Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Art and the Artist

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 31, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, December 31, 2007.

Miguel Guhlin quotes a person asking, " Is it even necessary for an art classroom to have all of the technological advancements of the modern age?" and replies, in part, "Imagine what would have happened if The Impressionists--did I mention I hate art?--hadn't been able to share their ideas with others."

I do not address his point that "The fact is, it's changing how people interact at the most fundamental levels OUTSIDE the either use it, or you don't. " - with which I am in fundamental agreement. This is about the rest of it.

The question also demonstrates a surprising lack of knowledge about art as a discipline. Art is often the first of all the disciplines to embrace a new technology. Usually, entire new disciplines evolve out of this.

Examples? Artists began using imaging technologies very early on, inventing photography, which evolved (through confluence with another art, drama) into motion pictures and television.

Artists experimented with electronic sound very early on, developing instruments like the Moog synthesizer, eventually changing the entire world of music.

Artists began using the printing process as soon as it was invented - arguably influencing the development of the Gutenberg press. Continued use of printing technologies led to the discipline of graphic design. Design software was one of the first killer applications for computers (remember Quark?) which led to things like SGML, the direct forerunner of HTML and the web.

Performance artists were among the first to catch on to the communicative capacities of the web, crating such exhibits as 'flash mobs' and other guerrilla theater pieces. These were a direct forerunner not only of social networking but also of political organization from Seattle to Howard Dean to Ron Paul and Barak Obama.

Finally - regarding your comment that you "hate art" - it sounds to me like somebody has spoiled 'art' for you some time in the past. That's too bad.

'Art' isn't a matter of walking around in galleries looking at static paintings going, 'ah, the impressionists' and nodding appreciatively at paintings you don't like.

Art - properly so-called - is totally about communication, which means that appreciation (*genuine* appreciation) is an important part of the work. It the work doesn't speak to you, if you don't like it then the work has in a certain sense failed (not in the evaluative sense (our culture is so infused with judging it's almost impossible to get away from that sort of language) but in the sense in which a person speaking French has failed to communicate with you if you speak only English.

Where 'art' becomes something that people 'hate' is when artists (and their admirers) become dishonest and pretentious. I once wrote an article, in my pre-internet days (I'll post it one day), 'On Artistic Criticism', the point of which was to respond to an artist who, after spilling some paint on his sculpture, tried to explain it as 'the randomness of the cosmos'. It was totally dishonest and simply made the work unintelligible to viewers.

Artistic criticism - like literary criticism - is full of this sort of pseudo-interpretation. They are like that character on MAD TV who, when called on to translate languages, interprets everything as "OK hot dog!" Understanding art doesn't require seeing the world through an art critic's eyes (good thing, too).

Instead of seeing art as something that is done to you, forcing you to respond to it appropriately (like a stuffy waiter at a French restaurant that sneers at your misunderstanding of 'escargot' on the menu), art becomes relevant when you take control of it and make it something you own and that belongs to you.

A work of art - *any* work of art, whether displayed in a museum, in your home, or on your web page - becomes, on this account, part of *your* vocabulary. It means what you want it to mean. It says what you want it to say.

You can use any of the arts - painting, photography, video, music, design - in any way you want to add colour, texture and depth of meaning to what you are writing. It doesn't even matter if you can't say what that element of meaning is - meaning is often ineffable, no matter what the critics say. If the artistic work 'goes with' whatever you are saying, that's fine.

In my view, it is important that communicators do this because there are ways in which words alone do not express what they mean. It's like Barak Obama's speech - you can read the words, and nod along, or listen to the words - the stress, the inflection, the pauses - and 'get it'. Art - properly so-called - is the stress, the inflection, the pauses of our lives.

Most probably, 'art' class probably never taught you that. It was probably about being able to identify impressionists on command (I remember studying paintings for a game show called 'Reach for the Top' - what a way to wreck a good painting).

Museums often do a lot of injustice to art (not always, though - it really depends on the curator) by taking one piece of a complex message and displaying it as a single artifact. It's as though you were presented with the word 'eglise' and expected to reflect on its sense and relevance, in isolation from any context in which it might be used.

To me (and you can see this in my photographs) understanding art is like walking through the streets of another culture, my use of art being my way of saying back to them, *this* is what I saw, and *this* is how I felt. It is a conversation - but not in words, not evn of something that could be expressed in words.

Look at my photos of Medellin. Can you see the conversation there? Can you see the Colombians and I engaging in this dialogue, the people of the city trying to convey their spirit through their art, and me responding in kind, expressing my appreciation, my understanding, my thoughts.

So long as 'art' remains something that hangs on a wall, this conversation can never happen. But the minute you make a piece of art your own, though its use in your own vocabulary of life, art becomes meaningful, not obscure and stuffy, but personal and alive.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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