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Q: Foreign travel has long been a significant aspect of your work. What are your views on cultural appropriation?

On Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

A: For more than three decades my inspiration and subject matter have come mainly from international travel to remote parts of the globe. I daresay there is no better education than travel. The result is that I possess a deep love and reverence for people and cultures all over the world. We are all connected by our shared humanity.

I wholeheartedly agree with what Henry Louis Gates eloquently expressed in the NY Times Book Review of October 12, 2021. Additions are mine.

Any teacher, any student, any writer, [any artist] sufficiently attentive and motivated, must be able to engage freely with subjects of their choice. That is not only the essence of learning; it’s the essence of being human.

And

What I owe to my teachers – and to my students – is a shared sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate works of the human imagination across space and time, works created by people who don’t look like us and who, in so many cases, would be astonished that we know their work and their names. Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries. The freedom to write [and make art] can thrive only if we protect the freedom to read – and to learn. And perhaps the first thing to learn, in these storm-battered days, is that we could all do with more humility, and more humanity.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 482

One of Viscarra’s masks at MUSEF La Paz

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Devils’ heads with daring and disturbing eyes, twisted horns, abundant grey hair and hooked noses hang on the blue walls of Antonio Viscarra’s house. Long benches covered with old, multi-colored cushions in Bolivian motifs surround the concrete floor of the small room. Several dozen of these hanging faces, which seem to watch in silence from the darkness, are ready to be used in festivals and traditional dances.

The maskmaker or “maestro” as he is called, lives [deceased now] in the area of Avenida Buenos Aires, far from the political and administrative center of the city of La Paz, but rather at the very center of the other La Paz (Chuquiago in the Aymara language) where many peasant immigrants have settled, and which for that reason, is the center of the city’s popular culture.

Viscarra is the oldest creator of masks in La Paz, and his work has helped to conserve, and at the same time to rejuvenate, the tradition of using masks in Bolivian dances. If economic progress and alienation have contributed to the excessive adornment of new masks with glass and other foreign materials, Viscarra, in an attempt to recover the distinctive, original forms, has gone back to the 100-year-old molds used by his grandfather. His work has been exhibited in Europe, in the United States and in South America, Most important, however, is that Viscarra is transmitting his knowledge to his children, ensuring that this form of authentic Bolivian culture will never die.

…Viscarra inherited the old mask molds from his grandfather and was told to take good care of them because some day he might need them. After keeping them carefully put away for 50 years, the maestro used them again for an exhibition of masks prepared in 1984, slowly recreating the original masks, beautiful in their simplicity, in their delicate craftsmanship and in their cultural value. In this way, the masks which emerged from the old molds are regaining their past prestige and importance.

Antonio Viscarra, The mask Maker by Wendy McFarren in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

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Pearls from artists* # 468

Barbara’s Studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Why does art elicit such different reactions from us? How can a work that bowls one person over leave another cold? Doesn’t the variability of the aesthetic feeling support the view that art is culturally determined and relative? Maybe not, if we consider the possibility that the artistic experience depends not on some subjective mood but on an individually acquired (hence variable) power to be affected by art, a capacity developed through one’s culture in tandem with one’s unique character. For evidence of this we can point to works that seem to ignore cultural boundaries altogether, affecting people of different backgrounds in comparable ways even though a specific articulation of their personal responses continues to vary. Consider the plays of William Shakespeare or Greek theater, or the fairy tales that have sprung up in similar forms on every continent. We could not be further removed from the people who painted in the Chauvet Cave, nor could we be more oblivious as to the significance they ascribed to their pictures. Yet their work affects us across the millennia. Everyone responds to them differently, of course, and the spirit in which people are likely to receive them now probably differs significantly from how it was at the beginning. But these permutations revolve around a solid core, something present in the images themselves.

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice: A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Pearls from artists* # 467

Udaipur, India

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

As students confronted with images of India through film and photography, we are challenged to begin to be self-conscious of who we are as “seers.” Part of the difficulty of entering the world of another culture, especially one with as intricate and elaborate a visual articulation as India’s, is that, for many of us, there are no “manageable models.” There are no self-evident ways of recognizing the shapes and forms of art, iconography, ritual life and daily life that we see. Who is Śiva, dancing wildly in a ring of fire? What is happening when the priest pours honey and yogurt over the image of Viṣṇu? Why does the woman touch the feet of the ascetic beggar? For those who enter the visible world of India through the medium of film, the onslaught of strange images raises a multitude of questions. These very questions should be the starting point for our learning. Without such self-conscious questions, we cannot begin to “think” with what we see and simply dismiss it as strange. Or worse, we are bound to misinterpret what we see by placing it solely within the context of what we already know from our own world of experience.

Diana L. Eck in Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 436

View from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

View from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Cassirer’s partial definition of art as symbolic language has dominated art studios in our [20th] century.  A new history of culture anchored upon the work of art as a symbolic expression thus came into being.  By these means art has been made to connect with the rest of history.

But the price has been high, for while studies of meaning received all our attention, another definition of art, as a system of formal relationships, thereby suffered neglect.  This other definition matters more than meaning.  In the same sense speech matters more than writing, because speech preceded writing, and because writing is but a special case of speech.

The other definition of art as form remains unfashionable, although every thinking person will accept it as a truism that no meaning can be conveyed without form.  Every meaning requires a support, or a vehicle, or a holder.  These are the bearers of meaning, and without them no meaning would cross from me to you, or from you to me, or indeed from any part of nature to any other part. 

… The structural forms can be sensed independent of meaning.  We know from linguistics in particular that the structural elements undergo more or less regular evolutions in time without relation to meaning, as when certain phonetic shifts in the history of cognate languages can be explained only by a hypothesis of regular change. Thus phoneme a occurring in an early stage of language, becomes phoneme b at a later stage, independently of meaning, and only under the rules governing the phonetic structure of the language.  The regularity of these changes is such that the phonetic changes can be used to measure durations between recorded but undated examples of speech.

