The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

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A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

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In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

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Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

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Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

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Die Ausstellung, und danach—

Am Fenster © Samantha Groenestyn

Am Fenster © Samantha Groenestyn

Relations between art and the public are shifting now as they have always shifted. The way an artist produces and presents her work is contained within certain parameters, but these parameters are always shrinking and bulging, transforming with or without her assent. There is no strictly defined career path for the artist, nor has there been a single path consistently over the centuries. Saturated by the possibilities of the internet, it is easy to forget that the gallery system of producing one-man shows was a dramatic shift to adapt to the overwhelming thrust of the market that engulfed art with the collapse of the Künstlerhaus and Salon monopolies on the careers of artists. It is easy to forget that the Salons enabled arguably more democratic production of work than the courts and the church did. We are certainly having the ground pulled out from under us again, but rather than being swept along by the unrelenting and ever intensifying tide of the market, we must sit up and, like the Viennese Secession, ‘address the problem head on’ (Huemer 2006: 146).

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The most profound question concerning an artist’s career at the time of the Wiener Secession, which was founded in 1897, was understood to be the competing pull of art on the one side and money on the other. It takes money to make art, to live in such a way as to be able to devote oneself entirely to one’s work. Where royal careers no longer exist and ambitious public projects like the construction and adornment of the grand public buildings of the Vienna Ringstrasse are exhausted, artists must find other means to make their careers.

Life drawing

Klimt made his name by securing work on several of Vienna’s significant new public projects, namely the Burgtheater and the entrance stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He and his colleagues were employed for a task that required great skill and a unified vision. I am embarrassed to call the reader’s attention to the type of public projects that are funded now—the murals intended to brighten up the soul-destroying underpasses of Brisbane’s train station nether regions are regularly conceived by amateurs who submit simple photographs, completely undesigned, of native flora, which artists, paid as labourers, are induced to transfer by projector onto the concrete and colour in, skill and artistic vision be damned a thousand times to the depths of hell. In consolation, however, Vienna also seems to have run out of meaningful public projects, and Klimt and his colleagues found themselves at the mercy of the mysterious institution that was the Künstlerhaus, akin to the Paris Salon.

Life drawing

The Künstlerhaus was an exhibition hall, and it all sounds very obvious now to exhibit artwork. However, bear with me through a few interesting logical twists. In public projects, art importantly had a function: whether to cheer unfortunate public transport alleys populated by junkies or to magnify the glorious warm feelings democracy stirs in us via soul-stirring symbolic fountains in the driveway to the Wiener Parlament, these projects are conceived for a specific and defined purpose. In earlier times, the exhibition was really an event, a rare occasion which lifted the work of art out of its public function and set it before us on simply its own terms. The exhibition transformed the artwork into an end in itself. Painters could probably hardly believe their luck that their work could flourish on its own terms and not bend to utility.

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What would seem to be a promotion in the value of art, however, was coupled with the crippling phenomenon of the market. Gottfried Semper (who was to go on to design the Kunsthistorisches Museum with Karl von Hasenauer) recognised this shift in 1851 when he wrote, ‘The path that our industry, and with it the entire artistic world, is following unrelentingly is obvious: everything is calculated and adjusted to the market’ (in Huemer, p. 146). No longer responding to a brief, each work of art must stand on its own, and rise above all others to compete in the ruthless marketplace. The exhibition hall, then, which started out elevating the work of art beyond utility, reached its logical conclusion in metamorphosing into ‘the central exchange medium for the defunctionalised work of art’ (Huemer p. 146).

Life drawing

The Künstlerhaus, rather than respecting this newly elevated art, became ‘a market hall, a bazaar, where dealers flaunted all kinds of wares’ (Huemer, p. 147). Huemer (p. 147) goes on to describe ‘the barely administrable flood of submitted works, which the commissioners hung, after selection by jury, like mosaics on the exhibition walls. Thousands of paintings were displayed, hung in several rows, frame to frame, to make the greatest possible use of the space available for display.’ The Wiener Secession arose in direct response to this unsavoury development, setting out to defend the artist in the inescapable market environment on his own terms, openly rejecting this hideous meat market of paintings.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien: ‘The time of our art; the art of our freedom.’

We have entered the world at a time when the market is already a fact. We do not have the luxury of debating the question of ‘business or art,’ as artists of earlier times did—art is business, and we, like artists of every time, must work within the constraints of our own time. Our options seem ever more dramatically diverged: the market forces us to fend for ourselves, to defend our own product, define our unique selling point, and target our own niche client base in the slow decay of the gallery system. The government denies us real work, awarding us petty projects that involve amateurs of the community or inept children, and doling out pitiable sums for work bound by restrictively specific selection criteria. The outlook is not good. But even Klimt dramatically turned his back on the state, proclaiming, as one equally passionately might now, that ‘official organisations would support only the ‘weak’ and ‘false’ (Huemer, p. 145).

