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The artist and the world

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In the introduction to his book entitled ‘Philosophy of art’ Virgil Aldrich notes that there are many ‘phenomena’ associated with art. He means by a ‘phenomenon’ something that ‘teases’ people into thinking about it; in other words a phenomenon is something that provokes thought, reflections and questions. The resulting responses – the answers to these questions – serve as the beginnings of theories and philosophies of art.

He then provides a thumbnail sketch of various of these phenomena and he begins by pointing out that a work of art can seem strange or thought-provoking because the medium somehow ‘contains’ the image and is not analogous to looking at the world through a window pane or a mirror. In addition  we see, for example, three dimensions in works of art (such as a figure, a person, or a bowl of fruit) when in reality we are viewing a flat two-dimensional surface. When we look at works of art we find ourselves wondering if are we seeing something concrete or essentially an illusion. We also seem to have a point of view that is distinctly aesthetic, a point of view that also goes beyond the purely subjective. There is a special kind of objectivity that characterises works of art; without any such objectivity, art criticism would not be feasible. But, it is feasible.

And amongst the many other phenomena of art there is the artist’s ambiguous relation to everyday life and its values. He writes:

On the one hand the artist seems remote from life, caught in the self-sufficiency of his or her works of art … yet on the other he or she seems to be more intimate than non-artists are with life so that he or she can reveal its secrets.

And he continues:

… it seems to be this puzzling sort of relation to his or her works that others must get into if they are to experience it for what it is worth as art.

What a wonderful incentive this must be for the serious artist; he or she can celebrate or criticise the world as they find it. They may reveal truths about the world (imagine Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, a haunting work by Goya or an insight wrought by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky; imagine, even, the acute perceptions of the Impressionists or the realities surfaced in Bob Dylan’s poetic lyrics). So, Aldrich’s remark suggests that when we view works of art in the museums and galleries we might always respond by looking for truths about humanity and the world in which we find ourselves. And, as the contemporary art critic Matthew Collings recently observed, this may entail very hard and prolonged thinking. He, Aldrich, also enjoins us to try and uncover the relationship between the person of the artist and the work that he or she makes. This may or may not be straightforward.

Aldrich published his ‘philosophy of art’ in 1963. The question his book now raises concerns the way the contemporary artist engages with the world. Is it still the case that the relationship remains quite so ambiguous?

Midst – a charming film by Nirobon Yuenyong in which the personal meets the general

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The recent MA degree show at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham illustrated both the strength of an overlapping community of artists working in many different disciplines as well as the excellence of several individual exhibitors. The show reflected a number of deeply felt personal issues intertwined with certain pressing and disturbing themes apparent in societies across the world.

Amongst the range of impressive works on display was the moving and technically excellent short animation film ‘Midst’. The film was made by the gifted film-maker Nirobon Yuenyong who, I was later to learn, comes from the spectacular 24/24 Thai capital city Bangkok. The film featured the behavioural and emotional response of a small boy who was caught in the ‘midst’ of the tension and conflicting value-priorities of his parents. Superbly well-wrought, the film profiled the real existential difficulties faced by only children who find themselves tied in the knots of family relationships. In so doing, the film ‘Midst’ resonates with some of the original radical observations made by R.D. Laing in his celebrated portrayal of dysfunctional family life published in his book ‘Knots’.

Nirobon Yuenyong’s work also had the capacity to re-surface a powerful and surprising statement made by the remarkable psychotherapist Carl Rogers. Rogers was perhaps the most loved and revered psychotherapist (from the 1960s to the 1980s) and he once made the following remark:

That which is most personal is most general.”

This insight is often overlooked: Rogers held the view that all humans – in virtue of their shared humanity – are subject to fear, anxiety and a fundamental vulnerability, a vulnerability which, if improperly managed, can result in maladjustments. The small boy in the film ‘Midst’ experiences aloneness, loneliness and that special deep fear associated with the sheer fact of parents-in-dispute. His basic needs for love, for understanding and for a measure of control over the forces around him are universal i.e ‘that which is most personal is most general’.  But the film also shows how these difficulties may serve as catalysts for the development of inner strength and resourcefulness, for resolve and independence.

As I watched ‘Midst’ I was charmed and touched. It impressed me as a work of art located in that wonderful tradition of animation which deals with the big questions of existence. It served to remind me of the brilliant film ‘Grave of the fireflies’ which surely remains one of the best anti-war films ever made. But more than this, ‘Midst‘ can be taken as illustrative of an Aristotelian analysis of art. There are, as Virgil Aldrich puts it, ‘innuendos in Aristotle’s thinking which suggest that one of the main values  of dramatic art lies in the fact that, ‘we turn to it for a fuller contemplative realisation of the terrible and painful conditions of human life.’

And,  Aldrich continues by outlining Aristotle’s contention that through art,

‘… we come into … a sort of understanding … of the nature of the human enterprise in its cosmic setting.

Although I imagine that ‘Midst‘ did not have such lofty ambitions it demonstrates how a seemingly modest work of art can provoke hard thinking about ‘who we are.’

