Arts/Literature

Scrogues Converse: art, creativity and meaning

What is “meaning”? And do art and “creativity” necessarily have anything to do with each other?

vintage dolls - Phantom-Bride

Phantom Bride

The S&R staff has a backstage email list and, as noted before, sometimes what goes on there is more interesting than what actually gets posted.

Doc’s recent doll photography series touched off a fascinating set of exchanges that eventually turned in the direction of the relationship between art and “creativity” and the question of “what is meaning?”

The crew here comes from a wide range of backgrounds – artists, journalists, scientists and more – and as a result the teasing out of perspectives can make for an entertaining Sunday morning read.

We have excised most of the comments devoted to “hey, those shots are great.” We support each other, but back-slapping doesn’t always make for especially compelling discourse.

Doc:

And now the doll series is posted.

I suspect there’s a dissertation in here somewhere (one in which it would be impossible to avoid words like “JonBenet”), and the last week or so I’ve caught myself wishing I could just drop life and go back to get an MFA in whatever program this would fall under.

I’ve been working on this doll series lately, to some people’s horror. But the goal isn’t to frighten or offend. There’s something very serious at work in my head here, and it has to do with childhood – what it is, how it’s depicted, how it’s sexualized, how it’s abused and exploited, and how all these things are fetishized. I’m not through, but here’s where we stand at present.

For the record, this is easily the most important thing I’ve done artistically in years.

Lex:

There’s a depth that comes as much from evocation than the actual contents of the photographs. Obviously there’s some pointing in the titles, but the play of shadows, light and color feels more like the “organic” expression of a painting or sculpture than two dimensional limitations of photography. (Broad brush, I know.)

As an aside, one of the things DaVinci was present for the rise of, as early as his apprenticeship, was learning to represent the realism of shadow and light on both painted and sculpted works. He wasn’t the only one, but he was still young when the techniques were being developed in the shop he worked for.

It’s an interesting thing for the artificial nature of the dolls to feel as alive as reality, and yet unreal in an unnerving way. In other words, symbolic but not as presented or clear symbols.

Doc:

This is another case where I feel kinda like an idiot. I know so little about art and photography history that a lot of times people – as here – will comment on what I do in terms I know nothing at all about.

Which makes me feel insanely naive.

Of course, our world is often shaped by the results of things we don’t know about, so it’s very likely I have pictures in my head influenced by those who DO know things.

For my part, I just have this stuff behind my eyes and I try to get it out. And it’s always gratifying when someone appreciates it. So many thanks.

Darkness is absence of light. Shadow is diminution of light.

Lex:

Shit, man, I don’t know what I’m taking about. I happened to know about the DaVinci stuff at a cursory level because I just read about it. It struck me because one of my uncles is a sculptor, and it’s always blown my mind that a human can capture and recreate the tiny subtitles that breathe life into static recreations. This series of photos does that in a way I haven’t seen in two dimensions. In three dimensions it conveys reality; in two it becomes compellingly disconcerting.

I don’t understand art, but I’m fascinated by the process of turning thought/emotion into reality.

Have a look at these. Some (most?) of the reclining series are full size.

Doc:

> Shit, man, I don’t know what I’m taking about. I happened to know about the DaVinci stuff at a cursory level because I just read about it.

Well, reading is a time-tested way of learning, I’m told.

> It struck me because one of my uncles is a sculptor, and it’s always blown my mind that a human can capture and recreate the tiny subtitles that breathe life into static recreations. This series of photos does that in a way I haven’t seen in two dimensions. In three dimensions it conveys reality; in two it becomes compellingly disconcerting.

That’s interesting, and gratifying. One of the things I’ve thought about and worked toward is depth. I want my stuff to be as three dimensional as possible.

Of course, I’m also aware that my natural instincts are busy – there is usually a LOT going on, and I know that people sometimes feel overwhelmed. And I also note that people tend to buy things that are more tranquil, whereas I’m seeking as much drama as I can project.

> I don’t understand art, but I’m fascinated by the process of turning thought/emotion into reality.

I understand far less than I should. But as a writer I was often able (and always willing) to turn the left brain off and give total control to the creative side. This didn’t make me very good at dealing with the real world, but the words were … evocative? I’m starting to get there with the visual art now, I hope.

4pm, by Christopher Smith

4pm, by Christopher Smith

> Aside.

This stuff is fun. He really indulges the casual posture, and at times even the slouch. The second piece from “In the Round” is positively whimsical:

Is this the uncle you refer to?

Lex:

Yes. The link is to my uncle’s site. My large family once met at his place in Philly and dinner needed space that only his studio could provide. The “perfectly naked” series was on three walls, one of the reclining pieces was in process and in the room, and the tools of his work were out of the way but present. Amazing ambience for dinner/conversation.

