From An Interplay of Significance: the Ballistic in Art

........It had several rooms on the ground floor, pokey recesses at the back, a first floor with a couple of armchairs and views of the street and, up rickety wooden stairs to the second floor, past the always open door of a toilet that also had books stacked on the floor, there were two extra rooms that many people missed, both crammed with unsorted volumes. One day in 2005 the windows onto the street were filled with handwritten signs saying “Closing Down Sale - All Books Half Price”. For the next month I visited as often as I could. One day, out the back in the “Sports” section, I found a book (marked in pencil “Shooting £8”) called Historical Targets by Anne Braun [1].

The book tells the story of shooting societies in Europe, mostly in what is now Germany, Austria, the Czech republic and Poland, from about 1460 until the early part of the twentieth century and specifically of the painted targets used in shooting competitions: Schutzenfests. The illustrations are immediately engaging and intriguing. They depict paintings, often highly finished professional works, of a vast variety of subjects. Here are a few:

An Allegory of Foresight ● The Adjudicating Committee ● Buffet Breakfast ● Procession of Tailors ● Neptune ● The indestructibility of the Essential Substance of the World ● Pierrot with an Owl ● Susanna at the Bath ● Apollo overcoming the Python ● A Basket of Flowers ● Venus on a swing ● The Banquet ● Sunflower in a Landscape ● The Cataract Operation ● Desires of the Heart ● Count Laudon with Death ● Women Shooting Men Out of Trees ● Peace ● Children at Play ● The Five Senses ● Turk with Giraffe ● The Lacemaker ● Fidelity ● A Miner ● A Registry with Document Repositories.

Notably, these paintings, made to be shot, do not usually depict hunting prey or objects of hatred. More often they show domestic, civic, cultural or mythological scenes and, quite often, objects of affection or respect. Most of the paintings have a target area marked by a solid black disk or concentric circles, and almost all show clear signs of having been shot: the bullet holes sometimes clustering together, sometimes spread, almost randomly, across the painted board. An interplay of significances is immediately apparent ........

........The art of the past tends to be assigned meaning and significance appropriate to the preoccupations of the society and culture from which it is viewed, which may be very different from the culture that produced it. Because historical target paintings were made with a specific social function, which now can seem inappropriate to their subject matter and in conflict with today's assumptions of the value and uses of art, the interpretation of meaning in these objects becomes simultaneously both imperative and subverted.

The practices of the visual arts, such as painting, drawing, and the taking of photographs, can all be viewed as 'ballistic' activities where "muscular performances ... take place at a rate such that cognitive processing of the 'outcome' of action only takes place after the act is complete".[2]

In the twentieth century the practices of art began to include the assignment of meaning and significance through selection, designation and contextualisation. It became a function of the artist, without actually engaging in the processes of physical making, to aim the viewer towards a thought, a response, or an understanding. Although apparently far removed from the 'muscular performances' of painting and drawing, the 'ballistic' nature of this work is apparent if one accepts the impossibility of prescribing understanding.

Perhaps viewing a work of art is also a ballistic activity ........

Notes and References

  1. See: Braun, A. 1983, Historical Targets, Royden, London.
    Historical painted targets are hard to find on the Web, but a search for "Historical painted targets" will yield a few.  [Back]
  2. Gell, A. 1998, Art and Agency, Oxford University Press, p45.  [Back]
See Also:

These pages show images and texts from the the work of the photographer P.F.WHITE (Peter Frankland White). ACTIVE: 196Os to the present. LOCATION: Europe (United Kingdom). SUBJECTS: vision, perception, location, time(s), class, power, rhilopia. STYLE: exploratory, aggregative, aleatory, attentive, punctum averse.

All images and texts (except where otherwise acknowledged) are © Peter Frankland White, , and may not be reproduced in any form without written consent. Notes on Privacy, Rights, Ethics and Consent. Page design by Allpicture. Text consultant: Kim Crowder.