What I mean by Artistic Phenomena

Artistic phenomena is the term I use to refer to the eccentric subtleties of artistic works as well as the occurrence of artistic merit in things that are naturally or mechanically made and not the result of intentional human effort.

To fully explain what I mean by artistic phenomena I need to add that I think of art as a subjective thing. Art is what the viewer perceives or the interpretation of what they perceive. As a result art does not require an artist to be art, it only requires the experience of art in the mind of the viewer. Perhaps this sounds unusual but I think it describes quite well that special thing which the whole world over refers to as “art”. This is what we are really talking about when we use the word, “art” even if we aren’t fully aware of it.

George Maciunas, the founder of the Fluxus art movement, was talking of this when he said that it was no longer necessary to make art objects, the only thing necessary for the existence of art was that we, the viewers, take an art-attitude. Artistic phenomena is the direct result of taking this “art-attitude”, both to formal artworks as well as to the informal, everyday visual experiences that we naturally have.

This doesn’t mean that everything you see is art, it just means that everything you see could be art. After all, isn’t it the taking of an art-attitude by artists that leads to the creation of formal artworks? I think van Gogh first took an art-attitude to stars at night before he painted, Starry Night. I also think that in the realm of photography that a well-developed art-attitude towards everything around you is what the artistry of photography is entirely about. Photographers pick art off the things growing wild around us because they’ve learned to recognize it and look for it.

In the same way, art can be unintentional and “growing wild” –uncultivated and accidental– in existing artworks because our own minds read things into them that are a result of our own imagination. We can have associations that the artist was incapable of because they’re not like us and don’t share our experiences and personal “mis-interpretations”. I sometimes think of a new title for artworks when some visual element in them suddenly takes on a pivotal role that to me redefines the entire work because, to me at least, it is the most salient and interesting thing about it. As you can see, art appears to have a great deal of subjectivity to it when one reflects on their experiences like this.

Art can never have one simple and straightforward interpretation for everyone if these things are common amongst viewers and not just a personal quirk of mine. In fact, I think it is the nature of all visual phenomena, the entire visual medium, to be ambiguous, vague and suggestive of many things. Combine such a fluid medium of expression and experience with the ever-inventive human mind and it’s never-at-rest capacity to make sense of even the most formless smudges and ambiguous abstractions and art becomes a matter of probabilities and psychoanalysis: art becomes a Rorschact test.

This blog is simply intended to be an exploration; a casual presentation of personal discoveries and speculations that keeps moving in the same direction. My main interest is in mechanical rather than human creativity and the sort of accidental occurrences of art that it creates because there’s something fresh and exotic about such alien and “extraterrestrial” artistic phenomena. If art is anything, it’s at least about things that are new and novel.

Artistic Phenomena in Formal Artworks

For example:

Ilya Repin, Unexpected Visitors, 1886

Notice the expressions on all the faces, everyone of them.  Note particularly the young boy versus the young girl, at the table.  The boy’s head is high while the girl’s is low; it conveys a differing personality confronted by the same event.  Anyhow, this is obviously one of those great works of art in the conventional sense of gifted artist and painstaking work, and it is all that.  But something else occurred to me when I first saw this image and regarded all the faces and postures:  what great actors all these characters are!  Which gradually made me realize, since they’re all the product of the artist’s imagination and not real, that a great artist is often also a great film director.  An entire five-minute scene, complete with dialogue, is right there.  Several different shots (eg. boy and girl) are all merged into one image.  It’s like a giant omelet in the pan before it’s divided up and served on several different plates.

That is an aspect of the artwork that is –what?  Intentional?  Important?  It’s just something I sensed and I think it’s a nuance that is apparent to others once it’s mentioned.  Of course, this sort of theatrical analysis of a famous painted scene is common in art criticism and discussion, so I’m not saying anything particularly brilliant, but there it is: an example of artistic phenomena.  We can make something new just by looking at art.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778)

I call it, “The Knife-Edge of Town”That concept or impression is an artistic phenomena.  Notice the overgrown and uninhabited aspect to that “river corner”.  It’s the edge of what we can see farther down the river becomes a dense urban environment, but here where the river turns the corner and heads back into that great city, it’s almost a wilderness, like the proverbial, “edge of town”.  But look how sharply the houses and walls define the river’s edge and shore; it makes the edge of town clean and sharp like the edge of a knife.

