Artistic Phenomena

An artistic phenomenon is a concept that means, basically, any small or large aspect to a visual image that is exciting, captivating, inspiring or otherwise mentally engaging.  Which is to say that art itself is composed of those visual aspects that excite, captivate, inspire or otherwise mentally engage us.  Whatever you see that causes that to happen –induces that effect– is an artistic phenomenon.  Any image may have several of these artistic aspects of varying significance and interest.  It’s relevant to a study of art because one may find artistic aspects to an artwork that the artist never intended or in automatic imagery that by nature is completely accidental and also unintentional.  When you start to look for artistic phenomena you start to look at everything like an artist.  This is the concept of “taking an art attitude” that George Maciunas, founder of the Fluxus movement conceived of.  You can apply to anything you can see, really; art in a gallery or art “growing wild”.

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.

Mutation, Mutationist and Mutationism

Automatism is all about creativity; expanding the source of new things by adding to what human imagination and artistic skill alone can produce.  The surrealists believed in the existence of sub-conscious human thought and this was what they primarily focusing on when they talked of “automatism”, a sort of non-conscious, mechanical expression of a deeper part of the human mind.  I don’t consider that subconscious expression stuff to be automatism, I just consider it to be careless conscious thought, a kind of artistic brainstorming which might be a useful creative technique in other ways.  That kind of automatism, “pure psychic automatism” as Andre Breton called it, is just an attitude, and a conscious one, too.  Subconscious thoughts don’t draw pictures; I’m not even convinced that the subconscious mind exists in any meaningful way except as a purely conceptual construction used by psychoanalysts for explaining why people have mixed feelings about things and to rationalize our commonly irrational behavior.

Automatism is all about creativity and that creativity works in all cases by the same principle, mutation: the transformation of a pre-existing object.  Mutation rather than creation of a new and original object.  This is also why automatism is such a fun and easy method to work with: you create by reworking what has already been made and just watch and react to the results of the self-operating process.

Max Ernst produced something he couldn’t imagine in the painting, The Entire City.  And it wasn’t some amorphous “abstract” piece of junk, either, that critics could find “serious, technical merit” in.  Ernst used an automatic method to make something most viewers could relate to and marvel at.  He did it by taking imagery that was made by natural and mechanical sources (surface textures) and through experimentation with it (trial and error) seized upon the one that “made art”.  That is the process all “automatists” work with: experimenting with altered variables until they see “art” happen.

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1936

Ernst added to the automatic imagery and accentuated the effect it suggested and inspired him with.  But without the freaky, wafer-cookie boards resembling ascending streets of gold built into a single, monolithic, towering hillside, the painting would be nothing but a selection of garden herbs beneath a full moon.  In fact, Ernst would never have bothered producing a work with only those hand-painted embellishments.  What would be the point?  It’s always hard to say exactly how a piece of art works and how it makes the impression it does, but some degree of analysis is fairly obvious.

So visual imagery can be reduced to two different creative origins and sources:

1. The human imagination

2. The variability of automatic processes

Ernst employed both sources in his painting, The Entire City, but as I mentioned, the automatic imagery is the focus of the painting just as the person in a painted portrait is obviously the main artistic element there.  In fact, I read something about the authorship of the Mona Lisa that said that although da Vinci painted the famous portrait, he quite likely did not paint the accompanying elements that form the background to the figure.  Such secondary elements were commonly left to students and assistants because weren’t considered crucial to the painting’s effect and impression.

They’re all Kaleidoscopes

Human creativity is much more complicated than automatism since it revolves, obviously, around the human mind and what is called human “consciousness”.  Who knows how our mind’s work? Automatic creativity however, revolves around nature and technology; natural processes like clouds in the sky or frost on window panes, or around mechanical processes like fractal software or something more simple and conventional like a kaleidoscope.  Non-human creativity (which is just another way of saying automatic creativity) always involves some unthinking physical process like the physical environment that creates clouds or frost patterns, or a mechanical environment like a series of computer instructions (algorithm) or, in a simple example: the lens, mirror and colored pieces of a kaleidoscope.  Change occurs in human creativity because of deliberate, conscious thought, while change occurs in automatic processes through variations initiated by the process itself or human intervention.

