Sunday, March 22, 2009

SACRED WRITINGS

Artists have honored sacred texts by converting words into art. Often the result is not intended to be read like a conventional book, but rather experienced as a visual object.



For example, some Korans from 17th-century Turkey, Iran and North India are so elaborate and ornate they are virtually impossible to read except as designs. The finest artists, calligraphers and craftsmen embellished these books with gold and jewels to inspire reverence for the content.

When I was growing up on the south side of Chicago, a boy I knew was shot and killed on the school playground by older boys from a street gang.

Virgil White and I sang in the choir together. One night, he foolishly tried to take a short cut through the playground alone. The gang members shot him and left him bleeding to death on the cold concrete. Virgil managed to scrawl the names of his killers in his school notebook: "Greg Vincent and Chap Dog killed me." Then he was gone forever, like a wisp of smoke.



They found Virgil's bloodstained notebook clutched in his hand. Years later, I can't look at it without feeling a pang. The terrible beauty of Virgil's marks on paper still touches my heart more than the most lavishly decorated religious text.

Sometimes crude and hasty images are more inspiring than carefully refined ones.

Sometimes an accidental mark-- such as a bloodstain-- is a more powerful design than the work of great artists.

Sometimes cheap materials can create images of greater spiritual significance than images made from the purest gold.

48 Comments:

Blogger Rob Howard said...

That put a lump in my throat

3/22/2009 8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope they got the bastards responsible.

3/22/2009 6:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy crap.

3/22/2009 8:28 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Second anonymous, Virgil's notebook was used as evidence in the trial of Greg Vincent and Chap Dog. They were convicted. I don't recall what, if anything, happened on appeal.

3/22/2009 9:08 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

While I agree (probably more so than most) that sometimes crude and hasty images are more stirring than refined, deliberate ones, I don't think the last example should be put in the same catorgory as the one preceding. It's unfair on both of them. One is an aesthetic (and intellectual) response to the text, the other is a straight from the heart plea for justice or even revenge, without any aesthetic consideration. It certianly has an almost poetic beauty to it, but our reaction to it is (I suspect) largely to do with the story that goes with it. If we had suspected the story was just made up, we would think it was a rather clever and beautiful illustration, but not much more (though I would be impressed by the cleverness and beauty of it, and jealous).

3/23/2009 8:42 AM  
Anonymous larry said...

That must be hard to share. I agree BTW.

3/23/2009 9:50 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Matthew, thanks for your thoughtful response. I did consider this point when I was deciding what kind of picture to pair with Virgil's notebook. My first instinct was to pick someone like Cy Twombly, who writes words in pictures that look very similar to Virgil's page. (Check out Twombly's paintings "Sarajevo" or "Wilder Shores of Love" on Google images-- they are purely aesthetic objects, hung in museums, that look almost indistinguishable from Virgil's notebook.) There are lots of other modern artists who make pictures out of words (Ed Ruscha, Colin McCahon, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, Laurence Weiner, etc.) Some even specialize in displaying words electronically (Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman).

But ultimately I thought the koran pages were a better comparison. With the exception of Twombly, I don't like the work of the artists listed above. I find it shallow and smug, and most importantly the words they use have none of the spiritual significance that I believe Virgil's notebook and the koran share.

Just as your view of Virgil's notebook depends on your understanding of its truth, your view of the koran will also depend on your understanding of its truth. I promise you, if you believe the koran is the word of the holy prophet then these pages are not at all an "intellectual" exercise, but something that goes right to the depth of your heart and soul. (The only difference is that you are able to confirm the truth of Virgil's sad story by looking it up in the Chicago Tribune.)

For me, one of the main points of this post was to assess the role of beautiful materials and brililant technique in conveying a sacred subject. As you can probably tell, I concluded that an image just as touching, evoking the same kind of reflection and awe, could be created using the most humble materials under the worst possible circumstances.

I agree that the match between the two pictures is not perfect, but comparisons are likely to be a little lopsided when you are melding together words and pictures. The comparison is also imperfect for other reasons-- for example, because you are comparing a high res color picture with a grainy newspaper photo. But I would argue that both examples stand up well enough as visual images to be fruitful subjects for rumination.

3/23/2009 12:16 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Matthew and David; both present nicely reasoned points of view that, if anything, upon consideration expand into other questions.

Lately, I have been writing about the emotional content in art...the universal "message" that causes the viewer to feel the emotion the (skilled) artist wishes to impute. One of my main beefs with NeoClassical art and the Post-Crypto-Neo-Classical stuff we see at ARC and similar art crypts is that the artist all but required the viewer to be familiar with the backstory. The Oath of the Horatii is, to today's eyes, a risible piece with stiff poses and a scratch-your-head wonderment at what the heck is going on. The Academy viewers of the day had the backstory in memory and they knew about the brothers fighting the brothers-in-law. The picture itself had as much universal emotional content as a bowl of oatmeal.

The a very great extent, the same can be said about these example (BTW thanks for spelling Koran the way its always been spelled in English rather than the new PC version). Both that magnificently wrought page and the page in Virgil's notebook do not, in themselves, carry an emotional impact and content. It's the backstory that fills in the emotional content. The viewer is asked to bring a literary emotion to a visual piece. This is also the Achilles Heel of any symbolic art...it must reach outside of itself to load up with emotional content.

