Monday, October 26, 2015


I've noted on this blog that many of today's illustrators seem to devalue design and composition that have been so important to previous generations of artists.  At some point, awkwardness and ungainliness came into style, as audiences became suspicious of beauty and skill. 

I'm a big fan of awkward and ungainly art when it is done well, but too often this style is an excuse for laziness and lack of talent.  We let ourselves off the hook too easily by underestimating the continuing importance of design and composition.  One of the best ways to remind ourselves of its value is to take a look-- close up-- at the work of illustrator Mark English.

When was the last time you saw a composition this powerful in contemporary American illustration?  English has simplified these forms to their basics.  Don't go looking for fingernails or individual eyelashes in this painting.  But at the same time, his little touches of control make clear that English understood exactly where those fingernails and eyelashes would have gone.  They were removed out of strength, not out of weakness.

English was struggling with the exact same design challenges as internationally renowned fine artists such as Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still.  In my judgment, he usually did a better job.

We can appreciate the strength of the first composition from a mile away.  But let's look at another picture up close, to see the subtler elements of design at play.  Here is an illustration from 1969 about the participants in a funeral:

To understand the nature of English's accomplishment, look at some of his details:

Even the most abstract quadrants of the painting are impressive close up. 

Looking at Mark English's work up close makes me yearn for what we've lost in contemporary illustration.


kev ferrara said...

Love English's work. Full of poetry.

chris bennett said...

"English was struggling with the exact same design challenges as internationally renown fine artists such as Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still. In my judgment, he usually did a better job."

I think he nearly always did a better job!
Like Kev, I love his work - Jill Bossert's book (featuring many of his landscapes) is one of my most treasured possessions.
And thanks for those images and close-ups - I have never seen those pictures before, lovely stuff.

Bruce Docker said...

And all those details in addition to adding to the overall composition and in some cases, being their own compositions, ring so true because we've seen all those poses at funerals. For me, English is a new artist, thanks for sharing him.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- "poetry" is a good term for it. I also find an intelligence and optimism in his forms which I enjoy very much.

Chris Bennett-- That Jill Bossert book is a great book. You may well be correct about Motherwell and Still, but I felt obliged to keep an open mind.

Bruce Docker-- If English is a new artist to you, you have a lot of excellent work to look forward to. English had a long and storied career as an illustrator before converting to more "fine" art subjects, particularly landscapes.

kev ferrara said...

Can't agree that English was struggling with the "exact same" graphic design challenges as Motherwell and Still. English was always more than just a graphics artist. I think he was struggling with the same artistic challenges as Degas and the symbolists, guys like Vuillard, Toorop, Gauguin, Redon and maybe Vrubel.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I take your point. Allow me to be more precise: When English designed that first illustration, I maintain that the choices he confronted were the same abstract design choices that confronted Motherwell when Motherwell painted very similar paintings such as Elegy To The Spanish Republic #122, The Wedding or Burning Elegy. These were all stark black shapes on mottled white backgrounds, softened with dark browns. Motherwell's challenge was no greater because his painting counted as "fine" art or because it was larger (Motherwell tried again and again to find the right shapes on paper the size of English's illustrations.) It's all hard. And judged purely by abstract expressionist criteria, I think English did a better job. Better than Still, too.

I see "Degas and the symbolists," although their work didn't have the same striking resemblance to English's first painting. His second painting is, I agree, more than a "graphics artist" at work. I see Diebenkorn in that second to last example.

kev ferrara said...

Actually that first one looks very 1900 too, but nouveau. A lot like Pyle’s female students. Maybe Sarah Stillwell. Another Sarah Stillwell. or Ethel Franklin Betts. Even Eleanor Brickdale?

kev ferrara said...

A 1907 Walter Everett that also plays in the same nouveau shape-centric backyard. Many others I can cite, but these were the easiest to locate.

Laurence John said...

let's not leave out Klimt either.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I like that Eleanor Brickdale painting a lot. She's new to me, thanks.

I understand how the woman's outfit and the floral shapes on the first English might make you think of a cross between nouveau and Pyle's female students but for me the English is far closer to the modernity and boldness of Motherwell / Still. All of your examples (Stillwell, Betts, Brickdale) are loaded down with details-- patterns, textures, wrinkles, fingernails, multiple small shapes-- and are shaded and modeled to look three dimensional. They have very little of the high contrast of the English. For me, the heart of the English is its starkness and simplicity. It's a very bold painting, which your examples (including the Everett) are not. If we turned them all upside down to eliminate the distractions of content, the English would be a dead ringer for Motherwell's Spanish Elegy but would look very different from the pieces you mention.

Laurence John-- That's an interesting Klimt example-- unusually high contrast for Klimt, and minus all the gold foil and elaborate patterns and colors that we usually associate with his work. Personally, I'd say that's one of his less successful paintings, with one of his weaker compositions, but I admire his continued experimentation after he'd already found such a powerful trademark style.

I do think that Klimt's drawings are much closer in spirit to the forms of the English painting. They often have that botanical, blossoming, convex structure that is so key to the optimism of the English. Pyle did that too with a lot of his vignettes.

