A Matter of Style

6 03 2012

Most artists seek financial reward and critical recognition for their work, and this is reasonable and understandable. However, success comes at a cost. The “successful,” artist quickly finds him or herself pushed into the “style” trap.

The typical gallery owner, patron, collector, critic or curator has too much invested in their favored artists and doesn’t want them to change their styles, at least not radically. Just imagine if Jasper Johns suddenly began to paint like Thomas Kinkade? What if Jeff Koons decided to devote himself to needlepoint? Or what if Sean Scully began to paint circles instead of color slabs? Breaking away from a signature style is always a risk for the artist and those who benefit from his or her work.

Of course an artist need not be a superstar to fall into the style trap. It can happen to any artist at any level and it is often self-imposed.

Style is the achilles heel of the artist and art-making just as it is the unavoidable emergent personal signature of the the artist—the sum of his or her preferences of palette, technique, material, tools, method, and purpose.

But if style is unavoidable it is also true that there are two kinds of style. The first is that which naturally arises from the work—from the authentic expression of the artist. The second form is an imposed style. This is the calculated application of technique and embellishment that is principally intended to enhance sales and build brand identity. It is this imposed style that threatens true creativity, growth and artistic integrity. Likewise, it easily becomes a crutch—a formula.

Almost always it is a mistake for the artist to try and develop a style, appropriate one or substitute technique in place of an authentic style. The thinking and genuine artist knows that style will take care of itself if only he or she does their work with passion and integrity.

Rembrandt knew how to paint light masterfully but he did not seek to turn this skill into an imposed style and marketing gimmick. Instead he used his tremendous ability to make pictures that today rank among the greatest paintings ever made. Thomas Kinkade, on-the-other-hand has promoted a facile technique into a style and brand—the painter of light—and thereby gained great financial success as a marketer. However, his reputation as a painter is nowhere near that of Rembrandt.

© 2012 Michael Maurer Smith





Eldorado’s Ghost

12 12 2010

The Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau  encourages every Lansing resident to, be a tourist in your own town. This is a laudable sentiment and indeed Lansing offers wonderful things to see and do. However, there are things every resident should see that will never be shown in a tourism brochure.

I visited such a place this November (2010). It is the former site of the General Motors Craft Centre.

Originally built in 1919, as a General Motors foundry it was eventually used to produce Chevrolet Cavaliers, Cadillac Eldorados, Pontiac Sunfires and Buick Reattas. It was closed in 2006.

Today, General Motors is making a comeback. However, throughout Lansing and other Michigan cities there remain many reminders, like this one, of the cost of that recovery.

Here are few images of what remains of the Craft Centre. A word of warning. This is private property. It is fenced off and marked “no trespassing,” and that should be respected. The images shown here were accessible without violating the no trespassing signs and were taken from outside of the fenced off areas.

All images are © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith, all rights reserved.

GM Craft Centre site, Lansing, MI. © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

 

GM Craft Center site, Lansing, MI, © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

GM Craft Centre site, Lansing, MI, © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith

GM Craft Centre site, Lansing, MI, © 2010 Michael Maurer Smith





The Corporate Artist and Designer

12 12 2010

Today, the nexus of money, commodity and culture has erased any significant difference between design (the applied arts) and fine art. The long standing definition of design as a service performed strictly for a contracted purpose is no longer adequate. Likewise, the idea that fine art is supposed to be (or even can be) strictly an expression of the artist’s vision is dubious and in the practical sense was never really true.

As evermore painters, printmakers, photographers, sculptors and designers, with their newly minted BFA and MFA degrees, emerge from the university, they are smacked with the need to make a living. After spending, 20, 30 maybe even 50 thousand dollars getting their degrees they want to make them pay, they are eager for an art/design career—to get into the “business.”

Artists have always had to contend with the market. If they were to do more than amuse themselves they had to secure patronage. In western society that once meant the church or King. Today the art market is a swirl of corporate and private collectors, museums, dealers and online selling. The concept of art-making has been overtaken by art production, marketing and branding and this has encouraged artists to adopt a calculated and scripted approach characteristic of following a “design brief.” The contemporary artist does a market analysis, and shapes their work accordingly.

