Heightened vitality

Museumsinsel, Berlin

Museumsinsel, Berlin

I was so smiled upon by fortune that I lived, for the month of November, in Berlin, with someone very dear to me. Our life was a flurry of activity, of love and painting, chilled grey days and toasty croissant breakfasts, U-Bahn trips populated by the most curious characters, endless halls of incredible paintings, evenings of Aktzeichnen and steaming blueberry wine and hot cherry beer out of terracotta mugs. We were quickly absorbed into this energetic city.

Liebe

We gladly sought out labyrinthine artist studio complexes during open studio and exhibition evenings. These were odd experiences, as I generally found myself at a loss when trying to speak with other artists. While physicists might be expected to find some common language with other physicists, artists seem to lack much overlap in either practice or ideas: each is trying to do something in an entirely unconventional way, and each is an artist and –. An artist and a faux-physicist. An artist and a nutritionist. An artist and a geographer. Being an artist who works with paint, not with stale cheese, torn up posters, or contour maps, and lacking a sound understanding of quantum physics (though I suspect, so too was my new artist acquaintance), I was able to have neither intellectual nor practice-based conversation with my apparent colleagues. We are a confused constellation of makers with no true common field. ‘Art’ truly has no meaning; it is not a discipline.

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The ever-thoughtful Gombrich (1972: 4) once wrote, ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ And a similar impulse drives me to investigate just what makes one an artist, for perhaps by coming at it this way we can better appreciate what good art consists in. Since in these volatile times anything may be branded art, it becomes harder and harder to engage with art, much less appreciate it or gain anything by it. I want to contend that artists need to take a long, hard look at what their job is. My own intuition is that the artist is not an activist, contrary to common opinion. Yet I am certain that artists could strip back all the pseudo-philosophy, tenuous threads with string-theory and shameless narcissism and establish just what makes art a distinct discipline rather than an embarrassing parasite in the bowels of society. I would like to propose a place to start.

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Distinct from musicians, distinct from writers, visual artists are presumably offering something visual to the world. Before we can produce something to be gazed upon, we must ourselves partake in a vast amount of looking. We live in a highly literate society, yet nonetheless one that increasingly relies on visual cues and shortcuts. The artist, in my view, is a person with a distinct ability with the visual: they notice sights that slip under the very noses of those who have important reports to contend with or a head constantly interpreting the world through calculations. Rather than being inward-looking, the artist turns her eyes upon the physical world, appreciating fortuitous arrangements of shape, of space, of colour. Appreciating individuality in appearance, noting cloud formations, watching shadows fade and flicker. Being amazed by the contrast in hue from one plane of a building to another; being absorbed in the mood a hushed evening light casts over a park. Artists are physical creatures, living thoroughly in their bodies, alive to every spark of sensation. This somewhat eccentric revelling in the sheer delight of having a body, of physically intersecting with the world, is what gives artists insights that others often miss. The same sensations are available to all of us, but some of us need more help to notice them. This is where the attentive artist finds herself needed.

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The artist is, as John Dewey would phrase it, grounded in experience. The artist’s engagement with the world is not, he argues, qualitatively different from that of the scientist’s; rather, ‘the difference between the esthetic and the intellectual is … one of the place where emphasis falls in the constant rhythm that marks the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings’ (1934: 15). Dewey considers the artistic and scientific modes of thought to differ merely in tempo: the scientist does not have a monopoly on thought, and the artist does not hold exclusive rights to meaning and elusive poetic insights. ‘The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs’ (1934: 16).

kunstlerbedarf

Rainbow of thoughts

 

Not only are artists equipped with a particular penchant for observation, for a certain ability to be drenched in the present, but their very thoughts are often visual rather than linguistic or even symbolic. The language of an artist is composed of forms, colours, volumes, shapes, tones, textures. The language itself is very physical, can be moulded with one’s hands in a way that other languages cannot. ‘The artist,’ as Dewey (1934: 16) describes it, ‘does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in.’

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

The significance of the physicality of art, of its grounding in perception and experience, is extremely non-trivial. This is an understanding that undermines much contemporary art and its preoccupation with self-expression, shameless self-adoration and cults of personality. For the ‘heightened vitality’ of experience is anything but autobiographical: ‘Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’ (1934: 19).

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

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Art as scholarship: towards an artistic methodology

Picnic for one (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Picnic for one © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The world of art is more than a little unnerving. Something like a manifestation of Alice’s fantasy world, in which ‘everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is, it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?’ The Wonderland in which ‘art is anything that you can get away with’ leaves me, at least, whimpering with Alice, ‘it would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.’

Many of my peers are quantum physicists, and it is among such erudite and clear-thinking company that I find myself most at ease and most understood. Science, after centuries of academic rigour, is systematic in its innovation. It builds upon previous knowledge, lets go of what proves false, and only accepts work of a high standard that respects the tradition. I’m thoroughly convinced that artists should look to our scientist friends for methodological guidance as an antidote to our proudly irrational domain. Such an idea is supported by Galenson in his excellent book Old masters and young geniuses, in which he draws attention to certain parallels between the career of the artist and that of the scholar.