In Klimt’s (Huemer, p. 145) own words:

I would never—particularly under this Ministry—take part in an official exhibition, unless absolutely forced to do so by my friends. Forget the censorship. I am going to take matters into my own hands. I want to liberate myself. I want to break away from all these unpleasant, ridiculous aspects that restrict my work, and return to freedom. I refuse all official support, I will do without everything.

Taking matters into our own hands, there are two attitudes we might adopt towards the marketplace we find ourselves nestled in. The first is one of acquiescence, embracing the commerciality of art and developing one’s product to fit trends and consumer desires. This might be to take on commissions of people’s indistinguishable blob-babies, or otherwise generally taking briefs from others who are willing to fund small, private projects. It might be create work with the intent of having it made into consumer products: iPhone cases, clothing, notebooks. These ventures have their merits—art becomes accessible to all, fulfils immediate needs and desires, brightens the world. Things of utility may as well be attractive. However, the work seems stunted at its inception, and as Hermann Barr (in Huemer, p. 147) demanded to know of his Wiener Secession, ‘Shall the Viennese painters be damned to remain petty businessmen, or should they attempt to become artists?’ Artists choosing to operate in the market on the consumer’s terms, accepting that ‘paintings are like goods, like trousers or stockings, to be manufactured according to the client’s wishes’ (p. 147) are at the mercy of those who know very little about and demand very little from art.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien

The second attitude grasps the last remaining threads of integrity of art as an art form, clinging fast to those old ideas of a higher function of art. Painting as an intellectual pursuit is as profound as any other academicism; a visual philosophy that wrestles simultaneously with physical substances and with emotions, psychologies, experiences of the world and abstract ideas, painting is but another means of thinking through and encapsulating notions that others drape with words, poetically or scientifically or otherwise. Politely declining well-intentioned governmental suggestions, limiting the energy one spends on fun commercial detours, the artist can set her own brief, driven by the highest intellectual considerations, by the most difficult questions she faces as a human being. In this sense, perhaps art is not an end in itself, but simply another medium in the pursuit of knowledge, sitting alongside philosophy papers, physics experiments and the most penetrating literature. It is created not for the exhibition, nor for the unknown future buyer, but for humanity.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien

This doesn’t solve where we, as painters and other artists, sit in the modern marketplace. But remembering that other intellectuals forge careers in the same world as us, perhaps we can look around for inspiration as we secede from the currently accepted methods of doing business in art. Tony Abbott might have erased the Science Ministry, but the founder of Blackberry loves theoretical physics so much he set up the world-class Perimeter Institute outside of Toronto. The Queensland Literary Awards might have been scrapped by Campbell Newman, but impassioned supporters have continued to award financial prizes through crowd-funding. Sotheby’s might never look at you in your lifetime, and your humble manner of sticking paint to linen might not be interdisciplinary enough for the meagre governmental grants on offer, but if we hold fast to what we believe art to be, we can construct new modes of integrating our work into the world on our terms.

Huemer, Christian. 2006. ‘Gustav Klimt—The prophet of Viennese Modernism: Marketing and cult at the Secession.’ In Gustav Klimt Landscapes. Ed. Stephan Koja. Prestel: Munich.

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The analytical romantic

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

I’m suspicious of dichotomies of the likes of Romanticism(s) versus Classicism, and I’ve no intention of defending such categories here, though I’ve been reading much literature on the topic. Where the definitions of Romanticism and Classicism are themselves individually contested, and individual artists are argued to fall under both titles, it seems difficult to gain anything of substance from the division. At best, I can see that broadly, some artists strove for a universalisable, eternal method in art, ‘so simple that their universality could be deemed self-evident,’ (Barzun, p. 24). Other artists broadly reacted against this, often responding to the multiplicity in nature. What follows assumes this very simplistic definition.

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

In fact, I want to argue against the hard division, which seems to do more intellectual damage than good. As an artist and art lover, it has always been the so-called ‘romantic’ art—sublime hillsides and vast skies of Caspar David Friedrich, emotive colour and heady composition—that has won my deepest affection. As a philosopher and thinker, reason and analysis must underpin everything. It seems to me that the two need not exclude each other, as is so often simplistically asserted. Profound emotional experiences can direct our systematic thoughts; just as our bodies ache and thrill as guides for our minds, our emotions and passions give our intellect cues. To reject such indicators as invalid is an unhealthy denial of the self; to fail to probe them with the mind is short-sighted and disengaged. We are sensuous creatures, dependent on our senses for basic functions and reliant on them for information; art takes this sensory experience to a higher plane that gives our minds a way in to thoughts of a very different quality.

