Wednesday, August 26, 2015

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 48

 [N.B. -- I'm not through messing around with the html to fix this blog, but I'm too impatient to hold off with new posts any longer.  My mama didn't raise me to be no software engineer.  The end is in sight, but in the meantime, here's a new post.]


This is a loose preliminary sketch by Bernie Fuchs for a coffee ad in the 1960s.

 

 Some people will be quick to note Fuchs employed photo reference in this picture:


But that's not the part that interests me.  I like the way his sketch reveals Fuchs probing for the design elements in his subjects.  His handling of the elbow (below) displays knowledge of both the anatomy beneath the cloth and the design above the cloth.  The mere facts of the cloth itself-- the part captured by a camera-- is the thinnest layer in the process.


Again and again, this sketch shows Fuchs testing and probing for designs, and assessing how far he can stray from a realistic representation:




And while the people on the sofa are tightly rendered, look at how unbelievably loose Fuchs was with other elements such as the sofa arm, or the cups and saucers.  Even in this preliminary sketch, his priorities were firmly established.  


It's obvious from this drawing that Fuchs valued uncontrolled, loose line and white space.  He wisely gave them prime real estate, and they do much to shape the character of the total drawing.

Today the use of photo reference, enhanced with Photoshop and other imaging tools, has run amok.  And on the other side of the spectrum, there remain purists who look down on any type of photo reference.  I think both sides focus too much on that thin layer of facts captured by the camera.  One reason I admire Fuchs is that he understood the structure beneath and the designs above a photograph.  You can see them in the rawest form in this sketch.








120 comments:

TheAshFactor1 said...

What a lovely dissection of a wonderful piece!

Donald Pittenger said...

If there was a reference photo, does it still exist?

That would help us understand where and how Fuchs used it / departed from it.

Jordan Faris said...

Amazing how exciting the fresh, deceptively raw yet informed mystery of superb line-work can elevate any subject matter in the hands of a master like Fuchs.

I know I digress here, but I miss the commanding yet reassuring black of your previous blog theme....just a personal preference. Love your site, regardless of outer trappings.

David Apatoff said...

TheAshFactor1-- Many thanks!

Donald Pittenger-- The original photo is lost to the dim distant recesses of history. I know it was Bernie's practice to take his own reference photos (that's his wife holding the stereopticon) but he didn't keep them forever. I think it's pretty easy to tell that Fuchs departed from the photograph on that sofa arm, for example, because no sofa arm looks like that in real life.

Jordan Faris-- Thanks for your excellent take on line drawing in general, and this Fuchs drawing in particular. I heartily agree.

I also appreciate the input on the appearance of this blog. I thought I'd tinker with it in response to some suggestions, but I seem to have opened Pandora's box. Stick with me, I'll get through it.

Jeff Suntala said...

Thank you for this post. I've seen a different pencil related to this final illustration as well but I don't think I've seen the final illustration!! Does anyone have a link to it?

Fuchs was all about design. Whether it was in the pencil stages or the final illustration. Design was always first.

David Apatoff said...

Jeff Suntala-- You have a good eye. Yes, Fuchs did two sketches for this job. They were offered for sale at the Illustration House Gallery in NY and I chose this one. I'm not sure there was a final illustration; I haven't seen a printed version of the ad, and the client may have gone in another direction.

True, Fuchs' sense of design was uncanny, he was one of god's songbirds. I have said some unkind things on this blog about some of today's superstar graphic novelists and conceptual illustrators because they have little understanding of, or regard for, the importance of design to an image.

Tom said...

Great to see you posting again after your hiatus. For what it's worth or my two cents,I think the images my have shown up better against your old black background as there is very little value contrast between the tone of the paper in Fuchs's drawing and the new value of the blogs background. The strongest value contrast and hence the greatest eye magnet takes place on both sides of the edges of the white border insert. But as Jordan Faris wrote I, "love your site, regardless of outer trappings."

The line in the Fuchs drawing looks traced to my eye. It has that David Hockney, Andy Warhol projected feeling. Do you know if he projected or traced his images? It's great design, like you wrote, I am just responding to the quality of his line.

Now for an epidemic of circle heads. I found this great site, that addresses many of the concerns you expressed about contemporary Illustration/cartoons. I think you might get a kick out of what John K. Stuff has to say.

Here are links to two posts that discuss the differnce between the past and present;

johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2008/04/tom-and-jerry-layouts-functional-and.html

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2007/03/terrytoons-champion-of-justice.html

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Thanks for the links, I agree with John K's points enthusiastically. I think the animation drawings that he discusses present a special case; so many of the less talented sequential artists excuse their poor draftsmanship by saying that their drawings should be viewed as part of a conceptual narrative, and were not intended to stand alone to be judged by traditional standards of excellence. However, we see from John K's blog that individual animation drawings, clearly part of a sequential narrative and never viewed for more than a split second, can still have the integrity of a real drawing if the artist has ability and integrity.

As for the Fuchs drawing, I agree there are some sections that were probably taken fairly closely from photo reference (although there are still wide differences in the way artists draw from projected images-- I have seen many artists "trace" photographs and come up with painful results. To me, the difference between Fuchs and Warhol is the difference between night and day.) But that elbow and that sofa arm-- they are about as far from "traced" as you can get. My point was, that's where the real pay off is in Fuchs' drawing.

kev ferrara said...

I do enjoy the whimsy and sensitivity of Fuchs' line. But whimsical and sensitive tracing is still tracing. It has tactical life as he creatively embellishes the given edges with line, extending past the ref or drawing around the forms here and there to give a feeling of looseness and transparency/depth, etc. But strategically, at the large scale, it's still design-by-photoref. He isn't thinking of the overall meaning of what he is doing, only the local decorative potential in the context of his ultra clear silhouette design.

I suppose the beauty of what he does goes some way toward mitigating the nihilism of his meaninglessness. Particularly when he adds color and texture in that painterly and evocative way of his. But I find it really difficult to praise tracing unequivocally, no matter how nice the arabesques look when you zoom in on them piecemeal.

chris bennett said...

Donald Pittenger: "That would help us understand where and how Fuchs used it / departed from it."

The artist Charles Reid uses a drawing method that is extremely close to Fuchs, and you can see the method comprehensibly explained in any of his instructional books - 'Painting by Design' is particularly good in that the opening third of the book deals with drawing alone. It also demonstrates the truth of Kev's crit above.

Anonymous said...

HEY KEV,
GET YOURSELF A DIGITAL PROJECTOR AND A HANDFUL OF DARK PENCILS, THEN FIND, DIRECT AND PHOTOGRAPH
SOME MODELS OR FRIENDS, TURN ON THE PROJECTOR AND START "TRACING" AND WHEN YOU FEEL IT'S FINISHED, POST YOUR DRAWING ON THIS WONDERFUL WEBSITE AND LET'S SEE WHAT HAPPENS.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I find it fascinating that, after 150 years of deliberation over the role of photography in art, the topic still excites the most extraordinary agitation from all different points on the spectrum. "The nihilism of his meaninglessness"? Really?

I doubt we'll resolve the long debate on this humble spot, but that's no reason why we can't have a robust discussion and perhaps shed light on a few corners.

As you know, it didn't bother Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Gauguin, or Toulouse Lautrec to rely on photographs, yet Norman Rockwell was wracked with guilt over it. I suppose that tells us something about the inferiority complex of illustrators (or the confidence of fine artists). Rockwell was ashamed when Leyendecker caught him in the act, and outright lied to Oberhardt when Oberhardt accused him of using photos. But it's pretty clear that photography in the right hands is more than just a crutch. Rockwell has a worthwhile section in his autobiography where he recounts how his art directors began to complain that his paintings all looked as if the figures were sitting right in front of him, posed in a studio. He said that the popular taste was for dynamic figures captured from angles or with movement, or in situations that could not be simulated in a studio. Unless Rockwell wanted to set up his easel hanging from a bridge (or later, on the moon), he would have to make his peace with photography. Fuchs started using photographs under very similar circumstances. A representative from the famous Cooper Studios in NY visited Fuchs in Detroit and said, "You'll never be able to keep up, and you'll never make it in the big leagues, unless you learn how to use photography. The clients just won't stand for it."

This drawing was probably done about 5 years after that fateful visit. In my view, it shows that Fuchs rendered unto Caesar only what was Caeser's. There are elements of this that clearly show the telltale fingerprint of photography. For a lightning quick sketch like this, there was no reason to hide those fingerprints. Do you give points for using photography but camouflaging it so nobody knows? Hidden or not, my view of this drawing is that certain facts came from the photo but the important part-- the knowledge-- came from Fuchs. Unlike you, I don't just view that elbow as a "nice Arabesque," I think it shows the anatomical knowledge that beneath the flat shape on the photograph was an elbow that bent out toward you. I think it also shows that even when the photograph presents you with a long flat rectangular shape for an arm, the artist is in control and can invent a swirl if he wants. This is the antithesis of "tracing."

It seems there will always be people unable to come to peace with photography, either pro or con. I'm not sure where you come out. I know you value "the overall meaning of what [the artist] is doing" but I never understood why an artist could not carefully stage a photograph so that it incorporates that meaning and then use it for reference. At what stage must the meaning enter the image?

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Thanks for the tip. I know of Reid's work, but always thought of him as a watercolor guy, and one who rarely painted tight enough so that he would have serious need for photo reference. What is your assessment of his work and his message?

If by the "truth of Kev's message" you mean "I find it really difficult to praise tracing unequivocally," then I agree. But I wouldn't call what Fuchs does in this drawing close to "tracing." In my view, certain parts of the drawing are closer to the photograph than others, but even those aren't "tracing." I think there is an easy and objective "real world" test for this proposition: there were easily a dozen clones working actively in Fuchs' style at this time, trying to scoop up the assignments he didn't take. All of them had a projector and photographs and trued to achieve his look. If they were simply "tracing," the results should have been fairly fungible. Yet, it was clear to everybody-- the clients, the art directors, the audience, even the clone artists themselves-- that Fuchs was consistently better. There must be something that Fuchs did, other than "tracing," to enable people to distinguish between the artists. What do you imagine that ingredient was?

Anonymous-- Thank you for the "wonderful website" part, I sincerely do appreciate it. As for your larger point, I think it raises an inconvenient question for those holding Kev's position. If this is "tracing," how come nobody else with " A DIGITAL PROJECTOR AND A HANDFUL OF DARK PENCILS" could do it?

Tom said...

David said
"individual animation drawings, clearly part of a sequential narrative and never viewed for more than a split second, can still have the integrity of a real drawing if the artist has ability and integrity."

Excellent point and well said. Art tells us so much about what a person or people value. And today we seem to value rationalizations and justifications instead of excellence. Take a leaf off of a tree and look at by itself, it still maintains the integrity that is found when one looks at the whole tree.

I really like the way Fuchs guides the eye across the page to the woman with the viewfinder, via black accents that alternate across an imaginary straight line that runs from the table top to the woman. Starting from the wastebasket(?) in front of the picture to the coffee pot handle, to the coffee table leg, to the two coffee cups, up the man's pant leg to his black tie and hair which crescendo's in the large black shape of the woman's sleeveless top where he reverses accent to white via her necklace's pendant.

Plus he does a lot of nice things with lost an found edges, especially the way he handles the pant leg of the man sitting next to the woman with the viewfinder.

"...why an artist could not carefully stage a photograph so that it incorporates that meaning and then use it for reference. At what stage must the meaning enter the image?"

Doesn't much of the meaning of a work of art exist in how the forms of a picture are conceived by the artist? How the image is brought into existence before the finished of values edges and color are applied? Isn't the whole nature of things skipped over when your image already exists, or arrives ready made?

Like you wrote to Kev, artists had to respond to the demands of the market, photography had to be addressed. But the same demands of the market now produces an epidemic of circle heads.

Anonymous said...

Fuchs is at the top tier of my favorite artists , "fine" or illustrative . I've come to really like the approach that Fuchs , R. Heindel , D. Grove and many others employ as a means to a greater end .Few artists want or imagine their rough searching prelims being analyzed critiqued and judged .

If I spend an hour or more looking at work by A. Wyeth , O. Nerdrum , A. Kanevsky , J S Sargent or R Schmid - and then look at Fuchs , his work seems a little anemic in comparison --- so I avoid doing that , and maximize my enjoyment of it . I think if Fuchs or any artist/illustrator kept up life drawing with a beginners mind that their work, prelims to finish would be better for it.

I think if an artist has a certain creative energy quotient , some artists spend it differently . Frazetta would often do a loose rough , sometimes with or without reference - I doubt he ever traced due to the ease and skill of his drawing , then dive into the painting . In one long burst he would complete the piece and be completely spent . Often you see in his work areas that look like he was tanking and rushed it . Some of his best work was when he would rework a piece with fresh energy .

I think guys like Fuchs wanted to save the energy for the final piece , and would problem solve with the outline approach so they could focus on color , values , edges , textures etc. , over that safety net of the accurate outline .

Al McLuckie

kev ferrara said...

Extraordinary agitation? What? I wasn't agitated in the least. I was just chattin', mixin' things up in this here saloon.

And I am indeed "at peace" with photoref. Just not tracing. Particularly when most of the composition or all of it is traced from a photo (or another work of art). And this has nothing to do with some moral or ethical matter. Its purely an aesthetic issue for me. Nothing is being cheated but the art. (Of course, Andy Wallwhore is the extreme example of not giving a damn about art in this particular way.)

Speaking of which, meaninglessness in communication is nihilistic by definition, ain't it? (Unless we're talking baby talk or testing 1,2,3.) As Fuchs adds on his special touches in color and paint, more meaning creeps in. He seems to be implying something dreamy about his locales most of the time. Its a nice poetic tone he gets. Which David Grove successfully imitated, I think.

There's a big difference between tracing a photo for a line drawing, and tracing a photo and then really transforming it in paint, in my view. The line dance is a kind of shallow hand-flourished restatement of what's there. With tone, color, and texture, a lot more can be said at the general level.

On Degas, et al... Again, I don't have a problem with photoref at all. So Degas using photo ref isn't what I'm on about. Especially since he really knew how to use it rather than be used by it.

I don't really have a problem with an artist tracing some item or other into his picture either, like some piece of technical equipment or a vehicle or something like that. So long as the photo fits the composition, rather than the reverse. Its more when the whole composition or main figural group looks like the best shot out of studio photoshoot. It just stinks of the loop, to coin a phrase.

There's a lot of misconceptions about Rockwell's use of photos because every time people hear that he was "projecting" something onto his canvas they assume it was a photo to trace. When it may have been his charcoal drawings of the composition. Or some part of a figure. And of course that photographer-with-an-axe-to-grind wanted to sell his book of photos he took for Rockwell and so he set himself forward as a partial author of Rockwell's images, which is grotesque. I guess he was sore that he was a nobody.

The reality is that any close study of any of the photos Rockwell used for his pictures will reveal dozens and dozens of differences from the final. And since Rockwell hated to make changes on canvas, there would be absolutely no benefit to him projecting the ref as is onto the canvas and tracing it. He may have projected a few things here and there per picture, and I think it is clear he did that increasingly over the course of his career, to the detriment of his work. I think the tell tale sign of him projecting photos is when his pictures get more of a flat look. Which happens increasingly after his studio fire in 1940, twenty-five years into his career, and then extensively into the 1950s. But you can see the reference he painted from life for Land of Enchantment for example, in 1934. One his models, Franklin Lischke, attests to the fact that he posed live and often for Rockwell early on and then later Rockwell began using photography more.

Chris' point about Reid is well taken. But I think Reid is so inferior to Fuchs as an artist, draftsman, or even technician, that the point of the comparison will be lost on most. Reid's finishes are just rife with bluff.

TO ANONYMOUS, I WILL GLADLY MAKE AN ATTEMPT TO DO WHAT YOU ASK. AS IT WILL CONSUME SOME AMOUNT OF TIME AND DOESN'T SOUND LIKE ANY FUN, I THINK IT WOULD BE FAIR OF ME TO ASK A FEE. DOES $800 SOUND FAIR? ALSO, I DON'T DRAW LIKE FUCHS AND I'VE NEVER TRIED TO DUPLICATE HIS LOOK BEFORE NOR DO I OWN A BALOPTICON OR DIGITAL PROJECTOR. I DO, HOWEVER HAVE A LIGHT BOX. SEND HALF THE FEE AND THE PHOTOREF YOU WANT ME TO USE AND I'LL GET STARTED RIGHT AWAY!

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "Take a leaf off of a tree and look at by itself, it still maintains the integrity that is found when one looks at the whole tree."

