Saturday 25 October 2008

Artwork Mondays: a painting's "aura"

Today, I'd like to touch on how the artist feels about their own work, and its "aura", and how that differs for the Fine Artist versus the Illustrator. And no, I haven't lost my skeptical, rational mind.

The idea of a painting's aura is one I remember being presented without judgment by the prof in university. The concept has stayed with me.

It's the notion that original paintings have an "aura" that emanates off the paint & canvas surface. Almost as though the original painting has a soul, or a living presence you sense when looking at it. It adds to their specialness. You have not truly experienced the painting until you've seen it in person. Our teachers tried to impart that this is mainly a macho, modernist idea.

In Fine Art, the modernist period was something fairly specific. To sum it up all too briefly, modernism in painting was "paintings with the subject matter of paint". You weren't painting a still-life of an apple: you were painting red paint. As an example, think of something by Rothko, or Pollock. Giant humongous canvases, covered usually in a couple of dominating colours. There was a lot of baggage that went along with this type of work, including that they should not ideally be viewed as reproductions.

Post-modernism in the fine art world, was (again, gross oversimplification) about deconstructing those modernist ideals of pure paint and pure sculpture, and of overthrowing the unique. A post-modern piece of art could contain both a painting and sculpture adjacent as one piece. Take that, modernist!

To look at one example, modernist Charles Demuth created the painting Figure Five in Gold, (1928). Classic Modernism, interplay of colour over a familiar, somewhat random symbol (5) we all know. It's distinct, and certainly was in '28.

Post-modern painter Robert Indiana created this painting,The Figure Five, (1963) as a way of overthrowing the originality of Demuth's Five. He disrupted the original by Demuth's claim to importance by making it one of many instead of unique. I see it as kind of a fine art world version of "screw you".

So paintings may have an aura you can only feel in the presence of the actual artwork, not a reproduction? Not likely. This smacks of vague New Age-y feelings-as-fact. I wondered about this idea for a long time. An exhibit, entitled 7 Florentine Heads came to the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I remember there was to be a Da Vinci drawing included. When I saw it, I anticipated the moment. I frickin' love Da Vinci, and his interest in science as well as his sfumato technique. I looked at each drawing in turn. Looked at one, read the placard, and saw it was his. I got an involuntary shiver down my back. Was it the aura?

Even back then in my proto-skeptical days, I knew there wasn't. I only felt it's "specialness" after reading who it was by. Looking only at the drawing, I saw another example of excellent work by a Renaissance artist. Context mattered to the aura, it seemed.
Which brings me to addressing the photos of posters peppered throughout this post. Is one of the differences between an illustrator and a fine artist -at least, a modernist one- how they feel about a painting's uniqueness and supremacy of being the original?

Recently, the artist (and good friend of mine) Christopher Zenga took his artwork online for the first time. And when discussing how the first couple of posts about his Zombears looked glowing off of the computer screen, Chris remarked to me, that he just sat back and stared at them; he was entranced by his own artwork reproduced in a different medium.

Chris is right. I was elated for months looking at my paintings and drawings online, and knowing others might see something of value there. Do I have a fondness for the originals? Of course. Some are hanging in my living room. And yet there is an undeniable thrill to walk down the streets of Toronto and see a poster up with artwork I laboured over.
Starting with a discussion on the nature of art over at Laelaps, author of Renaissance Oaf Sean Craven has had a lot of excellent points about whether how to judge if a piece of artwork can be deemed "art".

I would put forth there is a difference between art created for the purpose of Illustration, and Fine Art, and a small part of that difference is in how the artist feels toward reproductions. The tingly feeling is enhanced when the image leaps forth to new media and many eyeballs.

The photos throughout this post were taken downtown at the University of Toronto campus, and are of my poster for the upcoming lecture by PZ Myers presented by the Centre for Inquiry Ontario.

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Sean Craven said...

This is fascinating stuff -- I may well have more to say after I've had time do digest it.

But it immediately kick-started my thinkbone. Here are a few preliminary reactions.

One, the struggle between modernism and post-modernism is very specifically one of the things I had in mind when I complained about the academic treatment of art. This kind of labeling can be used as an inspirational springboard just as can any set of limitations -- but classification -- taxonomy, if you will -- strikes me as something with the potential to kill a lot of creativity, especially if young artists are exposed to it in an academic setting where their grades -- which can have a serious impact on their quality of life both in the present and the future -- will to a degree depend on their ability to incorporate this taxonomy into their work and their thinking. Those with strong internal motivations will either reject or incorporate the influence (the works of 5 in your post are a perfect example of what I'm saying here); those who don't have that driving force may well wind up with a set of influences imposed from without.

