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.