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Art as Social Network

We have become accustomed in the 21st century to the term ‘social network,’ and often think it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Interestingly, the term ‘social network’ arose in the late 19th century as a new method to study human interaction, usually defined as the relational communication of individuals or groups with shared values and interests. Our contemporary proclivity to understand social networking as a condition of modern technology is an accurate reflection of the enormous role social media plays in connecting us, but there are important distinctions compared to the networks of the last century. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and myriad apps on our smart phones, weave us in ways that are deeply personal, but also startlingly anonymous. Much of our networking is with millions of unknown people, some real, some fabricated; today, technologies have become the relational mechanism, encouraging ephemeral, passive postings and simple ‘likes’, with only a modicum of shared values and interests, other than a seemingly universal desire for visibility in a world of immense complexity and a tsunami of background noise.

Nonetheless, technology can be used to develop genuine communities of interest, and this inaugural blog, the first of several on behalf of the Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vermont, will focus on a social network that conforms to the more personal, shared ideas and values of the original term. The social network in question is ancient: the relationship between individuals and societies with art: the objects of artistic expression that include paintings, sculpture, photography, and other visual representations that comprise our culture. This network has existed for tens of thousands of years, and while the representations of artistic creation can significantly change, many of the elements of our relationship with and through art remain constant.

Reproduction of Cave Drawing at Chuavet
Reproduction of Cave Drawing at Chauvet

Think of the beautiful contours of the ocher and black lined animals in the caves of Chauvet drawn nearly 30,000 years ago, and then ponder the white billowing steam in some of J.M W Turner’s paintings that powerfully, and unsettlingly, depict a solid world of iron and fire swallowed by the vapors of an industrial revolution. In each of these instances, there lies some mystery, something ineffable, that draws upon both our rational cognitive abilities and our emotional, spirited instincts. We know the deer and bears of ancient southern France existed a thousand generations ago, and we recognize their poised elegance against the cave rocks, just as we perceive the throbbing train engine barely visible in the jetsam of the steam pouring from the train and enveloping the canvas. Both images depict extraordinary power, whether animal or human made, both frame an integral representation that defines a society, yet both are so suffused with delicacy that they nearly float before our eyes.

What does this mean?

When confronting a work of artistic expression a dialogue – a conversation – invariably arises between us and the object. We cannot help it; it is part of the lure and mystery of human symbolic communication. We ‘read’ the painting, we interpret its meaning, we argue with our colleagues about that meaning and the subtler insinuations that keeps us returning to see it again. This blog celebrates that conversation, and seeks to expand its social network in a number of ways: by reaching out to engage a contemporary audience to deepen and enrich the conversation about art and how we understand it. At the same time, the wider contexts of artistic creation and production will be used to enliven this dialogue. Art works do not spring out of nowhere; the best are almost always a part of a larger conversation between artists living and dead that can span generations and even millennia (think of the classical balance and strict proportions of ancient Greek architecture, then look at Whistler’s celebrated portrait of his mother, followed by perusing Mondrian’s rectilinear masterpieces).

The social network of art extends into other forms of communication. This blog will explore the interpretation and role of art in movies and other popular media; a comparison of the depiction of art in The Monuments Men and Mr Turner, two recent movies, could not be more different, yet both stories are grounded by acknowledging the integrity of art and its fundamental importance to the definition of humanity.

A blog on Art as Social Network is most appropriate for the Bryan Memorial Gallery, an institution that celebrates and brilliantly embodies these many levels of conversation that enlarge our perspective and deepen our self understanding. The recent exhibit of Generations, which displays contemporary artists’ work along with examples of their teachers’ and students,’ is exactly this kind of conversational exploration.

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“Generations” Artist: Jack Liberman
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“Generations” Teacher: Frank Mason
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“Generations” Student: Greg Frohnapfel

Last winter, with the snow still piled and our New England winds bliting, Charlie Nardozzi gave a captivating talk at the opening of Romancing the Garden exhibition. On display were evocative paintings and drawings of gardens and flowers: spring’s daffodils, summer’s peonies and roses; sunflowers and asters; and the bright reds of autumn flora. From these beautiful objects Charlie built a story of the annual cycle of gardens, working through the seasons, anchoring his observations and gardening expertise within a progression of brilliant images.

That winter afternoon another social network was created through an astute narrative of life, death, and resurgence found in even the humblest of gardens. We became part of a story that wove pictures at the exhibition with our own experience. This is exemplary of the hold art can have upon us, and our response, our curiosity, and our collectively engaged voices continue to contribute to a timeless community that transcends our machines, and without which we would be profoundly diminished.

From "Romancing The Garden" Painting by Barbara Pafume
From “Romancing The Garden”
Painting by Barbara Pafume