What is the purpose of art today?

December 16th, 2014

What is the role of the artist today? What purpose do the arts serve nowadays?

Over the centuries, artists have had a lot of different roles. While the roles have all been different, the one constant is to transform. To create change.

The artist has been a…


This is the original role of the artist, to make functional things that improve the quality of life. In a way it overlaps with engineering. Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete via Compfight cc


A lot of people think of art as just decoration or simple creative expression. By extension that makes art an indulgence on behalf of the artist or the collector/consumer. I don’t completely agree with this, but I’ll allow it since it is not a “necessity” for “survival.” (I’ll touch on that at a later date since I believe art is more necessary than you’d think.) Photo Credit:PoshSurfside.com via Compfight cc


Art has always been used to promote political figures and leaders as well as the wealthy. You can use art to make certain people more appealing in the public eye. Photo Credit: x-ray delta one viaCompfight cc


This is an offshoot of propaganda. Art produced to sell something is propaganda for a company. Under most circumstances it is harmless as everyone has to make a living somehow, but it can easily be twisted to be disingenuous. Photo Credit: kevin dooley viaCompfight cc


There is something sacred about creating art and looking at art, since it comes from a place that isn’t ruled by science alone. In a very real sense I think artists are shamans who see more than meets the eye and try to reveal things that plain science cannot. Photo Credit: Crysco Photography via Compfight cc


It should be no surprise that many artists are politically active or have causes they wholeheartedly support. If art can be used as propaganda, it can certainly be used to promote personal causes or seek out justice. Photo Credit: ★ spunkinator via Compfight cc

All along, the role of the artist has been to create change and transformation.

Art makes life better, sells things, and influences the way people think about something or another person.

Seth Godin would say we are all liars.

Now, I’ve said it before: even art that comes from a place of beauty still aims to transform you: it changes your mood by eliciting feelings of awe, inspiration, and being uplifted.

Photo Credit: beautifulcataya via Compfight cc

But what is the role of the artist today?

What is the artist trying to transform right now, in the early 21st century? This is something I grapple with. Why does art exist today? Is art there to serve a documentary purpose?


Art serves as marker of cultural achievement. It’s an indicator of society. So it should stand to reason that in many ways it is a mirror of society.

The major function of art is to show society for what it really is, even if it is unflattering. (Tweet that)

And it often is.

I’ve come to believe that the role of the arts today is to be a mirror and show society what it is. We have so much propaganda already. So many artists make a living making propaganda after all as designers and advertisers. Plenty of artists are decorators as well. Craftsmanship has its place but has largely been relegated to machines or artisans in quaint shops.

So what I see happening is the “fine” arts serving as a mirror to society.

What artists create on their own is very often a personal record of who they are and where they’ve been.

But if you extrapolate that to a societal level, or if the artist chooses to go beyond himself, you end up with social commentary. And often it is pretty discouraging.

Personally, what I want to create right now, is art that creates peace because we live in such a noisy world.

We live in a world that is so busy and distracted by cool apps. We keep score on Instagram and Facebook. We live in a world where everybody is obsessed with being right. Spend five minutes on Facebook and watch people hurl insults against each other because somebody is for or against (leader).

So maybe the purpose of art in this day and age is to be a mirror.

But I could be wrong. What do you think it is?

The Purpose of Art is to Transform

September 23rd, 2014

For hundreds of years, for many people, the purpose of art has been to be beautiful.

The 20th century changed all that. We saw a lot of upheaval. Art became ugly.

It became clear that the purpose of art is not so much to be beautiful or convey a sense of beauty or have an “uplifting-ness” (if that’s a word) but to move people.

But maybe that’s not quite it. Maybe it’s more than just moving people.

For a long time I thought the purpose of art was to move people, but now I think that the purpose is even greater and deeper: to transform.

Maybe the purpose of art is to transform the viewer.

Perhaps that transformation evokes a sense of beauty in the viewer. Or perhaps it evokes anger and confusion.

Either way, the viewer is not only moved, but transformed, because this is something they weren’t experiencing before viewing the art.

There’s a lot more than just simple movement. Good art will always leave a mark. Its viewers will be changed, different from before they saw it.

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August 12th, 2014

Taste, along with talent, is what usually gets you into art in the first place. You probably have a knack for what looks good, what doesn’t, what sounds good, what flavors go together and so forth.

A hunch?

You have a knack for pairing things, really, based on hunches but sometimes theory understood intuitively. Other people may not come up with it on their own, but they are pleasantly surprised when you do it.

Then of course there is the problem of “bad” taste. Combinations that disappoint. And sometimes what looks bad now might look great tomorrow, dated next week, yet beautiful and timeless a hundred years from now.

The definition is slippery, but taste is a real thing for sure.

While I’m certain taste starts with liking things (or disliking them, even), it goes beyond that.

I think good taste can always quantify and explain itself given certain principles that have been proven time and again. What we have to be careful of is that we don’t confuse taste for personal preference.

In short, it’s a sort of pursuit of excellence.

Ira Glass and the Gap

Ira Glass (the guy who hosts This American Life on NPR) has talked about the gap between a beginner and his taste. In short, you have good taste, but your skills don’t always match up. And that’s frustrating.

Video: THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel (aka frohlocke) on Vimeo.

Also, don’t miss the Zen Pencils comic-strip version of Ira Glass’ talk.

What’s been your experience with taste and the struggle in getting your skills up to the same level as your taste? Or do you even worry about it at all?

Photo Credit: visualpanic via Compfight cc

I Like It.

July 15th, 2014

All too often this is what I hear from people regarding art or design. They have an either/or response: they like it or they dislike it.

I suppose this is natural and a fundamental part of our humanity. If something makes us uncomfortable or unpleasant, it’s probably a good idea to stop doing whatever that thing is.

Yet what makes art “good” isn’t necessarily what makes it pleasant or even likable.

Nowadays the creative process or the theory behind it is what makes art compelling.

Not what it looks like or even how beautiful it is. While beautiful art is making something of a comeback, there’s still a lot of 20th century art sitting around that isn’t necessarily fun to look at, but it has some strong concepts and processes driving it.

But back to liking or disliking something: when you say this, it sounds like you haven’t given it further thought. Sure, you may be going on your instincts, and your gut is often right, but simply liking something makes it sound as if you haven’t critically observed whatever it is you’re looking at.

I want to hear more people qualify what they are liking or disliking. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) isn’t pretty, but it is important, because it makes some pretty bold statements about how ugly total war is.

It is both personal and impersonal: the impersonal war obliterated a town not far from the place Picasso grew up. There’s nothing pretty about it and there isn’t supposed to be. It’s brutal.

