Another eery coincidence has occurred in my life. It was only yesterday, while listening to BBC Radio3 (something I listen to a lot because it is not very invasive and it allows me to concentrate on my work; and, not least, because they often play beautiful music!), and really enjoying the sheer brilliance of Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) – that I asked myself: has any music of this standard been produced since? Was the 19th Century the pinnacle of music? Have composers just run out of ideas or lost their direction?

The coincidence was that today I was listening to a BBC Radio 3 programme called Darwin And Music – where Petroc Trelawny was in discussion with Gary Tomlinson, Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, Ian Cross, reader in music and science at Cambridge University and Roderick Swanston of Imperial College. They were discussing the idea that music had peaked with Beethoven – or at least with 19th Century music. They mentioned musicologist Paul Henry Lang (arguably the leading musicologist of the Twentieth Century who produced a seminal work: “Music in Western Civilization” 1941), who lamented the demise of modern music – saying that none of his contemporaries – Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), etc. were as good as previous composers…

But I think there is another evolutionary force in human activities: basically this is not so much survival of the fittest but survival of the most beautiful. That is quality or beauty will survive the longest – the implication being that less beautiful works or works that do not come up to a certain standard will not have the same success at the box office or record sales, and general demand for them will be low. Given the choice between atonal music and 19th Century Romanticism, the latter will win hands down into perpetuity. The less beautiful, or even the non-beautiful (to put it politely) will fall into obscurity – where it belongs.

I think there comes a point when the standard reached by predecessors is so great and requires so much effort and imagination – that would-be successors are in awe, but not awe-inspired. They are simply humbled into defeatism: a feeling that there is no way they can achieve the same quality. Some people’s reaction to this is to try to produce something different: I cannot compete on the same terms so I will try something completely different…

Evolution, as I understand it, is not a gradual and constant “improvement” – somehow defined – but a continuous adaptation to changes. But that is not to imply intention. Evolution is blind. What it boils do to is that if there are changes to the environment (which are always happening due to catastrophic and/or gradual geological phenomena) then those changes may adversely affect the survival of certain species in certain locations with certain physical and psychological attributes. For example, if huge parts of Africa were to turn to a desert the animals have certain choices: if possible move to locations where they are adapted to survive, or nature will whittle out those unadapted – who cannot find food, a mate, shelter.

Random genetic mutations take place all the time in the history of species. However, if, during the aforementioned environmental transition, genetic mutations happen to favour certain individuals – like longer necks, smaller size, longer tongues, or a greater sense of smell of hidden water – then there may be a negative filtering process where the species’ design tends to head in a particular direction. Such biological adaption, however, is not necessarily continuous or beneficial to future generations. An ever-growing neck is only useful as long as the trees are tall. And if the trees disappear and there is only close grazing to be had, then the long neck could be a positive disadvantage…

However, I do think there are some unequivocally good, or universally useful adaptions, and their omnipresence is possibly testimony to this idea. I am of course thinking about the senses of sight, hearing, taste, and touch. Necks can grow and shrink, legs can come and go, wingspan can grow and shrink, size can grow and shrink – as prevalent environmental conditions “dictate”. However, I can imagine no situations where being able to detect one’s environment – to help locate food and mates, avoid potential predators, avoid physical dangers – like not walking off a cliff – I can think of no situations where these senses could be a hindrance. So while many species of animal differ quite considerably, the one thing the vast majority seem to share is the aforementioned senses…

I feel human evolution, where the arts are concerned, is not “natural” in the normal evolutionary sense of the word. Human evolution in the arts is very much pre-meditated and deliberate. But is it? Surely evolution is not about what individual species do in order to try to survive. It is about what history has shown to be successful, and by implication unsuccessful, adaptations – regardless of how those adaptions came about. Some species, like the Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus), have lived on this planet for hundreds of millions of years with little or no change (hence they are sometimes known as “living fossils”), and they are contemporaries of very new species – like humans – who have only be around for about 5 million years. The human species isn’t necessarily the zenith of evolution on the planet: evolution is neutral with regards newness of species (many new species have come and gone in the course of the Eath’s history), or, if anything, it smiles on the longest surviving and most planet-friendly…

