Sound Stories #012 – The Artist, the Storyteller and You

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    You may not think of yourself as an artist, but branded content and the classics are riffing on each other all the time. Chances are you’ve either had your hands in the creation of one such remix – or at least have enjoyed someone else’s work!
    Cassandra Getty of Museum London brings us along the artists’ journey, beyond the canvas and into the space where art becomes a reflection of society. Learn how the role of the artist has changed over time and what rewards await those willing to forge ahead in the path of creation on their own terms.

    TRANSCRIPTION SOUND STORIES #012

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Hi, there. Welcome to another episode of Sound Stories, an inspirational podcast for creative professionals and storytellers who want to improve their lives at home and at work. I’m Stephanie Ciccarelli, your host and co-founder of voices.com.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Cassandra Getty is the curator of art at Museum London in London, Ontario, Canada. Today, she joins us to talk about what the stories, told through art, tell us about ourselves and how that narrative has shifted through time.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Welcome, Cassie.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Thank you for having me.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    It’s very exciting that you’re here, in fact. You were highly recommended. But before we get too far, I just want to mention to everyone that Museum London is near and dear to my heart. It’s one of the reasons why we like to talk about our story, all of those creative good things. But with you here today, Cassie, we get to explore more of what story really means in more of a visual medium. That specifically has to do with art and the artist and becoming storytellers. Now, the storytelling craft of visual art, as we’ve just kind of mentioned here, is one that started long, long ago. No doubt, we’re not going back to the cave drawings, but what can you tell us about those early roots of art and story?

    Cassandra Getty:

    Well, you’re right in referring to cave art. In that, it’s just such a huge story. So we won’t go that far back, but it’s a lot to process. But we’re so familiar with imagery and formats, like painting or a statue, a sculpture, that we feel that those subjects and the ways that they’re treated are things that are inevitable. But everything is mediated and formed by society. A lot of what we study about art, it’s more than just what’s represented on a canvas or a sheet of paper or the like. It’s important to know that, just like everything else in society, art’s formed by society. We judge it, form its parameters. It then reflects those and reflects us, our desires and existence. Over time, then it shapes us. It shapes our society, and then we just keep developing together from there on in.

    Cassandra Getty:

    So there’s a lot of different stories that art can tell. It can be as an icon, something that’s just well known by a group of people, like a religious icon, like a cross or a lamb, a figure. It can be a political statement, such as the portrait of a ruler or a statue of a Pharaoh or an emperor. It can be a personification of a social value or expectations, such as female beauty. It’s not just in art and sort of locked in the past, just pick up a fashion magazine, and it continues just in a different kind of a form today.

    Cassandra Getty:

    So artwork tells lots of different stories and it still does today, except some of the rules have changed from the past and there’s great deal of diversity in terms of voices. So art’s a document, just like say a written document. It depicts historical milestones. It depicts scientific developments, how something is presented to us, how that came to be. And often, it’s an indicator of social status. Because, for the most part, the art that you see, if you go to a museum, when we’re talking about historical art, like European art, Renaissance art, and things like that, often it’s someone with power who is able to commission and maintain that kind of expression too. They tell us all about what we those people who commissioned the work wanted us to know. That has changed over time to become more individualistic.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Definitely. Well, we see this and you’ve mentioned any number of various examples here. Something that came to mind as you were speaking, was the coins. People, emperors in ancient Rome, whenever there was a new one, then you would see their face, their likeness basically, stamped upon their currency. That was a way of telling people, “Hey, here’s your new leader.”

    Cassandra Getty:

    That’s right. Well, and in Canada and other Commonwealth countries, she’s still on there.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah.

    Cassandra Getty:

    In the form of Queen Elizabeth II. It also works nationally. I mean, the portrait of a ruler for a particular place would mean one thing. But even for ourselves, when you’re talking about getting a lot more close in time compared to us where we are now, the idea of say the group of seven and sort of the clean, cold, Northern purity for Canada, that they felt defined Canadianness and that we’re still also then using almost 100 years later as symbols of our nationality too.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Absolutely. Art represents people, as we’ve just said. It tell stories about how we’ve grown in our history and where we’re going and what we’ve done. Something that I really like about what you said, Cassie, about art is that a long, long time ago, and still in some cases this exists, art is commissioned. It really does come through the lens of what the commissioner or the patron would like to see. An example of that would be those portraits. You mentioned. You have a great painting and no doubt you’re familiar with the painting of Napoleon being crowned emperor, and just what he would have wanted to see in that painting versus other people who were there. There’s just a lot of examples of, “I have the money. I am asking you to come in and paint this, do my portrait,” whatnot. It really is what someone else wants to be perceived as. It’s not necessarily how things were.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Oh, definitely. Definitely, you wouldn’t have an artist who would be commissioned to paint a portrait of a wealthy woman and actually show her the way she was if she dressed. If there was a problem with that, everything was idealized because it was projecting thing. Also, the idea of landscape and still life are relatively new in the history of art. That was often as like, say a marker of culture, “This is my land. This is my history.” Or, again, like a social status thing, “This is what I own. I’m a merchant. These are the fancy things that I’ve brought back from my travels.” Things like that. But with art, there’s always been a market and there’s always a lot of people involved. And so, you have the person who would commission the work, the artist who would make it, then the audiences that this work was supposed to be shown to, and then how then what the reception was.