The painting moves you because it tells you how terrible war is. Everywhere Picasso turned, the newspapers were full of death and destruction of people, animals, property. He was overwhelmed and outraged and it shows.

And you want to say whether you like or dislike “Guernica”?

That’s about as dumb as saying whether you like or dislike the war that prompted it.

Look deeper.

Not just at art, but the world around you.

We’ve become so dumbed down by a simple thumbs-up. Life is far more complex than that. Develop a vocabulary to talk about it.

Honest Art?

May 6th, 2014
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Pablo Picasso

Art on one level is inherently false. Images that seek to express in two dimensions what exists in three dimensions is a lie: this flat surface creates the illusion of three-dimensional space. It’s not really three-dimensional, but it looks like it. That makes it false by definition.

Rene Magritte, The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) (La Trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]). Oil on canvas, 25 in × 37 in. 1948.

Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) underscores this: it is a painting that depicts like a picture of a pipe. But it isn’t a pipe. It makes the true statement that it is not a pipe. It’s just a flat representation of a pipe.

Bad art posing as serious art

There is another kind of art that is rather dishonest. It pretends to be serious art, but is in fact a mockery. Thomas Kinkade is the first that comes to mind. Sure, he was technically good, but there’s a point where he ceased to be good and just did whatever the market wanted.

To me that is dishonest. I’ve read that Kinkade wanted to do other art, art that was more expressive, but what he wound up making was essentially bad copies of what made him famous.

It would be like Elvis trying to sing like Elvis. Which I don’t think he ever did. As Elvis got older, his voice got deeper, and he put on really big shows in Vegas. Singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love” in a deep, rich baritone, wearing a glittery, sequined jumpsuit with big hair and flashy sunglasses. Contrast that with when he was getting started: a young white guy in a work shirt playing a guitar, singing with a Negro voice but giving it that edge that made him popular with white kids.

People make jokes about “Fat Elvis” but I think he accepted that he wasn’t young anymore, and he wasn’t capable of doing the same thing he had done 20 years before. He probably wasn’t interested in it, either.

The point is, how honest is your art? Are you making your art solely to fit the whims of the marketplace, or are you being true to who you are as an artist?

Leave room for reinvention

That’s not to say you can’t adapt your art to the situation in order to make a living. For example, Metallica have successfully reinvented themselves many times, when the popular music landscape changed, and when they decided selling their music online wasn’t such a terrible thing after all. They’ve had members come and go, all been in and out of rehab, and their style has changed somewhat, but they’re still the same Metallica.

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The Number One Ingredient for a Creative Life: Wonder

March 18th, 2014

So many people say they are not creative. And they’re right. Because they don’t even try. They have no sense of wonder. No imagination. They stick with the status quo even though they are unhappy with it. They throw their hands in the air and say, “Oh well, that’s just how it is.” They never get past that first hurdle.

Living a creative life requires a sense of wonder. Be like a child if you want to live a life with any amount of creativity.

“Every chid is an artist. The problem is to remain one when we grow up.” — Pablo Picasso
With a little work and commitment, you can train yourself to marvel at the everyday things around you. I have to remind myself sometimes. Thankfully, I have three little children who are in a near-permanent state of discovery.

This sense of discovery is why a lot of artists paint things that are relatively ordinary. Normal, everyday things presented in such a way that it feels new and beautiful. It turns something normal into a novelty you’ve never seen before.

Children go around saying, “Wow, look at that,” or, “How does that work?” or, “What if that was green instead of blue?”

Go and do likewise.

But is anything new?

Of course, we know there’s nothing really new out there. It’s all been there for millennia. Ecclesiastes reminds us there is nothing new under the sun. A major theme from Battlestar Galactica is “All this has happened before, and it will happen again.” Technology advances, but people are just as mean to each other as they ever were. Read the book of Genesis sometime and watch how people treat each other, and look at how they treat each other now.

It’s kind of depressing.

But for a child, everything is so new. So beautiful. So pure and wonderful and overwhelming.

Recapture that outlook and be a child again. See everything as new. In a new light.

Lamentations 3 tells us that God’s love mercy is new every morning. If God, who has no beginning or end, is continually new, then that gives me hope for seeing with new eyes. Every morning I wake up and am thankful for the chance to do things better than yesterday.

It is a challenge, because a lot of people aren’t used to thinking like that. They’re used to the same old same old. The familiar is comfortable, safe, predictable.

To be creative requires a certain kind of openness. You have to accept that you don’t have it all figured out. If you think you have it all figured out you are dead! If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.

“If it ever becomes clear that I’ve stopped learning, dig a hole and push me in, because I’m of no use to anybody.” — Dan Miller on the Read to Lead Podcast, Episode #001

Surround yourself with things that inspire you.

Collect unusual things. The “junk” you “hoard” may have a common theme. Or it may not. Look for anything that gives you ideas. And ideas come from anywhere.

Recently I was designing a postcard for my day job, and I got stuck. I found an annual report design that had photos cropped at a diagonal angle. That one thing triggered another idea: what if I presented these photos with a similar diagonal framing? The colors are entirely different, the subjects are entirely different. Everything about the annual report and my postcard is different. Even the angle of the diagonal frames. But that one thing gave me a seed of an idea, and it worked.

So, be childlike, and be open to triggers that may come from anywhere. Collect things. You never know what will inspire you. Scrapbook them. Catalog them.

Finally, I highly recommend Life After Art as it is about this very topic. Watch my interview with the author, Matt Appling, and then go buy the book. (I don’t get any sort of kickback. Sure, Matt sending me a free copy of his book before I interviewed him, but that is it. It’s just a good book and I think everyone should read it.)

Resources: a few places on the web that fire up those neurons:

Photo Credit: horrigans via Compfight cc

Art & Entertainment

January 9th, 2014

A month or two ago my coworker Dan Newsom turned me on to the White Horse Inn podcast episode called “God in the Gallery.” It’s an interview with Dan Siedell, author of the book of the same name.

(After listening to the podcast, I keep searching for an audio version of his book, but it doesn’t look like there is one. If you know of one, let me know! I love listening to audiobooks and/or podcasts while painting or designing.)

One of the things that jumped out at me in the program was the discussion comparing high art and entertainment.

What Dan Siedell said boils down to this:

(High) Art (as opposed to illustration, propaganda, etc.) has a long memory, and is made with the intention of touching someone now as well as many years from now.

Entertainment has no memory, and is made to touch someone right now, not necessarily with the intention of helping them become a better person.

I’m not going to condemn either one. There is a place for both art and entertainment. But they aren’t the same thing at all.

