Thursday, May 17, 2018

A TALE OF THREE LANDSCAPES

Which of these two landscapes is more realistic?


George Inness

Sean Lynch

Well, the pink version is actually a photograph, taken with film which reveals near-infrared light.  We don't normally see near-infrared light because our puny eyes are limited to the spectrum of light waves between 400-720 nm long. But near-infrared light is always there, part of the richness of nature bathing every landscape.

So I'll ask again:  Which of these two landscapes is more realistic?

Many painters take great pride in their accuracy, but their work is not "realistic" in a scientific sense.  It is faithful only to a distorted appearance of nature that we see through the limited filter of our eyes.

As long as we're content to accept such a subjective definition of reality,  that should open up the conversation.

Here's another landscape, this one by the great Jean Dubuffet, called "Ecstasy in the Sky."




 Like the landscape by George Inness above, the Dubuffet landscape offers only a limited slice of reality, clearly filtered by the artist's perception.  But is it less real?

41 comments:

chris bennett said...

If humans had the eyes of dragonflies we would, of course, see the world differently and therefore paint it differently. And anyway, your infra red image, in order to see it, has been transposed into our own visual electromagnetic range. The same goes for anything outside the ranges of the human senses that is presented to us be it visual, aural or intellectual (I'm quite sure the fourth dimension doesn't look like one of the arrows labelled 'time' on a four-pointed vector diagram.

Our sense of 'reality' is entirely to do with how we perceive the world as human beings. It belongs to a notion of meaningful context beginning with our immediate environment extending outwards to our position in society and ultimately our place within the cosmos - indeed, our mental wellbeing depends on it.

With this in mind; 'reality' in a painting is a visual characteristic written in a plastic language expressing how, as an experience, we see things. A photograph is not a representation of this because although it functions like an eye in that light is focused into a photon sensitive receptor it is not sentient. Hence 'realism' can include such diverse images as those made by for example Giotto, Van Eyck, El Greco, Velazquez, Cezanne, Giacometti, Garcia Lopez or Alex Kanevsky.

By this definition I consider a Dubuffet painting, because it is a pictogram delivering visual information as intellectual symbols, not to be realistic.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- If we're talking purely about the physical capabilities of eyes, I think the mantis shrimp beats even the dragon fly. It has compound eyes on independently moving stalks and can detect a range of colors from ultra-violet to infra-red. (Imagine being a mantis shrimp painter trying to select a palette of oil colors for your next painting!) I'm guessing that Titian, while not a mantis shrimp, had eyes that were particularly sensitive to color (just as Ted Williams had eyes that were particularly sensitive to a fast ball.) And of course, people speculate that El Greco's distended figures were the result of an eye disease.

But I'm hoping to raise a broader issue here: There are many artists who dedicate their lives to achieving "accuracy" or "realism" measured by the standard you recommend. ("'reality' in a painting is a visual characteristic written in a plastic language expressing how, as an experience, we see things.") I'm suggesting that how we see things biologically is just a small sliver of the way things "really" are. For example, quantum reality is very different from our visible universe. The full light spectrum reveals-- with the benefit of tools-- realities that our portion of the light spectrum can only begin to appreciate. Even within our visible domain, there are many inconsistencies-- for example, we are often better at seeing what we have been educated to look for; or if we have bad eyesight like Degas, visible reality looks blurry and our paintings change accordingly).

All of this suggests that the vision of "reality" which some think we should content ourselves with-- the visual images with which natural eyesight has arbitrarily gifted us-- in addition to being incomplete is neither constant nor objective. Perhaps this should make artists who've mastered the craft of realism a little more humble.

I agree with you that "Our sense of 'reality' is entirely to do with how we perceive the world as human beings." Hopefully as human beings we will strive to continue to expand our ability to perceive the world, and we will try to hold ourselves to the strictest, most ambitious standards of truth we can muster.

Which brings me to the Dubuffet landscape: I view "Ecstasy in the Sky" the way I view Van Gogh's "Starry Night." I think an artist looked at the sky and was overwhelmed by the heavens and painted an image which reflects, in your words, "how we perceive the world as human beings." I think the feeling in both cases qualifies as "real" and the depiction of it qualifies as "accurate," despite the fact that psychological feelings-- just like infrared images or quantum reality-- are not visible to the naked eye. To those who would say it is not "realistic" because the colors are wrong or clouds aren't shaped like that, I'd say you've pitched your tent on a difficult spot to defend on the reality spectrum: you're not willing to follow scientific reality all the way to its logical conclusion, yet you reject Dubuffet's more subjective, emotive response as not sufficiently realistic (meaning, not conforming sufficiently to a incomplete, inconstant, unobjective version of the world presented to us by our eyes.)

chris bennett said...

The reason I reject Dubuffet's landscape as an example of realism is because it alludes to its subject only by way of intellectual symbols that clue us in to how it the image is to be read. The Van Gogh 'Starry Night' does the same but to a lesser degree and is therefore somewhat closer within the realism umbrella I have defined.

To those who would say it is not "realistic" because the colors are wrong or clouds aren't shaped like that, I'd say you've pitched your tent on a difficult spot to defend on the reality spectrum.

This is precisely the reason I cited Cezanne and Giacometti. The heads in Giacometti's portraits look nothing whatever like the optical image. Yet the experience of witnessing the hundreds of thin lines incising the greyish paint is to follow his own gaze upon the motif which thereby evokes the forms of the sitter as if we were looking at them and trying to make sense of the experience ourselves. This is utterly different from swirling lines read as something going on in the sky because a horizon line is indicated or tree symbols are in front of it.

To take an example among thousands I could give: the drawings by one your favourites, Leonard Starr, do not look like the optical image (jet black ink lines on crisp white paper - I've never kissed a girl or driven a car like that), yet they can be considered 'realist' by my definition. This is because the plastic language is being used to evoke the sense of looking at something real rather a general category of object/s signalled to the intellect by way of a pictograph.

Donald Pittenger said...

Eons ago when I was an undergraduate art major, perhaps in a class or more likely from something I read at the time, there was this concept: With the advent of photography, there was no point for an artist to try depicting everyday reality -- therefore, this justifies modernism in general and abstraction in particular. This, of course, was part of the informal public-relations offensive selling 1960-vintage modernist painting.

The notion of an artist doing representational painting using his personal technical/interpretive approach was ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. Sixty years on, I think even the Art Establishment knows (a little bit) better.

I just returned from two trips to Europe, having visited museums in Paris, London, Oxford and Munich. The parts I most enjoyed were those covering the late 19th century and early 20th, where academic style was on the way out and painters felt free to experiment, yet rejected abandoning representation. This was perhaps best found in the Tate Britain. At one extreme were some Pre-Raphaelites who really did want to be precise mimickers of nature. At the other was the Turner room (I'm not a fan). Plus what fell between those extremes.

Each of us has his own line regarding how far from observed reality an artist might push his own interpretation. Alas, David, Dubuffet (and van Gogh as well) are beyond the mental line I draw. And the Inness work you present crosses my line in the too-representational direction, though that might be because I don't appreciate the subject he selected.

kev ferrara said...

Many painters take great pride in their accuracy, but their work is not "realistic" in a scientific sense. It is faithful only to a distorted appearance of nature that we see through the limited filter of our eyes.

One thing we know for sure is that the scent of a rose is being distorted by our all-too-human noses.

Turns out, we've developed a robotic sensor that is able to detect/identify scents. It doesn't exactly duplicate our snout's capabilities, but the chemicals it is able to detect accurately predict whether it is smelling a rose or something else. There is a chemical signature to most all organic things that is identifiable by a few choice molecules.

