Saturday, April 23, 2016

Art and the Symbol
Opinion Piece

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

The need to address the importance of art is often over-shadowed in the hum-drum of our daily lives. Digital disruption has made us time poor. We spend so much of our lives digitally communicating and yet so little of our lives actually thinking about important issues. Prompting and responding just evaporates our time. How many people do you see, head down, walking, prompting or responding using two thumbs with lightning speed on an electronic device, oblivious of the path ahead but with the expectation that the human wall in front will open in a similar fashion to when the Lord held back the sea for Moses. These people are so time poor they cannot afford to be seated in order to read or respond to a message!

Texting while walking may get you up to 15 days in prison in the USA.

In today's world, art is thought to be a "given". No one would dispute the need for public art galleries and museums in a civilized world, and yet in today's world the other extreme is also present - ISIS destroyed historic artefacts in Mosul Museum (Iraq) and the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed Bamiyan Buddha statues. It appears that in some quarters art is considered as "optional" - to the loony few!

The taller of the two Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) in 1976.

Digital disruption has altered art for some and even made it coincidental for others. It is so easy now to take a thousand pictures with a digital camera and select the one unique photograph (and present it as if it was purposely framed). Digital disruption has rendered art in some quarters as being serendipitous.

Back in the 1960s, a hot young artist named Pierre Brass (monkey) came on the scene and art critics immediately fell in love with his brash style. It was in fact serendipitous art.

It is timely to review why art is such a necessary human endeavour. After all, it is not needed for our physical survival and for most of us that are engaged in it, there is little monetary reward. In making it, we can even want to destroy it. Remember that life-size dollhouse that Canadian artist Heather Benning created that we fell in love with? Well, it was recently burnt to the ground — by the artist!

Photograph courtesy of Heather Benning.
“It was always my intention that I would destroy The Dollhouse. I did not want to see it fall down or get vandalized. No one vandalizes a memory unless it was a bad one,” Saskatchewan installation artist Heather Benning recently said of her life-size prairie dollhouse.

Lewis Mumford wrote a series of lectures in the 1950s under the umbrella of "Art and Technics"[1]. He was most concerned that the meaning and value of art itself would be swamped by human being's fascination with machines (and that was long before digital disruption was even coined). He envisaged that art stood for the inner and subjective side of human beings; it encompassed all of its symbolic structures in order to be able to externalize and project inner states, and most importantly, give concrete and public forum to the artist's emotions, feelings, intuition of meanings and values of life. He juxtaposed art with technics. He purposely used the word "Technics" rather than technology or techniques since he wanted to describe that part of of human activity wherein, by an energetic organization of the process of work, human beings controlled and directed forces of nature for their own purpose.

Poster for Metropolis (1927 film).

Today's post will rely heavily on his first lecture of "Art and the Symbol"[1].

Art and the Symbol[1]
Art appeals to so many people precisely because it deals in "ill defined" areas such as human feeling, visual response and the way in which we identify with what we see. Our engagement with art, whether seeing or the making of it, touches our inner senses, which usually cannot be captured in words. What we "feel" is more intuitive than what can arise out of rules, logic reason, factual information, measurement, the right or wrong ways "to do".

The above poster art is Marie-Therese Wisniowski's "Graffiti-esque" interpretation of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" (1893). The background is a wall that Marie-Therese Wisniowski photographed in Venice.

When children first engage in art making, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development places them in the reflexive stage. Here the emphasis is on doing, reacting and aping as well as saying - "Look at me! Look what I've done!" Mimicking is a very important learning tool at this stage of intellectual development. Hence children in this stage are trying to reconstruct their world by using simple imagery that identifies each object to themselves and so to the viewer at large (e.g. a stick figure wearing a triangle shaped-dress is a "girl", whereas one without is a "boy" etc.)

Children who can depict the human form at the age of four are more likely to be brighter in their teenage years, a study by King's College London has found. Drawings of more than 15,000 children were graded for this study.

Art is person-centric. Its creation demands engagement and in doing so, expands the providence of a singular act to a much wider cohort. It educates, instructs, communicates and stimulates feelings, emotions, attitudes and values - in an individualized form that springs from the "well" of one particular person within one particular culture and projects it to a plurality of forms beholden to other persons from many other cultures. Sympathy and empathy are evoked wherever and whenever art is appreciated, whereas derision and scorn may be invoked where and when its engagement is not understood nor appreciated.

