Saturday, April 14, 2018

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 57

I love this very cool drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex by Ike, age 6.


I spotted it at an art exhibition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

In response to my most recent post of a drawing by Ronald Searle, various commenters wrote:
I think that is the most important in any drawing, draw what we feel instead of what we see, connections and relationship instead of objects
 [B]rilliant! He draws the way the old man FEELS rather than the way he LOOKS.    
Ike may not be an experienced professional artist like Searle, yet he has done a wonderful job of drawing what he feels.  Get a load of those teeth! Unlike the standard "lightning bolt" line most people use as a shortcut for drawing teeth, Ike has lovingly outlined each tooth separately.  Each tooth has its own unique, scary shape.

Ike couldn't fit this many teeth in his picture if he was constrained like an adult by the conventional proportions of a T-Rex.  Because his patterns of perception haven't hardened yet, he was able to unhinge the jaw and expand the mouth to make it as big as the entire rest of the dinosaur.  It appears that when he wanted still more teeth,  he added a third row above the dinosaur's head.  Ike is a creative artist with strong priorities.

And it doesn't end there. Not content to draw the dinosaur's body with a simple contour line the way many people would, Ike intuitively draws a jagged body like the roar of a thunder lizard shown on an oscilloscope (or the shock to your nervous system when you see a dinosaur coming toward you).



Psychologists tell us that children's drawings exaggerate shapes in ways that reveal the child's inner feelings about their subject.  There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art.


176 comments:

MORAN said...

Awesome teeth. Go Ike!

Anonymous said...

Sweet drawing. I've never seen Searle draw teeth that good.

JSL

Laurence John said...

David: "There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art”

the danger with this line of thinking is that it paints childhood art as some sort of garden of eden; a ‘pure’ state which then becomes tainted by too much thought and sophistication as we grow out of it and learn more about the outside world. even if that were true in some sense, the idea that you could go back to that state when you choose (un-learn your way back to it) is disingenuous, and mostly leads to adults pretending to think like kids.

there’s even a fancy term for it: ‘faux naîf’.

i’m not saying that adults can’t utilise aggressive wonkiness in their drawing, or crude simplification, without some success. Searle and Steadman are both examples of that. but consciously using expressive crudeness isn’t the same thing as actually going back to that child-like state (even if the artist or critic tries to convince the viewer that that is what they’ve achieved).

cranberries said...

I love every part of this drawing because each line communicates with absolute clarity Ike's pure commitment to his idea of the T Rex. We don't have to wonder what part of the dino captures his interest. We don't have to ask ourselves what his point of view is or how he was feeling when he drew it. You will find artists of more experience and perhaps more patience, but you will never find an artist of any age with more buoyant joy in drawing, more complete identification with his subject, more connection between image and feeling. Plus, the composition, the placement of the dino on the page, the size and position and lettering of the artist's name -- all just right. Ike, if the dinosaur could see that drawing, he'd be very proud. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

I LIKE IKE !

Maybe if he keeps at it he will learn skills that are to be respected and admired . Maybe his work will be boringly competent , or have that mixture of high craft with the inner spark of feeling projecting through .

In addition to the artists David mentioned that worked at recapturing that spark - without falling into that dangerous and disingenuous trap of returning to a childlike mind set of shitting their diapers - James Wyeth comes to mind . He evolved from an impeccable level of craft over the past 15 20 years , to a seemingly simpler application of his knowledge .

I believe one can learn craft and hopefully never lose what makes Ike's drawing so likable , or at least recapture it as some artists do .

Al McLuckie

Tom said...

"There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art."

It seems like false dichotomy David. And artist develops skills to free his expression, so that he becomes unhindered by the "how" and the same energy that runs through his hand is the same energy that runs through the child's hand. A skilled brush stroke will be much more interesting however as it take in a broader, grander view of things. Is a child's hand more sincere then a master's hand?

You seemed to think "technical skill," is something added or it is something anyone can be taught, as if it is somehow separate from expression. Technical skill actually brings one closer to the stem cells of art, it doesn't take you away from it. Is a young tree more pure then an old tree?

It's a fun drawing and I get your point, but it seems like your positing some sort of imagined art paradise. I would much prefer the off hand pastel landscape drawings of Alfred Sisley that seemed to be drawn almost with nothing or the fishing boats of Sorolla or a flower painting by Manet which really seem to arrived on their canvases fully formed without effort. What is the Latin saying, "ars est celare artem," or the Greek saying, 'Art is long, life is short."

David Apatoff said...


MORAN and JSL-- Thanks. Now that I think about it, I can't recall ever seeing Searle draw teeth as cool as I think these are.

Laurence John and Tom-- I agree with some of your points, and I've certainly argued in the past that technical skill can, under the proper circumstances, set free our expression. (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2012/08/magic-that-believes-itself.html ) However, I don't think you give enough credit to the other side of the equation. I don't worry too much about whether a pure child-like state of "art paradise" really exists; remember, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes contrasted civilization with a hypothetical "state of nature" as a valuable tool for understanding the pros and cons of civilization.

My point-- which I think has been recognized widely across many centuries and many disciplines, is that layers of training and technical skill can dampen creativity and squelch emotional veracity.

Successive generations of academic painters refined their tools and techniques so eventually artists were able to execute lifeless works with dazzling craftsmanship. Today major art museums sag under the weight of gilt-framed canvases painted with skill but devoid of vitality, originality, spontaneity or authenticity. Such labored art was, in the words of Shakespeare, "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought."

As civilization aged, great artists such as Turner or Degas or Gauguin recognized that this process of repeated refinement was heading for a bad end (and besides, where do you go after Bouguereau?) They broke free from the academy's stultifying formulae and prescriptions in favor of more emotionally satisfying solutions (such as Rousseau's attempts to embrace a primitive, childlike approach). Several of these artists, such as Picasso, Dubuffet and Klee who I mentioned in this post, tried to view the world through the fresh eyes of a child.

Neuroscience teaches us that our brains have two parallel paths for guiding our behavior: When we first experience a challenging new situation, we process it with the higher-order deliberative part of our brain (in our frontal and prefrontal lobes). All options are on the table, and we summon up maximum creativity and cognition to deal with an unknown phenomenon. However, once we've handled that same task several times, it no longer requires creative choices so our brain is able to delegate the responsibility to the repetitive, lower-order automated part of the brain. For example, Yale neurologist Dr. Eliezer Sternberg writes that "the complex activity of driving a car requires vision, touch and exquisite motor control. But it can become mostly unconscious when the driver takes the same route day after day."

Once an artist such as Al Williamson or Wally Wood has drawn a tyrannosaurus rex a hundred times, the template is firmly established in their minds. The repetitive function part of their brain simply follows the formula and they get paid. They are past the stage where they could ever again conceive of including a third row of teeth. I'm not saying this happens to all artists, but to enough that many artists find value in trying to go back and look at the world through new eyes. Note Peter de Seve's recent discussion of this issue at http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2018/02/the-collectors-eye-peter-de-seve.html .


David Apatoff said...

cranberries-- I agree about "Ike's pure commitment to his idea." Mere enthusiasm is not always enough to save a drawing, but here I find the connection between "image and feeling" irresistible. Ike is clearly very impressed with those teeth and he gives them free artistic reign. I laughed out loud when I saw this drawing in the show.

Al McLuckie-- Thanks, I will have to check out the more recent work of James Wyeth. He was such a precocious talent, I wondered where he would take his ability. Around the time of his Nureyev drawings and his Jimmy Carter portrait for Time Magazine, I became disenchanted because it seemed that he didn't have it in him to equal his grandfather or his father. I've kept one eye on his work ever since, and he's done a few things I like but if he's doing new and interesting work, it's time for a fresh look.

Tom said...

Hi David
Ramana Maharshi said something along the same lines, once someone tells a child that a bird is called a bird the child will never "see" it again. I think Martin Heidegger attempts to get the same point across in his essay on Van Gogh's painting of a pair of shoes, but I read that a long time ago.

"My point--which I think has been recognized widely across many centuries and many disciplines, is that layers of training and technical skill can dampen creativity and squelch emotional veracity."

I agree with that but much of academic training was stultifying with little attention directed to aesthetic comprehension. Skill became a polishing an a copying. Interestedly China has taken that exact approach, in it's insistent on training and discipline in the handling of the brush because such training will in the end bring spontoneity into being. Art is seen much more as a reconciling of what appear at first contridicatory outlooks.

The world is always fresh and now. It seems it is not our eyes but our thought that clouds and hide its wonder.

kev ferrara said...

The distortion in this drawing can just as easily be due to accident or incompetence as expressive intent. What one viewer interprets as ferocious exuberance might just as well be due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Reading meaning and intent into accidental configurations is the way of superstition and madness. The difference between an accidental configuration that seems like a signal and one that is actually a signal is also a crucial point to drill down on. Without understanding the distinction there, do we understand art at all?

Equally important; the difference between a wail in the night and a work of art is in how the emotional content is embedded in symbolic and referential context, and just how that organization is provided for the audience.

Just because you enjoy the funny way somebody accidentally falls down a stairs, doesn't make it art.

-----

Countless great artists bridged the divide between expertise in drawing/painting and great expressive creativity. You seem to insist through continual tactical arguing that artists are either dead academics rote-learned into an early expressive grave, or a free-spirited wild child bubbling over with innocent creative wonderfulness.

This is yet another binary, tribal straw man type argument. It is part of your continued attempt to justify primitivism or cartoons as equal to the likes of Sorolla, Titian, Wyeth, Everett, Vuillard, Brangwyn, Waugh, Fechin, Rembrandt, Klimt, Pyle, Arthur Mathews, Booth, Solomon, Rountree, Inness, and so on. Your need to believe that pleasant fiction does not make it so. (And I'm sure I love cartoons and totem poles just as much as you do.)

Richard said...

The learned skill itself won't turn an interestingly-souled human being into a left-brained art automaton. However, the culture that obsesses over certain types of learned skill to exclusion will usually create a filtering effect that keeps weird people out.

That filter selects against the "right-brain" types: the neurotic, the intuitive, the wishy-washy, the spiritual, the ADHD, the dreamer, the hedonistic, the child-like, the naive, the wealthy fop, the extroverted.

It has a forcing effect, that drives over-representation by the "left-brain" types: the mechanically inclined, the graphical, the careful, the middle class, M.C. Escher fans, the low-wit workhorse, artists who use erasers, the critic's artist, and so on.

I happen to prefer the former type of defectives to the latter type of squares. While I may fawn over the technical skill of the latter type of brain, they don’t give me the emotional material that I’m looking for in the visual arts. I’ll take some poorly done folk art by a god-delirious church marm to yet another well-rendered drawing of Super Guy. But it takes all kinds.


I happen to agree with Kev that the child’s third row and scratchy line came by way of accident, but I think he’s under-estimating how much of what makes great artists hum comes by way of accident.

The difference between a competent draftsman and a master artist is the degree to which they can give into and ride the waves of accident.

That the child’s art comes fully loaded with accident doesn’t bother me one bit. On the contrary, accident is where the most interesting content of art comes from. That's when the human artist's muscle memory and theory get out of the way, and the gods and ghosts get involved.


That's where style comes from. Style is the curated accident -- an accident made, liked, and repeated. A bit of intentional incompetence.

My four year old’s drawings come jam packed with what in older artists might be called “style”.

I don’t confuse these things for style, I know this is the first time that accident was made. He’s four. He's a style generating machine.

But that these are the seminal accidents (yikes, am I oversharing?) shouldn’t detract from the aesthetic experience that those peculiarities of the drawing create.


Anyway. While we’re looking at kids’ drawings, I can’t help but share (proud parent style).

https://i.imgur.com/AcTOpgz.jpg (Another third-row of teeth for you.)
https://i.imgur.com/WDrnoLY.jpg
https://i.imgur.com/IqZXXGK.jpg (It’s a wine glass.)
https://i.imgur.com/qb5Q0Dl.jpg

Cheers

Richard said...
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Richard said...
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David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The distortion in this drawing can just as easily be due to accident or incompetence as expressive intent. What one viewer interprets as ferocious exuberance might just as well be due to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Reading meaning and intent into accidental configurations is the way of superstition and madness."

It's true that we don't really know what Ike intended with those teeth. (In fact, I contacted Sarah Lawrence College to ask them to check with Ike about those marks along the top of the picture and he didn't remember why he did them. He did, however, proudly point out the teeth in the mouth.) We can't really know if the ancient cave painters intended the things that we read into their paintings, or if the ancient Greek mind was really subtle enough to come up with the double meanings we see in their philosophical dramas, or even whether 19th century painters intended all the symbolism we "find" in their paintings. That uncertainty is what we live with any time we try to transcend literalism. And yet, transcend it we must. Oscar Wilde wrote that art that is "too intelligible" necessarily fails: "The one thing not worth looking at is the obvious." So all I can suggest is that we bring a little humility and a lot of energy with us when we undertake to make sense of pictures.

In the case of Ike, it is possible that he painstakingly drew each one of those sharp teeth separately, and made them five times bigger than they would normally be, and devoted more effort to them than any other part of the picture, out of sheer "accident or incompetence." It's possible. But for guidance at moments like this I like to return to the words of the great Damon Runyon: " It may be that the race is not always to the swift, but that is the best way to bet."

Also, to be clear, I wouldn't say that primitivism or cartoons are "equal to the likes of Sorolla, Titian, Wyeth, Everett," etc. I would instead say that they are better at some valid artistic activities and worse at others. When Austin Briggs, who carefully mastered representational oil painting, decided to fulfill a job with a "rough" drawing done with a simple litho crayon, it was because he thought it was the best solution for that job. It wasn't because he was lazy (he did dozens of preliminary drawings) and it wasn't because the client wouldn't pay for a more elaborate job(multinational clients such as American Airlines paid him well to serve on their corporate advisory board to oversee their advertising campaigns). But when he did those spontaneous looking drawings with the rough edge for TV Guide and other advertisers, they were hugely successful.

While I share your basic instinct that it is important to stand at the barricades of civilization to defend "the difference between a wail in the night and a work of art," civilization never created a fairer flower than Goethe and he insisted, "The shudder of awe is humanity's highest faculty."

Tom: I foreswore reading Heidegger years ago; he just required too much effort for the return on my investment. But you've intrigued me with that essay about Van Gogh's shoes. I'll have to dig it out.

"The world is always fresh and now. It seems it is not our eyes but our thought that clouds and hide its wonder."

Fortunate is the person with a passport to travel back and forth between the two domains. Complex thoughts help us unpack civilization's most elegant constructs and make the best advantage of symbolic thinking, yet losing that "fresh and now" perspective on the world almost seems like too much to bear. They say that Einstein and Picasso were both able to retain their childlike sense of wonder while dealing with the most complex thoughts.

Laurence John said...

Richard, the comment you deleted that said something about 'childhood art being enjoyable because of the honest incompetence of the child’ (as oppose to the faked incompetence of the adult) was pretty close to the truth. we respond to children’s drawings with an ‘awwww isn’t it cute’ emotion because the vulnerability, naivety, candour and charm that children possess anyway is inherent in the drawing. as adults, almost everything about children makes us feel protective, so that includes feeling bad about criticising their drawings (it also feels inappropriate to critique a child’s drawing for the reason above: because of the honesty of the incompetence, and the limited ability).

as for adults who pretend to draw in a child-like way, or who view everything through an infantilised filter; i can definitely remember a time when cutesy illustration wasn’t everywhere. now it’s a tidal wave of twee. it seems to have kicked off roughly around the late 90s, and went crazy in the early 2000s. i get the psychology of it; in a scary and uncertain world it’s comforting to create a manageable, safe, children’s picture book version of reality wherein you’re in control, everything is pretty and de-sexed, and even ugly, unpleasant things are reduced to scary-cute monsters.


the fine art world also, wasn’t obsessed with this modern day ‘everyone can have a go in our craft workshop, and there’s no right or wrong, you’re just expressing your inner self’ thing until recently. i met a middle-aged woman who makes abstract art because she ‘just likes the colours and shapes’ (they were very bright colours and simple shapes). i feel guilty even thinking there’s something wrong with that (as i would in not liking a child’s painting). i know a successful male artist who does sub-Picasso, sub-Matisse, large scale, very crudely drawn (but tastefully coloured) paintings in oil. what’s interesting is how they tick the middle class ‘avant garde’ box, but they’re also pretty, decorative and completely neutered at the same time.

modernism, so much to answer for.

kev ferrara said...

Enjoyed that, Laurence. I really believe that high modernism, to begin with, was an effort at intellectually justifiable twee-escapism by a certain kind of bookish, over-sensitive class. One of the reasons Aesthetic philosophy went to rot in the 20th century was because it became solely a means of satisfying that consumer base, rather than getting at any kind of truth about art. So powerful were they at persuading the masses, that simply pointing out the obvious -- that most modern art is graphic designs, cartooning, and basic tests of aesthetic forces -- still elicits audible gasps from an audience.

I too am responding to Richard's ghost post...

Art is mostly improvisational. To develop work, artists improvise from imagination, improvise extensively at the sketch stage, and then, more nerve-wrackingly, during the creation of the final product. The only other way to develop material is curatorially… by hunting around in life for a subject to sit in front of, by taking photos, through found reference, or by collecting abstract patterns or objects and using them as the basis for developing images (Mario Cooper’s beautiful late watercolors had much inspiration from his textile collection.)

The great difference between improvising live in front of an audience and improvising in the laboratory of the studio is that with the latter case one may produce countless improvisations, one after another, and then select between the best with deliberation. While, in the hothouse of a live peformance, a jazz musician, say, must rely on instrumental virtuosity, knowledge of the chord changes and which notes work within them, basic courage, a need for approval from a crowd, and pre-fab “licks.” As well as great improv tricks like, “if you make a mistake, play it twice.” A strategy which immediately makes bald error in live performance seem purposeful and radically creative in an edgy way.

In other words this “immediate ownership” of the live error is a method by which the “accident” is transformed into “improvisation.” There is always a way to harmonize accidents, if they have some value, into the key of a work.

True accidents during live performance, however, like a drum kit falling over, or a giant glob of black ink pooling over a drawing, can’t really be incorporated artfully.

Orson Welles once characterized the directing process as “presiding over accidents.” Of course, this was more a piece of wisdom about the proper mindset during art-making, than an actual recipe for auteurship. Nothing good gets done without tremendous consciousness and conscientiousness brought to bear. But with so much under one’s control, every minor thing that slips by becomes magnified. And one needs to keep the obsessiveness of perfectionism under strict control.

kev ferrara said...

civilization never created a fairer flower than Goethe and he insisted, "The shudder of awe is humanity's highest faculty."

Forgive me if I disagree with Goethe on this point. I rather think that humanity's highest faculty is the ability to concentrate on a seemingly intractable, but crucial, problem in the midst of bewildering chaos, mass tragedy, and widespread panic, and see it through to fruition.

Richard said...

I deleted that comment because I had decided it was silly. I don’t fault Mark Twain for making Huck Finn talk like a child, nor Jim like a slave. I ought not fault the visual artist who does his version of the same. Creating a work in a voice which isn’t your own isn’t disingenuous, it’s just a basic tool in any artform. That we have too many works in children’s voices is a cultural issue, but making works in children’s voices shouldn’t be verboten.


"everything is pretty and de-sexed, and even ugly, unpleasant things are reduced to scary-cute monsters"
Really? I'd say it's just the opposite. I'd say that everything is made ugly because pretty things give us challenging sentiments, while also being overtly sexualized, so that it can play off of our baser instincts to hold our attentions.


"the fine art world also, wasn’t obsessed with this modern day ‘everyone can have a go in our craft workshop, and there’s no right or wrong, you’re just expressing your inner self’ thing until recently."

I'm not exactly sure who the Fine Art world is, per se, but I think that people of the past were plenty indulgent of amateurs who made art for fun. Particularly in the extremely rare circumstance that said amateur was both a middle-aged woman and not one of the ruling class.

The fact that we don't have much of a professional artist class anymore doesn't mean that every amateur ought now answer to the level of critique as would have a professional of the past. Let the little old ladies and so forth do their thing.

If we have any intention of building a visual culture where the multitude of the public are visually literate enough to make what the past would have considered great art, we can't get there by attacking the visually illiterate's attempts at stringing together their first sentences. You have to encourage a child as they learn to speak, while also modestly demonstrating proper speech yourself.

Proper speech will sell itself in time. One need to shut down the democratizing forces in art just because they haven’t enough faith in the strength of art to let the little old illiterate ladies do their thing.

Richard said...

*One need not shut down

Richard said...

And towards that democratizing force bringing the visually illiterate masses into the fold; we should expect as a result that those masses will prefer works which are themselves visually illiterate.

This is true in music, where the influx of the musically illiterate into the market drove that market towards illiterate musical forms.

It’s true in literature, where the illiterate masses drove the market towards 3rd grade writing levels.

In politics, Trump got elected, in part, because he speaks like the masses. They can understand him.

The answer isn’t to try to put the democratizing cat back in the bag. The age of aristocracy is over. The answer is to slowly, over generations, demonstrate better styles of communication to educate the masses to speak at the level the aristocracy once did. The answer is The Foundation, not The Reaction.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- Loved your son's drawings. Is that a Harry Potter style lightning bolt we're seeing on the forehead of that first drawing?

