Categorizing Art

Art is a broad concept, and attempts to define or classify it is a challenge within itself. Terry Barrett divides the medium into four categories (formalism, postmodernism, realism, and expressionism) in his critically acclaimed book, What is Art, Aesthetics and Criticisms of Contemporary Art.  The four approaches listed in the book are both thought-provoking and challenging for the minds of readers who want to put images in categories.  As a reader, I gained insight into the differences and similarities of each subdivision, and pondered which category I identify with the most.  Which category do you prefer?

Formalism is a theory of art that looks at the “form”, or how it is made. Emphasis is placed on the visual aesthetics such as lines, shapes, colors, and textures of the piece. Formalists believe a particular piece of art should be able to stand-alone based on its aesthetics, without any consideration of constructs, or outside factors such as society or culture. It’s all about the form, and the form alone; nothing else matters to a formalist.  This approach can be summed up as “Art for the sake of art”.

For other theories of art, such as realism and expressionism (which encourages you to seek further meaning behind a piece), formalism only places emphasis on half the story… or at least thats what I thought as I studied this approach.   When I look at a piece of artwork I try to decipher the meaning behind it. I ponder questions such as “what was happening in society when the artist created this piece?” or “What cultural message does the artist attempt to share with this piece?” But then I thought about the people who don’t care what the artist was thinking or what was happening.  Some people are only interested in the elements that come together to make a piece of art, for example, the way lines intersect, or the way colors collide. Even I can relate to that feeling as a digital designer.  I love typography just because…it’s typography. I don’t consider what the creators of some of my favorites typographic pieces was doing, thinking, or experiencing when they created their pieces.  I just admire the juxtaposition of elements used to create the piece.

Let’s look at one of its opposites, postmodernism, or better yet, anti-modernism. Postmodernism is hard to explain.  The ambiguity of the term is purposeful. Some people don’t even know how to categorize it; is it a theory, concept, philosophy, movement, condition, etc.? One thing that can be said about the Postmodernism approach is the assertion that art plays a bigger part in our social, political, and ethical world, and it should be examined beyond its visual aesthetics.

When I think of the philo-theo-concept-ment (my attempt to categorize Postmodernism), I see it as a rebellion against Modernism, which attempts to classify art. It rejects the existence of any ultimate principle, and it disagrees with the Modern notion of a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth that explains everything for everybody.  Some art forms that arose out of the idea of postmodernism include pop art (one of my favorites with the great Andy Warhol), futurism, dada, and surrealism.

Then there is realism and expressionism, which are exactly what their names imply.  These two forms of art share some similarities and differences with postmodernism and formalism. For example, both formalism and realism seem to want you to pay attention to the piece of art and how it’s made. However, for formalism, it stops there, while realism wants you to think about what the piece of art tells you about the world (similar to postmodernism). Expressionism shares similarities with postmodernism and realism because it encourages you to seek deeper meaning behind the world; however, expressionism wants you to look at the emotions of the artist in the work of art.  In addition, expressionism is not limited to portraying the real world like the theory of realism.

Although I am not an art connoisseur, I study art because I enjoy digital and graphic design. Both digital and graphic design are a form of art, and artist have to know the roots of their passions.  When I look at pieces such as Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, I attempt to translate it and use it for inspiration.  With art the inspiration is unlimited. I appreciate Barrett’s attempt to help explain and categorize the medium into four simple, yet complex categories, and can understand and identify with each viewpoint.



Hillman Curtis Artist Series

I am a fan of the work by artist Hillman Curtis.  The artistry in his videos is both beautiful and inspiring.  When I initially viewed his short videos featuring several graphic artists, I admired the fluid movement of the camera and post production techniques.  The same craftsmanship is present in his short films, such as Embrace and Soldiers.  If you’re looking for a lesson in storytelling through video, his work is a good example of how to visually captivate your audience.

Screenshot from the short film Embrace

Screenshot from the short film “Embrace”

Embrace is undeniably my favorite.  The story builds up slowly, causing anticipation,  The viewer is not immediately aware of the context of the story.  We only see a male and female, breathing heavily, embracing each other.  My first thoughts were, are they breaking up or did they just finish having a make-out session?  The camera moves slowly around the characters, allowing more context.  Following are a series of shots, close-ups of each character, and shots of their hands as they embrace one another.  These shots, coupled with the heavy breathing and short choppy sentences, paint a vivid picture of the two panicking. Eventually we discover the characters are attempting to comfort each other, presumably because something catastrophic is about to happen. It becomes even more clear when we hear emergency sirens in the background.  The two characters seem to calm each other as the breathing becomes a little less heavy and intense. The video cuts of at that point, leaving the viewer wanting more.

Soldiers is another one of my favorites. Something so short and simple aroused emotion. Again Curtis successfully keeps the suspense by not revealing the plot immediately.  There are just two soldiers and an older lady kneeling by a tombstone.  As one of the soldiers begins to walk toward her, he appears to be alive and the viewer anticipates a reunion between the women and the soldier.  However, we eventually discover he is dead.  The scene seems so real, and the music adds to a solemn feeling.

