Category Archives: Philosophy
The world of mind and thought.
Art of course is in the eye of the beholder. Two people gazing at the same painting in a gallery will take away different experiences from it. One might love it, while the other might not so much. A violin screeching might move one person to tears and another person to want to leave the auditorium. There have been countless studies exploring the impact of various types, forms, genres and so forth on differing cultural groups, but they often seem to leave holes in their findings.
I remember quite a number of years ago, the first time I went to an opera, I had this thought bubble up from the depths of my mind that this would be a mainly white experience. But then the star soprano as well as several other singers, and a significant percentage (I guess, since I’m no statistician) of the audience were black. I kind of chided myself a little for having thought that only wealthy older white people would like opera. That was the image that Hollywood portrayed at least. I realized it wan’t so much the “liking” part that was the issue—it was the priciness of it. Things have changed now in that virtually any major live event requires you to hock a piece of your grandmother’s sterling silver set in order to purchase tickets.
I had a similar revelation years later, when a friend scored some free passes to a rap extravaganza. Those same neurons fired up a thought that we might be the only white people there. I was so wrong again. In fact I’ve had similar types of preconceptions at one time or other about jazz, blues, country, reggae, metal, the ballet, Shakespeare… And I learned the same about film as well. There are plenty of great foreign films that cut across cultural boundaries and have every bit as much visceral impact on me as anything Hollywood churns out.
We all might at one point in our lives believe that there are distinct cultural lines in art appreciation, but we learn as we get older and wiser that culture really has no absolute boundaries. It has only the boundaries we consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) place on it ourselves.
It is clear that we all have differing tastes in music, literature, film, food, and so forth. And it is also clear that those tastes are shaped by a mix of both innate and cultural factors. I personally have little doubt that our experiences in life shape not only our tastes and proclivities, but our perceptions as well. But my pondering here is about whether there are things an artist often consciously (or perhaps subconsciously) thinks about while working, with respect to how to reach (and appeal to) an audience.
Do you ever notice thoughts entering your head as you’re working on something to the effect of “how would this be appreciated by potential readers/viewers/listeners?” If you respond that that sort of thought never crosses your mind, I’m going to venture a guess that you may be deluding yourself.
When you compose a song, write a short story, make a film, take a photograph, paint or sculpt: who are you trying to please? Only yourself? Take some time to think about that. And let’s set aside the inherent imperatives and pressures of the commercial artist, for whom we already know the answer to that question.
As subjective as art may be, there are elements that appeal to the collective consciousness of large numbers of people. We know that ultimately what you create comes from your own heart and therefore is a reflection of your subjective sense of art and aesthetic. But most of us want so much to get our works seen and heard by more than just ourselves and our inner circle of family and friends—and this means we might just be flavoring our work just a bit to make it more appealing to others. We want not just to be artists, but to be famous (at least a little bit).
I believe there is a distinction however in the motive behind the endeavor. If the intent of a line of prose, or a piece of music, or a photograph, or a video clip is primarily to make a living, either through its direct sale or via its use in advertising to sell an article of apparel or a cosmetic product, or whatever, then clearly that work could be categorized as commercial art.
But how do you explain why certain pieces of music, certain visual images (both still and moving), and certain combinations of written words that were created without commercial intent, at some point find their way into advertising?
The answer is in my opinion quite simple: some works of art evoke a mood or emotion that Madison Avenue types believe they can take advantage of to encourage people to be receptive to buying their product or service. An exciting bit of rock music might be used to help sell a flashy new sport coupe. A piece of sombre music might be used to help sell life insurance. Or a photograph of an older couple strolling on the beach might be used to sell an investment service.
We see and hear this sort of use of well-known images and sounds virtually every day (Pachabel’s “Canon in D” comes to my immediate mind). It saturates our collective consciousness. We know that not all of these familiar images and sounds were created by artists with the immediate intent of profit. We might even curse these ad men for “sullying” the pureness of these lovely works of art—long after the artists have created them. But we also revel at the sheer power of these works that they would be so utilized.
