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Art and aesthetic character


Isadora Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)

Art is popularly conceived of as a finished work: the art object. People look at a painting or sculpture, read a poem or hear a piece of music and call it art. The products of artistic activities are indeed valuable independent entities in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller’s “art for art’s sake.” However, in order to understand and appreciate art broadly, one must go beyond the art object to consider the process of artistic creation that brought the artwork into being. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger argues that the artwork conveys the world from which it was born. That world—the inspiration, passion, hopes, and fears of a particular time, place, and condition—provides the emotional kindling for aesthetic activity, which is a distinct enterprise requiring certain qualities in order to engage in it. The world is constantly offering up inspiration, but human capacity to interact aesthetically with it varies from one person to the next and one moment to the next. What is the nature of this interaction between woman or man and the world that engenders art? By looking at the aesthetic character—the dispositions or ways of being that foster the pursuit of aesthetic activities—one can more fully understand the nature of art. Three key aesthetic qualities are openness and seeking, dedication, and expressiveness.

Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden.

Many philosophers have defined art as a medium through which man is connected to a higher truth. In Enneads, Plotinus characterizes beauty as the soul recognizing the “higher realm of being” in earthly forms. Clive Bell describes the state that art arouses as “aesthetic emotion,” an ecstatic response that is unearthly and sublime. Leo Tolstoy, who argues for moral aesthetic judgment, insists that art originates in honest inspiration, new and “dimly-perceived feelings,” which are directly connected to the artist’s heart. Whatever the source of aesthetic insight—the soul, truth, love, or genius—people must be open, receptive and seeking in order to connect to it.

The first dispositions required in the process of art are perceptiveness and reflectiveness, through which the artist or the viewer of art must search for something beyond the material, the obvious, and the everyday. Art often results from a momentary lucidness—an answer to a question of the soul. The open and seeking aesthetic character finds something in the world that resonates, often in a frequency that is beyond logic or reason. Plotinus describes how “sense-perception … gathers into one that which appears dispersed and brings it back and takes it in, now without parts, to the soul’s interior.” Man’s aesthetic eyes, heart, and lungs must be open, beating, and breathing in order to “gather” inspiration from the world.

The second challenge of art then follows: The artist takes that tenuous insight and makes with it something real. Therein lies the next important aesthetic disposition—dedication. In Art as Experience, John Dewey asserts that aesthetic value is directly correlated to the magnitude of vitality with which any object is made. In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan, one of the founders of modern dance, describes how she stood in an empty and silent dance studio with her eyes closed, perfectly still, waiting for an answer to the question: What moves me? When the answer came, she didn’t stop questioning. She worked for years to find, sculpt, and perfect her own dance facing down significant obstacles. Every artist acquires the skills of his trade, and he goes to work each day to turn inspiration into substance, to make the intangible tangible. Artworks may be described as divine, but they do not drop from the heavens. They are the result of human work done creatively and passionately. R. G. Collingwood argues that art lives in complete form in the mind, but art is never realized without physical effort. Art is a process and product of the mind, soul and body working in the material world—using matter to bridge the immaterial world of thought, emotion, and being. Art may well be connected to the higher-self—the soul—but it is more than prayer; it is creation.

To truly appreciate art, the art enthusiast must also invest her time and attention in a manner that requires devotion. She, too, must have an open, seeking mind and heart to embrace the worlds that art open to her—and while many people are content to appreciate art in the manner of Kant’s “free play,” making the effort to contemplate the artwork over time and learn about the artist, culture, and time period it was created in gives the beholder of art a deeper understanding and a richer experience. In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume expresses the importance of exercise in the art experience: “In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.” It is one thing to fall in love with an artwork and another to do the hard work of seeking understanding and discovering unseen nuances in the familiar.

