Words and photography, Jesse Jackson IV | email@example.com
Cohesion is perhaps the strongest indicator of the maturity of artistic vision, and it is a quality I believe consumers or enthusiasts of the arts are strongly drawn to when regarding an artist's oeuvre, consciously or not. The manner in which auteurs establish a consistency in tone, light, and composition varies, but it is apparent to those who pay attention and evident even to those who do not. Whether the medium is film, music, media, or fashion, there are shorthands by which an audience may identify the hand of the creator in their creations. A certain combination of composition and color may be very Wes Anderson, a collage of texture and clash of high/low standards of dress may be very Ralph - a tonality of drums or a riff of guitar could perhaps be evocative of a certain musical artist.
The muted and yet still softly vibrant colors that seem to be the very palette of la dolce vita lived by the mid century jet set that Slim Aarons employed to masterful effect are now his own colors, and help to form a visual identity that remains his, even when used by another. The manner in which the artist creates his visual codex is in itself part and parcel of the art; subtle or brash, a decision to stick to a certain format, or to use the same colors in every composition - all of these decisions ultimately form a niche, within which the audience places the work. Color field painting within a certain spectrum will always evoke Rothko; drip painting Pollock. This is a powerful tool in the marketing of the art; I recently purchased a John Hedgecoe book within which there were photographs reminiscent of Helmut Newton, a resemblance that existed simply because of the format and subject matter of the photographs.
Branding and visual identity have formed a large part of my professional endeavors to this point, and discussions around the topic of cohesion and consistency emerge often when critiquing a body of work like a design portfolio or the application of a visual identity across varied mediums. As part of the thought around the subject, and in seeking to understand how and why cohesion between works in a larger oeuvre appeals in disparate areas like music, film, and fashion, I would like to explore the subject further.
A robust artistic identity should aspire to be a collection of comprehensive, unified artworks that communicate the individual goal of the artist at that moment in time, while suggesting a relation to each prior work. While it is difficult to say what art should or should not be, it is inevitable that success breeds expectation, and while subversion of expectation is a cornerstone of art, too drastic a subversion runs the risk of losing the audience, which may lead to the need to establish a new one. This constant redefinition is counterproductive to art with commercial goals, and certainly to design with commercial goals. We as a public tend to want artistic growth within certain bounds - we want the artistic director of Hermes to push Hermes forward, while still operating within the confines of the rich tradition the maison has established. We want musical artists to grow and mature with their audience, while still evoking the nostalgia of their early work, through which we came to know them. It is a fine line to tread, as the artist, having lived with the work longer than his audience, is likely to grow tired of retracing the same path and to seek new ones, while the audience, able to come and go in and out of the artist’s world as they please, may be more reticent to change.
This is a strong argument for subtlety in artistic signature - it is more likely to travel time and different stages of maturation well. The artist must be empowered to satiate the many moods or sources of inspiration driving him forward, while still creating an oeuvre that appears as a coherent whole. It doesn’t matter if it is the Blue Period, the Rose Period, the African Period, the Synthetic Period, or the Crystal Period, it’s still Picasso - there are clearly elements that chart his evolution as an artist, even if the style utilized in each period is different. In the current age within which artists operate, it has become more and more important to start with, or at the very least quickly establish, a cohesive visual identity in order to make an impact in digital environments. The time an artist has to make an impression is ever shrinking, due to the proliferation of artists working today and the access the consumer has to, to put it plainly, literally everything else. In order to be paid attention, one must quickly prove worth paying attention to. Much is made of the dominance of the Story format on Snapchat or Instagram, the success found in the blink and you’ll miss it video format of TikTok - one could argue that a sixty second constraint actually undersells the difficulty of getting a right thumb to even hesitate for a moment before swiping on. One need only imagine the difficulty of selling something like Il Gattopardo in the five seconds before you can skip away to your YouTube video to grasp the impact advertising limitations have on box office returns, and the impact of said returns on the calculus movie studios make in choosing to green light this film versus that. What hope, then, do other, more contemplative forms of art have in captivating the attention of a member of the prospective audience?
It is of the utmost importance for the artist to acknowledge that while the challenges facing him are daunting, they are not insurmountable. The very access that presents as a challenge is a great boon; there is an audience for everything, and the only true obstacle is the will to take the first step. In the matter of building courage, establishing a visual identity by which one abides is a useful guide for establishing the necessary consistency, and therefore cohesion, to make an impact. This view leaves aside for the moment the idea of consistent inconsistency, primarily for clarity of communique, but nonetheless recognizes it as a valid way forward.
