I have been questioning this more recently as I start to explore and create with different media. Is embroidery art? Or is it a craft? What is the difference, if any, between arts and crafts? Someone like Marcel Duchamp certainly challenged the distinction between art and objects!
I brainstormed a list of features that I believe art to have and then put these to the test with two famous pieces:
Originality – it is the result of a unique idea.
Uniqueness – it is a unique object, the only one of its kind.
It is made by an artist (the definition of an artist is also one that can be questioned).
It is not intended to be a functional object.
It is a thing of beauty (as defined by the standards of the period, as opposed to personal taste).
It is thought-provoking.
It is imaginative.
It is emotionally expressive.
It has been made using ‘fine art’ materials and techniques.
It is shown in a gallery or museum as ‘art’ and is recognised by professionals in the field of art.
Leonardo da Vinci – Mona Lisa (1503)
Originality – Leonardo’s portrait introduced the original concept of ‘psychological portraiture’, suggesting the sitter’s inner thoughts and feelings rather than simply focusing on the external physical likeness. Uniqueness – There is one unique Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris and it would be difficult to reproduce. Artist – Leonardo was an apprentice artist in a workshop. Non-functional – Leonardo’s was a commissioned portrait. Leonardo’s patron never received his work. Leonardo kept it with him his whole life, possibly because he realised its significance – or perhaps because it did not match the patron’s requirements. Beauty – Leonardo’s sitter met the fashionable contemporary standards of beauty – her high shaved forehead, for example. His painting of her was a little too radical for the aesthetic standards of the time, however, as it rejected colour in favour of tone, and it took a while for the painting to be appreciated by the patron classes. Thought-provoking – Mona Lisa is so thought-provoking that new interpretations and revelations continue to this day. Imaginative – Leonardo’s imagination developed a new format for portraiture – three-quarter view, half-length, seated with hands – as well as new painting techniques (sfumato and aerial perspective) in order to find a visual language for his new ideas on portraiture. Emotionally expressive – Mona Lisa’s famously enigmatic smile continues to intrigue. Fine art materials – Mona Lisa is now regarded as a traditional oil painting though Leonardo used relatively new techniques for Florentines at the time. Shown as art – Mona Lisa is still in the Louvre.
Tracey Emin – My Bed (1998)
Originality – Emin had the original idea of using a still-life installation as a self-portrait. Uniqueness – There is one unique My Bed installation (though it has to be recreated each time it is exhibited, and certain items will need replacing with time). It would be much easier to replicate My Bed in theory. Artist – Tracey Emin is an art college-trained artist. Leonardo’s was a commissioned portrait. Non-functional – Emin’s bed was constructed as art to be exhibited rather than to be slept in, and was initially bought by Charles Saatchi. Beauty – Emin’s work is not usually described as beautiful. Thought-provoking – My Bed caused a national scandal in the popular press over the question ‘What is art? Imaginative – Emin found a new visual language to comment on what it meant to be a young woman during the late 1990s in Britain. Emotionally expressive – Emin’s bed is aimed directly at all our senses and makes an immediate emotional impact. Fine art materials – Emin’s work is a carefully constructed assemblage of ready-made items to form an installation. Such techniques originated before the First World War and were well established within gallery spaces by the 1970s. Shown as art –My Bed has been on display in Tate.
I do believe to fully appreciate a work of art, we need to know its place in history to gain an understanding of its cultural specificity and meaning. Today we tend to accept the institutional definition of art – that anything which is shown in a gallery as art is art which links back to what Grayson Perry says in his bookPlating to the Gallery. It also brings into question works like Land Art that are never on display in galleries.
I picked up Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery (Perry, 2014) recently from my local library and feel it is an excellent example of many of the points covered in Gilda Williams’ book How to Write About Contemporary Art.
Grayson Perry writes in an extremely engaging way about the roles of galleries and contemporary art and the book is also filled with some of his cartoon drawings which bring the content alive. It is a fairly short book of 134 pages but there are snippets of things to reflect on.
You can’t expect to understand conteporary art without effort. This reinforces the point in How to Write About Contemporay Art (Williams, 2014) that it is a practise that should ideally be daily. The deeper you get involved, the more enjoyment there is.
What we “like” is thought to be subjective but there is a lot of manipulation by critics, dealers and gallery owners. The art we get to ee is determined from above and curated for us. It pays to have an open mind and start to reflect on what we actually like rather than what we think we should like.
The philosophy of what art actually is fascinates me and this book dicusses a lot. Perry discuses what he calls his “boundaries” of what art is. This is an idea I want to come back to in relation to time.
Being an artist should not be about “being an artist”, all great artists do it because they want to make art. There is a balance between making what is going to please people and potentially make you an income but this childlike joy of just making art should never be lost.