"artists who use erasers"???

"I happen to agree with Kev that the child’s third row and scratchy line came by way of accident, but I think he’s under-estimating how much of what makes great artists hum comes by way of accident. "

I am a bit uncertain about how far Kev's attitude toward accidents extends; he is obviously a big fan of control and deliberate actions, and I am too. But I have previously cited the story about Andrew Wyeth who spent spent several days laboring on a tightly rendered, very deliberate painting, recognized that he had asserted too much control, so he picked up a pot of brown paint and splattered it across the length of the painting, Jackson Pollock style, then fled the scene before he could meddle with whatever accidents nature and hydrology had committed.

Let me echo what Laurence John and Kev said: I'm sorry that you chose to delete your prior comments, I thought they were both worthy of discussion. I never delete any comments from readers. People are free to retract their own comments (especially if they rethink something they've written in anger and have a more moderate way to make the same point). But sometimes I see a comment I'd like to address just before I get on an international flight and by the time I get back on line, the comment has been retracted by the author. That can be disappointing to me and others.

Laurence John-- I mostly agree with what you've written, but to be clear I don't think we praise children's art solely to go softer on them because of their vulnerability and naiveté. I think that a lot of children's art is truly good, measured by objective standards (to the extent we can find any). I think it is imaginative and joyful, I think its auto-plasticism is clever and persuasive, and as Peter de Seve wrote about his daughter's valentine in my recent blog post, "I know it’s a cliché to want to draw like a child, but honestly, look at the sheer inventiveness and variety in every heart on that page!" I do like the lack of guile in children's art (just as I disfavor "adults who pretend to draw in a child-like way, or who view everything through an infantilised filter" for their guile and their cowardly efforts to be judged by a softer standard.)

I generally join in your indictment of much of modernism (and have repeatedly ridiculed the New Yorker's covers for the same kind of dishonesty and laziness). However, I think that separating wheat from chaff is ultimately a little subtler than that. How do you feel, for example, about the work of James Thurber? I've already gone on the record with my belief that Saul Steinberg and Dubuffet are both brilliant. There are "children’s picture book versions of reality" that are really quite strange and interesting-- Sendak and Geisel, for example-- and extremely simple drawings for children (by artists such as Charles Schulz) that I find quite nice. Distinguishing the laudable from the dismal requires us to stay on our toes.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Forgive me if I disagree with Goethe on this point. I rather think that humanity's highest faculty is the ability to concentrate on a seemingly intractable, but crucial, problem in the midst of bewildering chaos, mass tragedy, and widespread panic, and see it through to fruition."

Ah, yes, but where does it all end? Goethe wrote in an era when recorded history had become so long and people knew so much and truth had become so subjective that the "modern sensitive hero" had become paralyzed by concentrating on seemingly intractable but crucial problems. Goethe's Werther, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Dostoevsky's Underground Man, Joyce's portrait of the artist-- these were all psychological studies in vacillation, in weighing alternatives interminably. That's why Hamlet found his life "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" and in desperation, ended it. Is it any wonder that cultures desperate for fresh air turned back to spontaneity and primitivism and brutalism? Franz Kline's action painting was like a prison break. Adolph Gottlieb's bursts hit you right between the eyes. As I suggested to Tom (above) there are genuine rewards to unpacking civilization's most elegant constructs and appreciating layers of symbolic thinking-- it's a great job for reference librarians-- but that rules out the kind of pictures that hit you like an orgasm at first glance. That rules out rock n' roll, and nobody yet has ever bet successfully against rock n' roll. I don't see high culture offering rewards any time soon that are sufficient to persuade us to give up our orgasms.

Richard said...

>> "artists who use erasers"

> ???

Maybe it's not a popular sentiment here? But I viscerally hate erasers. They steal all the life out of my line (and those accidents I spoke of reverently).

I prefer to setup my lightbox and do another drawing atop the previous, making iterations over it until I've gotten to what I wanted, but also retained the freshness of the moment. Maybe a better artist than I can use an eraser and still keep that immediacy of a drawing done tout d’un coup, but I can't fathom how.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- in light of recent comments from others I wanted to circle back to your reference to "the Greek saying, 'Art is long, life is short.'"

The more complex and profound version of that quote comes from Achilles in the Iliad: "Who the hell wants glory that will live forever if I have to give up the immediate pleasures of life?" The answer wasn't at all obvious to Achilles, and the unanswered question still burns brightly today: is long art is worth more than a short life? ( http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2010/10/when-artist-falls-in-forest-and-no-one.html ).

I think Chaucer's lament was much more realistic than those crazy glory-seeking Greeks: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to learne..."

Richard said...

>"Who the hell wants glory that will live forever if I have to give up the immediate pleasures of life?"

Making art isn't giving up one immediate pleasure in exchange for the possibility of a future pleasure.

You're giving one immediate pleasure in exchange for another: the contemplation of the possibility of glory, or the contemplation of the importance or making art, or if you're really boring about the whole thing, the contemplation of your own picturemaking.

It's not at all obvious that humans have enough free will to do something which is not itself the thing that they most want to do.

kev ferrara said...

David,

I'm a little confused by your argument. Are you comparing Modern Art to a bunch of ejaculate?

Ah, yes, but where does it all end?

As far as we know, there is no end.

Generally, the point of solving a problem is to forestall or alleviate suffering in the short and medium term. We are always paving the road in front of us as we walk, so we can see what's coming up next without stumbling ass over tea kettle. Shudders of awe didn't decipher glucagon's role in metabolism. And it won't uncover inflammation's role in depression.

Speaking of depression, you are sounding increasingly troubled from down in your postmodern well. You keep circling back to the grand meaninglessness of it all. What is this, college?

Since this entire blog is dedicated to the works of people who spent huge chunks of their short "lyfe" alone in a room, in dedication to a dying art form -- one that has given you countless hours of enjoyment or respite -- it seems odd to hear you argue that they were wasting their time.

Or are you merely arguing that anybody trying to do anything more than create throwaway entertainments is wasting their time? Really, in the grand scheme of it all, who isn't wasting their time trying to do important, thoughtful work? Engineers? Scientists? Doctors? Why bother, right? We're all gonna die, the sun's going to go out, and so on. A level of analysis - if we take it back a few hundred years -- which would put you and your family into a level of hellish poverty you've only encountered in books. Then you would find meaning indeed in the legacy higher virtue and values have built up around you.

Furthermore, none of your favorite orgasmic art would exist if not for the greats who came before who paved the way with deeper thought and far lasting innovation. I love rock and roll. But I'll trade you ten thousand Johnny Rottens and Joey Ramones for a single George Gershwin not dying at 39. Think of the children; if our culture no longer makes real artists, who will supply the hacks of a hundred years hence with their ideas?

Laurence John said...

David: “ How do you feel, for example, about the work of James Thurber? I've already gone on the record with my belief that Saul Steinberg and Dubuffet are both brilliant. There are "children’s picture book versions of reality" that are really quite strange and interesting-- Sendak and Geisel, for example-- and extremely simple drawings for children (by artists such as Charles Schulz) that I find quite nice.”

I’m not a fan of Thurber’s style. Steinberg’s work is witty and graphic, though again, the drawing style doesn’t interest me. Dubuffet is a good example of the kind of pseudo-primitive that was thrown up in the wake of Picasso; a theoriser who is neither insane nor an untutored primitive, but pretends to draw like both. i’m afraid i find his work risible.

don’t misunderstand me; when i said "children’s picture book versions of reality” i wasn’t referring to actual books for children. i’m talking about the kind of hipster-twee world by adults for adults featuring characters with animal heads etc, or animated adverts for car insurance that look like they’re made for five year olds.

Tom said...

David said, “The more complex and profound version of that quote comes from Achilles in the Iliad: "Who the hell wants glory that will live forever if I have to give up the immediate pleasures of life?" The answer wasn't at all obvious to Achilles, and the unanswered question still burns brightly today: is long art is worth more than a short life? ”

Sorry David but I kinda feel like your creating another false dichotomy. It just doesn’t ring true to me. Choosing pleasure or glory is so far from reality. How many people have chosen a life of pleasure and are still unhappy? How many people have found glory without seeking it? Choosing to do what you love is not missing out on life. And how can anyone who is alive miss out on life?

No matter what kind of life one chooses, life will still present it’s challenges (it’s unhappiness) If one does things for glory, or some sort of perceived reward the feeling of, “is this all their is’” sets in. There are only two ways to be unhappy, not getting what you want and getting what you want.

What is the point of making art if your only goal is too have people talk about you or remember you? Such a small outlook will only produce small work. If you choose to be an artist instead feeling compelled to draw and paint you are probably on the wrong track. Using one thing to get another seems like a confused plan. To me that would really be giving up the pleasure of life.

Richard said...

> "What is the point of making art if your only goal is too have people talk about you or remember you?"

David didn't say that was one's only goal.

But there's scarcely a fine artist alive who doesn't have, at least somewhere deep down, awareness that it is possible that making art can grant one glory. That awareness will effect the way you react to the work, even if some form of glory is not your explicit goal in making that art.

And more, I'd argue that it is this awareness which gives many artists the drive to practice a bit more, polish a bit more, work a bit harder, than they would if their only desire was making pictures in that moment.

Maybe they're not thinking "glory", but merely "making it", but it's all roughly the same sort of thing.

If the Art making was exclusively an end in and of itself, then the thesis in Ars Longa wouldn't make any sense. It wouldn't be long at all, if there's no where you're trying to get to. That it is long would imply a goal beyond the immediate satisfaction of picture making in any given moment.

Tom said...

"And more, I'd argue that it is this awareness which gives many artists the drive to practice a bit more, polish a bit more, work a bit harder, than they would if their only desire was making pictures in that moment. "

That's true Richard. Never underestimate our competitive nature. I was responding more to the extreme choice and drama of either a life of pleasure or a life of glory and no fun. Fear and desire are the great motivators without doubt.


"That awareness will effect the way you react to the work, even if some form of glory is not your explicit goal in making that art."

I'm not quite sure what you mean, but awareness isn't concern with our thoughts. Maybe one thinks in making art I will find glory, or I will succeed in life and that becomes one's motivation but as soon as you pick up your pencil you discover how far your thoughts are from reality. One's ineptitude becomes humbling. Art isn't just about the thing we are making, it is a great teacher, that seems to want you to develop an appreciation for what is here right now, then to being a vehicle for your personal glory or success.

"If the Art making was exclusively an end in and of itself, then the thesis in Ars Longa wouldn't make any sense."

One doesn't really know the goal. It fact believing one knows the goal can be the problem. How many times have you found the answer to something that wasn't at all what you expected or things did not fit into your idea of how it should be done. How many times have you ignore your intuition only to see it was right in the end?

Maybe what is meant is the depth of the world is great and our time here is short which to me doesn't necessarily imply a goal.









Richard said...

> “Maybe what is meant is the depth of the world is great and our time here is short which to me doesn't necessarily imply a goal. “

Hmm, you might be right actually.

Referring back to the original text, it appears that Hippocrates means that we only have a little bit of time in this life to learn when to force a patient to puke – it’s not really about glory at all.


"Life is short, and art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.
In disorders of the bowels and vomitings, occurring spontaneously, if the matters purged be such as ought to be purged, they do good, and are well borne; but if not, the contrary. And so artificial evacuations, if they consist of such matters as should be evacuated, do good, and are well borne; but if not, the contrary. One, then, ought to look to the country, the season, the age, and the diseases in which they are proper or not."

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

The relationship to risk is what distinguishes the artistic efforts of children from those of adults. Unlike the adult artist the child has no edit bell ringing in its head. Why is the edit bell necessary? Well, isn't it what defines us as moral beings?

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "It's not at all obvious that humans have enough free will to do something which is not itself the thing that they most want to do."

It's not at all obvious that humans know with certitude what they most want to do.

Tom wrote: "It just doesn’t ring true to me. Choosing pleasure or glory is so far from reality.... What is the point of making art if your only goal is too have people talk about you or remember you? Such a small outlook will only produce small work."

Tom, much of this line of discussion is in response to your Greek quote, "'Art is long, life is short." Now I'm puzzled by how you interpret your quote. Choosing pleasure or glory-- living for the moment or sublimating and suffering for the long term result-- is the dilemma all around us (including you) every day. People choose between risking their lives fighting for their country under the most difficult conditions, or staying home and drinking beer in comfort. Students choose between doing their homework or playing video games. Illustrators choose between paying the terrible price for high standards (working all night, starting over again, wracking their brains for inspiration or doing a passable job so they can get to a ball game.) It has always been a central issue for humanity, dating back before the Iliad in which Achilles agonized over the same dichotomy of pleasure and glory: "Two fates bear me on to the day of my death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy my journey back home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the home I love, my pride, my glory dies, true, but the life that's left me will be long."

I'm also puzzled by your point about people talking about you after you're dead-- that seems to be our only consolation prize short of immortality, and immortality is not an option: having people remember that we were here once, and that we did something impressive. Why do you think artists sign their work?

Kev Ferrara-- You are welcome to propound a definition of art which excludes pictures which make us awash in immediate, sensory reactions (wall sized images of shimmering colors, spasms of slashing brush strokes); pictures which involve an element of mistake or chance; pictures that invite us to find subliminal connections and meaning in accidental configurations; art from the arrangement of found objects that subsequently disappear back into nature (such as Andy Goldsworthy's leaf or ice works). I recognize that all of these would be precluded by your singular, monolithic definition of art which values deliberate, conscious actions based on sustained concentration on a seemingly intractable, but crucial, problem. I believe I understand the appeal of your narrow definition, and I agree its internal consistency certainly makes art a more tidy affair.

However, as I've previously mentioned on this blog, I prefer Lionello Venturi's broader definition: " 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." I derive much from skilled art which is developed and perceived in the layered, controlled stages you seem to espouse, but I feel I can also benefit from the broader forms of art described above. Because its boundaries are more amorphous, It requires more conscious attention but it is NOT the same as the meaningless whirlwind of post modernism.

kev ferrara said...

pictures which make us awash in immediate, sensory reactions

Who is "us" exactly? Me and you and everybody else around too? The whole world?

Which pictures would you propose make me, and everybody else, "awash" in such experiences as you have enumerated?

Rothko? (No.)

Pollock? (Not at all.)

Dubuffet? (Cartoon graphic wallpaper? not here, thank you.)

Twombly? (Kindergarten scribble? Don't think so.)

I recognize that all of these would be precluded by your singular, monolithic definition of art which values deliberate, conscious actions based on sustained concentration on a seemingly intractable, but crucial, problem

You are conflating two different arguments. My argument for why "a shudder of awe" is not the highest faculty of humanity is because it doesn't get anything done. That was a separate issue. Sorry for the confusion.

My view of what constitutes art does not necessitate "consciousness" -- whatever that might mean. A supremely talented artist "in the zone" - governed almost purely by trained and natural instinct -- will surely create much better work than the most intellectually trained technician. Art must build out from the risk of improvisation, the fruit of imagination, and intellection can't get us there; it lacks the access to those soulful realms.

But whether working from consciousness or intuition, the linguistic structure of the end product must be distinguishable from the proverbial cry in the night; a point you've recently seemed to agree with.

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."

Well, yes, sure.

But who said anything about "measurement?" I'm all about quality, not quantity. Artistic structure, in particular, is a crucially qualitative matter (alas, of great difficulty to explain in any other way but through countless demonstrations.)

However, qualities do add up. Don't they? Or more accurately, the qualities of great art resound and resonate with one another, ultimately expressing something more than their sum. (If the qualities of a work don't alight against one another, something's surely off about the work.)

And yes, the contribution of anything to life is its value. I'm all for that kind of pragmatic approach. But there are contributions, and then there are contributions. Writing "I love You" on a piece of toast with a blowtorch isn't in the same qualitative or quantitative league as Mucha's Slav Epic. The question of why that is so goes to the heart of what actually constitutes a "contribution" as distinct from mere attention seeking noise.

Richard said...

> "It's not at all obvious that humans know with certitude what they most want to do."

Only those things humans know with certitude that they want are candidates for those things that they most want. If they don't know with certitude that they want something, then they definitionally don't yet want it.

Out of those things that they know that they want in a moment, it becomes instantly clear to the operating function of the human what that thing is that they most want.

That is true even if that thing that they want is to sit and think about whether or not there may be something else that they might want more if only they determined to want it.

Richard said...

> "Which pictures would you propose make me, and everybody else, "awash" in such experiences as you have enumerated?"

That's an interesting line of argument given the unpopularity of the artists you've expressed partiality to.


> "My argument for why 'a shudder of awe' is not the highest faculty of humanity is because it doesn't get anything done."

It doesn't need to get anything done because it's the end, not the means. The highest, and really only, end there is.

Tom said...

David said
"Now I'm puzzled by how you interpret your quote. Choosing pleasure or glory-- living for the moment or sublimating and suffering for the long term result-- is the dilemma all around us (including you) every day."


That was a response to the Achilles quote which I didn't feel related to the "art is long, and life is short" which feels more appreciative and less ego driven. It seems to me Achilles is saying I can choose glory or I can choose a comfortable life.

"I'm also puzzled by your point about people talking about you after you're idea that seems to be our only consolation prize short of immortality, and immortality is not an option:"

A consolation prize for what, not living for ever? Now David "who" needs a "consolation prize" and "who," will be there to enjoy it?

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote, "Referring back to the original text, it appears that Hippocrates means that we only have a little bit of time in this life to learn when to force a patient to puke – it’s not really about glory at all."

Holy smoke! You mean someone actually did their homework and checked out the real text??? What are you trying to do, give this blog a bad reputation?

Your effort inspired me to take a look myself, and I see that a number of post-Hippocratic authors, such as Shakespeare or Seneca, used variations on the phrase to suggest our original interpretation, that our art outlives us. Perhaps my favorite version was from Randall Jarrell: "ART IS LONG AND CRITICS ARE THE INSECTS OF A DAY."

chris bennett-- or, the alternative explanation is that adults have the wrong edit bell ringing in their head, the edit bell of hypocrisy and duplicity and adult vices, while children are open and innocent and straightforward.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Writing "I love You" on a piece of toast with a blowtorch isn't in the same qualitative or quantitative league as Mucha's Slav Epic."

It is to my wife.

"Which pictures would you propose make me, and everybody else, "awash" in such experiences as you have enumerated?"

As a reminder, this point goes back to my argument that art which requires a mature appreciation of technique and layered content and symbolic thinking, while richly rewarding, by definition cannot hit the viewer with the same immediate sensory impact as art which is designed for a spontaneous result. It's like the difference between Bach's Sonata in A major for flute and harpsichord on the one hand, and a glorious trumpet blast on the other hand. They're just different. Art that washes over me? Standing in front of Motherwell's
immense "Elegy" at the National Gallery or Gottlieb's large "primeval" at the art institute, or certain Frankenthaler or Olitski or Ellsworth Kelly. But I never intended to say it has to wash over everybody. Don't feel bad if your nerve endings are too insensitive or your emotions are too pinched for that kind of feeling.

Richard wrote: "It doesn't need to get anything done because it's the end, not the means."

Yes!

kev ferrara said...

That's an interesting line of argument given the unpopularity of the artists you've expressed partiality to.

A major point of the argument is that people have variable responses to art. There is a significant minority of people who cannot tolerate any kind of intensity whatsoever and will become emotional over the color red or a triangle or three crossed lines done in pastel. Such hypersensitive people cannot be the benchmark of quality in art. Otherwise, there's no point to making any kind of aesthetic organization at all. Because such people will respond to just about any aesthetic signal as if it were a masterpiece.

It seems only a shuffle step away from going gaga for red triangles to going coo coo for Rothko, Frankenthaler or Ellsworth Kelly or the rest of those graphic designers. (Motherwell I give more credit to. At least he understands basic pictorial forces and how they generate tension.) None of it is much different than a Rorschach ink blot test. Or childhood scribble (see Twombly).

Again, there seems to be some kind of hypersensitivity with strong responses to this stuff; maybe an immaturity of sensibility involved in people who get "orgasmic" over these kinds of primitive works. Maybe such hyper-responders grew up quite bookish and isolated, and so never developed the callouses against bald and basic emotionalism which would allow them to see beneath the loud surfaces to the vacuity within. (It would be very interesting to do a sociological study on the kind of people who respond to this kind of design work. Versus people who respond to something with more orchestrated meaning.)

I once had a sit down with an editor of Art in America... one of the premier international venues for contemporary art. He had just written an article on Picasso. During our lunch we touched on everything from Van Dyke to Warhol and Basquiat. Tellingly, the fellow spoke entirely in ready made thoughts plucked from the critical canon. Any pushback on any point he asserted, and he short-circuited instantly, and changed the subject. I seemed to panic him with every question. He started sweating profusely. After a while, I think, we both knew the other knew that he literally could not conduct original cerebration. He had a considerable artistic vocabulary. But he couldn't think at all. It was pathetic.

