Four of Six

Two weeks left until my performance at the artSPACE durban Gallery!! And two weeks left of my 40 day fast! After my performance I am sooo dashing off to the nearest pizza place for the cheesiest pizza they have to offer!

A lot of my students are writing their theory exams at the moment while completing their practical assignments for final exam assessment. An art degree really is a very tough academic pursuit! I feel their pain; not only because I have gone through it myself but because I am still experiencing the same with my Masters. I am engaged in the process of writing the review of literature for my area of study which entails analyzing the research and readings I have conducted for a period of almost 2 years now, and then, utilizing my findings and conclusions, constructing an argument. This is really, in my opinion, the toughest part of the dissertation. Everything rides on you getting this right! Why do I say this with such conviction? Well, if your research has been shoddy or lacks focus as well as intensity, then your conclusions are questionable and your entire argument is weakened or even becomes invalid. You will lack conviction because, believe me, there is no winging it with a document of between 50 000 and 100 000 words. So yes, I have been busy with that, but in addition, I have to work on my practical component too. This upcoming performance is part of that component. If Art is not for sissies, Academic Art is a bully on steroids; truly brutal, belligerent and unrelenting!

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As I mentioned, my students are writing theory exams at the moment. Two of them are in their 3rd and final year and are writing on Modernism and Postmodernism, and Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. These are really complex and theory-dense modules which is probably why you only deal with them in the final year of your degree.  So I was trying to get across to them the concept of ontology and the idea of an aesthetic essence in art. I thought I would share it with you because in having to explain it, it made me revisit these theories myself. This is why I love teaching art. Not only do the students keep me on my toes and in touch with the contemporary, but they also ensure that I continue to involve myself in thinking about ART. They keep me current. OK, so let me tell you about Ontology: at its simplest it is the study of existence and the experience thereof. It originates in Ancient Greek philosophy where Plato created his ontological argument. He called it the Theory of Forms. Essentially, the Form (capital F) of something was its essence, whereas, the form (lowercase f) was the actual physical representation. He used this idea to separate man’s soul from his body, and explain the idea of the soul in a quantifiable way. Can you see how that can be applied to art? The form (the physical artwork) and the Form of the artwork (the aesthetic essence). The ontology of art considers the matter, form, and mode in which art exists. Works of art are social constructs in the sense that they are not natural but human creations. In this way art is imbued with an aesthetic essence. The point I want to make is that, in my opinion, if an artist is to truly call himself or herself an artist, then they need to consider the aesthetic essence of their work. And aesthetic essence does not mean “pretty” or “cute” or “nice”. If you are doing that then you are in all likelihood a decorator, a graphic designer, an illustrator or a hobbyist. And there is nothing wrong with earning a living doing that or merely enjoying the “just doing” of it as a hobby.

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Being an artist is not easy. I know! I do a lot of things in order to pay the bills so that I can make the art I want to make. One of those things is part-time work for one of the departments at the University of Pretoria, creating illustrations for their textbooks. You have to pay the bills! BUT I don’t call it art because for me that work I am doing is lacking in that ontological essence. This essence comes from something being truly unique. Imagine standing before Starry Night or the Mona Lisa, or witnessing a Marina Abramovic performance in the flesh. There is a certain awe or emotion that one is bound to experience in the presence of something like that. It is the fact that you are in the presence of an original, a one of a kind, which creates ontology and imbues something with an aesthetic essence. This is one of the reasons I love performance art, because each is a truly one-of-a-kind work of art and completely original. They are by no means all successful works of art but they have ontology in buckets full! Look, perhaps I am coming across as being elitist, judgmental, critical etc. but I believe that there has to be some sort of system of worth, and the assessing of it. And, yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, if you are an educated or discerning art appreciator, there is no way you can say that Mickey Mouse has the same aesthetic essence as the Mona Lisa. Logically this has, of course to do with rarity, Mickey having been reproduced innumerable times in all formats while there remains only one Mona Lisa. But it is more than that, it is the ritual of the artist which is evident in the Mona Lisa and not in Mickey that is also the difference. And more importantly, it is the artist’s intent that makes the difference that matters. A general clue is if you are hoping that your work suits someone’s colour scheme in their lounge or blends in a foyer or that it will look cool on a t-shirt then you can kind of take for granted that aesthetic essence has been sold out. The street artist, Banksy, very cleverly plays with this whole idea of ontology while critiquing mass media, advertising, and commenting on our postmodern society and the idea of selling out to the all mighty dollar, pound, rand (insert your currency here).

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To end off I am going to leave you with this:

“Inspiration comes and goes, creativity is the result of practice” – Phil Cousineau

Practice, Make, Do! And by all means paint the odd unicorn or fairy…but if you do, OWN it! Own it like “Las Vegas” Elvis owned those capes he wore with those legendary jumpsuits of his!

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