Infrequently Asked Questions: an Interview with Artist Doug Craft
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I came to art through my studies in philosophy, spirituality, and science, rather than being formally trained as an artist. Ralph Hunt, my philosophy of art professor at Pensacola Junior College, initially opened my mind to what creativity and aesthetics really were - and what art could be on a deeper level. Another wonderful philosophy professor, Robert Kleinman, who also had a degree a physics, was very influential. Kleinman introduced me to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, along with quantum mechanics and General Relativity (which I was studying in more detail in my chemistry and physics classes). That wasn't all, he pointed out the similarities between modern physics and Hindu cosmology and mythology. I was inspired to start painting after taking these two teachers' classes, and I believe it is very important to acknowledge teachers and mentors who provided guidance and inspiration.
Duncan Stewart, an art professor and working artist at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, was my artist mentor and he introduced me to his principal medium, collage, as well as a love for cinema. Duncan gave my early work its first critique and he introduced me to the pedagogical ideas of the Bauhaus - Albers, Itten, Klee, and Kandinsky. I was chemistry major, so I took several independent studies with him as electives. We talked about spiritual aesthetics, and he first introduced me to Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a profound influence on my current ideas. He is still making and showing collage and paintings, a wonderful example of the artistic life and a great man.
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Early on, I was most influenced by Kandinsky for his ideas on the spiritual dimension of art and aesthetics. My aesthetics have matured over the years, primarily through readings of Joseph Campbell's wonderful work on mythology and creativity - and his cited references. His work really pulled a lot of concepts together for me, especially his idea that artists are playing the role in modern culture that shamans performed in hunter gatherer cultures. He also introduced me to James Joyce's aesthetics as detailed in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and referentially, Nietzsche's and Aquinas' writings on beauty and art.
My early paintings visually derived a lot from Japanese ukiyo e wood block prints - Hokusai and Hirosige - and were mostly landscapes. I was crazy about Zen and eastern philosophy, and read a lot in that area and eastern philosophy in general. Then I started experimenting with abstract painting - and coincidentally, improvisation with my music. Since I mostly played music during the 80's, I did not work on painting (or art in general) until the mid 90's.
My early collage were visually influenced by Terry Gilliam's animations on Monty Python, and were really just jokes - too visually busy to be any good. They looked like typical novice explorations. In the late 70's, I started finding much more interesting raw materials - I scored a stack of WW-II Life magazines for only $0.25 to $0.50 each - and my collages became simpler with only one or two foreground images and more abstract backgrounds. This was the start of my fascination with the abstract qualities of landscape and nature. My current collages are visually influenced by what are usually considered technical images: micro- and macrophotography, satellite images and computer "false color" techniques like tomography. I encountered these images while working on environmental studies and reading scientific periodicals, and very early on realized that despite looking abstract - they were at the same time representational of a smaller or larger scale reality.
A deeper influence on my current work is philosophical - primarily my ongoing study of form in nature, sacred and fractal geometry, physics, and complexity. Ideas that have been influential include those from the theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake (A New Science of Life: the Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance), writer Michael Talbot (The Holographic Universe, and Beyond the Quantum), physicists David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order), Erwin Schrödinger (What is Life, Mind and Matter), and Michio Kaku (Hyperspace), mathematicians Rene Thom and Benoit Mandelbrot (The Fractal Geometry of Nature), Naropa teacher and psychologist Ken Wilbur, (A Brief History of Everything, andThe Holographic Paradigm), the classic work of Theodore Andrea Cook (The Curves of Life), plus all the other authors whose work I cited in my bibliography.
My all time favorite artists include Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Ernst, Vermeer, Blake, Francisco de Goya, Nicolas Roerich, Pollock, Gaudi, Hopper, O'Keefe, Richter, and Hundertwasser. I also like the eye-candy of the Pre-Rafaelites and the luminists - mainly because of their dreamlike depiction of mythopoetic subjects. I have to admit I am fairly ignorant of who's who in the current art scene. In Denver, I am fairly ignorant too, but I like the work of Phil Bender, Dave Griffin, Rolf Helland, Susan Vaho, Kent Rucker, and Roger Rapp.
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At the risk of sounding pompous, I will say that my artistic activities are a personal spiritual activity. At least, that's my intention and aspiration. It's a complex issue, because personal vanity and being the center of attention certainly has its charms. I started playing guitar to impress women, and a certain amount of all male showing off is mating display. Also, being paid a lot for my artwork would be nice. So there are several motivations, but I would hope to stay grounded in a deeper purpose and intention.