But not rare. I've had a thousand conversations of the exact same nature with "intellectuals" in the culture vulture milieu in and around New York. In hip galleries, museums, coffee shops, auction houses. After too many years of facing the same phenomena, I was forced to conclude what many already have already said; these people don't know anything. They all just obey the zeitgeist, or the current canon, or fashion, or the correct critic, or "important" magazine. They're intellectual herd animals. And, as far as I can tell, they all followed the tails in front of them over the cliff of credulity into the abyss of bullshit 50 plus years ago. And they don't even know how to build a ladder to get themselves out. (Which, maybe, is just why the humanities is dying out.)

kev ferrara said...

Sorry for the length here... The larger point is that there is something more to art than hype. Something more than popularity, or intellectual explanation, favorable criticism, being in current fashion, gavel prices, traveling shows, and so on. Popularity doesn't affect the quality of a work of art. Otherwise Thomas Kinkaide would be in the Louvre. And critical acclaim doesn't make a damn bit of difference either. Except to people who can't think for themselves. There is something structural about Art, particularly great art, that makes it unique as a form of communication. And this intrinsic complex of aesthetic qualities is impervious to outside forces.

Nevertheless, back to your point, the people who know and feel real quality do pay handsomely for the work of the artists I mentioned. Klimt, Wyeth, Fechin, Rembrandt, Rockwell.. all go for millions of dollars. The greatest works by many others I've mentioned simply don't come up for sale. To be popular among an actually discerning crowd is surely popularity enough.

chris bennett said...

David:

or, the alternative explanation is that adults have the wrong edit bell ringing in their head, the edit bell of hypocrisy and duplicity and adult vices, while children are open and innocent and straightforward.

Surely the condition of being 'open and innocent' is by definition the state before one's editing of experience.

I would say that composing is the structuring of edited suggested experience. This is as true for an episode of the Sopranos as it is for the Mona Lisa. Suggestion without structure is only statement, and this is all that young children's drawings are; Ike telling us that a T Rex's teeth are big. The content communicated by art is not what is suggested but how it is ordered to instil its meaningfulness.

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

"There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art."

This yearning for primitivity can just as well be interpreted as an act of dishonesty and denial. There is no escape from the surplus of consciousness which has forced our hands to sublimate the horror of existence into works of art(ifice). The Eden of childhood cannot be accessed by the adult mind - and even attempting to break this iron law of our tortured brain's biology by simply thinking it so is a fairly obvious Schopenhauerian aesthetic coping mechanism. Once advanced self-awareness kicks in, our play with mud and sticks must be made meaningful. Somehow.

kev ferrara said...

Suggestion without structure is only statement.

I agree with everything you're saying Chris, except for the above sentence.

Suggestion, in order to be suggestive, must already possess or manifest a certain kind of structure. Or else it won't be effective in evoking its idea to the mind. The structure is key. Without it, whatever the attempted communication is may suggest nothing at all, or nothing in particular, becoming increasingly vague the more it falls out of whatever grammar and logic would otherwise enable it. Thus, without structure, an attempted suggestion would be moving in the exact opposite direction from the clarity of a statement, toward perfect obscurity.

Statements too, already have a certain kind of structure, or else they wouldn't make sense. To disorder a statement also increasingly pushes it towards vagueness and then, ultimately, to meaninglessness.

Then there is the larger structure of the overall composition. And that demands an even greater degree of sensible organization than the smaller subunits of meaning.

But making a mess of the overall structure may not necessarily destroy any particular substructure's meaning. Saying that it is akin to saying that because a poem wasn't all that well-structured and didn't make much sense, that no particular line in it was actually poetic.

kev ferrara said...

There is a purity to this kind of imagination, which is what causes artists such as Picasso, Dubuffet, Klee and Steinberg to forsake technical skill and struggle to recall the stem cells of art.

It's just more fun to cartoon. It's play. It's stress free. We don't need to pretend that there's any great intellectual purpose to it.

Richard said...

> "It's just more fun to cartoon. It's play. It's stress free."

And it's extremely difficult to do.

If it wasn't we should have rather more competent cartoonists than we do competent painters. Yet, just the opposite is true. An exceedingly small percentage of otherwise accomplished artist will ever be able to do it.

That trend starts as early as childhood. Step into any high school art class or college art program and you'll be lucky to find even one cartoonist out of the multitudes, but maybe 40 young people who can apply the Durer device or sight size and get something that looks reasonably accomplished.

Give those students a semester or two in Bridgman and they'll be able to do constructive anatomy. Have them copy photographs for a few years and you'll have one hundred little Briggses (although perhaps absent his line weight control). Teach them the Carder method and you'll end up with hundreds of well-rendered paintings of Japanese tea pots. Teach them the structure of the fat pads, teach them how to properly sharpen a pencil, before long you can create armies of visual technicians.

Yet in all that time, no matter the number of classes, you shan't produce one more competent cartoonist than you started with.

That's because competence in cartooning requires two exceptionally rare talents --
1. An extremely well-integrated visual instinct, which is a genetic trait.
2. Either the naivety never to have been taught the edifices of the arts, or years of grueling exorcising of that edifice.


And what is the great "intellectual purpose" of these genetic strangers carving away the edifice and accretions of technique?

It’s Frederick Franck’s Zen of Seeing. He borrows from the 7th century Monk Hui-Neng in saying “The meaning of life is to see,” which for the cartoonist is literal fact.

Cartooning is coming back to where we are and living our visual lives without the middleman or moderator of edifice. No one does that more than that mere cartoonist, and no one needs it more than that genetically strange being the cartoonist.

kev ferrara said...

Cartooning is coming back to where we are and living our visual lives without the middleman or moderator of edifice.

Richard,

You have the whole matter backwards.

I think Neal Adams put it correctly when he said, "In order to be a good illustrator, you must first be a good cartoonist."

The move from good cartoonist to good illustrator, the move toward true seeing, is a wrenching experience. It reveals a well of ignorance about the way things really are that only gets deeper as one dives into it. The first step, day one, in any good art class, is the injunction to stop drawing with ready made symbols and to really look at the model. In other words, the first day is about ridding the student of "style." (Also known as bad habits.) The overwhelming majority of art students never really see; never really live in their work either.

Of course Style, the development and use of conventions, is perfectly practical as a substitute for the (exhausting, time-consuming and talent-testing) job of authentic seeing and authentic experience and 'felt' or immersive visual expression. Especially in the case of cartooning, where the point is not to express the shared truth of experience through visual means, (although there are a few exceptions) but to get across thoughts of a high level of abstraction through appealing, minimal, and ready-to-hand means. Cartooning is a simple private glyph vocabulary. To be sure, it takes a very special individual to be that simple and dedicated over the decade required to smooth out the style. The refined naivete that results is one of the secret ingredients.

But it is infinitely harder to hold on to that cartoon playfulness while also learning everything else under the sun, how light works, how the hand looks from unusual angles, how to get figures and objects to sit properly in space, how to make stone feel heavy, how to organize inanimate objects to help express the idea of the picture, how to make the dog's tail look like it's actually wagging, and so on.

Teachers like Bargue, Pyle, Bridgman, Nicolaides, Henri, Dunn, and Calvin Albert, each offer ways, roundabout ways, by which artists could keep in deep touch with the first magic that brought them to art to begin with, while still advancing in quality. What a task it is to imaginatively mature. As one wag put it, it is easy to be talented at 20. Very hard at 50.

Most comic book artists, by necessity, float in the nether region between illustration and cartooning, between observation and convention. I've known several that took over well known cartoon strips. They were usually able to ape the style well enough in short order.

Richard said...

I believe you are confused about what Adams saying.

It's not that one must graduate from cartooning to illustration, but that one cannot graduate. Cartooning is the central fundamental activity of great art.

The qualities you're describing in great art, heavy rocks and wagging tails, are all aspects of the underlying cartoon.

It seems to me that you may be confused about what cartooning actually is. That's not unusual, most theorists confuse copying and applying previous folks' premade simplifications-made-symbol with actual cartooning itself.

To copy someone else's abstractions is no more cartooning than using the Pythagorean theorem makes one a mathematician, or reciting lines of Shakespeare makes one a poet.

Cartoonists are the great abstractors. Anywhere that one uses a readymade eye or method for drawing a muscle group, one is apeing some prior cartoonist -- no matter how realistic our apebrains may think that readymade is, all the way back to the cave of dreams.

Richard said...

*forgotten dreams (chauvet)

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Adams explained what he meant. Which is that the illustrator must have an expressive soul. And all the realism in the world on top of that can't give it to him if it ain't there to begin with. It must be central to the person. From there, one can build. Or as Howard Pyle said, "If you're not meant to be an artist, all heaven can't help you. If you are meant to be an artist, all hell can't stop you."

On this key necessity we seem to agree.

Where we disagree is on your definition of cartooning. You seem to equate it outright with expressive abstraction. I can't stop you from doing that. But a great many of the expressive abstractions you see in the likes of Fechin, Everett, Brangwyn, Mucha, Inness, Sargent, Wyeth, and Leyendecker, just to name a few... you will never, ever see in anything called "cartooning." I think you don't get this point because you really don't have the kind of familiarity with painting and composing that you have with cartoons. And so your error is natural.

Richard said...

> " But a great many of the expressive abstractions you see in the likes of Fechin, Everett, Brangwyn, Mucha, Inness, Sargent, Wyeth, and Leyendecker, just to name a few... you will never, ever see in anything called "cartooning.""

I'm sure you're well aware of the history of the term cartoon back to the 17th century with the usage of the preparatory underdrawing where those abstractions were worked out, (and probably the analogous French term bande dessinee's etymology as well) so are you pulling my chain here or what?

Richard said...

Or are you just a prescriptivist when it suits you?

kev ferrara said...

I'm sure you're well aware of the history of the term cartoon back to the 17th century with the usage of the preparatory underdrawing where those abstractions were worked out,

It is clear that you're NOT well aware of all the expressive abstractions that CAN'T be "worked out" in a preparatory drawing in line. Which is what I was saying.

Richard said...

*line and three values.

Sure, there's some expressive abstractions that can't be worked out in line and three values. Would you like to quantify what percentage of the expressive abstractions of the artists you listed you feel like couldn't be covered in line and three values?

Richard said...

Anyway, that line of argument is silly backtracking considering you started this by calling Picasso, Dubuffet, and Klee cartoonists.

Also, starting your list of the good guys with Fechin is an interesting choice since he was fairly weak as a painter and it was really his cartooning which set up the strong areas of his work.

kev ferrara said...

*line and three values.

Well, I guess *poof* values are now 'cartooning' too. Oh. Kay.

Nevertheless...

"Oh, just four months of Bridgman, 3 values, and some line art and you're off to the races. Great art is so easy! The same as cartooning! Send away for this free brochure!"

Why not do everybody a favor, Richard. Get yourself a little studio, some supplies, and create a multifigure realistic narrative composition in paint, 25" x 30" say, that works in perspective, value, color, texture, anatomy (not just of figures, but of all things in the picture), space, pattern, and mood, expressive not stiff, naturalistic yet beautiful, intrinsically decorative without getting linear, and still have some semblance of what's called "paint quality." If you can manage to evoke the quality of the air, maybe even its scent, that would be a bonus.

Go ahead. How hard can it be?

Start, of course, by all means, with a 'cartoon.' Add in a 3-value study while you're at it. And away you go!

Nobody is so smart that they can comprehend something as deep as an abyss without going spelunking as far down into it as they can stand. The few things you do know about this subject are manifestly insufficient to blithely guess at the unfathomably vast remainder. And the tactic of expanding definitions to save face wastes everybody's time. Trying to win on words is like carving the air in your hand.

Also, starting your list of the good guys with Fechin is an interesting choice since he was fairly weak as a painter and it was really his cartooning which set up the strong areas of his work.

Are you trolling here? Or are you actually a troglodyte? I honestly can't tell.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

As I was writing the line you quoted I did wonder if perhaps suggestion and statement may require a species of structure to make them legible as such. Your unpacking of the issue convinces me that you are right. So I modify my response to David:

The meaningfulness communicated by art is distinguished from that of other languages, mathematics for example, because it is rooted in morality. And moral truths are best understood and digested through experience, that is to say; when they are lived. Art expresses moral truths by the structuring of edited suggested experience such that in beholding a work we willingly believe ourselves to be living it. This is by definition a dynamic state and therefore requires all the elements making up a work to be composed such that they behave as if they are the outcome of a hidden moment within them. And as such this movement embodies the work's meaningfulness.

I'd go so far as to say this is the reason young children, because they have not yet matured into moral beings, are incapable of meaningful composition. They are only capable of statements, static suggestions, elemental pronouncements, and cannot be 'lived' in the way only possible with the experiential dynamism that is the core of art's expressivity.

And just to be clear about what I mean by morality with regard to art, a tiny example:
In a Chardin still life the tender touches of the brush suggest the light settling like dust upon a surface, and speaks both of its beauty and that our days are only the borrowing of the sight of it.

Richard said...

> "Are you trolling here? Or are you actually a troglodyte? I honestly can't tell."

Let's step back and perform a quick experiment.

Let's compare this Fechin:
Il cartone

With this Fechin:
Il dipinto

What do you see? Really, honestly, I want to know what you see.

Because what I see is an excellent draftsman in the first, and piss-poor painting in the second.

I see a guy who let his paintings get carried entirely on the strength of the cartoon, so that when he fell down on drawing side the rest of the painting falls apart as well, as it has in the above example. Because he wasn't actually that good of a painter.

I suppose I am a troglodyte. Cheers from the underground.

Richard said...

An aside: The other way you can tell he was a good draftsman and a poor painter was his avoidance of landscape and multiple subjects. (They do pop up from time to time though.)

That's an extremely common pattern of behavior in artists who are extremely deft at drawing and bad at painting, because while you can fake the painting on the portrait side, you can't possibly fake it on the landscape and crowd-scene side.

Compared with Levitan, Makovsky, Polenov, Serov, Kuindzhi, Savrasoc, Surikov, Korovin, Pasternak, Shishkin, Arkhipov, Aiazovsky, and so on, his painting technique doesn't stand up to analysis.

Richard said...

[Watch me double-down on my troglodytism, but I did reverently reference Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc as the first great cartooning, so maybe it's fitting.]

kev ferrara said...

The other way you can tell he was a good draftsman and a poor painter was his avoidance of landscape and multiple subjects.

Thanks for telling me your made up rule. I'll write that down on some toilet paper. Your opinion of Fechin's painting ability is worthless, btw. No offense. Literally every good painter I know finds him stunning.

Also, Fechin's landscapes are brilliant. (Do your homework. For once.)

The picture of the pudgy child is one of my least favorites of Fechin's work. And my folder on my hard drive has over 500 of his pictures on it. So, hey, good job finding that. (I see this is another one of those internet ghost chases where, in order to make an argument, one seeks out, with effort, the worst possible example to argue against to make the point. I get so tired of this kind of childishness. Winning isn't nearly as important as bloody truth and honesty and integrity. Who could stand to win anything where cheating was involved? It's sick and pathetic. Steelmanning is the future. Strawmanning is something we all need to leave behind; it's a tool of manipulation from a sad, dark age.)

Here's a few of my favorite Fechin pictures, just tp put the real case for Fechin's abilities to others reading along...

One
Two.
Three.
Three, a close up.
Four.
Five.
Six.
Seven.

Richard said...

> “Thanks for telling me your made-up rule.”

Not a rule, just an observation.

I’ve further observed that in general you seem yourself to be specifically drawn to quality draftsmen over quality painters.

That's cool. People are drawn to different areas of art.

As an artist yourself for whom draftsmanship of the figure is the core focus of your work, my observation above may just not stick for you. So be it.



> “ Literally every good painter I know finds him stunning.”

Rightfully so. He is stunning. For his draftsmanship and cartooning. Not his handling of the medium of paint.



> “Fechin's landscapes are brilliant. (Do your homework. For once.)”

I can say without reticence that he is not anywhere near the league of the other artists I listed in terms of his mastery of the medium.

Find a single Fechin landscape painting that can compare with even a second-rate Levitan or Savrasov and there'd be room to discuss. No such painting exists. That’s okay. Levitan’s portraiture is conversely orders weaker than Fechin's.

You can have art heroes without being completely blind to the areas of weakness in their work, believe it or not.

(Psst, also, Frazettas subject matter is bullshiit, and Leonard Starr's women all look like they're the same person. But you can still like them.)



> “I see this is another one of those internet ghost chases where, in order to make an argument, one seeks out, with effort, the worst possible example to argue against to make the point.”

Nah.




> One – Seven

Oh yeah, there's some extremely nice drawing under these muddled paintings.

Richard said...

Let me try that Nah again:

...

Nah.

kev ferrara said...

Bye Richard. It's been a waste of time as usual.

Richard said...

my facial expression when kev gets sore

Anonymous said...

Are you the same Richard who used to post here , who's favorite Bond was Roger Moore ?

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

Used to, apparently still do, but I used to too


On Moore;

I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time, but everything will catch up with you in the end, so let's have it.

It is true that when I was stationed in Basil, and I tell this story in confidence mind you, that when I was station in Basil, a beadyeyed Italian man came up to me and said:
"Hey aren't you that guy who likes Roger Moore?"

And I, obviously taken aback, protested "No, no. I absolutely am not."

But this queer chap wouldn't take no for an answer, he pressed me for quite some time on the point.

Finally, I had had enough of it, and so I really said the worst. You know, to shut him up. I said, I said, "You must have me confused with someone else -- I prefer Lazenby!"

Now, when you let out something like that an ordinary guy would see you're backed into a corner and leave well enough alone, but this was no ordinary guy. He had that sulphury smell of the Catholics if you know what I mean.

Hands full of linguini, he just said "No. No. You like Moore." And so I assented. I didn't want to do it, but what else could I do? There was too of us.


I have always held, and still hold too, that if I have been told that something is so, and someone else has as well, and even if that other guy is a linguini carrying catholic, and neither one of us has been told that it is not so, then a preponderance of evidences point towards it being so. And so it must be, but this is in confidence. Don't go writing about it in Le Monde or anything. And so there you have it.

Richard said...

In reviewing my anecdote, I do see that I left two points unclear. The first is how I knew the creature was Italian, and the second is how I knew he was Catholic.

On the first point, yes, I understand that not only Italians carry and eat loose Linguini, and that the Piedmontese look remarkably like the Swiss, both trending to bloat as they do, and I was in Basil after all.

But let it be clear that I left out the important clue that he was smoking Gitanis, which no one has ever known a Swiss to do at that time, being partial themselves to Roth-Händles. Further, his nose was remarkably like the Etruscan statues one sees from time to time.

On your second bit of skepticism, yes, other populations smell of sulphur, on that point the science is clear, but this particular apparition made the sign of the cross upside down and with a closed fist, which is the sort of thing you’d only expect from the barbarians who burned the paradisio of prestor john.

So let that be the end of it.

Anonymous said...

I think I know who you are - you're Kev's Karma kickback for all the times he raised Rob Howard's BP to dangerously high levels .

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

FYI, I'm not 'sore' at you, FFS. But your ADHD SNR makes ROI go MIA.

And YOLO. So, L8R.

Richard said...

> "SNR"

You know that with enough Digital bandwidth "D", than the log sub 2 of 1 + S/N won't diminish your value for C (channel capacity). Maybe that's the problem you're having with modern art as well. You don't have the capacity for a high N because you have a small D.


> "you're Kev's Karma kickback for all the times he raised Rob Howard's BP to dangerously high levels ."

I'm sure you're right.

kev ferrara said...

You know that with enough Digital bandwidth "D", than the log sub 2 of 1 + S/N...

Richard,

Bandwidth, digital or otherwise, is always labeled "B" not "D." Since you just googled the Shannon-Hartley Theorem, you know that to be the case.

So, it turns out, you had to lie in the basic set up for your hack dick joke in order to get it to work.

You're a real wit.

Richard said...

I'm sorry that the trust that physicists put in me not to change their nomenclature has been ruthlessly shattered by my desire to yuck about your dinky, but sometimes we gotta tell a lie to get at the truth. That's what art's all about, isn't it?

kev ferrara said...

The meaningfulness communicated by art is distinguished from that of other languages, mathematics for example, because it is rooted in morality.

Chris,

I'm open to the premise that the meanings of art are, in some sense, rooted in morality, but I'm not sure if I understand your formulation of it.

Certainly, I think telling the truth is always a moral matter. In that sense a time-honored mathematical equation has a moral mission behind it.

In a Chardin still life the tender touches of the brush suggest the light settling like dust upon a surface, and speaks both of its beauty and that our days are only the borrowing of the sight of it.

I think what you've written here is a necessarily bowdlerized interpretation of what Chardin was expressing. 'Necessarily' because you have translated your aesthetic experience into the far inferior form of English, and in so doing you have concretized in words your feelings about Chardin's work, rather than a universal experience of the work.

I understand full well that it is impossible to describe a work of art, let alone the experience of art, in words. All the more reason it is so difficult to suss out the sense in which art expresses morals. Because if art is indeed necessarily expressing moral points, it must be doing so in its own mute language of plasticity and form.

I think the key relationship is between the immersion of the experience and the truths expressed. To express truth mutely takes movement. Only through symbol can truth be stated as fact. So there must be an aesthetic journey shared with the viewer that leads to the insight/catharsis.

Shiri Baghar said...

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We conduct Creative workshop a fun, interesting and therapeutic experience for participants.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

I'm open to the premise that the meanings of art are, in some sense, rooted in morality, but I'm not sure if I understand your formulation of it.

