Monday, May 17, 2010


They invented perfect beauty, those ancient Greeks.

Of course people made beautiful things before the Greeks, but it was the Greeks who dreamed there could be a perfect version of beauty out there waiting to be attained.

Aristotle made the first serious attempt at defining "perfection" but even before him Pythagoras and other pre-Socratics speculated about an ideal beauty. They pursued it with the language of mathematics, asserting that objects look better when proportioned in accordance with the "golden ratio." They believed objects would appear more "complete" and "perfect" if they were symmetrical, with clean shapes in harmony with classical archetypes.

They hoped these principles would lead them to perfect beauty. Unfortunately, they didn't get very far before the goat-god yanked them back.

The Greeks were so confident that their culture was superior, imagine their surprise when the good citizens of Athens began to lose interest in high culture and stray back to the more earthy, passionate cults of their barbaric neighbors. Historian Arthur Koestler claims that Athenian gods lost their attraction as they became more formal and detached from base human emotions:
At an unknown date, but probably not much before the sixth century, the cult of Dionysus‑Bacchus, the 'raging' goat‑god of fertility and wine, spread from barbaric Thracia into Greece. The initial success of Bacchism was probably due to that general sense of frustration ... [that] the Olympian Pantheon had come to resemble an assembly of wax‑works, whose formalized worship could [not] satisfy truly religious needs.... A spiritual void tends to create emotional outbreaks; the Bacchae of Euripides, frenzied worshippers of the horned god....
The Greeks discovered that their lofty aspirations were chained to their earthy goat-god origins. High culture could only take them so close to "perfection" before they ran out of chain.

Greek poets bemoaned the effect of Bacchism on their womenfolk: "Theban women leaving/Their spinning and their weaving/Stung with the maddening trance/Of Dionysus!"

Today we still admire the Greeks' smooth, classical ideals of beauty but we too remain tethered to the goat-god part of our nature. Art becomes less satisfying as it becomes too orderly, smooth and formal. We cannot polish and refine our way to perfection; beyond a certain point, perfection begins to weaken art rather than strengthen it.

Koestler described how the savvy Greeks absorbed and blunted the threat of wild Bacchism:
The outbreak seems to have been sporadic and short‑lived. The Greeks, being Greeks, soon realized that these excesses led neither to mystic union with God, nor back to nature, but merely to mass-hysteria.... The authorities seemed to have acted with eminent reasonableness: they promoted Bacchus‑Dionysus to the official Pantheon with a rank equal to Apollo's. His frenzy was tamed, his wine watered down, his worship regulated, and used as a harmless safety‑valve.
The Greeks' wise technique for co-opting wildness is still employed by artists today. A carefully controlled picture often includes an uncontrolled splatter or eruption or rough line-- not enough to lose control of the picture, but enough to show that wildness still has a seat in the artist's pantheon:

Jeffrey Jones carefully captured facial features, but then indulged in a frenzy for her hair

Note how the great Ronald Searle gains power with from uncontrolled spatters and ink drops.

This sensitive portrait by Jack Unruh would not be nearly as potent if he had not gone back and roughed it up with that dense black and spattering.

Even the erudite Steinberg bows to the virility of non-cognitivism: he draws the icons of civilization with a light and lacy line, but adds strength with a rough, black scrape of a brush.

Pictures still pay tribute to the goat-god, and are rewarded with his strength and vitality


«Oldest   ‹Older   201 – 213 of 213
David Apatoff said...

Joss-- I, too, am grateful for the artists that Kev brings to the table. (Like you, I was not familiar with Carolyn Anderson-- she is an excellent example for our discussion in that she achieves sensitive expressions using chaotic brush strokes, although personally I think she would be a better artist if she lost some of that white frosting that she dollops so liberally on everything)

You also write: "There's a lot on this blog about the lost glory days which I fully agree with, but there is something about the internet age that seems equally as valuable," I doubt there is anyone here who would disagree with you about the great aspects of the internet age. I'm sure there isn't a single era for which you couldn't make a "best of all times/worst of all times" argument but I feel quite fortunate to be living today.

Rob Howard said...

