Bread and Circuses

In ancient Rome, the Roman elite used free food and blood sport entertainment by gladiators in the arena to keep the poor and disadvantaged under control.   I think much of modern political policy is designed to do the same job with the complicity of the media.


After the ugly campaign followed by the election of a candidate who managed to insult every possible group in our diverse society, I decided that I had had enough of the wasteland that is TV programming.  So I disconnected the dish and vowed to abstain from paying attention to the news anywhere else for the foreseeable future.

What a relief!

No more channel surfing trying to find something that didn’t insult my intelligence.  No more talking heads blathering about possible events or decisions by our president elect.  No more commercials telling me that I need to buy their products to live the good life.  No more situation comedies that aren’t funny.  No more ‘junk food’ documentaries about the existence of big foot/mermaids/lost treasure/ghosts on the history channel. No more violent ‘news’ images of wars, crimes, fires and floods which happen to have been recorded on video for us to watch.

I’ll admit that I still reach for the TV remote until I remember that it no longer works.  But the absence of TV programming simply means I can do other things besides dulling my mind and spirit with the messages of media circus each day. I can watch my favorite Ancient Aliens on the computer through or watch my guilty pleasure AFV on my smart phone.  I have time to watch my library of animated films or see new ones on Netflix. I can read a book, play in my art studio, take a walk, chat with friends.

Perhaps we all ought to take a time out from the message saturated media and reflect on what the true American values are.  If we spend more time living our lives in line with our values and less time trying to fit in with an obviously dysfunctional image of what our lives are supposed to be, we might all become saner, happier people.


Bread and Circuses

Meet the Art Gang Sidekicks

The Art Conservator

ag-sidekicks-conservatorThis art gang ‘sidekick’ primarily assists the Collector and Art Curator by helping them preserve the objects that form the basis for their collections.

Why do art works need the attentions of a conservator?

Many art works are embodied in material objects.  These objects seem like they are more permanent than living things but the fact is objects decay just as human do.  Textiles unravel. Paintings get dirty or they crack and peel. Paint reacts chemically with bad results. Inks fade. Paper disintegrates. Stone crumbles and metal corrodes. The job of the art conservator like is to halt the decay and restore those objects to preserve them for future generations.

This process can be tricky.  In the past, conservators have used techniques that did more harm than good.  Some people have speculated that the Mona Lisa is missing her eyebrows due to an overzealous cleaning or a chemical reaction in the paint that caused them to fade.


The Exhibit Designer

ag-sidekicks-exhibit-designerThis art gang ‘sidekick’ primarily assists the Art Curator by providing professional design and construction of the exhibit spaces.  Curators are often art historians as well and while their knowledge of art helps them select the theme and work for the exhibit, they often do not have the expertise to design the exhibit space itself.  As a result, the Curator and the Exhibit Designer must work closely together to realize the Curator’s vision for the exhibit.  This means that mounting an exhibit is a collaborative endeavor.

Good exhibit design should not draw attention to itself but focus attention on the works. Exhibit design involves creating a clear flow through the display which helps the viewer to make connections between the works.  These connections are what drives the overall message of the exhibit.  The lighting is also a crucial element of exhibit design since straining to see the works in a dimly lit space or being blinded by bright lights can be a distraction.

The placement and format of contextual information about the works must also be considered part of the exhibit designer’s job.  Some exhibits can include interactive elements.  One of my favorite examples of this was an exhibit in the International Folk Art museum on works made from recycled materials.  Part of the exhibit included a work space filler with junk where museum goers could make their own souvenir treasure to take with them.


Meet the Art Gang Sidekicks

Art Gang: Meet the Art Curator

The privilege I’ve had as a curator is not just the discovery of new works… but what I’ve discovered about myself and what I can offer in the space of an exhibition – to talk about beauty, to talk about power, to talk about ourselves, and to talk and speak to each other.                                                                        Thelma Golden


Works of art are not experienced in a vacuum. Many times they are encountered in a museum or gallery exhibit.  In either case, the exhibit space embodies the relationship between experience—how the works are displayed—and knowledge—the labels and exhibit catalog that is the key to visual analysis.  When art works are together in the same physical (or conceptual) space, their juxtaposition can reveal new insights into each work.

The Curator’s role involves the selection of the theme and works that become the exhibit itself.  This means that putting together an art exhibit is a creative act because the exhibit itself is a constructed space that activates the possible meanings in the collection of works itself.

Like art critics, art curators are usually trained as art historians because they need the knowledge about art works to make the judgments that lie at the heart of their job as important guardians of culture. They are responsible for deciding what works should be preserved for the future. They decide what to keep and what to discard, what works to exhibit and what works to keep in storage.  The art curator’s decisions carry a great deal of weight not only for the public but also for the artists as well. Having a one person show at a major museum is a sure way to increase the commodity value of the artist’s work.

Unlike art collectors, curators are concerned with the wider culture although personal interests do play a role in what kind of art is their specialty.

To appreciate this member of the art gang, I suggest that you create a virtual exhibit using material from the Internet.  This exercise will help you understand how the collector and the curator are two sides of the same impulse—one public and the other private.