Yes, I should have made myself clearer.
It seems to me that art arises out of a need to realise our thoughts about the world as emotional beings living our lives within it in order to share it with others. This 'need' is not the various yelps of emotion we all express during our daily life. It arises, I believe, from a primary urge to emotionally contextualize our existence in the wider scheme of things. This is distinct from, say, the language of physics which strives for the state of impartial objectivity, in other words; not human centric. So art, being a human centric contextualizing of our emotional condition within the world we interact with, will be shot through with morality in one way or another.


All the more reason it is so difficult to suss out the sense in which art expresses morals. Because if art is indeed necessarily expressing moral points, it must be doing so in its own mute language of plasticity and form.
I think the key relationship is between the immersion of the experience and the truths expressed. To express truth mutely takes movement. Only through symbol can truth be stated as fact. So there must be an aesthetic journey shared with the viewer that leads to the insight/catharsis.


Unless I have not understood you correctly this is the reason I followed my 'art is rooted in morality' point with:

"And moral truths are best understood and digested through experience, that is to say; when they are lived. Art expresses moral truths by the structuring of edited suggested experience such that in beholding a work we willingly believe ourselves to be living it. This is by definition a dynamic state and therefore requires all the elements making up a work to be composed such that they behave as if they are the outcome of a hidden moment within them. And as such this movement embodies the work's meaningfulness.

I'd go so far as to say this is the reason young children, because they have not yet matured into moral beings, are incapable of meaningful composition. They are only capable of statements, static suggestions, elemental pronouncements, and cannot be 'lived' in the way only possible with the experiential dynamism that is the core of art's expressivity."

chris bennett said...

Just to say I hit a typo in that second paragraph which makes the whole thing a brain-ache to understand."...behave as if they are the outcome of a hidden moment within them" should read: "... behave as if they are the outcome of a hidden movement within them".
Sorry about that, and thanks for your forbearance!

kev ferrara said...

Given that you meant 'movement' there, and since we talked about this at length previously, we probably have a lot of agreement in general, including the importance of art as sharing distilled experience through fictive means. And how that sharing is the universally communal purpose to art, which is inherently anti-political.

I'm pondering what you could mean by "emotionally contextualizing our existence." It sounds evocative, but I can't actualize it. For instance, wouldn't anything we create by hand "emotionally contextualize our existence within the world we interact with?" How does that address the need for the artist to fall into a state of belief about the fiction being created?

Maybe you could also explain how you define 'moral.' Because I find the meaning of that word hard to nail down from common usage.

chris bennett said...

wouldn't anything we create by hand "emotionally contextualize our existence within the world we interact with?

Yes, but not necessarily with intent or purpose. For example: The building of a house certainly does this in that it actualizes our need for shelter and a sense of home among with other things such as a place to store food and possessions etc. But this is to answer immediate functional and social needs. And although many of these needs might be emotional (providing evidence of status in order to instil a sense of wellbeing for example) they are nevertheless a direct response to functional purpose. So the house is not deliberately constructed as a means to communicate a metaphysical insight about the meaning of our lives, in other words for the sole purpose of emotionally contextualizing our existence.

How does that address the need for the artist to fall into a state of belief about the fiction being created?

We could say constructing a temple or church is 'a means to communicate a metaphysical insight about the meaning of our lives and emotionally contextualize our existence'. But you and I know that a static symbol doesn't do the job - after all it was you who taught me this! Which means the meaning of the thing constructed cannot be consensus dependant and therefore has to communicate by way of its own dynamics. The only means by which an artist knows if this is happening in their work is when they find themselves believing in the dynamics of its fiction; when they run true to the parallel of the dynamics of life itself.

Maybe you could also explain how you define 'moral.' Because I find the meaning of that word hard to nail down from common usage.

I had a tough time using that word, but could not find a better fit. Rather than shoot from the hip I'll need to think a little on this and get back to you tomorrow.


Richard said...

> The meaningfulness communicated by art is distinguished from that of other languages, mathematics for example, because it is rooted in morality. [...] So art, being a human centric contextualizing of our emotional condition within the world we interact with, will be shot through with morality in one way or another.

This is a very compelling definition of art. It certainly explains the difference I feel between big-A Art and mere pictures.

But where we seem to differ is here...


> "I'd go so far as to say this is the reason young children, because they have not yet matured into moral beings, are incapable of meaningful composition"


I don't think there's anything particularly lacking in the moral content of a child over an adult. Their self-control is lacking, but the same basic content about love and kindness and fear and empathy and so forth is all there from the beginning.

I'd say its this basic human content which makes the art of a child often much more compelling than that of a well-practiced adult.

The adult will have spent their entire career learning a mechanical version of picture-making, often in the interest of selling works that cater to our baser instincts, which will in all but the very best of human beings completely degrade the moral contents of their creations.

For example, note how emotionally and morally devoid Frank Frazetta's work is when compared with your average 3rd grader's picture of their family holding hands. It makes it so that the silly child's picture is resoundingly more powerful than the morally empty Frazetta work. Comparatively the child has got that Big-A Art going on.

Now there's obviously a gradient in the depth of moral contents that become possible between that 3rd grader up to artists like Andrew Wyeth or Mary Cassatt, but again, I love the general instinct to make art about the expression of a moral-aesthetic statement. It seems really simple, overly sincere or humble, but it's an extremely powerful notion. I’ll be borrowing that as a kind of core thesis, thank you.

Richard said...

The other great thing about that line of thought is that it helps clarify anthropologically that there were really two assaults on big-A art in the 20th century.

On the one hand, we had the unskilled modernists who were largely concerned with making amoral art, but it adds to the list of co-conspirators those highly-skilled artists who were largely concerned with making immoral art.

Much has been made of how much the modernists have set us back, but comparatively little has been said about how far back artists like Odd Nerdrum, Frank Frazetta or Jeffrey Jones pushed us, by luring skilled artists away from making any “meaningful [moral] compositions” toward making dark-ages-grade pornography, and in doing so, undermined not just art, but in a way, the soul of the nation.

Richard said...

Another great thing about your observation Chris, is that I think it opens a bigger can of worms, which is; why is the moral content in other art forms so much more obvious than in Art?

In music, just about everyone can tell you that Rap is dead at its moral core.
In Literature, no one mistook Battle Royale or The Road for something morally complete -- outside of popular culture, they're understood to be generally awful books.
In movies, no one seriously pretends that Barbarella or 50 Shades of Grey were anything but immoral drivel.

Yet paintings or drawings of the same moral caliber are still largely celebrated by those critics who in any other medium would know better.

I wonder if there's something in the medium that makes it difficult for humans to notice a work's moral emptiness, or if we're just so desensitized culturally to immorality in art (perhaps from centuries of worshiping the Greeks) that we no longer notice.

Richard said...

Last thought for tonight --

I wonder if perhaps the moral emptiness of the visual arts in comparison to other arts stems from the lack of passage of time in any one picture, which causes the visual arts to celebrate the ecstatic vibration of those immoral pornographic moments.

In the painting, the warrior raises a sword, the car tears down the street, the woman drops her nightgown-- where other artforms give us duration enough to see the warrior later lay his sword down, the car kill a pedestrian and the driver's slow repentance, and the woman's regret at her loss of innocence.

Richard said...

Erp. Tolstoy wrote about this at length: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_Is_Art%3F

David Apatoff said...

I've been on the road, and while I've enjoyed these exchanges immensely (sometimes laughing out loud reading them on my cell phone in an airport and attracting strange looks) I haven't felt I've been in a position to participate actively without getting creamed by some of the expert assassins in the crowd. (Richard almost smoked me out with his comment that "Leonard Starr's women all look like they're the same person" but I restrained myself).

Returning to the image that started all this, a child's drawing of a dinosaur, I found the discussion of the moral content of art, and the lack of moral content in children's art, to be pretty ironic. It's difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the moral character of children since they lack the guile to conceal their true intentions and the physical strength to impose their morality (such as it is) on the rest of us. I've never met Ike (the child who drew the dinosaur) but there's a pretty good chance he treats his peers with more civility and kindness than some of the mature commenters here treat theirs, despite all their socialization and culture.

Chris, I can't deny that there is some overlap between art and morality; they certainly share a common vocabulary, and many would say that delineating our personal moral code with harmony and balance and contrast is similar to creating a work of art with those same attributes (or as mothers warn their adolescent children, "Morality is like art-- it simply consists of drawing the line somewhere.") However, I'm not sure how introducing morality-- perhaps the only concept more nebulous than "art"-- is going to advance the cause of clarity in thinking about art.

Consider the various fusillades we've seen about morality, and especially Richard's reference to Tolstoy. Tolstoy was a great literary genius so you'd think he might've had something useful to contribute here. Instead he proved himself an utter loon. I was disappointed when I read his views that Shakespeare was a bad writer; it troubled me briefly until I read Orwell's (another literary genius) response that "Artistic theories such as Tolstoy's are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms ('sincere', 'important' and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses."

In my view, Tolstoy's moral litmus test based on his late-in-life Christian zealotry and his horror of nekkid girls in art are worse than what Orwell called arbitrary. They're a menace, and show the risks of pinning art to morality in any conscious sense. I prefer Rodin's stance, “There should be no argument in regard to morality in art. There is no morality in nature.”

Chris writes: " Art expresses moral truths by the structuring of edited suggested experience such that in beholding a work we willingly believe ourselves to be living it... And just to be clear about what I mean by morality with regard to art, a tiny example:
In a Chardin still life the tender touches of the brush suggest the light settling like dust upon a surface, and speaks both of its beauty and that our days are only the borrowing of the sight of it."

To me, this looks like "morality" so broadly defined as to subsume sensitivity and poetry and observation, untethered to any codification of principles of behavior. If you define morality so amorphously, it can't do the damage that Tolstoy's definition does to art. I think your use of the term "moral" is no less correct than Tolstoy's, but does suggest the folly of using such a concept to shed any light on the nature quality in art.

Richard said...

David,

I believe that you may be throwing Tolstoy’s baby thesis out with his applied-morality bathwater.

Where nudity is uplifting of humanity I believe it to be moral, where it degrades humanity it is immoral – compare a plump naked breast feeding a child in a Cassatt painting with an equally plump naked breast in a Frazetta and the difference in moral content becomes stark.

Even where the woman is in some way sexualized, there are dramatic differences in the way one handles the subject matter. Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, even in painting pictures of prostitutes, gives his subjects an uplifted humanizing air (i.e. La Toilette, In Bed The Kiss) which is absent from, say, Egon Schiele’s The Reclining Woman.

I don’t agree with Tolstoy’s thesis that paintings of naked women are universally immoral, but does that mean that his central thesis around the centrality of morality in art is thus disproved? Hardly.

At most, it shows just how far we are from ever reaching the end of the whole Art discussion, because the easy answers (modernism’s abstract progressivist view, post-modernism’s art as politics, or the reaction’s art as beauty) have left out the core of art’s power – its moral power.

Now, Tolstoy may have jumped the shark a bit by casting out Shakespeare from his canon, but the central drive behind that decision was good -- Tolstoy was saying that you ought to start from the principles and work toward the art, not start with the art you want in canon and work backwards to the principles. This is a useful activity, even if you may not like the outcome.

You may find that Little Annie Fanny is out. Kev may find he can no longer rationalize his support for Frazetta. That isn’t a counterargument against art as morality. It’s a counterargument to the idea that (even wizened as you claim to be) you’re finished the work of aesthetic maturation.


> “They're a menace, and show the risks of pinning art to morality in any conscious sense.”

This sounds more like you’re afraid of the slippery slope of other folks instantiating their own morality, than an actually rational response to the thesis that morality is central to art.

Your fear here smacks of the hippies who say we ought not compare any two artists or works on their merits of craft lest we suddenly find ourselves transported to the art gulags.

If you take a few deep breaths, slow your cortisol response a little bit, and go back through the catalog of art that you love, I think you’ll find a self-portrait of your own moral model (but perhaps with a few more butts).

Richard

Richard said...

> To me, this looks like "morality" so broadly defined as to subsume sensitivity and poetry and observation

Poetry is largely moral as well, at least when it's any good. William Cullen Bryant may not mention good deeds in Thanatopsis, but the central thrust of the piece is still intensely moral.

Levitan, my personal favorite, may not depict good deeds (or any humans at all) in his work, but his landscapes build in my breast a strong moral urge.

Having not yet read Tolstoy's thesis, I can't say for sure (my copy comes Monday), but I have to imagine that he meant inducing morality to include those moments of artistic poesis that build a man's courage to do well and to feel well, even if not explicitly depicting the pietà .

Richard said...

It's also interesting to note that Tolstoy, with his focus on morality, ended up making works of subtle morality, whereas Orwell, professing to disagree with Tolstoy's take on the centrality of morality in art, made morally simplistic and preachy works.

It seems to be a trend that artists who claim to ignore a traditional concern seem most controlled by that selfsame concern, and artists who focus on a concern will often grow to subsume and master said concern.

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Kev,(Richard and David also)

Maybe you could also explain how you define 'moral.' Because I find the meaning of that word hard to nail down from common usage.

I use the word as means of defining a component that differentiates humans and the reasons for certain things we do from all other animals, namely, the choices made not predicated on immediate, functional, selfish needs. This is why I consider the unformed mind of a young child is not yet moral.

But I am not defining 'morality' as the ability to divine between right and wrong, rather as the sense of how something is meaningfully contextualised in the given order of things. Thus a gangster can commit murder yet square it with themselves within their own moral code. However, I chose the Chardin still life example for a very good reason. By 'morality' in art I do not mean sermonizing, as in, say, David's 'Oath of the Haratii' or Martineau's 'The Last Day in the Old Home'. Because Chardin's still life is indeed a meaningful contextualizing of something in the given order of things.

Although the art of drama appears more directly concerned with morality I believe this is only so because morals are commonly thought to be embodied by verbal pronouncements. But an artful drama does not prod its audience in the chest about rights and wrongs as is the case, for example, with much of the material in the plays of Edward Bond or Athol Fugard or the films of Ken Loach. And this does not mean that an 'amoral' work is closer to the mark either, it is just nihilism. The drama that 'meaningfully contextualises something within the given order of things' is the same as the Chardin still life in that it 'shows and does not tell'. There is a scene in the film 'Test Pilot' where the airman is sitting in the cockpit about to take off and takes a moment to look out at the long grass bordering the runway. It sways and sighs in the breeze. He turns back to the controls and pushes forward the throttle. The last moments of 'Midnight Cowboy' have Buck, recently arrived in New York to make his way by providing rich women with 'love', holding on to his friend, the down-and-out crippled Ratso, as he coughs up the last of his guts over his Hawaiian shirt sitting on the greyhound bus destined for the paradise of California.

In art, if we show someone picking a daisy they are never just picking a daisy. If we paint an apple on a plate it is never just an apple on a plate. But neither are they symbols standing for political or religious commandment.
Indeed, it is 'morality' or 'human meaningful context' if you will that differentiates the sentient-written image from the photograph, drama from journalism, art from life.

I'm aware that you know all this Kev, but I'm iterating it here in order to close down on what I mean by 'morality' in this instance. Hope this makes things a little clearer.

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

I think you're circling the territory still, rather than drilling down into somewhere specific. Let me see if I can help...

To be overt is to state. To be overt in a moral teaching is to sermonize.

But to suggest means to get the idea across outside of the symbol-consciousness; going around the scrutinizing, critical reflex of the audience (or their reflexes regarding obedience or obstinance in the face of person to person communication) directly into their imagination.

Let us say, to be artful is to be suggestive. There is a subtlety necessary there, and a secrecy. Cleverness and deep craft is required. The poetic agenda accomplished through the artfulness of suggestion must be utterly invisible. It should do the opposite of announcing itself. Art is, at its definitional essence, artful.

Now, regarding morals. There is a sense in which to teach morals is to teach ‘spiritually’ effective methods of being in the world; methods that, with any luck, should raise morale. Which is to say, morals, if they be true, lift the individual, not just in the emotional sense, but also in the conceptual sense. They elevate the aims to more noble, selfless ends, say. And any particular moral injunction to the individual, if followed, and again if 'true', serves the group in consequence. So there is an expectation that moral embodiment expands its effect out into society. It isn’t just a boon to one. Otherwise the moral isn’t true, in whatever sense one can accept that a moral can be true.

So let us say that morals offer ways of being in the world that uplift one and all. (So it would probably be a good idea if citizens have some of that stuff. Maybe a lot. Which is why we are bothering to discuss them.)

Now let us say that art, in its mute way, expresses through poetic means, through immersive fiction, believable enough, how things are in the world. It expresses – it doesn’t state - certain kinds of truths, abstract comprehensions that we all can share, (even if the facts that instantiate those truths vary considerably from one life to the next.) And in distilling truth into poetry, the beauty of it is revealed. Even if the facts that instantiate it might be unpleasant indeed on a personal level. (Clarification and beauty go hand in hand, so long as we are discussing actual abstraction, rather than simple lossy reductions.)

kev ferrara said...

But here it is crucial to note that, “as things are in the world” is not a static thing. Nothing is still in life, nothing goes unchanged. To speak truth as a static thing always bowldlerizes it. Thus any attempt to move the viewer with art, with truth, must actually move the soul, so to speak, in tandem… following along with the dictates of the expression of the idea. That is, the viewer must be taken on a journey of change that reveals the poetic conception to their intuition via suggestion. And by that method, the viewer receives the idea, unbidden, within. And completely apart from the gatekeeping role of the symbol-consciousness.

So through suggested clarified truths, the viewer is taken through a beautiful and undeniable aesthetic experience which transfers the idea into their souls. Okay. But that is also to point out that there is an inherent narrative at play, even if the stakes don’t rise to a level which would be considered dramatic in a theater. As Harvey Dunn put it, “Everything is dramatic if we could only see it so. Even a flower.”

The point is, truth is always a story. It can’t express the reality of change, the timelessness of change, otherwise. And carried along on this artistic journey towards deeper understanding, we become, through the empathetic transference that aesthetic force causes, in some kind of deep empathy with the art. We fall into ‘aesthetic arrest’, into its spell, existing in a suspended near-hypnotic state of imaginative connection with it. And it is in this half-dreamt state where we live the true story embodied in the work. (Or we embody the true story made alive in the work.)

So, rather than expressing “how to be true in the world” (moral injunction), art expresses how, essentially, to be the truth of the world itself. And that is the deeper sense in which art is moral at the aesthetic level. Art, great art at least, flows us into the experience of the world and back again, putting us in touch with something way, way deeper and older than our momentary being.

And such moral information is both scalable (as truth is, definitionally) to everyday life, and a very deep communal bit of sharing.

Laurence John said...

Chris: "If we paint an apple on a plate it is never just an apple on a plate”

why not ? i think there are many types of painting (still lives, figure studies, portraits, landscape studies) which are simply just studies of the effects of light on form, and have no hidden narrative (unless of course the artist deliberately works one into the image).

i mentioned this before in a previous comment section: Sargent explained his habit of painting views of ‘nowehere in particular’; behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field: his 'object was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely whatever met his vision without the slightest previous ‘arrangement’ of detail, the painter’s business being, not to pick and choose, but to render the effect before him, whatever it may be’ (from ‘Sargent: Portraits of artists and friends').

Kev: "Cleverness and deep craft is required. The poetic agenda accomplished through the artfulness of suggestion must be utterly invisible”

utterly invisible ? can you think of an artist who’s means of narrative communication isn’t able to be discerned with a bit of investigation ?

kev ferrara said...

utterly invisible ? can you think of an artist who’s means of narrative communication isn’t able to be discerned with a bit of investigation ?

The deep content of poetry does not exist in the poem. It only exists in the mind of the reader through the prompts of the suggestions. So too with visual poetry. So, by 'invisible' I am speaking technically. It literally isn't there to be seen.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "It's also interesting to note that Tolstoy, with his focus on morality, ended up making works of subtle morality, whereas Orwell, professing to disagree with Tolstoy's take on the centrality of morality in art, made morally simplistic and preachy works."

I think you're being a little harsh on ol' Orwell, there, Richard. If you value clarity of language and honesty of thought, it's hard to think of a better writer in the 20th century. He came of age when totalitarianism (both communist and fascist) was the greatest threat to the human race. He applied an astringent to all that lovely rhetoric that had intoxicated and sickened the world's intellectuals (word mongers such as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Mann, Koestler) and veiled their insincerity. He pierced their artistic veils in a way that history has now vindicated. While the wealthy, profligate aristocrat Tolstoy was fathering a bumper crop of illegitimate children with the hapless local peasant girls and contracting STDs from platoons of prostitutes, Orwell was fighting fascism as volunteer in the Spanish civil war. (His wonderful book about the experience, Homage to Catalonia, was anything but "simplistic"-- he recognized the tragic foibles of his side in that war with his characteristic honesty, but also with great humanity.) Yes, Tolstoy was a master of rich tapestries which played an important role in the 19th century but by the 20th century I think lucidity assumed greater importance as an artistic trait. The stakes were getting higher, the hour was getting later, and human beings were being transported to the ovens in cattle cars by nations that were struggling to develop nuclear weapons. As far as I can tell, Tolstoy's pleonastic musings on "the centrality of morality in art" did less to save lives (and thereby reach a moral outcome) than did Orwell's straight shooting. They were also more hypocritical if we are to believe the diaries of Tolstoy's wife, Sofia.

