ART AND CREATIVITY: CAN THERE BE A DEFINITION?

By Paul

I was very impressed by Kevin’s latest blog posting below having to do with nudity in art, and read it with interest.  In so doing, I learned a great deal about how an artist thinks, especially a visual artist, and about how he or she works, to say nothing of the kinds of things that occupy the mind of the artist during the creative process.  I was also educated regarding the history of nudity in art, and what it may mean for the artist, him or herself, as well as for those who view the art, not just contemporaries, but those who come after, as well.

I found one passage very interesting, indeed, which I quote here:  “If the artist approaches an erotic or pornographic subject or certainly just nudity with the intention of making an object that is more than simply sexual, then in my book it is art. If the vision of the artist peers through a lens of irony, humor, idealism, heightened or altered reality, social commentary, formal abstraction or other clearly artistic sensibilities, then the art cannot be merely pornographic. It must be more. It is art.”

What struck me, among many other things, about this quote is that I believe it begins to get at a sense of not just what makes nudity in art artistic, but it even starts to delve into an understanding of what art itself may be.

I promised Kevin, in personal correspondence, that I would not attempt a definition of what art is, and I will keep that promise in this posting as well.  Philosophers have written unwieldy tomes about the subject, and artists themselves have spilt more ink than perhaps they ought to have on it.  Who, therefore, am I to attempt as much in a short essay?

Yet I believe it is a legitimate object of intellectual inquiry to think about what art is.  I have in fact often wondered in my own personal musings what makes something art, and what makes something else not art.  We cannot simply say, to be sure, that it is because of the technical skill of the artist (for simplicity’s sake, I will speak here mostly of visual art).  Nor can it only be reduced to the intention of the artist.  If that were the case, then Thomas Kinkade’s paintings could be thought of as rivaling Picasso’s, which surely most people realize that they do not.  Kinkade had great technical skill, and the quantity of paintings he produced in his lifetime certainly speak to his intention and determination.  It turns out, however, that his paintings are more greeting card decorations than what could be thought of as real art.

But why is that the case?  What is it about Kinkade’s paintings that make them, let us say, merely decorative pieces, and not “real art,” and what about Picasso’s paintings do make them art?  That is, of course, if you agree even with the premise that Kinkade’s oeuvre is not art, at least not – let us say – in this truer or higher sense.

My perspective is that for a piece, a painting for example, to reach the level where informed viewers might think of it as truly art, there have to be a couple of things happening.  Aside from training (very broadly defined, including being self-taught), or at least experience, and some kind of technical ability, some facility with the tools of the trade and of the chosen medium, which virtually any artistic effort demands, for a creation to rise to the level of art it seems to me that it must draw from a deeper place in the creator’s psyche.  How exactly we define that, or even what we call it, becomes less of a definitive thing.  Some have variously referred to this “deeper place” within our psyche as the unconscious, the superconscious, the chthonic, the intuitive, the subliminal, or even the spiritual (again, very broadly defined, but not necessarily the religious, to be sure!).  When I say subliminal, for example, I am referring to a word that comes from the original Latin, “limen,” which means a threshold.  Something that is sub-liminal, then, is what is below the threshold of normal, everyday understanding, a thing that gets at and to a more profound place within ourselves (both the artist and the viewer).  It must pass beyond the everyday logical way we normally see the world, and get at the guts of the matter.  Whatever the matter may be.

Real art, great art, it seems to me, must be a thing that exists on the fringe of our understanding, on that narrow ledge between order and chaos.  And yet, it is a thing that will at the same time be somewhat grasped by our normal, everyday knowledge and comprehension; indeed, it must in some way be comprehensible to us in these terms.  This is the trick, because if it is so esoteric as to be beyond any connecting with us, then it misses its own point, which is in some way to communicate, even to communicate what cannot be fully communicated, not on the solely rational level anyway.  Otherwise, we are utterly baffled, and therefore excluded from what it ought to be able to give to us.  But it must equally touch on and pull from a part of us that we, ourselves, may not be totally aware of, a part that both surpasses mere logic and the day-to-day prosaic use of language.  It emanates instead from the unspoken, the unarticulated, the not fully articulatable, the hidden, that part of us which knows before we know, which perceives before we see, and which delights in life, in all of its glorious and horrifying mystery.

