KENT INSTITUTE OF ART
& DESIGN Master Fine Art - 1st Year Essay One - 10 January 2005
FACES OF THE WORLD: THE
CHALLENGE OF "PORTRAYING HUMANKIND"
At the outset of the MA
course I started out with a project loosely built around "faces and fragments".
However, during the first of our core lecture series, the initial advice given
by Dr. Judith Rugg was to reflect upon research methodology. To that end I
promptly devised a Chart of Research Methodology for my project, which helped
me to delineate it further, and laid out a number of possible lines of
After further reflection and research into some of these
questions in the intervening three months, (also recently impacted by the
heart-searing news of earthquake and tsunami destruction in South-East Asia), I
have arrived at a new focus for my project which now centres on the above
concept of "Faces of the World: The Challenge of Portraying Humankind".
Humankind is a vast subject. Mankind (referring only to men) is the
more familiar term, yet as a woman I feel inclined at this stage to use the
former word that embraces all genders. Prompted by the need to gather relevant
information for my project, my initial research shows pitfalls of "racism" and
"political correctness" are associated with any attempt to categorize people by
race; these pitfalls are well argued and highlighted in works by noted
In The Kinds of Mankind: An Introduction to Race
and Racism (1971, p.41) by Morton Klass and Hal Hellman, I noted this:
At the end of this chapter, therefore, we are back where we were
at the beginning - or at the time of Linnaeus, more than 200 hundred years ago!
After all that work, and all those brilliant suggestions, all we seem able to
say is this: while not all human beings look like all the other human beings,
and while we can clearly see a lot of the ways in which people look different,
scientists still do not agree on exactly how many kinds of mankind there
Further in that same text, the authors refer to Professor
Sherwood Washburn, a physical anthropologist, whom they quote as follows:
I think we should require people who propose a classification of
races to state in the first place why they wish to divide the human species
As an artist, I am passionately interested in humankind as
well as in individual and collective inter-relationships between sub-groups of
people, and across national/geographical boundaries; I realize however that if
scientists cannot agree on classifications, I am unlikely to do more than
stumble around trying to work out "whom" to include when attempting to "portray
humankind". I was therefore extremely relieved upon further exploration to read
a work by another anthropologist, Ashley Montagu, who concluded in Man's
Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1964, p.379-380) that:
. The concept of "ethnic group" implies a question mark, not a
period. It implies that many questions remain to be asked, and that many
answers will be given before we can say precisely what any particular ethnic
The phrase "ethnic group" serves as a challenge
to thought and as stimulus to rethink the foundations of one's beliefs. It
encourages the passage from ignorant certainty to thoughtful uncertainty. For
the layman, as for others, the term "race" closes the door on his
understanding; the phrase "ethnic group" opens it.
issues of terminology in mind, I seek to find out how to effect artistic
artworks portraying humankind that include many ethnic groups; are imbued with
positive messages; enhance the awareness of viewers and their understanding of
the diversities which ultimately characterize us all and regroup us into one
Though "fragments" may yet enter into my approach for
creating artwork, and whilst I am still extremely excited by the avenues opened
by their use, I have abandoned the idea of focusing upon them.
"Portraiture is the field of portrait making and portraits in
(Source: entry for "Portraits" at
Through a thorough examination of the faces of people in different
regions of the world, both males and females at 3 key life stages: young,
mature and old age, looking at the differences and similarities of some of the
different ethnic groups extant in the world (primarily Asian, native
Australians, African, Caucasian and American Indian), at their perceptions of
themselves and other groups, as well as their perceptions of what constitutes a
"portrayal of mankind", I hope to offer a fresh, hopefully exciting
contribution to contemporary views of mankind and of portraiture. My MFA
project will therefore consist of studying some of the peoples of earth
(following a number of other pertinent lines of enquiry as they arise), using
different media, techniques and sizes for their representation - with the
express goal of creating a renewed interest for what has traditionally been
viewed as an "old" artform.
Current perceptions worldwide of
portraiture in general, and of sculpture portraiture in particular vary
tremendously. My research to date shows it ranges from low-key interest to
rather negative attitudes: "
not in vogue at this time" was the qualifier
used by Wilfred Cass, the director of Sculpture at Goodwood to me last
year during a visit to that landmark venue for contemporary British sculpture.
Certainly attempting to infuse sculpture portraiture with "popular
appeal" (the type of appeal which the group Riverdance managed a few
years ago to garner for Irish dancing - until then considered of little
interest worldwide) presents any artist today with a significant challenge.