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

It troubles me, then, to read the praises of thoughtless naïveté, passions disconnected from thought, as though thought might actually ruin the sensation rather than amplify it through intention and understanding. Babbit (p. 15) refers to the naiveté of Romantic artists whose ‘spontaneity and unity of feeling had not yet suffered from artificiality, or been disintegrated by analysis.’ Surely only shallow feelings dissolve at the airy touch of thought? Surely it is one-off performances that prove false when gazed at squarely? The fleetingness and transience ascribed to Romantic art attempts to paint it as a wholly ungrounded discipline, mere lucky snatches at inspired impulses, never to be explained, understood, or repeated. Clark (p. 263) worryingly calls such miraculous occurrences, ‘like all romantic arts, … a triumph of the irrational.’

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

The very accidental nature of such performances makes me question their value. Is the lucky slug of a beach-cricketer who hits it for a six more inspired than the precision of technique of a skilled batsman? Is the feeling of surprise-based elation in that moment more meaningful than the pay-off of solid hard work? And, further, is the magic of the flight of the ball destroyed by a scientific understanding of trajectories and friction? The scientist would vehemently argue that understanding makes the observation more profound. Perhaps the art-viewer would be more moved by having an intellectual grasp as well as an emotive connection to a work of art. And perhaps the artist herself is more invested in and expressive in a work of art in which she has demonstrated some intentionality rather than working mindlessly, purely physically.

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Barzun (p. 26) argues contrary to Clark: ‘It is a fact beyond dispute that the romantic artists worked like scientific researchers. Their notebooks,’ he continues, ‘their critical writings, their letters and treatises on composition are there to testify that technique was to them as important as subject matter.’ Should Turner be offered as a fine specimen of romantic artist, I would question the free, unthinking irrationality attributed to him by the likes of Clark (p. 255; 259), who in the same breath describes Turner’s long-term project of understanding colour as both ‘an unthinking response to sensuous delight’ and a ‘determined effort to master the theory of colour.’ The continuity in Turner’s approach to colour exhibits a methodical application rather than a mindless splattering of paint. If anything, his ‘response to sensuous delight’ is all the more apparent because he has thought through his sensations, and how one might represent them, rather than leaving it to chance. Analysis of the tracts of Italy before his eyes allowed him to produce the colours that he did, just as such analysis by the viewer deepens the experience of viewing these paintings. Nice colours stimulate three-year-olds. Meaningful colours speak volumes to those who have felt the languid Italian sunshine warm their skin and watched it melt into the hills before them.

Colourful windows, Bratislava

Colourful windows, Bratislava

In Barzun’s (p. 26) words, ‘Romantic art, then, is not “romantic” in the vulgar sense, but “realistic” in the sense  of concrete, full of particulars, and thus congenial to the inquiring spirit of history and science.’ Barzun finds thought—philosophy, if you will—the bridge between art and science. An artist, moved by sensations, grounded in the physical world, may apply his analytical mind to very real, chemical and spatial problems and produce, wholly intentionally, a representation that moves the viewer through her sensations. The onus is on the artist once more to do the hard work, rather than the viewer to interpret the obscure accompanying statement. Barzun (p. 27) praises the energy of the Romantic painters, stating that ‘energy was not merely a cult but a fact. … All this means work if it means nothing else.’ And the analytical romantic, compelled to inquiry by the profundity of her physical sensations and the emotional responses they inspire, is not afraid of such work, and not so far removed from the intellectual impulses of the classicist.

Random windows, Bratislava

Random windows, Bratislava

Barzun, Jacques. 1965 [1961] ‘Intrinsic and historic romanticism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Babbitt, Irving. 1965 [1919]. ‘The qualities of Rousseauism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

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Grand old things

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I had the recent good fortune to be introduced, through physicists, to Heinz Letuha and his incredible piano workshop, Die Klaviermachermeister. With a neat shopfront on Burggasse, the workshop sprawls through an old, sturdy Viennese building, huge piano shells wedged into tight hallways, hidden Steinhauser practice rooms tucked beside leafy courtyards, the workshop itself backing onto a cobblestoned side street.