In the world of visual identity and digital products, there prevails a popular mechanism by which design practitioners approach analyzing the problem of cohesion or clarity. This methodology defines five elements which a creator may consider at the outset of a project; each element builds on itself, resulting in a harmonious whole. Those five elements are, alliteratively, strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface. Much is made of a sudden flash of inspiration driving the artist towards a statement - that happens, but more often than not, any substantial artwork is the result of careful planning and execution. The order in which the layers of experience is addressed is not prescribed, but a focus on the strategy from the genesis of a project smooths each subsequent step. All too often, consumers are led away from work experts regard as more technically proficient towards lesser work by the strength of the strategy supporting the lesser work. In reality, the strategy is part of the art, and must be considered as such. Understanding the scope of practice is next; it could be argued that defining the scope could come before the strategy, and they are certainly closely related. Scope is defined as the extent or range of view; time and again, we as an audience encounter artists who seem to have a firm grasp on their subject matter and who as a result create deep, meaningful artworks - finding success in one arena, they then reach beyond the arena in which their life experience enable great art, and who, like Icarus, experience a precipitous fall.
There is nothing wrong with an expansive scope within which one desires to create art, but it is difficult enough to find and express meaning in one medium - success in multiple is usually the result of exceptional talent. We will revisit those few standouts over the course of the conversation. The overall structure of the sort of work to be done is next; in the context of a more corporate identity, this is easier to define given the scope of channels to be covered, but in an artistic setting the requisite structure varies broadly given the goals of the individual artist. The structure will inevitably relate to the philosophy of the practitioner, as it is philosophy put into action. Nitch recently published an excerpt of a quote from Richard Bofill, on the occasion of his death, that tangentially addresses the issue of structure in artistic philosophy -
"The ideal city is impossible to create, just as the ideal island is impossible to build. The ideal is forever in flux; it must always be evolving. From there,I thought, 'Since total utopia is not possible, since total change leads to disaster, we're going to divvy up utopia by theme and ensure that every architectural exercise is the development of one of those themes.' So, I changed strategies and tried to focus on concrete subjects to conduct partial experiments. I think each of the multiple projects I've done constitutes a part of a total city that has not been..and can never be...built. Each of my projects is a part of a possible city. These parts are the partial realization of what is possible.…but not the manifestation of an overall utopia, as such utopias are always doomed to disaster and failure.. I've abandoned my former conception of things, where I wanted to conceive a whole. A totality is impossible to conceive, so you instead conceive a part. Hence..my projects are the realization of utopia's impossibility, of partial utopias, attempts to avert their inevitable failure, but with an inner logic."
Herein we discover the constraints, or if not constraints, then certainly the worldview that enabled Bofill to make coexist his vision of architecture with the disjointed mess of the environments in which he worked. The manner in which the artist relates to his environment is another integral part of the artistic expression, and as Bofill states, for him, each project is a piece of an unrealized utopia. Taken in their totality, then, while each individual work of architecture may not initially appear to be related, they are united by a philosophy that allows an abstracted interconnectedness to surface.
Next is the skeleton, which I choose to interpret as the infrastructure that supports the artist. In a commercial environment, these are often the mechanisms by which the artist sees a return on his art, and is thus enabled to continue making the art. Defining and successfully evolving the relationship with capitalism may be one of the core aspects comprising an artist's philosophy. Without the support of a singular patron, the artist is instead reliant on a group of patrons, and thus required to advertise his product - thus entering into an arena rife with temptation to, in some form or fashion, dilute the art in service of finding a larger audience or increasing profit margins. I find most intriguing the artist who is able to withstand the wiles of the market, managing expectations while maintaining integrity and continuing to evolve as an artist, unswayed by the whims of the public, instead anticipating what should be and having faith that those faithful few will meet him there.
Of course, it is rare to find all of these qualities in one man, which is why it is advisable in many circumstances for an artist to partner with someone who understands their frame of reference and is able to act in the best interest of the artist, while allowing him to focus on the art. The money making infrastructure of an artistic endeavor is often overlooked by the public, except in instances where the artist’s evaluation of the work is egregiously misaligned with the public’s perceived value of the art. As there is no intrinsic value, ultimately, the market has to be set somewhere. It may feel outre to ask one million dollars for a vinyl recording of an album, and perhaps it is - the fact remains that it is both priceless and worthless until it transacts. Better to set too high a price and adjust than to not have the proper value attached to the work.