Although, those signature chemicals that indicate, for instance, a rose to this machine, to us, are quite unpleasant when isolated.

Actually, they're horribly stinky chemicals you wouldn't want anywhere near your yard, let alone spritzed on your best gal's pulse points.

But the chemical sensing robot is smelling the rose scientifically. Of this we can be assured. After all, if those are the chemicals that a piece of machinery identifies as uniquely associated with Roses, then those chemicals constitute the real smell of Roses from a technical standpoint.

Since the human standpoint and the technical standpoint are equally valid, the wretched chemical stench the robot 'thinks' is what a rose smells like is surely just as much the "real" smell of a rose as that offered to us by our biased olfactory receptors.

A rose by any other scent is still a rose, right? Even if no longer sweet?

That seems like your argument.

The continuation to match your continuation would be that any mixture of random chemicals, so long as they are found in nature, would constitute a "realistic scent."

----------------

Health & Weather Report: If relativist sophistry is the only sneezeguard shielding Dubuffet's work from common artistic allergies, then I would advise dining elsewhere. (Though flim flam phlegm flan would be 'just deserts' for today's gruel.)

Laurence John said...

David, i don’t understand how you can deride Gary Panter but not Dubuffet. there seems to be little consistency in the way you pick and choose.

and i don’t buy for a minute the idea that Dubuffet is honestly filtering reality via his perception. his work is self consciously adopting the mannerisms of primitive art, insane art or children’s art. it’s pretentious, literally (pretending to be something it isn’t).

(from Wiki:) According to prominent art critic Hilton Kramer, "There is only one thing wrong with the essays Dubuffet has written on his own work: their dazzling intellectual finesse makes nonsense of his claim to a free and untutored primitivism. They show us a mandarin literary personality, full of chic phrases and up-to-date ideas, that is quite the opposite of the naive visionary."

Tom said...

fDavid said,
"or example, we are often better at seeing what we have been educated to look for; or if we have bad eyesight like Degas, visible reality looks blurry and our paintings change accordingly)."

How about the color in the paintings Monet did at the end of his life?

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett wrote: "The reason I reject Dubuffet's landscape as an example of realism is because it alludes to its subject only by way of intellectual symbols that clue us in to how it the image is to be read."

I'm not clear why you think it "only" uses intellectual symbols. For me it's the opposite; It shows a world of tingling nerve endings, an electrified, shimmering sky filled with a blend of re-invented lightning and new life in a petri dish. It has a jagged horizon line as if the artist had a 120 volt electrical wire up his pants leg when he drew it. So rather than dismiss it as "intellectual," for me it's very emotive and instinctual, based solely on colors and shapes. I respond to it in a more sensory way than I do to Giacometti's wan, linear, overworked paintings. But perhaps that's just me.

For me, the broader question is the line you draw between "intellectual symbols" and... whatever is on the other side of that boundary (non-symbolic sensory material? purely visual images? non-intellectual symbols?) After all, there is no "seeing" without our intellect; our retina evolved directly out of our brain and remain technically brain tissue. When we look at a tree trunk, you only know that it is 3D because our intellect extrapolates from the raw data fed to you by your retina, filling in the gaps and letting us know what you'll find when you walk around it. And when we look at a tree trunk and associate it with something more than a tree trunk, because of personal memories or metaphor or symbolism, that broader sense of what we're seeing is in some respects intellectual too.

But OK, assuming it is possible to cleanly divide "intellectual" from, uh, "other than intellectual" symbols, and we have here a painting that "alludes to its subject only by way of intellectual symbols," can't those intellectual symbols still trigger a "realistic" response-- an authentic, true, accurate, real experience of nostalgia or fright or whatever-- perhaps far more than a photo-realistic image which may be visually accurate but at the same time ring shallow or false? If your test is whether the picture "evokes the sense of looking at something real," I get that sense more often from Saul Steinberg than I do from Boris or Rowena (except perhaps in the cheapest, most shallow sense of "realism.")

Donald Pittenger wrote: "Each of us has his own line regarding how far from observed reality an artist might push his own interpretation. Alas, David, Dubuffet (and van Gogh as well) are beyond the mental line I draw. And the Inness work you present crosses my line in the too-representational direction, though that might be because I don't appreciate the subject he selected."

So we'll place you in the "Goldilocks" category: somewhere between too hot and too cold is a place that's just right. I agree that's a sensible place to be, and in a way I think we're all there. As for the point, " the advent of photography, there was no point for an artist to try depicting everyday reality" ... well, I don't think it was dishonorable for people to be asking that question back then. In fact, it would have been irresponsible not to ask it as everything was changing. But for me, John Singer Sargent's watercolor of the alligators permanently and irrevocably refutes that view.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- when I was doing legal work for the start up and venture capital world, I spent time with incubators for new olfactory technologies, including robotic or chemical means of analyzing smells. The scientific geniuses made all kinds of predictions about applications for these technologies: environmental testing, police forensic work, building climate control and mold detection, etc. But the scientists were all wrong. It turns out that the true market demand was from young people in singles bars who wanted a reliable test for whether they had bad breath.

As for your concern that a machine would react differently to a rose than we might... well, I don't think we need to fear that gathering reliable scientific data will govern our reaction to that data. We are free to respond to it with all of the richness we can muster for relating to the world. If you love horses you come to love the smells of a stable regardless of how a robot might analyze its chemical composition. Those who have experienced sex in a meaningful way come to luxuriate in rich smells that might've startled them as a callow youth. But on the other hand, if we limit our reactions to the world to a purely subjective, sensory response... well, we miss out on 96% of the universe which is made up of dark matter and dark energy. You'll never see it with your natural vision, but we are working on just the right tools (similar to that infrared film) to see and understand it. Are you going to deny that it is real because you can't see or smell it with the limited tools mother nature gave you?

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "David, i don’t understand how you can deride Gary Panter but not Dubuffet. there seems to be little consistency in the way you pick and choose."

Funny you should mention that. About ten years ago I wrote something on this blog about what I saw as the difference between Panter and Dubuffet. Let's see if that post can do anything to persuade you: https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008/07/panter.html . But if you look at it, don't rely just on my meager words; It seems to me that if you compare the samples of Panter's work with the samples of Dubuffet's work on that post, Dubuffet demonstrates a strength and potency, and especially a sense of design that I think is utterly absent from the examples of Panter's work.

As for Hilton Kramer, he was certainly a bright, cultured fellow and a good writer, but his rigid conservative bias kept him from dealing with any of the pagan art forms in an open minded way. A believer in"high culture," He was as sniffy about primitive art-- which he viewed as a political threat to the western tradition-- as Clement Greenberg was sniffy about traditional painting. Both seemed to harden their minds and their hearts for political reasons against a certain kind of art. (Check out his essay on "The Primitivism Conundrum" if you haven't already.) The quote you offer about Dubuffet's essays perfectly illustrates why Kramer is an unreliable tour guide here. He can't claim Dubuffet's essays aren't intelligent so he criticizes them for their "dazzling intellectual finesse" which Kramer believes must be inconsistent with primitivism (as if "primitive" is the same as "stupid").

Starting with demoiselles d'avignon, 20th century art began exploring primitivism, positive barbarism, art brut and similar pagan reactions to the disappointments and limitations of civilization. Some of those experiments (such as Panter) didn't turn out well, but some (for example, the early drawings of Claes Oldenburg) I think turned out very well.