Both you and Kev have flagged that nouveau / Viennese sacred spring influence which did not jump out at me, but I think you're right to do so. Remember, this was the 1960s when Bob Peak and Bernie Fuchs were looking back to Egon Schiele's line and Aubrey Beardsley was making a huge come back. It would make perfect sense for English to be influenced by Klimt and other nouveau era artists.

kev ferrara said...


You think the patterns make these style different enough to distinguish? I don’t. Nevertheless, I’ve barely scratched the surface of 1900. There really is a ton of this kind of flat-value nouveau/japonisme work from that era. Some of it even painterly and suggestive, like this Walter Appleton Clark.

And.... I see no need to invoke Motherwell and Still. It is simply wrong to say that their concerns were the same as English’s.

Tom said...

David said
"I take your point. Allow me to be more precise: When English designed that first illustration, I maintain that the choices he confronted were the same abstract design choices that confronted Motherwell when Motherwell painted very similar paintings such as Elegy"

English's paintings have a focal point, a place for the eye to rest, Motherwell's and Still's paintings don't. I am not sure what the abstract expressionists intentions as artist were, but I don't see how they faced the same graphic design issues as English does, who has a focal point to balance his picture on. And I don't feel turning the pictures upside down would do anything positive to the energy of the shapes of either painter. Motherwell's shapes have a specific vertical orientation, like the letter "J" to the horizontal canvases he painted on. which immediately establishes relation which seems central to his work. Most paintings acknowledge gravity by how they are hung. The dark shapes in the English painting are like big dark pools (who's emptiness encourages the eye to quickly move on, maybe text was suppose to go in the right hand area) whose edges lead our eye right to the focal point of the painting, the woman's head.

Motherwell's shapes feel like they are hanging from a clothesline but they are in a tense relationship to each other a pushing against. The egg shapes feel like they are trying to push through or pass the vertical bars while the English shapes feels like they melding like a river delta flowing and guiding the eye to a resting point.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "It is simply wrong to say that their concerns were the same as English’s."

Kev, I'm afraid you'll have to get in line behind all the other indignant readers who complain that I'm not allowed to compare apples and oranges. I take consolation from the fact that half the objections come from people who claim illustration couldn't possibly have anything of value to communicate to modern or conceptual art, while the other half feels that modern or conceptual art couldn't possibly have anything of value to communicate to illustration. I feel nice and snug between the two impenetrable fortresses.

I'm sure we'd have no trouble agreeing upon a list of factors that distinguish Motherwell from English. But for me, sometimes the more interesting challenge is to seek out the unifying principles in diverse form-creating activities. Motherwell and English took different intellectual and economic paths to their solutions, but I think it is to the credit of both that they shared concerns about design, and came up with lovely results. I further think it helps promote open minds to search for commonalities in apparently different things, and once people isolate those elements, it will help them make decisions about new form of art where those elements are missing.

As for the Walter Appleton Clark, I like it and I think its high contrast approach is much closer to the Motherwell / English solution. Still, I think the ornate sword, the patterned bed curtain and the elaborate carving on the table legs and headboard are all details that English and Motherwell wisely chose to live without.

Tom-- I agree that "turning the pictures upside down would [not] do anything positive to the energy of the shapes of either painter." It's just an old trick for looking at a composition with fresh eyes, undistracted by issues such as narrative content or facial expressions. While I agree with you that the English is a stronger composition, my reaction to the Motherwell is more favorable than yours.

Tom said...

Hi David

I just describing the feelings the shapes created in me. I do have a favorable reaction to the Motherwell's work especially the collages. I think you are right it is harder to see similarity between things then picking out differences.

kev ferrara said...

wisely chose to live without

Wisely? In what sense? Simply because its a lot easier to leave drawing out? Is a work of art de facto better the less drawing is present in it? I don't think you believe that.

But for me, sometimes the more interesting challenge is to seek out the unifying principles in diverse form-creating activities.

Interesting challenge? What is this, some kind of game? "Let's see who can make the most distant connections?" How far do you want to assert that apples and Cadillacs are more the same than different? You want to go the way of Alexander Nemerov, impressing the tea/Lyceum set with willy-nilly applications of your imaginative intelligence? Or are we actually trying to get at some kind of practical truth when we discuss art? Some kind of understanding that might actually educate us sanely?

I take consolation from the fact that half the objections come from people who claim illustration couldn't possibly have anything of value to communicate to modern or conceptual art, while the other half feels that modern or conceptual art couldn't possibly have anything of value to communicate to illustration. I feel nice and snug between the two impenetrable fortresses.

Don't you mean "smug?" I mean, after all, you are quite self-congratulatory in the way you grandly sweep aside positions I do not, after all, hold.

To Wit: As I see it, Motherwell and Still are both innovative graphic artists. And both isolated and explored basic parts of the visual language in their own way. Such explorations can be interesting and beautiful, maybe even educational. But dispensing with the problem of drawing/rendering and evoking a drama and a world - the essence of what English is doing - is a fundamental break-off point. Make the connection of large abstract shapes all you want. But that's only the essence of one side of your comparison.

