Monday, December 27, 2010

EYES, OLD AND NEW

It is a fine thing to view the world with the fresh eyes of a child.


Frankenthaler

The colors are brighter and motives are purer.


Olitski

No wonder Goethe's Faust was ready to trade his soul to recover his lost innocence:
Give me back youth's golden prime
When my own spirit too was growing
When from my heart unbidden rhymes
Gushed forth, a fount forever flowing;
The world was shrouded in a haze
The bud still promised wondrous powers
And I would cull a thousand flowers
With which all valleys were ablaze
Nothing I had, and yet profusion
The lust for truth, the pleasure in illusion.
Give back the passions unabated,
That deepest joy, alive with pain,
Love's power and the strength of hatred,
Give back my youth to me again.
But it is also a fine thing to view the world through the eyes of experience.


Raphael, the School of Athens

Experience enables us to get past the inanities of youth and start addressing the complexities of life. The world often loses charm in the process, but as James Gould Cozzens warned, it is foolish to try to hide in childish delusions too long:
Refusal to face the verities, though not without immediate satisfactions, carries penalties. There's a fool killer personifying the ancient principle, "Whom the gods would destroy..." in this world, and he has a list. And that's a good way to put yourself on it. Then the question is just one of time, of how soon he'll get around to you.
In the coming year we will receive many invitations to put aside wisdom so we can experience art through innocent eyes. This will always be a risky proposition as long as the fool killer walks, but sometimes surrendering our defenses is the only way to open ourselves to potentially worthwhile experiences.

Looking with new eyes as we travel familiar paths, we sometimes discover exits that our good taste previously prevented us from noticing. These exits may lead directly to the fool killer's prize flower garden, but they may also lead to discoveries of real value. Our challenge for 2011 will be to see with eyes both old and new.

84 Comments:

Blogger bear*dog*art said...

Beautiful. Best wishes for the new year.

12/27/2010 2:06 PM  
Anonymous MORAN said...

I hope in 2011 you'll be able to tell us when we're suposed to use the eyes of children and when we're supposed to use the eyes of adults.

Merry Christmas to all.

12/27/2010 6:20 PM  
Blogger Nick Name said...

Robert Bloch once said, "I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a jar on my desk."

I suppose he had the eyes somewhere, too.

Happy New Year!

12/27/2010 9:11 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Bear*dog*art-- Many thanks for your comment. I hope you and yours have a great year.

MORAN-- Of course I won't, but I do think that issue will remain an active challenge for each of us to resolve in our own way.

Nick Name-- Happy New Year to you too!

12/28/2010 4:56 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Happy New Year David, "The art of learning is too conceal learning."

12/28/2010 11:29 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

In mixing up some paint on my palette last night, I quite by accident created two Frankenthalers and an Olitsky. In my innocence I sold this palette to Peggy Guggenheim for four hundred thousand dollars.

Happy New Year David! May all your illuminations be as illustrious as ever!

kev

P.S. Got the Dunn book... devoured it. An instant classic.

12/28/2010 3:36 PM  
Blogger Eric Noble said...

A wonderful sentiment. I don't think we can control when we can see things from the eyes of a child or adult. It comes naturally. I say enjoy what you see now.

Happy New Year to you David.

12/28/2010 4:01 PM  
Blogger Donald Pittenger said...

Picasso, so I think, might not have had the "eyes of a child" -- rather, he was able to operate with the mind-set of a child. Which probably is the same thing, "eyes" being a metaphor for thought-process.

(I use Picasso as an example because I endured a large show of his work yesterday. My blog has a report.)

What I mean by this is that he constantly experimented within the confines of one theme as well as occasionally shifting themes. When I was around eleven I carved small racing boats out of balsa wood and then painted them in various schemes. I suppose I could do the same sort of thing now, but it surely would take a lot more mental effort: kids can do this easily.

I now carry too much mental baggage to react to art as a child or even a youth might. What revs me up nowadays is art with meaning(s) for an adult mind coupled with an interesting viewpoint or technical flair.

12/28/2010 5:07 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Tom-- thanks, and happy new year to you.

Kev Ferrara-- I don't dispute that you could create a beautiful abstract image by mixing paint on a palette or even by spilling paint on the ground. But isn't the flip side of that fact far more interesting: that Frankenthaler or Olitski could have mixed paint on a palette or applied paint randomly in a billion different combinations that would not have "worked" as well as these two images? I think these two abstractions are beautiful (and more than that, they are willfully beautiful). The artists had to consider virtually limitless possible shapes and colors and brush strokes and select them in a way that would avoid limitless disastrous combinations. They were trying to come up with the most successful combination possible; they didn't have the help of an external reference point, such as the color of a flower or the shape of a body to show them what would "work." Unlike mixing paint on a palette, that's not easy.

12/29/2010 9:57 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Speaking of palette paintings I think Pissaro would turn some of his palettes into beautiful landscape paintings. The palette paintings are still around.

12/29/2010 10:06 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David,

I guess I am proving your point by being too burdened by a history of aesthetic research to enjoy the simple on its own terms.

In my defense, I love the accidental simplicity of nature which creates its moments of beauty in the unconscious act of neverending continuance... Which follows the old aesthetic dictum that the most affecting beauty is a by-product of some other effort.

The beauty of Frankenthaler and Olitsky is a statement right on the nose. "I am making something beautiful." Which makes it purely decorative art, like fashion design or automotive detailing. Which is fine. But as Burt Silverman put it, "I feel that much of modernist art has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises and to call it "High Art" is a twist of irony"

Of course, there are a billion rudimentary exercises in design that will result in beautiful wall-sized decorations. Luckily Abstractionism seems to be dying before all of those billion canvases are wasted on such practice works. It is so much easier to use photoshop™, expression™, painter™ and illustrator™ to make and discard design experiments without wasting anything more than time.

If it makes you feel any better, I find the Raphael "School of Athens" impressive but dull.

Have a happy new year. :)
kev

12/29/2010 11:27 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

David Apatoff said...
"The artists had to consider virtually limitless possible shapes and colors and brush strokes and select them in a way that would avoid limitless disastrous combinations."

David,
How do you know this? It does not seem obvious at all to me. And by avoiding an "external reference point" wouldn't any shape suffice?
Happy New Year.

12/29/2010 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Children are far too ignorant to be delusional. Adults, with their ingrained social programming are the delusional ones.

12/29/2010 3:25 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Eric Noble-- A fair point. Perhaps we can't "control when we can see things from the eyes of a child or adult" but it seems to me that we can either fight it or make our minds receptive to it. Skeptics who pride themselves in being on their guard against the first incursions of magical thinking may be great lab technicians, but they are less likely to live in a world where "unbidden rhymes" gush forth from their hearts.

Donald Pittenger-- Yes, I intended "eyes of a child" to stand for "the mindset of a child." As for your point, "I now carry too much mental baggage to react to art as a child or even a youth might," I understand that we can never go all the way back (perhaps with the exception of patients with brain damage?) but is the division really as manichean as all that? Even with all of the mental baggage we have accumulated, have you never played at the water's edge, or freshly felt wonderment on that first day of spring? I am often impressed by artists such as Dubuffet, who take me to a place I could not go with just mature wisdom. Dubuffet would say that he is not viewing the world through the eyes of a child, but that he is moved by the work of insane people. Either way, by stepping outside of the box he seems to come back with rewarding results. I often feel the same about Picasso's better work.

12/29/2010 4:20 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc., etc wrote: "How do you know this? It does not seem obvious at all to me. And by avoiding an "external reference point" wouldn't any shape suffice?"

This wasn't intended to be a controversial point. As a matter of basic math, it seems to me that Frankenthaler's and Olitski's options were unlimited because they could have rotated every color of the rainbow through the shapes in those paintings, just as they could gradually alter every shape with variations large and small. The crucial point, from my perspective, is that even though the abstract painter has been set free from the responsibility of achieving a likeness, not any shape would suffice. In fact, most shapes would be a pointless mess. Only some abstract shapes would really "work," and it's the job of the artist to find them.

