Saturday, March 08, 2008


An artist designed pretty flourishes into this little piece of metalwork ...

... on an instrument of torture which was inserted into a victim and expanded by means of a screw device to tear through the victim's internal organs, causing an excruciating death.

Not only did artists design this object with an aesthetically pleasing look, they updated its design over the years to keep up with the latest fashions.

An aesthetic object such as this poses interesting questions at each stage of the production process:

  • The client who commissioned it could have settled for a plain, functional tool. He was sensitive enough to desire a pretty design, yet totally insensitive to the piteous howls of his victim;

  • The artist who designed it summoned all his taste and talent to put the most beautiful design on a tool for mutilating human beings;

  • The victim of the torture was faced with a most inhuman death which his tormentors took special care to package in a stylish, civilized form.

But this week, we don't care about any of those questions because after all, this is a blog about illustration art. Instead, we care about the question: Does the sponsor affect the quality of the art?

We often hear that illustration is an inferior art form because it is commissioned by corporations to serve commercial interests. Here are some pictures from the 1960s by the great Bob Peak. They were bold, innovative, well designed drawings but they helped to sell cigarettes.

Does the morality of the sponsor's goal affect the aesthetic quality of these images?

If you are fortunate enough to visit the Spanish town of Santillana del Mar, you should spend time in their Museum of the Inquisition. Seen from one perspective, it provides a blood-curdling record of fiends who tortured in the name of religious piety. But it can also be viewed as a conventional sculpture museum, displaying the beautiful work of very talented silver smiths, iron workers and artisans in wood. You can be horrified by the content and still be impressed by the form.

I've never found a rule that governs all art, but a good starting point for some serious thinking might be:
There should be no argument in regard to morality in art; there is no morality in nature.
Rodin said that. And here's an additional perspective:
Many mediocre pictures of lofty subjects hang in art museums. Many brilliant pictures of dishwashing detergent can be found in magazine ads. Nobody has yet established a clear connection between purity of motive and quality of art.
I said that.


Anonymous Thomas said...

Great angle, David. You make me think once again.

3/09/2008 4:56 PM  
Blogger dfernetti said...

I reccomend you a book named "The art of the Third Reich", and while the author tried hard to write a text against the kind of art that was "encouraged" in the Germany of 30s and 40s, there were some indubitable masterworks in there. The sculptor Arno Breker, for instance, did some incredible works, both monumental and classic, yet we saw that today as one of the symbols of the evil regime that commisioned his sculptures. Ain't that ironic?

3/09/2008 6:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes you think any of those designs was specifically made for the device mentioned, and not something else (from which it was borrowed?

3/09/2008 8:31 PM  
Anonymous Kev Ferrara said...


I believe the core of a work is always the key to its intent. And thus its morality.

The immoral key you posted, however is a tool. And what is a decorative craftsman to do with a tool but decorate it?

But “decorative” is not a word that the art world likes. It is not important enough. It is usually attached to the word “merely”.

Because of the poor selling power of the word “decorative” and how its use bruises egos, and the uncooling of judgment, we are no longer allowed to distinguish between decorative and narrative art. But this is an essential distinction.

As an illustrator draws away from the vast metaphoric power of the grand masters of Narrative Art, like Waterhouse, Pyle, Wyeth, Dunn… and into work that is not borne of deep conviction, his work changes character. It gets shallower. Surface effects become prime. And when surface effects become the point, the point is to decorate… to please with harmony and theatrics... a colorful fireworks show.

In a resonant metaphoric work, the surface and the depth have been unified to communicate something eternal and mysterious to the viewer… a timeless tension. A resonant metaphor must contain surface and depth in equal measure, unified.

A surface decoration can only be symbolic, not metaphoric. Symbols simply do not have the same resonance as metaphors.

An Advertisement sells a product. The product appears in the ad. A product Box has symbols all over it, well considered décor, a logo, style. A decoration cannot defeat the graphic design, because it itself is a graphic design. They are equivalencies.

Bob Peak did not resonate his soul into those cigarette ads. He did not bring the metaphoric power of Narrative Art to bear. He merely symbolized the use of the product using stock characters with some pleasing and fashionable surface effects attached

What is a decorative craftsman to do with a tool but decorate it?