Chris Bennett wrote: "I use the word as means of defining a component that differentiates humans and the reasons for certain things we do from all other animals, namely, the choices made not predicated on immediate, functional, selfish needs. This is why I consider the unformed mind of a young child is not yet moral."

Small children react with distress when they see another child hurt or a baby cry. Mother animals become frantic and risk their own lives when their children are threatened. Other animals are empathetic when they see animals in their group trapped or jeopardized. Are these different from the broad definition of "morality" that you employ here?

I appreciate that you mean "moral" in the sense of making value judgments about the world (as opposed to a specific code of right and wrong behavior) but I'm still having trouble distinguishing Chardin's still life from Ike's dinosaur. You say, "Chardin's still life is indeed a meaningful contextualizing of something in the given order of things," and I appreciate that it is so, but hasn't little Ike done the same thing by looking at the atoms making up a tyrannosaurus, reacted (in a very "human" way) to the atoms that have significance to him, and reacted in a way that "meaningful contextualizes" them with size, focus and emphasis-- the very tools that are available to all great artists? I understand that the features to which he relates are a little less mature than Chardin's gentle focus on light on a surface, but would you say they are in different categories?

David Apatoff said...


Kev Ferrara wrote: " to suggest means to get the idea across outside of the symbol-consciousness; going around the scrutinizing, critical reflex of the audience (or their reflexes regarding obedience or obstinance in the face of person to person communication) directly into their imagination. Let us say, to be artful is to be suggestive. There is a subtlety necessary there, and a secrecy. Cleverness and deep craft is required. The poetic agenda accomplished through the artfulness of suggestion must be utterly invisible."

I agree with you on this. As Auden said, "God must be a hidden deity, veiled by His creation." so why can't I persuade you to inch out a little further on the branch and accept the "suggestiveness" of pure color or form, of de Kooning and Rothko and Gottlieb? They go outside of literary "symbol-consciousness" to the subconscious, to the subliminal and beyond. The color red means something at a primal level, sometimes something very powerful. You say, "deep craft" is required. Are you willing to accept deep craft in the form that it is applied by Anish Kapoor or Andy Goldsworthy?

chris bennett said...

Kev,
So, rather than expressing “how to be true in the world” (moral injunction), art expresses how, essentially, to be the truth of the world itself. And that is the deeper sense in which art is moral at the aesthetic level. Art, great art at least, flows us into the experience of the world and back again, putting us in touch with something way, way deeper and older than our momentary being.

That is very well put and does indeed close further in on the issue. So thank you very much for taking the time with that.
However, 'to be the truth in the world itself', as I see it, must necessarily refer to a human-centric truth, in other words; the dynamics of the world relevant and in the context to the fundamentals of the human condition.
Would you agree?

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Laurence,

Chris: "If we paint an apple on a plate it is never just an apple on a plate”
Laurence: "why not ? i think there are many types of painting (still lives, figure studies, portraits, landscape studies) which are simply just studies of the effects of light on form, and have no hidden narrative Sargent"


If it were just an apple on a plate then it would actually be an apple on a plate. But it is a painting of one. Sargent's views of 'nowhere in particular' are paintings of such. And being sentient-written (unlike the machine-written of the photograph)they are communicating the experience of beholding. And this will necessarily reflect, subconsciously or otherwise, the world view of the artist painting it.

chris bennett said...

David,
Small children react with distress when they see another child hurt or a baby cry. Mother animals become frantic and risk their own lives when their children are threatened. Other animals are empathetic when they see animals in their group trapped or jeopardized. Are these different from the broad definition of "morality" that you employ here?

I wholeheartedly agree that morality is predicated on empathy. But the examples you have given are empathic reactions to what I referred to as 'immediate, functional, selfish needs.' They are not expressions of a world view that emerges through maturity, which is to say; experience and reflection. So in this sense I would say they are different.

You say, "Chardin's still life is indeed a meaningful contextualizing of something in the given order of things," and I appreciate that it is so, but hasn't little Ike done the same thing by looking at the atoms making up a tyrannosaurus, reacted (in a very "human" way) to the atoms that have significance to him, and reacted in a way that "meaningful contextualizes" them with size, focus and emphasis-- the very tools that are available to all great artists? I understand that the features to which he relates are a little less mature than Chardin's gentle focus on light on a surface, but would you say they are in different categories?

You raise a good point. But yes, I would say they are in different categories and for the reason I gave in my initial post; Ike's drawing, even if it were painted, is a pictogram; it tells us (a T Rex has big teeth), Chardin's painting shows us (plums in a bowl on a table). The art of showing invites participation enabling the audience to live the work and thereby be directly touched by the dynamics structuring its content without the intellect bowdlerising it (as eloquently formulated by Kev in his reply to me).

Because a pictogram or symbol is by definition not dynamic it is simply not possible to 'live' any kind of content it may possess, a condition which is indispensable for art to be communicable. And most children's drawings are symbols, Ike's included.

kev ferrara said...

However, 'to be the truth in the world itself', as I see it, must necessarily refer to a human-centric truth, in other words; the dynamics of the world relevant and in the context to the fundamentals of the human condition.

I think truth-stories must, by necessity, be essential, rather than substantial. The substance wherein or whereby the truth-story is instantiated (in any given telling) exists in time. While the abstract comprehension that is the truth story itself may apply in one instance after another through time; the facts may change, but the song remains the same.

I think, in all cases, a truth-story worth expressing through the lens of some given suite of facts will always be relevant to the human condition; nested in it, commenting on it.

I think only when an attempt is made to instantiate the truth-story as static symbol, wherein it freezes, codified, will it lose its connection to humanity. Then it becomes mere design; notes rather than music.





kev ferrara said...

why can't I persuade you to inch out a little further on the branch and accept the "suggestiveness" of pure color or form, of de Kooning and Rothko and Gottlieb?

Well, I do find the bold-graphic symbol-laden works of Gottlieb, Klee, Motherwell, Picasso, Girard, Ware, and Miro interesting as pictography. I fully accept that, as a design style, it is as old as mankind. How can such be "denied?" These fellows add in a bit of cartoon expression, and the result is like a combination of typography and cartoons. And I love good cartoons and typography. I will now and again get a reaction to these types of "modern art" pictographic pieces. At least more than to either typography (which always impresses me more than enrapturing me) or the basic designs of "field painters" like M. Rothko, B. Newman, or T. Sawyer.

But such reactions immediately fall away. They are mere sensations, after all. They are the effects of the narrative painters made bald and overt and simple by the diagrammatic graphic designers. The sensations don't build into anything. The linguistic structures are absent and there's no truths under any of it to tell. Thus there is nothing to wonder about. There is no actual mystery.

Calling these fellows' works "pure of color and form" is of course verbally loading the argument. (You always seem to forget that I come from a family of sneaky lawyers.) The fact is all great art has purified form and color. But all great art is not purely form and color. But then again, neither is any of the artists you mentioned. So the whole "pure" thing is dismissable. It's empty rhetoric.

Are you willing to accept deep craft in the form that it is applied by Anish Kapoor or Andy Goldsworthy?

Well, these guys are technically very sharp. Or at least their studios do sharp work. But they are producing Fabergé eggs for hippies. And postmodernists. (Well heeled ones at that.) I dunno; would you consider Fabergé eggs to be made with deep craft? Sure, they are certainly expertly crafted. (No flies on the craftspeople, that's for sure.)

What I mean by deep is that something is being subliminally communicated that has philosophical resonance. Something specific, although expressed in visual form and so not translatable into English. (Or pictography.) Again this is all, to me, a linguistic, qualitative matter related to the communication of truths. The less linguistic structure, and story structure on top of that, present, the dumber and/or more vague the communication gets. Because nothing else can house truth but the logic of story structure, as far as I can tell.

As a secondary matter, you are also neglecting, as usual, to address my by-now shop worn point that vagueness and suggestion are not the same thing. (And that distinction really matters, culturally.)

Also, that one might find "suggestive" patterns anywhere: On an alley wall, on a cliff, among the knots in wood paneling, and so on. So in a very real sense, the suggestiveness that vagueness affords the mind is no different than the proverbial random cry in the night, which also can suggest any number of random thoughts. (On cue, a lone coyote just started yowling like a lunatic in the nearby woods. Funny thing, life.)

To finish up, I'll repeat; your typical conflation of suggestive with suggestion, as I see it, isn't just a benign slip. Rather, I see it as the lynchpin philosophical slovenliness which led the radical chic "intelligentsia" to cheerlead as the great technical, structural, expressive, and linguistic achievements of narrative painting degenerated into baby talk. (One notices that they didn't encourage the same fate for the essay, novel, play, movie, or poem.)

chris bennett said...

Kev,
I completely agree with your reply concerning how truth is expressed through the moves of the pieces rather than the pieces themselves. So tightly formulated as well.

...the basic designs of "field painters" like M. Rothko, B. Newman, or T. Sawyer.
...(Anish Kapoor and Andy Goldsworthy) are producing Fabergé eggs for hippies. And postmodernists.


I grinned out loud at these, I almost spat my morning coffee over the fence!

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Calling these fellows' works "pure of color and form" is of course verbally loading the argument. (You always seem to forget that I come from a family of sneaky lawyers.) The fact is all great art has purified form and color. But all great art is not purely form and color. But then again, neither is any of the artists you mentioned. So the whole "pure" thing is dismissable. It's empty rhetoric."

Well, purity is always a relative concept but we have to start somewhere. Carl Sagan said "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." I don't want to go that far back just to achieve purity for purposes of our discussion, but I do think the Washington color school (Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, etc.) reached for a practical level of purity by saying, "we aren't interested in content or any kind of conscious narrative, we are solely interested in color and light. Period." I agree that "all great art has purified form and color" but the difference is that for you the purified form and color is a carrier for content, whereas the artists we're discussing disavow content.

I once had a legal case that hinged on whether super refined vacuum grade molybdenum pellets qualified as "pure." As you might imagine the real issue lay elsewhere: The buyer wanted an excuse to reject delivery because the market price for molybdenum pellets tanked shortly after he signed the contract.

I remember and even agree with your "by-now shop worn point that vagueness and suggestion are not the same thing." My equally shop worn response is still that, even though the two are not identical, they can often perform a similar function in art. (And hey, if you think there is no "pure" color and form, there is no pure vagueness either-- there's always a little something lurking beneath the surface of vagueness). Whether an artist consciously suggests something but has the restraint not to make it explicit, or the artist leaves ambiguity as room to breathe in a work of art, to be filled by the artist's subconscious or the viewer's interpretive mind, the work of art still benefits from the interaction of the human mind. Nobody knows whether the cave painters of Lascaux were suggesting something, or whether their primitive minds were simply vague. Anthropologists who came up with all kinds of complex theories have been proven wrong as new information recently changed the millennium when art began. But a viewer can still fill that gap with the most profound musings.

In any event, given a choice between complete control in a painting and vagueness, I think vagueness is a safer bet. I'm inspired to add this last point after reading the recent publicity about Jon Mcnaughton, a comically horrible artist whose obsessively literal control of his paintings leaves no ambiguity where his stupid content might hide.



Laurence John said...

Chris: "And being sentient-written they are communicating the experience of beholding. And this will necessarily reflect, subconsciously or otherwise, the world view of the artist painting it”

i personally wouldn’t call someone’s ability to render an apple in pigment a ‘world view’, or to put it another way… how much ‘world view’ you could squeeze into an oil study of an apple on a plate would, i think, be negligible. you can certainly tell a lot about a person’s ability to translate reality into paint from a simple study of an apple. but is that really a ‘world view’ ?

there’s a difference between a painting that is ‘loaded’ with symbolic suggestion (subtext) and one that is deliberately not. i.e. one that is cooly, disinterestedly observed, purely for interests of technical study (light, form etc), and people often start reading all kinds of things into the latter type of painting which simply aren’t there (this is made even more tempting if you know a bit about the artist).


David & Kev, to call your ongoing argument ‘going around in circles’ is beyond understatement. i think we’ve reached a point - on this blog - where the same arguments have been tabled so many times over the years that to repeat them further is akin to ye olde banging of one’s head against a brick wall, or the equally circular: “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. i will keep reading them though, so i suppose i’m insane too. David, it’s particularly frustrating to repeatedly read you evading (or not understanding) Kev’s points about ‘projection tests’ vs ‘poetic orchestration’ (to highlight the key points very briefly). I think these points have been made clear many times, yet you still refuse to acknowledge the difference (we went over them in the Lightning Field discussion in June, ’17).

David: "In any event, given a choice between complete control in a painting and vagueness, I think vagueness is a safer bet”

your mention of John McNaughton is another straw man; 'controlled painting' = stiff, dead rendering and / or clunky sermonising, therefore 'vagueness' must be the best option. really ? how can someone who wrote a book on Bernie Fuchs conclude that ?

Tom said...

David said
‘In any event, given a choice between complete control in a painting and vagueness, I think vagueness is a safer bet.”

Is this really a choice or a reality. And in fact it’s the weaker bet. Rubens had complete control of technique and yet he produce some of the most sensual represention of skin imaginable. Or Turner who’s mastery of drawing produce some of most fluid and aerial pictures that however evanescent they seemingly are, where always based in solid form.

Really only when technical problems are master will the artist be able to express himself lucidity. Only then will the problem of material difference that hinder ‘“pure’’ expression vanish.

Richard said...

> "I think you're being a little harsh on ol' Orwell, there, Richard. If you value clarity of language and honesty of thought, it's hard to think of a better writer in the 20th century."

I think you and I are too far apart politically to find much common ground on the works of Orwell, I rather think Tolstoy's time was better spent (if unremarkably so), but off the top of my head I'd happily put up Mahfouz, Bolaño, Proust, Woolf, Calvino, Svevo, Walker Percy, Eco, and GK Chesterton as candidates for better [fiction] writers of the 20th century.

Richard said...

[Although why bound it by the century? Given how poorly the 20th century fared in literature, it seems a rather arbitrary goalpost.]

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

there’s a difference between a painting that is ‘loaded’ with symbolic suggestion (subtext) and one that is deliberately not. i.e. one that is cooly, disinterestedly observed

All that matters aesthetically in a painting (or any of the other arts) is written in sensuous terms. So whether it is William Waterhouse's 'Lady of Shalott' or William Coldstream's 'orange tree', the meaning is found in the plastic expression of both. The fact that one artist is painting about a haunted female setting off down the river on a boat and the other is painting about the measured beholding of an orange tree in a pot makes no difference to the shared principle of how their individual meanings are communicated.

Aspects of a person's 'world view' manifests itself in everything they do, from how they get dressed, eat their breakfast, drive the car, walk into a room, and even painting a picture of 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' or 'Apple on a Plate'.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "I think you and I are too far apart politically to find much common ground on the works of Orwell."

Yow, I'd be alarmed if I thought that was true. In fact, I'm not even sure how it could be true, since Orwell speared untruth on both the far right and the far left (like Arthur Koestler who wrote that having his books burned twice in a lifetime-- once by the Nazis in 1932 and once by the communists in 1952-- was a rare distinction.) Where does the political difference arise? I'm thinking our gap is not as much from politics as from differences of taste.

I haven't read all of the authors you mention; but I hold the ones I've read in high esteem, and I find many of them superior to Orwell, but NOT in the way I mentioned; "clarity of language and honesty of thought." I have a fondness for Alex Toth's admonition, " Simplicity is a great god. Truth. Throw out all the junk... Make it so simple you can't cheat." I think of Orwell as the Alex Toth of 20th century literature. If I was drifting downstream in a punt with no urgency about the outside world, I would far prefer to read Proust's prolix, profound musings about his inner world, or play the game of tracing Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness, or Walker Percy's semiotics. I think they are truly great, filled with depth and nuance but they seem to me to be more twilight or even nocturnal authors while Orwell operates at high noon. From my (admittedly limited) reading, they weren't straight shooters like Orwell, didn't have the courage of Orwell, weren't engagé or gifted with prophecy like Orwell, and they wouldn't save you from the firing squad like Orwell.

But even assuming we have some political differences, I'd be ashamed if I thought that prevented me from finding common artistic ground on an author or artist. Could we maybe meet over Conrad and Yeats?

kev ferrara said...

I remember/agree/that vagueness and suggestion are not the same thing. My/response is still that, even though the two are not identical, they can often perform a similar function in art/if you think there is no "pure" color and form, there is no pure vagueness either-- there's always a little something lurking beneath the surface of vagueness). Whether an artist consciously suggests something but has the restraint not to make it explicit, or the artist leaves ambiguity as room to breathe in a work of art, to be filled by the artist's subconscious or the viewer's interpretive mind, the work of art still benefits from the interaction of the human mind.

Ah, I see now where the issue sticks.

While it is true that vagueness may prompt a viewer to 'enter the work' imaginatively, there is no substance behind the tease. It is a false mystery. Suggestive vagueness functions in the same shallow trick-like way that trompe l'oeil illusionism functions; to attract in the moment, only to reveal nothing much in the end. Such is not artful. Otherwise a Rorschach ink blot test would be Art. Or the average stained alley wall; so we don't even need a human being to create suggestive stuff for us to mental meander to.

Specific suggestion, a.k.a. poetry, that is quite a different thing from suggestive vagueness. Although, true, both offer the viewer imaginative entry. But suggestion does so with integrity and depth and has sustaining power thereby. Crucially, there is a particular structure involved to poetic suggestion, whether or not the artist consciously or unconsciously accomplished it. It is purely a technical thing; in order for the mind to achieve closure around the suggested idea, there must be sufficient specific information to encourage that connective leap. And that information must appear within the work (if it is found in the title or catalog text only, what we have is pretension.)

In order to complete the lost and found figure, for instance, that which is 'found' must provide sufficient information for that which is lost to be recovered imaginatively. This magic trick requires not just a deep sense of saliency on the artist's part (to choose only the most telling bits out of all possibilities to show), but just as necessary for good poetry, a sensitive instinct for sufficiency; for minimizing what is stated in order to maximize what is suggested (in order to, in turn, maximize what is imaginatively recovered by the delighted viewer.)

All suggestion, and there are many kind of suggestions to art, has, in its own way, such a structure. (At least as far as my research tells.)

kev ferrara said...

Vagueness is what may fall in the gaps of this suggestion structure. Vagueness has its role, if one wants, playing the "lost edges" of that which is evoked. Or not. (Vagueness can mislead as well as lead, so it can be a danger. Although it can also work out great.)

Which brings me to the point that it is not so, definitionally, that there is a continuum between vagueness and suggestion. Because as soon as vagueness starts looking like a specific suggestion, it is one. The line is very, very fine, but it exists. If something seems vague to one person but a specific suggestion to another (truly) then the person for whom it is still vague is less sensitive or inexperienced, because the actual information to allow for imaginative closure must be actually there in the work if the sensitive guy got it. I think this explains just why really great art will never be for everyone. (As historical example, I think Ruskin showed himself to be insensitive to the specificity of the suggestive gestalt of Whistler's famous fireworks painting in their public feud.)

Nor is it so that something that looks like two things at once is vague. What we have there is actually a specific poetic trope, built of two specifics. The point being the comparison between the two. This is not a nebulous suggestion.

Vagueness, in the context of specificity, can be transformed into specific suggestion. Sensible context alone can whittle away all possibilities save one. And the vagueness becomes transformed into an impression. Although the nebulous content of the vagueness should not contradict that one possibility in order for this operation to work.

This one possibility can also be a class of elements, and still may be a specific suggestion. Like a four-legged animal or a car in the fog. George Inness' work is filled with specific suggestions of classes of things while very much still retaining poetic integrity.

Laurence John said...

very well explained Kev. makes complete sense to me. David ?


Chris: "The fact that one artist is painting about a haunted female setting off down the river on a boat and the other is painting about the measured beholding of an orange tree in a pot makes no difference to the shared principle of how their individual meanings are communicated”

it does make a difference. my assertion (in the comment section of June 03 / 17) was that there were different modes of communication in painting. your’s was that because they were all ‘plastic’ which was a common ‘language’ (and i also disagreed that’s an accurate term for what painting is), they were all doing the same thing (using the same language).

in your example above, the type of 'fiction' is completely different; Waterhouse is staging a dramatised narrative which involves ‘acting’. Coldstream is producing a dispassionate study of light on form.

it was probably a mistake to bring this disagreement up again Chris, so i apologise, as i’m pretty sure we’ll also be going around in circles if we pursue it again :-)

Tom said...

David said,
“Nobody knows whether the cave painters of Lascaux were suggesting something, or whether their primitive minds were simply vague. Anthropologists who came up with all kinds of complex theories have been proven wrong as new information recently changed the millennium when art began. But a viewer can still fill that gap with the most profound musings.”

In a way aren’t you saying the viewer completes the picture? If that is the case what does it matter about “new information,” or what the Washington color school painters intentions where? And are the “profound musing,” that the cave paintings stirs up concern with the understanding the maker of the art or with how the work affects you?