In other words if you want to lump together apples and Cadillacs, pointing out that they're both commodities which will eventually oxidize to the point of uselessness, that's a reasonable minor connection to make. But let's never for one second forget we are talking about a piece of fruit and an automobile, two fundamentally different things; insurmountably different in essence.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I don't disagree with your assessment or with the feelings that these shapes engender in you. In fact, I'm glad these shapes still create feelings in you. You're lucky-- many people no longer have any feelings or sensitivity for shapes.

Kev Ferrara-- I meant "wisely" in the sense that you already understand: that economy in art can be a significant virtue; that there's a diminishing marginal utility to each additional line after a certain point; and that it's sometimes harder, not easier, to leave drawing out. You may believe that your Stillwell example is enhanced by all that drawing of hair netting and bracelets and fur muffs and wrinkled fingers and lace pillow cases, but in this case I prefer the boldness and simplicity of the English or the Motherwell.

I don't know what you've got against the word "challenge." When Einstein felt challenged to compare apples and oranges they called it the unified field theory, and nobody dismissed it as "a game."

Similarly, what have you got against poor Cadillac? A car is the single most expensive aesthetic choice that most people make in their life. They exercise personal judgment and taste in selecting a shape and style and color that pleases them. Do you doubt that they use the same taste selecting an industrial design that they'd employ when admiring a sculpture in the museum?

I agree that it is important for us to understand the difference between an apple and an orange. We should cultivate our minds and senses so that we can appreciate the separate virtues of each, verily we should appreciate the heights of apple-dom, appreciate its flavor and texture, respect the differences between crisp apples and juicy oranges. We should each be able to articulate our vision of the Platonic form of Apple.

If I accept that premise, why is it so important to you that we blind ourselves to the common qualities in apples and oranges? Why should we strain to keep such objects bifurcated and stratified? It's that kind of thinking that keeps art separate and apart from life, hanging behind locked doors in museums rather than integrated into every day existence (like the bowls and pots and blankets in folk art or tribal art). My advice to you is, the dignity of art doesn't depend upon keeping it cordoned off in the proper category. From what I can tell, the same aesthetic judgment we employ to evaluate the room of abstract expressionist paintings in the Museum can jump off the wall and flow next door to the room of pre-Raphaelite paintings, then leap up into the magazine you're carrying to help you process the illustrations and photos in it, before bursting out the door of the Museum and helping you appreciate that bouquet of flowers or the architecture of that building or the dress on that girl. Far from diluting aesthetic principles, I think this is part of what makes art great and important: the way it enhances our everyday sights and sounds and smells.

I always liked Lionello Venturi's very sensible standard for measuring the contribution of art:

"What ultimately matters in art is not the canvas, the hue of oil or tempera, the anatomical structure and all the other measurable items, but its contribution to our life, its suggestions to our sensations, feeling and imagination."

kev ferrara said...

Well, I agree that the English is more artful than the Stillwell, not nearly her best work, and she can be quite excellent. Nor was the Betts her best. Nor was that early nouveau tinged Everett, obviously. (I think the Clark is better qualitatively, more suggestive and artistic, and more on point in terms of a comparison) But I am aiming not to demonstrate similar quality, but to point out the prevalence and variation of the flat japonisme influence, the nouveau decorative feel, which is the yard I think English is playing in.

I don’t mind making minor comparisons between apples and cadillacs, as I said. But I am still reacting, forgive the perseverativeness, to your mildly bonkers major comparison… that “English was struggling with the exact same design challenges as… Motherwell and Still.” That he wasn’t, simply from the standpoint that the largest blank shape in his illustration, your exhibit A if you will, seems designed as an area fit for typography. If that is so, then your whole argument collapses in on itself because obviously Motherwell’s big blank spaces had no such purpose. If you want to go deeper, read Motherwell discuss composition - a deeply intelligent man even if I find his works too simple to really prove his arguments - you’d see that the concerns are not even close. (Clyfford Still’s stiff, simple graphics are not worth discussing either conceptually or artistically. The best that can be said of them is that they are unique designs.)

I agree with you that suggestion is always better than the rank and file dumb, blatant statement. But clever suggestion and smart statements are not mutually exclusive in the least. I would argue, rather, that they are mutually supportive. (Again, the Clark is an excellent demonstration of this, an exemplar really of the best aesthetic understanding of this poetic quality of his bygone era.)

Anyway… I have nothing against a Cadillac. I was only try to snatch away your fruit versus fruit rhetoric by replacing one of the fruits with a non-fruit. That is how different I think English’s “concerns” are from Motherwell’s.

Regarding “The Dignity of Art” … I’m afraid you either don’t pay attention to what I write (who can blame you) or you have yet to understand my position. I am not interested in “purity” in an art form because I think art is hallowed and should be spared “mongrelization” by being sullied with text and text-like elements. Rather I am interested in the pure use of the visual language because it is so much more powerful in its pure state if used correctly. It is not that text-like incursions “soil” True Art, but that they weaken it aesthetically. Yes, it is a trade-off, because adding in the text elements makes the visual communication so simple to read and understand by the average information consumer. But that is exactly the problem, it is a form of pandering. Its more cultural baby food. And who isn’t sick of that? Who among us doesn’t think we’ve all had quite enough dumbing down, or as it is called in political circles "democratization?" The middle of the bell curve already overdetermines the cultural products available commercially. Why demand that even aesthetic philosophy stoop down and be "easy or not at all."

