Art: Reflections of Reality
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is; infinite.”
William Blake (1757-1827)(Curtis 121)
Vertebrates possess twelve doors of perception. The eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, and the brain, and the senses associated with them (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and memory, respectively) allow organisms to experience events, and to interact with and respond to objects and conditions in their environment. This also holds true for people. At birth, children are psychologically malleable because their brains are newly formed and constantly developing. Cognitive development occurs hand-in-hand with physiological development. Experiences and events over the course of one’s life build knowledge and critical skills for survival. These stimulate the creation of ideas and opinions about the world. Over time, certain observations and experiences reinforce opinions to the point they become beliefs. Opinions that are not supported are discarded or rejected until proven otherwise. This process gradually clogs the doors of perception, dulling curiosity and further exploration of ideas. However, this process also gives every living thing a unique view of the world.
In people, there is a wide variety of belief systems and ideologies that attempt to understand reality and human nature. One thinker is the optimist who tries to put everything into a positive context. His opposite is the cynic that distrusts qualities of human society and tends to have a negative outlook on life. Another is the fundamentalist, which uses an unwavering and sometimes irrational dogma to uphold and convert others to that dogma. This type is omnipresent in the hierarchies of organized religion. One type of thinker—the artist—is most important of all. The artist (painter, sculptor, writer, actor, musician, photographer) that uses natural media (and sometimes themselves) to tangibly convey beliefs to others, and to portray things as they really are. Art, more than just a medium of creative expression, communicates the realities and fantasies of the human experience. In doing so, it often clashes with “established” and “conservative” ideas. At its best, art can expose and unravel humanity’s hypocrisies. At its worst, art can destroy lives.
But how can we define something that so broad and subjective? Art is the process or product of intentionally arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. In this sense, all works of art are completely subjective. Certain forms of art fall under the category of subjective play, which relates to “dreams, fantasy, imagination, and metaphors” (Sutton-Smith 4). By extension, the depiction of real phenomena also falls into this clave. The visual arts—painting, etching, sculpting, carpentry, among countless others—emphasize the nature of subjective play because many works in this category are inspired by the imagination. Others, however, are interpretations of real-world events.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is a painting of the bombing of Guernica, Spain, by German bomber planes during the Spanish Civil War. It, with its disfigured polygons definitive of the Picasso’s cubist style, graphically shows the tragedies of war and the suffering it inflicts on innocent civilians. Though an abstract work, Guernica is perhaps more realistic than any photograph, and as become an anti-War symbol and an embodiment of peace (“Guernica”).
Similarly, the painted portrait was the original photograph, and artists since Egyptian times have been commissioned to make images of people in natural or staged settings. Mona Lisa is the most famous (and most valuable) portrait known to man, and has granted effective immortality to the memory of the painting’s enigmatic model. Though portraits are the products of subjective play, they can be objective in nature and constructed to be as true to life as possible.
Written works are also subjective in nature, rooted in fantasy and the human imagination. Examples of these include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Bible and other religious texts. Literature like this is born of folklore and loosely based on facts, though the stories told might impart important morals or lessons that should be interpreted and not taken literally.
Art can also involve or revolve around observers. This vicarious audience play engages participants as well as observers. Examples of this type of art include the works of theater, television, and cinema. Saturday Night Live incorporates improvisation acting with written scripts and television for the purposes of comedy. Other forms of theater compose the fabric of modern society. These include the customs and practices of politics (like political campaigns and standard legislative procedure) and the religious establishment (transubstantiation, the Papacy, the Ayatollah, the mega-churches, etc.).
There are two main types of art, determined by the purpose for which a work of was created:
- Non-motivated art—does not have perform any specific external purpose and is art in its purest form: art for the sake of art (art as creativity)
- Motivated art—created for the intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artist (art for money or as a tool of change). This would include most of the stuff you watch on television (“Art”).
