MSB brainstorming

28 September 2017

Dr Great Art Episode 22: Representationalism in Art

Dr Great Art podcast. Episode 22: Representationalism in Art
What constitutes representation in a work of art? The representational nature of visual art is one of its most important, fruitful, and intriguing elements --- yet for very particular reasons.


This is the script (not a transcript, as I change elements when recording).

Dr Great Art Podcast 22

Representationalism in Art

Hi this is Mark Staff Brandl, with the 22nd "Dr Great Art" brief podcast. I hope you enjoy it and come back for each and every one.

Today my Artecdote is a discussion of the meaning of the technique of making images that somehow look like, visually resemble, other things. You know, making pictures of things. In short, I am thinking about what representation represents.

What constitutes representation in a work of art? Discussions of this usually begin with the tale of the ancient Greek painter able to create a work so convincing that birds would attempt to eat the depicted grapes; they also include a discourse on the original Greek word mimesis, linking it to imitation. Because our terms for representation commonly stem from this, we can be led into certain areas of thought. But none of the available translations are fully accurate, I feel, so I shall bypass this rather than be bogged down by obtuse argument.

There are arts that embrace representation and those that do not. The intrinsically representational arts are literature (including poetry, prose, and drama), the visual arts (including painting, sculpture, photography, and film), and, of course, other arts close to or between these areas, such as performance, comics/sequential art, mixed media, and intermedia. That favorite metaphor for abstract painters, music, is an example of an art which resists representation.

The representational nature of visual art is one of its most important, fruitful, and intriguing elements --- yet for very particular reasons. It is amusing that we always speak as if illusion were truly possible in art. An argument can be made that this deception seldom, perhaps never, genuinely occurs. We never mistake art for reality. The disinterestedness of the aesthetic attitude, as philosophers say, and our basic sanity usually disallows this. To aesthetically perceive anything is in fact not to be "fooled" by pretence. We neither bump our noses trying to walk into Richard Estes paintings, nor rush about attempting to save the victim of a Hitchcock movie from harm.

The viewer is not over-distanced, of course: I might get tears at a tragedy, and frequently an excellent painting sends chills of excitement up my spine. Response to a work of art is in fact multilayered and complex. Art demands a synchronous, contrary, almost oscillating attention. I view a work both entranced and consciously considering the skill of the image or artifice. As an example, trompe l'oeil, "fool-the-eye" painting, is ironically the opposite of its supposed intent. Our whole attention is riveted by the accomplishment of the artifice, which gives us the thrill. It in no way deceives us. If trompe l'oeil wished to really trick us, the only successful pieces would be counterfeit money.
On the other hand, there is always the danger that simple emotional escapism can preclude moral involvement and analysis of larger context; Bertolt Brecht shared this concern, as is evidenced in his attacks on theatrical illusion.

What makes an image a representation of something? How is it a "picture?" Just because the artist intended --- or we presume that he/she did --- a work to be a representation of something, is it? Because the artist looked at a tree while in the act of painting is that why the piece then bears the image of a tree? If I notice that a picture reminds me visually of a human's face, is it a portrait? These points may be of interest in the process of the artist, but it is obviously untrue to ascribe to any of them the essence, or interest, of representation itself. Furthermore, I am not talking about "figurative" art, genre, or simple naturalism. Representation, to me, to be a source of significance in art, must go beyond that; we must consider the inclusion of history, meaning, as well as our abilities and inabilities to recognize it. Indeed, much abstraction is intriguing at least partially due to its evasion of, dispute with, circulation around representation. NOT representing something disturbs many, especially when it approached decorativeness --- which I feel is an incorrect response, but the subject for another podcast.

There is a famous scientific anecdote of chimpanzees able to recognize photos of themselves, yet certain humans who had never previously seen photographs being unable to do so. Even so-called primitive or traditional societies have highly sophisticated systems of representation that filter their vision. The convoluted modern "naive" theory is that if an image somehow resembles a photograph of a certain object ---  discounting certain aspects of photographic vision (such as out-of-focus) --- then it is a representation of that object. This points, through its obvious simple-mindedness, verging on illogicality, elsewhere.

My assertion is that representation is largely a matter of social convention. And this can and is and should be used by artists when creating representational works.
As symbol shades into "picture" and is culturally dependent, I can only see representation fully realized and most pregnant with meaning, as concretized belief. By this I mean something near ideology, although I hesitate to use that buzzword that describes many things now destroying our societies. I suppose I mean in some ways Weltanschauung ("world-looking-at," "philosophy-of-life") and Weltbild ("world-picture").

Flippantly, I might say that representation represents itself. This is not circular like a formal tautology, such as "what you see is what you see." A picture of the world, or some element of it, is a rich evocative arena! A picture is open to critical interpretation and bears the weight of previous and current assumptions concerning the uses (and misuses) of similar images. Because of this we only see through conceptual scrims. Our knowledge of an image is a knowledge of the conditions inherent in that image. For instance, representation from the past reveals to a greater or lesser extent the superstructure of the society that produced it, which is of course related to other elements such as but not limited to the economic base. It also reflects, whether intentionally or not, the mores and values of the people and society out of which it arose. And yet quite often, and at best, it embodies critique and alternatives to these very values and beliefs. We artists are at best both OF our time and AGAINST it!

Jan Van Eyck's painting fully depicts both the religiosity of his time and -the rising antimedieval materialism that was to eclipse it. Oscar Schlemmer's work proffers his period's hope for a grander future, yet also portrays the dehumanization it wrought. Leonardo da Vinci's art, studies and notes are clearly the quintessence of the Renaissance, yet carry bits of the Medieval in them, his heritage, and also grand propositions for how things could be improved. Again, we artists are at best both OF our time and AGAINST it!

It is credible to postulate that much of our understanding of visual art is through its ability to give direct expression to the sense of shared humanity, of shared human experience. But the strongest works are those that sustain the most complex responses, like life. Therein lies the presence and vigor of representation: Works of art can be made for interpretation, cognizant of their status, associations, and cultural situation. Artists have the ability to wield considerable power through their manipulation of the multiplicity of references, technical aspects, emotions, and intellectual assertions of representation to delineate the truth of our experience.

Representation in Art!

Thanks for listening. Podcast number 22. If you wish to hear more cool, exciting and hopefully inspiring stuff about art history and art, come back for more. Also I, Dr Mark Staff Brandl, artist and art historian, am available for live custom Performance-Lectures. In English und auf Deutsch.
I take viewers inside visual art and art history. Entertainingly, yet educationally and aesthetically, I analyze, underline, and discuss the reasons why a work of art is remarkable, or I go through entire eras, or indeed through the entirety of art history, or look at your desired theme through the lens of art history. The lectures often take place with painted background screens and even in my painting-installations.

Some recent ones were on the entire history of Postmodernist Art from 1979 through today, on Metaphor(m) in Art History, on Mongrel Art, and on Women in Art. Once again, I'd like to thank Chloe Orwell, Brad Elvis, and the rock band the Handcuffs for composing, performing and recording my theme song, "Shut Up and Paint," a tiny portion of which begins and ends every Dr Great Art Podcast.

You can find or contact me at
book me at
or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or ello, all as Dr Great Art.

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