All of that reaching outside is an artistically undeveloped approach. Visual art should speak a visual language and, within that visual language resides almost any emotion on can feel. The truly skilled artist (all three dozen of them) knows how to manipulate composition, tone and color to produce those emotions. The rest of us are left with relying on backstory, symbols and evocative titles or linking to an event or cause.

3/23/2009 2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi david, you rally should try to get rid of this rob howard. REALLY!
sucks beyond expression

3/23/2009 2:28 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Rob, it is my view that both of these images stand alone as visual objects (don't know how you feel about Twombly's work). It is also my view that both of them are enhanced by understanding the back story (or in your terms, literary emotion). I have no problem asserting that people who want a heightened experience should be prepared to educate themselves. When I was eight years old and MAD magazine assumed a higher level of cultural literacy in its readership than it does today, it had song parodies to the tune of a Gilbert & Sullivan song, or movie parodies in the genre of an old Edward G. Robinson crime movie. You could enjoy the pictures at one level but if you wanted to be in on the joke, you had to get off your ass and learn a few things. I think that's healthy.

I agree with you 100% about the oath of Horatii, but not all of those classical stories are so impenetrable. I'll bet the average reader would have no such trouble relating to Phryne before the Areopagus (http://www.duth-civpro.net/blog/tsantinis/PhryneAreopagusGerome.jpg)

Do you really believe that "visual art should speak [only] a visual language?" If so, where do you find such a purified strain of art? And what would you even call it? If you name a solid red canvas "Red # 43", it will mean something different than if you title the same canvas "Blood of the Proletariat." Most of the art I know is some mongrel combination of principles and impulses that does not respect boundaries. And of course, that's what you're likely to fnd when the theme of this post is making pictures out of words.

3/23/2009 2:57 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Last anonymous, I assume your comment is in reaction to Rob's aversion to "the new pc version" of the word Koran. I have to assume that because you say his comment "sucks beyond expression" so you have not even attempted to express your reason.

I like to think that this blog specializes in things that are "beyond expression"-- exquisite pictures that elude description, metaphysical speculation that dances out of reach of empirical data, and bald assertions about human nature that are probably more a result of endocrinology than logic. Yet, despite the fact that these are all beyond expression, we expect participants to make the effort. Even if that effort is ill fated from the start, the discipline is worthwhile because people quickly learn that if they wish to persuade anyone else, they need to moderate their language.

3/23/2009 3:17 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

I have to mostly agree with Rob Howard, who clearly is agreeable within expression.

However I would suggest that as visual objects unified in some expressive intent and outside of the context of culture, the Koran wins hands down. If I were an Eskimo, say, I would not be able to read either piece, and would be left with only the visual to stir me or not. The note wouldn't seem anything special as an unreadable jumble of jots. The Koran that you presented, however, has a great deal of emotional information built into the design. The piece is significant in that regard, outside of what it refers to in the literary realm.

All art is significant outside of its surface symbolic references. All that surface stuff is to keep the pseuds occupied and to give people some emotional touchstone to hang their hat on. Every picture falls within some genre or other on the surface. Beneath all that text, there is only one "genre" of subtext, and that is emotion.

kev

3/23/2009 5:50 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Do you really believe that "visual art should speak [only] a visual language?" If so, where do you find such a purified strain of art?

In the theoretical ideal,yes. But there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip in reality. The study of art is immensely complex and operates on many levels. Amazingly, it attracts a disproportionate number of people unwilling to study anything deeper than a paint catalogue.

I admit to having seen very few purely visual products which spoke a purely visual language. As soon as we introduce any realistic object, the picture ceases being a flat plane and takes on a faux space and depth as well as referencing the realistic subject matter. In that sense it can be considered symbolic.

As a kid, I studied with Hans Hofmann and, although very much a realist, he introduced me to the concept of the picture referring only to itself and, in so doing, referred to itself in the language of painting. Nonrepresentational work offers the best possibility for exploring painting as a purely visual study because there are no objects to take the viewer into a symbolic or literal realm of reference.

that said, I find that those studies can become overly rarefied and ivory tower bits of mental embroidery. That sort of theoretical exquisiteness was the death knell of a number of Japanese art forms. At one point, some copies were adjudged better than the originals because of technique. The search for meaning had long since departed.

I cannot say that I am overly fond of Twombly. I do, however, dote on Jeff Koons and consider Jenny Saville a painter of the first water.

Oh. about my critics...don't worry. They follow me around, make a bit of noise but none of them can paint or earn a living in art.

3/23/2009 8:58 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev, first of all let me say how disappointed I am that you didn't use the more politically appropriate terms, "Inuit' and 'Yup'ik," instead of "eskimo." But I'll overlook it this time.