So to my original point about the subjectivity of art, I contend that a work of art is no less magnificent for having been created with the tastes of the masses in mind, than had it been created by a recluse, truly without any thought as to how anyone else might perceive and/or judge it.
In fact, nature has created some of the most wondrous and magnificent works of art without a thought toward it. What makes art great or not so great is completely intangible and immeasurable. Its greatness is independent of the eye of the beholder or of the profit it generates. Art existed long before human beings started creating their own variants, and it will exist long after they’ve stopped.
Storytelling is at the core of all art forms. No matter how abstract that form is, there is still at least a basic theme behind it. It doesn’t matter if you’re making a film, writing a novel, composing a song, making carvings from tree stumps, painting a watercolor, or photographing orangoutangs in their native environment. If you are creating art, you are telling a story. And the better you are at the craft of storytelling, the better of an artist you will be.
Of course good storytelling is in the eye of the beholder. I have my own opinions about what elements of storytelling I consider invaluable to various artistic disciplines and I will talk a little about that here. However, I won’t go into too much detail regarding the classical methods and elements of storytelling. I am after all, a self-described jack of all trades and master of but a few, so while I consider myself a writer as well as a connoisseur of good writing, I absolutely will not be so sententious as to pose as a writing expert. It is my humble opinion that all artists should read a book or two on writing in order to gain a basic understanding of story construction.
Books on writing talk about various ways to categorize and classify stories. There are genres (e.g. comedy, action-adventure, horror, thriller, science fiction, etc.). And there are recognized archetypical themes (e.g. the hero’s journey, the coming of age, fall and redemption, etc.) And then there are also the aspects related to the length of the story and how that affects how the story is unveiled (short stories and short films have to tell the story more quickly, and therefore may gloss over or even skip entirely, certain elements that would be considered more important in a full-length feature film or a novel. But all storytelling has a few central tenets.
The primordial component of a good story is the theme. The theme is that central concern of the work of art that resonates with the audience. Writers know that every work of fiction has a theme and that theme should be clear in your mind before you start the process of writing. But other artists also should think (albeit sometimes unconsciously) about a theme when they pick up a brush or chisel or guitar or still camera.
A theme could be as simple as a feeling or emotion (pain, elation, anger, bliss, etc.) or it could be a more complex concept such as man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, or a warning about the oppression of the common man by the machinations of life, or it could be a moral adage such as do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But it is always there, even if only at the subconscious level. It is useful to pull it up into conscious thought when trying to create something meaningful.
Beyond a theme, stories have a plot, characters and settings. The plot (in a very small nutshell) is essentially the sequence of events in various settings, that shapes the characters as they encounter conflicts and work toward resolving them, from the beginning to the end of the story. Plots can be rather complex: there could be several subplots twisting and turning and intertwining in the story.
In literature and film, these three elements are complex and carefully developed: the story is laced with dialogue and narrative descriptions that help define the settings and the characters. In more static works of art, these are usually more subtle. A painting with people posed in a particular setting, going about their lives can evoke an idea about what’s going on, but to a lesser extent than explicit prose can. Much of the story must be inferred by the viewer, and clearly each viewer will come away with a slightly different take on it. Again, that is part of the pleasure of art: that part of what you take away from it is highly personal.
Of course, as art becomes more abstract, the story becomes more difficult to perceive. The more abstract the art, the more its interpretation is left to the imagination. But this too is part of the satisfaction and pleasure of viewing art. We cultivate our imaginations by attempting to see beneath the wavy lines, the rough textures, the vivid colors and the sharp borders.
