Tuesday, May 19, 2015
17 The Goldfinch
I have struggled with the question of what makes "art", well, "art", my whole adult life. I remember a bar stool conversation I had with a high school friend nearly four decades ago about this question of why one painting is art and another isn't. My friend maintained that it is a subjective judgement. I maintained that it wasn't. I understand that there isn't any kind of, and never will be, objective standard for what makes art, art. But not every brush of paint put to canvas becomes art. In fact very little of it does.
So how do we know when something someone creates enters the territory of ART?
Part of the problem is that the term "art" is used for any and everything, no matter how trivial. If it isn't the "art of tattooing" it's the "art of cake decoration" or the "art of tree trimming." If everything is "art" then nothing is art. So now, I will turn to another source.
Below is a quote from Donna Tartt's recent and exquisite novel, "The Goldfinch"; in this quote the main character, Theo, is reflecting on his years of coveting and protecting a small painting of a goldfinch by Fabritius.
"As much as I'd like to believe there's a truth beyond illusion, I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic."
18 Culture Days with Chris
I have a 15 year old son who I have taken, of late, to dragging to museum and gallery exhibits and openings and the occasional theater performance. Would I have been surprised if he had resisted in a moody teenager kind of way? No. But he hasn't. When I say let's go to a friend's gallery opening or a new installation at the Getty, he heads to the car and jumps in. "Okay Mom, let's go.
Chris at the Getty
So began our "culture days."
At openings, art fund-raisers, gallery or museum exhibits he is usually the only teenager. Lots of gray-haired heads and his gold one rising high above them. He shakes hands with my friends and says, "It's nice to meet you." He wanders around looking at the exhibited work, cataloging it in his young absorbent brain. Sometimes he'll reference an earlier show we've seen or point out something he particularly likes.
Just as our 22 year old daughter did, Chris grew up in my studio. His computer table is planted next to my drawing table. He isn't a stranger to the processes of fine art or artists. But now I want him to learn about the larger context of art, the business and history of it as well as the creation of it.
Recently we saw the J.W. Turner exhibit at the Getty and he compared it to the James Ensor show of some months earlier.
Do I want him or his sister to become artists? NO, absolutely not. Do I want my children to value art and make it a part of their grownup lives? Absolutely yes.
Chris and Soutine at the San Diego Museum of Art
19 Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976)
I went to SFAI to study photography. I lasted one semester in the dark basement photo labs. Because of the chemical smells, the frustrations of making a good print (very difficult by the way) and the posturing of the photo guys who incessantly talked about and examined their equipment (cameras and lenses that is)-I lost interest very quickly. I switched to painting and went even deeper into the bowels of the school to the painting studios, taking with me some limited knowledge of the history of photography, including some familiarity with the work of Imogen Cunningham (who still lived near the school when I was there in the early 70's.)
By the time I saw her, Cunningham was a very small elderly woman with a puff of white hair. Occasionally I watched her slowly walk up one of the hills near the school. She always wore a black dress and black shoes. She leaned forward into the hill and was very steady. She was a legend in photography; a member of Edward Weston's SF circle (Group f64) and a good friend of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), she was a determined and serious photographer from a young age (in 1907 she was a lab assistant for Edward S. Curtis in Seattle). Nothing deterred her; not motherhood nor an unhelpful husband. The photographic world was, unlike painting and sculpture, fairly welcoming to women. Not that an unwelcoming photo world would have stopped her.
Her work was stark and elegant. Her black clothing and white hair echoed her beautiful black and white prints. As my eyes followed her on the occasions she walked by, I wanted to talk with her but never did.
20 Learning to paint the hard way
On one end of the learn to paint spectrum there is something called a "paint by number kit", easily found in toy stores.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there is "learn to paint by jumping off a cliff."
For a period of time from the late 1940's through the 1970's, SFAI was the place to go to jump off the cliff. It was the kind of school that perfectly fit students who didn't like following directions (like me). There were no class assignments or grades (pass or fail.) The unspoken assumption was that if you wanted to become an artist you might as well start figuring it out for yourself now rather than after graduation. There were a lot of class critiques-which could get a bit hairy, and in class teachers walked around while we were painting or drawing and tossed off observations or suggestions as they walked by (one painting teacher, who shall remain nameless, told me that if I really wanted to become an artist I first had to become a mother.
"Yeah, right old dude," I thought. Today I'd just say, "fuck off.")
It would be very hard to find a college art program today that is this self-motivated. This teaching philosophy was put in place by the school's director, Douglas MacAgy, in the late 1940's. At that time the school had a large number of WW2 vets who wanted to be left alone to paint, draw, sculpt. Not hard to imagine those guys saying "fuck off."
For some students the lack of structure was too much so they left. And some who stuck around did the very least to graduate. But by and large, most of the students ran with the freedom and used it to learn what they needed to learn so they could become who they needed to become.
end of post 2, (17-20)