And the shift from the heroic artist of Modernism to the elegant hyper-intellectual critics of Post-Modernism is, again, a big part of what I was talking about when I spoke of the Academy's hostility toward the creative impulse. As someone whose abilities grow directly from a lifetime of effort paid for in poverty the treatment of art as the compost from which critical thought can bloom causes me to glower and test the edge of my blade, as it were.

I'm not expecting to be regarded as 'heroic' in the mode of the moderns -- but for Pete's sake, is a little respect too much to ask for? Many Post-Modernists say yes.

Of course, Post-Modern critical thinking gives us a very useful toolbox of concepts and the incorporation of biographical and historical knowledge can greatly enhance our appreciation of the works of a given creator, but in the end it really should be about the art. Really.

Whew. Okay, I'm done yelling. Sorry about going off on a tangent. I'm cool, I'm cool...

I think you've got a good point about the non-mystical nature of works of art as compared to illustrations. Frankly, though, I think that the difference between fine art and illustration is at times a lot more arbitrary than many folks would have it be.

Is Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are a piece of commercial art or an example of fine art? From a taxonomic perspective, it's clearly illustration. It's a work done specifically for publication and the pictures are done as accompaniment to words. Obviously it's commercial art and its images are illustrations.

But even though it fails the 'fine art' test it is still art of a very high order. In virtually every facet from craftsmanship to taste to depth to enduring influence it has all the hallmarks of serious art -- but it isn't 'fine art.'

How is a creator to react to this?

What you wrote about the differences in experiencing art here hit hard. The emotional experiences associated with art are contextually sensitive -- and you can't predict how the context will affect the viewer/reader unless you have a lot of experience. Hence my shock at realizing how my works were changed when they were large, or your friend finding new joy in his work. In the latter case I'd suggest that in addition to realizing that his stuff was out in the world, the actual physical nature of art on a monitor may have had something to do with it -- projected light has a totally different visual quality than reflected light. On the other hand, xeroxing onto flyers has a diminishing visual effect -- but seeing your work in a social context is empowering.

Thanks a lot for this dialog, man. As someone just starting to try and put himself out into the world these questions are weighing heavily on me and it really makes a difference to be able to discuss them with someone who is both informed and non-dogmatic.

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks for your reply, Sean!

When you ask how is a creator to react to this, I personally think most art-makers don't really think about it too much - at first. Then the labeling sets in, and a career path needs to be chosen, such as gallery or print.

In my own opinion, something I failed to communicate in that Laelaps post waaay back then is that too much of the current fine art realm is broken. History often writes and re-writes the importance of different art movements and decades.

Personally, I suspect 50 or a hundred years from now, there may well be a greater importance attached to the scientific art of this era - will it be seen as a burgeoning time of scientifically informed creativity? History doesn't always shine brightest on the art of the gallery-goers in the end (think Van Gogh).

I was always appalled that a genius like H.R. Giger is never discussed in art history classes. Tr: find a text book on the history of art and he isn't in there. Too "commercial".

Sean Craven said...

Ah! So we were more in agreement at that first encounter than I'd thought. One thing that's a little grotesque is that the fine arts world has such a love of the tragic artist that someone who is popular and financially successful is automatically barred from entry. The few exceptions seem to be patronized as well.

But there's an interesting backlash going on. The Pop Surrealists and Lowbrow artists seem to be attracting a lot of attention. We may well see people like Mark Ryden, Dave Cooper, etc. showing up in textbooks in fifty years.

Classism plays heavily into this and always has. Art is usually produced by artisans (not uncommonly from the laboring class) for the elite. Reproduction changed that and a lot of what we're talking about is a matter of people wanting to retain the special bunny status of their preferred art, even at the cost of preferring lousy art. I'll stop there -- I think that's gonna be my next B.I.I.A? post.

(Speaking of Giger. I remember when Jello Biafra was on TV attempting to defend his use of one of Giger's Penis Landscape paintings as the centerfold of a Dead Kennedy's album, Frankenchrist as I recall but-I-could-be-wrong.