Perry, G. (2014). Playing to the Gallery : Exploring the modern relationship between society and art. London, Uk: Penguin Books Australia.
Williams, G. (2014). How to write about contemporary art. Thames & Hudson.
Ziegler works within the tradition of landscape painting but his virtual reality terrains bear the hallmarks of the digital age. His scenes are designed on computer then transferred to the canvas as schematic drawings. These compositions become increasingly complex, offering the viewer a multitude of vanishing points. Here an ordered geometric system is disrupted by the unchecked dripping of areas of paint. The effects of light are also of particular interest to Ziegler. His use of reflective gold leaf in this work further complicates the painting’s surface and distorts the viewer’s spatial perception.
When looking for examples of artwork to look at formal elements in, I was drawn to this piece by Toby Ziegler on the Tate site. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it in person, so am just going to analyse the image which is never quite the same.
Ziegler’s use of colour evokes images of landscapes, they are earthy secondary tones on the whole and it reminds me of looking down at the ground from a plane. The greens remind me of trees and the patchwork of fields. The orange in there is slightly less natural but still harmonious and still fits in the natural palette, perhaps just more autumnal. It is generally a very warm colour range which makes the whole image seem inviting and comforting. The range of values from deep dark greens to the white-creamy colour gives an interesting contrast and helps draw your eye around the image always finding something interesting to focus on. This also gives the image dimension as there are more muted background colours in the background with more popping vibrant colours in the foreground.
The shapes in this image are the most interesting aspect to me and are what I think makes the image really work. There is a fascinating conflict between organic and geometric shapes. The colour makes me think of a natural landscape and some of the shapes also reflect this as they are natural and organic in nature. Like the patches of muted greens in the background. Then there are very geometric circles that cannot be natural but indicate this idea of something natural being transformed by man.
In the piece are some very energetic lines that move our eyes around the piece as if we were examining a landscape. The orange lines are smooth and flowing, almost river like in nature and they give an interesting focal point in contrast to the circular shapes and areas. The lines give a lot of movement and dynamics to the artwork and it is as if we are looking at a piece captured in the middle of a movement.
The disciplines I am currently most interested in are art, literature and lens-based media.
The above are all terms given to us in the course guide. There are some that are interchangeable across disciplines, but none have been repeated. There will be other terms added in my glossary.
Colour theory as a topic is huge in art. The definition of colour is that it is produced when light hits an object and is reflected back to the eye. The wavelength that is reflected back to the eye determines which colour our brain sees. However, there are many subjective elements to it too. Colours evoke memories to us, they can be seen as warm or cool, some colours complement each other, some have cultural associations.
The Colour Wheel
There are 12 sections on the standard colour wheel. The three primary colours of red, blue and yellow; the three secondary colours are made from the primary: orange, purple and green; finally the six tertiary colours are made from mixing the secondary colours.
The wheel can also be split into warm colours and cool colours. Warm colours are the upper right half and are the colours that seem to be brought forward in a composition. Cool colours on the other hand are the lower left and seem to sink backwards in paintings.
Harmonious colours are those next to each other on the colour wheel, they work together well and seem to be pleasing to view. Contrasting or complementary colours on the other hand are opposite on the wheel and often clash and can create drama when together.
There are three other characteristics of colour:
Hue: the colour itself, the distinctive quality by which one can distinguish one colour from another, e.g., red, blue, green, blue.
Value: the brightness of the hue, the quality by which one distinguishes a light colour from a dark one, in the range from white to black.
Chroma or intensity: the quality that distinguishes a strong colour from a weak one, the departure of a colour sensation from that of white or gray, the intensity of a colour hue.
Colours and Emotions
Choices of colour and the relationships between colours have a huge influence on how a piece of art or design looks and feels and the emotions it provokes. Colours have wider social and cultural meanings behind them too which can be used by an artist. For example, red has many different meanings. Often we link red to danger. In western culture, red is often used as a warning sign or to tell you to not do something. In traffic lights, the colour red is used to mean stop. Red can also have a link to anger. Cartoons or movies may show a character going red in the face when getting upset. It can also mean embarrassment. Red can also have positive associations. We link red with love and passion – it appears all over Valentine’s cards in February. We also see red as a festive colour – the colour of Christmas and Santa Claus. Different cultures treat colours very differently, however. In China, red is seen as a lucky colour. In South Africa, red is seen as the colour of death and mourning (which is normally associated with black in the United Kingdom). The use and meaning of colour can vary depending on where artists and their audiences come from.
Form describes three-dimensional objects. It can describe how a sculpture forms a three-dimensional object in space. Form can also describe the illusion of how three-dimensional form is conveyed through the use of lighting and shadows, and the rendering of value and tone. Two-dimensional work can suggest three-dimensional objects by including implied forms. This means that lines or shapes are shown in a way that suggests they have depth. This can be done using perspective or through tone or colour effects.
