Monday, December 13, 2010

Please don’t heave the bosom!

There were such interesting comments on my last post about visual clichés that my brain whizzed (in the English sense not the American one!) into cogitatory gear right away!!  Some people actually defended the darn things!! :)  Though maybe they were playing devil’s advocate??  hope so!!  To me a cliché is something that is tired out, old, stale, unappealing to every sense one might have and some one might not!  Of course children might like them and the visually uneducated – because they havn’t seen them before.  So for them they are not a cliché  but a simple slick evocation of whatever beast (animal, vegetable, mineral or abstract) they symbolize.  but, for the rest of us…c’mon!! you can’t tell me you actually Like stuff like hearts and flowers twined around the kitten’s neck – unless I suppose they are strangling it in which case it might make an interesting point: that clichés strangle even the undeniably cute!

What is “good” about a cliché is that it makes a quick and easy point; the person using it doesn’t have to think, the person seeing it doesn’t need to set the little grey cells into motion either.  This is good for advertising: people writing advertising copy probably ( I don’t know!) have to produce so many jingles and catch phrases per hour, and the advertisers definitely do not want people seeing the visual and verbal clichés that make up their ad to think!!  “What have the public think just about what we’re showing them?  Oh my lord no…we just want them to rush right to the store!”

So I guess it’s partly my fault in that giving some examples of clichés I might have suggested that all hearts and flowers and kittens were clichés.  No certainly not, but very many of them are.  And herons ankle deep in water, storks on one leg, beige color schemes, south-western color schemes, predictable chord sequences in music (I actually went right off fifths when I was pregnant! most people go off coffee! but I’ve never liked music where you can totally predict the next chord or the next beat) or locked room mysteries where the butler did it and so on.

I think you could definitely explore those kittens and hearts in a very different way (as one commenter suggested) and it would not be a cliché.  It’s the simpering, oh-how-sweet treatment that raises my blood sugar to emetic levels!  But it’s hard to do; it’s very hard to come up with something fresh and natural and interesting and invigorating with a subject or a shape or a color scheme that’s been done a million times before.  Absolutely wonderful if you can do it!  Actually speaking of hearts, I think Robin Schwalb managed a totally fresh approach with her heart card from Full Deck – yes anatomically correct! In fact many of the heart cards from that series were fascinating and intriguing.

June commented that what she found interesting was that “one person's cliché was another person's inspiration.  But for the naive (artist or spectator), cliches sometimes are truly affecting -- they seem to embody something that no one saw before.”  Initially I’m sure this is so.  But once you get beyond the initial beginning level of reading, writing poetry, making art, buying art (need more of those!) then any ability the image had to affect you is completely gone.  And if you bought art like that it would be stale within a month.  If you buy art that is totally fresh and original it will last for years!  I know!  I’ve got some of both kinds!

It is also the treatment of the subject.  Herons per se are not a cliché but a quilt with one gracing a body of water as the “focal point, must have one” are.  So if you are making a quilt about the return of herons to the Pennsylvania mountains make it look like no heron image you ever saw before.  When I look out of my window and see a heron exceeding stealthily creeping toward the fish pond, I am struck by its sleekness,  its stillness and its determination to procure itself a fish dinner.  Now I’m not about to make a heron quilt, but if I were, I’d be looking to get those attributes into the piece. It wouldn’t just be standing there admiring the view!

Verbal clichés can be translated into another language with quite amusing results…if you talk about letting the cat out of the bag in French or Spanish, they’d be looking around their ankles!  The translation definitely renders them a lot more interesting.   But I don’t think you can translate visual images in the same way; I may be wrong (please write and comment if I am, it would be interesting!) but visual images are much more universal than verbal ones.  So much so that people have actually developed little “phrase” cards with symbols for all the things you might want in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language.  Aother good reason for art!  So much more universally comprehended and enjoyed than many other media.  And a good reason for us to spread and share the art of different countries.

June said clichés  are “cultural tags in that they tell you a whole lot in a hurry”.  Some definitely are and therefore have considerable value but I think very often clichés are more like what Bilbo had in his pocket when Gollum questioned him, “a lot and nothing at all”!   Actually,it isn’t so much that they tell you a lot, but that they do it very quickly because they are so easily absorbed – like sugar water – but like sugar water they don’t have any real substance.   And she was definitely right when she described them as therefore not being effective (or affective) in art.  The point about good art is that it slows us down, makes us think, shows us a new way of looking at things.  Moreover, it’s a way we won’t forget and will want more of.

And yes, it is difficult to paint landscapes when so very very many beautiful ones have been painted before.  but the impressionists did it and they had the whole history of hundreds of years of amazing landscape paintings that preceded them.  They did it by taking a whole new approach: paint the light, not the shapes.  So it can be done!  Paint what is in your heart as you look at the landscape, paint what is unique to you. If you paint your memories of a place, be sure to paint them accurately:  the buildings were bigger, the trees higher, the door brighter, the animals more menacing, the stone wall mountainous etc.  In art quilt examples of landscapes, look at Jane Sassaman’s landscapes!  Those sharply defined precise prickly objects are definitely not the Hallmark version of country flowers!

