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 enquiries.
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
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 anthropologists.
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 are.
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 group represents. ….
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.
With these 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 single species.
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 www.artlex.com).
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.netaxs.com/~jgreshes/mahler/music_mahler_and_mysticism.html)
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" (www.artlex.com), then
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
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
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)
and further: "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 Hubbard.]
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 artists!
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) the
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.
At this 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)
(1991) Art 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
- extract "On Abandoning Abstraction" from A Sculptor's World by Isamu
- 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 Project
- Research Methodology Chart for MFA
- Action Plan 1 -
- Action Plan 2 -
- Final Description of MFA Project
- Essay One 10
- Essay Two 7 March
Evaluation 1 8 April 2005
Dips - Research Paper for Viva
- Artist Statement for MFA Final Show
- 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. 2006
- List of professional engagements
(symposia, lectures, etc.) during course period Sept. 2004 to Sept. 2006
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