Tag Archives: art

Why Make Art? A New Answer Arises, Stitch by Stitch.

Art makes me think. It has happened before and it is happening now. Funny thing is that I am not just set to thinking by the big, important art but also by art that takes itself less seriously.  I am certain that Rodin’s The Thinker has never made me think. But Calder’s whimsical Performing Seal has.

There is art afoot, art about towns today that is making me smile. And yes, think. Is it Art? What is art? Why make art? A new answer arises: to make us smile again. Maybe at times that is all we really need from art.

Have fun looking and oh yes, definitely show your kids!

http://ht.ly/61VST  Scroll two down, click under the tree on more information to find “Yarn Bombing / Guerrilla Crochet – A Collection”.

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The Rothko Story

Let me tell you a tale. A tale of the depth of emotion that art can evoke. A tale that will make you pause. A tale I hope will demonstrate why art history is valuable.

As trite as it sounds, I have a favorite artist, Mark Rothko. And, speaking of trite, I was looking at a You Tube compilation of his work today. At the end were comments, lots of comments. I started to read a few but got hung up on the first one. A comment so glaring for demonstrating the author’s complete lack of understanding of the history behind the art that it catapulted me here to write.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was an intelligent and philosophically inclined man who won a scholarship to Yale but left New Haven after two years to join the Manhattan art scene (he was later awarded a degree from Yale). There he began his art education with classes in representational drawing and painting. Ultimately however, he became known for abstract painting and would be placed in the group of artists working in the 1950’s called the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko filled huge canvases with large blocks of vibrant colors.

I paint very large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy. A large picture is an immediate transaction. It takes you into it.

His technique was novel and refined; he painstakingly applied series of layers of thin washes of colors that added up to creating a luminescence and a remarkable shimmering effect.

Rothko disliked giving up these masterpieces of scale and light and color.

It’s a risky business to send a picture out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who could extend their affliction universally!

In an attempt to control the fate of his canvases he became famous for exerting control over how they were displayed. They were to be hung so that there was little white wall surrounding them; preferably in a room with only other paintings of his. The paintings were to be hung as low as possible and in quite dim light. He meant the paintings to be  ideally viewed at a distance of only 18 inches so that the (single) viewer would be enveloped by the experience as Rothko had been enveloped while painting them (he wanted to create a feeling that the painting was not static but, continuing to evolve as it was viewed). And, he intended the viewer to have quite the experience. In his fabulous book The Power of Art, Simon Schama says “no other painter in the history of modern art – perhaps in the entire history of painting – was so obsessed with the relationship between the artist and his audience”.  His goal was that we would be transported by his art. Once when a reviewer commented that Rothko was simply a master of color he scathingly responded:

I am not an abstractionist. … I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!

In 1958 Rothko was offered an enormous (for the day) retaining fee to produce a set of murals to hang on the walls of the new Four Seasons restaurant in the building designed by architect Mies van de Rohe and owned by the Seagram’s distilling company.  He then rented an old gymnasium and erected scaffolding to model the space at the Four Seasons and began working. In a short time there were dozens of canvases of red, maroon, black, brown and flaming orange. From these he planned to choose the best nine to completely cover the walls all around the main dining. They would thus become more like murals, than individual paintings.

Rothko’s works became sought after, his income soared to 60,000 in 1959 and yet, he mistrusted the wealth that bought his work. Simon Schama explained that Rothko’s fear was having the paintings become “overmantels” or expensive wallpaper for the rich. Perhaps it was this fear that motivated Rothko to go with his wife to the newly completed Four Seasons restaurant one night in the summer of 1959. There they dined amongst the glittering decor, clinking glasses and stylish Manhattanites. There it suddenly be came clear to Rothko that his murals were not meant to hang on those rarefied walls. He felt, likely rightly so, that the diners would not understand his work let alone have the sort of emotional experience he intended for a viewer to have. He turned down the money – approximately $2 million.

Anyone who would eat that kind of food for that kind of money will never look at a painting of mine.

Then followed years of struggle with alcohol and creation of paintings of an progressively dark palette. These  somber paintings seem to represent a final step down into a darkening of spirit. His health failed, his marriage failed and he continued to drink and smoke. He became increasingly depressed.

On February 25th, 1970 Mark Rothko was found dead in his studio, his wrists slit. Hours later on the very same day, a shipment of nine Seagram murals arrived at the Tate Gallery in London to be hung in a room alone according to strict specifications.  Jonathon Jones wrote in a recent blog post for the Guardian that “Rothko was fascinated by the idea of shaping a room with art, using abstract painting as a type of architecture”. He meant to create a physical space where his canvases could work with the surrounding architecture to move viewers to meditate. He meant to induce a religious experience. Upon his death he had created just this.