    Cassandra Getty:

    And so, all sorts of moving parts and that continues today, except it’s on maybe a much more fluid basis. What a lot of people don’t recognize is that for the vast majority of Western culture, that art was a commission. And the way in which an artist would excel would be the way in which he would deal with parameters that he would be given, or she would be given. That would be, there are genres that are assigned, such as portraiture. There are formats, like say an oil painting. How an artist would prove themselves would be how they transcended tradition, how they transcended what was expected of them to assert their own voice. Often, artists would work in guilds and workshops with a bunch of other people. And so, they weren’t seen as, well, they weren’t seen at that point as The Artist in the Garret, a starving artist in the garret. And they weren’t seen as the torch of genius, that all came later. That was again, also ascribed historically. It’s interesting then to see how that expectation then rules things generations on for that.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Oh yeah. All the museums we go to, you literally see commissioned work after commissioned work. It’s wonderful, but at the same time, then you have that expression that started to happen in the romantic period. A little bit beyond that, impressionism. All these different timeframes, where the artist had a voice. They weren’t just painting or drawing because someone wanted them to. I mean, they had a following perhaps, but they were doing it because they felt like they needed to. It was just part of who they were. They were an artist.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Well, yes. That’s a more recent construction of an artist, of what they should be. Historically, the ground changed. You had more opening up, more different kinds of patrons, a lot money in different places. And so, you went from having more of like save a workshop, a system to artists working as professionals. Then you have professional art dealers and professional art critics and things like that. They all grew up at the same time, and it became more important for an artist, because they’re more of an independent contractor, to set themselves apart. At the same time, you’ve got things happening, like the growth of photography and the idea of using print in illustrated press. So if you wanted a very realistic depiction of something in a way you had a cheaper and faster means of doing that. Artists then had to face a crisis and had to determine then what would be their subject matter and what would be their audience.

    Cassandra Getty:

    At the same time, you have various philosophies growing, such as those that underpinned the development of psychology, that stressed the importance of a person’s inner life. Again, with the romantic periods, the idea of sort of drama and theatricality as well in people’s lives. Having a more Bohemian, I guess, kind of a life. And so, then it came to pass that people dealt more into what they wanted to express, and they built up a body of work from that. There were still various fashions or trends and things like that that people followed, but it became more incumbent on the artist. At the same time, you have a rise in sort of the evaluation of an artist as a genius. And so, it all evolved from there. It all developed further from there to a point where their personality in of themselves. It’s interesting when you can hear people speak about artworks and they’ll say, “Oh, I have a Warhol,” and this. Because it automatically describes a brand. It’s interesting because that’s relatively recent in Western history.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah, a brand. We love brands. We definitely encourage anyone listening to have their own signature and what they’re known for. I was just thinking back to how, again, just going back to this idea once again about being asked to do something versus doing it because you feel compelled. There’s kind of an honesty that comes with these artists now who are able to paint what they would like or to tell a story as they see it. Not like the painter who, obviously, painted a painting of a lady for Henry VIII, for one his wives that he soon found out did not look like the painting and sent her back. A story for another day, but it really is truth. Truth does come through in the art. When people are telling stories through the visual medium now, it isn’t so much that, “I want to please someone,” it’s more about, “I want to be heard. I have a view. This is my platform and I want to share that with the world.”

    Cassandra Getty:

    Well, say truth can be for some artists and especially in history where the genres might have been more tightly controlled at just being meticulous and absolutely formerly excellent or true to nature and setting yourself challenges that way. Truth then has sort of different definitions down the line of history. It could be now what is sure to me as an individual, because individuality is so much more highly celebrated these days. So yes, it’s just the whole system, everything shifts. It’s still a market. It’s the largest unregulated market on Earth, their business, and art is still say a commodity and a scene and considered in that way. But yes, definitely. Definitely. I mean, in order to be an artist, you really have to put your all into it because it’s incredibly hard work. It takes a great deal of time and effort to be noticed and to keep the practice going and stay fresh in your mind. And so, definitely, it’s something that isn’t for the faint of heart, but has fabulous rewards for the person who does it on their own terms and on a variety of other terms as well.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Do you see any interplay between brands and curated art?

