Student Post: Maggie Knight

28, November 2011 § Leave a comment

The week before the break I woke up in a rather unusual fashion. From my bed one can see my bathroom door. The previous day I had haphazardly thrown my towel over it. As I lay there unwilling to venture beyond my blanket I began to notice how pretty the towel was. The light shone through the bathroom window onto its peaks and valleys, and I began to pick out contour lines,  shadows. I leaned over and picked up my iphone to grab a picture. I was still unwilling to leave the safe spot that was my bed, and now when I look at the picture I wish I had been more diligent in this regard. None the less, I snapped it. As the morning progressed I began to laugh at myself and the clichéd nature of my situation. I really have begun to see my surroundings in a different way.

I think of myself as lucky in a number of ways. Prior to coming to the Aegean Center I had drawn periodically as a child, but as I ventured into my 20’s this had become somewhat sporadic, and in the few months prior to catching my flight to Italy it had become essentially non existent. As I moved into my career and my mid-twenties I began to pick up a camera in hopes of capturing the moments I did allow myself to see. I had coined the phrase with a friend of my mine from back home of wanting to capture the ‘click -click’ moments of life. Thus I had the urge to capture something more, but no longer confident in my ability to do so. I landed in Italy as a blank slate in a number of different ways.

In Pistoia I began drawing again, tentatively and with much frustration. We began with some basic drawing, which included learning about perspective. I recall sitting one afternoon in the villa drawing a line of boxes, and how at that moment it was so difficult. I had forgotten or grown lax in my approach, or had altogether no technique. I began filling in the blanks. The program was reminding me what I had previously learned and was also giving me a new approach in which to conquer my nerves. For example, one of my earliest memories of having a drawing lesson as a child was when I was seven. I was sitting at the kitchen table drawing a horse that appeared on one of my baby sister’s plush toys. Just as I do now, I was vocally sighing with my inability to gain the likeness. My mother approached me and said “Why don’t you draw everything but the horse?” While I now know she was talking about negative space, that had really been the last time anyone had given me direction in that regard. Up until now I didn’t even realize that this was how I approached a lot my drawing. In a number of ways I did know some things, but I still needed to  fill in the gaps.

Figure drawing has given us the approach on how to look at a figure; weight, constellations, boxes,  contour  lines. As I have progressed in the class I have begun to see what I saw previously in my drawing but without direction. For example, previously, when I had wanted to make something look less flat, I would draw in circles to give it body and shape. Figure drawing calls these contour lines. I have thus tried to amalgamate the two approaches ; trying not to draw the full circle, but still giving the body shape in this regard through my half circles. I kick myself a little because at certain points in the program I had stopped drawing, painting, or taking photos because of my own confidence and nerves. At points I was acknowledging what I did know, and thus had stopped. I remember when we were first introduced to contour lines at the villa and in my head I thought, ‘I think I do that’. The structure of painting and drawing has helped build that confidence again. It’s slowly filling in gaps, but also creating new ones while allowing me the ease to get going.

Digital photography, on the other hand, has allowed me to see things in a whole new light (pun intended). A couple of weeks ago, we moved from using the Bridge program to exclusively using Photoshop. For some reason I found this overwhelming. John poised the question in class asking “Who here feels overwhelmed yet?” I quickly lifted my hand only to have him say “You’re just nervous.” He was exactly right. On several occasions he reminded not only the class but me specifically that there was no test at the end of the program. Often John would say “Just play”. This drove me nuts at the beginning. I had worked in education previously and the Aegean’s approach to learning was what had attracted me to the center, but theory and practice don’t always jive at the beginning . Digital has taught me to keep going in other ways. It has encouraged me to take the photo, look at what I have taken and then try again. It’s teaching me to ask questions. It’s teaching me to see the world on my own, through my own eye, to learn from John’s trained eye, but to also portray the world as I may see it. It’s teaching me to again ask questions. Now, on the other side of the semester, I see the ‘structure’ of learning to learn.

Together, drawing, painting, and photography have helped me see bits and pieces of my ‘click-click’ moments in a different fashion. Because of painting and drawing, I see things such as saturation and tonal gradation which allow me to see my photography differently. Composing my photos, and the way I look at light, has had its effect on my drawing and painting as well. This past week I was sitting in a cafe and decided to do a quick sketch of my glass and table. In five minutes I rendered something that I found not too shabby. I then flipped back to one of the pictures I had painstakingly tried to compose at the villa in Pistoia. It had taken me three hours to draw a cup. Now I draw the contents of my table in less than five minutes. Not without mistakes, but definitely with less trepidation. Now that I play with it, I have questions, and I play more each day. Now, I wake up in the morning and look at a towel and notice how beautiful it is and reach for my camera.