Art Gang: Meet the Art Curator

Art Gang: Meet the Art Collector

I feel a weight that is not a representation of weight, but of core reality – the heart of the matter, the pulse of process and creation. There is the aesthetic rapture that mystics pursue, that theologians and philosophers anatomize and speculate upon and translate for human kind so that it can make sense of much that is inexplicable or unbearable – the finiteness of life, the inexorable passage of time, endings.

(Anonymous Art Collector)

Why do people collect art?


Art collectors like Bucks Patron, acquire work that appeals to them.   An art collection becomes a reflection of the collector’s own tastes and interests.  In other words, it is a creative endeavor in which the collection itself expresses the values and interests of the collector. This attitude is the direct opposite of the Art Critic who is concerned with cultural rather than personal values.

What is the role of the art patron?

The role of the private collector is important to our society. Artists need to make a living from their art and that means someone needs to support their work.

Each society has a different way of providing for the livelihood of artists.  In some societies, everyone engages in creating work for their own use.  Special objects or costumes are created for use in feasts and holy days.  In other cultures, like Egypt and Greece, artists were specialized workers who were supported by the state.  In the Middle Ages in Europe, the Christian church was the main patron commissioning work from artists. In each of these cases, the artist was really an artisan or craftsman whose work was supported by either society as a whole or individual institutions. By supporting the artists, collectors today help shape the development of culture. Many of the great art museums started out as private art collections assembled by wealthy art patrons.

The role of the private collector arose during the European Renaissance.  In this period, a new type of art patron arose.  Cosimo de Medici, a wealthy Florentine banker, was one of the first private citizens to amass an important collection of work from the best Italian artists.  His support for the arts and culture enhanced his own social status as well as contributing to the flowering of the visual arts in his time.   Art collecting as a mark of social status continued in the following centuries with the rise of a wealthy middle class and that has continued to the present day.

Note that this member of the art gang is male.  That is because in European culture, men have been the primary creators and patrons in the arts.  They have had control of the money after all. This privileging is slowly beginning to fade but still exists. 

Art Gang: Meet the Art Collector

Art Gang: Meet the Art Critic

ag-criticThe art critic is perhaps the least appreciated member of the art gang because most people associate criticism with negativity. Like meaning, value is context dependent and so works of art are assigned different values depending on the social or historical context in which they are placed.  Sergeant Dogma is dressed in the uniform of the Art Police because she represents the need for objectivity in evaluating works of art. Like regular policemen, she is charged with upholding social values in her society. At the same time, such values are relative to social context so she must excise good judgment when assigning an individual work’s value. This objectivity is necessary to prevent the interpreter from trying to impose personal values and preferences as universal judgments.

The art critic’s job is to determine which works of art are worthy of becoming part of a society’s cultural traditions because they important reflections of any given society’s world view. This means that the critic doesn’t always support the status quo but may favor diverse or even dissident views.  An example of this protective function is the DADA movement which (among other things) was a response to the inflated ideas about creative genius espoused by the Romantics. Perhaps the most famous DADA artist was Marcel Duchamp who created ready-mades by selecting common objects like a urinal and treating them as art works.

So how can we make objective judgments about worth based on subjective experiences?

art-police-badgeThe symbol for the art police is a single open eye with wings which symbolizes the synthesis of knowledge and experience.  This means that the same dynamic that is the basis for interpreting a work’s meaning functions in making judgments about an art work’s value. That balance is the basis for the 3 criteria I use to determine the aesthetic value of a work of art.

  1. Formal Properties reflect the knowledge and skill of the creator.
  2. Cultural Relevance depends on how well the work reveals important aspects of the society that created the work.
  3. Expressive Qualities involve the potential of the work to evoke a strong response—either positive or negative—in the viewer.

The first criterion is relatively objective since it doesn’t depend on the expressive qualities of the work but on how skillfully the artist has managed to use the common elements of the visual language to communicate a particular point of view.

The second criterion depends on evaluating the contribution made by the work to the life of society. The antiwar message of Picasso’s painting Guernica transcends its original context in an incident in the Spanish Civil war.  It is an image that has entered the visual vocabulary of Western society.

The third criterion is the most subjective because it addresses the quality of the experience the work provides.  This is the most challenging part of making value judgments about works of art because it requires the critic to combine their own experience of the work with a recognition of the limits of that experience. This is the place where the work of the critic can have the most impact.  Art works that present strong social critiques are often dismissed as valueless because they offend the sensibilities of the average viewer.  One of the strongest indictments of cruelty to animals (representing abused children as well) is an animated short entitled Black Dog’s Progress.


Art Gang: Meet the Art Critic

Art Gang: Meet the Art Historian

ag-art-historianThe process of visual analysis is based on the dynamic interplay of experience and knowledge. Formal analysis provides insight into how the work shapes the viewer’s experience by exploring how the artist used visual language to construct the work.  It.  But art works are not created in a vacuum.  Artists are influenced by the society in which they live and this environment also affects the work. Contextual analysis involves understanding how the work reflects the society in which it was created.  This knowledge is crucial to discerning the meaning of the work.