    Cassandra Getty:

    Yes. You could say that the art world and of ideas of branded content, they’re all riffing on each other and influencing each other at all times. Contemporary artwork finds its way into ads for fashion houses. The perspectives of filmmakers find its way into commercials and art direction and the fine arts as well. You find that, say commercial design, such as a product packaging in, say Campbell’s Soup, make it into Andy Warhols pop art that revitalized a large section of the Western art fields in the 1950 and ’60s and so on.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I wonder if their stock go up.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Probably, actually. Probably.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I just had to say that in there because whenever you popularize something like that, I mean-

    Cassandra Getty:

    We’re all in it together and we have so much access to so many different kinds of imagery and information is constantly flooding that in a way you can’t help it. I think that though it’s, that kind of interactivity can be very, very positive and make things very vital and fresh.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Wow. Well, yeah. I know I totally jumped in there, but I’ve seen these soup cans. Obviously, they’re paintings. They’re drawings anyway, but they’re not actual soup cans, but literally, can after can, after can, and the one thing that changes is the name,, obviously of the soup in there. But it’s really interesting to see how Andy Warhol could be just, he was so inspired by the soup. Why would he make over 30 of these I’m guessing soup cans?

    Cassandra Getty:

    Yes. Or his silk screens of celebrities. The idea of pop culture, every buddy being interested in it. That also speaks to the breaking down of definitions of what fine art should me and what something that might be seen by artists as more lowly, I guess you’d say, craft or design. In terms of impetus, originality comes to everyone. Everybody participates and everybody contributes. I think that it’s just part of a larger social conversation that’s just really great and always changing.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. I was hoping you could speak to this, Cassie. There’s a tension clearly that any artist, any creative, goes through. They’ve been asked to do something, maybe they are commissioned, but now we would just say, someone has given you an order, a client has asked you to move ahead with a project or to work with them on something. How does one strike a balance between making something that will sell or show a bottom line result versus the artistic integrity of just making something wonderful? How do people walk the line between having that kind of artistic feel to it and it also possibly being commercialized?

    Cassandra Getty:

    It’s all a gray area. What is beyond the pale for one person may not be for another. So I guess it would just depend on what they set up ethically to do for their career. For some people, their practice will suit itself to being more collectible or, because of the subject matter, more accessible. And so, that would be fine for them. Others, it just wouldn’t. And so, maybe some of those questions wouldn’t even factor in, in terms of accessibility. Because with them, it just doesn’t part of the scenario. Right?

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Because, well, I’m just thinking that, if you’re asked to do something as a creative person and it doesn’t quite sit well with you, then you’re not going to do it, maybe.

    Cassandra Getty:

    No. No.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    But you’re also going to have a … But if it’s okay, it meets all your criteria, et cetera, but you’re not passionate about it. I mean, does that come through in some of the art that you’ve seen? You’re just like, “Why did they make that”?

    Cassandra Getty:

    I would assume so. I would assume so.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    No pieces in your museum though, I’m sure.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Oh, definitely. No, no, but it’s interesting to see how art changes now even today now that you have the online universe and you can speak to so many different kinds of people’s experiences every day. You can look cross-culturally. You can collaborate with people, in your hometown, from across the world. The art market in the last 20 years has just grown exponentially and becomes so globally centered.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Is that thanks to screen savers? Just trying to think. People are obviously going after art. I mean, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, a wonderful movie. I know my grandfather and grandmother, they actually have a painting of that in their home. I’ve actually got, my mother bought me socks. They’re amazing. But the fact of the matter is, is that these works of art. They are just so iconic, as you said, the people know them. The more famous they are, the more they get replicated in calendars or t-shirts. I mean like, “I’m wearing a van Gogh right now.” Not that anyone can see, but it just seems to me that, you said it is one of the biggest, most unregulated markets. And that is interesting. How would you enter in as an artist, as a creative, and actually make a difference, and impact? How do you get through the noise as someone who wants to be in the gallery, somebody who wants to have their art recognized in some way?

    Cassandra Getty:

    Whereas in past generations you would have a stress on, say values such as beauty or realism or other kinds of things, like say patriotic and moral fiber. What has been for well over a century now has been the idea of originality. And so, thinking about what you can do, the ways that you can express yourself in constantly changing ways. You tear down what’s going on before and you assert your own voice. I mean, traditionally, that would be what would make people stand up and take notice definitely. But, it’s a system that people work in. And so, that’s one of the things that’s really interesting about museum world, about the art business world. Is that, with artists, they’re critical about the world in which they live because they’re commenting on their environment. And so, often you’ll have complete resistance to that. Then just the thing be, as then time goes on, does that then get taken up as, again, part of the art business and marketing?