Sometimes, non-motivated art can have as much or greater impact on society than a motivated peace, as demonstrated by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
However, art’s main purpose is communication. A piece of art, regardless of its medium or intention, is meant to convey a part of the artist to other people. Even the earliest cave paintings recorded vital information about the hardships and resources of Ice-Age Europe. Modern works communicate observations, ideas, and emotions through allegory, fantasy, or even painstaking attention to detail. In every case, an artist must depict something as itself or as something else.
The rules of depiction have been the subject of much speculation among artists. In depiction, “the recognition of the subject is extended and elaborated by the way its conditions of representation, the medium, and the psychological adjustments of the painting become absorbed into its content” (Podro 2). This means that an image (let’s just say a painting) is more than the sum of its parts. It is the fusion of the media, the canvas, and the artist’s soul with the way the piece is presented. The artist’s vital role in the creation of a work makes him the ultimate authority in the way that piece’s subject is presented.
Sometimes, the artist himself can be the subject of his work. Usually these pieces address issues that deeply concern or afflict the artist. Such is the story of William Utermohlen. An accomplished American artist, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1995. Disturbed by the diagnosis, he tried to understand what was happening to him by painting portraits of himself over time. Done over the course of eight years, the portraits chronicle the artist’s descent into dementia. His earliest portraits demonstrated clear and meticulous attention to detail. His final paintings show a perspective that had been all but entirely dissolved. As his mind faded, Utermohlen consulted his psychoanalyst more frequently. “Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe of the brain in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and then putting it onto a canvas”, his psychoanalyst said. “The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague, more surrealistic. The artist conveyed sadness, anxiety, resignation, and feelings of feebleness and shame” (Grady). Though still alive, Utermohlen no longer paints and lives in a nursing home. His paintings have been crucial to helping doctors understand the processes of Alzheimer’s, and have helped many victims of the disease cope with their symptoms.
Depiction also occurs in music. The song “Into the Ocean” by the Blue October “contrasts an upbeat rhythm and light melodies with tormented and lamenting lyrics” (“Into the Ocean”). The song was written by Justin Furstenfield, the band’s lead singer. Furstenfield suffered from bipolar disorder and battled for decades against depression and suicidal tendencies. It is a first-person account of a normal boy who has jumped off a ship and the thoughts that pass through his mind as he loses the will to stay afloat. His final thought is of his beloved as he eventually concedes to drowning. The song ends revealing that it was all a dream spawned by agony and grief over the loss of a loved one. “It finally indicates that the boy wishes, like in the dream, that he could slip ‘into the ocean, end it all’” (“Into the Ocean”). ‘”Into the Ocean”, with [its] seductive violin siren call and plucked mandolin, openly contemplates a death wish with so much honesty, fans write to the band, claiming tracks like this have prevented their own suicidal impulses” (“Blue October”), much like the way Utermohlen’s works helped Alzheimer’s patients understand their afflictions. Similarly, both stories show how art allows artists to use their emotions to impact the lives of others. Art, as well as depiction, can aid people in their search for life’s answers. However, art, like any good thing, can be abused. Some forms of art exist solely for the perversion of images and information.
Propaganda is the primary type of artistic manipulation. It is “deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (“Propaganda”). Primarily used for wars and politics-as-usual, propaganda is found in any publication that thrives on bias. Usually, these publications warp or manipulate visual images to suit their purposes. “In the past, photographs and film were the closest representations of reality available” (Macdonald 1). However, improvements in technology, especially computers, have made altering photographs easier than ever before.
Computers allow even average people to edit images. Programs like Photoshop enable the creation of any imaginable image, still or moving, with accompanying audio. The Internet facilitates the distribution of those altered image. Websites like YouTube.com enable anyone with internet access to post videos (real or altered) for the online millions. While most of these videos are created solely for comedic effect, others have darker purpose.
