When we talk about the greats of the art history pantheon like Michelangelo, Picasso or Van Gogh, we commonly attribute their genius to be the result of some innate ability or god-given talent. Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists is a good example of the length of time that such a notion has persisted in our society. His narratives of the renaissance artists make it seem like these people were predisposed to greatness, and we often invoke this concept when talking about creative people to this day… It would seem from how we talk about artists that some very special people have it, while the vast majority simply don’t. It can be a damaging narrative to those who haven’t met with success: it tells us that if we aren’t already “naturally” good at something that we should just give up, that artistic prowess is beyond the realm of learned skills and practice.
This concept of inherent talent devalues the the role that hard work plays in the creative act and the communal nature of artistic knowledge and skills. In addition to the immense amount of time one must practice to achieve greatness, one must also have been exposed to the right influences. The old adage about standing on the shoulders of giants comes to mind. The individual genius of Brunelleschi might have been an utter waste had he been born a century prior; the cultural climate wouldn’t have been ripe with the infusion of eastern knowledge that made the discovery of linear perspective possible. The fact that (at least) two other individuals seem to have stumbled on this idea as well suggests the influence of the larger historical context of 15th Century Italy.
I had a teacher in school who claimed that we could never again paint like Vermeer because the skills and deference that 17th Century revered are simply not practical or important any more, and it is only under such societal conditions that such a fantastic talent would emerge. It is as though there are a small number of potential Vermeers in any given population, but it is only when the cumulative pressures of time and place exhibit the right demands that such an artist would emerge. It just so happened that Delft in the 1600s valued secular domestic paintings, had a tremendous store of technical painting knowledge and was laden with the wealth that could support an unusually large community of decorative artists.
I suppose this viewpoint advocates the school of historical theory that considers individuals to be almost irrelevant actors: from this viewpoint had Brunelleschi never lived, the cultural environment would have still inevitably produced linear perspective. I think this notion is mostly right, with a slight modification. Artistic movements probably happen in broad strokes irrespective of individuals, but these movements are also punctuated by the occasional true genius. It is true that Michelangelo could not have accomplished the Pietà without the Greek and Roman sculpture that preceded him, but it is also true that his individual accomplishments had a particular and long lasting impact on the history of art. Only the peculiarities history could have produced Michelangelo, but only his individual peculiarities could have produced the mannerism that followed.
So it’s pretty much a wash.
I love wandering around my little neighborhood at twilight and looking in on the tableau presented by the well-lit windows. By walking down streets you haven’t before, you take care to remain a stranger in your own city.
I love the band Papercuts, and I recently shot some test video with my friend and coworker Jed Smith, so I set some of the footage to one of their “happier” songs. Yes, this is one of the happy ones.
Though our fancy little DSLR cameras take good video when conditions are absolutely perfect, they do not have much latitude when it comes to post work.. Basically what you see in the camera is what you get: there is no hope of doing aggressive color correction to poorly exposed video. All that is to say, this thing is grainy as hell. And poorly edited.
Recently, while waiting to get a haircut, I came across an article in National Geographic about a variety of bird from New Guinea that exhibits a bizarre appreciation for aesthetics. The male Bower bird carefully constructs elaborate structures and collections out of deliberately selected materials, like feathers, stones, and even trash. They are often arranged by color or type with such deliberation that they (to me) appear to be that of human origin.
I was particularly struck when I saw the pictures because they look incredibly similar to some of the work by human artist Andy Goldsworthy.
It’s really interesting to see that humans do not have a monopoly on the act of creativity. These birds do not just mechanically repeat the displays of their fore-bearers; no, in some varieties of the species (there are 20 of them), each bird creates an entirely unique display specific to the individual.
According to the article, these displays of artistic discretion are actually sexually selected for; the male that creates the most impressive display of aesthetics will be more likely to pass on his genes. Sadly, this is a circumstance not consistently evident in human populations.
Jokes aside, part of me is skeptical about what is actually going on here. How do we know that the females are actually choosing their mates based on the visual qualities that we humans value in these structures? How can we know what makes for the best Bower Bird “Art”?
Regardless of what we see in the Bowers, we know these structures are created strictly for mating: the females build more traditional nests in trees for the actual egg-rearing. Furthermore, it is pretty clear that visual attraction is a large component of many species’ sexual selection. When you consider a male peacock’s display of tail feathers, it is not a giant stretch to believe that an animal’s attractiveness could extend beyond their inherent markings to include the artificial displays they create.
So that made me feel better about getting a haircut. Because I hate getting my hair cut.
The version of art history related to us in our college courses should not by any means be taken as a disinterested, objective endeavor. No, in order to portray an elegant “progression” from realism to impressionism to modernism, many of the nuanced stops along the way are conveniently ignored to give the impression that high modernism and abstract expressionism were necessary outcomes of the process of modernity. In actually, the straight and narrow time-line of western art looks far more like a bush; branches split and tangle and sometimes come to dead ends. This is a complicated history with many factions and also unusual bedfellows.
Take for instance the fact that modern art diverged from “realism” in the late 19th century, leading to two significantly dominating lineages: impressionism/expressionism/modernism in the west, and naturalism/social realism in the east. Our art history teaches tell us that narrative representation was completely eclipsed by modernism and all but obliterated (and justly so). However, for the better part of the 20th century, half the world was invested in a tradition completely foreign to the west, and particularly the United States, with roots in French naturalism of the 19th century.
French Natualism (see how it stuck around for a while..?)
Jues Bastien-Lepage, “Potato Gatherers,” 1879
Henry-Jules-Jean Geoffroy “Forlorn,” 1901
Pre-Soviet social realism:
Ilya Repin “Volga Barge Haulers,” 1873
Soviet social realism:
Stalin as an Organiser of the October Revolution” by Karp Trokhimenko
The trouble with social realism is that it became co-opted by the state in Russia and China where other forms of art were completely eschewed or banned outright. Conversely, an entire tradition of social realism has been largely ignored by western art departments in favor of high modernism and post-modernism. This would not seem so unreasonable except for the fact that positive examples of social realism persisted in the Americas throughout the early 20th century (think of the Ashcan School or the Mexican Muralist Movement). Politics inevitably taints the accurate description of the history of aesthetics (and the aesthetics of description), for better or worse. This is why artists and scholars must always be free to pursue their work without intervention or influence by governments or other stifling institutions.
So here’s the final version of the short film I’ve been editing for some time now. I’m happy with it for the most part, but am afraid that it veers too far into schmaltz-ville. So please let me know what you think, especially in comparison to the previous version (it’s still on my vimeo page).
Starring: Molly Margret Meyers
Shot by: Garrett Eaton and Courtney Cerruti
Song by: Calexico
There was a lot of learning with this project and the next one is sure to be a step up!
So I finally got my recent video project approved for sale on videohive:
Its a bombastic motion graphic intended for broadcast sports packages. It takes me back to those wretched days working for a pittance at a TV studio in the tawdry lands to the north. These times shall remain unmentioned. But you should buy this thing… I mean, it’s freaking awesome.
While filming a performance for the latest episode of Mike Fortes’s Parlour to Parlour, the friendly folks at Goorin Bros. Hats offered the Beehavers free hats in exchange for an impromptu performance.
Strange things happen in San Francisco!
So I’m in the process of editing my short “film” piece, tentatively titled “Stone’s Throw.” I’m not sure how its working out, and there may need to be some additional filming to round out the piece. I am excited about certain aspects of this one, but am also starting to see how deep the video rabbit hole is and this makes me wonder if I shouldn’t retreat to my first love:
eating painting. Its just hard to know where to focus my energy when I have so many hobbies.