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What is art?

Joe's Creative Journal

1998, Year 1
No. 5, Aug 20

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Rembrandt: Bathsheba
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Watching Success


Preface

This series is not intended to be a university course. I am not an art scholar - I am just a painter. I'm going to reveal some secrets that I stumbled upon. Of course, you too may discover some of these secrets in books, but they are hard to decipher. It will be my pleasure to do so and spread the word. My motto will be, as always: Als ich kan (from a painting of Jan van Eyck, found as a citation in a modern mathematical book) which means: as good as I can).

Your appreciation gives me the encouragement to continue. It is for you and all the great masters that I do this, and I hope you enjoy the results. Please don't hesitate to send me feedback in order to help me with that goal! This kind of journal is new to the net, so please tell me if the size is OK (eg images are great, but big!).

Because English is not my home language, I do not always express myself clearly. I hope that you are able to interpret my meaning.

Also, I invite you to participate. Send me your articles and comments to be published in this journal.

Yours truly,
joe

What is art?


Last week, we worked toward Montparnasse. I proved to you that normal scholars not interested in art other than to make credits for their final examination in the least strenuous way learnt to draw realistic portraits sufficient to make a living with on Montparnasse. So you don't have to be gifted in any special way to draw like an expert.

Of course, earning a living affords some exercise, but that's not the problem. The problem to be discussed today is if you will lead a good life doing this. Well, that's put too short ... Let's say, if you will be content if you do this. I'm up to show you a way, so I ask myself if this will be a good way for you, emphasize on good. And from my very own experience, I foresee that you won't be content on the long run.

Most people would call what you were doing art. I doubt if that's art what you produce this way. If this would be true, we had another proof that everybody is an artist, as Joseph Beuys claimed, because everybody can do realistic drawings just like anybody can read or write or sing or dance - well, not equally good, of course, but enough to get along.

To me, this is one of the most interesting problems. What is art? Or more precise: What is good art? Our language differentiates art from illustration, for example. There are good designers out there doing all kinds of advertising illustrations: Is that art? If somebody illustrates a book, is that art? If you scribble while on the phone, do you produce art?

Whenever people hear that I am an artist, I get to know that somebody of their relationship is an artist, or a neighbor, or somebody they met during vacation. The world is full of artists producing art. Of course, most artists are poor fellows. We all know, you can't live from art, can you? During the last century, a new movement, the bohème, arose, turning off from the bourgeois, so it became necessary to be poor. Soon the argument shifted, so that you were a genius if you were poor, which is just bad logic. You were ashamed if you got rich as a painter.

This is no longer the case. Nowadays artists are listed and ranked in investment magazines. Buying art is just another opportunity to put your money in a safe bank, a little more exiting than just buying stock or real estate. One of my customers wanted to know if she should become a gallerist back in the eighties. I proposed she should try it out in her beautiful home. So we made a show with my works. Then she put up a gallery. A couple of months ago we talked on the phone. She told me what she learnt all these years: "People want to buy names!"

There you got it. They don't care if it's good. It mostly isn't. They want to know if it's a safe investment. And be assured, it mostly isn't. But they don't know, at least they do all they can to keep prices high and prevent a crash. So you got to watch auctions if you want to invest in art, because that's the only way to find out about this special kind of fashion.

I live long enough to have witnessed some shifts already. For example, when I came to Bielefeld, a middle sized city of some 200,000 inhabitants in 1971, they proudly presented a large painting of Georges Mathieu, French abstract painter, at the local Fine Art Museum. It was moved to the depot ten years later and will most probably never show up again.

The more you delve into this field the more interesting it gets. Money is just another name for the desire to find out what is worth which amount. I tend to rather call that quality. People like to express their feeling of quality in money. To be a player in this field you got to arouse interest in the first place. If you don't play, this doesn't mean you don't produce art. If you do and succeed, this doesn't mean you produce good art either.

There are lots of factors getting into play which are filtered out by time, so if something's hundreds of years old and still (or again) sought after, then this is quite some proof. But not sufficient, because it could be just another fashion of bad taste. And not necessary either, it could be great although nobody would be able to appreciate it.

Time to get to the point. Why do I tell you all this? I want to get you going, and if you don't find out what's great you will have a hard time. I tell you why. Up to now, I tried to let you do easy things so that you experience yourself and have some fun, some kind of success, too. I had to watch your criticism and give you an aim to be content with. I trust your soul and know it can't be cheated. Now that we have seen how easy it is to get to academic standards, we'll have to see if that can be our ultimate goal.