For dear reader, now that you have heard this tale, you can see that art history is powerful. That an understanding of the history of a work of art can create a heightened appreciation of it. To the uneducated You Tube viewer, Rothko’s paintings may look easy (they are not – remember the groundbreaking layering of pigment he developed and the precision with which he displayed them). To the uninformed viewer they may appear an attempt to generate exorbitant sums of money (they were not– remember his mistrust of wealth and that his constant desire to have the viewer emotionally connected led him to turn down $2 million). So, the moral of this story might be that one should ask about art before you judge. And then with your knowledge, enjoy.

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This is a powerful tale and by telling it to your children over dinner and showing them some of Rothko’s art (try the youtube compilation) you will begin to hook them on the world of art. You may worry about telling them about Rothko’s suicide but then, you could view this part of the tale as a “teachable moment”. It presents to you an open door to start further dinner discussions about depression, addiction and suicide. These are all parts of the world experience that we hope our children avoid. You have a powerful ability to influence their choices if you are willing to discuss these difficult topics. It has been sown that children whose parents frequently talk with them and clearly convey their expectations regarding drug and alcohol use are much less likely to end up abusing substances. Feel your power and start talking. To help here are a few resources.

Gifts of Transcendence

I have wonderful friends. Ones who support me and understand me. So, when they heard I was injured and stuck lying around; off my leg for weeks to come, two of the most insightful ones brought me a gift of art. Both went to museums and came back to me with Rothkos. One with a beautiful print and, one with a powerfully written tale of his trip to see a Rothko in my honor. They understand me well.

Some works of art have the ability to transport us emotionally to another plane of experience. Certainly music will do this for most of us. Think of the elevating power of the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, the Ode to Joy or listen to Pachelbel’s canon. Visual arts too have this power. The Shiva Linga paintings that I discussed in an earlier post are a clear and direct example of this. They were painted as devotional images intended for use during meditation to help the believer focus their prayers. The paintings depict one of the forms of the Hindu god Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation. He  oversees death and rebirth. These paintings therefore are meant to represent transitional space between creation and dissolution.

Despite my not being Hindu or particularly meditative, I found these paintings absolutely compelling. They are simple and repetitive; painted on found scraps of paper by individual, anonymous practitioners. Similar yet interesting in their differences.  As I stared into their central black ovals I felt the world around melting away from behind me while the black space grew to envelope my thoughts.

I have to wonder if Mark Rothko perhaps saw and was influenced by similar paintings. There are parallels to be found in his work: the spare design, simple color blocks and, the intended purpose of transcendence. Rothko meant for us, the viewers stand close to and alone in front of his paintings. He meant for us to be embraced by them. A sensuous, tragic, moving embrace. So now I in possession of my own Rothko’s, feel able to extend beyond the limits of my own experience. I am momentarily lifted beyond the couch and into the enfolding spell that art can provide.         ©

Why Pie?

I have a test question for you. If I spent my Sunday trying to perfect Boston cream pie whose paintings did I enjoy on Saturday?

It was a rainy Saturday so my daughter and I went back to the Crocker Art Museum. The art we soaked up got me thinking and, questioning again. I have asked here “Is THAT art?“, “What IS art?” and “Is graffiti ART?“. Now I am led to ask why did the artist choose that subject; why THAT art?

We saw a broad range of art at the Crocker. First we spent an hour looking at an exhibit by John Buck entitled Iconography. Every strikingly beautiful print was as striking in its capacity to generate thought. They were very large format wood block prints carved with bold designs and filled from top to bottom with intricate details. It was those details that got the discussion flowing. One print was of a bottle filled with carvings depicting the effect of the arrival of the white man on the Native Americans – the deadly cost of our disease and alcohol. Another depicted the environmental price of deforestation and oil drilling.

It was obvious why he chose these topics – they are meaningful, important and compelling.  Another exhibit we saw was less so. It was simply confusing to me why Daniel Douke’s work in the exhibit Bytes of Reality was there. He showed great technical skill in his ultra-realistic paintings of mailing boxes. They seemed to be a cross between Duchamp’s found objects and Warhol’s Brillo boxes. The Crocker’s website states:

By making these discarded boxes art, he gives them permanence and value, challenging our assumptions about reality and artifice.

At the risk of sounding uneducated, I don’t get it. A docent tried to explain the work to me but left me wondering if I was looking at the emperor’s new clothes and feeling that some one was telling me a story already told well enough before. Besides this judgment, my biggest question was this: “WHY mailing boxes”?

