criticism

Technicians of Ecstasy - Shamanism and the Modern Artist by Chris Hall

I recently finished reading Technicians of Ecstasy – Shamanism and the Modern Artist, by Mark Levy.  In it he profiles 27 artists in three different categories, Seeing, Dreaming, and Performing, and gives details about various Shamanic techniques that contemporary artists can use to advance their own work.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and my copy is now marked up with underlined passages, asterisks, margin notes, and tea stains (I spilled tea on it on the day I finished reading it and had to dry out the pages).  I can not recommend this book enough to anyone who might be interested in the areas where spirituality, psychology, and fine art intersect.  In the final pages of the book, Levy advocates a return to spiritual values in art, and gives us a kind of call to arms.  The following quotes are culled from the Conclusion of Mark Levy's book.  I thought they might bear repeating here. 

“In the beginning, in prehistoric times, the roles of artist and shaman were not separated.  Shamans were, in fact, the most gifted artists in their community.”  

“Currently, in post-modern art where, in the words of Nietzsche “nothing is true and everything is permitted,” the task of re-valuing the world with spiritual meaning becomes especially urgent.”  

“I believe the role of the artist as shaman will become increasingly attractive for artists who are seeking to go beyond the idiosyncratic selfishness, commodity fetishism, adherence to fashion, and sterile appropriation that informs much of contemporary art.  Many contemporary artists simply borrow spiritual contents by appropriating images and styles from a wide range of cultures, including tribal art.  The result is a simulacrum of meaning which lacks depth.  Art that uncovers authentic truth requires difficult and sometimes dangerous journeys.”

“Shamanic techniques, when used properly, offer essentially non-destructive means for artists to invite visions and gain knowledge about themselves.  Works of art evolving from these visions continue to nourish their audiences.  The opportunity for artists to make positive contributions to their communities also eliminates their own feelings of alienation and exclusion.”

“In shifting attention from common sense or “consensus reality,” artists as shamans succeed in expanding their consciousness and the consciousness of their communities and offer blueprints for spiritual development.”  

Some Notes on Shame by Chris Hall

Christopher Hall,  We are Embar(r)assed By You , c 2012

Christopher Hall, We are Embar(r)assed By You, c 2012

Today I am showing some of my drawings in a show at The Arts Exchange in Atlanta.  I do not have the unwavering support of all of my family.  Thinking on this, I wrote a few notes this morning clarifying my stance on my art, which is so much a part of who I am.  I feel a need to justify myself (how sad is that!).  Because the art I am presenting is just a small sample of what I am about,  I also want to have a clear goal in mind with what I am presenting:

The goal of this presentation is not to shock, but to encourage discussion of notions of what deserves to be public and what should be kept in private.  Shame is a destructive force that can lead to self-hate.   At times I think privacy is a sphere of shame that needs to be broken if we are to celebrate who we truly are, and as we celebrate louder, the voices of judgment begin to be silenced.   If offense still persists in the viewer, then perhaps it is important to realize that this attitude actually says a lot more about the viewer than it does the art or even the artist.  The art is just a piece of paper open to interpretation, and the viewer's thoughts and impressions are much more real.  It is also important to realize that these drawings are not a catalog of my wishes and desires.  I'm actually critical of some of the things I depict in my art.  But I also believe in celebrating our flaws instead of pretending they do not exist.  By celebrating our flaws, perhaps one day we can grow beyond them.  

Forgiving Art for the Sins of the Artist by Chris Hall

Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist.  It is often pride, emulation, advarice, malice – all the odious qualities – which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed.  And in so doing he enriches the world more than the generous or good, though he may lose his soul in the process.  That is the paradox of artistic achievement.  Evelyn Waugh

. . . Lord God, grant me the grace to compose a few beautiful verses which will prove to me that I am not the lowliest of men and that I am not inferior to those I despise.
Charles Baudelaire

It says nothing against the ripeness of a spirit that it has a few worms. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Georg Baselitz, The Brucke Chorus, 1983


Richard Strauss, Leni Riefenstahl, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot.  Can we forgive their fascist leanings and/or anti-semantic beliefs?  And what about a living artist such as Georg Baselitz, can we forgive his sexist remarks?  We don’t have to, but we can forgive their art.

I believe that art has some unique, autonomous value, some capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and supports ideals that have a timeless aspect.  In other words, art is greater than the artist.  Some critics, however, desiring a balance to the equation between art and artist, are upset by the idea that an artist can be a bad person, yet can also  produce great art; they would prefer it if the artist who is a bad person would also produce art that looks bad, or at least that it be tainted.  As for myself, if I could not separate the artwork from the life of the artist, I would at least try to reconcile the two.  

Politics, for better or worse, are a part of art.  While I believe a work of art can be judged according to the apparent politics of the work, you can also judge it for its aesthetic values as well. The value judgment of the entire work, then, does not hinge on either its politics or aesthetic considerations, but both.   . . . and if the politics are absent, then we can judge the work solely on aesthetics alone, independent of whatever beliefs or sins the artist may have committed in their personal life.  Just because an artist is a bad person, this does not necessarily mean that the work of said artist will also be bad.  

Too often, with de-constructionalist theory witch-hunts, we condemn works of art when we instead should condemn the lives of the artists.  In our contemporary world where both the critics and artists often conflate notions of art and life, it is sometimes difficult to image that they are indeed two different spheres.  

We can forgive the art for the sins of the artist.  

The Artist Versus Critic by Chris Hall

James Abbott McNeil Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket, c 1875

In 1877 artist James Abbott McNeil Whistler sued critic John Ruskin for libel.  In a review for Fors Clavigera, Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  The piece Ruskin was writing on, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold:  The Falling Rocket, c 1875.  The trial was a disaster for both Whistler and Ruskin.  Whistler wasn't helped when Nocturne in Black and Gold was accidentally presented upside down, nor was he helped when Whistler tried to explain the concept behind his work; it seemed to go above the jury’s head.  Ruskin was absent from the trial for medical reasons, making Whistler’s counter attack ineffective.  Whistler had also counted on many of his fellow artists to stand witness, but they refused, not willing to risk their own reputation.  Somehow, despite all of this, Whistler won the case.  But the damage to both Ruskin’s and Whistler’s careers was irreversible.  Whistler was awarded only a little in financial compensation, and he was soon forced to sell, pawn, and mortgage everything he had before declare bankruptcy.  The following is an extract from the court proceedings:


Holker: "What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?"
Whistler: "It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens."
Holker: "Not a view of Cremorne?"
Whistler: "If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne...."
Holker: "Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?"
Whistler: "Oh, I 'knock one off' possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it..." 
Holker: "The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?"
Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."


I rather like Whistler’s response, “no, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”  How true this is.  This makes a great defense when for when people cheapen the labor of artists (which does happen often).  But there were some consequences and fallout for art as a result of the trial.

While Whistler’s victory went a long ways to champion the notion of the artist as an intellectual (not just merely a craftsman), thus making the critic redundant, it also would become a slippery slope where upon artists would later champion the idea or concept over all technical and aesthetic considerations.

The lawsuit also meant that artists were no longer accountable to critics, which again becomes a slippery slope.  Without an effective objective critical base, many bad works of art become paraded before the public, and many works that ought not to be considered art at all.  Currently this is the state of affairs in Post-modern pluralism, where critics refuse to be critical for fear of accidentally offending someone.