The Language That We Speak

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“Art is a basic human language that is universal among cultures and across time.”

–Peter William Brown (from The Painter’s Keys)

The well from which visual art arises in the soul is a place difficult to put into words.  Artists express what is in this place through what they put on paper or canvas. It is a fountain that is forcing its way out, pushing to the surface to be expressed. The fountain pours out, spills over.  What needs to be said appears on the surface.  What and how the expression is said is more or less directed by the individual artist.  The important point for artists is whether their art must be literally understood or is it open to the translation of the observer?

Screen shot 2013-11-18 at 8.43.51 PMThis past April, Chinese-French artist, Zao Wou-Ki passed away leaving behind a legacy of art that bridged two cultures. Julia Grimes has written extensively on Zao and his art.  Grimes quotes Zao in her article for CNN, “French and Chinese thought are not the same.  It’s hard to translate between them.  Sometimes you must wear yourself out trying to understand.  Painting must express these feelings.”  Zao’s art expressed what words could not.  Zao tells The New York Times, “Everyone is bound by culture.  I am bound by two.”  He had no words to adequately communicate the two cultures he inhabited.  Painting did that for him.

Does an observer understand Zao’s struggle between two cultures?  Or does the observer simply see art that is pleasing to the eye?  Does it matter?  Zao was immensely successful.  The language of his art spoke to others on many levels.  Whether others saw or understood his struggle did not affect his success.  The question for artists in their own work is if it is important for the language of their work to be understood literally?  If understanding is the important factor then a decision must be made as to how best to get the point across.  If the point is open for the interpretation of the viewer, more freedom of expression is possible.  It’s the artist’s language.  Each artist can decide how to speak it.

Magnetic Obsession

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“Most inner-oriented artists share a common characteristic, a certain quality of obsession.”  Kenneth Coutts-Smith  (from The Painter’s Keys)

Much has been written and will continue to be written about the strange story of Cornelius Gurlitt and the hoard of some 1400 works of priceless art in his Munich apartment.  How much of the art legally belongs to Gurlitt will be sorted out by the German authorities, eventually.  Until that time, the man has finally come out of hiding to speak of his obsession.  Gurlitt has given an extensive interview to Der Spiegel

 Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 6.17.18 PMFor those hoping to make sense of the story of the man, the interview won’t make that happen.  If anything, the interview of Mr. Gurlitt only makes the story stranger.  Gurlitt lived for and with his art and only his art.  He has no friends and very little contact with any relatives.  According to the article, he loves his art as if the works are his children.  He is devastated by the confiscation of his art.  He kept a collection of 25 drawings in a suitcase, taking them out each night at bedtime to gaze at them.  For eighty years, Gurlitt has lived for his art.

What is it about art that can so totally consume a person as it appears to have done with Gurlitt?  Some will say it is a mental health issue.  That apparently occurred to the German authorities.  They sent a social worker to Gurlitt’s apartment to speak to him.  But Gurlitt’s behavior is really no more strange that the behavior of some of the artists whose work is in his collection.

The magnetism of art is a documentable phenomenon.  For some it is visual art.  For others it may be dance or theater, books, poetry or music.  Is Gurlitt any different than the “Mystery Man” who put three roses on the grave of Edgar Allen Poe on the anniversary of his birth every year for over twenty years?  Or of someone who pays 142 million dollars for a single work of art?  The artists themselves, some of them, can be equally obsessive in the creation of the art.  That doesn’t answer the question.  What is it that creates the magnetism?

Magnetism is not something learned in school or in a book.  It can’t be described in scientific terms.  It either happens or it doesn’t.  Some artists have it.  Others don’t.  It does not appear to be related to the skill or lack thereof, of the artist.  If magnetism can’t be learned, is it out of reach to those who are striving for it?  No.  Magnetism comes from the still, small inner voice.  Some may be better at listening than others.  The skill of listening should perhaps be cultivated vigorously.  Will following that inner voice lead to creating the kind of art that results in an obsession like Gurlitt’s?  Who knows!  But it is doubtful it will happen without it.

The Telegraph, CNN and the Daily Mail have more on the Gurlitt case at the links.

For more on Poe’s “Mystery Man” go here.

Weekend Inspiration–Seeking Kindred Spirits

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“As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight.”  James McNeil Whistler (from skinnyartist.com)

Art inspires literature.  Literature inspires art.  Music inspires both art and literature, and vice versa. There is an emotional connection that is felt, one for the other on a deep level.  It has been going on for as long as humans have communicated with each other.

The evidence is there. Blog.ted.com has an article by Kate Torgovnik on Ten Books Inspired By Paintings.  Redbubble.com has a group devoted entirely to art inspired by literature.  A Current Under Sea has a post by Angie about literature inspired art.  Flavorwire.com has an article titled Great Works of Art Inspired by Great Works of Literature.  The list goes on.  Examples abound of the arts inspiring the arts.

Artists, writers, and musicians create from a place within that speaks to inherent creativity.  It is a special language heard and recognized one in the other.  Spirit recognizes kindred spirit and is inspired. It is a mystical place.  Those times when blocks happen, a moment to seek the place of the kindred spirit may be in order. Check in with your writer and/or musician friends.  Take time out to read a meaningful work of literature.  Read poetry.  Listen to a piece of personally inspiring music.  Perhaps in the shared language of creation fresh inspiration will be seen or heard.

Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, inspired the book of the same name.

Totally Dada

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“With the sound of gusting wind in the branches of the language trees of Babel, the words gave way like leaves, and every reader glimpsed another reality hidden in the foliage.”   Andrei Codrescu (from Goodreads.com)

The vocabulary of the art world often sounds to others as a strange and different language.  It is.  Strange and different.   So strange and different is this language that many articles and occasionally, books are published to enlighten those living in the dark and unable to speak it.  Translations of the language vary, are ever changing and hard to keep up with.  But the Art World’s unique speech may have met its match now that it has found its way into the Urban Dictionary.

 ArtNews has an article on Artspeak, the book by Robert Atkins.  Atkins’ book translates this strange and different language.  According to the article, Atkins realizes how this unique language may actually alienate people unable to fully decode it.  As Atkins states in the article, “Somehow the language used for describing and discussing art has an unusual opacity, even sadism.” Sadism?  No wonder the urban language is moving in on the art language.

Dada is one of those art movements that makes no sense at all and was apparently the purpose of the Dada artists.  So why create art that makes no sense and purposely is meant to confuse people?  Sounds a bit sadistic. But now we have a new and improved meaning for Dada. According to the Urban Dictionary, “Dada is anti-art, yet art”. “That is so Dada. It breaks all the rules yet make sense.”  Really? And one wonders why people think artists are crazy.

So if you haven’t mastered the traditional art speech, have no fear.  You can always go with the new art speech found in the Urban Dictionary.  FlavorWire.com tells you how.  You will soon be able to tell if someone is “a total Picasso.”  Or maybe you will notice, happily, that someone is “totally Rembrandt.”  But whatever you do, you don’t want to go, “totally Bob Ross!”  And that is “so totally Dada.”

Photo is Man Ray’s The Gift, a classic example of Dada Art!

Listen Up: Heart versus Brain

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“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” Leonardo da Vinci

What is political art and what isn’t?  The Tate’s new exhibition, “Art Turning Left” exhibits the art of left-leaning political artists like the Guerrilla Girls.  Undoubtedly, the Guerrrilla Girls made a splash with their bold political statements turning up in odd and surprising places but always with a point to be made.  And they made no bones about the purpose of their art.  The Guerrilla Girls wanted to be heard and they were screaming in the face of as many people as possible.

The Tate’s exhibit would tend to surmise that political art was entirely a product of the left.  The truth is both right and left have always used art as a means of getting their message out.  Hitler was to known to frequently use art for his political purpose.  But is it art or is it propaganda?  Do artists become artists to make political statements or to pull something out of the heart to bring enlightenment to the world?

The answer would seem to lie in the designation of importance of either goal.  Is my art about informing others of a political injustice?  Or is my art about expressing something in my heart that must get out for others to see?  Creating art solely to make a point would seem to be the dividing line.  If you did not have a point to make politically or socially, would you be making art?  The fact that what is in the artist’s heart may be expressed as a political message is a different thing than making a judgment to use art as the vehicle for getting a political statement into the public arena.  One is a calculated brain decision.  The other is the expression of the heart.  The difficulty for the viewer  is to tell which is which.  The feelings of the heart can override the calculations of the brain as long as the ears are listening.

For an entertaining look at art purely for political gain go to the blog: Standing Ovation, Seated.

Moving the Barricades

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“To me, art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”  Mark Rothko (from SusieGadea.com)

Capturing what is in the heart and splattering it all over canvas or paper is what artists do.  Facing what others say about that heart is what happens with every work of art placed into the public arena.  The risk of acceptance or rejection of what’s in the heart, what comes from a place that in most other people is only rarely exposed, is the daily life of an artist.  Some are more able to handle the daily unveiling than others.

For many artists, facing the big “F” word is a major challenge.  Fear!  And with fear comes the tag, “of failure.”  These two big “F” words pack a major punch.  What if no one likes my art?  What if no one wants my art?  Why am I risking my heart if no one wants to see what’s in there?  Maybe its better to just keep it hidden.  That’s the safe thing to do.  Keep it all inside.  Don’t let it out to play.  That way it can’t get hurt.  It stays safe, tucked away deep inside where the outside world can’t get to it.

In her blog, “I paint, I write” Pamela Hodges says, “The little girl wants an A on her paper.  A shiny star on top of the math page for not getting any problems wrong.”  That little girl or boy is inside the heart of us all.  We go into protection mode to shield the child from hurt.  So we erect the barriers.  For people whose life work does not require the continual heart exposure this is no problem.  For the artist, it can be a daily problem.

Dr. Bob Tobin, in his blog, states, “artists show the courage that many of us could only begin to imagine.”  This daily pumping out of what’s inside is a courageous undertaking.  Pamela Hodges states, “Creating takes courage.  Courage to stand out and be seen.  Courage to risk failure, and to risk success.”  To do less is to give in to the big “F” word.  Do we allow that to happen?

No!  The courage to conquer the big “F” comes from the same source as the art.  Courage comes from the heart.  As the art is allowed to flow from the heart, so must the courage.  To open to one, is to open to the other.  Like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, it was there all the time.  It just has to be acknowledged and out it comes.  All the Lion lacked was a medal, an award of courage.  Go to the studio and make a medal.  You’ve earned it!  Then stand aside and allow the courage to flow along with the art as you allow the heart to come out from behind the safety barricades, and step into the sun.