I think that's such an important point. Many commenters here have argued that Chris Ware and other contemporary graphic artists are not really "drawing," but rather creating specialized narrative art, and that it would be wrong to apply the traditional standards for drawing to the contents of any individual panel. I think they let themselves off the hook too easily, and your point about the leaf captures it very well.

Tom also wrote: "Doesn't much of the meaning of a work of art exist in how the forms of a picture are conceived by the artist? How the image is brought into existence before the finished of values edges and color are applied? Isn't the whole nature of things skipped over when your image already exists, or arrives ready made?"

I take your point, but why can't the artist conceive some of those forms when staging a photograph for reference? If the artist chooses the angle, the composition, poses the figures, sets the contrast etc., that he or she will be using later in a painting, why shouldn't those artistic choices be just as meaningful? I once interviewed an artist who worked in the same studio with Fuchs when they started using photographs. The artist decided he would do Fuchs a favor and take some reference photos of a site Fuchs had to paint. He said, "I took 80 pictures, just to be absolutely sure. I had them developed in one of those 1 hour developing places and brought them back to Bernie. He didn't want to hurt my feelings, but he went through all 80 pictures, one at a time, and I could see he didn't like any of them. He went back through them and finally muttered, 'I guess I could make something out of this one.' I never tried to take photos for him again."

Anonymous / Al McLuckie-- Frazetta is an excellent example of an artist who had trouble making his peace with photography. For years he bragged to the world that he didn't use photographs, when it was quite evident that he did. (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2013/06/making-peace-with-machine.html ) Eventually, as he grew and matured as an artist, he decided that the charge of "using photographs" was a bullshit charge from small minded fans, and that his minor use of photography was not something he needed to answer for.

I agree with you about Wyeth and Sargent, perhaps not all of the others. But I think if you put them on a long gallery wall with Fuchs, it would be the Fuchs art that reached down off the gallery wall and grabbed you by the lapels in the first instance. An hour later, it's the Wyeth or the Sargent you'd be studying. I like the way you phrase it: "If an artist has a certain creative energy quotient, some artists spend it differently." There are many right choices.




Laurence John said...

David: "why can't the artist conceive some of those forms when staging a photograph for reference?"


i think the main reason that a lot of people still object to a drawing done over a projected or lightbox photo is that it's still basically regarded as a type of 'cheating'.
when a photographic image is already in place on the paper there's the implication that the hard work is already done and you haven't really 'drawn' it in the way that you would if you were translating something seen from a distance onto paper (i.e. the 'traditional' way).

in order to disclaim accusations of 'cheating' you'd have to (as you suggest above) convince the doubters that the painter's photographic process was a vital part of the artistic decision-making process, not merely a facile starting point.

i think there's no question that Fuchs had a distinct photographic eye, and therefore his photography was 'part of'.

kev ferrara said...

As I stated above, the only thing the tracing of photos "cheats" is the art. And not because of some professional ethic being compromised. But because photos can only ever contain trace amounts of aesthetic thought and because the camera is unbelievably dead and dumb, so it ignores at least as much experiential information as it captures.

Anonymous said...

Most people are lazy and will follow a least resistant path - imagine having to actually get up from a chair to manually change channels or have a car without auto windows - or draw from a photo instead of tracing it.

Lets say an artist keeps up and continually evolves some kind of direct observational drawing , creates his own thoughtful lighting and set up with a model[s] , and decides to project or lightbox it . If he does some freehand sketches from the model to really get the rhythms and form , then traces [ and does not happen to be Boris V.] with an awareness and not a lazy robotic touch , even though the camera is dumb and photos are like a sex-dummy compared to a real lover , the results can have true life and information and carry over to the final art.

Guys like Fuchs ,Heindel, Grove, Briggs etc. don't come across as lazy to me for the most part .

Al McLuckie

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff: "I know of Reid's work, but always thought of him as a watercolor guy, and one who rarely painted tight enough so that he would have serious need for photo reference. What is your assessment of his work and his message?"

Reid is essentially an improviser, and uses reference (photographic or otherwise) in the way a jazz musician plays over a given set of chord changes. And like the jazz player on a good night, on form, and with a cooking rhythm section behind him, everything suddenly falls into place to produce a beguiling performance; the serendipity fountain frozen into a beautiful shape by the smile of the passing Snow Queen. But the majority of the time it is their 'way of saying' that entertains us, not what is being said.

As to how Reid's drawing method aligns him with Kev's point about Fuch's tracing (which I take to mean not necessarily literal):
Reid calls his method 'contour drawing'. This is not silhouetting in the conventional sense, but rather a silhouetting of internal shapes whose grammar is the connections between one shape and another right on throughout the image. As with Fuchs, we read the drawings by the way in which each notation is assembled on top of the other, piling up until the last note is struck to yield the performance in total. Witnessing these drawings is very similar to the delight in seeing a gymnast or skater pulling off a sequence of difficult moves. There is no 'meaning' or 'purpose' to it other than the relief of seeing them end up securely on their feet. To use my earlier analogy, our wish is to be spellbound.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I didn't mean to suggest that you were the sole source of that "extraordinary agitation." There are plenty of folks out there who insist that the history of western art after the invention of photography is one long retreat to space where photographs can't do a better job than art. On the other side, there are equally agitated people who still believe using photographs is a cardinal sin. Have you read Sontag's book on the subject?

Personally, I think of nihilism as the philosophy that life is meaningless, not the philosophy that drawings shouldn't rely too much on photos. But OK, let's try to figure out what exactly what it means to rely too much on photos. You say that photoref is acceptable, but tracing is not. (I think this begs the question of my point above, that if a artist stages his or her own photo artistically, and puts their own artistic meaning into it, dependence on the photo cannot be "cheating the art" because the photo is part of the art. But let's save that debate for another day, and stay focused on your distinction between photoref and tracing.)

You say that Degas is on the safe side of that divide, and I agree. You say that Fuchs is on the wrong side of that divide-- that what he did here was tracing-- and I disagree. I think of tracing as a very literal, mechanical translation process leaving very little room for discretion or creativity. I assume that if two artists traced from the same photograph, they would come out with nearly identical results but that obviously didn't happen here. In fact, it didn't happen over the length of Fuchs' career. If this was tracing, nobody could come out with nearly identical results. Scores of artists tried to follow the "Fuchs formula" to the letter, but the difference was apparent.

If you believe that anyone with good hand/eye coordination could trace a photograph and come up with this result, I have to say your experience is different than mine; it is also different than hundreds of art directors round the country. I spoke with a senior artist who worked in Fuchs' studio, the Art Group, at this time. He said they were always trying to persuade clients to try other senior artists in the studio-- artists who were perfectly capable of tracing a picture as well as Fuchs. But he said, "The clients kept calling, demanding, 'We want Bernie! We want Bernie!'" They were willing to pay a premium for it, so they obviously felt he was adding something to the photograph.

Whether this drawing counts as photoref or tracing, the question still lingers: how do you distinguish between tracing and something more acceptable?

Sean Farrell said...

Tom, very nice observation regarding the dark accents and their path. Notice the two small vertical accents on the table cloth. One runs to the center of the label on the coffee can below and straight up to the center of the standing man's neck. A second accent to our left on the table cloth supports at its top, a diagonal line which intersects the inner corner of the dark lower leg of the table, a point at the corner of the table (with a slight dark accent itself, not being exactly in line), both sides of the man's tie, his eye and the finger of the woman behind him. The diagonal intersects the vertical one at the bottom of the label on the can. It is exactly a love of the underlying architecture which seemed an obsession with Degas who was favored by Fuchs.

Generally tracing is painful to look at because form is found by its inner structure. But Fuchs creates space in the close up of the three figures with an open edge lifting the man's arm off the plane, then an accent turning the man's hand, then the empty square he holds behind it, then a shadow on hair using the same tone as on the hand. Such are very deliberate acts which were of interest to Fuchs. This pencil is worth a long look. His signature gives us an idea of what he thought of it. Thanks David.

Sean Farrell said...

It's possible this drawing may have been done from a couple of photos because not everything appears to be on the same plane. The two curious curves on the standing man's right sleeve are a mystery to me, but I'm loving this drawing all over the place. The line appears spontaneous in some spots as an affectation, but overall, what is being drawn involves much observation and deliberation. Sometimes drawn with the side of the pencil, to slow its movement down and give it an almost uncontrolled meandering aspect. This is the kind of drawing one can enjoy for many years. If getting into a drawing is something you like David, then you made a very good purchase. This is a drawing to be proud of owning.

Tom said...

David: "but why can't the artist conceive some of those forms when staging a photograph for reference? "

I guess I would not see the shapes of photography as form. Shape is a product of form but shape is 2 dimensional. Form is 3 dimensional and demands a much greater mental effort on the part of the artist. That is what I mean by starting ready made. One accepts the conventions of the source. Almost everyone here recognized the drawing's source no matter how well Fuchs has decorated and arranged the image. The viewpoint or perspective has the wide angle feeling of the camera lens.

I think Al Mcluckie nailed it in a way, in comparison to another artist work the lack of something, the photo reference quality becomes much more apparent.

There are lots of great decorators in all kinds of fields, people who know how to arrange and compose ensembles of color, value, edges, size relations between objects. Gardeners, interior designers, fashion designers, set designers etc.. but that is not quite the same thing as being able to draw well. In lots of ways that is the feeling I get from Fuchs's work, a decorator with stylish flare the perfect compliment for a subject of VO ads, and a life style of looking good at the racetrack or on your sailboat. It doesn't go very deep and so the art should not dive to deeply into the nature of things or worry about what is the source of a picture. The nature of advertising has little to do with true human need but lots to do with style and appearance.

Art like language will serve whatever purposes people find for it. Like language it can be as superficial or as profound as the speaker. Nature to me is more like a mirror then it is something we understand.


Sean Farrell: "Generally tracing is painful to look at because form is found by its inner structure."

Exactly what I was trying to say except better. The energy of all things seems hidden in a inner source below the visible surface. It must be why the old masters always use convex forms to create living surfaces.

Enjoyed your description of the accents in Fuchs's drawing especially your observation about the long line that runs up the standing man's back that starts at the coffee can. The line is like a skewer for a shish kabob it holds all the separate objects together and creates one powerful vertical.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I think you're right, many people have a vague feeling that reliance on photography is "cheating." It enables an artist to make presentable pictures with less talent because it performs the chores of translating 3 dimensions into two dimensions and capturing relative proportions. People like the idea of an artist who suffered to learn a craft, and who can do everything from the ground up, even if it is less efficient. I think people with a slightly more mature attitude take Kev's view that dependence on photography often cheats the painting more than anyone else. Like Photoshop and other contemporary "helpers," photography was wonderful for giving unschooled artists and non-artists a certain minimal level of competence. Today anyone can get a basic likeness or do a competent technical drawing. It's only when you try to reach the upper strata that those helpers cheat the painting.

Sean Farrell said...

Tom, For the reasons you mentioned, I found the work of the legion of tracers who mimicked or were part of the Bernie Fuchs era to be loathsome, because tracing eliminates the drawing. The sequence I mentioned involving the sleeve, hand, square and hair are planes twisting their way into space and are delineated by sophisticated drawing observations and understandings. Why does a dark line on the edge of a shape protrude here or recede there? Why does the absent line lift the arm in this spot, but recede into space or work laterally, or a combination of two in another? Such are esoteric drawing questions which puzzle artists and for which there are no simple answers in art books either because the answers aren't foolproof formulas, or some may not don't know the questions exist. But such questions existed for a select group of artists of his era and Fuchs was one who answered them.

Fuchs well understood the relationship between movement into space and across and around the picture plane. Yes, the tracing is less than, no doubt about that and the drawing serves a commercial purpose. Neither is it carved out of the side of a mountain, nor does it possess the intense line clinging to form of say Austin Briggs, but the image is loaded with wonderful stuff to observe and discover which have everything to do with line weight, shapes, movement, space, return, sequence, order and unity as are understood in drawing terms. This is a very special drawing which answers a host of drawing cinterests and such drawings don't come along everyday.


General manager said...

Beautiful art..
Barrett Wissman

kev ferrara said...

"I think people with a slightly more mature attitude take Kev's view that dependence on photography often cheats the painting more than anyone else."

The "slightly" really makes that sentence.

I would argue that my view is actually the mature, aesthetically educated view. (Or to quote an argument heard between cabbies in NYC that lasted twenty minutes: "I'm stupid? I'M stupid!? No, YOU'RE the one who's stupid!")

I've observed for a long time that the inability to intuit the presence of visual meaning often afflicts people who are heavily text- and word-centric in their life experience, which leaves them in a state of visual immaturity. And in having that affliction, such people do not have the vocabulary or experience to distinguish between the merely decorative, the merely sensation-generating, and the expression of actual aesthetic meaning. And thus naturally, to them, there is an artistic equivalence between, say, a projection test put up on a gallery wall, and something composed like a Brangwyn, Sorolla, Fechin, or Everett. (Or between, say, whimsical flourishes of line as opposed to meaningful, thoughtful ones. Or, to put it another way, at least we agree that Fuchs dashed this tracing off in short order.)

Fuchs's work shines in the areas of sensitive drawing, freshness of marks, decorative line and pattern, and the achievement of an elegaic mood. Not coincidentally, except for elegaicism, all these design qualities were emphasized in Modernist teachings... in keeping with their century-long progress/retreat from narrative meaning.

Sean Farrell said...

Fuch's favorite art was Degas, whose subject was beauty and movement. Degas is not an easy artist to understand and neither is Fuchs. What David was told rings true as countless copycats with plenty of modern education tried to emulate Fuchs without success. Some of these artists came up during the era when illustrators were trying everything to make clever and inventive compositions. Some of it was 20th century dynamic symmetry but much was unearthed from Degas, Bonnard, Vuillard, etc. and wasn't self evident by any means. Nor was Degas formulaic. What makes this drawing so fantastic is that in it we can observe his very deliberate thinking and some very keen insights. He once said his spontaneous style took him a long time to develop and I believe that. He used his spontaneous line as a kind of camouflage to hide his very deliberate thinking in my opinion.

As David said, if Fuchs was so simple, why couldn't anyone do him? The reason is that few knew what he knew. As much as I detest drawings directly traced, Fuchs was an exception and a genius of an illustrator. Seeing a good illustration by Bernie Fuchs very exciting in its day. It was an event.

Anonymous said...

Hey , think if he had all his fingers as well .

I'm just glad David isn't one of those afflicted word/text guys . Maybe the ear sketch Fuchs did on his deathbed was a whimsical flourished tracing .

Tom said...

Hi Sean

Just to be clear Fuchs is a great illustrator my response is to photography.


On frist sight in a magazine these are wonderful eye garbing stylish designs which is there raison d'etre. But the first thing that pops into my head after the initial viewing is,"oh that was done from a photo, it looks like a photo."

Don't you find it annoying, how much the drawing reeks of a photo? And the annoying feeling doesn't leave me the longer I look. The feeling actual gets worst. The shapes one sees in the drawing look like photo shapes or the pencil handling feels like a response to photographic shapes. Much of the style of the drawing to me anyway, is a product of photography. I almost feel like this style of 1950''s and 1960's drawing was brought into being by the ubiquitous black and white snap shot. All the tilts in the picture planes, the often excessive floor exposure or sky exposure the flatly toned cast shadows that fail to acknowledge the surfaces it falls upon, the lack of gravity all reflect how the camera sees or doesn't see might be a better way to put it. The artist in the end is pulling new decorative elements out of the shapes of photography.

The esoterica question you describe to me are more of the nature of decoration. Whether an artist wants to decorate their mass with line or tone, the real heart of drawing is in how the artist conceives the masses that will carry the decoration. it is by far, a more demanding task. Having things "ready made" as I said earlier, the question the artist faces are decorative in nature. Should an accent be place here or there, should this edge be hard or soft, should the background be light or dark, should the eye of the viewer be moved from one side to another or back into the depth of the picture. These are the types of questions for example that a movie director faces it doesn't mean a movie director is a draughtsman.

Painting a room, choosing the furniture, the rugs, the lamps bringing it all together in a beautiful ensemble takes flare, taste and skill, not everyone can do it. But conceiving the room itself, its proportions, its scale, how it will be made is a greater challenge and is by its very nature a much more demandingly creative, imaginative and constructive act then chosing and arranging from already existing elements (IMHO). Maybe that is why so much of the worlds great art is not photographic in nature.

i guess I would say one doesn't really know what the problems of drawing are, until one draws from life, or from their imagination.

Sean Farrell said...