Form can be either geometric or organic. Geometric is mathematical objects such as cubes, pyramids and spheres, they give a man-made appearance and can suggest solidity, balance and permanence. Organic forms look natural. They are irregular and may seem flowing and unpredictable. The most obvious example of organic forms is realistic representations of the natural world or living things, but they do not have to be realistic to be organic. Some designs combine geometric and organic forms.
Forms have mass. The mass of a form is a result of its size and the material it is made from. The greater the mass the heavier a form is. The appearance of an object can change how heavy it looks – its perceived mass. For example, darker and more intense colours or more detailed textures tend to appear heavier.
Line is considered by many to be the most basic element of art. In terms of art, a line is considered “a moving dot”. Line has an endless number of uses in the creation of both drawings and paintings. Although we typically associate line with drawing, it’s also foundational to painting as they reveal the artist’s techniques.
Perhaps the most obvious use of line is when it is used to define the edges or boundaries of a subject. We can obviously communicate a subject’s edges by using lines. In most cases, when we begin a drawing, we start by drawing the outlines of the subject. The outlines are just the beginning since the line is also used to describe the details on the subject as well. Usually, we can simplify areas of contrast on a subject into a line.
Line can also suggest movement, mood, emotions and ideas.
Orientation refers to the direction of lines. They could be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Lines can be used in art and design to help guide your eye around a painting or to create a sense of balance and structure. Deliberate use of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines can help to create a focal point. They can also help to suggest depth and a sense of perspective.
Point can refer to the focal point of a piece of work. It is a key point of interest in your painting that you want to direct attention towards. It should be your most interesting point in the painting. It is possible to have more than one focal point but there is usually one strong point where the focus and attention is.
In art and design, the principle of scale refers to the relative size of one object compared to another, typically the size of the artwork to the viewer’s body. Scale can also refer to the size relationships of different visuals within a singular piece of art.
In the study of art, a shape is an enclosed space, a bounded two-dimensional form that has both length and width. Shapes are one of the seven elements of art, the building blocks that artists use to create images on canvas and in our minds. A shape’s boundaries are defined by other elements of art such as lines, values, colours, and textures; and by adding value you can turn a shape into an illusion of its three-dimensional cousin, form. As an artist or someone who appreciates art, it’s important to fully understand how shapes are used.
Like with form, shapes can be geometric or organic.
Space, as one of the classic seven elements of art, refers to the distances or areas around, between, and within components of a piece. Space can be positive or negative, open or closed, shallow or deep, real or implied, and two-dimensional or three-dimensional. Three-dimensional work creates real space. Two-dimensional works can create implied space using various techniques.
Texture is used to describe the way a three-dimensional work actually feels when touched. In two-dimensional work, such as painting, it may refer to the visual “feel” of a piece. Many artists use texture to show their technique and to express emotion.
Tone and Value
As an element of art, tone or value refers to the visible lightness or darkness of a colour. Tones could refer to black, white and grey tones between. It could refer to how light or dark a colour appears. In real life, the tone is created by the way light falls on an object.
Two-dimensional artworks cannot show real form. The illusion of form can be created by using different tones that suggest different amounts of light hitting the subjects shown. This can fool the eye into seeing a three-dimensional object.
Tone can be used to create an atmosphere in art and design work. Different atmospheres will be created depending on the value and contrast of the tones used. A small amount of contrast tends to result in a calmer image, whereas high contrast creates drama. The term chiaroscuro is used to describe images with very high contrast.
Tone can also indicate depth and distance in artwork and artists can create focal points at different places in their work.
Camera angles, and the degree of those angles, can totally change the meaning of a shot.
In an eye-level shot, the camera is positioned at the same level as the actors’ faces which gives it a sense of immediacy and realism. In everyday life, we see most other people at eye level and this shot type is often used when filmmakers want us to feel part of a scene.
Using a low angle shot is an effective way to establish a character’s importance in a scene as they make characters look powerful and imposing.
Here the camera is above the object or actor being filmed and is pointed down at them. High angle shots make characters and objects seem smaller. High angles can also work to make characters seem weaker or more vulnerable.
Worm’s eye view
This is an extreme low-angle shot in which the camera is very far below the subject and pointed upwards. This angle exaggerates the scale of the shot’s subject and can make actors seem like imposing giants.
Bird’s eye view
Sometimes called an overhead shot, this camera angle places us directly above the subject. The Bird’s eye view can be used to show us action that might not be visible from eye level.
For a Dutch angle, the camera is slanted to one side. With the horizon lines tilted in this way, you can create a sense of disorientation, a de-stabilized mental state, or increase the tension.