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While his shop houses some new pianos, his main business is to lovingly restore these stately old creatures, and many are close to a hundred years old, some older, most Austrian made. Each is an individual—grown to its own dimensions, housing a distinct metal heart of a harp frame all its own, and outwardly styled with deco trimmings or flourishes or wooden filigree. It’s incredible to see them disassembled; oversized puzzles, but so intricate and demanding such precision and attention.

We’re offered fresh Austrian mineral water, direct from the Alps through the taps (it is especially delicious), and we duck into the second room where Vienna’s preeminent boogie piano player happens to be hanging out. He gives us a little spiel; I have a little groove. Grand pianos are tucked into every corner, and we get to hear the distinct voices of them all—the more mellow and touch-responsive tones of a grand old lady next to the more jubilant and springy timbre of a youthful 1970s jazzy grand.

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The workshop itself is flooded with the scent of glue and varnish, and dismembered keyboards are arranged on table tops, receiving individualised attention. A metal frame has just been re-lacquered. A case sits stripped of its innards down to its soundboard. We learn about the smallish pieces of hardwood that sit near the keyboard and that the strings are pegged into. This piano has had its peg-holes broadened a fraction so that newer, larger pegs can be fitted more snugly than the old wearing ones. This piece needs to be fitted so precisely, because it supports the metal harp frame across which the strings are strung—and when tuned, they put a vast number of tonnes of pressure across this frame. Incorrectly fitted, it can break, and danach ist deine Klavier kaputt.

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We watch the little key mechanisms, see how they are fitted differently in an upright (there is a sliced piano in the window demonstrating just this, in fact), and inspect the density of the felts. One felt has been sliced down the middle, and it’s impossible to force back together. The immense pressure in every part of this instrument! The careful balance of heavy parts and huge tensions, all in search of the perfect sound. And so much of the work is down to the tonal abilities of the craftsman himself—he trickles out little scales to listen to the piano, like an attentive doctor listening to a heartbeat, detecting tiny imperfections with his naked ears, getting back in under the bonnet and making careful adjustments. He works just like an experienced painter who uses his eyes to make comparisons and detect the red in the blue, or the green of the yellow.

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The passion for his craft sparkles in Heinz’s whole being, in his large eyes shining behind thick glasses, in the richly descriptive explanations that flow from his mouth, perfectly delivered—a performer keenly aware of his audience. It’s thrilling to meet someone so enamoured of this beautiful instrument, who has made it his whole life, who chases after perfection in every component, every material, in the way he reconstructs each one. It was an honour to meet such a craftsman. ‘When it comes from your heart, people see it and they respect that,’ he explains humbly.

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Action and preparation

Princess © Samantha Groenestyn

How does one go about pursuing a career in art? My educational background puts me at something of a disadvantage in terms of knowing anything at all really about the accepted career progression of professional artists, and this has forced me to be somewhat resourceful and unorthodox in my approach. I dream up things, try them, and see if they work. My rather brash method is to act—quickly—and then to stop and evaluate the response to my efforts before taking another brazen step. I’m learning by doing—arranging shows, talking to strangers, and most of all, sharing. I can’t afford to keep anything under wraps; I have to be open about my work, have it ready to show anyone who is interested, and ready to react to their response. I’m learning on the job: learning both how to establish myself as an illustrator and how to go about my craft. I’m trying to grow both at once.

Sketches from the Prado exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery

I’ve been fortunate enough to learn more about the big, bad art world through my artist friends, big-deal gallery openings and talking to the types of people who buy (or don’t buy, as the case may be) art. I’m discovering that one might approach a career in art in a deliberate and measured way. One might take a lengthy period of time to think and to ready oneself, to prepare. Being sure of your work and intentions can enable you to present something solid when the time is right.

I’ve always been in a hurry to do all the things I want to do, and far more inclined to dive right in without adequate forethought, be it moving to Edinburgh to study having done zero research on Edinburgh, or buying lovely musical instruments on a whim, or signing up for a graphic design course three days before the beginning of term. I think of it as engineering luck by pushing myself into situations that might become opportunities. I suppose it’s a bit like playing those old computer games, like Street Fighter, and just pushing that one button really fast so you get the most kicks in and you more or less have to win because something has to connect. But now that I think about it, look at all the energy I have to expend in so many directions! What if I had the focus to work at the one thing I knew mattered to me most of all?

But while I may be over-stimulated, I certainly don’t have a limited attention span. I work most satisfyingly when I work intently on one thing for hours at a time. I like not having to rush; I like labouring over my task and doing it well. Perhaps I’ve reached a point where I’ve tried enough things and need to consider which things are really worth my attention.

