Saturday, 31 December 2016

Art, Love and Beauty

Throughout The Symposium Plato argues that 'love requires beauty and thus doesn't possess it.' As I re read this dialogue for the first time in many years, I was moved to consider what possible dilemmas this proposition might create for aesthetics.

A traditional understanding of art is that it must be beautiful. In a previous post I discussed ideas of the Kantian Sublime and suggested that an experience that brings forth psychological movement could be a possible expansion of the concept, adapting it into something that is both transcendent and pragmatic. Taking this further, one might delve deeper into the proposition that 'art is beautiful' and perhaps find common ground with my 'therapeutic' re-interpretation of Kant's concept of the Sublime,

Plato's argument throughout The Symposium states that love requires beauty to exist and thus love is not inherently beautiful. In Plato's reasoning, love relies on a separate concept of 'beauty' and thus must lack beauty in itself. A similar line of argument could be applied to the proposition 'art must be beautiful.' If art requires beauty in order to define itself, it surely follows that beauty is not an innate component of art.

What, then, of the Sublime? If art is not beautiful in itself, then the rapturous, transcendent experience that it might engender can not lie dormant within the artwork. The old adage that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is of relevance here. The psychological movement that the experience of the Sublime allows fo must reside within the spectator. In this model, the perceiver holds transformative potential with them, and just needs to wait for the right image to bring it forth.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Let The Materials do the Talking

Working with a new medium for the first time can be intimidating. Just as we tend to create 'comfort zones' of rendering particular types of imagery, it's very easy to fall into relying heavily on the same materials. It's certainly no bad thing to endeavour to master one medium, and many artists build successful careers on doing just that, but I think there's a definite case to be made for doing as much material experimentation as possible.

Whenever we use an art medium, we form a relationship with it. As we use a particular material, we begin to discover its potential and limitations. A teacher might show you a particular technique, or you might discover it for yourself. Either way, it's important to allow the physical properties of the medium to influence the work you create. If you can open up to the potential of your materials in this way, you'll start to find that different media will tell different stories. Knowing when to consciously guide the creative act and when to allow the characteristics of the medium to take control is key, and this is an intuitive process learnt through time and patience.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Illustration, Therapy and the Sublime

Illustration has, historically, been kept separate from the world of fine art and attributed a lower cultural value. This is largely due to its functional nature; illustration exists to convey and communicate ideas and thus finds its home in "low brow" forms of media such as picture books, advertising, comics and political propaganda. This perception of illustration comes from a Kantian understanding of aesthetics; as this art form serves a practical purpose it can only be viewed as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Thus illustration cannot be 'sublime' in the Kantian sense as it does not overwhelm the viewer's ability to comprehend it. Rather it relies on the viewer's ability to quickly interpret the image's meaning.

I certainly agree with the above position; illustration certainly does have practical purpose. I take issue, however, with Kant's notion that images and artefacts deemed to be 'fine art' do not serve a utilitarian function. It can certainly be argued that all art works serve a historical purpose in that they document the cultural, social and political milieu of a certain time and place. For me, however, this is only one practical application of art works.

As regular readers of this blog will know, my professional life revolves around the inter-connection between art and emotional well-being. I was recently greatly inspired by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong's book Art as Therapy, which posits that the act of viewing great works of art enables the spectator to engage with and resolve issues in their personal lives. This challenges the above described Kantian notion of sublimity as it suggests that all works - 'fine art' or other can serve the utilitarian purpose of facilitating psychological change.

In my previous post, I argued that movement and potential were central to the practice of visual story telling. I regularly teach illustration to a wide variety of different client groups and, in doing so, I often see the artform's great power to bring about emotional healing. In my view, this is achieved in two ways. Firstly, it can be brought about through spectatorship as de Botton and Armstrong argue (and perhaps Kant too - could it be possible that this is what he meant when he talked of the sublime?). Secondly, the creation of illustrative images allows one to interact with - and control - a sequence of  moments in time. The transformative power of this practice should not be underestimated.

I've skirted around two different debates here; the purpose (if there is one) of art work and the ever-blurring line between fine art and illustration. For those interested in digging deeper into these ideas I'd suggest the aforementioned Art as Therapy (de Botton and Armstrong, 2013) and Critique of Judgement (Kant, 1790).

If you're local to the Norwich area and are interested in illustration, narrative and the connection between art and well-being, I'll be leading an 8 week course on 'Illustration and Creative Drawing' for The Public House from January 9th, 2017.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

What I Mean By Visual Storytelling...

I realise I often throw the term 'visual storytelling' around without ever offering much explanation of what those words might mean. Over the past year of teaching and blogging, I've used the phrase any number of times and it's high time I unpacked that particular bit of jargon. As it's the end of a year, and as such times tend to make me come over all introspective and reflective, I'll expound on what I mean by 'visual storytelling' with reference to my own past history.

I can remember being in Italy when I was around three or four. Actually, that's not quite true. I don't really remember where I was, but I remember being given a Spiderman comic printed in a language that I didn't understand. As I was so young, and couldn't read much English, let alone any other languages, my parents' thought I'd be perfectly happy with an Italian edition of Spiderman. And they were right! The image on the cover is still fresh in my mind three decades later.

This Italian language Spiderman comic is still my first reference point when I think about the power of the picture. My inability to read the words didn't matter because the four colour image on the front of the comic told me everything I needed to know. The striking black lines, dynamic composition and powerful colour scheme conveyed a world of information.

When I was a few years older, Quentin Blake's ilustrations for Roald Dahl had a similarly powerful impact. These drawings were different to the Spiderman one - they were messy-looking and imprecise rather than tightly designed and constructed. But they too had a dynamism to them, this time one achieved through quick, spontaneous line work. I can remember looking at Blake's covers to Matilda and The Witches and them seeming to almost move on the page.

For me, this notion of life, of movement, is central to illustration. Story emerges from the passage of one moment to another. An illustrative image can never be fixed - it needs to suggest action and progress. It needs to hold within it the potential for another later image - one that might appear on the next page, in the next comic panel or in the reader's mind.

When I teach illustration for The Public House, this ability to imbue an image with potential is the main skill I try to get across. I encourage my students to view the work they create as being part of a larger narrative or context. I ask that they consider ways in which their drawings might flow into the next moment, how they might have emerged from a previous moment. I think this is vitally important in effective illustration.