Contours of Thinking about Art

A Show at the Museum of Art:  Black on White

Imagine walking into a museum ─ an art museum with a new exhibit called Black on White.The room housing the exhibit is small and set off from the regular exhibits of18th century landscapes. This room traditionally houses exhibits dedicated to the boundaries of the human imagination.

You approach the first image. It appears to be a line, more or less straight and more orless textured with shades of black. The line is inscribed on a fabric that looks like white space. The title plate says Unknown Artist. Carbon dated to 8000 BCE. Southwest US. Found inside a recessed area of cave.  Thought to represent a hunting weapon with magical qualities.

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Unknown Artist. Carbon dated to 8000BCE. Southwest US.

Found inside a recessed area of cave/ A hunting weapon?

You might wonder about magic as a much needed adjunct to the harsh surrounds of life.After all religion has been found in all societies, though not to the same extent and not with everyone participating ─ but still there as a pervasive force. Life without the constant light and noise of contemporary life, a life without modern shelter and weapons. As much as can be inferred from life in a primitive technological period, art likely expressed magical desires to control the environment. Art, religion and the practicalities of survival in the deep recesses of the human psyche, measured in thousands of years of the history of the human species ─ modern man and woman notwithstanding.

You walkover to the next image and it looks remarkably the same: a black line on  awhite space. The title plate says, Artist: Emilio Velez, A lone tree on an Alaskan snowscape as seen through snow goggles.  As you think about the artist description,you might nod in agreement. Yes, there is the brilliant white snow. The snowgoggles prevent me from being overwhelmed and blinded by the whiteness of the snow. The tree looms up ─ a solitary pole of blackness. The artist’s intent isclear, revealing and persuasive.

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Emilio Velez / A lone tree on an Alaskan snowscape as seen through snow goggles

Having fully absorbed the impressions crafted by the artist of a black tree on white snow,you now walk to the next painting. This image appears to be the same as the previous image ─ a line, more or less straight and more or less textured with shades of black. You look at the artist description and it says, Frank Morton, A picture of the universe

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Frank Morton, A picture of the universe

Aha! Now the artist has taken a photorealistic image of the object (the universe) and placed it on a white space. You now recall the news story of the well-known photo-astronomer who claimed to have taken a picture of the universe. A naturalistic approach to image making. Again, the artist’s intent is clear, revealing and persuasive.

You continue on through the exhibit. The next image looks strikingly like the last three,except this one is labeled, Noemi Parvet, The number one.  It is an abstraction codified as blackness on whiteness and, again, the artist’s intent is clear,revealing and persuasive.

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Noemi Parvet, The number one

Viewed from the perspective of human history ─ or histories since there have been many cultures and institutions with their particular trajectory ─ these images have been understandable in a concrete way. Or at least they appear straightforward.The next one seems odd, almost as if a con artist decided to play in the artist’s sandbox. The curator and collector were willing to go along with the con with a nod and a wink. Strange.

Here, the artist is reaching beyond the lie of representational art. We know that theimage of the sun is not really the sun. That is an acceptable fiction. But now we have the trickster who wants us to believe the exact opposite of what the fiction claims to represent ─ as if a painting of the sun were called the moon.Is this the disdain of the modern? The artist’s own name ─ D.A. Lie ─ is both aput on and a putting off of the viewer; true and false at the same time. This is the weak howl of alienated individuals, participating in a civilization that is collapsing upon itself with no foundational illusions, small or grand, togive palpable meaning to life. In this image, the artist’s intent is clear ─ to lie to the viewer (can something be two different things at the same time?) ─which, while revealing about the image’s content may cease to be persuasive as art. Oh well . . . time to move on:  This is really the sun AND this is really the moon.

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D.A. Lie / This is really the sun AND this is really the moon

More modernism.Or maybe a post─post modernism. Here you might infer that the artist is uncertain of self as well as an uncertainty about what is real, leading to an infinite regression ─ of a thing posing as a thing posing as a thing posing asa thing, and so on. For these artists, the result is an inability to find beauty; they only find the emptiness of the regression. It is the artist who says, ‘I can do nothing that speaks to the magical acts found in art from kachinas to Munch’s Scream. Instead,I can pose what looks natural and say it has been transformed into art simplybecause of the pose itself. And if I can persuade museums and collectors to buy the pose, then I no longer need to be an artist, but only pretend.’ The modern artist’s intent is clear, but is it any longer revealing about either the content of the image or persuasive about what art is or ought to be?

You come to the sixth image. Here the description states, Xingua-Jun, Black color on a white space.

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Xingua-Jun, Black color on a white space

It is what it is, not a fiction or symbol of something else, but only itself, as if to say‘There is no art, but just color on a white space.’

In thinking back on the exhibition, you realize that you have just experienced the breadth of the visual artistic endeavor  ─  from magical object, to impressionistic, to naturalistic, to abstract expressionist perspectives and, of course, the nihilist and Philistine who claims there is no art, but simply ego put to a white space in the nature of colored inks. And even lying and posing may indeed be called art ─ if one wants to stretch the terminology and call up, down and down, up.

Yes, there are different traditions and individual styles within these visual perspectives, and it is very much worth the effort to appreciate these variations. One might also argue that by stepping back, we can understand the limits of human thought and, by way of those limits, understand the unity of the human psyche in expressing visual artistic endeavors. Some societies and periods of history might favor one style over another, but each style is accessible to human thought ─ at least in terms of the human experience up to this point in history. But even within these limits, the variety of human experience is immense.

