Does Art Need to be Beautiful?
I like to relate developing an appreciation of art and beauty to that of developing the taste for fine wine. Complexity is the key. At first you like a sweet wine, probably fruit flavored, maybe served over ice in a fruit jar. The equivalent of a black velvet Elvis in the art world. As your taste develops, and becomes more sophisticated, you opt for something with more character. That's not to say that there are no excellent sweet wines. But, when talking about art, I correlate beauty with sweetness. A painting of a field of bluebonnets with a farm house in the background and a Jersey cow chewing it's cud can be drop dead gorgeous and appealing, but runs the risk of being devoid of complexity and thus saccharine in its sweetness. Art, as well as wine, are both manmade and therefore need to be allowed to reveal the personality and complexity that went into their creation. A rose by any definition is beautiful, but it owes its beauty to the divinity of its creation and purpose of its design. If the only purpose of a painting is to photographically mimic the perfection of a rose, it becomes an exercise of futility devoid of creativity. What's the point?. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of paintings of roses that are beautiful while still maintaining character and depth necessary for a good work of art. It is not about subject matter, it is about the matter of the subject. I am an abstract painter but I greatly admire many traditional artists. A musician who performs an existing composition, interjecting his own style and creativity, can be just as much of an artist as the person who originally wrote and performed it. Good art transcends. It may be disturbing, it can even be repugnant, but authentic art has grit and depth of character that gives insight into its nature and origin. It tells a not so obvious story that has to be savored and contemplated to be appreciated. It is okay not to like a work of art, but it is naive not to acknowledge it. So yes, good art can be beautiful and often times is, but it is not necessary and definitely not a prerequisite.
What is Beauty?
I have often heard of things being referred to as beautiful or ugly. In many cases the old saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" rings true, but I have never heard someone refer to a rose as ugly. Sure, some roses are more attractive than others as a matter of taste, but if you compare any rose to let's say, a cockroach, I think we know which will come out on top of the ugly scale. There is beauty in many aspects of a roach: its symmetry, its design and it definitely sports a fair amount of character. However, if appeal relates to beauty, well, the rose is just more appealing. Why is that?
Facial features arranged in certain proportions are considered beautiful until they fall too far out of those standards. Are there universal parameters relating to beauty and, if so, how were they determined and how is it that we know what they are? Imagine that you had never seen a rose or flower of any kind. You have no preconceived bias or disposition. You are shown a photo of a red rose in full bloom. Would you consider it to be beautiful? My guess is, yes you would! Even without any regard for subject matter or fragrance, based purely on the abstract principals of color, form, balance, symmetry and repetition. The purpose of the bloom of a plant is to attract, so it is designed to conform to those universal principals innate to beauty. Even insects recognize it. Nature abounds with beauty, imbued with pleasing characteristics by the cumulative process of creation or growth. The patterns and colors formed over time in gem stones and sedimentary rock. The surface of water affected by wind and current. The growth structures exhibited in trees and leaves. There is beauty even in the gnarled trunk of a weathered tree or the interesting lines of character in an elderly face. There is beauty by degree in almost everything.
How is Abstract Art Like Ballroom Dancing?
My wife and I were looking for something that we could do together other than eat out or go to the movies. We settled on ballroom dancing as a method of enjoying more quality time with each other. When I was young, dancing was more or less an individual sport. You stood on a crowded dance floor and did strange gyrations with no regard to whether your partner was even in the same room. In order to actually dance together, my wife would need to be able to anticipate and follow my steps. I realized we needed a plan. We decided to take lessons. If you break down dancing it is basically walking. I figured I could walk. In the past, when I wanted to learn a particular dance step I would watch someone else perform the desired action and I would simply repeat it. When taking lessons the act of walking had to be broken down to its basic components so the student could grasp its complexity. First you had to listen to the beat and be able to determine what particular walking pattern was appropriate. The man always starts with his left foot. The steps are dictated by hieroglyphic foot diagrams accompanied by verbal directions concerning the transference of weight and hip action, keeping in mind whether heel or toe contacted the dance floor first. All this is performed while quietly repeating to your self "slow, slow, quick, quick". Being an artist, and a visual learner, following this regimen resulted in a frustrated zombie-like performance that reminded me of Michael Jackson's "Thriller", sans any discernible rhythm. The point I am trying to make here is that there are rules that have to be learned and then practiced. You have to be willing do a lot of really bad dancing over a long period of time. It takes time for basics to become imbedded into one's subconscious to the point that you don't even think about them. Here is the strange part: to be a really good dancer you have to be able to break the rules. So a good question would be, wouldn't it be easier and quicker not to learn the rules in the first place if the ultimate goal is to ignore them? I think it would be quite obvious, to the casual observer, the difference in the performance between the person who never learned or understood the rules and the person who absorbed and processed them to the point that they were no longer bound by them.
Abstract art, or for that matter, any form of art, is subject to rules pertaining to the use of form, line, texture, color, balance and rhythm along with many other factors. Basic fundamentals that need to be learned, practiced and understood. If not, the artists is limited in creative options and potential. Some lucky few intuitively understand what makes art work. Artists often speak of working on auto pilot and not over thinking their art, relying on gut instinct. This works best when those instincts are grounded in sound knowledge and experience. A good abstract painter does not paint non-objectively because he has to, but because he needs to. So, just as with dancing, the basics need to be grasped and understood before they are ignored. The accomplished artist has learned to listen and interpret his or her own rhythm and therefore bring something unique and personal to the dance.
