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, transferred 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 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.  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.

What is Automatism?

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?

Sports Illustrated’s many incredible photos that capture a brief instant in time of a fast moving and energetic athlete engaged in some dramatic sports play –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.  And of course, in that sense, automatism is also a journey.