UNewcastle

Newcastle University

The shape of the artistic career and that of the scientific career have much in common. Galenson, an economist by training, has taken time to observe the lifecycles of successful artists over the last century and has turned up the following unsurprising but little-discussed commonalities. ‘At the graduate level, most important scholars have worked with a teacher who is himself an important contributor to the discipline. The same is true for artists’ (2006: 18). He continues, ‘Similarly, just as at an early stage of their careers most successful scholars have studied and worked closely with other promising scholars of their own generation, virtually all successful modern artists have initially developed their art in the company of other talented young artists.’

It sounds simple, but it is an observation worth taking note of. Where our scientist peers are working together in small clusters of post-doctoral researchers and PhD candidates, under the guidance of an established and tenured professor and with the resources to make global collaborations and attend international conferences, artists are ejected from scholarly life and instead set up shop alone in a private studio. Perhaps the opportunity to take up a shared studio space encourages nurturing interactions, but the painfully obvious scarcity of resources remains as artists must compete against each other for piecemeal funding in the form of prizes while paying for their own workspace and tools. Nevertheless, knowing that keeping good company is a significant factor in a successful career, the solitary artist might seek the company of other similarly attuned minds of other disciplines. Just as Goethe ‘associated by preference with medical men and attended medical lectures’ (Kollwitz, p. 80), we might find stimulating peers amongst our more structurally grounded scientific contemporaries.

My new garden studio in Newcastle upon Tyne

New garden studio in Newcastle upon Tyne

Such science-art intermingling may turn up more fundamental similarities. Our diverging methods have a common cause: the impulse to grapple with the physical world and to understand it by imposing order. The artist imposes a visual order on the world; the scientist a more abstract and calculable one. Without suggesting that art is a science, for I do not believe it to be, I want to make a case for art being another form of scholarship. Historically, our work shares many common traits, as George Kubler observed in his book The shape of time (1962; in Galenson, 2006: 17)—not least the pattern of ‘invention, change and obsolescence.’ Science and art are at their cores innovative careers, not merely geared towards presenting polished, new solutions to the world at large, but more fundamentally through identifying and posing relevant problems. The physical world is full of mystery, and we multiply our understanding and reverence of it through finding better ways to humbly question it.

So argues Galenson (p. 17), and, further, he argues that our innovative goals are not market driven but aim instead at ‘creat[ing] new methods and results that change the work of other practitioners’ (my emphasis). ‘We understand,’ he writes (p. 18) ‘that in the first instance nearly all important scholarship is produced for an audience of other scholars.’ No quantum physicist works for the ludicrous goal of pleasing the curious but scientifically-challenged public, commodifying the results of their investigations for general consumption. He does not bend to the arbitrary tastes of a cashed-up audience. And this is no high-minded snobbery or elitism. Scientists are simply highly-trained specialists, and, for the most part, regarded as such. We non-scientists accept broader, simpler explanations from them, and rely on their expert judgements within their field.

SONY DSC

The artist might follow this cue and recognise that the most significant art will not be market-driven, gallery-selected, or critically-determined work, for the real experts in this field are none other than our colleagues–other artists. We might accept commissions that pay our bills, or take part in shows that ostensibly raise our credibility, or even intentionally make art that is ‘for the people,’ with accessibility as our main motivator. But I would contend that in so doing, we hazard limiting our artistic potential. Chamfort (in de Botton 2004: 125) acidly observes, ‘Public opinion is the worst of all opinions. … One can be certain that every generally held idea, every received notion will be an idiocy, because it has been able to appeal to a majority.’ Were we to consider ourselves true scholars, we might let these distractions fall away and focus on the more pressing task of contributing something of lasting import to the body of human knowledge. Rather than setting ourselves up as obscurantist elitists, we might simply recognise that we, too, are specialists of a practical variety. Further, we have a duty to the public to be discerning about the quality of art, since those not so well-versed in visual languages are looking to us for guidance.

Art has many purposes—as Gombrich (1972 [1950]: 13) describes, ‘Most of the paintings and statues which are now strung up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.’ But while art may be used spiritually, decoratively, financially and communicatively, it is an appealing idea that in the modern scholarly realm art may also be produced as a visual form of research. Robert Nelson (2009: 121) discusses the extent to which art may be considered research ‘because it is concerned with innovation.’ Perhaps our most honest inquisitive efforts will attract fame and fortune, but more soberly, perhaps they will bring order to the chaos, with art functioning as another branch of respectable scholarly investigation.

 

De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.

Galenson, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University: Princeton, NJ.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Kollwitz, Käthe. 1988. The diary and letters of Käthe Kollwitz. Northwestern University Press.

Nelson, Robert. 2009. The jealousy of ideas: Research methods in the creative arts. Ellikon: Fitzroy, Victoria.