I agree with you that a hypothetical eskimo would choose the koran pages "hands down." Is that really because of the emotional information inherent in the design, or is it just that glittery objects are pretty? I'm a little surprised that neither you nor Rob, whose opinions I have grown to respect, are willing to give the scribblings in a notebook credit as a visual design. I admit that the design of hurried scribblings is not as obvious as a formal design with pretty bright colors and geometric shapes, but again I refer you to those two museum pieces by Twombly, sarajevo and Wilder Shores of Love. They are clearly intended to be fine art with all the accompanying ambitions for visual design. I contend that if you strip away the emotional content, there is very little difference between these images and Virgil's notebook pages.

3/23/2009 11:56 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Rob, I am writing this response from the intensive care unit of the hospital where I had to be taken after reading that you dote on Jeff Koons. Just in case the life support systems here are unable to sustain me through such a terrible shock, quick, tell me: what in the world are you thinking?

3/24/2009 12:11 AM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

I really like the wilder shore's of love painting, not quite sure about the Sarajevo drawing(?).

Aesthetic and intellectual responses can also be heartfelt, in response to your response, so I wasn't trying to deny the heartfeltedness of the Koran pages.

While i might think it's an unfair comparison, I am glad you did it. I probably would have compared it to cave paintings(only because we get told so often that the cave paintings of buffalo etc were done for success in the hunt). I think the Koran pages are a better choice.

It's another great post David, certianly making us think.

3/24/2009 8:19 AM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Twombley's just doing the same old "philosophical editorial" about aesthetic significance that we've been subjected to for the last 100 years or so by the cynical art barfers and their sales partners in academia and the gallery world. And every time out there's the same old "oh my, isn't that shocking!", "Is it art?" "What is he saying?" ... etc... God, it is so boring. We really need to learn to just yawn at this stuff. That's the only way forward, to culturally "uncool" it just the way narrative art was culturally uncooled by the radicals of the early 20th century.

As soon as we pay attention to the offense, we "charge" it with cultural meaning. We need to learn to yawn, softly so as to not attract undue attention, but collectively.

The problem is, the apparatus of postmodernism is in high ascendancy at the moment, the equivalent to the purse-string hegemony the church had over culture in its heyday.

And which cozy, salaried academic spouting abject nonsense will suddenly come to his senses and start calling "yawn", "so what?" and "bullshit!" on his ivory tower bretheren and himself? In a publish or perish world, who dares stand up and say, "all these cultural studies are meaningless drivel! Look at all the trees we're killing just to babble at each other like fanboys calling in to sports radio shows." Who is going to opine, "maybe before we talk about realistic art we all should take life drawing and painting classes for several years. And then as we begin composing our own paintings we'll have a better perspective on the reality of creating that type of art. Until then, we shouldn't take a dime in salary."

One of the great rules of life is, nobody thinks himself out of a easy, fun job. Ain't gonna happen. As the philosopher said, "nobody changes their mind, unless they must."

That rant may not have answered your question, but it didn't cost you anything either! :)

3/24/2009 10:56 AM  
Blogger looka said...

It is a terrible thing to happen and something that leaves nothing to add.

3/24/2009 1:09 PM  
Blogger looka said...

As sudden as the expression of the last written words of your friend are, as decadent seems the other use of words to portrait the "deeper" meaning of life to bring it closer to us than we already are.

I don't mean religion specifically and by no means Islam - I am generally unaffected by the content of religious, uhm, media - either historic or momentary. It just holds no interest to me.

The connection of the distribution of pictures in religious systems and in media is interesting. More so as Christian bible stories where retold in pictures in the churches all over Europe.

One reason being of course that the poor folks that were harassed by the then leaders were both so poor and also working day and night to keep the coins rolling for the authorities, that they had no time to learn to read. ...Or even have access to learning.

So the church paintings, that could also be read as an unturnable pages of transition of the bible text, where filled with messages ready to overwhelm the uninformed, poor workers to keep them on track.

Of course, not all priests where ill-mannered, but history sure leaves them in a bad light.

3/24/2009 1:12 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

David, I am so sorry to have caused another flare-up of the impacted attitude. The reason i like Jeff Koons is because he is a purgative to the impacted self-regard of the art world. In that sense he's an anarchic figure like The Joker, saying "why so serious?"

I seldom agreed with De Gaulle except when he was witty. At that point he had a clear grasp of what life is all about...a cosmic joke in which most of us don't realize that we're part of the punch line. He summed up humanity's self-regard with "the cemeteries are filled with what were considered indispensable people."

It is that annoyingly merry, rub-it-in-your-face-you stuffed-shirt attitude...a cheery anarchy that annoys us for pointing up the absurdity of life and that we are infinitesimally small and unimportant...that's what garners Koons his big detractor base.

So I hope that you're not in a diabetic coma because i just sent a five pound box of sweets to your room ;-)

3/24/2009 4:54 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

David, apercu your aversion to Koons, here's something I wrote at Cennini Forum about that oh-so-difficult act of cultivating taste. I trust this will amplify my position:
________________________________
Look at the work of people who are universally acclaimed but who do not appeal to you. It appears that you use Pollock to represent an acclaimed artist in who you can see no redeeming qualities. That's the guy to look up and to buy the best books on his work. INVEST something besides scorn and neglect. Spend $50 for a great Pollock book. In that way you will be giving it an honest shot ($50 is the cost of walking past the water cooler in most university art departments).

