Thursday, February 24, 2011

NY Times: Facebook Censors Art School

Here's a little update on the Facebook censorship issue.

But, before I continue.... here's the New York Times article.

Art School Runs Afoul of Facebook's Nudity Policy

This post is more of an open dialogue with myself about this issue, which the more I think about, the more it reveals itself to be quite complex. But I'll try not to get ahead of myself.

Many people have pointed out that the specific word "censorship" only applies to the actions of a government. In this case, I would argue that Facebook largely governs the world of social media, according to their own laws, which they selected and they enforce, with no possibility of feedback or input from the users.

But, FB is not a government, it is a private business. And of course, in a pure free market, we could simply choose to go to another social network. Or, we could set up our own website. But the simple truth is that if we did that, the number of people viewing our work would drop precipitously and so would our sales. With over 500 million users, Facebook has revolutionized the way painters, collectors, galleries, and the public interact. FB has indeed been a democratizing force, equalizing the power between the artist, the collector, and the gallery. It has made itself indispensable as a marketing tool. In fact, as a small business owner myself, (being a painter is also a business) it's very difficult to compete if I do not have a presence on FB. Yet, that's exactly why the deletion of some of my best work has been such an issue: "Hermetica" and "What Remains" (featured above: incredibly offensive, right?) Many other painters are allowed to present their best work and fairly compete for the 3-5 second first glance that will determine whether a collector will investigate further or keep searching. Yet, those of us who paint the nude are not.

But, it's even more subtle than that. I think the analogy of the high seas would be appropriate. Both the British Empire and world trade benefitted from keeping the seas open for free trade. But if you were invited to board the largest ship on the ocean (Facebook), would it be the captain's right to duck tape your mouth, while remaining anonymous and unreachable to the passengers of the ship? You can't just jump overboard, and you wouldn't survive if you just built your own raft. Well, no-one forced you to get on the ship in the first place. That is true. But bear with me as I explore a train of thought.

With FB, there IS a gray area because there are two conflicting "rights" here. Many have said that FB has the "right" to decide what they allow posted there and I agree. But we also have certain rights, which are discussed in The Bill of Rights: rights which are considered unalienable under the constitution... that is they are natural to the person (or entity) and are not simply tied to the land in which the person (or entity) resides. This is why FB, an entity residing on U.S soil, can exercise their rights on the open seas of the internet and why I can as well.

The specific rights in question are free speech and the right to access the same free market that others enjoy. But, there's a point where each party's rights, if given full reign, will inherently impinge on the rights of the other party. And the case here is that FB's right to decide has impinged on my right to speech and the free market.

9th Amendment:
"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

If I'm not mistaken, this is largely upheld by international law.
(Interesting text on the 9th amendment)

The rights of a corporate entity (a non-person) should not supersede the rights of a person. Or if you prefer to look at it this way, I am a small business and Facebook is a huge business. Regardless, if either of us exercise the full extent of our rights, we will impinge on the rights of the other party.

Complicating this issue is that FB has become a near monopoly as social networks go. Yes, they have the best product and I'm not saying that they should be regulated. But the point is that it's become incredibly inconvenient for a business/institution to compete without using social networking. If I start my own website, or even use the many other websites that don't censor classical nude paintings, it will largely be a waste of time, because very few people will see my work. Therefore, it is not precisely a free market.

For the moment, it seems FB is legally within their rights. What they're doing is bad business and, ethically speaking, is absolutely wrong since their policy is prejudicial against artists. But they are a private company, and I was not quite forced to use their services. If it were because I was a racial minority, that would be illegal, but since it's because I paint classical nudes, it is not. To be fair, there is a difference.

However, does that mean that we should simply accept it and allow a minority group to be unfairly silenced by an artificial market? I won't answer that question for you, but will simply raise a few more. If we project into the future it gets even more complicated.