High and Low: What is Excellence in the Arts?

21, November 2011 § Leave a comment

An excerpt from the keynote speech delivered at Augusta State University by the artist and art critic Franklin Einspruch, a former teacher and student at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts:

“Excellence, literally, is the state in which something or someone can be said to excel. To excel is to surpass, to be superior, to outdo. In the arts, we have loads of poor and mediocre examples, and the excellent ones are superior to them. Okay, we’re done. I’ll take your questions.

Actually, hold on. I’d like to examine what happens when you look at an art object and perceive it to have excellence. Let’s say that an artist has made some beautiful thing. You look at it and say, Wow. You experience a pleasant feeling of joy or excitement. Your attention goes to it and lingers there. Also, “excellence,” as I said, implies superiority to other art objects. In the past you have looked at other objects and not perceived excellence in them. Now that you’re looking at this one, the pleasure you get out of it has an additional quality of surprise, perhaps even relief, that reminds you that you are looking at something unusual. You don’t recall the inferior objects, but the excellent one stands out in relation to them.

There’s a simple question you can ask about this experience. You see excellence in this art object that I’ve been talking about. Is it actually there in the art object, or have you just seen it there? In other words, is excellence some objective quality about the art object, or is it your subjective experience of the art object?

There are a lot of good reasons to say that it’s subjective. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” said Hamlet to Rosencranz and Gildenstern. Subjectivity explains why taste varies. You like this work of art quite a lot, but your friend doesn’t. He prefers this other work of art over there. You think he’s crazy for preferring that one. You see excellence where he doesn’t, and vice-versa. This indicates that seeing excellence is a matter of opinion and individual experience. Those opinions and experiences aren’t facts about material objects. They’re opinions about what art is for and what makes it good.

But the idea of subjective excellence has some serious drawbacks. Although it can explain why your taste differs from your friend’s, it doesn’t explain why it might agree with the tastes of millions of other people. Millions of people love the art of Rembrandt. If there’s not something objectively excellent about Rembrandt, then you have to explain how millions of people concluded subjectively and individually that Rembrandt’s work was excellent.

One explanation you hear from the proponents of subjective excellence is that the consensus forms because people passively absorb the cultural values around them, and fall sway to marketing and propaganda. You think you have independent taste, but you’re really just acting out the presuppositions of your culture. Even the notion that you have independent taste is a presupposition of your culture. I have never been impressed with this idea because it’s basically a conspiracy theory. It’s not a conspiracy theory because it’s wrong—it may not be—but because it’s unfalsifiable, and because it favors a dramatic, convoluted explanation for the consensus over a simple one. The simple explanation is that quality exists in the object, objectively, and a lot of people—not everyone, but a lot of them—can see it.

Objective excellence also explains a phenomenon that I have never seen adequately discussed by art’s philosophers. During the modern Edo period, Japanese prints were so denigrated by the Japanese that they used them to wrap ceramics in preparation for sending them overseas. It’s only a little overstated to say that they looked at Utamaro about the same way we look at Styrofoam peanuts. This is how they were introduced to Europe, and how the French interest in them was sparked. Finally, Degas got a hold of them, and they thrilled him so much that he made works based on them that changed the course of Western painting.

This is easy to explain if there’s something objectively good about Utamaro, and impossible to explain if there isn’t. If the appreciation of Japanese prints depends on absorbing Japanese cultural values, Degas would not have been able to see any excellence in them, not only because he was French, but because even the Japanese at the time didn’t value them.

Proponents of subjective excellence would say that Degas appropriated the Japanese material in the same manner that European colonialists appropriated the resources of the colonies. But we’re not talking about sugar cane, which all humans can taste as sweet, but art, which—according to the people making that same argument about subjective excellence—is learned to be excellent from the surrounding culture. What’s more, it went in the other direction. The Japanese turned around and appropriated Art Nouveau. There are thousands of beautiful examples of Japanese Art Nouveau.