Nirobon Yuenyong is a highly intelligent film-maker; her work is informed by a sophisticated grasp of theory as well as the sheer skill of film-making; she draws from her own lived experiences and her awareness of the precarious world in which we live.

A future lies before the little boy in ‘Midst’: the outcome is uncertain; Like so many people he is caught in the middle of conflict. Will he, will they, find a way out?

Postscript:

I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief communication with Nirobon Yuenyong: in it she said:

I’ve  always been interested in animation and graphic design so my style is a sort of mixed media melding the hand-drawn and graphics. I like a minimal look mixed with a ‘crafted feel’ and I seek to represent emotional tones and the emotional spectrum.
The appeal of animation for me lies in the  mix of western and eastern stylistic influences; I  grew up with Japanese cartoons as well as comic-book art  and I appreciate western animated movies such as ‘Inside out’, ‘Big Hero’, ‘Toy story’, etc.

The roads to freedom

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A man walks along a road. Maybe he’s setting out for England. Maybe he’s setting out for France. Maybe he’s on ‘the roads to freedom’: he may be freeing himself from constraint or compulsion; he may be freeing himself to do things differently. He has an idea about freedom. He wants to be free.

Joel Feinberg’s book on Social philosophy begins with a chapter on freedom and constraint. It’s a wonderful chapter and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the concept of freedom.

He asks:

What then are we saying of a man when we say that he is free?

and he continues:

We may be saying very little, for the word “free,” without further specification, is often incompletely informative.

We have to examine  a) what someone is free from  b) what someone is free to do, and,       c) who it is whose freedom is at issue. (In this latter respect a person or group may be insisting on their ‘freedom’ even though the ‘freedom’ they wish to enjoy entails constraining others …)

Essential reading:

The Roads to Freedom’ (French: Les chemins de la liberté), a series of novels by Jean-Paul Sartre. (Intended as a tetralogy, it was left incomplete, with only three of the planned four volumes published.)

Memoirs of a dutiful daughter’ by Simone de Beauvoir

Wind, sand and stars’ by Antoine de Saint Expurey

Social philosophy‘ by Joel Feinberg

Hsiao-Yang Lee: the artist-as-inquirer

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Hsiao-Yang Lee looks out at the world, looks at us, looks at me, with a charming, beguiling and hypnotic gaze. She explores our image-laden world with grace and elegance. She investigates the presentation of self in the milieu of social-media and cyber-space.  The eloquent art critic Charles Darwent once noted that all art is a process of finding out and Hsiao-Yang Lee stands as a perfect exemplar of the artist-as-inquirer.

Her most recent exciting and provocative work ‘The Veil’ has just been exhibited at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey, England. The photograph (below) shows young women as both subject and object; it gives a first idea of her wonderfully stimulating project.

Her exhibition is dominated by two inter-related presentations. The first is a fascinating short black-and-white film of the artist herself. As the film begins she looks directly at the camera – at us – at me; she holds our gaze – and only for the briefest of moments does she suggest an emotion, a state of mind. Her face is beautiful; the still, almost perfect symmetry of her face, suggests a Platonic form or a mask drawn from the traditions of antiquity.

I was captivated, intrigued and disturbed by the film. It showed the head and shoulders of a young and beautiful woman, a woman simultaneously gazing and being the object of the gaze – a presence both veiled and momentarily revealing. But she remained an enigma: and that is the brilliance of the work: Who is she? And more: Is she both judge and judged, evaluated and evaluator? I wanted to get to know her despite the significant gap in our ages. I saw her as an emblem of the new international culture deluged by the computer-mediated image.

The other complementary aspect of her work, ‘The Veil’, featured a very large number of same-sized black-and-white photographs. The photographs occupied just about every inch of space in the area devoted to ‘The Veil’. Photographs of whom? Well, after seeing her film my first impression was that all the photographs were of Hsiao-Yang Lee herself. I thought that somehow she had managed to present herself in a very considerable number of ways. But then I changed my mind; the portraits on display really did seem to show similar yet different people. These were  young women – perhaps from Taiwan or Japan or Mainland China – a majority of whom had ensured that they were beautifully presented. They clearly met the canons of conventional beauty. They impressed as models, as pretty and elegant; many looked like starlets or the kind of young women who present this or that on the television; these ladies could sell things – they could advertise – they could easily be associated with all the trappings of the good consumerist life. They might even sell themselves. And, in various ways, I could not ignore the subtle or overt sexualisation of many of the represented young ‘women’; their sexual presence was a kind of ‘given’.

However, there really was a twist in this tale. In fact I learned that, after all, the photographs were of the artist herself. They were both of ‘her’ and ‘not her’. She had succeeded in making them up, of making various versions of her self. This raises some very difficult questions about identity. The photographs illustrate possible selves – and in so doing underline the fluid nature of identity. Whilst there may be a conventional cultural idea that we have a ‘self’ (perhaps a ‘real self’) Hsiao-Yang Lee inclines anyone who contemplates her work towards a process conception of the self, a self not fixed but unfolding and becoming…

At the same time the photographs demonstrate the choices we can make about how we present ourselves in a two dimensional photographic image. (Who am I to be? What effect do I wish to create? What is my real agenda? Should that agenda be hidden?) Added to this is the remarkable capacity we have for altering the image of ourselves that we present in cyber-space. A new power of veiling has emerged in the last few years (and it approximates a kind of ‘digital plastic surgery’).