Regarding, the “bifurcation and stratification” of types of art, and the greater importance of art as a “contributor to life” for the suggestions it offers to our “sensations, feelings and imagination…”

These are actually all disguised pleas to not make judgments about art as a kind of aesthetic language with qualitative aspects worth examining rigorously. In other words, this is a argument to be a blithe fan rather than a philosopher, to be enriched by art only by experiencing it and not through actually understanding it functionally. In other words you are arguing that I should be just like you, damn narcissist. Well, all I can say in defense of my investigations and my arguments against being an unconscious consumer of Art is that somebody has to do it!

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I suspect we're not as far apart as you might think. For example, I generally agree with you on Stillwell, Betts, Everett, Clark, flat japonisme influence,the quality of Still's graphics, and your point that clever suggestion and smart statements can be mutually supportive.

As for my "mildly bonkers major comparison… that 'English was struggling with the exact same design challenges as… Motherwell and Still,'" of course I understand that English and Motherwell are very different artists with different goals. My point, which I agree is major, is that the illustrator and the fine artist employ the same faculties to answer the same questions about what "looks right"-- how large those dark or light shapes should be, where they should be located, what kind of shape is most interesting, how high the contrast should be, etc. On the great Venn diagram of art, the two artists overlap on design if on nothing else and if you don't see that commonality you are, to use your phrase, "simply wrong." I find that commonality to be a significant bond when evaluating a fragmented art field.

But two other points in your last comment raise interesting issues that I'd like to address.

First, you say "I am interested in the pure use of the visual language because it is so much more powerful in its pure state if used correctly." I agree, but I don't understand how you can fault "text-like incursions" for weakening the image aesthetically, and yet exempt other content related incursions. Why doesn't representational art similarly compromise pure visual language? Abstract artists would agree with you about text, but say you don't go far enough. I would argue, on the other hand, that both text and realism have the same potential to be "mutually supportive" with visual form (just as you say that "clever suggestion and smart statements are not mutually exclusive in the least.")

Second, regarding Lionello Venturi's point about "the greater importance of art as a 'contributor to life' for the suggestions it offers to our “sensations, feelings and imagination…”" I don't know if you've read Venturi's excellent History of Art Criticism but I cannot recommend it highly enough. Far from being the work of a "blithe fan rather than a philosopher," Venturi's book is 350 pages of classical scholarship-- the antithesis of "an unconscious consumer of Art." I think it is to Venturi's credit that at the end of his careful investigation he retains enough proportion to remember that art is not life, and that its value is in its contribution to life. This means its contributions to our daily “sensations, feelings and imagination…” because that, after all, is what life is made of.

kev ferrara said...

Why doesn't representational art similarly compromise pure visual language? Abstract artists would agree with you about text, but say you don't go far enough. I would argue, on the other hand, that both text and realism have the same potential to be "mutually supportive" with visual form (just as you say that "clever suggestion and smart statements are not mutually exclusive in the least.")

It is absolutely so that "dead realism" - usually "accomplished" by smart and obsessive artists who have no understanding and/or appreciation of aesthetics/visual poesis - will compromise the power of their work in a way equal to the text-adder. And the reason for that is, actually, because the dead realist's insistence on creating likenesses (icons) and using them as the linguistic currency that informs the viewer about their picture are actually using text like elements themselves. So its the same thing.

Realist artists in full command of compositional/aesthetic forces (the Brangwyns, Fechins, Sargents, Sorollas, Leyendeckers, Peak Rockwells, Peak Cornwells, Peak Everetts, etc.) are weaving their pictures so thoroughly by virtue of visual poesis, that the references are far more evoked than stated. And they are evoked according to visual meanings developed by the artists in the act of manifesting the elements, not according to the elements' codified meanings outside the painting (which includes the denotation and connotations associated with their respective icons). This is why it is so crucial for artists to look at the world and life with their own eyes, minds and imaginations. That way they avoid using found symbols (which is to say "ready made" text-like elements) developed by other artists. (And boy is it seductive for a young artist to latch onto ready mades!)

Calling a dead work of realism "mere illustration" is an insult to illustration. Calling a truly great work of realist art "mere illustration" simply because the elements in the picture are identifiable (thus impure in terms of the innate visual language of abstraction) is the result of complete aesthetic ignorance. And that ignorance was not only rampant among most modernists, but the modernists perpetuated that ignorance into the very fabric of our culture. There were, frankly, only a handful of abstractionists/modernists who actually understood the full measure of what those "1905ers" were doing in their "realist" paintings. Alfred Maurer surely understood the most, followed by Kupka, and maybe five or ten more well-known names. By the time of abstract expression, the art teachers sought ignorance as a strategy for originality. They wanted to completely cut off all art education from the past. They created at least three generations of nose-in-the-air phony purists who were as ignorant as they were arrogant. And here we are knee deep in postmodernism, as an indirect result.

Sean Fa said...