Anonymous: It may be that "Children are far too ignorant to be delusional." What do you think about Goethe's less clinical but more poetic point that when he was a child he could have "the pleasure in illusion" and wanted to be able to believe in those illusions again?

Tom: Interesting point about Pissaro!

12/30/2010 8:41 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara: I like your point (or Burt Silverman's point) that "much of modernist art has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises and to call it "High Art" is a twist of irony." However, as you know there is complexity to be found in simplicity just as there are worlds within worlds. You can go into a deep trance in front of a Rothko, and then it ain't so simple any more. As always, so much depends on what the viewer brings to the painting.

As for your point that "Luckily Abstractionism seems to be dying before all of those billion canvases are wasted on such practice works. It is so much easier to use photoshop™, expression™, painter™ and illustrator™ to make and discard design experiments without wasting anything more than time," I had not considered this interesting point. I will not be saying any last rites for abstraction yet, but I will certainly be paying closer attention. I suppose the painter would say that flinging paint at a canvas in a Pollock-like dance, or pushing paint around a huge canvas with a broom transforms the experience, and that a digital mini-image would not be the same.

12/30/2010 8:50 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12/30/2010 9:40 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

David,
Thanks for the response. I don't intend to sound rude or trollish, but I just dont find those fascinating as shapes. Is there a particular aspect of their design you could point out, and perhaps offer examples of the "most shapes" that would be a "pointless mess"?

Had you described them as intuitively created shapes meant to be received on an intuitive level, I could have accepted that not everyone could, should, and would process it mentally. However, you have implied that there was some conscious, rational methodology involved, therefore most people should be able to process it mentally, and I would like to understand what you think that methodology was.

12/30/2010 9:42 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I think there needs to be a distinction drawn between simplicity that results from a unity and clarity of conception (Great Illustrators), and a simplicity that is simple because there isn't much going on (Rothko, Olitsky, Frankenthaler, Newman, Malevich, the designer of the current Radio Shack logo, etc). This is the difference between a mastermind and a dimwit. Between Shakespeare and Chauncey Gardner.

People were staring at suggestive Rorschach ink blot tests and finding complexity in nothing at all before they were staring at suggestive Rothkos. And people were staring at suggestive cloud shapes, tortoise shells, skull shapes, palm lines, tea leaves, and rock formations long before that.

If you stare at the wall of the alley behind the average Bar you will also find endless suggestive forms to lose yourself in, (if you are in a properly suggestive frame of mind.) The world is full up with suggestive randomness. Is it all art?

Bringing meaning to randomness is what our pattern-recognizing minds do when our noggens expect to find meaning in a symbolic communication. This is imputing, not computing. (Great spirit in clouds is angry about new short hairstyle on squaw!)

When a human being puts graphic information in a rectangle, he is signaling that the rectangle contains a symbolic communication. The cute trick of Rothko is to lure you in with the rectangle, and then give you nothing but yourself to appreciate. Like being invited to a party, and when you get there, you find that you are expected to be the night's entertainment.

Finding meaning in randomness just means we are overly willful in our pursuit of significance. Believing that the signals we ourselves carve out of randomness are intentional and significant is a form of common mental fallacy that can easily spiral out into pathology.

Incidentally, since every artform has limitless possibilities, and no guide to the level of finish, it is hardly to Olitsky or Frankenthaler's credit that they happened to stop working on any particular piece at some point.

It would probably be more interesting to see their pictures half done than done. Or burning. Or facing the wrong way. Or melting in acid. What's the difference between one random gesture and another? Some seeker-believer is bound to find meaning in it, no matter what.

kev

(I emailed you a few Everett tearsheet scans, btw. I hope you were able to receive them.)

12/30/2010 11:43 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"When a human being puts graphic information in a rectangle, he is signaling that the rectangle contains a symbolic communication. The cute trick of Rothko is to lure you in with the rectangle, and then give you nothing but yourself to appreciate."

that surely is the point of Rothko, especially the empty maroon and black ones... a meditative visual space which opens you up to self reflection.

i disagree with David though... i think paintings such as those abstract expressionist ones are arrived at by a similarly mature process of self reflection, not an act of child-like wonder.

12/31/2010 12:42 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

Good point David "As always, so much depends on what the viewer brings to the painting." Works of art tend to tell us more about ourselves then they tell us about the works themselves. Some people will stand in front of a tree in amazement another will be bored out of their mind.

I read that Dekooning use to find beautiful paintings all over the streets of New York, simply by looking at oil stains on the ground.

Chinese painters use to spit ink on the paper and then they would have enough information to paint beautiful paintings. The Chinese also have the wonderful expression, something to the affect of "to master simplicity one must first master complexity.”

Who knows what you can pull out of mud,
A Pissarro palette
http://www.steveartgallery.se/picture/image-35513.html

12/31/2010 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kev Ferrara, you used the same Burt Silverman quote ages ago on post here comparing Barnett Newman to Rembrandt. Burt Silverman, for an incredible draftsman and practitioner as he is, displayed disgustingly abbohorent ignorance about the art of his time with a statement like that. If he wants to try to reach the pinnicle of realism in his life's work, that's his business. However as such an incredible draftsman and artist as he is, he should realize the weight of the respect people give him, and be responsible enough to not say such an asinine thing which in its utterance only proves he is willingly ignorant. And maybe that's fine if he harbors such opinions for Modernism privately, but as I said he's a respected artist, and unfortunately people will buy into such dribble. And that's where you unfortunately come in Kev. All you're doing is backing up your own willful ignorance with the spiteful and bitter ignorance of someone whose name holds some clout among illustrators. A statement like that is as ridiculous as saying "Basketball is a better sport than Baseball because a basketball can be seen by TV cameras easier." These two art forms are concerned with completely different issues. Kev, you yourself are a great artist with a lot of potential, and your entire life and career ahead of you. Don't let the ramblings of a bitter old man who let the 20th century pass him by and didn't even bother to learn or grow from what was going on around him stifle your own views. Burt didn't have to like abstraction, and neither do you; but he willingly shut himself off from it and didn't grow at all as an artist. Don't make the same mistake. Go to a museum, crack a book, do SOMETHING. It's that simple.

Have a happy new year!

1/01/2011 12:42 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

These quotes seem releavant, Picasso "I paint things as I think them not as I see them.". Michealanglo "I paint with my brains not with my hands.". And the Chinese who considered copying reality the lowest form of art after all brush and ink have their own beauty. Form and the relatonships between forms have there own beauty, their own poetry and music that doesn't need a story to complete them.
There are lots of well done realistic paintings that have the lowest expections of the viewer. Like TV commericals and so many movies. These forms are like a drug, a
distraction from reality. They tend to project a reality that is
always immediatly understood and wanted. The message is always more important then the form. The way our culture turns everything into a narrative. I find in the
best art you quickly forget the message and the form takes
you back to reality.
Kev as far as randomness is concern, that seems as much a projection onto things as finding meaning in everything. As many people who worship
skill will snicker in front of a Rhotko, that many people will snicker at Norman Rockwell's America.

1/01/2011 10:09 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Anon, thank you for your faith in me as an artist. I heartily appreciate your appreciation.

However, if you think I haven't cracked a book, or gone to a museum, or that I am speaking out of ignorance, then I respectfully suggest you haven't been paying attention.

I believe you share (what I perceive to be) the fallacy of many of those with whom I disagree about Modernism. That is, you believe because Modernism came after Romanticism, that it was necessarily a progression forward from Romanticism. In my understanding of aesthetics, as well as in my appreciation of Art, this is not so. Modernism was a pulling away from the heights of aesthetic knowledge. It abandoned the why of what was known and understood about, as Dewey put it, Art as Experience. Despite the volumes of verbiage spilled on its behalf by fashionable aesthetes along the way, Modernism was not an intellectual movement. It was a primitivist movement. The critical discourse about Modernism was the real intellectual movement, not the art.