I compare it to food. You have healthy, solid, nourishing food and you have junk food. Problems arise when you have too much of either. And a little bit of junk food is okay, and possibly even beneficial. Likewise, I think mindless entertainment is fine in small doses.

But if you eat potato chips and watch Family Guy all the time, you won’t be doing yourself any favors. You’ll have the same physique and intellect as Peter Griffin.

On the other hand, if you only eat salad and read Proust, your body probably isn’t getting the protein, fat, and sugar it needs, and you’ll become a pretentious bore.

Can you separate an artist from his art?

November 19th, 2013

Ender’s Game” is in theaters now. I really want to see it, but I haven’t had the time or the money to go to the movies. (Who wants to fund the Blackmans’ date night and provide child care for three easily-excited munchkins?)

It’s a movie about a young boy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, who is sent to Battle School. Battle School is in a space station, and the young students are being equipped to fight the coming second wave of an alien invasion. The idea is that if they start training at a young age, they will have the skills to defeat the enemy. They train with a variety of war games, some of which turn out to be more real than they suspect.

I loved the book by Orson Scott Card, which I actually didn’t read until I was well into my 20s. What’s striking about the book is how humanity rallies together in the face of an alien threat. Races, genders, nationalities, religions, etc. are all put aside to preserve humanity. Yet in the “Shadow Series” books that follow Ender’s companions after the events of Ender’s Game, humans go back to business as usual, squabbling over territories, religion, and commerce. Same as it ever was, right?

You would think that the author has this same all-accepting worldview, embracing tolerance of all stripes. The heroes in his novels come from various walks of life, bringing with them varied lifestyles and worldviews.

The media hasn’t portrayed him that way, since Card has made some rather bold statements that sound judgmental and homophobic. What’s really crazy about this is some of his novels’ heroes are homosexual. I can’t think of any that are Mormon, as he is. Granted, there have been religious themes throughout his books. The Homecoming series is very much a sci-fi retelling of Joseph. (Card has blogged some pretty out-there conspiracy theories. So who knows what he really thinks. I’ve never read his blog, so I couldn’t tell you.)

This controversy begs the question: can an artist be separated from his art? Can a writer be separate from his writings, especially when it comes to fiction? Or are the two inextricably linked? I listened to a podcast about this very topic recently, and it got me thinking.

How separate are the artist and his or her creations?

Your work is inevitably influenced by your worldview. Whether the two agree is something else entirely.

I think this is because we are all fallible. Some of the greatest artists have struggled with some pretty severe addictions, to the point that that is now part of the artist’s mystique. There are many who expect artists to live a careless, hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle contrary to the rest of the world, since the rest of the world is too blind to “the truth.”

The other extreme is a monk-like lifestyle in perfect keeping with the ideas espoused in the work.

In reality, most artists are probably somewhere in the middle. We know we can’t be as perfect as our work. Besides, our work is endlessly edited to show something beautiful or ugly in an effort to expose some kind of truth.

And I think we often become obsessed with those things we have a difficult time achieving. That’s how you find ministers who condemn something or other who happen to struggle with the very thing they condemn. While it is shocking, it isn’t coincidental. We know what our flaws are and what we really should be doing.

So, I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, you can live a degenerate lifestyle and take advantage of people and be an awful person while creating the most beautiful music there ever was, or lead a very disciplined life and work hard at creating something in keeping with your values.

I think in the end there is a definite relationship between lifestyle and output, since one tries to either redeem or support the other. In the case of the former, the art is meant to be better than its creator. With the latter case, the art supports the creator’s views.

Recommended reading: ‘Ender’s Game,’ its controversial author, and a very personal history

Throwback Thursday: Split Motorcycle

November 7th, 2013

On the social web, Thursdays are special. For about ten years now, Throwback Thursday has been a thing, in which one posts pictures of things that are vintage or classic, but in 2011, it took off as a hashtag on Instagram, where people posted pictures of themselves some time ago. I’ve dug up a few old photos at my parents’ house, like this one from when we went to Europe when I turned eighteen.

Rather than post old pictures of myself here on my blog (that’s what Instagram is for, right?) I’ll post pictures of my old art. I don’t know how long this will last or if I’ll keep it up, but it might be fun to see where my art has been and how it got to where it is today. Know yourself, and all that. Plus, while I showed you older works in the context of what influenced me, I thought it would be fun to look at things I’ve done just in the sense of what I painted or drew in the past. Throwback Thursday. Because nostalgia is fun.

So without further ado…

Throwback Thursday: College Edition, #1: The Classic-Romantic Split

Yup, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance made quite an impression on me in college. So I painted it. I’ve blogged about the ideas several times, most recently here.

I painted this in 1999 or 2000, while I was in college. With the motorcycle as a metaphor (as in the book), I split it in two, showing the left side as an abstracted blueprint and the right side painted colorfully and expressively with a split-complementary color scheme. I’m pretty sure I was listening to jazz when I painted the right-brained side. I know for a fact that the tight line art took several days to complete, but the loose palette-knife work took me about 45 minutes.

When I showed it to a friend who was an engineering major, he got it immediately even though he hadn’t read the book. He knew he was the left side, and he preferred it over the right.

God Wants You to Make Better Art (Uncovering My Own Story Made Me Realize How Much Work I Have To Do)

October 11th, 2013

Last month, I attended a multimedia webinar hosted by Blaine Hogan, Creative Director at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. “God Wants You to Make Better Art” was on a Wednesday night, just after when I would normally have been at mid-week Bible study. So I skipped church, put the kids to bed early, and attended the $10 webinar that Blaine hosted. Hope had a meeting of her own, too.

(You can find a version of his presentation here on his blog: Move More People and Make Better Art.)


Blaine’s overarching theme was that of story. I thought this was pretty interesting since last year our congregation studied from The Story, a Bible study that puts everything in a continuous narrative from the framework of viewing the Bible as God’s story.

Blaine’s angle was that we look at our own stories, and search for the themes that connect us with those around us.

His own story can be viewed as tragic, starting from sexual abuse as a child, moving to pornography and alcohol addictions as an adult, while following a career path as an actor. “At 18 I had become a professional actor and by 25 I had become a professional addict as well.” But it doesn’t end in tragedy: he wound up finding healing at seminary.

Blaine’s story is one of constant redemption, a testament to God’s amazing grace: He redeems us no matter what we’ve done, what we will do.

God redeemed us once, for all time. I think it has taken Blaine many reminders over the years to understand this. (I need to be reminded of this frequently, too.)

Themes & Metaphors

For the 2012 Christmas event at Willow Creek, Blaine explored this theme of redemption and wanted to make it relatable to people from all walks of life. He saw Christ’s coming as a salvage mission. So the stage set for the multimedia presentation had reclaimed materials such as found wood, and the Christmas story was narrated as one where God was coming to earth to rescue the people he loved.

