Living at the convergence of faith and art.

Contemporary Art

Truth Through a Lens

  lifethroughalens This evening, I watched a film (80 mins) on photographer Annie Liebovitz, Life Through a Lens. It’s aptly titled because following her early career to today, it’s an historic walk through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s, and now. We revisited San Francisco and the sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll era. We wandered through several decades of Rolling Stone magazine, read by anyone wanting social and cultural change. We moved on to her current work with magazines, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. It was 40-years of American, New York cultural history and influence.

What struck me most was how so many up and comers find their creative expression in such destructive lifestyles. She talked about her incredibly close friendship with the late Susan Sontag, singer & visual artist Patti Smith, and her engaging work in the lives of a vast array of celebrities. This film is a whirl wind tour of the back half of the twentieth century all seen in the tumultuous context that is artistic New York.

This morning Manuel Luz, singer/songwriter and author wrote a wonderful post. In Science, Hendrix, Banned Books & Brokeness he spoke of how truth is so often found even in the midst of lives of death and destruction.

Angst is real. It’s a part of what is true. So if you’re wanting music or any art form that is true, you go for truth, regardless of where it comes from. I think Jimi Hendrix was doing something that was actually really true. Now he was coming from a sense of brokenness, and I feel bad for that because he never was able to reconcile that. My faith is what has helped me to reconcile…”

So many Christians in this season – and it’s becoming less so, praise God – keep ugliness and unpleasantness at arms length simply because it is unpleasant and ugly. They’re not really looking for God’s Truth, but merely a quiet, pleasant life. When it comes to their kids being seduced by pop culture, or secular humanism, their tendency is to wall themselves off with their families lest they be contaminated. In this way, these Christians are operating from a posture of fear and are allowing themselves to be neutralized by their enemy, the Liar. To them God isn’t very powerful, and evil must be battled even here in the physical / material realm. Folly this.

This is perhaps the main reason the institutional church fights to manage artists who are Christian; much Truth is found amid ugliness and unpleasantness. If the artists are forced to seek Truth in stringently clean, fully Christianized contexts, well then, it will be not only beautiful, but pleasant. However it will contain absolutely no Truth.

Because artists are open, brave, and receptive to the world around them, their lives are often lived as loose cannon, rolling around the deck of life and doing “damage”. Christians who wall-off and shelter themselves from unpleasantness and ugliness seek peace and order, something that life has very little of, and in so doing endeavor to present a Theology of Aesthetics. In effect these wall builders seek to dictate and control expressions of beauty and the arts. Therein lies much of the basis of the centuries old friction between the institutional church and artists.

This is why I am creative outside of the church, and in The Church (Body of Christ). I do not allow any institution to dictate to me what I will or will not produce as art. If the creative person is censured, there is little or no Truth in the work, just Christian propaganda; yet another reason why 1-million Christians are leaving the institutional church every year and seeking God in person – directly and relationally.

And all of this was triggered and unpacked just by a documentary film on the greatest cultural photographer of our times.    Amen ~


My Artist’s Journal

"Esther" - Mixed-Media  / 8.5 x 11 / Acrilycs, Color Pencil on Cardstock / (c)2013 Lewis M. Curtiss jr~

“Esther” – Mixed-Media / 8.5 x 11
Acrylics & Color Pencil on Cardstock
(c)2013 Lewis M. Curtiss jr~

As most of my friends will tell you, I am not a man of few words. Nope, I ruminate through ideas with thorough discussion. I’m getting better though. I work very hard at speaking less and listening more. I think it’s my global thinking and my philomathy that usually get me into trouble. When I get excited about something I could discuss it all day long. Discovery and learning are passions with me.

My art however, is visual, not verbal or written. I’m a visual storyteller. I got my start in theatre way, way back in the late (19)60’s (Middle School). I went on in college to add film and video work to that. Telling stories in linear, visual media is my background. Today, however I’m a static story-teller, similar to a photographer, and the Artist’s Journal has now become my new lab.

