Almost every artistic movement that makes an impact has a philosophy behind it, or rather, along with it. To change the way people view objects—which is what revolutionary art does—you need to also shift the way they think. I’d like to share with you today the philosophical art of Andrés Ginestet. Influenced by Henri Bergson’s notions of duration, élan vital, intuition and creativity, Andrés Ginestet presents viewers not merely with images, reflections, sculptures, but also with a whole new phenomenological experience of artistic production.
The philosopher Henri Bergson regarded creativity as a newness which is not predetermined by mechanistic forces. He placed emphasis upon aesthetic intuition in generating new objects and new ways to look at life, creatively. For him, the concept of time, or duration, was not deterministic. In other words, time is not just a sequence of predictable moments, one following the other. Rather, duration is heterogeneous, influenced by countless possible activities and agents, the product of our free will as human beings. Bergson presented a very empowering understanding of time for artists. Perhaps what influenced Ginestet’s art most is Bergson’s concept of élan vital, or vital energy, which offers its own theory of evolution. Human beings are individuals but at the same time part of the indivisible energy of life itself: singular yet whole.
It’s difficult to give artistic expression to abstract philosophical concepts and still have mass appeal for viewers, to engage them to process such ideas through art. Andrés Ginestet takes this challenge and meets it spectacularly well. To offer just one example that you can view on his website, http://ginestet.imago.de/, Ginestet’s photography translates philosophy into an understated and provocative play of mirror reflections in time.
The colors are quiet, autumnal: one could even say timeless. Soft tans, browns and muted greens surround the paleness of the nude female figures: colors that evoke, as the artist states, the anguish of the act of creating. These works of art transgress genres: they’re photographs, of course, but also sculptural, painterly, philosophical and sometimes the artist adds perfume to the mix, to give viewers a fuller phenomenological experience of artistic creativity. Ginestet’s reflected images don’t draw attention to themselves through either shape or color. What strikes the viewer’s eye is the stark simplicity of the nudes, representing, as the artist suggests, the gestation of humanity itself: throughout time, yet also individuated, naked and vulnerable, each image seeking its own mirror reflections and echoes in the glass structures through which we, ourselves, can view them.
The art of Ernesto Camacho captivates. It catches your eyes, from afar, in its catchy urban themes—dramatic yet also familiar—in its jazzy feel (if images could be translated into music, his art would be jazz) and in its contrasts of colors that remain somehow harmonious, not jarring: easy on the eyes. Just take a look for yourself at his website, http://artistsites.org/ernestocamacho/. This is definitely representational art of regular people in Impressionist settings, but definitely not painted in an Impressionist style.
Recall how vividly Renoir loved to depict Parisian scenes of young people dancing, going to cafés, in the park or on the beach. Most of the Salon rules went literally out the window as Impressionism celebrated average, middleclass life, outdoors, in the city, where most people went to have fun. That’s what Ernesto does in his paintings: he captures young people enjoying life, be it at a bar, like in the flirtatious “Two of a Kind,” at the ballet, like in “Odette My Love,” or waiting for the subway, like in the mesmerizing “Christie’s World,” featured above.
There’s a touch of Edward Hopper in these dramatic city scenes, but no alienation, just energy and even optimism found in every day life. The young lady in “Christie’s World” speaks volumes with her luminosity and intelligent glance, casting light upon the entire scene, including the two men sitting on the bench on either side of her: one absorbed in a newspaper, the other fading out. Ernesto Camacho depicts with talent and flair our world: contemporary, edgy, urban and narrative, since each picture, like each life, tells an eloquent story.
In modern art, there are a number of movements that placed playfulness and fantasy at their center: Surrealism, of course, but also Dada and pop art. Toyism is the latest movement in this tradition: it subverts the canon to put the fun back in art. What’s interesting about this game-like movement is the fact that it’s rule-bound. In this respect, it goes against the postmodern assumption that anything goes in art. Since the 1960’s, we’ve come to believe that art is what the artists and public make it to be: it’s a realm with consecration (since some artists become better known than others), but no formal rules or boundaries.