Facebook is governing a commodity that is becoming increasingly more of a necessity (especially in my field) as the trend towards self-employment grows, as internet marketing grows, as well as the specific use of social networking as a marketing forum for businesses, institutions, and even corporations. At some point Facebook could have over 1 billion users... 2 billion... with no real competition. This is feasible. And the more users they have, the more powerful FB is as a marketing tool, and the harder it is to compete without it. This is because right now they offer the best product. BUT, the question is, if one private corporation controls access for enough people to a necessary commodity, (take for example: education) and demonstrates prejudice against one specific group in regards to that access... at what point do we do something? At what point does it become a legal issue?

Consider this: Walmart, in 2005 grossed more than the GDP of all but the 25 largest NATIONS in the world. All they need is a police force, and they are pretty much their own country. I'm not being anti-corporate here, but I'm pointing out the trend that trans-national business is taking. Now, imagine that Walmart was the only place you could buy milk. Would they have the "right" to kick you out for reciting a poem? I'm being melo-dramatic, but only to more clearly illustrate the point.

There is a point where private property will intersect with public rights on a societal scale. We haven't reached it yet, but if things continue as they have been, we just might.

The answer for now, is that I hope FB will be more clear about the parameters and fairly enforce them. Maybe if we raise enough commotion they will take the hint. And it would be quite simple to address this problem with some kind of adult content filter similar to flickr. PROBLEM SOLVED. But, as of yet, nothing has changed, and the administrators of FB have given no signs that we should expect a change.

So, what's the next move?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Concept to Composition Part 3: Odd Nerdrum's Painting Process

And now for the long awaited finale to Concept to Composition: Odd Nerdrum's actual painting process.

This is by far the most complicated to explain. Especially because Odd's techniques aren't precisely a "process", more a massive collection of principles. There is no formula. There is no magic medium. There is no "trick". The first and most important thing you have to understand in order to comprehend his approach, is that he is constantly experimenting, shifting approaches, completely obliterating and changing the compositions even when any other sane person would consider that they are "done". The trick is not sanding. The trick is not scraping. The trick is not glazing or velaturas, or the palette, or the herringbone linen. It is not his use of mirrors, nor the dark lens he looks through. The trick is simple: he uses all of these instruments, and more, as if he were both the composer and the conductor of a great orchestra. All the while rewriting a note here and there, in the middle of the performance, repeating a phrase, going back and rephrasing a melody, alternating the emphasis on the brass or the strings, smoothly accelerating the tempo.... all as if each and every musician and each instrument were telepathically communing with him and could adjust their performance immediately according to his wishes.

I know how frustrating this sounds to the young painter searching for the secrets to great painting. But the truth is that there is no process or formula for great painting, in general, no matter how your working. There are only principles, knowledge, experience, and above all: inspiration and passion. The key does not and cannot lie in materials and methods, but within yourself and how you utilize them, how you orchestrate every element into a coherent visual language. If that's not intimidating enough, then read on, intrepid friend.

Contrary to the methods that most learn in academies and ateliers, and contrary to the way I learned, Odd's process is audacious, fearless, even reckless. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is safe, and anything can change at any stage of the painting. I've seen him completely finish a large painting and then decide that an entire, nearly life-size figure should be two centimeters lower, and so he simply scraped it down and re-painted the entire figure. I've seen him flip a painting entirely upside-down or side-ways and decide that it looks better that way.... then proceed to change half of the painting to work with the new composition. I've seen him decide to change the lighting at the last minute, invent shadows that aren't there, and make them look completely convincing.

And this is what I love the most about the way he works. There are so many people risking their lives everyday to keep us safe, so that we have the liberty to do what we do. The least we can do is paint like we have a pair!

It's all about principles, and understanding and applying principles is all about knowledge and practice. For a simple crash course, see my other articles on the subject: Oil painting techniques: grisailles. Oil painting techniques: glazing.