To repeat, Modernism cribbed its philosophical ideas from late romanticism and ended up with pretentious rationales for what are essentially enjoyable cartoons and abstract wall decorations. Illustration instead progressed the aesthetic ideas of late romanticism further forward until the end of the golden age which generally coincides with WWII.

I stand by that statement and, fyi, am never swayed in the least by appeals to fashion, opinionated and pejorative language (like your "disgustingly abhorent ignorance" remark, and "spiteful bitter ignorance") and assertions of "progress".

If you want to engage on the philosophy, that would be something I would listen to. Sharp words alone have zero gravity.

1/01/2011 4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914)

1/02/2011 1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also recommend Meyer Shapiro's Modern Art - 19th and 20th Centuries: Selected Papers(1979)

Barnett Newman's own personal writings are also pretty insightful, but something tells me that might be a bit harder a sell.

1/02/2011 1:32 AM  
Blogger abhishek singh said...

a big"happy new year" to your ever evolving blog :)it's become a staple starting to my day , just looking and reading all the art and views you post fills the mind with inspiration and knowledge:)
THANK YOU for doing this.

1/02/2011 6:29 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kandinsky is specifically mentioned in the Wikipedia article on synesthesia. Have you ever seen a construction paper packet that has been chewed on by a mouse?

1/02/2011 9:32 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- It seems to me that trying to define what portion of the process is intuitive, as opposed to rational, is an immense and worthwhile but ultimately speculative undertaking. Whatever the methodology turns out to be, the firmness of my views on abstraction is ultimately founded on my conviction that even within abstract art, there is a collection of "right" and "wrong" choices (or perhaps a collection of "works" and "doesn't work" choices).

As large and unwieldy as they are, I would be happy to engage you on the subjects you raise but I think our odds of success would be increased exponentially if we had the benefit of visual examples and more elbow room than this comment section permits.

I have previously referred to the writings of Robert Motherwell, who was perhaps the most eloquent of the great abstract expressionists. He said, "The emergence of abstract art is a sign that there are still men of feeling in the world .... Nothing as drastic as abstract art could have come into existence save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience -- intense, immediate direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic." I agree with Motherwell that abstract art is a drastic solution, and I think that its emergence is based upon a need stronger than mere "sloth" or "cowardice."

1/03/2011 12:05 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/03/2011 12:19 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

David,
Thanks for the response. My premise, which you may reject, is that a disguised rational order is the essence of the formal quality of fine art. I would also posit that the "disguisement", while the very thing that elevates fine art above simple ornamentation and rendering, is the troublesome issue here. A disguised visual order is meant to be perceived on a subconscious, intuitive level. However, upon careful and deliberate analysis, the order may be consciously understood. I have yet to consciously understand a rational order in much of modern art, so I am left extremely sceptical.

A grand masquerade ball may arouse great excitement, curiosity, and anticipation among the refined gentry, excitement that ultimately does deliver on it's promises. Unfortunately it is a golden opportunity for the unrefined commoner (with nothing to offer) to pass through the door.

1/03/2011 12:31 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Anon, I've read the books you referenced.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art is exhibit A in my entire thesis. It is badly cribbed from late romanticism/symbolists plus a little of denman w. ross' wholly-academic Theory of Pure Design (or some similar volume from that 1900 era). No doubt some of this has to do with the fact that Kandinsky wasn't a good enough draftsman to actually understand or apply the information being taught to artists in the 1890s (Eakins, for instance, taught composition almost wholly abstractly).

Another point would be that he did not understand that his synaesthesia was a disability rather than a mental enhancement. (There is no truth to his contention that acute angles are yellow, just as a "for instance.")

One good thing I can say for Kandinsky is that his stuff looks original. And he at least tried to get at the intellectual side of things. And though the artistic language he developed doesn't actually function as a language, he at least pursued it with vigor.

1/03/2011 1:15 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- it seems to me that you're not giving "Rothko, Olitski, Frankenthaler, Newman, Malevich," etc. a fair shake. I would not disagree with you that the path they chose ultimately produced many withered limbs on the evolutionary tree of art, but that doesn't mean "there isn't much going on" at those early, bold stages of exploration.

Several talented artists withstood poverty and public ridicule to wrestle anew with some pretty fundamental artistic concepts. Some perished in the process. By the end of the 20th century I think that many of the successors of these artists took the founding principles too far and ended up with a nihilistic mess. But before standards dissipated altogether, I think there were some exhilarating things going on.

Perhaps our difference begins with what you seem to imply are requirements for valid art: "complexity," "meaning," "patterns," etc. I'm one of those who believes that art must be true to some standard, but you and I seem to have different views about how open those standards might be. Can we agree that artistic standards vary depending on the role of the art in question, and that even the standards for pictures with the same role are constantly being rewritten over time? Can we also agree that a lot depends on how you divide the contribution of the artist and the contribution of the viewer? There are cultures that admirably integrate art into their daily environment with crafts and designs, rather than putting "graphic information in a rectangle" to stand apart from life on a museum wall. There are cultures that produced what we now consider great art without ever having a separate word for "art." You can choose to define such objects as non-art if you like, but anthropologically speaking, you'd probably be in the minority.

As for me, I'm willing to accept objects (or even concepts) into the family of art, as long as they have standards by which to judge excellence, or at least success. I find it is not hard to do this with the artists you mentioned (Rothko, etc.) I can look at 25 Frankenthalers and easily pick out the one that I think is the best. I can take or leave most Newmans, but there is one on display at MOMA right now that gives me the shivers, I think it is so beautiful. If there were no standards, how could I separate wheat from chaff, or talk intelligibly about my reasons for doing so?

Trying to maintain tough standards while simultaneously maintaining an open mind is a serious challenge. That tension infuses much of what goes on around here. As far as I am concerned, we can't afford to dispense with ether extreme.

In an earlier post, I turned to Clement Greenberg"s characterization, which I still think is pretty good:

"The nonrepresentational or abstract, if it is to have aesthetic validity, cannot be arbitrary and accidental, but must stem from obedience to some worthy constraint." I like that notion: worthy constraint.

1/04/2011 6:18 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David, that was a well written response. I will try to answer your points in a quick, clear way (the following bullet points do not correspond to your points, they are just my thoughts as they occur...).

1. I respect artistic invention.

2. Artistic invention for its own sake is play, and I like play. Without play, the world would be a sad place indeed.

3. I enjoy looking at much modern art, including those I criticize because I enjoy looking at artistic playfulness. I would not want to change art history by going back in time and aborting the modern art movement. Not at all.

4. Some of the play of modern art results in new aesthetic experiences for the viewer. This is a pure good.

5. Not all aesthetic experiences, however, are equivalent. There are aesthetic experiences which are purely emotional. And then there are aesthetic experiences which are both emotional and meaningful at once, where the meaning is delivered as emotion. (Did you tear up at the end of The Color Purple? Did you feel some underlying idea playing out in GroundHog Day before you intellectualized it?)

6. It is my understanding (a.k.a. my opinion) that the second type of art is an order of magnitude "deeper" than the first. This understanding does not delegitimize the first kind of art, but it does "set it" in the grand scheme of things. (For me anyway.)

7. To create the second type of art, there must be a layer of what is known colloquially, as "realism" synthesized to the abstract structure. Only an artist who not only knows something worth saying about life, but is capable of crafting the expression about life so that it is communicated through epiphany, can produce this type of work.

1/04/2011 11:14 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

8. The first type of art, the purely emotional aesthetic experience, has no requirement of any life experience. Anything can be a new aesthetic experience, including seeing a maggot infested head hanging on a meathook half-submerged in a vat of urine with Ghandi's face silkscreened on it.

9. Since somebody is bound to say they find Meathook Urine Ghandi beautiful, just as you find a Rothko beautiful, we are necessarily in a realm of purely subjective opinion about what is good or bad art. In a sense, if you agree that Meathook Urine Ghandi has legitimacy as art because somebody likes it, you are also saying that, objectively, Meathook Urine Ghandi and your favorite Rothko are of equal quality, philosophically and aesthetically (which are one and the same thing, actually.)