I no longer keep an Artist’s Journal simply to capture and store ideas. In the Artist’s Journal I hone my ability to visually portray what I’m ticked off about, what I’m passionate about, or what I’m excited about. Step by step, I’m leaving planning and preconception behind.

These days I’m simply trying to begin to make art with little or no notion of what I’m even going to say, and I’ve got to tell you, that takes a great deal of courage. My training in theatre and film both required a ton of preproduction planning. Most visual art doesn’t. It’s not like I’m Michaelangelo doing the David or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sure, if I had a public commission, I’d thoroughly plan it out, but I don’t do public commissions.

These days my Artist’s Journal is a lab or a playground where I can experiment, and “waste” materials to learn what I can do with them. Working in my Artist’s Journal allows me to develop and hone a deepening connection with life, story, and visual expression.

When it comes to self-expression, most of us don’t think a lot about what’s on our minds. We simply put it into words and speak our minds. That’s exactly what an Artist’s Journal is helping me to get better at; to portray with few words and very meaning-filled picture(s) what’s on my heart and mind.

For inspiration I’ve been visiting loads of other artist’s websites who work in Collage, Mixed-Media, Assemblage, Altered Books, Art Books, and Artist’s Journals (I love these media!). What I’ve found, especially among the Artist’s Journals, is the cathartic, therapeutic, release of laying out what’s on the artist’s mind in pictures and words. Much of it is really wonderful because it speaks clearly and powerfully, “I’m hurting,” or “I’m totally filled with joy,” or “That really ticks me off!”

My left-brain has been the root source of the disconnection. I’ve been better able to talk about what’s on my mind rather than to simply portray it visually. If I did beautiful compositions only, then I’d be producing a great deal of work without story; for me, nice but devoid of meaning.

My storytelling arts practice demands the presence of the human condition. I don’t care if it’s a gently smoking pipe in an ashtray, or a footprint in the sand. Someone passed this way. Someone with a life has been here. In fact I really love artifacts; the merest suggestion of human presence. I love the mystery of who they were, why they were “here”. That’s probably why I love Archaeology so much – but I digress.

This idea is similar to what I’d tell my casts when I directed theatre productions; out there, backstage, beyond the set is the rest of the story-world. It’s called back-story. It’s our responsibility to give our audience a sense of a full-scale world beyond the walls of the set. They need that full-scale context beyond the scenes of our play, right here on-stage. I want the same sense of back-story in my work; the art is merely a window into a larger world “beyond the looking glass”.

It’s what we, as viewers/readers bring to the theatre when we watch a good play, read a good novel, or see a good film; we see something of ourselves in these story-telling media. I want my art to suggest something larger, a back-story that the viewer brings with them to their own personal engagement of the work.

It doesn’t matter what they bring to the experience, because in reality, it’s their story. They hopefully see/experience something for and of themselves. And I’m finding that the best place to hone my skills to express story in my artworks, is through the safe, never a mistake, don’t think, don’t “fix it” sheets of my Artist’s Journal.


Being & Becoming an Artist

LaptopI’ve been hovering around several blogs commenting on 1) being an artist, and 2) becoming an artist.  I need to begin here with my own exploration of being/becoming by stating, that so far the best handles (definitions) I’ve arrived at for what art is, and what an artist is are these; ART is highly-skilled creative expression, and ARTISTS are persons who must make art.

I don’t mean to sound all uppity and intellectual. It’s just that I’m struggling to find my own way.   It seems to me being/becoming is a huge aspect of what art and art-making’s all about; discovery and self-discovery.

ART: Highly Skilled Creative Expression

As I’ve written here before about Contemporary Art, there’s very little about it that is either “highly skilled”, nor “creative”, nor “expressive.”  And it’s certainly not for lack of training.  Most of those who participate in the contemporary art world have earned at least a BFA, and many more hold MFA’s.  So what I’m talking about has less to do with training, than well developed, well applied skills of creativity, excellence, and meaningful expression.