Kramer's antipathy to primitivism seems no different from the highbrow critics who hated jazz and rock n' roll because their "jungle animal instinct" would undermine civilization. When confronted with the fact that Dubuffet's writings are so smart (check out Dubuffet's passages I quoted in my blog post) all Kramer can argue is that such intelligence is inconsistent with Dubuffet's art form. For me, that sounds like Dubuffet 1, Kramer 0.

Tom-- A good example. Scientists have gone back to calculate how Monet's cataracts would have affected his eyesight (and probably his paintings) in his later years.

Tom said...

Here is and example of the type of Monet painting I was thinking of, the color is so wild and yet everything harmonizes.

https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-house-seen-from-the-rose-garden-claude-monet.html

Compared to the Egyptian work from your previous post where everything is a solid defined body, Monet’s work feels as if everything in reality is about dissolve and become something else. You mentioned eye site a lot. Monet’s brush handling reminds me some what of El Greco’s brush handling who you also mentioned. But I think the brush handling is not just a product of looking but it is a product of sensing a rhythm that runs through the forms that are not only seen but touched or felt by the artist. Like running your hand over the surface of something.

It seems when an artist gives attention to “some,” aspect of reality, whether it is inner or outer reality, that decision gives form to his creation. I still think a word like spirit would be more expressive of what you are trying to describe then by contrasting tight unfeeling work with more expressive work.

Those forms that constitute the Egyptian sculptures in your last post show how a few well combined simple forms can express a sense of the spirit that exists in all the individuals in nature. Rodin expressed it well in Ales comment. I think that is why your last post was was so good, you where pointing to the source of creative power, and how the conception behind a work of art is the most important driving force behind creation.

Since I mentioned Zen and the Art of Archery before, here is a quote from his teacher
“Don't think of what you have to do, don't consider how to carry it out!" he exclaimed. "The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise.”


kev ferrara said...

But on the other hand, if we limit our reactions to the world to a purely subjective, sensory response... well, we miss out on 96% of the universe which is made up of dark matter and dark energy. You'll never see it with your natural vision, but we are working on just the right tools (similar to that infrared film) to see and understand it. Are you going to deny that it is real because you can't see or smell it with the limited tools mother nature gave you?

True, but what does this have to do with art?

We experience art (and everything else) through our "natural" senses, and only through our "natural" senses.

And as Chris pointed out above, no matter what machines we use to gather data that we can't "naturally" sense, that data still must be funneled into a form our "natural" senses can understand.

By that translation process, though, we are only and merely given the illusion of understanding that which we cannot actually experience.

Which is just why highly theoretical physics is having such a tough time of it. Because nobody can actually understand the meaning of the math, alienated as it is from "natural" human experience.

For the same reason I've never seen an unemotional artist depict emotions with any aesthetic force. Nor have I seen an un-athletic artist depict muscular action with any living quality. Nor have I seen a humorless person draw silly, or a boring person express themselves vivaciously.

kev ferrara said...

Just to get you back on track...

In your OP, your argument was that, because an infra-red camera records the world differently than the human eye, the human eye has no absolute claim on what is "realistic."

Therefore, you ask, can we not also then say that Jean Dubuffet's work is "realistic" too. Or, in your phrasing, it is not "less real" than the Inness.

Well, actually, Dubuffet's mindless patterning is quite evidently "less real," in whatever vague sense you meant by that phrase, than Inness' work. (I'll presume you mean 'visual mimesis.') Dubuffet's designs are also "less real" than shots taken by a camera.

But so what? Again, what does this have to do with art?

Art is obviously not just data recording; not just mimetic realism. We all know this. (Otherwise Richard Nixon would be a recording artist who erased one of his most interesting works.)

So to rail against mere data recording as bad art is a strawman argument, and no defense of Dubuffet's incoherent twaddle.

kev ferrara said...

Let's cut to the chase...

We get it: You respond aesthetically to visual blather; to vagueness, to meaningless visual gibberish, to projection test-equivalent blotches, and various kinds of random mark making arrayed in organic-looking patterns.

And - it sure seems like - you very much feel the need to justify that strong response (to what is clearly visual baby food.) Maybe to yourself as much as to others.

So you defend the gibberish you respond to in any way you can: With all sorts of distracting appeals to authority; references to Science, Philosophy, Poetry, Literature, Politics, Relativism, and so on. And if that doesn't work, you'll try to put down obviously great work, as if that will help your case. Then you'll trot out the tendentious reasoning, strawman comparisons, and constant evasions of difficult questions to try to win thread points tactically. And on and on.

But its all such a waste of time.

So you like baby food.

And I have no problem with you liking baby food. I really don't care. And I couldn't do anything about it if I wanted to.

I just can't stand the pretentious attempts to elevate baby food to the status of great art. Nor, when that fails, is the tactic of denigrating actually great art in order to try to level the playing field any less grotesque (actually it is more.)

To equate the great and the stupid; the meaningful with the nihilistic, is merely vandalism, in my view.

Such punk emotionalism, the fundament driving postmodern hierarchy-denial, is not an argument, and never will be. "Punch Up" as a critical heuristic clearly needs a punch-up; it isn't rational. Postmodern hyper-egalitarianism isn't based on anything qualitative or demonstrable. It is merely the mass reactionary behavior of a generation of petulant children grown old.

Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

"Realistic" is such a slippery term, especially when looking at these two ghostly representations of a painting and a photograph. There's a flattening effect achieved here - underscored by the similar sizing of the two images - that ontologized away most of what we'd traditionally refer to as "real".

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "True, but what does this have to do with art?"

What did God have to do with medieval European art? He took up 96% of the universe and arbitrarily exercised frightening power over their fate but after all, medieval artists couldn't see or smell him so who cares?

I suppose it's possible to come up with a definition of art so pinched that it excludes 96% of the cosmos (which is the part, I would remind you, where Fra Angelico found all those angels he painted). But that seems to me to be a terrible price to pay for the comfort and reassurance of internal consistency.

I suppose much of our debate about the nature of "realism" depends on what we're willing to accept into the tent of "Art." Is it limited to what we experience through our "natural" senses or can it be ideas, in the form of "intellectual symbols" or knowledge of the vast ominous void out there? Can it be a concept? or a process? Or must it always be painted on canvas and hung on a wall?

This is like the struggle over agreeing on "human nature." People disagree about human nature because we can always find examples to disapprove any theory. (Do you think humans are basically evil? Here are 10 examples to disprove that. Do you think humans are basically good? Here are 10 examples to disprove that.) Our difficulty nailing down human nature over 30,000 years caused the Spanish philosopher Ortega to conclude that humans have no nature, what they have is their history. Whatever we do is by definition part of our nature. (This approach has the virtue of following the scientific method. If scientists observe something that breaches the laws of physics, they don't say to nature, "You can't do that." They rewrite the laws of physics to accommodate the newly observed behavior. Nature is as nature does. This suggests that humans are as humans do.)

If humans do something now that calls upon their creative faculties, elicits the kinds of emotional and intellectual responses traditionally triggered by art, and lastly pays attention to the aesthetic considerations which govern form making in nature, perhaps we should be willing to devote a little serious thought to its artistic contribution to life, even if it can't be measured with a yardstick and weighed on the same bathroom scale as a Harvey Dunn painting. Even if it's an Andy Goldsworthy stone sculpture that returns to the earth. Even if it's something we can't smell or see because it's comprised of dark energy.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Ooooh, Kev. You were so close...