A friend of mine was working on an oil painting a while back, and she asked what I saw in my mind when I looked at it. So I sat in a comfortable chair just looking at it for a while and thinking about it. And in a way, I sort of translated it into a little story in my head. Although a painting, by its nature is static (there is neither action nor dialog in a painting) and this one was a bit abstract, I saw distinct imagery and felt a certain feeling. I saw a savage city looming over the people who resided there, oppressive with its size and complexity. The city didn’t do this intentionally—it was just being itself. Yet the people seemed to be coping with it, and even thriving, as most life can thrive almost anywhere if it has the will to. So I saw a triumph of the will over oppression and angst. When I told my artist friend what I gleaned from her painting, she looked at me with amazement. She told me that lots of people saw the buildings and the people beneath them. But not many saw a story with a powerful theme (replete with conflict and resolution) in it. And then she told me that this was exactly how she had felt on her first visit to New York: that the tall buildings and bustling streets had seemed intimidating and even threatening—until she walked inside a few and found a friendly neighborhood bar, or a nightclub with a jazz band playing, or a market with shelves full of colorful and tasty things for sale. The feeling that she had was about how even the cold intimidation of the city could be overcome by digging beneath its veneer. I felt good for her (and a little for myself) that I had seen the same little story behind that painting that she had been thinking of when she conceived it.
And then there’s a great body of classical music from which you can glean stories without hearing any words or seeing any actions. There are stories of bloody wars, disaster and triumph, love shattered, and redemption from a fall. It’s all there in the sad violin solo, the cascade of horns, the crescendo of the timpani drums, the crash of the cymbals—if you but listen for it. You can hear the story build from movement to movement. And you can be driven to tears by the climactic ending.
With literature and film, the storyteller has more means to express the story through spoken words and actions and narrative descriptions than in other forms of art. And therefore, the pressure is on the writer or filmmaker to tell a good story to an audience that is expecting more than just mundane dialogue, funny jokes, exciting action, and stunning scenery. But every brushstroke, every bit of stone chiseled away and every musical note has a meaning too.
I’ve heard it said by a famous sculptor, when asked how he knew what to chisel away: “I see in my mind what it is I’m trying to say, and anything that doesn’t contribute to saying it gets removed, and then what I’m left with is pure meaning.” That was a bit of an epiphany to me, since sculpting is subtractive in nature—you start with all the material and remove that which shouldn’t be there, as opposed to building up a work piece by piece as happens in painting. By comparison, writers and filmmakers do both: they put together a rough work and then edit out what they then feel doesn’t add anything.
No matter what form of art a person is into, the common goal is to tell a story, no matter how short and sweet it is. All artists should think about this before getting started on something. What is it you’re trying to say? Your audience is expecting a good story when they sit down to read your novel or to watch your film, or listen to your song, or view your photographs, paintings or sculptures. When you fall short on your implicit promise to tell a good story, you let your audience down.
This topic came up as a result of a question from a friend at a local pub with a bunch of other friends, after a reasonable yet significant level of inebriation had been achieved. My friends are well aware that I’ve started a blog that does quite a bit of analysis under the guise of being a “critic”. So the question posed was, “Boris, you’ve done production sound, hell you even worked in a real recording studio, you’ve written and directed a short film that’s still in post, written several novels and screenplays that are just sitting on a shelf (albeit several of the screenplays have been registered with the WGA-West—for what it’s worth), you’ve cooked for your friends a few times, shared some interesting photos you took whilst galavanting around the far east, you play a little guitar, ride a Ducati… Yada yada blah blah blah—so how does that qualify you to be a critic of people who have been producing art, music, food, film or whatever for years? What gives you the %#$@ing right to write about other peoples’ blood sweat and tears, in areas you’ve only dabbled in?
In a sense, I can see the logic in that. How could I possibly know what goes into making a feature film, or putting on an exhibit of paintings or photographs, or a piano recital (when I can barely play chopsticks on the ivories), a dance performance (when the best I’ve ever danced is to wave my arms around like a chimpanzee, whilst my wife pulls her hair down over her face to hide her identity). But then I remembered that there are very good art, film, music and food critics out there who never mastered what it is they critique. There’s even that old saw that if you can’t do it, you teach it, and if you can’t teach it, you criticize it (actually critics critique stuff, and only occasionally when it is really bad stuff do they criticize it—there is a bit of a difference you know).