Vaugness to me implies lack of precision or lack of certainty or so open to interpretation that precise meaning becomes impossible. The animals painted on the cave walls do not seem vague to me. If I look at the way the artists drew the backbones and how admirably they have connected up the head thorax and pelvis of the animals I realize I still see and feel those relations in the animals I see on farms and in the woods today. They are completely suggestive of the world I know now. It seems their work can only become vague if one wants to give reasons and purposes to why the artists drew the animals.

A car in the fog is not vague but it my be indistinct. A mist over a mountain may veil or hide the mountain but to paint it one can not be vague. My experience is when one becomes “vague,’ one doesn’t really understand what one is doing and so you slop over the complexity of the horses leg because it is just to complicated for you to come to any true conclusion about it. Or you fail to understand what you want to convey in your work.

It’s the relation of things that counts in art. A mist can make the jagged edge of a cliff so much sharper because of the contrast. Just as the nature of a stright line shows us the beauty of a curve, or how a large simple plane shows can show off a small sharp detail or how the blue of the sky makes the wheat field look so much more golden.

Laurence John wrote
‘in your example above, the type of 'fiction' is completely different; Waterhouse is staging a dramatised narrative which involves ‘acting’. Coldstream is producing a dispassionate study of light on form.”

Art comes from an emotional response and I get much more excited about the way the afternoon sun strikes the trees then some old narrative/story. You mention Sargent a lot, isn’t there the story of him seeing a good friend in sunlight and he began waxing on about the beauty of the light upon her auburn hair? It seems far from a dispassionate response. Although to make art one needs both qualities.





chris bennett said...

Laurence,

The fact we cannot agree is fine, I'm happy that we at least understand each others position.

kev ferrara said...

Art comes from an emotional response and I get much more excited about the way the afternoon sun strikes the trees then some old narrative/story.

Tom,

The way the afternoon sun strikes the trees is one of the oldest stories there is.

kev ferrara said...

my assertion (in the comment section of June 03 / 17) was that there were different modes of communication in painting. your’s was that because they were all ‘plastic’ which was a common ‘language’ (and i also disagreed that’s an accurate term for what painting is), they were all doing the same thing (using the same language).

I think the issue here is really between the innate language of the intuition, which seems universal, versus the conscious language of reference, which seems to lack universality. The matter is complicated by Archetypes... which are references so primal they are equivalent to plastic form as universal modes of expression.

Good art does everything in its power to express all its ideas universally, through aesthetic effects and archetypes; in order to keep the symbol-consciousness out of the picture. This presents problems where tribal symbols and figures enter into the suite of facts one is working with. One would assume a man from Senegal cannot tell a Lieutenant's uniform from a Sargent's.

But (and this is critical) given that meaning can be expressed through sensual movement, even referential ideas can be expressed aesthetically if enough wit and talent is brought to bear. To be more specific; the greatest feat of artistry - if references are required by the narrative - would be to express the ideas behind the references, rather than stating the references themselves. And then the viewer any viewer, can understand the meaning of the reference without knowing the reference. This, to me, is a crucial element to reach the ultimate goal of having art express itself wholly through its own inherent language. To be a universal, unifying cultural force.

kev ferrara said...

... And I believe this goal of aesthetic purity is exactly what Harvey Dunn meant when he said "A picture is its own definition."

chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Kev,

While I agree with your assessment of the role that suggestion plays in art along with the conditions for maximising its effectiveness, I have strong doubts about it being the prime key to aesthetic expression. (please forgive me if I have misunderstood you on that particular point)

The reason I contest this is because your assertion does not comprehensively explain the power of typical works by, for example, Ingres, Raphael, Van Eyck, Millais or Poussin (to name just a few)

My own view is that the degree of suggestion in a work of art is a simply a decision governing the scale of a its fundamental modular units. The smaller the units the more literal things will appear. As a consequence the amount of compositional organisation required to expressively organise and orchestrate its units increases proportionally to their number. That is to say; deciding how much suggestion is required (and where) so that compositional orchestration becomes as efficient as possible to fulfil the ambition for any given work.

kev ferrara said...

My own view is that the degree of suggestion in a work of art is a simply a decision governing the scale of a its fundamental modular units. The smaller the units the more literal things will appear. As a consequence the amount of compositional organisation required to expressively organise and orchestrate its units increases proportionally to their number. That is to say; deciding how much suggestion is required (and where) so that compositional orchestration becomes as efficient as possible to fulfil the ambition for any given work.

Chris,

You seem to be thinking of "suggestion' in the most limited way possible, in terms of rendering alone. At least that is what I'm getting from what you have written.

But what is suggestable in Art, through the effects of expressive plasticity and archetype, includes such an expansive suite of meaningful sensations I haven't yet been able to figure out the limits of it.*

The fabric of great art is woven of these effects; at the specific, local, and general scale. The poetic density of this aesthetic weave is a personal matter for each artist according to his taste and patience. Although, when the density of the weave is too close, the suggestions lose their mystery (the gap of deliberately lost information) and clot into dead blobs of statement or over-rendering.

*Except that certain ideas simply cannot be visualized aesthetically, and thus naturally belong to other languages.

Tom said...

Kev said

“The way the afternoon sun strikes the trees is one of the oldest stories there is.”

There is no story in perception, it’s always fresh and new, that’s why it’s so intoxicating and fun to draw, you don’t know the story or better yet your free of all stories. One doesn’t delight in something to communicate, you delight in something for delightments sake.

kev ferrara said...

There is no story in perception, it’s always fresh and new, that’s why it’s so intoxicating and fun to draw, you don’t know the story or better yet your free of all stories. One doesn’t delight in something to communicate, you delight in something for delightments sake.

The story is in the contrast; the movement between contrasts. That is the core of all story. Of everything, all experience, all understanding, up to the cosmos and down as far as we can see into the quanta.

There is no joy to the experience of the afternoon sun striking the trees unless sometimes it is not. Unless, actually, in that moment that it strikes the trees, it also is not doing so, underneath, or nearby, soon or recently.

You already know this, because you just pointed out this basic principle a few posts up. I am just pointing out how far the principle behind art also reaches into our lives.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

Yes, I am deliberately referring to the most limited interpretation of 'suggestion', in terms of rendering. I did so because the principle you have outlined certainly applies to the broader field. For example the implication of what might have happened and might then happen either side of the moment depicted in a painting, or in a film how the onscreen scenes suggest the events before and after the edits. And dozens of other examples besides. But in the particular case of suggestion in terms of degrees of rendering, the principle, I feel, does not account for the expressivity of certain highly rendered works such as Millais' 'Ophelia' or Wyeth's 'Cristina's World' (suggestible though they are in other ways)
Are you saying that in such cases, although the works are aesthetically powerful the aesthetic effects of suggestion in terms of rendering are hardly there?

kev ferrara said...

For example the implication of what might have happened and might then happen either side of the moment depicted in a painting, or in a film how the onscreen scenes suggest the events before and after the edits.

These are very referential examples of what I'm talking about; top level of consciousness. Although these are certainly part of what I'm talking about, I'm speaking to much more basic, for the most part hidden from lay eyes, suggestion structures.

But in the particular case of suggestion in terms of degrees of rendering, the principle, I feel, does not account for the expressivity of certain highly rendered works such as Millais' 'Ophelia' or Wyeth's 'Cristina's World' (suggestible though they are in other ways)

That's because the suggestions that give these images life aren't only located in the rendering, and the rendering itself is also assisting the form of other suggestions which pass through the figures. Andrew Wyeth is a Howard Pyle grand-student, and Pyle was a student of the work of Millais. And the connecting idea, I believe, is the aphorism that, for instance, the face of the figure is only incidental compared to the composition as a whole. The force of meaning exists in the totality, and only accrues to the figure through association.

Richard said...

> “ Where does the political difference arise? I'm thinking our gap is not as much from politics as from differences of taste. “

I’m a Monarchist. I think that the core problems of the fascists wasn’t too much organizational power, but rather, too small a claim to the right of authority.

A long-standing hereditary kingship with a calcified authority has no need for the kind of idiotic and violent behavior that the fascists of this last century went through.

You can see that difference in action in the way that, as the Communist Party of China’s authority calcifies over the years, their grip on the nation softened. Their leadership kindlier, their gulags discharged, their prior violence the result of inadequate authority not surplus executive powers.

Only leaders who have but a weak claim on the right to legitimate authority require a persistent spilling of the blood of the innocent and expansionist overreach to sustain their seat on the throne. The landed aristocracy and hereditary monarch, conversely, stand little to gain and quite a bit to lose by way of wanton violence.

Within that worldview the works of Orwell don’t ring true for me. Now, it may be so simple as a question of taste, but I somehow doubt it.

I rather think that if the style of writing in 1984 had been used to support Elizabethan-style monarchy or the Chinese Communist Party, you probably wouldn’t think much of Orwell's prose either.

On the other hand, works of the 17th century bards that support the monarchy I imagine could appeal to you on the laurels of their writing alone. Similarly, I appreciate many left-wing 17th century works despite that I disagree with them in their core thesis, reading them for the strength of their prose.

Richard said...

> "I was disappointed when I read his views that Shakespeare was a bad writer; it troubled me briefly until I read Orwell's (another literary genius) response that "Artistic theories such as Tolstoy's are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms ('sincere', 'important' and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses." "

Not to rekindle your disappointment but I am now a third of the way through Tolstoy's book and I can say that Orwell doesn't seem to have actually read it, or if he did, he couldn't possibly have understood it and yet brushed it off so lightly.

Tolstoy's take on aesthetics is complete, perhaps the most complete I have as yet encountered, exceptionally well argued, and in no way reliant on "vague terms ('sincere', 'important' and so forth)".

Richard said...

But I will say, perhaps this will give you some respite, that Tolstoy wasn't calling into question Shakespeare's ability to write effecting prose, but instead was questioning the assumption that because his prose was effecting that its effect must necessarily be good.

That is, to Tolstoy, the question of the value of a sentence isn't merely in how well it is said, but in what sentiments are being kindled in the reader's heart -- so that Tolstoy would no doubt admit that Lucifer is a very fine composer, but question the net good of Lucifer's operatic adaptation of The Protocols of Zion, he'd name Lucifer among the finest wordsmiths but perhaps say that his "In Praise of Coveting Thy Neighbor's Wife" was a bit ill-advised.

His rejoinder towards an awareness of morality in art isn't to the exclusion of beauty. He offers the metaphor that, like we ought not mistake the pleasure we derive from eating food with its nourishment, we ought not mistake the beauty we perceive in a piece of art with its edification.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

That's because the suggestions that give these images life aren't only located in the rendering, and the rendering itself is also assisting the form of other suggestions which pass through the figures. Andrew Wyeth is a Howard Pyle grand-student, and Pyle was a student of the work of Millais. And the connecting idea, I believe, is the aphorism that, for instance, the face of the figure is only incidental compared to the composition as a whole. The force of meaning exists in the totality, and only accrues to the figure through association.

I'm aware of this. So I assume your answer to my question; 'Are you saying that in such cases, although the works are aesthetically powerful, the aesthetic effects of suggestion in terms of rendering are hardly there?' is 'no'.

chris bennett said...

However, I think I see what you might be getting at here Kev, though I find it very difficult to frame with words. I've just had a look at a close-up taken of the hands and lap of the principle character in Waterhouse's 'Saint Cecelia' which I saw at the RA in London. Although highly rendered the specific nature of the rendering itself, its optical suggestions, prompts me to think of associated experiences that are one part of how we 'live' a painting. For example the tender whisper of pink stroked across the knuckles seen to the deep, transparent blackberry colour of the belt straps embedded in the surrounding whites of the dress puts me in mind (subconsciously mindful of their context in the painting as a whole) of the melancholy of late summer; the pale blush of blossom just a memory in the ripe fruit, morning mists contrasted with the deep-toned sharpness of a nearby mouth. A bowdlerizing account of what happens, I know, when I look at this area of this particular picture, but I think it may be in line with what you are talking about regarding the deeper effects embodied within 'rendering as suggestion'.

Laurence John said...


Kev: “… given that meaning can be expressed through sensual movement, even referential ideas can be expressed aesthetically if enough wit and talent is brought to bear.”

i agree with your response above Kev, but i don’t know why you’ve gone off on a tangent about reference; the issue of ‘reference’ wasn’t a bone of contention between Chris and me. the issue was whether there was such a thing as a universal ‘language’ of art.

i argued there wasn’t and contrasted staged fictions vs objective studies from life as one example of how paintings use completely different sets of conventions in order to work (i can think of at least 5 different categories or levels of 'fiction' that paintings can operate at).

you had replied to my ‘meat camera’ comment, but unfortunately you’ve deleted the comment.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Tolstoy wasn't calling into question Shakespeare's ability to write effecting prose, but instead was questioning the assumption that because his prose was effecting that its effect must necessarily be good."

I don't know if you've made it past the first third of Tolstoy's book yet, but let me know if you feel the same way after you get to the part where he writes, "Shakespeare is an ordinary writer and... an astonishment and delight over Shakespeare are nothing more than a desire to keep up with others and the the habit of repeating foreign opinions....I think Shakespeare cannot be admitted to be either a writer of great genius or even an average one."

I suspect you intend it as a compliment when you write, "Tolstoy's take on aesthetics is complete, perhaps the most complete I have as yet encountered." Completeness is a virtue if you're a theoretical physicist working on a unified field theory, but in aesthetics it seems to be the hallmark of closed minded systems builders who treasure internal consistency above honest inquiry. When you're done reading that ascetic mystic Tolstoy, I'd urge you to give the pragmatic Yankee Ralph Waldo Emerson a try; I think he is a far better philosopher for coping with the modern world: "Explore, and explore, and explore. Be neither chided nor flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Neither dogmatise yourself, nor accept another’s dogmatism. Why should you renounce your right to traverse the star-lit deserts of truth, for the premature comforts of an acre, house, and barn? Truth also has its roof, and bed, and board."

Emerson and Orwell both knew enough to be wary of leaders who rate art on the basis of its "edification" rather than its beauty. That theory of art may have seemed viable when Plato offered it up (and would have obvious attractions for an author who grew up in a a serf "kiss-the-whip" society) but in the wake of Hitler and Stalin and Mao even the most ardent monarchist could not ignore the dangers to art and to larger society.



Richard said...

You're right, I stand corrected, Tolstoy does hate Shakespeare --

"Thoughts and sayings may be appreciated, I will answer, in a prose work, in an essay, a collection of aphorisms, but not in an artistic dramatic production, the object of which is to elicit sympathy with that which is represented. Therefore the monologs and sayings of Shakespeare, even did they contain very many deep and new thoughts, which they do not, do not constitute the merits of an artistic, poetic production. On the contrary, these speeches, expressed in unnatural conditions, can only spoil artistic works."

(Although, are you sure your passage is in the book What Is Art? I can only find it referenced as coming from Panaev about Tolstoy.)


> "Emerson and Orwell both knew enough to be wary of leaders who rate art on the basis of its "edification" rather than its beauty [...] in the wake of Hitler and Stalin and Mao even the most ardent monarchist could not ignore the dangers to art"

Your argument here is that concern for edification in art is wrong because the fascists did it? You'll have to try harder than that to score any points.

Richard said...

And on Tolstoy and Emerson, I think you may have reversed who is the mystic and who is the pragmatist.

Tolstoy --

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.”

BUT

"Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feeling"



Compared with


Emerson -- "The conscious utterance of thought, by speech or action, to any end, is Art. From the first imitative babble of a child to the despotism of eloquence ; from his first pile of toys or chip bridge, to the masonry of Eddystone lighthouse or the Erie canal; from the tattooing of the Owhyhees to the Vatican Gallery; from the simplest expedient of private prudence to the American Constitution; from its first to its last works, Art is the spirit's voluntary use and combination of things to serve its end. "

Richard said...

Or more Emerson if you'd like, although for my part I've only read two of his articles now and I'm exhausted by his nonsense --

"Herein is the explanation of the analogies which exist in all the arts. They are the reappearance of one mind, working in many materials to many temporary ends. Raphael paints wisdom; Handel sings it, Phidias carves it, Shakspeare writes it, Wren builds it, Columbus sails it, Luther preaches it, Washington arms it, Watt mechanizes it. Painting was called "silent poetry;" and poetry "speaking painting." The laws of each art are convertible into the laws of every other."

kev ferrara said...

i don’t know why you’ve gone off on a tangent about reference; the issue of ‘reference’ wasn’t a bone of contention between Chris and me. the issue was whether there was such a thing as a universal ‘language’ of art.

The nature of the aesthetic is to communicate information wholly through the intuition, which we all share as humans, using plastic means and archetypes, which we all understand as humans. This is what we mean by saying art speaks a "universal language."

Whatever visual convention one may speak of, all are built of this same basic stuff of art. There's nothing else to build with, after all, but the plasticity of graphic qualities and archetypes. (Although... I think the archetypes can be further broken down into expressions of form as well. So I believe form is the root of all intuitable meaning.)

However, when any particular convention takes on a configuration that means something without expressing that meaning through the sensual qualities of graphic plasticity , then what we have is code. And code communicates to only a certain subset of humanity. The rest is barred understanding. Because only a certain subset of humanity will "get" the references the symbols call, to decode them, to understand the point of the word-entity in the context of the rest of the image.

The moment the visual becomes tribal in this way, it is no longer functioning as Art, but as text; as established signs from a symbolic lexicon unique to one tribe, each of which needs to be decoded in order to be understood; alone and in context.

The referencing code is written in symbols. But not all symbols are code. Pictography, for example, can often be understood on the basis of its plasticity and archetype, even though it is also part of an established lexicon (presumably).

And many technical conventions, in inking or painting for instance, are conventional ways of using real aesthetic forces. So even though they are conventions, they aren't actually symbolical, and so retain their expressive universality.

Anyway, the point of being strict about translating all references into meaningful aesthetic forces is to ensure the purity of universal expression; to avoid any reliance on tribal knowledge. Which ensures art may commune with everybody and forever, as is its nature.

kev ferrara said...

I think it may be in line with what you are talking about regarding the deeper effects embodied within 'rendering as suggestion'.

Well, yes but you are isolating out the colors in your attempt to conceptualize how they are singing to you. But just as in a musical performance, the colors cannot be divorced from their shapes. Nor their strikes, timbres, and textures. Nor how they might trail off or quaver. And then it all only means in context, each note playing against the key signature, and the surrounding notes within the melody, and the expressive shape of that melody in part and total, and within a passage of changes, sometimes written in patterns of fabric each of which has its own emotion, and so on. (There are so many ways of singing in art that are unique to it.)

No one thread of effect can be disentangled from the overall weave, and the weave, as a totality, cannot be disentangled from the meaning. For it is the meaning. (Although, each instrument should play a truth out in its own way on its own, as well as part of the orchestration.)

Looking at this particular picture in high resolution: Waterhouse's work is so deep. It is poetry right on down to the bottom. And to imagine the Modernists are blind to it. And because they are blind to it, they think there is nothing to see, and so they spit at it. God, it makes me so incensed; the combination of ignorance and arrogance that these pretentious punks display and displayed. Anyone who cannot feel the profundity of this work is soulless. I don't care how "educated" they think they are, or their religion or ideology, or how into current fashion they are, or how they have been accredited by the current culture, or what have you. One either has a soulful sensibility or not.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Your argument here is that concern for edification in art is wrong because the fascists did it? You'll have to try harder than that to score any points."

Oh, there's no shortage of non-fascist authoritarians eager to edify the hell out of you. Plato wanted to steer those pesky artists toward socially edifying goals. Napoleon offered awards for "good" art. I personally have hungered for state funded art critics armed with edifying tasers when I'm subjected to rap music blaring from another car at a stop light. My point is that the judgment about what is "edifying" doesn't belong in the hands of the monarch, and it certainly doesn't belong in the hands of a religious zealot. The fascists and the communists became particularly good at using art as a crowd control device, but remember the Vatican was knocking the genitals off Greek statues as the Inquisition was twisting the genitals off living artists who strayed from the approved path. Tolstoy can see into your prurient heart if you linger too long over that naked woman in The temptation of St. Anthony, just as some Islamic caliphs would cut your gizzard out for painting an image of Mohammed. Instead of picking fights with the bawdy Shakespeare, Tolstoy should have spent a little more time rereading Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor.

As long as authoritarians, like your hypothetical monarch, remain in a weakened state, I am not so worried. (As Bernard Wolfe wrote, "There's nothing like a negative endorsement from the clergy to get the public interested.") But that brings us back to your point about Emerson the mystic.

I think Emerson and the rest of the transcendentalists created space for the sacred in about the most benign possible way. They didn't insist on a God who writes out edicts with a thunderbolt and pushes around their neighbor's inferior God. Their version of the sublime doesn't wear a white bathrobe with a gold "G" monogrammed on the pocket. Instead, they found the miraculous in the rising sap. Their depersonalized transcendental oversoul urges all of nature forward, even if they blur the distinction between what Raphael and does and what Handel does. They can be faulted, as you have faulted Emerson, for loose talk about how all art is a manifestation of the same force, but on the other hand they avoid all of the pernicious consequences that result from citizens believing they are implementing the will of God (or in the case of communists, implementing the immutable laws of history). Sooner or later, those folks all start believing that the end justifies the means.