Next we entered the permanent collection which includes the works of many California artists. Positioned to the forefront; in the first room is a group of paintings by Wayne Thiebaud. Thiebaud paints with thick brush stokes of vibrant colors; bright white, edges of purple and orange. He depicts scenes of San Francisco’s rollercoaster streets and some central valley landscapes but is most known for desserts. Not deserts, no. Cakes, gumballs, pastries and pie. Boston cream pie to be exact. I love pie and really enjoy his work. It makes me hungry. But that day mixed with my hunger, was that same thought. Why does Thiebaud paint dessert?

Two great artists. One etching monumental works of powerful concept. One painting with mouth-watering precision, pie. Why the pie?

“If the world were a perfect place,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times in 2001, “the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective that has just opened at the Whitney Museum would be nailed to the walls for good and we would be free to stop by whenever we needed to remind ourselves what happiness feels like.”

So indeed, some art may just be meant to make us happy.

Now, does anyone have a better recipe for me?

Pink and Purple Circles

Promoting arts education is crucially important for our kids. Before I leave the background discussion of why I need to address one last point. Arts education is often taken to mean creating and performing art. Art history is also of value. This involves art criticism, the academic study of art with its stylistic and aesthetic context. It gives us the ability to understand the sublime that is art.

Briefly, three ideas for why the contextual study of art should be included in the standard arts education:

  • Understanding what influences the framework that art hangs on allows a more enjoyable connection with it. This is likely better explained with an example. My kids all went to a wonderful parent cooperative preschool. On my workdays there I loved being at the art table. Over the years I became increasingly impressed with the influence the children had on each other’s artistic styles. There might be three kids at the table painting away. One more would join in and start painting say, concentric pink and purple circles. Soon I would notice lots of use of pink and purple and lots of circles appearing across the table. Over time I worked with the teachers to form a yearly art exhibit where we hung the kids art on the fences in the school yard. It was grouped by period and context. It was a joy to see how the kids had developed together! This ripple effect or evolution of style is seen in our study of major schools of art. Artists influence each other and create an ongoing evolution of artistic style.
  • An understanding of the evolution of tastes in art generates acceptance of diversity. Artists through time have often been scorned when they challenged commonly accepted ideals with new approaches. They take a new approach that eventually becomes the accepted norm (think pink and purple circles). Seeing this progression as it has played out repeatedly through time can teach kids an acceptance of new thinking, new looks, innovative approaches. It can help them be less judgmental of differences in those around them.
  • Understanding the mechanics of creating art is valuable. Artists work hard. Really hard. They practice day in and day out in order to produce what can often appear simple. Have you ever looked at a modern painting and thought “I could do that”? Likely, you could not. Professional artwork requires both innate talent and earned skill. Understanding this can encourage and motivate a child in their own persistent efforts.

Art is more sublime when hung on a framework of understanding. You have more fun when you can see where the story behind the pink and purple circles. Then you might be motivated to go home and try some of your own.

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Black and White in Art and Life

I am having a bit of a free association sort of rainy Sunday. Funny about our minds isn’t it? The way we can unconsciously shift through the bits and pieces of what we read or hear during the week to come up with a theme of sorts. What follows is the intersection of learning about the great dance choreographer Twyla Tharp, the painter Caravaggio and thinking about a few failed interactions I have had with patients through the years.

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) by Caravaggio

Twyla Tharp explains in her book “The Creative Habit” that she prefers to divide people in her world into two distinct categories: acceptable or not, good or evil, “committed or missing in action”. While I find the book well-written and find myself inspired by her advice, I was bothered by these comments. I recognize that for her this commitment to embracing the extremes rather than the grey zones is artistically motivational but for me, it grates against my own approach to people. I prefer to work in a grey zone embracing the nuances of the personalities I find around me.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian Baroque painter in the late 16th century. He is known for dramatic, dark, richly and realistically depicted paintings of an often religious theme. He is also known for having been a murderer. Good (artist), evil (killer) and yet, to view him fully as one of these extremes we would miss the other side to his story and miss the influence these complex components of his persona have on each other. We would make an error of judgment.

As doctors, we give our best care and make our best diagnoses when our minds are open. I remember a professor in medical school telling me to begin my care for every patient by imagining that the patient’s illness was a tree that I stood at the foot of. A tree full of possibilities. As I tried to figure out their diagnosis I was to consider climbing along a branch chosen after a pruning of other possibilities by listening to their history. The physical exam would allow a deeper cut of the choices, lab tests, xrays and time allowing me if fortunate, to end up on the right twig with the right diagnosis.

I read a blog post today about errors made when “hysterical” E.R. patients’ complaints are dismissed.  Someone loudly and dramatically requesting that they want a certain pain medication in a busy E.R. does tend to get ignored or, written off by the doctors and nurses who care for them. These patients are judged rather than treated in the grey zone of acceptance and this judging can lead to medical errors. This brought me back to two times in the past when such bias crept into my patient care. In both cases I was “warned” before entering the exam room that the patient or parent was difficult in some way causing me to walk into the room seeing a tree with already pruned branches. And indeed, I ended up on the wrong twig at the end of the visit.