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In the late 80s, I began taking music lessons with John Thornburg, a Denver jazz bassist, and started practicing bass and guitar on a daily basis. One day, after playing scales and arpeggios for about 30 minutes - I realized I was meditating - I was in the "zone". That was when the idea hit me that art and music could actually constitute a meditative practice, and one grounded in my own direct experience, drawn directly from the culture I grew up in. Since I am a fairly skeptical person, and do not generally trust what most people say about spirituality, this self-inferential and testing approach really suits me. This realization was significant, and really was the internal reason I became inspired to re-start making art and to practice it publically with more conscious intention.
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Kandinsky said that spiritualized art should be created from a detached and egoless state of mind that allows "internal necessity" to express itself. At the core of my art making process is the simple fact that artistic activities end up producing a meditative, non-personal, and detached state of mind. The repetitive nature of preparative art activities - like stretching and prepping canvas, or cutting collage images - allows you to enter a meditative, delta wave state of mind. The Zen call this Beginner's Mind. Someone exercising would call it an endorphin high. Regardless of how you get there, the important point is that you are not thinking, judging, or analyzing. You are in a receptive state.
Another important element for this process is the practice of improvisation, which I define as spontaneously creating forms while in a non-personal or meditative state. Musicians are usually more familiar with improvisation, but the process can be applied during any creative activity - and to all areas of life. Here, though, the idea of skill and experience must be mentioned. While artwork should assume a form dictated by internal necessity, the expression of the idea can be limited by the quality of my conscious state (which imposes distortion on the idea being manifested), and the maturity of my skills with the particular medium. The artist's skill is definitely a part of the quality or success of an artwork - you certainly are not going to create something like a Coltrane solo if you can barely play House of the Rising Sun.
This model of creativity suggests that the artist is more of a conduit or transceiver of aesthetic energy, rather than an individual (in the Western sense) making something up. I think this process is similar to shamanism. The shaman, by experience with ascetic practices, meditation, or ingestion of psychoactive plants, attains the ability to enter non-personal trance states. During trance, the shaman directly experiences the hidden world of the spirits that sustains the universe we sense. Upon return, the shaman may teach the tribe a song or ritual inspired by the knowledge or wisdom he received during trance. The song or ritual represents a formal structure - that allows the rest of the cultural group to enter a trance and re-enact the shaman's personal experience. This is the way that hidden or new mythopoetic knowledge is made manifest to culture - through shamanistic ritual and myth creation. The shaman is the designated intermediary.
Well, the artist, if he or she is doing their job right, can also function as a shaman. A skilled artist with mind properly attuned can receive aesthetic ideas dictated by internal necessity, and then create art forms able to transmit the idea to others similarly attuned.
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Oh yes, face paint is essential (laughter) ...of course not. Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas, the non-canonical gnostic scripture found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, says, "The kingdom of heaven is arrayed before men but they do not see it." Aesthetic consciousness, logos, thought, creative intelligence, David Bohm's quantum implicate order, formative ideation, the mind of god - whatever term you use - surrounds and interpenetrates all of us. All that needs to occur for Kandinsky's internal necessity to speak through the artist is for the mind to be in a receptive and quiet state. That receptive state of mind is fairly easy to attain with a little practice. Most artists, musicians, and scientists, will tell you that their best work is created during such detached and nonpersonal states.
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This question goes directly to the way I experience the structure within structure of the universe - which is based as much on my understanding of modern physics as metaphysics. I will address this question after explaining a few basic ideas.
A basic concept is that the structure of the universe is holographic and fractal. This is not an easy idea to explain except by analogy - and it will take some digression. The term "holographic" refers to the photographic laser hologram - which is a baffling phenomenon that nonetheless illustrates a profound truth about the structure of reality. To create a hologram, a laser beam, a focused and coherent light of a single wavelength, is split using a partially transparent mirror. The reflected beam is directed to illuminate an object and the laser light that bounces off the object is recombined with the original non-reflected beam. This recombination creates a complex interference pattern that is then captured on a photographic plate. When the photographic plate is developed, the original object is not visible, and the image is observed to be a complex matrix of finely detailed whorls and patterns that were created when laser light bouncing off the object at many different angles (and with varying reflectances) created a complex interference pattern.
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An interference pattern is like the waves on a pond from many different sized raindrops hitting the surface. As the circular water waves propagate outward from each impact point, the waves collide with each other, sometimes in a constructive (additive) way, creating larger waves, and sometimes in a destructive (subtractive) way, creating smaller waves or even flat surfaces. The sum total of all the waves and their interference patterns is analogous to the hologram plate.
