Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Thought Experiments

Recently and as usual, I was watching the Discovery/History/Science Channel and there was a documentary on Einstein showing in which they mentioned his “thought experiments.”  For some reason that really jumped out at me – thought experiments.  I suddenly looked up from my sketching to listen.  Einstein used to lapse into states of thought where he imagined himself in all types of strange scenarios that somehow related to whatever scientific theory he was working on.  Like so often happens with me, I was carried away to the land of obsession and I NEEDED to learn EVERYTHING about Einstein’s thought experiments.  What were they?  Could I apply them to art?  Could I apply them to making my husband buy me the snowflake pendent necklace from Tiffany’s?  I had to find out.

So, I started researching.  After much reading I saw that thought experiments were a tiny bit like meditation and a lot like daydreaming and I realized that I had, many times, come up with images in my head while daydreaming that eventually turned into paintings or collages.  This started me wondering how important daydreaming was to people in general but especially to artists.  There is so much going on in everyday life and so many types of electronics to distract us during periods that we used to spend daydreaming such as waiting on line at the supermarket, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or doing household chores – I mean I was texting while I was vacuuming the other day when apparently I should have been using that time to daydream.  How is that affecting us mentally?  The fact that we have little quiet time for our minds to languidly stretch out and explore tiny little thoughts, ideas and fantasies that have been brushed off to the side and ignored could have a negative effect on our brains, no? 

I decided to start incorporating daydreaming into my life in the same way I would meditation.  I sat down, closed my eyes and like when I attempt meditation my brain at first went into a weird overdrive where I think about anything and everything that I do not want to think about but when I got past all that crap I did reach this place that I assume was similar to what Einstein was talking about just as he was running with a beam of light, which led him somehow to come up with his theory of special relativity - I too was able to place myself in and become part of a painting, I started imagining images as they would be in paint not in real life, they soon started pouring out, some random some symbolic.  It was purely visual thought no distinct words.  I came out of it with pictures in my head of three finished paintings.  (On a side note, I’m curious how other artists imagine their works – as finished pieces or just an idea of where to start and what you want to say?)

Now I have only tried this one time – yesterday – so I cannot say how it will carry on into the long term because I am not currently going through any type of artist’s block but I have in the past and I feel like this may help when I’m blocked.  If daydreaming is anything like meditation it can only be good for your mental health as many studies have shown (here is just one - ).  But daydreaming with a purpose – not too much of a focused purpose but a general area of focus is what I’m thinking of continuing on with.  If any neuroscientists wants to chime in on this I’d love it.  And if anyone has any suggestions on how I can get my husband to get me that Tiffany's necklace I'm all ears.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Exhibition at Pierro Gallery

I will be exhibiting my latest work at the Pierro Gallery in South Orange next month.

Monday, March 25, 2013


I have recently been reading about neuroaesthetics, a relatively new scientific field that looks to understand the “perceptual, emotional, and empathic responses to works of art.” (Kandel 2012)  I am obsessed with it and have been googling it to death as well as padding my Kindle library with any book I can find on the subject.  As an artist and art historian I am curious as to what it can find as far as what areas of the brain are most involved when viewing art and whether or not different areas are more active in artists’ brains when viewing art than in non-artist brains.  And as a person just really interested in neuroscience the combination of the two is irresistible for me.  I loved watching on the Discovery channel the praying nuns and meditating Buddhist monks under MRI machines as compared to the brains of atheists trying to pray – completely different areas used.  To me it is just incredibly interesting.
However, there seems to be a bit of controversy over the issue with some in the art world claiming neuroscience cannot possibly explain or know what an artist or viewer of art is truly feeling or that we are not just our brains ( and some in the neuroaesthetics field indignantly claiming they in fact can and we are in fact our brains (   There are many more articles out there doing battle on either side I just liked those two the best, although the one entitled “Neuroaesthetics is Killing your Soul” also caught my attention.  To be honest I don’t really care about all of the debating, I just want to know what can be found out through neuroscience about art and if that will interest me in any way (because as with anything else that goes on ever I only care about it as long as it in some way relates to me).  

Others seem to think that this will inevitably lead to a set criteria on how we should judge good and bad art, which would be dictated by the field of neuroaesthetics – this would be bad because we all know that good and bad art are judged arbitrarily by a select group of art critics, theorists historians as well as anyone else on earth with access to the internet.  I feel pretty confident that this will not happen.  I do not believe the field of neuroaesthetics will kick open the carefully guarded door to the art world and demand that this is how art should now be judged and that is final and all must comply or else!  Although, that would be pretty cool and I would love to see some type of cage match between a neuroscientist and an art critic.