Even more so when we realize that all art is summed up by dots on an X-dimensional plane(generally, two dimensions). Get a big enough electron microscope and even paint will dissolve into dots, or points of light. From this vantage point, one can hardly discern an image of art from a child’s scratching with crayons. All are dots. What are needed to differentiate the child’s play from the artist’s image are the elements that comprise the goodness of an aesthetic object. Here,we rediscover the importance of form, composition, theme, color management,perspective, and the like. We do not need to give up any of the craft in the many traditions of creating art.

Each object must be taken on its own. Is this artistic or not? We can refer to a tradition ─to the media, the craft and styles ─ but such a discussion merely takes us into various technologies, patterns and reputational schemes that can be applied to create the art image. Those are useful for learning about the manner and categorization of art objects.

But, truly,each image must stand on its own. Is the image compelling from an aesthetic perspective? Aesthetic? To what aesthetic should we refer? Some might be trapped inside an ethnocentric box, thinking that the object must be representational (does the man look like a correctly drawn man?) or that three-dimensional perspective is somehow better than an image without it. Many cling to an ethnocentric aesthetic ─ which works for those who live inside that particular box. But the human experience, and human artistic experience is more than one box, more than two boxes, and more than boxes, too.

At the othe rextreme from ethnocentrism is relativism. That can lead into the trap of aworld without any standards. Before we leap back into, ‘oh yes, western representational art’ or some other easy way to grab hold of a standard, it might be more prudent to indulge ourselves in the variety of artistic images from ancient to modern times, and from culture A to culture Z, and from painted objects to photographed objects to digitally re-mastered objects.

With this one black line on a white space, we have already seen six distinct pictures: a magical line, a tree on a snowscape, a picture of the universe, the number one,a lie, a pose and black paint on a white space. The physical markings are the same, but the context ─ expressed bywords ─ sets them apart as different objects or different perceptions of a visually identical object.

The human experience is not a closed enterprise. Within our limitations in thought and expression, there are yet many ways to concoct artistic imagery and, then, to appreciate it. Some dialogue would help in talking through what we see, some thought would help in attending to the artistry of the object, and some empathy would help in communing with the moment that the artist intends for us to experience.

It is also the rare moment when our imagination is not inflected by the world of words ─either as explicit and consciously aware or as embedded through our socialization into one or more cultures. These are the words that we bend and shape the perceived world to our particular needs and, of course, which have already bent and shaped us to societies needs and, in turn, are being bent and shaped by creative individuals. The ongoing struggle of the individual in society permeates our art and, indeed, every aspect of our life.

From the perspective of the individual, the curator of the original Black on White exhibit some fifty years ago helped pave the way for demonstrating how the same starting point can lead to the concoction of a variety of artistic images. Or at least can lead to a variety of labeled boxes in which we find or discover different images.

But now, you notice there is a seventh image. The show has been reinstalled with a new image. It is still the same line inside the same white box, but the line has apparently been tinkered with and unlike the other six previous versions or so the artist says.

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Artist X / That thou art:  Homage to Black on White, a digital reinterpretation

The artist notes that he had seen the earlier show and that he was reinterpreting that imagery. An homage to black on white. The artist explains that he is conveying the relationship between his idea and the pixels within a digital imaging program. He also states that his image is, in fact, a collage of all the other images presented in this exhibit, that his work is a synthesis of all the styles and contextual statements presented and, as such, his digital art work constitutes something new and unique in art ─ a digital aesthetic. It is not amere copy, for that would be a reproduction or giclée; rather, it is a new rendering with gradients, beveling, transform, filters and the like that are beyond the perception of the human eye, but altogether possible with digital technology. Or so he says.

The curator of the show had been tempted to exclude this image because it looked the same.Was this, the curator reflected, simply the exercise of using a new toolset ─ thatit was only a new dimension of thought by way of new technology in the same manner when canvas supplanted wood panels. Or had this artist contributed something more to traditional notions of aesthetics expressed in the first sixblack lines on a white space? And what was traditional anyway? The digital artist titled the seventh image: Thatthou art.

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The curator was puzzled by the title. The curator had thrown up his hands and decided for himself that not enough was known to categorize this visual experience. Maybe it was a new style of art after all. The curator saw the crowds clustered around the last image and accepted the digital artist’s intent as a matter of faith. Perhaps this is what is needed to draw an admiring audience back into the museum ─ maybe this could be another fundable category ─ impressionism, artdeco, cubism, modernism, post-modernism, watercolor, fauvism, pointillism, and now, digital art.

Joe Nalven, 2009

Historical note:

This aesthetic puzzle was originally conceived in the  mid 1960s in a class on Creativity at Columbia University. The text was Arthur Koestler’s book of the same name(1964). From time to time, I’ve elaborated upon it, but the core understanding remains. I have used this example occasionally in classes I’ve taught in philosophy and cultural anthropology and alluded to it in my imagery when perception is confounded by the magic of art. A version was published in Going Digital: The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists by Joe Nalven and JDJarvis, pp. 25-30, Thomson, 2005.The Going Digital book takes the next step by adding quite a bit more information tothe artistic endeavor than simply a black line ─ three photographs were used to capture the built environment, the natural environment and the human form. Clearly, the aesthetic hypothetical of a black line on a white space is designed to set the stage for a far more expansive discussion of the aesthetic enterprise and not substitute for the world we actually live in. Our world has many more colors and shapes, we have fuzzy lines, densities and perspective, and not just a black line on a white space.

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