Kev, I think you've made your case for the symbolists. The shapes in the first image are dark reflections of each other mixing into the woman's dress and overcoming her, so the shapes are used symbolically. In the second image a group is united by a single shape, which is a standard way of pulling a group together, but this group is united not only by grief but in grief while being pulled apart.

Salvatore Dali made an argument that went something like, the modernists, or abstract expressionists were just focusing on things that were already in master painting, like painting gestures. In that light, there is a connection in the comparison between Motherwell and English. I would bet that very few would catch the subtleties in the two examples by Mark English. I didn't see them, but for going back several times to look closely as this conversation escalated. The colors and patterns could be taken for trying to create interest and novelty as was a regular practice during the era.

Your paragraph on looking for not ready made visual cues was very interesting. A drawback is that such is often lost or completely misinterpreted. A Polish priest protested that Flannery O'Conner's writing was anything but Christian and he was right, because she was showing her readers the ugliness of a world which demanded redemption. Also, I appreciate the introduction to Toorop.

Symbolism got swallowed up by psychology which sought to answer the unknowns by categorizing the symbols as archetypes assuming all was beneath language, or some kind of primitivism, rather than beyond language. But today we have mathematical models for higher orders, higher dimensions, a fourth and fifth dimension, of which the first, second and third dimension are somehow apart, yet we can't know the fourth because we are bound in the three dimensional. It certainly is going to have an influence on what poetry really is meant to be, a way of reaching that which is beyond as in an order above, or Platonic, rather than beneath the boundaries of words.

Sean Farrell said...

That is.

kev ferrara said...


English's shapes are shaped to decoratively establish the bed, the headboard, the bed covers, the girl and the guy. There are no major compositional shapes in English's piece that do not establish an object/element. All of Motherwell's shapes are non objective; they establish no elements, make no reference, and have no interest in doing so. Motherwell had absolutely no concern for decorativeness. End of story.

Symbolism didn't just get swallowed up by psychology. It was swept over by a vast wave of commercial mass media, commercial mass entertainment, and commercial mass education that has devastated western cultural life. Every deep thought has been buried under a billion shallow distractions.

Your assumption that science will tell us about "what poetry really is meant to be" baffles me. We already know what poetry is and how it works. You think the culture could have produced Degas, Sargent, Klimt, Mucha and Fechin within a few decades without knowing exactly what is going on in Art? Science will catch up when it realizes its limitations; the absurd reductionism of analytical paradigms and physicalism. Art, again, has its own physics; it is its own language. You can't get at art physics from science physics, or art language from science language. The talented figured out the language of art, the talented developed it and came upon ways of teaching it. It is a language spoken in talent. Without talent the language is just as dumb as math is to somebody who "isn't good with numbers."

You can watch the brain function as it looks at art through a microscope, but you can't understand art by looking at the brain, and science surely won't understand how the brain reacts to art unless they know how art works first as a language. The scientists looking at art, as far as I can tell, are arrogant and small-minded and don't realize the extent of their ignorance about Art. Which is just why they like the philosophical reductionism of modernist aesthetics; because they can understand it. And no wonder; the modernists of 1900-1935 were pandering to a culture that had suddenly become enamoured with science instead of poetry. So all the aesthetic pretension is couched in pseudo-scientific gibberish, including sociology.

Sean Farrell said...

I referred to the reflective shapes because I thought the larger masses were the shapes which were being referred to in comparison to the Motherwell.. You see nothing in what Dali said, okay, fine. I didn't use the word “just” got swallowed up, but in fact psychology did invert our relationship with the ineffable or poetic to below, or beneath from beyond. All mysteries, including symbols were suddenly assumed to be explainable by a scientific process and such became a widely held point of view. Yes, science replaced poetry, that was my point. I was explaining how it was replaced.

No, I didn't say science would tell us what poetry would be about. My reference to math had to do with mathematical models for higher dimensions, which in fact reverse our assumptions of the finality of the three dimensional world and do in fact imply a certain limit as we are of the three dimensions. It doesn't say what those higher dimensions are, but only that the numbers imply something. The point being that our 20th century assumptions which reversed our relationship to below from beyond are no longer valid because they defy numbers which imply otherwise.

kev ferrara said...

Of course I agree with what Dali says in general. But in the specific instance of Motherwell vs English, one needs to read up on Motherwell to see what he himself said were his concerns. (The issue at hand is the similarity of the concerns.)

I don't agree that Jungian Psychology made all that much impact on Symbolism in Art compared to say, market forces, a dilution of art teaching, the rise of punk abstractionist movements, and mass growth and consumption of passive media.

We have no idea if the mathematics that leads some physicists to posit other dimension has any physical reality or not. Even the smartest physicists will readily admit they don't properly conceive of the meanings behind their equations. Just try to find out what it means that the speed of light is squared in Einstein's famous equation. Why squared? Does a speed squared equate with the speed with which a square area is filled by light? But light goes in all directions from a point source, so its actual scope would be spherical. Why just focus on the square of the speed?

See? None of these questions have answers. All anybody knows is that the equation works and there is some precedent for parts of the equation working in other equations. We know even less about higher dimensions because we have no physical experience in that realm at all.

