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Art, skill, communication, failure

The peculiar use of these concepts in recent postings suggests that a reading list might be useful. I don't have the books in front of me, so please forgive any bibliographic inaccuracies:

Kandinsky. _Concerning the Spiritual in Art_.
Tolstoy. _What is Art_.
Koestler. _The Act of Creation_.
Stanislavsky. _On The Art of The Stage.

These are essential texts. Harold Rosenberg's books are a good starting point for discussing the New York school (de Kooning, Pollock, ...). These artists are not obscure, and did not fail to communicate. One thing that should be made clear: They never expected to be rich, or to be in an "Art World." For decades they struggled along painting for themselves, because they believed in their work. They met to discuss art with each other. The artists were more surprised than anybody when the work became pricey-- de Kooning thought a painting would never be worth more than $500. Kline painted on phone book pages. It is the dealers and collectors who made "the art world." (That's why I named D.H. Kahnweiler in a previous post-- he was the dealer who managed Picasso et al-- read his biography, it's a great story.)

In many ways it's very appropriate that these are the artists being discussed, because book artists are in much the same position-- we do it for love, and because we have this particular obsession with our medium, not because of any market value. We should be so lucky that the "art world" decides what we do is of value. I don't know anyone in the book arts who's getting art-world prices for their work, or who's in it because they think they'll get rich this way.

"Ignorant" is not an epithet. It denotes lack of knowledge or study. In any event, epithets are no easier to hurl than a slider.

Failure is success. 1984 came and went. To fail is to attempt the unreachable. Fail and fail again. I would encourage every artist to fail. Success is an accident.

Is Art a common language? Philosophers have been discussing that for millenia.

Skill is not anathema in a discussion of art. It is neither necessary nor sufficient. All artifacts are made with more or less skill. A well crafted object may communicate the love the maker had for the tools, materials, and activity of making. Does this make it a work of art?

There are criteria I use. And that's important to clarify, because I am a curator of exhibitions, a writer about work which is called art, a teacher, and a collector, as well as my primary incarnation as Artist. Not only do I have to evaluate my own work continuously, but I have to choose other people's work to include in exhibits or to buy, and I have to understand why they are important works so I can write about them. I have to sit in a room with a dozen artists, from beginners to outstanding professionals, and critique their work, and SAY something to them which might be useful to their creative evolution. All this conversation about Art & Craft isn't about flaming, hurling, or irrelevant to making book art. It's my job.

The nature of the aesthetic experience has been a subject of discussion for a long time. What it is, its universality or particularity, how it is stimulated (by art or nature), its biochemistry, its psychology, its sociology, and much more fill many volumes. The nature of the art object, its aesthetics, its politics, its economics, etc. fill many more volumes. The Frick Collection has a great art library.

So I have to look at something and decide if it's art- whether it's something I'm making or someone else's. There are three elements I look for: object, image and metaphor. When I taught at The School of Visual Art in the 70's I called this "The Theory of Museum Finish." When you see a true work of art, the space around it seems to vibrate. How is this achieved? The image is perceived by the viewer and evokes a metaphor. The metaphor turns the attention of the viewer inward to a state of reflection on personal experience. The object draws the viewer back to physical reality through the strength of presence of its materials. This process takes place many times each second, with the shift in attention acting on vision like the shutter of a movie projector, creating the illusion of flickering space.

If an object I am evaluating doesn't do this, I simply look to see what is the weak element. A weak surface (object) can be from weak craftsmanship or  inattention to detail, or can be from a failure to choose materials which support the metaphor of the work. Not all works of art need slickly finished craftsmanship. But the type of craftsmanship which is needed is the craft of art, the knowledge of how to embed metaphoric power in material form. Much as the craft of the writer is in knowing how to create metaphor with words.

A weak image may come from lack of sufficient contemplation of the metaphor. A weak metaphor simply doesn't have a lot to say. (We could spend a week on this)

Not all good work has these three elements in a strong, harmonious balance. There is good decorative art which has strong surface and image. There is good illustration which has strong image and metaphor. I make both of these, and include such works in exhibits I organize.

I have put forth this brief pedagogic interlude in an attempt to focus the issues of this discussion and encourage a precise vocabulary. It's difficult to compress 15 weeks of classes into a few paragraphs, but I will address any questions subscribers may pose.


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