Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Blog post 2: Creating art community at Duke

Despite the frenetic pace of life at Duke which makes it hard to find breathing room and space to reflect and create, I haven’t relinquished the arts easily because of two things. The first is my continued involvement in visual arts programming through DUU. The second is that I remember what it was like to belong to an art community and am trying to create that for Duke students who don’t have a formal art community through art classes.

Throughout middle school and high school, I spent 3 hours a day in the art studio, the air suffused with turpentine, every available surface coated with plaster or subtly smeared with oil paint that invariably found its way onto my clothes. Before the school bell rang, my classmates would nap on the couch in the studio; between classes (and sometimes during class) we came to the studio to work on whatever hellishly ambitious assignment was due that week; after class we would put on the music, make instant noodles from the convenience store in the microwave, and paint till 11pm. Against the teacher’s orders, we left the back door in the ceramics studio open so we could sneak back in on Sunday to keep reworking our homework. I carried a sketchbook everywhere I went, documenting my life and thoughts as it happened.

Art has become core to my sense of self. As a practice and process, it’s meditative and allows me to set everything else aside to focus on the act of creation. When I flip through my sketchbooks, accumulated over the years, I have a clear chronology of my life, or at least the times in my life that I deemed memorable enough to document (when I had time, or in spite of having no time). In an environment where my strongest impulse is to rush blindly from place to place, to do the next thing and get it over and done with, art gives my life, small and insignificant as it is, structure and meaning.

Contrary to the common perception that art is an individualistic endeavor, I think community is fundamental to the process of art making. Peer critiques help us see what we could be doing better, and also give us an opportunity to be inspired by other people’s work. More importantly, it is so much easier to be committed to an artistic practice when it is bolstered by friendship. Without peer influence, it follows that unless you have an enormous amount of conviction and willpower, the visual arts as a proportion of your time and your life become vanishingly small.

Against that backdrop, the work that I do with DUU VisArts and Draw Durham—trying to build a real arts community at Duke through sustained rather than ad-hoc programming—feels fundamentally countercultural. Creating arts community is nothing less than asking Duke students to slow down, show up, and take as much time as they need—not as much time as they have—to be present to their own experience.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Micheal Head. Simplifying a few things

Perhaps the best thing (or at least, my favorite thing) about the development of art is what some call the “deskilling” of art and the gradual shift away from “the artist as craftsman” after the end of the Renaissance. Perhaps the worst (and my least favorite) development, in contrast, is the idea of “the artist as individual,” in that the artist is both a mysterious, tormented Gogh-like figure and a genius whose mind and work should be exalted. All of these nuances are confusing, and thinking about them gives me a headache.

It doesn’t help that we have thoroughly latched onto various views of the “artist” such as these, many of which contradict: Artists are naturally gifted and draw inspiration from thin air. Artists are geniuses with an insane repository of imagination floating up in their head. Artists should be humble. Artists should be proud of their accomplishments. Artists don’t do any real “work.” Art that takes less “work” to create is worth less than art that did. Art is a labor of time. Art is an inspired creative act. Art is a skill and physical activity. Art should come from the heart. None of this is any good.

In actuality, it’s simple: people make stuff, art or otherwise. People look at stuff, art or otherwise. When you look at interesting stuff, it influences what you want to make and look at. When you make different stuff, that influences the stuff you then want to make and look at. This is true whether you’re writing a research paper or speaking in public or digging holes in the dirt of your preschool playground or vomiting former meals onto the bathroom floor. Art is like all these: it’s an exercise in experience. More experience gives us the breadth and depth of knowledge to generate new, hybrid experiences. That's it. The only time it may seem otherwise is when you forget: when a non-artist sees an artist and thinks they pull from either thin-air or their own genius, or when I look at an artist I admire and wonder how they thought of ideas so beyond my own, or when someone sees an artist’s work and either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the value the work has to that individual. This simple mechanism is why some artists latch onto social/political statements, while some latch onto representation, while some latch onto form or technique, while some deviate wildly, while some do their own thing. The inner mechanism is simple, yet the aggregate results are complex and interesting.