Art, then, is a kind of masterful, and in the end not fully definable, balancing act.  I say not fully definable because if we could define it, that is, if we could somehow reduce it to a set of limited, quantifiable characteristics, then it would, by definition, be part of that workaday world of what we know, or what we think we know.  But it is not.  Art is that not-fully-graspable something that straddles and encompasses both the known and the unknown.   And both parts must be present in order for us to reach that magical moment of mystery which we all know when we stand, tongue-tied and baffled, in front of it.

Does one stand so, tongue-tied, in front of a Kinkade?  I can say that I do not, although perhaps there are some who do.  Some may even ask who am I to say that their Kinkadian experience of transcendence is any less than mine in front of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (harkening back to Kevin’s example)?

Does this, then, bring us limping back to a belief that art is what we think it is (the old adage of it being in the eye of the beholder)?  In the end, I think not.  At least, I hope not.  I hope that an appreciation of great art must also assume some experience that is not limited simply to having seen the Thomas Kinkades of the world, but instead to a wider and deeper exposure to the greatness in human achievement that is out there.  And I am not, I hope it goes without saying, speaking only of what we normally think of as the acceptable European canon.  No!  I also mean the great masks of the aboriginal peoples of the world, for example, which were never made to be thought of as “art” (as the term is used in the West); I mean naïve, so-called primitive art of self-taught artists from every culture; I mean any art, of whatever form, format, or medium that connects with those deepest places within our innermost being; I mean all of the great (if “undiscovered”) masterpieces that burst forth and instruct us about what cannot be taught, that delight, that frighten, that perplex, that confound, that dumbfound, that bemuse, bewilder and throw us off balance, that challenge our frightened need for what is comfortable, for what is familiar, for what is acceptable and expected.

There may, in fact, be no possibility of a handy definition for what art is.  And that is good.  That is exactly as it should be.  But if we learn to somehow recognize true art (and I think it is possible to do so), both for what it connects us to and for what it does and what it does not do, then we are, in the end, at least that much closer to also knowing what real art is not.

NUDITY IN ART: Beauty, Eroticism, or Pornography?

by Kevin

I drew this self-portrait with a ballpoint pen in my sketchbook, in the Fall of 1969, shortly after arriving in Aix-en-Provence, France, to begin my art studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and other courses at the Institut des Etudes Francaises pour les Etudiants Etrangers.

I drew this self-portrait with a ballpoint pen in my sketchbook, in the Fall of 1969, shortly after arriving in Aix-en-Provence, France, to begin my art studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and other courses at the Institut des Etudes Francaises pour les Etudiants Etrangers.

In central Kansas an English teacher at my high school was fired in 1967 and run out of town for inviting me to bring one of my paintings of stylized nudes into his class to initiate a conversation about creativity. I wish I could show you the painting, but I don’t have it any longer. It was a pretty tame surrealistic adolescent composition – nothing too shocking. But a student complained to his mother. The painting was confiscated by the school board, and the poor teacher lost his job. He and his wife had to find a new job and a new place to live. I learned the hard way early in my career that nudity in art CAN hurt you. 

In 1972 I finished this pen and ink drawing, "Fallen World," for an anthology of readings entitled "Man and Mystery," published by Manchester College.

In 1972 I finished this pen and ink drawing, “Fallen World,” for an anthology of readings entitled “Man and Mystery,” published by Manchester College.

Nevertheless, America was generally more tolerant about nudity in art during that time than now. When I was about to graduate from college in 1971, the Humanities Department asked me to produce three pen and ink book covers for three anthologies of readings entitled “Man and Mystery,” and “Life and Death,” and “Beauty and Ugliness.” For the first two book covers I produced compositions including nudes. The covers were accepted and published without question by ManchesterCollege, boasting 1,400 students, all of whom carried these books around campus. Today I am quite certain that almost no college in America would publish such covers. Times have changed. Attitudes about nudity in art and everything else have moved significantly to the right.

 

In 1971 I produced this pen and ink cover, "Magna Mater," for an anthology of readings entitled, "Life and Death," published by Manchester College.

In 1971 I produced this pen and ink cover, “Magna Mater,” for an anthology of readings entitled, “Life and Death,” published by Manchester College.