I think the biggest obstacle to honest persuasion around here is the tendency, which we all share, to restate the other side's position in more vulnerable terms. Ideally, side A should be able to state side B's position in terms that side B agrees with, before pointing out the flaws in that position.

I started getting excited when I read your description of my position, because it was exactly right. You said, "your argument was that, because an infra-red camera records the world differently than the human eye, the human eye has no absolute claim on what is realistic. Therefore, you ask, can we not also then say that Jean Dubuffet's work is realistic to." I might substitute "a different part of the world" for "the world differently," but essentially that was exactly my point, well stated and more succinctly!

Unfortunately, I was doomed to disappointment because after that you went spinning out of orbit. You say, "well actually, Dubuffet's mindless patterning is quite evidently less real in whatever vague sense you meant by that phrase."

Arguing by ipse dixit, even by an estimable fellow such as yourself, never seems to be a good way of persuading people around here. If you would only go back to that point where you slipped the surly bonds of earth, I'd be interested in how you know what you think you know.

Øyvind Lauvdahl-- I agree. In fact, we're twice removed from reality here: everything is flattened once when the artist or the camera converts an omni-dimensional real life experience into a two dimensional form, and then they're flattened again when they are digitally homogenized and shrunk to postage stamp size. I suspect that the two paintings are more prejudiced by this flattening than the photograph. It diminishes their strengths, while the conceptual piece about unseen realities is more a landscape of the mind, and details can be filled in by the mind.

chris bennett said...

I'm not clear why you think it "only" uses intellectual symbols. For me it's the opposite; It shows a world of tingling nerve endings, an electrified, shimmering sky filled with a blend of re-invented lightning and new life in a petri dish. It has a jagged horizon line as if the artist had a 120 volt electrical wire up his pants leg when he drew it.

The intellectual symbol in this particular case is the basic sign indicating 'landscape'; the horizontal line (jagged or smooth). So whatever graphic textures are put above and below that line become a ragbag for whatever associations spring into the spectator's head. It's the same as standing before Leonardo's fabled stained wall (or walking down Kev's alleyway), drawing a horizontal line on it and saying 'off you go, knock yourself out with whatever takes your fancy'. To declare this as a form of realism written into the work is absurd.

For me, the broader question is the line you draw between "intellectual symbols" and... whatever is on the other side of that boundary... After all, there is no "seeing" without our intellect...

By 'intellect' I mean frontal lobe thinking. A typical example of this is the recognition of the pictograph symbol for a heart which looks nothing like the heaving sack of fluid inside the open chest of a cadaver. Conversely the intellect cannot read the subtle, in other words the aesthetic, content of drawings. Your own appreciation of Leonard Starr's work can only be read by your subconscious, it is your intellect that relates your enthusiasm, but not the experience itself, on your blog.

...can't those intellectual symbols still trigger a "realistic" response-- an authentic, true, accurate, real experience of nostalgia or fright or whatever-- perhaps far more than a photo-realistic image which may be visually accurate but at the same time ring shallow or false? If your test is whether the picture "evokes the sense of looking at something real," I get that sense more often from Saul Steinberg than I do from Boris or Rowena (except perhaps in the cheapest, most shallow sense of "realism.")

I've already described how absurd I think it is to consider intellectual symbols triggering generalised associations, wool-gathering or daydreaming to be a form of realism. However, I would agree with you in that graphics read by the subconscious, in other words sensual symbols, trigger associations that are specific to the content of the work of art itself and are precisely the way it comes alive enabling us to 'live it' (On you last but one blog entry I discussed princely this point with Kev giving the example of looking at a close-up of Waterhouse's St Cecelia)

But I say again, this is why I cited Cezanne and Giacometti in the same breath as Velazquez. 'Evoking the sense of looking at something real' is no more dependant on 'photo-realism' than it is on the equivocal, nervy, searching mark-making of say, William Coldstream, Cezanne or Anne Gale. It is attributable to something deeper. Perhaps I could refer to it as 'catching seeing in the act'. Isn't that the sense we get from looking at a Vermeer as well as a Kanevsky? A Van Eyck as well as a Cezanne? A Leonard Starr as well as a Ronald Searle?

kev ferrara said...

Arguing by ipse dixit, even by an estimable fellow such as yourself, never seems to be a good way of persuading people around here.

My dear misunderestimable fellow,

You seemed to have forgotten that in your original post you wrote "the great Jean Dubuffet."

Was that sneaky gilding not ipso facto ipse dixit?

Since you had the front page for reputationally electroplating Dubuffet in advance of discussion, a clear attempt to manipulate the notional givens of the gathered impressionables prior to debate, I thought I'd take it out in trade here on Page 5.

I mean, weren't you, by calling Dubuffet "great" at the start, simply daring somebody to disagree? Or did you actually think you were writing an incontrovertibly true statement there?

Not you. Surely.

I'll respond to the rest of your senseless, tendentious gibberish in defense of meaningless imbecilic trash on the morrow.

chris bennett said...

David, it occurred to me that I did not answer your; If your test is whether the picture "evokes the sense of looking at something real," I get that sense more often from Saul Steinberg than I do from Boris or Rowena.

The work of Stienberg, like Picasso's delivers most of its content by way of visual conceits; jolts against the normal way of perceiving the world by way of graphic puns, displacements and unexpected associations. The kick they give in disrupting our sense of the natural is not the same thing as the sensation on seeing a choreography of graphic marks evoking the natural.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- I swear I'm not trying to be thick, but I don't know of a single landscape (except perhaps by Turner) without "the horizontal line (jagged or smooth)." Leonardo put one behind the Mona Lisa and Waterhouse put one behind Miranda. In every case in the history of painting, it was a two dimensional line designed by the artist to signal to our frontal lobe the illusion of three dimensional distance. Our mind does the rest. And once we've let our frontal lobe into the game, I'm not sure how you propose to police its role. At first I thought you were suggesting that the horizontal line in landscapes by Leonardo (or Constable or Bierstadt or Church) are always more realistic because the illusion is better when the line is softer and aided by conventional colors (a drawn line is after all more of a "pictograph symbol" or a "basic sign indicating landscape") . However, it doesn't seem that you are saying that a painted line is always more "realistic" than a drawn line because you are letting Leonard Starr and Ronald Searle into the club.

Well then, are you objecting that Dubuffet's horizontal line looks more cartoonish, and arguing that the horizontal line becomes more "realistic" as it creates a more persuasive illusion of depth with less work by the viewer's frontal lobe? Except if we look at Cezanne landscapes such as La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue de la carrière Bibémus, we see that the horizon line is also cartoonish and high contrast and unnatural. In a similar vein, I thought you might be objecting that Dubuffet's horizon line was just a high contrast scrape across the page, but nobody scraped a high contrast horizon across the page like Searle, and you seem to be OK with him. (When I look at Searle's straight black horizon lines, laid down bold and raggedy with a bamboo stick, I assume he's going to fail your test that "the plastic language [should be] used to evoke the sense of looking at something real rather a general category of object/s signalled to the intellect by way of a pictograph" and yet somehow he passes the test.)