In a similar vein, albeit on a much smaller scale(!), some art and classical music has been around for centuries and there is contemporary art and classical music. Contemporary, from an evolutionary perspective, confers no privilege or status – just chronology. If, and only if, two hundred years from now future generations wish to see or listen to today’s contemporary art – as much as we do today for the Impressionists, the Pre-Raphaelites, the 19th Century Romanticists, the Three B’s, Mozart – only then will be we able to say that today’s contemporary art is as “good” as art of yester-year… I bet my life that this will not happen as a general preference.

Perhaps using the term classical music is defeating in this context – because I am effectively restricting how music might evolve. Perhaps the evolutionary direction music in general has taken is to generally favour the smaller more agile species. Let me explain. Conventional classical music is the blue whale or mammoth in evolutionary terms, requiring months of a composer’s imagination and effort, big orchestras, and are generally big, expensive, projects and a slow creative process. To compete with the great works of the past in the same genre is fantastically difficult. Perhaps music has adapted to smaller more agile units with small groups of individuals and single people, and improvisation. Maybe (classical) music has evolved, or is evolving into pop and jazz music and their numerous incarnations and derivatives. This could be as a result of the dissatisfaction of what conventional classical composers were producing. Maybe not. Maybe a new source of food in the form of radio, records, and television brought opportunities that enabled the smaller musical creatives to survive. Let me be absolutely clear: I am not saying the quality of these latter genres is no good –  nothing of the sort – some of it is in my opinion every bit as good and I think will stand the test of time. The problem for contemporary music posterity is that there is so much of it…

Maybe the equivalent paradigm shift in visual art has been in graphic art, photography, digital art, animation and film. Maybe the old purposes for, or uses of, art have changed – leaving a lot of artists unsure as to what to produce. Many artists in the past had a “brief”. Today’s briefs are more often for things like adverts, product shots, graphic representations, etc. A lot of art today is completely uncommissioned and with a client’s brief. Maye artists are a bit lost?

So the old notions of art may have changed – scale, medium, patronage, client-artist relationship, etc. But the standards by which they should be judged – and whether they will pass the test of time – are the same. It is not enough just to change medium.

If evolution has any long-term direction I would say it is favours archetypes like progressively improving senses, mobility, adaptability, efficiency of converting food to energy, and … beauty.


Art speak for itself should
If it is any good
It matters not a jot
Who did what
Where they studied
Whether they studied
Like music a chord strikes
In your soul or dislikes
Art in your mind’s eye
Doth please or defy
No scholar or seller is able
To umrumble your taste’s stable
As no amount of psyching
Can change your marmite liking…


Hirst art heist

20Jun07

According to an article in the Sunday Times (17th June 2007 by Maurice Chittenden), Sir Trevor Nunn bought a painting he thought was a genuine Damien Hirst for £27,000. The “painting” was called “Squirly Hoops Touch My Nuts Peace and Love” and was in fact a “spin painting” done by Hirst’s two-year-old son, Connor, and Keith Allen’s son Alfie, aged 10. Nunn subsequently sold the “painting” for £45,000.

This begs a number of questions. Why did Nunn buy it in the first place? Did he buy it because he liked it? In which case why did he sell it? Did he like it initially and then go off it? Or did he buy it as an investment? If the latter, what does this say about the art market…? Is art no more than stocks and shares – with no intrinsic value – just bought and sold in the hope of making a profit?

Another question: in what sense was it a Hirst painting? What gave him (or his agent) the right to put his name to it? Why was the painting not sold as having being done by Hirst’s and Allen’s sons? And if it was, would it have fetched the same price…?