(Hogan said the challenge for making it accessible to everyone was to avoid dumbing it down or devolving into kitsch.)

Clearly, Blaine’s own experiences cause him to vividly experience the theme of redemption in Scripture. And that’s important. You can’t downplay that. It just might be the most important theme of the Bible other than love — the motivation for redemption.

Newtonian Physics and Art

Hogan talked a little bit about Isaac Newton. Newton’s first law of motion maintains that
An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
The application to art is that if you want to make art that moves people, you have to make moving art, and to do that, you must deliver a moving pitch, and to do that, you must develop a moving idea, and before that, the artist must be moved first. So, to do any of that, you start with stories. And that’s where Blaine’s own story comes into play, and how he found his themes and put them to work in his own art.

How can your art move people to Christ? Of course, before knowing how to do this, you must start with your own story.

What are the themes and metaphors I can draw from my own experiences to inform my art and make it accessible to everyone so that they are moved to Christ in some way?

So, I set out to uncover my own story.

I had no idea what I was in for.

Some say that to find your own story, you should journal a good deal and find your themes that way.

Thing is, I’ve been actively journaling about ten or eleven years now. It started out as Morning Pages (as outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) but I got away from that and currently use a journaling template somewhat like Michael Hyatt’s.

It has been a long time since journaling has uncovered much of my themes (and I really don’t want to go back and re-read and re-live the bad parts where I whined a lot a decade ago.) So I’ve been stumped.

I’ve let this percolate in the back of my mind a few weeks, and on a lunchtime walk, it hit me: my biggest theme is one of loneliness and anger and resentment.

This might surprise you. Then again, it might not. Depends on how well you know me.

I’ve long resented my hearing loss, and the way that has held me back in numerous ways. It makes me angry on some deep, vague level. I think this is the root of everything for me. And on some level I’m an angry person. Most of the time I’m neutral. Sort of. Definitely not as mellow as I thought of myself when I was a teenager. I guess the anger and resentment started to surface in my 20s, once I was out of college. I put my fist through a pantry door once. I’ve been to anger management classes but that was 11 years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then.

My hearing loss has made me angry, resentful, and above all, lonely. I think on some level I’ve been angry at God about this, resenting my hearing loss for at least thirty years.

In college I discovered porn on the Internet. So for a long time, I tried to treat that loneliness with porn. But that only made my loneliness more intense. Which made me angrier. And magnified the resentment I felt toward anybody who seemed to have a connection with anyone other than me, so it spiraled deeper and deeper. This lasted over a decade.

Until last year, I realized what was going to happen to my marriage and my children if I didn’t do something about it. I made a conscious decision, breaking down into tears in the bathroom with my wife, promising that I wasn’t going to look at porn again. It’s the same as cheating on her. Wait. No “same as.” It is.

It hasn’t been easy. There are times I want to load something disgusting online for a quick thrill or simulation of intimacy without the effort. (But I know there is no reward for that.) I’m not about to damage my relationship with my wife and my children and even my parents for the next 30 or 40 years just from a half-second jolt to the lizard brain.

I’ve also got a lot of resentment toward the idea of false praise. There have been significant moments where I’ve displayed my art and heard, “Ooooh, Brad! That’s amaaaazing!” and it rang false. As a result, I have had a hard time accepting praise.

Yet I hungrily seek approval.

Nowhere is this more evident than on social media, where it seems everyone else has more clicks, pins, likes, plusses, or hearts than I. No wonder social media sends me into such a dark funk. I try hard to make a concerted effort to get likes and clicks and retweets, and then after a week or so I throw up my hands and give up, depressed and angry when I look at Buffer’s analytics and see what I’m sharing isn’t getting clicked on. Then I’m back at it again the next week. Again with the spiral, looking for a quick fix that makes me feel accepted.

• • •

Wow. This been cathartic. I don’t know where this came from, nor what to do with it. In many ways I’m still on this journey. As it turns out, my perspective is rather pessimistic and distrustful. There’s no hope or redemption. I’m shocked at my own pessimism. I’ve never looked at myself this critically or deeply. It’s depressing. I don’t like this.

And yet.

Somewhere inside me there is hope. I think my parents instilled some spark in me that is optimistic, that believes there is good in this world, that somebody believes in me.

I do know this: I want to give my kids the self-confidence that I didn’t have. Every day, I make a point to tell them how proud I am of them, and that I will always love them no matter what they do, for the sole reason that they are my children, and there’s nothing they can do to change that. It’s hard, being as preoccupied as I am with my art (or lack thereof) let alone deep-seated doubts about my own merit.

This is not the story I want. Looking in the mirror is difficult when I discover how apparently intrinsically negative I am.

I suppose now I should set about writing myself a better story. But how?

I don’t have any answers right now, but I’ll get there. I just know it involves forgiveness. Probably again and again and again.

See? There is hope. Even if it is just a tiny spark.

Painting Quiet

September 20th, 2013

I’ve blogged about quiet and silence before, but not until recently have I painted it. It’s been percolating in the back of my mind a couple of years, actually, since my creative injury with the N365 project.

I’ve known I was moving toward abstraction in some way, but I’ve been unsure of how to go about doing it.

The best way to find out is to just jump in and try.

So here is my first attempt, back in July. It’s based on a portion of a photo I took over a year ago, and I wanted to experiment with a sort of “soft” abstraction. I suppose in a sense I may be becoming an Abstract Impressionist — something I never thought existed except in the minds of people who misunderstood Abstract Expressionism.

Haze, Brad Blackman, 2013. Oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 inches.

Want to make your art really compelling? Just add mystery.

September 17th, 2013

I’m something of a TV junkie. Which is funny, because I don’t watch a lot of actual, live television. But I love watching TV shows on Netflix. A few years ago it was TV-on-DVD. Now I stream everything through the Wii, my iPhone, or on my laptop. I’ll go three hours at a stretch after everyone in the house has gone to bed, watching shows like LostAliasBattlestar GalacticaFringeStargate SG-1Covert Affairs, or Warehouse13.

While these shows tend to be science fiction and spy shows (or both), the thing that ties them all together for me is the sense of mystery about them. Everything is strange but somehow connected. How? Why?

Quite a few of these shows are J. J. Abrams projects. That’s not a coincidence.

What’s in the box?

A few years ago, J. J. Abrams gave a TED talk about how “Mystery” played a huge part in his work. He tells the story of when he was a kid, his grandfather got him this magic box from Lou Tannen’s magic shop.

