Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Art is also a supreme comfort because it gives credence, by its very attention, to the various moods and modes of being

The Practice of Appreciation Posted on December 28th McFawn
In the New York Times the other day, Roberta Smith wrote an article titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Art about the obtuse and pretentious language in art criticism today. Smith takes issue with three words: privilege, reference (both used as verbs) and the term practice used to describe what artists do. Smith seems particularly uncomfortable with the word “practice,” claiming that it characterizes art-making as a white-color activity, that it implies that artists need license to practice (of which she disagrees) and, most interestingly, that “practice” indicates that art is ultimately a problem-solving activity. Here’s how Smith puts it:
Second is the implication that an artist, like a doctor, lawyer or dentist, is trained to fix some external problem… Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own subjective needs.
Smith’s issue with the word practice is less interesting than the bold claim it leads her to about the purpose of art. She seems to believe that art is most successful when it doesn’t try to tackle any problem outside the artist’s psyche or aesthetic aims.
Sunil Gangadharan at Art and Perception wrote an insightful response that makes the point that art often draws attention to global problems, perhaps encouraging “the viewer to think about (and in the ideal case, acting to alleviate) a problem hitherto unknown or underrepresented”–thereby tackling an “outside” problem. Certainly this would be the goal of most political art.
I have never thought of art as a problem-solving activity, outside of the inherent problem-solving in bringing an intention to realization. Art may gesture towards problems in the world, but I agree that the best art does not aim to “fix” anything. The purpose of art will always be debated, but my natural response is that art, rather than solving problems, is a means to a greater valuing of the world, problems and all. The best art is a sophisticated and distinctive appreciation of the world, and the best art criticism is a sophisticated and distinctive appreciation of art.
Without art, what we would appreciate in the world would be limited. We would no doubt appreciate food, water, shelter, family, and any personal relationships that benefited us. But our pleasures would likely be restricted to only what contributed to our survival and immediate happiness, and our way of ordering the world would probably consist of a simple dichotomy: good and bad. Good things help us survive or feel good, and bad things impede our survival and hurt. Art, however, gives us the ability–and the permission–to appreciate the unclassifiable details of the world. For instance, without art, we might find the natural world beautiful, or we might be drawn to a hard-to-read feature in someone else, like a sardonic yet shy smile. The appreciation of such things perhaps existed before art, but it is art that encourages us to dwell in and value these perceptions.
Art is also a supreme comfort because it gives credence, by its very attention, to the various moods and modes of being. Joy, triumph, contentment all seem real to us because these are the things we want to feel as real, and suffering is real because of the vividness of pain. But the more subtle states of being–bittersweet melancholy, self-amusement, mischievousness–these states and every other, art argues, are just as real and just as capable of being valued.
When I find art or literature moving, I feel as if the art is elaborating on something I once felt briefly. For instance, Hawthorne’s “My Visit to Niagara” explores the numbness and intimidation and loss of self we sometimes feel in the presence of natural phenomena. I felt, when reading “Niagara” that I also had this experience in the presence of nature (my visit to the Andes in Peru was one example). But like so many sensations throughout the course of life, I let myself be swept along to the next experience without pausing on the significance and singularity of that moment. Good art slows the world down and shows us the dimensionality in even the most transient of experiences. Art is perpendicular to life: if a lifetime is a horizontal and forward-moving, art is vertical–showing us the heights and depths in moments from which we are compelled to move on. Art may not fix the problems of the world, but it shows us the fullness of what’s at stake. Trackback URL Some Responses to “The Practice of Appreciation” :
Art certainly is “perpendicular to life”. It is a time out from life as we usually live it, and when it is good enough, the “supreme comfort” McFawn talks about is there to enjoy. Roberta Smith makes quite a few good points too, until her last paragraph, where she blows it by conceding that she, like many many others since Leo Casteli exhibited a fake Fountain in the 50s, no longer demands to see art. It is as if the very lack of discipline Smith “refers to” ultimately consumed her own experience of art. Commented catfish on December 29th, 2007.
About Hawthorne’s visit to Niagra, I think it would be very hard to make outdoor scullpture if I lived in the Rocky mountains, say around Gunnison. Not because of “numbness” but because it would feel like what’s the use when you can see a landscape like that everyday. Commented catfish on December 29th, 2007.
And finally, one the web site for the school of art at the University of Illinois, it says that the studio curriculum prepares students for careers in social activism. (! ?) They forgot to note whether or not jobs in social activism come with fringe benefits, but the way it was presented could lead one to expect they do. Theirs is a good example of the enlightened, 21st century art department doing what it does best - putting an academic wrapper around the multi-thousand year old instinctual activity we label art. Commented catfish on December 29th, 2007.
“Art is perpendicular to life” is brilliant! It’s going down in my quotes to remember. Commented Steve Durbin on January 5th, 2008.