So to be honest, I think that you can never know what goes into an artistic effort of the magnitude of making a full-length feature film, or publishing a four-hundred page novel for real (on real paper, and sold in real bookstores), or performing in a musical or dance recital, if you haven’t done it. But if you are a serious artist, you wouldn’t be critiquing it. And if you had mastered the art, but then had to retire early for some reason (such as a career-ending injury or old age for a dancer) you’d probably be teaching. Only the lowest of the bottom feeders attempt to make any sort of career (paid or unpaid) of critiquing other peoples’ work.
But someone has to do it. If you hear the friends, family and close colleagues talk about someone’s artistic products, they will gush with praise (and hit that “like” button” in a heartbeat) even for something that is absolute and obvious rubbish. So it falls on the likes of those of us who operate at the periphery of the art world and hang out in the shadows of artists both great and mediocre, to take on the sometimes not-so-well-received task of telling it like it is.
So does that make me qualified? My short answer is yes. My long answer is hell yes. And if you don’t like that I referred to a home movie a friend of yours shot with a $100 camcorder, out of focus, and that sounded like the on-screen characters were in a tunnel, and like the lighting was done using a flashlight—that’s just too darn bad. That’s just what I do. And if you put some tune you created out on Reverb Nation that I feel sounds like a two-year-old vomited her strained peas onto a $100 Casio digital keyboard—again, too bad. That’s what I do. And if like a certain English professor at a certain local major university, you run a writing Meetup group and boast about your self-published novels on Kindle that had all the plot and character development of a child’s finger painting and I said that here (I have not!)—you quite possibly deserved it (but I’ve heard plenty of other people say similar things about your work in the Kindle review section sir).
I call em as I see em. If you don’t like what I have to say, and you really want to beat the crap out of me, I’m the guy at the exhibit/show/concert/recital who looks like an English Bulldog. But conversely, I will give kudos to someone who has worked hard to improve with each new work they put out there. After all, we should all strive to be better at whatever we do every day. And I recognize good entertainment value, even if as an art form, the work has come up a bit short (like if you posted a YouTube video with two cats boxing). Stand-up comedy is in fact a high art form and a difficult one to do well. And done well, it is highly entertaining—so much so you might accidentally tear a muscle in your side from laughing.
But fair warning: the thing I will most tear into is posers acting like accomplished artists. At least I’ll be the first to admit that my guitar playing qualifies me for playing in a garage band with four other significantly inebriated grown-up adolescents. I have a good friend who plays a little better than I do and is waiting for Eddie Van Halen to return his calls (you know who you are). Go figure. And then there’s my cooking. While my wife says it is very good, a professional chef would probably mistake a plate I had prepared for one needing to go into the dishwasher. And then there’s the photography. I get laughed at for having one of the nicest DSLR’s available (a 5D3) and not knowing what 90% of its capabilities are. But I’m learning. And then again, I never pretended to be the heir apparent to Ansel Adams, as a few photographer acquaintances of mine seem to think they are.
So what I do think really about the necessary qualifications to critique some form or other of art? In my humble opinion (hopefully that word humble will make you back down a bit on your anger level) to be a critic, you need to have had some basic exposure, and a little education (even just reading a few books I think counts), maybe have an aptitude of an advanced amateur, and definitely a sincere interest in and respect for the art form. You can’t be a good critic of country music for example, if you think that every country music song is about a guy’s wife taking the dog and the pickup truck. So I will recuse myself from critiquing that particular “art form”. I love to recognize artists who really produce fine work and put on a great show. And I will recognize a great effort that falls short in some area. But I will just as quickly come down hard on the posers who think because they are a little more talented than Joe The Plumber, that their work should be on exhibit at the Smithsonian.