    Cassandra Getty:

    It’s interesting to see how it’s all interrelated, because another leg or another type of voice that’s in the conversation are people like art historians, writers, critics, who, when they review works, when they describe them, when they assess what their social importance and aesthetic importance is, it all goes into the history. There are, again, lots of histories going on. I find that one of the jobs of curators and myself as a curator here in London, Ontario, is that we have a sense of what it means to be Canadian. We have a sense of what it means to be from London, Ontario. It’s a very vital artistically and in all ways of a region, but we have the idea that what Canadian art and what Canadianism, what Canadian identity can be. My role is to enhance our understanding, include additional voices. Because also then, one thing that is heartening and that I like to also encourage is a diversity of voices, of women’s voices, of underrepresented communities, of neglected communities’ voices, multicultural voices. Just because it provides a more authentic picture, a real picture of what a certain point in time actually means and constituted.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Well, you’re honoring people’s voices or perspectives. Obviously, it’s not their voice voice, like how we’re talking now, but it is their view and it’s what they’re seeing. It’s the lens through which they see the world. Storytelling through art is amazing. I mean, there are so many wonderful works that I’m thinking of just now, from the Mona Lisa to any number of other pieces that we’re all familiar with. And then some that we’re not so familiar with, but from our world where I am in, in the voice acting arena, artists, who we call voice actors, tend to put a lot of themselves into a performance because they’re using a certain style of acting called method acting. So they might draw upon experiences that they’ve had in the past to help infuse those performances with something of meaning to themselves, where they can draw on like an emotion, maybe a memory that they’ve have. Some kind of way to make the performance their own. How does an artist do that in a painting?

    Cassandra Getty:

    I would say, often in a similar way, in a markedly similar way. I mean, unconsciously, of course, we know everything that has formed us goes into what we do. We can’t control that, but often, depending on what type of art that you’re into, especially if it might be sort of a visceral painting or a sculpture or something that’s very expressive, yes, it can be considered that you do leave a little bit of yourself behind in the finished work. Or often, the process of even making an artwork, sometimes it’s enjoyable and adventure, and you find things that you weren’t expecting on the way. Other times, it can be like a battle, where you’re fighting with the materials and you’re fighting with the surface. Then there’s a sense of accomplishment when you win in a way, and you’ve realized the image or the object physically that you wanted to in your head.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Yeah. Art is a journey too. Just like a writer might go in and have their special place where they might get their ideas and formulate them, I’m sure that artists have places where they would do their works. But as you said, sometimes it is a battle. It’s a journey. It could be something I’m just thinking of an artist, not terribly well known, but extremely accomplished. Highly, critically acclaimed, Lilias Trotter. Her works were just remarkable, and if it weren’t for the attention paid to her by a certain British art critic, then she’d be pretty much lost to the world. But artists go through these challenges in being known, and then you have other artists that seem to have no problem whatsoever being known.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Well, it seems again, sometimes it would be fortune. A lot of it may be just being in the right place at the right time, because there’s always so many people who have talent, but there are a few where they have notice and they have backing and so they can have success. Once you get success, then you would have to then keep proving yourself to have staying power. But then again, we get into the idea of it being a dialogue. Like, who determines what the characteristics are in order to keep going and being successful? Or according to who is someone successful in the first place? And so, it’s maybe one riff on the word, not regulated, for the art market is that there are audiences for all sorts of types of work too.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Definitely. You do need to have a cheerleader though. You need to have a fan base if you want to be known and enough people, a critical mass I’m thinking. But even someone like Vincent van Gogh would have been completely lost to obscurity if it weren’t for his sister-in-law, who tirelessly after he had died and his brother had died, just spent her whole life just showing people these paintings and making sure that he wasn’t forgotten.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Exactly, and the people who through all sorts of research, like say curators from the mid 19th onwards to today, where if they do meticulous research and make sure that they’re keeping their finger on the pulse of what’s happening, they have a lot of say in terms of who gains attention and who doesn’t as well.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    In a world where you can download pretty much any piece of art online as a JPEG and make a desktop screensaver and save something to your phone that looks really nice, how is it that the museum can survive and even thrive in a world that is just completely flooded with images online, freely accessible to anyone who would like to get them?