This may still seem like an unnecessary argument. You might be right. I may come off as angry or sassy. You might be right again. Though, if I am, it’s not at any thing, person, or institution in particular. Maybe you think I’m just trying to be humble, in which case I’d like to point you to the beginning of the essay and ask you to reread from the top. Or, maybe this is just common knowledge—I’m just saying obvious things. But this is my essay about contemporary art, and this is me speaking about something as general as possible while still drawing from experience. And my experience tells me that this is not common knowledge and people do not think these things are as simple as they are. The fact that we often overcomplicate (myself included), perhaps indicates more about our attraction to overthinking simple things and applying patterns to chaos, than about the overwhelmingly simple act of making and looking. I think we’d all be better off if we just simplified things a bit.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Contemporary Art by Kathleen Embury

Modern Art.  Two words that inspire a spectrum of strong opinions and feelings--of disdain, disgust, adoration, confusion...the list goes on.  But what really is "Modern Art"?  When people form their views, do they really understand what it is as a genre?  Can it even be called a genre?  Every period in time had it's own version of "modern" art, simply due to the style in fashion during that period.  "Modern Art," or Contemporary Art, is a sweeping term that covers so many different styles of art across the globe.  So can it really be categorized as a genre in and of itself? Though there may not be a truly straightforward answer, we can look back at it's origins to give some clarity towards the definition.

Modern art can largely be traced back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in the 19th century, when all these new technological advances, manufacturing, and better transportation allowed for greater urbanization and the spread of ideas.  With all these advances, people's worldviews were broadened, and they had more time to explore new ways of expressing themselves through art.  Artists no longer were simply employed by wealthy people or the church to depict realistic or religious stories, but people started to appreciate different ways of looking at the world according to the artist's individual outlook.  This included Impressionism, often noted as the first "modernist" style, as most famously depicted by Monet.
Image result for monet sunrise
Impressionism, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1874, oil on canvas

Monet focuses on the light and movement that he experienced in the moment of painting, a hallmark of the style that was unheard of, inspiring criticism at the time (as is the case with most new styles.) 

Several other styles would follow as urbanization grew and artists began focusing on cities and common life as subjects.  Realism was one such style, which aimed to depict people and places as they were with all their imperfections.  Gustave Courbet is one example of a Realism artist.

Image result for gustave Courbet art
Le Desespere by Gustave Courbet, 1845, oil on canvas, a self portrait 

Countless other named styles bloomed from these genres as technologies and advancements spread across the globe.  Artists began depicting subjects in even more abstract ways, such as with Picasso's works and notably Duchamp's Fountain.   Some art, such as Warhol's Marilyn Diptych, was used to depict images from the media.  Many modern works of today have an underlying message pertaining to a social issue.

I was in New York this past summer, and though I didn't have a chance to visit the MoMA, I did go to the Whitney and the Brooklyn art museums, which have a large variety of stunning and thought-provoking modern works.  This modern art explored different media, including film, audio, photography, using all sorts of materials like string across a room at specific angles, and every combination.   Artists are exploring combining topics from other principles, such as math or science, and showing how they can be used to create art.  The very concept of what is considered art is challenged. Some such examples I saw from the Whitney are depicted below.
Sine Curve Man by Charles Csuri, 1967, ink on paper, outputted by a plotter

Five Words in Green Neon by Joseph Kosuth, 1965, neon tubing

But what we associate with Contemporary Art nowadays may not always be known as "Modern Art."  Perhaps in 50 years it will be called something else, categorized as its own genre in art history.  Though we think of Modern Art as this foreign, avant-garde style, this is exactly what makes it so impactful: it's new.  It's often uncomfortable. It's remembered.  And isn't that every artist's ultimate goal?

Note:  It should be noted that this is an extremely brief and narrow look at the history of Modern Art and what it is today.  There are so many styles that were not explored, particularly from other parts of the world than Europe and North America, and from women.  It is interesting that such works and artists are not as widely discussed in the sources I found searching for "Modern Art,"  but that is a topic for another day. 


Probably closer to stream of consciousness than a rant (barely)