3/09/2008 9:39 PM  
Anonymous Mike London said...

i agree with kev's post..

in both instances of the torture instrument and the cigarette adverts, the craftsmen use stock motifs of the time.. as you say, they are decorative and not based on ideas other than the aesthetic.

art should work in a subtler way, and have some unity between form and content. These examples have neither.

3/10/2008 5:54 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev and Mike, it seems to me that you are being pretty tough on ol'decorative art.

I'm not sure there is a qualitative difference between these metal torture devices and other decorated metalwork that you will see displayed in the top museums around the world. Bronze vases, mirrors and urns from the Han dynasty are covered with decorative symbols but are recognized as great art. Highly decorative armour from ancient times through the Renaissance is lavishly displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the the Art Institute of Chicago. Similarly, many Greek kraytrs get their beauty from nothing but design and pattern.

You could say the same about many illuminated manuscripts, which are painted with decorative floral designs and calligraphic letters. And you could argue that some Egyptian sculpture and hieroglyphs are symbols made by craftsmen using "stock motifs of the time."

I'm not saying decorative art occupies the same place on the spectrum as a "resonant metaphoric work," but I'm not exactly sure where you draw a bright line between them. Most importantly, I'm not sure which one is superior. One group may be superior to the other in some categories, but certainly not in every category. For example, I'm sure you could envision a situation where Bob Peak's design or colors are superior to the design or colors in a "resonant metaphoric work." How do you keep score then? Does the artist's "conviction" always count for more than a good design? I know some mighty dumb artists who develop deep convictions about nutty things, and I would gladly trade a bushel basket of their art for a single "surface decoration" by Bob Peak.

Finally, I would say that a large percentage of modern sculpture in museums around the world deliberately disavows narrative and metaphor, and tries to be pure abstract design, devoid of content. Where does that fit into your scenario?

3/10/2008 12:41 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I guess my answer is that it doesn't matter to me if a design wasn't invented for this particular device. I'm happy to assume that all of these items reflect the prevailing style of their era, using patterns and decorations that are well worn.

For me the relevant point is that they were used to beautify something monstrous. Something can be visually lovely and morally repugnant at the same time (Kind of reminds me of a girl I once knew...)

3/10/2008 12:48 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Thomas-- glad to have you here.

Dfernetti, I agree there is a whole boatload of irony here. I was not familiar with Breker's work, but looked it up and enjoyed it. Just as the Nazis shot themselves in the foot by throwing out the "disapproved" scientists like Albert Einstein, they lost some great artists who they disdained as "decadent" not to mention film diectors (like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch).

The subject of art under totalitarian regimes is a whole separate fascinating subject.

3/10/2008 1:39 PM  
Blogger Crisp said...

Always such pretension when it comes to "art."

Decoration in itself is a wholely valid, and major function of art, no matter time or culture.

Much of the work of masters is decorative before anything else, the subject matter being incidental, a whim of a client. Since one is decorating a church, what is more fitting than themes from the Bible? Or a storybook with images related to the story? The same artist may invest more of himself in a still life to decorate a house.

Personally, I believe design and decoration is primary in visual art. If a work is not pleasurable to view first, through some device of composition, color, shape, etc, then it has failed. Subtlety and soul manifest themselves in the application of those devices. Subtle and soulful work comes from subtle and soulful handling by the individual, not subject matter.

3/10/2008 1:45 PM  
Anonymous Kev Ferrara said...

David, blank surfaces exist in the world, and man makes many blank surfaces in the effort to clothe and house himself and his instruments and disseminate information. These surfaces are modified by decoration to more accurately reflect their function as objects and tools. Associations are made to the objects’ uses, symbols are draped over it that refer to the use of the object, etc.

Thus you have "fashion". Functional blank surfaces are charged with the fashion of their era using symbols for whatever is being decorated.

This is an essential function. I did not say that decoration was a bad word. It has been made a bad word by others, for, my guess is, political reasons. Which is to say, for reasons of lowering one person’s value in order to raise your own. The same wonderful politicians also use the phrase “mere academic drawing” to disparage Narrative Art.

And in terms of Non Narrative art... as far as I can tell there's no such thing.