Composition is important in photography and art. It links to viewpoint and framing and it is also important to consider the other formal elements of art such as line, shape and balance. Composition refers to the positioning or arrangement of people, objects and landscapes in the frame. Good composition can enhance the meaning of an image.
Leading lines are a useful compositional tool. A viewer’s eyes tend to look for lines and follow them from one end to the other. The effect is particularly strong when different lines come together.
Contrast can mean many things in photography and film.
One way to add interesting contrast is to use sections of black and white. Working in black and white can draw attention to light and tones, shapes and textures.
Editing can be done in both film and photography. A well-crafted edit can create meaning and take audiences on emotional journeys. Simple editing of photographs can include cropping the image or removing errors and minor blemishes like dust spots. Underexposed areas can be lightened and washed out areas can be made to appear darker. This can be done quickly and easily. It is also possible to make more significant changes to an image. This can be used for artistic or experimental effects. For example, you might change the contrast, increase or decrease colour saturation, add blurring or mix areas of black and white and colour.
In film, at its simplest editing can remove bad takes and shorten sequences, but when filmmakers fully harness its power they can create meaning where none existed and take audiences on emotional journeys.
The most common form of editing is continuity editing. In this editing style, shots from different angles are cut together to create a sense of continuous movement and continuity. This creates the impression that time and space remain consistent within the scene, even if the shots have been filmed at different times. A key aim of this style is to ensure that no single cut calls attention to itself and that nothing strikes the viewer as confusing or inconsistent. When continuity editing is applied correctly we may not notice the individual cuts.
The main alternative to continuity editing is montage editing. Montage editing can be used to create excitement, terror or startling new meanings. Instead of allowing shots to flow smoothly from one to another, montage editing juxtaposes images for effect and can cut rapidly from wide shots to extreme close-ups. Montage editing draws attention to itself in ways continuity editing does not.
Other editing techniques
This is used to cut between two different actions happening at the same time. By cutting back and forth between these different events, the director can establish that they are somehow linked.
This highlights an important moment by creating a pause effect in which a single frame of film is extended for several seconds.
These effects are usually captured by the camera by changing the filming speed but can also be achieved in post-production by slowing individual shots down. This can help emphasise special moments or draw out actions to generate suspense.
Distance and Framing
Framing a camera shot can make audiences feel more connected to the story you are telling. You can alter the frame by placing the camera closer or further away from the action being filmed.
A close-up shot shows us a character or object at close range. A director might choose to show an actor in a close-up so that the audience can properly see their face. This allows viewers to see the character’s facial expressions and gives them a clue as to how the character is feeling emotionally. A director might also use a close-up of an object so that we can see its importance. Extreme close-ups can be used to build tension or add extra emotion to a scene.
A medium shot, sometimes called a mid-shot, is a shot taken from the middle distance. A medium shot of an actor won’t show us their face in the same level of detail as a close-up but it will let us see more of their body and surroundings. Medium shots of actors are often framed from the waist upwards and that combination of distance and framing allows us to see both a character’s face and their body language.
A long shot, sometimes also known as a wide shot, takes us far away from the character being framed. This gives the audience much more information about the scene in general and puts the actor in context, as we usually see them in the middle of a landscape or busy environment.
Thinking about where objects and people are in the frame itself is crucial. If a character is important in a scene, a shot might place them in the centre of the frame. If two characters are drifting apart, one way to show that might be to position them at opposite ends of the frame. One specific tool film-makers sometimes use to help with framing is the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds is an approach to framing which divides the frame into three sections across the horizontal and vertical lines. Placing actors, edges of objects or the line of the horizon on these imaginary lines makes it easier to create balanced and pleasant compositions.
Mise-en-scène is how all the aspects of a film combine to create a convincing world on screen. It involves everything you can see on a screen or in an image including props, costumes, make-up, location, set, performance and animation.
Viewpoint links to composition and angles. The distance your subject is to the camera can change how much of the frame it fills, how its scale compares to its surroundings and how flat or deep the image will appear.
Directors can also change the viewpoint by moving the camera during filming a sequence.
In a panning shot, or pan, the camera is locked onto a tripod and the tripod is fixed in one spot. The tripod head, which the camera rests on, is pivoted from left to right or right to left. The effect is much like standing in one place and looking from side to side. Panning is often used to follow action such as a character moving from one spot to another. Panning shots can also be used to establish locations, slowly revealing information about a place as we take it in.
A tilt is similar to a pan in that the camera is also fixed to a tripod. However, instead of pivoting from left to right, the camera is tilted up or down. Tilts can be used to follow the action. If a character on screen was climbing a ladder, the director might use a low angled tilt to follow them as they move upwards. Tilts can also be used to tell us a little bit more about a location than a single, static shot might.