Toyism has some affinities with postmodern pop art, but it’s more quirky, introspective and rule-bound. In the early 1990’s, Dejo, a Dutch artist and musician, introduced Toyism to the public. The membership of this group oscillates, usually between 13 and 20 members, but it cannot exceed 26 members: one for each letter of the Roman alphabet. The artists, including the founder, all work under pseudonyms, to allow for greater creativity and freedom.
Their works are figurative and narrative: they represent recognizable objects and every picture or sculpture tells a story. They tend to use bright and distinct colors, rather than mixtures, for greater contrast and visibility. For this reason, Toyist art is very eye-catching. Although a lot of it looks playful and fun–similarly to Miro’s Surrealist doodles–it often deals with serious themes. The Toyists work in many media and genres–including paintings, silkscreens, giclees, prints, jewelry and sculptures–so if you think this kind of art fits with your style or vision, give them a try on http://toyism.com/.
Postromanticism.com, the international movement I started with the sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto in 2002, is all about celebrating the joy of beauty, pleasure and sensuality in contemporary art and in life as well. I also wanted to offer art lovers an alternative to abstract postmodern art. Quite justifiably, we believe that there’s a fine line between sensuality and sexuality. We also believe that there’s a difference between pornography and art. In fact, these two distinctions often blend together: we tend to regard art as sensual and pornography as more overtly sexual. Warding off the charge of pornography, photography, sculpture and painting often veil the human body, especially the more eroticized female nude, by representing it in aesthetic poses and allegorical situations that evoke thoughts, emotions and dreams, not only carnal desires.
If the boundary between pornography and art is so heatedly debated, however, it’s partly because it’s drawn by our own subjective reactions. Romantic and postromantic art confront this problem by illustrating palpably the distinction between sensuality and sexuality. Like Romantic art, postromantic art celebrates the beauty of the human body and of sensual images and relations. I invoke the broad concept of beauty (in the abstract) only to limit it to a category that’s easier to define and more relevant to postromantic art: the beauty of sensuality. Let me explain why.
Philosophers, from Plato and Plotinus to Shaftesbury and Diderot, despite their overwhelming differences, have described beauty as an underlying harmony that has a pleasing sensory effect. In so doing, aesthetic philosophers confront several problems already anticipated by Socrates in The Symposium—Plato’s dialogue that deals most directly with subjects of love and beauty. How can we account for changing standards of beauty? What draws us to the beautiful? Is there an underlying notion of beauty that can apply equally well to the magic of a sunset, a pretty woman and a beautiful painting? And if there is, then how can such a general definition serve to explain specific categories of the beautiful, such as the beauty of human beings, of emotions, of architecture or of classical art? Moreover, is it really helpful to define beauty in terms of other difficult concepts, such as harmony, order or agreeability? Doesn’t this process lead to an infinite regress of definitions, each unknown defined in terms of yet another unknown, as Socrates had cautioned? Not having found satisfactory answers to these questions, I’m daunted by the difficulties inherent in defining beauty in the abstract. The beauty of sensual images and objects seems to me a more approachable subject as well as one that’s more useful to understanding Romantic and postromantic art. So let us ask: what is sensuality? And why does it have the power to move us?
As is customary, I’ll begin with a provisional definition. Sensuality is that which titillates the senses without making any specific promises or, much less, delivering. Sensuality leaves our desires, wishes, expectations, emotions, thoughts and impulses in a state of confusion and ambiguity. It provokes what Descartes called a sense of “admiration” or “wonder” that is inseparable from pleasure yet far removed from satisfaction.
Sensuality has little to do with degrees of unveiling, with explicitness. Like sexuality—its foil and companion—it’s more of a psychological rather than physical state. Just imagine the following images placed side by side: one featuring a woman who is fully dressed, with bright red lips puckered in a kiss and a come-hither gaze. Her body is clothed, but her (supposed, staged) intent is crystal-clear. The effect is sexual. Now imagine a picture of a woman who is completely nude. Her looks are understated; her demeanor and glance ambiguous. The viewer is not sure what she desires, thinks or feels. Physically she is revealed. Psychologically, however, she remains a mystery, an enticement. The effect is sensual.
