Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto founding a genre of art and thought that is still relevant today. He defined surrealism as,
“Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”
Psychic automatism is a sort of expressive stream of consciousness, unedited and unguided by any external concerns. Automatism in practice is as problematic as meditation.
The parallels are apt, people practice both for the same reason, accessing some aspect of the subconscious. The debate about the purpose and value of both seems to turn on whether the subscious is more indicative and trustworthy than rational thought.
The surrealist movement was radical in its estimation of the subconscious as superior to reason—thus “sur“—above, on, over reality. In the context of 1924, this probably was a reaction to Sigmund Freud’s newly posited theories about psychopathology and treatment as well as the interwar milieu of geopolitical and economic instability resulting from the redrawn map, depletion of capital, antagonistic reparations, shift from wartime industry, and general fatigue. Reality simply wasn’t that great, there had to be something better, like the subconscious. Thus, surrealism can be argued as at best a redemptive effort to find the higher ground of existence, or at least as simple escapism into introspection.
The effect of surrealism is complicated by the artist’s rational assumptions or incorporated reasoning. The art of Salvador Dali is widely thought to be premised on an assumed primacy of sexuality in the subconscious, and René Magritte’s art intentionally challenged perceptions as much by what was omitted as by what was included. Through this more intentional, often representational, approach, surrealism evolved to be less psycho-automatic or revelatory of the artist’s psyche and more contrived to be revelatory of the viewer’s.
Indeed to some extent all art seeks a surrealistic reaction from the viewer, a core and basic reaction that can be as simple and irrationally explicit as “I don’t know why, I just like it,” or as enlightening as an epiphany clarifying reality with a symbolic experience. In Towhey’s painting it is up to the viewer whether the nun’s tether is depriving the children of their humanity or saving them from a fall from grace, or is part of an entirely different narrative. The viewer’s subconscious reaction can be conflagrated or obscured by their rational thought, or not. The painting is merely a ticket for that ride.
Surrealism deliberately gives us “alternative facts,” which like all distortion ironically makes clearer the rational truth by contrast. Whether the alternative facts, of themselves or in effect, are superior to or truer than reality is debatable; and that debate gives surrealism its enduring and provocative value.
Towhey’s painting and other surrealistic works can be seen at the gallery through February 18th in “RESOLUTIONS | More Art,” an exhibit of more than 20 artists, curated into a cohesive collection.
We hear the phrase, “Art for art’s sake,” but we don’t hear, “Photography for photography’s sake.” This highlights an important difference and motive in an artist’s choice of one medium over the other. Painting can be used strictly to satisfy a need for expression, whereas documentary photography generally cannot. Of course there arguably are exceptions, such as Vivian Maier whose need to snap the photo outpaced her ability to process the film. That example begs another discussion of whether photographic expression is in the snapping or the processing, whether the mere idea of making a picture is as much a manifestation of expression as actually making the picture. The premise assumed here is that expression requires a greater degree of actualization than snapping the camera, and once the film is processed there is an assumption that the photo is looked at and kept to be looked at again; otherwise, there would be no need to develop the film, and then there would be no need to keep it. In painting however, it is accepted that from the artist’s perspective the mere act of painting completes the expression; there is no need for the artist to look at it, keep it etc.
Accordingly, the choice of medium reveals the artist’s motivation, whether the need to express and reiterate an observation, idea or experience requires making or having something through which to understand or relive it; in other words, whether the artist wants to release or capture a temporal observation, idea or experience. Painting releases, photography captures.
If the viewer’s perspective is taken into account, the choice may be dependent upon whether the inspiration’s connection to time is general or specific. To illustrate the point, consider whether a new parent would prefer a painted portrait or a photograph of their baby. Now consider whether you would prefer a painting or a photograph of a babe in arms or nursing, or of a toddler exploring the garden or playing with a puppy. Probably, the new parent would opt for a photograph of their baby to best capture that particular moment in the time of their child’s life, whereas you might opt for a painting of more timeless and universal relationships that define general times of life. Perhaps the more general or abstract the inspiration is, the more it calls for painting, and the more specific or particular, the more it calls for photography.
Is this because we trust photography to faithfully document the inspiration more than we do painting? Or, is it because we consider a photograph a better artifact of time to refer back to in the future than we do a painting? Photography seems to be the choice for capturing concrete circumstance, whereas painting seems to be the choice for reiterating feelings. Circumstances actually occur at points in time, whereas feelings may derive from particular circumstances but prevail or at least continue beyond the circumstance. Photography attempts to capture a particular point in time or circumstance. Painting is a process that comes after the circumstance, thus is unavoidably a synthesis of time.
