Any theory of aesthetics must derive from the actual practice of making and experiencing art, rather than defining art practise prior to doing it.
Art is a mysteriously powerful and important thing in human life. Great examples of it abound. It therefore makes more sense to investigate the existent examples of great, beautiful, transformative art - to point to rather than begin to investigate in a vacuum. The history of art provides also provides many cautionary tales - that are worth noting too. But all within the framework of the experience of viewing, and supporting aesthetic principle, rather than an beginning in a conceptual vacuum. This is to avoid:
aesthetic guidelines that are prescriptive to the point of limiting the creative insights of the artist. They should instead be guidelines that expand creative potential by directing the attention towards the essentials of that particular arena.
the unfortunate trend of postmodernism/ much of contemporary art, in which artworks read as footnotes or diagrams to a conceptual insight. The artifact itself may be a crafted thing, but the work as a whole lacks a sense of aesthetic integration.
2. Integration within an artwork is deeply meaningful in its own right, and is central to being able to embrace and transcend the conclusions found in both art history and cultural history in general.
Various observers have pointed to the central cultural trend of the 20th century towards deconstruction and the questioning of norms. In art this meant the visual deconstruction and isolation of the Modernist movement, and the more general cultural deconstruction of Post-modernism. The aesthetics of both pushed towards dis-integration, helping the viewer to be more comfortable with the inconclusive, the experimental, to become more aware of cultural context and its biases, to be less prejudiced by a limiting prescription of what human beings should do and be. In some cases, the ruthlessness of the experiment has a kind of jarring beauty. There has been a transformative power to this that has seeped into our culture. The work of this questioning is not yet complete, but it has also become a kind of orthodoxy in which the one thing that the artist is discouraged from is to reach to vigorously for a concluding integration, either aesthetic or conceptual. My experience of the 2015 Venice Biennale was frequently feeling stimulated but a bit let down - as though the artist has pulled back at the very point when things got interesting and aesthetic integration could begin. The few exceptions to this proved the rule, and seemed to confirm that as different as works might initially appear, they share in this aesthetic orthodoxy.
The central psychological meaning of a well integrated work of art is that the viewer experiences an artifact of the efforts of another human being who has, at least partially, succeeded at wrestling various parameters into coherence. I think that this is causes the view to feel, at least subconsciously, that an attempt to understand how things fit together, and to pursue balance in one’s own life is both worthwhile and has the possibility of success. The artwork, constructed over time, is analogous to one’s life, which likewise proceeding over time can be brought into coherence with the right navigation, even as the terrain of personal interests and winds of fate change. The artwork, as an artifact, is a record of the type of navigation that has transpired. Life contains a generous share of randomness, and seemingly endless options for the individual. To find some sort of organisation to what to value and hence what to do, and when, is critical to being able to stay alive - even more so to thrive. Of course, the navigation of life is ongoing - a decision is not made once and followed forever. Reassessment of what to do must be context dependent - both of the life situation as well as in light of new knowledge.
Thus to choose to seek to integrate is a declaration of a certain attitude to life. In the cultural context that I have described (of which visual art is a concrete expression) I propose that this attitude must be consciously chosen so that our lives and the planet do not fall into apathetic disintegration - while also holding on to the lessons of seeing beauty in the experimental and deconstructive impulse, and the intense value of not accepting without critical questioning culturally contextual structures that can be antihuman and anti life.
3. Approaching art with an integrative intention encourages diversity between artists, within their own work, and helps to create appreciation between artists and viewers.
Seeking to make a work of art that contains an internal logic, a coherence of meaning does not prescribe any other particular outcome. The drive towards finding coherence can be seen in a huge variety of artworks over the entire course of human history. It simply says that one should seek to find coherence. Whatever an individual’s cultural and life context, if they pursue an integration of their experiences in their artwork, they share this in common with anyone who does - they are speaking the same fundamental language. To understand an artist’s context better (for example artwork by someone of a very different culture and or time period), may expand the viewer’s appreciation of what they we they were trying to do - what they were trying to integrate - their subject, media, stylisations. Thus, deepening context of an artist/artwork may deepen our understanding of what we share in common beyond the accidents of when and where we happen to be born. This “human condition”, that we share, could be described as the need for each human being to somehow find their way in life through the attempt to learn by experiment and integrating experiences (many of which are universal).
Art that is developed with a strong intention for aesthetic coherence, could range from the most simply observational still life to the most conceptual piece. Whatever the style or content, what distinguishes this art from other approaches is the greater quality of coherence (of light, or space, or conceptual content, for example). Those of us who choose to place greater value on this and pursue it can appreciate the sense of coherence in any artwork of any time, as well as noticing insights that may exist in less aesthetically integrated (that is to say, pleasing to the eye or mind) work that may still contain insightful deconstructions or experiments. The latter are not a threat intellectually, they are not an opposition - they simply put less weight on crafting the artifact in a satisfyingly integrated way, on finding some conclusion, resolution to apparently contradictory or opposing elements. I am here arguing for a shift in the balance towards greater emphasis on the integrative, because this is the more empathetic, humane, and constructive attitude to take - particularly at this time in human history.