It seems that it does not matter what the work is like or who actually did it – only that it is thought be have been done by a famous artist, or somehow orchestrated by them.
I think we have to draw a line about who did a piece of art and therefore whose name should go on it. Suppose we were not talking about a piece of “art”, but consider instead that this were a piece of music. Let us consider a recording of some random piano “playing” by Mozart’s two-year-old son. The question is not would it be worth anything – because there are people who would probably be interested in anything to do with the great man (a truly great man). The more interesting question is: could the piano “sounds” be passed off as a work music produced by Mozart? ANother way of putting this question is: would the piano “sounds” have any musical merit? The answer in both cases is certainly not, because, firstly, Mozart simply would not put his name to anything he hadn’t finished and was not proud to proud to put his name to – his was a genius and had the highest standards. Secondly, in music there is probably unwritten but fairly universally accepted standards – and, quite simply, random sounds do not constitute music.

For a piece of “art” to be indistinguishable from having been done by a “world famous artist” and what is in effect a couple of random young children – says a lot about the quality of the work being produced by the “artist” – i.e. utter rubbish, purely random and mechanical, and with no artistic merit at all. You certainly would not mistake the work of a two-year-old child for a completed work of Dali, Ingres, Hans Holbein, or Pieter Bruegel

In philosophy it is very hard to categorically know something for certain or to be sure you are right, however a very useful technique generally used is to appear to the reader’s general intellect and show that the opposite of your proposition is absurd – and therefore extremely unlikely to be false – reductio ad absurdum (Latin for reduction to the absurd).

I wish to attack two commonly held beliefs in art today. The first is the claim that anything an artist claims is art – is art. The second is that anything an artist gets anyone else to make for them is art.

Anything an artist claims is art – is art – was thought up by Duchamp in 1917 (Fountain).
Anything an artist gets anyone else to make for them is art. This is a fairly common practice today and the most infamous exponents of it are Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.

Hirst’s spin painting with butterflies – where the butterflies are ethically sourced. I find this term very peculiar indeed. Killing butterflies, or any other living creature for that matter, is a tragedy. Period. Doing it just to make money should be met with a jail sentence. The only ethically sourced butterflies are those painted or photographed – where no butterfly is harmed or distressed. Hirst is thought to be the biggest importer of butterflies in Europe. The sooner he stops this cruel inhumane nonsense the better. I hope for his sake that reincarnation and karma

To be continued…

***

Michael Autumn
Cambridge, UK
June 2007


Art is primarily created by the imagination of the artist. Photographs are created by electro-mechanical devices. Photography is the precise reproduction of a two (possibly three, or four) dimensional image of reality. I am an artist and a photographer, and I like some of my art to look like photographs because I am so impressed by reality. Just like fact is often more interesting than fiction, reality is often more interesting and beautiful that imitation. So, on the one hand, some of my art I create to look like photographs; and on the other I am happy to share my love of the visual world through simple photographs (albeit invariably with subjective alterations/enhancements).

Rightly or wrongly, I think the generally perceived wisdom is that photography is easy and art is hard or more skillful. Consequently culturally art is generally more valued than photography. Whilst this obviously has a lot to do with the reproducibility of photographs and the often uniqueness of art, I think it is fair to say that even if only one photograph could be produced – for example polaroids – art would generally still be valued more highly than photography. I say generally, because there are exceptions, and society is slowly wakening up to the value of really good photography. (Of course there is a lot of “bad” art with little or no value, and the same applies to photography…)

On the subject of skill and value, I would like to make the point that a lot of so-called “art” could have been done by young children with very basic materials – paper, paint, and a paint brush – whereas even the most basic photograph requires much more complex equipment – a camera, chemical processing (until the digital age dawned), and a printer – several steps (take the picture, process it, print it), and training in the use of the equipment…

Some of my art could be described as photo-idealism, or photo-surrealism, in that they look like photographs. However, the arrangement and presence of certain, sometimes unlikely, items may seem too good to be true. For example the existence of birds, animals, and insects in some of my pictures – to say nothing of their very convenient placement… Or the apparent transformation of people into objects… In many ways this is what I am striving to achieve, however, I’m concerned about the term “photo” because of its’ often negative or cheap connotations.