So I don't hold out hope that Science will figure itself out anytime soon. Let alone tell us anything about Art.

Sean Farrell said...

The assumption that there was nothing beyond the three dimensional and the knowable had a tremendous effect not only on the the symbolic, but on the human imagination itself and its disposition towards reality, drawing all into presumed mechanical spheres like Freud, Nietzsche and the positivists. All was subjugated into the mechanical categories. Even reality was broken down into moments making very little sense even on an experiential level. Aesthetics were influenced by the same presumptions and education was geared towards the practical and economically verifiable. What's changed now is that those categories can no longer claim ownership of reality, not because anything was proven, but because numbers exist which open the door to something which to the 20th century mind was inconceivable and by its own mindset it must consider conceivable.

What this means is that orders which were dismissed will be reevaluated. The brains of nuns who died alert, were found to have advanced Alzheimer's disease. That's not supposed to happen. It doesn't prove anything, but there might be something to the way they lived, their disposition, their orientation which is worth investigating. One might call it the order of service, an order of peace, or as they call it, an order.
But hardly is their order the only one to have been dismissed in the course of the century. There is the order of beauty which as you have pointed out many times in different ways was reappointed to types of applied design. So any possibility is fresh air.

kev ferrara said...


I think we're in agreement on the degree to which postivism/materialism had an effect on Romantic thought in the general populace and in "intellectual" circles. (Symbolism being, in my understanding, a fundamental part of Romanticism; its late stage). Presuming we understand Romantic philosophy to have necessarily a quasi-religious backdrop of platonism or something like it.

My own research leads me to believe everything about Romantic-Symbolism is spot-on without needing to resort to something like a Platonic predicate. And I am fine with words like Soul and Spirit too - I think they are meaningful words for observable aspects of art - and I don't need to have any kind of supernatural belief attached to those words in order to use them or understand them.

The Brandywine illustrators were the last major branch of Romantic-Symbolism, as I see it. And its legacy went on with Romantic-Symbolist teaching intact irrespective of what anybody believed about the ether or higher dimensions or loop quantum gravity. And while Pyle and Harvey Dunn surely had a religious component to their teaching, most other Pyle students and grand students who taught the Pyle method didn't, and were perfectly successful without a supernatural predicate.

Although all of them kept to metaphysical beliefs necessary to the teaching. For instance, truth and the ability for all humans to recognize it when they feel it. And none of them gave a damn that the positivists/analytical philosophers of that time cast it out from their philosophical paradigm. And neither did the world. And as it turns out, the Romantic-Symbolists and the rest of the normal world had it right all along. Truth is a fundamental part of our understanding. A fact that the analytical philosophers took 70 years to finally admit, albeit begrudgingly.)

Point being that it is demonstrable that the last major Romantic-Symbolist movement was able to abandon platonism and any other religious overtones without any loss in effectiveness of the teaching. What ultimately stopped the Brandywine legacy in illustration was simply the collapse of the illustration industry in the 1960s. When even Harold Von Schmidt can't get work, the jig is up. Outside of illustration, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth went on just fine, from splitting the atom to M-theory and beyond.

Sean Farrell said...

Kev, The things you are saying on this blog are very interesting and make more sense to others than you imagine. One of your interests has been the way particular mechanical orders have been overwhelming and devouring the more human orders, art being the one you are most interested in as a way of communicating our humanity. As AI and other robotics push people out of commerce itself, many people will be wondering what their humanity has to do with anything at all.

Many people understand that Hawking's theory and numbers preceded the actual discovery of black holes, so numbers mean something and are or a type of order. That new higher dimensions were derived from existing dimensions, line, width and depth also means something. As the world has become more scientific, more people are discovering just how ordered things actually are, from the organic to the mechanical and for those who understand so, human behaviors, bonding and so forth, even our interior reality.

So there are many types of order within our larger human order and finding one's humanity and human longings, etc. in such is one of the most difficult things to do. More so when all corridors lead to mechanical orders, which one encounters far more frequently than anything imagined in 1905. As well there is far less illustration work today that in even ten years ago. You understand all this. You have a keen understanding of the human being as a sensitive organism in a world which is ever more enclosing upon itself as a mechanical structure.

This notion of a mechanical world enclosing upon itself follows the acceptance or propaganda of an enclosed universe as mechanism to begin with. The two are hard to separate and ultimately anyone really thinking about it has to confront the reality, that if it is an enclosed universe, then an enclosed or mechanical thinking is also valid and humanity is simply something to be overcome. That's what I was after when saying that poetry, which was meant to suggest that which was beyond words had become subjected and so believed to be beneath words. The world of 1905 was still a beneficiary of centuries of assumed behaviors which no longer exist. So that is why the new math models are important to our world today, more so than to the world of 1960 or 1905 where people thought as you described. Yes the Wyeths fared okay, coming from where they did, but your whole point is that under circumstances as we have today, what you're saying in regard to art is a foreign language as you said yourself.

I'm simply encouraging you to carry on and not get too frustrated or too pessimistic. That new math models exist is important to reopening the mind and realigning our disposition to the larger order of things and again relearning the relationship of man to the world, the human condition and art. Thanks.