If expression is the synthesis of time or the “release” of a particular point in time into the stream of time, then photography shifts that creative process to the viewer more than painting does. Photography captures a circumstance for the viewer to deal with. A painting presents a version of how a circumstance already has been dealt with – the painter has done his or her expression for the viewer to expound upon, accept or reject. A photograph presents a moment in time – the “thing,” a painting presents a concluded processing of a moment – the “thought” about the thing.
All art is an acknowledged observation of time. Painting is an effort to review, understand and release the time observed. Documentary photography is an effort to capture, understand and review. The viewer of a painting decides whether they sympathize with the painter’s conclusion. The viewer of a photograph has to draw their own conclusions.
“Straniero” is Italian for “foreigner” or “stranger.” In addition to classifying someone who’s different and not a part of the immediate scene, the word connotes motion, passing through, someone who’s there then gone or wasn’t there then is. And that, metaphorically, describes photography; the process of capturing a noteworthy moment before it passes in order to have it in the future. The FotoFocus2016 Biennial theme, “The Undocument,” underscores not the documentary authority of photographs, but the fluidity in the viewer’s interpretation. The photograph is a static objective image, yet each viewer sees something unique in it.
Maurice shot the exhibited series between 1977 and 2007. More recently, even up until the exhibit opened on September 30th, he curated the black and white film frames into a series of 83 gelatin silver prints. During an interview, Maurice said, “An important thing a photographer should do is wait to edit…You need time to assess what you’ve taken.” What he would’ve included at the time he took the pictures, what he did include when the series was first curated 6 years ago (for Wm. Messer and Iris Book Café,) and what he included in the current exhibit are different iterations of the effect and importance of time and being. How the images relate to Maurice (his history in the place, his life experience, his plans) varies at different points in time. Also, the artistic evaluation of technique and product varies at different points in time, as the photographer develops his practice and understanding of the medium.
This effect of time is at the crux of what is both personal and universal in the exhibit. Maurice describes the exhibit as documenting the vanishing Italian village life he knew as a child before his family immigrated to the US and again as an adult during his 30-year period of picture taking. The past has become strange and foreign, yet was there in fact, and is here in the photographs, and will be gone again. Just as Maurice’s curation changes with time, so does the viewer’s perspective. We weren’t there when the picture was taken, thus we interpret the documented scene from where we are now; and even if we were there or experienced something similar in time and place, our reminiscence is seen through the lens of our current wisdom. In this way, photographs are both a document of one moment and a culmination of many.
The idiom, “take a photo,” is appropo to the consideration of time. The photographer takes a fragment of time and preserves it, yet it cannot exist without the unknown moments that came before and after. Although the immediate intention of a photographer is to keep that moment, the curator and viewer are perhaps more concerned with the surrounding time; how did the scene come about, how did it resolve? The viewer’s filling-in of these blanks with their “being” determines the authenticity or value of the actual image. Images that provoke a recognition of or relationship to a particular experience of time have a universal appeal that transcends the actual moment taken and its original significance to the photographer.
The nexus between familiar/foreign, document/undocument is directly proportional and symbiotic: the more you understand what is foreign, the more familiar it becomes; the more you document, the more context goes undocumented; and, you can’t have one without the other. The common element and determinant of these relationships is time. Because we each experience time differently (we do different things and different things happen to us,) we are never the same person twice and we are never alike another. We are undocumentable time-travellers. We are Stranieri.
STRANIERO is on exhibit until November 13th. Gallery hours: Thu 11-3/5-8; Fri 5-8; Sat 2-5; Sun 2-4.
(Update 10/29: STRANIERO is held over until November 27th)
What is in a title—preconceived notions, persuasion, sentiment, influence, judgment, beliefs? Evan Hildebrandt has created new untitled works for you to see without the bias of introduction. Meet them and name them for yourself.
In his newest series of work, [Untitled],Evan Hildebrandt asks the viewer to experience his art without revealing his artistic intention in a title or an artist’s statement. Hildebrandt wants his audience to have an intuitive response to his work, free from any prescriptive directions about how to understand it. His hope is that viewers will form their own opinions and create dialog around their own reactions, “I believe the work will speak for itself and am excited to see what it will reveal to the viewer.”
Exhibit Hours 7/8-8/14: Thur, Fri 5-8p; Sat 2-5p
Special Events: Opening pARTy 7/8 (Fri), 5-8p; Fin-Fri-OTR 7/29 (Fri), 5-10p; Closing Café 8/14 (Sun), 2-5p