Great art often comes from an artist thinking – and wanting to solve something – beyond their subjective selfhood

Roberta Smith wrote a lively piece in the Sunday Times last week titled ‘What we talk about when we talk about Art’ (link here). She weighed in on the use of commonly used clich├ęs used by the artworld that inherently reflects and harbors intellectual insecurities. As an example, she talks about the oft over-used ‘Referencing‘ (as in the statement “this work referencing male chauvinism uses…”), ‘Privilege’ (as in “privileging the leftist agenda”) and ‘Practice’ (as in “my studio practice”). I have seen these used and sometimes abused in many artist biographies, statements and exhibition descriptions. While Referencing really means ‘referring to’ and Privilege means ‘favoring’, it is the term Practice that has the biggest potential for being misconstrued…
She makes three assertions:
#1. First off, there’s the implication that artists, like lawyers, doctors and dentists, need a license to practice. Many artists already feel the need for a license: It’s called a master of fine arts. But artists don’t need licenses or certificates or permission to do their work. Their job description, if they have one, is to operate outside accepted limits.
#2. Second is the implication that an artist, like a doctor, lawyer or dentist, is trained to fix some external problem. Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own, subjective needs.
#3. Practice sanitizes a very messy process. It suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally. It converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making. It suggests that materials are not the point of art at all — when they are, on some level, the only point.
While I completely agree with #1 (that a formal degree while definitely useful is not essential to the development of an art mindset in an individual) and #3 (the subversion of materials around an artist constitutes an important part of artistic expression), I do have questions about #2 (the assertion that artists have a self-help, therapy based relationship with their art and it serves to solve personal, subjective problems rather than focus on larger global issues)…
I would say that in a large number of cases, the output produced by an artist may be directed to induce the viewer to think about (and in the ideal case, acting to alleviate) a problem hitherto unknown or underrepresented (sewer cleaners in India or a film about plantation workers in Dominica are two cases that come to mind). I might also add that artistic expressions such as the above stems from strong sincerity that the artist must have for the problem rather than being an accidental by-product while the artist indulged in self therapy…
Feedback appreciated. 5 Comments
Comment by Steve DurbinDecember 28, 2007 2:26 am
Sunil,
Thanks for calling this one to our attention; it’s quite apropos for a site that’s so full (too full?) of talk about art.
As a language fan, I don’t believe in synonyms, though I certainly see plenty of poor word choice. “Referencing” may have roughly the same denotation as “referring to,” but it is used in quite different contexts and suggests a whole postmodern theoretical framework. It’s a much better word (because it conveys so much more) IF one wants all that, and IF one has understood correctly the audience’s reaction. If used only to impress, without awareness of how pretentious it sounds to most, it will probably have the opposite effect.
Smith seems most bothered by “practice.” I never took this in the sense of a professional practice, but rather as meaning one’s habitual way of working, which I think most artists have, despite the unpredictabilities of it. Perhaps the New York usage is different. If I trust her ear on this, then I conclude there are different language communities even within the art world. Not necessarily a bad thing if we just remember it.
Comment by BirgitDecember 28, 2007 8:16 am
Ms. Smith’s verbal perception is only ‘So so!
ALLEN VEANER’s letter to the NYTimes editor
Ms. Smith, referring to a work by the German painter Martin Kippenberger, writes that it is ‘’labeled with ‘preis,’ the German word for price.'’ While it is true that preis means price, the word has many meanings, one of which is prize or award. I suspect that the title ‘’2. Preis.'’ is an expression of irony referring to ‘’second prize.'’
Allen Veaner is correct!
Comment by McFawnDecember 29, 2007 8:39 pm
Sunil-
Good response. I started to write a longer reply here but it became so long & ramble-y that I posted it at my site, http://www.litandart.com with the appropriate citing/shout out to your post.
I thought it was strange that Smith was so bothered by the word practice…and I thought you made a good point about how great art often comes from an artist thinking–and wanting to solve something–beyond their subjective selfhood.
Comment by JuneDecember 30, 2007 11:57 am
Hi Sunil and all,
I am only bothered by the use of “practice” when it is clearly referencing the licensed utilization of artistic skills priveliging those with academic credentials.[add snort here]
And I am thoroughly frustrated by “referencing” since I don’t think the referral to deconstruction and high-tone theories is meaningful, except to those who have already imbibed the dregs of the vinegarish wine of Derrida (sorry, Steve). It’s very like the business use of “utilization” where it has become the word of obfuscating choice (see above”) We may be stuck with it, but I don’t have to like it.
“Privileging” I think is better — it has a very specific kind of connotation and is shorthand for what would be a mouthful to explain. I think it is useful even if it does reference an academic sort of techno-speak.
But back to the main question that Sunil broaches: what is the aim of art? I have to bow to McFawn’s emendation of Smith’s concepts:
“Good art slows the world down and shows us the dimensionality in even the most transient of experiences. Art is perpendicular to life: if a lifetime is a horizontal and forward-moving, art is vertical–showing us the heights and depths in moments from which we are compelled to move on. Art may not fix the problems of the world, but it shows us the fullness of what’s at stake.” http://www.litandart.com/
I like McFawn’s concept because it sidesteps questions of self-examination or political statement, both of which can exist in given works of art but are essentially beside the point. I don’t think Sunil’s portraits will change anybody’s mind or actions vis-a-vis tragic lives. But they do arrest us, stop us in our tracks and make us consider — consider what? well,possibly his technical prowess, or the plight of the human condition, or the nature of “progress,” or the irony of digitized portraiture in a hungry world, or the disgusting state of our own braggadocio or whether we can send more money to the local food bank.
The stopped state that art provokes can go in many directions — the important thing is that we get stopped.
And this may be why we all resent the 15 seconds or so of viewing that most art gets from viewers. But that’s a different subject altogether.
Comment by Martha — January 3, 2008 2:30 pm
I think the word “practice” has also come to have the positive implication borrowed from meditation, zen or otherwise. In the literature about that, one’s meditation work is often called one’s practice.
R.S. is privileging a tempest in a teapot, as far as I can see.
But isn’t it also funny how, if you read an artist statement before seeing the work, 99% of the time the words would not anticipate what the visual reality is…

Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own, subjective needs

Is self therapy a reason for taking to the arts?
Roberta Smith in a short essay in the back page of the Sunday Times art review made some assertions as regards art as a 'practice'.The assertions are as follows:
#1. First off, there’s the implication that artists, like lawyers, doctors and dentists, need a license to practice. Many artists already feel the need for a license: It’s called a master of fine arts. But artists don’t need licenses or certificates or permission to do their work. Their job description, if they have one, is to operate outside accepted limits.
#2. Second is the implication that an artist, like a doctor, lawyer or dentist, is trained to fix some external problem. Art rarely succeeds when it sets out to fix anything beyond the artist’s own, subjective needs.
#3. Practice sanitizes a very messy process. It suggests that art making is a kind of white-collar activity whose practitioners don’t get their hands dirty, either physically or emotionally. It converts art into a hygienic desk job and signals a basic discomfort with the physical mess as well as the unknowable, irrational side of art making. It suggests that materials are not the point of art at all — when they are, on some level, the only point.
While #1 and #3 are very much agreeable, I questioned #2 over at Art and Perception in a post yesterday. Link to the post here. Posted by Sunil at 11:39 PM 0 comments Labels:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

They often don't know what to say about their art

WHY WRITE? Kris Tiner
This is where the well-informed critic or historian usually steps in to correct the balance of information, and thank goodness for them. But at some point we have to let the artists speak for themselves.
Historically we are at a point where information is so rapidly and easily exchanged that artists can no longer afford not to speak for themselves, and students, educators, and critics of the music can't afford not to listen. The field is so exceedingly diverse and the technology is so exceedingly simple to make the kind of idea-sharing and community building that's only been dreamed of in the past a definite and immediate reality. Imagine if Rothko or Charlie Parker had a blog, if Anthony Braxton had posted his Tri-Axium writings on a website instead of printing them in a prohibitively limited (and costly) edition, if Charles Ives hadn't had to wait patiently for the publication of his music - what if he could have recorded it himself and distributed it freely over the internet?
There are so many ideas whose importance has been overshadowed only by their obscurity. Posted by Kris Tiner at 2:57 PM Labels: , 4 comments:
James Sproul said...
wow, brilliantly put as always. Sifting through the many ideas one strikes me as interesting. The artist that owns up to the responsibility of sharing their ideas about their art, do they also have a responsibility to share their ideas about their art form in general (this may or may not include talking about other artists). I think you are on that road, and I think it is a fantastic path to take. especially given, like you say, the speed at which we are able to communicate and even discuss (blog) about our ideas, and perhaps even argue our differing points of view. I have often heard people (mostly composers) say they don't want to explain their work in program notes or talking, they want the music to speak for itself.
I think this is just an excuse because they often don't know what to say about their art. Which is a little silly in my mind. I don't talk much about my work, but that is just because I don't like talking in front of people. so I write weird program notes. And often times I feel bad because I often can't express myself adequately enough to feel like I did it right, but that only comes with practice. I feel like it shouldn't be that difficult to explain your art-form (assuming one thinks about their art-form). I really dig your ideas on the difference between self-interpretation and self-representation. Someone doesn't have to explain their piece to where someone will listen to it and say "oh yes, that IS what I hear".
I don't think that is necessary, and many composers go to great lengths to explain to people who great their piece is, but I think there does need to be some expression (or to use your idea, representation) about what you believe and how that belief has been integrated into this particular piece. Which i think still allows an audience member to have a totally original experience for themselves with the music that is happening. I think this is more difficult in music that has no improvisation as it is a much more static situation and people tend to want to hear the story behind the piece (or often just the title). Anyhow, fantastic paper/blog, I truly enjoyed reading it. I think you are on to some really interesting ideas about how artists should, or can, express themselves.oh, if Ives only had a blog!!!! January 21, 2008 5:23 PM
Kris Tiner said...