There are great books on the market, you can really learn a lot. I mentioned one of them already and looked it up for you: Betty Edwards "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain : A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence". If you click on the link you will see the book's Amazon site, it is on sale for $ 12.76, was rated 5 stars of 5 and got 11 reviews, for example (original quote, misspelling inclusive): Ther are those try to shroud the artistic process in mystery, Edwards book is a simple, straigh forward appoach to learning how to not only draw, but see. If you do the exercises in this book, you can learn to draw what you see. The most striking examples of this are the "before and after" drawings of her students.

If you want to further your competence in drawing what you see (whatever that is, I don't want to get into that), this is the book for you. The book is not on art, as far as I remember. She wrote another one where she tried to approach the field of art, but in my remembrance she does not know what art is. I'm sorry to say that, I would be happy if it were otherwise. In her own field, she really got something to say.

Now if you stick with all those things you see, you most probably end up producing craft at best. Look around on the net: You'll find plenty of those. I hear they even produce it on an assembly line in the east European states. Maybe you can even make money with it. But I bet your soul will starve to death. And not for the money you live on this wonderful world. It is for your soul.

Currently I read the book "The Artist's Way : A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity" by Julia Cameron. It is also $12.76, 20 reviews, rank 4,5. She tries to get you going with lots of good advice. She really knows what can get you stuck, it is kind of a therapy and good friend's assistance. If you want to do something and can't get started, try it. If you are stopped by your parents or loved one, try it. But it can't help with the question that your soul asks: Is it good what I'm doing? Is it worth while?

And this is where art comes in. Art feeds your soul. You don't have to understand what art is. You don't have to be able to talk about what you feel. You just have to know. And you will know.

Remember good old Vincent? He knew and he never had any problems with his being an artist. He felt it was important to do what he did although nobody else seemed to look or understand. It may be a long way to find out what your soul needs. I will show you examples next time.

You probably won't find any model, because you are unique (just in case you did not know it yet). But this is what you should aim at: What is your own thing here on earth? You can deceive your parents, you can deceive your family, you can deceive your customers, you can deceive the whole world of art - but you can't deceive your soul.

So it just won't make sense to teach you all sort of tricks - you won't learn much of interest for yourself. The only point of interest for you is your own soul. This doesn't mean to be selfish. It's just fact. You'll find out when you die at latest. And nobody can tell you about your soul, you have to find out yourself. Happily, you are not the first to start this journey. All our forebears did it, and from stone age on we have testimonials to learn from and get us going.

To round up this issue, I'll show you some art disregarding our holy rules of proportion. Just to show you that proportions per se don't produce art. And that art is produced although proportions are definitely wrong.

Ingres, Grande odalisque
This is a work of the last century, French classicism. I always found it very interesting to see what my fellow artists had done. This is one of the most famous works of Ingres. He had a beautiful drawing style, too, Picasso even imitated his style, it's irresistible.

But look at the proportions here! Once you find out, it is really astonishing that the first impression is so charming. At least three vertebrae too much. One thigh sticking near the navel. And so on. Read Art Journal 1.3 and 1.4 to learn what can be expressed through wrong proportions.

Picasso, Guerníca
This is a tiny clipping from the huge painting named after a Basque city bombarded 1936 by German planes in the Spanish civil war. There is no single plane in this painting, not even a modern weapon, just one broken sword. It makes no sense to ask for proportions in this painting. Painters depicted war all the time, it was an important part of life (and obviously still is). They tried to express the cruelty and the terror of war, too. Think of Goya (Napolean wars). In this century, war lost all heroism. WW I veterans tried to express their fright (Dix for example). You can't get that impact with proportions. I cite from a letter of a list I am subscribed to:
I am as untrained as they come. My first experience with modern art ( or any "art" for that matter) was when, as a 17 year old, I wandered into the Museum Of Modern Art in New York. I got off the elavator on the second floor and the first painting I saw was Guernica. I was completely blown away. Spent the next 20 minutes or so just staring at it. I had no idea who Picasso was but I felt rage and pain.

Ok, I'll have to give you a little homework after this theoretical lesson. And ... you have to show me your work, haven't you? I'm really curious. Of course, if you choose so, you will stay anonymous. Just scan your stuff and send it to me as an attachment.

Now for next time, I want you to watch your hand do things. Don't try to do something. Be open. Feel when it's good and when not. It doesn't have to show something apprehensible. Try to find out what your soul wants to say. Like when you're dreaming. You can't interfere, then. Now you shouldn't. Don't judge. Be curious. Think of a child trying to show you something. You would calmly wait and see and honor it.


Last week:
Working towards Montparnasse

Next week:
Learning from the heritage

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