Hello fine folk of the internet and good people all around! It sure has been a while. How have you been? Sorry, perhaps an unfair question. In this day and age it seems increasingly impossible to give an answer shorter than a full blown essay to that question. Let me rephrase and say that I hope that, on the whole, you all are doing OK or better.
I've been wondering what to write for this next blog entry for a long time. I've started a number of drafts but was never able to get through them. As time grew I found it increasingly difficult to come up with something to write because I felt it had to be bigger and better than ever before. I stumbled upon a sentence that remedied that; 'Strive for excellence, not perfection.' This has helped me with my art and now also my writing. The phrase reminded me that perfection is an impossible task but excellence, that resides within a mindset that's bigger than just the task at hand. This concept of multiple disciplines working together is particularly relevant when it comes to visual art. Recently I kept seeing a discussion coming back which dealt with taste. Which got me thinking.
There is no accounting for taste
Or is there? If this sentiment was completely true it would be nearly impossible for a diverse group of critics to come to a consensus about what constitutes good art and what constitutes bad art. Since this is not, at least entirely, the case there is an obvious baseline we need to take a closer look at. There is more to art than mere opinion. The art of looking at art. Now, it's extremely important to understand that this has very little to do with personal opinion, to which each and everyone one of us has a fundamental right. I'll try not to fall into another discussion where we have to explicitly explain that things do not have to mutually exclusive. Meaning, just because I don't like A doesn't mean I am all for and only into B. Now that we've gotten that out of the way we can start.
Looking at art is a (surprisingly?) complicated task. It takes a lot of knowledge in order to be able to contribute to the discussion in a productive way. It's all about the frame (get it) of reference. When looking at art we have an incredibly long list of stuff to look at and understand, like (but not limited to):
- Fundamentals of technique
Or, to get a bit more specific:
- Brush economy
- Color choice
- Color temperature and saturation versus the storytelling
- Emotion (nice and vague, just the way I like it)
- Oh, good glob, so much more...
This is all well and good but the problem is that so, so much of art is subjective. This leads to a paradox. If so much is subjective, how can we keep opinions out? Part of this is trust. Trust that a professional opinion is formed through years of exposure to artwork and this helps shape an informed opinion, not an off the cuff one. In essence some pieces speak to someone and not to others. This personal touch makes separating personal opinion from 'fact' (as far as facts go in judging art) incredibly difficult when looking at it from an outside point of view. Think: 'Why does the critics opinion matter and mine does not?'. See above on trust.
When you get started yourself you can judge a piece based on it's technical execution but even that would be pointless since some artists break the rules on purpose to get a better effect. What an absolute minefield.
The piece above uses multiple different light sources to convey the same daylight setting but in this case it doesn't matter in the slightest. The brushwork matches exactly the violent and dynamic scene that unfolds before us. The last thing we as a viewer are concerned with is how accurate the lighting is, the only thing that matters is the action. This means we have to shift how we look at art and redefine what it means to look at art. No one ever said this would be easy.
Look with your guts, not just your eyes
Because art is so much more than just the sum of it's parts (this is sort of the whole thing about art) we can't judge a piece just by following a checklist, even though we need to have a thorough understanding of everything on that checklist. It's important to remember that there is only really 1 important criteria:
Does the piece speak for itself.
This means, does the piece fulfill it's self imposed task of evoking the right emotion. This is something we can all form an opinion on. We have to really wonder what a piece is trying to say. With production art this can be more simplistic since it's a lot more functional than liberal art would be and it doesn't always get the chance to speak for itself on an emotional level. The one thing production art has to do is convey the scene it was meant to convey. The brief. If the task is to paint a zombie horse, and the result is a clear and unmistakable zombie horse, regardless of style, it has already succeeded on some level. After that, quality followed by taste. There is a 'buffer' zone in between where you can talk about the painting's merits based on technical application and skill and that's about it. However, some production art might have the task of evoking a certain emotion. You see how quickly all of this get's complicated?
Now, I know some of you might think: "That's all well and good Titus, but stuff these days just all looks the same!"
Taste is like flavors
Ah, I do love a good cryptic statement. Here is the metaphor.