Photomontages are altered images “created by combining two or more photographs or other separate pieces of graphic material into one work” (Macdonald 21). Some are produced solely for artistic purposes or for comedy and intended to offend rather than to deceive, like the image below. The image, taken from wayodd.com, combines a photo of George W. Bush with a photoshop window encasing the former President’s head that reads “could not move the selection because the selected area is empty” (wayodd.com). The image primarily criticizes Bush and his followers, but was not created to politically attack them.
When used as deception, photomontages are used to attack the reputations of others. This holds true in political campaigns throughout recent history. One such attack occurred during the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, when a photograph of the Vietnam War veteran “was published that showed him at anti-Vietnam War rally in 1970 seated near Jane Fonda” (Macdonald 23). Jane Fonda was added to the picture as part of the photomontage that would have thwarted Kerry’s political campaign.
Some political attacks have even greater consequences. “After Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 there was acrimonious debate in Israel about the use of photomontages for propaganda purposes. Before his assassination, the opposition party, Likud, had called Rabin a traitor and murderer. Leaflets were distributed that showed him with hands dripping with the blood of Jews killed by Hamas, the militant Islamic group, and one photomontage even showed Rabin in SS uniform, weeks before he was killed” (Macdonald 23). It is believed that the propaganda was responsible for Rabin’s death. This incident shows how art, a tool of intellectual illumination, can be used to destroy the reason, rationality, and lives of others. The defiant character of art is linked to its roots in dark play. “Dark play subverts order, dissolves frames, and breaks rules—so much so that the playing itself is in danger of being destroyed” (Schechner 107). The players, too, are also flaunting with destruction. In the United States, however, dark play can be defended by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which entails the rights of free expression and free speech. Similar amendments exist in western European countries, Israel, Canada, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Governments elsewhere—like those of China, the Middle East, and Venezuela—either fail to defend or publicly persecute free speech, pitting those “dark players” against fate.
Nature is full of beauty. The universe gives us galaxies twinkling in the night sky and the periodic flash of the Aurora Borealis above the Arctic Circle. Earth also has its wonders. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is a massive community of trillions of coexisting creatures dependent on each other in a harmony of sorts created and constantly reshaped by the evolutionary arms race between predators and their prey. The world has many manmade wonders as well, like Mount Rushmore and the Roman aqueducts. However, man has also created a world of hypocrisy. While many treasure individual freedoms, countless societies have set up double standards in religious, political, and gender-related affairs. When there is the desire for peace, it can only be forced on others through war and violence. Even worse, we live in a nature-loving society built on an economic system bent on destroying it. Art can be natural or manmade, and record the great achievements—and horrific failures—of humankind. However, art has many faces. Some create. Others destroy. The role of a piece of art depends on the artist, and rightfully so, because artistic expression is the physical manifestation of freedom and creativity. Art must never be censored and should be used to provoke the mind (and the main stream) whenever possible. For, “who art thou to question art’s validity,/the window to the human soul and creative ability?/ Censor not my art,/ For art is art,/ and art is free” (Blitman).
“Art”. Wikipedia.org. 18 April 2009. 19 April 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art
“Blue October”. VH1.com. 18 April 2009.
Curtis, Brian. Drawing from Observation: An Introduction to Perceptual Drawing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Grady, Denise. “Self-Portraits Chronicle a Descent into Alzheimer’s”. The New York Times
24 October 2006. 19 April 2006.
“Guernica (Painting)”. Wikipedia.org. 17 April 2009. 18 April 2009.
“Into the Ocean”. Wikipedia.org. 7 April 2009. 18 April 2009.
Macdonald, Scot. Propaganda and Information Warfare in the Twenty-First Century: Altered Images and Deception Operations. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Podro, Michael. Depiction. Connecticut: Yale University, 1998.
“Propaganda”. Wikipedia.org. 17 April 2009. 18 April 2009.
Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2000.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997.
Wayodd.com. 18 April 2009. http://www.wayodd.com/funny-pictures2/funny-pictures-photoshop-bush-1cd.jpg