Buying more books on Sargent, Cassatt, Rembrandt is not going to do anything for you but get you nodding in agreement. Devote a few hundred bucks...less than the cost of a morning of soaking in the Tuscan countryside at one of those vacation/art courses. Get a book on Freud, Deibenkorn oh, and let's not forget ARCs favorite faker...Andy Warhol. In short, go to ARC and read who they think are the worst fakers in the world, the ones that get Fred Ross and his coterie absolutely frothing at the mouth because those fakers are making more on one painting than all of the Living Contemporary Masters at ARC have made in their collective lives. OOOOoooh, that injustice really frosts them! Read and study and try to understand how people who are otherwise so smart in business and other cultural things, suddenly have had their brains fall out and become complete dupes to the evil Modern Art machine that draws a web of opiate dreams over their eyes (in the Bible according to Fred).

If you really, really indulge yourself over the next year and buy a thousand bucks worth of excellent books of the artists on Fred's most hated list (funny how they have books written about them but the Living Contemporary Masters only have their own blogs), you will have received a much better art appreciation and aesthetics education that you ever could by spending forty times that at a university or art school.

Mom was right. Sit up and eat your spinach. It's good for you. Then learn to eat those olives...the big black Kalamatas with pits in them. Then sit up and eat your malossol caviar like a good little boy and then put some of Mom's special sea urchin roe on that piece of baguette with a layer of beurre de baratte spread on it. Then kick back with the tiniest bit of a 25 year old Bowmore whisky from Islay...the one with overtones of a burned hair salon. All of them are acquired tastes. When you start you simply will wonder what the heck anyone sees in them. But slowly they grow on you. Slowly you taste subtleties...tastes that flip-flop in your mouth, that surprise you later, tastes that are memorable. After that, it's going to be difficult to get much out of that Big Mac and Frosty Shake.

The same will happen with art once you INVEST the time and money. I advise you buy the books rather than get them from the library. It's a commitment, much as paying for classes. If you don't pay, you can throw it away with no after thought. So it will cost you a few bucks to have a new world opened to you (yes, some important things have happened since Sargent).

Now for the downside of all that taste cultivation. You experience the same thing that happens with kids who came from dull neighborhoods...not inner city hell-holes, but average towns with a few industries that do most of the hiring and offer limited opportunities...when they go off to develop themselves and to succeed beyond their wildest ambitions. When they go back to visit, the first thing they notice is how small everything is and how their friends don't seem to have as much in common with them. Those homecomings are generally bittersweet. I assure you that after a year of buying books and studying Fred's Most Hated Artists, that world will appear to be so small, so confined and with such limited possibilities.

Will it make you an abstract painter? Probably not, not more than eating sea urchin roe will make you a fisherman. But you'll be able to look at paintings with new eyes. Some of what were your favorites will now seem trite. Others will reveal aspects that were not apparent before your cultivation.

3/24/2009 8:12 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

David, apercu your aversion to Koons, here's something I wrote at Cennini Forum about that oh-so-difficult act of cultivating taste. I trust this will amplify my position:
________________________________
Look at the work of people who are universally acclaimed but who do not appeal to you. It appears that you use Pollock to represent an acclaimed artist in who you can see no redeeming qualities. That's the guy to look up and to buy the best books on his work. INVEST something besides scorn and neglect. Spend $50 for a great Pollock book. In that way you will be giving it an honest shot ($50 is the cost of walking past the water cooler in most university art departments).

Buying more books on Sargent, Cassatt, Rembrandt is not going to do anything for you but get you nodding in agreement. Devote a few hundred bucks...less than the cost of a morning of soaking in the Tuscan countryside at one of those vacation/art courses. Get a book on Freud, Deibenkorn oh, and let's not forget ARCs favorite faker...Andy Warhol. In short, go to ARC and read who they think are the worst fakers in the world, the ones that get Fred Ross and his coterie absolutely frothing at the mouth because those fakers are making more on one painting than all of the Living Contemporary Masters at ARC have made in their collective lives. OOOOoooh, that injustice really frosts them! Read and study and try to understand how people who are otherwise so smart in business and other cultural things, suddenly have had their brains fall out and become complete dupes to the evil Modern Art machine that draws a web of opiate dreams over their eyes (in the Bible according to Fred).

If you really, really indulge yourself over the next year and buy a thousand bucks worth of excellent books of the artists on Fred's most hated list (funny how they have books written about them but the Living Contemporary Masters only have their own blogs), you will have received a much better art appreciation and aesthetics education that you ever could by spending forty times that at a university or art school.

Mom was right. Sit up and eat your spinach. It's good for you. Then learn to eat those olives...the big black Kalamatas with pits in them. Then sit up and eat your malossol caviar like a good little boy and then put some of Mom's special sea urchin roe on that piece of baguette with a layer of beurre de baratte spread on it. Then kick back with the tiniest bit of a 25 year old Bowmore whisky from Islay...the one with overtones of a burned hair salon. All of them are acquired tastes. When you start you simply will wonder what the heck anyone sees in them. But slowly they grow on you. Slowly you taste subtleties...tastes that flip-flop in your mouth, that surprise you later, tastes that are memorable. After that, it's going to be difficult to get much out of that Big Mac and Frosty Shake.

