07 May 2015

William Morris, The Avengers and collective art.

This entry is a rambling reflection on the nature of "collective art" -not to be confused with "art collectives", very different and a whole bundle of separate trouble-. It was prompted by a visit to one of the museums dedicated to William Morris in London, a trip to the multiplex to watch that visual effects mishmash that is "Avengers, Age of Ultron" and some troubles I had with my contract back in February. I'll throw in the recent experiment that the Dulwich Gallery conducted in which they hid a Chinese-made reproduction  of a Fragonard original and asked patrons to find the copy in the museum among all the other paintings. Only 11% recognized the copy as such!
WilliamMorris Museum, Walthamstow. watercolor
It is sort of a given that an artist has a vision, a signature or style that is unique and can't be reproduced. This notion wasn't always widely accepted. For centuries, artists toiled as anonymous craftsmen conforming to a model and only rarely stepping out out to be "original". Artists created wondrous cathedrals and beautiful scrolls after lengthy apprenticeships and many years of imitative practice. Only during the Renaissance did we start to seek individual uniqueness in Western art. The fever pitch of artistic exceptionalism occurred during the Romantic period when grabbing a pen or brush with some merit transformed poets and painters into divine lightning rods. It was also at this time that craft gave way to individual expression as the most sought out characteristic in a work of art. We are still suffering the aftermath of that. No artist  can be satisfied today if something doesn't have his/her personal touch. A craftsman might enjoy and be rightfully proud of a well made shoe but wherever the word "art" is uttered, we expect to see something distinct, not just a well made product.

St Cecilia stained glass window. W. Morris workshop.
Being a computer artist by day (and a desperate artist by night and on weekends), i couldn't help but notice the similarities between the computer graphics artists of today and the medieval manuscript illustrators or Morris weavers and printers of yesteryear. CG artists, like their more traditional counterparts, have a client to satisfy, deadlines and quality controls. As any traditional artist should do, they breathe their craft day and night. Even those whose job is to replicate photo-real images or follow the art director's commands to the letter are bona-fide artists constantly being diminished by people who think computers do all the work ...which is like saying Word Perfect wrote the Harry Potter books and some recent legislation. And yet, he final product is as anonymous as the lengthy list of credits at the end,  that wall to the fallen that scrolls on the screen at full speed  and  where noone can find their name. The personality in movies is better left to the actors and the directors and that's fine.

On a side note: I've grown wary of producers and other "visionaries"  filling their mouths with the word "artist" to address overworked employees and animators. It is a cheap means of flattery. It comes attached to implicit demands for shorter deadlines and weekend work . It challenges employees to live up to their calling and shut up because a "true artist" would demand nothing but relentless devotion to the project beyond any  concerns for family or health.

If they ever  use  the term "family" to address their crew, then it's time to head running for the doors. Family members don't get laid off.
Artwork for Avengers, by ILM. Beautiful imagery in a really dumb movie.

May be this is why it is sometimes difficult to find satisfaction in a job that demands a well crafted product, not necessarily a personal one. There are many , many, similar or worse jobs out there but as someone trying to interact with the world as an artist, "well made" or "technically proficient" might not be enough. I know I'll get in trouble for this but in some cases it might not even be necessary. Programmers and technicians, on the other hand, can develop their creativity to their full potential making cg movies because their "product" is rarely the film itself but the technical achievement that made it possible. The film itself could be two hours of beautifully simulated liquids and flying debris and that would be great. Wait, isn't that what we normally get? I'll admit personal limitations play a role in this as well when trying to reach artistic goals. .

It is possible that the artists and craftsmen employed by William Morris felt the same way. W.M. was an utterly interesting socialist and artist who advocated a return to craft and simplicity and whose clients were invariably wealthy since they were the only ones able to afford his designs. His friend Burne-Jones contributed numerous designs that were transformed into tapestries, tiles and stained glass. But his workers might not have been the happiest bunch even though they were not too bad off compared with other workers inhaling fumes and cotton dust in Victorian London. Their products were glorious but did they think of themselves as artists? Did it matter? Self-realization is a recent phenomenon after all.

William Morris bust

I wonder if the Chinese copyist that painted the oil commissioned by the Dulwich gallery to entice patrons to test their nose for fakes (attendance increased four fold during the challenge) felt any artistic satisfaction beyond the production of a decent copy. Seeing the two pieces side by side, it is obvious the Chinese piece lacks a lot of the subtle transparencies and mystery of the original. Yet only 1 in every ten visitors found the fake among all the paintings in the gallery. 3 out every 100 though a portrait of a lady by Rubens was the fake piece shuffled among the priceless artworks.

The true Fragonard.

Chinese copy commissioned by the gallery from a company that mass produces such copies.

Two observers compare the copy and the original now placed side by side.

Does a weaver have time or even want to weave a single napkin for himself after 9 hours at the loom? My conclusion because I need to make up one is that for any artistic satisfaction to occur, most effort should be poured into that napkin, personal projects of any kind, no matter how small or unmarketable , drawings, photos, animated shorts, models.. I should have followed that advice myself in regards to my own career. Even when studios stipulate in their contracts that they own every dream and doodle, nobody gets paid enough to give away the art they create outside work, their mark in the world.

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