Hillman Curtis mastered the art of compelling story telling. Every time I watch one of his videos, I learn something new that can be translated into my career. I urge any videographer to view his work.

My thoughts on Pica Towers by Marc Craste

I must admit it took me a while to understand what was going on in the three short videos Pica Towers, but one thing that was immediately clear was the spooky, ominous, foreboding tones throughout all the videos.  What Marc Craste does brilliantly in the short digital films is tell a horror story without any dialogue.  He successful conveys the story with the use of music and sound effects, illustrations of robotic characters or whatever they are, and brilliant camera techniques.  These videos are seriously a must see if you love film and suspense.  It’s like a dark twisted Pixar movie.

Pica Towers Illustration

Pica Towers Illustration

In the first scene, two glowing circles slowly come into focus, which we soon find out are the eyes of a captured character hanging upside down (S&M style), coupled with torture mechanisms hanging on the wall (very reminiscent of the horror movie Hostel).  There is a second character with similar composition as the one (metal robotic thingies) hanging upside down, however, elements such as spikes on his body, a zipper for a mouth, and small beady eyes add to the villainous look of the character. Kind of reminds you of S&M. The sound effects in the background are ominous, and the clattering of chains rattling as the captured character is hoisted further in the air adds to the scary nature of the scene.  At the end of the video, the writer uses classical horror music typical of the moment when a character comes face to face with the villain and realizes he is in trouble. However, we can’t see who he sees which adds to the suspense. This happens to the second character mentioned earlier, which is ironic because he was initially the one inflicting torture on someone else. It made me wonder “Who’s the real villain here?”  These types of thoughts are present throughout each video, which encourages viewers to figure out the story by piecing together the details.

In the second video, we see a cute little robotic dog, which adds a little playfulness to the scene, but not for long.  This time the viewer is invited to see more of “Pica Towers.” My first thought upon looking at the scene reminded me of an insane asylum.  The long dimly lit hallways with several doors and rooms added to the chilling effect.  There is one seen in which a blind character (after losing his cane to the dog) is feeling his way down the hallway, and there is a simple digital illustration of flickering light which added extra spook.  But besides all the eerie elements in the video (such as blood on the wall) there is a cleverly crafted scene in which the blind man falls down the stairs.  This is not physically shown, but the picture is painted quite well through sound (a grunting person), a simple shake of the camera (portraying the rumbling effect of falling down the stairs), and a shot of the blind man readjustment his glasses as he walks out the door.  This is an excellent example of how to tell a story without showing every single detail.

The plot continues in the third video.  We see a happy-go-lucky pizza guy driving up to Pica Towers.  In the background there is the sound of high squealing winds which ignite a feeling of desolation and eerie.  Unfortunately, the poor little pizza man is shot with a shotgun, by what appears to be a character in Pica Towers.  We then see the character in the tower being “chastised” by a female character, as a mother would scold her child as he cowers down like a little lost kid.  The scene reminded me of the movie Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

After watching the three videos, I had several questions swarming around in my head: is the young character with the gun the killer? Is his ‘mom’ the killer? Or are their several killers? Why would a blind man be walking through Pica Towers? Who ordered the pizza and why? And why would a pizza man drive to a place that clearly looks like an insane asylum? I decided to draw my own conclusion…Pica Towers is an asylum in which the insane have somehow unleashed themselves (I guess by killing the staff), and have begun releasing terror upon each other. This is just my interpretation. Who knows what the real story is behind Marc Craste’s creation.  I guess that is the beauty of interpretation of art, or in this case, digital art.  But I’m sure everyone can agree the story was successful executed journey to the dark side.

The Wonders of Baking Soda

Have you ever thought of all the uses of baking soda? For such a small product, it can work wonders for you and your home!

Audio is Half the Story

Good audio isn’t everything, but it is a significant part of a great video.  In fact visual is only half of the experience, and sound is the other.  Therefore it is safe to say good video without successful audio only provides you with half of the story. Some of the best videos join several audio techniques such as natural sounds, sound effects, music, and voice-overs to convey their message. The following videos are ones that show the use of these techniques to produce a successful campaign.  To get the full effect try closing your eyes and imagining the scene based on the sound cues.

NSFW. A hunter shoots a bear
This fun but comical piece uses some great sound effects.  At the beginning of the video you’ll hear sounds of nature such as birds chirping.  This sets the scene immediately without even seeing the video.  Then you hear a sound reminiscent of someone brushing their teeth and a conversation being held between a few gentlemen.  The excellent sound cues continue with the growling of a bear and a mean cocking his gun in fear.   Without even watching the video, the viewer knows exactly what going on based on the audio elements.

There’s a soldier in all of us 
Call of Duty:Black Ops (a popular video game) released this promotional back in 2010.  The sound effects play a large part in the video because there is not a lot of dialogue between characters.  Instead you hear the sounds of war; automatic weapons, helicopters, bombs, with an iconic song (reminiscent of songs that chronicle war in America) in the background.