4. Art, like life, as the finding of balance between variation and harmony
To be presented with the result of integrative work is something that the human mind naturally finds pleasurable - the uncovered, or discoverable pattern, a harmony of some sort. As has been known, at least intuitively, for as long as humans have been making art, harmony by itself is not enough: there must be variety, disorder or randomness as well. Without this, there is nothing to harmonise, no effort expended by the artist that has been recorded in the brushstrokes. With no variety we have at best a nihilistic blank canvas. Without enough variety, the intuitively felt analogy to human life doesn’t hold up - the artwork might be able to provide an escape from the chaos that the mind has to daily deal with, but it does not provide the inspirational example of reintegration that moves us more.
Thus, art could be seen as a continuum of variety and harmony. Without the spice of variety, it becomes bland. Without the effort to integrate the variety into a whole, the thing becomes inedible, ugly, disintegrated - and can generate a feeling of apathy, or nihilism, even if it overtly proposes to overthrow inhumane or anti-life cultural structures. What I am proposing is to consciously and openly offer a sense of positivity, the possibility of solution finding, through the aesthetic intent - even if the content is negative.
5. Art (and life) as abstraction, deconstruction, simplification combined with orchestration into coherent intention.
Painting involves heavily, often exclusively, the orchestration of abstractions of visual experiences into a meaningful whole. That means that two processes are required for success: abstraction and integration. In other words to pull apart and put back together, such that the artwork develops coherence. This provides both a guide to the development of an artist, and a relatively objective approach to judge their success in a particular work. In other words, the artist can learn by focussing on individual parts, making visual investigations, and then attempting to make them work together. The viewer can consider the work from the perspectives of a range of parameters, as well as how well all parts work together as a whole. This is not new nor is it hard to grasp, it is however often forgotten or not successfully practised- the 20th century was a century of active disintegration, and this has made those who seek both abstraction of aspects and synthesis into a new whole the exception rather than the rule.
There is an amount of muscle memory involved in making art, the development of desirable habits that allow more complex integrations to be handled. The intuitive ability to work with the various parameters as well as integrate them is how I would define the term “plastic imagination”. This relates to process and particularly the use of memory because too much focus on observation of nature can lead to passive copying, and failure to really engage with the integration into composition. At the other extreme, lack of observation can lead to weak abstraction of the visual components being integrated - and a subsequent lack of authenticity or the vast visual variety provided by Nature. Therefore there is a balance between study of nature or the world and artistic integration - something that is perfectly normal in other disciplines.
Practically speaking, the artist is probably well served by carefully moderating their observation of reality at one extreme and purely imaginative recombining of known abstractions, and everything in between.
6. Thoughts on the lessons from the recent few hundred years of art history from the frame of the balancing the continuum of abstraction with integration/ orchestration
History has provided us today with rich experimental data, as it were. I think we are in a privileged position for that in the early 21st century to take advantage of this.
19th Cent - There is a reputation, sometimes deserved, for lack of vitality from lack of abstraction visible in finished work - accurate but passive naturalism sometimes replaces the emphasis on the finding of visual abstractions (eg the shape of a foot consistent throughout the human population) that could be applied to all subjects of that category (ie to every foot that one draws).
The failure of some of the 19th century (and it seems the baby has unfortunately been thrown out with this bathwater) was not in harmonious integration (they did that beautifully) but sometimes in the power of their abstractions, or on the emphasis of certain abstractions above others. There can be a lack of vitality and immediacy compared to the highly abstracted, stylised and energetic qualities of the Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque.
"He has a big nose, but don't make it too big, it is in bad taste"
Impressionism - We see increases in abstraction left in finished work, while still making finished pictures.
The Impressionists began to celebrate visual experiments - beginning to emphasise the intellectual rigour of this above sensually appealing integration that often followed given forms. This was partly driven by enlightenment emphasis on individuals being responsible for their own judgement of truth. Psychologically there was a drive to question society, and the pleasant, socially acceptable picture - a reaction against insipid, hedonistic pleasantness in 19th cent art.
"What a big wonderful nose he has! I wonder how big I could make it and still have a good picture?"
Modernism - We see abstraction emphasised above integration - and ugliness reigns. Modernism actively extended the emphasis on experimental deconstruction to the point of ugliness. Psychologically liberating for questioning, thinking for oneself, intellectualising art.
"He is a big nose! That is his essential characteristic! Don't worry about painting anything else. Not even form, perspective or light.”