Coffee date with Bammes

In fact, I am culling a few things from my hectic schedule just now and am quietly thrilled to be adjusting to probably the best phase of my life so far. As of this coming week, I will no longer be working part time at a café to pay my bills, and I will no longer be spending several evenings a week wrestling with Photoshop and InDesign. It’s hopes and dreams from here on in, baby, and I won’t be pouring away a minute of my time on anything that isn’t art. I’m starting with a three-month intensive at the atelier, peppered with a week at Julian Ashton’s in Sydney, and making a lot of hot dates with Bammes.

Wish me luck!

If you make it down to Vulture Street, West End in Brisbane, you can see some more of my paintings in The Happy Cabin and SOL Breads, as well as some brand new works and my blog banner at The Box.

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Art and the human condition

Kleines Cafe © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been spending more time at the Atelier of late. I’m taking an extra drawing class with Ryan, and I managed to squeeze in a tutored life drawing class with Scott Breton. The guys also throw a respectable barbeque of a Saturday evening, and invited me to an artist floor talk and exhibition in Noosa the following Friday, and all in all I’ve been avoiding all other social engagements in order to be a giant art nerd, having impassioned discussions about George Lambert and leafing through sizeable John Singer Sargent book collections.

Conversation delved particularly deep at said barbeque. I learned that Scott was in a former life a scientist, and (re)turned to art after realising that one does not become a scientist and cure AIDS, but one becomes a small cog working in a highly specialised area. Art is the inverse of this: perhaps the only career that allows one to indulge oneself, to preside over one’s own work. Which is not to say that Scott abandoned his true calling—his artistic skill is finely tuned and nothing short of incredible.

The view from the top of my street–the jacarandas are blooming

Scott’s adamant claim is that art and science are inherently linked, demanding similar skills and thought process and stimulated by the same experiences. This seems obvious to me. While I didn’t pursue science, I did pursue philosophy, the ‘king of sciences,’ and in large part because I felt it united the two currents running through me. I will likely never be a physicist, but my analytical mind thrived on physics in school, and it was the education system which forced me to narrow my pursuits. In senior high school I could only manage to narrow down my interests to these classes: maths, physics, English, music and art. I only have to look at J, working in quantum physics, who spends most of his time doing some very creative problem-solving acrobatics, staring about himself intensely as he draws new connections and generates idea after idea. These fields are not disconnected.

Having felt like I’d justified the role of the artist in my own mind, it distressed me to learn that Scott battles with the notion that art might not be a valid pursuit. We talked about footballers, and how, though we can’t empathise with their goals or desires, we can accept their place in society (though perhaps not their financial place in it as somehow far above that of mere mortals). But here is an accomplished artist of great skill doubting his contribution to the world. It’s not because the world doesn’t financially acknowledge his work (though that might be a nice place to start), or even because his work hasn’t resonated strongly with people—rather, it has. It seems that the crux of the matter is that art has no function. A carpenter makes an artefact, but it is a useful one. A painter makes an artefact that does nothing more than bring beauty into the world.

Hannah Arendt writes extensively about different active pursuits of humanity in her book The Human Condition. She calls them labour, work and action. By her scale, art is a measurably higher pursuit than mere practical labours, for just this reason that it is not tied to such functions. The catch, of course, is that the type of work she categorises as labour is in fact more highly prized in the modern world. To describe our society as consumerist says nothing other than that ‘we live in a society of labourers’ (p. 82)*. Labour stems from our physical needs, encompassing all activities we undertake in order to support ourselves as any other earthly creature must:  obtaining food and shelter and so on. Labour’s clear goal is to sustain life, though its products are all consumed in attaining this end. Labour is simply a means, then, and therefore instrumental, and we value its products instrumentally rather than for themselves (pp. 79-84; 110-11). A table is only valuable in so far as it makes a suitable resting place for plates of food or for working at, and the carpenter’s work is thus validated.

Arendt’s second category, work, captures our efforts to create something lasting, and art falls into this category. Rather than being consumed like the products of daily life—clothing made to be worn until worn out, couches made for everyday use, food to be eaten—these artefacts are meant to outlive us and to continue on as something of a legacy (pp. 137-8). Her third category, action, transcends even this—it is rather the process, the performance, the experience, and art can be these things, too (p. 198). The countless life drawings and studies that are repeated for the sheer process and not as final drawings belong to this category.

The point, then, is that Arendt has given a lot of thought as to why things that lack functions, or have less obvious functions, might in fact be more valuable: they are what make the human condition something special. Our culture values physical necessities like any other unenlightened creature, lavishing praise on those who concentrate on ‘making a living.’ It doesn’t respect the place of workers like artists who contribute nothing of necessity. But it ought to: such work sets us apart as human.