The same will happen with art once you INVEST the time and money. I advise you buy the books rather than get them from the library. It's a commitment, much as paying for classes. If you don't pay, you can throw it away with no after thought. So it will cost you a few bucks to have a new world opened to you (yes, some important things have happened since Sargent).

Now for the downside of all that taste cultivation. You experience the same thing that happens with kids who came from dull neighborhoods...not inner city hell-holes, but average towns with a few industries that do most of the hiring and offer limited opportunities...when they go off to develop themselves and to succeed beyond their wildest ambitions. When they go back to visit, the first thing they notice is how small everything is and how their friends don't seem to have as much in common with them. Those homecomings are generally bittersweet. I assure you that after a year of buying books and studying Fred's Most Hated Artists, that world will appear to be so small, so confined and with such limited possibilities.

Will it make you an abstract painter? Probably not, not more than eating sea urchin roe will make you a fisherman. But you'll be able to look at paintings with new eyes. Some of what were your favorites will now seem trite. Others will reveal aspects that were not apparent before your cultivation.

3/24/2009 8:12 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

If you really want to open up your culinary vistas, why not eat belly lint, fried paper, cat ears, chalk dust, and shootin' marbles with hot sauce?

I think lumping Freud and Diebenkorn with Warhol is not a valid proposition. Freud can stand with Fechin, Brangwyn, or Velasquez in a long shot. Diebenkorn's landscapes can stand with Sydney Long's, just for starters.

Warhol, on the other hand, stands with Duschamp's urinal, Hirst's Shark in Formaldehyde, and Manzoni's Merde d'Artiste. This is a whole different strain of work that has more in common with linguistics or semantics than art. As illustrations of semantic points, these works are certainly a more "illuminated" proof than the equivalent points written non-decoratively in plodding academese. But as artworks, they're as dull as a brillo box, a dead shark, a toilet, and a can of crap.

3/25/2009 12:15 AM  
Blogger gaffergirls.com said...

BRUTAL...
life is so beautiful & so brutal
out visiting ... I ended up here,
so glad ...
mona & the gaffer girls

ps tough memory makers make U U

3/25/2009 9:54 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Rob, I really enjoyed your discussion of how an intellectually curious and responsible person goes about expanding their taste. Quite entertaining to read, and besides I agree with almost all of it. I'm not sure how a nothingburger like Fred Ross elevated himself into the role of your bete noir, but he is clearly a bur under your saddle. Is he worth it? Did he welch on some large gambling debt?

Having said that, we will have to devote a separate post to Jeff Koons, who I find hideous. I've got plenty of respect for the role of the joker who says,"why so serious?" but not for jokers who work with the military/industrial/art gallery complex to sell lousy art at astronomical prices using pseudo-intellectual bullshit. A few months ago Sothebys sold a huge Koons painting using a long fawning essay filled with flowery language about the artist's intent and his cultural significance. Some joker. It made me want to puke my guts out. I am going to give you a chance to expand my taste by identifying the redeeming features in that painting, so keep your powder dry.

Finally, I'm still waiting for that box of candy. I hope it has chocolate covered cherries. I like those.

3/25/2009 1:20 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Gaffergirls, thank you for your comment. This is how I thought most people might react. There is an interesting artistic and philosophical argument to be had here, and I am glad we are having it, but ultimately the sad story of Virgil weighs more heavily on my heart and my mind.

One reason I posted this and identified Virgil by name is that, on a recent rainy afternoon, I was suddenly struck by the fact that nobody thinks of Virgil anymore. Perhaps not even his parents? And someone should know his name.

3/25/2009 1:29 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Every once in a while, a loose note floats out from an old memory book as we flip through the pages. When we catch it and pull it in to read, we are surprised to find that the only words written on it are "Shadows and Dust." And then a soulful, longing ache ensues.

3/25/2009 3:06 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

A few months ago Sothebys sold a huge Koons painting using a long fawning essay filled with flowery language about the artist's intent and his cultural significance.

This raises a very interesting and, I suspect, important question in which I see parallels with some sectors of the society's outrage over the second amendment. The people who object to it will be quick to speak to the clarity and genius of the first and third amendments...free speech, right of assembly and then not allowing soldiers to be quartered in private homes. Great thinking, they'll say. But according to them, the same clear thinkers suddenly had their brains fall out when writing the second amendment.

The same line of thinking can be posited for a pickled shark selling for millions. Just like the first amendment stands in front of the second, so to has the ability to accumulate millions in disposable income. That speaks to some very special people (according to tax roles, less than half a percent of the population. Did they get that money being stupid? Being easily fooled? I rather doubt it. I suspect that those people possess, if not a rare intelligence, certainly one considerably elevated from the rubes who ooh and ahh over pictures "so real you could jest touch 'em."
Being afflicted with Jesuitacal logic trains, I have been trying to come up with some way of explaining how otherwise bright people suddenly have their brains fall out. Is this The Curse of The Second Amendment that only afflicts otherwise exemplary intelligences? How would you explain the desire to collect supposedly execrable junk like Brillo boxes, pickled sharks a suspended choo-choo trains in NYC? Where is the money coming from? I can see fooling a few of the people all of the time, but to fool that huge a group of wealthy, urbane, educated people strikes me as astronomical odds.