You may find Emerson's suggestion of a common spirit underlying different art forms unsatisfyingly "vague" but unlike Kev I think there is an important role for vagueness when the consequences of feigned precision can be so awful.

Tom said...

David said;
“ I personally have hungered for state funded art critics armed with edifying tasers when I'm subjected to rap music blaring from another car at a stop light.”

LOL🤣! David!

kev ferrara said...

but unlike Kev I think there is an important role for vagueness when the consequences of feigned precision can be so awful.

Vagueness is the beginning of a remedy to insensate rigidity.

But quality is the actual antidote in the long run.



Richard said...

> " My point is that the judgment about what is "edifying" doesn't belong in the hands of the monarch, and it certainly doesn't belong in the hands of a religious zealot."

I understood this discussion as a question of art criticism, but it appears you're now talking about law and policy.

As far as I have read, I don't see Tolstoy making the claim that the government needs to exercise the laws to stamp out art which shows nipples (although I appreciate it that you'll tell me if I am wrong).

Likewise, it's unclear that you yourself would like to have the government making determinations about beauty any more so.

Therefore, I'm not sure that your slippery-slope argument against critique by way of edification (rather than beauty alone) is internally consistent.


> "but on the other hand they avoid all of the pernicious consequences that result from citizens believing they are implementing the will of God"

As far back as the Greeks, and through the 20th Century, we have record that it is indeed possible and common for governments to overreach in the interest of "beauty".

The 20th century witnessed the communists and fascists double down on beauty perhaps just as strongly, if not more so, than they did edification. Making a work which exalted the kulaks could have you in the gulags, but so too would making a work which was by the definitions of the time not-beautiful.

It was, say, rather more dangerous to be a communist but ugly-painting-maker like Kazimir Malevich, than it was to be a painter who made beautiful realist works of Kulaks with bare ankles.

If we're really trying to hash out which is the more dangerous form of government control of the arts, I'd much rather have my government controlling the amount of nudity a model displays than the quantity of ugliness I am allowed, but that's irrelevant I think to the original question.

The question was not "Should the government enforce edification in arts by cruel and violent measure?" but instead "Is edification a worthwhile measure of a work of art?" which I maintain with Tolstoy that it is.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "In a way aren’t you saying the viewer completes the picture?"

Yes. In my view, that's why the broader our interests and the more energy, learning and good will we bring to a picture, the richer our potential benefit is.

Tom further wrote: "If that is the case what does it matter about “new information,” or what the Washington color school painters intentions where?"

It matters because the process is meaningless if the viewer simply fabricates reactions out of whole cloth. Historians will never have all the facts, but the central tenet of history is that we are only allowed to "complete" the part we don't know. We need to exert our very best efforts to learn the facts, and to assess the likelihood of those facts about which we are uncertain. After all that, we have license to use our brains and imagination and hearts to complete the picture. That space distinguishes a good historian from a bad historian. Or a good critic from a bad critic.

For many years, anthropologists thought that art, as well as symbolic thinking, originated 30,000 to 40,000 years ago during the transition from neanderthals to Cro-Magnons. Hundreds of books were based on those facts (as was a lot of poetry). But now anthropologists have found evidence of the beginnings of art over 100,000 years old. That "new information" changes everything. We cannot "complete the picture" by averting our eyes from the best available information. That's putting on blinders.

As Wittgenstein famously said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." („Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.") Silence about unknown facts may frustrate some audiences and create the impression of vagueness.

kev ferrara said...

Silence about unknown facts may frustrate some audiences and create the impression of vagueness.

Why are you conflating epistemological humility (with respect to the possible consequences of the lost facts of history) with false mystery in art?

With history, there are facts to the matter. So there is truth to the matter. Even if we don't yet know what each consists of. Or even if we can never know. Vagueness can yield with historical investigation and become something significant.

But if art is vague in context and content, there is no truth there to find. And there never will be. No matter how hard you look, and no matter who tells you otherwise.

So nebulousness is not "an impression of vagueness." It is straight-up vagueness.

And it shall remain as insignificant at the crack of doom as when it was first babbled onto canvas. (Daydreaming otherwise is rank starry-eyed superstition. Go stare at a oily puddle, you nut!)

chris bennett said...

Kev,

No one thread of effect can be disentangled from the overall weave, and the weave, as a totality, cannot be disentangled from the meaning. For it is the meaning. (Although, each instrument should play a truth out in its own way on its own, as well as part of the orchestration.)

This is what I meant by the elements I singled out having a particular associative suggestion that was driven by their context in the painting as a whole. But you put it far more effectively and is, as always, much appreciated.

Looking at this particular picture in high resolution: Waterhouse's work is so deep. It is poetry right on down to the bottom. And to imagine the Modernists are blind to it. And because they are blind to it, they think there is nothing to see, and so they spit at it. God, it makes me so incensed; the combination of ignorance and arrogance that these pretentious punks display and displayed. Anyone who cannot feel the profundity of this work is soulless. I don't care how "educated" they think they are, or their religion or ideology, or how into current fashion they are, or how they have been accredited by the current culture, or what have you. One either has a soulful sensibility or not.

Yes indeed, I feel exactly the same way. I had a run in on my Facebook page recently when I posted that link to the article about the temporary removal of the Waterhouse in the Manchester City Art Gallery. As the argument slipped away from the guy he resorted to calling into question the personal motives behind Waterhouse's choice of subject, and by inference my own. As such it was very telling about the dangers hiding in the dogma and propaganda spouted by these people.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- We seem to have a recurring difference of opinion about the level of control that is desirable, or even feasible.

On the one hand, we seem to share an aversion to certain types of vagueness: to artistic sloth, to indecision, to artists who rely on vagueness in the hope that audiences will give them the benefit of the doubt, to artists who leave a picture unfinished due to a lack of courage, to artists who depend on a lack of standards, or who rely on audiences to do the artist's job.

On the other hand, I'm willing to accept a larger role than you do for vagueness or ambiguity in art. For one thing, I see risk to art at the other end of the spectrum-- from too much control by artists who cling to the reins too tightly, making every decision excruciatingly deliberate. But more importantly, I enjoy some art where vagueness of purpose, chance, accident, indecision, mother nature or hydrology play a significant role.

One of my favorite drawings ever was one I saw on a prehistoric cave wall (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008/07/one-lovely-drawing-part-21.html ) which-- as fas as I can tell-- was a vague indication of a woolly mammoth with vague red marks that may or may not have had some vague hunting function. They are marks that, in another time and place, might be found amongst the random graffiti on one of those alley walls you talk about. I have to do 87% of the heavy lifting to make sense of that drawing , but I'm willing to pay that price to reach out to an artist from another time and place. I'm as conscientious as I could possibly be about the scientific facts, and I'm also prepared to accept that I could be totally wrong as part of the price for loving this piece. The physical design is vague the way that beautiful abstract art can be vague. The intent of the artist is vague and unknowable. Heck, I don't even know if the artist had the mental capacity to form the intent that you demand for real art. And yet, for me any definition of art that excludes such work needs to be redefined.

You've written that you are willing to accept a limited, purposeful form of vagueness (or, as you write, "Specific suggestion... that is quite a different thing from suggestive vagueness. Although, true, both offer the viewer imaginative entry. But suggestion does so with integrity and depth.... Crucially, there is a particular structure involved to poetic suggestion." ) One might wonder whether "structured" vagueness really counts as vagueness at all. But if both forms of "imaginative entry" benefit the viewer, I think you've created a daunting task for yourself policing when that benefit to the viewer is "legitimate" and when the benefit should be disgorged because the credit to the unworthy vague artist would be ill gotten gain.

(CONT.)

David Apatoff said...

(CONT.)

When you see a vague picture, I don't know how you tell whether you're looking at a clear picture of a fuzzy concept or a fuzzy picture of a clear concept. But I do know is that there are several types of legitimate art where vagueness of purpose or vagueness of execution is part of the recipe:

1.) drawings in sketchbooks that start aimlessly with the most vague purpose (if any), intended only to satisfy itchy fingers, a wandering line that takes shape by itself and evolves into a good drawing.

2.) artists who say, "I don't know how I achieved that result-- and I couldn't summon it back consciously; I feel like I was just a conduit for something larger that passed through me to the canvas. "

3.) artists who say, "I didn't intend the image to mean what people are reading into my picture-- it's more an accident" (call this the Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds phenomenon).

4.) Austin Briggs said, "When I am painting I proceed almost entirely by instinct. To a very large extent I do not realize consciously what is going on in the picture. " If you ask him for an explanation, it will necessarily be vague.

I respect and honor the artists we like who exercise consummate control. You seem to think that I'm dishonoring work like Sargent's watercolor of the alligators by also enjoying a vague painting by Rothko. For me it's not like that.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "Or Turner who’s mastery of drawing produce some of most fluid and aerial pictures that however evanescent they seemingly are, where always based in solid form."

Actually, I would regard Turner as "exhibit A" for my argument. Turner was great but in my opinion he only became a world class genius when he let go of all those tight details and began creating majestic but nondescript canvases of shimmering color. (the magnificent Rain, Steam and Speed, or Northam Castle at Sunrise, or Sun Setting Over A Lake, or A Mountain Scene, etc. ) . In my opinion, his greatest watercolors are not the tightly controlled and precise ones he did in those early sketchbooks, but the later ones where, with his accumulated wisdom and experience, he relied on puddles of water to help him create vague but lush, sensual approaches. Some of those watercolors (such as this one at the Tate: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-a-wreck-possibly-related-to-longships-lighthouse-lands-end-r1144264 ) might look like they were done by Ike, our little artist of the tyrannosaurus, but I don't think that's sufficient grounds for denying Turner's achievement.

Tom said...

Thanks for the response David.

You wrote
‘It matters because the process is meaningless if the viewer simply fabricates reactions out of whole cloth.”

I tend to agree that the viewer completes the picture, but I don’t think the viewer fabricates his reaction out of nothing unless he is trying to explain the reasons for the painting. I think it’s our own experience of the world is where the deeper contection to a art work occurs. A picture resonates with what we recognized as our own sensations and feelings about living.

David also wrote, “But now anthropologists have found evidence of the beginnings of art over 100,000 years old. That "new information" changes everything. We cannot "complete the picture" by averting our eyes from the best available information. That's putting on blinders.”

To me that doesn’t change the picture, it changes what your thinking about while looking at the picture. It seems once your caught in that type of thought one doesn’t see the picture any more, the beauty so to speak,(all that is IMHO). It’s almost as if the art lives on past the reasons for its making. I enjoy looking at the sculpture of the ancient world and admire their beauty without understanding their purpose or why they where made.

I like the cave painting with red marks that you linked to. The hump of the shoulders effortlessly glides down to the subtlety define mass of the head and gracefully branches out to the beasts two horns. The ride down from the shoulders to the head has the joy of a roller coaster ride. The mass of the shoulders and the smaller mass of the thorax are so volumetric one could easily imagine that the artist was painting a mountain range instead of an animal. And it’s hard to go wrong with red and black.

I like the Briggs quote also. Because someone does something by instinct however it does not mean there being vague does it? In many ways pulling out the essence of something can appear vague but in fact it is more of the nature of precision. The training of the artist is so he can respond without thought, so the brush can move without hesitation. Could you imagine the sound of the music a violinist would produce if had to figure out what he was doing all the time. The violinist may not be able to explain what he is doing he may not understand what he is doing but the sound he produces is not “vague,” or imprecise.

Which remains me of the story of the Chinese painter who would load his hair with ink and then he would shake his head over the paper he was going to paint on and from these ramdon marks he would begin his painting. He would pull his landscape painting out of the apparently arbitrary ink stains on the paper.

But maybe I’m getting a little confused, a mist could describe as vague. Objects in the distance can be vague, i.e. they are too far away to be define as individuals and so the artist natural groups them into a larger shape maybe an “abstract shape,” and the objects individually identies disappear. That creates a sense of mystery or vagueness in the picture, but in order to do this the artist who makes the picture can not think or act “vaguely.” Your contrasting of a stiff work with a vague work to clarify your meaning of vague doesn’t quite feel right to me, it’s seems what your really mean is the stiff work lacks spirit.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "I understood this discussion as a question of art criticism, but it appears you're now talking about law and policy."

It seems to me that once we've decided to judge art by the moral wholesomeness of its content rather than its visual beauty, intelligence, honesty or profundity, then we've already entered the realm of policy. If Tolstoy were a commissar rather than an author, his scoldings about moral content would have more legal impact, but that just underscores St. Augustine's point, "the virtue of children lies not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs."

No, as far as I know Tolstoy never claims that the government should stamp out licentious art, although in Tsarist Russia he would probably have had more of a social impact influencing the church than petitioning the Tsar. If he was living under a different legal system in the U.S. 50 years later, he might have been another Frederic Wertham.

You write: "The question was not 'Should the government enforce edification in arts by cruel and violent measure?' but instead 'Is edification a worthwhile measure of a work of art?' which I maintain with Tolstoy that it is."

I agree with you and Tolstoy, but that's just the first half of the question. The second half of the question is: "exactly what kind of 'edifying' is art being enlisted to achieve?"

I've written here in the past about how Hitler believed the arts were a crucial tool for edifying the public. Apart from "cruel and violent measures," his government also commissioned thousands of patriotic works and sponsored art competitions and festivals in villages and towns to reinforce his message with the public. (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2016/05/searching-for-next-philipp-rupprecht.html ). I've also discussed how dim witted U.S. congressmen have ranted about how modern art is "edifying" the youth of America in the wrong direction, turning them into communist robots, even as Stalin complained that modern art weakens the will of the proletariat for the socialist struggle against capitalism (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2016/11/warring-with-trolls-part-9-special_26.html )

So my "slippery-slope argument against critique by way of edification" is not offered as a flat prohibition against all artistic edification (as if that were even possible). It's more an expression of concern. When people start condemning art or sponsoring art on the basis of its moral content, my ears prick up and I look around to see whether their philosophy includes a "runaway truck ramp" to serve as a brake in case the situation starts getting out of hand. It is my experience that people with absolute faith in their views (for example, because god or history are on their side) are less likely to notice or care when their version of edification starts trampling on the rights of people with different notions of edification. Less likely to notice, or less likely to care.

So let's just say my reaction to Tolstoy's criticism of art is: "uh oh... this warrants a higher level of scrutiny until we're sure where it's headed."

David Apatoff said...


Tom-- I'm glad you enjoyed the prehistoric drawing as I do. Perhaps it was partly the context but when I first saw it in a dark cave it made me weak in the knees. One of the key questions it raises for this group: If after 27,000 years of study, reflection, practice, improvement, enhanced materials, today's artists are no better than the prehistoric artist in the cave, what does that tell us about the nature of progress in art? And can your answer to that question affect the way we compare Ike's dinosaur to the drawings of adult artists?

"I like the Briggs quote also. Because someone does something by instinct however it does not mean there being vague does it? In many ways pulling out the essence of something can appear vague but in fact it is more of the nature of precision. The training of the artist is so he can respond without thought, so the brush can move without hesitation."

You raise a good point. An "Instinctual" image is not necessarily vague; a picture could in fact be instinctual and yet visually precise. As has become clear, there are several different types of vagueness potentially relevant to art (vagueness of content, vagueness of image, vagueness of purpose, etc.). I offered up Briggs' quote to help examine the notion that vagueness in art must be inserted by an artist purposely, to "suggest" something specific in a structured way with integrity and depth. Something that is done instinctually is not usually done with a specific purpose, as far as I can tell. The image may be crystal clear but I'd think the "reason" for something instinctual will be forever vague.

chris bennett said...

Guys,

Maybe I can shed some different light on the 'why vagueness is not a virtue' issue.

My definition of 'being in the zone' when painting a picture is the simultaneous coming together or synthesis of two thought processes; literalness and abstraction. Recognising that the union of the two has taken place is clearly and distinctly felt as a sense of my creative faculties having entered a room of infinite ease where everything possible will flower, where the mind's rev counter surges into a 'flat-out-foot-to-the-floor-firing-on-all-cylinders' feeling. The heart continually leaping. I soon recognise when I am out of this state because the brush strokes stop making any meaningful difference to the image and begin to neuter the potency of what is already there.

So my definition of being 'a master' is the ability to enter this state at will. The first step is to recognise the aesthetic impotence that results when working only in the mode of literalism or working only in the mode of abstraction. To site an example: Thomas Kinkade belongs to the former and late Mondrian belongs to the latter. Any painting worthy of being called art manifests this indissoluble union of literalism and abstraction, and without exception. It is a consistent hallmark of aesthetic quality, if you will.

So 'vagueness' in a picture would be those parts that only exhibit abstraction. Its corollary, 'pure statement' would be those part that only exhibit literalism.


chris bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chris bennett said...

Also, something that should be of specific interest to David Apatoff:

When this fusion of simultaneously thinking in abstraction and literalism takes place in my mind there is the uncanny sensation of knowing nothing about how to paint while at the same time knowing that absolutely everything I might need is waiting ready to hand. Putting it into words is really difficult, the closest I might come is to say it's an exhilarating feeling of 'knowledgeable innocence'.

Tom said...

David said

‘Something that is done instinctually is not usually done with a specific purpose, as far as I can tell.”

If that is true maybe that is the origin of beauty.

“The image may be crystal clear but I'd think the "reason" for something instinctual will be forever vague.”

I would use the word unknown instead of “vague”. Don’t things like a beautiful tree or a beautiful cave drawing reasonate with us at a level beyond thought? The question of why they reasonate doesn’t even come up, in fact the question tends to destroy that wonderful state of being.

That must have been quite an experience to see actual cave paintings. Was it claustrophobic?
I don’t know if I believe in the progress of art. I always tend to think the works of the past are better then the works of the present. I think it tells you how much more important a clear conception of what your doing is then the tools, ‘progress,” has provide us with.

The thing about Ike’s drawing is, if he continues to draw like any human he will probably be unsatistfied with his efforts, he might not even happy with the drawing you posted. Maybe it tells us in regards to adult art work how the the excitement of new energy like a bubbling stream will eventually reach a river and finally settle into the calm and grandeur view of a estuary. Or old trees really seem more beautiful then young trees.

kev ferrara said...

"Something that is done instinctually is not usually done with a specific purpose, as far as I can tell.”

This is completely wrong. The instinct is way, way smarter than the symbol-conscious intelligence. The instinct solves problems synthetically; i.e. solving four problem with one solution. That is epiphany or insight. Inspiration. You can't get there from intellection. The intuition notices nonlinear problems that the intellect can't even fathom. And so there is a natural disconnect between the intuition/imagination and the ultra-present symbol-consciousness. The symbol-consciousness is only the librarian and can only solve linearly, one to one, question to answer, based on what is already known and made static by codification as symbol.

The point of art instruction in poetic ideas is mostly to stop the stupid intellect from screwing up the synthetic thinking of the intuition, which is the true source of genius. The attempt is to teach the intellect the kind of solutions the imagination unfurls so it shouldn't interfere with them. Also, hopefully, it should teach the symbol-consciousness to call for help from within when difficult problems are noticed consciously. Mostly to prevent the intellect from trying to solve the problem by application of the rote and known.

Every story about geniuses solving problems shows them finding enlightenment on their problems through imagination, not consciousness.

kev ferrara said...

I'm willing to accept a larger role than you do for vagueness or ambiguity in art. For one thing, I see risk to art at the other end of the spectrum-- from too much control by artists who cling to the reins too tightly, making every decision excruciatingly deliberate.

It’s not the deliberateness that is excruciating. It is the decisions... and how they are implemented. You and I both want to see inspiration. We don’t want to see art built of the dull calculations of an insipid soul nitpicking over a canvas an inch-square at a time in some vain attempt to impress us with technical rendering.

If it takes all week to make a great inspired visual decision, and to set it down with artful verve, so much the better. But if the decision lacks something, some sense of life, suggestion or evocativeness, if it is dogmatically over-wrought without having some kind of dynamism, some kind of embedded poetic thought, if it is ‘corrected’ again and again, getting more and more cribbed… then whether the decision that prompted it was made in a second or a month, it doesn’t matter. Bad is bad. Dumb dogma, obsessively implemented to the detriment of the imaginative power of a work is always bad.

Vagueness is the other end of the stick. I’m willing to ‘accept’ the role of vagueness in art, but not on its own. (Nobody can, of course ‘police’ any of this. The truth alone has authority.) But, again, we shouldn’t mistake vagueness for abstraction. Abstraction is abstracted from something, a poetic capturing of essence without losing so much of the facts or substance that we lose touch with the original impetus. Abstraction has integrity if it is indeed abstraction.

So we agree both sloth and dogma are the enemy. The antidote, I think it is safe to say, for both is quality. So quality is the real question.

But quality is a different question than whether you like something or not. Or find it interesting, or why you do. People like and are entertained by all sorts of stuff. Even good, smart people like horseshit some of the time. So you can’t simply say, “That person is an idiot so everything they like is crap. And that person is a genius, so everything they like is Art.” That’s isn’t looking at inherent quality. We shouldn’t confuse taste, interest, enjoyment, or response with inherent quality.

If you like what you end up thinking about when you look at a spattered alley wall, that doesn’t make it art.

kev ferrara said...