But again, there are problems with the idea of objective quality. The first one I already mentioned—just as subjective quality doesn’t explain the consensus, objective quality doesn’t explain differences of taste. At least, it doesn’t explain them very nicely. If something is objectively excellent, and you don’t see it, you’re failing to see a fact about the world. It is a kind of blindness, or maybe a kind of ignorance. At best it’s naivete.

That’s not such a drawback for the argument—the world often isn’t a nice place. The drawback is the notion that something could be a property of an object, but not a measurable one. We could say that a sculpture has mass, and weigh it. We could say that it has a color—blue, let’s say—and even if we disagreed about the nature of the color blue when it comes to vision or consciousness, we could take a spectrometer and measure the wavelength of the light reflecting off of it. What qualities can be said to properly belong to an object that we can’t measure? If the subjective explanation of consensus is a conspiracy theory, then the objective explanation of immeasurable properties is a kind of spiritualism. Excellence thus joins the company of things we believe to exist, and sometimes think we see, but can’t prove are there: deities, souls, aether. The former, we can’t prove to be false. The latter, we can’t prove to be true.”

Read the whole address here:

Student Post: Abby Diamond

14, November 2011 § 1 Comment

My junior year of high school, I realized that I needed to change. It began with the unnerving sense that I was following a trajectory of always looking forward to what comes next (next week, next assignment, next form of schooling) without being able to revel in my present moment. I was a student who would stay up working until 12:30 at night and then wake up at 5:00 the next morning to do more work for days on end. I loved school. I was hungry for the knowledge but the pressure I felt to succeed, to achieve, to excel beyond expectations was forcing me into a corner and my body couldn’t handle what I demanded of it. I was exhausted, getting sick all the time, and worst of all, time was whizzing by. At the rate I was going, I felt like I was racing for something, but I couldn’t say what it was.

I knew I had to take a gap year before college because I wanted so desperately to stop everything and look at life from a new angle. I wanted the time and space to immerse myself in my passions in totality and to strive to perfect them. To be surrounded by creativity that would inspire me to bring out my own. It feels somewhat surreal how perfect the Aegean Center is turning out to be for those needs.

Stepping into my new world, I found that the changes occurred naturally. I started writing in a word document on my computer called “My happiness project” multiple times a day and jotted down random thoughts, quotes, and sketches in journals. I vowed to stay off of Facebook and my quality of life swelled immediately. I gave some long and hard thought to the concept of generosity, and finally figured it out in full what I assumed I had known all my life; share everything and the world will be even more beautiful! I started listening to podcasts about energy healing and stopped wearing shoes most of the time. I’m not exaggerating… I found peace.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about all of this is how much work I am actually doing. Hours are spent in my painting studio, the music room practicing arias, vocal exercises and breath technique, in my apartment writing short stories or sitting somewhere outside, drawing for Jun’s Basic Drawing Class assignments. The difference is that it doesn’t feel like work. In fact, I dropped the phrase “getting work done” in my mind altogether, because now I know it’s not about being finished with something. Rather, it is about the moments that go into creation. When I stopped seeing the final result as being the objective, I learned to feel where I was, what I was doing, to feel my process, feel the present moment.

I stopped eating as fast as I could. Stopped editing my creative writing with the intention of pleasing any eyes but my own. Stopped scribbling down schedules for myself planned down to the minute. I slowed down. I started doing stretches and laughter yoga every day. Miraculously, I somehow had more than enough room in the day for what I wanted to do. Without Facebook or TV shows or texting, I found that I was incapable of wasting time. Whether my moments went into drawing in my sketchbook, cooking for my friends, sleeping, having a conversation with someone face to face, or standing silently and feeling myself breathe, I was living in a way that was healing and refreshing. I finally felt that I owned my actions and that I was doing everything for myself.

Early on, there was that inkling of dread in the back of my mind that said this was all too good to be true. Maybe I could live my months in bliss here, but ultimately I would go back home and feel once again swallowed by deadlines, checklists, and the saying my mother learned from her days of pastry chef school playing in my head to “move with a sense of urgency.” But as the days have unfurled and I keep getting happier and happier, less and less stressed, that sense of panic I felt looses its hold. To the questions that I have been asking myself from the moment I stepped into the Villa Rospigliosi in Pistoia: “Why can’t real life be like this? Why can’t creativity govern me all the time?” I suddenly dare to answer “It can.”

Where Am I?

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