ARTIST: Must Make Art

I’ve worked with, talked with, commiserated with creative people at all stages of their creative careers.  One central discovery which has lead me to my own definition of what I call a “true artist” is the idea that a true artist must make art.  From Julia Cameron, through Madeleine L’Engle, to Eric Maisel, right into my own experiences and conversations; everywhere I turn some highly creative person is suffocating from a lack of opportunity to make their art.  I won’t bore you with my own story of this experience except to say that it was arduous.

Which brings me to the part about discovery and self-discovery; the art-making I do, and that I watch others make very often contains the adventures of discovery and self-discovery.  It seems to me that well applied discovery, implies growth, and with growth comes heightened abilities; the development of talents, and better skills.

This is what I dislike about the oft re-quoted saying that, “Everyone’s an artist.”  I believe that everyone is creative, but certainly not that everyone is an artist.  There’s only a handful of people who experience the suffocating effects of being denied (or of denying themselves) the opportunity to pursue highly skilled creative expression.  As well, that same handful are driven to make meaning; to interpret, translate, and communicate.

Being

As for “being” an artist, well to my mind, there must be a willingness to pay the price of discovering and developing one’s skills and talents.  I’m one of those artists who struggles with my creativity.  It doesn’t come to me as it did to either Mozart, or Conan Doyle, already finished in their heads.  No, I’m like so many others I encounter; we have to search, and experiment, and make wonderful mistakes, and feel our way toward the finished work.  It’s a journey akin to chopping my way through a jungle of fears and excuses, the judgements and opinions of others, and my own self-doubts to uncover something of creative meaning.  It’s a process I’ve discovered about myself, and have come to embrace it.

I’ve also found that “being” an artist is a life-choice; a 24/7 openess to input, ideas, and inspiration.  It’s often a perception of the world others usually find odd, different, and even peculiar.  It’s a willingness to grapple with this stuff and figure out a way to live with it, to get it out in some kind of creative manifestation, and share it with others.

Becoming

Becoming an artist; well to my mind, that’s a life-long pursuit.  It’s a choice to get into the trenches and commit to whatever it takes.  I remember popping out of college, degree in hand, feeling so finished and complete.  Like my peers I was ready to make my mark in the world.  Because school was behind me I figured that I had learned just about all I needed in order to get out there and make my art.  Are you laughing yet?

In the daily process of art-making, I quickly learned that what I left school with was merely an ability more akin toward imitation than to originality.  Little did I know that the wondrous journey of discovery had only begun.   And I think most artists begin this way.  I see it in young artists of all media all the time; they begin with what little they know, and that’s usually only what they’ve studied in school.  I was no different.

It has taken years, decades even, to be willing to make this mistake ridden, experiment laden journey to find out who and what I am, and then to see my own creative voice emerge from all of that experience.  And on it goes, the daily joy of discovery, and development; of growth in self-awareness and abilities.

Some additional perspectives and insights;

Making Meaning | The Cult of Genius | Sarah Jane Gray

jeffberryman | Don’t Forget What You’re Doing | Jeff Berrymen

Stone Works | The Need to Pay Attention | Luci Shaw

Would love to hear your views and experiences;

How do you realize the idea of “being an artist?”  What does that mean to you?  How do you pursue “becoming” in your art-practice?  As it pertains to your art-practice, what does “being” and “becoming” mean to you?


American Visions and “Contemporary Art”

Lew CurtissI am watching American Visions by Robert Hughes. It’s a wandering journey through the American psyche via our art and architecture, and it’s very telling. These two great institutions offer us a truthful vision into the historic depths of the American mind.  These 5-episodes explain very well where our American thinking comes from, and why. It’s an amazing journey into an America our own history books do not, and will not offer. It’s a critical program, but that’s because Hughes lifts the romantic veneers we humans so often adopt to reveal demonstrable truths. He does get a thing or two wrong, revealing his own leftist worldview. But he can easily be forgiven that because he does not abuse his audience. Instead he gets on with doing what he set out to do, and rather balanced I might add.