So today the designer and the fine artist swim in the same ocean—our capitalist/consumer society where everything has its price—where every thing is a commodity, including reality. The large mural painted for the lobby of the corporate headquarters is as much a part of the corporation’s image and identity as is its logo and stationery system and both the painter and the designer will have been commissioned/contracted to do their part.

Ironically many designers want to be seen as artists. They want their work to be as self-expressive as they perceive the work of the painter to be—to display a personal signature—a brand. Likewise, many artists are willing and eager to make pieces for corporate clients according to the client’s terms and specifications, as if working from a design brief.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith





On the Value of Painting

28 07 2010

In her essay, Creatives at a Crossroads, which appeared in the 27 July 2010 edition of the Huffington Post, writer Janelle Brown relates how the internet has glutted the creative market with work which is available free or at ridiculously low prices. The overall effect has been to make it nearly impossible for artists to survive from their art alone, no matter how good they may be. This has been most devastating for writers, photographers and musicians, whose work depends upon reproduction for its use and dissemination.

What this implies is an increased value of the hand-made work of art. As a painter I appreciate this.

Paintings, specifically those done by hand by an artist, using actual paint upon a physical surface, are unique in their singularity. They may be photographed, digitized and turned into representations however the original painting remains a single physical object—an original. Therein lies its value—a potentially a high value.

Consequently the reality of painting as a life choice, act and object is increasingly meaningful, valuable and important in a world that is becoming ever more digital and virtual.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith





The Artist’s Choice

19 07 2010

I recently heard of an artist who was asked why he painted abstract (non-representational) paintings. He answered “it is because I want to make something entirely new.” I share his sentiment. Painting in the abstract usually results in something not seen before—a new creation.

Metatopograph 01_2010, acrylic on canvas, 10" x 16", by Michael Maurer Smith

Conversely, painting in a representational manner forces cognitive dissonance upon the artist—the conflict and interplay of the impulses of creative expression and the demands of story-telling and narrative.  Of course painting abstractly is the representation of feelings and values and is therefore as “realistic” and “representational” as any other form of painting.

However, it is the representational artist who must resort to using those techniques necessary to render “appearances” that are recognizable as things, such as a dog, a tree, or a mountain. This results in a picture that unavoidably becomes a story about something other than itself. It divides the attention of the artist, and the viewer, between that which is represented or suggested, and the actuality of the painting as its own subject and meaning.

Of course the wholly abstract picture—without a hint of representation and realism—is also more than it appears. It is unavoidably a commentary on past and current aesthetic theory and a response to the culture in which it was created. Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism, for example, are both genres of abstract art which position themselves in the story of art history.

Art, and specifically painting, is inclusive of both the abstract and representational. It cannot be otherwise since all painting is to some degree abstract. Rendering the illusion of the observed world on a flat surface requires selectivity/abstraction—what to include and what to leave out. Likewise, it requires the use of perspective which demands recording size relationships in a manner that fools the eye into believing what it sees. We know the rails of the railroad track do not actually converge in the distance but they must in a picture, if it is to be convincing and appear realistic.

The issue is not whether the wholly abstract painting is a more pure form of painting. It is one of purpose. If the artist wants the meaning of her or his painting to inhere in itself and its making, then a decidedly abstract approach will better accomplish this. However, if the artist wants to tell a story using visual aid (painting) then he or she must communicate using culturally shared symbols and shapes—realistic appearing images germane to the story being presented—images that the intended audience will recognize.

What it comes down to is the choice of the artist to be a creator of new expressions and forms or an interpreter and story teller. Each approach is valid and valuable and no artist is exclusively one or the other. It’s more of where an artist falls on the continuum.

I prefer to paint as an abstractionist because the act of painting—the process and journey—is one of total expressive freedom and discovery. I like the feeling of aliveness and excitement as I face a blank canvas without knowing where the journey will take me.