Thank you Anonymous. Yes, Fuchs was dominant in four decades of illustration because he knew what he was doing and at a level one can't be glib about. The line Tom mentioned with the coffee cups extends to a shadow under the edge of the standing man's suit and such isn't an accident. Making use of things from different depths of field to form a line uniting them to the picture plane isn't child's play but requires some understanding of how to do it without being blatant and why one might do it. The more I look at the drawing, it's clear there were preliminary sketches required to set up the photograph, if it were a single shot.

Kev's point about narrative is a fascinating subject and why narrative is not linguistic or literary is something lost on modern people who think that because it illustrates, it is therefore less than a pure visual experience. Moderns seem unable to understand that things of being such as virtues are experiential as well as having a corresponding verbal label. Things such as being beneficent, available, talented, honest, or of ill intent, etc. exist as physiological experiential realities and not simply as thoughts and that such can be captured in meaning in the position of a person, etc. and is a real part of the visual world. Yes, such is real aside from its verbal descriptions. Things like goodness actually exist as experiential realities and are not just values and thus fictitious, nor are they by necessity literary as we have been led to believe. Moderns accept that beauty is good and real and thus desirable, but not that good is beauty, which they dismiss as literary.

But if one wonders what kinds of things Fuchs did which helped him stay on top for so long, this sketch is a rare treat.

Sean Farrell said...

Tom, Yes, it does bother me that the drawing is so photographic, that there isn't the feeling of going around a shape as one would find the form. No volume is pulled from a fold coming from behind the figure, for example, from the form of the body under the clothes. Yes, I do experience this negatively as you do and it does bother me a lot, but there's more going on than tracing. The tilting of heads and objects that form these chains of action cascading into space was part of Fuchs' vocabulary going back before he developed the latter style he became famous for. The same alternating cocking and tilting of heads became very much an affectation of illustration of the era and at the time people loved it, but like anything overdone it became conspicuous.

I agree with what you've written, but this is an illustration bound to a commercial function and for what it is, a coffee ad, it is remarkably sophisticated. Those early VO ads you mentioned were done I think when Fuchs was in his twenties and he put the whole business on its heals when those images came out. Fuchs was turning heads and putting fear into his competitors from his first appearance on the scene. He was very good at what he did.

Sean Farrell said...

Tom, If one draws thousands of hours they will encounter situations where they wonder why something appears to be coming forward or going back according to a particular accent or line weight, or why something appears as it does with one or another mark and such things are drawing concerns and interests. Illustrators of this era were playing with such and no they didn't all understand what they were doing and often such drawing devices were used in error. This is drawing esoterica because only drawing nuts encounter and ask such questions. So we have a difference of opinion on this point.

Illustrators were influencing film makers who were copying the new compositions and devices they were using in the 1950s and 60s. The movie Rear Window with its multiple pictures is an example of an illustrators device. Fuchs was directing his image, but the devices he was using were local to drawing and historical pictorial devices. It was the film makers and photographers who were copying art and illustrators by using their own devices. Putting a light bulb into a frosted glass to draw attention to a glass of milk is a filmmaker's application of a design or an illustrator's concern, but it is not a drawing solution.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "...because the camera is unbelievably dead and dumb." I understand your point, but are there no photographs you consider great works of art? I've been extremely impressed recently with the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. Part of my admiration is for his inspirational life and the reportorial role of his photographs, but I don't see how anyone could look at his epic gold mining pictures and consider his camera any more "dead and dumb" than a paint brush-- it's all in the hand that holds it.

Al McLuckie-- I agree. And on the subject of lazy, I once heard a very smart man say that the invention of the remote control for TV directly led to a decrease in the quality of television fare. If we had to get up off our ass to change the channel, we were more likely to wait a little longer before changing. We might have a little more patience (albeit born of laziness) for the slow development of themes. But today TV producers are painfully aware that if they don't grab our attention every 5 or 10 seconds, channel surfers may not stop and viewers may not stay.

Chris Bennett-- Thanks. I suspect the "meaning" of a picture, discussed by both you and Kev, can mean dramatically different things to different people. I am one of those who can be entertained by the "way of saying, not what is being said," and I suspect that when Kev talks about the importance of meaning he intends a visual meaning rather than the content or the message being portrayed. But if we surveyed the commenters here, I'm guessing that there wouldn't be a common vocabulary on this point.


kev ferrara said...

Tom and Sean, really enjoying your comments.

Sean, I particularly liked when you mentioned the physical reality and visibility of such traits as beneficence, availability, talent, honesty, or menace. There is a hierarchy of abstraction in art that is the widest available in any language, I think... it reaches from the direct portrayal of specific and simple objects (a vase) all the way to the portrayal of conceptions that have no object at all. (Literature can describe a vase or conversation ad infinitum, for example, but it cannot directly portray either. Text must be decoded first; translated into the imaginative reality from the ready made words.)

Tom, you and I obviously are sensitive to the same issues with tracing. But I wanted to point out that almost all those choices you mentioned... about edge quality, dark vs. light background, how the eye is to be directed... all that stuff is absolutely related to the storytelling and should not be dismissed as resulting necessarily in decorative solutions. Those questions can be solved decoratively, rather than with some narrative intent, but not necessarily. This is a huge point.

Sean Farrell said...

Yes Kev, thanks. I was thinking something along the same lines, that Tom and I were both saying something valid, but you made the point clearer and gave it greater meaning than was going through my head.

Just a little nutty detail. The two shapes or shadows in similar textures on each side of the little square the man is holding creates a back and forth bridge similar to edges between shapes creating a mirroring effect used by Degas in, Ballet Dancers in Butterfly Costumes. Especially under the wing of the first dancer and chin of the dancer behind it.

kev ferrara said...

Personally, I think of nihilism as the philosophy that life is meaninglessness, not the philosophy that drawings shouldn't rely too much on photos.

Boy, you'd be a dangerous guy to employ as a U.N. translator.

Again, it isn't that a drawing shouldn't rely too much on a photo, its what happens when a drawing relies too much on a photo. The former is about an authoritarian trying to dictate or proscribe methods. The latter is about understanding the nature of artful communication so we can understand the qualities we are working with as artists and experiencing as audience members.

Given that art is a reflection of the artist; his life, experience, world view, moods, longings, physical culture, etc. And given that all art is, as they say, praise (and/or propaganda depending on who you ask)... we can kind of butt these together and postulate that art is an evangelical celebration of one's own experience and understanding of life. With that view in mind, I don't see how a work of art done without meaning in mind can be said to not celebrate/advocate meaninglessness in some fashion. (the great problem of art being compromised by soulless or shallow concerns is that art cannot help but be a record of the concerns that went into its making.)

Maybe a counter to this is that if an artist makes beautiful work, his belief in beauty in itself is a rejection of nihilism. However, mere beauty without truth behind it is another one of those shallow sensations that never satisfies, and so requires greater and greater amplification to achieve equivalent sensation, which naturally leads down the road to decadence and exhaustion, like any other "empty calorie" we ingest.

Except in rare instances where his deadline was showing, I don't think Fuchs was decadent, nor a nihilist. I don't think he had that kind of fever in his temperament. But I do think he helped influence the visual culture to go down that road, with increasingly desperate attempts into the 1960s to create theatrical page layouts and jarring, buzzing color combinations, vibrating linework, and edgy brush textures... all at the expense of contemplativeness and meaningfulness. The end result is the distortion of psychedelia and Peak's gimmicky airbrushing on the Rollerball, Excalibur, and Star Trek posters... which probably paved the way for the later stupefaction of photoshop filters replacing illustrators almost entirely in many corners of the industry.

Tom said...

Hi Kev

To me decoration needs a motive, the more clearly someone knows what they want to narrate, express, or say, or the atmosphere they want to create or feeling they want to express the easier decorative choices of eye paths, focal points, color and value become. It is at the heart of all the arts. It is arranging and giving order to the material at hand whether one is arranging flowers is a vase, designing a garden, a building, or making a movie or designing an interior. I was not in anyway to dismissing or diminish decorative intent or solutions. Any way that is what the word decoration means to me.

Sean said
"I agree with what you've written, but this is an illustration bound to a commercial function and for what it is, a coffee ad, it is remarkably sophisticated."

Totally agree and I feel like I said the same thing in early my earlier posts. I do think by the 1950's and 1960's film and photography was influencing illustrators and artist as much if not more then artist where influencing film makers and photographs (IMHO). Especially in the paintings of Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Rauschenberg who was another Kennedy image maker. But I bet you could make a good argument that my feeling is wrong. Except for Warhol, interestingly they are all of German origin including Fuchs.

As David wrote by the time Fuchs enter the market art directors told him had to address the issue of photography.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev and Tom, You've both just made strong statements that make a ton of sense. Decoration is at the heart of the impulse to make beautiful things as primitive societies entered the visual world through decoration and Kev's statement on meaning certainly explains what goes missing when a drawing relies too much on a photo.

It's true that the rise of photoshop first took place as Peak-like photoshopped movie posters replaced his work in the early 1990s after his death. Also, after the commercial career of Fuchs ended, his work went the way of simpler solutions which lacked the need for the complex and arresting arrangements we see in this drawing.

The motive of the Fuchs drawing is to engage the viewer to take notice and make the association of a beautiful moment of leisure in good company with the coffee, while not wanting to leave the moment. Such was a theme of Americanism and the commercially motivated illustration of the 1950s and 60s. It's also true the same mindset came to editorial illustration as Fuch's magic hour, crowd pleasing sunsets became the go to image for golf's highly civilized landscaping and galleries of people. He brought a sense of scale to such moments which said, wouldn't it be nice if it were like this all the time? Peak on the other hand loved directional movement and his work often relied on powerful blasts of vertical and horizontal tensions often accompanied by wild colors. Both were consummate commercial artists and icons of the late 1950s to the end of the 1980s and yes, they accompanied America's transition to people of convenience, who traded in their own unique presence of being and beliefs for convenience and voyeuristic identifications with an image of well being.

Laurence John said...

David: "... if an artist stages his or her own photo artistically, and puts their own artistic meaning into it, dependence on the photo cannot be "cheating the art" because the photo is part of the art."

this is actually the key point, and the one which the 'photography is dumb and / or facile' side haven't rebutted so far.

an illustrator (like Fuchs or Rockwell) would have spent considerable effort selecting the right models, posing them, directing them / getting them to 'act', choosing the best point of view, framing them, going through all of the shots, combining several.... all to serve the narrative function / meaning. to get the point of the final painting / drawing across as succinctly as possible. how is all of that not part of the art ?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "mere beauty without truth behind it is another one of those shallow sensations that never satisfies, and so requires greater and greater amplification to achieve equivalent sensation, which naturally leads down the road to decadence and exhaustion, like any other "empty calorie" we ingest."

Well, that's one possible theory, although it dismisses probably two of the most famous pieces of aesthetic theory in the history of western civilization: Keats' point that "beauty is truth, truth beauty" and Emerson's point that, "if eyes are for seeing, "beauty is its own excuse for being."

To me, you sound like the indignant wife in Leonard Starr's great strip, On Stage, who demanded that her husband explain why men liked a particular hot babe:

He: "Ummm.... If you don't see it, I'm not sure what I could say that would explain it to you."

She: "Oh, I see the physical attributes all right, but does she have any talent? What does she do?"

He: "What does the Grand Canyon do? People just like to look at it."

Barrett Wissman-- Many thanks, I agree.

Tom, Sean Farrell and Laurence John-- I'm really enjoying your discussion, which I'm following on my blackberry. I'm on the road now, but as soon as I get to a place where I have a real computer and decent internet access for more than 10 minutes, I will join back in.

kev ferrara said...

Well, that's one possible theory, although it dismisses probably two of the most famous pieces of aesthetic theory in the history of western civilization: Keats' point that "beauty is truth, truth beauty" and Emerson's point that, "if eyes are for seeing, "beauty is its own excuse for being."

I wasn't writing with academic precision, David. Yet, I think it should have been clear that by "mere beauty with no truth behind it" I was referring to prettiness, glamor, or decoration for its own sake and not actual beauty, which, if you agree with Keats, (as I do) is necessarily/definitionally tied to truth.

Whether Emerson's definition of beauty is also necessarily tied in with truth I don't know.

Regarding the "beauty" of a starlet, the word may be misued there. Sexbomb, hottie, or MILF may get closer to the actual matter. So I'd be interested to hear your take on the sense in which a starlet's beauty is based on its equivalence to truth.

For the beauty of the Grand Canyon see Kant and Ruskin on distinterestedness and the awe requirement of the sublime experience.

kev ferrara said...

To me decoration needs a motive, the more clearly someone knows what they want to narrate, express, or say, or the atmosphere they want to create or feeling they want to express the easier decorative choices of eye paths, focal points, color and value become. It is at the heart of all the arts. It is arranging and giving order to the material at hand whether one is arranging flowers is a vase, designing a garden, a building, or making a movie or designing an interior. I was not in anyway to dismissing or diminish decorative intent or solutions. Any way that is what the word decoration means to me.

Tom,

I agree that decoration is always motivated. But it seems to me that the motive for a decoration or decorative scheme is always atmospheric; i.e. I want the house to look pretty, clean and neat, or appropriate to my station in life, or resonant of the culture I feel most comfortable in, or to the holiday upcoming, etc.

I cannot agree that a movie or any other type of fiction can be successfully created according to a decorative principle. But rather it must be structured for the production of understanding through dramatic effects. As I understand it, narrative structure is actually the opposite of decoration.

David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell and Tom-- Thanks for some very astute and interesting observations about the sketch that helped me look at it with new eyes. I am going to need to go back and ruminate a little on your distinction between shape and form. As an initial matter, it makes sense to me when Sean says, "Generally tracing is painful to look at because form is found by its inner structure." As I understand it, our eyes present us with raw data in shapes, but it is the interaction between our eyes and our brain that translate that raw shape into a form-- that tell us that tree trunk is round, even though we can only see one side of it. But there are plenty of artists-- good artists-- who've made a point of working in flat shapes. I don't have tearsheets or citations to offer right now, but Vuillard did it, and Milton Avery did it and Milton Glaser did it.

To use an example that I'm guessing may be familiar to you, Bob Peak did a series of marvelous clothing ads for Puritan where he cut out flat shapes on day-glow paper (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2009/11/springtime-of-bob-peak.html) and superimposed a line to help translate them into a readable form for the audience. I suppose Tom would consider Peak's cut outs "great decorator" work ("people who know how to arrange and compose ensembles of color, value, edges, size relations between objects. Gardeners, interior designers, fashion designers, set designers etc.")

Just as I think Kev was too fast to dismiss beauty without some "meaning" attached, I am reluctant to place design and even decoration in the lowest circle of art hell, on that shelf between decoupage and macrame. Part of it is because I think decoration, particularly in tribal art and folk art, can have real significance. Another part is that I once visited an ancient artist in a nursing home where they give each doddering resident a little plot of land as a therapy garden. I saw him squint at that space and use (I'm sure) the very same faculties to decide how to arrange tomato plants and lima beans that he used decades before when boldly laying out a new canvas. At this stage in life, the aesthetic choices were probably equally significant to him. It sacred the crap out of me, and I made a resolution then and there never to get cocky about the way things work. I try to keep that in mind here.


Tom wrote: "In lots of ways that is the feeling I get from Fuchs's work, a decorator with stylish flare the perfect compliment for a subject of VO ads, and a life style of looking good at the racetrack or on your sailboat. It doesn't go very deep and so the art should not dive to deeply into the nature of things or worry about what is the source of a picture. The nature of advertising has little to do with true human need but lots to do with style and appearance."

Well yes, but would you distinguish other idealized art forms through history? The ancient Greeks never dwelled on the scrofulous, the sour and the venal that obsesses modern painters-- instead, they specialized in the muscular and the heroic, the glorious and the glamorous. I don't know if you would call Athenian art "advertising" like a VO ad, but it was clearly intended to inspire men to greater heights of courage and civic responsibility. Every figure on the Elgin marbles would've looked good at the race track. Is that because there were no pot bellies in Athens?

Tom said...

Hi Kev

Well maybe I drifted a little bit with my use of the word decorative. I am sure there is a distinction between narrative and decoration that I missed. When I talk about art it is often hard to say where on thing begins and another thing ends. At first by decorative I was thinking of the medium one would use to make a picture. With the light behind the artist's back and striking the subject full on one might chose to draw the subject with line emphasizing the contours of a subject. But if the light a shade of the subject interested the artist they might chose charcoal or ink to make the picture. Usually when painting the color of a subject the artist choses a scheme to portray the subject instead of attempting to copy color directly, that is certain greens or blues may be chosen to portray a landscape before him.