Simple Kaleidoscope

Everyone understands what thinking is all about and how it works because we are all thinking beings ourselves, but the formation of new things through mutation requires some explanation because, not being natural processes or machines ourselves, we don’t intuitively understand how they work.  It’s easy to relate to an artist, but hard to relate to a cloud or a computer program.

Mutation is the changing of variables that control the expression (operation) of a static and stable system of parts.  The best example is genetics and that’s why the term, mutation, comes from it.  All forms of automatism can be described and explained as genetic systems and they quite often are described exactly as that using terms like “genetic art” and “genetic algorithms” in the area of computer automatism.

The way I think of it is all automatic processes (self-operating) are like machines.  Those machines are made up of static parts with variable settings.  For instance,  a kaleidoscope is made up of a set of static parts: a tube with a lens you look through; mirrors at the end of the tube; glass pieces on the mirror; translucent background at the bottom of the tube.  Only the mirrors and the glass pieces however have any potential variation.  The other parts of the kaleidoscope machine are fixed.  The position of the mirrors and the position of each glass piece can vary in a way that describes all the possible combinations and permutations of what one sees in a kaleidoscope.  Every different image you see, each being a different “condition” of the kaleidoscope “environment”, can be expressed by the coordinates (x,y) for each piece and the rotation in degrees of the tube moving the mirrors.  There are an enormous number of possibilities, but there are also a limited number.

Think of each colored glass piece as a gene and the mirror rotation as a gene also.  The image they collectively create is the organism, so to speak.  The values that go with each of those genes create the variations in the image seen and so the kaleidoscope image changes by changing those values by shaking the pieces around or turning the tube that holds the mirrors.  One could easily create a computer program to simulate a kaleidoscope and each different “organism” created could be described by a long list of values for each glass particle gene and the mirror rotation gene.  This is in fact how the amazingly complex imagery of fractal programs works.  For every detailed fractal image there is a short parameter file consisting of nothing more than a bunch of number settings and menu options.  That little parameter file will reproduce the exact same image in every detail on another person’s computer running the same program.  The parameters are the DNA of the image.  So when we play with a kaleidoscope (or a fractal program) we mutate the genes of the glass pieces and the mirror setting to create an new organism, the picture we see.

Clouds in the sky are no different.  The genes are  everything that makes up the system that produces and influences cloud formation and appearance.  Things like: moisture content; temperature; atmospheric pressure; turbulence; wind direction; and so on.  A cloud filled sky is a kind of very big, natural, kaleidoscope.  Changes in the appearance come from changes in the variables for each three-dimensional part of the sky.  It’s a machine and it’s self-operating and continually undergoes mutation of its settings but without any changes to the process itself which remains stable.

This is how automatism works and while it’s a simple concept it can yield complex results because cloud-filled skies, frost covered window panes, and fractal computer programs contain a large number of moving (variable) parts.  But in principle they all work like a kaleidoscope, just as much more sophisticated  kaleidoscopes.

The person who works the kaleidoscope then would be more accurately called a mutationist rather than an artist since their art work is created entirely by their skill of mutating the kaleidoscope image rather than by drawing or painting.  Fractal artists similarly work as mutationists when they’re only adjusting the variables of the fractal program.  Many fractal artists do other things to their artwork but those are not mutationism.  Mutationism being the creation of artwork by mutating pre-existing imagery rather than creating something completely original and unconnected to anything pre-existing.  Even the work done with distortion filters and other effects in a graphics program like Photoshop could be described as mutationism because it alters the genes of the organism (a photo) rather than create a wholly new organism (ie. take a new photo).

The concept of mutation, the role of a mutationist and the category of imagery it leads to called mutationism, quickly separates the creativity of the human mind from that of the automatic device and helps greatly to understand how the art works and what to expect of its medium.  Furthermore, for those who create works that use automatism, the concept of mutationist will help them to work more effectively because they will have a better understanding of what they’re doing and can focus more effectively on what they can do.

What is Art?