The Humanitarian Photographer

12 06 2010

There is a genre of photography known as “humanitarian photojournalism.” It seems a laudable practice and most of the photographers who do it are dedicated to the causes and organizations they photograph for. However, it is also a commercial practice, and where money changes hands expectations and obligations are present and they will shade the results.

I have recently been listening to podcast interviews (Depth of Field with Matt Brandon) with some of the most accomplished humanitarian photographers. They all tell compelling stories. They talk about what they pack for their trips and the difficulties and unexpected encounters in their travel. They tell about what gear works, what doesn’t and why. They give tips on lighting and how to work with the native populations and conditions—all of which is fascinating and useful to other photographers. Likewise, they all speak of the real needs and suffering of their subjects from around the world.

But missing in most of this discussion is a larger perspective—one in which bigger questions are raised and wrestled with.

Every one of these photographers claim it is a privilege for them to inform the rest of the world about what’s really going on in places like the Sudan, Haiti, Afghanistan and the Amazon rain forest. So they report on the work being done by the major Non Governmental Organizations and many relief agencies—their clients and employers. And they do it well because they are professionals.

The result is yet more images in a media saturated world—images targeted at people living far from the source of those images—affluent, well educated, socially committed readers of magazines and buyers of photo books and joiners of groups dedicated to helping causes—the pool from which the NGOs and relief organizations seek their support. So the humanitarian photograph must be compelling though not repellent. It must not tip the balance politically, culturally or aesthetically in any way that might offend the targeted potential donor.

It is this need for balance that pushes the humanitarian photojournalist more and more into the realms of marketing, advertising and public relations. And to the extent humanitarian photography is a business both the photographer and those who hire him or her have a vested interest in the continuation of their subject’s abject conditions.

It is notable that many of the humanitarian photojournalists routinely leave their own countries (mostly developed nations) to travel on paid assignment to remote locations, there to record and report on their subject’s pain, poverty and suffering. But surely pain, poverty and suffering exist in the photographer’s own home country and community? There is plenty of it here in the United States and it probably exists in places like France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Australia too! Surely it must be more environmentally, morally and economically defensible to address the problems of pain, poverty and suffering at home before trying to right the wrongs in places thousands and thousands of miles away.

Humanitarian photographers should ask themselves how much what they do is really done in service of humanity—really makes a difference—and how much of it is done to expiate guilt (theirs and that of their clients) for being able to live a life of privilege and choice not enjoyed by those they photograph.

The people devastated by the earthquake in Haiti, and those left impoverished if not homeless and demoralized by Katrina and more recently by the incompetence of British Petroleum in the Gulf are not now flying to Santa Fe, Palm Beach or Shaker Heights to photograph the plight of the wealthy—are they?

What are your thoughts?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith





The New Magazine Photographer

1 06 2010

I recently listened to an excellent interview with noted photographer Nevada Wier on Matt Brandon’s podcast Depth of Field. In that interview Ms. Wier asserted that magazines are no longer as important as they once were as a proving ground for the aspiring professional photographer.

Magazines were in ascendance from the 1930’s through the 1950s having reached their peak in the 1960’s and 70’s. But with the arrival of television and now the Internet, the magazine lost its prominence. And with the rising costs of production, printing and distribution more and more print publications have failed, are failing, or are migrating to the web.

However, Ms. Wier may need to reconsider the importance of magazine work for the photographer. As the iPad, Kindle, Nook and similar electronic tablets and readers gain popularity people are actually reading full-length books on these devices, and asking for more. And what they are reading is often illustrated with photographs—still photograph and photo essays. In fact more than 30% of the books sold this last year by Amazon, were for its Kindle reader! This is significant because these electronic books and periodicals are not free. The reader must purchase the book or pay for a subscription to the periodical. And this means an economic model may be emerging that will make it possible to  pay for photography, illustration, reporting and writing at rates that are fair and reasonable and thereby make it possible for the photographer (artist) to make a decent living. If this occurs, it will mean that magazines (online) may again become an important starting point, proving ground and source of income for the professional photographer. I sure hope this happens and soon.

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith