Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Do you have to Do Something to Know it?

This post explores personal experience with landscape painting, referencing ideas that can be found in my Head post about landscape and film using Victor Sjostrom's works as a lens.

Where is the Scholarly Discussion About Practicing What You Want to Know?
I have now spent several hours trying to find some good scholarly articles about how a person might understand landscape better by actually trying to produce it. For the most part, I've struck out. I can find articles on business management and economics, like one from the Harvard Business School Press called "The Knowing Doing Gap," which looks at the "challenge of turning knowledge about how to enhance organizational performance into actions consistent with that knowledge," but it doesn't quite address what I'm referring to. Or I can find articles in organizational management and psychology, like an article in Organization Science called "Knowing in Practice: Enacting a Collective Capability in Distributed Organizing," in which Wanda J. Orlikowski of the Sloan School of Management at MIT outlines a perspective on "knowing in practice which highlights the essential role of human action in knowing how to get things done in complex organizational work." Or even an article in the book Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory entitled "Learning by Doing," in which Roger C. Schank (Director of the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University) discusses "developing skills rather than perfecting routines," and the benefits of "just in time" training.

I hadn't thought it would be so difficult to find a reliable, scholarly person suggesting that you've got to try something before you can really teach it or talk about it knowledgeably. I suppose I might find something along those lines if I looked into Anthropology, where I know that there are discussions of the limitations of writing about populations if you haven't really lived with them long enough to really know them. But I'm talking about art here, and it just seems like there'd at least be a few art historians who would argue for experience with practicing a medium, and not just looking at it, being important for one to understand it. Why can't I find it?

The Difficulty of Search Terms
Partly it's probably because the search terms I can think of are so commonly used as analogies in just about every academic field. A "landscape" could be "the landscape of companies in the Fortune 500," "nature" could be "the nature of non-newtonian fluids," "art" could be "the art of concrete pouring for large projects," and "painting" could be "painting a picture of new methodologies in exercise science."

The Implicit Acknowledgment of Doing in order to Know
I'm pretty sure that what I'm looking for is out there; when a professor requires you to write a Sonnet or even to mimic the style of a prominent critic, the implicit assumption is that doing it will teach you something that merely studying it will not. My English professor Gideon Burton writes a new Sonnet every single day; I'm sure that he would argue that he has a better understanding of the form and could talk about it more intelligently now that he has tried it.

So, in any event, I've been trying my hand at landscape painting during this term, with the thought that it might teach me something about "nature," "setting," and especially "landscape" that I might not realize if I just continued to watch films or look at art.

Some Caveats About Comparing One Medium to Another
To start with I have to admit that a painted landscape probably engenders something different in a viewer than a filmed landscape, especially if the painted landscapes are more abstract, as mine are. When you look at a painting, I think you often try to compare that depiction with the real thing, and there is something of a "pause" in that moment, as you think, "how close is this to things I know in real life?" You may also ask yourself, especially if the painting is not photo-realistic, "does this landscape give me similar feelings to the thing in real life?" A final question that a person might ask themselves when looking at a painting might be: "Does this painting suggest new ways of thinking about or looking at the world that I would not have considered before?" All of these questions might run a little differently when looking at a landscape in film. If the film is live action, then the inclination for viewers is to see the landscape not as a "representation," like the painting, but as a "reproduction;" that is, the landscape in the film is usually seen as the "real thing," and not an artistic creation. Film scholars will be quick to dispute this illusion of "reproduction," as Bill Nichols does in his book "Introduction to Documentary." Nichols writes that everything within the frame of the film screen:

stands for a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before even if the aspects of the world that is represented are familiar to us. We judge a re-production by its fidelity to the original - its capacity to look like, act like, and serve the same purpose as the original. We judge a representation more by the pleasure it offers, the value of the insight or knowledge it provides, and the quality of the orientation or disposition, tone or perspective it instills. We ask more of a representation than we do of a reproduction.
So, there is no doubt that my paintings are "representations:"

But what about nature depicted in film? When do we care more about its fidelity than the pleasure that it gives? And isn't the film-maker's gaze a way of creating a work of art? The "framing process," of choosing this portion of land or sea rather than that, of finding the right lighting, of even noticing a bit of land for its aesthetic qualities...is not that the process of an artist? Let us consider this scene from Sjostrom's 1918 film The Outlaw and his Wife:

At what points in the film does the natural world merely serve as a place for action to take place (setting), and at what point does the natural world become something more, something to be appreciated in itself, as landscape? In addition, do we gain pleasure from these beautiful scenes, or merely satisfaction when they seem to be "true" to the original land? Are we seeing reproduction, or representation?Whatever the film scholar may argue, it matters the way in which the general viewer responds to the film.

I would argue that while a viewer might ask different questions about my paintings than about landscape in film, there are also similarities, especially when the film-maker uses his natural resources with the kind of subtlety and respect that Victor Sjostrom does.

Some Preliminary Conclusions About My Painting Experiment
As for the process of painting - I believe that I do have, if not a greater understanding of landscape, at least a greater appreciation for it. I think more now about horizons, of deep space and perspective, of things that are implied outside the frames of my art. I think of the time it took me to experiment with different styles, and which ones seemed to work, and which ones did not. I think of how humanity fits into representations that seem devoid of it. I think about not just the outdoor experiences that I have had, but about the ones that I will have, seeing with more discerning, even appreciative eyes. Perhaps as much as anything else, the length of time it took me to paint, to wipe and repaint, to stand back and consider, to plan my next moves, helps me to view landscape as something that involves contemplation, time, and consideration. But I also know that while these feelings in me are perhaps stronger now, they are not entirely new. The viewer who has never practiced, may still have similar feelings, even if they are less pronounced, or even unconscious. After all, I was moved by landscapes before I ever picked up a paint brush.


  1. This is fascinating. In response to your search for "a few art historians who would argue for experience with practicing a medium, and not just looking at it, being important for one to understand it," I would suggest looking at imitation pedagogy. During the Renaissance teachers would have students imitate great writers and rhetoricians to become good writers and speakers. Here's an article called "Double Translation in English Humanistic Education": http://www.jstor.org/pss/2857054. Dr. Burton would be a good person to talk to about this, too. I think it is one of his specialties. I found a Prezi show that Dr. Burton made that discusses imitation in Humanist education: http://prezi.com/pqbkkoeq0tgy/humanist-education-in-the-renaissance/
    Here is another article about modern imitation pedagogy: http://www.jacweb.org/Archived_volumes/Text_articles/V15_I3_Minock.htm

    I hope this is at least related to what you're looking for.

  2. To sort of bounce off Ben's suggestions in a different direction, I would also suggest talking to Dr. Burton on the topic of folksonomies. A few months ago, I was visiting the MOA and looked at a special exhibit called Types and Shadows. One of the pieces in the exhibit was Exchange No. 8 by Ron Richmond. Here is a link to the image: http://www.snow.edu/art/faculty/portfolios/rrichmond/exchange_no8.jpg.

    Accompanying this particular painting was a short audio featuring Dr. Burton discussing folksonomies and its role in individual interpretation. He discussed how accutely person experience plays into visual interpretation. If I remember correctly from the recording, he compared the large black square behind the two chairs to the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because of personal experience, his interpretation of the painting would be distinctly different from one without the same experience or emotional tie to science fiction movies.

    You appear, however, to be taking this interpretation to yet another level. Instead of tapping into personal assiciations and memories, you are experimenting also with specific, physical experience with the object in question. Not just tapping into your own folksonomies as you react to landscape, you are creating a separate understanding by creating landscape of your own.

    I respect going the distance on this one. Actually trying your hand to reach a new perspective.

  3. Regarding "the difficulty of search terms": in my experience the solution to that problem is the ability to contact people online to ask questions and discuss. But I'm sure you are working on that.

    Also I think you are on to something regarding learning something by doing. I know it's made a huge difference for me with regards to music appreciation. And I think the application to film is really relevant today. A lot of people today have the hardware and software to experience filmmaking. Just check out some of the many homemade amateur YouTube Videos out there. A lot of young video-makers in particular, even when their videos are just silly, seem to be be developing excellent camera and editing skills and have a general knack for good composition. I'm interested in what this could mean for the future of cinema.

  4. Narrating your process is useful even if it runs you into dead ends. The items you reported on that were not relevant to this project are in fact quite interesting. One of them is relevant to something I'm researching now, and how fortunate I am to have stumbled onto it. Good thing you didn't censor your dead ends.

    You are getting some great feedback from your peers, and you might consider those directions. I would say that the missing research field for you here is pedagogy. Much has been written on learning by doing, or on the "kinesthetic" style of learning that your painting fits into. You didn't need outside sources to make sense of your experiment. Obviously the activity of painting "colored" your understanding of depicting landscapes. Time well spent.

    I'm glad you acknowledge a distinction between landscape visual art (which is fixed) and motion pictures featuring landscapes. As I watched the clip from The Outlaw and His Wife I noticed three things that conditioned viewer response to the landscape that you did not mention. First, the music. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that this music was probably not chosen by the filmmaker. Silent films must have had vastly different reception based on the individual tastes and whims of the organ accompanist. Modern soundtracks have a whole grammar devoted to suggestion "the land is important" -- just think of how horns and broad phrases are invoked as analogs to visual vistas.

    The second thing that conditioned response to the landscape was the invocation of character viewpoint. In this case, one of the intertitles (around 1:22 in the clip) gave a very poetical description of how these mountain dwellers responded to their physical world -- and in this case a glacier -- linking it to love. So, for the next little while, the film's viewers take on the mindset of the characters and how they would see this world. That is a vast difference from how landscape paintings are experienced -- not usually channeled through someone's specific perspective.

    Finally, there are film grammars that indicate to the viewer "hey, time to see the background as the foreground, folks!" as when a low angle shot with stark contrasting light gives a sense of the visual sublime, as happens when the man shows the child the edge of the cliff (at about 2:05 in the clip). There are cues from composition, camera movement, angle, editing, etc. that move one's appreciation of the landscape from setting to something more representational.