Saturday, August 23, 2008

Why We Can Do It...

Why we can make art. First of all, almost too obvious to point out, the opposable thumb and our bipedal structure, freeing up our hands from the necessity of supporting ourselves as we move across the terrain. This we have in common with our great ape cousins, the gorillas and the chimpanzees, but their hip structures only allow for the occasional bits of walking; most of the time they are on all fours. Additionally there is both a power grip and a precision grip, which is evidenced in our handedness. This we have in common with the primates, even to the lemurs, who are predominantly left-handed, thus they hold on to tree branches with their rights and finesse with their lefts. This precision grip is what allows us to make great detail in drawing.

Then there is eye-hand coordination, which we hold in common with all tree-dwelling primates, coupled with complex feedback systems in our brains, skilled in pattern recognition. Our ability to see color and judge distance is a tree-dwelling primate characteristic, we are quite color conscious, while poor distance judging capabilities would be fatal to animals living in trees.

But none of this is yet enough, as these traits are common to all great apes. What is even more specific to us is a high degree of flexible limb structure in those limbs not required for locomotion. Yes, the chimps and gorillas can grasp quite nicely with their opposable thumbs, but not with much fine-tuning. We have limb flexibility in our upper extremities, our torsos, can rotate our upper bodies sideways and forwards, we have full rotation of our arms, and we can turn our hands over due to being able to rotate the radius over the ulna. [pp. 21—24, The Artistic Animal: An Inquiry into the Biological Roots of Art, Alexander Alland, Jr., 1977, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York]

But this is only the beginning, there is the general mammalian necessity of play and exploratory behavior. This is where I will leave off with this post. I'll keep thinking about the big things.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why Are We So Surprised

Here's an article from FOXNews.com headlined, "Acoustics Expert: Cavemen Must Have Loved to Sing." A Paleolithic researcher named Iegor Reznikoff walked around the pre‑historic caves singing and whistling after noting that amongst the artifacts found were 40,000 year old bone whistles. Reznikoff and a team used voice resonance to test acoustics in caves across France. They found a 90 percent correspondence between the paintings and the locations of good acoustics. Reznikoff further hypothesizes that the caves were explored using sound and echo-location to determine pathways. He is quoted thus: "Why would the Paleolithic tribes choose preferably resonant locations for painting," he said, "if it were not for making sounds and singing in some kind of ritual celebrations related with the pictures?"

An article by Barry Blesser and Linda‑Ruth Salter, "Questions and Answers about: Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture" [MIT Press 2006] conjectures as follows:
"Acoustic archeologists suggest that the Paleolithic art found in the caves of Lascaux and Font‑de‑Gaume were influenced by the acoustic character of the chambers in which they were drawn. Pictures of ungulates, bulls, bison, and deer were more likely to be found in chambers with strong echoes, spaces where acoustics created percussive sounds similar to the hoof beats of a stampeding herd. Cave art may well have incorporated echoes as a supernatural phenomenon that brought life into visual images. Archeologists speculate that multi-sensory art was part of the hunter's rituals to summon game. Extensive observations of ancient sites support the notion that wall art and acoustics were deliberately related rather than accidents."

Professor Steven J. Waller discusses this same hypothesis in an article "Quantitative acoustic measurements of Upper Paleolithic rock art sites," published in 1993, in Nature, in which he references Reznikoff's experiments. He states:

"These measurements and observations lead to the speculation that the Paleolithic artists produced the ungulate art in response to percussive sound reflections perceived as hoofbeats. The production of hoofbeats via sound reflection could have served quite usefully as a sympathetic magic ritual intended to summon up game. This new acoustic theory is therefore harmonious with previous speculations of Hunting Magic."
I object to these allusions to Hunting Magic, I object to the certainty that our Paleolithic ancestors needed to call up the spirits of their prey prior to going on the hunt. I have no problem with the notion that ritual was involved, after all there's a huge ritualistic aspect to attending a concert at a symphony hall, or going to an art opening.

From an article, "Building the Circle of Life: Creating the Community Experience from Concept to Application," by J. G. O'Boyle, Senior Analyst, The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, c. 2006:
"In light of these discoveries, it now appears that over 40,000 years ago our earliest human ancestors combined painting, music, the animation effects of flickering firelight and sound effects to create the first multi-media presentation—Cro Magnon virtual reality." p. 2.

"Aesthetics aside, there is little difference between ancient cave art, Disneyland, a museum exhibit, or the corporate multi-media program. All use stylized images and other sensory stimulation to create. . .'soft adventures.'" p. 3.

O'Boyle goes on to say that "we are working at the dawn of the twenty-first century with a brain that processes information in the same manner as that of our ancient ancestors." In the blink of an evolutionary eye we have gone from those smears of ochres, firelight, bone whistles to PowerPoint presentations and virtual meet-ups.

It is my strong suggestion that our Cro‑Magnon ancestors went to the cave not to conjure up hunting magic so that they might eat more and better, I am almost certain, as certain as I can be without them coming back to tell it to me with their own audible voices, that they went to the caves because they loved the music, they loved looking at the paintings, they went because they enjoyed themselves.

They weren't all that different from us, they are us, we are them. Several years ago I visited Stonehenge. I took this picture of a fellow tourist sending a picture of the monument out. Note that he's on one phone and using a second.