 About a year ago before Robert and I closed our big art gallery downtown, a woman visited and commented on my 6 ft x 8 ft canvas of cubistically stylized nudes entitled “Fallen Angels.” She said, “Thank you for covering up the private parts.” I asked her if full nudity in such a painting would have offended her and she admitted that it would, because then it would be pornography. To her credit the woman stayed for a 10-minute discussion with me about nudity in art. I explained that we artists rarely ever see nudity in art as being pornographic, partly because it is so very difficult to do well. A perfectly painted hand or face or foot represents the greatest artistic challenge any artist can undertake. It is such a daunting task to paint or sculpt the entire nude form in an accurate and harmoniously balanced manner that many artists would not feel adequate to attempt it, even if nudity in art were embraced by today’s public.

This photo of me participating in a seminar this year called "Healing Earth Pain through the Arts," shows my 6 x 8 ft acrylic painting, "Fallen Angels," which has been "in progress" for 30 years. I may continue developing it until I can no longer do so. There is something comforting about having a very long term project.

This photo of me participating in a seminar this year called “Healing Earth Pain through the Arts,” shows my 6 x 8 ft acrylic painting, “Fallen Angels,” which has been “in progress” for 30 years. I may continue developing it until I can no longer do so. There is something comforting about having a very long term project.

After many months of arduous scientistic research and aesthetic effort, the last thing on an artist’s mind is any form of prurient thought generally. So, even if the work is deemed to be pornography, I assured my visitor, it is also very hard work. She thanked me for our discussion, but I could tell she was still glad for the lack of visible “private parts” on my big painting. What I did not tell her was that I have painted this canvas over a period of 30 years. In fact, it isn’t finished yet, and I may continue working on it forever. It has been in development through many changes in social attitudes toward nudity in art, and it has morphed accordingly. Two of the life-size figures have undergone sex change operations, and several sets of genitalia and nipples have been hidden by changing the positions of limbs and configurations of hair. I hope the painting has not lost its power because of this evolving modesty over the decades in response to the increasingly conservative values of the U.S.

In 1987 Lyle Stuart Inc, published Arlyn Hackett's cookbook, "The Slim Chef," with one of my illustrations on virtually every page. We were told later that the Book of the Month Club seriously considered making our cookbook one of their selections for that year, but decided against it because of my illustration for the chapter entitled "Sweetheart Supper for Two."

In 1987 Lyle Stuart Inc, published Arlyn Hackett’s cookbook, “The Slim Chef,” with one of my illustrations on virtually every page. We were told later that the Book of the Month Club seriously considered making our cookbook one of their selections for that year, but decided against it because of my illustration for the chapter entitled “Sweetheart Supper for Two.”

 Some people say they can easily tell the difference between pornography and art. I can’t. They say that pornography is sexually charged and titillating whereas art is not. I simply cannot agree. What about all of the very fine erotic art that has been produced throughout human history? Some of it is certainly beautiful and artful. And quite frankly most of the pornography I have seen is neither sexually charged nor titillating. It is mostly just boring. Then there are some very exciting works of art by very accomplished and talented fine artists who have taken on the thankless task of making fine art in the manner of pornography, but with an ironic, removed, humorous, or expanded sensibility. Of course, they usually get both praised and condemned for it, but always accused of doing it just for publicity or notoriety.

This Suncho woodcut print, circa 1790, is undeniably erotic, but also a beautiful example of classical Japanese fine wood block prints.

This Suncho woodcut print, circa 1790, is undeniably erotic, but also a beautiful example of classical Japanese fine wood block prints.

Jeff Koons undertook a pornographic fine art project, in the late 1980s. “Made in Heaven” is a series of very large oil-ink silk-screens on canvas, life-size ceramic sculptures, and a Murano Glassworks sculpture of Jeff Koons and his bride-to-be (now ex-wife) Italian porn star Ilona Staller, aka “La Cicciolina,” entangled in very explicit and literally graphic sexual activity. http://www.theworldsbestever.com/2010/10/14/installation-view-jeff-koons-made-in-heaven-series-major-paintings/ . There has been a raging debate ever since the series debut in 1990 at the Venice Biennale about whether these huge works are art or porn. Is a funny dirty joke, well-told by a world-class comedian, humor or smut? Is a steamy nude love scene in a great movie or book cinematic art or literature… or just pornography?

Pablo Picasso's revolutionary 1907 canvas, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was a paradigm-buster of the highest magnitude. It is still shaking and shaping the art world today.

