Friday, February 19, 2010

Originality and (Re)cognition

Xie Zhiliu (Chinese, 1910–1997)
"Ducks and Blossoming Branches"
Pencil and ink on paper
20 1/2 x 30 3/4 inches

In his recent review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition of works on paper by the late Chinese artist Xie Zhiliu ("Tracing the Path to Chinese Finesse," New York Times, February 14, 2010), art critic Ken Johnson reminds readers that imitation is often a prerequisite for originality. Johnson's piece begins with a Western commonplace,
"Copying is bad; originality is good. That’s what we learn from toddlerdom on. In art as in life, be yourself. Don’t pretend. Nobody likes phonies, fakes or frauds. Forgery is illegal. Authenticity is holy.

But wait. Copying and imitating have been the rule for most of the history of human civilization. In the West artists from Raphael to Picasso have profited from copying the works of others. In art there is no such thing as pure originality."
Or is there?

I suppose it depends on one's definition of originality. Having recently come under the intellectual sway of George Steiner, I wholeheartedly endorse the philosopher-critic's distinction between originality and novelty, detailed in his book Real Presences.
"Originality is antithetical to novelty. The etymology of the word alerts us. It tells of 'inception' and of 'instauration,' of a return, in substance and in form, to beginnings. In exact relation to their originality, to their spiritual-formal force of innovation, aesthetic inventions are 'archaic.' They carry in them the pulse of the distant source."
Put another way, novelty is self-conscious invention or difference for the sake of invention or difference (that is, mere newness), whereas originality is an individual's expression of a primordial and universal resonance.

What better way to absorb the lessons of your predecessors (to better prepare yourself for originality) than by reproducing the work of those artists? More from Johnson's article:
"Maxwell K. Hearn, the exhibition’s organizer and a curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Met, explained in an interview that the show’s main significance is in what it reveals about methods used by traditional artists. It turns out that the kind of graceful naturalism that Xie achieved in his best works came not from extensive study of nature but by tracing over and over the works of other artists on sheets of semitransparent paper. [...] Repeatedly tracing the works of old masters as Xie did might be compared to a pianist practicing a composition by Bach. This may sound suffocating for a modern artist, but it is not unlike how many young artists learn to draw: by copying their favorite comic-book characters over and over."
I was no exception. I spent countless teenage hours copying comic strips and, later, comic book characters. The graphic line and compositional sense that I learned from emulating those comic artists significantly informs my artwork today.

Johnson is correct, however; these ideas "may sound suffocating for a modern artist." That copying (a casual form of apprenticeship) might offend contemporary sensibilities is further evidence of the excesses of modernism and postmodernism. Too much was purged in the revolution of modern aesthetics; the rabble is today without coherence.

Fortunately, the art world is undergoing a sea change. The majority of artists under 40 years of age (and an increasing number of those over 40) do not mistake novelty of expression for originality, and they will readily acknowledge the value of copying, especially for the young artist. In fact, we realize the genuineness of Steiner's insistence that such activity is vital in all aesthetic disciplines.
"To learn by heart is to afford the text or music an indwelling clarity and life-force. Ben Johnson's term, 'ingestion,' is precisely right. What we know by heart becomes an agency in our consciousness, a 'pace-maker' in the growth and vital complication of our identity.

[...] Accurate recollection and resort in remembrance not only deepen our grasp of the work: they generate a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows. As we change, so does the informing context of the internalized poem or sonata. In turn, remembrance becomes recognition and discovery (to re-cognize is to know anew)."
Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art


Donald Frazell said...

I havent heard of much studying older masters of their craft in art school, let alone copying them. Few can draw anymore, those who do learn so on their own, the only way, as Cezanne said, "The Louvre is our textbook." Ideas have overcome craftsmanship, even though those very ideas are completely derivative, simply taking fewer and fewer facets of works that succeed. Instead of simplifying, they sub-minimalize to "appear" as original. When simply but one layer of what always has been. And as art is about relationships, once you take all those other layers away, it no longer is art. No life, no energy, no passion.

All this copying and surrounding oneself with great works of the past of all different styles, of different parts of the world, of different ages, simply forms that most fundamental of art neccessities, the automatic shit detector. When one is around only the best, only the best will do, in ones own work, and in life. It is developed instinct. We can put it into words and analyze, but life is short. We need to instantly recognize what works and what doesnt, and move on. Creating our own as a reflection of life, not dictating to others our view of it.

The first thing i did when I switched to painting from years of photography, where i studied the Weston's and did similar work till I created my own way of approaching and understanding nature to reveal gods design, I copied Matisse Dance with Nasturtiums, for color, Michelangelos God Creating the Sun and Moon, and Cezanne's Mt St Victoire seen from Bibemus Quarry. Color, line and structure. Harmony, melody and rhythm. Soul, mind and body.

However none were traced, i needed to let my own hand do what others had done. To understand how and why, as truthfully as possible. Not free interpretations, but apprenticing to a master. Adapting to what is, what works, veritas, not attempting to adapt life to ones own immature desires, as contemporary art has. Self expression is for children, slowly studying and learning and most importantly, feeling humanity, nature and god the key to developing ones own langauges, and even more importantly having something to say as but one single, solitary human being among billions.

Donald Frazell said...

Drawing is mental, it can be traced and studied and learned analytically. Structure is the motion and layered relationsips of life, color its passion. They cannot be learned in this way. But as long as one is studying, and using them as such, etudes, its great. Its what I do when life drawing, or drawing from nature, flowers, plants, objects of man. They are not fully formed works of art, but one essential layer. The example above also has composition and stylization to reveal nature through equivalence, using natures vocabulary.

There are many other ways, but it is essential, and a master like above can stand on their own. As did Da Vinci's drawings, which are incredible, though I find his paintings grossly overrated. Color he never understood, he found balance in structure, but not a living force within it. Everything he did actualy failed, none of his inventions worked, his paintings falling apart like the Last Supper, or color fading like the Mona Lisa almost immediately. His work is almost purely intellectual, thinking man can master the world. He cant, this Michelangelo understood, and his power likewise multiplied.

All three are necesary to a fully developed work, layering and intertwining into a livng force its own energy, its own presence. Which should be every artists goal, to create after The Creator, humbly, attempting to allow our works, when taken out into the world, to stand up with the power of the original. Only then, when before the nature of gods creation, and my manmade work, can I find if I have succeeded. Or if more work needs to be done. Cezanne knew this, all great artists do. It is the way to creative fulfillment. Have i enhanced life, or my own ego. That answer is not ours to make, but for those who view our works, and those that last have met this challanege, and won.

art collegia delenda est