The Secret to Understanding Non-Objective Art
First off, let me make it clear, artists, even the most intellectual ones, do not have any more insight into ultimate truths, secrets of life or political situations than any other reasonably intelligent person. What an artist worth his or her salt does have is a unique point of view.
Before the invention of the camera (and public education), the job of the artist was to paint portraits, record history and recreate religious events which the illiterate masses could relate to and understand. The really great artists were able to transcend that purpose and breath life into their creations. It is easy to recognize a great artist's work because there is an essence of uniqueness embedded in the work. You may refer to it as 'style', but it is unmistakeable. It is the ability to do more than just illustrate the subject's shallow appearance, but to delve into the depth of its being and elicit an emotional response.
Today, artists have the freedom to work abstractly. They can take a subject and deviate from its photo representation to express a personal or emotional interpretation. However, subject matter, even abstracted, can be symbolic and have built-in meanings or interpretations that need to be considered or dealt with. Other artists prefer to work non-objectively and eliminate subject matter altogether, allowing for a direct conduit to personal expression. The purpose of this writing is to help the viewer understand what an artist is trying to accomplish with this type of art.
It is possible for anyone to produce 'one' competent piece of non-objective art. I refer to the often heard quote, "Heck, my kid could do that!" It's true. The trick is to be able to do it uniquely and consistently. Picasso said he spent his whole life learning to paint like a child.
For me, it was difficult to remove subject matter from my work. I spent many years honing my ability to draw and paint. I became dependent upon the praise and admiration I received because of my technical ability. It was more important to achieve the "wow" factor, than to reach for the honest expression of my individuality. My art became tedious and laborious. The finished piece would leave me cold; it felt false; it wasn't me.
OK, if this wasn't me, what was? I decided to put my ego aside and make the meat of my art the exploration, the experimentation, the search. I produced a lot of bad art, but each piece served its purpose. It was not about the finished piece, it was about the process of doing and learning. The old saying that it is all about the trip not the destination is vitally true in life and in art. I realized that subject matter got in my way, impeding my ability to respond to my gut instincts. I needed to free myself from its constraints so that I could listen to my whims and follow my emotions. Consumed by this process, I have no concern as to what the viewer may ultimately think or feel, or what judgments may eventually be made. I am selfish in my endeavor, creating and living in the moment. My formal training and painting experience subconsciously contributes to the seemingly instantaneous decisions that control the direction and progress of the work. I do my best to give myself over to the zen-like process and allow creativity to flow through me. I don't question, I am content to watch. Paying attention to my likes and dislikes and letting them control the evolution of the work allows for a more authentic direction and natural development of a personal style.
That said, I promised you the secret to understanding non-objective art. The next time you find yourself standing in front of a piece saying, "I don't get it", you are probably over thinking. Keep in mind there are no wrong answers. The work is most likely the artist's unique response to his or her feelings or mood at the time of its creation and part of a continuing sequence in the evolution of self-realization. It would be advisable to see more than one example to get a sense of the direction. Now, the fun part. You, the viewer, can actually become part of the creative process as the art is interpreted through your own unique personal filters. Your response need not be, and in fact most likely will not be, the same as the artists, but it is just as valid. Just relax and let the experience wash over you. Past experiences, likes or dislikes, color preference, even your mood can contribute to your interpretation and response to the work. This is fine, in fact it can provide valuable insight into the human condition and psyche.
What Does Quantum Physics Have to do with Art?
I work in cement. It is perceived to be a very dense medium, as solid and unmoving as stone. In fact, recent studies in quantum physics have brought forth the theory that solid matter is an illusion and everything in the universe is actually composed of empty space and energy. The atom is the basic building block of matter. When you break down an atom you discover mostly empty space with energy revolving around a nucleus. if you break down a nucleus you find even more more space and energy revolving around sub-atomic particles. The point is, science has been unable to find anything that cannot be broken down into more energy and space.
What affects our perception of objects is the rate of vibration or frequency of the energy that comprises it. A rock vibrates very slowly with its matrix of atoms close together, and is perceived as dense. Water vibrates very fast with its atoms far apart. Our thoughts are composed totally of energy, so it is not such a stretch to say that thoughts are as real as something that can be perceived by the five senses. If thought is made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe and its perception depends upon its rate of vibration, that vibration can be changed or modified by the interaction or contact with other energy and vice versa. This opens up a whole world of possibilities relating to the power of thought! I am not really sure where I am going with this, but I know that your thoughts influence your mood or how you are feeling at any given time, and I know that music can dramatically influence your mood. I think that the literal vibration of sound in music can dramatically alter the frequency of thought. The same is true, on a much more subtle level, of the visual arts. While creating art I am in the zone. My mental activity reaches an alpha state of vibration. I feel it is possible to influence the vibration of the atoms that make up the art I am creating. To restate, art is composed of energy and the vibration of that energy can be influenced by the mental state or thoughts of the artist as it is being created. If this is true, then it is possible that looking at art can influence the thoughts and even the mood of the observer in a more basic fashion than just by color, subject matter or symbolism. Imagine if you had to listen to the same music playing all the time. Its powerful vibration that was first uplifting or soothing would soon become grating and annoying. But the subtle vibrational frequency of visual art, such as a painting or sculpture, can be lived with and affect your thoughts or mood on a day to day basis without driving you crazy.