10. When we are dealing with the second type of art, while there still may be disagreement among the average viewer over the likability of a particular piece, there still should be a general agreement about whether it says something or not. Because the graphic engineering of the thought can be understood by those who actually know how to engineer such things. That is, whether it is a quality work of art or not, is an objective fact that can be proven by one expert to another. This may seem anti-democratic and elitist, and it is. But so is the existence of Shakespeare, Rodin, and Phil Hale. Chinatown is a great movie whether you like it or not.

11. What Clement Greenberg considers a “worthy constraint” is again, purely subjective. “Worthy” is a weasel word which renders his statement meaningless. (Just one reason why I think Clement Greenberg is crummy aesthetic philospher.). A field of grass is all grass. Grass-ness is the contraint. If I find grass-ness meaningful, it is worthy to me. So, if I plant a field of grass, I have made a work of art! Yawn, yawn and double yawn! Its just another cheeseball philosophical byway that leads back to nihilsm, because the next hipster who comes along can say they find arson, bestiality, or racism to be a worthy constraint. And then we’re off to the races again.

12 . Which leads to my overall point, that, while it is not possible to say that Modern Art is illegitimate art, you can say that it lies down with nihilism. And the legitimizing of nihilsm forces us to consider moral positions related to the degredation of the cultural sphere. Resonant meaning is the antitode to nihilism, and it always has been. And it is so much tougher to do because it can’t be accomplished by splatters, shouts, or setting a field on fire. And I only have so much respect to give and only so much time to bestow it.

1/04/2011 11:16 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote, "i disagree with David though... i think paintings such as those abstract expressionist ones are arrived at by a similarly mature process of self reflection, not an act of child-like wonder."

Well, let's say you half-disagree with me. I concur that there was a lot of very sophisticated thinking and "mature self-reflection" involved in creating those abstract expressionist paintings, just as there was in Picasso's work. But I think that these artists often tried to slip the straightjacket of "mature" ways of viewing the world-- the assumptions and routines that come with experience (whether personal or societal) and recapture what you call "child-like wonder." I am not sure they could ever get to abstract art just by thinking longer and harder along traditional paths. I think they had to go back to the beginnings and take a fresh look at the world. (I think that is also why artists tried to piggyback on the art of the insane, or to do totally impulsive gesture paintings with no thought at all).

Tom-- I'm a little disappointed by that Pissaro palette. He didn't seem to make use of the random accidents or the residue of random paint mixing; it looks like he just covered them up with a fairly conventional painting. However, I did like the story about de Kooning (which I think is a perfectly legitimate source of inspiration) and especially liked the story about the Chinese painters who used to spit ink on the paper for a head start on beautiful paintings. I think that's muy cool.

Abhishek Singh-- Thanks so much for your kind words, I appreciate them. We have been fortunate to have readers from India expand and enrich the cultural assumptions behind these discussions in the past. I see from your own blog that you have things of value to add here, and I hope you won't hesitate to jump in.

1/04/2011 1:12 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David: "I am not sure they could ever get to abstract art just by thinking longer and harder along traditional paths. I think they had to go back to the beginnings and take a fresh look at the world."

i wasn't arguing for traditional paths, but i don't believe an adult can ever recapture the viewpoint of a child and see the world again through innocent, untutored eyes. work such as Picasso's or insane-influenced art (by sane people) is simply adding a primitive or geometric element into the mix. in either case those are aesthetic-intellectual decisions that a child wouldn't think of making.

David: "if there were no standards, how could I separate wheat from chaff, or talk intelligibly about my reasons for doing so? "

don't you think you were drawn to that particular Newman painting via your subjective standards David, not universal ones ? others would be drawn to a different Newman painting because of their different subjective standards.

Kev: "And the legitimizing of nihilsm forces us to consider moral positions related to the degredation of the cultural sphere. Resonant meaning is the antitode to nihilism, and it always has been."

Kev, if you're arguing that 'resonant meaning' only comes from romantic / symbolist / narrative art, and you ascribe the 'deeper' quality of this type of art to its meaning, doesn't that put all of the burden on the message and not the formal qualities, such as painterly technique or composition which might cause delight for reasons that have nothing to do with 'resonant meaning' ?

1/05/2011 8:36 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Kev, if you're arguing that 'resonant meaning' only comes from romantic / symbolist / narrative art, and you ascribe the 'deeper' quality of this type of art to its meaning, doesn't that put all of the burden on the message and not the formal qualities, such as painterly technique or composition which might cause delight for reasons that have nothing to do with 'resonant meaning'?

Hi Lawrence.

The force is never on the message alone, but in how it is said, which is communicated through the synthesis of the formal qualities and the informal ones, the idea and its design united.

If we delight in composition that is not meaningful, we are actually appreciating design as an end in itself, not composition. These words are often confused.

Design is a more general word, in my understanding, that can be either meaningful, not meaningful, or vaguely meaningful, or whatever. "Composing" means necessarily putting forth a dialectic, some kind of rhetorically structured thematic assertion. The reason we delight in composition, then, is because it is meaningful... because it has been composed to express something through aesthetics.

After the initial aesthetic arrest has worn off, we might approach appreciating the composition from a technical standpoint. But as David Mamet is fond of saying, we don't respond to a great meal by intellectualizing it, we respond by saying "yum!"

Finding delight in brushstrokes per se may or may not be tied up with communicating meaning. But I was always taught that everything in art is done for a reason, and this seems to be my instinct as well. I now accept that I delight in meaning. And my delight in brushstrokes for their own sake tends to be very short lived; Any lunatic can take a thickly-loaded bristle brush and smoosh it against a canvas until some interesting graphic accident occurs. I don't consider every effort of the human hand to be sacred.

We don't need to philosophically legitimize our delights, of course.

Or do we?

1/05/2011 12:50 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

The "burden" is on the synthesis of its design and message, not the message alone. Artistic composition is a rhetorical presentation expressed through aesthetics, otherwise the arrangement is purely a work of design. (These words composition and design have gotten tangled up in the last century.)

Brushstrokes are designs, and thus they may be marshalled to enhance the expression of the composition. One may certainly delight in brushstrokes for their own sake, of course.

However, I find my instinct agrees with Aristotle that every needless addition is actually a subtraction. Any momentary delight I take in a brushstroke for its own sake always pales quickly. Whereas meaningfulness seems to beam indefinitely. (Waterhouse's Lady of Shallotte for instance.)

1/05/2011 2:21 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Kev, i hear you, yet there are many golden age illustrators i appreciate for their painterly technique alone, and find the meaning trite or sentimental. even Sargent, who is probably my favourite painter was mostly doing portraits at the end of the day. there's no deep narrative message or 'resonant meaning' there but they still might have some of the most beautiful passages of painting in them.

1/05/2011 2:36 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Lawrence, I wouldn't be so sure you are appreciating those Golden Age illustrators for their technique alone. I would bet a lot of money against it, in fact. This goes for Sargent as well, as the achievement of a sense of character in a portrait is a compositional effect.

And don't think that the scenario is the content. As screenwriters still learn, "if the scene is about what the scene is about, you're dead."

1/05/2011 4:32 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"And don't think that the scenario is the content. As screenwriters still learn, "if the scene is about what the scene is about, you're dead."


Kev, that's an intriguing statement. are you suggesting that content is always much larger than the action ?


here's the sort of painting i was referring to:

http://tinyurl.com/36ljl9g

love the technique. can't stand the sentiment.

1/06/2011 6:01 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I had a feeling you were referring to Sundblom. Even though I would argue that Sundblom was the forward guard of the Silver (?) Age of Illustration after advertising began to, more or less, take over editorial control of the magazines.

I had never seen this particular piece before and in looking at it I think I have the same reaction to it that you do: a studio hack job with only the poetry of the paint handling near the focal area to keep it from the bonfire.

Yet I can't even delight in the paint handling of this picture, except for a moment. Mayonnaise by itself is inedible, (which was my point all along). If the meal is excellent and satisfying, the dressing should never call attention to itself.