    Cassandra Getty:

    I would not consider that something that would take away from a museum experience. I think that the more that people have access to imagery that they love and can explore and learn more about is a really fantastic thing. And it will draw people into just wanting to know more about culture and their history and their background, and maybe encourage them to be creative themselves, or to participate in cultural undertakings, and go to the museum. I think that it’s wonderful that you’re able to look anything up at your fingertips. However, I mean, there’s all sorts of things to be said though for you can’t take that away. You can’t take away from the experience of seeing something firsthand, say such as you had mentioned about the Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring.

    Cassandra Getty:

    One thing that I really like about my job is that I have access to be able to go into the vault and I can go and look at an artwork and I can see if maybe someone’s fingerprint, or I can see the brushstrokes. And so, it’s literally like seeing the decisions that somebody was making when they were creating a painting, or what might have been a problem for them that then they resolved when they were sculpting with clay or carving marble or something like that.

    Cassandra Getty:

    And so, it’s like almost having a part of the person there. There are values, yes, there’s monetary values for what you would call blue chip artworks, but it goes beyond that. It’s really sort of almost a more direct experience of what the person was trying to say, what the artist was trying to say too. Museums, having access to that for the public, I think that it’s important because you get to interact. Then there are other kinds of programs where then maybe if you’re interested in, you can become creative yourself. You can see all sorts of different artworks from a variety of people and places and times. You can participate in things and hopefully, express yourself as well in a more active way. But I always considered that I was extremely lucky to be able to go and firsthand see the artworks, see the artworks that made significant changes in Canadian history in the way that we think of ourselves collectively. That is just crazy, to think that, say a small canvas has so much import. There’s so much going on behind it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    I can only imagine the great joy that you must have at putting all of these maybe different works, but they all have a common thread. Just bringing them together and creating a world that we can all walk into an experience.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Well, I find that say, when you work in a public regional art gallery, it has a particular mandate. And that is to represent the history and the current day life of your community. I feel really happy that London has such a vibrant community. It has in the past, it still does right now and it will continue in the future. What you’re doing though, is that you’d be creating programs that speak to these audiences. You’re wanting to create exhibitions that educate them about what their history is, where their place in the world is, the achievements of people who’ve grown up to be incredibly talented creators and storytellers, and then have gone on, or stayed in town.

    Cassandra Getty:

    I do think though that you can’t be completely neutral about things. Even though I do a lot of different programming for a lot of different publics, that yes, I definitely do have my favorites that I like, and that I think are important. Things that I’ve studied over the years and think is deserving of greater attention. But one thing that it’s important to note is, is that in my mind, it always starts with the experience of the artwork or artworks first, rather than having a theme and then starting to save, maybe fit artworks into it to illustrate a point or a thesis. It always has to come from the object. What that means is, is then just advocating for the artists in your community, going out and seeing what’s happening in town, further afield. In other countries, if you can. Just keeping in touch so that when you speak that you can have sort of the most informed voice and the most creative voice possible, because you’ve put that leg work into it.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Let’s pretend I’m a local artist and I would like to get my art featured somehow in the museum. How do I get your attention, the curator, and how would I even know what it is that you might find to be of interest? How would I pitch you?

    Cassandra Getty:

    Well, say with us, with a regional public museum, we’re actually interested in quite a gamut, quite an array of things. We’re not specialized in that way. What we do is that we would work with professional artists and people who are establishing themselves or are already in the midst of their careers. They contact us, we contact them if we have a certain idea in mind. Also, people are represented by dealers. That’s also how we know about them too. Again, the websites, online presence is absolutely huge. It seems as though that often, if you don’t have an online presence, just nobody knows that you exist. It’s very, very difficult these days. One thing about being an artist is that, it seems that more and more of a business sort of criteria come into it in terms of your everyday life and how you get the word out there about your talent and achievements.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Well, that’s a great place to leave it. I’m just thinking like, everyone here knows that you’re a creative person, but at the same time, you’ve got to have those business skills. You’ve got to know how to promote yourself, how to package it in a way that someone else will find attractive, but also meaningful and worth spending their time on.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Yes. I mean, the artist can do that. Representatives like dealers also will do that too. Yes, that’s the terrain these days. Yes.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Amazing. Well, thank you for sharing about the art world with us today, Cassie. I really appreciated it and I’m really looking forward to hearing how everyone loves this episode.

    Cassandra Getty:

    Oh, thank you so much. A pleasure to speak with you.

    Stephanie Ciccarelli:

    Thank you for tuning in. If you haven’t already done so, I’d like to invite you to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, as well as give us a rating. We love hearing from you and gathering your feedback. Once again, I’m your host, Stephanie Ciccarelli, and I hope you can join us for our next Sound Stories podcast.

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