This project began with a study of the ancient myths telling of the origins of the arts. The Greek version, which is told to us by Pliny the Elder, has been traditionally held as the classical account of the birth of art:

“Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modeling portraits in earth with he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp”.

This story has been popularized in western tradition and has been the subject of numerous works of art.

As I considered this story, the links between it and my preferred artistic medium – photography – were of particular interest to me, and the reason why I chose photography to execute this project. The connection is an obvious one. Butades daughter used mechanical means (the piece of charcoal or whatever instrument she used to trace the shadow) to preserve a shadow, which is by nature a transitive image, which was being projected onto a surface. Fixing a temporary image using mechanical means is essentially the basis of photography. In fact, “fixing a shadow” is the term chosen by William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented one of the early photographic processes, to describe his invention. This link ties photography, at least in the basic principle of its operation, back to the most ancient thoughts on art’s function.

The Philosophies:
Starting with the shadow as simply a representation of an individual, my thoughts began to move in a more abstract direction as I considered how this shadow imagery relates to and can be used as an expression of the artistic philosophies of writers such as Georg Hegel and Immanuel Kant. In particular, Hegel’s ideas of the relationship of particular objects in nature and the universal concepts or ideas which they point to. The concept of individual objects merely alluding to a universal reality – true reality – is an old one, which can be traced back to Plato’s basic theory of art as pointing to an ideal which exists on a spiritual plane.

What interested me as I read Hegel, was not simply his writings on art, but also how these thoughts tie into his broader philosophy of the self-actualized individual within society, and the path to a meaningful existence as an individual, which I think apply to his ideas of why artists create works of art. This project became an expression of these philosophical ideas, and a comment on the role of art and the meaning of art to the artist.

In his “The Philosophy of Fine Art”, Hegel discusses the relationship of the world of nature to the world of the spiritual. Nature is specific, manifested in individual objects and creatures. The spirit world is universal, comprising the Idea which particular manifestations in nature point towards. Art, stemming from the artist’s spirit, should lead the viewer’s mind beyond the here-and-now world of nature to the eternal world of the spirit. This places art on a level above nature. To accomplish this, and artist must, to a certain degree, detach himself from the temporal world, “this side” as Hegel puts it, and focus on the universal beyond. Thus, to Hegel, art is essentially a spiritual expression of the artist.

This idea of art as an expression of the artist’s spirit, I think, can be tied to the ideas found in Hegel’s “The Phenomenology of Mind” which addresses an individual’s fight to achieve true self-consciousness, which every person needs in order to be fully, truly, human, and in the terms of his writings on art, points towards the reasons for which artists create art.

“The Phenomenology of Mind” proposes that in order to be truly self-conscious, and thus fully actualized as a human, a person must be recognized as an individual, self-conscious being by other equal beings (because recognition from lesser beings means nothing). Consciousness implies the existence of something beyond the physical body, an intangible “spirit” which imbues the individual with humanity. So the human effort to be actualized is essentially the struggle to have one’s spirit-self recognized by others, and as the recognizers must be equals, the individual must in turn recognize their existence as spiritual beings. Thus the individual must step outside of himself and see his spirit in terms of its relation to other spirits (Hegel, “The Phenomenology of Mind”).

This stepping back from the individual and seeing reality in terms of a universal idea directly relates to Plato’s philosophy of art, which held that true reality exists not in individual things, but in the universal ideals which they are manifestations of. Thus art should be generalized, non-specific expressions of nature as a whole, not nature in its individualities.

Art then, in terms of Hegel’s overall writings, can be seen as the attempt on the part of the artist to step back from nature, and express the universal idea behind it; to see himself as a part of the universal spiritual world that is “true” reality, and to express this spiritual quality of himself so that his spirit-self can be seen and recognized by others. This is all done due to the natural human drive towards self-consciousness and true human actualization. As particulars (the individual) can only be recognized in the context of universals (the overarching Idea), perhaps art seeks to build a link between the individual and the broader spirit-world of the universal.

The Artwork:
In the series of photographs which make up this project, shadows are used both as a reference to the myth of art’s beginning, and because a shadow is a simplification of the object it derives from – a purging of individual internal details and a viewing of the object in terms of its broader forms. This represents the universal context of the individual, the generalized Platonic Idea behind individual nature.

The individual in these photographs is not really the subject of these images; rather, the shadow she casts becomes the primary focus. She has in a sense stepped outside of her individuality to see her self in the context of the universal spiritual quality of her being. Although she, the particular, is interacting with the universal and is clearly linked to it, the ghostly (spiritual?) forms become as separate entities – detachment.

This is a comment on the Hegelian philosophy of art’s purpose and worth. Art stems from the spirit of the artist, a spirit that is seeking to be recognized and thus reveals itself in the works that are produced. These works attempt to view both the creator and the surrounding world in the context of universality. Put in terms of these images, the shadow of the universal is revealed when nature is illuminated by the light of artistic vision, which sees past the immediate and the specific world of nature to the spirit-world beyond which links humanity to its humanity, and grounds the individual in this humanity. This is the true triumph of art.

(click image to enlarge)
Shadows #9 Shadows #8 Shadows #7 Shadows #6
Shadows #5 Shadows #4 Shadows #3 Shadows #2
Shadows #1