Sunday, March 23, 2008

A bit more towards a General Manifesto of Experiential Realism

Making up a personal Manifesto is dead easy! All you really have to do is list your likes and dislikes! Making up a General Manifesto is much trickier as you really have to think about what the words mean.

Take the word "Realism", for a start. Realism links up with previous Realist art movements. According to Wikipedia, "Realism is a visual art style that depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see. Realists render everyday characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimiltude. They tend to discard theatrical drama, lofty subjects and classical forms in favor of commonplace themes." It also states, "Gustave Courbet is credited with coining the term, which pins "Realism" (capital R) down to the 19th century. However, realism (without the capital) links with "realistic", which now links up with every artist who as ever depicted something which looks like the "real" world! And this is far too broad a definition to be useful.

"Realism is a visual art style that depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see."
This, at least, is of some use. The advantage here is that when the content of the picture depicts - or appears to depict - the real world, the the artist is using a visual language with which most people are familiar. It makes the artwork instantly accessible to the majority of people, not just a few, specialist, "art trained" connoisseurs. I want my work to be accessible to the majority, not just a tiny proportion of the population. So I can use this to make up a clause:

"Experiential Realism depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see."

However, note the use of the word "depicts". An artist uses paint, reality uses real light, real trees, real grass, etc. So an artist has to use his skill and knowledge of his medium to persuade the viewer that what he is painting really exists. I would go slightly further. If an artist paints an apple and the viewer sees a painting of an apple, then the artist has failed. When the viewer looks at the picture and sees an apple, then the artist has succeeded! The medium is not the message, merely the means of transmitting it.

So I think that the clause can become:
"The Experiential Realist artist uses their skill to represent the actuality of what the eyes can see."

The Realist art movement of the 19th century also links up with a number of other "Realisms", which are worth looking at as part of a general search for enlightenment. Note, "Realists render everyday characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimiltude." This is something I have a lot of sympathy with. It also links up with "Social Realism" and "Socialist Realism" (which was more specifically linked to Communism). However, both Social and Socialist Realism were linked to particular political aims and ideals. For my own part, in depicting everday places and events I have no motive other than I think that they are worth celebrating. So if I was to use this part of the definition of Realism as another clause, I think that it must become:

"The Experiential Realist renders everyday places, characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimilitude, as being of interest and importance."

Note that this definition does not exclude the painter of the natural landscape. I enjoy - occasionally - the world of nature. But as a painter, I am more more interested in the way that people interact with their environment! That is just my personal bias, so it has no part in a general definition.

"They (Realists) tend to discard theatrical drama, lofty subjects and classical forms in favor of commonplace themes." Classical Realism is a late 20th century art movement which placed "a high value upon skill and beauty, combining elements of 19th century neoclassicism and realism. My problem with this movement is not that I decry skill, but that the classical style makes you too aware of it. Hence the skill, rather than the subject, becomes the message. It is the same problem as the one that I have with Photorealism. Also the "high value" placed on "beauty" means, to my mind, the acceptance of pre-existing ideals of beauty. I want to challenge the viewer to see beauty where they might not always have previously considered it to exist, frequently in the ordinary and mundane. So it might be fair to add the following:

"The Experiential Realist finds and depicts beauty through their own experience."

Another art movement worth considering is "Magic Realism". In some ways, René Magritte is a good representative of this style. The paintings are incredibly realistic - at least, at first glance - but then involve surrealist/magical/mystical elements. The bit which I find useful is the notion of a mystical or transcendental element. I do not feel any need to introduce incongruous elements into my paintings of the Experiential Realist type. For me, the magic is in my own awareness of the original scene or situation and in my attempt to transmit this to the viewer. But I am not sure that, as yet, I can define a clause to properly express this! However, perhaps it is possible to say that:

"The Experiential Realist allows their awareness of the situation and circumstances of the subject to influence their perceptions and the way that they expresses them."

By this I mean the sort of thing that I wrote about some time ago, in my blog, " Thinking about Painting", the manner in which we "scan" a scene, focusing on different things at different times. Things that we pay particular attention to can appear brighter and sharper, etc.