In a tracking shot, the camera is placed on a moving platform or vehicle so that we can follow alongside the action. Nowadays, tracking shots can also be achieved by using Steadicams. A Steadicam is a self-balancing camera rig that is attached by a harness to the camera operator. When a Steadicam operator moves, the camera moves with them creating a smooth gliding motion.
In a handheld shot, the camera is carried by the camera operator. Because this technique gives scenes a bumpy and unpolished feeling it is often used by directors when they want viewers to feel embedded in the action of a scene.
In a crane shot, the camera is mounted to a crane and can move up or down. Crane shots are usually used for dramatic effect, making us feel as if we are swooping over a location or diving down from above.
A shot that uses the zoom lens to suddenly push us closer to or further away from a subject is called a zoom. Zooms can be effective if used creatively but can also seem amateurish and distracting if overused.
In an aerial shot, the camera is mounted to a flying vehicle and flown over the action or location. Aerial shots are often used at the start of a film to establish the setting and create a sense of mood.
Alliteration is when words start with the same letter and, more importantly, the same sound. It can be used to create a mood or for emphasis. Alliteration can build a mood or set the scene depending on the letters that are used:
The gentle ‘w’ sounds in “whispering wind” create a soft and airy mood.
The harsh ‘r’ sounds in “raging river rapids” help the reader to imagine the brute force of the water.
Alliteration can also be used to capture the reader’s attention and reinforce a point.
Assonance is a technique similar to alliteration but where the same vowel sound repeats in a group of words. For example, “It beats . . . as it sweeps . . . as it cleans!”
Assonance is a method of achieving emphasis and cohesion in a short stretch of text.
Characters in texts are developed through what they say and do, and the language used to describe them. There is explicit characterisation and implied characterisation. The character is built up through description, dialogue, how other characters see them, behaviourisms.
Characters usually change over the course of a text. These changes can be a powerful way to present themes and important ideas to the reader. As the text continues, the author often adds more details to the picture of a character. How the reader reacts to a character can be very important to how they feel about the text. There should be contrasts or contradictions – not just between characters, but within each character. In real life, no one is simply good or bad. All effective characters have more than one side.
Dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters in a literary work. It could also be an inner dialogue which is a character’s internal voice. Dialogue is essential for several reasons. First, it creates characterisation. In fact, it is one of the four main methods of characterisation. The audience learns much about a character through his speech. Second, dialogue advances the plot. Interactions within, between, or among characters help to give insight into the storyline. Additionally, well-written dialogue makes a text realistic. In the real world, people interact and have conversations. This is critical to a successful text.
Imagery is the use of language and symbolism in writing which make our five senses active. The word ‘imagery’ gives rise to the creation of mental images and figures. The imagery brings to life the characters of the story through the mental pictures of the readers. These are effective devices used by the authors to create these effects.
Visual imagery is the one where the author uses various visual qualities to create imagery. This can include various shapes, sizes, colours, lights, shadows, and patterns. This is the most common form of imagery that is used in literature. Whenever the term imagery is used people understand visual imagery in literature. They generally use metaphor and simile to create visual imagery.
Auditory Imagery creates an appeal to the reader’s sense of hearing. Creating auditory imagery through writing is not that easy. For instance, creating imageries by author by creating sounds of war in a war novel. Onomatopoeia is mostly used by authors to create auditory imagery.
Gustatory and Olfactory
Gustatory imagery is the one that appeals to the taste of the readers. This is generally used to depict the food as the character eats it. This may create a sense of gustatory imagery when the readers read about a portion of food. Olfactory Imagery is the imagery when the author tries to attract the reader’s taste or smell. It helps in depicting the situation through which the characters of the narrative are going through or experiencing. The smell of fresh rain, the smell of fire are some of the examples of olfactory imagery.
Tactile Imagery is the one that creates a sensory effect of touch through text or the writing of the authors. This is used to convey how some things feel when touched. It may be used to convey the sense of texture, temperature, wetness, dryness, and so on. They help in creating empathy for the characters in a narrative.
Kinaesthetic Imagery is the one that is used to give a sense of motion by the author. Speed, slowness, falling, or even fighting can be depicted with the use of Kineasthetic imagery. Kinaesthetic imagery is very relevant in the era of action movies and screenplays. It also gives a good feel when needed to write about sports, driving, and other actions.
Organic Imagery is a type of imagery that appeals to the most traditional forms of our senses. They are the feeling of hunger, fatigue, fear, and even emotion. They form the basic tenets of human emotions. It moves the readers to the feelings of either joy or sadness. When they are written efficaciously creates intense sorrow and desperateness which the readers can feel immensely.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes something by saying it is something else. It’s not actually true but it gives the reader a clearer idea of what it is like. For example, “They were peas in a pod.” Extended metaphors are metaphors that run throughout a piece of work.
