Sunday, August 26, 2018

Art Talk

On Sunday mornings, CBS has a news magazine type show that often deals with arts.  More commercials for Broadway shows than any other show I've ever seen on tv.  (the Tony's might have more, but I've never watched that) Last week they did a story about a recent study that showed physical and practical everyday stuff can actually improve ability to learn and intellectual functioning.  Not news to anyone involved in arts.  I learned decades ago that using one's hands on a regular basis can make the brain work better as well.  For me, fine art is the ultimate pairing of brain and hands, of the intellect and dexterity.  I have no interest in art that tries to eliminate one half of that  and only address the other.  In my own art, I always try to deal with both, usually beginning with a carefully worked out idea, often incorporating my sometimes obscure interests, then using physical strength to carve them into a piece of wood and print it onto paper.  A writer at an artist colony I participated in once visited my studio and (watching me carve) remarked that I had to fight for every mark and line in the final piece.  Good sharp tools and proper skills mean that it's not a tough fight, but the point was that every bit of cutting involved a conscious decision and physical force- nothing was accidental or random.    Last year one of my Belmar woodcut students had used the internet to search the state looking for something like my class and was willing to travel a distance each week to get there, because his job kept him on a computer all day and he felt a deep need to give his hands something to do.  Some of my current students have mentioned that even though the process can be strenuous (especially if done for hours at a stretch), it is also very relaxing and soothing.  Glad to be of help.

But that was last week's show.  Today they had a story about a photography show in Los Angeles, almost 500 photos picked from the millions in the Library of Congress collection, chosen by curators to be a portrait of America.  Some I recognized from history (the Wright Brothers first flight), some from what I cover in my Intro class (Gordon Parks' American Gothic, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, a portrait of Florence Thompson, as cleaned up as someone like that can ever be, but still showing the weariness of a lifetime picking vegetables and raising 11 children in her 32 years on earth, an uncredited newspaper photo of the aftermath of the Kent State shooting in 1970) Again, not a new concept to me, as my large format print A New Year for America was designed for the same reason, in 2003.

Not that I'm looking to take credit for the idea; artists have been documenting the societies they are a part of in great detail for centuries, even if that was not the intention behind the piece.  Genre painting (as the historians call it) starts getting big in the late Renaissance (Bruegel is a master at this) and continues through the Baroque, when there is enough money floating around to create a market for "art for art's sake", never really going away.  The introduction/preface to a recent edition of Frans Masereel's woodcut novel, "The Sun" includes a quote from Stefan Zweig, "If everything were to perish, all the books, monuments and photographs and only the woodcuts that he had executed in the ten years were spared, our whole present day world could be reconstructed from them."  In the case of Masereel, I agree with it completely.  The above image is my portrait of America, created from over 50 individual news stories.  Some photos were used as references, but nothing is copied directly from someone else's photo; memory and imagination are bigger factors.  The stories are all available on the web (find the link at the top of this blog), for those who want to know more, and the actual print is part of a show in Ocean Grove next month.

Photography has probably changed more than any other art form in my lifetime, switching almost instantly from film to digital, and in the process putting untold numbers of people out of work.  I know of at least one major metropolitan newspaper which was having a hard time coming to a deal with its photography staff, so fired them all, handed the reporters a smart phone, and told them to just take your own photos now.  Had a conversation with my sisters-in-law yesterday, one of whom teaches photography in a homeschool setting, and seems exasperated by the current state of things.  She loves photography, and probably individually sets everything on her digital camera but knows enough to be able to read an old fashioned light meter (they had needles back then!), set apertures, shutter speed, choose lens types, all the things that had to be done by hand in the age of shooting on film.  She says her students don't want to learn about settings, because their phones do it all automatically and that's good enough for them.  I learned this stuff for shooting slides, but galleries won't look at slides anymore, which may be good since the film isn't sold anymore in stores.  In Belmar right now we have a show called "Ancestry", where participants display both artifacts (objects, photos, etc) related to an ancestor and their own related artwork.  My parents visited it recently and my father mentioned that he particularly enjoyed all the old photographs, mostly family stuff.  Shows like this and the one in LA will be few in the future, because in the digital age few people print the photos on paper, just taking them, distributing them, and viewing them digitally, which puts the images at the mercy of websites, and computer memory.  When they go, they will be gone.


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