In all, I appear to have ended up with four clauses for the General Manifesto that I think I can stand by:

The Experiential Realist:
  • Uses their skill to represent the actuality of what the eyes can see.
  • Renders everyday places, characters, situations, dilemmas, and objects, all in verisimilitude, as being of interest and importance.
  • Finds and depicts beauty (and ugliness) through their own experience.
  • Allows their awareness of the situation and circumstances of the subject to influence their perceptions and the way that they expresses them.
Of these, it is the first two that make a direct connection with Realism. However, I think that it is the last two which tend to mark the difference between Experiential Realism and pure Realism.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Towards a General Manifesto of Experiential Realism

I was reasonably happy with what I wrote last week as a Manifesto for Experiential Realism. Later, however, I realised that, although it reflected my own views, it would not do as a General Manifesto - which would include other artists who think the title of “Experiential Realism” sums up something important about the way that they work. This was prompted by my making a search for the term on the Internet. I already knew that the term was being used in philosophy, as that was where I adopted it from as the name, potentially, for an art movement! However, I also discovered that a couple of American artists had spontaneously used the term with reference to their own work. An American artist, Aaron Schuerr, used it as a title for one of his blogs and another American, Dough Rugh, used it as a descriptive term within another blog. I cannot be certain that either would agree with the way I think about it, but it seems to me to be worth considering in greater detail my own understanding of what “Experiential Realism” means.

In order to do this, I am going to start with what I have already written, expand and clarify it, as best I can. It is, perhaps, easiest to start with the negatives. I wrote:

I reject:

  • Art as decoration, as wallpaper.
    I remember watching an interior decoration programme, I think that it was called “60 Minute Makeover”. The team needed something to add a splash of colour to a wall, something which would match the furniture and the rest of the colour scheme. Someone took a blank canvas, splashed some paint on it to form an abstract pattern and, voilà, instant piece of Abstract Expressionism - which matched the wall perfectly! This may be rather an extreme example, but a lot of people do buy art because it will match in with their décor. It may be rather arrogant of me, but I want more for my art than that!

  • The possession of art as a means of establishing intellectual status.
    I am not opposed to the various other movements of modern art, such as Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Post-Modernism, etc., as such. However, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling (hopefully untrue) that many of the purchasers of such work do so to establish, at least in their own minds, their status as intellectual beings, capable of the superior aesthetic understanding required to appreciate such work. I believe that the only genuine reason for purchasing art should be the depth of the feeling that the piece evokes in the prospective purchaser. Provided that such depth of response is present, the type of the artwork is immaterial.

  • The Media as the Message and The display of skill as the purpose of art.
    In the end, I decided to lump these two together. I suppose that I was very much thinking of the Photo-Realist and Super-Realist art movements. There is a good example by Richard Estes online.
    “Diner”, (1971) Oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 in. (101.7 x 126.8 cm.) It is of course, beautifully painted! But I find myself asking, what would be the difference between this and a photograph produced to the same scale (if one such a photograph existed)? It does not seem there could not be that much difference, since the apparent object was to paint in a photographic manner. Therefore the value of the painting – as art – had to be in the fact that the medium was changed from photography to painting. In other words, this was the painting skill itself being presented as art. It could also be said that, in this case, the media, paint, was the message. Looking at the painting, I do not find myself interested in the place represented, so much as the means by which it represented! I am distracted by the quality of the painting!

  • The idea as art.
    Essentially, this is Conceptual Art, but also the work of artists like Damien Hirst. I would consider his diamond covered skull, titled “For the Love of God” to be in the same vein as the Dadist Marcel Duchamp's “Fountain”. Duchamp's piece was a ready-made urinal which he elevated to art by signing it “R. Mutt”. Damien Hirst's skull was a ready made skull, which he elevated to art by having it covered in diamonds! Duchamp mocked the establishment by the cheapness, in both price and effort, of his “readymade”, Damien Hirst mocks it by intrinsic value of the diamonds with which he decorates his own “ready made”. Duchamp was outside the Art Establishment looking in, Damien Hirst is inside the Art Establishment looking out. In some ways, complete opposites, but on the same line! However, the most important part of both items is the idea behind them.