It seems to me that the very act of putting a mark down on canvas causes a vector into the depth of the canvas. A vector is a journey to follow. That is to say that all art is by nature narrative. It is the intellectual fetishists who want to pull one aspect of it out and make an “ism” out of It and declare we have invented a new artform here which has nothing to do with narrative. But this is nonsense. These fellahs have simply removed the realism from the symbols they are using. Which is why all those isms are so vacuous and dull to so many… so alienating. They are done from the point of view of one isolated aspect of human being personality. Nobody wants to hear a one note Johnny.Or even a four note Johnny, at least not all the time. Which is why we have seen the rise of popular song to the popular detriment of the more abstract classical music.


A great narrative work marries the surface decoration to the volumetric space and thereby creates silhouette images that are visual metaphors for the moments they portray. These visual metaphors that read in silhouette, if descriptive enough, and if beautifully designed, become like new letters of the human alphabet… new symbols.

Harvey Dunn in his lecture notes says, “An Image is the Symbol of Reality”. Dunn and Pyle have been my guides to these ideas.

That is, a metaphoric work… a work of Narrative Art is like a dictionary entry. You have the letter/symbol that sits on the surface (like a Chinese compound character) and you have its definition in the depth of the picture. The symbol is defined all at once by the metaphoric marrying of the image to the “reality”.

A metaphor cannot be “defined” without definition... rendering in depth. This is why "flat" works aren't metaphoric. They are symbolic or decorative. That's just the way it is. They are simply less deep. And "deep", by all means, is not for everybody.

So a gallery of great Narrative Images is like walking through a visual dictionary of new symbols for human experience. Each one streaming its bold silhouette into your imagination as “pure knowledge symbolized.”

This is why the shape codes of Frazetta’s Death Dealer are so often repeated. Because the new letter of the human alphabet that he invented with that picture is so easily communicated as a symbol, that a weak artist can simply plop the symbol on the surface and anybody who has seen Frazetta’s definition of the symbol will know the meaning.

But that symbol is Frazetta’s dictionary entry. That is his metaphor.

Then again, letters and symbols are made to be used. Like melodies are made to be sung. So that’s the price for getting a new word into common parlance. It becomes like the word Xerox… everybody’s.

Look at Howard Pyle’s Mermaid picture, Look at Frazetta’s Death Dealer and you will see exactly what I am talking about. New letters of the human alphabet.

My scratch work on these ideas is here:

It’s a very long and sometimes slogging read, with many false starts, ego issues, erroneous assumptions that are later challenged, etc. But there’s lots more information about how this all works there. Its also still a thesis in progress.


3/10/2008 2:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn David, how do you do it? The rest offer conveluted political, theological or psychological explanations, and you manage what is simply obvious.

You are genius. ~catherine

3/10/2008 9:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear readers, my apologies, by "the rest" I did not mean you, I mean those who critique.... ~catherine

3/10/2008 9:26 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev, thanks for sending me to your interesting discussion at I have just started down what appears to be a long and interesting path there, so it may take a while before I emerge.

Catherine, it's nice to get a comment that helps to offset the general view that I am irritatingly obtuse. By my count, your message now brings the ratio up to at least two in favor, 573 against. If you ever come to the east coast, I'm sure my mother would love to meet you and buy you lunch.

3/11/2008 1:39 AM  
Blogger DB Dowd said...

Yikes! I think a little slower progression is in order here, like pausing over a definition of terms. (Warning: cranky comment to follow)

Kev writes: "As an illustrator draws away from the vast metaphoric power of the grand masters of Narrative Art, like Waterhouse, Pyle, Wyeth, Dunn… and into work that is not borne of deep conviction, his work changes character."

"Vast," "grand" and "master" in the same sentence. Then a lack of "deep conviction" as a deal-breaker. These "masters" are guys with practices, deadlines, and a gift for obfuscation. Reading Pyle is like reading somebody describing sex in code. And the intentionalist fallacy [I think I am doing X, therefore I am doing X] is always in play, which is why conviction, deep or otherwise, may not help us much. I want to know what your argument is, Kev, but the adjectives are not helping.

David replies: "I would say that a large percentage of modern sculpture in museums around the world deliberately disavows narrative and metaphor, and tries to be pure abstract design, devoid of content." How is abstract design "devoid" of content? Content is not anecdote, nor is it metaphor.

