In 1965 UCLA zoologists did a study to determine if mice preferred round exercise wheels or square ones. Mice were given round exercise wheels for a period of time and then they were traded out for square ones. Then the mice were given a choice of either square or round wheels. The majority of mice chose the square wheels. Go figure. It was theorized that the mice preferred the square wheels because they were more challenging, requiring more coordination as they jumped the corners as much as 9 times per second. What does this have to do with art and Aesthetics you ask? Let me see if I can make a connection.
In 2001 a study was done at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The average time spent looking at a piece of art was 17 seconds. Another study done at the Louvre showed that the average time spent looking at the acclaimed Mona Lisa was a mere 15 seconds. I don’t know if the studies took into consideration the shows on exhibit or the number of people crowded in front of the work but the point is, people seem to feel they can grasp the meaning of a piece of art very quickly. Oh yea they will say, that is a landscape or that is a portrait or a depiction of the crucifixion and so on. Amazing technique they may say. When meaning is easily depicted we are able to take in the work rather quickly. Like a round exercise wheel. Works that seem to have a deeper meaning than the initial impact make looking at art more challenging, It requires more time to gather the information.
Max Beckman is a good example of art that for me is in the square wheel category. Here are two works that I consider having square wheels that require more time to gather meaning.
Who are these people and why are they gathered in this strange space? The man with the mask is a self portrait of the artist. Why is he wearing a mask?
Are these people relatives or family? Why the saxophone on the floor?
The questions are endless and for me the interest is also endless.
What is a trapeze act doing in an interior that is much too small?
Who are these performers that look like a tangle of marionettes.
The works are fascinating, beautiful and intriguing.
I am drawn to them to try to grasp the meaning that is surely there and am happy to invest more time in the process.
I may never grasp what Max Beckman is trying to convey exactly but I find having to jump the corners well worth the investment of time.
In my own work I endeavor to have at least a bit of square wheel and hopefully engage my audience for longer than 17 seconds.
I divide art simply into 2 groups. That which is beautiful in and of itself and that which is beautiful and then presents me with questions, something to consider. Here is an example of the beautiful.
This print is small only about 6×6 inches. It is stunning. It captures the delicacy and life of the rose even without color. I bought this print purely for its beauty. It doesn’t need a title. It is what it is, beauty.
The Beautiful with Comments and or Questions embedded.
This print of mine I also consider to be beautiful. It has color and form and all it requires to be beautiful. It also has a subtext that must be determined by the viewer. If the meaning is not gleaned it will function just fine on its beauty. On the other hand if the subtext is discovered then it asks questions to bring a deeper meaning. In my work the title provides a partial key to the questions that underlie the image.
The title is “Two extinct species meet, each supposing the other to be more successful.” If you unravel the puzzle I hope that the visual communication is asking these questions…
What is success? Who determines success? Is money or wealth involved? Can an extinct species still be successful? How do we compare ourselves to others? What is the criteria for comparison? Are any of these comparisons valid. Etc. etc.
I believe that all art can be divided into these two groups. One is not above the other nor should either suppose the other to be more successful.
I haven’t posted for a couple of weeks. I am finding that consistent blog posting is a big commitment of time and thought, unless you are willing to settle for post just for the sake of a post. I have been thinking a lot about what to say about my work and my thought process and I keep coming back to an essay by Ben Shahn. He describes in a book of essays “The Shape of Content” about how he developed a painting entitled “Allegory”. The basis for the painting was about a man in Chicago who lost his 4 children in a tragic fire. An art critic whom Shahn felt liked his work and had written positively about his work in the past wrote a scathing critique on the painting accusing Shahn of a political agenda and suggesting he be deported. Surprised at this response, Shahn revisits the painting and its pieces,symbols and meaning. How did this painting provoke such a response? What symbols and imagery go into the meaning of an artistic work on the conscious and unconscious level? As a boy, Shahn had some experience with fires. He was present when his grandfathers little Russian village burned. He remembered the excitement, the flames breaking out and the bucket brigades working to extinguish the fire. His father was badly scarred by fire when he climbed a drain pipe to rescue him and his siblings.
That is the back story. The part that I found personal and compelling in the essay was when he talks about the artist being 2 individuals; the artist or creator and the critic or judge. The artist imagines an idea, an image to explore. Even at this early stage the critic has begun tearing it down with criticism and doubt. You are not good enough. The idea is underdeveloped. You must find better symbols, better skill, a better idea. The internal critic has extremely high standards, and often unreasonable expectations. These 2 individuals that exist in each of us, even those not in the arts must be somehow balanced to allow us to move forward rather than paralyze our creativity and abilities. I too often find that the critic is too loud and becomes the dominant voice in my head.
The balancing voices I try to practice are the ones that admonish, “it is what it is” or “this is not the important image, but it is the next one that is important and you must pass through this one to get there.” My imagery right now is stalled in time commitments and more importantly in the voice of the critic expressing doubts. I do know that I will overcome the critic and that the ensuing image will be meaningful at least to me. After all it is what it is.
The 3 Fates are found in Greek and Roman mythology. I explored the Fates many years ago when I was an under graduate. My interpretation was abstract and reflected the ideas of indestructible youth.
I seemed to be focused more on the idea of 3 and not so much on the implications of the Fates.
It is the fates that determine your life and its end. That is pretty significant stuff. The first fate is Clotho the spinner. She spins and weaves the thread of life . My concept of Clotho has changed a lot over the years. I see her currently being represented by a bird, building weaving compulsively. The bird just felt right. I have always seen birds as magical, smart and iconic, timeless fragile and enduring. I also wanted the concept of the fates to be more personal. Clotho is the spinner but she is also the beginning of life, the journey and the dance. It must then include youth and life from a beginning. The first Fate includes a portrait of Lucy my newest grand daughter. The inclusion of portraits of family members adds the tie that I am looking for. I started laying out this first Fate image and will include some of the sketches soon.
I am turning 64 in January 2015. That represents a lot of time, a lot of birthdays and a lot of experience. Time and the passage of time has been a recurring theme in my artwork. I find it fascinating to see what time will take away and what it will leave behind.
When I was younger it was a fascination, now it is a reality. When my parents died I remember having the feeling that I was moving closer to the head of the line. It was a disconcerting feeling. Not that I was fearful of death but there was a realization that time is also limited for each of us. From the day we are born we begin the aging process and a dance with Death. This, I now realize is not a bad thing. It is a dance, a give and take a back and forth. Some of us get to dance for a long time while others only get a short waltz, but we all dance. I have always enjoyed Hans Holbein’s series of prints he entitled “Dance of Death”. These prints are of Death as he comes for you and often we don’t see him coming.
My artwork is lately about my thoughts on time and aging and death and Life. Reading the obituaries can put time in perspective and keep me motivated to set priorities of what is truly important
My current project is about the 3 Fates. One that weaves the thread of life, one that measure it and one that cuts it. My thoughts and ideas on the first fate next time.
I have been thinking for a long time about starting a blog. I have to admit I am rather old school. When I was growing up technology was in the form of a slide ruler. The very idea of a ruler that does math has long been over shadowed by the simplest advances. A blog in general was a bit intimidating. A professional blog is downright scary. None the less I am taking the plunge and hope that it may at least be of interest or value to someone.