Perfect weekends for bike rides and picnics by the lakes

* Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

 

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Discipline

Ready or not © Samantha Groenestyn

What’s been on your mind lately? I’ve been thinking about poverty, and whether it has any intrinsic morality. I haven’t been reading anything that overtly argues as much, only old French novels (by Simone de Beauvoir) populated with guilty petit bourgeois intellectuals and tough millionaires imposing their will on the former, and environmental science flavoured books (by Jared Diamond) that posit the correct functioning of business as to make a profit and not to hinder itself with social concerns. Those with money look out for their own interests, and take care to ensure that their money achieves what they desire. It’s therefore easy to paint them as the bad guys, forgetting about the rest of us, forgetting that they are acting rationally given their position. This realisation that it’s perfectly rational to act in certain ways when one has money—most notably, in one’s own interest—leads me to wonder whether having money is somehow connected to one’s moral downfall.

I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. I’m absolutely not the kind of person to argue that money is the root of all evil. But perhaps, money being the enabler that it is, once you have it you are able to act as yourself, unimpeded by poverty or lack of access to resources. And in so acting, you reveal your true nature. Some people will help others with their money. Some will spend it selfishly—not in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen plenty of others feel uncomfortable with it.

Testing out J’s new picnic blanket today at New Farm Park. Yep, you can sit on it. It also buckles onto his bike in a tidy little package, and it’s also homemade by me!

I started to wonder if my personality is best suited to poverty. Can such a notion make sense in the modern world, in which everyone is aspiring to earn and multiply their wealth? When I was on a salary, I could and did buy many things. I could eat more meals out, drink fancier wine and travel, and I picked up some very nice shoes. But I did these things haphazardly, and in something of a fog of not being sure what I liked or wanted. I had the means to do things, so I did them and thought about them later. Now I’m in no such position, I do all the thinking beforehand and make carefully calculated decisions and finally, when I’ve saved up enough, execute them. Is this a virtue—being discerning in your decision-making? Lack of money somehow clears my head and enables me to see straight. It imposes discipline.

Discipline in itself may not be virtuous, but it works for me—I can better order my life and achieve what I want to achieve, resources be damned.

Freight train sunset

I recently knit these Scandinavian mittens with some tweedy Harris wool sent over from Scotland from my dear friend Anna. Brisbane doesn’t get much of a winter, but fortunately I get up at 5am a couple of times a week to go open a cafe, and I open my eyes in the dark and hope that it’s freezing, and am often rewarded with 8 or 9 degree mornings, which warm up to well above 20 C. These mittens keep my hands toasty on the longish bike-ride down.

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Fresh-faced and freelancing

© Steve Smith (source)

I met Steve Smith on a damp Brisbane morning that felt fresh and bright—the sun was struggling out after some gloomy days of rain and the city felt optimistic and somewhat relieved. We waved like old friends and sat down at a wet, white wrought-iron table on Winn Lane in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, and colourful people bustled about us while garbage trucks smashed glass in the gutter beside us. Steve revealed his curious nature immediately, ordering a peanut butter and banana smoothie, while I, a slave to addiction, ordered a coffee.

Steve has worked in the design industry for the better part of a decade, having graduated with an animation degree in 2006. He now freelances from the creative hotpot that is the Thought Fort, an amalgam of designers, animators, modelling agents and web developers, also based in the Valley. Steve himself is a complex blend: animation, illustration, web and print design, film, video editing, motion graphics, post production and app development are all part of his formidable repertoire. Having attained a postproduction internship at Movie World on the Gold Coast straight from university, he moved into his first job at QMG and put his hand up for whatever work was on offer. Being open to learning new skills propelled him into graphic design.

‘I wanted to work in the design industry because I don’t like working for other people!’ Steve laughed. But why would any driven, dedicated creative person fritter away their time on the demands of others? Far from being work-shy, Steve intimated that he’s something of a workaholic, loving to be camped out at the studio, deprived of sleep, working towards highly improbable deadlines. Besides avoiding tyrant bosses, Steve realised early on that he wasn’t interested in working for the sake of working: ‘I decided I’d rather spend time honing the skills I wanted to develop.’

It was with some difficulty that Steve broke into freelancing, which he has only been doing for the past two or three years. He is now making a reputable living, though perhaps not by the standards of graduates of other fields. Nevertheless, he remembers starting out with some fondness, despite its difficulties, and is full of optimism about being on the threshold of a career in the design industry—‘at the beginning you have so much time to work on your own projects, which is amazing.’ The emerging designer should relish those first hesitant steps, that period of uncertainty but of unrestrained freedom, when she is not yet subject to the demands of clients or pressured by living costs on an unsteady income.