(Bibliographical suggestion: Ben Shahn's "Shape of Content," a compilation of his Norton lectures at Harvard in the late 50's) Shahn is a cogent writer, an artist and a designer, and thoroughly modern. He argues that shape [or form] IS content.

Back to Kev: "The surface and the depth have been unified to communicate something eternal and mysterious to the viewer… a timeless tension." This cannot get any more purple. Eternity and timelessness are for metaphysicians. A dollop of Marx and off to bed with you.

And then: "A metaphor cannot be “defined” without definition... rendering in depth. This is why "flat" works aren't metaphoric. They are symbolic or decorative. That's just the way it is. They are simply less deep."

What can this possibly mean? That a silhouetted form cannot, by definition, make use of the rhetorical device of metaphor? I think I could make paper cutouts of the Tortoise and the Hare and you'd get it.

David: I think there are some significant issues left unattended in this extremely provocative post. Like: a morality which pertains to message (say, propaganda which denounces Jews as subhuman) and morality which pertains to instrumentality (the installation and operation of gas chambers, artistic or otherwise). The culpability of the designer is one thing, which may or may not obtain; the cultural question of aestheticized objects of death (a samurai sword, a P-40 Mustang, an engraved pistol) is a different question entirely. Then there is the user of the object [say, your organ-spreader] who has a rather different level of moral culpability than the metalsmith. No question, the moral policing of art does not improve culture, because part of culture's job is to hold contradictions in check for reflection; but Rodin's formulation is awfully crude, and worthy of debate. In the Platonic sense, if, a la Keats Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth, Rodin got something wrong. But Keats doesn't help much here, either. We are on our own, and all we have is close reasoning on the basis of examples. In this case, I don't think we really have an aestheticized object on our hands. I think we have a terrible device that's been made sort of pretty, but not really altered.

Speaking of which: I can scarcely look at Bob Peak. It's skillful, but for my money, it's dreck.

I don't mean to be pissy, and I offer apologies for complaining so about diction. But if we want serious people to think seriously about this tradition (commercial image-making) we will have to quit harrumphing about modernity. Howard Pyle is not going to help us much, either.

Here's my suggestion: give us some images for comparison, and make us practice, work by work. Criticism always begins with description and proceeds to judgment. You can't do the latter if you've shirked the former. Which is better, A or B? You can't answer until you've apprehended the properties of A and B.(I think, along with Clive Bell [he of the Bloomsburg group about a century ago] that this is best practiced by looking at chairs in a design collection before moving on to narrative pictures, because the underpinnings are the same.)

3/11/2008 2:21 AM  
Blogger Thomas Fluharty said...

WOW,what post David! To borrow a quote from one of my favorite movies, The princess Bride,Wesley said to Vizzinny, " Truly you have a dizzying intellect" and i say that to you my friend. This blog is a huge success because you constantly point out the beauty in everything around us, even tools of death. I will keep coming back to learn how to appear smarter than I am. thanks David~T

3/11/2008 12:48 PM  
Anonymous Kev Ferrara said...

DB Dowd...

I have just changed my mind about that... as I said, this theory is a work in progress.

A metaphor can be defined on the surface of a work. But in a surface work, things are defined according to distance, up, down, right, left, etc. Distance equals time.

In a volumetric work, there is "forward time"... With the consideration of time, all things may be considered in much greater depth. This is why visual metaphors that are defined in depth have much more emotional power.

I am sorry for the manifesto, especially that it includes such a glaring error. Clearly, I could not explain so much in just a post here. My apologies for stating as "fact" theory.

Db, I would encourage you to check out the discussion and challenge it. If I am wrong, I would like to know why.

Thanks again David.


3/11/2008 1:03 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

DB, these discussions always benefit from your scholarly sense of proportion and intellectual discipline.

I agree with you that there are several discussions going on simultaneously here, and each of the subcategories you outline is well worth a vigorous discussion. What to do? Whoever designed art did not do so with pedantic ease in mind.

Let me get a few easy ones out of the way, to clear the decks for the more substantive issues:

I understand where you are coming from with Bob Peak. I agree that his work was largely disappointing before and after the '60s. But in my view there was one brief shining moment when the man perfectly exemplified his time and place, where he reinvented color theory (note the combination of bright orange, red and maroon in one of the examples shown) and did some really exciting drawing. I can tell I will need to post some Bob Peak highlights in an effort to convince you.