Up until then I respected Biafra but when he said, "Giger's a surrealist artist, who knows what the picture's supposed to be?"

Since I'd seen the album in question I knew that it was an image of a chancre-speckled landscape made up of penises sliding into vaginas. That is what it was. The only appropriate response would have been to say, "Will you please just acknowledge that some parts of the human body are kinda funky and GROW UP."

But no. He tried to weasel. And the sight of the DKs suing each other over royalties...

Oh, my fallen people. You make me glad I'm too bald to sport a mohawk anymore.)

Christopher Zenga said...

Hey Guys,

I try to talk less and paint more, and I tend not to get wrapped up in debates regarding the "rules of art" I don't have the same art education back ground as you both, I spent 2 years in Sheridan doing life drawing and photography but I never really was a good student. I try to do what I like and if I am happy with the end result, all is dandy. I never really thought of putting my self I a category of artist, but Sean had mentioned Maurice Sendak's book as "clearly illustration" but if he took each wild thing, and painted them on a 81/2 x 11" canvas in oil and hung them in an art gallery do they cease to become illustrations even though the source material IS illustrated work?

or if he makes print reproductions of those oil paintings(like I will be doing)do they become commercial art work again,and therefore become illustrations?

Regarding the REAL LIVE painting, seeing the light hit the oil of the "2 candles" painting Glendon made for my wife and I is WAAAAY more powerful than the Michael turner print I have in my stairwell, so, yes, the presence of an original has a special quality that a print can't reproduce, however a print can evoke a whole different batch of emotions. or friend Rudi has a HUGE Giger print in his foyer that is just AWESOME!!! it does not have that same "aura" as the original but it is striking none the less.

I know when Rudi saw my "zombear of Fatima" he freaked out, but when he saw the original at my place he was like"oh hey! there's the original, cool!" the original defiantly evoked a different reaction (you'll have to ask him for more on that though, so I'm not misquoting)

any way, I just felt like spewing,
I am sorry for the lack of focus
Later days,

Christopher Zenga

Glendon Mellow said...

Sean - Yeah, we are in agreement, at least as far as how important scientific illustration should be.

Glendon Mellow said...

Chris - as Macluhan said, the medium is the message. I suppose if you keep flipping Sendak's art into new media, it would count as different types of pieces to an extent.

Your comments about the light hitting the oil painting I gave you actually are the subjecy of the next Artwork Monday, Chris. You've anticipated me a bit there. There's more to the "aura" idea than I've said so far.

I like what you said about our friend Rudi's reactions to seeing the image online and then in person. I think this is the type of reaction every art-maker wants for their work. Someone who is excited to see it and appreciate it in every form, disregarding the estranged-twin cultures of Fine Art and Illustration.

Glendon Mellow said...

Geez. I wish I could walk along Queen St. West and the 401 Richmond building here in Toronto and continue this discussion over espresso with you guys.

Maybe with a few other artsy-sciencey bloggers too, taking a look at the crossover fine art toys at Magic Pony.

Anonymous said...

All discussion aside...ain't it cool to see your stuff out in public?
Just tickles my ego bone to see it.

Cool, Glendon.

Glendon Mellow said...

Yeah, Leslie it was pretty cool.

I'd like to do it again!

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Chris! I hear what you're saying -- but I'm the kind of guy who over-analyzes everything. And since I'm interested in trying to make at least a fraction of my living with my art I kinda have to try and figure out where and how I can fit in...

And Glendon, if you ever find yourself in the neighborhood of the Bay Area I'd love to get a chance to talk. There are benefits to having the opportunity to think things over before responding but it's a lot more fun to talk in real time.

I'd probably go for a beer or a steamed milk, though. That caffeine stuff is too much for me.

Christopher Zenga said...

Hi Sean,

thanks for your comments. I am trying to do the same with my Walking Tedd collection, but I have decided a long time ago that I would create art rather then debate art.

I have a very close friend that told me once "no one wants to see your heart on a canvas" I have to disagree, My passion for art, and my love of horror films come through the most vibrant in my paintings and drawings and I have to believe that I have the chance to touch some one in some way by doing what I do, I need to keep doing it. That's where I want I want to fit in. I want to create, and be known for doing something that is pure.

I would love to have that coffee and a chat. If you have a moment check out what I'm doing at

Later days,

Christopher Zenga

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