OK then, are you saying that a horizontal line that evokes "general associations" enables the viewer to put too many rags in the ragbag, while a horizontal line that triggers "specific associations" limits the variety of rags, and is thus more realistic? Except you later say that "'Evoking the sense of looking at something real' is no more dependant on 'photo-realism' than it is on the equivocal, nervy, searching mark-making." I guess I'm having trouble distinguishing between associations which are "wool gathering" and associations which are "searching." If someone feels strongly enough to call me "absurd" I have to assume they have a bright line in mind somewhere, but this one seems too sophisticated for me.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- P.S.--It may be that I'm a little less exclusive than you about what constitutes "realism" because of our seeming differences about what "evokes the sense of looking at something real." I think it makes sense to take into consideration the "realism" in both the transmission and in the reception. I cherish the gift of an artist who-- like Sargent's alligators-- can send out into the world a painting of astonishing realism. When I see a Steinberg cartoon about the arrival of spring, I have no illusion that I am looking at a "real" spring landscape-- it's clearly a two dimensional line drawing-- yet it effectively "evokes the sense of looking at something real" and genuine and authentic about the gladness in our hearts when spring arrives. That feeling is more "real" to me than many paintings of spring meadows by Andrew Wyeth wannabes whose labored, technically skilled paintings look real in a more conventional sense. In the same sense, Van Gogh's starry night or Dubuffet's ecstasy in the sky evokes a more recognizable, real feeling about the night sky than a Boris painting with all the proper colors in place. I spent some time in the ancient burial chamber of Ramses VI, which has a huge vaulted ceiling with a beautifully designed astronomical painting of the night sky. It depicts the goddess of the sky, Queen Nut, bending over the earth. An obvious two dimensional "pictograph." Now, if you asked me whether I believe Queen Nut is real, the answer is no. If you ask me whether I have the illusion of looking at an actual physical sky, the answer is no. But if you ask me whether the painting gives me a "real" sense for the immensity of the night sky over the Egyptian desert, when priests were standing at their watch towers scanning the stars and trying to make sense of their dread, and the human mind was still fogged with slumber-- well, yes, it sure does.

Laurence John said...

David: "But if you ask me whether the painting gives me a "real" sense for the immensity of the night sky over the Egyptian desert (…) well, yes, it sure does”

you’re confusing the image you see in your head, conjured by the graphic symbols, and what is actually present in the painting. the fact that a vague / random image may conjure some real emotions / brain images within a person doesn’t mean the image is a type of ‘realism’. this is the ‘projection test’ area that Kev keeps banging on about and you refuse to acknowledge.

- - -

David: "If someone feels strongly enough to call me "absurd" I have to assume they have a bright line in mind somewhere, but this one seems too sophisticated for me.”


everything from a photo-real oil painting to a symbol of a man on a toilet door exists on a continuum from ‘realistic’ to ‘symbol’.

at some point the attempt at a ‘likeness’ is dropped and we enter the realm of graphic symbol (or even vague emptiness / random mark making).

that is the line. admittedly, the line is confusing, and the cross-over isn’t pin sharp (a single image may mix elements of both*), but you know when you’re out of one zone and into the other. at least, you should know if you’re paying attention to what the artist is actually doing.

there is nothing ‘realistic’ about Dubuffet’s faux naif, pseudo-primitive graffiti.

* for me, a classic middle-ground artist would be Mary Blair. she uses simplified, flattened, graphic, cartoony shapes but with evocative colours and lighting (cools against warms, full saturation against desaturated etc) which are clearly drawn from careful observation of reality, so she’s mixing elements of graphic symbolism with realism in a powerful way.

Dubuffet is doing none of that. he’s just producing childish scrawl and trying to pass it off as modern primitivism.

kev ferrara said...

David: "But if you ask me whether the painting gives me a "real" sense for the immensity of the night sky over the Egyptian desert (…) well, yes, it sure does”

Laurence: "you’re confusing the image you see in your head, conjured by the graphic symbols, and what is actually present in the painting. the fact that a vague / random image may conjure some real emotions / brain images within a person doesn’t mean the image is a type of ‘realism’. this is the ‘projection test’ area that Kev keeps banging on about and you refuse to acknowledge."


Guys... guys...

The TEXT SYMBOLS INVOLVED HERE ARE EVEN MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE GRAPHIC SYMBOLS!

The sense that "the immensity of the night sky over the Egyptian Desert" is evoked by Dubuffet's art is due solely to David's perennial confusion about the difference between the language of art and the language of text!

The Dubuffet image can very easily have been called "The Shoreline of Ancient Tripoli (A view from above, beyond, and before.)" Or "Organelles Meet Rust Under a Microscope." Or "Hot Stink Over a Garbage Heap."

And each of those phrases would locate/specify the reference of the piece in a different way than the "actual" title, yet with at least equal plausibility.

So "Ecstasy in The Sky" - that title, written in English - ALONE is doing the heavy evocative lifting for David, persuading the wide-eyed fellow he is viewing "the immensity of the night sky over the Egyptian Desert" or some such pap. The image itself is not doing that.

Which is to say, what David thinks the artwork represents is not actually expressed through the language of its Art. The content he is appreciating related to it was simply told to him by the title. Ugh!

In other words, we have another classic bit of modernist/postmodernist pretension where the accompanying text must explain the work in order for it to be understood. The very definition of inadequate artfulness; art that is not its own definition, and must rely on outside help for justification.

The penchant otherwise intelligent people have for falling prey to this anti-art pomo con game is exactly why investigating the language of art for the way it actually functions to present content to the senses through the intuition is such a necessary thing at this cultural moment. As many people as possible need to call bullshit on text-as-art.

I think this is an excellent example too of how suggestible the text-based mind is. A revelation I find terrifying. Imagine how many millions of others are just as manipulable as David?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Your appreciation and understanding of pictures is guided by text all the time. Sometimes you've read the text in stories that are separate from the picture, but which make sense of the picture to you. (For example, you'd have no clue what was going on in Rembrandt's hundred gilder print if you weren't generally familiar with the text of the Bible.) Sometimes the artist writes them down in the title. (For example, who could make sense of Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed without the title and the background it intimates? Who could make sense of Whistler's The Fire Wheel or begin to understand the significance of Constable's Hadleigh Castle without the text?) . Sometimes the text isn't written down, but you've still heard those words expressed orally (who could tell if Chesley Bonestell was painting outer space or subatomic particles without the help of words?) I think it's unrealistic to suggest that art is stratified the way you propose.

If the Dubuffet painting had one of the titles you suggest (all of which are plausible) I'd still think it was a beautiful, innovative, compositionally strong object with interesting colors and textures. If it were separated from its title, it would still be a beautiful, mysterious object like the Egyptian hieroglyphs that I can't decipher, about gods I don't understand. But it has a title with text, and that contributes to its significance. Would you feel that modern art with titles such as "painting no. 17" or "Red 3B" are more in keeping with your purist views about text/

kev ferrara said...

Your appreciation and understanding of pictures is guided by text all the time.

Completely incorrect. And, boy, this does seem to prove that you have indeed literally been misunderstanding my arguments here for years.

Aesthetically transmitted information does not require literary accompaniment. This is exactly why great art aspires to convey all its meaning without reference to intellect-contacting symbolisms. This is the very point of Dunn saying that "art is its own definition." That "when intellect comes in the door, art flies out the window."

Turner's Rain Steam and Speed expresses what it expresses without need for the title. The title, in fact, is slightly misleading as to what the picture actually expresses. So the title does in fact function a bit like Dubuffet's; in adds in an idea that attempts to sway the audience as to the expressed content of the picture. Which I think is a strike against it. The picture does not need the title, nor the gilding of the lily, except to identify it as a work of art. I would prefer, actually, if it were called nothing at all so the title had nothing to do with the experience and the viewer was forced to take the picture at its full measure, and nothing else at the moment of contact. Why in hell is there this convention of naming pictures anyway? Simply for the gallery, I would say. As part of the selling of the commodity. Really only a "JWT-ref39.744" in a bean-counter's catalog at the gallery/museum is actually needed.