I don't know how dramatic effect is different from decoration. They seemed interlocking. I am not saying they are not different I just don't understand the words well enough. But aren't dramatic effects decorative in nature. Certain arrangements of value and color or how space is used can make a scene exciting, sad, lonely, dramatic etc. It just popped into my head but military uniforms, marches and parades are all full of decorative intent. The thought structure of Taoism is represented in the simple decorative idea of the opposition of black and white. It is hard to say where one aspect of something ends another begins as in art it is always the relationship between things that creates the larger effect. Isn't a narrative something we impose on reality? Two people can witness the same event and have two totally different narratives of what happen. And thus that might choice different words, or different colors or different shapes to convey the narrative they wish to write or paint.

So that is how I was thinking of decorative.

Tom said...

Hi David

This is how I might think of the difference between shape and form. If one draws a cube as form all three visible planes that constitute the cube will be drawn and shown, an a really good draughtsman will also know where the unseen planes of the cube will be. He has constructed the whole cube. Now if the artist was just to trace the outline of the cube and color it in that would be a shape. Like contour drawing which is a kind of tracing of the forms of nature. If one traces or one constructs I believe it has a great affect on the appearance of the final drawn line. Perhaps that is why we can so immediately recognize a trace line.

I think you are on to something with the eye observation. The camera has one eye so to speak it real doesn't see around things. We have two eyes which really brings the world into three dimension. Thinks look and feel substantially different because vision is stereoscopic.

Vuillard did paint flat shapes. But toward the end of his career he turned back to 3dimensions and volume. I wonder why? I notice that in the George Bellows show to at the National Gallery his later paintings seem to become obsessed with volume.

Just to be clear I wasn't reducing decorative work, at least I didn't mean too. All I was trying to say is gardeners, interior designers, set designers etc all make beautiful arrangements that take great skill but making an arrangement of something does not necessarily mean you can draw well. I agree decorative art can of course have real significance. Art can handle the design of macrame or the the design of the Sistine Chapel or the vatican itself. Like language it can handle the most mundane and the most profound questions. It all depends on the nature of the person using it. A Chinese painter in the 10th century probably wants to express something very different and probably more profound then an ad executive on Madison Ave in the 1950's.

I don't know what to say about the Elgin marbles. Doesn't the frieze depict a festival/parade and the pediments depict the birth of gods? And the metopes a drunken wedding party/battle? They where painted bright and intense colors. I am sure they where eye grabbing in the same way Fuchs VO ads where eye grabbing in the magazines in the early 1960's. But the Greek artist probably had to look much more deeply into the nature of things in order to produce those sculptures. They where also delving into the myth of there own creation as a people which is a more profound question that how do I make an ad that will appeal to a status seeking middle class. That is what I was trying to say earlier about art in general, what you want to understand, or say often determines the depth of a work.

kev ferrara said...

Tom,

When painting from the model, there are many ways to skin the many different cats. If one is having trouble with rendering or finishing, then maybe acting as a "meat camera" is exactly what is needed. Many artists I know paint from the model almost unconsciously, without choice coming into the picture at all. They simply go at the canvas and it invariably ends up looking like their work. Too many ways and means to pigeonhole the whole discipline with phrases like "most of the time artists..." dot dot dot.

kev ferrara said...

Tom (cont.)

Regarding puzzling out the differences between the words, the vocabulary by which art is discussed is in an absolute mess, and all sorts of meanings have been conflated or ablated over the decades. Myself, I try to use the meanings understood in 1905 or so, before there was a benefit in the arts to being a sharp-talking fan boy philosopher-cum-marketer. Prior to the deluge, the terms of art seem to have had distinct and sensible meanings which were of utterly practical use to clarifying and sharing the craft of art-making.

I think the main point I would offer is that everything has its decorative aspects. No object in the world, no matter how visually offensive, banal, or bedazzling, is immune to harmonization into some decorative scheme or other. And it is harmonization that is the key dynamic at play... harmonization with the intent, with the venue or architecture, and self-harmonization, ensuring that all elements share a high degree of consonance with just enough variety to prevent boredom.

Now the essence of the ability of a decorative scheme to evoke a particular atmosphere is its emotional tone and symbolic value.

Drama however, at bottom, is necessarily about conflict. Not harmonization, not emotional tone, and not symbolic value. Although every single thing in the world still has its decorative aspects, which includes its emotional tone and the features by which it may be harmonized in a scheme.

Now drama, to be effective as art, must make the audience feel the tension of it, the danger, the suspense, etc. When drama does this, the audience is getting the inner understanding that was encoded into the play. (Theories of how this works include T.S. Eliot's "objective correlative.")

Melodrama is when the audience is offered the outward trappings of the emotions of the play, without being given the actual art experience where they themselves feel the emotions of the play inwardly. So melodrama is that "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," (wrote Shakespeare using melodrama as a metaphor for life.) Melodrama is that empty calorie meal discussed earlier. With no substance behind its emotion, it generally leads toward increasingly vociferous emotional expressions in order to jolt the audience into having something resembling the correct emotional response. Generally this is what is meant by the terms "Theatrical." Theatrical is the forceful outward expression of emotions and ideas; louder and bigger and broader and more colorful. And then more transgressive, obnoxious, and dangerous, as things degenerate from theatrical melodrama to nihilist assaults on the audience's senses.

The impulse to decorate, I think, is actually just the mildest form of the theatrical instinct. It is an outward expression of the emotion or idea, but not an overly forceful one. It functions more by charm than physical coercion.

It cannot be denied, however, that emotionally immature people, like kids, will respond strongly to the atmosphere created by decorations and theatrical expressions. And so Halloween decorations and "event" films and most comic book and fantasy art.

Narrative is just another way of saying distinct sequence of events. Although in philosophy it is often taken to mean a string of causation. The "narrative fallacy" is the common tendency of human beings to look back on a series of happenstance life events and conclude that there was a kind of plan at work, that "everything happened for a reason." This mistakes causation for plot. It seems to me there are any number of plans and plots to follow in nature and life, so I don't believe "narrative" is only ever some fantasy of agency we impose on reality. It is, however, always a form of poetry; a more concise and emphatic version of reality.

Tom said...

Hi Kev
I wasn't skinning a cat, or trying to fix a picture problem, all I was trying to say was consiously or unconsciously a color scheme is a decorative idea.

kev ferrara said...

Tom,

I understand that is what you meant. And I'm saying, with respect to narrative art, you are mistaking artistic result for artistic motivation. Narrative necessarily determines architecture and integral decoration naturally emerges from architecture. Meanwhile surface decoration is necessarily subject to the architecture as well. So if you design and poeticize for narrative understanding, you will get an integral decorative result in the act of achieving your narrative result, and anything you add on for the sake of surface prettiness will still be subject to the composition already in place. On the other hand, if you design for a decorative result, there is no guarantee you will achieve a narrative result at all, because the decorative impulse lacks a sequential impetus, which means there will be a lack a plot, drama, tension, suspense, characters with goals, and anything else associated with story per se.

Sean Farrell said...

David, I agree with your comments on form. Outline is the primary form for recognizing things and usually indicates direction and posture. The Charlie's Angels action silhouette was a dramatic example, but tracing isn't always thought out to be much of anything and is abused for accuracy and that's when it becomes most painful. Tracing can become like a mechanically accurate truth with a limited ability to interact with other forms being of just two dimensions. The form that goes missing with tracing is the form that is created by other forms, the folds on a sleeve following the turn of the wrist for example, lips as they lay upon the protruding teeth is another and the muscles at their sides overlapping their ends. The folds that fall off a blouse from the breasts or from the protruding shoulder blades are other examples. The sides which reveal the top of a shape on a lay of land or a nearby mountain are often forgotten and go flat in a tracing. Artists who use a lot of tracing sometimes don't even know they are compromising such, though Fuchs understood what he was doing.

The ordering of shapes and movement to underlying structures which we find in the Fuchs drawing is creating a kind of order which the observer doesn't notice specifically in his work, but its effects are experienced as order-as-beauty and this order may have at times a mesmerizing effect. It's part of what accounts for that whatever it was, which people knew made his work more effective than his competitors. I can't say I understand how order is beauty, but I can say I experience it. I liken it to a concept such as patience which I understand intellectually, but experience physiologically. Yes that's redundant, but the emphasis is worth it because there's no separation from understanding the idea of patience when experiencing it. By experiencing it, one's understanding of the word patience is greatly enhanced. What I'm trying to get at is that at least some of our understandings of language are discovered experientially and have their origin in experience. In turn and once understood, language can point to and help one re-find or recall the experience of patience. But a person can have an experience of patience, be dumbfounded by its beauty, not identify it and be unable to find it again. The discovery of volume as well as the forms Fuchs is using take time to reveal themselves which is probably why as Tom mentioned, George Bellows became concerned with volume later in his career. It's also hard to understand that Fuchs is doing form, as relations between two and three dimensional forms participating in an order of movement.

I can't put my finger on why order-as-beauty is what it is but I'll try. The narrative here is a type of dance, or movement as beauty, in ways clearly learned from Degas (who retained a love of three dimensional form). The devises used are not formulas superimposed, but are interacting with the movement, the action, which is the form Fuchs is following. The devices are interacting with the form as butterflies wings, though living, are both organically mechanical forms and beautiful forms and as observers, we experience it. I'm afraid that's as close as I can get to it.

Now what Kev is talking about regarding the natural subordination of design to its narrative purpose is also form as order and order as beauty. I agree with Kev that the visual world, which is part of our experiential world, is a language which exceeds our labels. But I also find it difficult to untangle the word from experiential reality, not only when it is so entangled as delusional triggers releasing hormones, but also in exquisite experiences in beauty, unity or truth. It's exactly because we are creatures which cannot survive without recall that it strikes me as too puritanical to try and clinically separate our understandings as labels from our understandings as experience. That's why I find what Fuchs is doing to be a valid and edifying human achievement.

kev ferrara said...

Neither labels nor experiences are understandings, Sean.

Words are the brand name we give to ideas, signposts to experience and signposts to insights that derive from experiences synthesized with others. The naming of our reliquary of mental objects is a tribal order we impose upon the world. Without origination in sensual experience, words refer to nothing. And that is the circumstance that most of us grow up in. Words are generally attached to shallow, unsensual preconceptions that get in the way of actual experience. And the lack of actual experience prevents both sensible conceptions of life and sensible insights about it.

Since human beings are innately biased to believe that all orders are meaningful, a disconnect in our proprietary ordering facility, the alienation between experiences, which inform, complicate, and expand words by correlating them to sensual memories, and the words themselves, which are just complex grunts assigned to those shared experiences, is what leads down the road to individual and collective madness.

As people become more sane, more experienced both with life and the relationships between the appreciations they have collected in their minds, they learn to distinguish between orders that are meaningless (patterns on a turtle shell, "faces" in windows caused by condensation, anything said by a politician, marketer, or bureaucrat, shallow correlations like the arrangement of any unposed snapshot or video footage, etc), the merely pretty (natural ratios, perfect symmetries, light bouncing off any object, most graphics including infographics, crafts, and designs), and those communication forms that purport to offer some combination of fact and truth (good art, journalism, science, literature) with beauty being a desired by-product.


Sean Farrell said...

If someone says, lift that end of the log, there is an immediate understanding in the experience of lifting the end of the log. True, a label is not an understanding derived from a physical experience. But if one says, this is an honest man and he is an honest man, then the label corresponds to the meaning and can be no other.

Sublime beauty is not at odds with the word beauty, because it exceeds the reaches of superficiality. Generally speaking yes, I agree with what you're saying in that the word beauty is applicable to a variety of things, some superficial and all broadly categorized as beauty.

The drawing by Fuchs exposes a unique approach for advertising art of his time and there is certainly a kind of beauty regarding the very intricate ways he creates motion. I don't understand how such is less than excellent as these are complex devices Fuchs understood experientially, not just intellectually, which is a kind of stage in exploring such. But it is the sense of beauty arresting the viewer which is something of a mystery in that the work of Fuchs creates such a response while other artists (also tracing) of his time and using their own forms of order, failed to do. The comparison certainly relates to the question, what is the difference between a tracing and something that is more than a tracing.

If beauty is experiential, then the Fuchs is beautiful and if movement is also beauty then, it is beautiful in an manner of experiencing movement and understanding motion as well. Is it a less than a deeply felt narrative? Well yes, but we're talking about an illustration in an age where editorial became a tie-in with the commercial purposes of the magazine. I find it hard to fault the artists for that. You seem to disagree and you may be right, but you mentioned three fine artists along with the illustrator Everett and all were from a very different era. Once we start saying this is just beauty and that is just drawing and this is just design, then we start falling into our modern habits of self pity where everything just isn't enough and such separates us as people from other eras before I am became it's not, this is became it should be, that is became if only, etc. But you did make your point and Tom as well and it is a good point, that it is not a deeply felt narrative. I appreciate you explaining it.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev,
I share your concern regarding the separation between language and being.

You are saying it is a separation from being which is part of our alienation and I agree. The order that people seek most growing up is safety. All this stuff you mention is part of growing up, the search for stimulation, etc. and imagery is as much a source of delusions as words search for their meaning often mistaken.

Beauty is part of the reality of being. So is being human part of beauty. It is central to being as one focuses on virtue which is of order. Art captures different parts of this experience and human tragedy in delusion as well. But I've never heard an artist place the beauty which is, outside the order of being. I find your position very puzzling.

kev ferrara said...

No, hand created imagery is much less of a source of delusion because it is always making its nature as a fiction known. It is very easy to tell you are looking at a cartoon when you are looking at a cartoon. But it is actually quite difficult to know you are reading or hearing a cartoon in words, which is just how so many bookish people fall for ideologies. All ideologies are cartoons, yet they sweep nations leading to untold misery.

Photographs are also cartoons in their way, and are equally difficult to parse as such because they look so effortlessly realistic. The great danger of world drowning in media dominance is that words and photos are the currency of the realm, as well as the keepers of it.

Language, I believe, begins as mimickry, then becomes poetic art, and then inevitably becomes a mere communication system; the names for the physical and mental objects that fill a society's life lose touch with their origins as mimickry, become hackneyed as art, and are taught by rote to from dull teachers to dulled students in a dull classroom (or computer) which barricades out real experience. The language becomes filled with what linguists call "dead metaphors" and other denuded mental objects which linguists haven't gotten to yet; a late stage of linguistic development where the poetry of a language becomes so ossified that it loses all capacity to cause a sensual effect in its users and is then, for practical reasons, reduced to its smallest symbolic expression (lol) to speed the dull exchange of information along. So it becomes a kind of shorthand code fit only for uninflected quotidian dispatches.

Where did I place beauty outside the order of being?

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Sean Farrell said...

I think what your implying is that the drawing is the visual cartoon counterpart to the empty word as label. I don't really agree with that but it is a strong statement and an interesting thought. The drawing is a comp illustration and not the finished work. Yes, it's an outlined drawing but one passage as simple and primitive as the tie on each side of the invisible diagonal line works as a skip from one side of the line to the other is anything but screaming out its presence. Also to acknowledge another point you made, modernism is enamored with method over content and school teachers have moaned about such for decades.

Yes, the linguists have some valid observations but their goal is destructive and their reasoning duplicitous. Their life as construct is at war with life as what is.

Western culture was based on what is, from the Greeks and the non-duplicitious word, or the word made flesh, alive, being, or again, what is. An example being, the honest man mentioned earlier.

What this means, is that words obtain meaning through experience. When our pursuits of pleasure and safety fail us, we desire to become more human. It's beneficial to understand our humanity to draw closer and appreciate what is, its order, and a person takes on the shape of the words which direct us to being more human. In this process the word becomes alive, flesh, more human; yes, accepting faults mitigating our conflicts with what is. Growing in our humanity or human being is not just anything, it is our greatest achievement.

People long for order, grasping at odd pieces of beauty and patterns of all kinds and this is part of the whole process of learning and yet, the misappropriated parts aren't any less apart of the order of being.

kev ferrara said...

As I wrote, the theatrical is the screamer, with decorative being the quiet sibling who charms rather than dazzles. I don't have any issue with the diagonal back of the couch lining up with the tie.

Your proxy critique of the ideas of "dead metaphors" and other linguistic degeneracies by attacking the entire academic arena of linguistics is a red herring fallacy. I consider Chomsky and many others in the "discipline" frauds, but that doesn't mean that the language problems I enumerated don't exist.

Regarding your statement that "when pursuits of pleasure and safety fail us, we desire to become more human," I think that is just too simplistic. I think we also can become more robotic, sheeplike, vicious, animalistic, or insane under those circumstances.