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Dangerous liaisons

Les liaisons dangereuses c Samantha Groenestyn

Les liaisons dangereuses © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

The winds of change bring not just cooling Autumn rain, but also new adventures: within a month I will be leaving warm, sleepy Australia for sparkling Vienna. I’ll be trading rough and ready Brisbane for a (the?) global cultural capital, whiling away my hours swooning over paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, spending my evenings at the opera, and doing some Very Serious Painting over gold-leaf-flecked cakes and creamy coffee.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Having recently finished an ambitious book that links together art, neuroscience, psychology and Vienna, I am filled with confidence at a new aspect to my direction in life. Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present talks intelligently to the reader, delving into current brain research and treating Freud’s brazenly novel ideas with honest admiration for what they set in motion. Plus, it is illustrated, with Klimt’s dreamy paintings and Kokoschka’s and Shiele’s charged paintings an optically pleasing counterbalance to brain diagrams and psychology flow-charts in the quest for the unconscious. The most striking thing about the book is that Kandel does not have to draw tenuous threads through these diverse fields: He simply situates them, historically, in one small city of two million people at the turn of the twentieth century, and unfolds a narrative of minds fertilising one another in an intellectually electric environment.

Austrian Parliament

Austrian Parliament

That environment was cultivated in a very specific way. Vienna in 1900, argues Kandel (p. 499), ‘provided a social context—the university, coffeehouses, and salons—in which scientists and artists could readily exchange ideas.’ He cites Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon several times, and the luminaries she drew together, such as Klimt and Rodin. He writes extensively of the influence of Rokitansky in the Vienna Medical School, and the social connections struck up through the university between faculties. Vienna was a small place, something like Brisbane, and one can imagine the intimacy—in Brisbane there is a joke that there are only two degrees of separation between all of its inhabitants. Importantly, Kandel (p. 499) points out, scholars of the sciences and arts alike were united by a common interest: that of ‘unconscious mental processes,’ enabling a true dialogue of benefit to all parties.

Books

The dialogue between art and brain science, Kandel (p. xvi) explains in his opening comments, is of mutual benefit because these two fields ‘represent two distinct perspectives on mind. Through science we know that all of our mental life arises from the activity of our brain. … Art, on the other hand, provides insight into the more fleeting, experiential qualities of mind, what a certain experience feels like.’ Where Freud could envision an idea of the unconscious that appeared to fit with his experience with his patients, and where brain science could seek to explain why these mysterious patterns exist, Kokoschka could, through his expressionist brushwork and symbolism, explain these concepts visually. Klimt’s art in particular drew on his knowledge of emerging science, and symbols of fertility permeate his paintings while visually describing sensuality in a very moving way. Kandel (p. 507) traces right back to da Vinci, who ‘used his newly gained knowledge of the human anatomy to depict the human form in a more compelling and accurate manner.

Bibliothek

Bibliothek

All of this work chips away at the same problem from different angles, giving us different ways in, providing different insights, recording different aspects of our experience of our own minds. In a context where the work of these various fields can influence each other, new questions can arise; the cumulative body of work can grow in ways that each strain could not achieve independently. ‘It is quite likely,’ Kandel (p. 506) argues, ‘that finding new interactions between aspects of art and aspects of the science of perception and emotion will continue to enlighten both fields, and that in time those interactions may well have cumulative effects.’

Wiener Rathaus

Wiener Rathaus

Kandel (p. 501) asserts the need for a ‘third way, a set of explanatory bridges across the chasm between art and science.’ He envisions this third, conciliatory way as enabling discussion between heretofore restricted intellectual fields—a modern salon, centred around the universities (p. 505). It is at this point that I realise the immense value of the position I inhabit. A philosophy graduate, still tied up in the university, romantically partnered with a quantum physicist and able to move freely in these academic circles, I am also a painter, spending much of my time in the company of artists of an especially intellectual breed. While the Atelier exists outside of the university, it seeks to fulfil aspects of artistic study that I would venture that the fine arts in the university context in Australia cannot: pursuing excellence in practice and rigorous analytical thinking wholly tied up in that practice, not in conceptualising about social commentary or confusing the viewer through impenetrable artist statements and other trickery. Bringing these minds together—painters, philosophers and physicists—is about the noblest cause I can think of.

Sculpture

This work is already underway, in the coffee shops of Brisbane, in parties in old Queenslander houses, and in the old bomb factory warehouse that houses the Atelier. Ryan recently instituted a public lecture series at the Atelier, where intellectuals of all fields are invited to talk to artists in the spirit of collaboration. Jacques enthusiastically gave the first talk a couple of weeks ago, introducing current ideas in physics that might meld with ideas in art (you’ll be able to see his talk here soon). Ian Neill followed with a presentation on academicism in art. Rumour has it that Kari Sullivan will be sharing some linguistic observations pertaining to art, and that others have thoughts on the haphazard modern art education contrasted with the rigorous and ordered education of music, and the critical value of the peer review system sorely lacking in the visual arts where any amateur can demand respect. The topics are endless, the speakers willing, and the growing audience is stimulated.

Streets of Vienna

Streets of Vienna

Most of all, I intend to continue to open my home—be it in Brisbane, Vienna, or anywhere else in this intellectually vibrant world—and share tasty food, abundant wine and fierce discussion with passionate thinkers in all fields. Consider this your invitation.

Arches

* Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

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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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