Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Artless Art

I had the opportunity recently to read a book about the famed photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, titled 'The Artless Art'. This phrase 'The Artless Art' comes from Buddhist writings and refers to a manner of approaching the making of a work of art in such a way that the work in question becomes an almost automatic response between the photographer's unmediated openness and the subject matter before him.

It is of significance that HCB was interested in Buddhist thought, the techniques of which affected his approach to creativity.

What I found in this book to be troublesome, what I've observed before in the words of other art critics and art historians, is an after-the-fact analysis of the motivations and intentions of the artist at a level of superficial intellectualism and depth that is out of proportion to the thinking process and working methods applied to the actual creation of the work.

HCB worked in what could be termed a 'style' of photographic technique that combined a highly sensitive openness to the immediacy of the surrounding visual world with an almost subconscious automatic control of the technical parameters of the camera's controls. Such a style of photography has since come to be known as 'street photography', although it often takes place in venues other than the public thoroughfare.

Another famed worker of the street ethic was Garry Winogrand, who, like HCB, employed a working technique that so finely melded the open sensitivity to visual surroundings with an automatic, gesture-like response of the camera's controls as to be uncannily able to capture that all-elusive fleeting moment. When viewed in retrospect these fleeting moments, captured on film, seem to have been created out of thin air, as if they occurred in the moments between the blink of an eye. The sense of motion and spontaneity implicit in Winogrand's works especially tend to negate any assumptions that these images could possibly have been staged. They are too obviously fleeting glimpses, captured out of the ether as if by wireless, evoking memories common to the larger culture.

How then are we to accept the hyper-intellectual ramblings of the arte-illuminati that are so obviously out of character when compared to the artists' actual working methods? To be sure, both HCB and Winogrand shared a deep knowledge of art history and the techniques of drawing and composition; this served as background preparation that informed their seemingly automatic response to the fleeting moment. Yet the very act of capturing the fleeting moment, through a carefully prepared artistic sensibility combined with a masterfully tuned control over the technical aspects of picture-making, preclude the possibility that such images were premeditated and pondered over prior to exposure.

One is reminded of the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock, involving a high degree of improvisation, and reliance upon the accidental. Whatever one may say about the resulting visual complexity of his paint-splattered canvasses, it would be in error for one to presume a degree of complexity and meaning behind these works that did not, in actuality, inform the artist at the time of the work's creation.

Art theory remains, in the final analysis, merely theoretical. In using the terminology of the scientific method to describe works whose creative origins are intrinsically subjective is to open up such ponderings to the rigor of the same scientific method; the results are often proven to be either patently false or irrelevant.

Artists directly influence one another; this is how all true art movements originate: through the milieu of a vital and dynamic culture of artists. Since the rise of professional art criticism this dynamic of pure artistic culture has given way to the phenomenon whereby the critic serves as interlocutor and intermediary of the artistic culture. The result has been the lack of any truly novel artistic movement since modernism.

Ironically, art critics themselves, lacking the ability to see the forest through the trees, tend to label the period following modernism as 'post-modernism'; an affectation which conveniently serves to conceal the obviously historic change in art culture under the guise of another 'ism'.

My final thought is that perhaps this should have been expected all along. Was it not Mr. Heisenberg who dutifully informed us, through the complexity of advanced mathematics, that the mere act of observation itself changes the very nature of that being observed? Perhaps we need less drivel and more dialog.~


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