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The strangeness of the hologram begins when the laser is shined back through the interference pattern on the photographic plate. The original object then appears some distance beyond the plate, not as a flat 2-dimensional object like a photograph, but a complete 3-dimensional representation. Why this occurs is something of a mystery (at least with my primitive understanding of physics), but it does. You can walk around the projected hologram and the details of the object are visible much like the original object would have been seen. So, the interference pattern on the photographic plate contains all the information associated with the object originally under laser illumination.
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The hologram is a powerful metaphor for universal structure because of a really weird feature of the interference pattern. If the photographic plate is cut into 4 equal sections, and the laser is then shined back though one of the plate quarters, the original object once again appears, complete, in the projected hologram! In fact, all 4 quarters will display the original object projected as a hologram. The sectioning process could be repeated into 16th- or 64th-sized sections of the plate and the result would be the same. Actually, the resolution of the projected hologram will get fuzzier as the sections become smaller and smaller, but the smaller pieces of the hologram still contain most of the information (shape, texture, etc.) needed to recognize the object.
What does this mysterious result mean? That the dimensional and reflectance information about the object is imbedded throughout the interference pattern practically down to the atomic scale! Each minute part contains the information about the whole. This is the basis for the analogy with the structure of the universe, where the structure of the galaxy is implied in the atom - the part contains the seed of the whole.
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First, similar mathematical laws can be applied to many natural phenomena at many size scales. Consider the vibration of strings and musical intervals, which were studied by the Pythagoreans, and the correspondence with electrons in an atom. A vibrating string will have a fundamental pitch associated with the entire string moving back and forth in one motion. But the string will also vibrate in a more complex manner, with waves and nodes associated with integer divisions of the string length (one-half, one-third, one-fourth, etc). These integer division nodes create the higher harmonic frequencies which are not as loud as the fundamental pitch, but contribute to how the string sounds - the timbre. The electrons in an atom also have a "harmonic" structure with discrete levels associated with the energies of the electrons in orbitals surrounding the nucleus, usually electromagnetic energies in the visible and ultraviolet. Schrödinger used the analogy of a vibrating string to develop the wave equation for describing the electron in the hydrogen atom. This is the basis for quantum mechanics, that the electron behaves in some ways like a vibrating string on a guitar. That is a holographic analogy or correspondence.
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Another good example is the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, named after the pen name of Leonardo of Pisa, a 12th century merchant mathematician who also, by the way, introduced Arabic numerals to ignoramus western civilization. This number sequence is determined by adding the previous two numbers to get the next number in the sequence. If you start with 0 and 1, the next number is 1, the next is 2, then 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on. Fibonacci originally discovered this additive number sequence while observing the growth of a rabbit population from an original mating pair. Many plants and animals show Fibonacci number sequences in their growth patterns - see Cook's or Thompson's classic studies for dozens of great examples. Fibonacci sequences are found everywhere you look at all size scales in nature - metaphors of the "kingdom of God arrayed before men." You can also calculate the Golden Ratio by dividing adjacent Fibonacci numbers - which ties this discussion to the use of Golden Ratios in my work.
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A fractal is a geometric form that looks the same (that is, it is self-similar) no matter how much it is enlarged or reduced. You have probably seen colorful pictures of fractals generated by computers. Well, fractals are not just an amusing mathematical game. It turns out that many of the simple and complex structural features in nature are fractal: crystals, bee hives, surfaces of cells, coastlines, landscapes, the melodic structure of music and language - the list goes on and on. So a fractal is a holographic/geometric metaphor for the way the universe really organizes itself, especially any process involving additive growth or random processes. A Golden Rectangle, the form I have been exploring, is also a basic fractal, where the square is the repeating self-similar form unit.
Second, and this is similar to the first point, the structural organizing forms of the universe repeat themselves. Structures at higher (or more complex) levels contain structural elements and patterns associated with simpler patterns. These more complex structures are themselves part of larger scale structures, in a nested hierarchy of organization. Ken Wilbur calls these nested and similar organizational structures holons.
The solar system shows structural similarities to the atom, which is also suggested in the galactic organizing structure. An organism repeats the functions of individual cells, which are also repeated at the social level of organization. Our country responded to the September 11 tragedy much like a organism responding to an injury or a cell to an invading virus. Energy was allocated to rebuild, defend, and reproduce (witness the baby boom of WW II and increased marriages and pregnancies since 9-11). Empires re-enact predator feeding by "devouring" and "absorbing" other nations and cultures. The intermarriage following conquest is a form of genetic assimilation, or "digestion."