On larger pieces Odd typically begins by transferring a loose compositional sketch onto the canvas with a very simple grid. And when I say loose, I mean loose. It's simply about getting the basic compositional proportions right. Next, he will put a wash of perhaps brown ochre, mixed with linseed oil and turpentine onto the area that he'll be working for the day. Typically, he starts by loosely massing in the abstract shapes of the light and shadow areas using a simple palette of yellow brown, a red earth like venetian red or flesh ochre, mars black, and titanium white (See part 2 for more details on the palette.) while refining the drawing, proportions, color, and value at the same time. He's not so concerned with exact likeness or anatomy at this point, but more with the gesture, value, and color. He also applies the paint thickly and liberally with very little or no medium - in accordance with the rule "fat over lean". That is "fat" paint has more oil and body and "lean" paint is straight out of the tube. Your first layers should be in lean paint, and for Odd, that means perhaps the first two or three layers. Only then does he commence to add significant amounts of medium in principle. Though, as I said before, he does often break rules such as this, because he knows how.

He uses models, but not always the same one. Often times a student will model for him for a few months and then another will model for the same figure. He also works a great deal from his imagination and great stores of anatomical and aesthetic knowledge, so nearly every figure becomes a conceptual form, an ideal, which is perfect for his work as they are vessels embodying the content of the work: the spirit and dignity of humanity as a whole. His overarching message concerns the universal and timeless qualities of human experience, though specific pieces may be diverse variations on the theme.

The next stage is reductive. He will use a palette knife or steak knife to remove heavy texture that he doesn't like. He'll use sand paper if he wants an area to be smooth - he has several different grades from fine to rough depending on the purpose. But, and this is important, he's also using these tools as drawing impliments, and not simply for removing paint or revealing underlying layers. About the texture, there is an organization about it. This is the biggest fault I've seen with students trying to copy his effect: they typically will apply the same texture across the whole canvas without variation. But if you actually look at the surface of his paintings, you'll see that the texture tends to correlated with light masses, and the shadows are more scraped down and transparent. Opaque and impasto in the light, transparent in the shadows. This is another rule of thumb that he typically follows, but often breaks.

After scraping, he moves on to applying paint again - sometimes scraping it off or sanding it while it's wet, sometimes letting it dry, sometimes glazing and then sanding, etc... This is the stage where he moves fluidly back and forth between additive and reductive methods. Again, because of the fat over lean principle and because of the way that light functions, glazes and velaturas are typically reserved for the last stage, though there may be many different layers of these as well, allowing each one drying time in between and perhaps some sanding or scraping. He will often look through a dark lense at the subject to condense the value ranges, or he will look at the painting in a mirror (sometimes clear, sometimes blurry) to see the composition and general effect. And he spends long hours throughout the whole process, just working on the painting from his head: responding to what he sees, adjusting here and there, and perhaps changing the lighting or position of the subject.

Then, rinse and repeat until satisfied... but this is the funny thing, my friend Alexander Rokoff once asked Odd how he knew when a painting was finished. To which he replied:

"In the beginning you find the likeness. Many painters can find the likeness, but this is not enough. You must destroy the likeness to find the essence, which few are able to find. But, when you have found the essence, you must destroy it also, in order to find that which is beyond words. Only then can I be satisfied. Even then, it is not enough. I will work the painting again and again until I am even more satisfied, and this may continue for years. I think the painting is never finished, but some day I must move on so that I do not become crazy."

I'm sorry that I must leave you with perhaps more questions than answers. Much of this knowledge is simply hands on, and can only be acquired through experience and genuine searching. But, if you've come here looking for the secrets and find this article daunting instead, don't loose heart. There is inspiration here as well. Consider this quote by Charles Dubois, one of the most profound quotes I've ever heard, and one that resonates with me on the deepest level:

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to give up who you are for who you can become"

For me, this quote embodies the essence of painting, and the essence of life. No, in fact, it embodies much more, even - it embodies that which goes beyond words. And that is something words and paint can sometimes do. And that is why, in painting as in life; through all the struggles and failures, we continue intrepidly on.