The focus of my current practice until the start of this MA course
centred on sculpture exclusively, especially in-the-round and high-relief
sculpture, creating clay artworks which are then cast into bronze. My specific
area of concentration within the field of sculpture was already portraiture.
However, I feel that an unfettered exploration into this field during the MA
International Practice course is likely to produce results that will differ
greatly from those obtaining from commissioned work.
Also, rather than
focusing on individual portraits as stand-alone works, concepts presented in
the core lecture series at KIAD have moved me to explore different modes to
concretize my ideas; especially installation, photography and video, as well as
testing out different processes for creating multimedia sculpture. Whilst
attending them, I started to experiment with dry-pointe, oil painting and
photography, as well as clay modelling in an entirely different scale than I
ever had previously (trying my hand at miniature rather than life size or
heroic size faces).
The lectures (and lecturers) have also prompted me
to contextualize my practice (both as it was before embarking on the MA
program, and how it may take shape in the future, as I progress through the
course and beyond). To contextualize it not only in terms of specific art
movements (I was moved to start investigating what group or sub-groups I may
belong to worldwide), but also in terms of past and present artists I may
resemble in the genre, what references I may have appropriated either
subconsciously or consciously, and to identify the terminology for all of the
approaches and techniques that serve as the guidelines for this art form.
In the course of my research so far I discovered invaluable, and very
satisfying data. For example, for all that I had heard about and seen before of
the sculptor Isamu Noguchi's work, by visiting the internet site of the
Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, awareness recently dawned that all I had
ever become familiar with were his late stone works, not realizing that he'd
sculpted over 120 excellent, powerful heads, nor that he'd gone through a phase
of abandoning abstraction in 1929 in favour of realism because, in his words:
"The pursuit of art based on reflective leisure had now to be superseded by
application to a job." (from extracts of A Sculptor's World,1968,
found on the website). This put paid to any idea I may have had of Noguchi
being a mainly "abstract" artist!
Artists whose "portraits" have been
an inspiration, or whom I feel close to in some way are an eclectic mix with
regards media (ranging from sculptors to writers and photographers), and
approaches: Frans Hals, Vermeer, Auguste Rodin, Malvina Hoffman, Pearl Buck,
Modigliani, Robert Wlerick, Mahler, Colette, Isamu Noguchi, Giacometti, Andy
Warhol, Jacob Epstein and Richard Burke are but a very few of the many who
spring to mind.
Mahler is an interesting example of an artist whom I
would not heretofore have considered a kindred spirit. And though to me the
individual means much, I find I do have something in common with this composer
: To Mahler, the mystic, the individual meant little. He longed to express
humanity itself directly.
To him music was not the expression of
an individual, but the general expression of omnipresent humanity, incorporeal,
yet charged with primeval dynamics.
(article by Ernt Lert at
In November 2004, my fellow students and I visited the Tate
Gallery's special Turner Prize Exhibition of short-listed artists. I
started out that particular section of our visit in a dubious frame of mind
(previous years' results in several instances had left me nonplussed), but
ended up being bowled over by the Britain-based African artist Yinka Shonibare,
who presented an art video featuring the assassination of Swedish King Gustav
III at a masked ball in 1792, enacted through dance movements - which in
themselves were far different from what one would have expected for that
period. The actors wore costumes that were historically correct in terms of
shape, but created with African-patterned fabric, while the sounds of their
movements and breathing produced a warm, sensual and very universal audio
impact. Using these devices, the artist succeeded in creating a provocative,
touching, strikingly modern art film of particular interest to viewers in
Europe, yet threaded throughout with a unique African flavour- an excellent
example of internationalist art!
Seeing this video - albeit for a short
time, rekindled an interest I'd had in film-making and in choreography over
thirty years ago and started a whole new train of thought with regards to the
possibilities for portraying mankind through the medium of video using actors,
masks, movement and sound.
If a portrait is further defined as "a
work of art that represents a specific person, a group of people or an animal"
the trajectory of my enquiry at this time is fuelled by a number of new
questions: Is it possible to represent "mankind" in a single piece of artwork?
If it were, then which groups of people will best represent "mankind"? What
image of "mankind" do I want to project through my artwork (whether sculpture,
video or other media)? What are the best constructs for artwork showing several
groups of people?
Another, though unrelated question was: How much of
the contemporary critical theory outlined during the core lecture series do I
want to "take onboard"?