For whatever reason, he never opened it. To this day, it remains unopened. It sits on a shelf in his office, still sealed.

And I think that — the endless wonder at the possibility in the mind of a child — is what has driven Abrams from day one. There’s some surprise there that he doesn’t want to ruin, and he knows that sometimes the suspense is more fun than the actual revelation.

This is probably why his shows leave so many questions unanswered at the end. And it’s exactly what makes them so compelling and addictive. What happens next? What’s reallygoing on? The world will never know. And it keeps us guessing for years to come. (What was that island, really?)

A mysterious smile

A list of facts don’t usually draw people in unless there is something compelling about them, some kind of thing that is unexpected. Or, you know there is a connection, but what is it? This is mystery. It’s emotionally engaging.

The opposite of a story with mystery is a factual report. It’s boring. It becomes white noise. White noise puts people to sleep. Literally.

The most compelling stories are those that give you a sense that everything is connected, but you can’t quite figure out how. You know something is going on, but you’re not sure what. And often, it’s not what you think.

This works in movies, novels, plays, even Powerpoint presentations.

And of course, it works well in paintings.

The most famous example I can think of is Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Apart from the fact that it was stolen in 1911, Mona Lisa is famous for it’s mystery.

Who is the subject? Was she a patron? A lover? She looks like she knows a secret. What is it? Some theories say that she is the artist as a woman. Leo was a cross-dresser, or something like that. Or he had a dead twin sister. Who knows? Who is she? Does this painting hold some secret code? Dan Brown has made a fortune writing fiction based on the theories.

The painting uses lots of layers in a hazy technique known as sfumato. It’s rooted in the Italian word for “smoke.” If you’ve been to the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, you’ve seen this same atmospheric haze. It has to do with the quality of the air, the humidity or something. The air in northern Italy is like that, too. It probably has a lot to do with the Mediterranean Sea on three sides of the Italian peninsula. I think that’s part of what gives Italy it’s dreamy, romantic atmosphere. The light really is different. Things up close sparkle, and things far away are hazy.

Strive for mystery in your art. Not for the sake of obfuscation in itself (though keeping people guessing is a good way to create engagement) but be sure to reward people at some point. Use mystery to draw people in.

Humans are compelled to sort things out. It’s what we do. It thrills us to try to make sense of what’s in front of us (but not to the point of frustration). We love mystery because it excites us and stimulates us when we make new connections.

The Classic/Romantic Split

September 10th, 2013

Back in college, a girl I dated recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So, over Christmas break that year, I bought the paperback version with the Pepto-Bismol pink cover. I devoured it. Though it was written in the 70s, the book’s ideas made quite an impression on me.

Robert Pirsig lays out a story of a father and son taking a motorcycle trip across the country. This trip becomes a parallel for the intellectual journey into philosophy. The motorcycle they ride is a metaphor for the Self. The underlying theme is the notion of Quality and the two modes of looking at it as exemplified by the Classic/Romantic Split.


The “Classic mode” is distinguished by rational, analytic thought. It is typical of Enlightenment thinking and embraces technology.


On the other hand, the “Romantic mode” refers to an intuitive way of thinking, characterized by inspiration and creativity. I’ve come to understand this to be a somewhat inaccurate definition of Romanticism. I knew it in my gut when I read it all those years ago, but it was cleared up recently when I read Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcy. But for Pirsig’s purposes, it works since the point of ZMM is to learn to think of Quality beyond those two modes, as a thing just beyond consciousness that we strive for.

What this means for art

In regards to Art — the implications for this split are pretty huge. It underscores a large division in the world for two main types of people you are likely to encounter. Rationalist and Romantic thinkers. Or, put another way, technophiles and technophobes. It also points to two directions in art. The Classical mode is rooted in rationalism either based on what can literally be seen or in an abstract sense based on numbers such as De Stijl or Constructivism.

The Romantic line of thinking manifests itself in art that is rooted in myth and imagination. The best example I can think of is the art of William Blake and the Surrealists.

In the end, I don’t think the split is as clean as Pirsig wants it to be since most of us fall somewhere on a continuum between reason and intuition (or technology-loving and technology-fearing) but again it provides a rudimentary framework for understanding two ways of thinking.

Image Credit:

Split, Kenneth Noland, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 1/4 in. (237.8 x 238.5 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum

Book Review: Saving Leonardo

September 3rd, 2013

The cover got me. It’s got the Mona Lisa and Pulp Fiction. Plus some Kandinsky-looking abstract and a Lichtenstein pop-art comic-book painting. And this is a Christian book? This has to be cool, right? I have to admit that’s what first got my attention. Things I’m really into: fine art and movie-junkie movies. And it’s about saving Leonardo. What’s wrong with Leo? He was a talented guy. So I picked this up and decided to give it a read.

Now, it took me the better part of a year to read Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning. The first part is a bit slow, but certain parts really stood out for me and got my attention. Like most good books, once I hit a certain point, I couldn’t put it down. Nancy Pearcy did a good job with this.

It’s 336 pages, so it’s not a quick read. But it’s aimed at the “student of culture” and Pearcy’s goal is is to expose “secularism’s destructive and dehumanizing forces.” What this means is that what you see and hear in the arts and the media is not necessarily innocent (the buzzword to use is “value free”) but deliberately set against Judeo/Christian thought.

The Fact-Value Split

It starts off with a look at the fact-value split in today’s society and how that has affected many Christians. This refers to the idea that facts are essentially empirical data, but values are personal opinions and thus inferior to facts. This leads to the whole mentality that says “you can have your opinion, I’ll have mine, but that doesn’t make either one true”:
“Values are not considered matters of truth but only personal perspectives and preferences.”
The problem is that many Christians slide into this same line of thinking: “If someone wants to do something immoral, that’s their prerogative. In fact, I’ll even support them because it’s bigoted to do otherwise.”

This is where secular thought becomes destructive, because it slowly unravels one’s conviction in the Christian faith, which is based on certain absolutes.

The Threat of Global Secularism

The first section, The Threat of Global Secularism, is about the need for tools for detecting the underlying philosophies present in culture today, in movies, the arts, media, schools, even Saturday morning cartoons. Pearcy goes to great lengths to caution against the “fortress mentality” that is so prevalent in Christianity, which ends up isolating us from the world instead of helping us become familiar with the very world we are trying to bring to Christ.

Two Paths to Secularism

The second section, Two Paths to Secularism explores the root of the fact-value split and the two main ways our society has taken to arrive where we are today. So how did we get here?

This split occurred when The Enlightenment, or Analytic Tradition, began. Enlightenment is based in fact, scientific method, and above all, reason. The other route is the Romantic path, or Continental Tradition. It is rooted in story, myth, and imagination. Eventually, either stream becomes reductionistic and destructive.