Twyla Tharp is a supremely talented artist whose approach to slotting people into good or bad fails me both creatively and humanistically. Caravaggio was a troubled man with a gift; art influenced by his turmoil or, a man of grey shades. Patient care is best done with a clear eye towards the complexity of human nature.

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Minimalist Art Provoking Maximum Discussion

An article by Carol Vogel in yesterday’s New York Times brings me to focus here on item number one in The List. The article was a review of Glenn Ligon’s upcoming retrospective at the Whitney museum in NYC. Glenn Ligon is a modern painter and conceptual artist whose work focuses on his view and exploration of American history. There is much here to use as fodder for a dinnertime discussion with your kids.

First a bit of art history to set the stage with. His work seems to fall well into the broad category of Conceptual Art. This movement followed Abstract Expressionism (think Rothko and Pollock) and Pop Art (think Warhol). Ligon’s work seems heavily influenced by a Neo-Dadaist artist: Jasper Johns (think American flags and numbers), …and if all this is making your head spin either skip on through or, see the bottom of this post for examples of work by these artists. Conceptual Art is a cool ah, concept to talk with your kids about. It very simply put, is art that focuses on ideas rather than aesthetics. The Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp was amongst those setting the stage for conceptual art by leading us to question what art is exactly and to stretch our expectations of what art should be.

The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker. Marcel Duchamp

Years later, Conceptual art began to look at the context and perception of words, objects and ideas. In Ligon’s work he often uses words or phrases from other people and reproduces them in ways that urge the viewer to look longer and harder at what has been said. Taking these words into a new frame or focus pushes us to contemplate their ideas as those outside our own experience bringing us possibly, to a new understanding.  As Ligon himself said:

You have to be a bit outside of something to see it

The New York Times article about his work is well titled: The Inside Story on Outsiderness. Look with your children at his art; doing so may move them towards that first item on our List: to widen their perspective and encourage cross-experience understanding. Glenn Ligon’s art is about important and challenging concepts developed in large part by his experience as an African-American gay man  and yet, is presented in ways that are approachable. Challenging but not crushing of a child’s interest. My friend described them as “minimalist art provoking maximum discussion”.

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Representative works discussed above:

Glenn Ligon "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence" (inspired by words from The book "Black Like Me")
Jackson Pollock
Mark Rothko
Jasper Johns
Andy Warhol

The List

Here revisited, are the reasons I have gathered from family and friends for why children should be exposed to, taught about and encouraged to experiment with art. Art, in all its forms is of enormous value but, is being given short exposure by schools and parents often struggle with how to promote arts education at home. The list is a work in progress; please add to it on your own or, in the comments.

  1. Art exposure widens a child’s perspective, encourages acceptance of generational, cultural, social and geographic diversity. Art promotes cross-experience understanding.
  2. Knowing about art allows for a more enjoyable life-experience; allows you to feel socially connected and able to talk with people. This is an interesting point. It brings to mind the value of a liberal arts education being in part to generate well-rounded, broadly. exposed young adults who can interact with others on many levels.
  3. Art helps us remember history. Indeed, this was my point about art preserving our cultural heritage and collective memory. It preserves the past both in the physical sense but also in the ephemera of our thoughts and knowledge base.
  4. Art makes the world less plain. Yes certainly, there is this – the obvious but important view that art education allows an emphasis on the beauty that surrounds us. It helps us raise children who see that in life there is value in the simple moments.
  5. This ties into the next idea: “art makes me feel good”. Time spent learning about what makes us individually feel calm and “good” is increasingly important in this pressured world.
  6. Art can make “me feel different”. Yes, art can challenge us to stretch beyond feeling good. Kids can explore, confront and process the more difficult sides of life through art.
  7. Arts education sharpens critical thinking skills. Cassandra Whyte is credited with early work showing that artistic experiences develop creative and independent thought processes that are important throughout an individual’s lifetime.
  8. It teaches innovative thought
  9. And, teaches empathy and sensitivity to other’s experiences by exposing them to other world views, brings about a deeper understanding of the world.
  10. Teaching the arts nurtures skills (empathy, innovation, tolerance) that improve our kid’s future ability to work successfully in the global marketplace
  11. Art calms the soul and brings beauty to daily life.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life – Pablo Picasso

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Preserve Arts Education; Preserve a Sense of Wonder.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. – Albert Einstein

My eldest is almost fifteen and is beginning the process of planning his high school and college “careers”. This proves to be a rather stress-inducing experience; apparently very different from the casual way I approached high school. Late the other night he admitted he was worried about choosing classes for the upcoming years. So, in the spirit of facing our fears we curled up together right then and went the through the high school graduation/college entrance requirements. The school had provided worksheets and lists which we dove into. Amongst scads of science, math, and language requirements I learned that of the 230 units required to graduate only 10 of those need to be in arts education.