I think it is the responsibility of the artist to do the best they can with their time in history – in terms of knowledge, materials and techniques. This means using any tools and techniques that will help them produce better work or to do it more quickly than otherwise. Cave people used different colour earths and cave walls because they had no other choice. However, throughout history new materials and techniques have evolved, at different times in different parts of the world, and artists have progressively had an increasing range of options to choose from. Much of what was attempted in the past was as faithfully as possible to reproduce reality. Techniques like ray-tracing – using Alberti’s “Artist Glass” (dating back as far as the mid fifteenth century); copying using a grid – Alberti’s Grid or “Veil” (fifteenth century); and devices like the camera lucida (early to mid nineteenth century) and obscura (from the sixteenth century onwards) were employed by the likes of Caneletto and Vermeer, to name just two – to help them achieve that faithful reproduction objective. There is no doubt in my mind that these two artists and many more besides would have used a camera of the modern variety if they were available in their day…

But it is not the tool that makes the art. A tool is just a tool. A camera is a complex heap of metal, electronics, and glass – and is incapable of selection, composition, timing, editing. Hundreds of people can be given the same camera, but few will make art. Likewise, hundreds of people can have a piano, but very few are composers. And fewer still are good composers. Modern day digital music technology can help the composer by making editing easier and writing down the music, being able to hear bars played by different instruments and to hear a whole orchestra – without leaving his or her study. However, the actual creative process remains unchanged: it is as uncontrollable and mysterious as ever…

I take photographs – like most people. I have a long and great affinity with photography, and some, in view of the equipment I have and the time I spend on it, consider me a fanatic or a perfectionist. Yes, I shoot probably more deliberately and diligently than most people, but that is simply because I really, really, want to capture as accurately as I can, what I can see. Often I take photographs because what I see I just want to capture as well as I can. I don’t want to change it at all. I specifically do not want to change it at all. I’m impressed and inspired by what my eyes can see, and that, in and of itself, is what amazes me.

However, I am all too aware of photography’s limitations and often I am frustrated by this because I cannot capture what I want to. This can be where art comes in…

I use photography for two purposes. One is simple photography – capture something amazing that I can see. The other is to make raw material for my art.

To capture what I can see can be a lengthy process in itself because of technical limitations that I want to overcome. For example the dynamic range of film (digital or celluloid) often cannot capture extremes of light and dark, especially if both are present in the scene. Moreover, certain corrections for perspective, colour, tonal range, and composition might have to be made. All this can be done after the shoot on the computer.

In terms of digital art I can use as much freehand work and as many photographs as necessary. On average I think I spend 200 hours (20 ten-hour days) or more per picture. And I use the most powerful computers and the most sophisticated software.

***

Michael Autumn
Cambridge, UK
December 2006


I was once on a flight from London to New York (on a personal photo shoot as it happens) and had the good fortune of sitting next to Anita Zabludowicz – a prominent collector of contemporary art. This was a very fortuitous chance encounter for me, and a real privilege. During our conversation I asked Anita what she looked for in contemporary art. Regretfully I cannot remember exactly what her reply was, but essentially she said that it had to be new. Whilst I would agree with this to a certain extent, it was what she didn’t say that intrigued me. She didn’t say it had to be beautiful, skillfully done, of outstanding quality – or anything along those lines. That is not to say she doesn’t think art should be these things – just that she didn’t mention them…

Let us consider newness in relation to something else. I think most of us like to try out new food, but we probably wouldn’t take the view that all the food we eat in the future must be new. And just because it is new does not mean that we are going to like it. Whether we like a meal or not is actually out of our control: it is a natural and spontaneous reaction between the chemicals in the food, our taste buds, our olfactory (smell) system, and our brain. We cannot decide if we are going to like a meal or not.

Beethoven once said of his music that he could communicate directly with people’s hearts – meaning their emotions. He knew human nature well enough to know that we all respond in a predictable way to certain types of music. His music could make us feel sorrow, joy, pride, reflective – whatever he choose – and film score composers today use the same principles all the time (Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone to name a few). We respond automatically to harmony, melody, and rhythm. It is a natural and spontaneous response to sound waves being converted to electrical signals in our ears and the brain’s reaction to them. We cannot decide if we are going to like what we hear or not.

