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.

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