The concept of artistic phenomena is something that will quickly become quite relevant when once one gets into the habit of taking an art attitude to whatever they look at.  It becomes the thing that makes art artistic and how many phenomena one sees will also quickly be realized to be a matter of how one looks and what strikes their interest.  Art is as much a creative act of the viewer as it is of the art itself.  Whether the artist intended it or not, or whether there is any artist involved at all (ie. automatic imagery) is not as important as whether one sees such phenomena.

How an antique Persian carpet can be an example of automatism

The above Persian rug is of course completely human in origin both in its design and its manufacture.  There is absolutely nothing automatic about it.  It is the antithesis of automatism, being conceived in the human mind and formed by the human hand.  This is what is called the Plastic Arts and as a category becomes a perfect label to cover everything that isn’t automatism.

However, art being what it is, a phenomenon of the human mind, unexpected and unintentional things can happen.  And the concept of intention is central to understanding automatism.  Automatism can be described as art without intention because it’s self-forming and therefore not made by a person.  Only people have intent, a feature of human consciousness, what is called intelligence.

The rug shown above is a collage of somewhat unrelated ornamental subjects.    It’s a bit like a musical chord, a multi-note sound, another collage of sorts, of musical notes.  What springs to mind when one hears a complex chord is sort of what springs into my mind when I see a multi-image thing like this rug: a new singular sound, a sum of the parts.  Unlike a musical chord, however, a large collage like this is viewed in parts and connected, like dots, bit by bit.

Consider the “disembodied” pillars that nicely form a border on either side of the central palace images.  And then there is the purely ornamental, Klimt-like patches of shapes flanking the central palace image which combines ornamental abstraction with ornamental realism.  Top and bottom middle borders have scenes with people doing things and interacting while all four corners are nature scenes of silence and passivity.  The people patches are historic events?  Moments in time beside scenes without time.

The beauty of the carpet seems to increase the more I look at it instead of decreasing as I become more familiar with its simple pictures.  I think this comes from the combinations and recombinations that the assorted images can form in one’s mind, assuming that one’s mind feels inclined to form such things.  The carpet is older than the Rene Magritte painting below but contains the essential ingredients of that surrealist masterpiece below.  The ingredients of the carpet I am guessing were not intended to evoke a surrealist impression but my main point is that a collage is like a set of visual dice which the viewer’s mind rolls and plays with like an artistic board game.  The artist creates an environment rather than a static work of art; a form of visual creativity similar to the richness and variety of a kaleidoscope . This complex interaction and variety of interpretation is the automatic quality to the carpet and works like one of those startling Magritte paintings that feature normal things in odd contexts just like, in music, the discovery of a new, mysterious chord.

The Annunciation, 1930 Rene Magritte

Realism, symbolism and pattern; who would have thought they’d go together like this?  But doesn’t the Persian carpet have all those elements, in the form of a do-it-yourself surrealism kit.  One other element: dis-proportion.  The pattern is bigger than the trees and the pillars are even larger; this of course is a standard surrealist style but the carpet (and really any similar type of collage) at least suggests this sort of perspective although keeping each element in its own little container instead of allowing them all to jump into the same image together as Magritte has done.

Freaky, eh?  Automatism in a hand-made artwork.  One could follow this concept to all sorts of wild outcomes.  Accidental human actions could introduce variations, say in a painting or a craft-like creation like a collage or carpet that in the final outcome have a startling creativity to them.  They would be like working out new permutations of variables like color, shape or pattern that are like computing all the possible arrangements or variations of elements in a design.  When people try to work like machines their mistakes can be creative and since they’re unintentional they’re the product of an environment rather than conscious thought.  I wonder how many of Paul Klee’s strange shapes were the result of things he discovered while working rather than things he imagined or consciously designed?

Red Balloon by Paul Klee 1922

What came first?  The design or the artist’s reaction to their rendering of their design?  The painted image becomes a sort of machine that reacts to what the artist attempts to do with it and in turn which causes the artist to respond to what has happened.  Leonardo didn’t paint like that but I’m sure many impressionists and whatever category Klee is from must have painted that way.  How their ideas would appear on canvas were too hard to predict and thus the “artist” became a critic of their own work who could correct and improve upon it.

Automatism, when examined from the perspective of creativity –who made what– becomes a principle and ingredient in almost all artistic works because the physical properties of a medium can influence an artist’s creative process and way of working.  Furthermore, in a collage, like the Persian carpet above, the artistic effect, or what goes on in the mind of the viewer, is hard to predict because a collage is really a medium itself from which the viewer creates meaning and adds their interpretation.