This begs the question: why do some modern day contemporary composers create music that they know will probably be displeasing to the vast majority of us? They even have words for it: atonal and discordant music! Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton von Webern, and Nicholas Cage – to name a few twentieth century composers of this negative, atonal, discordant genre – were striving for newness almost for the sake of newness – forgetting what music is for: to give pleasure, to stir the emotions in us. This is what was said by the eminent contemporary musicologist William Thomson about Schönberg, the father of atonal music:

What was Schönberg’s error?
(from the book Schönberg’s Error by William Thomson)

“Renunciation of even the primal tonal archetypes bequeathed him by his full musical heritage, believing all the while that he was rejecting only the major-minor conventions of his immediate past. He did not understand the full ramifications of his renunciation, a denial that if followed rigorously entailed abandonment of the full range of structuring potentials of pitch. His transformation of music was motivated by the same hubris that in the world’s myths spells the tragic downfall of heroes who try to call the shots of destiny.

“Schönberg thought he was fueling music’s flight to the next plateau, in its ascent toward a musical heaven. He was in reality only fueling the ambitions of a singularly enormous talent and establishing a brief, strange interlude in an art’s checkered history. It is true, as some contemporaries have said, that “he showed us the way.” But, some eighty years later, we must recognize that his way fell short of becoming the next Golden Age so anxiously sought during the beginning of the twentieth century. Nor was it the inexorable “way” that music’s hop scotching development had pointed toward in the long haul of history. As evolution, it was an ill-conceived , though passionately propagandized, mutation. It was an achieving far more radical than Schönberg dreamed.”

I think such discordant music will be very rarely played, quickly forgotten, and will crop up in academic circles only. The same goes for a huge amount of contemporary art…

It is as if pleasure is out-dated, it is time we had a period of displeasure! Isn’t this tantamount to saying you have enjoyed food for too long now – now it is time not to enjoy it and eat dirt?! I think artist neglect human senses and emotions at their peril…

Art should be made to be appreciated at a superficial level at least. Deeper dimensions add to its cultural value, but this should be of secondary importance. Most viewers or listeners are unsophisticated and/or they do not have the time or inclination to delve below the surface. Good art communicates directly to everyone at the level of the basic senses and emotions.

Is there too much pressure in the arts to be original – as opposed to simply good…?

***

Michael Autumn
Cambridge, UK
January 2006


Beauty

18Dec06

Beauty: ‘That quality or combination of qualities which delights the senses or mental faculties; esp that combination of shape, colour, and proportion which is pleasing to the eye.’ – New Shorter Oxford Dictionary ISBN 0-19-861271-0

Beauty or aesthetics is a subject very dear to my heart, but I will not go into it here in detail because it would be too much of a digression (I will be publishing a book about this and similar topics). I would just like to make one simple point: without necessarily being able to define it, most of us appear to agree on what is beautiful – be it a landscape, a piece of music, flowers, a caress, etc. We have remarkable agreement in what we consider beautiful in human faces and bodies – even across cultural and ethnic boundaries. That is not to say we don’t have our own individual tastes and favourites, but our general agreement on what we consider beautiful is considerably stronger than our disagreement. The same applies to disgust and pain… I suggest therefore, that beauty has some deep biological and evolutionary basis, and that it has an objective quality – contrary, I think, to popular belief…

***

Michael Autumn
Cambridge, UK
January 2006


What Is Art?

18Dec06

There is plenty of ‘art’ in the world which literally anyone could do. Huge amounts of money are paid for some. What people call art and how much they are prepared to pay for it is entirely up to them. We live in a reasonably free world and we are all entitled to our views. Here I am merely expressing my views.

In 1917 a French ‘artist’ by the name of Marcel Duchamp took a urinal designed by an anonymous person, signed it ‘R. Mutt’, and presented it as a work of his art (entitled ‘Fountain’). He claimed that anything the artist produces is art. The fact is this man wasn’t ignored, dismissed as a nutter, and forgotten. It is claimed that he has had the biggest influence on twentieth century art of any artist.

