Article By Curtis Green, Photo by Chris Barbalis
At one point during my time as an art student, we learned how to describe a work of art. This was an excellent exercise for all of us young eager and emotional students ready to pour out our guts to anyone who would listen. Our professor had us put our work up on the wall. There, we were to stand before everyone else and start divulging our own descriptions of our pieces. This was opposite of a critique. A critique included our work on the wall for sure, but now others would talk about what they saw and thought about it. This time the artists would speak for themselves. Oh boy!
Imagine we young students in black clothes, multi-colored hair. Paint proudly worn all over our pant legs, hands and cheeks. Pulling our fingers through our hair while assuming a downward gaze to our shoes, we each stood before an audience of our peers, venturing into our thoughts and verbalizing them extemporaneously.
“Okay! Stop!”, our professor would, thankfully, step in.
He would then say that he heard our thought processes and our on the spot exploration of our ideas, yet he still knew very little if anything about the artwork itself. We would stand there, befuddled. Whatever could this mean? Talking about our ideas is essential for talking about our work, we would think. What could he possibly be asking of us?
“What is it?”, he would ask?
We would cock our heads slightly, and then go back into the deep ideas of what we thought it is about and what it signifies and how we felt about such and such and etcetera, then he’d stop us again.
“What is it?”, he waited silently again for the question to ring in the air.
Someone would finally and cautiously reach their hand in the air and inquisitively suggest, “It’s a painting?”
“Yes!”, says the professor. “And what is it made of?”
“Of course, it is. Would you please sit down, re-approach the painting and start again?”
As if brilliant sunlight suddenly burst through the north-facing windows (why that would be amazing is because that is naturally impossible!), each of us were now able to approach a work of art, including our own and begin confidently speaking about it.
The lessons in this exercise were many. In particular, we learned to understand a work of art as an object first. Basically, any artwork is an arrangement of materials before it is an object of art. Mostly, the separate objects of wood, canvas, staples or nails and gesso are assembled together to create a ground, more often called a “canvas”. Paint is applied to the canvas. That’s it. These basic materials finished in their assembly becomes what is known as a painting.
The student artist begins again, “This is a painting I did last week. It is an acrylic with stenciled spray paint. It is canvas over wood stretchers, stapled on the sides. The dimensions are 24 inches high by 36 inches wide, unframed, there is a wire on the back for hanging.”
From that point it can become very natural to begin describing elements in the painting.
“There is a blue area at the top. The blue area fades into the lower part of the canvas that is primarily orange.”, the artist continues, “In the middle ground are stenciled floral patterns super-imposed over the background.” Finally, the artist finishes, “The foreground depicts a worker in the field”.
“Interesting”, we all may respond.
“How did you arrive at placing a floral pattern in the middle ground?”, someone asks.
Now, the artist may begin with their ideas and processes.
“I was thinking about dreams and aspirations, and the floral pattern could represent the dreams and desires of the worker. The orange and blue represents aspirations off in the sunset”, etcetera, etcetera.
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I just shared with you one of the most valuable lessons I received during my art education. From that point on, every artwork was transformed into something more than simply personal leanings of aesthetic appreciation or dis-agreement of style. In other words, every work of art has access to our consideration on these terms. In any instance we can evaluate art as an object before we reach our aesthetic judgement. No longer, did I find myself dismissing a work solely based on its appearance. Doing so meant my immediate critique based on my personal tastes would be flawed, therefore. I would be narrowing my focus only on what I preferred, and I would be in an “art bubble”, which is an exclusionary position that is counter-active to creativity and thought.
Overriding our feelings and our prejudicial aesthetic tendencies opens the world of art as the fascinating place that it is. By doing this we allow ourselves to be entertained by works of art where ideas follow the form and by works where form follows the ideas in different measure. What do I mean by this?
If one were to say to themselves, “I only like modern art”, then which modern do you mean? The mannerists were modern compared to the renaissance. The Impressionists were modern compared to the neo-classicists. The Expressionists were modern compared to the Formalists. And so forth. If one says, “I like the traditional work”, that’s fine, so do I. Much of what is termed “historical” or “traditional” was modern at one time. Even Giotto of the Late Gothic period was astonishing to his peers! You see my point.
Many times, many of us believe that art is only about feelings, emotion and deep personal reflections of the artist. These can always be artistic motivations but by varying degrees. Some works of art are made from an era where a canonical model was so dictated that pictures or statues required the ideas of the artist to fit within that canonical form. Think about the religious scenes of the Gothic period for example.
As time went on, the form of art began to follow the idea. Mannerism, for example, is a style that allowed the limb of an outstretched arm to be elongated to accentuate the idea of yearning. Of course, Cubism developed by George Braque and Pablo Picasso broke the mold of the standard landscape or portrait. From there, form continued to follow the requirements of the idea though expressionism and into the conceptual that we see so much of today, which does its best to negate any kind of objectivity.
We have arrived now to the point where ideas are without form whatsoever. We, as artists, may be left staring at the ground, fumbling around for what to say next. The general public may be running their fingers through their hair dismissing this and casually acknowledging that. In so doing, the art public divides itself into groups who either love “new” art or “old” art, based primarily perhaps on only what they see at first glance. I offer that no matter what “art” you look at, you are looking at an idea. And sometimes a good idea is always a good idea, no matter how old or new it is.
What is necessary though, is to be able to approach the idea on some basic evaluating standard, which is to see it first as an object that someone made. Putting a work through this evaluation first can often bring us to some insight on the motivation and the ideas within it. A work that we did not understand at first, then becomes more understandable and often creates a context for appreciating it either even more, or even less.
In every way though, the participation of ourselves in the appreciation of art means that we all are included in the cultural dialogue. An engaged audience makes a better culture and makes for better art from the artists. Laziness on the part of the artist and the audience is less allowed then because the audience is more aware of what the artists are doing. At this point, I invite you to go to the gallery or the museum, re-approach the work inside and describe what you see. You may be under-whelmed. That’s okay. There’s a lot of “M’eh” out there.
Discovery is based on actively seeking, not passively waiting for the second coming while staring at our phones. Engagement is a tangible thing as much as it is experiential. Starting with what you know about a work of art is like reading a name tag at a convention. The introduction is made, and then the dialogue begins. From there a lot can be learned and shared. Often those lessons are less about art and more about how we open up our thinking about the world around us.
In the case of going to a museum or gallery, you get to be introduced to not just the alive and well ideas, but you get to actively engage with the hand that made the mark with the brush on the canvas, many years ago. That itself is a revelation of the consistency and revolution of our thoughts, feelings and emotions handed down and carried on from eras long ago. Standing before an important artwork like a Monet or a Rembrandt and having that experience, well, that’s bordering on time travel folks! But enough of staring at my shoes. It’s your turn.