Tag Archives: art history

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question:

“What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?”

The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:

Thoughts on the Aesthetic Experience

The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.

It was Picasso’s “Guernica”.guernica_all-1

Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.

I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.

I was aware that “Guernica” was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.

Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.

I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see “Guernica” for the first time again.

The Importance of Taking Time to Look

While the advent of 35mm roll film cameras heralded a whole new era in photography, the emergence of digital photography has done the same. One casualty of the ever-increasing ease in picture-taking is the time we spend looking at the scene in front of us before we press the shutter. This hurry-up approach was as true when 35mm cameras were first introduced to the marketplace as it is today. Put a digital camera in my hands, and I’ll click away quickly and thoughtlessly with the best of them. (Burst mode, anyone?!)

However the benefits of slowing down, of first spending time just looking at what is in front of us before we shoot, should not be ignored. This was brought home to me when I read “The Most Powerful Artwork I Have Ever Seen”, an article about cave paintings by art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz and his wife visited the Niaux Caves in France in 2008, and the experience  became a seminal moment for him in his understanding of art. The part of the article that spoke to me about the importance of spending time looking, though, was the following excerpt:

“…we came to what felt like a large, irregularly shaped cavern. I can still feel cool currents on my face. We were in the “Salon noir.” Everything remained silent; our guide pointed her light to the ground so our eyes could adjust. After a moment, she wordlessly shined the beam upward. A never-ending clap of thunder sounded inside me; one reality was replaced by another…th-1

Nothing [in the paintings I was looking at] seemed only imagined; everything felt observed, studied, thought about, recorded.

These are the paintings of people who looked at mammals for over 30,000 years – far longer than all of recorded history combined. I was seeing visual wisdom, the hard work of looking and taking the time and trouble to make exact renditions of what one watched. Looking at these images, I began to know things we don’t know anymore but still know in our bones. These astounding levels of visual intelligence tell me that had these people wanted to make only symbolic images of their mysticism and magic, they could have…The clap of thunder that sounded for me in the caves was that the world outside and around these people was the same as the world that was inside them.”th-2

How odd it seems that today’s art students need to be taught to “learn to see”, when this was a fundamental requirement for survival for the earliest humans. Observing the color and shape of things, the ebb and flow of weather and tides, the behavior of prey, tasting unfamiliar plants and animals to see if they were edible- doing all of this built up a body of knowledge that enabled Homo sapiens to thrive. They thus gained the kind of innate understanding about their world that most of us sorely lack in the 21st century.

One of the reasons I like working with large- and medium-format cameras is that they require me to slow down. I simply can’t work quickly with them. They demand that I consider carefully the scene in front of me, which is not something that happens with smaller, lighter cameras. Sometimes I will spend long hours looking for a shot that eludes me, and I won’t make any exposures. But that time is not wasted, for it gives me practice in looking, and, hopefully, seeing. Taking the time to be fully present in the world around me is something I should be doing on a daily basis. And slowing down, regardless of the type of camera I have in my hands, would benefit my work greatly.

The Artist vs. The Creative Entrepreneur

I read a great article in this month’s edition of The Atlantic magazine titled “The Death of The Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur”, by William Deresiewicz. In it, he states that “the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?”

He starts his discussion by pointing out that artists were initially seen as artisans. That evolved into the artist as genius, then later the artist as professional. The model that is currently emerging in the early 21st century, according to Deresiewicz, is that of the “creative entrepreneur”, someone who acts not only as the creator, but who also markets, bills, advertises, etc., instead of having someone else (ex. an employer) do it for her/him.

Deresiewicsz goes on to suggest how the artwork itself might change as a result of this shift. Having taught a class in fine arts professional practices for many years, and having experienced this shift first hand as an artist, I have to say that I agree with the author’s perceptions about the change that is going on for artists today. It is like being on shifting sands all the time, as the way the game is played seems to change constantly, albeit in sometimes subtle ways that are not immediately comprehended.