Seriously, I will always accept an invitation to get a personal demonstration and education as to what is involved in creating a form of art (as long as it doesn’t take place in a secluded alley late at night). I want to learn more and to understand more about what you professional artists really do in your studios and on your stages in your professional artistic endeavors. I definitely make every effort to improve myself every day by practicing a little guitar, shooting some pictures or video footage and editing it, and writing novels, screenplays and of course this blog. Hell, I’ve even helped a neighbor with his home brewing. It is all both fun and very educational. Life is a mega adventure to me and like a shark, I need to keep swimming in order to breathe. But please don’t take it too hard if I didn’t gush with praise over something you spent all of a week working on during breaks from watching South Park reruns. It’s all part of the game of life.
Learning is universally applicable. We apply it to everything in life. Some even say that death is graduation day. Some, sadly close their minds off at a certain age (Like after high school) or after infusing some dogmatic hyperbole (you know what I’m talking about brothers and sisters).
Part of learning is self-assessment of where we’re at and where we want to be. I have my own personal “Chang scale” I use to measure the value and quality (as I see it) of various artistic endeavors. In the formal education system, we have grades. If we pass the tests and do the homework, we get moved up to a higher grade. The grades not only act as a measuring stick, but also prescribe the type and level of knowledge to be imparted to us. Outside of the school system and its grades and diplomas, we have other, simpler ways of measuring ourselves (and others). Common methods of measuring skill level are things like high, medium and low levels of proficiency. And then there are terms like beginner, novice, intermediate and advanced. Some people add more levels like expert or advanced intermediate. Truth be told, these are all subjective. Smart-ness (I know) is in the eye of the beholder.
When I’m trying to learn something, mental or physical, and whether it be guitar, writing, mountain biking, hockey, surfing, or whatever, I tend to sense myself hitting walls and being on a plateau for a period of time before making some breakthrough to what is clearly a higher level of proficiency. However many levels you break the learning process down into, I have found myself usually having two or three eureka moments and facing two or three plateaus where I just seem to be stuck. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to low-medium-high (beginner-intermediate-advanced) or whatever you want to call it, in my examples.
I remember when I started out playing hockey as a kid, I could barely stand up, let alone skate. This is rank beginner-hood. As my skating skills slowly progressed, I remember the hallmark of my playing ability was that as soon as I was in possession of the puck, I would take a quick look around and then push the puck in the direction of the nearest teammate (despite their shouts to “skate”). It was at that moment when I could actually skate and stickhandle the puck with my eyes up, looking around as I skated that I felt my game improved dramatically. I was actually seeing the game from a different perspective. I had made it past the first roadblock and into the intermediate level. I developed bits and pieces of advanced play before I had to hang up the skates due to recurring injuries: like being able to propel a backhand shot with velocity to the top of the net, being able to redirect slapshots from in front of the other team’s goal, being able to slam on the brakes hard when skating backward and the attacking opponent thought he could pull a fast one on me by slamming on his brakes. I never really got to be a seriously advanced player because I never was able to skate fast enough. But IMHO, I came close.
Surfing: (a big shout out to my bro Bert Mack out in Hawaii)
Starting to learn to surf, you find yourself endlessly paddling around looking for a wave you can take off on. There are little things you learn along the way to that first hurdle, like being able to duck dive out through a rip. But that first big eureka moment for me was the first time I was able to stand up and actually ride a wave (granted it was only knee-high) all the way until the wave closed out. I didn’t make any hotdog moves for sure, but at least I was able to steer the board away from other surfers paddling out (I’m certain that they appreciated that). I actually had a glimmer of advanced skill when I was able to ride an overhead wave in New Jersey after a nor’easter had passed offshore, without dying. Surfing an overhead wave without dying is always a good thing to accomplish. Again though, a spate of hockey injuries to knee, shoulder and back kept me from going much further. I have only surfed maybe twice in the past twenty years and probably will find myself back down in beginner land the next time I go out.