Now, the issue of falling under the spell of the tantalizing possibilities of loose, unfinished sketches is a different matter. Let me introduce into the record what Henry Pitz wrote of studying under Walter Everett…

“Following the contradictions of his own nature, he encouraged (his students) to dream and ponder, to allow their pencil and brush to lead them into graphic adventures. As soon as the first shadow of an impeding picture crossed their mind, he urged them to take pencil in hand and lightly, sensitively, move it around the paper, not striking for sharply delineated forms, but tentatively seeking, believing in the intelligence of the fingers, following the behest of the pencil. These musing, half dream-like arabesques opened up a new pictorial world to many. Often tantalizing possibilities could be glimpsed in these linear abstractions, and when clarified and supported by more objective drawing, new compositional conclusions came into being. For some this was nonsense, for others it was a fascinating and fruitful exploration into the subconscious. Everett’s own work partook of this quality. All his best pictures, even those of banal subject matter, had some flavor of an imagined world. (…) Most pictures had their secret place where nothing was explicit, but where the eye was coaxed to muse and speculate."

Tom said...

Wow I really like that Turner watercolor you posted, it’s great David. It has a expansive sense of space and the whole page is activatated in a way that our younger artist would have to practice for years to “maybe” achieve.

Turner’s division of the paper’s space is wonderful as none of the large main masses of the sky water and clouds or (smoke?) is given equal proportion. The land mass or boat or lighthouse almost falls exactly on the golden section. Most importantly the the main mass is not located in the center of the page or too close to the border of the paper. Dimensionally there is no confusion. Spatially a clear foreground, middle ground and distance all exist. Painting a successful foreground is a very difficult thing to do and yet the whole thing looks effortless. The way the smoke and the sea border the land mass softing it’s lower border and the right hand border brings the eye to the point of greatest contrast between the sky and the land mass, with it’s red dot which is echoed and set off by the soft orange wind mill shape in the foreground.

Looking at the picture you could certinly make the argument that beauty doens’t always exist in the things themselves but iin nature’s arrangement of color, value and shape. If this is what you mean by vagueness it makes sense to me, as we really don’t know what we are exactly looking at, it seems like the picture is saying it’s not important, but what is important is this arrangement of color and value. It’s not what I see but how I see.

There’s a story of a man who approach Turner one day when he was painting at Hampstead Heath near London and ask if he could look at his picture. After viewing the picture the man said i’ve lived in Hampstead Heath for 50 years and I‘ve never seen a view like that. Turner replied “ No, but don’t you which you could.”

Like the colors used in your cave painting, the palette Turner has chosen to use is practically the same.

Nate’s Drawing is fun but no such relationships exact in his drawing.

Kev wrote

"Something that is done instinctually is not usually done with a specific purpose, as far as I can tell.”
“This is completely wrong.”

Funny, I didn’t read what David wrote that way at all. I agree with everything you wrote but I didn’t think David was denying or knocking instinct. It felt more like he was saying, when what you call conscious intellect is running the show it has a reason for it’s actions and it expects a personal return for its efforts while wonder or insight, or an epiphany is enough in and of itself. Joy or happiness doesn’t really seem to have a “purpose.” When one experiences an epiphany one usually doesn’t think “now how I’m going to use this to my advantage.” It’s much more of a gift than anything else, that is hard to take credit for. I’m sure we have all had the experience where we seem to be witnessing what we are doing instead of directing or telling ourselves what to do.


kev ferrara said...

when what you call conscious intellect is running the show it has a reason for it’s actions and it expects a personal return for its efforts while wonder or insight, or an epiphany is enough in and of itself. Joy or happiness doesn’t really seem to have a “purpose.” When one experiences an epiphany one usually doesn’t think “now how I’m going to use this to my advantage.” It’s much more of a gift than anything else, that is hard to take credit for. I’m sure we have all had the experience where we seem to be witnessing what we are doing instead of directing or telling ourselves what to do.

As far as I can tell, everything we do is about solving problems. The purpose of thought, it seems, is to model out problems in order to solve for them in sufficient time to aid our lives. And most of that work goes unspoken, part of the ongoing subliminal cognitive processes constantly roiling within us. When we get an idea, an epiphany... it is always mysterious. It arises unbidden.

An insight, even a minor one, is like toast popping up but we can't see the toaster. Suddenly crisp bread appears in our lives, ready to munch. Ta da! But some process cooked it... Some process loaded the bread in at an earlier moment... But who? Where? And who knew when that toast was ready?

Well, what about the thought you just had? Or should I say, the one you just heard in your mind? Do you take credit for it? Where did it come from?

It is not an easy question. After all, the apparent currency of the consciousness, symbols, has no reality; words don't appear in the brain like placards floating in the void. There is no typewriter in there. The brain is only meat, chemicals and electricity, as far as we can tell. Which means it only functions through sensations, and the inhibition of the same. 'Mentalese' it once was called; the actual physical language the brain runs, which is common to all humans.

So, when you have a thought you wish to write here; these magical words that come into your mind, with layers of intent, layers of meaning, plus logic, and grammar pre-installed... they were converted from mentalese; from meat, chemicals, and electricity interacting within, from biological wrestling into the King’s English in one easy step. Instantly, and reflexively.

Did 'you' do that conversion of biological dynamics into static words? If by 'you', you mean 'my active consciousness', then the answer is no. You did not. It all happened instantly and completely without you 'willing it to happen' in the least.

Some other ‘will’ brought those answer words into your conscious presence. And some other will took the question in mentalese, too. And that inner will is, it seems clear, the actual guy in charge. And that guy thinks in biological interactions which the ‘words guy’ that you think is the real you, can’t even fathom or control.

So, if you can't take credit for your whiz bang smack-on-the-head insights, then you can't take credit for anything. Because the same process that knocks you out with insight will give you the minor insights that you use in response to this post.

And when your response starts coming to mind, I ask you to consider the great riddle of you, “Wait a minute. Who popped that toast?”

Tom said...

Well Kev I can’t really follow everything your saying. When one plays a sport one does their best when they not worried about winning or losing, or when their not trying to figure out how to play the game.

As far as “you,” is concern what happens to “you,’ when your not thinking about,”you?” What happens to ‘you’” in deep sleep?

I used the word consciousness because you contrasted it with the word imagination which you describe as the source of englightment and problem solving. Maybe I should have used the word ego.

Cause and effect are endless, who pops the toast, to pump blood to and from your heart? Is there someone their to take credit for that? When are you the most you, when your confused, when your brilliant, when your young when your old? All these things come and go, they disappear.

Is that guy who thinks in biological interactions separate from everything else? And how do you know he thinks? Can you point him out?

Anyway, I was just responding to what I thought David meant. Sorry if it was the wrong response.

kev ferrara said...

Well Kev I can’t really follow everything your saying.

Sorry about that.

All I'm saying is that "you" are the whole being that is you. There is no bifurcation, really, that stands up to scrutiny. You aren't simply the symbol-consciousness, the 'ego', that "seems to control" what you do as much as you are everything else that actually controls everything you do, which includes the egotistical symbol-consciousness. That hyper-present specific 'you' is simply an illusion projected by the deeper ocean of real you swelling beneath.

So, when you assert that the stunning epiphany you get is no credit to you, but the words you think and speak and write and the numbers you dial with your fingertips, and your just-in-the-nick-of-time avoidance of the door frame when exiting the room (which would have spilled your coffee) are a credit to you... well that seems to get the whole thing upside down and backwards. Sort of like not crediting the power of the tip of the iceberg to the iceberg.

It seems to me the artist is the person who has some extra patch bays that allow for much more communication between the ocean and the ego. The ocean humbles the ego, so the ego learns only to ask of the ocean what the ocean already wants to give.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

That post you have just made on 'Mentalese' was absolutely wonderful. Thank you. (and thanks to Tom for prompting it!)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "As far as I can tell, everything we do is about solving problems."

Wow, you must be a barrel of laughs when it comes to smelling a rose.

Kev, you silly boo boo, you wouldn't need to strain those formidable rhetorical powers of yours quite so much if you didn't feel compelled to start with unequivocal blanket assertions about things that are not objectively verifiable. You claim, "This is completely wrong" in response to my point that "Something that is done instinctually is not usually done with a specific purpose, as far as I can tell." Well, that's a nice, forceful counterpoint except that everything you say in support of your opening claim ends up agreeing with my point. You say again and again that the instinct is smart, that intellection won't take us where we need to go, that mentalese won't make our toast pop, that we have to stop the stupid intellect from screwing up our synthetic intuition, etc., etc.

Well, of course nobody here ever claimed that instinct or intuition wasn't "smart" (an odd use of the word smart, but that's OK) or important, or necessary to make our toast pop, or more crucial to inspiration than intellect. My only point was that instinct or intuition doesn't usually seem to operate with a "specific purpose," the way that rational thought operates, for example to solve an engineering problem. You must have agreed with me 40 times in the course of insisting I was "completely wrong." If it makes you feel better to call it "synthetic thinking of the intuition," that's OK with me, I like all the different names you invent for things. But it seems to me that everything after your first sentence says we agree, so maybe you should let that toast cook a little longer before it pops.

I understand that antlers grow in the spring but I try not to assert that a position is "completely wrong" unless I am prepared to demonstrate that it is at least 51% wrong.

Finally, I hasten to add that I also agree with your friend Walter Everett and more importantly, he appears to agree with me. You quote Henry Pitz that Everett's pictures "had their secret space where nothing was explicit." If you will invest in a Thesaurus, you will see that the antonym for "explicit" is-- you guessed it-- "vague."

kev ferrara said...

Wow, you must be a barrel of laughs when it comes to smelling a rose.

David, if you are a "barrel of laughs" when it comes to "smelling a rose" perhaps you should lower the dosage.

Anyway, do you think smelling a rose doesn't solve a problem? Or, to put it more subtly, do you think there is no point to smelling a rose? Why would you want to smell a rose anyhow? Surely it must be doing something for you. You think altering the chemicals in your brain in a positive way using harmless natural substances is a useless endeavor? (A wee bit of analysis shows pragma lurking everywhere, my dear chap.)

My only point was that instinct or intuition doesn't usually seem to operate with a "specific purpose," the way that rational thought operates, for example to solve an engineering problem. You must have agreed with me 40 times in the course of insisting I was "completely wrong."

Now you're just being an Dundified Ultrabloof.

Firstly, how can a "non-specific" problem be solved? (And the instinct, the intuition, or whatever we call it, is solving problems all day long.)

Secondly, how do you solve a problem where the method is not known without asking the intuition to the party?

What the rote brain can answer, all that the left hemisphere offers, is established protocols, the plugging in of known patterns, formula, and cliché. (Gilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, 2009). Such solutions are exactly the sort of thing a computer can do given the right inputs.

Anybody solving creative, rather than rote, problems for a living is asking for specific problems to be solved by the inner ocean all day long.

I hasten to add that I also agree with your friend Walter Everett and more importantly, he appears to agree with me.

Not. so. fast.

I believe I said I was fine with vagueness in the context of specificity. Because the specificity narrows the vagueness down into suggestions, impressions, and so on; classes of things. So long as the abstractions don't contradict the sensible possibilities for that passage, I had said.

I thought the sides were clear; I was against vagueness in its own right. Justifying vagueness as an end unto itself is actually what you are supposed to be doing here, dear chap!

Yet here you are trying to justify your increasingly vague position about vagueness by referencing my hero Walter Hunt Everett rather than your hero Mark Rothko.

Whatsamatter? Toast hasn't popped up yet?

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I don't quite have any of my own thoughts to offer in this discussion, but by complete happenstance, I did bump into Edward Carpenter's essay "Beaty and Duty" just now ("a few words on the subject of Art and Morality"). It has some interesting thoughts and descriptions to add to the conversation, and refers to Tolstoy's essay as well.

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044004521704;view=1up;seq=196;size=75

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "do you think smelling a rose doesn't solve a problem? Or, to put it more subtly, do you think there is no point to smelling a rose? Why would you want to smell a rose anyhow?"

I have to confess, I don't understand why "solving a problem" is the same thing as "having a point," or why you think I'm "making a point" by sniffing a rose. You are clearly too subtle for me. But rather than dwell on that, I think it'd be far more lively to share a quote from the always interesting Bernard Wolfe, who long ago offered a counter-example to your view that "everything we do is about solving problems." I suggested the example of the pleasure we take in smelling a rose, but if that didn't impress you, Wolfe had an example guaranteed to dismay both you and ol' Tolstoy simultaneously (a twofer!):

"Those aspects of sex that can be put into words are the ones least worth talking about.... I've never read a description of an orgasm in a novel that didn't seem entirely a literary exercise, rather than an adequate description of a truly felt experience. That's not what words are for. That's not what the oceanic feeling is for, either. You reach for the oceanic to get the hell away from words for a while, to dodge the chatter.... Words came into existence to deal with trouble, not with ease, well-being, the sense of rightness. Words can capture what's wrong with sex, what interferes with it and distorts it and frustrates it, but never sex that goes smoothly and with its own silent efficiencies. If people never had problems they most likely would never have bothered to proliferate vocabularies. Sex is an enduring sanctuary from words and the cerebration that generates them, from the wordy world of problem facing. Sex is a draining of vital energies away from the cortex, that hive of words, to non-conceptual, non-verbal centers.... There's precious little you can say about what's right in sex, that all too fleeting experience of total inner harmony."

So, Kev, if even your subconscious intuitions and instincts only churn away with the "specific purpose" of "solving a problem," perhaps you have some issues of a personal nature that the group might be able to help you with? Sometimes it's better if we talk these things out.


chris bennett said...

David, I agree with Kev on this. There is desire and desire wants to be sated. Not sating the desire is a problem for the desire. So it tries to solve it. 'Hey Susan, fancy a coffee?'

kev ferrara said...

Yes, I see you've glanced away from defending Rothko and "vagueness for its own sake" and onto another line of attack where you think traction might be had. That's tactically a sound maneuver, if your strategy is to never come to a resolution about the actual question at hand. (Laurence, who takes down the minutes here, has duly noted this for posterity.)

The Turners you addressed, by the way, had more than enough information to them to warrant calling them poetry.

I don't understand why "solving a problem" is the same thing as "having a point,"

The overarching idea is that nothing we do is without reason, even if we are unaware of what that reason is exactly. And whatever is prompting our actions - even though we can seemingly distinguish between types of motivations - is actually hard to differentiate when drilling down. The human organism is always solving for its needs. Any particular action may not, unto itself, be a "solution"... one and done. That is a rather blunt way of looking at it. But any particular action is certainly part of an overarching schema for survival, one turn of play, one might say, in the long game of prospering rather than failing.

why you think I'm "making a point" by sniffing a rose.

No, I'm saying there is a point to sniffing the rose. It isn't idle whimsy or just happenstance. Although it sure would seem like that while in the simple joyful appreciative mindset that would cause you to sniff a rose.

But, if we want to dig beneath the surfaces and the habits of seemingly unconscious moments, the smelling of the rose is part of a long term strategy, say, for keeping mood elevated. And keeping mood elevated reduces cortisol production. And reducing cortisol reduces anxiety, but more importantly inflammation. And reducing inflammation is among the top few ways of preventing a disease state from occurring in the body.

This is why meditation is healthy. Yet, meditation was developed (and by instinct, no doubt) thousands of years before cortisol was discovered.

Yes this kind of biological thinking is very unromantic, robotic, autistic, materialist, however you want to label it. But it has the virtue, as science, of having outlasted criticism so far.

And no, I don't think like this in real life about roses, sex, art, fun, or anything else worth living for. But if we're going to debate art like scientists, might as well get technical. Otherwise the conversation will default to the endless veiled variations of "I like this" and "I don't like that" that characterize most art yammering.

Laurence John said...

noted.

David, the reason you like the Turner watercolour is because, even though it’s ‘vague’, you can still see that decisions were made by the artist about how to abstract reality (the view in front of him) into a spontaneous looking piece of controlled accident with paint (which is quite a skill). there’s a pleasure in seeing a picture emerge within seemingly casual, spontaneous, effortless-looking marks.

the reason you like a Rothko is because it’s a ‘vague’ dreamy space onto which you can project the dark corners of your unconscious (you could also do this in a sensory deprivation tank, since you can’t get much more vague than complete darkness, and you’ll soon start seeing things).

the vagueness of the two paintings, although seemingly related, function differently, and have a different intent; the first, a deliberate attempt to suggest hazy 3D form in 2D. the latter, to create a hazy colour field which could suggest anything.

i think the reason abstract (non-representational) art irritates many is because we’re denied the pleasure of seeing how the artist has translated one thing (3D form) into another (2D marks) which is - as far as i can tell - the main way we discern if a drawing or painting is any good or not.*


*this problem goes back years on this blog and has never been resolved. namely: "how can we tell if an abstract (sic) painting is any good if the decisions made in it are arbitrary, and don’t relate to anything beyond itself ?”

David Apatoff said...


Benjamin De Schrijver-- Thanks for an interesting essay. I thought the Thomas Hardy poem was pretty peculiar in that interesting 19th century way. The relationship between art and morality remains just about the biggest, most unwieldy subject there is.

My favorite poem about "beauty and duty" was written by the great Ogden Nash:

O duty,
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why displayeth thou the countenance of the kind of conscientious organizing spinster
That the minute you see her you are aginster?
Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?
Why art thou clad so abominously?
Why art thou so different from Venus?
And why do thou and I have so few interests mutually in common between us?

Chris Bennett wrote: " Not sating the desire is a problem for the desire. So it tries to solve it."

I suppose it's possible that when someone sees a rose, rather than smell it and think, "Mmmmmm," that person could instead think, "Not sating my desire for lovely smells is a problem for my desire. So my intuition must work specifically to solve that problem." I'd never suggest that a commenter (other than Kev, of course) is torturing the English language in a misguided attempt to prop up a rhetorical error. But I will say that I'm very glad that I'm not the sort of person who looks at a rose and sees a problem to be solved.

chris bennett said...

But David, you do, it's just that the conscious part of your brain doesn't realise it.

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

Sort of like not crediting the power of the tip of the iceberg to the iceberg.”

Kev the thing is the iceberg just looks like a separate thing, a “you,” so to speak, but it is actual made of the same stuff as the water it sits in and the air that surrounds it. The forms it can take are almost endless but the elements that constitute the forms is constant. So what form is “really’” there to take credit for an insight?

I don’t think people started to mediate to feel better. Of course it’s a by product of mediating. They did it to find out the truth of whothey are. One can have lots of biological reasons to explain their actions but no one survives in the end and the ego knows it. And the fear and pain that this knowledge causes might be life’s way of waking us out of our illusions.

David said, “But I will say that I'm very glad that I'm not the sort of person who looks at a rose and sees a problem to be solved.”

What I liked about what you wrote in regards to instinct seeming to have no purpose, is that it implies no strategy, no manipulation. The mind can come up with millions of reasons why we do things after the fact, but who really knows. As D’racy Thompson presented in his book On Growth and Form the shape of form is as much product of the natural forces of the universe as any personal or biological motivations.


Chris Bennett wrote: " Not sating the desire is a problem for the desire. So it tries to solve it."

Cut it all off, grow it all back.

kev ferrara said...

the thing is the iceberg just looks like a separate thing, a “you,” so to speak, but it is actual made of the same stuff as the water it sits in and the air that surrounds it. The forms it can take are almost endless but the elements that constitute the forms is constant. So what form is “really’” there to take credit for an insight?

I take it to be true that we are simultaneously part of a whole, distinct unto ourselves, and built of distinct units which are themselves built of distinct units and so on. A unity built of discrete units which are in turn built of discrete units, and so on. I think all these levels are real. Thereby, we may take pride in the iceberg that we are, provided we do something more with our time than float around and get in people's way until melting time.

They did it to find out the truth of who they are.

This is what is said.

People come up with all sorts of post hoc rationales for what the human organism prompts itself to do, and in every endeavor - great and small - we undertake. Human history is rife with guesswork, and we were blindingly ignorant of both biology and psychology until about 3 seconds ago.

I suppose it's possible that when someone sees a rose, rather than smell it and think, "Mmmmmm," that person could instead think, "Not sating my desire for lovely smells is a problem for my desire. So my intuition must work specifically to solve that problem."

This would be a strawman argument.

Unless you think thought only exists as words. Which would certainly explain a lot in terms of these discussions.

kev ferrara said...

They did it to find out the truth of who they are.

This is what is said.


I should have added that, it may well be true that meditation helps people get in touch with "the truth of who they really are." But that doesn't exhaust the investigation into the phenomena. The underlying pragmatism to human behavior, which seems axiomatic, keeps prompting the question of even habitual or instinctual actions; what is it doing for us? And whether you take the act of meditation back to biology or spirituality, the embodied belief that causes people to meditate is still part of some attempt, conscious or not, to benefit ourselves. At the very least, unconsciously biologically.

I think David was reacting to my use of Pragma in regard to seemingly "spiritual" things; prayer, meditation, whimsy, pleasure, etc. But given what we know now about the indissoluble and highly consequential mind-body, spiritual-material connections, any lingering popular sense of Pragma as purely materialistic, can't really hold up. Pierce and James were way ahead of the game back in 1900; they were quite inclusive in their Pragmatist philosophy. Anything that had consequences was within the domain of their interest.