If we say art doesn’t have to be made, or if it is, then it doesn’t have to be made by the artist him or herself, then anything is art and everything is art. In musical terms this would mean that any sound, including no sound, is music. An outcome of such a loose definition of art (or music) is that anyone can lay claim to anything as art – even if someone else made it! Moreover, they can claim it as their art! So we are all artists and everything is art. For reasons that are beyond me, some people don’t think this is absurd! Some gallery and museum curators seem to think this definition of art is not only acceptable but that this sort of ‘art’ is superior to what may be called commonsense art. Art for them, it seems, must be new: it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it has not being done before or doesn’t look like anything that has gone before. That sounds like a perfect definition for the word ‘new’, but do we want to confuse this with the word ‘art’…?

Some people seem to think that being absurd or shocking is what art is all about. I think the art world is confused and in disarray. When you can walk into an art gallery like Tate Modern, London, and literally not know what is meant to be art and what is just normal reality – like chairs, bins, ladders, scaffolding, fire extinguishers, a room being decorated – then the purpose of going to a gallery in the first place gets lost. It’s a giggle. Is it a game…?

What do I think art is? Art is something totally unnecessary and non-functional, that is made, and made for a specific purpose. The purpose depends on economic, cultural, and historic factors. Is it for a particular patron or is it aimed at a specific market? The culture in which the work is done could affect the subject matter (scared or secular for example), politics (for example war art), norms and styles of art. The period in which the work is done could affect the materials and techniques available, as well as the norms and styles of art. Generally art is to express specific ideas or emotions, and generally, although not necessarily, to provide an aesthetic experience.

The artist is in control to a very large degree. To make art you start with nothing and intentionally produce something – using only raw materials and skill. For example, starting with a blank canvas, or block of Carrera marble, or blank musical score, or blank pages of a book – this for me is a precondition of art. But it is not the whole story. A blank starting point is necessary for complete freedom of expression.

Art is also about what you choose to express, and your control over the medium/s you are working in. There is a skill element: how well you have mastered the medium/s you have worked in (could a craftsperson have done better?); how much time and effort has gone into it (more is generally better than less); how easy would it be for someone else to do (difficult is generally better than easy)? Most people can paint a child-like picture of a horse, but can many people paint horses as wells as the great English artist George Stubbs (1724-1806)?

There is a thin line between art and craftsmanship (or craftspersonship to be politically correct?!). An artist should be a craftsperson. This is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. A craftsperson is not necessarily an artist. A good craftsperson should be able to make, copy, or reproduce something in their medium/s very well, and it is quite simple to determine how well it has been done. On the other hand an artist is a person who comes up with the original idea, the whole reason for doing it in the first place – all the emotions, inspiration, angst, love, aspiration, aesthetics, composition, scale – indeed the artist usually makes all these decisions because he/she should ideally be free to do so, and freely chooses to do so. This is in stark contrast to the craftsperson – where the process is quite mechanical, albeit possibly very skillful.

A great deal of work is called ‘art’ – when I think it is really craftsmanship: there has been no artistic process, the ‘artist’ has merely copied something to the best of their ability – for example painting or drawing a landscape or a bowl of fruit, performing a piano recital, or acting a character in a Shakespearean play. Or if this reproductive activity is to be called ‘art’ then I think we should have a special word for the original, imaginative, inspired art – a much more scarce and interesting human endeavour…

How do I judge art? I have a few criteria. How skillfully has the piece been created? How well have the materials being used and expressed? How beautiful is it – does it have any aesthetic merit? Does it give pleasure? Generally simple is better than complex. How original is it? How interesting are the ideas expressed within, and how eloquently have they been expressed for the medium used in relation to other works in the genre? How well has the finished product or performance been received? Does it evoke the kind of response it was intended to? Finally, does it have anything new to say? That is new in its place in history. For many of these criteria we have to judge art in relation to its history, culture, and geography – the time and place it was created in.

***

Michael Autumn
Cambridge, UK
January 2006




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