Art & Originality

I spend some time worrying about my lack of personal style and I know I am not alone in this, recently a few other bloggers have raised this issue, notably Catherine Jeffrey and Mary Anne Cary.

Robert Genn runs an interesting blog called “The Painter’s Keys”. This week he wrote an article about Claude Lévi-Strauss and his theories on individuality in art The artifacts of our cultures. It was Lévi-Strauss’s contention that originality is only a requirement of recent Western culture. In other societies (not just “primitive” ones) the role of the artist has been to study the forms and styles of the past masters and reproduce them as closely as possible. Innovation is something that merely evolves over time and is often accidental. Our current obsession with originality is quite new and is not actually considered necessary in all art forms. Musicians still seem to consider it quite all right to spend their lives studying and performing the creations of others and even amongst composers and popular song-writers it is OK, in fact expected, to borrow styles from the past.

Mr. Genn says:

Now something about us. If we enter our studios with the idea that we are simply going to dip once more into the pot, our little egos may just float off into Neverland. Work might become the simple honouring of past myths and current genres. While that thought may be upsetting for some, this approach kind of makes you feel good. It may even promote a new freedom of expression, and unburden the artist from a stifling egocentricity. Taking part in a great and noble tradition, we might take the pressure off.

Categorized as Thoughts

The best art is meaningless

Art doesn’t have to be about anything to be good. In fact, the easier it is to say what a work is about, the less interesting that work becomes. The greatest art takes a lifetime to understand; the slightest takes a moment. And if it really is reducible to an explicit message, is it actually art at all?

Thank you Jonathan Jones, I couldn’t have said it better. Not that I am claiming my scribblings to be “Art”. I have long maintained that I am merely a painter, not an “Artist” and I would rather be compared to a good illustrator or graphic artist than someone who claims to make “Art”.

I have written about this sort of thing before, I have spent my life fighting against the idea of there being any kind of meaning in my paintings. I was steered away from a career in art by a high school teacher who felt that my ability to draw was of no account because my paintings didn’t “say” anything.

Categorized as Thoughts


Am I being impossibly stuffy when I admit that bad spelling drives me crazy? So many of my fellow bloggers seem to make certain elementary spelling mistakes over and over again. I don’t mean typos, which we all make from time to time, or misspelling of unusual, seldom used words. The ones that drive me nuts are the ones that I thought we all had drilled into us in primary school: to, too, two, their, there, picture, pitcher. Actually I saw this last one misspelled outside a school just the other day, as in “Don’t forget pitcher day September 29th”, sad really.

I also find it rather sad that so many Canadians don’t bother to change the default US dictionary when they install software programs. A whole generation is growing up assuming that the only correct way to spell colour is “color”, centre is “center” and honour is “honor”.

I suppose that distinctive Canadian spelling may have reached the end of its usefulness, but there will always be a need to distinguish between pictures and pitchers. On Halloween it’s a good idea, when looking at two small crones, to know which witch is yours even when they’re the same size and their costumes are similar too.

Categorized as Thoughts

What is art?

I have wanted to write a blog post with this title for along time. According to Wikipedia

Art refers to a diverse range of human activities and artifacts, and may be used to cover all or any of the arts, including music, literature and other forms. It is most often used to refer specifically to the visual arts, including media such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking. However it can also be applied to forms of art that stimulate the other senses, such as music, an auditory art. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which considers art.

Art critic Alan Gowans says in The Unchanging Arts (1972), “To know what art is, you must define what it does. You can define art only in terms of function. High art historically grew out of low art, and the functions of low art have remained unchanged throughout history.”  Those functions might be to convert the sinner, to define the human form, to tell a story or to perpetuate power. This applies equally well to popular culture. “The Unchanging Arts” was written before the invention of video games but I think Gowans would certainly recognize them as a form of “Low Art” (not a pejorative, in his view).

The low arts, might sometimes be called crafts, or graphic or commercial art and design. They also include most photography, illustration, cartooning, architecture etc. He contends that both high art and fine art grow out of the low arts. High art fulfils the same sort of functions as low art but stands out by virtue of extraordinary skill, originality or beauty. Fine art on the other hand fulfils no function but is low art taken out of context and produced for its own sake. Remember, he was writing at the time that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were at the height of their careers. He says that the concept of fine art is largely a modern one, although he gives some examples from antiquity. Fine art is art for arts sake, unlike high art which is always for a purpose, often religious, sometimes practical.