A good picture is its own definition. What this means is that the superposed realism is actually defining the instantiated form it synthesizes with as its own unique and complex symbol. No two pictures are alike. Which is to say, no two of these unique symbols being defined by referential visuals are alike. Thus the galleries of the world are visual dictionaries of these new and unique symbols that artists produce. And each picture is a new entry, self-defining, into that grand book of, one might say, poetic knowledge.

Without the superposed or synthesized definition, the entry for the symbol is a blank. Like a word in the dictionary with no meaning following it to explain it. Inanity.

Rembrandt's "Hundred Gilder" is actually called "Christ Healing the Sick" isn't it? There is enough information there, completely devoid of biblical knowledge, completely outside the title, to understand there is a spiritually activated figure at the focal point, who is dispensing something, maybe wisdom, maybe energy, to the gathered throng which included a number of bedraggled and wounded folk. The way in which that is all expressed through composition, gesture, value, space, movement... stands on its own. Title not needed.

kev ferrara said...

Chesley Bonestell's work expresses the lack of air in the way it is rendered. You will notice no "atmospheric perspective" at all in most of his pictures, if you are perceptive. This is purposeful, of course, on his part. For he is expressing to the viewer that these worlds he depicts are not of this earth. Whether it is Mars, the moon, or OogaBooga947Beta, doesn't matter to the complex of otherworldly sensations he is suggesting to our intuition through his aesthetic effects. This is how art works.

Whistler's fire wheel and Constable's Hadleigh Castle are both works of sublime poetry which need no information beyond their image content. I have no idea why you would think either needs a title or further information. If you want further information, that's fine, go find it. You evidently like the talk that surrounds things, you like to immerse yourself all the way around in the world of the thing's making. Sort of like the way a coffee aficionado likes the sound of brewing, or the wine connoisseur likes the sound of a popping cork. These are the ancillary enjoyments of the fan. A method of prolonging the act, so to speak. Of justifying the pleasure of it, maybe, with intellection.

But, in reality, you don't need anything to eat the meal besides the meal. The meal is the point, and without the meal, forget the coffee, wine and tableware.

Which is to say, once again: The works stand for themselves, in both senses. They represent their own symbols and hold their own in terms of their content, thereby. They simply are. They produce their own reality through the evocation and suggestion that suffuses them.

If you ever read any treatise on art by artists, the constant point stressed is that the work must live on its own, no matter what the original impetus, no matter what the reference, no matter who the sitter for the portrait. Even Pyle taught that to his illustration students whose job, ostensibly and according to popular, but incorrect lore, was to somehow produce a diagram of the action that is wholly dependent on the text. Well, no. Pyle taught that they should tease out something from the text which was barely described, or merely reference, and to find a way to make that moment stand on its own. Which is exactly why all those classic works have aesthetic life unto themselves. They always sought to provide value without reference to anything else in the world. And they did.

kev ferrara said...

If the Dubuffet painting had one of the titles you suggest (all of which are plausible) I'd still think it was a beautiful, innovative, compositionally strong object with interesting colors and textures. If it were separated from its title, it would still be a beautiful, mysterious object like the Egyptian hieroglyphs that I can't decipher, about gods I don't understand.

Yes, I know you like it. That's not the issue and never was. I like all sorts of mindless trash because it's fun or interesting or diverting. I don't find the need to elevate any of it beyond its actual quality with elaborate verbal gymnastics and posturing and cloaks of erudition. None of that is inherent, observably, to the thing itself.

I think the best of Egyptian art and, for instance, hand crafted typography, is masterful. I mean, can anything stun more than King Tut's Mask?

But I appreciate the inherent qualitative differences between that kind of creative work and what Fechin, Titian, and Wyeth make. Such distinction between applied art and Art put neither down. Greatness is greatness. But inherent qualities exist and they do provide true knowledge about what makes one thing not another. (Of course, there are hybrids, and art objects that straddle major distinctions. As conceptual boundaries, though real, are also porous. Yet, that green is a distinct color from blue is actual knowledge.)

As an aside, it is flabbergasting to hear you call those "interesting colors" in the Dubuffet piece. I hope you don't accidentally bump into a Munsell book of color chips at the local used book store. You might declare it a masterpiece for the ages.

chris bennett said...

...but I don't know of a single landscape (except perhaps by Turner) without "the horizontal line (jagged or smooth)."

Which is why a horizontal division, however crude or subtle, is instinctively read as a signalling the idea of landscape - a fundamental symbolism seen within nature evolutionarily hard-wired into our brains. There are scores, possibly hundreds (I've never sat down and tried to list them) of 'natural symbols', or gestalt patterns if you prefer, that are part of our brain's natural lexicon of short-cut visual clues necessary for our survival and comfort. In a realist picture this lexicon is part of the graphic vocabulary which is choreographed (plastic grammar) into an image that evokes looking at something real. Now, when all you have is a horizontal dividing incomprehensible texturing above and below it the image is reduced to a basic pictograph of 'the idea of landscape' in which the intellect can read whatever it wishes into the random texturing it is decorated with.

So to answer your question:
are you saying that a horizontal line that evokes "general associations" enables the viewer to put too many rags in the ragbag, while a horizontal line that triggers "specific associations" limits the variety of rags, and is thus more realistic?
A horizontal division that does not contain either side of it a legible graphic choreography evoking mimetic specifics becomes just a line between two ragbags for whatever the spectator's daydreaming is inclined to throw into it.

Which brings me to answer your final question:
I guess I'm having trouble distinguishing between associations which are "wool gathering" and associations which are "searching."
Associations which are 'wool gathering' are those made in a state of mental free fall cut loose from the work being contemplated. Associations that are part of 'living the work' are those induced by the work yet simultaneously endorsing the plastic properties actually authored into the work.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Kev, you are such an earnest fellow, I won't unsettle you by raising the possibility that there's a difference between "misunderstanding" you and disagreeing with you. Let's put that unthinkable notion aside and see if there is instead some progress to be made in some of the other areas you raise.

You say that artworks must be able to stand for themselves. I fully agree with that. 100%. Always have. I have no regard for conceptual pieces which rely on words as a substitute dealing with the challenges of all form creating work. I think artists who believe their clever concepts excuse their crappy drawing should give up visual art and become writers. I will not bother to read a word of those typed manifestos that accompany visually feeble post modern art. Hieroglyphs contribute to Egyptian art, just as the German lyrics to Beethoven's 9th contribute to his symphony, but if the Egyptian images or Beethoven's musical notes couldn't stand alone, it would be a huge flaw in the work. I don't have to learn hieroglyphs or German to appreciate those works.

I hope we agree on that much.

Having said that, I recognize (because I'm not a nut) that "our appreciation and understanding of pictures is guided by text all the time." When I refer to "text" I'm not just talking about the title of the picture, I'm talking about the role of words in creating narrative content or "intellectual" themes that are not readily apparent from the visual image alone. The words or hieroglyphs need not be visually integrated into the art (although they could be). They need not be pictographs or symbols with specific meaning. They could just be a story that you've read, such as the Bible, that enhances the image.

Your explanation of the hundred gilder print provides an excellent example. You offer an interpretation we should all be able to draw with no biblical knowledge or title. But another equally plausible interpretation is that a zombie martian creature with death rays from his head is being beseeched for mercy from his now crippled, broken victims before he delivers the final death blow. A third possibility: perhaps a radiant angel has come to earth to identify the next messiah, and the rich guy's wife is presenting their child for that designation, while the peasants in the crowd are begging, "Naw,naw, not the offspring of that jerk!" The rich guy is watching to see whether his bribe has paid off.