We’re much too afraid of the dark. There’s a great deal to learn in it, and our avoidance of it leads to imbalance. It tends toward puritanical expectations, plastic personas, and running from the reality that life is both light and dark.

Doc:

Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing we’d have had in the South.

And if I had a time machine, one of the first things I’d do is go back and wait for the Puritans to get off the boat. With a machine gun.

Cyndi:

I know nothing about art either but I know these are compelling and interesting and emotional. I love your use of color and shadow and texture. Do an art show with them now. Or find a gallery that will give you an exhibit.

Doc:

Thanks, Cyndi – you’re way too kind.

I’ve credited Jim with the genesis of all this and will again now. In English V at Ledford HS in 1978 he assigned “The Eve of St Agnes” by Keats, which took me someplace completely new. It was dark, it was dramatic, it was haunted, and it was unspeakably beautiful. Then he had us read “The Lady of Shalotte” by Tennyson, which was those things with some added symbolic dimensions that I hadn’t necessarily detected in the Keats (but which are more evident to me now).

I never associated darkness and doom with beauty before, but there it was. Those poems unlocked a door and I started to realize things about myself. The first poem I ever wrote sought to capture that same darkness and I’ve never stopped.

I thought I did a decent job working that vein as a poet, although nobody ever cared. Editors, especially, never seemed to share my sense for how cool it all was.

Tamara:

Find better editors.

Doc:

Sadly, the world of contemporary poetry is pretty … homogenous? There are people who get it, but none of them work at places where publication will count much toward tenure.

Cyndi:

Some of my images have been described as “hauntingly beautiful” (my wabi sabi stuff) but nothing like this collection! I think there is an element of sadness in much of my work but people relate to it in a beautiful way. I do get the occasional art show critic who finds my work depressing. But that is quite shallow of them IMO. These doll images make you want to stop and ponder, especially in consideration of the titles. I will be eager to follow their journey now to see where you take them.

“Tattered Curtain,” by Cyndi Goetcheus Sarfan

Doc:

> Some of my images have been described as “hauntingly beautiful” (my wabi sabi stuff)

Yeah, those are still my favorite Cyndi images. I love the surf work and the birds, especially, but there’s a depth and resonance to the wabi sabi pics that captures not just width, height and depth, but time.

> I think there is an element of sadness in much of my work but people relate to it in a beautiful way. I do get the occasional art show critic who finds my work depressing. But that is quite shallow of them IMO. These doll images make you want to stop and ponder, especially in consideration of the titles. I will be eager to follow their journey now to see where you take them.

I’m sure you probably get weary of people who say “sad” and clearly mean it as a bad thing. With the dolls, it’s “scary” and “creepy.”

What do people think art is? It’s supposed to take you places you don’t normally go and make you think in terms that don’t normally occur to you.

If art unsettles you, it’s doing its job. If you resist, you’re not doing yours.

It may be that sadness in your work that makes me like it so much. I’ve been to the OBX and it’s beautiful, but there’s a reason the coastal part of the state is overrun with ghost stories. It’s always been haunted, in any number of ways.

Cyndi:

I don’t really consider my beach stuff to be “art.” When I do art shows it is my wabi sabi collection. Some of my images are of subjects that no longer exist, things like you said that capture a moment in time. That pretty much guarantees that they are unique, which is usually what I am going for.

I know you see the same thing in Colorado and other places you have lived as I see here at the Outer Banks with all the grand sweeping landscapes. While they are beautiful they really don’t speak to me the way your doll images do. To me those kinds of shots may just be demonstrations that the shooter knows how to use a camera or knows how to use editing software. Creating the kinds of pieces you are creating with the dolls takes imagination and creativity. That is what makes art.

In my work I think it is just seeing the image in the first place and recognizing it as beautiful where others may have walked on by. They don’t take as much thought as these dolls images clearly reflect.

Doc:

This sort of dovetails with a conversation Denny and I were having yesterday. I think I’ve always seen “art” and “creativity” as the same thing, but now I’m not so sure at all. A lot of my photos are probably art, but how creative is shooting a landscape of the mountains. It takes an eye and you process things and so on, but how CREATIVE is one of my horse shots compared to this doll series?

Same with writing. I wrote a few short stories once upon a time, but they don’t seem as creative to me as my poetry.

Some fiction is HIGHLY creative. Some is closer to journalism. And if you know the field of literary journalism, you know that some journalism is more creative.

Denny didn’t mean to set my head spinning, but it’s really interesting the conversation I’m having with myself right now….

