Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Importance of being Thematic

all that glitters is not gold

All That Glitters is Not Gold

There are  trends in the art world as in any other and I’ve observed that the current art world is very focused on meaning.  Abstract patterns of minimalism and optical art are much less popular;  we are all  wondering about the meaning.  Perhaps abstraction is for affluent times?  And when everyday life is uncertain and worrying we look for meaning?  When we feel threatened, when emotional levels are high, we need to figure out what is going on and to express our feelings about it.   While “popular art” becomes even more sweet, saccharine, whimsical and unaware of the looming clouds, references to the desire for personal meaning and expression are consistently being made in mainstream art.

gatheringstorm72dpi Gathering Storm

In a book by John Blockley, one of my favorite watercolour painters, I read:

“Painting is not about perfectly executed technique, desirable though this might be.  Better an original statement, expressing a unique viewpoint, something to make people think.”

The judges in “Work of Art” – the Bravo TV reality show that challenges young artists to make works of art addressing a specific challenge have a similar touchstone and standard.  Each week one contestant is eliminated;  the last man (or woman!) standing gets a show at the Brooklyn Art Museum (alas no fiber artists on the show, though I’d love to see what they came up with – though the 24 hours which is usually given would not be long enough for any fiber art I know of!).  The judges invariably give the weekly prize to the artist that produces something that is both fresh and deeply rooted in their own experience.  They don’t like derivative art, they don’t like art that is solely about technique and they do want something that is totally personal and meaningful.

They want the artists to think deeply and out of their thinking create something that communicates something very personal and meaningful from their own lives.  One of my more successful series of quilts was based on a photograph I took one terrible day in my life.  Looking back over the snapshots from that time, I could see that that one photo summed up some of the feelings I’d experienced that day.   But this is hard to generate de nouveau!  How can you say – I’m going to have an awful day next week and I’ll be sure to have my camera with me?!!

I notice that relationships are a key theme in the artwork that is considered special.  It’s interesting that it’s an issue rarely addressed in art quilts.  Other current themes, according to Robertson and McDaniel in the book:  Themes of Contemporary Art are: identity, the body, time, place, language, science and spirituality.  Some of these I have seen in art quilts – language particularly, the work of Robin Schwalb comes to mind but there are many others.  Here is Robin discussing the power of art to express emotion:


In my next blog I’m going to review a book I was just sent – the publishers must have read my wishlist because it was on there!  But in the blog after that I want to revisit some of the themes that Robertson and McDaniel have delineated and look at whether or not the quilts I’ve made would fit into any of them.

To be creative is to think!  To think is to be creative!  Send me your creative thoughts……

And , if you have been, thanks for reading!  Elizabeth


Chris said...

To be creative is to think! To think is to be creative!

When I read this quote I thought about my students. I teach science and one of the things they can do on the test for extra credit is to draw a cartoon on something we covered for the test. I find that when I have a class that does not seem to be too smart they are also not very creative when it comes to the cartoons. To do science requires thinking and so does coming up with a creative cartoon. And I am not talking about their drawing abilities. I have had students draw stick figures and yet have a really creative idea. I have had students that can draw and yet they do not come up with a creative idea.

So both require the ability to think. I guess some of the not so creative cartoons that I get are like some of the not so interesting popular art prints out there. My students probably think what they did was creative and wonder why I don't give them many points of extra credit. This semester I have had some wonderfully creative cartoons from my students and have lots of laughs while grading papers!!!

I also watched and loved that tv show you mentioned. I wonder if they ran more than one season.

Marni Goldshlag said...

I don't think abstraction means without meaning! It may just require a bit more digging to get to the meaning. Or the meaning may be different for different viewers. But there is often very deep meaning in works of art that are abstract.

Elizabeth Barton said...

thanks for your comments, Chris and Marni. Re "abstract art"...I think the term covers so many different kinds of abstraction. Some are deliberately intended to be without meaning, some are filled with hidden meaning or at least not obviously disclosed meaning. I do think if there is meaning it should be possible for the viewer to figure it out - with cogitation of course! - otherwise the artist is not communicating. Many abstract artists talk only about the formal elements of their work, however, and that does leave me wondering!

elve said...

I think you're right in making a connection between people's need for 'meaningful' art in times of uncertainty - we are all reassured by categorising the world we live in, because it becomes more predictable that way - we stay more in control.

However, I personally believe that art should only be 'meaningful' insofar as it must be something which excites and motivates (or has meaning for) the artist - what makes them get over natural inertia enough to physically put those marks down in concrete form.

If the general public and the art world currently believe that 'meaningful' art has to have a 'meaningful' and recognisable theme, then I would say that is their problem!

As an artist, I really don't care at all for 'meaning' or recognisable themes - All I care for is what I personally find aesthetically pleasing, and whichever creative processes I enjoy doing. Making art is, for me, a sensual process - and that is all it means. It means 'this is me - this is what I make' - and isn't that what fine art should be about?

The only 'dialogue' I think an artist needs to have, is the dialogue between artist and work - Those hours spent staring at a piece in progress, 'asking' it 'what do you need now?' and 'listening' to what it tells you.

Work that is consciously made to fit a fashionable, recognisable theme is surely not as 'meaningful' in the end, as work that is a natural outgrowth of an artist's life and impulses? It may be more meaningful to the buying public, but isn't the process of creating work 'to sell' more in line with commercial art than fine art?

I believe that all art is good - because making any work of art requires a huge leap of courage and self-belief, massive risk-taking and often failure, and the ability to cope in a positive way with failure, and to go on - to overcome inertia, self-doubt and the many distractions of life, and actually PRODUCE something tangible - whether or not it has a recognisable 'meaning' or theme - that in itself is a triumph.

Elizabeth Barton said...

thank you for your very thoughtful comment, Elve. I think it's a bit like the difference between a diary and a book. The book is written to be published and to communicate with others, the diary is for one's own clarification, pleasure and edification. Some art is for one purpose, some for another. But I do think there should be purpose.

Jackie said...

Life is full of ideas for artwork. It isn't always a happy, sunny day for people and art that expressed other themes is also needed and appreciated. What a good thing it was that you did have your camera on that unhappy day and were able to express yourself. Being tuned in to our feelings is not only necessary for artists, it's important for everyone. Being aware helps us to deal with the situation. Thank you for yet one more thought-provoking post.