There is always a way to make a subject like this work as fine art. But this has too many storytelling and compositional failures to name. It is "studio-rendering" illustration, not the fine art of illustration. It is the "mere illustration" that Modern Artists used as their rallying cry to gain attention for their mere abstractions.

I particularly detest that the beautiful characterization of the old man's head has been completely washed away by some craftsman's characterless rendering of a young man's hand holding the stick. Rockwell would have told a whole story in just the old man's hand (see Rockwell's Adventurers.
)

Portraying character, in my estimation, was the great failing of Sundblom's technician's approach to illustration.

1/06/2011 12:38 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Awww, come on guys. It's just a simple, sentimental, allegorical illustration. We have all been indoctrinated to bristle at sentimentality. Postcard, calendar, etc; I doubt it was ever intended to knock your socks off.

1/06/2011 3:46 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

"mere illustration"

Just yesterday I happened upon the phrase, though within an art for art's sake context.

'…I am not surprised to learn that, after all, and in spite of, its beauty, it is "a mere illustration". Pies "like mother used to make" still retain a strong attraction for human beings, however ; and I suspect that paintings with a meaning continue to generate a sneaking, shame-faced fondness, even in these days of perverted persuasions.' ~ At the Old Salon(excerpt), from- The Quartier Latin, May 1897

also, character vs. virtuosity ~ Look for the essential character.

1/07/2011 3:13 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/07/2011 4:05 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

i don't want to bash Sundblom in particular. i could pick many other early examples of wonderful technique married with mawkish content. my point was that i am able to still appreciate a painting despite its message or meaning.

Kev, i'd still like you to elaborate further on this if you would: "And don't think that the scenario is the content. As screenwriters still learn, "if the scene is about what the scene is about, you're dead."



etc, etc: "My premise, which you may reject, is that a disguised rational order is the essence of the formal quality of fine art. I would also posit that the "disguisement", while the very thing that elevates fine art above simple ornamentation and rendering, is the troublesome issue here. A disguised visual order is meant to be perceived on a subconscious, intuitive level. However, upon careful and deliberate analysis, the order may be consciously understood. I have yet to consciously understand a rational order in much of modern art, so I am left extremely sceptical."

etc, etc, this is an interesting idea, but it hinges around whether we can prove that artists used guides such as the golden ratio while they were producing paintings, or whether we (the viewers) have a tendency to find them wherever we want to. if (as i believe) most classical artists used their innate sense of visual balance, rather than a set of grids, to produce a pleasing image, then surely modern abstract artists would also use those same instincts. unless you're referring to something else when you say 'disguised rational order' ?

1/07/2011 4:27 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Laurence,
Well, I did use the word premise. I would not be so delusional as to presume I know everything,
but through personal investigation I can explain a great deal of what appeals to me. I find it
fascinating that the term apophenia can be associated with psychosis. Assuming one desires to proceed after such an alarming association, I would suggest that there is a great deal of cultivation involved in consciously perceiving disguised rational orders. More specifically, I have in mind as an example those orders developed by Italian old masters, and collectively those visually clever enough to catch on, i.e. largely the French, whom astutely sent their Grand Prix winners to Rome. Sent not to gain technical proficiency (which they had already achieved in order to win the Grand Prix), but for purposes of cultivation. Cultivation that could not be transmitted in an austere formula, but rather gained only through sustained, careful, and deliberate study requiring a plethora of examples. So, if you follow my premise, it ain't no easy thing to grab ahold of, and more so if one is sceptical of the premise to begin with.

1/07/2011 9:54 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Laurence, what I wrote dovetails with what etc, etc. is discussing. He put it well. Also, there is the question of expectation. If you meet the audience's expectation exactly in the expected way, you will have wasted their time with bad storytelling.

Simply put, if only 1 thing is going on, and it is right out front, you are looking at completely superficial work.

Really great work has an enormously tight grip on its own secrets, which are manifold. And often viewers, unable to penetrate the work, become occupied IMHO by technical details as a method of ego-preservation.

etc. etc., any graphic idea at all will provide a harmonizing order to a picture. Geometry is just one method. Harmony, however, is not necessarily a source of meaning.

1/07/2011 12:36 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,
My geometric bias stems from an unabashed love of the Baroque and its syncretism of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts.

Other than color harmonies, what exactly do you have in mind as examples of non-geometric, harmonizing graphic ideas? Also, how does harmony exclude meaning?

1/07/2011 5:32 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

1. I understand.
2. Anything, literally. Look around you. A good friend of mine, who is a modernist, defines modernism as looking for original gestalts. (Which assumes, I think, that cubism is the true start of modernism.)
3. Your question would take a very legnthy explanation. I will say, try The Psychology of Meaning by Kate Gordon from 1903 as a starting point. It's her college thesis at UofC and it sums up a lot of the thought of the era very nicely and without pretension. If you try for more recent discussions of the philosophy of meaning, because relativism gets involved, the integrity of thought completely drops off the table.

1/07/2011 8:30 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Sorry I have been out of circulation; I won't try to return to all of the interesting traffic-- but I do want to address some salient points.

Kev Ferrara: It seems to me there are a number of problems with dividing art into emotional vs. emotional + meaningful, and drawing some of the conclusions you are attempting to draw from that distinction. For example, it's not at all clear to me why emotion + meaning should be a "deeper" kind of art than emotion alone. (Can't a beautiful abstraction be superior to a beautiful painting with a dopey meaning?) Goethe insisted that "a shudder of awe is the highest human faculty." We might be more likely to get such a shudder from the blue of the sky than from reading Aristotle.

It's also not clear to me why art with "meaning" requires realism ("To create the second type of art, there must be a layer of what is known colloquially, as "realism" synthesized to the abstract structure") I understand we are broadly defining realism, but still. My sanity check for abstraction in the visual arts is to go next door to music, which may be the ultimate abstract art form. One might say that Beethoven's 5th piano concerto or the overture to Mozart's Magic Flute are emotion without meaning, and certainly they are not "realistic" but they are high points in the history of art. Why is abstract visual art incapable of achieving the same?

I would also disagree that abstraction is "purely subjective" or that more "meaningful" or "realistic" art is objective ("whether it is a quality work of art or not, is an objective fact that can be proven by one expert to another.") For example, there are apparently lots of people out there who are convinced that Rowena and Boris are great artists, but for me their unmistakable "meaning" and "realism" are deadly. I would guess that many of those same hypothetical experts you describe could agree "objectively" on the quality of abstract art just as they agree on on the quality of "meaningful" realistic art. Jackson Pollock did a lot of mediocre work before he hit his epiphany; so did Adolph Gottlieb before he hit upon his "bursts." If the experts can agree that this earlier work is inferior, then abstraction can't be "purely subjective."

I suspect that some of your views about your "purely emotional" category of art is a signal to noise problem. I admit that "noise" pervades this category of art, but I don't blame it all on the art. If you can't separate the fraudulent marketing and overheated economics and silliness that surrounds contemporary art from the core principles of the some of the work, it is not surprising that you would view the entire category with disdain. But you have previously said your judgment about the worth of an artist is unswayed by press releases from auction houses. (You and I are in complete accord on that.) If that's the case, doesn't it cut both ways? If we shouldn't think more of an artists because they score a show at some posh Manhattan gallery, we shouldn't think less of an artist just because a lot of charlatans have moved into the neighborhood.

I suspect we both agree that there are nuggets of value in the "emotional" category, but you seem to have formed some pretty tough conclusions about the potential value of this category of art.

Last, I am naturally inclined to share your views on the importance of "life experience," and I know you are using that criterion to fend off the happy accidents of children's drawings or paint spills, but here too we can go too far. The young Mozart created brilliant work as a child prodigy with no life experience whatsoever. And lots of talented artists with mountains of life experience see their work gradually fizzle and go out. Think of Wally Wood.

1/08/2011 11:19 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

It's also not clear to me why art with "meaning" requires realism.

Realism is just another word for specificity. So let’s rephrase the assertion as “Meaning requires specificity.”

Wholistic thought is not intellectual. It is intuitive. The broader the span of thought, the more “sense” or “emotion” is providing the connections.