We don't need deep mysterious motives to understand our ancestors, we need only to look in the mirror and look at ourselves and how we operate in our own world. Thus to answer the question of why they painted pictures of their world, of wondrous deer and antelopes, bison, mammoths, is because they could and they wanted to. Same with Stonehenge, they could and they wanted to. We are the richer and better for it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Why We and They Do It...

Patrick Appel while blogging for Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Dish posted this about "The Religion of Art" quoting Michael Lewis from The New Republic 1994.

“The religion of art has been appropriated from artists by collectors and dealers. How and when I do not know; but at some point the idealist and the consumer began to walk hand in hand. The idea that works of art confer nobility upon those who trade them is simply an extension of the notion that works of art are a repository of terminal values. And the comical pretensions of the art market are simply a response to the idealists’ prejudice that things done for their own sake are more noble or “fine” than things done for a concrete purpose (say, money or prestige).”
Appel goes on to say “Art’s belief structure is part of why Damien Hirst could sell a formaldehyded shark for a cool $12 million. While such a purchase might not make sense to ordinary person, to an art affectionado [sic] the price is affirmed by a belief in the nobility and the near sacredness of art-making.”

So on reading this and thinking about on how the likes of Warhol, Hirst and Koons seemingly dominate the high-end art market because of their appeal to collectors whose skill is in recognizing their art as commodities that then celebrate their own terminal values of acquisition and shuffling of monied instruments, would there be a justifiable reaction by a Marxist leaning artist to want jump off screaming “I want nothing to do with this!”

Knowing how far most artists are from making this kind of commodity art, knowing that we can never crack this market, why do we keep on making art? Also knowing how many artists seemingly espouse left-of-center values, it poses the question of why artists want rich people to buy what we produce.

In an interview with Chuck Close, Phong Bui in The Brooklyn Rail. . . .”when I was 11. I saw this Jackson Pollock drip painting with aluminum paint, tar, gravel and all that stuff. I was absolutely outraged, disturbed. It was so far removed from what I thought art was. However, within 2 or 3 days, I was dripping paint all over my old paintings. In a way I’ve been chasing that experience ever since. That’s the reason why I’ve been going to see shows in different galleries, and trying to look at the work of emerging artists as much as I can, in an attempt to recreate or re-live that sensation of being shocked. That’s the greatest moment in an artist’s life. Whatever you hold true to art is being challenged; you sort of recoil and it gets under your skin and just keeps bothering you until you understand what the issues are. After all, painting is just colored dirt smeared on flat surface, on wood panels, canvases. It makes space where it doesn’t exist, but you relate to it through life experience. Anyway, after Pollock it was Frank Stella’s black stripes paintings, and the first time I saw Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes at Stable gallery my reaction was the same. That kind of wonderful freshness that challenges one’s previous perception. I think that the art world at any given time is like a huge amoeba shape, and someone eventually comes along and operates outside of that shape. They make work that doesn’t fit anywhere and nobody’s quite sure whether it’s art or not. And very quickly the amoeba goes out and encapsulate that isolated island outside the mainstream and sort of moves it into the body of the art world. And as a result, the art world is modified because that artist was there; they digested and brought new insight and ways of seeing art. I love the fact that there’re no agreed upon standards of judgment, and no yardstick that applied to every work of art.”

Close goes on to further say, “Painters drop crumbs along the trail. . .for others to pick up if they want to.”

Thus to paraphrase Simon Schama in naming the artists who picked up Vincent Van Gogh’s bread crumbs, Oskar Kokoschka, Howard Hodgkin, Villem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

This is what we artists want and need to do. We want to see into the unknown, have that shock of wonderful freshness that Close refers to, we want to modify the world somehow, to pick up those breadcrumbs that have been left for us, to drop a few for others to find.

At some level, it becomes a religious, transcendental experience to smear paint onto those surfaces, to create new spaces and new realities, as well as for those patrons, who no matter how well-heeled, can perhaps share in the experience by buying and selling it (to each other), owning it, donating it to the high temples of art museums.

This is the only explanation I can come up with so far in my short life for this odd, yet enduring partnership, relationships, symbiosis between artists and patrons. How can unique objects such as artwork become commodities and playthings for the wealthy? We are of course most familiar with the phenomenon as it was well documented starting in the Renaissance. The clich├ęd answer as to how the flowering of art in Renaissance Italy came about was that there was an expansion of the human spirit, an idealist answer. And yet, Florence and Venice, where double entry bookkeeping was invented, were huge, crass commercial centers, intensely interested in the constant toting up of value and money. The Florentines and the Venetians were consumers, of paintings, sculpture, Persian rugs, furniture, they were monstrously acquisitive to the point of terrorizing their neighbors by land and sea with their conquests, and their looting. They brought the stuff home as the spoils of war. Then they paid artists to make more.

Leonardo and Michelangelo had various patrons, various relationships with them, and they made the greatest art of the age.

Clearly, the painters and sculptors of ancient Egypt were supported by their patrons. It makes me wonder if in looking at the Lascaux cave art, if there was a social system and hierarchy there as well. I come to the conclusion that they were humans, therefore they had defined relationships and rules and taboos on how to relate to each other. I now wonder how the cave artists were paid, as they had to have been rewarded somehow. I want to know who assisted them, who built the scaffolds that supported them while they worked high up on the walls. I am certain that like Rembrandt, Rafael they had assistants who mixed the paint for them? I want to know about them too. We know that the Lascaux people did not live in the cave, so what was the function of the art in the cave, a high-temple of art for sure, secular or religious?