Some of your other stuff in the last two paragraphs is basically what I had just written in the prior post. Although I would restate that I agree that mistaking the pretty for the beautiful, mistaking random correlations for signs from above, or the outward signs of a communication for its inward meanings, (and all that jazz) is a part of growth. Of course. And you can find a million different kinds of nailpolish that are infused with glitter. Such mass produced products are aimed squarely at teenaged girls, and not because they are wise.

Sean Farrell said...

The language problems exist and have always existed. That was my point. That's what the big stories were about, the Greeks with the logos, what is, Judaism with I Am, also Christianity, I Am, the word as substance, flesh, bread, being, the interior and exterior relationships, the self and the larger world, etc. The healing of the non duplicitous word, order, beauty. Then there was the enemy, delusion and duplicity. It's all about being and not being, to be or not to be. So what's changed?

What we are experiencing today is a loss of experience, a loss of being and such would reenergize our language. We've so satisfied our needs for safety that we have taken to delusions. We don't need to strip the language of pronouns. Science is proving that substance in relations is real. We are now leaving this era. A new more demanding reality is upon us.

In my little example which was too simple I was addressing an an example of desire to move towards an order which is more human. Yes of course the example is simplistic but it is..an example.

Degas went to great lengths to hide is artistry and here we have a drawing which is a terrific introduction to understanding some of him (I don't think anyone understands all of him) and also Fuchs and it is an eye opener for me to see it. I'm trying to make the point of what this drawing is and you have been going on about what it isn't.

In that process you have made some excellent points and I thank you for them, but the drawing is and has much to offer, despite what it isn't.

kev ferrara said...

Sean,

I think you've hit upon a number of areas where we profoundly disagree. I think we have pushed past a significant threshold in the history of mass communication and education with profound consequences never before met with: Our public philosophers are comedians. We use distractions as a mode of discourse. The virtues are considered a kind of brainwashing. Truth and talent are considered superstitions. The fondest wish of our "sophisticated" class is to appear youthful. Art and Advertisements are synthesizing. Millions require pills in order to concentrate. Millions of childhoods have been occupied by glaring LED screens that offer a spiritually and physically debilitating alternative to actual life. Intellectual property theft has become normalized as "sharing." Many branches of Science have become forms of political religion. Millions relax by virtual killing. The intellectual diet of most information consumers is utterly circumscribed by prior beliefs. Every belief system has become just another demographic to be pandered to. Strangers are called friends. Parents act like kids. Trash and obscenity are considered artful. People who offer nothing feel entitled to everything. Rage passes for music. Comments pass for literature. And so on. A wilderness of cartoons, so to speak.

The fuchs drawing is a sad commentary on what a supremely talented man was forced to do to "keep up" with the ultra productive hacks he was fated to compete again. Now we have photobashing so the hacks don't even need to draw at all.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I passionately agree with everything you just said, but with your take on the drawing. I've offered a simpler explanation for what we do agree with.

Our culture has rejected the reality of what is and we've become a negative culture interested in what isn't. I agree that language is by nature an approximation of explaining what is, but not always and I gave two examples. The moderns hated Norman Rockwell for his love of narrative and the ordinary human being with things of the heart in them. Rockwell understood the value of what is and the people of what is. For example, he may have understood a man watching his son play baseball was involved in a positive act of what is and wasn't responsible for what was not. He didn't try to paint what wasn't. Painting and drawing are positive actions. Is that too simplistic?

What is, loves what is and not what isn't. The culture of what isn't, is hateful of what is. Our historical understandings have been inverted by endless second thoughts of academics. Socrates wasn't this, Columbus wasn't that and on and on as if everyone were supposed to be Superman operating in proper proportion at all times. The effect of endless critical thinking is a negative culture, one that fears what is and fears making mistakes, fears taking chances and so on. It loves the opposite, irreverence, tearing things down and so on. It is the culture of what isn't which is into shaming everyone.

Our difference over the drawing has to do with the following. In it are a number of devices which go back 150 years to millennium which are still valuable, subtle and persuasive ways to create movement with a single pencil. Fuchs may have added a few new wrinkles. I can't be sure. The drawing is moving like the lights of Times Square and this forms a texture of life which is valid. A painter achieves such vibrancy in different ways with color and the brush. You may know everything and yes I understand that what you're saying about narrative being supremely important to the objective of communication, which has been neglected and lost and also the subordination of all to subject. I've acknowledged most of the important things you have said. But this drawing has things in it worth learning and I dare say, that not everyone is familiar with them and I believe there is enthusiasm to be discovered in such and for the drawing. What are you gaining for others by being such a killjoy here? The drawing is worth investigating, yes, despite the tracing. That's our disagreement.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I didn't really explain my optimism and I admit, the scene could get much darker before it gets better. I'll try. Yes, what is going on is unprecedented because of the technology which you explained well. The Roman Colosseum saw some bad things too, so we have this ugly stuff in us.

The waves of immigration have ruptured the cozy era of delusion which now views history as a poetic collective. A stark reality is upon it. The what isn't, anti-hero crowd is old and their equally old philosophical underpinnings are dissolving in the face of new science and this new reality. We have a better chance of seeing the male and female conjugations return before the new pronouns are adopted. All seems lost and all may seem ever lost as technology challenges humanity's right to be. The major issue remains being.

My optimism lies in the fact that at some point people will have to act and only beings can act. It could be a terrible thing, like Rwanda. But in being also lies some good medicine. In being is all the beauty you have been discussing and trying to share here for as long as I've been reading these comments. I know it's nothing to be cheery about, but it is something to remember.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I could hardly stop thinking of your list of concerns.
You are making an argument for the subjective experience, which the world is trying to get rid of. That's what they hated in Norman Rockwell's people. They wanted to change those people and get rid of their subjective identifications, their personal bonds with love and expand them to be ideological. That's where the narrative became ideological and mechanical. The change did take place in illustration in the late 1950s and it did across society shortly after. If that was a process of commercialization, it retrospect it also served the ideology. Their goal is not connected to the heart or what you are calling sensual (interpretations of what is), or another might call perceptual, but all three are real in the world of what is and delusional in the ideological world which isn't.

These ideological people believe they can sensualize (in their own vision of that word), all experiences to no longer be limited to those people we have actual bonds. It's a massive and fascinating subject but there is this goal to rid the world of the subjective experience, identifications and subjective bond; to commodify it.

David Apatoff said...

I just returned from my business trip last night, and while I'm dismayed to see that these conversations proceed on a more intelligent and loftier plane without me, that won't stop me from weighing in on a few points that have been raised over the past few days.

I like the idea that a sketch such as this Fuchs drawing can serve as a springboard for all kinds of philosophical discussions about issues that go beyond marks on paper. That's one reason I love drawing as much as I do. Those lines share a common language with some of the most important issues affecting our day to day life.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I wasn't writing with academic precision, David. Yet, I think it should have been clear that by "mere beauty with no truth behind it" I was referring to prettiness, glamor, or decoration for its own sake and not actual beauty, which, if you agree with Keats, (as I do) is necessarily/definitionally tied to truth."

If not with "academic precision," then perhaps with the rhetorical extremism of poets, revolutionaries and jilted lovers, hmmmm? Not that I'm opposed to a little poetic excess-- I've been known to indulge in it myself, and it feels real good. But it is not the language of builders or engineers or drafters of legislation, and that seems to be a large part of what you are attempting here: to construct a rational system of definitions and principles that describe the workings of slippery and subjective notions such as "beauty."

If you truly agree with Keats, then beauty is not simply "tied to truth," it IS truth. If that Fuchs drawing is beautiful, Keats says that's all the truth you should need, and there is no separate inquiry necessary about its meaning or especially about the veracity of its meaning. I suppose we could bridge the gap by broadening the definition of meaning. Are you willing to agree that a thickly applied, lush stroke with the broad side of a pencil on a textured, cream color piece of paper has "meaning" within your definition?

Tom-- I intended to use the Elgin marbles only as one example of idealized art that is prevalent in much of art history. I associate Fuch's pretty people who would look good at the race track with the pretty people commonly depicted by the ancient Greeks and Romans and dozens of art traditions after that. More often than not, artists selected the best nose from one figure and the best shoulders from another and the best abs from a third, to come up ideal figures. Great artists have always liked to draw them, cultured audiences have always liked to look at them, and I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Fuchs' pretty people just because we live in one of those brief windows where "truth" means capturing every pockmark and veneral sore.

David Apatoff said...

Tom and Kev Ferrara-- I think the term "decoration" is broad enough to encompass both of your views. Personally, I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of decoration, which I suspect is as close to our biological nature as it is to the nature of the bower bird that selects brightly colored ribbons and objects to decorate its nest. Yes, some modern applications of decoration are, in Kev's words, "just the mildest form of the theatrical instinct." But decoration goes back to the prehistoric caves at the dawn of humankind, and over the years our species has attached great significance to it and paid a high price for it. Shamans went into pitch black caves populated by bears and other man eating creatures, sometimes as far as a mile, to decorate the right sacred spot with geometric dots. These were people desperate for food and warmth, always on the run from stronger animals, and yet their priorities were to decorate their environment. Tribes endured great physical pain to decorate their bodies with tattoos and scars. Decorations of the Koran and other sacred texts became a life-or-death issue. The Taj Mahal is a pinnacle of the decorative art, and is universally respected.

I agree with Kev that "emotionally immature people, like kids, will respond strongly to the atmosphere created by decorations" but the people I described above who sacrificed greatly for decoration, some of whom treated decoration as a way of worshiping their god, are hardly "emotionally immature." I would say they are on average more spiritual, thoughtful and dveout than we are.

David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell and Kev Ferrara-- It never seems to fail. The people who love words the most-- who take them most seriously and spend the most time crafting them and using them-- are the ones who indict words as inadequate and meaningless. A person can argue that language evolves from "mimickry" to "a mere communication system," that it is only "the brand name we give to ideas," that it is cluttered with "dead metaphors" and "denuded mental objects," and incapable of rivaling the richness of experience, etc, etc. Ezra Pound made similar arguments and so did Walt Whitman, using all their eloquence to denounce the value of eloquence. In each case, the author's use of language belies his belief in his own argument.

I think what Sean calls the "the separation between language and being" is more properly the separation between mind and reality. Particularly in western cultures, our Aristotelian, Neoplatonic and Pauline heritages combine to make us think in categories, which we define with as much conceptual rigor and verbal discipline as our minds can muster. These categories create an inevitable schism between mind and reality. Thus, even if reality exists at some level as a unified whole, the world is a paradox to us; we can't close the gap between mind/body, or free will/determinism, ends/means, flesh/spirit, fact/intuition, symbolic/literal, mystical/rational and other dualities. (Kev, your buddy Kant is a prime example of the mind of man trying to superimpose logical categories on seamless experience. If he couldn't do it, our chances aren't good.) So I believe the problem you describe isn't just that our vocabulary is not up to the challenges presented by omni-dimensional experience. For the same reasons, I don't believe that art and beauty can bridge the gap.

On the good side, our belief in the independent reality of the external world has practical daily applications; for example it has led us to the scientific revolution, followed by the industrial revolution, followed by the technological revolution. And most relevant to this discussion, I believe that art (and particularly art's "meaning," the ingredient that makes Kev all hot and bothered) doesn't join the two worlds but rather is enhanced by the creative polarity of the two, just as words are.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I understand why you place a premium on "meaning" in art, and even why you generally hold it in higher esteem than "decoration" but I don't know how a hierarchy with so many variables can remain firmly in place. Does a painting with a poor job of "meaning" rate higher than a painting with no meaning at all but a great job of decoration? Do some forms of "meaning" rate higher than others? (For example, does Kathe Kollwitz rate higher than Leni Riefenstahl for political reasons?) How does good meaning conveyed with bad skill compare with mediocre meaning conveyed with great skill? How does the oblique meaning of Rothko contrast with more literal symbolism of Steinberg? And what do we make of the visual meanings that come and go with the visual literacy of the audience?

Sean Farrell said...

Thank you David, Kev and Tom. I'll try to nudge this a little closer. Kev has done a great job at explaining that the visual language is larger than verbal language. He explains that visual language is more articulate and accurate than verbal language, because it is an experiential part of our existential reality. He has said in the past that that such possesses great beauty and order which one experiences as internal feelings. The order I'm referring to as opposed to Kev, is not limited to the external senses and is experienced involuntarily, not as a product of will and this larger order is itself beauty. It is sometimes accompanied with emotional meaning or an emotional understanding, which one may sense verbally as an afterthought.

The order Kev is referring to though in this comment section is particular to art or the arts, though he has spoken of it in wider usage. People do experience a connection to this beauty and meaning as the poets attest. Kev has said that our verbal language is a translation of impulses received by receptors which are unable to capture such connections in truth by words as they aren't by nature dimensional, as is our visual reality. I think that is his position. That words are like cartoons or approximations, missing dimension, color, etc. (Of course our visual world is also translated and understood through a pre-verbal stage of growth, but words aren't dimensional and have multiple meanings and as labels aren't the actual thing they represent.)

My position differs slightly. I include the non-duplicitous word or non-duplicitious action as in union with being, or what is, even if only in part, not encompassing all action or all meaning. Still, it is in union with it, as a part of what is. That is, it is not in disunion with it as is a liar or one with an ulterior motive which is involved with what isn't. Rockwell's characters would be an example of people in a simple state of what is. Simple visual realities are also within it in the same manner. Of course a human being is a more significant part of the greater order than a visual devise, but a visual devise is a real part of communications and is often a simple communication in its own right such as pattern as movement. It's true there are language problems but there are also delusions in the imaginary state as images and feelings and they often work together. The internal and external world are part of what is, science, etc., but hopes for experiencing such beauty in order need not be abandoned because others have failed.

I agree that good art can make people feel and understand things deeply, which is quite different than say reading instructions to a new digital device, but I do think some parts of language are not duplicitous and translate accurately regarding certain realities, like the virtues, kindness, etc., which are also experiential and can elicit terrific depth of feeling, especially in action and intention as very small parts of what is. Norman Rockwell's characters are alive as themselves within their limited role in what is. There's something very powerful and honest in that. The key to this portal of beauty is an intimacy with reality and a sense of proportion in regard to what one is actually doing.

Sean Farrell said...

An operative word in Rockwell's work is dignity, which he brought to all his people. His only regret he once said, was not showing proper respect for a family on the way to church, which he made to look goofy.

The substance in Rockwell's best pictures is the humanity of his subjects. It is not the material substance alone, but the nature of the substance. The fatigue in the form, the heroic form, the joy of the working people in a simple moment. In these things is humanity as substance and that means understanding as substance, because our understandings have a physiological effect on us and take on a visual form. Understanding as substance is part of what is and involves multiple interactions of different languages, along with condition, age and other realities which we cumulatively understand more deeply as feeling. In other words, we arrive at an understanding of dignity through discernment which may not seem to be interacting with knowns, but which are acting to direct us to deeper feelings through visual elements. Our commercial and technological world is reducing the area and need for feelings and for the participation of or humanity in the commerce and interactions of life and this appears headed to a possible THX 1138 type dystopia of isolation as language dislocates itself from feelings.

Beneath the substance of the human subject, are the parts and elements in the image which gain dignity by their respective nature acting as supporting actors in the narrative, as Kev has explained all this. In a landscape color and light communicate too as their own end, while cross communicating with the nature of the forms of trees, rocks, etc. and also movement. All these interacting communicating forms create a feeling which is or is certainly a major part of our understanding of the landscape. Drawing as an end, is limited to line, tone (light), edges and movement interacting with the subject matter. Like landscape, drawing doesn't always emphasize any exclusively human narrative, but the nature of its parts or a narrative of its nature. This is a summary of what we have been talking about as I'm trying from my perspective to clarify a few things.

Fuchs' simple skip from one side to the other of an invisible line is a fresh twist on a very old motif, very much the way writers try and bring new life to old word combinations. The use of flat shapes grew across the 20th century in illustration accommodating graphics and understanding form. The cutaway shapes popularized by Clarence Henry Cole are appropriated for spatial purposes in the drawing. The use of the side of the pencil for interior folds in cloth and the delicacy of the line was very much a regular in the fashion illustration of Carl Erickson, also influenced by Degas, who influenced drawing across several decades, especially the 1950s when many young illustrators wanted his line or that of Bouche. The motif of leaves on a table behind and to the right of the coffee pot move in a visual direction, the opposite direction of growth. Yet, the drawing has more.

kev ferrara said...

If that Fuchs drawing is beautiful, Keats says that's all the truth you should need, and there is no separate inquiry necessary about its meaning or especially about the veracity of its meaning.

Are you presuming that any heartfelt use of the word beauty must be the correct usage? Therefore, say, if you call a well cared-for old Deuzenberg beautiful, it must be so that the automobile is expressing something true? This seems to indicate a belief that beauty is a magical word that, when invoked, automatically entails truthfulness in the communication under scrutiny.