The idea of dog, for instance, is partially intellectual and partially sensed. We understand dog as a general category, yet there are so many shapes and sizes and varieties of dog that the meaning of the word must be in some measure intuitive.

With words like “goal” or “problem” we are almost wholly in the sensual sphere. We feel the definitions of those words only.

“Noun verbs object” is a sentence that takes us all the way into abstraction and sterility. We understand the sentence grammatically, yet it has no meaning whatsoever, in the sense that it has no application or reference to life as we live it.

This is why it was understood that, within the context of communication, the more purely abstract the expression, the more it is devoid of meaning.

The less pure that abstraction becomes, the more it is surrounded by context, the more suggestive of life it becomes, the more its meaning apparates and comes into focus. There is no meaning without application to life, is there?

So, while specificity doesn’t guarantee profundity, it does guarantee meaning.

1/08/2011 7:18 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

It’s not at all clear to me why emotion + meaning should be a "deeper" kind of art than emotion alone.

Isn’t “meaning” a layer of depth? Therefore, given two pictures of equal emotional quality, wouldn’t the one that also has meaning be necessarily deeper? (Provided the layer of meaning is additive.)

Obviously, a realistic picture is not necessarily meaningful in any profound way. However, anything that looks like life is necessarily meaningful in the most superficial way, in that it portrays some understanding of the visual world (which relates to life).

1/08/2011 7:20 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Can't a beautiful abstraction be superior to a beautiful painting with a dopey meaning?

I would think, definitionally, that a painting could not be beautiful with a dopey meaning embedded in it. Just as a gorgeous girl with a nasty personality or no personality soon loses her charm. My understanding is that true beauty derives from profundity. And profundity must always be true and deep, (never dopey). I don’t think beauty can be unaffected by its content.

To change your question slightly, I would agree that a beautiful abstract can be more enjoyable and enriching to one’s life than some dumb hyperrealist picture with nothing interesting to say.

1/08/2011 7:21 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Goethe insisted that "a shudder of awe is the highest human faculty." We might be more likely to get such a shudder from the blue of the sky than from reading Aristotle.

Not sure if I agree with Goethe or understand your point. I think he is talking about the recognition of the Sublime there, but that is not necessarily in reference to art.

1/08/2011 7:23 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

One might say that Beethoven's 5th piano concerto or the overture to Mozart's Magic Flute are emotion without meaning, and certainly they are not "realistic" but they are high points in the history of art. Why is abstract visual art incapable of achieving the same?

This is the great question. Rather than get too deep in the philosophical weeds, though, I’ll give you the cheeky answer and turn it back your way: We’ve been through the great eras of abstraction. Do you have some Abstract work you would like to hold up to Beethoven’s 5th for comparison?

I’ll assume you don’t.

Now I’d like to hear your guesses as to why not.

1/08/2011 7:23 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I would also disagree that abstraction is "purely subjective" or that more "meaningful" or "realistic" art is objective.

Pause. I said “whether an abstraction is good or not is purely subjective” … because there are no objective criteria which people may use to judge an abstract artwork’s quality. For every person that says “harmony” another will say “disharmony”. For every viewer that says “excitement” another will say “repose.” For every person who like “paint quality” another will say “hidden gestalts.” Somebody who wants an experience might be opposed by somebody who wants an inert field. You say you like that Frankenthaler… well I think you’re bananas!

Meaningfulness, however, either exists as an intrinsic feature of a communication or it does not.

There are cyphers and hieroglyphs that we don’t yet have the ability to translate… yet meaning exists there, regardless. Something is being specified. The Mona Lisa is one such visual hieroglyph. Its meaning beams endlessly and evermore, yet without allowing us to verbalize its exact sentiment and assuage our egotism.

Whether something is “realistic-looking“ or not, is also not a matter of opinion. It either looks like a black cat, sorta looks like a black cat, or doesn’t look like a black cat.

1/08/2011 7:25 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

For example, there are apparently lots of people out there who are convinced that Rowena and Boris are great artists, but for me their unmistakable "meaning" and "realism" are deadly.

Stupid, superficial meanings destroy beauty, agreed. I would much rather look at a work of Cubism.

1/08/2011 7:25 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Jackson Pollock did a lot of mediocre work before he hit his epiphany; so did Adolph Gottlieb before he hit upon his "bursts." If the experts can agree that this earlier work is inferior, then abstraction can't be "purely subjective."

I like much of Jackson Pollock’s earlier work better and I can give you my criteria as to why. Thus the proposition is defeated. ;)

1/08/2011 7:26 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

If you can't separate the fraudulent marketing and overheated economics and silliness that surrounds contemporary art from the core principles of the some of the work, it is not surprising that you would view the entire category with disdain.

Ah, but I don’t view the entire category with disdain, but instead with detachment. I always look through Art in America, and usually like something in it.

My disdain is reserved for the court and its manners: The endless congratulations for mind-numbingly worthless efforts and (especially) all the fools allowed to strut as knaves.

1/08/2011 7:30 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I suspect we both agree that there are nuggets of value in the "emotional" category, but you seem to have formed some pretty tough conclusions about the potential value of this category of art.

Intrinsic profundity requires intrinsic meaningfulness, which requires intrinsic content of some specificity. The potential ability of visual abstraction to “mean” is therefore necessarily limited by the non-specific nature of the genre. Ain’t it?

1/08/2011 7:34 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Last, I am naturally inclined to share your views on the importance of "life experience," ... The young Mozart created brilliant work as a child prodigy with no life experience ... see their work gradually fizzle and go out. Think of Wally Wood.

Life experience alone is only of value if it feeds the artist, and then, again, only if the artist being fed has the talent to nourish us in return. I love Wood’s work, and I could look at the good stuff all day, but he was more profound as a writer than an artist, and that's not exactly.... well, you know.

Mozart takes us back to the question of music, which I’d like to avoid until you can answer the counter-question I posed above.

1/08/2011 7:39 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

kev ferrara said...
Your question would take a very legnthy explanation

Well Kev, that certainly has not been a deterrent for you in the past!

I will say, try The Psychology of Meaning by Kate Gordon

No offence, but I find it difficult to accept that a reference that obscure can be relevant.

1/09/2011 1:15 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Etc. etc.

What I wrote yesterday answers your question. Sorry for not making that explicit.

Incidentally, the Kate Gordon book is available to read on google books. Kate Gordon was associated with John Dewey and was highly regarded as a scholar.

1/09/2011 2:47 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,
So how would you define the word "harmony"?

1/09/2011 3:33 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

In visual art, similarity.

An example of meaningless harmony: You have a standard piece of 8.5 x 11 copy paper. With a pencil and a T-square you draw a 90 degree angle in the center of this paper. This 90 degree angle matches the four 90 degree angles at the four corners of the piece of paper.

1/09/2011 6:07 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,
I see we are operating from two completely different perspectives here; you as a storyteller/graphic novelist, and myself as a hardcore formalist.

I would never consider congruent angles meaningless, as they are visual echoes and as such fundamental to formalism.

The Greek verb ἁρμόζω:
1. to join, to fit together
a. of carpenter's, fastening together beams and planks to build houses, ships, etc.
2.to betroth a daughter to any one
a. to join to one's self, i.e. to marry the daughter of any one
b. to betroth, to give one in marriage to any one

The root word being ἁρμός, a joint.

Meaning is intrinsic in the word harmony because it implies parts joined in an appropriate, meaningful relationship, and to assert anything otherwise would have been utterly alien to the Greeks. I am not disputing any veracity in Kate Gordon's arguments, which frankly I am not familiar with. I do firmly believe that when philosophical musings force a word outside of its semantic domain, it's a really good cue to search for another, more appropriate word.

1/09/2011 8:27 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I only mentioned Kate Gordon because her books are online and she provides an excellent, concise, clear introduction to the hundreds of uninterrupted years of aesthetic and philosophical progress that ended in her lifetime. Very few of the ideas she presents originated with her. So let's not overemphasize her.

