Updates in ArtPulse Magazine

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My essay on Alfredo Jaar is now in the Features section of ArtPulse Magazine. I’d appreciate it if you’d take the time to click over there and check it out. It never hurts to have some numbers when they post my work. He’s a fascinating artist.

Also, the new edition is in newsstands with my interview with Angel Abreu. He’s one of the members of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. He’s got a great story. I thought this one had been printed a while ago, but it just came out.

Can Art Schools Teach Students To Be Artists?

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The other day I saw a post on LinkedIn asking if art schools could teach their students to become artists. I meant to comment on this, but instead viewed a few more posts and lost the original one asking this provocative question. The answer to it is, “yes” they can and do.

The question as to whether someone can be trained as an artist is an old one. It gained a lot of momentum when James Elkins published “Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students.” However, most people who use that book to fuel their argument haven’t actually read it. They just read the title. As Elkins does regularly, he lobs a philosophical grenade into the conversation to get it roiling.  In the end, he never really answers the title of his book. I’ve even heard art professors say “no” to this question. My immediate response to them is, Why do you have a job?

Art is like every other domain; if you learn how to do it better, you can do it better. The myth is that there is some supernatural, mystical ability artists must possess to be classified as real artists. In reality, that mystical ability is determination. As a comparison, kids all over the world learn to play soccer. And we assume that a kid can become a better soccer player if he/she learns the skills related to playing the game. We know they won’t be the next Ronaldo or Messi. But we still consider them soccer players.

The problem with art may come from the fact that we also associate the term artist with exceptional skill: He’s a culinary artist, or with a type of mysticism or deception: She’s an artist with cards. But being an artist means doing art-type things: painting, sculpting, designing, playing an instrument, or any number of other art related activities. The more you work on related skills, the better you’ll get.

Let see how some of the top artists of our time learn to be artists.

  • Jeff Koons: BFA fromMaryland Institute College of Art
  • Brice Marden: MFA from Yale
  • Bruce Nauman: MFA from University of California
  • Cindy Sherman: BA from Buffalo State College

Of course, there are others who didn’t finish their degrees, like Jasper Johns. He did attend art school though. But neither Bill Gates, nor Steve Jobs finished their education.

The main problem with art education is teaching students how to maintain an artistic practice. That’s more about practical skills like networking and maintaining a small business. My institution, SCAD does this very well. I keep in contact with many of my past students and they say SCAD prepared them to succeed. They work hard and work to get art related jobs. When I look at what they are able to do, and the lives they live, I’m amazed. But in the end, a greater portion of those who succeed are the determined ones.

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

Business Model Canvas, A Great Tool Getting Creative People Organized

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The main ingredient for a sustainable artistic practice is money. You don’t have to be rich, but you do need money to survive. And to reliably make money, you need an organizational plan. But artists and designers don’t care much for creating a traditional business plan. I know I don’t. Those plans aren’t interesting, and they are difficult to understand.

However, the Business Model Canvas puts the basic business type stuff into a visual structure that is easy to visualize and easy to understand. There’s even a video that shows you how to do it. It breaks down the structure of your business into nine elements:

Customer Segments: who are you serving and what do they want

Value Proposition: what are you doing for your customers

Channels: how to you reach your customers (interaction points)

Customer Relationships: why type of relationships are you looking establish (longterm, personal, automated, etc…)

Revenue Streams: where’s the money coming from

Key Resources: essential assets and basic resources needed

Key Activities: what you need to do well

Key Partners: which suppliers or partners do you need

Cost Structure: what drives costs

 

Here’s what it looks like for a lemonade stand.

Business Canvas

It’s not the end all for a business plan. But it really gets things going. All you have to do is guess for each section and you’ll have a much better understanding of how to maintain your practice. Visit their site Business Model Canvas, get the app, or get the book. They are well worth looking into. Get started and you’ll be glad you did.

Big Data Art

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Does art create truth? That’s the question with which Hanneke Grootenboer starts, The Rhetoric of Perspective, a highly philosophical book describing the effects linear perspective on our ability to see. She does so by referencing Martin Heidegger’s statement “that art is the setting-into-work of truth; that art lets’ truth originate.” She then follows with, ‘Does art have an origin to begin with, or is it an origin by nature; a way in which truth comes into being, and becomes historical, as Heidegger indeed suggests?”

 

Any time you reference Heidegger, you lose readers. He’s intentionally abstruse. Plus, Grooternboer isn’t the easiest read either. By virtue of including both in my opening paragraph, I’ve probably lost most everyone by this second paragraph. Oh well. But does art make a new reality or does it just reflect the reality already existing. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

In her book, Grootenboer explains how linear perspective changed the way we view space. Before perspective was discovered,  there was no convergence in space. It just didn’t exist, especially on a flat plane.  But after Filippo Brunelleschi invented perspective, it did. And once someone saw Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (the first real depiction of perspective in a painting) they saw a new truth. After viewing, Holy Trinity, one would turn to any of Giotto’s works and immediately see the falsehoods not present before.

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Masaccio, Holy Trinity

 

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Giotto, Legend of St. Francis

Art has performed this act of creating truth over and over again with its many movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and many more. This comes to mind for me at this time because the other day I saw an installation by Ryoji Ikeda. It looked like streaming data projected on a wall. There were a bunch of numbers changing quickly and then it would categorize some of these numbers and go on searching again. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to think of it for the first few minutes. I just knew I liked it.

The question I keep asking myself is whether this work is showing me something new, or bringing new insight to something I’ve already known. The work is very Matrix-like. But it bridges a lot of topics dealing with information, to design, to art, to the nature of existence. The one thing I do know is that I hope there is more to come.