This made me start thinking again about the lack of value we place on arts education and the consequence of this devaluing. This is evident in the currently proposed national budget; some members of the House of Representatives have proposed deep cuts or even total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. This represents a huge loss nationally. On a more local level our school systems face severe budget crises and are viewing arts education as expendable – Leaving it acceptable to require only 10 units out of 230 for a young person to graduate from high school and enter college.

What is the cost of this devaluing? Put differently – what is the value in teaching kids arts? We teach art and teach about art because doing so:

  • sharpens critical thinking skills. Cassandra Whyte is credited with early work showing that artistic experiences develop creative and independent thought processes that are important throughout an individual’s lifetime
  • teaches innovative thought
  • widens perspective, encourages acceptance of generational, cultural, social and geographic diversity
  • teaches empathy and sensitivity to other’s experiences by exposing them to other world views, brings about a deeper understanding of the world
  • Therefore, teaching the arts nurtures skills that improve our kid’s future ability to work successfully in the global marketplace
  • calm the soul and brings beauty to daily life

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life – Pablo Picasso

  • preserves our cultural history and heritage; preserves our collective memory

My son and I filled in the worksheet with lots of science, language and math. And art? Well, not so much. He moaned at my suggestion of various art classes let alone art history. His groaning made me realize that I had before me, fodder for another great dinnertime conversation. Tonight I am going to ask them why I talk so much about the arts. Why I drag them to museums? Why we have lots of paint, pastels and paper? Why are our walls covered with art? They may generate some new ideas from my list above. I’ll get back to you with them.

If you want to help promote arts education yes, of course generate your own dinner table conversation. You can also look at the work of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund.

What is in a title? Or, Rapunzel Redux.

This weekend I went with my daughter to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and saw a work named Rapunzel #10. It was breathtaking and moving. Literally moving. It was a computer generated image of hanging flowers swinging in a computerized breeze positioned in a stairwell. As we walked up to begin our afternoon of art-looking, we were both taken by its beauty. So much so that at the end of the day, after lots of great art (and a yummy piece of cake and tea) we went back to Rapunzel. We sat in the stairwell, side by side quietly watching the flowers swing in the breeze.

The night before the two of us had gone to see the movie “Tangled” also a reference to the story of Rapunzel. This coincidence made me pay special attention to the title of our stairwell art and to ask her, when it comes to art, “what is in a name?” This question blossomed with the hanging flowers into a good discussion. My daughter noticed that in another equally notable exhibit we saw that day The Color of Light, that the painter named many of his paintings “Phenomena”-this or “Phenomena”-that. We started asking why? What was he asking us to pay attention to? With the installment Rapunzel #10 a placard asked us to consider the story of Rapunzel and the image’s relevance to addiction and child abduction in contemporary society.

Hmmm…I just wanted to enjoy the emotionally and literally moving flowers. I wanted to meditate on my own response and here was the artist jumping into my experience and demanding that I turn my thoughts elsewhere.

What is in those pesky names? Perhaps ask your kids at dinner tonight. Why do they think an artist leaves a work named “Untitled”. Why would they instead choose a powerful reference like “Rapunzel”? How does that change our experience? Perhaps – turn the question towards a book your child is reading: why did the author choose the title… can you come up with a different title? Or, look together at some art and discuss the names you find. In reference to the name of his work Women and Bird in the Night, Joan Miro in a rather satisfying explanation said:

It might be a dog, a woman, whatever. I don’t really care. Of course, while I am painting I see a woman or a bird in my mind, indeed very tangibly a woman or a bird. Afterward it’s up to you.

A Turkish artist, Ihsan Cemal Karaburçak, explained his very different approach of leaving works untitled:

I essentially do not give titles to my paintings. A landscape could portray any given place. What does it matter! A tree, a house, a mountain, a cloud, a flowerpot or an apple can be found at anytime, anywhere. The important thing is how it is tempered with, how it is interpreted and depicted. The object is only the means through which the artist reflects his inner world on a board or on a canvas. What matters is the inner world of the artist.

Or, create some art of your own and try coming up with names. You may of course end up choosing “Untitled”.

Jennifer Steinkamp‘s website has a video of one installment of Rapunzel.

Paul Jenkins is an abstract expressionist painter. This means that simplistically put his work is in the same general category of other artists I have written about here, Rothko and Pollock. You can see his Phenomena at his website.