Who could make sense of a painting of the crucifixion without the some idea of the story? Who could give Fra Angelico's angels their due (beyond an appreciation of color and composition) without knowing what an angel is? You say "great art aspires to convey all its meaning without reference to intellect-contacting symbolisms." Consider the Sistine Chapel, then tell me Michelangelo aspired to convey "all" his meaning to those who hadn't read the story of Adam and Eve.

David Apatoff said...

Kev ferra (cont.)-- I'm guessing the reason you disagree so violently (labeling the Dubuffet image "mindless trash" and calling my view "flabbergasting") is less because of your position on narrative content (which is nonviable) but rather because you don't think the Dubuffet image meets our threshold requirement of standing alone visually. If that's the real source of your ire, our difference isn't so much about the role of text as it is about our underlying taste. Well that's OK, my feelings aren't hurt. But here are a few rays of sunlight for you to consider (just like that Rembrandt etching of the art docent spreading enlightenment to a group of disabled visitors to the art museum.)

Putting aside Dubuffet's title, I like the unorthodox palette and the composition, the shimmering odd energy, the textures of the earth. Yes, I understand that our eyes don't convey the sky to us as green, and that clouds don't look like Dubuffet's electrified cheerios. The image of the sky that NASA calls the "pillars of creation" in the eagle nebula 7,000 light years away looks green too, because they were captured in infrared using a process that identified the light emitted by different elements in the cloud. Hydrogen comes out green in the composite image. If you were standing in the eagle nebula it wouldn't look green, but are you going to wall yourself off from such a miraculous image because you don't think it looks "realistic"? Consider how Steinberg audaciously re-invents clouds in an imaginative way very similar to Dubuffet's: https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2010/05/steinbergs-clouds.html . Jagged and raggedy, an eerie and alarming sky, not intended for "realism" in a reportorial sense, but you can take pictures of the clouds with your cell phone if that's all you want. I think the visual points listed above create a reaction worthy of art. You apparently don't, but that's OK.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- As far as I can tell, your objection is not that the infra red photograph or the Dubuffet painting don't "look real" in the photographic sense. As you note, Cezanne and Giacometti don't "look real" in that sense either. You're not suggesting that a "realistic" picture is one that employs the painterly skills of illusion and color manipulation to create the false impression of depth, life, etc.

Rather, your objection seems to be that the infrared photo and the Dubuffet painting don't "evoke looking at something real" for you. Have I got that right?

If so, that strikes me as a fairly subjective standard to apply. It also strikes me that you and I are not so different when it comes to the standard itself; our difference seems to relate primarily to its application. You can describe to me in detail how Giacometti's hundreds of thin lines "evoke" the feeling of something real for you, and I can describe to you in detail how Dubuffet's night sky "evokes" the feeling of something real for me. At that point, we can either give each other's feelings what the US Constitution calls "full faith and credit" or we can recognize that we have an impasse in feelings that language can't bridge.

This same subjectivity shows up in the distinction between "wool gathering" and "searching." I would've assumed that "searching" is one of those conscious, frontal lobe activities you regard as inferior, while "wool gathering" is one of those subconscious, subliminal ways of relating to art that you think is ultimately more complex and sophisticated. Apparently that's wrong, although I can't for the life of me figure out why. You clearly don't like mental "free fall" but I on the other hand think that mental "free association" is at the heart of the creative process. The difference between when our freedom is "falling" and when it is "associating" seems to me to be a difficult standard to apply consistently.

Laurence John said...

to me, the Dubuffet looks like a cross section through a dried cabbage in the top half. the lower half resembles a randomised collection of brass-rubbings of decayed objects washed in on the tide (done on the same piece of paper).

i’m going to call it “Dry Cabbage Over Detritus”.

actually no, let’s imagine the scale differently:

“Dry Cabbage Over City of Detritus”

hmm, still needs something a bit more poetic:

“Dry Cabbage Mother Ship Descends Over Abandoned City of Detritus”

that works for me.

kev ferrara said...

But another equally plausible interpretation is that a zombie martian creature with death rays from his head is being beseeched for mercy from his now crippled, broken victims before he delivers the final death blow.

No.

David, this "take" of yours is clearly contrary to what is happening in the picture, in the gestures, the emotional attitudes, the interactions between the figures, the shape-theming of the image, pretty much by any evidence, abstract or otherwise, existent in the picture. It is certainly not "equally plausible" to the "universal read" I offered.

And if you insist on the possibility of this zany pulp interpretation, instead of admitting it was a poorly thought out reaction, then the gathered throng must consider the possibility that you have a kind of deficiency of aesthetic sensibility at least, or worse some kind of peculiar mental aberration that causes you to mistake what content you wish to be in the picture (for the sake of winning an argument) for what content is actually inherent to it.

So, strike one.

A third possibility: perhaps a radiant angel has come to earth to identify the next messiah, and the rich guy's wife is presenting their child for that designation, while the peasants in the crowd are begging, "Naw,naw, not the offspring of that jerk!" The rich guy is watching to see whether his bribe has paid off.

Here rather than spinning a yarn contrary to what is in the picture, you are spinning a yarn of possibility around the picture, outside what it actually shows and expresses, and installing such as an additional level of content in your mind.

And that's fine. If you want to, or can't help but, add such fanciful content to your viewing experience, go ahead. But don't tell me such is a necessary addition in order to understand the picture at its fundamental expressive or narrative level. It simply isn't. It's tacked-on content.



kev ferrara said...

Consider the Sistine Chapel, then tell me Michelangelo aspired to convey "all" his meaning to those who hadn't read the story of Adam and Eve.

I don't think what makes the Sistine Chapel great has anything to do with the story it is illustrating. The same stories have been illustrated endlessly, ineffectively. And nearly 100% of those other versions are long forgotten, and deservedly so. Right?

Thus, the Sistine Chapel's success proves my point, not yours. Which is to say; to the extent that the allegories Michaelangelo illustrated on that ceiling are blowing minds, and blowing minds of utter unbelievers and people of all sorts of different religions, it is doing so utterly without regard to meanings dependent on its original tribal codes.

Now "all his meaning" is an interesting loading of the argument. Because, actually, all Michaelangelo's artistic meanings are already up on the ceiling. You can then bring your meanings, or Christianity's meanings to the work if you want. But I would guess, a great percentage of people now walking through that chapel have barely cracked a religious text in their lives. Yet, how they are still moved!

The psychologist Jordan Peterson, who among other things studies totalitarianism, has collected Soviet Realist paintings for decades. They hang all over the walls of his home. He discussed the discord or tension between the excellent artfulness of those paintings and their dogmatic political message; that there is an uncomfortable or unnatural opposition there, an oil-and-water mixture that causes a kind of internal rancor. But, he pointed out, with time as these paintings have hung on his walls year after year he's noticed something; "The Art is winning."

I don't think this is a coincidental point. I think that is the case with most allegories. Tribal customs, text languages, codes, and polities don't last. Only human universals remain powerful with meaning into perpetuity. Because they are written in the common language of the imagination; form and archetype.

Incidentally, just to be serious for a moment about Dubuffet...