The final two chapters are the most practical. The most entertaining is Chapter 9, Morality at the Movies. It reveals the agendas behind some popular films. Many are most definitely not “value free,” no matter how much they pretend to be.

The epilogue gives a great example of how art can reach the world for Christ by demonstrating the effects of Bach’s music on Japanese fans today, and how his music, more than 200 years after his death, can lead people to Christ.

What I think

It’s a bit academic, but it isn’t dry. It does require some foundation in art history. It might help to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance first, which is all about the Classic-Romantic split (Pirsig’s term for the same split).

There were times reading Saving Leonardo where I felt it would have been a good textbook for the “Christian in the Visual Arts” class I took my senior year at Harding University, but the tone is engaging and well-informed. Reading it, I felt like I was having coffee with a smart professor who is truly interested in helping me understand the way our culture operates.

It’s very sympathetic to the arts and artists. Pearcy herself is a trained violinist coming from a family of musicians, and she studied under Francis Shaeffer, so she has a firm grasp of the art world and today’s socio-political landscape.

The fact that it is filled with full-color images of artworks relevant to the topic at hand keeps visual types engaged.

It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to make a difference in the world with their art, because understanding the culture your art “lives” in is important to keeping it relevant.

Should art be uplifting?

July 2nd, 2013

This is a tough question for me, and perhaps for a lot of other artists, since the idea of uplifting art seems to fly in the face of anything done in the past 100 years or so, just like the idea of “beautiful” art. It’s something of a rhetorical question, since it carries with it the assumption that the answer is yes, art should be uplifting.

Again, it goes hand in hand with the notion that art should be beautiful. It stems from the same experience, really.

When you experience beauty, the emotional response is almost always that of feeling lifted up. So to a large degree, beauty = uplifting. So if art should be beautiful, then art should be uplifting as well. We tend to define beauty as or associate beauty with uplifting, positive feelings, even if they make you cry.

Of course, ugliness has the opposite effect: you recoil from it. Ugliness doesn’t make you happy.

Like I said before, though, happiness is cheap these days. Well, a quick rush is, anyway.

Thomas Kinkade tried to make his art as beautiful and uplifting as he could. Unfortunately, it rang hollow with a lot of people, so much to the point that the art “establishment” went to great lengths to deride him.

I can make the case that some art is beautiful and it isn’t necessarily uplifting. Awe-inspiring, yes, which is not quite the same as uplifting. Take for example, ancient weapons made by Native Americans thousands of years ago. A knife for slaughtering an animal might have an intricate and beautiful design carved on it, but it is done out of respect for the sustenance brought by the animal whose life was taken. Why be brutal and crude when you can be reverent?

Social Media Response

I posted this question on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram last week, and didn’t get a lot of responses, but the few I got were pretty telling.

@popesaintvictor said: “Art should tell the truth. “

I think this goes back directly to the idea that art, truth, and beauty are the same thing.

@JoppaThoughts said: “Uplifting? Not necessarily. Thought-provoking? Absolutely.”

I agree with all of it, actually. Art should be true, even when it “tells a lie.” And much of the time it should be thought-provoking.

Then Mark said: “Good Q @BradBlackman Art shouldn’t be anything, except art. It can do many things however. It may uplift, challenge, outrage, shock, pacify.”

Nathan Ketsdever on Facebook said that art shouldn’t ask questions. Maybe he was being facetious. Either way, I disagree. I can’t remember who said it, but I once read a quote from a great graphic designer who said that “design is about solving problems and answering questions. Art is about asking questions.”

Probably the best social media response was from Dean Melbourne on Instagram. He said: “Lets change that should to a could Brad.”

My take

As a Christian, everything I do, especially as an artist, should at the very least point people toward hope and redemption. I realize sometimes the truth (and art) might be brutal and ugly at first, or it might be light-hearted and comedic, but it needs to find a way to be honest and show some kind of hope, even if you find it only when you really dig for it. I think a lot of 20th century art has gotten it partially right: art should cause some sort of emotional response. Most of the time the response has been outrage, and artists have settled for that, seeing “happy” and “uplifting” as cheap (again for good reason). But there should always be a glimmer of hope at some point.

You know, Jesus got (and still gets) that reaction of outrage out of people. And his message is that of hope and redemption. So I suppose a lot of it boils down to where you are, where you’ve been, and where you are headed, if life, art, music, or anything else, really, is uplifting or offensive.

What about you? What’s your opinion on the idea of art being uplifting? Please share in the comments.

Photo credits: both by me, taken with iPhone 4.

Remix In Visual Art

June 30th, 2013

If you’ve been on the Internets™ a while, you might’ve heard of a nifty little series of videos called Everything Is A Remix, where Kirby Ferguson takes a look at how a lot of music and movies borrow heavily from each other, sometimes to the point where copyright and trademark infringement becomes a matter of debate.

There are some pretty notable examples, such as Led Zeppelin’s music, which borrows almost verbatim in some cases from old blues songs, and the huge influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on George Lucas’ Star Wars.

Of course, remixing is a huge part of the creative process. (Copy, transform, combine.) So much of what an artist creates in any medium is influenced not only by the world around him, but the work of other creators.


Again with Star Wars — it follows very closely the idea of Monomyth, which is the concept of a basic story that takes on about a dozen variations. In Star Wars, you have a young hero who goes on a journey, meets a wizard who gives him a special gift or ability, he has the blessing of a beautiful princess, and he defeats the black-clad villain in the end. It’s classic storytelling.

So how does this work in visual art?

Since I like to talk about visual art so much, let’s dive into some of the ways themes recur and are remixed from a two-dimensional perspective.

Madonna and Child

This is one of the classic themes of all of Western art: some variation of mother and child, whether it is religious (depicting Mary and Jesus) or simply a mother and child. It’s probably one of the most emotionally charged themes. While Madonna and Child themes were common in the Renaissance, especially for Raphael, it was a huge part of Mary Cassatt‘s work.


Ones’ physical surroundings are a constant source of inspiration for many artists, whether various scenes, or repeated looks at the same scene in different kinds of weather. Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral in all sorts of weather and lights, and the result is extraordinary.


Rembrandt probably popularized the self-portrait, but it’s been done forever: you are your own cheapest model.

Nudes/the female form

There’s no denying the beauty of the human figure. It’s also easily distorted and sexualized, and can symbolize so many things. Shown here: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Man Ray’s Ingres’ Violin, and Jenny Saville’s Hyphen.