What begins inside the artist’s heart, mind, and soul and develops in her studio is ultimately meant to be shared. The final aim of artistic creation is communication. Therefore, the third essential disposition of aesthetic character is expressiveness. Only through expression is the artist able to fully realize her work. Tolstoy frames the creative act of art as a struggle in which the artist attempts to build a bridge of understanding to his fellow man. For Tolstoy, successful art reveals the artist’s inner awakening sufficiently enough to bring about a similar feeling in all who receive his message. In Poetics, Aristotle proposes that drama serves man in his efforts to learn through affinity with tragedy, which imitates life. Art is essentially a cycle of giving and receiving: The artist gains insight through receptivity; he gives his time, talent, and effort to creation; he presents his work to his fellow man; the viewer receives and interacts with the work; and the artist gains new knowledge through the synergy. Without expression, the circle of art is broken.

Through receptivity, engagement and interaction with the world, aesthetic character facilitates perpetual discovery, development, and achievement. Heidegger argues that by bringing to light the constancy of being surrounding and inherent in substance, art illuminates the world in the entire context of its being. Art has the power to reveal truth, even the mutating truth of changing constants, because it is a creative act. Knowledge is a constant process of building understanding and letting go of old ideas to make room for new.

Art is a human activity and occupation. It demands certain human qualities. Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden. It struggles to bring knowledge from the murky depths of being to the surface, so that man can understand himself and others. The fact that artists and art enthusiasts exist and share a common aesthetic character demonstrates that human beings are intrigued, impassioned and propelled by self-examination. Through art man learns about his spirit and its connection to the material world.

In his Berlin lectures published in Introduction to Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel emphasizes that self-reflection is the essence of the human spirit. Art philosophy approaches man’s contemporary sacred needs and allows art to maintain its spiritual relevance, he argues. Through self-reflection, aesthetic experience provides what Aristotle refers to as catharsis: feeling, sensing, but also knowing about the self and the world. By understanding and nurturing aesthetic character, man can secure and augment the important endeavor of art, the value of artworks, and the interactions of art maker and viewer—a worthy conversation toward understanding and appreciation of the precious subtleties of life.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. Liberty Online. Jawaid Bazyar. 1995-1999. Web. 20 January 2013.

Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” Art. New York: Chatto & Windus, 1981. 15-34.

Collingwood, Robin George. The Principles of Art. Chap. 7. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1938. 125-152.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980. Chap. 1-2. 3-27.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Chapters 1-3.” Introduction to Aesthetics (Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of 1820s). Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. ”The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. A. Hofstader. Lectures 1 & 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 32-48.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965. 231-255.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Trans. J. C. Meredith. Sections 1-14, 16, 23-24, 28. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Plotinus. Enneads. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Vol. I. Section 6. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. 229-263.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Letters.” On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 26-27. Trans. E. Wilkinson & L. Willoughby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. 191-219.

Tolstoy, Leo. “On Art.” What is Art? and Essays on Art. Trans. A. Maude. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. 46-61.



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‘Shiny Happy People’ as postmodern placebo

In “The Precession of Simulacra,” sociologist Jean Baudrillard argues for the “murderous capacity of images” (1560). In our postmodern culture, images have killed and replaced reality, he proposes. Just as the symptoms of the hypochondriac are neither real nor unreal, the therapies used to treat our cultural lack of reality also “float on either side” (1558). Postmodernity is a world in which the only cure is a placebo: Happiness must now be constructed in a Disney-like, “hyperreal” realm of “illusions and phantasms” (1564).

The 2009 music video “Shiny Happy People” by R.E.M. comments on the illusory two-dimensionality of postmodern joy. People dance, clap and sing about happiness on a stage while a crudely painted backdrop with scenes of people in in life rolls behind them. The tune is upbeat and everyone is smiling. The viewer can be swept up in the illusion and enjoy three and a half minutes of bliss.

As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it.

However, unlike Disneyland, which displays its “Happiest Place on Earth” slogan in all earnestness, “Shiny Happy People” gives an artistic wink to the absurdity of produced happiness through it’s self-conscious simulation: the moves are a little too choreographed, the costumes cartoonish and the smiles a bit too wide. Yet, even more revealing of its self-imposed hyperreality, is the way it depicts itself as a production.