As their title suggests, art historians like Mia Schola study the history of the work and so are the source for the knowledge that drives contextual analysis.  To do this, they treat the work as a historical document which reflects the time and place where it was created.  Art historians are responsible for asking the questions that reveal the connections between the work and its context in society.

Of all these questions, perhaps the most interesting is the question What is art for?  Figuring out why people create art goes beyond the historical facts to examine the roots of the act of creation itself.  I have listed five common reasons below.

Art is used to tell stories. From time immemorial, visual language has been used to tell stories. The stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals told the holy stories of the Saints for those who could not read. The reliefs on Egyptian temples told the stories about the conquests and achievements of the Pharaoh.  Paintings on the walls of caves told stories about the hunt and human dependence on nature for existence.   Today graphic novels, movies and video games tell the stories of heroes and villains, triumph and tragedy that reflect the values and concerns of our society.

Art enhances worship by depicting the Sacred and serving as ritual objects. Throughout history, images of the sacred have consecrated worship spaces.  Images of the Christian Saints become windows into heaven. The mihrab in Islamic mosques signal the direction of prayer towards Mecca, the Holy city.   Hindu temples are covered in images of the gods and their consorts.  The movement of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags and wheels offer a way to continuously chant Buddhist scriptures.

Art communicates information. Before the invention of the camera, drawings and paintings were used to record the appearances of places and things.  Today we used photography to record our world and share it on Facebook.  Written languages convert spoken words into visual marks or picture signs. Visual language has the capacity to represent ideas and emotions as well as things.  The art of costume or uniforms provides information about social status or military rank.

 Art can be used to promote social causes or provide social critique. Art can be used to sell ideas, objects or ways of life.  Try to image advertising that does not use visual images to create desire.  In the recent campaign, political cartoonists strove to point out the weakness of each candidate in an effort to sway public opinion.

Art can be used for personal expression.  As I described in the Meet the Artist post, art works articulate the individual point of view of the artist.  That is why formal analysis is where visual analysis begins. However, the work’s history is related to the biography of the artist, when and where it was created as well as the reasons it was made.  Artist self-portraits provide excellent examples of this kind of purpose. A corollary of the power of art to express personal purpose is exploited by the practice of art therapy in which creating art is used to gain insight into mental health problems.

Examples of all 5 purposes can be found in the history of art.  Which purpose predominates depends on the values of the society in which it was created.  But the work of the art historian does not include questions of the work’s value.  That evaluation is the work of the Art Critic, one of the most misunderstood members of the Art Gang.




Art Gang: Meet the Art Historian

Art Gang: Meet the Interpreter

Creativity is the act of paying attention to our experiences and connecting the dots so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us.

    Brene Brown   Rising Strong

The act of interpreting is as much an act of creation as making the work.  In this case however, what is created is meaning.  This is a challenging process because unlike the creation of the work, the creation of meaning lies in the mind of the interpreter.  In other words, while the work provides the objective pole of experience, the act of interpretation engages the subjectivity of the viewer. This radically subject aspect of interpretation can lead to the kind of subjective blindness that assumes the work can mean anything the interpreter wants it to mean.  One consequence of this is that the likes or dislikes of the interpreter say more about the interpreter than they do about the work. That is the mistake of the Cultural Tourist.

So, what are the conditions for paying attention creatively?

ag-interpreterThe process of visual analysis provides the heuristics that guide the process of paying attention because it focuses on the meaning of the work in contexts that transcend the interpreter’s knowledge and experience.

Interpretation works through the dynamic of associations between the interpreter’s knowledge and experience.   Art works can be mirrors or they can be maps.  Considering the art work as a mirror of the interpreter’s own experiences and associations can lead to the trap of thinking that s/he understands the work based on experience alone.  This is an important way in which the interpretation of the work can fail to produce any real understanding of the work’s meaning.  In ‘mirror’ art all you see is the shape of what you already know rather than learning something new.

The art work considered as a map provides a better metaphor for the process of creating meaning.   Unlike ‘real’ maps which provide information about the relationships of some place, art works as maps provide information about the experience that created them—the point of view of the artist.  The work literally objectifies that point of view. That means that like the artist, the interpreter must cultivate curiosity—using the imagination to reconstruct the artist’s point of view using the visual clues of color, line and shape as well as subject matter and visual style. Like maps gains a further dimension when used to take a journey, the work of art only exists in experience but that experience communicates subject to subject rather than through the more objective medium of words.

This means that like the act of making, the process of paying attention creatively also demands a willingness to accept uncertainty and ambiguity.  Just as each journey using the map will be subjectively different, the meaning of the work of art will vary from interpreter to interpreter. The interpreter must imaginatively enter the artist’s experience, which may be very different from his/her own. When the artist’s experience represents the darker emotions like sorrow or despair, this act of engagement will require courage as well.

Because the act of making and the act of interpreting are the two sides of the same creative process through which we make meaning.  This means the relationship between the creator and interpreter as represented by Mona Bricolage and Ima Prentice is the foundation for creating the work of art.  As Ima Prentice’s name suggests, understanding works of art is never final.  There is always something more to learn.

Next: Meet the Art Historian

Art Gang: Meet the Interpreter