Basically he felt that art is defined by its function not its style or method of execution. Art is (and has been for all time) produced for one of four purposes:

1. Substitute Imagery (creating a likeness). This function has been taken over almost entirely by photography and film (and now their digital equivalents), but there would be a few other examples, map-making and theatrical maquettes perhaps.
2. Beautification (and decoration). This is fairly obvious and covers everything from wallpaper to airbrushing.
3. Illustration and Narration (telling, or helping to tell, a story). Comics to epic film making.
4. Conviction and persuasion (making a point, be it religious, political or commercial). Advertising and iconography.

One of his more quotable quotes: “Once objects are saved solely as Art you may be sure that for all practical purposes they are dead, and you may suspect that the civilization collecting them for only that reason has begun to die too.” Gowans died in 2001, I wonder what he would have made of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the dawn of the 21st Century?

Categorized as Thoughts

Using Social Networks for Marketing

I have been working in Marketing and Development (fund-raising) for many years and have always been aware of how the mindset of the two disciplines differs. Marketing, and to some degree low-end fund raising, tends to be about being in-your-face. Keep on asking, stay front and centre all the time, sometimes even bombard people with materials with the thought that it can’t do any harm.
High end fund-raising is different. There is a term “moves management” which refers to the careful management of the relationship with the prospect. Sometimes years can be spent cultivating and stewarding a donor without any guarantee that there will be a payoff. But sometimes it can pay off very handsomely indeed, with a multi-million dollar gift or bequest.
It has recently occurred to me that the use of social networks by marketing has a lot in common with moves management and perhaps marketers could learn something from fund-raisers.
It is very difficult to measure the success of Twitter or Facebook unless there are direct click-throughs to you web-pages that can be measured on Google Analytics. But if all you are doing is posting links to you website and doing in-your-face marketing there is a good chance that you will be blocked or ignored on Twitter and Facebook and who is going to subscribe to your blog unless you have something really interesting to say or are offereing discounts every week?
In Development we offer many value-added experiences to our lower end donors, always trying to educate our donors or bring them closer to us. We want them to understand more about us and feel part of the family. The more engaged they feel the more that they (some of them at least, the ones who can afford it) want to support us in any way they can. It is sometimes very hard to justify the cost of these events to Management because they often don’t result in an immediate donation or upgrade.
I think that companies that want to use social media for marketing need to learn some of these same lessons. Don’t look for an immediate sale; build relationships, build trust, engage and educate your customers, give them something that interests them and keep them coming back for more. The payout is down the road but it will come, just keep managing the moves.

Categorized as Thoughts

Social Media

My intention with this blog has been to post thoughts, news items and the occasional WIP that I felt wouldn’t be appropriate on my other blog. Recently I have been using Twitter and I think that has kind of siphoned off much of the material that might have appeared here. I seem to be addicted to trying new social media, strange because I am not naturally the kind of person who wants to live my life in public. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about my uncertainty of how to use Twitter and other media. I have settled into a semi routine of throwing in links to stories that I like during the day, I use Tweetdeck which helps with shortening the urls and “retweating”.
I tend to come upon ideas, stories or pictures that I want to share with someone and often have been unable to find anyone who enjoys the same things or whose interest is piqued by the same stories. My sisters and my daughter come closest but they all live many miles, provinces and countries away. To the men in my life I might as well be a foreign country. The internet has allowed me to throw these things out  to the world in the hope that they will resonate with someone out there.
My “art” is actually the same. I have always maintained that I have no pretentions to “fine art” as it is defined today. My painting makes no attempt to “redefine our preconceptions” or “speak to the human condition”. I see something and I want to capture some part of it. I post it and I am saying, “this is what I saw, isn’t it pretty/inspiring/funny?” I am rarely satisfied so I don’t suppose I communicate it very well, but I try nonetheless.