The alchemical axiom, "As above, so below," is stating the same correspondence from an occult frame of reference. Plato's realm of the archetypes, where ideal forms in heaven are seen in a distorted form in the physical plane, is a metaphysical way of saying that the universe is holographic. Michael Talbot, David Bohm, and others even suggest that the whole universe is actually a giant hologram, a huge complex interference pattern that we only perceive as physical reality, and where the structure of the whole is found in every minute bit.
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OK. Now we can get to the model of art creation I endorse and explain why form is central to art for me. I need to bring up several additional axioms concerning the wave nature of the universe and the important role of resonance.
First, the physical universe we can sense and all energy are vibratory and have wave properties of wavelength and frequency. Einstein showed us that matter and energy are equivalent, so both have wave properties. Light is vibratory electromagnetic energy - sound is vibratory mechanical pressure energy. Solid objects have wave properties because they are composed of atoms that contain particles having wave properties.
I believe that consciousness and thought are also vibratory. I don't know what kind of medium thought waves propagate through - it probably has an electromagnetic component associated with neurochemistry and electrical activity of the nerves involved - but we don't yet understand the physical mechanisms of thought or consciousness - so the idea is untested. But it seems reasonable.
Second, all information in the universe is exchanged by way of resonance. Resonance is the sympathetic vibration of an object exposed to oscillating energy waves. Everyday objects have an acoustic resonant frequency associated with their shape, size, and physical properties. Everyone has observed buzzing vibration of certain objects when the stereo is loud - the sympathetic buzz usually occurs only when specific pitches sound - the resonant frequency of the buzzing object. The energy of sound waves at a particular frequency cause physical vibration in the object that has the same resonant frequency. Microwave ovens cook by making the chemical bonds in water molecules resonate with the microwaves and vibrate, generating heat in the process. To properly receive radio signals, antennas have to have lengths that are related to the wavelength of the broadcast signal - FM waves are around a meter in length, and so is the wire antenna you hook to the stereo.
If thought, the aesthetic logos, is vibratory and has wave properties, then the form of an artwork, referring to the analogy of the radio antenna, assumes a central role. Just like a radio antenna having to be a specific length to receive radio waves of a given wavelength, the form of the artwork needs to have certain properties that enable resonance with the thought waves of internal necessity. If the artist is being a proper shaman and creates a form harmonious with the idea, then the artwork will resonate with the aesthetic logos, and can thus transmit the idea. If a person views the artwork in a suitably receptive mind state; attuned, so to speak, to the resonant frequency of the artwork, then art can function as a transceiver of aesthetic energy. In this model, the artwork literally becomes the medium that bridges the invisible and visible world, but it also places a large responsibility on the viewer's state of mind.
This idea of artwork as "aesthetic antennae" and the central importance of form is not new. Both Kandinsky and Klee kicked the idea around.
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Exactly! What better formal organizing element could an artist find than a form that embodies the fractal structure of nature? Artists have known about the Golden Proportion for a long time, and it has been used extensively throughout history. We do not think about it, but what we consider musical is related to whether or not the melodic note content has a fractal structure. When people are played computer generated sound pitches that are random, it is rarely considered music. When the computer selects pitches using a fractal selection algorithm, the notes are then perceived as "music."
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These elements are important, because they go directly to the issue of what idea is being expressed and how well it is being expressed. However, to me, they are subordinate to form and composition. These elements definitely contribute to form, because unskillful application of color or texture may obscure the form. The analogy I like is someone playing out of tempo at a jam session. That person is "stepping on the groove."
Also, skillful application of color, texture and content can enhance the composition. I think that this is what Aquinas was referring to when he identified harmony, constantia, as an important aesthetic criterium. I would define harmony as the synergistic combination of skill and message with form. I would say that beauty is the subjective perception of harmony, and it is definitely a part of any great work. And by beauty, I am not talking about a culturally defined concept of uplifting, attractive, or pretty.
Content is also important, because what appears in the frame says something as well. If it is a representational object, there are emotional associations each viewer will bring to the experience. An image of a horse means something different to a horse lover than to someone who is afraid of horses. An abstract may make one person uncomfortable while another may be entranced.
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This is a difficult question, because so much of artistic appreciation is subjective and dependent on your familiarity with art and aesthetic criteria like composition and appreciation for skills. And my own personal criteria are similarly subjective and limited by my own ignorance. That disclaimer aside, I do have some guidelines that I follow when I look at a piece.