Voice means the tone of the narrative. Think about the language used in the narration and what that tells us. In some texts, the narrator is also a character. In others, the narrative voice is more distant. Narrative can be first-person – indicating a clear point of view – or third person – which could follow one character closely or take an omniscient standpoint.
The plot is the series of events that comprise a story’s main action. It is typically made up of a sequence of individual but connected elements that compels the main character(s) to embark on a journey. This journey can be physically or mentally and emotionally in nature, though it is often both. The plot’s primary journey leads to a climactic event and a resolution. Most plotlines follow the same basic structure made of five essential ingredients.
A story begins by introducing the protagonist and other key characters, their inter- and intra-relationships, the setting, and relevant background information. In this section, the protagonist discovers their main goal, typically a problem that needs surmounting.
The next phase is the rising action, which begins with an inciting incident or complication that triggers the ensuing series of events. Since the rising action propels the protagonist on their journey, the inciting incident usually comes with high stakes. Tension tends to build as rising action progresses toward the next phase.
This is the main turning point of the story when all the events and emotions built up during the exposition and rising action come to a head. Naturally, these are the moments of greatest tension, conflict, and drama.
In this stage, the characters’ actions resolve the story’s central problem, leading to a resolution.
The final plot element is the official completion of the goal, solution to the problem, an end to the conflict. The protagonist or the antagonist might win, or each could experience certain degrees of both triumph and defeat. Some stories wrap up by providing information on what happens to the central character(s) in the future.
A simile describes something by comparing it to something else, using like or as. A simile is a useful way to describe something without using a long list of adjectives. It can create a vivid image in the reader’s mind, helping to engage and absorb them.
This is a 2010 documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave in France that was mentioned in a Grayson Perry book I am reading. In the cave are paintings that are at least 30,000 years old and due to a landslide that sealed the cave off thousands of years ago, they remain in almost pristine condition, as though they were in a time capsule. The cave is heavily protected with very few visitors being allowed to enter in a bid to preserve the paintings and evidence around them.
The paintings themselves are incredible and this documentary is one of the best looks we’ll ever get to see of them. Many of them feature animals that would have been native to France at that time. There are horses, mammoths, lions, rhinos, deers and only one part drawing of a human female.
There are a few panels of handprints made from red ochre that are thought to have been by one man. In the documentary, they show how they identified it as one male artist who was probably about 6 feet tall and even concluded the order in which he made the prints.
The art of the animals is amazing. There is a sense of movement about them and layers of animals that have been painted on with the 3D surface of the cave taken into consideration. The combination of the surface contours and the way that the light would change in the cave with torchlight almost gives them an animated feel as though they move across the cave.
The Documentary Style
As well as the fascinating subject, Herzog’s film itself is a piece of art. He gives us an insight into a place most of us will never get to visit. However, it isn’t just a documentary about art. Herzog makes us think about huge topics, humanity itself, about the nature of time, God, religion, conservation, materialism and so many other contemplative questions throughout. The cinematography is beautiful. even considering they had to film in a cramped cave with limited access walkways. The music chosen to accompany each section gives it a religious experience feel about it and he does his best to make the place feel as alive as if you were in the cave with him.
One of the big questions asked is if we can ever tell and understand who these people were who painted the images in the cave. We think we can relate to them purely as they are humans like us, but in doing so, we take so many of our modern western perspectives with us. Can we ever understand the artists as people across such an abyss of time? It makes us question what is important to us and how that might be regarded 30,000 years from now. The objects we treasure and the art we make, will that be understood so far into the future? Or will it be misinterpreted? Will anyone even care so far in the future?
There is argument through the movie that it is spirituality that connects us all across epochs. Herzog argues that instead of being homo sapiens, we should be homo spiritualis. There is some evidence the people in the cave made the paintings in a spiritual way. There is a very specifically placed skull with what seems to be incense around it that indicates the cave was used a spiritual place. We assume as modern westerners at times that art is purely decorative or expressive but there is a very interesting point in the film that if you talk to people like indigineous peoples about why they make art, they will reply they are not making art, it is the spirits that are making art. So, could it be a link to spirituality that links humans of all types, all ages and all eras that is the link in art across time.
Peter Kalb is an associate professor of contemporary art at Brandeis University. The book Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary “charts the story of art in contemporary global culture while holding up a mirror to our society.” “The political and cultural transformations of the early 1980s developed a new era of accord between communist states and western-style economics. The art world has since been reconceived and today we see record-breaking sales of contemporary art and a dramatic rise in the number of students taking courses in the visual and performing arts. Kalb approaches art from multiple angles, addressing issues of artistic production, display, critical reception and social content. Alongside his analysis of specific works of art, he also builds a framework for readers to increase their knowledge and enhance critical and theoretical thinking.”
My immediate thought when finding out about the author and then skimming through the artists mentioned is that the whole chapter is a very white western male perspective.