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Dinnertime Art Continued: Art in the Moment

What do Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tino Sehgal and Andrew Goldsworthy have in common?

Well, I didn’t really expect you to get that one. But the answer to this question is one worth discussing (in the ongoing dinner-table conversation with your kids that I have by now stirred up).

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American who began as a graffiti artist and developed into a respected painter of canvases hung in galleries and museums. I was fortunate this year to see an extensive retrospective of his work in a museum. His paintings have an Afro-Carribean influence and also show hints of the influence of other artists of his time. But, for the purposes of our conversation, think of him as a graffiti artist. Andrew Goldsworthy is a british sculptor who works primarily in the outdoors making site-specific and land art. He makes art created out of what he finds in nature. Breathtaking, monumental art made of icicles, twigs, leaves and piled rocks. Tino Sehgal is an artist who creates situations meant to move his audience, meant to make them think but – not meant to be preserved. His work occurs in museums but is not documented in anyway. I recently saw his work “This Progress” – an installation of progressive encounters with people who walked with me, asking me questions (“what is progress?” “is progress always good”) as I ascended the spiral at the Guggenheim museum in New York. While my memories are sharp, there is no image to link here for you to see.

The answer to my question is that all three men created in part, art meant to be temporary. Graffiti and land art are to more or less degree ephemeral in nature. Sehgal’s work is designed to be such. When you look at each of these art forms you find an unarguably appealing nature to them. Certainly Goldsworthy’s is the most widely approachable so, start there. What is it about the fleeting nature of his work that adds to its beauty?

I asked my children this tonight at dinner. I admit, the 15 y/o rolled his eye a bit but then, even he joined in the conversation. They all agree that Goldsworthy’s installments are “really cool” but we struggled with the question of what their impermanence adds to the art. Does its fleeting nature make it more precious and therefore simply more valued (volunteered by the 9 y/o)? Do the changes that occur as Goldsworthy’s sculptures are decayed by the forces of nature (tides, wind, heat) allow for our own interpretations; our own artistic input in how we see them? Do my memories of Seghals situations similarly add to the interpretation of his art? Questions of vandalism aside, I find something magical about the creation of a graffiti mural that will soon simply become a canvas for the next artist.

Is there something about art meant to be physically transitory that makes us pause and stretch our mind’s eye to really take it in? We are perhaps, encouraged to be really in the moment with this art that is by nature of the moment.

To start your own discussion at home try watching these two very different but equally moving videos: Goldsworthy in action and graffiti being created. Consider making some of your own art at home as Meg Schiffler and her son did described in her terrific blog post for the SFMOMA Andy Goldsworthy: Big Tears (Part 1) and A Gift to the Backyard (Part 2).

Is Graffiti ART?

This question has been often debated at my house. I like looking at well done graffiti. I enjoy thinking about graffiti on trains. The pairing of this art form (meant to be temporary and fleeting) painted on trains that move through time and space with their roving art exhibits can often be quite spectacular! nd yet, graffiti is often done in an illegal, defacing manner that is obviously, hard to support wholeheartedly.

You might open this discussion in your house by watching this video with your kids. There is much to talk about. The end project is striking in its beauty; the means to the end may be objectionable. What do your kids think?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/18/how-street-art-is-made-fr_n_810613.html

Is THAT art?

Perhaps now you have asked the kiddos at your dinner table “what IS art” and gathered them up to head off to a museum together to look at some art. When there you will surely find yourselves standing in front of something wondering “is THAT really art”? Often these thoughts challenge people when in front of “modern art”. I find they come to me just as often when with my mother in front of some byzantine or renaissance works with a lot of gilt…those thoughts I have learned, are better kept to myself! However, as parents convinced of the value of teaching our children about art, this question is one worth embracing and examining with our kids.

So what defines art? You will develop your own working definition. We worked over ours and have come up with a reasonable if slippery concept.

  • Art is created by an artist because it moves them emotionally or triggers them to think (ie: they use it to make a statement) or – art moves or intellectually stimulates the observer.

Whew. Let me try to explain by beginning with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece Fountain. Duchamp was a french artist who anonymously submitted a standard urinal albeit turned 90 degrees on it’s head and signed “R. Mutt 1917” to an art exhibition. The exhibition was held by the Society of Independent Artists (of which Duchamp was a board member) that had stated any work of art would be admitted to the show (very unlike exhibitions were usually run). Well, they did not know exactly what to do with Duchamp’s toilet. Was it art? History would later emphatically say yes. In fact 87 years later in 2004 a group of 500 art experts named it the most influential work of modern art of all time. You may ask “why on earth”? The answer lies in the concept that art is art if the artist says it is. Art is therefore in the eye of the artist. Duchamp was shifting the focus from the process of making art to the thoughts that it evokes. An editorial in defense of the urinal stated:

Whether [Duchamp] made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

A new thought. That is what it became all about as modern art evolved. Art was shifted to be in the eye of the artist – to be about the thoughts they wanted to evoke. Hmmmm, interesting isn’t it?