Crowds gather around the painting - Mona Lisa.

Art arises out of the need to create beyond requirements for an animal to survive. Unlike animals, modern human beings do not merely respond to visible and audible signals, but rather can abstract and re-present parts of the environment, parts of the human experience, in the detectable and durable forms of symbols. These symbols create meaning for life itself and moreover, capture imagined or real experiences that would have otherwise evaporated from one's consciousness and so be lost to the corporate memory in its entirety.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Self-Portrait, 1934/1937. The Nazis called it "Entartete Kunst" or degenerate art.

Not all symbolism is art. Once human beings were liberated from the immediate pressing environment, mere substitution without abstraction would be as boring as the habit to total recall in telling a story - and in fact, more futile.

Realism - Pomegranate by Nikolai Shurygin.

Early in human being's development of consciousness and mindfulness, oral sounds emanated from human mouths in an unstructured babble, similar to the auditory attempts of infants of today to convey crude states of emotions. The function of communication therefore must have preceded the function of abstraction. Speech, as Danish philologist Otto Jespersen has pointed out, was probably a source of communion long before it became useful as an instrument of practical communication. Essentially, like a child's development, speech evolved as expressions of inner states, progressed into crude noises that represented internal and external objects, to phrases that described concepts. Conjunctions and verbs became a more refined stage of speech in later developments. The written word followed the oral trajectory.

Incoherent babble of a child leads to spoken language within a few years.

By the feat of symbolic representation, human beings freed themselves from the pressing stimulus of their immediate environment, and from the straight jacket of the here and now. Hence, experiences lived or imagined could be mapped for others to taste and savour. Art with no objective existence could project new potentialities and so uncover heretofore hidden meanings. With the aid of conveyed symbolism spirituality grew and without these symbols human beings could not escape from concreteness of the here and now.

Crucifixion by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

Art is not just a substitute from life or an escape from life, but rather it is a manifestation of significant impulses and values that cannot be expressed in any other form. Even in the oldest paleolithic cave painting, the artist reveals more to us than the fact that the details of a horse or bison were observed: the artist is also revealing in the quality of the line used - its selectivity, its sureness, its express rhythm - something of the immersed culture that the artist resided in.

Lascaux Images. Instead of studying those magnificent galloping horses and bisons, researchers are investigating the symbols painted beside them.

Art itself is not divorced from the environment in which the artist resides. When society is healthy, the artist may reinforce its health; but when it is ailing, the artist may likewise reinforce its ailments. This may be the reason why artists are looked upon with suspicion by moralists such as Plato and Tolstoy, who wrote in a time of decay. Though the aesthetic movements of our time - post-impressionism, futurism, cubism, primitivism, surrealism etc. - have taught much about the actual nature of our civilization, they themselves, from this point of view, are so conditioned by the very disintegration they draw upon for nourishment that they are incapable, without themselves undergoing a profound spiritual change, of bringing a new direction and security into our lives.

Old Women at Arles by Gauguin (1888).

A persona (plural personae or personas), in the word's everyday usage, is a social role or a character played by an actor. The word is derived from Latin, where it originally referred to a theatrical mask. Body decoration was the first effort to mask human being's animal propensities and to achieve a different self.

Venetian masks are characterized by their ornate design, featuring bright colors such as gold or silver and the use of complex decorations in the baroque.

Art arises at the very beginning of human being's super animal development. The most elemental form of art is probably body decoration. By this means primitive people probably sought to lift themselves out of their generic animal state, if only by smearing yellow or red ochre over their bodies, they attempted to identify themselves and their group in order to externalize themselves in a new form, to visualize themselves in a fashion that set them apart from an animal condition, even when portraying animal behaviour.

Australian aboriginals doing a "Crane" dance.

Art stands for the inner or subjective side of humankind; all of its symbolic structures are efforts to invent a vocabulary and language by which people became able to externalize and project inner states and most particularly, give a concrete and public forum to the artist's emotions, feelings, intuitions of the meanings and values of life. At its most trivial end, Art may regress into more primitive or infantile symbolism, to babble, becoming more neurotic and self-destructive and only producing formless scribbles and scrawls.

[1] L. Mumford, Art and Technics, Columbia University Press (New York) 1952.

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