I have no "problem" per se with Dubuffet's work other than the hyperbole surrounding it. But I feel strongly now, that anybody who insists, as you have, that it is "great" (when it is merely constituted of rudimentary visual effect tests, unimaginatively colored) should be met with immediate opposition. The dumbing down must stop and each of us should take a stand against it where we find it. The word "great" should be used with a modicum of perspective. If not in the interest of advocating for better, more meaningful, cultural products, at least in the interest of having honest discussions constituted of reasoned positions and tenable observations.

chris bennett said...

Rather, your objection seems to be that the infrared photo and the Dubuffet painting don't "evoke looking at something real" for you. Have I got that right?

The Dubuffet yes, the infrared photo not so much because I can sense that the origins of its source are photographic.

You can describe to me in detail how Giacometti's hundreds of thin lines "evoke" the feeling of something real for you, and I can describe to you in detail how Dubuffet's night sky "evokes" the feeling of something real for me.

But there is a fundamental difference in the function of what we are describing. Your feelings about the Dubuffet 'sky' are, for the reasons I've already laid out, subjective wool gathering in response to unspecific graphic texturing. So in fairness to you I present a Giacometti to consider:

https://npgshop.org.uk/products/a-giclee-print-of-bust-of-annette-by-alberto-giacometti

The lines and gestures in this portrait of Annette are describing the path of the artist's eye as it searches out connections between the planes, nodal points and edges of the form (it makes no difference if this is done from life or from imagination - technically speaking there is no difference, but this is not the place to get into that!). In other words every gesture upon the canvas is a graphic equivalent of an optical experience and we are meant to read it as such - take the lines away and the head disappears. But to interpret this image in the way you are doing so with the Dubuffet would be like saying it evokes to me 'grandma's knitting after the cat has played with it'. Now one may very well think this about the appearance of Giacomett's work, but I am talking about the function of the marks as a means of expressing forms, not whatever it might be that the resultant graphic handwriting reminds you of.


The lines

chris bennett said...

ERATA: Please ignore the two orphan words 'The lines' dangling on the end of my post above - they are the fallout from some edit that got overlooked...

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I feel strongly now, that anybody who insists, as you have, that it is "great" (when it is merely constituted of rudimentary visual effect tests, unimaginatively colored) should be met with immediate opposition....The word 'great' should be used with a modicum of perspective."

Kev, I agree that in our era of hyperbole and false praise, the use of the word "great" should at least be questioned if not "immediately opposed." (You might better ask, "greater than what?" or "less great than who?") But I'm quite happy to explain my use of the term, because Dubuffet is one of my personal art heroes (Please note that I used the term "great" to describe Dubuffet, not this particular painting.) Pull up a chair.

Although he had a talent for drawing as a youth, Dubuffet gave up art altogether and worked as a businessman instead until he was in his 40s. He didn't like what he was seeing in the art scene of his day, and had spells where he questioned the value of high culture. I admire that he didn't spend his life pickled in art technique, worshiping the icons of art and peddling his work in an art market where so much of art was about nothing more than making art. Instead, he got on with life, earned a living and when it came time for all decent men to to enlist in the military, he did that too. But all the while he kept his eyes open and formed original, iconoclastic conclusions about the world.

In the 1940s he decided to quit his successful business and turn to art; he did so with guns blazing. His work was not imitative or derivative, and he made no concessions to the fashions of his day. He was willing to view the work of insane people and children on a level playing field with the demigods of art of his day. It should not be surprising, then, that when he began exhibiting his work it was very controversial and some "cultured" people slashed his canvases in outrage. He didn't give a damn, he kept on going.

His work changed rapidly as he made up for lost time. I'm not a big fan of his work from the 40s or his work from the mid 60s on, but in between he put forth an astonishing torrent of highly improbable work that I find beautiful, original and intelligent. I own volumes 2 through 19 of his catalogue raisonne and when I page through them I enjoy his fresh thinking, his courage, and most of all his designs which I find remarkable. The efforts that flop tend to flop because he took too many risks. The ones that succeed-- well, I'm particularly impressed by his series of beard paintings, his "tables paysagees," his cow series and his materiologies. If you ever decide to buy his catalogue raisonne I'd recommend you start with those volumes.

I admire the way that his work combines great humor (his sculptures often make me laugh out loud and his drawings have a wonderful whimsy to them) with a sometimes frightening savagery (he made images from tearing the wings off butterflies and his "Corps de Dames" series rivals de Kooning for misogyny). His "pisseur" series (which I wrote about here: https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2007/04/glint-of-madness.html) features a funny little fellow with his penis in his hand facing the viewer and urinating to the left, to the right or to the front. Crazy, right? I mean, who would do such a thing, especially back in those days? But the compositions are all very powerful, stark and bold, and the direction of the urine stream in each case alters the design of the drawing. Part of this is very child-like and innocent, but part of this is very sophisticated and smart.


(cont.)

David Apatoff said...

(cont.)

I admire that Dubuffet was so prolific. I like that he was very thoughtful, writing a smart and eloquent series of essays attacking "asphyxiating culture." Even his half baked ideas are quite thought provoking and intriguing. I like that he plowed all of his success back into new experiments, never resting on his laurels. I didn't like the path his experiments took in the early 1960s; I found his l'hourloupes repetitive and boring,so I essentially wrote off that phase of his career. Then one morning I was in Manhattan near the trade towers and came across his l'hourloupe sculpture of trees in the mist (http://www.archi-guide.com/PH/EtUn/NYo/NewYorkGroupFourTreesDu.jpg ) and was bowled over by its effect. So I reconsidered and began to tease out things of value even in the phases of his work that didn't register with me at first. I liked that surprise. Several of the last five volumes of his catalogue raisonne presage Basquiat (whose work I also enjoy).

Dubuffet worked his ass off to the very end, working on bigger and more ambitious projects and never kissing the butts of the art establishment. I give him kudos for his artistic journey, but most of all (since we just got through agreeing that a painting first has to stand alone as an object) I really like the designs, compositions and colors of his pictures. The first time I saw one of his pictures of a cow (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2007/04/glint-of-madness.html ) it knocked my socks off. I knew nothing about his background but I could see he had what it took. And those, in short, are the reasons I regard Dubuffet as "great."

kev ferrara said...

Well, David. Thank you for taking the time to lay out that case. Even though, obviously, you knew that words wouldn't convince me of anything, given we had just agreed that art must speak for itself. I suppose you wrote that out as a testament to your appreciation of Dubuffet's work, if nothing else.

Since you did write that out, I took the time to look up all the different styles and pieces you mentioned just to refresh my sense of the scope of his work. Having done that; I think there is no doubt of Dubuffet's inventiveness and industry and I wouldn't be honest if I denied it. As well, some of his designs are fun, and his textures, particularly in a few of his beard paintings, are interesting. For what my opinion is worth, that's my "informed" take.

I guess, the essence of the issue is one of categories. I consider Dubuffet a designer, essentially. A graphic artist. Who uses the visual lexicon of cartoons, now and again, as Leger and Miro did before and Lichtenstein did later, as design elements. I don't think he composes anything. I think it is all design.

To me, these words - composing and designing - have distinct meanings. Or they once did, before sensationalism addicted high culture.

Given these sharp distinctions - which I hold as inviolate, in spite of the receding tide of philosophy - between composition and design, I might agree that Dubuffet was a "great" designer.

As an artist, however, well, he's actually just a designer.

I know these distinction hold no value for you. And thus no meaning for you. Your definition of artist seems to be "creative person." Therefore your definition of Art must be something like; "those creative things created by creative people." And really, that's that. Pomo here we come.

Kings Ndubuisi Blog said...

George Inness is more realistic though. No much word about that.