>>> That has a way of reminding you of the chaos waiting for you beneath that thin veneer of order and stability. I am a huge fan of Bernard Knox, whose writings about the Greeks are pure gems. He once said something along the lines of, "If you have to go out and kill the family pet with your own hands in order to eat dinner, it keeps you from getting overly civilized."<<<

I just said something similar to my nephew who is shipping out to Afghanistan...Morality is flexible and subject to fashion. What civilized 21st century civilian westerners think of as correct morality would be incomprehensible to many people in other parts of the globe...especially those enjoying the natural and organic benefits of a 15th century lifestyle with the added spice of tribalism thrown in.

When he gets there, he will be using the appropriate yardstick for measuring the reality of Afghanistan, not the yardstick of the suburban malls and worries about our diets.

He is about to experience the ephemeral nature of civilization as he ventures into a realm that has always defined life on this planet. Social constructs are just that...constructions subject to modification or dismantling.

David Apatoff said...

Rob, good luck to your nephew.

Anonymous said...

Andrew Wyeth and his father N.C. and son James are among my favorite artists - just had a 3 generation Wyeth show where I live and Victoria Wyeth described a common practice of her grandfather Andrew . He might have spent 3 to 5 months on a tempera , and with it being 85 to 90 percent completed , hurl a bowl of pigment on it and run from the room in horror . After the mess dried he would rescue the piece explaining that he had ruined pieces doing this , bur that when he made it work , it had a quality that he could never have achieved by playing it safe .

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

Al, I've heard that great story about Wyeth too, and I think his work became much stronger as he became more savage. Works such as Christina's world have a scary intensity but I prefer his later work where you can see the vigorous brush strokes and spatters.

Rob Howard said...

A number of years ago, the Fogg museum at Harvard had a wide-ranging show of Andrew Wyeth's work. I was never terribly impressed with his work until that show, which contained wonderful, silvery drawings and numerous studies he had done in what he referred to as drybrush. The effects were different from the traditional drybrush technique. Wyeth's approach was very suave and not at all obvious.

I was also taken with his control of color. I kept going back and developed a deep respect for that master. I have not seen reproductions of much of the work in that show.

Anonymous said...

In Wyeth's case the older he got the more "savage" he indeed seem to become - painting a dead road-kill squirrel and dipping his thumb in it's blood to smear into the painting , who the hell does that?!

Some of the best books of his later work are Wondrous Strange and Memory and Magic - did either of you see his retrospective in Philly ?

That example of his process (bowl of paint on near finished piece) and Frazetta's Cat Girl , where he painted out some incredibly well rendered cats to simplify the composition , as well as Kanevsky , who may paint 30 figures , one over the previous with the layers projecting through to achieve the final layer , are examples I think of when I get too precious about something i'm working on .

Al McLuckie

Anonymous said...

..Wow what a post! i rank it right there with the last episode of "V" and "Community",

..censorship is not cool,
i enjoy the banter..
i hope nobody is really getting their feelings hurt..
..i wonder if i offend b. sack will he google and review me!?.. i'm about due for a harsh critique,

..the on topic stuff was nice too..some like it tight, some like it loose, i like the combo,

on a side there a thread previously posted here about the pros/cons of projectors?

Antoni said...

Jesus H, is this pathetic 'informed' drivel ever going to end?

Rob Howard said...

Enough with Giles Goat Barth.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Re: "this blog is not a polite salon or a graduate school seminar but a place next to the railroad tracks where weeds and wildflowers can grow side by side."
A seminar would be so great, it is problematic for me to remember/keep straight all the artists you have mentioned here (Ok perhaps I should start taking notes! its not too late!!) hear your stream of insight is something so enriching. ... so often it has struck me like being at a fine party in New York city, an existance so different and distant from mine here in Santa Cruz, a surf town! I wish you could have a party...where it would be possible to meet the usual dudes here who are so witty and erudite, most of the time, that is~ But your image of meeting at the RR tracks with weeds and wildflowers~ you speak with images that are as fine as the drawings shown here...

please don't moderate, then there could be spaces of time where there are no comments since you are at work etc, and really this spamming is sort of a rarity here methinks. The momentum might be impaired? Why overreact, like the political class is doing! Yuck!


StimmeDesHerzens said...

Rob, you have a new, more virile profile image, how cool! It makes you seem like a war hero pilot, strong and intelligent! younger.
good choice :-)))

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, D.H. and Leibesreime-- believe me, I lack the heart or the aptitude for censorship. I'm glad to hear that you continued to read this stuff after I stopped.

«Oldest ‹Older   201 – 213 of 213   Newer› Newest»