Denny:

My evil plan is working …

Lex:

I think about the art/creative issue a lot in my shop. There is certainly woodworking that is ART – even when it’s functional, but I look at what I do and the majority of others’ work and don’t necessarily see it as art. It is creative, and all art requires craft (which is how i’d class the nitty gritty of photography for example). But exquisite craft and creativity isn’t necessarily art … is it?

Or do we expect “art” to always push beyond boundaries of clear intelligibility? Is that fair?

Not every landscape photograph is art, but some are. What makes the difference? I’d argue excellent craftsmanship plays a big role but there’s always something else, a bit of magic. Maybe that bit isn’t generally attainable without excellent craft, maybe a bit of luck?

Rocky Mountain Bog Monster:

I’ve seen “art” at the Hirschorn that nixes the excellence in craft prereq.

Lex:

May be some tendency towards that when art is required to push boundaries to be art. Also when it must have a deep meaning, as opposed to being an excellent example of a pleasing aesthetic. What does the Mona Lisa mean? Probably nothing beyond being an excellent example of exquisite craftsmanship by a painter.

Doc:

This is a good question. Meaning matters, although I’ve been thinking and arguing over what “meaning” means since the ’80s. And what appears to many as simply an execution of craft or, as you put it, a pleasing aesthetic, may be meaningful as hell. The David, for instance. Amazing statue of a Biblical hero. And it was also a manifesto – arguably even a heresy.

The line is thin, especially once you buy into my argument from way back that poetry was often less about intellectual meaning and more about spiritual/emotional meaning. This idea hit me in a class one day where we were discussing Charles Wright’s The Other Side of the River. A classmate, David McWright, said – well, here’s the poem I wrote about it.

If I’m right here, then a landscape, like one of Denny’s Nevada shots, that knocks me out of my boots has a great deal of meaning. Something inside me moved. I was yanked out of the insistence of my left brain for a moment. Priorities went to war. If I can’t put that meaning into words, so what?

Encroachment, by Denny Wilkins

Encroachment, by Denny Wilkins

The other way I look at it – and this leads me to answers that are directly contradictory with what I just wrote – is this: am I capturing something that exists, or am I adding something. If I go at it this way, then a lot of photography is more like journalism. Of course, good journalism shapes things, even in its most objective moments.

I arrive at a place that is convinced of the “David” argument, but I always want to add. I’m not a naturalist. If I shoot a beautiful landscape, I want the finished product to be even better than the real thing. So I’m an idealist, at the minimum, and I understand that this drives a lot of folks around the bend.

Dan:

We often desperately look for deeper meaning in things in which it is at best minimal or simply not there, and we often ignorantly or willfully can’t or won’t see deeper meaning in things even when it’s staring us in the face.

Denny:

Yep. Meaning matters. I didn’t understand that in doc school as much as Sam and Greg and Wendy did. But as I began to teach writing to kids, and I realized they didn’t read enough to create precise meaning because of challenged vocabularies, I began to really understand why meaning matters. Next step for me: What the hell constitutes “meaning”?

Doc:

You have fun with that.

Rocky Mountain Bog Monster:

Trying to answer that question has just about turned me into a nihilist because I fell into the epistemology pit. Even if I think I know that I know what constitutes knowledge (intimately bound up with meaning, I think), as long as I’m aware that epistemology was, is, and shall remain unsettled, I will never be certain of any knowledge and failing that certain, become even more uncertain as to what constitutes sufficient cause to accept something as a likelihood. It’s easy to just wrap it all up under an unspoken proviso: if empiricism holds true, then [insert empirically supported statement here] is probably true.

The problem I’m left with after that is that the Big Important Meanings are still left behind as either entirely subjective and relative or stuck in another unsettled field of philosophy, and I’m right back to everything just seeming arbitrary and capricious.

Doc:

You seem intent on restricting meaning to the left brain. This has been my crusade – why do we dismiss the subjective?

Rocky Mountain Bog Monster:

In a normal day to day sense, I don’t. Subjectivity is all that keeps me afloat 🙂 I just think it confers a certain degree of self-awareness as to my own folly. I absolutely hope everyone else’s mileage varies.

Dan:

Meaning is where you find it. Meaning is what a work of written or visual art does to you or for you. And this does not always have to hew closely to what the creator of a given art work intended, although being able to divine and even appreciate an artist’s clear intentions and assignment of meaning makes us feel better by diminishing our intellectual insecurities and feelings of foolishness about not being able to “get” art.

Denny:

This is sounding more and more like the high price we pay for having free will and a soul …

Lex:

I don’t see it as a price, necessarily. When I imagine a world of only, either yes or no; one where everything’s clear, I see one that lacks wonder. I don’t want to know. I want to learn. Once a thing is known/understood it becomes boring … unless it can be applied to more learning.

 

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