Friday, June 25, 2010

edward presents: we are artists

just thought i'd plug an upcoming workshop i'm conducting called we are artists. who are we? it's an exploration of a number of issues that impact us as artists, and specifically artists of faith, and we will be discussing questions around identity, training, community and Truth.

it's only $25 (which also includes supper) and takes place from 1:30-7 on july 4. if you're in the edmonton area, and are interested in attending, please contact dave at there's only room for 15 so sign up early. if you can't make it, but are interested, let dave or myself know and we can always work towards another presentation.

anyway, i'm pretty excited - i love connecting, challenging and encouraging fellow artists and creatives. i love resourcing people, throwing around ideas, engaging with passionate intelligent people. that brings me joy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

what's an artist to do?

my name is asher lev also addresses the role and/or responsibility of the artist. whether that role can be separated from the artist's cultural context, or even isolated from an (any?) engagement with the world (and therefore finding one's place within it) is one that is explored in various ways. in walking out his calling as an artist, asher is forced to confront the question of the artist's place or function in society/ culture. it's an extremely crucial issue for him -- as it is for every artist. what is the artist supposed to be doing as they pursue their work? what should be their goal? what is their purpose? how do they do achieve that?

in a previous post about my name is asher lev, i referred to the passage where asher and his father discuss why asher makes the images he does, and how there was a language gap between the ideas asher was exploring and using in his process and the communication of [the importance] those ideas to his father and, by extension, the public. within that conversation, the question is raised about the potential dangers of the pursuit of aesthetics at the expense of morality. this is partially a question about the relationship between content and form (the artistic version of "the chicken or the egg" question), but it does raise an important question about the place of morality in art, both in its making and presentation. until fairly recently, art was always expected to have a point, a purposefulness as to its content. so it would that communication, or at least the possibility of [clear] communication, was a central concern. the question is, then, what is the weight of that content? how important is it that it be true? what risks will you take to convey the truth? are you willing to offend your potential public in the pursuit of your content? does that matter?

later on, another passage describes asher's deliberations as he works in paris. he immerses himself in the art and architecture and begins working. he doesn't rush the artistic process, and lives with his blank canvases for months. then, "away from my world, alone in an apartment that offered me neither memories nor roots, i began to find distant memories of my own, long buried by pain and time and slowly brought to the surface..."(p. 306/7). asher begins to reflect on his past relatives and their experiences: his "mythic ancestor" and how he made a russian nobleman prosperous, his grandfather "the scholar" and his work for the Rebbe, his father and his work rescuing ladover jews and establishing yeshivas in europe, his mother and her own anguish over the unfinished work of her brother and determination to complete it. this timeline, which stretches over several generations, stirs up questions about completing tasks, atoning for the past, about journeying and sacrifice and choosing life. this leads him to create a pivotal work, one which brings the question of "the morality of a work's content" versus "the aesthetics of the work" to a head. and that question is an important question. the question gets at the heart of the task of the artist: to create something in which the content and the form are perfectly balanced. to achieve wholeness.

"i had brought something incomplete into the world. now i felt its incompleteness. "can you understand what it means for something to be incomplete?" my mother had once asked me. i understood, i understood." (p. 312 top). i believe the question of [in]completeness is a core issue for the artist, as it is for asher. it is not only about the integrity of the work, it is also about the integrity of the artist. one of the ideas i am very interested in is the idea of Beauty in art. Beauty is more than simply some subjective aesthetic quality. it encompasses ideas of wholeness and completeness, and therefore has a moral element to it. Beauty and Truth are not that unrelated. they are like two sides of the same coin. ultimately, art's role - for asher at least - is to declare Truth or to express how one feels about things. there is a necessity for the artist to be Truth-full in what they are exploring, declaring, presenting and how they go about that. there must be an integrity in what they are working on. they must be convinced of the work, its importance, its usefulness, its ability to make difference in the world.

this reflects the belief, found throughout the book, in the power of creativity to shape the universe. this creativity isn't necessarily associated only with the arts, but can be expressed in any arena of life. even so, made in the image of G-d (we carry the imago dei, after all), we are inherently creative beings. all the characters - from the Master of the Universe/ Ribbono Shel Olom through asher and aryeh and rivkeh lev, to the rebbe and jacob kahn, to the numerous immigrants and refugees in the novel - exhibit creativity and the ability to adapt and respond to ever-changing conditions. this is an essential part of the artistic process - the ability to respond to and embrace change, and to use it to create something new. in fact, it is inherently redemptive in tone. so what will you do with your creativity? what will you create in the world? to what end?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

who's an artist to be?

my name is asher lev also addresses the issue of the artist's identity. whether that identity can be separated from the artist's cultural context, or how that plays out in their engagement with the world (and thereby finding one's place within it) is one that is explored in various ways. in pursuing his calling as an artist, asher is constantly made aware of how his identity impacts the politics and realities of this other culture he is entering. he is repeatedly faced with the question of the artist's cultural position and place or function in society. it's an extremely crucial issue for him; as it is for every artist. are you an artist first? or is that secondary? can you be an artist without knowing who you are? how do you know who you are? can you figure that own on your own? do you discover that in context of community (or communities)?

