Category Archives: Visual Aesthetics

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.