Second, when you write, "How is abstract design "devoid" of content?" I think your gripe is not with me, but with many of the greatest abstract artists who struggled to purge art of content. They went to extremes to isolate pure form; for example, they recognized that we might infer content from even a solid red canvas (hmmm... it looks like "blood of the proletariat" to me...) so they left their art untitled, or gave it titles like "painting no. 3" and took pains to avoid any trace of a brush stroke or other human fingerprint that might inadvertently trigger some subliminal connection to content. Your point may be that they failed in their mission, but I don't think we are entitled to assume away the central premise of their work, especially by citing Ben Shahn (who I like but who they would reject as an old WPA socialist realism war horse).

Third, perhaps I am becoming a chronic "harumpher about modernity" although my plan at the outset was to be a harumpher about intellectual sloppiness, torpor and arrogance. Modernity just seemed to present the most broadly known, financially successful examples of such. But I have to confess, going back over this post and my comments, I'll be darned if I can find a single harumph in the direction of modernity. I was trying to isolate a single theme-- the impact of morality on aesthetic quality-- and as you have already pointed out so well, even that single issue is multiple issues intertwined. So I was not trying to pick a fight with modernity this week. Are you telling me that I can't even recognize when I am doing it anymore?

Fourth, I agree with you that Rodin's maxim is worthy of debate-- find me any maxim about art that isn't-- but I don't find it crude at all. Rather, I wold say it is basic and elemental, like the man. I'm sure Keats could use a more elegant and refined vocabulary to construct a superstructure on top of Rodin's foundation, but I'm not sure it would be any more "true."

Moving on to the heart of your concerns, it is tough to approach these issues systematically because they have overlapping vocabularies and often overlapping art. But the laboratory conditions that you and Clive Bell suggest remind me of one of my favorite quotes from Marcel Duchamp: "There is no such thing as an answer because there is nothing so simple as a question." If we line up chairs in a design collection with the hopes of answering your question, "which is best?", how do you resolve the question I posed to Kev: how does a profound picture compare to a beautiful picture or a morally pure picture? How many points do you subtract from beauty for an evil purpose? That is a subject where I could really use some help.

3/11/2008 1:37 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

I think the answer, David, may lie with the fact that all invention is a double edged sword. All invention is a tool, and a tool is only as moral as its owner.

Can the person who first carved a swastika on stone eons ago be blamed for how it has been used?

It is only when the tool maker comes face to face with the possible consequences of his creation, that moral question becomes stark.

Einstein and Oppenheimer and the Bomb, for instance.

As time marches on, man unlocks more and more of the mysteries, each one capable of enormous harm and promise. This process will not stop.

As the unlocking requires more and more expertise, the fathers of any one particular invention proliferate wildly... Does this spread blame around so thinly that all of the history of science will be to blame for the next development in warfare?

I think it must be that blame lies in usage.

There is not a tool on this planet that can not be used to commit a murder, after all.

But the thought nags at me... there is such a thing in basketball as an "assist."


3/11/2008 5:14 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Hah! Great last line, Kev!

I think it was Don Marquis who wrote, "An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it."

3/11/2008 5:34 PM  
Blogger DB Dowd said...

I agree, very nice last line, Kev.

Okay, here goes:

David, you retort:

"If we line up chairs in a design collection with the hopes of answering your question, "which is best?", how do you resolve the question I posed to Kev: how does a profound picture compare to a beautiful picture or a morally pure picture? How many points do you subtract from beauty for an evil purpose?"

Permit me to take a whack at this. First, the chairs are without anecdote or incident. They cannot be interpreted, they may only be seen. (The cultivation of sight absent anecdote is in fact one of the animating ideas of modernism.) As critics, we apprehend the visual phenomenon, we describe it, we move on to the next; we evaluate things comparatively, on the basis of which is the more satisfying form.

It takes awhile to even understand what the question means, let alone answer it.

But the question you hand back to me is a different one--yet not the one I think you mean to ask. I stress the question of description because sustained experience is where judgment starts.

Profound, beautiful, morally pure: these are not descriptive terms but evaluative ones. Your assignation of profundity cannot be confirmed, even within a certain objective range. "Beautiful" is somewhat more objective, at least within a given time and culture; a question may be posed and answered, is X beautiful, in hopes of getting an empirical result. Profound, not so much. As for morally pure, we are now in the realm of the extra-visual. X is no longer an aesthetic object, but a weapon in a debate. So your question only relates to Clive Bell's test in one respect: is the chair beautiful? The rest is editorializing.