Well, it should be obvious that calling something beautiful no more makes it True than Bugs Bunny calling somebody "doc" makes them a physician. So that's just a confused argument.

Let me reintroduce a notion that I've gone into before; that it isn't Yeats' words that I'm talking about. I don't have the slightest stake in the words he uses, or how nice his aphorism sounds. I'm only interested in what he meant; What he meant by beauty and what he meant by truth and what he meant by equating those terms.

Given how dependent it is on spiritually-dead photo ref, at best, the Fuchs drawing is only partially true & beautiful in the sense in which Keats proffered.

It never seems to fail. The people who love words the most-- who take them most seriously and spend the most time crafting them and using them-- are the ones who indict words as inadequate and meaningless. A person can argue that language evolves from "mimickry" to "a mere communication system," that it is only "the brand name we give to ideas," that it is cluttered with "dead metaphors" and "denuded mental objects," and incapable of rivaling the richness of experience, etc, etc. Ezra Pound made similar arguments and so did Walt Whitman, using all their eloquence to denounce the value of eloquence. In each case, the author's use of language belies his belief in his own argument.

I write to you in English because you read English.

I struggle to craft signs in these damn ready-mades that you might be directed toward exactly what I mean should you already appreciate the truth of what I say. And only if this is the case. This "big if" is the limit of every conversation. Without that prior experience-caused appreciation, what I write is surely no different to you or anybody else reading this than empty rhetoric; gibberish pretending to be profound. Which is surely how most of what I write must sound, despite any semblance of surface eloquence I might stumble into while trying to nail my thoughts down.

Understand, I wouldn't need to write a thing if I could demonstrate my points over the internet. And then I wouldn't need to point you anywhere except toward your own experience.

kev ferrara said...

Are you willing to agree that a thickly applied, lush stroke with the broad side of a pencil on a textured, cream color piece of paper has "meaning" within your definition?

I would consider such a mark to have, for want of a better term, proto-meaning; a syllable appearing outside a word, without a sentence to appear in, in want of a paragraph to contextualize it, falling outside of any composition that might have a point to its being regarding this subject we call life.

the people I described above who sacrificed greatly for decoration, some of whom treated decoration as a way of worshiping their god, are hardly "emotionally immature." I would say they are on average more spiritual, thoughtful and devout than we are.

Epistemological humility advises me not to give your guesses about our distant cave dwelling ancestors any weight as arguments. All I know is that immature human minds respond to primitive art as if it were real. And if maturity comes, and it doesn't always, only finer art will have aesthetic effect. Which is not to say that well designed decorations will no longer be appreciated, just that their emotional effectiveness will fall away.

Sean Farrell said...

To the contrary Kev, you have explained yourself wonderfully, making your your main points more than understood numerous times and I personally thank you for such. But the distilling of reality into myth, magic and poetry can also fall prey to convention and repetition. The hierarchy of the things of beauty has also been acknowledged here and the hierarchical position of narrative and subservience of parts has been acknowledged a number of times too.

No one is arguing with your main premise regarding language as label either. Rather you over categorize the reality of identification to exclude not just the reality of the word as label, but the very feeling associated with that being identified.

Many religions identified their deities by name and calling upon their name in reverence was a major part of their experiential reality. Americans who have done Transcendental Meditation were calling upon the names of Hindu deities in the form of mantras, the names of the deities, though they didn't know it, nor were they told so. It is still common among Jewish people to not fully spell out the word in reverence for a being beyond their understandings and will. The reason this practice existed over millenniums is that a physiological reality was associated with the ritual of invoked names. Whatever one may think of this, I use it as a reminder that identification may conjure a particular feeling with whatever it is identified. The skeptic claims such is a self invoked awakening of an inner feeling aroused by association with the word or words, but nobody claims that the identification is without power to invoke a feeling. What is commonly called the poetry of myth remains to some the experiential feelings associated with reverence to such things as mercy, dignity, courage, love, sacrifice, humility, etc. as characteristics of their deity. Being of great beauty, such were often associated with different deities. And some cultures associated feelings with less than edifying emotions and deified them or identified their deities by such. That scientists can probe parts of the brain to activate such experiences has nothing to do with the physiological awakenings of the same by their particular associations. Nor does it prove anything more than the human organism has the apparatus to experience such.

As per the drawing. Yes the drawing was traced, but it is the result of decades of drawing drudge work; of the countless failures that come with the process of drawing and an intimate relationship which involves a love of drawing itself and despite its shortcomings as a tracing, love and intelligence in drawing is coming through the drawing. Yes, it's understood that the drawing isn't invoking great depths of myth, poetry, and narrative, but my gosh, that's not a weapon to insult to the thousands of hours and love it takes to make a drawing that exhibits an intimate relationship with drawing.

It is precisely the emphasis on substance-as-substance-as-art or substance as poetry reflecting the greater Zen of reality that we have to endure piles of bricks or dirt, arranged or as haphazard expressions of what is, rather than just looking at it for what it is and moving on.

Sean Farrell said...

I meant to say, not just the reality of the thing the word identifies, but the feeling associated with what is identified. Sorry about that.

kev ferrara said...

Does a painting with a poor job of "meaning" rate higher than a painting with no meaning at all but a great job of decoration?

Firstly, no matter how decorative a painting, if it doesn't go with the drapes and the couch, it will look ugly. You cannot take decoration out of the larger decorative context. Whereas a statement of truth and beauty will stand on its own.

Secondly, these are two different goals, to create meaningful art versus creating appropriate decoration. It is like asking "Do you think that essay by Hobbes is more meaningful than that table lamp is pretty?" This is the kind of weighing we use when deciding between purchases at a flea market. Philosophically, there is no comparison.

Do some forms of "meaning" rate higher than others?

The examples you give of "types of meaning" demonstrate that you still are thinking literally. You are asking questions like; is a well executed portrait of Hitler "worse" or "better" in meaning than a poorly executed portrait of Bob Dylan? Or six differently-colored prints of Marilyn Monroe? But these examples have nothing to do with truth and beauty and everything to do with politics, historical facts, nostalgia, sex appeal, sociology, and fashion. If there is something to be expressed relative to Hitler, Dylan or Monroe that is both beautiful and true, then the actual historical personages of Hitler, Dylan and Monroe need not be involved. Truth always goes beyond the facts and figures, taking in the timeless relationships between things, whether epic or intimate.

kev ferrara said...

Kev has done a great job at explaining that the visual language is larger than verbal language.

The best way to think about it is that for every two things that are named, everything in between goes unmentioned. With text being used as an ersatz form of experience by so many, what is elided in the text, rather than being implied as in experience, becomes lost. And I think this is what leads to so many incorrect connections being made by “intellectuals.” The very fact that moon and june, or core and war rhyme meaninglessly demonstrates the problem. Code/text languages are rife with meaningless correspondences. Whereas good art is not.

I include the non-duplicitous word or non-duplicitious action as in union with being

Firstly, the problems of words are not necessarily to do with it being a form of lie. Many – I would guess most - untruths are spoken through ignorance rather than malice. We are taught language in good conscience because it is necessary for human life. But, as with every technology, it has undesirable byproducts, part of which is that it trains us to accept its implicit philosophy – which I would put as the following: that any lexicon of labels is sufficient to represent any particular reality for the purposes of modeling and study, and that the complete statement provides a complete unit of knowledge which has practical value to one’s life.

As one gets older and wiser it becomes obvious that language is hilariously kluged in its apparatus, as a modeling system of life it is like using tinkertoys to explain quantum mechanics, and as a mode of communication (thereby) it is mostly used either vacuously, with unwitting pretense, or to manipulate market information to one’s own benefit (politically). Another way to say it, is that language is a form of poetry which, because it is implicitly declarative and specific-sounding (due to its performed compositional structures and its use of ready-made elements, respectively), keeps fooling us into thinking it is necessarily observant journalism.

All to say, it isn’t just duplicity that is the problem. It is the many and often sneaky ways that language fools speaker, writer and audience alike. Art, on the other hand, as I have said before, immediately and continually reveals itself to be a fiction. And so keeps all involved constantly apprised as to the poetic nature of the exchange.

I do think some parts of language are not duplicitous and translate accurately regarding certain realities, like the virtues, kindness, etc., which are also experiential and can elicit terrific depth of feeling, especially in action and intention as very small parts of what is.

There is no such thing as accurate translation. Of anything. There is, however, the objective correlative.

Tom said...

Kev wrote

"Firstly, no matter how decorative a painting, if it doesn't go with the drapes and the couch, it will look ugly. You cannot take decoration out of the larger decorative context. Whereas a statement of truth and beauty will stand on its own. "

Yes but a decorative painting can also be a statement of truth and beauty and therfore stand on it's own. Decoration is an arrangement of elements. An arrangement of elements is composition. My original point was lots of people can compose, or arrange elements in pleasing beautiful ways, but that does not mean they can draw well.

Art has degrees of meaning. Whether you are decorating or making a "great statement of truth," you are still using the elements of art to make your statement. The elements of art can make mundane statements about VO whiskey or profound statements about existence.


Kev wrote
"The examples you give of "types of meaning" demonstrate that you still are thinking literally. You are asking questions like; is a well executed portrait of Hitler "worse" or "better" in meaning than a poorly executed portrait of Bob Dylan? '

I did not think David was saying that. I thought he meant something along the lines of this. Why does a Van Gogh painting of a starry night strike many people as more profound that many of the great huge historical paintings of the 19th century? Why can a painting of great decorative/compostional arrangement, six persimmons by Muqi-Fachang strike people as so profound?

How is the pattern on a turtle shell meaningless? Pattern is what makes composition possible. Pattern makes things comprehensible. One can actual see into the nature of things via pattern. Are anatomy, growth patterns, light and shade patterns meaningless? The patterns of nature can tells as much about ourselves as any story we create in the mind. Decorative arrangements and pattern are suggestive of all kinds of wonderful ideas.

kev ferrara said...

An arrangement of elements is composition.

No, this isn't true. This is the modernist conception of composition, which has discarded meaning, leaving mere design which is ornamental and pretty in nature. When you compose an essay or sonata, you don't just arrange elements, you also research them, uncover them, develop them, and then organize them into units of meaning, and then sequence those units in order to demonstrate the overall purpose or meaning of the work as a whole. The overall point to emphasize is that a great work of art will be decorative because it is beautiful. And it will be beautiful because it states truth in a clear way through aesthetic/imaginative means.

Van Gogh painting of a starry night strike many people as more profound that many of the great huge historical paintings of the 19th century?

The Van Gogh expresses in a joyful, youthful way the wonder of looking at a starry night and falling into a kind of wondrous dream state. I'm not sure it is profound in the way it functions to provide that feeling, but it is effective in the way it presents that meaning. It worked for me when I first saw it, but like many cartoons, its effectiveness has waned for me. It is easy to critique it for its cartooniness, but it isn't completely a cartoon. There is some interesting drawing in it, some observations which are unique. It is what it is. And I generally like the kind of people that like it; the young at heart.

Much historical painting is deadly dull with nothing profound to express. Instead its function is to create a kind of factual tableau of some event. It doesn't touch that deep "something human" in us, a shared intuition about life or a life experience. So such paintings are like the backdrops of the exhibits at the natural history museums, rather than works charged with the human spirit. Although, it certainly requires a tremendous amount of work to create the reality of an historical painting. It is more the product of an engineering imagination rather than a romantic one, and it is certainly worthy of respect in that light.

Six persimmons is a deft and pleasant haiku with not much to say. It has the elegance of austerity and suggestiveness, but it would be a mistake to assume that such qualities are necessarily profound. One can easily make a link to Rothko's austere and suggestive projection tests here, where the profundity is all in the audience and not at all in the work.

How is the pattern on a turtle shell meaningless? Pattern is what makes composition possible. Pattern makes things comprehensible. One can actual see into the nature of things via pattern. Are anatomy, growth patterns, light and shade patterns meaningless? The patterns of nature can tells as much about ourselves as any story we create in the mind. Decorative arrangements and pattern are suggestive of all kinds of wonderful ideas.

You are mixing up two different kind of symbolism. Sure, nothing nature does is meaningless in terms of natural science or detection. Everything is a mark of something, and thereby an index of it and suggestive of it. And that is excellent foundational material for art. But don't confuse that stuff with Art. Because then we get into the projection test thing again, and pareidolias of various sorts, where vague doodles activate the loose frays of the viewer's psyche, and piggyback on them for their artistic effects. Same thing as a Rorshach test, but without the frame and price tag. Art orchestrates suggestions to make specific illusions of specific associative values in order to build larger points. No larger point can be made if the foundation of the composition has no specificity. You can't build a worthwhile house in a swamp. Although its been tried many times as modernists have floundered around looking new fashions to bring to market.

Laurence John said...

David: "Does a painting with a poor job of "meaning" rate higher than a painting with no meaning at all but a great job of decoration? Do some forms of "meaning" rate higher than others? "

good questions.

Kev,
how do you rate a painting such as this, which is, after all, merely a study of the effects of light on the passengers of an omnibus ?
... not exactly full of profound meaning is it ? should it just be consigned to the 'excellent technique but superficial content' bin ?

or this, which is just a swagger portrait of a couple of wealthy arty types... not very profound is it ?

kev ferrara said...

What? That Zorn is far, far more than a study of light. Wow, completely surprised to hear such an absurd reduction of that piece. It is a tremendous piece of poetry. It is as full of poetry as a painting can get. But it fools us into the thinking it is realistic because it is so expertly poeticized. It gets at the truth of that moment with those passengers in that particular bus, how crowded it it, the vacant looks; people lost in private thoughts, the different social strata thrown together with nothing to say to one another, the dingy mood and stale air, the time of day and the particular light effects. All of it is evoked in very clever and expert ways through the plastic means of oil paint to express the experience of that moment. It isn't just some factual tableau or photo. If you can't tell that, you're at square one of appreciating art. Or you are just angry at something I wrote and so you are attacking something you think I might like out of spite without really analyzing the actuality of the quality of the work.

I can't say I enjoy that Sargent all that much. But it is a portrait and the purpose of a portrait's artfulness is to evoke the sitter(s) - their presence and personality and other aspects about them - using the suggestive means availed to the artist. And I think this double portrait, even though it is not my favorite, does that quite well. (The fact that those subjects were wealthy or not doesn't affect me in the least. I don't reflexively feel anything toward people I don't know and I'm not jealous of what other people have, particularly the long dead variety of people I don't know.)

Regarding profundity, all truth telling has some degree of profundity, it seems to me. But obviously some observations are quite a bit more penetrating than others. Profundity does not need to be cosmic, necessarily. There are many different kinds of interesting truths. And painters and illustrators have a visual language that can get at truths that other languages can't discuss. And vice versa. So it would be a mistake to look for literary or scientific or historical or philosophical truth in art. Each of those forms has its own purview distinct from art's and each other's.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "If you can't tell that, you're at square one of appreciating art."

i was playing devil's advocate when i called the Zorn painting a 'mere study'. i adore that painting, but i'm afraid i don't see any profound 'meaning' in it.
nor is the painting any weaker for it. i could cite dozens of other examples by other artists too, which don't rely on the weight of a 'dramatic narrative' or 'profundity' to be brilliant paintings.

i was actually trying (unsuccessfully obviously) to get you to have another look at the question posed by David that i quoted above, which you seem to be missing the gist of.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

I don't think I'm missing the gist of David's question. I thought I already pointed out the fallacy of it... the idea of comparing apples (meaning) and oranges (decoration) and then "rating" them against one another. The whole idea of rating when dealing with qualitative observations smacks of Zagat's. I think we can only appreciate. And the more observant and true and comprehensive our appreciations, the better we appreciate any particular artwork and the more we appreciate the possibilities of the language of art as a whole.

And you do feel the meaning of that Zorn painting, which is surely why you adore it. I would say you just aren't appreciating the kind of truth it is telling and the way it is telling that truth because painting isn't your fluent language. I think it disconcerts you that you can't put your finger on just what the picture says, mainly because it isn't saying. At least not in a way that can translate into English. It surely is not profound in the literary sense, but that's fine because every discipline has its own purview, its own profundities. The way that Zorn is evoking the moment in paint is profound in the artistic sense.

To put it another way; to really nail the tone of a room in all its subtleties, in all its different manifestations; as physicality, as psychology, as space, as light, as emotion, as form, as air, as gesture, as life, yet still keeping both unified in its artfulness and as a believable evocation of a reality, is the work of genius.

Laurence John said...