Baudrillard criticizes science for placing reality in a museum. “We have all become living specimens under the spectral light of ethnology,” he writes (1562). This idea is reflected in R.E.M.’s video through the staging and construction of the scenes. The video opens with a shot of two mechanical monkeys with symbols on a shelf. The viewer sees an old man’s hand put a coffee cup on a saucer and mount a stationary bicycle. The bicycle cranks the rolling backdrop, and the camera follows it to the other side of the stage where the band performs. The viewer sees that the performance is produced by the man backstage who dwells among his nostalgic furnishings: He has created his own “museum” of shiny, happy people.

Baudrillard suggests that our simulations serve to “save the reality principle” by concealing the fact that society has made all of reality into an amusement park (1565). There are a few moments when R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” would seem to imply that the image can be an effective placebo—the unreal can become real if one claps along with the band. At the end of the video the stage fills with a crowd of real young people, as if they were conjured from the backdrop, and they all dance in unison. As they jump around the stage, the camera turns to the old man’s face. He has stepped around the corner to watch the spectacle, and it’s impossible to judge whether he approves or disdains it from the look on his face as he bites down on his pipe. He is the grandfather of the illusion created for generations to come. If there is no greater good, the character seems to suggest, then let them simulate it—give them the two-dimensional cure because it’s the only “happiness” they have left.

The problem with his conclusion is that the absurdity of the song lyrics, the dance moves, the costumes, and props suggest that the young people know the score. The production within a production serves to emphasize that it’s all just a show. It’s the same problem with the placebo—once the patient knows what it is, it doesn’t work. As Baudrillard suggests, when images detach completely from reality it results in a Godless era where yearning for the real is so strong that society is compelled to manufacture it (1561). R.E.M.’s video reveals that a production of joy is nothing more than a sugar pill.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1556-1566. Print.

R.E.M. “Shiny Happy People.” Warner Bros. Records. YouTube. 2005. Web. November 17, 2013.

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Intimacy betrayed: Nan Goldin’s ‘Nan and Brian in Bed’


“Nan and Brian in Bed,” Nan Goldin, 1981 (

In 1981 Nan Goldin took a snapshot of a woman and a man in bed. The photo, simply titled “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became part of an epic artwork she called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which came to represent the post-punk era of hard drugs and sexual indulgence. But the work was intensely personal. The woman behind the camera and in the bed was Goldin herself. The intention of her photography was to chronicle her relationships in all their intimate, stark moments (Goldin, interview). In doing so, she brought to light much more than the details of a subculture. As her camera captured Brian with his back turned and her narrowed eyes watching him, she made public a typically private experience of women as gendered beings. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became the signature image of Goldin’s Ballad, exhibited internationally and published in a book by the same name. Goldin’s photo stands out in a world of representation dominated by the male gaze, in which women want nothing more than to be looked at. In “Nan and Brian in Bed,” Goldin is doing the looking, and what her eyes see challenges universal ideals of gender intimacy.

“Nan and Brian in Bed,” was created in Goldin’s signature style of informal photography using available light and non-posed subjects in intimate spaces. The imperfections—slightly grainy with unlit corners—give the photo authenticity: This is a moment of life and truth. She has invited the viewer into her bedroom where Brian sits on the edge of the bed holding a cigarette to his mouth, absorbed in his unreadable thoughts. The sharpest focus and brightest light fall on his face; the largest shape in the foreground of the photo is his unlit naked back turned to his lover and the camera. In the background, Nan’s reclined body is obscured by a dark robe. Her face on the pillow gazes up at Brian with a hard look of desire.

The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art.