‘A part time job when you’re starting out is great,’ Steve enthused, ‘there’s no shame in that. All artists need to live, and you need to fund your art.’ His fearless advice for the beginner is that ‘your work speaks for itself in the design industry. Not having experience, or being at the bottom doesn’t matter.’

Steve agreed that the design student should build up a brand for him- or herself. Maintaining a specific look throughout your portfolio and online presence can help you get the kind of work you want to get. He cites designers who cultivate this ‘brand’ even further through blogs, which showcase their personalities as well as their work. For Steve, it is crucial that the novice designer have an online presence, since at that stage of your career, no one knows who you are.

Steve is a fan of a trade economy between creative friends. ‘Your friends will become really talented with time,’ he told me solemnly. If your web developer friend needs a logo, he advises that you do it on the basis that you can call in a favour down the track. Steve isn’t a fan of doing work for free, or for a ‘cut of the profits,’ but believes that helping out people you admire is a good way for people with little money to start out. And every piece is valuable in a portfolio. ‘I always try to learn something new when I do something free or cheap for a friend. Then it’s definitely worth something for me.’

Being open to unexpected jobs and collaborations, Steve has certainly picked up a few skills on his way. He’s had the opportunity to collaborate on a music video, doing all manner of work from background design to compositing to animation. His whole person emanates an air of curiosity and genuine openness. His attitude is one of grasping the things that really interest you rather than desperately latching yourself onto whatever is available. And the key, he says amicably, is friendliness. Networking is effortless when you approach others in an unaffected personable way.

The hardest parts of freelancing in Steve’s mind are all interconnected. Quitting your job is a difficult first step, as is the ensuing pressure to make a living. On the tail of this is taking on jobs you don’t want to be doing. But Steve isn’t one to let it get him down—‘that kind of easy work pays the bills, and it’s still fun.’ And little animation projects for the Commonwealth Bank don’t look too shabby on one’s portfolio, and perhaps even give one a little room to learn something new.

Swoon over some of Steve’s crisp, hushed designs in his portfolio, or have a peek at his photography.

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Home and away

Un regal pour les yeux © Samantha Groenestyn

I frequently itch to travel. Leaving behind all those weights we tie around ourselves, stretching our legs, exercising our brains and our tongues, memorising new maps and trying out new words. Seeing the limitless unseen things, tasting the untasted, pouring all the raw sensations into hurried drawings and writings. Meeting new faces and learning new philosophies, talking it out by rivers or over campfires or over beers in smoky bars.

It’s hard to feel content at home when so much is waiting, like a word on the tip of a tongue. But then I remember that opposite pull that I feel when I travel—that desire, not to be at (my) home, but to be stationed, based, established. When one is established, one can work. No longer limited to dog-eared sketchbooks and simple pens, one can drag out an easel, spread out paints and turps, plug in the sewing machine and invest in detailed projects, and best of all, read fifteen books at once. Books on philosophy, books on French intellectuals, books on language and books on graphic design. Books on artists, books on colour theory and the science of light, books on history. One can study, and, better, one can apply that new knowledge and create endlessly, on any scale. One can load up one’s car with materials, go to classes on a regular basis. Travel often provides that spark, suggests new avenues to explore, prompts the acquisition of new languages or provides new material for paintings. But home is the place where you can get down and work day after day and really produce something.

As Maira Kalman, renowned illustrator and writer, concludes of life: there is love and there is work. ‘How do you spend this time without perpetually being so brokenhearted about saying the eventual goodbye? I usually say in the end, okay, it’s love and it’s work. What else could there possibly be? What do I want to do?  What is the most wonderful thing I could be doing, and who are the most wonderful people I could be with?’ It’s hard for me to shake the idea that there is also place, and I think place is fundamental to my being—to my work and to my love. Travel lets us explore new places in which to be—perhaps for the long term—and we need to find our physical place as well as what to do and who to do it with.

What overwhelms me most of all is that I consider there to be so many things crucial to living that I cannot find the time for them all. I can’t get by only speaking English! That limits me to particular places. I can’t rely on my untrained artistic ability—I need to learn to use new materials, and to understand the particulars of light and tone. I need to understand people, and ideas. Then I start to feel like Henri Perron in Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, who feels that he can’t continue to edit his newspaper L’Espoir (‘Hope’) unless he has a complete grasp on the world(p. 153-4):

‘Well, I’ll just have to start working at it,’ he said to himself. But if he really wanted to extend his knowledge, it would require years of study. Economics, history, philosophy—he would never be done with it! What a job! And all just to come to terms with Marxism! Writing would be completely out of the question, and he wanted to write. Well? … ‘What I need is time!’