Las Meninas

In 1958, Pablo Picasso created a series of 58 paintings that reinterpreted and/or recreated Velázquez’ iconic 1656 painting “Las Meninas.”

Dutch Masters

In recent years, I’ve seen quite a few attempts by photographers to recreate the iconic works of the Dutch Masters. It’s relatively easy nowadays to mimic Vermeer’s sumptuous lighting. Why not go all the way and recreate Vermeer’s paintings altogether? Or turn the Dutch Masters on their heads and swap class, race and gender within a form we are already familiar with?

Hipster Antiquities

The most recent thing I’ve seen is Photoshopping modern hipster-style clothes onto classical sculptures. It’s a little silly, but at least it exposes the great sculptures in the Louvre to people who might not otherwise know this art even exists. What’s funny is those wooly beards and curled mustaches are right at home in today’s hipster culture.

Art and Truth

June 6th, 2013

Truth is one of those concepts that is so simple, complex, and profound at the same time.

It seems there is always some debate over what is true, as well as the nature of truth itself. I think Truth (capital “T”) is some kind of entitity closely related to God. In fact, Jesus calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6.

I think where a lot of us get stuck and disappointed is we have this idea that if something is true, it is also beautiful.

There’s merit to that. John Keats in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” declared that truth and beauty are one and the same:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
There’s a big part of us that wants truth to be beautiful, pretty, and uplifting.

The sad reality is that life is not always so.


“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth …” — Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973
I think what Picasso was getting at is that art is an edited version of what we see, feel, hear, taste, smell, or otherwise experience. Empiricism can only tell us so much, because our human condition colors so much of what we experience.

And if beauty and truth are the same thing, why are the realities of war and the world we live in so horrifying?

It’s like the scene in My Name is Asher Lev, where Asher’s father asks him why he doesn’t paint pretty things:

It’s not a pretty world, Papa.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ my father said softly.

And it isn’t.

There will always be horrors. There will always be war, sickness, pain, poverty, extortion, death.

But there will always be beauty: redemption, love, grace, hope.

Life is beautiful

“La Vita È Bella” (Life is Beautiful) is about a family torn apart by the Holocaust in fascist Italy. There are some funny scenes, some touching scenes, scenes of heart-wrenching beauty, and scenes of heart-wrenching horror.

The most beautiful part of the story is the father’s love for his son, and the sacrifice he made for his boy.

And that redemption — heartbreaking as it is — is beautiful.

I think the bottom line is this: the truth is beautiful. It just depends on which side of it you are on.

Photo Credit: Seattle.roamer via Compfight cc

Art & Beauty (Or: Why Modern Art is So Ugly)

June 4th, 2013

You’re in a museum. You’re surrounded by a lot of famous paintings and sculptures by famous 19th and 20th century artists.

But there’s one thing that really jumps out at you: a lot of the art is, well, ugly.

Colors clash, faces are distorted, and images are disturbing. There are themes of violence and sexual abuse. Sometimes the art hardly looks like art at all. Almost all of it is depressing.

How is this even art? Why isn’t any of it beautiful? Why don’t I feel better after looking at it?

To understand this, you have to understand how and why art got the way it is today.

A little history goes a long way

There are two big things that completely changed art from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. When you look back at it, you can’t imagine art going any other way.
  1. Photography
  2. Global war


“Painting is dead,” said Paul Delaroche, upon seeing the first Daguerreotype. Advances in photography did a lot to make the role of painters as documenters or portraitists outdated and outmoded. With cameras able to quickly, more cheaply, and more accurately reproduce what is seen, artists had to move beyond just portraying what they could see with their eyes.

This also coincided with Romanticism, in which art became more inwardly-directed. It’s a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, which placed importance on science and technology. The Romantics put imagination at the forefront. Emotions ruled over logic and rationalism.

Romanticism in this sense isn’t sappy emotionalism, but a focus on imagination and internal truth and the idea of the mind as the ultimate thing that makes us like God, if reality is first conceived in the mind.

Global war

By the early years of the twentieth century, I suppose it all came to a head when rationalism and for lack of a better word, Romanticism, clashed and culminated in the first world war. I know that’s not the official story, but but when when you look at the rationalist underpinnings of fascism, you can see what I’m getting at.

You can’t deny that two world wars made man’s brutality unmistakable. We keep inventing more efficient ways of killing each other on a massive scale. And that’s a lot of what Romanticism was against, the development of technology for the purpose of killing or otherwise demeaning humanity.

The world got ugly and so did art

It’s said that art imitates life, but life imitates art as well. Art and life imitate each other, really. Everything was turned upside-down. People in power took philosophical ideas and twisted them into justifications for controlling and destroying those they didn’t like. The world got ugly, and art followed suit. People were stripped of their humanity, and massively destructive weapons were created.

There have always been bleak aspects to life, but up until the past 100 or so years, said bleakness was often a matter of course, due to famine, disease, and war. Now, massacre on an unprecedented scale was seen every day. Out of what can be boiled down to plain old meanness justified “rationalist” principles.

So it’s only natural that art became more distorted, more inwardly-focused, and more brutal. And more “rational,” ultimately so rational that painting was reduced to a single color spread on a canvas.

Just like our society. Self-absorption may be at an all-time high now. Everyone tries to justify their actions based on some rationale that makes it okay.

But where do I stand?

I hope this explains in part how we got here. The full story is much more complicated, of course, but it should give you some idea of how why art today is so “ugly.”

Personally, I think there is a place for beauty and a place for ugliness. I think in a hurting and uglified world, beauty and redemption are necessary. At the same time, one of the functions of art is to be a mirror and show the world to itself. A lot of the time, we don’t like what we see.

Let’s look at it another way. Think of your favorite songs or your favorite movies. Chances are pretty good that they’re not all uplifting. I bet one or two make you cry, and one or two make you feel like dancing and shouting.

The point is that good art will change you in some way. This is pretty widely accepted in the art world, whether artists and critics will admit it. A lot of artists take adopt a platform that is more complex than this, but this is what you will find at the core.

If there’s some sort of emotional impact, whether it makes you mad or thrills you or shocks you, a work of art is considered a success. A movie that has no effect on you is considered a failure. If it makes you laugh or cry, it’s done its job, right? Things are more interesting at the edges.

Plus, in this day and age where “happiness” is so accessible in the form of TV, drugs, food, and sex, happiness is a cheap commodity. So making art that raises people’s spirits is seen as a waste.

That’s my take on it.

I suppose my bottom line is this: the existence of beauty and ugliness in art really just depends on what the artist is trying to do.

Personally, I want art that makes me feel something, whether that is happy, sad, uplifted, or claustrophobic. I want to make positive changes in the world, but I am aware of the fact that sometimes I may have to make people uncomfortable with the realities of life.