These hypothetical examples lead me to supplement my initial description of sensuality. I will now say that sensuality hints at human subjectivity—at implicit desires, needs, dreams and thoughts—in both the viewer and the viewed. Sexual images and imagery–even when the women or men represented are clothed—tend to strip the image of its psychological content, reducing it to a few body parts in the viewed and a few analogous needs in the viewers. By way of contrast, sensuality, even when the women or men represented are nude, veils the body in a psychological richness and depth that touches upon the artistic.
To probe a little further the nature of sensuality, let us consider another illustration. I’ll borrow my second example from Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con Ella), one of my favorite movies. The story focuses upon the obsessive love and desire of Benigno, a male nurse, for a young and beautiful ballerina named Alicia. Upon meeting her, Benigno is entirely captivated by the young woman. Yet he doesn’t get the opportunity to know Alicia and neither do we, the viewers. Almost as soon as they meet, she’s hit by a car when crossing the street and lapses into a coma. Consequently all viewers see of Alicia after the accident is her body, her purely physical beauty. Conversely, as Benigno takes care of his beloved, talks to her and treats her as a human being capable of understanding and responding to him, we become intimately familiar with his personality. We come to understand his loneliness, his obsessive love, his uncontrollable urges, his unwavering devotion.
In coming to multidimensional life for Benigno, however, Alicia also comes to life before our eyes. Almodovar has the immense talent of bringing out psychological richness and intensity in sensual depictions of physical beauty. Through Benigno’s loving gaze, care and compassion, we see more in Alicia than a beautiful body even though that’s exactly what she has been reduced to as a result of the car accident. Sensual art and photography can perform the same magical operation as this movie. They give birth to a soul, to a living personality, in representing sometimes nothing more than the body, its movements and expressions. Which is why our own responses to these images tend to be more complex than physical desire. Sensual photography, literature and art call for the viewer’s or reader’s participation in imagining another person, another life. They’re not just stimulating; they’re also creative.
Philosophers have long been fascinated by the way in which sensuality rivets the attention and excites the mind. Although René Descartes is best known for being the father of rationalism, he’s also one of the most sensitive readers of sensuality and emotion. His reflections on the subject were prompted by his discussions with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Queen Christina of Sweden, both of whom were cultivated, sensitive women who found that Cartesian rationalism could not explain the better part of human behavior. Why do we fall in love? Why do we desire? Why do we feel emotion? Why do we respond to beauty? To address these important questions, Descartes wrote The Passions of the Soul (1649).
That which touches our senses, thoughts and feelings, the philosopher explains, ignites the response of admiration or marvel. Admiration is not a coup de foudre, or the feeling of falling in love on the spot. It is, in Descartes’ own words, “a sudden surprise of the soul which manifests itself in considering with special attention objects which seem rare and extraordinary.” (The Passions of the Soul, 116) To catch our attention, these objects or subjects have to either be or appear to be rare and special. Alicia may have been an ordinary girl, but in Aldomovar’s movie, despite being deprived of the capacity to think, feel and speak, she appeared tragically unique in her predicament, sympathetic, moving.
Sensual images or scenarios—especially when artistic–have the power to transform what may be ordinary into something–or someone—quite extraordinary. In turn, as Descartes elaborates, our appreciation of sensual beauty has calmer, more thoughtful manifestations than stimulating our visceral drives and emotions: “And this passion has something special about it since we don’t notice that it’s accompanied by any transformation of the heart or the blood as we do with the other passions.” (116) Which is not to say that this more psychological form of passion is less powerful. On the contrary, as Descartes explains: “Which doesn’t prevent it from having a lot of force, caused by surprise or marvel, which is to say, the sudden and unforeseen reception of an impression which changes the movements of the soul.” (117)
For Descartes, passion is the opposite of action. An action is something one does through an act of will. By way of contrast, a passion is what happens to someone more or less involuntarily. Not all passions, however, overwhelm the senses and unleash complex sensations, thoughts and feelings. In fact, the kind of passions that provoke such unsettling, exciting movements—that attract our admiration–are quite rare. So how do sensual representations motivate, to use Descartes’ expression, the movements of the soul? By triggering complex forms of identification in us, the readers or viewers. By taking a two-dimensional image on a screen or series of words on a page and creating the contours of other human beings with rare powers to captivate the attention and inspire the imagination. Sensual photography, creative writing, cinema and art reflect back into our eyes not so much another human being as our own complexity. The philosopher and mystic Simone Weil has said that when a very pretty woman looks in the mirror, she doesn’t realize there’s more to her than external beauty. Whereas when an unattractive woman looks in the mirror, she knows there’s more to her than what she sees. In sensual Romantic and postromantic art and literature, it’s apparent that beautiful and sensual images conceal much more than meets the eye.