As for your anti-modernist harrumphing, yes, I have given you a hard time about it now and again, but in this case my observation had to do with a commenter, not the stalwart proprietor of this blog. My bad for not being clearer. (In fact, the logical leap went from the apotheosis of the Brandywine Bunch in said comment to my own recent reflection on the remarkably backward-looking Pyle and Wyeth who nonetheless eagerly snapped up new reproductive technologies. Sort of like the way that fundamentalist religions adopt new technologies much faster than the sects that manage to accommodate modernity intellectually.

Kev, let's try your theory a second time:

"A metaphor can be defined on the surface of a work. But in a surface work, things are defined according to distance, up, down, right, left, etc. Distance equals time.

In a volumetric work, there is "forward time"... With the consideration of time, all things may be considered in much greater depth. This is why visual metaphors that are defined in depth have much more emotional power."

Given: a two-dimensional artwork like a painting or a drawing has an x and y axis. There is no z axis. (not counting the structural support)

I have several questions:

1) is sculpture by definition more metaphorical than painting, because it includes a z axis and thus is volumetric?

2) since paintings do not have a z axis, and some but not all create the illusion of a deep space, does the illusion of depth result in the illusion of metaphor with greater depth, or simply a metaphor with greater "depth." If the latter, what is the meaning of "depth" in the last usage?

3) concerning your conclusion: do metaphors yield emotion, and do the best ones yield the most emotion? (I am assuming that "emotional power" is an intense form of emotional experience)

I think you are mixing dimensions, measurements, rhetorical constructions, and judgments. Forget the axiom, which is doomed. What do you like about the thing that you like? I'd start there, not with the thing you don't like and would like to denounce if only you had a system. These things really are lived and sustained--it takes total engagement, and a willingness to be quiet in the face of another's effort. The best critics are open to a diversity of aesthetic experience, and let themselves be challenged by it, even as they build on such experiences by making broader cultural arguments, but only over time.

David, last point. I made mention of the intentionalist fallacy in my last comment. It applies here. Because I think I am making a work devoid of content, I am not necessarily doing so. You cannot subtract content from a work. You can select one form of content over another. So the difference between an Ellsworth Kelly and a picture of dogs playing poker is not the difference between an object which is contentless and another that has content--rather the difference is the chosen language and our cultural knowledge of said language and associated ideas and information that inform our viewing of it. That is to say: the Suprematists and other totalizing abstractionists may have wanted to escape history, but they could not do so. They produced artifacts as much as artworks, and we must look at them as both.

3/12/2008 1:28 AM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

DB... I am not denouncing anything. It is you who are assuming the word "decorative" to be denouncing.. or that when I say "shallow" I mean stupid. To some people, contemplation of the deep is an utter waste of time, and thus stupid. Better to have fun while the sun is still warm. And one could easily argue that Frivolity is a far more defiant act than cynicism.

These are not categorical judgments I hold. By shallow I mean surface. If you have been trained to think deep is better than shallow than you will think that. Clearly "deep" has more emotional resonance because, not to get too philosophical here, forward time causes fear.

And fear... well is there anything more powerful than fear?

A decorative surface work avoids giving the existential experience of the fear of the facts of forward time. It usually just symbolizes them, if at all. Thus it seems to me, the reason murals are supposed to "stay on the wall" is because sponsors don't want to scare the crap out of the patrons with thoughts of mortality, because then they will horde their money. This goes the same for most "flat" illustration in the ladies magazines. Especially those for cigarettes.

(Incidentally, I love Bob Peak's work and recently wrote a few posts in praise of his poster for The Missouri Breaks.)

On Metaphor:

We use metaphor to synthesize new understanding through engagement of the imagination. We only need new understanding where there was no understanding before. We only need to use metaphor where journalism does not suffice. We can use metaphor in place of journalism, but that is purely an elective act.

A metaphor associates the natural quality of one thing to another thing where it would not normally occur in order to bring insight. This is the understanding I have come to.

