Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Contents versus Expression

While trying to improve my art, I constantly try to concentrate on the message of my work - what does it need to say, what it is all about? In the eagerness to clarify my message, sometimes, I allow the the other aspect of painting - form to take back seat.

Last night, I heard a book review on NPR title The Gods, At Play In The House Of Mortals by Maureen Corrigan of the book The Infinities by Man Booker's Prize winner John Banville. What she said that struck me most is: "I used to put a lot of stock in an adage about writing. It went roughly like this: 'If a student says he wants to be a writer because he has something to say, discourage him. But if a student says she wants to be a writer because she likes to play around with words, well, that student may have what it takes to be a writer.'"

She continued: "I don't believe in absolutes about writing anymore: People write out of all sorts of longings and take many roundabout paths to producing good books. But I thought of that axiom as I was reading John Banville's new book, The Infinities. I often had only the dimmest idea about what Banville was trying to say in this novel, or indeed, what even happens in it. But it's clear that Banville — as a stylist whose first literary mentor, not surprisingly, was James Joyce — loves playing around with language. And his zest carries a reader over most opaque thickets here, where sound totally triumphs over sense."

Immediately, I thought about my desire of writing and desire of telling the story via painting or drawing. Am I falling the same trap Corrigan described here? Having something to say is important but then equally important is to tell it in a way which is engaging, interesting, and better still virtuosic. Without the well executed form, a message would be no better than a slogan.

I had a discussion about this radio book review with a writer friend and he, though didn't totally contradict Corrigan, warned me that I should not abandon my desire to tell a story or send a message - without them, virtuosity itself is nothing but just meaningless virtuoso display. Definitely I will pay more attention to play with paints, charcoals, pastels, crayons, etc.

The best contemporary artists, such as Anselm Kiefer, William Kentridge, and Andy Goldsworthy triumphed in both aspects, therefore they are great.

Devils' Dance / 魔鬼的舞蹈 / Teufels Tanz


  1. As I was going to bed, I found myself thinking about your post and the properties necessary for something to be called Art. Maybe it's just a question of the degree of assertiveness which which Maureen Corrigan vs. your friend made their case, but it sounds like there's a limit to the role design can play in Art (before it becomes "meaningless virtuoso") but the limits placed on meaning are less definitive. That does seem to be the case in art museums as well-- on a recent trip to the new Modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, Andy and I stumbled across this immensely outdated one-a-day calendar, and piece that copied out, in writing like the font of the OED, the definition of "value". Suffice it to say, we weren't exactly impressed-- but the arbiters of Art clearly had decided it should be there.

    Can a work be so focused on meaning that it ceases to be Art? And what's the scope of acceptable meaning? If Jeff Koons didn't deny that there are any hidden meanings in his work, and wrote up a long paragraph detailing what the Michael Jackson statue "means", would that change things? Thomas Kinkade claims his work conveys "the value of simple pleasures and that his intent is to communicate inspirational, life-affirming messages through his work ... he gains his inspiration from his religious beliefs and that his work is intended to contain a larger moral dimension." What makes that not count, the obnoxious over-commercialism aside? On the topic of religiously-inspired things, what about ancient Buddhist statues, or Mayan figurines?

    Can something light on meaning count as Art on the basis of aesthetics alone? The opposite does seem to be true (e.g. one-a-day calendar).

    (I don't have any answers, or educational background on the topic-- just some early-morning musings.)

  2. I don't believe that I completely agree with what Maureen Corrigan's decree. Her speech did make me to look at my writing and painting in the now light.

    I have stories to tell - writing or painting - won't guarantee that I'll create art works. I could try. I do need to have my craft to pull it off.

    I don't believe that if the meaning of a piece can be too focused to negative the artistic value of the work. I'm thinking about Kaethe Kollwitz, for example. I was afraid of her work when I was a kid and grew into worshiping her. It was the intense meaning turned me off first, which also called me back. Her incredible draftsmanship enables her works to endure endless scrutiny. Without that, her work can be just a political poster.

    As for Jeff Koons, I think the meaning is great but the execution was deeply cynical and manipulative therefore robbed the artistic value of his "sculpture" of Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

    Thomas Kinkade's creations are both badly executed and devoid of real meaning. Koons works have at least sociology value and Kinkade created nothing but kitsch.

    As for something light - could we deny the artistry of "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" or even a simple folksong? A simple Haiku? Back to artwork, that can mean a whimsical work of Paul Klee.

    I'm confused now. Does it really mean that sometimes the forms have more weight than contents?
    Matthew Felix Sun