--------

I think our issue is with the definition of meaning, not harmony.

In the application of formalist principles to art, the timelessness of mathematics is embodied. I believe this to be a meaningful metaphoric statement. But I think finding meaning in congruency by itself is a form of apophenia.

(Noting that 2 equals 2 is not a meaningful statement unto itself. It just isn't.)

By the way, my research interest is how the imagination apprehends and generates meaning through the innate language of conceptual aesthetics. So yes, my perspective is that of a "storyteller", but since I believe that narrative principles provide the foundation for all thought, that covers a lot of ground.

;)

kev

1/09/2011 10:52 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

kev ferrara said...
But I think finding meaning in congruency by itself is a form of apophenia

Fair enough, but I declare you formalistically and architecturally anathema!

;)

1/09/2011 11:11 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev, I know the moving finger, having writ, moves on and is not supposed to return. But I have been out of pocket so I am going to return briefly to take up two points you raised:

1.) I would be very interested in hearing your reasons for preferring Pollock's early, awkward pseudo-Thomas Hart Benton WPA work to his bold, confident, mature work (not to couch the question in prejudicial terms or anything).

2.) If I understand your point about meaning and specificity properly, what do you say about artists who say that inspiration passes through them, and shakes them like a leaf, and emerges unaccountably on the other side? Artists who say they could not achieve by deliberate, specific design the full range of complexity and meaning that they seem to achieve by relinquishing some of their conscious control to intuition?

You tend to get the most obvious instances of this in music, so in response to your earlier question, let me say I don't know an abstract painter comparable to Mozart but I don't know another composer comparable to Mozart either. Is it enough that I think there are abstract painters as good as Stravinsky or Leonard Bernstein or Aron Copeland? Bob Dylan will tell you he does not know who he was or how he wrote many of the early songs that seem so" meaningful."

1/18/2011 12:43 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

1. By earlier, I did not mean Pollock's WPA stage, when he really wasn't a professional. I meant the works that are influenced by DeKooning, where the idea of having a subject is yet still in the mix, but the radical abstraction nearly, but not quite, renders the subject indecipherable. (This work is sort of akin to a slapdash Cubism or Orphism and it has some kinship with Ralph Steadman's violent work.)

2. "How do I know what I think until I see what I write," is a perfectly valid method of creation for author or artist. Meaning can certainly emerge "of its own accord" when life is tranfigured by a talent on zen autopilot. But life, in some way, must be in the mix.

Craft is there to edit and offer encouragement and structural guidance along the way. And one essential part of both talent and craft is the recognition of subtext when it spontaneously arises. A writer may verbalize this. An artist may just recognize this inner meaning subconsciously. But may just as well, if trained, surface the hidden depths and work with them consciously. (See Vultures:Dorne)

You've flabbergasted me on the music point. You really think there is some abstractionist to compare to Stravinsky? Whew! I can't even fathom saying such a thing. Shall we start with Petrushka?

When you listen to this Stravinsky piece, I would love it if you thought of just how specific it all is. And how the specificity creates separation and structure and narrative, metaphors for dialogue and event which are very dramatic and provide a texture of reality.

When we draw, the specificity of what we draw is the instrumentation. If we don't draw things which are discrete, which are particular, which have form, we have no orchestra, we don't even have scales. We have smears.

And the final nail is that there just isn't the canvas time to create more than one abstract event that can encompass the viewer. Music like Stravinsky's takes us from event to event to event, like some mad roller coaster through a society. It is cinematic in structure and derives its meaning by the same method of juxtaposition, calling and responding through time.

1/18/2011 2:13 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/19/2011 3:54 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

The old saying is that to learn to improvise on a musical instrument, one should learn all the theory and then forget about it. Improvising is intuitive, but the intuition must have a foundation of rigorous, conscious, theoretical application and years of cultivation through careful, thoughtful listening. Just ask a non-musician to improvise in C Major by using only the white keys of a piano. You will understand that not all intuitions are equal.

1/19/2011 3:57 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev-- I'm not as familiar with the period of Pollock that you describe. I'll have to do some homework.

"But life, in some way, must be in the mix." I'm not sure how you keep life OUT of any mix. Returning to music (that most abstract of art forms) we infer life-related content from musical notes that strike us as sprightly or lugubrious, just as certain colors in an abstract work strike us as cheerful or somber. I'm not talking only about composers' deliberate attempts to paint pictures with musical notes (think Beethoven's "Pastoral"); far short of that, life related content creeps into all kinds of passages in music, and into abstract art as well. Must the "life" ingredient be calculated, in your view?

I intentionally offered Stravinsky as an example because he ran into a hostile reception for many of the same reasons that painters of the 20th century did. I recognize and even agree with the differences you note, although I think they may exist any time you compare a symphony to any static work of art, whether abstract or not.

I do take exception to your "final nail" that "there just isn't the canvas time to create more than one abstract event that can encompass the viewer. Music like Stravinsky's takes us from event to event to event." This may be true, but under this theory, an animated cartoon would be better than a static Rembrandt drawing. You and I are both familiar with art where the picture holds still and the mind moves. I think that "one abstract event" can take you pretty deep if the viewer is willing to contribute effort on his or her side.

1/20/2011 8:03 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- good point. For purposes of these discussions we talk about "intuition" as if it comes in a pure, undiluted form, but it does not, and I agree that not all intuitions are equal.

1/20/2011 8:10 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David, classical music is much more specific than you are appreciating, I think. I do not see it as the most abstract form of art, not by a long shot.

The 12 tone scale is specific, chord changes, key changes, the melodic themes are specific, the structure is full up with specific ideas, the dynamics, all the textures and tones of the different instruments, the shock of the percussion, the feel of the room, its reverb effect, rests, movements, the tempo, the rhythm, changes in register, etc... and all of this structural and instrumental specificity, all this separation and articulation, is the result of rigor and discipline. The scope of a language rises and falls on its ability to name and associate distinctions.

A late pollock has two textures, splattered paint and canvas grain. And the grain can't even be seen when you are looking at the picture as a whole. And the paint isn't even harnessed as an instrument. It just babbles tunelessly and all over the place, like somebody revving a chainsaw as they run around a parking lot.

The many musical mandarins through the ages saw the value of all the various ways of formalizing their art as a way to linguistically ground the generalized emotions of sounds... as a method of developing metaphors that, in their particular realms of articulation, can assert meaning asymptotic with the experience of life.

Abstract Art, (as it has been practiced) has none of this rigor and specificity of classical music, thus none of the articulation that inches it so near to life. Without rigor and discipline, work becomes inarticulate; No instruments, no notes, no scales, no passages, no melodic themes, no textural juxtapositions of interest. All we have are the floating generalities of the cro-magnon in no particular narrative order: Smears. Blurs. Splats. Grunts. Cave wall. "Ugh, Mongo say nothing with mud. Get hands dirty."

That is how life is given short shrift in the abstract expressionist's process... By a prideful inarticulateness that serves up mesozoic mush as meaning.

Sure, you can impute meaning, fly it in, as it were to any generality you can witness. But whatever meaning or reference you bring to the table isn't intrinsic to the signage on view.

The only life specificity that Stranvinsky's cinematic compositions can be said to lack are proper names. You don't know who the oboe is, but you can certainly appreciate its personality and its struggle amid the changing tenor of the aural scenario.

1/20/2011 11:36 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev, it is quite possible that I don't appreciate the finer points of classical music. You seem quite knowledgable. But we also may be using the term "abstract" in different senses. In both art and music, I am using it to mean having no external, physical reference point; disconnected from the empirical world. Employing that definition, I don't think of "abstraction" as being incompatible with "specificity" in any way.

For example, Josef Albers apparently went about his abstract series of color squares with mathematical precision and great rigor. Lots of other abstract artists use the color wheel or the computer to concoct formulae of great precision, and would disavow any "Smears. Blurs. Splats or Grunts." You may think, as I do, that the result is artistically inferior, but is the process they use different in nature from the specificity of the notes and scales you describe? Aren't they both math?