If you know of other artists working with this kind of data, please comment on this and post a link to their work. I’d like to learn more.

Two Underrated Creative Strategies: (1) Start Now (2) Finish Early

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My classes are past midterms and now beginning to focus on the later part of our definition of creativity – usefulness. The definition of creativity we go with is, the production of something novel and useful. So far, we’ve covered the novelty side of things. We’ve learned a lot of strategies for generating more, unique ideas. But for the next step, we’ll find ways to make these ideas more functional. Two incredibly effective strategies to make creative ideas more useful are to “start now” and “finish early.” On the surface, these may not seem like creative strategies, so let’s take a look.

Start now: The sooner you jump on a project, the more time your brain gets to spend with it. If you begin immediately and work in a start-stop-start-stop fashion, you give your brain more time to reflect on what you’re doing. Therefore, by the end of the project, your subconscious brain has refined the concept many times. This is called, discontinuous problem-solving.

Binge working in one shot to meet a deadline forces you to continue in one direction until it’s obvious the concept isn’t working. Therefore, you really don’t know if what you’re doing is the best solution. However, by working periodically on a project, you utilize what’s called the incubation process where your subconscious brain makes random associations. These are where “Aha” moments come from.

Finish early: This is an excellent method to get all the kinks out. The way this works is to set the deadline a few days to a week before the real deadline. You finish the work early and get feedback from others. Having a real prototype enables you to gain empirical evidence and tangible feedback from your peers.

When a project itself is a hypothetical, the criticism others give you on it is totally dependent on those hypotheticals actually working. Your ability to convey your thoughts to another are very limited without a product. Also, having a finished product early allows you to see what tiny things should be tweaked to make it perfect.

So start now, and finish early to create more useful designs.

 

This is Water

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There are these two young fish swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them a says, Morning boys. How’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks to the other and goes, What the hell is water?

 

 

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College back in 2005 is one of those speeches that deserves revisiting every once in a while. I often show the video made from edited parts of it to my classes. Above is the opening. Wallace follows by stating that the “most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” The gist of the speech is that we have choices. And if we choose to acknowledge that we have choices, then maybe we can see the world through many lenses, not just through our default “me” setting.

Empathy may be the most underrated aptitude of the modern era. Being able to view reality from another person’s perspective is an incredibly powerful tool.  It opens the door to real conversations that can lead to a greater understanding of the world in which we live. We just have to understand that no matter how substantiated our view may be, another may exist that’s just as valid.

As Wallace states later in his speech, the “real value of education has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.”

Teaching and Testing for Creativity

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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein recently posted, Do Arts Teach Creativity?, on Psychology Today. In their essay, they discuss the difficulties educational institutions face when trying to implement creativity as part of the curriculum. It’s an interesting article and they are correct in what they say.

First, they tackle tests designed to assess creative aptitudes. These tests include the Torrence test developed back in the 1960s. Creativity tests focus on stuff like the fluency and flexibility of an individual’s thinking abilities. Michele and Robert consider these tests shams, and they are correct.

Testing individuals on components of the creative process does just that, test individual parts. And possessing the ability to generate ideas, doesn’t mean you’re creative. It just means you can generate a bunch of ideas.

The authors also go on to explain how including art in a student’s curriculum doesn’t mean that creativity is being taught. And they are right again. Much of art making is craft oriented, technical stuff dealing with eye-hand coordination. In drawing courses, it’s very important to work on line quality. To do so, you repetitively draw lots of lines. But that’s not creativity. Yes, you could say that in a small, personal way it is. That’s because the person may not have drawn in this way before. But for most of us, changing a tire would also be a creative act since very few of us have done that.

So how do we include creativity in the curriculum? We do so through project base work where students go through the whole creative process to see how it works. That begins with finding problems. Then students should follow by conducting research, generating a bunch of ideas, synthesizing concepts, choosing the best ones, prototyping, reflecting on what’s happening, changing one’s mind and then making the final product. Only after going through that whole process time and time again do students get it. It’s not one step, it’s a process.

The good thing for art departments is that it’s most easily done through the arts. It can be done through any subject, but it follows naturally in art classes. That’s because the art departments employ this thing called the studio model. And by design, the studio model presents students with ill-defined problems which they are expected solve in novel ways. It’s real-world learning; there really is a product. So the knowledge sinks in.

The trick for art departments is to stress ideation and for students to record the process.  Recording the process helps students reflect on how they came up with their new solutions. It’s easy for students to forget how they came to a solution. Process books serve to refresh their memory.

Creativity isn’t a trick. It isn’t a single task. And it isn’t just for artists. It’s a process—one that can be learned. Testing for creativity can only come when the whole process is taken into consideration, not just one part of it.

 

What Project Haven’t You Finished?

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So often great ideas remain ideas and don’t get realized. Or, some projects start but never finish. A past student of mine, Raine Blunk wants to help you with these. She’s a writer for MESH Magazine. They cover all kinds of creative endeavors. Currently, they are accepting submissions for “The Unfinished Issue.” If you have a project, or projects languishing around with no end in sight, submit it or them at The Unfinished Issue. They’ll publish some of these and maybe we can learn from them,  or finish one or two.

Contribute to SCAD student, Lisa Levine’s Kickstarter

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A past student of mine, Lisa Levine, has a Kickstarter running called, Savannah’s Radical Jewelry Makeover. She’s a great student and it’s a great idea. Please contribute at Savannah’s Radical Jewelry Makeover. She’s only asking for $1,100. It’s part of a “traveling community mining and recycling project.” Small contributions count.