Sean Farrell said...

PS: With regard to art and the platonic specifically. You are right, art's authenticity is based on an honesty with what it portrays. It requires a direct relationship and a respect of its subject for its authenticity and doesn't require a platonic notion, though art and the virtues did develop in such environments and not by accident as beauty itself in its many manifestations was understood as possessing something ineffable and good, as do the virtues. The nuns represent a different kind of order but one that is also simple and direct in the belief that a small gesture of say, patience is of order and a relationship with something or someone, rather than a mechanical act upon something and that may include one's patience in regard to oneself.

The math models may represent our consciousness, reason or truth as a non material reality as you have past acknowledged, or they may represent nothing at all as you suggested, but their potential as unknowable could help bring humanity back to its senses.

We differ in the way we see the overall context of reality, but I have a hunch that you also believe that the smallest elements in art which you described as static, contribute in some way to the final poetry of good piece of art which is unknowable. A regard for that word unknowable, (not subject to us) is something I think we do share. As for learning more about the poetry of art, I'm a listener.

kev ferrara said...


Firstly, there are many mathematical constructs that have turned out to have no empirical basis. This is the first the clue we have that maybe mathematics is tricking us or circumscribing us unduly in what we are allowed to think is real. Because math, our empirical savior, can be "accurate" without being truthful.

Secondarily, my deepest observation is that all experience is a form of poetry. All is suggestion, abstracted notes of phenomena existing in some relationship, and we complete the experience of any phenomena in our minds by converting the whole relationship into a unity via imaginative synthesis (which seems to result in a strongly associated bundle of neurons). Our minds experience relationships as sensations, emotions, narratives, intuitions, concepts, logics, imaginings, visualizations, etc, depending on the language we're running. While physics takes all relations to be invisible force-orders which can be formalized as equations, its language being math. In other words, science essentially says that all relations between things are force-based and mathematizable and anything that isn't mathematizable isn't a real relation. Well, as I listed above, our brain includes in its repertoire of understandings relationship that are mathematically formalized, but it also includes a whole lot more in other languages. What if the brain is more correct… that there are a lot more real orders that can't be formalized as math than can. But we have this anthropic bias towards discreteness that keeps limiting our experiential knowledge and fooling us into thinking math rules all. Which goes back to my notion of the innate philosophy inherent in any device… that scientific apparatus have inbuilt a philosophy of discreteness. And in using such machines we become unconsciously trained in their implicit belief systems -- in the case of scientific apparatus that discreteness is the essence of all. When it is plainly obvious that discreteness is just one landing along an endless staircase of relations which have no materiality to speak of when analyzed. It's poetry "all the way down." Not facts.

I agree of course that all sorts of mass dehumanization is going on, and I find it disastrous culturally and spiritually. If I could wish my pessimism away, I wouldn't be me.

Sean Farrell said...

I really do appreciate your clarifications.

“What if the brain is more correct… that there are a lot more real orders that can't be formalized as math than can. ”

Exactly. The math example gives pause to that order, as it is the order which is out of proportion at this time and such is the only language its adherents can understand. The nuns and their manner of belonging or with-ness was a non mathematical or experiential order for comparison.

I think there's a common misunderstanding that poetic implies an experience less than actual, rather than richer or more experiential than can be described or categorized due to the limitations of language. Well, I'm suggesting your pessimism may be a bit of anthropic bias itself, because I've found your contributions edifying. It's hard work thinking about all this stuff and sometimes isolating. Take that with-ness thing for a walk and see if you don't find yourself smiling at the poetry, all the way up.

kev ferrara said...

You're a good egg, Sean.

Sean Farrell said...

Thanks Kev, I know it's hard seeing something one doesn't really have control over and feeling ineffective to do anything about it, or ineffective in one's efforts to make a difference. You did an excellent job explaining something that's quite difficult to understand no less explain and you did so despite using words used in linguistics which themselves are not ordinary and can be an obstacle. There's a lot of truth in what you have been saying and important truths too. Until the next adventure then, be well.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- You make a strong case for the kind of art that you personally prefer-- art that achieves a kind of visual poesis by seamlessly blending references ("more evoked than stated")with aesthetic form. You say that an imbalance in one direction or the other will result in inferior work, either "dead realism" (too much reference, too explicit, too identifiable) or in ignorant postmodernism (no reference at all, untethered form).

I like the kind of art you like, and I agree that postmodernism is far more irritating than it is illuminating. But I don't know how we could say that your particular balance is the pinnacle for everybody in all seasons and at all times of day. There are artists all over that spectrum who inspire serious viewers whose taste might be different from yours-- perhaps on a Sunday afternoon they prefer their content in the form that Saul Steinberg presents it. Perhaps in times of great sorrow when the world is too much with them, they prefer to strip out even "evoked" or "poetic" references and submerge into Mark Rothko.

There are easy cases-- for example, I don't have a problem telling a fan of Koons or Kinkade, "I'm sorry, you're simply ignorant. Your judgment is immature and your taste is superficial." But there is also a zone of reasonableness where I believe people's judgments can reasonably differ, just as their moods and their needs for art differ. What you view as The Pinnacle may just be one peak in a mountain range.