So explain, if you can, how all of those people have been fooled for so long. This is a matter of great interest and concern to me because I'd like to get on to the BS train and make a few million for some silly ideas. Tell me, how does the system work?

3/26/2009 5:20 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

I'm not sure how a nothingburger like Fred Ross elevated himself into the role of your bete noir, but he is clearly a bur under your saddle.

Anything but. He's lint. He is, however, emblematic of all the crypt dwellers who haven't two original thoughts to rub together and manage to take talented youngsters for a ride during an important stage of their lives and, like the dried husks that they are, suck whatever creative juices those young people may have had. In return, the newly desanguinated artists are made to be content with one of the rudimentary skills of the painter...realistic rendering. I maintain that if the student cannot draw and paint, not only anything they can see but that they can imagine, after two years of study, they should consider lynching their professors or become bartenders. It's that simple to do and it's one of the steps along the way, not an end goal.

Sadly, there are strangely truncated educational groups (who, with tuition money also happen to buy prime real estate in exotic locations) calling themselves "ateliers." That they bear no resemblance to what were real ateliers means nothing to these moneyed kids swimming in romantic notions.

Fred is merely, as I say, emblematic. If they were to remake Nosferatu, should Fred Ross be cast in the titular role? Possibly, but there are some real con-men in this country and Italy who would equally convincing as the dread bloodsucker.

But no, Fred and that ilk have never had the opportunity to harm me. They rest content with harming an entire generation of young artists.

3/26/2009 8:12 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

I'm not sure how a nothingburger like Fred Ross elevated himself into the role of your bete noir, but he is clearly a bur under your saddle.

Anything but. He's lint. He is, however, emblematic of all the crypt dwellers who haven't two original thoughts to rub together and manage to take talented youngsters for a ride during an important stage of their lives and, like the dried husks that they are, suck whatever creative juices those young people may have had. In return, the newly desanguinated artists are made to be content with one of the rudimentary skills of the painter...realistic rendering. I maintain that if the student cannot draw and paint, not only anything they can see but that they can imagine, after two years of study, they should consider lynching their professors or become bartenders. It's that simple to do and it's one of the steps along the way, not an end goal.

Sadly, there are strangely truncated educational groups (who, with tuition money also happen to buy prime real estate in exotic locations) calling themselves "ateliers." That they bear no resemblance to what were real ateliers means nothing to these moneyed kids swimming in romantic notions.

Fred is merely, as I say, emblematic. If they were to remake Nosferatu, should Fred Ross be cast in the titular role? Possibly, but there are some real con-men in this country and Italy who would equally convincing as the dread bloodsucker.

But no, Fred and that ilk have never had the opportunity to harm me. They rest content with harming an entire generation of young artists.

3/26/2009 8:13 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

What is so perplexing?

In a time of anti-authoritarian populism, the royals want to be seen as hip. For many reasons, some of which they themselves may not be aware of. There are certain people who are connected up who have a say in the nature of hip at any given moment. This has been going on since World War I at least when authoritarianism was killed on the battlefields of Europe.

The anti-authoritarians who have gotten rich want to participate in and perpetuate their own culture. Just like the uncool fogeys they dispatched sought to do. See DIA Beacon... monument to the cynical one line joke made material, emblems of an plastic era.

Some people buy it to invest.

Some people just like it because it reminds them of Walt Disney and it's made of shiny material and it will fill up the space in the foyer.

The choice between Koons and Fred Ross is a false one.

3/26/2009 9:17 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Okay, Kev. That's good as far as it goes but you don't address those collectors of whose taste you might approve...people who buy the "Old Masters" (according to popular rube legend, they all lived at the same time (Old Master Time) and all shared the same secrets and burned them so no one could do it again).

So, whether your tastes go to Caravaggio, or Rembrandt or Sargent or Cassatt or Degas or Bouguereau...whatever you consider worthwhile...please apply the same criteria to collectors of them. Are they equally just rich fashionistas. Is there no aesthetic justification considered or is it just antidisestablishmentarianism (haven't said that since the schoolyard)?

What you have not addressed is how so many otherwise intelligent people, and that includes some very powerful intellects involved in making the work, rendering aesthetic critiques, advancing the philosophical investigations of Aesthetics (it is a branch of Philosophy) can be such a mass of dupes. This makes Tulip Mania look like a passing fad, after all it's been going on for a century or more (it started whenever Bouguereau and Gerome died and they sang The Night They Tore Ol' Dixie Down).

So, all of that is crap in one way or another and the only true, really good worthwhile artists are those who can emulate a machine like the digital camera in your cell phone.

You'll excuse me but those rationalizations you offered appear to be simply ways of avoiding doing the often difficult work of not understanding things that do not come easily. And therein lies the basis for popularity of familiar Marvel heroes drawn over and over again. Yep, that's really advanced exploration in modern aesthetics.

