Friday, December 05, 2008

Head or Heart?

Just read this quote in an SF Chron article about a contemporary operatic composer named Jake Heggie:

Heggie had been taught in school to "write from the head." Modern composers tend toward abstract, dissonant sounds, not melodies.

"I tried," Heggie says. "It's not me. It's when I took the good things from school - skills in counterpoint and harmony - and wrote from my heart that my work started to flourish."

This really resonated with me as I have been struggling recently with pinpointing the difference between so-called "abstract" and "realist" art.

I could venture into deep water really fast here, but I'm curious what other people think.

Is so-called "Expressionism", art after 1910-ish, for lack of a term, "art from the head"? (That would explain those long complicated artist statements).

Is so-called "Realism", both pre-1900 and current movements, "art from the heart"? (That would explain why contemporary realist art is derided as sentimental so often.)

Our difficulty with terminology for these movements is indication of our problems conceptualizing them. But most people know immediately if they are looking at "modern art", and think of it as sharply distinct from "old masters art".

Is Expressionism more emotional than representational work? It's supposed to be pure feeling, right, pure expression abstracted/taken out of the eye's understanding of the world? But isn't Realism more sentimental - therefore more "emotional"? Abstractionists would say realism is a false sentiment. And realists would say abstractionists are cynical. And round and round.

Is one the work of the mind, the other the work of the eye?

A class I took about the science of visual perception in college has stayed with me these 15 years, I think about it all the time. The class taught me that what we call "seeing" involves much more than simply the light that hits our retina. The light rays our eyes perceive are processed at many levels of the brain, from simply noticing movement or flashing lights, up through recognizing the illusion of space and form on a flat surface.

Is abstract art just another level of this, art that is produced in a different area of the brain than representational art? Maybe an "abstract" level of the brain it took Freud and the horrors of the World Wars to make us aware of? Maybe a more word-oriented, idea-oriented part of the brain? I find I discuss theory with my abstract artist friends and I discuss technique and history with my realist artist friends.

I am scouring my art books these days for explanations of the moment when interpreting what hit our retina switched to expressing what hit our mind's eye.

Interpretive versus Expressive? Is that an accurate delineation? Expressing what? Is our experience of witnessing an emotional scene understood by our brains in an abstract or literal way?

Can we trigger emotions like awe and distress with abstract art? Does representational art now fail to trigger these feelings in many people, ever since our former concepts of "self" and "humanity" were destroyed by industrialization and world war?

Is art about feeling? 20,000 years of humans representing the physical and visual world have been recorded. Is art control over our experience of an uncontrollable environment?

Surely 20th/21st century life is equally traumatic and fulfilling as it was when we huddled around fires 20,000 years ago? Our lives are no longer "ugly, brutish and short", but is our despair deeper?

I've also been thinking about that blog post I linked to last week, and what has stayed with me is the author's frustration at having to defend the validity of a now-100 year old art form over and over. And I realized feeling attacked and misunderstood is also part of the abstract artist's experience. We realists have to deal with being called sentimental which gets old - and we get tired of having to defend the validity of a 1500 year old art form over and over....

Anyway, more posts with pictures coming soon. I've finished the underpainting and am waiting for it to dry another couple days. In the meantime I'm sketching from Ye Olde Master paintings. (I'm more in love with Guido Reni every day.)

Will post the results of both soon.