But, then we, here around our dinner table asked about the viewer…isn’t art sometimes all about the viewer’s perspective? Of course! During one of our dinner-table art discussions it was pointed out that a machine, a car or plane for example, could move its viewer enough to be called art. I pointed out that the perception of everyday items was up for discussion in the movie American Beauty (of note: NOT a kids movie). In it there is a scene that perpetually sticks in my mind when one of the main characters films an ordinary plastic grocery bag caught in a swirling updraft of air. The humble bag becomes beautiful. Here, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Try these concepts of art out with your kids. Ask, for example, is a building art? Can graffiti be art? Is a well-muscled body art? Are tattoos?And when you are asked “is THAT art” the answer is likely yes it is! Or better put – “why might it be considered art”?

What IS art? Asking to stimulate creative thought in our children.

An article titled The Creativity Crisis published in Newsweek last year brings much to the discussion of why we should teach our children about art.

American creativity scores are falling…It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

The article explains the obvious importance of raising our children to be creative thinkers; the nation’s challenges will be better solved by leaders capable of creative thought. Approaches generated by creative minds and by those willing to listen to and build upon diverse ideas brought forth by others. Raising a generation of creative thinkers who enjoy and appreciate diversity seems an insurance policy for the success of our country.

Why has creativity dropped so significantly in the U.S.?

One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children….American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week.

Focusing on art classes as the place where creativity is taught is certainly a bias.  It would be best to integrate creative thought into all points of learning. As parents, we can do much at home to stimulate and encourage creative thought. When asked a question by your child, pause before answering. Ask one back. Encourage your child to think of as many possible answers as possible. Use dinner time to ask questions of your own. Accepting this as a bias, art understanding and thought is a great place to start when teaching our children creativity and acceptance of diversity. It gives us a good place to begin as parents. I suggest you open a dinner conversation with this question:

What IS art?

I asked my family this about a year ago. We have returned to the discussion throughout during many meals with family and friends. The answers are varied and in themselves form a great discussion; they became more developed as the conversation went on:

  • something you see
  • with color and shape
  • has history
  • ages well and people appreciate it over time
  • evokes feeling
  • created
  • engages your senses
  • makes a statement; the artist is trying to say something
  • something beautiful

We felt that art can include many mediums. When I asked which I was given the following list: paint, sculpture (both stabiles and mobiles), music, film, architecture, TV, nature (both as art and as inspiration), food, clothing (my 9 y/o boy added armor), the human body and literature. The list may be endless.

This discussion brought me to ask next whether they considered specific works of art to be indeed, art. I challenged them with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Indeed, that in turn brings me to the next blog post idea:

Is THAT art?

Why blog re: art/health/parenting? Because Rothko makes my heart sing and mind feel calm.

Why blog about art, parenting and health? Well, I suppose, one blogs what knows. Better yet, one blogs what one is passionate about. Gee, the kids are an easy one but why the art-medicine combo? Here’s my take on that: art is good for our souls, our hearts and brains. Think of the calmness that runs through you when you look at a beautiful landscape, photograph or painting. Think of how you reflexively take a deep breath at the beginning of a beautiful piece of  music. Or how happy you feel when enjoying the artistry of a well presented meal (even better when enjoyed with some warm jazz playing in the background and good friends to laugh with). Beauty calms our souls. Not all art is beautiful; some art disturbs us and makes us think and question. This stretching of our minds also feels good in a deeply fulfilling way.

Happy minds, calm souls = health. The evidence for a mind-body connection is endless and strong. So, find your beauty, find art, be it painting, music or food, that makes your heart sing and stretch.

I have a favorite painter. Not one most people “get”. So, often those friends of mine that are subjected to chatter about art get to hear about Mark Rothko. Inevitably they are puzzled. Rothko is famous for painting large canvases covered with blurry-edged blocks of shimmering colors. They are often vibrant but, later in his life became dark. In the beginning of his career he painted more representational work; things that looked more or less like what they were. Then, as many painters do, he evolved his efforts towards abstract art. He became one of the leading figures in the New York “school” of Abstract Expressionism. In this evolution he had the expressed goal of guiding the viewer of his canvases towards an inner exploration. He intended to transcend their thoughts to a place of meditation of the most basic of human emotions. Famously, he commented that one who thought of his work simply as being studies in color had not seen

people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.

So, Mark Rothko’s work for me illustrates this connection between art and health. Viewing, listening, experiencing art as a path towards inner strength and calmness that in turn gives us increased health. A gift indeed, to give our children from a young age. And, a reason for writing about the mix of art, health and parenting.