Kev,

i think it's fairly obvious that David was using the word 'meaning' to imply 'weighty issues / deep content' (the human condition etc.) not the way you're using it in connection with the Zorn painting.

all you're really saying is that he was 'profoundly skilled' at capturing that scene in paint .... no argument there from me, but you're evading the other question.

kev ferrara said...

However David meant meaning, doesn't quite matter. What matters is the kind of meanings that are natural to art. I introduced the issue of meaning because understanding my critique of Fuchs' photo-dependent drawing depends on understanding just how photography elides more meaning than it captures, and leads viewers to mistake factual tableaux for truthful/beautiful poetic statements.

And I'm sorry to be disagreeable, but if art was just a skill anybody could be Zorn. But at the heart of artful work is tremendously keen sensitivity and appreciation and outstanding memory and an ability to abstract poetically and narratively, to sense what is true and not true in pictorial and emotional relationships, an ability to express emotion through plasticity and whole lot else that is rare or generally in small quantities in most humans. Again, I think you are simply failing to appreciate that Zorn through your intellect.



Laurence John said...

Kev: "...depends on understanding just how photography elides more meaning than it captures..."


no one has explained that one yet... if the photographer (like Fuchs) is also the painter / illustrator and taking his own photo ref.

i'll copy the questions again in case you missed them the first time:

David: "... if an artist stages his or her own photo artistically, and puts their own artistic meaning into it, dependence on the photo cannot be "cheating the art" because the photo is part of the art."

Me: "an illustrator (like Fuchs or Rockwell) would have spent considerable effort selecting the right models, posing them, directing them / getting them to 'act', choosing the best point of view, framing them, going through all of the shots, combining several.... all to serve the narrative function / meaning. to get the point of the final painting / drawing across as succinctly as possible. how is all of that not part of the art ?"

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Secondly, these are two different goals, to create meaningful art versus creating appropriate decoration.... Philosophically, there is no comparison."

Kev, sometimes it feels like I spend half my time on this blog listening to people tell me I'm not allowed to compare apples and oranges. I can't compare illustration with fine art because they're two different things. I can't compare illustration with comic strips because they serve different markets. Fans of Chris Ware explain condescendingly that I'm not allowed to compare what Ware does with "drawing" because Ware has transcended drawing with new forms of sequential art that have different standards. People complain that I am misguided to compare advertising art with editorial illustration, or sacred art with secular art. (Strangely, many of these commenters admire artists because they cross boundaries and creatively merge different disciplines, but they become very defensive and conservative if a critic attempts to do the same.) "You can't do that," they say, and yet I keep doing it. For me, the only test that matters is whether the contrast of two works creates useful insights. Any type of analysis that produces useful insights is self-legitimizing as far as I'm concerned, and doesn't need permission from anybody.

In fact, as long as we approach our comparison with a little humility and a respect for the varied intentions of the artists, I believe comparisons across categories can often be the most useful and interesting comparisons of all.

I'm not sure what other approach might be better for testing your premise that meaning (as you seem to be defining it) is essential for excellence in art. Is meaning so important to you that it outweighs all the non-cerebral considerations of form? I've seen a lot of crummy art overloaded with meaning, weighed down by good meaning, and I've seen a lot of beautiful art that is light and airy and devoid of philosophical content. Are you really prepared to apply your litmus test so harshly that you would always find the former superior to the latter? If so, I'd say you have a surprisingly narrow standard for quality in art.

As for your point that "these examples have nothing to do with truth and beauty and everything to do with politics, historical facts, nostalgia, sex appeal, sociology, and fashion," I don't know how much is left for your your "truth" to pertain to if it is unrelated to politics, history, sex, sociology, etc. I'm guessing that Michelangelo's David had a pretty substantial dose of sex appeal in it. You can say, "Truth always goes beyond the facts and figures," but of course that's not correct unless your definition of "truth" is as selective as your definition of meaning.

I think Laurence John asked exactly the right clarifying question in his last comment: if you define "meaning" or "truth" broadly enough to encompass "profound skill" or purely physical beauty without "weighty issues/deep content," then we don't have a real difference. But if the "meaning" you hold so essential requires "weighty issues / deep content" (as Laurence John asks) then we do come out differently.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "a decorative painting can also be a statement of truth and beauty."

Yes, that's where I come out too. If Kev agrees but is saying that decoration is a lower form of truth and beauty, well, perhaps we can reach partial agreement. But I'd argue that whether design is a lower form of beauty depends on the quality of one artwork's "meaning" compared to the quality of the artother work's "design" (and here we go around again...)

Laurence John, Tom, Kev Ferrara-- Once again, I am enjoying this robust discussion.

On the key issue about truth and meaning vs. design and form in art, Walt Whitman writes poetically (and to me, persuasively) about how matter can be meaningful and true, separate from our human efforts to intellectualize it:

"I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and of the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch."

I would argue that Fuchs' celebration of line is singing one of Whitman's songs. Kev on the other hand have said that one of Fuchs's lush, broad strokes with the side of a pencil is "a syllable appearing outside a word, without a sentence to appear in, in want of a paragraph to contextualize it, falling outside of any composition that might have a point to its being regarding this subject we call life."

I'd say one who agrees with Emerson that beauty is its own excuse for being should not still be looking for the "point" to that line.

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...

if an artist stages his or her own photo artistically, and puts their own artistic meaning into it, dependence on the photo cannot be "cheating the art" because the photo is part of the art."

I think I've pointed out before that, indeed, part of composing is the blocking of the scene, the basic outlines of the silhouettes. But this is a very very small part of it. To begin to understand the issue we must appreciate that reality cannot do or be what art does or is. In life the physics is real and can't be compromised. Bone is bone, proportions are what they are, the room is the color of the room, a wrinkle on a shirt is where it is, etc. In photographing reality, the captured image will be subject to reality's limitations as well as photography's. While in art, every single aspect, every shape, every proportion, every stroke and line, every jot, every form is replete with infinite possibility and thus infinite expressivity. As one learns to paint from life, the process becomes unconscious, the poeticization of life into art mysterious, and the artist leaves go of the physics and the dead husks in favor of the truth of the experience as a whole. It might take me a year to explain every way in which photography is utterly inelastic by comparison. So I am left feebly repeating that all you need to do to prove the matter in principle is to look at bad photo-dependent art. (i.e. Don't look at Fuchs.) Or to look at how Rockwell's art degenerated the more he projected photographs directly onto his canvas rather than working from life.

For me, the only test that matters is whether the contrast of two works creates useful insights. Any type of analysis that produces useful insights is self-legitimizing as far as I'm concerned, and doesn't need permission from anybody.

I have been offering the useful contrasts David. I have been trying to give you my insights. But they seem to bounce off of you.

For instance, you still have not made the effort to deal with the question of beauty in a meaningful way. You are still on about the words themselves. I think you need to actually think about how prettiness is distinguished from beauty, for one. And furthermore whether the way "beauty" is used colloquially is the same as the way Keats meant it. I don't think it is. Calling something beautiful doesn't make it true. So you can't just say "I find Fuchs' drawing beautiful and therefore it must be true because Keats said that beauty is truth." You need to parse Keats first.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "To begin to understand the issue we must appreciate that reality cannot do or be what art does or is..."

-a staged photo (directed by an artist) isn't 'reality' any more than a feature film is reality.

"In photographing reality, the captured image will be subject to reality's limitations as well as photography's"

-we're talking about staged photo ref (not reality) which will ultimately be drawn or painted, i.e. altered according to the artists's desire. so no such limitations necessarily exist.
how restricted you are by a piece of photo ref is no different to how restricted you are by a live model. how off-model you go is entirely up to you.

"So I am left feebly repeating that all you need to do to prove the matter in principle is to look at bad photo-dependent art. (i.e. Don't look at Fuchs.) "

-ok, this particular Fuchs drawing doesn't work for you.

"Or to look at how Rockwell's art degenerated the more he projected photographs directly onto his canvas rather than working from life."

-i think the best of Rockwell was probably the half and half stage; when he used photos from which to extract the telling details, but altered them enough to transform them into a more idealised / subjective 'reality'.

kev ferrara said...

A staged photo is indeed reality, or else you would not be able to collect the light rays bouncing off of it with a light-ray collecting machine. This seems incontrovertible. Whether the photo is staged or captured has no bearing on this fact. (All photos are staged to some degree, unless the photo is taken by accident.)

To the extent that a photo can be composed for the sake of acquiring reference that readily fits into a pre-planned composition, to that extent it begins to contribute to the final art of a painting. But that extent is tremendously limited and such reference will never make a good painting if used with any fealty.

Only art is plastic at the atomic level. And at such an abstract level as well that one can only intuit the bulk of what is being expressed. I can go on like this but I think it will be fruitless. Until one can appreciate the degree to which art is unlimited and written in its own language, it will be impossible to appreciate that the language of Photography is almost entirely different and mostly inelastic.

I realize this is a callback to the matter of the vast inadequacies of text, but it may be that the only way you will understand what I mean is if you painted from the model for a decade with an excellent teacher. I don't mean to "high hand" you in saying that. It may simply be the truth.

Fyi, I said don't look at Fuchs. Fuchs is one of the best at using photoreference imaginatively. Look at a terrible artist who depends on photos like a crutch to see the photo-problem clearly.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev,
Thanks for your thoughts. Anyone who takes verbal instructions on a drawing assignment will understand how inept language is in relation to a visual reality. But those giving the instructions often don't seem to understand the same.

Objective correlation. Okay, fair enough, I used the term translation because you used the term translation. I'm not talking about where language is not, but where it is. That was the point of using the examples and term non-duplicitous with what is; not untruthful with what is, whether by intent or by error.

You've made it clear that visual language is always a symbol in art, but what it is drawn from is not, and an honesty to such accounts for some of the finest articulations in art. I think this was your objection to the drawing, that the drawing was manufactured. You have been attempting to explain a hierarchal reality, which I happen to agree with, but not always. There are exceptions where certain things combine in ways which are hard to understand.

Beauty engenders a sense of order and order can engender beauty. This is where Degas really blew people's minds. His order and beauty were impossible to separate.

kev ferrara said...

I think this was your objection to the drawing, that the drawing was manufactured.

Hi Sean,

I think I would say that the drawing and design is robotic to the degree it derives from the photo. Fuchs has clearly staged the figures on the couch so their silhouettes give some sense of what they are doing. And that much is conscious and so not robotic. And of course his lines are full of life. But the actual pictorial structure as a whole is rather meaningless, just a design stem really.

I'm sure it is no surprise to anyone still reading along that I would dispute the idea that order necessarily results in beauty. The simplest refutation is the wallpaper-as-art currently being presented as "important" by the culture droid who governs the New York Times arts section. And I would add that the reason Degas' compositions blew people's minds is because not only were they meaningfully ordered, true and beautiful, but they were also radical in their innovation. This, to me, is the gold standard of greatness. To be avante-garde without discarding integrity.

kev ferrara said...

Kev on the other hand have said that one of Fuchs's lush, broad strokes with the side of a pencil is "a syllable appearing outside a word, without a sentence to appear in, in want of a paragraph to contextualize it, falling outside of any composition that might have a point to its being regarding this subject we call life."

You didn't specify that the line you were talking about was actually in a work of art. I thought you were talking abstractly, a line on a piece of paper. Not a line in a fuchs drawing. I would have answered differently in that case.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "To the extent that a photo can be composed for the sake of acquiring reference that readily fits into a pre-planned composition, to that extent it begins to contribute to the final art of a painting"

there, you've said it. we practically agree, but wait...

"But that extent is tremendously limited and such reference will never make a good painting if used with any fealty"

oh dear, back to the polemic. where did i say that the photo ref should be slavishly copied ? or defend paintings that do that ?

"Look at a terrible artist who depends on photos like a crutch to see the photo-problem clearly."

and why use bad examples of slavish photo ref copying to try and win the argument ?


anyone who cares to look at the photos that Rockwell took in order to create many of his best known paintings can CLEARLY see how much the paintings owe to the photos, and where he deviated from the photos.
the evidence is there in a way it has rarely been with other artists. A lot of Gil Elvgren's photo ref exists too. again, anyone with eyes can make up their own mind about how the photos have contributed.

Sean Farrell said...

Earlier you said that the language of art keeps reminding us that it is poetry, whereas the written language doesn't, but part of the power of artifice is that it does fool one into a certain state of belief, or at least that it draws one into itself.

Our world of commercial imagery is designed to mimic reality so to create a sense of well being where the observer is lulled into a familiar state letting go of their defenses to become agreeable with persuasive messages. Moderns have analyzed such to no end, almost to the point of believing there is no reality. Of course, illusion, even delusion are very real things too, even if false.

Imagery is also sermonic in some manner as is language. We have shapes, colors and edges. Then there is the arrangement of elements and narrative. Anyone of these elements by itself can be called a cartoon, if I'm gathering what you are saying.

The contention seems to be at what point does a combination of elements cease being a cartoon? I'm interested in your opinion on this.

Degas touches something where the question remains a mystery to me. I cannot honestly explain it. After better than 100 years the work stands on its own. I can't demote the concept of order, nor the concept of beauty to decoration, though of course they are at some level decoration. Order is a curious one, permeating everything whether one is aware of it or not. Even animals have an orderly sense of space and their place in it. “Important”, that's funny and for how many decades have we heard that? I appreciate the humor... in a kind of, sort of, way.

Sean Farrell said...

PS: I just wanted to mention that Degas included narrative as well.

kev ferrara said...

and why use bad examples of slavish photo ref copying to try and win the argument ?

This is the internet. I can barely hope to demonstrate my points. Let alone "win" an argument.

The point I'm making about the deadness of photos will be much clearer when the photo-dependent artist being looked at does not try to correct for it. Only a truly clueless artist with minimal talent would be so oblivious about the problems of photos that they would slavishly copy them into the language of art. And this would demonstrate in one clear instance how poor the result when photos are directly "translated" into art. With excellent artists who use photos, who correct them both consciously and reflexively, this mistranslation demonstration becomes terribly foggy for most people. Most people, I think, look at photos and assume they are "correct" representations of reality because they look "factual." And also they know they were made by a light capturing machine, which "has no human bias." Then seeing the paintings they are made from that look realistic, knowing no better, they would naturally assume it was some kind of direct translation that happened, like Realism In = Realism Out. Which is not the real story at all.

Which is another way of saying I disagree that most people, in looking at Rockwell's photo-sources, would be able to tell what he owes to the photo and what he added. They would be able to see the utterly obvious similarities and differences and that's it. Most people looking at Rockwell's work, I think, wouldn't be able to tell a good piece of his art from a merely effective piece of communication.

kev ferrara said...

The contention seems to be at what point does a combination of elements cease being a cartoon? I'm interested in your opinion on this.

A cartoon is a visual reductio ad absurdum. Where the artist-designer has such a specific and minimal visual point to make, that everything else that might surround that point in reality is almost completely ignored. And thus the cartoon statement shares the grammatical and lexical simplicity of a joke, or sometimes a syllogism if it is well done. But either way, it is divorced from reality to such an extent that it easily loses touch with relatable life. In its visual aspect it is a form of graphic minimalism, which is just why Cartooning is completely allied with graphic and information design and the lossy abstractions of modernism. I don't think it is possible to transform a cartoon into a work of fine art by adding complexity, sensitivity, a sense of reality, and deeper thoughts because the core concepts of cartoons are game-like while the core of great artworks, I think, is truth.

Sean Farrell said...

Hi Kev, Thanks for the definition of a cartoon and the last line which explains a cartoon verses art.

You implied that any single visual element isn't significant enough to stand on its own as art. It needs a subject to support, is what you have been saying, thus beauty and arrangement for their own end or in themselves are decoration and not art.
Holbein's line is certainly beautiful enough in support of its subject, yet to some, a line drawing remains a cartoon, a structure for the final painting. But a subject may chosen for its beauty and order, such as a landscape.

I think what you're saying is that beauty and order must support a form and that the form has to be more than a cartoon. Taken together they may get close to a truth or form a truth, depending on the artistry of the work. Real art then is serving a meaningful expression of human relationship with reality because subject or narrative are human concerns worthy of being treated with dignity, (or something like that).

Laurence John said...

Kev: "Which is another way of saying I disagree that most people, in looking at Rockwell's photo-sources, would be able to tell what he owes to the photo and what he added."

what 'most people' think about Rockwell's work doesn't interest me much; what interests me is how great artists did great work.
i think we can safely say that many great artists did great work that used photo ref as a vital part of the process / underlying structure / 'look' of the finished piece.

hence, my take that photography was (for some, like Rockwell and Fuchs) 'part of the art'...not just an easy shortcut.

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...

You implied that any single visual element isn't significant enough to stand on its own as art. It needs a subject to support, is what you have been saying, thus beauty and arrangement for their own end or in themselves are decoration and not art.