Thus, when an artist draws a subject, he associates his gestures and thoughts with the subject. He creates a synthesis that brings new insight into both the subject and the artist, not always in equal measure.

Painting, because it is so limited in what it can journalize, is practically required to metaphorize everything. Thus it is forced to engage with the imagination constantly. And thus its limitations becomes its greatest strength.


There is no time or depth to a painting... thus we must engage the imagination in order to portray those things on canvas. And when the imagination is engaged, enormous psychic energy is tapped. The more the psychic energy of the viewer is utilized, the more engaging the work.

So we use metaphor for depth and use the metaphor of depth to portray the metaphor of time.

A sculpture requires no illusion of depth, it exists in depth. The depth is journalized. This depth, however, is used as a metaphor for time, forms twist through space... like frames of an animation. We run the projector by walking around the work.

If a sculptor chooses, he can give further illusion of depth by pinching some illusory perspective into certain volumes, or maybe have a bronze arm fade out to clear lucite, that way it looks to be fading into the atmosphere of the room and thus "into depth", etc. And these metaphors for depth can then be used as metaphors for time.

But there is a problem here... in that you can't put a vanishing point on any sculpture smaller than a room that works "in the round". Or lets just say, it would be inordinately difficult. The lucite arm would pose other problems "in the round".This is not to say that these metaphoric depth effects can't be accomplished with spectacular results. Just that metaphoric depth is only required when the canvas is flat.

Anyhow, DB...

Save all the dogmatic lectures about "its all expression man, so like , any judgment mechanism is purely hegemonic and judgmental and its never going to work anyhow". I've heard all that stuff a thousand times. Its dogma in defense of ideology. And if I am against anything, it is ideology. So I am not pronouncing on other kinds of work, I am trying to figure out what the heck is going on in art so I can make better work and pass on the ideas to others who share my endeavor.

Also, so that I and my compatriots have proper intellectual ammunition to shut down Dogmatists when they begin barking their reductive patter.

3/12/2008 11:11 AM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Edit: My comment on murals doesn't apply to Renaissance religious murals, for obvious reasons. In fact depth seems to have been encouraged there.

Maybe if modern church murals would stop "staying on the wall" there wouldn't be such a cash crunch in those institutions! :)


3/12/2008 11:16 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

DB, if you're not careful you are going to end up an opinionated, editorializing, evaluative harumpher like me, rather than the calm, dispassionate scholar you started out to be. It must be contagious.

You say that abstract art cannot evade content, it can only select one form of content over another. Furthermore, you attribute the misguided belief of the abstractionists to "the intentionalist fallacy." Well, I suppose that is possible, but merely saying that the abstractionists failed to eliminate content does not make it so (even if Ben Shahn believes it). I'm sure the abstractionists would say they succeeded. I'm not sure how you would even go about defending your thesis under the standards you set out (you tell me, for example, that my assignation of profundity "cannot be confirmed" and you eschew mere editorializing or evaluation that is not premised on the empirical and the objective). I think the abstractionists would say your conclusion about content cannot be confirmed and is merely the ipse dixit of an aspiring Pythagoras.

Similarly, I personally agree with you that "sustained experience is where judgment starts," but I have to acknowledge that lots of people out there disagree. There are artists who emphasize the shock of the new, who try to be totally different from what has gone before, and who specialize in evanescent art that disappears before it can become a precedent, and is never repeated again. They want to stun you with the initial impression. They want you to view the world like a child again, with your "judgment" slate wiped clean. Are you prepared to say they are just plain wrong and you are right? Welcome, brother! I am willing to say it, but then I am already resigned to being a low down editorialzer. You seemed to be striving for something higher.

Most of all, I fear you beg the question (at least, my question) when you try to draw a bright line between descriptive and evaluative terms, or between the visual and the moral. Even an impetuous fellow like me would pause before rushing into that swamp. There is huge overlap between the language of art and morality. We say that Mother Theresa or Albert Schweitzer led "beautiful" lives for their moral choices, not because they look visually beautiful. Words like balance and harmony apply to the way we structure our lives as well as the way we structure our drawings. I think you have a way to go before you override Duchamp's admonition.

Here again, you can offer your considered judgment (yay!) but be warned that professors of aesthetics have tried and failed to do what you suggest. (Check out Frank Sibley's classic article on Aesthetic Concepts, originally publshed in the Philosophical Review in the 1940s, in which he asserts that no aesthetic, evaluative term can be triggered by any list of objective, descriptive terms, no matter how comprehensive).