But I digress, what I would really love to see is what exactly the brain does when confronted with art.  And does telling a person it’s art make a difference?  What if you show someone a nicely designed shower curtain and tell them it is an abstract piece of work by a famous well-respected artist?  Will that make a difference in their reaction to it?  What if Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was imprinted on a shower curtain what would the reaction be to that?  What are the different reactions to the performances of Marina Abromiovic as opposed to a Picasso?  A Futurist painting to a medieval cathedral?  Neolithic cave paintings to a Monet.  Northern Song paintings to Meret Oppenheim’s Object.  Is it possible that the same area of the brain is affected by these completely different works of art?  They would all bring up a different emotion and thought and feeling but would it all be recognized in some special “art” area of the brain?  This is the stuff I want to know.  To me more knowledge from a different perspective on a subject is never a bad thing – how can you argue with that?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Does Art Suffer Because the Artist Does Not?

Dark Night of the Soul, Tracy DiTolla
Remember the days of the starving artist?  I mean the really starving artists.  It was not that long ago but it seems to be a rapidly fading concept.  It is such a romantic notion - the artist living in poverty by choice because nothing on earth was more important than focusing on the art.  It was a higher calling, a noble path - the art must come first, even before the artist's own well-being.  The artist should toil endlessly at his canvas without nourishment or sleep because it was the art that was sustaining him.  The art was feeding his soul and driving him with a passion that could not be stopped by anything.  Any meager amount of money made was to go to paint and canvas, there was nothing else. 
Think Toulouse Lautrec, Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh, Modigliani, much of most of their lives were spent in poverty and they seemed to live only for their art.  Today that does not really happen, at least no one I know is living that way.  Most artists have “day jobs” that often have nothing to do with art.  There is no longer that high awe-inspiring respect for an artist who abandons everything and spends all of his time creating and exploring different visual theories - if you do that now most people will think you’re crazy and a loser.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; I’m pretty sure most of us do not want starving artists dressed in rags begging for food, oil paint and conte crayons on the street.  But how does the lack of time an artist gets to focus on his/her art reflect in the artwork produced today. 

I Can't do This Anymore, Tracy DiTolla

Look at the Impressionists, Dada, the Futurists, the Abstract Expressionists, this list goes on – would those movements have come about and changed the world of art if those artists came home from their day jobs, made dinner for their kids and then after cleaning, doing bills, being distracted by RHONJ and getting everyone settled into bed then start working on their art?  Artists are not getting any existential suffering in and that is leaving us with art that often lacks substance.  I’m in no way saying that artists should abandon their responsibilities to focus on their art, I’m saying it is too bad that art does not seem to be as respected and as important to people as it once was by society as a whole.  And I am looking at a lot of the artwork around today (not all of it, there is still great art out there ;)) 
and some of it really falls short and I think it is because of the general loss of the importance of the artist’s vision.  

The 11th Hour, Tracy DiTolla

P.S. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What is Art?

What is art?  As an artist and an art historian I often get asked this question by my students and sometimes by other random people who hear me say that I am an artist and art historian and want to try to boggle my mind with an argument about what they think art is and is not.  To them I usually respond with something light and diplomatic like - I really don't care what you think random drunk person sitting at a bar and cutting into my conversation, go slur your pseudo-intellectualism to someone else.  But to my students I tell my opinion (the correct opinion) which was built up over the past 25 years and was altered and amended many times.  I have thought about this question for hours.  I have pondered it the way Buddhist monks ponder 'what is the sound of one hand clapping,' only that has no answer and there is an answer to 'what is art?' and here it is:  Art, in modern times, is absolutely any object, image, sound, movement or combination of those things that is made or presented by a person with the intention by that person that it is art.

Fountain, Duchamp, 1917
Now, I have revised and updated that statement dozens of times over the years, I used to say that art is anything created by an artist whether others like it or not or find it offensive or beautiful or hilarious or obscene.  But I came up with that in high school and there are gaping holes in that argument.  The first fault I found in that statement presented itself to me when I learned about Dada readymades.  After more thought I changed my statement to 'art is anything created or presented by an artist'.  That stuck for a while and I thought I was a genius for coming up with such a simple answer to a universal question while I was still a teenager.