When travelling, we have all the time in the world. Time to wander along the Seine, in and out of bookshops and ice creameries, time to contemplate passers by from benches. But we lack resources. When we have resources, we are battling schedules and weekly events.

I think that all there is to do is to keep on working. Keep pushing ourselves to learn, keep pushing ourselves to produce. Jack White muses that ‘inspiration and work ethic ride right next to each other. … Sometimes, you just get in there and just force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out.’ And if you go beyond just showing up and really make things a little hard on yourself, the tension that you build can produce that spark and make something happen.

Brain Pickings pointed me in the direction of these interviews with Maira Kalman and Jack White.
‘Un regal pour les yeux’–a feast for the eyes. A Parisian sent me off to explore the labyrinthine flea markets of St Ouen in the north of Paris, and they did not disappoint. I wanted to convey the alluring decayed splendour of the markets. Europe could almost survive solely on selling its old junk to the rest of us!

 

News: I’ve cobbled together a sweet collection of drawings I did in Europe, many of which you may have seen on my website, into the Tour of Europe non-sketcher’s sketchbook. The covers are hand-stitched in three different fabrics and there’s room for your own musings. Grab one from my Etsy shop.

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Reclaiming ‘work’

Analogue stack © Samantha Groenestyn

I like to work—I love to be thoroughly occupied, engaged in a task, thinking it through and acting it out, seeing it to completion. But the word ‘work’ has been taken from us. ‘Work’ no longer defines a task laboured at, that draws on our carefully developed skills. ‘Work’ is inherently a repulsive word, a heady amalgam of ‘obligatory’ and ‘distasteful’ and ‘repetitive.’ It’s that adult commitment that we must attend to day after day, on someone else’s terms, that esteems us as worthy members of society. Though we are at it all the time, we separate it from our ‘real selves,’ the ones that go home and live honestly in private.

The Ancient Greeks lauded the public life as the pinnacle of existence. Domestic life provided comfort and refreshed one for public duties. Our modern democracies reverse this: the private life is prized above all else. We work to support our private lives. We hope that our job might contribute some good to the world, but above all, we hope to fund our houses, our renovations, our growing families and their electronics fetishes. We don’t pride ourselves in our work. We pride ourselves in our homes.

Joanne Faulkner* (p. 62) words it thus:

Against Locke and Rousseau, Arendt laments the ascendancy of intimacy and the modern notion that the true self can be expressed only in the private. In the capitalist age, the development of the sphere of intimacy, along with an emphasis on wealth and accumulation, has given rise to styles of life that isolate people from one another. In search of freedom, enjoyment and self-expression, what we find is consumption. Hobbies and leisure replace work, a more subversive (Bakhtian) mode of play, and dialogue as a means of self-discovery.

Perhaps it is because we have lost control of our work. We lack the autonomy to perfect our craft; our boss defines the limits of our work and thus our ability to perform at a level that engages us or gives us something to be proud of. Ashamed of our fruitless efforts, we turn inward, to the home, and fill it with goods that demonstrate our skills and taste. Locked up in bland plastic-clad offices, we dress our houses up in fittings from Italy; serving microwaved lasagne in a café, we cook elaborate meals in our own homes. Home becomes the only place we can express ourselves.

But, you object, work is not about expressing yourself. Of course, when I microwave the lasagne, I feel not a bit like myself. My ‘real’ self doesn’t own a microwave, and doesn’t miss it. But microwaving lasagne is not my work. It’s what I do for money, but it’s not my craft that I am pouring my skills into. The master craftsman does express himself in every product he carefully produces. Every Stradivari violin is purported to sound like a Stradivari, because a man devoted his life to crafting musical instruments of incredible quality. His work is an expression of himself, not an imitation of someone else or a strict adherence to procedure. Greatness does not come from adhering to guidelines.

To reclaim ‘work’ and reattach it to our expressive labours, we need to uncouple it from financial reward and associate it instead with personal improvement and the products thereby produced—be they scientific ideas, violins, or works of art. I work every day. I work at my technique, I work on my concepts, I produce finished paintings. Some of the days, I have to set my work aside and follow strict directions in exchange for money, but I know the difference.

 

This order reads: ‘One-quarter strength skinny latte, half strength decaf long black.’

If you drink this coffee, you might not really be a grown-up. Stick to chocolate milk?

 

* Faulkner, Joanne. 2011. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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