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.


Jack said...

Good questions.

The bit about communicating technique reminds me of conversations I've had about photographic processes.

I've decided that I have these conversations as a way of avoiding the discussion of the aesthetic; I feel more justified communicating my struggles/victories as a kind of technician than I do as a guy who likes to ride around the countryside looking at old grain elevators from sometimes funny angles.
Photography lends itself well to this kind of "escape into technobabble." There's always a new process, a new lens, a new filter, etc. Sometime I think I like photography because of the cameras more than the subjects... then I leave the camera behind and immediately see something that I really would like to see in a framed 16x20...

techne said...

technique is good. and it is good to explain to people how things are made and created. and technology is part of that mechanism. and aesthetics are good. and it is good to be able to communicate to people the importance of images and how they are presented. but the main thing is the content. the meaning. the story.

after all -- whoever tells the best story wins.

Wenda said...

But what if the content IS the technique? What if the thing I am most excited about is the surface tension, the play of texture, the shift in tones? What if that's all there is?

techne said...

well, wenda - then that's all it is. of course, we often hang those formal explorations on a subject, which, of course, complicates the image. on the other hand, the rather recent development of art about itself has been a major factor, i think, in why art is often so separated from everyday experience and why it is therefore so often alienating to a significant number of people.

while i do think people need to become more educated about, and comfortable with, looking at art, i don't think that means people are wrong when they find it difficult to connect to that kind of art. of course, i can be engaged by any number of ideas, and that's why i still enjoy the intellectual games artists sometimes play.

Spinning said...

But what if the content IS the technique? What if the thing I am most excited about is the surface tension, the play of texture, the shift in tones? What if that's all there is?

Do notes of music have to exist to tell a story, or can they just be... notes of music, beautiful in themselves?

Sometimes I wish we were willing to just look at things and say, "Oh, that's beautiful!" without analyzing what we see for deeper meaning. There's a place for that, and just because a painting isn't about some other thing ... well, does it always have to be?

At one time, I used to write in (as I see it) a lot of jargon about artistic process (etc.). Now, I just play music. I find that easier, and it allows me to shut off the analytical side of my brain and just be. (Which doesn't mean that I'm not thinking while I'm playing, but in order to play well, I have to be tuned in to what others in the ensemble are playing.)

I think I'm rambling; hope this makes sense!

techne said...

hello spinning!

music does present some interesting questions, doesn't it? yet music does convey something, and that may be more [essentially?] emotive. that being said, the composer is constantly making choices, and those choices are for an effect (i.e. a message) - they are trying to communicate something.

of course, we can say "oh, that's beautiful!" when we encounter certain art works, and the world needs more of that kind of beauty. but that beauty says something to us just by its existence. and i think we should be able move beyond that initial experience because that experience tells us something about the world around us and our experience of living in that world.

beauty is all fine and good, but then i don't equate beauty with a [subjective] aesthetic. beauty, to me, is about whether or not the vehicle or form is well matched to the content. after all, are there not as many musical pieces that are not beautiful in the aesthetic sense, and yet they convey an emotion or idea beautifully? i think music does tell a story, it just may not be as clearly delineated as in some other art forms. then again, i think the strength of any art is its allusiveness, or its metaphorical, parabolic quality (its nuances) -- an art work that can be summed up too easily is a pretty flat, anemic thing).

further, the analytical side of your brain is constantly engaged (and should be) - as you said, you must be constantly aware of how the others in an ensemble are playing in order to respond to them. i think music is a great example as it requires a marriage of the intuitive/ emotive and the analytic/ critical aspects of the creative process. that response may be more or less "in the moment", but it requires the groundwork of training, and without that critical, knowledgeable discipline the responses would be much more limited.

then again, i'm not so much interested in the art work as i am interested in the artist and their responsibility (sacred task?). i think the separation and supposed antagonism between these two modes of engagement is false, and fairly recent (modernism, anyone?) - perhaps the last 150-200 years. this conversation would make a lot less sense to creatives during the renaissance, for instance.

thanks for the thoughts. please keep engaging in the conversation.

Spinning said...

techne - it depends on what kinds of music you're talking about, no?

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique is programmatic (there's a big storyline, almost like a movie inside your head, to go with each movement), but that's kind of the exception, not the rule.

String quartets don't tell stories, although the music has form and shape and texture and... well, I'm fast running out of descriptors. ;) So does Balinese gamelan music, which is instrumental, and much W. African percussion music as well - but it's not intended to be programmatic in the sense that Berlioz was thinking of.

Lyrics can "tell a story," because words can be narrative. music can do that to a degree, but the "story" is probably going to be pretty obscure unless there are obvious links to, say, birdsongs. (And even then, it's possible to use those sounds in highly "abstract" works.)

I'm really not much good at talking about music verbally, except in a very broad sense - because really, it's quite abstract (like much non-figurative art, right)?

btw, you know me under another name from A&F.

Spinning said...

one other thought:

most visual art is static.

music, dance, theatre - all ephemeral. No performance is ever the same, and thousands of individuals can play a role (or a piece of music) and their interpretations will never be exactly the same, no matter how much they resemble one another. (Or not, as the case may be.)

It's very different with writing 9on the page, not spoken), and, I'd argue, with physical objects.

techne said...

hmmm. perhaps, "story" can itself be applied more gesturally here...perhaps we can use "story" as referring to the work's content, rather than a discernible [linear?] narrative. the form is a container for some sort of "story", or content.

and i would argue that any experience with art, regardless of medium, is, as you say, ephemeral (lovely thought, btw). after all, one's experience of the work - which includes our knowledge, personal state of being, etc - at that time changes as much as those examples of performative work you noted, even for written or static visual work.