I think you cook the argument with the way you characterize the art for which you have low regard (of course, I plead guilty of doing the same sometimes). You say for example that artists "sought ignorance as a strategy for originality." But I think these artists were looking more for innocence than ignorance, and with good cause. Even before the weight of cumulative history began crushing artists (so many predecessors, so many paintings, what hasn't been done?) artist such as William Blake and Rousseau properly recognized that the gift of civilization was a mixed blessing. So when Dubuffet or Steinberg, two of the most intellectual artists of the twentieth century, began drawing childlike stick figures, I view that as honest and fruitful exploration. They may even aspire to "ignorance" in the sense of being delivered from the burden of consciousness that increasingly paralyzes modern people since Prince Hamlet began his deliberations but they are far, far from it.

David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell-- I agree with your quote from Dali (and I'd bet that almost every good traditional painter feels the same way). Robert Fawcett, who was a tough old bird with traditional values , said that it is "a misconception that abstract qualities are new to contemporary painting...they have been the comparison of excellence since painting began."

I think you made a very important point when you talked about "not ready made visual cues," and said that a drawback of such cues is that they are "often lost or completely misinterpreted." Artists reflexively struggle to separate themselves from a common set of references and models, to be original and develop their own cues, but they can only escape so far before human nature and shared cultural perceptions yank on their leash. They may want to break free of the hackneyed colors and shapes used to signify happiness or tension or fear or rage or pessimism. But anyone who tries to use gray colors and deflated shapes to convey happiness runs the risk that their meaning will be, as you say, "lost or completely misinterpreted." It's the wise artist who understands that we are not completely free to invent our visual vocabulary for external references, and employs originality selectively, in moderation.

A similar point applies, I think, to your comment about the higher order of things-- the fourth and fifth dimensions, the Platonic form, as an additional source of poetic inspiration above the boundary of words. My reaction is "yes, but to make that work we should never lose touch with those primal urges "beneath the boundary of words." Just as I suggested to Kev (above) I am wary of absolutes. (I seem to be the cheerleader for moderation today.) But I'm in good company; Shakespeare argued that everything is a matter of degree: "Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what dischord follows! Each thing meets in mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores And make a sop of all this solid globe."

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

I like the kind of art you like, and I agree that postmodernism is far more irritating than it is illuminating. But I don't know how we could say that your particular balance is the pinnacle for everybody in all seasons and at all times of day. There are artists all over that spectrum who inspire serious viewers whose taste might be different from yours-- perhaps on a Sunday afternoon they prefer their content in the form that Saul Steinberg presents it. Perhaps in times of great sorrow when the world is too much with them, they prefer to strip out even "evoked" or "poetic" references and submerge into Mark Rothko.

You are endlessly circling the question back to preference; entertainment preference, psychological or mood preference, tribal preference, preference for one kind of content vehicle over another, etc. Why? This isn’t about preference and never was. It’s about recognizing as a scientist might the qualities an artistic communication might possess which are wholly unique to the art, and what those qualities do to the way the artwork is experienced in terms of aesthetic sensations.

Yet I keep sensing that you have a governor within you that prevents the very thought; an ideology that circumscribes what you are allowed to consider about any of this in terms of aesthetic philosophy. The voices seem to constantly whisper to you that, “all forms of communication have their place as artforms and therefore no hierarchies of quality exist.” Well, that kind of know-nothing-ism is fine for you to hold as a political stance if it makes you feel like a moral person. But don’t mistake it for truth. Aesthetics is not a pinch as subjective as your emotional ideology. It is very much a science; The science of what is sensed and imagined, as Baumgarten put it. It doesn’t tell you what to enjoy. It doesn't deny you your preferences. But it does have something very deep and smart to say about just what Art is; the nature of its inherent qualities.

kev ferrara said...

Last point, regarding the unwarranted hype of Clyfford Still, this is the work of Augustus Vincent Tack in 1931 about 20 years predating Mr. Still's abstractions. And this was no one off piece by Tack either. For instance, here Tack is in 1935 pushing forward. And you can google any number of his works in a similar vein, all of which came out long before Still wisely gave up trying to draw or paint. With clear vision it becomes evident that all Still did was make dumber, bolder versions of Tack.

Laurence John said...

those Tack paintings are very interesting, but can you see them 'pushing forward' to anything other than even sparer content, flatter surfaces, bolder abstraction; i.e. toward abstract expressionism ?

kev ferrara said...

I agree with you Laurence, that was sloppy wording. I was trying to point out that Tack did very Still-like pictures (but prettier) for a while and then moved on from them to other modernist graphic design ideas. Whereas Still basically just did a primary color version of what Tack had already done and didn't really demonstrate any invention to speak of subsequently. To a billion people it is like fingernails on a chalkboard to say the following, but I find it incontrovertible: looking at Still's attempts to draw and paint realism prior to becoming an abstractionist in the Tack mold, it is readily apparent that he had little artistic talent to speak of. So he had no choice, if he was to stay in the visual arts, he was forced to become a designer. Whereas, if you look at Tack's early landscapes, you can see he was quite talented and learned.