Impressionism and Postimpressionism have become analogous with the subversion of official academic standards and thus also with artistic modernity. It is said that Impressionism entailed a rejection of the principles taught by the Ecole des Beaux Arts and esteemed by the academic judges of the official Salon. This idea of the subversiveness of Manet and of the Impressionists has been, since Zola, deliberately overplayed to draw a firmer marker that separates old traditions from new art. For not only did Manet and the Impressionists regularly exhibit at the official Salon—with Manet and especially Renoir seeking its approval to the very end of their lives–but also they were influenced, along with the officially sanctioned artists, by the most famous Renaissance artists as well as by the masters of Romanticism and Realism: Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet.
Yet, without a doubt, Manet and the Impressionists did violate some of the important rules of what is called the “Beaux-Arts system.” The Beaux-Arts system was instituted to meet the requirements of the Academy, which were taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. These included the following principles:
1. A respect of the hierarchy of genres which privileged, in descending order, history paintings, religious themes, portraits and still-lifes. Of course, principles are always somewhat different from public taste and practice. Even during the eighteenth-century, when Chardin’s still-lifes were extremely popular and defended by notable philosophes such as Diderot, the hierarchy of genres instituted during Louis XIV’s reign was being called into question. During the nineteenth century, with the rise in popularity of realism and the representation of every-day subjects and life, it was even more radically altered. Although some well-respected artists, such as Cabanel and Bouguereau, continued to observe its rules, many artists did not. As Théophile Gautier announced in the 1846 Salon, “religious subjects are few; there are significantly less battles; what is called history painting will disappear… The glorification of man and of the beauties of nature, this seems to be the aim of art in the future.”
2. Drawing is more important than color. The reason behind this rule was that the drawing of forms was considered more abstract because it was not already found in nature. Thus, it was assumed that it took greater artistic talent to convey forms by drawing their shapes and outlines rather than by blotting, from nature, their colors.
3. Drawing from live models in conformance to the study of anatomy, not in order to convey nature as is, but to improve it by rendering it more noble, elegant and beautiful. During the seventeenth century, Neoclassicism perpetuated this improvement of nature, or capturing la belle nature.
4. Painting in the studio, as opposed to in the open air, since the studio was a place where the source and intensity of light and, more generally, the whole painting environment could be controlled to suit the aesthetic needs of the artist.
5. Paintings had to be elaborately detailed, meticulously executed and, above all, look polished and finished.
6. The overarching and unspoken framework behind the Beaux-Arts system was verisimilitude: or representing in painting—through shading, foreshortening, sfumato and the observance of one-point perspective–the three-dimensionality of objects as seen by the eye.
The Impressionists’ greatest contribution to art was not so much to change the notion of painting as representing what the eye can see—or the standards of verisimilitude that had been dominant since the Renaissance—but to alter what the eye should see as well as where and how it should see it. Their violation of the rules of the Beaux-Arts system was not revolutionary—in the sense of transgressing its underlying premises or goals–but it was thorough, in the sense of changing almost all of the means of reaching those goals. The Impressionists considered that the best forum to observe and represent nature would be in the open air—which is why their works were called plein air paintings–where the play of light and shadows would be most natural, striking and intense, rather than under the dim and artificial lighting of the studio.