What about you?

What’s your take on beauty in the arts? Is beauty necessary? Or do you think beauty in art is a waste? Let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: katmary via Compfight cc

How can you tell if art is good or bad?

May 16th, 2013

In my early twenties after I had moved back home from college, I asked my parents what they thought about a painting I was working on. I can’t tell you what piece it was, but I remember my frustration that they had no means of objectively looking at the art and giving it any sort of merit beyond the fact that their son did it. While I know that’s hard for a parent to do (I’m a dad of three now), there are plenty of objectives at stake when it comes to looking at art.

It’s easy to think (and even want) art to be some subjective thing that is good to one person and bad to another. (We also live in a society that wants to deny absolutes unless it is convenient. See how we give students trophies for half-attempted work?)

And I think a lot of people confuse taste or preference for merit or intrinsic goodness. They aren’t the same thing.

So what is good?

Without getting into a fundamental philosophical discussion, there are a lot of ways to approach this question.

1. Technical Skill

The first approach is perhaps the most common: how well-executed is the piece in terms of technique? How realistic is it? A lot of early or experimental works fall apart quickly because the technique is bad. Maybe the paint is not mixed right, so it falls off the canvas or the sculpture collapses because it isn’t well constructed.

This happened with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco in Milan. He used an experimental technique for mixing the pigment and plaster. It started decomposing almost immediately. But, even though it was already needing repair at the time of his death, it’s one of his masterpieces and an icon of the Italian Renaissance.

I’ve seen some of Salvador Dali’s early work and not been that impressed with how he applied the paint. It’s clumsy, and you can tell he really struggled with creating the refined, smooth, dreamlike images he is famous for. It took him decades for his skill to match his ambitions. After a lot of hard work and study, eventually he was able to create the sublime, giant “atomic” paintings of his later years.

2. Composition

Remember the elements and principles of design we talked about earlier? Line, shape, value, texture, color, and so forth. Another way to evaluate artwork is to look at how the formal elements interact with each other. Is the art clumsily composed? Do elements barely touch each other in weird tangents that make it awkward? Sometimes this is done on purpose, just like some songs intentionally have discord and jarring contrasts to create a mood or make a statement. Most people find a lot of beauty and pleasure in harmonious compositions, so in most people’s eyes that is artistic success.

3. Content

Of course, no discussion about artistic merit is complete without talking about content. What message do you think the artist is trying to send, and how well does that message get across? If the artist deplores the atrocities of war, is it likely to have soft, pastel colors?

Picasso’s “Guernica” is a reaction to war in his native Spain. It is over eleven feet tall, black-and-white, and filled with writhing, jagged figures: a mother clutching her dead child, a startled horse, a trampled soldier, a traumatized bull. News of the battle was plastered across Paris newspapers, where Picasso lived at the time.

It’s not a beautiful painting. It is a powerful painting that poetically talks about the horrors of war.

“I like it”

Now that you’ve been through this objective evaluation, you can form a personal opinion of the artwork in question. It’s at this point where you can safely say whether you like it or not, because you can back it up. You’ve done the work of actually looking critically at the art and deciding for yourself if it is successful.

This is why artists are often offended if you just say, “Oh, that’s pretty,” or “how nice.” Because it’s pretty easy to tell when someone hasn’t really paid attention.

The same goes for people who have a knee jerk reaction to whatever they don’t consider “art.”

Taking the time to objectively consider a piece of art goes a long way to create a richer and more rewarding experience.

My friend Matt says that “really studying art is the difference between glancing at the night sky, and actually getting a telescope and charting the stars.”

So, the next time you are at a museum, gallery, or an opening, pick two or three pieces and spend some time getting to know them. Figure out what makes them work and why. Then, form your own opinion about it beyond a mere like or dislike.

I promise it will make your time more memorable.

Photo Credit: wvs via Compfight cc

How to Look at Art

May 14th, 2013

Ever been to a museum or gallery and seen a work of art that just had you flabbergasted? What was it even doing there? How is this thing even art?

Sometimes it seems like you need to have an advanced degree like a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to even look at art. Maybe something is loaded with Renaissance symbolism or obtuse postmodern pastiche.

How do you really look at it and really understand it without being a pretentious snob or looking like a bumpkin who doesn’t know anything?

I have been doing this for so long that it’s difficult for me to articulate it, so I reached out to my new friend Matt Appling, who just so happens to be an art teacher. (You may remember where I interviewed Matt about his new book Life After Art.) He was nice enough to shoot me an email to remind me of some ways to get started looking at art.

The two main things you need to understand about art are FORM and CONTENT. Let’s dig in.


In a nutshell, form is how a piece of art looks. Things like color, line, shape, value, texture, contrast. When you’re looking at the form of a piece of art, you’re looking at how all these things interact with each other. It’s in both abstract and realist styles of art, and if you look carefully, you can find it in both.

Here are a few of the elements and principles of design (or composition):

  1. Line
  2. Color
  3. Shape
  4. Space
  5. Form
  6. Unity
  7. Balance
  8. Hierarchy
  9. Scale
  10. Dominance
  11. Contrast
There’s more, and art students spend at least a semester studying all these things, but having a basic grasp should help. Just having the vocabulary to talk about it makes a huge difference, and it becomes so much more than a gut “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” (You can check Wikipedia to learn more about the fundamental ideas about the practice of good visual design.)

As in music, the word “composition” refers to the way the art is put together. Yes, this is where visual art and music overlap in a big way.


Content is what a piece of art says. In some art works this will take the form of symbolism, where something stands for something else, usually a concept. For exempt, in Renaissance art, a skull symbolizes death, or a dog symbolizes fidelity or faithfulness. With almost any visual art that descends in any way from the Romantic era, symbolism is very common. Even today’s emo artists (both visual and musical) employ symbolism. (Unfortunately they don’t have the same breadth as their 18th-Century forebears.)

So, symbolism does a lot to convey a message, or content.

On the other hand, content shows up in the way a particular subject might be glorified, ridiculed, or vilified. Pairing things makes a statement as well.

Never forget that art is almost never neutral, even when it says it is. A position of neutrality is a pretty strong position, after all. And I’ve found that a “neutral” position very quickly becomes negative.

Artists will often use these tools to make a statement. If the artist has done his or her job well, that statement will be fairly clear. Sometimes it is intentionally cryptic, like a riddle. The more postmodern it is, the less clear the message is. Sometimes there is no “message.”

At other times, art is just an exploration of form.

What’s next?

Next up, we’ll have a look at evaluate a piece of art, and then form an opinion about it.

Photo Credit: Susan NYC via Compfight cc