The composition and title of Goldin’s photo leads the viewer to imagine the actions that led up to this moment: the quintessential post-sex cigarette. Once intimately entwined, one imagines, the two figures are now separated and introspective. Brian has moved on to his next kick, and Nan contemplates the object of her own “dependency.” The look in Nan’s eye, and the view from her camera, imply the duality of dependence: desire and guilt, love and hate. This duality is echoed in the two predominant colors of the photo, black and golden red.

The casual nature of Goldin’s photography can be attributed to her own attitude toward her documentary project. In a 2013 video interview recorded by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Goldin says, “I didn’t really care about good photography, I cared about complete honesty.” She traces that focus to her family’s reaction to her own sister’s teen suicide when Golden was eleven. “The family was very revisionist, so what happened didn’t happen,” she says. She decided she wanted expose what happens in private spheres. Goldin’s Ballad became the “proof” of her experiences that “no one can revise” (Goldin, interview).

Based on this personal crusade for truth, her work is intentionally and fearlessly autobiographical. Goldin ran away from her suburban home at fourteen and subsequently found a new family among drag queens and underground club subcultures of Boston and New York City (Garratt). The friends she lived with during this period and their uncensored lives of sex and drugs were the raw subjects of her photos, which probe the limits of relationships in all gender variations. A pivotal connection in this urban tribe was with her boyfriend, Brian, the central figure of her 1981 photograph. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” literally represents a moment in Goldin’s life, when Brian turned his back to her to smoke a cigarette. The image illustrates a mundane yet poignantly familiar scene between men and women, and it heralds the ultimate fate of the lovers who were torn apart by the “conflict inherent in relationships between men and women” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy).

The unflinching autobiographical approach to her photograph allows her to articulate the mechanics of gender that normally remain in the darkness of the bedroom. In the introduction to her book, Goldin writes, “The friction between the fantasies and realities of relationships can lead to alienation or violence.” The fantasy of “happily-ever-after” romantic love between men and women is challenged in the recognizable moment of tentativeness captured in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” The positions represented in the photo are antithetical to the promise of enduring passion, yet so familiar they are stereotypical: A man has sex and turns away, while the woman wonders if the love she feels is returned or only leveraged for sex. The photograph represents a moment of doubt and incompatibility between the sexes that is typically unacknowledged in mainstream imagery.

Nan, in the photograph, is the dependent female, gazing up at her prince of the urban underworld with a mixture of need and regret. Yet, the fact that Goldin is also behind the camera demonstrates female agency: The viewer sees this break in romantic narrative through the woman’s own eyes. She is the active viewer and recorder of her own life. The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art. Brian becomes the “alien other,” the object of a woman’s gaze (Adams 99). However, Brian’s nudity is very different from that described by John Berger in “Ways of Seeing.” Unlike the reclining, receptive female nude, “offering up her femininity as the surveyed,” Brian is turned away from the observer, unaware and unavailable (Berger 55). What Goldin captures in “Nan and Brian in Bed” is the difference between male-created fantasy and feminist reality: Men portray the world as they wish it was, but this woman shows it the way it is. By making public the honesty of this intimate moment, Goldin demonstrates the strength of her own vulnerability in acknowledging the duality of dependence.

Although she claims no motivation beyond the desire to document her life and relationships, the power of Goldin’s honesty is proven in the enduring relevance of the photo (Garrett). The power of her truthfulness is also evident in the violent rage it caused in same man who claimed to love her. “The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote in the book’s introduction, “My written diaries are private; they form a closed document of my world. . . ” Her relationship with Brian ended after he read her “private” diary, burned it, and beat her up. In another photo from the series, Goldin looks directly into the camera with curly hair, bright red lipstick and bruises around her eyes. “Confronting my normal ambivalence had betrayed his absolute notion of romance” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). The photographer was brave enough to show the world that love is not always the romantic love of male-dominated social narrative. Sometimes love is hate, and sometimes it is a bad habit—an itch one cannot scratch because it is fabricated by chemistry and fallacy. After the beating, Goldin slid into the depths of drug dependency, a period of her life she characterizes as “very, very dark” (Garratt).