The excerpt we were given is from Chapter 11: The Art of Contemporary Experience. It is difficult to find a copy of the whole book to understand how this chapter fits in the rest of the book.
My overall summary of the chapter is that it is a reflection on how we experience creative art, both how the artist intends the experience and how a participator actually experiences it. There are many interesting points to consider throughout the chapter. I think one of the things that stands out to me is this idea of subjectivity and objectivity. Is there really any experience that is truly objective? So much of what we experience is based on our own perceptions. Even though on a biological level, the mechanism behind the senses may be the same from person to person, there is such a range of how that is actually interpreted. Light with the same wavelength may trigger the exact same response in the retina but how that is processed by the visual cortex is so different. At what point does that difference occur? Taking the colour example, the colour can seem different when it is next to other colours, it can evoke different memories in different people, there are people even who have certain smells associated with different colours. There may also be people who have colour blindness who see a completely different colour. Maybe some don’t see colour at all. We have different colour preferences too. Why do we all interpret something that has a very physical property such a wavelength, so differently? Is there a true and real colour? Culture and society also have a huge impact, we associate different colours with themes. Green for example is the environment but then may differ in different cultures. As stated in the opening paragraph, they are in perpetual flux too. Time constantly changes our perspective and like mentioned later in the chapter, there is a reminder that we can never experience a first again. Once we have seen something the memory of that will always have an impact on how we view it the second time. Perhaps this is what time is, a hard line that is drawn where we can’t go back to experience something again. This makes me think about people who have memory loss, are they experiencing something new again? Or is there always some residual memory there that impacts their experience, even if it isn’t conscious?
The chapter looks at different ways that different artists have tried to consider this experience and how they have tried to test the ability to measure experiences accurately. They “demand viewers layer their sensual apprehension of form with an intellectual analysis of content”.
The chapter (and book) focuses on the post-1980s as it is felt this is when we as a society became more self-conscious. What was it about the 80s and 90s? Post-modernism : “Postmodern art drew on the philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles”.
This idea of examining what we see isn’t new. 18th-century Baroque art challenged the idea of the present with the ethereal realm of the divine.
The 1960s – Light and Space art aimed to allow people to view just the abstract effects of lights, colour and space and be free from specific cultural references. Is this truly possible? Or are we always influenced by culture and history – unconscious bias?
James Turrell is someone who creates art where shadows, reflections and solid objects are all equally real. It isn’t about fooling the eye in an optical illusion way, it is about letting people view something and reach their own conclusions.
We know our senses aren’t always accurate and there are people who suffer from memory loss. In these situations, how do we regain our bearings? This is something Eliasson tries to play with. Your strange certainty deliberately confuses. Water stops mid-air, fake electric storms are created. You know when you see it that it isn’t a real storm but the sense of wonder is no less powerful.
“Light and Space artists heighten our awareness of the human being as a sensing body”. We rely on our senses more than we realise – when they are taken away we often notice what is missing. For example, how different food tastes when you lose a sense of smell.
Your colour memory by Eliasson is a curved wall that changes colour. Due to the way the retina deals with light colours, as the colour of the wall changes, there is an afterimage. Each viewer’s experience is dependent on when he or she entered the piece, and the combinations of colour and afterimage will be different for everyone. This reminds me of the music piece where it is up to the composer and no piece is the same. John Cage’s Piano Concert (1957) there the order and inclusion of parts is at the performer’s discretion. So each performance will be different.
Ernesto Neto challenges the duality of body and mind. “body-minds that we connect the things in this world, in life- the way we touch, the way we feel, the way we think and the way we deal.”
Neto’s understanding of the mind-body, his perception of the world we encounter, either in the artwork or outside it, is as a “cultural-physical” entity. That art should be about trying to create experiences.
Roni Horn’s Things that happen again is one of the most interesting pieces mentioned in the chapter. It is two identical copper cones that are placed in two different rooms that are next to each other. The piece needs time and memory
You go into a space and see a simple disc. It doesn’t look like much: it isn’t until you walk in and see that it is a three-dimensional cone-shaped object which is familiar but has certain subtle formal qualities which make it different, which take away from it being familiar. It becomes memorable. Then you go into the next room and enact exactly the same experience, but of course, it’s unexpected and it’s so many minutes later; it’s a slightly younger experience in your life. Whereas when you walked into the first room, you had the experience of sometl1ing unique, you can’t have that a second time.
It is a very insightful way of highlighting that everything we see we are influenced by past experience. This idea of things being identical is a paradox, you always have one that is here and one that is there. Time and place have such an important role in something’s identity.
