Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Doors of Perception

"Art doesn't transform. It just plain forms." - Roy Lichtenstein
A student's rendering of yours truly from an in-class exercise on contour drawing. Brought to mind a recent, interesting conversation with a graduate student in the art department: we were discussing some aspects of teaching beginning drawing and the uniquely frustrating challenges it presents. Namely, imparting the crucial skills of observation and interpretation.
Above and beyond the rote acquisition of basic skills and craftsmanship in physically creating the works, we are simultaneously charged with expanding the awareness, appreciation and understanding of other people's artwork. Given the grim odds of any given student electing to pursue a career in the visual arts, or at the very least taking more at classes beyond the requisite humanity credits, there is some consolation in the hope you are teaching folks some lasting sense of visual literacy.
More mulling under the fold... 

When, by comparison, one considers the for a moment the appalling statistics of just basic literacy in society, and conflate that situation with the state of art education, what we have is an incredibly underperforming culture. Some might even say there's a distinctly disadvantaged segment of society that is completely clueless about how to understand art, let alone make it themselves. I think as a society we are accustomed to the parallel aesthetic diet of junk, full of high-fructose corn-syrup: consuming bright colors and loud noises carry the day when it comes to feeding the media to the masses.

One doesn't have to be labeled an elitist to admit that the vast, overwhelming number of say, movies (given my recent experiences renting handfuls of new releases and fast-forwarding through most of them in baffled disappointment) are worthless junk. Especially if you have any creative energy left inside that would be far better invested in time spent working on anything else. I mean, I'd derive more aesthetic satisfaction making macaroni jewelry or potato prints than watching what passes as entertainment. And this from a guy who draws cartoon beavers and owns a shelf full of zombie flicks.

Books and music are other examples. The false equivalence of popular culture correlating with quality aside, it would also follow that there's an analogous proportion of artwork out there that is equally, simply awful. As many times that I've personally received illumination and insight through revelations experienced seeing a show, there's honestly many more times that I'm left wanting. The mental knee-jerk exercise is always a default self-reflection about my own standards, expectations, criteria, context, and that wonderful weasel-word, personal taste. As often as I just don't get it, and critique any given piece in accordance with the previous factors, it's incumbent upon me as an observer to try and understand not just the work in question but why I can't. In that way a work art, regardless of its relative merits or shortfallings, provides an opportunity that's above and beyond the observation of the physical piece. At the very least respecting the image enough to pause to consider these things should be bare minimum. And that's what lies beneath examination and discussion of one's own work, and the dual, constant exposure to the work of others, be it by fellow classmates or professionals.

Case in point: it can sometimes be an astonishing insight that for some people, including art teachers, the first image posted here up above is of someone with a really big hand - not as an excellent example of foreshortening. Perceptual/cognitive difficulties aside, the concepts of foreshortening just isn't part of their understanding when looking at a drawing, and they will instead incorrectly interpret the image. This is really hard for a lot of other artists to wrap their brains around, how something so fundamental and so obvious could possibly be mistaken. It can be easy to lose sight of this simple fact, especially when constantly immersed amongst other artists where such basic knowledge is taken for granted. That's a real, genuine moment of discovery more valuable than an entire semester's worth of "A's" when the "ohhh - now I get it" happens.

“In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity.” – Aldous Huxley 

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