3/27/2009 2:22 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Whoops! avoiding doing the often difficult work of not understanding things that do not come easily.

Delete that not. I'm at David's former bedside in the Intensive Care Unit and I spilled a bunch of chocolate covered cherry cordials while typing.

Me maxima culpa ;->

3/27/2009 2:28 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

I've just lost a very long comment addressing Rob's points in detail. Sorry but I don't have the time to rewrite it...

The long and short of it is, Rob, your inductions manage to be simultaneously wrong, insulting, and self-promoting. The idea that pomo philosophy is difficult material, or that I haven't been thoroughly exposed to is just one gem. The only hard work related to Pomo is the time wasted deciphering pseudo-intellectual academese on the way to extremely simplistic cultural points. Furthermore, your assumptions about my taste in artwork are wildly off base, (or possibly you see no distinction between Titian and Rubens and Fechin or Brangwyn, given both groups make realistic picchurs. I don't know.)

Speaking of "not doing the hard work"... you seem to be under the common perception that Clive Bell invented the idea of signficant form, when he was merely the first to misunderstand it. Oh, and P.S. Hans Hoffman didn't invent Push Pull, its been known since Verrucchio at least. And T.S. Eliot didn't invent the Objective Correlative. Which is all by way of saying that if you read enough aesthetic philosophy from the 20th century, you end up misinformed rather than ignorant. Which is exactly how politics, which is to say salesmanship, functions.

I don't have time to go into the rest.

kev

3/27/2009 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, of course his parents remember him. I am sure they think of him everyday. That's how it is when you are a parent. A child dies and a big part of you dies too. But your impulse to bring him back to life in some way through your writing is a wonderful tribute both on a personal and artistic level.

For me, art is always better when it includes the personal. Yes, one can appreciate the beauty of a piece on it's own, but I believe humans relate to everything through their own experience and the "back story" bridges the viewer to the creator. In fact, it may create an organic link that intensifies the connection. Certainly to intellectually evaluate a work, there is a benefit to distance, but isn't the ultimate point of art to touch the viewer in an intimate way, much the way lovemaking does? Death does that too.

catherine

3/27/2009 10:06 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Well, Kev, it's difficult to counter the certitude of the True Believer, especially one who easilt takes offense. I try to be direct and single space my typing yet you managed to read between those closely spaced lines. That was not my intention and, as yet, I haven't the vaguest idea of what your intention and point are except...New=Bad. New is scary to some and I cannot alleviate your fear with words you consistent fail to read in the spirit in which they are rendered.

3/27/2009 10:12 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Well, Kev, it's difficult to counter the certitude of the True Believer, especially one who easilt takes offense. I try to be direct and single space my typing yet you managed to read between those closely spaced lines. That was not my intention and, as yet, I haven't the vaguest idea of what your intention and point are except...New=Bad. New is scary to some and I cannot alleviate your fear with words you consistent fail to read in the spirit in which they are rendered.

3/27/2009 10:12 PM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

Rob... fear of the new? Because I find postmodernism boring? Do I have to respect that accusation?

No, I don't. Because two posts ago you reasoned that I didn't like postmodernism because I was avoiding doing the often difficult work of NOT (guffaw guffaw, you comic genius) understanding things that do not come easily to me.

It seems you are sure that I am worthy of disapprobation on this matter, but your are still wondering which particularly judgment, from your walk-in closet full of ready-to-wear judgments, actually fits my frame. This is not argument, sir, but peddling.

To my other monicker from your most recent listing, "True Believer" ... a title I earned because of... what, again? Strict adherence to something Rob Howard thinks I am in strict adherence to because it makes his argument simpler and/or he likes to induce complete personality profiles based on wildly incomplete data sets... like Ebay and Amazon.com offering me books on quilting because I bought a book on notan.

Do you have any epistemological humility, my dear talented and learned fellow? Because that would be great for the purposes of human communication. Otherwise, stud, I simply must ask you to cease attempting to mark all territory you tromp through as your own. Taint so... He comes, egos.

kev

3/28/2009 12:11 AM  
Anonymous tm said...

If I had magic powers, I would impose this one rule on the art world, and I think it would sort out once and for all the question of whether "Modern Art" (whatever we mean by that, it doesn't matter) has real value, or whether it's just collected by rich idiots to impress other rich idiots while the artists giggle behind the curtain (and yes, I have known a few who think it's hysterical that their work sells for so much, but they laugh all the way to the bank):

My Rule for Sorting It All Out: no art can ever be resold. Ever. Whatever art you buy, it's yours for life, unless you give it away.

So if you buy a red polka dot or a can of artist's shit for $5,000,000, it's because you really feel that it's worth $5,000,000 to you, not because you hope to flip it to someone else for $10,000,000 in a few years.

For my $5,000,000, I'll take a masterfully rendered, sensitively observed, exquisitely composed Sargent, thanks. And hey, if polka dots are your thing, enjoy! But I'll bet you'll see a lot fewer of them changing hands at Sotheby's.