Postmodernism - visual deconstruction replaced by conceptual deconstruction
Deconstruction sweeps away even the idea of a painting on a flat surface, of even making visual experiments - only the conceptual experiment really matters, the content of the art gallery is a footnote to this. On the positive side, Postmodernism makes us aware that cultural conditioning and context are real and affect us all, to a greater or lesser degree.
"Your judgement of the size of his nose is culturally conditioned. In a different context you would think he had quite a delicate nose."
and at an extreme:
"... you misogynist, patriarchal oppressor of noses! Hang your head in shame for even thinking it and don't judge the scale of any more noses!"
The weakness of each period/ ideology was essentially a lack of balance. Their failures and successes can be instructive. We can understand their work and motivations better by seeing how the cultural context was different to our own. But also, and more importantly, we can just look at the pictures and try to forget all this - forget all cultural context and just tap into the visual experience and ask:
"Is there an abstraction here that has has any potency to my eye? Is there an instructive set of lines? Or colour relationship? Does it "get me" in some way?"
"Is it visually satisfying? Overall, do I want to keep looking? Even if the abstractions are weak or ugly, is there something there to learn in the way they are orchestrated together?"
Today we are leaving a long period of deconstruction and ruthless abstraction - it is integration into a whole, visually appealing composition that is lacking now. One solution has been the insipid, anachronistic trend in certain American artists - pictures of pretty angels and harmoniously crafted but boring portraits - which is an important countering of the trend but is not a solution since it does not address the continuum of abstraction and orchestration. If we can instead take the best of each period and use them constructively, we can save ourselves time as artists, and broaden our appreciation as art viewers. Both the sensually enjoyable and the ruthlessly conceptual are relevant, the culturally contextual and the universal, the deconstructive and the re-integrative.
7. The fields of abstraction to integrate - Shea Hembrey’s TED talk Head, Heart, Hand
Analogous to the challenges of life, Shea Hembrey proposes the intellectual, emotional and practical fields as a kind of checklist of successful contemporary artwork, in his mock Biennale of a hundred imaginary artists. The diversity of interesting, evocative and relatively well crafted work he executed in their names is testament to him giving himself a useful creative guideline to follow.
Head/ Intellectual/ Conceptual:
Heart/ Emotional/ Psychological:
Hand/ Craftsmanship of the materials
8. The intention for my own work as attempting to orchestrate experiences for viewers that bring together very diverse elements, in a beautifully crafted way.
The idea of integration itself is so powerful that this could seen as the central subject of my intended work. In order to emphasise this idea, it makes sense to seek to integrate elements that are not only visually disparate but also conceptually. By doing so, a sense can emerge of the capacity of the mind to pursue integration about the whole of life. Of course, work focussed on specific, more traditional subjects, remains valid from the perspective the centrality of integration - through masterful treatment of light, colour form, design etc, it can evoke a deep sense of integration, a positive attitude towards dealing with reality. But I find myself drawn to more general cultural issues, larger philosophical questions, to tie this aesthetic integration to aspects of contemporary life - and to contemporary art. I wonder: just how far afield can I go in the choice of elements, and retain coherence of meaning? And what should I do, and in what sequence, that will help me to get there?
The renaissance and the immediately following periods, provide models of great artists who made work of extremely diverse subjects, but with particular aesthetic (and hence procedural) tendencies unifying their work. They did not safely stick to one subject or genre. The balance of content such as gesture, light and modeling varied between these artists, as a whole (in the form of personal style), in ways that make them recognisable to us at a glance - their signature is the way in which elements visually integrate, the underlying attitude to life, that varied greatly, that this integration managed to express. These artists executed various media and scales, often based on commission. Each commission provided parameters within which to work, such as location, physical media and subject that shaped the way that the integration happened. In the absence of this framework, we must make choices about which ideas for subject(s) to pursue, what medium to execute in (our options have grown from the Renaissance) and what to emphasise in the work. If integration is the central principle, and if I am to work in a range of media, it is not enough to choose painting above sculpture accidentally for example - the question of which to use should be raised, and the answer found in the underlying intention of the piece.
Nicola Verlato’s work is instructive here. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study with him in the form of a mentorship a few years ago, and the experience was a deeply inspiring one because of the range of content he seeks to sublimate into compelling artwork. For example, a large project such as Hostia, about the life, work and death of iconic Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Pasolini, combines a range of media - figure and portrait sculpture, drawing, painting at different scales, music, video art, architecture, and the proposal for a permanent mausoleum to the central protagonist . Overall the exhibition is experienced as a type of installation, with each individual artwork a orbiting around the central narrative. Each artwork is itself an integration, drawn from various sources, and synthesised into a stimulating and pleasing whole. There is a richness of connection of meaning: human, historical, visual, a kind of festival of creative work. Other series and individual works follow similar themes of integrating diverse elements. For example the painting Mothers from the series of the same name, takes elements of domestic life, pornography, the Midwest, and various other elements of contemporary American culture and integrates them in spectacular fashion through a space, light, and baroque design of a tornado. Visually coherent, yet impossibly together, we see the cultural relevance of each to the idea of motherhood and women in contemporary culture. Through an exuberance for creation and relationship finding, the artist creates a powerful and legible icon.