I think that the writings of Freud had a highly
negative impact on society in general, and on the art world in particular. I am
not alone in this opinion. Amongst other issues raised in his works, relating
most of the problems of humankind to sexual development (or non-development)
simply has done nothing in the last century to resolve man's various conflicts
or mental ills. In support of my argument, one has only to look at the
statistics showing that large numbers of killers, rapists and criminals of
various ilk were "treated by and then released" by psychiatrists before
committing their crimes.
The works of many (not all) of the critical
theoreticians of the last thirty or so years (post-modernists) are
unfortunately interspersed throughout with concepts first outlined by Freud
(himself a modernist), then expounded upon by a plethora of early psychiatrists
in his wake. As a result, most of their views of art, and of man (as both
artist and viewer of art) were, at best, rather confused and uninteresting, and
at worst, extremely misleading and degrading.
The varied contributions
of Freud and writers following in Freud's footsteps have, in my opinion, done
much to destabilize familial and societal values in the world today,
cultivating a falsely beneficial "open-minded" attitude which permits all
(including seriously offensive works of art, purchased by museums whose
curators are often themselves perpetuating the confusion of the "artists"
responsible for them).
For instance, whilst "being beaten" could be a
subject that needs to be addressed by an artist to enlighten society,
presenting an arse being beaten (and gradually becoming redder and redder to
the accompaniment of sickening sounds) to the general public (which includes
children), in the Modern Art Museum of Hamburg in a video without a warning or
qualifying statement, will merely upset a great number of viewers. This is a
pure product of "psyche" dominated thinking, espoused by a number of
contemporary critical theorists, in which "anything goes". And whilst "process"
can be a very interesting experience to undergo as an artist, focusing upon
this alone is unlikely to produce art that will enhance society.
Recognizing that this is perhaps too broad a statement and that I have
offered only one example to support my point, I must add that the scope of this
essay is too narrow to offer a fuller argumentation along with further examples
of what I perceive as the negative influence of Freud and - I repeat, some, not
all, critical theorists. I am however firmly convinced that artists must
confront the responsibility they have towards shaping the current culture, and
that further, they should first and foremost seek to communicate through their
art, and that all art - to be art (whether figurative or abstract, and in
whatever media) - must contain a message. Not necessarily a "rosy" or "sweet"
or even "broadly understood" one, but one whose impact on the culture is not
designed to harm it.
In the words of American philosopher L. Ron
Hubbard: "A culture is only as great as its dreams and its dreams are
dreamed by artists". (Science of Survival, 1952, p. 152)
Elsewhere he states: "ART is a word which summarizes THE QUALITY OF
COMMUNICATION." (Art, 1991, p. 5)
"Successful works of art have a message. It may be implicit or implied,
emotional, conceptual or literal, inferred or stated. But a message
nonetheless. This applies to any form of art: paintings, sculpture, poetry,
writing, music, architecture, photography, cine, any art form or any form that
depends on art, even advertising brochures and window displays. Art is for the
receiver. If he understands it, he likes it. If it confuses him, he may ignore
or detest it. It is not enough that the creator of the work understands it;
those who receive it must. Many elements and much expertise go into the
creating of successful works of art. Dominant amongst them is message, for it
integrates the whole and brings comprehension and appreciation to those for
whom it is intended. Understanding is the base of affinity, reality and
communication. A message is fundamental to understanding." (Art,
1991, p. 61-62).
[copyright notice for the last 3
quotes: Grateful acknowledgement is made to L. Ron Hubbard Library for
permission to reproduce selections from the copyrighted works of L. Ron
When we look further into what a portrait consists of:
"Portraits usually show what a person looks like as well as revealing
something about the subject's personality." (www.artlex.com) This is where
message comes into it. Much of the jargon in the field of semantics and
semiotics, such words as "signified", "signifier", etc. relate to the larger
and senior concepts of "message" and "communication".
A contributor to a
recently written and published volume of essays, James Gaywood, himself in part
quoting from Conversations with Claude Levi-Strauss by Charbonnier, writes of
Marcel Duchamp that "Levi-Strauss describes this act of juxtaposing the
signified aspect of the mass-produced urinal against the gallery context as a
'semantic' fission, thus the object's (sign's) signified aspect is encoded as a
new set of relevances." (Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, p.