Similar regularities probably govern the formal infrastructure of every art.  Whenever symbolic clusters appear, however, we see interferences that may disrupt the regular evolution of the formal system.  An interference from visual images is present in almost all art.  Even architecture, which is commonly thought to lack figural intention, is guided from one utterance to the next by the images of the admired buildings of the past, both far and near in time.

George Kubler in The Shape of Time:  Remarks on the History of Things

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 435

Barbara’s Studio

Barbara’s Studio

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Most artists are not as estranged from their fellow human beings, as bereft of reasons for existing, or as alienated from the common values and enthusiasms of the world as are the outsider characters created by existential writers like Kafka, Camus, and Sartre.  But insofar as artists do regularly feel different from other people, a differentness experienced both as a sense of oddness and a sense of specialness, they identify with the outsider’s concerns and come to the interpersonal moment in guarded or distant fashion.

In part, artists are outsiders because of the personal mythology they possess.  This mythology is a blend of beliefs about the importance of the individual, the responsibility of the artist as a maker of culture and a witness to the truth, and the ordained separateness of the artist.  Artists often stand apart on principle, like Napoleonic figures perched on a hill overlooking the battle.

The artist may also find himself [sic] speechless in public.  Around him people chat, but he has little to offer.  Too much of what he knows and feels has gone directly into his art and too much has been revealed to him in solitude – infinitely more than he can share in casual conversation.     

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

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Pearls from artists* # 405

Barbara’s studio

Barbara’s studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

… art is an objective pursuit with the same claim to truth as science, albeit truth of a different order.  At the very least the consistency and universality of aesthetic expression throughout history and around the globe suggest that the undertaking that finds its modern formulation in the concept of art is a distinct sphere of activity with its own ontology.  My belief is that what the modern West calls art is the direct outcome of a basic human drive, an inborn expressivity that is inextricably bound with the creative imagination.  It is less a product of culture than a natural process manifesting through the cultural sphere.  One could go so far as to argue that art must exist in order for culture to emerge in the first place.

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Pearls from artists* # 389

Henri Roche pastels: nine trays (four at the top, five on the bottom).

Henri Roche pastels: nine trays (four at the top, five on the bottom).

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Color vision must be universal.  The human eye and brain work the same way for nearly all people as a property of their being human – determining that we all see blue.  But the color lexicon, meaning not merely the particular words but also the specific chromatic space they are said to mark, clearly has been shaped by the particularities of culture.  Since the spectrum of visible colors is a seamless continuum, where one color is thought to stop and another begun is arbitrary.  The lexical discrimination of particular segments is conventional rather than natural.  Physiology determines what we see; culture determines how we name, describe, and understand it.  The sensation of color is physical; the perception of color is cultural.

David Scott Kastan in On Color

Comments are welcome

Pearls from artists* # 384

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

Overlooking Copacabana, Bolivia and Lake Titicaca

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Carnival in Oruro [Bolivia] is a glorious spectacle.  It’s flash, pomp and brilliance can be enjoyed without understanding its long history and intricate mythologies.  Still, the onlooker is left with a thousand questions that are not so easily answered.  Behind the glitter of Carnival lie the history, the timeless myths and the distinct traditions of this mining community.

According to the Spanish writer Jean Laude, “The function of the mask is to reaffirm, at regular intervals, the truth and presence of myths in everyday life.”  This suggests that masks should be studied in context, noting their association with the individual dancer and the history, myths and traditions of the community that produces them.  The mask has to be animated within its ritual, comic or social role.

A first step in appreciating the masks is to understand something of the land and people that crafted them.  Oruro is a mining city on the open Altiplano at 3,700 meters (12,144 ft.) above sea level.  The sky appears a rarified blue, it is intensely cold and a constant wind lifts dust to the eyes.  During the year no more than 125,000 people live in the city.  Suddenly in the weeks of Carnival, the population doubles or triples.

Three languages, Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish are spoken in Oruro.  Their use reflects an ancient pattern of conquest in the history of this land.  It is said that the Urus, whose language is now almost lost, were the first inhabitants.  In time they were dominated by the Aymara tribes.  Later, Quechua was introduced as the Inca advanced their empire from Cuzco.  Ultimately the Spanish arrived and founded the present city in 1601 to exploit rich mineral deposits found in the seven hills.

Today, descendants of the Urus live near Oruro around the shore of Lake Poopo.  Elements of their distinctive culture remain but they have no wealth in comparison with the more dominant Aymara and Quechua who surround them.  A further change came in the recent past because Oruro has acted as a magnet, attracting many people from the countryside to work in the mines.

On one side were the Urus, ancient owners of all the land which now only carries their name (Uro Uro = Oruro).  On the other side were the miners, many of whom were Quechua and Aymara migrants.  In the middle is “Carnival.”

El Carnaval de Oruro by Manuel Vargas in Mascaras de los Andes Bolivianos, Editorial Quipus and Banco Mercantil

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 374

Barbara’a studio

Barbara’a studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Finally, [John] Graham said, of all the arts, painting was the most difficult because one false move on a canvas could mean the difference between a great painting and a failure.  A writer could always resurrect a word, but a line or a shape was so ephemeral that, once changed, it was almost always lost for good.  “To create life one has to love.  To create a great work of art one has to love truth with the passion of a maniac.  If society does not perceive this love, perhaps humanity will.”  …The artists… came away… feeling as though they were not aberrations but part of a long tradition of individuals who had ignored fashion to create culture.

Mary Gabriel in Ninth Street Women

Comments are welcome!

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