Gas powered everything 
This is an interesting video promoting Nissan Leaf.  In the video you’ll hear several sound effects of what sounds like engines firing up.  For example, you hear something that sounds like an engine and then an alarm clock going off.  In the end you hear a calming voice say, “What if everything ran on gas? Then again, what if everything didn’t.” Classic

I decided to create a pop under add using only audio to paint a vivid story through sound cues.  Check out the audio below

Interactivity and Empathy

Telling a story using text and images can be an effective method of relaying information, but an even more effective way is using interactive content.  Interactive content not only helps the audience remember more information, but it also has more potential to arouse emotions and empathy (ability to understand what other people are feeling and respond accordingly) in users.  Interactive content is far more useful in provoking emotion and inciting action because users can vicariously experience the topic through interaction with the material, as opposed to simply reading the material.

A great example of interactive interaction is a project done by McKinney (a marketing firm in Raleigh, NC) called SPENT.  SPENT is a game that raises awareness of people living in extreme poverty.  Instead of just text and images, this game prompts users to make decisions as though they are living in extreme poverty levels. I remembered more statistics and information than I have ever remembered from just reading articles about poverty.  Having to make decisions such as watching my child perform in a school play or taking a side job that would pay for past due expenses provoked a feeling of sorrow. This game not only gives you the information but it provides you with an entire experience that allows you to understand on a deeper level the problem of poverty.


Another great example of Interactive project is Budget Hero.  This game allows users to  learn more about tax dollars and the federal budget, but in a fun way.  For the average person, reading information about tax dollars and spending can be very arduous and boring.  It is also a topic that incites a lot of emotion for people who follow it carefully.  However, for people like me who are not familiar with the debate of tax dollars and spending, this game is very informative.  By making a topic interactive the boring and uninteresting becomes informative and entertaining.

Budget Hero Game

The underlying theme in these projects is creating an experience that allows users to connect on a deeper level with the information.  This actually falls in line with what I decided to do for my capstone project, an interactive presentation on the Mayan culture.   A lot of people have heard about the Doomsday 2012 theory but many don’t know about the culture behind the myth and their practices.  Therefore I wanted to offer a fun and interactive way for people to learn about the interesting Mesoamerican people.  When people can interact and take part in their learning, they are more likely to remember the information presented to them, and if the topic calls for it, they can use the emotional experience from the project to relate and react.

What Makes an Image Iconic

Everyone has seen them: those images that draw some emotion; those images that we consistently connect with; those images like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; those images that still have meaning regardless of time and culture. Those images are iconic. But why? What qualities or constructs contribute to timeless pieces?  Martin Kemp (professor of History of Art at Oxford University) says  “There is no necessary set of clearly defined factors that are infallibly shared by all iconic images.”  This could be true because if there were clearly defined guidelines and factors that guaranteed the iconic factor of an image, everyone would be able to produce one.  Even though a clear cut definition probably doesn’t exist, there are some reoccurring themes present in most images the world has deemed as iconic.

  1. Mass of recognition:  This is one of the biggest factors that makes an image iconic.  It should be so well-known that it becomes the norm for everyone to have seen it.  They are recognizable regardless of their age and time.  Most iconic photos outlast the author and the person (if applicable) in the image.
    Photo of the first man on the moon
  2. Iconic images perfectly captures an event or artistic style:  If the image captures an event or style, it will most likely be referenced anytime the event or style is discussed.  Eventually the image will become synonymous with the topic.  For example photos of the supermodel Twiggy made her an icon of the 60s.  According to Julia Deluliis “The key here is that the image becomes so closely associated with the topic (idea, person, event, etc) that the image gets discussed almost every time the topic is discussed.”

    This photo of twiggy is iconic of the 60s and propelled twiggy to be an icon herself.

  3. Carries multiple associations for many people: Iconic images can appeal to a variety of  people and host multiple associations.  For example, the photo of the swastika can symbolize several different things for people of different cultures and backgrounds.
  4. Impact on Public Opinion:  In image that shapes public opinion or directly results in action can become iconic.  However this type of image can be the most difficult to capture and prove.

    Lynching; Lawrence Beitler, 1930
    Thousands of whites descended on an Indiana park to hang a pair of black men accused of raping a white woman.

  5.  Provokes Emotion:  When an image emotionally resonates with its audiences it can become iconic. These are the images that pull at your heart-strings making you feel empathy, sympathy, pride, and other emotions.

    Photo capturing the spirit of America after WWII

Although there are possibly thousands of opinions about iconic images, the ones above are general ideas.  Martin Kemp authored a book, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon,  in which he chronicles the exploration of the topic and list several images that people consider iconic.  He writes:

“…there are tendencies that are recurrent to varying degrees in various permutations. Some are concerned predominately with meaning; a simplicity of message that is once definitive and compelling but that is also open to a broad, rich, and varied series of associations; the ability to work with both generic and specific meanings; and openness to varied kinds of individual and collective engagement; a special interplay with shared human values; the focus of devotional or cult practice; the forging of collective identity.”

For more information on Kemp’s book and to see the iconic image detailed in his book, go here.