Categorized as Thoughts

Right Brain vs Left Brain

Anyone who has spent any time studying art has heard of the whole right brain vs. left brain debate. I read “Drawing on the right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards many years ago, but many of her strategies weren’t new to me even then. I remember a game we played in high school that involved copying someone’s handwriting upside down. The idea was to fool the brain into thinking only of the shapes and not the meaning. This forces right-brain thinking, except we didn’t know that then.
There has been a lot said about the right brain being supposedly “creative” and the left brain “logical” or “linear”. If you do a google search on right brain you return countless pages spouting the same stuff (often verbatim). If you believe what they say, nobody would ever want to be classified as left brain (dull plodding, middle-management drones). It reminds me a little of those “true colours” tests that we put our grade nine students through in career studies. Everybody turns out to be orange (energetic, spontaneous, opportunistic) because no-one wants to admit to being gold (dependable, responsible, conscientious).
I have taken various left vs. right tests and I seem to fall squarely in the middle, with a very slight leaning toward the right (hemisphere that is, not politics). I have always enjoyed language as well as visual arts and while I am perfectly capable of being organized I have a tendency to find the answers first and then go back and figure out how I got there. I am often accused of being a “detail person” by people who think that they are “ideas people”. Personally I think that any fool can have ideas but it takes true creativity to figure out how to make them work.
Where I disagree with a lot of what has been written is on the subject of math, science and engineering. These are often said to be left-brain activities. I think that the sciences and the arts have been divorced for far too long. It wasn’t always that way, during the Renaissance artists and scientists worked side by side (and were often in fact the same people). In my personal experience the people who find it easiest to grasp systems design and computer technology in general are actually the same ones who have a natural talent for the arts, either graphic or music. I also think that most math, with the possible exception of arithmetic, requires a great deal of right-brain activity.

According to Psychology Today:

The best scientists are much more likely to be artists, musicians, actors, craftsmen, and writers than are typical scientists, or even the general public. Scientists draw skills, knowledge, processes, concepts, and even inspiration from their non-scientific avocations.

Categorized as Thoughts

What to say?

I had ambitions at one time of posting here once a week. I have been posting to my Daily Painting blog pretty consistently every day for over a year, but I have had a lot more trouble finding something to say here. Perhaps if I could podcast while I am driving to work, that seems to be when I have all my best ideas. By the time I am sitting in front of the computer there seem to be so many other more pressing things to do.
As I work on the fringes of marketing and I am somewhat interested in selling some of my own work (if only to clear the decks and make some room for more), I have made something of a study of online marketing tools. I may not be quite an “early adopter”, but sooner or later I will probably try every social networking tool and online gallery out there. I try to avoid paying, so with most of them I only have a free account. Some I eventually pony up for the paid version if I can see true value.
Two that I have only recently signed up for are Linkedin and Twitter. I am not sure that either of them is really for me. With Linkedin I am unsure how best to use it. It doesn’t really seem to be ideally designed for free-lanceers, so I entered my employment information first, then decided to add my painting information too. Consequently I have this split-personality profile that is going to be hard for anyone to understand. Then there is Twitter. Can someone explain to me what it is for? I joined a couple of months ago and decided that I would “follow” a few people (mostly artists) for a while to see if I could figure out how to use it. Most of the “tweats” make almost no sense to me. They seem to be answers to questions that I missed, or just thinking out loud kind of musings that quite honestly would usually be better left unsaid. Something like those “What are you doing now” posts at the top of the Facebook page. Some people do post some interesting links but because of the space limitation they use Tinyurl, a good idea but I am not sure that I could be bothered. Anyway, I will persevere a little longer but I have a feeling it may go the way of several forums that I have joined and abandoned. When it comes right down to it I really don’t have enough to say.

Categorized as Thoughts

Art and Innovation

There was a great piece in psychology today last month:
A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation

As the economy stumbles, the first things to get cut at the national, state, and local levels are the arts. The first thing that goes in our school curricula are the arts. Arts, common wisdom tells us, are luxuries we can do without in times of crisis. Or can we?

Let’s see what happens when we start throwing out all the science and technology that the arts have made possible.

You may be shocked to find that you’ll have to do without your cell phone or PDA. In the first place, it uses a form of encryption called frequency hopping to ensure your messages can’t easily be intercepted. Frequency hopping was invented by American composer George Antheil in collaboration with the actress Hedy Lamarr. Yeah, really.

Next, the electronic screen that displays your messages (and those on your computer and TV) employ a combination of red, green, and blue dots from which all the different colors can be generated. That innovation was the collaboration of a series of painter-scientists (including American physicist Ogden Rood and Nobel laureate Wilhelm Ostwald) and post-impressionist artists like Seurat – you know, the guy who painted his pictures out of dots of color, just like the ones in your electronic devices. The programming inside owes its existence to J. M. Jacquard, a weaver, who invented programmable looms using punch cards. Exactly the same technique was borrowed to program the first computers and is incorporated into modern programming languages.