Contemporary art, to me, can be divided into a few broad categories: the type that focuses on looking good, the type that focuses on looking horrible but new, and the type that tries to convey a message about society. Or, in other words, the good, the bad, and the ugly (truth). I happen to fall into the camp that values form, lighting, anatomy, and so on, and as such, I really don’t like the attempts at art some artists have made, and I don’t value their contributions in the slightest, no matter how many people try to explain how something has been deconstructed or pushed the boundaries of art. It’s a personal type of selfishness, sure, but I’ll go through why I think this way. To begin with, I think the idea of being avant-garde is an excuse to not develop one’s concept into something that stands alone in skill. Rothko pushed the boundaries of art by deconstructing painting into primary colors and rectangles, but he only took the outrage over it as evidence he was doing something right, apparently, because he continued to do the same thing until more people gave up and accepted it. And, just to mention the common point against it, being successful in this camp relies a little too much on publicity and luck. The argument of “if it’s so easy to make avant-garde art, why don’t you do it first”, which always finds a place into the arguments of free-thinkers, is too dismissive, and doesn’t justify the fact that the most artists don’t try to further encrypt their work into being unreplaceable. For example, in pieces that use wild brushstrokes like anything from Jackson Pollock, the only barriers are the trends of organization unique to them as they try to do something randomly, and this isn’t intentional enough. Although I suppose Jackson Pollock’s splatter paint technique became unique over time as he probably developed muscle memory from doing it so many times, people can still mimic that well enough to fool the average person, who is all that really matters when it comes to art. My complaint is that development for the avant-garde artist stops at the revelation of a new abstraction or deconstruction, basically. Speaking of the average person, this ties into why I don’t like art that tries to convey a sociopolitical message, but it earns a little less distaste from me than avant-garde work. It simply won’t be understood by every person unless the piece abandons subtlety and becomes more of an exaggeration than a public experience. I find that politics being mixed in with everything is also just exhausting, to the point where I’ll dismiss something for being an overdone topic. But, at least political art still tries to inspire something in the viewer, and occasionally goes for depictions of form and scenery. Nonrepresentational art tries to invoke emotion too, but I think its fundamental error is its defining feature: that it excludes people or makes them unrecognizable as such by ruining their features. Ultimately, art is for people, and if it is to invoke emotion, it must be something that can be empathized with and understood without an attached essay explaining the scrambled mess. For countless years, humans have been depicted in art realistically, and certainly not with total accuracy. Just consider the exaggerated musculature of Michelangelo’s portrayals of humans, and how they still captured the hearts of viewers. The development of photography may have stolen realism’s main selling point but giving up on all degree of accuracy to convey a message is not the solution.

Contemporary Art- Burning Man (Lizbeth Leapo)

This summer, I made a visit to the Renwick art gallery in D.C., and was fortunate enough to get a chance to see “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man”. The exhibit featured versions of art installations from Burning Man, a weeklong cultural movement that takes place annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Burning Man is an influential phenomenon in contemporary American art, featuring massive art installations, many of which are ritually set on fire at the end of the week. Replicas of some of these installations were not only at the Renwick, but also on various sidewalk locations across D.C. during the time of my visit (1).

This exhibit was filled with some of the most interesting pieces of art I have ever seen, incorporating not only large sculptures and paintings with detailed patterning, but also beautiful light displays and a virtual reality installation. My interest in Burning Man was piqued, and I was curious to find out more about its origins and other pieces of contemporary art from Burning Man 2017.  Here are some interesting aspects of the event that I’ve learned from my research:
  •       The first sentence on the Burning Man website states “Burning Man is not a festival. Burning Man is a community.” There are no acts or paid entertainment at this event; it is a “decommodified” space that is not sponsored by any corporation.  People who attend participate actively, and more than 70,000 people come together in the desert for this massive artistic movement (3).
  •       There are 10 principles of Burning Man: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation, immediacy. These principles reflect important aspects of Burning Man culture, including the idea of welcoming all, participating collectively, and respecting the environment (3).
  •       The week traditionally culminates with the burning of a large wooden sculpture of a man, hence “Burning Man”.
  •        Burning Man began selling tickets in the mid-1990s, and began giving away artist grants. That support has grown to around $1.3 million annually, which allows Burning Man artists to create large-scale, ambitious, and high-quality projects (2).

Virtual reality experience at the Renwick Burning Man exhibit, created by Android Jones.

        Burning Man invites its attendees to actively engage with the art, which is in stark contrast to the traditional art gallery concept of “look, don’t touch”. However, I believe the Renwick did a wonderful job of exhibiting art pieces that visitors could interact with. I was personally intrigued by the amount of technology incorporated into some of these contemporary art installations. The virtual reality experience created by Android Jones, pictured above, was particularly fascinating because it allowed direct participation and physical interaction with the art. Burning Man brings to light the broad nature of “contemporary art” as a whole, defying any constraints of realism and traditional rules.  Burning Man prides itself on the concept of inclusion, which is why the art installations at this event have such a wide range in terms of medium and size. To see an artistic community come together for a celebration of this scale is truly phenomenal.  

References :

1.     “No Spectators: The Art of the Burning Man.” Smithsonian American Art Museum.

2.     Schaefer, Brian. “ Will the Spirit of Burning Man Art Survive in Museums?” The New York Times.

3.     “The Event” Burning Man.