I remember getting that first guitar. The feeling is sheer exhilaration. But then you hold it in your hands and all you can do is strum a few open chords, and you wonder if you’ll ever be good enough even to say play in a garage band just for the fun of it. Thoughts like that alone can really hold you back. But I found as I studied music theory for guitar, played my idols’ riffs from tabs, and noodled around, that when I got to the point where I could play bar chords, power chords and other movable chords in all positions on the neck, with reasonable speed and timing, that I had passed my first hurdle. I had become a reasonably competent rhythm guitar player (note I did not say guitarist. There’s an implication of anything with “ist” at the end being an artist as well as technician). So now, my endeavors to take it to the next level involve learning speed lead (A.K.A. shredding), slide, improvisation and articulation. I figure maybe by the age of eighty I’ll be a pretty advanced guitarist (notice I used the superlative suffix this time).
When starting out in photography (and probably all along the way), you take lots of pictures every chance you get. You bring a camera everywhere and are always on the lookout for a great shot. As a beginning photographer starting out, you take snapshots (not to be confused with slapshots). For me, the transition to an intermediate level is somewhat still in progress. I am framing my shots in more interesting ways. I am a devotee of the eastern world’s view of background and empty space being of equal importance with foreground and objects. And I am gaining an understanding of how light behaves—how it is absorbed or reflected, refracted and diffused. My experience in sound engineering has helped me quite a bit in understanding how energy waves can behave and how you can capture them to your liking. I am carrying this into videography/cinematography, and discovering that the fourth dimension of time adds quite an interesting and challenging new set of issues. I’ve been learning that framing now involves knowing where a moving object enters the frame, where it exits the frame, and how long it stays in frame. Similarly, when camera and subjects are both moving, the angle of light hitting the subject and the lens changes. There’s so much to learn. I’m in awe of the very good cinematographers I know locally and have had the pleasure of working with.
When learning a foreign language, you typically start out memorizing phrases and carrying a phrase book when you travel. This works fine if the foreigners you meet always use the canned phrases. Of course this rarely happens. But they can look at your book and point to a phrase and let you know what they’re trying to say (like “don’t pester me”). When you are able to understand enough grammar and built up a reasonable vocabulary (say, a few thousand words), you have made it to the next level. You can construct sentences and understand what people are saying (for the most part—assuming the foreign speaker has mercy on you and sticks to basic simple language). Instead of a phrasebook, you probably will carry around a dictionary. And then as you might expect, the next level of proficiency is fluency. There are always levels within these broad classifications. Native fluency is a level that few can ever achieve in more than one language, save for children born into a mixed household or living abroad from a very early age.
In general, it is commonly believed that children learn things more easily than adults. The reason is not entirely clear. Some believe the brains of adults become less plastic and thus less open to reprogramming. Whatever the reason is, it seems evident that someone learning a skill from early childhood tends to gain proficiency faster and to a higher level than someone learning the same skill as an adult.
Abilities involving physical skills development tend to plateau at a point where only the development of complementary mental skills can carry the person to a higher level. Elite athletes know that the higher level you attain, the more the game becomes more mental in nature. Things like developing muscle memory, ignoring pain and fatigue, “psyching out” the opposition, and staying positive despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds, are all traits of an elite performer. The top hockey superstars talk about not just knowing where the puck is, but where the puck is going to be. I’ve read the same about good action photographers. There is a sort of instinct or “sixth sense” that develops at the highest most advanced levels of proficiency.
I have no doubt that learning itself, like any ability is something some people have more of an innate potential for. But like anything you strive to attain, hard work, dedication, perseverance and self-confidence can carry you over many of the obstacles that block the path to high proficiency. But one of the saddest things is observing how many people just plain give up on learning new things and improving their selves. For whatever reason, it seems a terrible shame to not care about being a better person in some meaningful way every day.