Medicine and art. Art and medicine. A long paired combination but why?

Medicine and art. Art and medicine. A long paired combination but why? Indeed Medicine is termed an art and the influence of studying art on the developing skills of doctors is currently increasingly touted. I have been thinking about this combination and began to write out my thoughts but, while doing so found a beautiful piece to share. The Journal of the American Medical Association features works of art on the cover of every issue. The long-standing cover editor, M. Therese Southgate, MD had the words below to say about why JAMA has kept art so central to its mission. Her words at least in the consideration of the connection between visual art and medicine, are so complete and beautiful they seem to have gotten me out of having to write much more of a post today!

The question I have been most frequently asked during my years with the JAMA covers is: “Why art on the cover of a medical journal? What has medicine to do with art?”

Let’s look at what medicine and art have in common:

First, they share a common goal: to complete what nature has not.

Second, they have a common substrate, the physical, visible world of matter.

More significant, however, are the similar qualities of mind, body, and spirit demanded of the practitioners of each, painter and physician.

Chief among them is an eye: the ability not only to observe, but to observe keenly — to ferret out the tiny detail from the jumble of facts, lines, colors — the tiny detail that unlocks a painting or a patient’s predicament.

Observation demands attention, and this is the key to both art and medicine. Attention is nothing more than a state of receptiveness toward its object, the artist to nature, the viewer to the work of art, the physician to the patient. It is no accident, I believe, that clinicians — or treating physicians, as they are often called — are referred to as “attending physicians.” “Attention” and “attend” are both derived from the same Latin root meaning “to stretch toward.”

Many more “affinities” exist between medicine and the visual arts, but I will close with just one: Medicine is itself an art. It is an art of doing, and if that is so, it must employ the finest tools available — not just the finest in science and technology, but the finest in the knowledge, skills, and character of the physician. Truly, medicine, like art, is a calling.

And so I return to the question I asked at the beginning. What has medicine to do with art?

I answer: Everything.

That’s my opinion. I am Dr. Therese Southgate, Senior Contributing Editor of JAMA.


“I’ll never be an artist!” or, how our talking about art at the dinner table started

This business of  teaching my three kids about art has several roots. I am most assuredly a frustrated artist. Frustrated mostly by lack of real talent. Frustrated partly by lack of time. So, without talent and time to make my own art I like to read about art, think about art and talk about art with anyone who will join in with me. It can be hard to find similarly obsessed partners but I was thrown a crumb of interest by my daughter years ago and have used it ever since as the cornerstone for a great ongoing family discussion. She was in preschool at the time. I found her in her bed feeling sad one evening and asked why?

“I’ll never be an artist” she said.

Why?

“Because my pictures never look like what they are supposed to look like”.

Now, she was in a fabulous, progressive parent cooperative preschool. One where part of the training of the participating parents was a lecture on how to encourage our budding artists.

“Never ask them what it is. Ask them to tell you about it!”

Even with this she still felt pressure. In her preschool world, enormous pressure. Her art did not look like what it was. Well! That was an easy one for me (the frustrated artist and college student of art history)! And, out spilled a nice lesson on abstract/modern art. Of how great, respected art often looked like…nothing much. I talked of Picasso, Rothko and Pollock. It was Pollock she grabbed onto as her own personal hero.

Why should you talk with your kids about art? Well for one thing, our schools can no longer afford to. With nationwide school budget struggles art has often been the first thing to be cut. If you don’t it,  teaching art may not be done at all. So, why do kids need art education in the first place? How about this? Study of art and the appreciation for the beauty in the world surrounding us has clearly been shown to improve student’s performance in school, especially for low-income students. But art education is important for all students:

At the heart of a solid education in the arts are the appreciation of beauty and the aesthetic qualities of our lives and society; the ability to communicate the ineffable through images, music and movement; and the appreciation of diverse cultural expressions“.

The quality of the art education left in schools varies. All too often our children are given a pen, crayon or brush with a blue print to follow. My eldest was corrected for using the wrong color for the leaves in his picture  – never mind the fact he is “color blind” – it was the “wrong color”, in other words, not green.

Years later when my youngest son was in kindergarten, Pollock came up again. It was art day (see what I’m saying? – just one day given to art….even in kindergarten, even in liberal California!), they were given paints, paper and set free. In a bit, his teacher came by, he smiled up at her and announced that he was painting a Jackson Pollock. She had the wisdom to smile back and say “tell me about it”.

So, readers, part of my goal here is to encourage you to talk about art with your kids. I know this is daunting. My closest friend is not much of an art enthusiast; through her I understand that this art business in no small task. Let’s try together. Let me help start the conversation in your home.