Art is an effect.  It’s an effect that visual imagery has on the mind of the viewer.  When we speak of art we’re really speaking of an effect that certain kinds of images have on us.  Art is to visual imagery what taste is to food.  Good food tastes good and good visual imagery causes the viewer to experience the art effect.

That art –all art– is so subjective in nature is made quite clear by studying automatism.  Automatic imagery is self-created, that is, not created by a person but rather by a process of some sort, either natural or mechanical.  Clearly it was never intended to be art but was only perceived to be art by the person who chose to use it as art.  Some automatic images make an artistic impression on the artist as was the case with Max Ernst and his paint rubbings (grattage) and this is the only thing that distinguishes them as art over all the other paint rubbings that Ernst didn’t use.  When you remove the artist from the art equation (ie. definition) what’s left is easy to see and describe.

What’s left is just a viewer and some images.  In a sense, Max Ernst was the first member of the audience for his chosen paint rubbing rather than the artist who made it.  The essential imagery of the rubbing was not made by Ernst, it was made by the textured surface and Ernst merely captured it, transferring it to the canvas.  Ernst didn’t significantly alter the automatic imagery, he merely added to it and accentuated the effect of the automatic imagery.

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1936.  The orange/brown wafer-like elements are the focus of the image and are the impressions of rough surfaces formed by rubbing paint over the canvas while over top of them.

Automatism leads us on to even deeper revelations of what art is.  How is it that random, mechanical and unintentional imagery can have any sort of artistic merit?  Why does automatism work as art?  You can’t create literature or music automatically.  You might create something short and curious that prompts you to think of something literary or musical, but such inspiring fragments don’t become the central elements around which a writer or composer builds a work of art like Ernst did arranging his hand-painted additions around his floor board rubbings.  Why does automatism have such creative ability in a graphical medium but not in the literary or musical ones?

This tells us something about how art works and what it’s all about.  The visual medium works differently than the literary and musical mediums.  Sentences and even phrases have to contain meaning to have a literary effect and meaning in that medium requires careful, deliberate order.  Random letters or even words don’t say much.  But random colors, shapes and patterns do.  Similarly, music needs to be composed in an orderly and coherent way to have any musical quality to it.  Random noises or even random musical notes might sound like an interesting idea to create music, but it never works.  But the random or unconsciously created surface textures in Ernst’s painting work amazingly well as an iconic symbol of a massive city.

So why does automatic imagery work so well?  Or work at all?  It’s because our minds interpret visual phenomena creatively while they can only read literary “phenomena” or follow a tune in music.  Literature and music in order to be coherent must be written and put together thoughtfully while imagery and pictures need only to suggest something in order to be coherent and meaningful.  The lack of thoughtfulness in the automatic visual realm is made up for by our mind’s creative talent for seeing things where only smudges and scratches exist.  Musical and written smudges and scratches are perceived as just noise and gibberish.

This explains why people can look at Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings and some see art while other see just dripped paint.  Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder as the old saying goes.  More precisely I’d say that art is an effect; a reaction our mind has when it interprets something to be beautiful.  Art is as much a product of the viewer’s imagination as it is of an artist’s imagination.

But automatism goes even deeper than that.  Nuances in an image can take over our entire impression of it artistically.  Little things like the name “Picasso” written in the corner of a painting can have a dramatic effect on our impression of an image, an image that otherwise wouldn’t even get a good mark if it were submitted by a final year student in a high school art class.  We can’t help being impressed by abstract works by famous artists.  It’s just the way our minds work with visual imagery.  But when a famous writer or composer creates something bad, even our forced flattery is hard to maintain.  The visual medium does not require intelligent intentions for the formation of interesting art and thus natural and mechanical processes have the potential to produce visual art but not literary or musical works.  The visual medium requires only suggestion, something our fertile minds then begin to create meaningful imagery with.