Looking at art is a lot like eating food. When we are very young we can only differentiate a few flavors. We have no real frame of reference and we only know if we like something or not. Cheese tastes like cheese. We like it or we don't. As we grow older and get more exposed to different flavors we get more nuanced. Cheese all of a sudden can be bold, flat, creamy, smelly, old, young and so on. The more we eat and explore the more flavors get unlocked and before you know it you can distinguish what a meal lacks. Perhaps more salt? (It's never more salt...)
So here is the annoying truth. By saying that 'everything looks alike' you are actually saying 'I can't differentiate these pieces because I haven't built up enough reference yet'. This is fine. We can't all be art critics. This is where your opinion is totally valid and yours. It just doesn't make it a fact. Just because it looks that way doesn't mean it is.
Now, it's not entirely fair what I'm saying in the sense that I'm being too harsh. There is this fundamental truth to the function of art that artists and critics alike sometimes lose track of; at some point art has to make sense and appeal at first glance. There comes a point where if you have to explain a piece for 20 minutes before it works perhaps it's too complicated and overshot it's mark, no matter how clever it is. This is a fine line because the question then becomes: 'Where do you set the baseline of artistic understanding of your target audience?'. The higher the baseline the more you can get away with. If it's low, you run the risk of being perceived as generic. If it's too high your run the risk of alienating a lot of people because they don't know what the hell they are looking at.
Here is an incredibly over simplified but perhaps handy questionnaire checklist to glance over when you are not sure if a piece is good or not, or if it looks too much like all the other pieces you are seeing:
- What was the brief?
- Did the piece stick to the brief?
- Is the image clear?
- How does the artist handle light?
- How does the artist handle anatomy?
- How does the artist handle perspective?
- Hows does the artist use these 3 above questions to tell a story?
- Does the texture of the paint affect the image?
- Does the piece speak to you?
- Name 5 things why it does or doesn't.
Next time you are not sure, just for kicks, write down your initial snap opinion. Then go through the checklist and write down your opinion again. See if there is any change. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be. Self education will only make art more fun to look at!
Human in the mirror
Like Michael Jackson famously said in his song 'Man in the Mirror':
For all it's cheese it's true. In times where the weight of the world seems inescapable, a time where there seems to be more unjust than just, more strife than fortune and more hate than love, we owe it to ourselves and others to look in the mirror and wonder if we are the best we can be. This is true always. And while that statement carries way too much gravitas to be applicable solely to art I'd like to hope that at least some of it crosses over.
The tendency seems to be that it's blame, complain, point fingers first, learn and ask questions later - if you're lucky. I'd very much like to see this process reversed if anything. Art, whether it's production or not, is always a reflection of current affairs. It's never created in a vacuum. Some pieces have more space to create a voice. Some pieces get to yell and others only whisper. All of it is made by people who have their own views of the world and this should be understood by the viewer. Ask yourself if there is more to be understood in a piece than you currently do. Is there a way that this artwork can make your grow your understanding, and if it does, isn't that a wonderful thing? Admitting we don't understand everything we encounter the first time is one of the most rewarding realizations. It means we can grow, we can discover. Looking at art can be fun and rewarding but it's more complicated than it might seem at first glance. In this it'd be silly to strive for perfection but excellence is within all our reach.
So moving forward let's not only stay awesome, let's also stay excellent.
A lot has happened in the last few months. A lot of stuff that made me very sad and a lot of stuff that made me very happy. Perhaps it's me getting older but I find that I am reflecting more and more on the behavior of myself and others. It's baffling how you see intolerance once more take over. It fills me with a deep sadness that I feel I put into my work, whether it's noticeable or not. I desperately, almost naively like a child, want all of us to come together. To take a stand against intolerance, hatred, bigotry, racism and everything divisive. I see so many good people in my community do the good work and I urge everyone who reads this to pause for just a second and do a quick moral check. It's never too late to turn the wheel around and make a change for the better. I don't believe we are born bad. I do believe art and games can unite us. We cannot tolerate intolerance, we need to break that paradox. You might question why this is attached to an article about how to look at art, the reason is simple. Like I said before, art is not created in a vacuum. I just wanted to show you real quick what that actually means.