Another artist mentioned in the chapter I am fascinated by is Mark Dion and his work On Tropical Nature. Perhaps it is because I resonate with him mixing biology and art and his idea of interdisciplinarity between the two. It is early environmental art. I also am intrigued by his references to the way we want to classify and categorise everything. It seems a very human need. Like the historians who want to categorise time into distinct periods. Dion gathered different curiosities from his trips and placed them together, leaving the viewer puzzled as to why they were together. It makes us think about why museums choose the collections they do. Who gets to decide what is valuable enough to put on show. If you look at children and the way they treasure the strangest of things at times, it can often seem illogical too. But isn’t every categorising illogical and influenced by someone? It reminds me of a scene early in Stalker where the three men are talking in the bar before they set off to the zone. One tells the tale of an artefact in a museum that was found to be fake to trick archaeologists. Before this was discovered everyone viewed the item with “oohs and ahhs”. After the discovery of its deception, it was deemed worthless. Why do we place value on some items and not others? Is art really the influence of galleries, is this the same thing the Land Artists were running from? Some things also lose their value when placed in a gallery or museum. Like the hemlock tree in Dion’s Vivarium. It can no longer contribute to the greater environment even though it can be grown inside for decades
Ma(r)king Time (2014) is a piece of work by two Dutch artists Milou van Ham and Moniek Driesse. It is intriguing as it is certainly a piece of work with many layers to it and one that has made me consider different aspects of time and how we spend our time. On one level, it is a paper poster made up of punched holes. Its style reminds me in a loose way of Georges Seurat’s pointillism where a piece of work is built up from smaller dots and together very small pieces of information build up the piece of art, however, this is in monochrome and does not utilise the colour Seurat does.
The time scale in which it was created is significant. It was over what is a typical traditional working week, 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday over the usual 40-hours that people work for. The significance of forty is emphasised too in that the piece is split into forty parts. It makes me think of routine jobs I have had in the past where the hours go incredibly slowly but then suddenly it is Friday and there is two days reprieve before beginning again at 9 am Monday morning. It could be highlighting the aspect of time that is down to the human perception of it. Where when something we enjoy seems to go faster than when doing something we dislike. Or how when we are busy time seems to fly. There has been recent criticism of the 40-hour working week, particularly during the pandemic when people started to realise that working from home on a more flexible schedule suits people. The 40-hour week really is a byproduct of the early labour movement where the concept of a weekend was introduced. People were once grateful for that, now we seem to be ungrateful for it.
This seemingly mundane task of punching holes in a piece of paper is interesting. Einstein famously came up with his theories of relativity which threw the understanding of time out when he was doing a 9-5 job at a patent office. Perhaps it is a nod to the fact that sometimes to make truly creative discoveries we need to do a simpler task to allow ourselves to enter that meditative state of flow where creative thinking can occur. Having tried to recreate some hole punching to create art to try out this technique for myself, I will say a great deal of concentration is needed, to begin with, especially to create the straight lines of the font they have used. So, what seems on a surface level to be mundane, is much more involved once you try it. I think this helps to highlight one aspect of work where people are very judgemental about how other people choose to spend their time and it is only by actually doing the same activity you get a true appreciation of it.
I think this mundane nature is emphasised by the lack of colour, the plain background, the fact the same font is used. Although the font choice is somewhat significant, on research I found it is all done in Nobel font which is a very iconic Dutch font, perhaps a compliment to the artists’ heritage. On one level, the piece of work is made interesting through its lack of traditional interesting features such as colour, image and change of font.
There is also the aspect of time being about recording change that this piece alludes to. Time can be thought of as small events being pieced together, events that are in a constant state of flux. This piece would have been constantly evolving through the week and I’m sure there were times when it felt like little progress was being made. There is also a sense of direction too. This piece had a past, a blank piece of paper, it is one-directional, we can’t reverse it back once the holes are punched. Just like every small thing that happens, has some kind of lasting impact.
When you look at the two artists’ other pieces of work, this piece forms part of an even bigger message. Milou van Ham makes pieces that focus on language, communication, and interaction and she aims to describe reality and often uses holes in paper as the basis of her work. Moniek Driesse works on projects that visualise socio-cultural imaginaries that often go unnoticed in everyday life. Marking Time merges these two ideas. There is clearly some form of interaction needed between the people making the holes, a way to coordinate the project and the amount of sheer effort, skill and concentration involved in creating this could easily go unnoticed by a first glance and assumption of “it is just holes in paper”.
I think my biggest take-away from this in relation to what the phrase “ma(r)king time” means is that it is so different for different people and we shouldn’t make judgements or assumptions about what that feels like to people. Time is incredibly subjective, what seems a menial task for one may be a deep meditative journey for someone else. What seems like a long day to someone, may pass very quickly for others. Time is something we can’t control in the aspect of how much time we get to live, all we can do is choose how to spend our time and how to mark that in a way that makes us thrive.