Clichés very definitely exist in the abstract world too; I think the “wall of sound” type of abstract work has had its day (even though several people continue to produce them!), also empty spaces filled with complicated dense machine quilting and then the occasional shape or line, wildly painted or dyed cloth that is randomly cut up and sewn back together, strip piecing for its own sake and so on.

And I agree with Jackie that images are precious to all of us for different reasons, nothing should be automatically ruled out. There is no proscribed list.  This is true, it is the treatment of the specific image that can be the cliché, in the same way that if I was a writer I could use the word  “heaving” in one paragraph and “bosom” in another without being clichéic, but if I put those two images together, I totally destroy any mood I might have created.  so whatever you do with your bosoms, just don’t heave them!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!! and please do keep commenting!!!  Elizabeth


Karen M said...

That's a lot to think about, Elizabeth. But it all got pushed out of my head when the image of someone shot-putting their bosoms at a track and field meet popped in! I need to unsee that, and start over from the beginning.

June said...

I hove my bosom (or baa-zuums -- emphasis on second syllable) in all directions in reading your response, Elizabeth --snort--

And I can't argue with your hearts and kittens and even that blasted heron. I have my own favorite list of disfavorites, which often are the images that people "fell in love with at first sight, from across the room."

I also agree that cliches are really excellent advertising devices -- they are efficient shorthand ways of tagging something as "heartwarming" or "green" or "sexy." Such cliches aren't coming from the heart, but from the outstretched palm, hoping to be greased. They add to the enormous bag of overused images. "Easily absorbed, like sugar" seems a good analogy.

I suppose my sympathies, however, still lie with the "student" (of which I am eternally one), who can get excited about something everyone else knew and saw (I'm really not fond of casual nasty put-down "oh so-last-year...")Having been terribly naive myself (now a bit less so, I hope), I worry about discouraging those for whom something seems new and bright because they haven't been exposed to a million of them before.

I also know that what has been despised as old-fashioned and trite (think social realism) sometimes turns out to be wonderful after time has passed. In the case of the once despised but newly recognized, of course, only the best and most imaginative will sustain through time.

I suppose the real problem of the cliche is over-exposure and over-use, and that you can assume anyone reading your blog really can't be too naive or newly emerged from the Pennsylvania backwoods, either as a viewer or doer. I do worry that one person's "tired out, stale, unappealing to every sense" is pretty subjective. How many of us have artist friends who are stunned at the most banal things we do with fabric? We quilting artists might find free motion stippling tired out and stale, but to the painter who doesn't sew, it could be stunning.

And it's almost impossible to do a neo-impressionistic landscape (although many do); the impressionists used up most of the good material -- the rest of us paint like Monet only not so good. Which, I suppose, simply makes your point!

Thanks for continuing the discussion.

cyn said...

i'm enjoying your musings-turned-rantings. i actually thought about your (and Leni Weiner's recent post on 10% technique/90% finding voice) A LOT this past weekend.
I also listened to David Byrne's "Bicycle Diaries" where he gets into a verbal essay on the diff between insider and outsider art (chapter called "San Francisco").
I came to this conclusion... it may be temporary, but I came up with a big fat "who cares what other people paint/sew/draw/do art about"?

not to say that critique isn't important - vital - to someone who is trying to push limits. but what about all the other people who just desperately need a creative outlet? do they have to be Artistes? Or can they just be people who make stuff?

I mean, who cares if there are a 1000 paintings of herons that have lots of poorly rendered realism? That's probably 950 people who are doing something important to them with their hands and their minds. And maybe 50 who are striving to find a personal connection that makes them see and show the world differently than anyone else.

Maybe we start this discussion with what great art is not. But I kinda feel that answer is (1) very dependent on the viewer's education and (2) very influenced by the trends of a person's lifetime/time period. Really, from my studying of art history (lite), it seems that those who can figure out how to break what has been done before and convince everyone around them that they alone (or with a very few others) have the newer, more pure and closer to the soul aesthetic are the ones who get the artistic props during their lifetime. If that's not PR & influence/lobbying at work, I don't know what is. Bending perception and developing desire to develop marketshare. Mythmaking!

But what about everyone else who just needs to make stuff? Or are making things along the path of discovery?

Thanks for keeping the ideas and the discussion flowing!

Elizabeth Barton said...

Great comments from great commenters! Thank you. it is indeed true that the First Time Around a cliche might be a nice new fresh cliche!! Fresh cliches for sale!!
And very definitely we should never squash newcomer's enthusiasm, no, that is far too lovely and, alas, short lived.
As to who cares whether what one is producing is one's own unique voice, or is tainted by culture and commercialism...then I would say if I were the maker, I would care! so it's really a very personal view. If I want to make art I want to make it the best I can; on the other hand, with housework I just want to do enough to keep the critters at bay!!!

Kristi said...

My daughter and I love your cliche posts! She just returned from a 4-month stint in London, studying English Lit and Art. After the third cathedral, she started losing interest in staring at the ceilings. We both laughed about going off fifths. Chopin Ballades in C# minor are the way to go!