It was years later that the word "artist" in my well thought out answer started making me feel a little pretentious.  After I read Greenberg's 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' and subsequently realized why other non-art people often think artists, art historians and art critics are pompous douches, I wondered, what about "crafters"?  They are always cast down the "low art" realm.  They are not making serious "high art," they are making stuff that is art-like but quite art, just craft.  I hate that line of thought because I think it is a slap in the face to movements like Feminist art and to Native American art, folk art, collagists and any other group or art movement that knits, sews, glues, makes ceramics, etc.  Plus, I LIKE to knit and have even thought about using yarn in my own art.  Even when I am teaching art history I hate saying that I am speaking about "high art" (don't get me wrong, if anyone called my work "crafty" I would punch them in their smug face, I just don't like the 'high art' / 'low art' categories, though if I had to categorize mine it would be so obviously in the 'high art' category).  So out the window that one went and I put more thought into revising my one great and true answer to the question - What is art? 

Yard, Allan Kaprow, 1961
That is when I changed it to "made or presented by any person..." but then I went deeper into my studies of art history and learned more about Futurism, Dada and Fluxus.  I read articles by Duchamp, Cage and Kaprow.  I learned about Happenings, Ray Johnson's Nothings and Fluxus events.  I realized art is more than tangible objects.  Art is sometimes a noise or a word, a performance, a movement, even a concept, (although I still believe the concept has to come out of a person's head to be considered).  Art could be literally anything as long as the intention was there by the producer/presenter that it be art.  To me it is the intention - intention makes or breaks it.

And that is what I still think.  I have yet to find a different definition that I agree with.  I know many will disagree with me for many reasons but I have yet to hear a valid argument that sways me from my steadfast belief about what art is.  Besides being an abstract concept that is intrinsically woven into my DNA, art is, "absolutely any object, image, sound, movement or combination of those things that is made or presented by a person with the intention by that person that it is art."

Untitled(from Tree of Life Series), Ana Mendieta, 1977

by Tracy DiTolla

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Salvation in Art

So many artists, including myself, claim art is like a religion or a religious experience.  What is it about art that provides salvation for so many?  Is it the beauty?  The honesty?  The fantasy?  The actuality of being able to bring forth something that was not previously in existence?  How do colors, lines, forms and shapes act as a savior when an actual savior cannot seem to provide comfort?  I have heard and read of artists throughout history up until present time, known and unknown, abstract artists and figurative artists, tell of how art was capable of bringing them to a higher plane of existence, to a spiritual state, a religious enlightenment.  What happens between eye and brain and soul when one looks at a painting that produces these astounding emotions?

Artists throughout time spoke about the spirituality that art can engulf the viewer or creator with.  Mark Rothko once said,  
"Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need."
Images are miraculous and have even been known to bring those standing before them to a state of frenzied madness.  There is an actual name for this, it is called Stendhal Syndrome, named after a French author who wrote about his feelings of overwhelming emotions when he gazed upon Renaissance masterpieces.  It causes rapid heartbeat, tears, confusion and even hallucinations.  When I heard about this I was fascinated because I had always thought I was one of the only ones who felt this way when looking at certain paintings whether they were my own or a great masterpiece.

Art and spirituality are inseparable for some artists.  Composer John Cage’s work was greatly inspired by the teachings and philosophies of Zen Buddhism.  He studied Zen in the mid 1940s and it deeply affected his outlook on life and music.  Cage explained his beliefs, "The attitude that I take is that everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration [art] when we become aware of it..."  To him, art was everywhere, everyday life was art and every sound we hear was music or had the potential to be and these daily sights and sounds were more interesting to him than the accepted forms of art and music.  Cage thought that art should be concerned with equivalency of values instead of elevating artistic experiences from everyday experiences - "in this way art becomes important as a means to make one aware of one's actual environment."  This comes directly from Buddhist teachings on the importance of being aware of every moment and present in every moment in life.  Every second is significant and one should always have the awareness of that.  When this is applied to art or music then one is always aware that every object, act or sound can potentially be art.  Cage was very influential on many of the Fluxus and Happenings artists who were also concerned with Zen as a part of art or of art and Zen practices being one in the same.

When I first read about John Cage I felt so excited I thought I was going to burst - someone had already put into words what I had always felt.  But, in addition to the whole Zen side of things and that strange enlightened state I can reach when looking at great art there is also the aspect of creating it - when I am creating it it is like being in another world.  It is something that I have only been able relate to other artists and sometimes musicians.  NOTHING is better therapy than making art for me.  NOTHING can even compare.  I can only describe it as crawling into your imagination and hanging out there.  You can put down an emotion with a color that words could never describe,  you can make a new world or a new you on a canvas, you can rid yourself of fear and be God-like. 
But I suppose art has to be like that, otherwise who would be dedicating their lives to creating it?