Pablo Picasso’s revolutionary 1907 canvas, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was a paradigm-buster of the highest magnitude. It is still shaking and shaping the art world today.

These kinds of questions and controversies were raised by Picasso’s revolutionary cubist canvas “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” when it was shown in 1907. Both the cubist style and the subject of his painting were shocking to society at that time. It was inconceivable in 1907 that any reputable artist would make fine art depicting a group of prostitutes whom he knew personally from his experiences at a local Barcelona brothel. Stylistically, Picasso’s canvas was so radically ahead of its time that most of the world still has not caught up to it 106 years later. Nevertheless, the revolutionary canvas is considered by art connoisseurs, teachers, critics, and artists everywhere to be one of the greatest single accomplishments by any artist in the history of art.

The nudity in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" so offended the religious authorities of his time that shortly after his death a "fig leaf campaign" was carried out to paint modesty drapes  in strategic locations throughout the master's fresco. Half of that damage was recently restored.

The nudity in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” so offended the religious authorities of his time that shortly after his death a “fig leaf campaign” was carried out to paint modesty drapes in strategic locations throughout the master’s fresco. Half of that damage was recently restored.

Michelangelo was no less a topic of controversy 500 years ago for his “Last Judgment” wall completed behind the Sistine Chapel alter in 1541, 20 years after the great master painted his magnificent frescos in the vault above. After Michelangelo died, the genitalia in “The Last Judgment” were painted over with drapery by the Mannerist artist Daniele da Volterra, when the Council of Trent condemned nudity in religious art. The Pope’s own Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena said of The Last Judgment, “It is mostly disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all these nude figures exposing themselves so shamefully.” From 1980 to 1994 about half of the “Fig Leaf Campaign” censorship was removed and Michelangelo’s great wall was partly restored by Frabrizio Mancinelli. Apparently half of it was still considered to be shameful.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905) was a highly successful artist in his time, even though the impressionists made fun of him and despised his style. "Nymphs and Satyr," painted in 1873, is a prime example of the French academic painter's fondness for mythological themes and classical subjects, painted with polished neo-classical expertise.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) was a highly successful artist in his time, even though the impressionists made fun of him and despised his style. “Nymphs and Satyr,” painted in 1873, is a prime example of the French academic painter’s fondness for mythological themes and classical subjects, painted with polished neo-classical expertise.

 Some artists like William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905) and Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966) lived during permissive enough times and worked in socially acceptable enough neo-classical styles that they were able to produce many beautiful nudes without much complaint or condemnation, and in fact managed to earn very respectable incomes and public acclaim during their lifetimes.

"Daybreak" by Maxfield Parrish (1870 - 1966) is one of the American painter and illustrator's most famous neo-classical images. During his lifetime nudes in art were even used in advertisements for mainstream products.

“Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish (1870 – 1966) is one of the American painter and illustrator’s most famous neo-classical images. During his lifetime nudes in art were even used in advertisements for mainstream products.

So then… what IS the difference between art and pornography? Like so many other questions about art, the answers have a great deal to do with the intentions of the artist, although the final judgments are made by the public. If the artist approaches an erotic or pornographic subject or certainly just nudity with the intention of making an object that is more than simply sexual, then in my book it is art. If the vision of the artist peers through a lens of irony, humor, idealism, heightened or altered reality, social commentary, formal abstraction or other clearly artistic sensibilities, then the art cannot be merely pornographic. It must be more. It is art.

The German-born British painter Lucian Freud (1922 - 2011) painted a series of very powerful nude portraits of the notoriously shocking performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961 - 1994,) of which this is perhaps the most benign.

The German-born British painter Lucian Freud (1922 – 2011) painted a series of very powerful nude portraits of the notoriously shocking performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961 – 1994,) of which this is perhaps the most benign.

Let us consider the rather extreme example of transvestite performance artist Leigh Bowery who used his own body as the medium for his shocking performance art about radical change. Sometimes he was entirely covered from head to toe in very elaborate and fascinating vestments with masks, stilts and props. At other times he was almost completely nude except for some bindings, clothespins, ropes and boots. His work was always jarring and disturbing. In one performance piece he was hung upside-down wearing only some boots and bindings on his genitalia. He was swung back and forth until he crashed through a plate glass window. The very great artist Lucian Freud painted many spectacular portraits of Leigh Bowery, completely nude and without any adornment of any kind. The canvases of Bowery’s large, corpulent, soft body are very powerful and revolutionary in their own right. No one could call them pornography. They are aesthetic explorations of profound sensitivity, insight and undeniable beauty. 
 