it is important to note the importance of a mentor throughout the book. while his parents didn't understand their son, they sought advice and it was determined that asher should receive training for his talent (in addition to training for his soul, of course). his mentor - jacob kahn - focussed primarily on asher's artistic ability, though many of the things he addressed also had repercussions for how asher lived, especially in the area of integrity (and really, identity).

jacob challenged asher to be true to his artistic vision, above all costs, but that he should also be true to who he was. this included embracing or not embracing his own cultural heritage and its expressions (such as side curls or hat or suit). the issue was to make one's own choices and be secure in those choices, not to be ashamed or influenced by others' ideas of who one was supposed to be or what one was supposed to look like or how one was supposed to behave. "to thine own self be true", jacob demanded. this instilled in asher a strength to embrace those aspects of himself, and that in turn gave him the strength to pursue whatever he needed in order to create the work he felt he must.

shortly after he begins being mentored by jacob kahn, asher's mother brings him a book. the book, robert henri's "the art spirit" (interestingly, it's an actual book by henri, who was a member of the ashcan group of painters), contains advice for the artist that will enable him to keep focus and pursue their art: "[the artist] should be powerfully possessed by one idea. He should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express" (p. 195) while there certainly must be that kind of commitment and passion to one's chosen subject or idea, the question is, "at what cost?". another quote from henri's book emphasizes again that an artist's allegiance is to the work alone:

every great artist is a man who has freed himself from his family, his nation, his race. every man who has shown the world the way to beauty, to true culture, has been a rebel, a "universal" without patriotism,without home, who has found his people everywhere. (p. 201)

but something in this strikes asher as false. "i don't think i want to free myself that way", he says to his mother the morning after reading the above passage. and i agree with him wholeheartedly. i think that somehow it is false to remove yourself from your tradition or cultural context. it's a denial of who you are and where you came from. not that i think your work always has to address that history, overtly or covertly, but that is a place from where you can work, whether in celebration or interrogation. we are, after all, [always] products of our environments. one's cultural context is an important touchstone for the creation of art. "i believe it is man's task to make life holy" (p. 201) asher says, when questioned about his beliefs and, in essence, who he is. the question is whether the positions he holds, the values he espouses, can survive the demands of the art process. perhaps that's where a community outside of the art community gives us strength to enter the fray of art. our art comes out of something, some place, emotional, ideological, spiritual -- it does not form itself ex nihilo, out of nothing. there are negotiations and decisions to be made. who will you choose to be? how will that shape your work?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

(adam), a prototype

i recently finished a new piece, which is intended to be one of a series (or a piece with several elements). the series is called (adam). the context is an exhibition of artists' books. the original intention was to produce 7 books, which would be strung together and would collectively be my height. which i still plan to do. the various books will correspond [roughly] to the 7.5 heads theory for drawing human proportions (a la da vinci's "vetruvian man" etc).

i remember reading somewhere once how the book as an object has a lot of human descriptors: it has a head, a foot, spine, left side, right side, it has thoughts and opinions...and that led to the use of (adam) as the title, in turn also referring to a'dam, hebrew for 'earth', hence the sand. this in turn led me to reflect on how the same elements comprise everything in the known universe. you can quote either job or moby here, but the earth we walk on and the stars in the heavens both come from the same place and are made of the same stuff. more to come.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

a question: what is creativity?

here a few questions from art:21 (part of their teaching with contemporary art resources) inspired by a conference at the guggenheim called thinking like an artist: creativity and problem solving in the classroom.

  1. what is creativity?
  2. what does creativity have to do with education?
  3. why design? (i.e. asking questions and solving problems.)
  4. why does creativity matter beyond the arts and beyond the classroom?
  5. what comes next? (i.e. creativity and the future of education.)

i love joe fusaro's response (at the art:21 blog) to the first question: what is creativity?

creativity is the ability to see and craft possibilities, and to give these possibilities form or a venue for expression and understanding.

what would your answer(s) be?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

asher lev: taking positions and embracing tension

my name is asher lev contains numerous statements about art and its role/ function, and the implications invite serious and sustained discussion. very early on asher is very clear that his drawings are important. his mother would prefer that he make "pretty drawings", drawings that are pleasant. his response is to declare that what matters are "good drawings" rather than pretty ones. at this point he is already affirming that what is important about art is its "art-ness". its purpose isn't simply to be decorative or even pleasant or comforting. somehow art is about art, and art's own language, and about expressing something about the artist and the world, or by the artist about the world. it's not personal therapy but birthed out of a desire to express how one sees and experiences the world (as opposed to their own [internal] world). his father, on the other hand, doesn't understand how art is useful, how it propagates his culture or their religious message. it is foolishness, he declares, to which asher of course replies that it is not foolishness. this raises several questions: can drawings [and art] make a difference? can they help?