The awareness of the artist’s personal journey through sexual and drug dependency, and the significance of her photography in relation to a history of male-centered imagery, lends deeper meaning to Brian’s turned back in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” It signifies society’s cold shoulder turned on those who had expected deliverance through the myth of male/female intimacy, a myth which often leads people into small, dark rooms only to find the ambivalence, isolation, and violence Goldin articulates.

“When I was fifteen,” the artist writes, “the perfect world seemed a place of total androgyny, where you wouldn’t know a person’s gender until you were in bed with him or her. I’ve since realized that gender is much deeper than style” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). In a similar sense, “Nan and Brian in Bed” reaches beyond its iconic nature as a symbol of an era of irreverent youth. The photograph demonstrates how some rules of behavior are so deep that it takes a brave and honest diary of intimacy to tease them out.

Works Cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. The Methodologies of Art. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2010. Print.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972. PDF.

Garrett, Sheryl. “The Dark Room.” The Guardian 5 Jan. 2002. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Goldin, Nan. Interview by the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” MOCAtv on YouTube, 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.

Goldin, Nan. Introduction. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture. 1986. PDF.

Fine Art 1750-1800 timeline

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The Death of Socrates, David, 1787

The second half of the eighteenth century, known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a period of revolution on multiple fronts. Mysticism gave way to empirical science; aristocracy to democracy; rural, agricultural existence to urban industrial life.

Artists responded with Neoclassic works that emphasized the values of antiquity: logic would advance Western civilization for all who embraced rational thought regardless of their station in life.

Toward the end of the century, Romanticism rebutted by celebrating emotion, intuition, and natural instinct. These two sides of humanity conversed through this period as the modern world was born.

Here is a timeline I created for fine art of 1750-1800:


A Black Mole Comes to Tea with Artist Fleur Spolidor

“Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next.” ~ Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

fleur Spolidor Alice and the Bubble acrylic on canvas copy

“Alice and the Bubble” by Fleur Spolidor. Acrylic on canvas.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with artist Fleur Spolidor at her sunny Peninsula studio to learn more about her work. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and we were sipping peppermint tea at a her work table, smeared with a satisfying coat of clay and paint, when she spotted a small creature scuttling across the pavement outside and disappearing down a hole in the grass.

“Is it a rat? No, it’s a little mole!” she cried, recognizing its long pink snout. We went to investigate.

It was a deliciously serendipitous beginning to a two-hour dive into the fantastical, beautiful, and sobering “Alice” series. Lewis Carroll’s famous girl in a blue dress who fell down a rabbit hole takes on multiple personas in a set of acrylic paintings, digital images, and mixed media pieces.

One of the things I love most about Spolidor’s Alice in her varying forms – girl, woman, half-sea creature – is what she shows us about life in the Bay Area. All the ironies that have probably made us all, at times, feel like we have fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in some nonsensical non-reality: housing prices, tech versus culture, fighting for women’s rights in the 21st century, just to name a few.

Fleur Spolidor Real Estate Rabbit Hole

“Real Estate Rabbit Hole” by Fleur Spolidor. Acrylic on canvas.

The themes are thought provoking, but the artist says that she invites people into her artworks with beauty. “People need pleasure to approach the vision,” she says. “If you make people feel at home with some aspect of an artwork, you can get them to listen to what you want to say.”

What could be more familiar and likable than Alice and her adventures? A girl who is a little off kilter but never truly undone by even the maddest hatter?

Spolidor generously spent the morning with me explaining how she creates the beauty in her lush backgrounds, the strong lines of her figures, and the joy she finds working with brushes or iPad and printer. We talked about the playfulness in her works, but also their context in our experiences as contemporary women.

My goal is to write and publish more about her work. I’m looking forward to following her Alice on many more adventures. Hopefully there will be more visits by small burrowing creatures along the way. And tea parties, of course.

Spolidor_Sweet Tooth

“Sweet Tooth” by Fleur Spolidor. Digital painting.