First, if you want to appreciate good art, you have to do a little work as the viewer. The ideal would be to be in the same alert meditative state the artist shaman used to create the work. At the very least, you should approach art viewing in a calm and attentive state in a calm environment.
Next I ask if I am captivated by the image. Does it speak to me on any level? Does it "work"? This is the idea James Joyce described as aesthetic arrest, and it is a personal impression of "impassive capture" determined by the viewer's aesthetic and life experience, and how well the art antenna is broadcasting aesthetic energy. The greater the art, the more readily it should transmit. The good stuff should call you - and hold you entranced. Post hoc, I can rationalize why I was drawn to the piece based on aesthetic analysis (a more analytical and reductionist process), but fundamentally, the work either speaks to me or it doesn't.
Second, does the work have legs? This is a longer term criterium that asks, "Do you keep coming back to the work?" Do you continue to appreciate new nuances and meaning over time? Much like great music, great art should have some depth and complexity that engenders the desire to see it again and again. This criterium serves to separate the great from the good.
Finally, for proper art, I think that the degree of archetypal material is important. I believe that the Logos or internal necessity best manifests itself when the art antenna has mythopoetic and symbolic attributes. Good art should function as good mythology, and good mythology has many meaning layers that are accessible to many levels of viewer experience. Good mythology is also usually outwardly directed, universal, and nonpersonal, as opposed to self-referentially indulgent, neurotic, or political.
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Yes. That is true. It is a big deal about my current work - and a difficulty at the same time. The use of Golden Rectangles for the formal image structure, fractal images in the artwork, and Golden Rectangles (or derivatives) for frames is really beating the drum on the "form as metaphor" idea. Partly, I am doing this to reinforce the symbolic message that definitely requires more work from viewers to appreciate - at least on the mathematical or scientific level. Very few artists and art lovers are also well versed in math (by the way, very few scientists are well versed in math!). I imagine I will be more relaxed about explaining the details in future work, but right now the spark is strong and I am still very excited about these ideas.
At the same time, the difficulty of understanding the reasons why Golden Rectangles are structural metaphors should not interfere with someone who is not educated enjoying the images. If the images work and speak to people, then it should not matter if you understand the hunga bunga behind the Golden Proportion, or my smarty pants theory of art and creativity. I think my recent work is visually strong and does work on the basic levels. If someone is drawn to them because they are "pretty" or have nice colors, then that's fine with me. In fact, that's great!
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Great art is created by shamans, and yes, shamans are elites. And art is usually bought by the rich, who are economic elites. Despite the gallery system, it still seems to me that a rich patron must buy an artist's work for them to become successful - or at least to earn a decent living. How many artists made it after Peggy Guggenheim endorsed their work? Only after the rich buy your art does it interest the national and international art media. So until Gertrude Stein patronized Picasso, he was just another struggling artist. So, the current system is not much different from the feudal model, where the church or local royalty supported artists. And yes, it is true that the more you know about art and aesthetics, the better you will appreciate art - which implies educated and cultured elites. But the creation of art by elites should not necessarily imply that art is intended only for elites. The converse of the elite argument is that anything enjoyed by the masses is not artistic, but I disagree with that assumption, too.
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Just because something is out of the mainstream and esoteric does not make it good art. I have heard a lot of crappy and uninteresting atonal music and looked at a lot of ugly and mean-spirited art. At the same time there is no reason why something that is popular cannot have aesthetic merit. The Back Street Boys are bubblegum, but long live Hoagy Carmichael!
I have what I call the 10-Percent Rule - that ten percent of all creative expression is good, in whatever medium or genre you choose, at whatever level of popular acceptance it exists. The 10% good contains the 1% that is great. The remaining 90% varies from not bad, to mediocre, to bad, then incompetent (which can sometimes have smartass entertainment value). Frankly, most of what you run across sucks, whether it is "cutting edge" or pop.
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Like all activities, there is a continuum of intentions and purposes surrounding art. Our global culture produces both kitsch and the most sublime artistic expression. Because we are currently experiencing a materialistic zenith - we are after all, the richest of rich countries in the world - the lion's share clearly goes to materialistic applications, such as advertising, propaganda, and meaningless ironic crap - the ennui of a wealthy materialistic culture.
However, I believe that the consciously intentional artist should approach art as a spiritual activity and as a shaman. That is the higher calling of artistic expression, and the role of "proper art," as James Joyce defined it. We are due for a change, and whenever a condition is in an exaggerated extreme, as it is now, the stage is set for the pendulum to swing back. It's a self organizing aspect of nature.
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