Mind you, I think you and I would probably come out in the exact same place on most aesthetic judgments, but it seems to me that the art world is a more chaotic array of subatomic particles than your approach gives it credit for being. There are more things in heaven and in, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Me, I just dismiss the ones I know to be bad, and applaud the ones I know to be good, It makes everything so much simpler.

3/12/2008 6:30 PM  
Blogger DB Dowd said...

Okay, I've had enough. There are analytical foundations to this stuff: it's culture, not magic. That one kind of statement (descriptive) is different from another (evaluative) would seem to be an unremarkable observation.

3/12/2008 9:43 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

DB, I don't think anyone disputes that at either extreme of the spectrum, there are clearly "descriptive" or "evaluative" criteria. Everyone would agree, for example, that the physical dimensions of a canvas, or the medium used are purely descriptive. I think you get into trouble in the middle of the spectrum where there is a lot of overlap. But Sibley is not trying to be difficult by contesting everything. He makes a serious effort to see whether he can identify a list of descriptive terms that, taken together, would compel the application of an evaluative (i.e., "aesthetic") conclusion. He says no. If he is correct, "descriptive" will not get you to "evaluative." I hope I did not convey the wrong impression.

3/12/2008 11:51 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

When it comes down to it kindness is simply more important than aesthetics.

A torture device is an abomination. The fact that it is beautifully crafted only makes it the more horrible.

Such, anyway, is my reaction.

It surprises me that so little of the discussion has actually addressed the moral responsibilities of the artist.

3/15/2008 7:01 PM  
Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

It seems that no one here remembers the mini-controversy that these Winston ads sparked back in the 60s. "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" was assailed by the grammar police, who argued that it should read "Winston tastes good as a cigarette should."

As for the decorated torture instruments, you could come up with equivalent beauty from a loftier pursuit: science. Renaissance scientific instruments could be beautiful. See here and here and here, for example. The late Kenneth Clark argued that this was so because art and science had only recently diverged. We might then, instead of predictably deploring the moral squalor that art fell into with the torture instruments, hail one of the high point of civilization that these gadgets represented.

3/15/2008 10:42 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

David, I agree that beautiful decorations on an instrument of torture make it all the more horrible. You would expect someone with aesthetic sensitivity to have at least a little moral sensitivity as well. The contrast is chilling.

As for your point about "the moral responsibilities of the artist," that is really the deepest water in this whole area.

3/16/2008 1:19 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Sanity, I love beautiful scientific instruments (even though in my experience, the more beautiful the instrument, the worse the scientific principles behind it). Kenneth Clark may be right about the divergence of art and science, but they are not grossly inconsistent, like art and torture.

I barely remember the advertising controversy you mention, but I do remember the one that replaced it: "What do you want-- good grammar or good taste?"

3/16/2008 1:27 AM  
Blogger Matt J said...

Ah- the old anal/vaginal 'pear' device! 10 years ago I saw one in the torture museum of San Gimignano, Italy & never forgot it!
The juxtaposition of crafted aesthetic & horrifying implement of pain is quite terrifying.
There were other such 'tools of torture' in that museum but none so deceptively 'stylish'!

3/16/2008 1:40 PM  
Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Kenneth Clark may be right about the divergence of art and science, but they are not grossly inconsistent, like art and torture.

That may be the central disturbing idea here: that art and torture are not in fact inconsistent. The greatest Western artist in history was also an innovative military engineer. Countless literary luminaries of the early 20th century gave their hosannas to Soviet communism, the most murderous ideology in history. I keep things like that in mind, whenever someone from the arts or entertainment industry flacks for a political cause, expecting me to take their talent for political perspicacity.

3/16/2008 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you comparing torture to selling cigarettes? Yikes.

6/13/2009 10:39 PM  
Anonymous Kara said...

Hello David,

Please email me in regards to the image of the pear torture device. I am needing to know where you found it.


7/09/2009 10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art in the service of evil. A theme which seems to have obsessed Roberto Bolano.

It troubles, at the least, one of the major assumptions of the Platonic/Christian inheritance: that the good, the true and the beautiful are one.

12/16/2009 9:49 PM  

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