Well, its more than that a subject isn't present, it is also a lack of a structure, (which is much more than just "a form.") And that structure is necessarily of some complexity involved in some development. That is the order principle attempted behind every work of art, literature, dance, film, music, or poetry. Yet the complexity in good work is never excessive or redundant or inappropriate; rather it should be the reverse and mercilessly so; absolutely everything is marshaled toward the ultimate expressive point about the subject, the "meaningful expression of human relationship with reality" which gives the overall unity. (There are tons of drawings that are wonderful works of art in this light.)

But work that does not have a structure with a point to make about the subject is definitionally an "arrangement for its own end." Which will be decorative to the extent it conforms to basic design principles and/or "goes with the room." However, to the extent its aimless attempts at structure and complexity conflict with the decorative harmony of the design, the more the work doesn't function in any capacity. All that unnecessary structure and meaningless development do is create a mood of consternation in the viewer, which is anti-decorative. Which is why knowing the goal before hand is an important guiding light. Decoration generally has very little actual complexity or development; even baroque decorations are highly repetitive. Which is not to say that decoration (or its loud version theatricality) are necessarily dumb. Decoration and theatricality can certainly signify and in an expressive way. But only statically in terms of overall structure.

kev ferrara said...

i think we can safely say that many great artists did great work that used photo ref as a vital part of the process / underlying structure / 'look' of the finished piece.

I think I stated at top that I have no problem with photo reference per se. The issue is strictly the tracing of it (or the over-reliance on it). And the degree to which, through tracing or over-reliance, the architecture and aesthetic imbecility of the photo ref gets imported into the final work.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I agree that meaning, or objective is the guiding light, shaping the design and so the most important part, the structure itself. It's a very important point and thank you for making it so clearly. Meaning and our belief in meaning is how people overcome discouragement and despair and this holds true for ambitious artistic undertakings which often come with bigger challenges; painting a large mural for example requiring a deeper commitment.

Repetition as design or pattern is an ordered visual movement, so it's not one but two things. Horizontals and verticals also are ordered movements in themselves and repetition gives additional movement to them even when they are used in symmetrical forms. So, the same structures of stability become tools of movement as patterns or ordered movement. All ordered movement is not an obvious pattern, nor a pattern at all and often remains invisible to the viewer. But my point is that something providing stability and movement at the same time isn't all that dumb. Since stability and movement are so much apart of human life, the visual device, as primitive, simple and available as it is, serves some human need for each, even if pattern isn't finished art or fine art in any sense of the word. As a valuable tool in making pictures, anything that creates stability or movement is well worthy of respect by artists, even though it functions in a supporting role.

Our need for movement and stability is itself an interesting human subject and for very practical reasons, we tend to see stability and movement as opposing forces. The interrelationship of movement and stability is a fascinating part of beauty and was so in the art of Degas, but it is also a very human subject. It's sometimes hard to untangle this stuff especially as it interacts with the subject matter. I'm not disagreeing with you, but aesthetic devises are sometimes more human than they appear.

kev ferrara said...

I agree that meaning, or objective is the guiding light, shaping the design and so the most important part, the structure itself.

Sean, forgive me, but I don't think you are getting what I mean by structure or its import in this discussion. A meaning isn't just the target or cause of the overall design, meanings are also the building blocks of it; simplexes of meaning combine into the complexes, complexes of meaning block into sequences of meaning, and so on. And altogether the meaning of the picture is a synthesis of the meanings bound into the structural development. Structural meaning goes down to the atom and out to the atmosphere and suffuses all. This is exactly why the camera's roboticism is so anaesthetic, because the machine knows nothing of meaning at all. All it captures is light rays. Which is why photographic meaning is almost entirely based on semiotics rather than aesthetics.

Repetition as design or pattern is an ordered visual movement

Let's be a little careful here. Movement in art is the movement of the eye. The eye can easily move between repetitions because they link up, but that is not a composed movement, which is just why it is meaningless. It is more an elective eye movement. Whereas compositions aspire to be perfectly manipulative, that way meaning can be expressed with maximum effectiveness. It's a similar thing to caused emotion versus a nonspecific emotion that is drawn out of a viewer because the work is functioning like a projection test. The former is forced through orchestrated manipulation, the latter is a matter of chance.

Incidentally, when I use the word "dumb" I mean that the content of the element or mark isn't significant in its contribution to a larger point.

Tom said...

Kev
"this is the modernist conception of composition, which has discarded meaning, leaving mere design which is ornamental and pretty in nature."

Modern art was some of the most meaning/content driven art of all time. Such a radical change in western art's appearence was a direct reflection of changes of "meanings." There is nothing "mere" about about design in itself. So much depends on the viewer. To see how a small patterned tile fits into the larger scheme of a cathedral can be quite profound. What people notice says more about them then the things they notice.

The Van Gogh painting I believe is not so much about a statement of youthful wonder (although I like your clear positive interpretation) as it is a manifestation of the energy of the universe itself. (The life force though is always fresh an new, which dovetails into your interpretation of youthful wonder. But like all interpretations they come and go like clouds in the sky. Like you wrote one day they satisfy the next day it dosen't) Energy like water travels freely through the work like the life force itself. Much closer to a conception of art in China where the whole notion of "I the creator," is seen for what it is, a product of the mind, the ego. The best art is a product of the universe itself it is not the will of some separate self.

Maybe Six Persimmons doesn't have much "to say," because as you have written art works are not literary. What did Wittgenstein write, "Wherefore one can not speak, therefore one must be silent." Maybe Rothko was onto a great
"truth" by acknowledging the "profundity," in the audience.

The world's suggestions, can be quite profound. Where does the world end and the 'I" begin? A famous Chinese painter would spit ink on the paper, and from that he would begin his painting, taking his inspiration from "mere" suggestion. The greater the artistic skill one posses the greater the possibility to find meanings in all things. The target is the "true self," not what the little I wants to say or do.

Different cultures and different people will use art to express their own values which can be quite foreign to one's own culture. Why did the impressionists give up the "great subjects' of the past? Along with all the complex recipes of picture making of the past?

kev ferrara said...

Modern art was some of the most meaning/content driven art of all time.

Sorry, in general, Modernism was more primitive than late romantic symbolist work. Modernism was a primitivist movement. It was more primitive in almost all facets of how meaning is conveyed visually. Which is not to say that early modernists like the Impressionists or Van Gogh didn't add to the general state of aesthetic knowledge. They did. But I think it is demonstrable that each discarded more kinds of meaning-content than they added. They also, as Frank Brangwyn said, tried for meanings that art could not possibly afford. So in this sense they were pretentious.

kev ferrara said...

I didn't say that the Van Gogh was "a statement of youthful wonder." I said "The Van Gogh expresses in a joyful, youthful way the wonder of looking at a starry night and falling into a kind of wondrous dream state." There's a huge difference.

The style of Starry Night comes off as youthful because of its cartooniness; the big silly shapes, bright colors, and a-factual presentation. No interpretation is needed to say this; Cartoons are just youthful-looking because they have a kind of silly vigor to their primitivism.

Furthermore, the starry swirls van gogh employs are straightforward symbols of wondrousness. Whorls have fascinated since the first child looked into the first eddying stream-bed and fell into a daydream. And glitter has represented magical-ness since the first human looked into the first glittering mineral and saw it as more valuable inherently than than the hunk of dirt that had no sparkle at all. These are basic human symbolisms that track through all history, from ancient rituals to current magic shows. These symbols express dreaminess and wonder in Starry Night the same as in thousands of other pictures, pictograms and performances.

And, lo and behold, we actually have a written record of Van Gogh dreaming about the stars and just the exact kind dream Van Gogh had on the subject. He wrote, "The sight of the stars always makes me dream in as simple a way as the black spots on the map, representing towns and villages, make me dream. Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France. Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star. What’s certainly true in this argument is that while alive, we cannot go to a star, any more than once dead we’d be able to take the train. So it seems to me not impossible that cholera, the stone, consumption, cancer are celestial means of locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and the railway are terrestrial ones."

So nothing in this indicates any cosmic-philosophical notion of "the energy of the universe." It is far more like the children's books of that era, "the garden behind the moon," travelling to a magical place far beyond the cares of the world, and all that. (which is more in keeping with Van Gogh's spotty education.) Its a whimsical escapist fantasy tinged with depression about death. And Van Gogh was certainly depressed and riven with fear and anxiety about much (and Van Gogh scholars agree that he would often repeat ideas from things he read in his letters.) And I think it is in this context that Buddhist ideas enter. For Van Gogh's real interest in eastern spirituality, (separate from eastern art style), seems to be how it gave him ideas as to how to deal with his intense suffering. He wasn't a deep philosopher by any stretch.

Lastly, a picture only means what it looks like. Not how we interpret it, a common mistake. Van Gogh himself didn't think much of Starry Night and produced it during a period of extreme anxiety and distress (he had checked himself into an asylum). He frankly may not have been consciously thinking anything at all as he made it.

Having said that, after reading the Van Gogh quote above, I noticed that the yellow window lights in the town depicted in Starry Night are smaller than the yellow stars above, and thus seem more distant.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev,
That's what I was getting at with the repetition as stability and order, that it's an extension of the meaning of things down to the atom, there's something within it which is very human and artistically purposeful. People analyze color, edges and tone scientifically to no end and they do an excellent job of it and we still understand the emotional realities of how they work together, but throw a vertical and horizontal line in front of someone and they act like the world is going to cave in. But such simple things are a part of our emotional relationship with the world. When used well within a picture it's not necessary that they are conspicuous at all to have a powerful effect. Often they are so well hidden that no one suspects they are even there.

I understand what you meant by dumb, but that there is human meaning and relationship in the simplest patterns defies what we think as dumb and smart, it's part of us. The Zorn painting which Lawrence John presented and you commented on also had plenty of pattern in it. My point is that there is something deeply human in all kinds of patterns and linear movement as I described, which happen to move the eye. An artist has to understand their nature, how they move and how the eye is moved by them as well as how to contend with them and change their movements for intended purposes.

Anonymous said...

David , if Fuches were alive and well , and you asked him as a special favor to read the posts his preparatory sketch prompted , and he did , what do you think his reaction might be like ?

kev ferrara said...

Sean, I agree that repetition is stable and ordered and that this is evidence of the human hand and mind. But such is a static meaning. Not a dynamic, developing one. Which is just why it falls into the decorative camp, ultimately. As I said earlier, decoration certainly can signify, but it does so statically. How meaning derives from structural development is what concerns me. That's what neither decoration nor photography can offer.

Laurence John said...

Tom: "Modern art was some of the most meaning/content driven art of all time"

Kev: "[Modernism]...was more primitive in almost all facets of how meaning is conveyed visually"


you're both right, but talking about completely different types of 'meaning'.

as illusionistic / representational painting was ushered out of the picture frame to be replaced by flat surface / non-representational painting, one type of 'meaning' (dramatic narrative) was replaced by another type of 'meaning' (non-narrative).

Tom, i'm slightly baffled as to why you're alluding to the latter type of 'universal / spiritual' meaning in this particular discussion when so far it's been about the structure of 'narrative' meaning.

kev ferrara said...

you're both right, but talking about completely different types of 'meaning'.

No, that's simply not true. There is no type of meaning used by strict modernists that wasn't also already being used. Non-representation is just emotion without referent. And of course art has been using emotion since the damn of art. Removing the referent is not an addition of meaning, but a subtraction. Just because a work of art uses illusionistic representation (reference meaning) that does not mean it doesn't also have other kinds. Don't be blinded by illusionism. Howard Pyle was no friend of ultra modernist art, but he constantly talked to his students about emotional meaning and universal/spiritual meaning in their work.

And, as has been discussed before on this blog, it may be impossible to untangle any kind of meaning from narrative meaning.

Tom said...

Kev said "So in this sense they were pretentious."

That was not my point. I wasn't arguing about the content of the meaning all I was saying is the shape/appearance of modern art was driven by ideas and content. Whether one likes, believes or thinks the meanings of that content is valid or primitive is another question.

Sorry I misinterpreted you on Van Gogh but I really like your use of the world "youthful" because the energy of the universe often has that wonderful feel of new born things.

Kev said "So nothing in this indicates any cosmic-philosophical notion of "the energy of the universe." And you write,
"These are basic human symbolisms that track through all history, from ancient rituals to current magic shows. These symbols express dreaminess and wonder in Starry Night the same as in thousands of other pictures, pictograms and performances."

How can symbols that are so ubiqutous through all human time not reflect and endlessly repeating energy? But I wasn't really thinking of the symbolism. One can draw a symbol for a tree, that is easy, the difficulty is in how to draw the tree. The energy comes from the paint handling itself. The movement of the brush is a product of the energy of the universe. His brush marks accumlate and they seem to grow into forms like life itself. Nobody remembers the children books of the era but we do remember Van Gogh's paintings.

What does it matter what Van Gogh wrote or thought about, before or after the painting was complete? What does it matter if he was a deep philsopher or not? What does it matter if he was depress or happy? What does it matter if he was thinking consciously or not? The best things come from the unknown not the known. What does it matter what Van Gogh thought of the painting? The people who have encounter the painting have determined its worth and value.

Tom said...

Laurence John said
"Tom, i'm slightly baffled as to why you're alluding to the latter type of 'universal / spiritual' meaning in this particular discussion when so far it's been about the structure of 'narrative' meaning."


I guess the Van Gogh example pushed me in that direction. The narrative meaning seems to have come from the discussion of photography. Arranging something and then photographing it is an art and like you wrote it is part of the "artistic process." It takes a artistic sensibility to arrange anything well. It takes a sense of balance, but it does not mean that one can necessarily
draw well or even draw at all. Fuchs drawing remands of the films of the late 50's and early 60's where the opening credits would start with drawings and color and gradually transition into the photographic film. Most of the world's best art looks nothing like photographs.

Fuchs is great at arranging his artistic elements and then photographing them. He knows how use a focal point as a fulcrum and anchor, upon which to balance a steel yard. Just as he does in this picture with the large mass of the male figure in the foreground and with female figure in the distance resting on the back of the sofa. Maybe that is one reason he is so hard to imitate. He knows how to balance the elements of his pictures around a focal point in very artistic way.

All my examples have been about structure not the content of structure. For me this natural leads to a spiritual dimension.

kev ferrara said...

Tom,

Your contention was that "Modern art was some of the most meaning/content driven art of all time." Yet your Van Gogh example, as you articulate its meaning, is wholly based on your own subjective interpretation of the picture, outside of any content intrinsic to the picture or the historical record we have of Van Gogh's whimsical fantasies about the stars. So you have not bolstered your case in the least. This idea that vaguely suggesting a theme, as modern art usually does, is equivalent in content to a specifically composed and articulated argumentative or meditative narrative on that theme is one of the gross distortions of modernist dogma.

Anybody who tries enough can get a decent, interesting arrangement by looking through a camera viewfinder for a while and clicking the shutter button. But you can't tell that to the armies of shutterbugs who want to hear that they are artists because they have a light-gathering machine. Kodak did its marketing job well. Now, those who artistically arrange what is before the camera, as I've argued elsewhere, are actually sculpting. The photograph becomes the record of the sculpting that was done in front of the lens. The photograph is not the actual art, anymore than a video recording of a theatrical performance is the performance itself. But a painting or sculpture is actually its own performance embodied.

Tom said...

Kev

All I was saying about modern art is it's design was driven by ideas. The design of the pictures took on it's shape because of certain ideas the artist believed in. They where not arranging their pictures without a content or a motivation which you seemed to imply earlier, i.e just decorating a rectangle with shapes.

You can never know the world behind the work. Are you saying in order to understand, interpret, or respond to Van Gogh's painting, that I first need to understand a historical context, I need to know what he thought about? Van Gogh had his intention, his ideas, his motivation. But the viewer completes the work. He or she brings their own experience to the work and my find meanings in the work that Van Gogh never "intended." Van Gogh didn't decide Starry Night was a great painting, the people who looked at it did.

How is arranging objects artistically to be photograph sculpting? Some one good arrange a nice grouping of some objects and then photograph it but that is not sculpture just as it is not drawing. Unless you are saying the arranging objects is sculpture. See if the same person could arrange the same objects in clay or stone, he or she now has multiply viewpoints to arrange and a infinite more relations to establish then the photographer.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I find your subject, the structural development of meaning to be an interesting one and I hope an image comes along where you can discuss it more fully in the affirmative.

I think there is an unknowable in art which can impose itself upon the viewer. Whatever this unknowable something is, it can exist in simple or complex images and can sometimes prove elusive to verbal explanations.