3/28/2009 9:53 AM  
Blogger cat said...

be entertained

3/28/2009 5:14 PM  
Blogger Rob Howard said...

Kev, I admit to having a very narrow view of art. That, I believe, is a result of more than four decades of (with the exception of writing a few books on the subject of illustration) having the production of art being my sole source of income. I have been very fortunate in not having to resort to being a teacher, gallerist or any of the ancillary art-related jobs.

That has given me the oft-difficult to understand view of being on the stage with a few people rather than the view from the many people in the audience.

I assure you that I do not look down on those art lovers in the audience any more than Eric Clapton looks down on those in the participants in the Air Guitar Contest. What they lack in skill and talent they more than make up in raw passion. Sadly, almost all of them cluster into doing the same old, same old...like the moribund fantasy art field for which very little outlet exists and the stultifying anime field into which everyone must conform their images.

Being, as I am, a practitioner I tend toward more dispassionate readings of the art scene...dispassionate but clear-eyed. Thus, I'd never read what I wrote and find any reference to postmodernism in it. That's the cant of university students majoring in art, and I most assuredly am not that.

While those views may be appropriate to a university or coffee-shop setting (or the Internet) they would be useless or even harmful for a working pro to entertain (if he wishes to continue paying mortgages, buying cars and taking vacations). While I have true respect for the amateur (used to be one myself) and their passion and love for art, because I work strictly on commission I cannot indulge myself as they are allowed (or as easel painters with a backlog of unsold paintings can). Thus, I adhere to the motto, "the amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he can't get it wrong."

So much of success in this field has to do with the proper attitude and the willingness to take chances and avoid cliche.

3/29/2009 7:11 AM  
Anonymous kev ferrara said...

From now on just write this:

I, Rob Howard, am a professional artist and nobody else is, so I have special understanding about everything related to art including fields I don't participate in, and thus don't need to defend my assertions or opinions or apologize when I insult anybody, explicitly or implicitly, or correct any errors I make along the way. If you disagree with this declaration, it doesn't matter because nobody else is a professional but me, which means it is only jealousy talking.

It would save you a lot of typing time and others a lot of reading time if you just cut and pasted the above in place of your normal, longer self-advertisements.

Thanks.

Sincerely,
Kev Ferrara

3/29/2009 11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... or alternatively, if you can't get rid of him, why not rename your blog "Rob Howard Super Genius Speaks"?

3/29/2009 2:58 PM  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

David, you have a wonderful blog, keep posting, and don't mind the rest of us losers when the comments we post show our immaturity.

3/29/2009 11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Sometimes crude and hasty images are more stirring than refined ones.

Sometimes a random accident-- such as the design created by a bloodstain-- is a more powerful image than the most carefully executed schemes of a great artist."

I was, to tell you the truth, quite surprised by the sudden switch between the two texts. Why not The Book of Kells? The representation of images in Islamic texts are usually dictated by various religious sources (no human figures etc. and of course there are exceptions--too long to explain and you are to me, an expert, so you will know this). But most importantly the ornamentation never ever overrides the basic function of the koran as a religious text and it has been the single most powerful influence in any Muslims' life. There is something incongruous about your comparison that somehow I felt compelled to point out this fact. Matthew Adams has eloquently put some of my thoughts better than I do. Nevertheless, the point is this: to compare between a religious text that means a lot to many to a text that speaks of personal and unjustified tragedy and yet to subtly suggest that one is somehow more significant than another will, one or way or another, invite that certain niggling feeling that the comparison has never been fair in the first place--even when it is just a personal opinion.

5/14/2009 10:33 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you raise a fair question (as Matthew did above). As I responded to Matthew, the match is not perfect-- I had considered a couple of alternatives-- and the Book of Kells would probably have come closest to serving the purposes of the Koran I used.

I think I agree with you that "the ornamentation never ever overrides the basic function of the koran as a religious text," if we clarify that the text was not always intended to be read. Some of these korans were 7 feet tall, and it would have been almost impossible to turn the pages. On others, the text was so buried in the ornamentation, you would almost need a steganographer to read them. These books remain powerful religious statements, but their power is largely visual.

The particular religion was not important to me. What I tried to stress was that sacred things happen on city pavement as well as in lavish books prepared under the auspices of well funded and organized religions for the purpose of institutionalizing the divine word.

For the clergy, this means that the shiver of awe over our mortality and the lump in our throat over humanity come upon us unexpectedly in a cold playground just as readily as they might in a warm cathedral. For the artists, this means that the finest work of the greatest craftsmen using the richest materials can still fall short of what a kid can do with a ball point pen in just a few seconds.

5/14/2009 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think of Virgil White often. We'd shared many intimate moments for several years. He continues to live in my heart. He was shot on Oct. 16, 1971. I will always love him. Thank you for thinking of him!

10/17/2010 10:23 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I think the only way you could possibly have known the date is if you really knew Virgil.

In that case, I'm glad you found this post I put up long ago. I'm especially glad you remember Virgil. As the years roll by, I sometimes think about all that Virgil missed. It was so unfair. Bless you for keeping his memory alive.

10/17/2010 11:08 PM  

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