  • Other people's conventions of beauty and ugliness.
    I think that a large part of the value of any creative person is their individual viewpoint. So what I mean by this is that every artist has to find out for themselves what they consider to be beautiful or ugly. Truly original work makes new conventions, rather than simply repeats old ones.

I have one major problem with all the points that I have listed above (even though I believe them to be valid) – and that is their very negativity! In the end, I think that it is more important to know what an Art Movement is for, rather than what it is against. So I hope to explore this next week.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

My Art - A Personal Manifesto for Experiential Realism

"Quoile River, near Downpatrick"
December 2007-February 2008.
Oils on canvas, 70 cm x 50 cm.

For some time I have been trying to form my own ideas about the “why” of art, the role of art in today's world. Then I realised that this was far too big a question for me, since art covers such a multitude of activities and fulfils an important role in such varied circumstances. In the end, I decided that the question I needed to answer was, “Why my art?” What is it that I am trying to do, what is it that I think of as being important and what do I reject.

In a previous attempt (18th, February, 2007, to be exact) to understand my own art, I considered the way we look at things. We do not see objects and scenes in the rigid way that a camera records them. We move our heads (and we have two eyes, giving us stereo vision, which means that sometimes one eye can see what the other can not), our eyes can appreciate a much greater range of colours and shades than a camera normally records and we look at different parts at different times, mentally blending our observations into the one perception.

Although not intentionally distorting what I am seeing, when painting I quite automatically incorporate this way of viewing into the result. Perspective - whilst appearing to be essentially correct - will be "adapted" so that vertical lines may no longer be precisely vertical, angles may change to make the view more dramatic or to reveal a greater area (as from a different viewing point). One of the rules of human observation is that one "notices" more that which one is interested in, so colours can appear more vivid and objects larger! Everything one is interested in is in focus because one automatically focuses on the part which is being observed. Based on this, I have named the way I work as “Experiential Realism”, meaning that the realism of the painting is tempered and modified by the way that I experience the scene.

The result of this thinking is:

A Personal Manifesto for Experiential Realism

I reject:
  • Art as decoration, as wallpaper.
  • The possession of art as a means of establishing intellectual status.
  • The media as the message.
  • The display of skill as the purpose of art.
  • The idea as art.
  • Other people's conventions of beauty and ugliness.

I embrace:

  • Art as the conveyor of meaning.
  • Art as a stimulus to feeling and emotion.
  • The use of the illusion of depth in painting.
  • Depth of meaning in art.
  • Art as a teller of stories.
  • The beauty that I perceive and experience, without reference to the strictures of others.
  • I embrace the beauty of the ordinary, the every-day activities of people in their everyday surroundings, the beauty of the ordinary street, the ordinary house, the ordinary shop.
  • I embrace the portrayal of landscape as it is, part natural, part man-made.
  • I embrace the portrayal of the world of today as it is, a mixture of old and new.

Thomas Spencer.

Historical Comment:

In art history, Realism was a late 19th century art movement which was concerned with the accurate and apparently objective description of the ordinary, observable world. The Realists attempted to depict the lives and appearance of ordinary people. Social Realism developed from this, in the early 20th century, as a movement particularly concerned with depiction of the poor and thus it criticised the social environment that caused the poverty and misery. Essentially, whatever their value as works of art, Social Realism was a form of propaganda endeavouring to change social attitudes. The original Realists were also propagating a view, although a rather simpler one, that the lives of ordinary people were just as suitable a subject for major works of art as the lives of the rich and powerful.

Both were reactions to prevailing viewpoints, as is my own. My point is that the realistic depiction of every day life and places is still worthy of depiction in serious works of art. It is not simply the domain of the hobbyist and the part-time painter. And has certainly not been made defunct by the advent of photography! However, I think that such painting has to rise above mere mechanical recording, which is why I prefer the term, "Experiential Realism", as referring to my type of art. My depictions are influenced by my experience of the scene and this is determined by both my physical and mental characteristics.

Nb: This Manifesto should not be taken as meaning that I consider other types of art as necessarily unimportant and unable to fulfil important functions – or even that I cannot appreciate them! Just that they are not important to me, within the context of my own work and intentions.