Verlato attacks a complex, difficult to express idea with a range of related subjects, orchestrated in service to that idea, and unified with a beautifully coherent visual treatment. Interestingly, his visual integration is ultimately as emotively powerful as any of the content with which he deals, and brings home the universality of the plastic imagination, a visual music. Even so, the contemporary issues that he deals with serve to invite and engross his viewer, so that the plastic elements can work their magic, as it were.
9. Thoughts on my process - dictated by my intention to bring together disparate elements in a deeply integrated way - below are prescribed steps that aim to open up possibilities.
the idea of composing both on the picture plane and in space - the canvas as a stage waiting for actors, set and lighting etc - who and what will be in there, what type of poses, what type of idea or issue could be there, what type of human experience, emotion, psychology? Refer to Head/Heart/Hand as a guideline for the type of content we are looking to integrate, how big what medium.
Drawing from imagination first - without the guidance of any reference - in order to cultivate this and as a very direct way into one’s personal tendencies of plastic imagination. For me this means, linear investigation first - the arrangement of forms, of objects, models of reality, and their arrangement into general design- tends to take precedence, followed by value arrangement and lighting.
develop ideas through 3d software, for example posing figures in Daz 3d Studio as a quick way to arrange - this tool allows relationships to emerge that I seem to only be able to find when sketching in clay or using 3d software. Perhaps one day, my plastic imagination will develop to a point where this type of investigation is unnecessary or hindering, I don’t know.
develop subjects through getting reference- life studies and photos - but ensure that they are studied/ used in such a way that specific abstractions and other info are pulled from them. This can be achieved by doing more from memory - looking and then drawing separately. This forces one to make specific judgments, to integrate on the fly, and allows very specific questions to be asked when stuck and referring back to the reference.
integrate main figures through digital and physical sculpting, since they must belong to space. This can give rise to stand alone sculptures, as well as producing assets that can be recycled interestingly in subsequent works. The sculptures can be experimented with digitally to develop their ideas and aesthetically resolved, even with multiple versions, then 3d printed, cut out, or otherwise converted into physical objects. The digital figures can be compiled into scenes as limited only as the imagination
The compiled scenes, whether intended as painting reference or stand alone sculptures, provide another reference that can be viewed from multiple perspective points, or viewed as a fly through animation, or even partially animated. This could be experienced with VR glasses or simply as online animations.
The Scene digitally created as reference can then be used for in several ways: To transfer directly the perspective of geometric forms, as a guide to shadow and light and colour. However, as before it is important to take advantage of the strengths intrinsic to particular media, and to the mysterious power of the plastic imagination, by being careful to look at these references mainly independently of drawing or painting, so that the result is based on memory and imagination.
10. The relationship to “the viewer”
In business, one is supposed to have a clear idea of the target market. Is it a compromise for the artist to seek to do the same? It could be, or it could help an artist to refine the function of their work. Developmental psychology studies how individuals progress through stages of development during maturation. But even within a stage, various states are possible. A shift of state to a higher level, a holding of a new or extra perspective, could be the result of life circumstance and/or localised cultural influence (eg seeing a particular performance, or other artwork) which pull the individual into a different way of being and seeing/experiencing the world, themselves and what is possible. This applies to the artist as much as the lay audience. In a sense, the artist, journeys into the other realm of state changes and brings back souvenirs, for themselves and others to be reminded of what matters. So, could we say that the artist is a purveyor of state changes? This quote from Elizabeth Drew has always resonated with me:
The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.
As such, the artist must develop both the willingness to flirt with various states and a kind of ferocious vulnerability to share them with other people. As with Life in general, closure - mental, psychological, emotional - is the barrier to seeing things as they are. Any kind of closure is destructive or limiting, including judgements of “the audience” that allow “the artist” to feel superior. Your audience may be at a different stage or state of development and so may judge you, the artist, from that stage or state - or they may have an understanding that you do not yet have. Our job as artist is to press through this closure, to remain open as an example as much as anything, as part of a grand journey into how it is to be alive on earth now.
Finally, I think that once again it is the willingness to attempt to reconcile the apparently contradictory that is the best guideline here to what I most want to do - so not only must the artist be willing to discover and to hold various states, and be willing to communicate them to an audience, we must also be willing to attempt to have multiple apparently conflicting states reconcile within one work.