This program is wonderful stuff, and for me, a visual artist, it is the best way to grapple with American history. It’s a panoramic portrayal of the American human landscape as seen through art and architecture, artforms which were reactive creations of our beliefs and values. Hughes is an extraordinary writer, and his narration is excellent, accurate, and clear. His choice of words is one of the delights of watching this impressive, and important series. I suggest that it become a mainstay in art history and American history classes of this country. I will watch and watch again, because I am certain of discovering new, deeper revelations with each viewing.

Something I sense in Hughes’ documentaries is an indication that most of the art of which he is speaking is a response to what’s going on at the time; a response to the context in which the artist is living. The art in the series is reactionary, being driven by the times in which it was conceived. Today however, it seems that contemporary artists are working diligently to drive society, culture, and especially governmental institutions. It’s almost as if artists today are no longer content to merely encourage, recommend, or suggest, but to force, insist, and demand. In this context, maybe most of what is deemed contemporary art, simply isn’t. Instead it is more akin to propaganda; a demand that the rest of us uninformed neanderthals ought to get with the program – whatever that is.

 In watching, I am reminded of my younger days in which I could not penetrate the words of either the Bible, or the works of William Shakespeare. The Bible, I have been able to comprehend deeply. Shakespeare still eludes me, and I no longer try.

For me, the world of art in general has been just such an elusive construct.  Robert Hughes, and others, have helped me grasp a good deal partly because I am a show and tell learner, and because I repeatedly view and re-view these documentaries. I learn best through repetition. Mine is not a mindless viewing.  I am always listening deeply, and thinking about what I’m being shown.  As I walk, one step at a time, closer to penetrating the “literature” of art, I am coming to understand where art comes from, why we make it, and what it means to us as human beings.

Because art is a product of the human enterprise, in our unique self-examination, it seems to offer ideas of what it means to be a human being in our own time. I think this means of explanation, even more than fads & fashions, is what drives much of the change we see in the art-making of each generation. Each has its own concerns, beliefs and values, and they’re not always cumulative. More often than not, the newest art movements are rebellions against the last, seeking to create a “new vision”.

Visual and performing arts are often physical manifestations of social philosophy. Lead by the artist, we seem to be looking for answers, trying to make some sense of life. The contemporary artist, seems however to have abandoned his fellow human beings for selfish introspection.  This retreat is at the heart of my complaint about so much of the drivel so-called contemporary artists give us today. Contemporary art seems to be little more than a material rendering of one’s personal philosophy. It abandons all meaning, all worth, all highly skilled creative expression. I hate most of it.

I am a maker of story for people, of people, and by people. To my mind there is nothing of greater importance than the relationships we forge in our lives. Who cares about what some self-absorbed halfwit thought of a decade ago in light of our deep need for one another. It’s ironic, I think, that so many so-called contemporary artists seek mental solitude, and yet empty their already empty minds onto the stage of art galleries for all to see. It’s as if they have some deeply valuable secret of which they will only reveal the container and not the contents. I suppose we’re expected to become jealous of whatever it is they have holed up in their “works”.  I’m rather inclined to call out, “The Emperor has no clothes!”

Art without an audience isn’t. And if the viewer cannot engage these deeply cryptic, self-absorbed, introspective offerings, then there may as well not be any audience at all.  It is the relationship between the artist and the audience which makes this transaction meaningful. One without the other is simply mental masturbation and useless. Who writes anything except that someone, someday will read it? Who takes a photograph, in the context of making art, only to make the print and throw it into a box so that no one will see it? Who writes a play or makes a film only to shelve it so that no one views it?

Likewise, who, in their right mind, creates hyper-convoluted, cryptic nonsense within the empty confines of their own head, only to put it on display and bore us all to tears with a prolonged verbal explanation? The thing ought to speak for itself and if it needs prolific explanation, it’s an indication to me that there is nothing of any worth in it.  Certainly there is nothing of any merit in the heart and mind of the person who created it to be shared with an audience.

Give me narrative, or at least the illusion of narrative so I can find my own, but don’t expect me to make an effort with no semblance of context or story. If you’ve nothing to offer me, why should I waste my time paying any attention?