A study of automatism has lead me to the conclusion that art is ultimately a kind of optical illusion that some see and others don’t.  Some see art in drip paintings and some don’t.  Some see art in frost patterns on windows; clouds in the sky; the shape of a rock; a blur in a photograph; or a splash of paint.  All visual imagery is ambiguous to some degree and open to interpretation based on what our  minds associate it with and what they think it was intended to portray.  Automatism unleashes the creativity of the human mind with this sort of non-human, accidental expression.  This was the thing the surrealists got so excited about with automatism.  Automatism to them was a wild, uncultivated and raw form of creativity, a sort of artistic phenomena that was independent and unrestricted like the subconscious human mind they had always sought to express and portray.  It’s the pursuit of visual creativity that links art and automatism together.  Nothing defines art, artists and art audiences better than the collective pursuit of visual ingenuity.

Automatism explained

Automatism is self-governing phenomena; something that happens on it’s own –things that happen automatically.

In the context of graphical imagery, automatism is self-creating visual phenomena; the imagery happens on its own, automatically.

In the context of art, automatism is a little more complicated because art is a little more complicated than mere “graphical imagery”.  In art, automatism is the use of self-creating imagery.  Here’s a good example of automatism in an art context:

The Entire City by Max Ernst, 1936

The automatism in this famous surrealist painting is only the gold, brown, orange, patterned wafer structures that make up the wall imagery of the image.  It was made in the manner of a pencil rubbing but using paint instead of a pencil and canvas instead of the paper.  I think the imagery is that of floor boards and other textured surfaces.  The effect of the imagery inspired Ernst to develop the whole work around it to accentuate that surreal, iconic sensation of “the entire city” that resonated from it.  Ernst used the automatically created imagery; it was a collaborative or symbiotic relationship between the hand/mind creativity of Ernst and the mechanical creativity of the processes that made the rough, patterned textures.

In art, automatism never works alone.  To compare Ernst’s example of automatism in art with automatism in a more general, untouched “graphical imagery” context then just look around at any unintentional, mechanical, non-hand-made thing you see.  Clouds in the sky are automatic imagery; natural automatism.  Frost on windows, cracks in concrete, or any naturally or mechanically occurring visual manifestation of color, shape and pattern is automatism.  Most of it is not anywhere near as appealing as Ernst’s refined automatism, but it was such raw, uncultivated imagery that inspired Ernst’s artistic mind and set the refining process of his painting skills to work.  Automatism is all about creativity and it’s the ability of self-creating imagery to come up with startling new scenes, or the suggestion of such new scenes that makes it exciting and gives it its artistic potential.  But it’s only artistic potential until an artist or someone with an artistic sensibility recognizes that artistic merit and captures it and then presents it.  Just the act of selection or capture is significant, artistically.

Photography is automatism.  But photography, like all art, is also more than automatism.  My definition of automatism, or, my extensions to the conventional definition of automatism come from the understanding I’ve gained at what automatism essentially is all about and then spotting that much simpler factor in many more places than the more complex and conventional definition would fit.

I contend that automatism is also the results of human actions that are unintentional.  People can create artistic objects without the intention of doing so by creating something intended to be merely decorative which in turn has a much deeper artistic impression to it.  Persian rugs composed of collages of ornate images can do this.  For that matter, portrait photography can easily be seen as automatic imagery because really candid and unique portraits can portray expressions and poses that neither the photographer can prompt or coach, and neither the subject can produce at will.  What creates such imagery?  Who creates it?

Sports Illustrated’s many incredible freeze-frame photos that capture a brief instant in time of a fast moving and energetic athlete –are automatism.  They are the creation of unintentional and involuntary (mechanical) actions and not conscious human thought and action.  Furthermore, most of those frozen in time sports photos owe their eye-catching effect to the fact that they feature sights that we’ve never seen before, something which is new and very creative.  They’re a whole new view of something as incredibly commonplace as a football or baseball game and yet they are scenes even the audience and players who observed the real time events did not see.  Split-second photography is creative and it’s not human creativity.  Or at least, the imagery isn’t hand-made although the taking of the picture was.  But if the photographer doesn’t know what the photo is going to look like until it’s developed (or with today’s digital cameras –reviewed afterwards) then what creative skill or contribution have they made apart from just hoping for a successful random event to occur?

Anyhow, a study of automatism takes one through a lot of interesting things and ideas because, as you can see, it opens up and leads us into all sorts of situations that cause us to rethink what art is and what role the mechanical and natural world plays in it.