The attributes that you describe as key to Stravinsky's artistic significance: "structural and instrumental specificity... separation and articulation... rigor and discipline..." all seem to me to be possible attributes of abstract painting as well. Artists may not use those qualities to create accurate depictions of real life subject matter, but then neither do composers. Why isn't a pure musical note like a pure color? And why isn't the division or extension of that note, or its presentation in staccato form, or the blending of that note harmoniously with others, exactly like the division or extension of a color, or the presentation of that color in staccato form, or the blending of that color harmoniously with others?

Finally, you note, "whatever meaning or reference you bring to the table isn't intrinsic to the signage on view." Agreed, but I don't think art or music has ever been limited to the qualities intrinsic to the signage on view. Doesn't a lot depend on whether you hear Stravinsky when you are 12 or when you are 30? Doesn't a lot depend on whether you have spent a lifetime listening to nothing but Barry Manilow, or you have been conditioned by listening to helpful precedents? Doesn't a lot depend on whether you have just won the lottery or buried your mother? The artist (or composer) can only contribute so much; the viewer or listener will also have to contribute something, and sometimes that contribution is an improvement.

1/20/2011 3:28 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Kev, …the term "abstract" … I am using it to mean having no external, physical reference point; disconnected from the empirical world.

David, I don’t think this “non-relatable” definition works because human beings can always read something into any abstraction. From tea leaves to turtle shells, from palmistry to field paintings, from Rorshach ink blots to faces in the clouds, somebody can always identify something which is being abstracted.

I think, then, “abstractions” -- in the sense you take -- can’t help but be abstractions in the old sense of being generalizations or summaries of more extensive and specific content.

The great problem is that, without some source to summarize, and without some compositional organization to the summary (usually provided by the source), meaningless confusion results.

(Are elements lacking? Are there needless elements or excess elements? Is there an order or logic underlying the expression? Who is what? Where is anything? Is it just a decoration? Graffiti? Noise? Why am I looking at all these empty gestures randomly overlapping? Why does everything look so deformed and ugly? Could such ugliness be true as a generality?)

(It is also important to note that there are many levels of abstraction, a vast gamut that takes us from absolute specificity to the wholly general.)

I don't think of "abstraction" as being incompatible with "specificity" in any way. For example, Josef Albers apparently went about his abstract series of color squares with mathematical precision and great rigor.

Well, we need to make a distinction between the simplistic, meaningless rule sets followed by Albers(a bunch of color tests) and an artist who is actually trying to achieve a composition that “aspires to the level of music”, as the saying went, and is willful and intelligent enough to make a run at it.

To that end, I think it best to look at the most ambitious and rigorous attempts (IMHO) to actually do painted music by artists who seem to appreciate just how much is really going on in music …
Kandinsky
Kupka
and Kupka

...

1/20/2011 10:55 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,
I quite like those paintings as abstractions go. I suppose any work "bold" enough to make a definitive, non-monotonous (which the Albers is not) statement of form deserves some credit (by abstract art standards anyway).

1/21/2011 8:27 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev, I agree with you about the weakness in my "non-relatable" definition of "abstract." Now will you agree that your defintion ("generalizations or summaries of more extensive and specific content") is equally flawed because it encompasses every realistic work of art ever made? Every time you translate 3D form to 2D form, you are abstracting. Every time you translate color to black and white you are abstracting. Every time you leave something outside the border of the picture you are abstracting. That's all OK with me, but then how do you talk usefully about what Rothko and Pollock and Newman or Malevich do? How do you distinguish it from what Norman Rockwell does, under your definition?

Etc, etc-- I like the Kandinsky, which seems to me to have more heart in it than the Kupkas. If we responded to Kev's test for "painted music" by turning to Disney's Fantasia, Kupka's art would be that irritating "Meet the Soundtrack" intermission with the oscilloscope.

1/22/2011 5:28 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Now will you agree that your definition ("generalizations or summaries of more extensive and specific content") is equally flawed because it encompasses every realistic work of art ever made?

That's exactly why I thought it was the correct definition.

(It isn't my definition, either. I'm sure you read things called "abstracts" all the time in your line of work.)

All art, like all communication, can be discussed in terms of its level of abstraction... its degree of specificity, suggestiveness, or generality (which are the beginning, middle and end of the abstraction gamut). This is the poetry of interpretation and imagistic vision.

If we can just see fit to use the word unbowdlerized, it is plain to see that Brangwyn, Sorolla, and Sargent are infinitely greater abstractionists than Pollock, Rorschach, Frankenthaler, Adam Morrigan, or Rothko. Rockwell, at his best, was rigorously poeticizing form while simultaneously suffusing it with character to make his kind of poetry. It only looks like realism because he was sooooo good at his particular brand of poetry.

How do you talk usefully about what Rothko and Pollock and Newman or Malevich do?

You are assuming that is a possibility. :)

My hope would be to simply speak of them accurately.

As I see it, these artists make emotive generalizations, which express a broad sense, but no particularity.

There is no reason this can't be true and you can't also enjoy such works.

1/22/2011 7:51 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Kupka's art would be that irritating "Meet the Soundtrack" intermission with the oscilloscope.

I was going to make a similar point... that Kupka's attempt to make visual music looks more like a graphic representation of music...
colored notation … rather than some kind of a performance. It really is just a decorative way of writing a score.

I think the Kandinsky, however, is a living work, which I find exciting as a type of performance. And I guess I find it beautiful too. And you can read a great deal into it because of all the specificity. In the same way we were able to read these pictures by Steinberg you posted a while back.

Having said all that, most people I know find that Kandinsky horrendously ugly. Those same people all find Beethoven’s 5th beautiful. If that Kandinsky, for argument's sake, is the best visual music produced in the abstract era, and most people, for argument's sake, consider it horrendous... then what is left for us to think, but that the promise of abstract art is either hype, or at best unfulfilled?

1/22/2011 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Morgan said...

Whoa...! You guys. Still doing those old arguments?

It was a bit of a set up I think. 'Eyes of a child' indeed. Not the way i would begin discussion of those two great artists. And I wonder if the comments would have flowed like that if one was in front of the art.

I saw that Olitski being painted in the mid-sixties (1964?) at the Emma Lake Artists Workshop in northern Saskatchewan. It is a huge painting as I recall. Probably 8' high. And Helen's piece I think is a sketch. This is why, David, you must put sizes and collection credit on images.

Firstly yo'all call this abstract expressionism. It is not. It is colour field painting. And Helen and Jules were breaking new ground. Helen was the first to stain unprimed canvas as I recall.

Jules had been struggling along, (one worked out the issues while making it) and he asked a friend of mine if he could borrow her oil pastels which had recently appeared on the market. The resulting three dots of colour brought back the fun of his earlier smaller paintings. A feat for something so big. But Helen's I think is a small sketch. It certainly looks small.

It is really odd to see you guys argue about the old battle of fine vs illustration/commercial art. Criteria etc. You must be really at sea talking about current art because we have no avant garde anymore. That at least gave one a place to start the argument. Now you must make up your own mind.

I suggest this book on the history of the divisions of fine art from illustration and the efforts to treat them equally. ARTISTS,ADVERTISING AND THE BORDERS OF ART by Michele H. Bogart (U of Chicago, 1995). It is enlightening about the illustrators vs. the commercial artists, the fine artist who did illustration. The Illustrators who tried to become fine artists. Et Cetera. There were attempts to bring it all together but it failed because of internal fights in the illustration/commercerial sector. There was almost an illustration gallery at the Met.

Michele was then at SUNY- Stony Brook where Donald Kuspit taught and much of his art criticism is relevant to the posts above. Especially an essay in THE NEW SUBJECTIVISM (U.M.I. Research Press, Ann Arbor, 1988)) titled " The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation"

And lastly for a more street level look at the issue read "JOHN SLOAN'S NEW YORK SCENE from the diaries, notes and correspondence 1906-1913" edited by Bruce St. John then directing the Delaware Art Museum and with considerable assistence by Helen Farr Sloan.

Morgan

3/11/2011 4:26 PM  

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