The Art in Traveling

In addition to Linda, traveling, and art and architecture, one of my passions has always been understanding and explaining complex ideas. It’s something I have been doing throughout my professional career as well as in the books I have written.

So it didn’t surprise me that, as I was writing about our travel interests, art emerged as a major factor in deciding where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do on our trip. That started me thinking about what it was about art and architecture that appealed to us.

Starting with a caveat, which keeps me from getting into too much trouble: I am not an art historian or theorist. I am simply someone who has appreciated, collected, and occasionally created art for most of my life, and discussed ideas about art with with many artists, Based on my own experience, I have found that, just as the eyes are the window to the soul, art can be a window to the soul of a culture and community.

Art as emergence

We do not experience the physical world directly. We use the information provided by our sense organs to create an internal reality — our experience. In the physical world, there are no violins, Brooklyn Bridges, or love. These are simply names and meanings we give to physical objects (violins or Brooklyn Bridges) or feelings (love), and such names and meanings exist only in our minds.

The reality we each create is determined by several factors:

  1. The fidelity of our sense organs: We can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel only within certain ranges.
  2. The way we process information: Our brain and nervous system works in a certain way to make sense of our world, especially when it comes to memory and understanding. This is how we are wired.
  3. Our culture: We learn about the way the world works, what is right and wrong, how we should live our lives from current and previous generations.
  4. Our communities, which exist within or across cultures: The behaviors, beliefs, and characteristics of a social, ethnic, age, or any other group you identify with.
  5. Our experiences and what we learn from them, both at a conscious and deep level: Some experiences are simply filed away, but some experiences, either individually (an unusually impactful experience) or as a group (the pattern we discern in a series of experiences) change us profoundly.

Based on that internal reality, people do things: make love, make war, pass laws, build buildings, and create art.

Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography: “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.”

In this frame of reference, a work of art is the intentional physical manifestation of a piece of an artist’s internal reality. And while in the physical world there are no violins, bridges, or love, they do exist in the internal reality of the artist. To the extent that the work of art can evoke those same or similar enough things in the observer, the artist has helped shape the observer’s internal reality. And when that observer happens to be me, as a traveler, I begin to experience the artist’s world as he or she does (albeit to one extent or another through my own personal filters) and, by extension, begin to implicitly understand and briefly begin to become part of  his or her relevant communities.

This way of thinking about art is articulated by artists as well.

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then — by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words — transmit that feeling so that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art.

Ideas alone can be works of art….All ideas need not be made physical . . . A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind.

– Sol LeWitt in “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” in Stephan Ross’s Art and Its Significance.

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

– Pablo Picasso in Dore Ashton’s Picasso on Art.

For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations.

– Paul Cezanne, in Gaetano Curreri-Alibrand’s Beyond Visual Perspective.

Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.

– Jackson Pollack in Seldon Rodman’s Conversations with Artists.

As a result, we can begin to briefly experience the late 18th and early 19th century Spain of Goya, the late 19th and early 20th century France of Cezanne, the post war America of Helen Frankenthaler, the early 20th century America (especially Midwest) of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Spain (especially Catalonia) of Antoni Gaudí, and the 21st century U.K. of Banksy.

Art movements

But while art is the unique product of the individual artist, an individual artist is often part of an artistic movement — a community with a shared view of the world and how that view is expressed in art.

For example, the early 20th century was a time marked by enormous industrial, economic, social, and cultural change. Futurism celebrated the advanced technology and new urban modernity at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a commitment to the destruction of the old and a celebration of the beauty inherent in modern life — the beauty inherent in machine, speed, violence, and change.

Cubism emerged as the foundations of many cultures’ belief systems were challenged and led many, including artists, to explore those belief systems. To oversimplify, Cubism analyzed objects, then broke them up and reassembled them in an abstracted form.

Most of the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism matured in the 1930s — a time when America suffered economically and was culturally isolated and provincial.

Color Field Painting was a style of Abstract Expressionism that did away with any suggestion of illustration to reveal emotions locked in myths, using the power of color (rather than symbols themselves) to envelop the viewer. Figure and ground became one, and the space of the picture appeared to spread out beyond the edges of the canvas.

Street art emerged from stresses and strains of the early 21st century and evolved into a movement as well. And it would be a mistake to dismiss it as mere graffiti. What makes it particularly interesting to us as we travel, is that in using the city and its artifacts as canvases, it is embedded in place, and can give an interesting picture and perspective of that place (pun intended). As a movement, it has also gone beyond a city as canvas and on to other, more traditional means, of displaying paint and ink.

The same thing can also be said about public art and architecture, both in terms of movements and a sense of place — for example Antoni Gaudí’s Parque Güell, Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, William F. Lamb’s Empire State Building, and Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project. But the picture here can be more complex —often revealing the “internal realities” of political bodies and committees in the case of the former, and clients in the case of the latter.

That being said, we don’t look at art and architecture as a travel guide, history book, or local newspaper. There are too many factors at work. Artists travel and movements spread across the globe — even more so now. We are passionate about art for art’s sake. The glimpse it gives us into time and place is simply an added bonus.

Art forms

According to Wikipedia, an art form is the specific shape or quality an artistic expression takes, and the formal qualities (constraints and limitations) of the media used serve to influence the form. The constraints and limitations of a particular medium are called its formal qualities. For example, the form of a sculpture exists in space in three dimensions, and the formal qualities of painting are the canvas (or whatever holds the paint, like a building), color, and brush and/or spray paint texture. But there are also formal qualities to non-traditional art, such as video games which include non-linearity and interactivity.

But it is not the medium that makes something art. There are plenty of paintings that hardly qualify as art. What makes something art is the intentional physical manifestation of a piece of an artist’s internal reality, with the art form being chosen by the artist as the best way to express that idea. For example, performance art, video art, and conceptual art, allow an artist to express his or her ideas in a medium that cannot be bought or sold. Street art uses buildings and other urban artifacts as the canvas; video games, the computer; the cook, food, and the fashion designer, fabric. The possibilities are endless.

Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors — it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.

– Wolfgang Puck in The Wall Street Journal February 21, 2012.

Fashion is only the attempt to realize art in living forms and social intercourse.

– Francis Bacon quoted in Charles Noel Douglas’s Forty Thousand Quotations, Prose and Poetical.

And to bring things full circle.

Travel is the art form available to Everyman. You sit in the coffee shop in a strange city and nobody knows who you are, or cares, and so you shed your checkered past and your motley credentials and you face the day unarmed … And onward we go and some day in the distant future, we will stop and turn around in astonishment to see all the places we’ve been and the heroes we were.

– Garrison Keillor in The New York Times, July 29,2009.

In the case of travel, the limitation of the form has to do with how one travels and what one does while traveling. For us, travel as an art form has to do with exploration and discovery, engagement and interaction with place, and being able to respond to experience and context with grace and style.

God may be in the details, but art is in the story you create.

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