Furthermore, as noted, the art students in the academies conveyed the three-dimensionality of forms by means of the subtle shading which was first perfected by the Renaissance masters. The Impressionists, on the other hand, evoked a sense of three-dimensionality by representing the dramatic contrasts of color which can be observed in vibrant sunlight. In seeking to capture visually the play of light and shadow—and its transformations—the Impressionists used rapid brushstrokes to produce paintings that looked rushed and unfinished as opposed to the well-rounded, glossy and polished forms and subtle shadings respected by the Beaux-Arts system. Similarly, rather than depicting a posed or characteristic angle of the objects painted, Manet and the Impressionists showed objects from uncharacteristic, and often, truncated perspectives. This truncation of subjects and objects, which is especially obvious in the paintings of Renoir and Degas, openly acknowledges the incompleteness of our field of vision and powers of representation.
Who can resist the tempting combination of delicious chocolate, spectacular scenes from Italy, romantic music, sensual passion and, to top it all off, great art?
On February 10th, Michael Bell‘s painting Superbia made its debut in Chicago at the World’s 2nd Annual For the Love of Chocolate Event. Over 3,000 patrons indulged their senses in a decadent world of live chocolate body painting by Michael Bell. This launched Bell’s Seven Deadly Sins in Chocolate Series.
We invite you to savor Michael Bell’s series of postromantic paintings, Per Amore del Cioccolato, found on his website, http://mbellart.com.
You can also view a video of this art, on my youtube channel:
It’s only since the nineteenth century that art became its own autonomous domain, separated from education and politics. Before that, the art world was shaped by the tastes of rich patrons, the Church, the Salons, and the art Academies. In the early nineteenth century, the French writer, Théophile Gautier, coined the term “l’art pour l’art”, or art for art’s sake. Although this concept doesn’t describe all art during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it had an enormous impact upon the attitudes of modern artists, critics and viewers. And yet, there were significant exceptions. Even the most modern of the moderns, Pablo Picasso, made a spectacular political statement in his painting Guernica. This painting represented a cri du coeur against the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian forces at the behest of the Spanish Nationalistists in 1937. Picasso’s Guernica brought the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War to the public’s attention and stood as an anti-war symbol for years to come.
Today I’d like to introduce a contemporary American artist, Michael Bell, who perpetuates the long-lost tradition of seeing art as a means of educating the public and of changing society for the better. Michael Bell’s paintings seamlessly combine aesthetic talent, educational value and political activism. Michael is best known for painting some of the most famous–and infamous–celebrities of our time, such as John Gotti and other actors from popular gangster movies like “The Sopranos,” Goodfellas” and “A Bronx Tale.” The artist has also won numerous awards in the field of art education as one of the pioneers of the Visual Journaling movement. He gives free workshops that educate the general public about art and art history.
Michael also participates in charity benefits. He raises thousands of dollars for worthwhile social causes from his painting sales. As an art critic who also writes about domestic abuse, what caught my attention most was his contribution to raising public awareness about domestic violence. On October 1, 2005, Michael Bell received the Good Shepherd Community Service Award at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for his activism in raising domestic violence awareness.
Michael Bell’s series of paintings, Voices of Violence, expose the vicious cycle of love filled with pain, abuse and reconciliation, which many victims go through. These paintings follow the gaze of the model, ex-mafia wife and Hollywood stunt actress Georgia Durante, as she attempts to cope with years of abuse and free herself from the painful cycle of love filled with violence, which isn’t really love after all, but an expression of dominance and possession. Michael’s painting Love and Pain (see above) executed, appropriately enough, on two separate, fractured canvases, reveals the ambivalence that victims of domestic violence experience, as they remain hopelessly attached to the very person that causes them most pain. Please find below the link to the youtube video I made featuring Michael’s Voices of Violence paintings:
It’s relatively rare for an artist in our times to use his talent for the social good. Even though, truth be told, art is not just for art’s sake. Art is a human creation by talented human beings for the benefit of other human beings. For as long as we continue to view art as completely detached from our nature, our struggles, our mistakes and our goals, we’ll alienate viewers, as they’ll become detached from the world of art as well. An artist through and through–as well as an educator and a humanitarian–Michael Bell eloquently states: “All I am is what I create. It’s my blessing to share with the world.”