My description does little justice to the dominating ‘here-ness’ of this unknown person, (these unknown persons). ‘Look at me’ she/they said – but the photographs came with a warning: ‘Look at me – although I’m competing with all the others. But please look at me … I’m beautiful, I’m attractive, I’m interesting … aren’t I?’ They were still almost girls …

I imagine that most of our engagements with art take place in two different modalities: The first is the experience of the work – its initial impact, the sensations and emotions that it excites. The second is the incipient reflective and then the more prolonged intellectual response.

So how did I begin to deepen my appreciation of the intellectual value of Hsiao-Yang Lee’s project?

I did not initially know that the title of her work was ‘The Veil’ although her reference to the notion of something hidden behind the surface resonated with my experience of watching the short film of herself. What lay behind that screen presence? And as I watched the film my own personhood became salient in my consciousness: How? Well, I was on the edge of being a voyeur. It’s discomfiting to feel like a voyeur but the very act of feeling discomfited reveals a moral dimension of ‘The Veil’: we should (at least in liberal democracies) respect the privacy of others. And perhaps we can go beyond this and remind ourselves that empathy remains one of the key elements that goes someway towards civilising the beast out of ‘man’.

But Hsiao-Yang Lee is implicitly concerned to show us the world of surplus and commodification. Her young ‘women’ are so numerous and so aestheticised that they are rendered doll-like; as playthings, as entities up for auction or on sale, as products – almost disposable. Their humanity gets lost in their production.

The work also shows the puzzle of desire; these young women are lovely creatures and seem to promise something ineffable – the pleasure of the look , the pleasures of the flesh. Their look transcends their viscerality. They underline the fact that our culture privileges a certain kind of carefully-manicured feminine ‘look’.

And perhaps the most confronting aspect of the work is the ongoing objectification of women in this age that is (after Sontag) super-saturated with the image. It must be delightful and terrible to be looked at, stared at, undressed and enjoyed – to be an object, all surface, the apotheosis of unreality.

This brilliant work shows the challenge and the double-bind of being a young woman in social media/selfie/photoshop culture. It also advocates, through the stillness of the lovely film, a slowing down, a taking of one’s time, in order to connect with another; a connection made without the ubiquitous distractions of digital technology. Her art can be read as critical; in its way, it echoes the observations made by the late David Mercer who (in 1966) thought that the societies that we are creating (highly-technological developed societies in both the west and the east) are ‘inimical to human fulfilment, to human dignity’ and ‘to human grace’. We are, in effect, distorting people both literally and metaphorically.

Oddly enough, I felt rather reluctant to talk to the artist because I imagine that, to her, I must resemble a relic of antiquity.

Hsiao-Yang Lee (Sunny Lee) is from Taiwan and has enjoyed the culture of Fine Art in England. If you have the chance do try to catch a glimpse of her beautifully conceived work. She’s a charming and wonderful example of the artist-as-inquirer.

Postscript 1; And now back to the film …

The film has a special dual quality which in part reflects the idea that art is always in some sort of dynamic relation with the viewer and, in many ways, it is the viewer who produces or constructs the work. Potentially any work of art can excite and reveal the viewer’s subjectivity. Hsiao-Yang Lee’s film had the uncanny power to switch the psychological focus from the object to the subject. Initially she was the ‘object’; after a while she became a ‘subject’. But the steadiness of her gaze began to make the viewer (me) feel under scrutiny. I, too, had become an object and found myself under some sort of examination. The examination raised questions about my own psychological characteristics and cast of mind – and touched upon the interface between the conscious and the unconscious. ‘The Veil’ has this exceptional catalytic quality.

Postscript 2; A note from the artist:

In response to my first reaction to ‘The Veil‘ Hsiao-Yang Lee told me that, as she constructed the photographs, ‘the make up, the clothing, even the expression or emotion on their (my) face’ she became ‘another person, a different me, a new character.’  She noted that she wonders why ‘these women enjoy adopting and showing a kind of seductive pose.’ She goes on to say that she really likes a quote by Carmen Hermosillo:

Cyberspace is a black hole, it absorbs energy and personality then re-presents it as an emotional spectacle. It is done by business that commodifies human interaction and emotion. And we are getting lost in the spectacle.”

By way of conclusion Hsiao-Yang Lee writes:

Perhaps, our humanity gets lost in this cyberspace, especially for my generation.

In the end, she writes,  ‘the whole point of ‘The Veil” can be summarised as follows:

“Distance created a mystery
Mystery created a curiosity
Curiosity created a fantasy
Fantasy created a desire
Desire created the hook (social media just like the hook to fish us into it) ” 

 

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And here is a still from that entrancing film:

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