Thanks! And I should clarify, in terms of the interpretation v. representation issue, I am talking about the artist's expression of "ideas about art", worldviews, systems, methods, things like that and not programs, or the kind of thing where you might say "this sound represents a waterfall here" or whatever. That, to me, is going a bit too far and we could just as easily get into a discussion of when does the composer cross the line and start trying to do the job of interpreting for the listener. Maybe we will.
When it comes to program music as such, I tend (once again) to side with Ives, asking (in the Prologue to Essays Before A Sonata):“How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or a layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music…the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?”
In fact, this is as good a reason as any to write (and likely a self-justification of Ives' own writings) -- to say in words all that the music can't express or isn't saying on its own. When we try to explain what the music is saying that's where we cross the line and get into self-interpretation. January 21, 2008 8:33 PM
James Sproul said...
ah, thanks for clarifying, that is what I was thinking about. I think it is also of a certain responsibility, or maybe just an unwritten "hey, you should do this" but in expressing their views it should be more inclusive than just "composition is this" or what have you. I hold a firm belief in allowing all art-forms to converge in ones life, and allow those things to influence your decisions about your specific art-form, allow that poet to affect your art, or that painter, or even a specific painting or even philosopher (as I believe you have done to great extent with say, Ken Wilbur). They are going to influence it anyway just by having the experience, you might as well embrace it and allow it be as rich of an influence as possible. I believe, at least for myself, that is the only way to gain a richness in your personal art. I really like Ives' ideas on interpretation. Program notes, to me, and this is how I write mine, should express what the music won't. Often this constitutes technical things for most people, I try to leave as much of that stuff out as possible, unless there is just something that I used that they really should have at least basic knowledge of.
But often times I use program notes to express things that perhaps surrounded the piece during its conception and writing, that didn't necessarily go into the piece specifically, but did have influence, perhaps on my mood, or what-not, during. I find it interesting to understand what was going on during a writing of a particular piece in that persons life (or painting, or novel etc...). I find it often lends itself to an interesting point of view for me to experience and interpret what I am hearing. That can have a tendency to leak into crossing that line. so often people write six paragraph program notes about the piece and it's minutest details that are so unnecessary to the experience, but are there to show how "clever" the composer was. I don't like that. And it is interesting when the audience wants that interpretation done for them, they want the ENTIRE story of what is happening, mostly because they are perhaps lazy and don't want to do the work, or perhaps just uneducated about what you are doing (not implying stupidity, just not acquainted with that particular brand of whatever it is you are doing). What do we do as artists when they want that explanation?
I often refer them to the program notes, but that doesn't satisfy them, and if you say something aloof you sound like a pretentious jerk. it is a fine line. But I agree that the expression is not the expression of this piece or that one. It is the expression of the artist as a whole (their artist self, religious self perhaps, maybe even father-self) and through this self-expression have that original experience and interpretation instead of asking for it outright, which is much more satisfying. I had a lot of that experience in grad school, of people wanting to know what this meant or that etc... I honestly didn't know what to tell them. I just explained what I think about, perhaps a technique or something, but as far as interpretation, I had no idea what to say, because what the piece really means is something that is quite inexpressible for me. I could never explain what that piece means, nor do I try or hope to be able to. January 21, 2008 10:05 PM
James Sproul said...
one more thought. So if all this is sort of justifying writing about writing, doesn't this lead into a comparison of why we create in the first place. To express... something? Doesn't the representation of ones self through the music also carry over into the representation by the written word? Although simply expressing the same entity through different means, or perhaps different views of the same rock that sort of thing? Surely we get as much out of Ives from his music as his writing. Should we not examine both and examine him as an artist with all of it in mind? Are they not all artistic expressions? So in answer to the initial question "Why Write?" perhaps we write because we "compose" (because the phrase "we write because we write" seemed a little... ), they are essentially fulfilling similar needs within ourselves. the expression, or representation and we do it in whatever way we can. January 21, 2008 10:53 PM