On the other hand, When the darling of American kitsch, entrepreneurial art phenom Thomas Kinkade (1958 – 2012,) may he rest in peace, mass produced prints of his cloyingly saccharine paintings of cottages with heart-shaped windows in floral woodlands and told the world it was “art,” I personally found his contribution to art history to be much more pornographic than those of Jeff Koons, Michelangelo, Bowery, or Freud. Kinkade was so successful at mass marketing his printed reproductions and other licensed products through The Thomas Kinkade Company, that it is estimated that one in 20 American households owns a Kinkade product.

My apologies to 5% of the American public, including well-meaning, dear friends who adore Thomas Kinkade and collect his work, but I shall now have to confess that I think they are displaying pornography on their tidy livingroom walls. It is pornographic because it commercially monetizes the world’s prurient addiction to the lowest forms of materialism for pure financial gain, in the same way that pornography commercially monetizes the lowest forms of sex for the purpose of making mountains of money. Both strategies succeed wildly because both appeal to the lowest common denominator in human consciousness and culture and can be mass marketed. I do not wish to eradicate bad art or pornography. They have their places and uses in the world. I only ask that those who enjoy these lower forms stop censoring and vilifying fine art.

"The Flood," is a 52" x 52" oil on canvas about impending apocalypse due to global climate change. The hours of research and daily concentration on this image filled me with joy for six weeks this past winter. The only way I can combat profound depression about climate change is to paint and write and speak about it.

“The Flood,” is a 52″ x 52″ oil on canvas about impending apocalypse due to global climate change. The hours of research and daily concentration on this image filled me with joy for six weeks this past winter. The only way I can combat profound depression about climate change is to paint and write and speak about it.

 How does one develop the discrimination to recognize the distinctions among the definitions for art, eroticism and pornography? Education. Look at lots and lots of different kinds of art, erotic art, and pornography if you wish, with an open mind and an increasing understanding of the differences, no matter how subtle. Read about it. Watch documentaries. Talk with artists. Take seminars and courses. Art is just as rigorous and disciplined a field of endeavor as mathematics, agriculture, or music theory. It would be entirely presumptuous and impossible for most of us to comment upon a complicated new mathematical theory. Yet we often behave as if we were all born with advanced degrees in art and the God-given right to pass judgment on every object made by artists, without having the slightest idea of the intentions, research, and techniques involved, let alone the historic antecedents and cultural references represented in the work. Understanding of the complexities and motivations of any field of human endeavor begins with the humility to admit ignorance, and the willingness to suspend disbelief and revulsion until we know a great deal more. In fact, I have found that if the work of a particular artist really bothers me, it is a good idea to pay extra attention to understanding that body of work, because I usually discover eventually that there is something important there for my own personal growth. That’s why it bothered me. I guess I’d better take another look at Kinkade…

This is a detail of the lower left quadrant of my 52" x 52" oil painting "The Flood," completed in March of 2013. Nudity can be used to express everything from pure power to vulnerability in any given composition. In this case, because of the apocalyptic theme of the canvas, I felt that the figures really had to be nude in order to emphasize how fragile humanity is, and how easily swept away.

This is a detail of the lower left quadrant of my 52″ x 52″ oil painting “The Flood,” completed in March of 2013. Nudity can be used to express everything from pure power to vulnerability in any given composition. In this case, because of the apocalyptic theme of the canvas, I felt that the figures really had to be nude in order to emphasize how fragile humanity is, and how easily swept away.

When it comes to questions about nudity, eroticism and pornography in art, I will have to defer to one of the greatest masters who ever lived. Michelangelo wrote, “What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?” The answer to Michelangelo’s question is unfortunately that there are, in fact, too many spirits who are so empty these days that they cannot recognize the pure beauty of the human form in its original nakedness. Now might be a good time to focus on the honest truth of our nakedness — our ultimate vulnerability and dependency on a narrow band of survivable life sustaining conditions. It fundamentally behooves all of us to broaden our perspectives and learn to appreciate the exquisitely glorious beauty of the human life form as God created it, whether that form is young, perfect and desirable, or old fat and bald. Spirit is not pleased to be criticized and condemned when it dons any of its forms.