Then there are all those computer chips running our critical devices. They’re made using a combination of three classic artistic inventions: etching, silk screen printing, and photolithography. Add to that the fact that data from NASA and NSA satellites is enhanced using artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro (a Renaissance invention) and false coloring (invented by Fauvist painters) to increase contrast so it’s easier to perceive important information. Thayer, Painting of a Camouflaged Snake(Parenthetically, artists also figured out how to hide information. Camouflage was invented by the American painter Abbot Thayer and during WWI the Vorticists in England and the Cubists in France were co-opted by their governments to design prints to protect troops, equipment, and planes.) Hey, the arts look pretty useful, huh?

That’s only the beginning. In medicine, the stitches that permit a surgeon to correct an aneurysm or carry out a transplant were invented by American Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel, who took his knowledge of lace making into the operating room. Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic penicillin while gathering beautifully colored microbes for his (rather unusual) hobby of “painting” with microorganisms. Pacemakers are simple modifications of musical metronomes. If you have a neurological deficit, your neurologist may employ dance notation to analyze your problem. Physicians at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and other major medical centers are trained by actors to interact humanely with you as a patient. These same physicians may learn to observe your symptoms more closely by being taught to draw, paint or photograph, or through art appreciation courses. Many hospitals employ music to relieve stress in operating rooms and post-operatively. Painting, drawing and sculpting are also used to treat depression and other psychiatric disorders. Indeed, our own institution, Michigan State University, originated music therapy as a way to treat soldiers suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

Oh, and that bridge you may drive over on the way to work? Princeton engineering professor David Billington and Smithsonian historian of technology Brooke Hindle have demonstrated that most innovations in bridge design originated with artistically trained engineers such as John Roebling and Robert Maillart. They’re part of a long tradition of American artist-inventors. You may not know that Samuel Morse (to whom we owe the telegraph) and Robert Fulton (to whom we owe the steam ship) were two of the most prominent 19th century American artists before they turned to inventing — visit the Smithsonian American Art Galleries some time and see for yourself. Alexander Graham Bell was a pianist whose invention of the telephone began with a simple musical game. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes don’t just provide us with unusual architectures, they also inform our understanding of cell and virus structure and permit new biomedical insights. Kenneth Snelson’s tensegrity sculptures (stroll past his “Needle Tower” outside the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden on the Washington Mall) aren’t just fascinating constructions in and of themselves, they’ve also created a whole new form of engineering. Google it!

Max Planck at the pianoThe fact is that the arts foster innovation. We’ve just published a study that shows that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer. Many connect their art to their scientific ability with some riff on Nobel prizewinning physicist Max Planck words: “The creative scientist needs an artistic imagination.”

Bottom line: Successful scientists and inventors are artistic people. Hobble the arts and you hobble innovation. It’s a lesson our legislators need to learn. So feel free to cut and paste this column into a letter to your senators and congressmen, as well as your school representatives, or simply send them a link to this column. One way or another, if we as a society wish to cultivate creativity, the arts MUST be part of the equation!

Many thanks to Alyson Stanfield’s excellent ArtBiz blog for this one.

Categorized as Thoughts

Culture Shock

The Swing
The Swing РJean-Honor̩ Fragonard (1732 Р1806)

I have just come back from 10 days in London and am suffering from a kind of cultural overload. I know that there are many great art galleries in the world containing some wonderful art, but after spending a few days in London it is hard to believe that all the very finest art in this world isn’t housed within a few square miles in central London. I only visited the National Gallery, the Tate (both Modern & Britain), the Wallace Collection and the British Museum. There are plenty more that I missed this time around, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy, the Victoria & Albert. But in those that I did visit (I spent 5 hours in the National Gallery and still only did the Cook’s tour) I saw paintings from Van Eyck to Van Dyck to Van Gogh. I saw some of the finest Fragonards at the Wallace and all the important Constables at the NG.

One thing that struck me was the huge variation in size of some of these masterpieces. Viewing art in books there can really be little size variation from one print to the next. When you see a painting like Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles 1, mounted and in full armour, it is nearly life size! Then in another room there is a self portrait of van Eyck that is only about 8″X10″. Viewed side by side in an art book they would seem to be about the same size.

Equestrian Portrait of Charles I

Jan Van Eyck, 'Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)'

The other delightful thing about seeing original paintings is of course the texture, which is lost in reproduction.

The Van Goghs are of course in high relief, but the Constables are also really quite radiant with many tiny highlights achieved with the use of a palette knife.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows





The Brits have returned to their old practise of free admission to art galleries and museums, for which I am truly grateful. I believe that it is working out well, as they are making as much money from the restaurants and gift shops as they ever did from entrance fees. Take heed Mr Harper!

Categorized as Thoughts