What is Art?
In class, with its speech, gestures, charcoal, oil paint, oil pastel, flowers, naked bodies and paintings, one can leave implicit much that in writing should be “spelled out.”
Some of the concepts and terms here have long complex interdisciplinary histories. Yet our only concern is to clarify art teaching. If we hold fast to this line of relevance we can be clear, brief and “to the point.
When I was young, some envisioned visual art as competently accurate figuration. Others found all figurative work repetitive and banal.
The vitality, richness and intensity of Ensor, Munch, Orozco, Picasso, Soutine – so many great figurative artists – challenge “representational” accuracy.
There is wonderful personally expressive archetypically resonant nonfigurative work (e.g. Baziotes, Kandinsky, Styll).
Art cannot be identified with any particular style.
What is art?
Is there a fundamental necessary human project that is neutral between styles and able to support the project of art? There is.
Art rests on and is supported by the fundamental necessary human project of intimate communication.
Art is the embodiment of “inwardness” in interpersonal media.
Inwardness is the world as it is experienced. My inwardness is the world as it appears to me.
We are barely similar enough to dependably coordinate for practical purposes in routine situations. (If you’ve ever worked in an office you know that even the most standardized connections are fragile and complex.)
Many years ago there was a model whom most students and I found very beautiful. We were doing archetypical exercises. She posed, by popular demand, as spring and joy and Aphrodite.
There was a very talented middle-aged woman in the class. She said (out of the model’s hearing), “You are all always saying how lovely and graceful she is. I’m a mother. I find her frail, undernourished. I worry about her.”
There is a story my father told me. His sister’s fiancé arrived in America. She asked my father to meet him at the boat. He said, “What does he look like?” She said “Apollo”. My father waited until everyone had gone except a tall thin man, handsome…but not, to his mind, Apollo.
The transforming glance of love is proverbial. Everyone else sees a gawky adolescent. The lover is entranced by a beautiful creature. Or every surface glance is enchanted by the polished mask while the lover is open to complexities and secrets that artifice conceals.
I returned fascinated again and again to a Japanese ink brush painting of a tiny female figure in a garden…. Sudden awareness, the woman is also garden and the garden also woman.
Inwardness is not limited to the individual. One might also speak of the inwardness of a group, a discipline… an order of life. We exist in history.
I know only fragments of the world in which my parents lived.…I know, for example, that when my mother as a little child was ill her beloved grandfather took her to a folk healer who broke an egg and rubbed the yolk on her face. I see her telling me the story, the frightened expression of a little child revisiting her face that was transformed by age, and is now bone. I know that her grandfather was a Hassid and danced and sang his love for God.
Now only fragments remain…. “So much is lost despite love.”
Almost all intimate communication is “one-on-one,” normally between people who are chosen (e.g., “blood relatives”), or have chosen each other to love. Yet lovers are mutually vulnerable. Thus the love that opens also limits communication.
Art, uniquely, is direct intimate communication between self and species.
The artist feels and thinks directly in intimate dialogue with visual meaning: composition, line, shape, color and texture.
Before you begin, or basically transform, a painting, give yourself time to experience “your model” [i.e., to see “the figure” (e.g., person, tree, flower) to hear the music, to recall an experienced scene (from waking life or dream), to contemplate a theme etc.]. Then ask yourself:
- What is my experience in the presence of the model? (i.e. What is your “take” on the model? How does the model “register” in your inwardness?)
- What do I see that evokes this experience?
Do not paint anonymously…. Medium and image should be saturated with yourself. They should be drenched in inwardness…Become yourself in paint, inhabit paint.
Processes and Procedures
1. Awareness in the Act
The artist dances with the act of painting, the emerging image and the world…. One is aware of the directionality of every stroke. One is open to each touch of charcoal or brush and every compositional inter-play of color and shape. There is an expansion of consciousness that can inspire sensitivities beyond the act of painting.
Beginning a painting, one seeks the first moment of dawning individuality. Once the painting is alive it tells the artist what it needs. Only that which contributes to its emerging personality should be accepted in the work.
Each creative moment is open to the world. One paints in moment-by-moment dialogue as in intimate conversation.
In the strange and wonderful realm of art, the intellect is not a detached “calculating machine” … Thought is passionate. Emotion is thought saturated… The universal is transformed in personal voice as Monet’s cathedrals melt in light.
2. Being There
My basic unit with beginners is the twenty-minute pose…. I began teaching by substituting in a class where students had three weeks to make one painting of a single figure. I remember telling a student, “These flesh tones are not precise. They ‘represent’ someone’s skin but not this model’s at this moment in this light.” He answered, “That’s O.K. I have two weeks left to finish.” Many students worked as though house painting.
Be present in the act of painting. Never work mechanically. Routine is the enemy of art.
3. Action and Critique
On stepping into an art class and without looking at the students work one can usually tell if it is a beginning or an advanced class. Beginners remain right up against their easels in constant activity. Advanced students (if well trained) move towards and away from the painting. [I am giving away a professional secret of art teachers .… It is much easier to judge the integration of parts within a visual unity (e.g., composition, proportion, color harmony) from a distance than close up. The teacher when commenting on your work stands behind you.]
The physical alternation of closeness and distance is interplay of engagement and
critique. …Both are passionate and thoughtful.
As a teenager I briefly studied with Harry Sternberg at The Art Students League. He stopped by my easel and asked what I thought of my painting. I said, “The hand is wrong.” (I wanted to demonstrate seriousness and identified seriousness with “being tough on myself.”). Sternberg answered, “It is as though I introduced you to my wife and asked, ‘What do you think of her?’ and you answered, ‘Her hand is wrong.’”
Critique engages the work as a unity. Proportion, in every sense, is crucial.
Criticism is normally identified with finding something wrong. In art, appreciation is the heart and foundation of critique.
The above is an Excerpt from Living Art by Avron Soyer, Click to Read the next section III. Art Words- Prisms of Language