later on, as asher continues to mature as an artist, and receives training and mentoring from jacob kahn, a raging modernist sculptor and painter, he is able to articulate his thoughts about art to his parents, as he describes the difference between 'literary' and emotive painting: “I paint my feelings. I paint how I see and feel about the world. I express my feelings in shapes and colors and lines. But I paint a painting, not a story.” (p. 281). interestingly, kahn's art is really about art - its materiality, scale, gesture - and self, while asher's art uses those formal elements, asher's art is about story, personal narrative, memory. the difference is that lev's work is generated out of an emotional response to events and experiences rather than an illustration. asher speaks of art as the artist's "private vision [of a nude, a flower, a landscape] expressed in aesthetic forms" (p. 288). is the difference, then, whether an artist is trying to communicate his feelings through or about a subject, or his thoughts about a matter? is that more about a strategy? does it matter which we are for the viewer or reader?

his explanation, however, doesn't make anything clearer to his parents about lev's process, about the hows and whys of making art. and this is something that often poses a problem for artists i.e. how do you communicate to non-artists (and sometimes even other artists) your process for creating your work? then again, does that even matter? it seems to me that, while art is a technical language - especially if your work is about art, there must be a way to communicate the ideas of the work to others.

He asked me to explain some of the concepts. We talked for a long time about the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, about illusion, depth, planar structure, points, areas, lines, dispersive and progressive shapes, surface control, color separation, values, contrasts, accents, matrix. I began to lose him somewhere around planar structure, and by surface control it was hopeless. He listened attentively to what I was saying. But there was nothing in his intellectual or emotional equipment to which he could connect my words. He possessed no frames of reference for such concepts. (p. 290/1)

do we seriously think that such talk will help people connect to the images and objects we create? perhaps it's not all that important. perhaps what matters is how people respond to the work. perhaps, once we have released the work into the world, we should simply remain silent in order to better determine if we have truly done the work necessary for the message(s) we intend to be communicated. it's not enough to stand in the ivory tower of art and talk about those who 'understand art' versus 'the public'. communication should never be about 'us' and 'them'. at what point do we leave behind [talking about] our generating process and work at communicating it in terms other people will understand? where is the threshhold at which what went into the work gets left behind, and the viewer/ reader gets a blank slate on which to write their interpretation(s)?

that communication gap is one of the recurring themes in the book, whether interpersonal, cultural, artistic. one of the situations in which it creates a terrible tension is when asher realizes that, in order to express or convey his feelings (as opposed to thoughts, i suppose), he must move beyond cultural borders and venture out into other ways of representing the world. in order to depict what he wants to convey, asher pursues an appropriation of other traditions, an "aesthetic mold" (p 313) that enables him to communicate what he must. this causes problems in the end, but the interesting idea is that asher needed to incorporate a new (or alien, foreign) visual language, and the only place he could do so was outside his tradition. that process is always rife with potential misunderstandings; and the challenge here is how we reconcile or balance the formal and symbolic requirements of our work with the interpretive and cultural associations with images and forms? it's an interesting tension. can we separate formal aspects of art (and culture) from their meanings and historical weight? do the needs of the work and the artist outweigh respecting other cultures and tradition?

asher lev raises a lot of questions for me about art - its purpose in the world (and not for the artist alone), our strategies or process in making it, the [potential] gap between the artist and their intention and the viewer and the problems in bridging that gap, and the needs of the work versus the cultural baggage of forms.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

the best voicemail greeting ever

a little something from amy krause rosenthal, courtesy of utne reader:
Hi. This is Amy. Please leave a message with your name, number, and the time you called; the nature of your call; a good time to get back to you; whether or not you screen; one argument for and one argument against call waiting; your PIN number, SAT scores, and sexual orientation; the name of a good contractor; whether you've ever taken anyone's cab and then later felt remorse; a recipe for a nice brisket; how often you get up at night to use the bathroom; the three people you admire least; what song on the radio compels you to turn the volume up and sing your happy head off ("Tempted" by Squeeze, every time); what you would say if I told you that not only was I for capital punishment, but that, for particularly heinous crimes, I advocate preceding death with very slow torture; if you wouldn't mind looking at a few pictures of my kids; if you wouldn't mind—and I know this may be pushing it—taking my kids overnight so I could get one good night's sleep; how old you were when you lost your virginity and if it was younger than, older than, or about what you thought it would be; if you can think of a way to better sum it all up than Kierkegaard with his simple paradox about having to live life forward but only understanding it backward; what memory makes you cringe with embarrassment; why the word underwear feels sophisticated compared to the silly-sounding underpants; how many monks you know on a first-name basis; whether you've ever gotten the giggles at a funeral; what it is you would hang over your bed in jail. And I'll call you back.
i dare you to answer this.