91). In plain English, what Marcel Duchamp did was present a "message" that was
different from earlier messages communicated by earlier art and earlier
Yet - choice of theme for one's message is crucial. In support
of this, Timothy A. Smith states:
C. S. Lewis's purpose for art--"to
know that we are not alone"--and St. John of Damascus's purpose for icons--to
know that God is with us--both stand in stark contrast to the existentialist
philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre and others of our own century who portray
mankind as very much alone and adrift in a meaningless universe, without God,
but with a terrifying freedom to choose. (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~tas3/musicon.html).
Jean-Paul Sartre and the others referred to were undeniably influenced
by Freud and his disciples. No doubt these others could include such
post-modernists as Derrida, Cixous, etc. Raised a Catholic and now a
Scientologist for over 25 years (either way having a strong awareness of myself
as a spiritual being), I do not feel I can easily espouse portrayals of mankind
as "alone" or "adrift": worldwide response, regardless of religion or status,
since the event of the South East Asian tsunami of December 2005 shows that a
sense of community, commonality and solidarity grabs people in the face of
catastrophes. Just knowing that they are "not alone" will be one of the factors
that help those affected.
"Portraits can be made of any sculptural
material or in any two dimensional medium" (www.artlex.com). Following further L. Ron
Hubbard's line of reasoning outlined previously (to which I fully subscribe),
the decision of which medium to use for any portrait, indeed for any artwork,
would be influenced by how that medium would best forward the message intended
by me as the artist, by how I imagine it will impact (affect, be received by)
Whilst I understand that "outcome" may be affected by
"process" (and I have tried for a short space to disregard outcomes, which goes
against my deepest beliefs), I disagree that thoughts of outcome should not
figure highly in my academic and creative approach during this course. Whilst
remaining open-minded during investigations as to what the outcomes may be, any
art that I do produce during them and as a result of them will be stronger if
it contains strong "messages"; and "strong messages" are not evolved without a
certain degree of sustained thought about projected outcomes.
juncture, "Faces of the world, the challenge of portraying humankind" seems an
artistic vehicle more likely to lead to an enhancement of current culture than
the unexplained beating of an arse. Although not all artists can be said to be
portraying man's higher nature, in support of my enquiry is this statement by
Joanne Sheehy Hoover, a music critic for the Albuquerque Journal: "We in the
arts always seek to portray mankind's higher nature, a kind of communication
that crosses borders and bridges conflicts."
Forecasting avenues to
explore from here: how to mount an interactive gallery installation, say of a
hundred multi-ethnic heads on mobile plinths, where viewers are free to
manipulate the elements of artwork to reflect their own ideas of
mankind/relationships; how to create a video featuring young people from the
main geographical areas / ethnic groups of the world wearing and then
exchanging masks (of another group, then their own); how to compose vibrant
large-scale temporary or permanent 2D and 3D works featuring meaningful
messages concerning mankind (for example coast-to-coast through entire
continents or cross-continental markers, etc.).
KLASS Morton and HELLMAN Hal
(1971) The Kinds of Mankind: An
Introduction to Race and Racism. J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia /
New York, USA.
(1964) Man's Most dangerous Myth: The
Fallacy of Race. Fourth edition. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland
and New York, USA.
HUBBARD L. Ron
(1950) Science of Survival and
(1991) Art. Bridge Publications, Inc. Los Angeles, California, USA.
(2005) "yBA" as Critique, an essay in Theory in
Contemporary Art since 1985. Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung ed., Blackwell
Publishing Ltd, United Kingdom.
SHEEHAN Steven (1991)
Terms & Techniques The Harper Collins Dictionary, Ralph Mayer Center,
Yale University School of Art, 2nd Edition. Harper Perennial, 1991, New York.
http://www.artlex.com - entry for
- extract "On Abandoning Abstraction" from A Sculptor's World by Isamu Noguchi
- Contemporary Philosophy, Critical Theory and Postmodern Thought, a portal to
various web resources on the subject including -
- Lert, Ernst J. M. Music, Mahlher, and Mysticism
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- Original Description of MFA
- Research Methodology Chart for MFA
- Action Plan 1 -
- Action Plan 2 -
- Final Description of MFA Project
- Essay One 10 January
- Essay Two 7 March
Evaluation 1 8 April 2005
- PG Dips
- Research Paper for Viva
- Artist Statement for MFA Final Show Sept.
- Personal bibliography
- Travel links
- Artist and art websites
- Curriculum Vitae
- List of professional commissions executed,
works purchased and works exhibited during course period Sept. 2004 to Sept.
- List of professional engagements (symposia,
lectures, etc.) during course period Sept. 2004 to Sept. 2006
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