Monday, August 20, 2018

ART THAT DOESN'T QUITE MAKE SENSE

Here are three hilarious drawings.  Each one employs simple lines to force us to reconsider the rules of the game:


Lynda Barry



Many years ago, Louis Magila snuck a little Theater of the Absurd into an unappreciative magazine for men


Basil Wolverton

When we look at these pictures, we start out processing them in our customary, linear way but quickly find our assumptions derailed.  They take us outside the realm of habit and into a realm of higher plasticity.  That's where creativity dwells.

 Oscar Wilde wrote that art that is "too intelligible" fails.  No matter how skillful, no matter how impressive the technique or great the virtuosity or precise the image, art that is fully intelligible will always be a closed box.  These drawings are not especially skillful, but each one opens that box.

They prod the viewer out of our universe of logic and experience, telling us "Your reflexive responses will do you no good here; get to work."  The incongruous juxtaposition of previously incompatible worlds-- even with a few simple lines-- is at the heart of creative originality and is probably a better investment of your time than the most detailed photo-realistic painting.

'Tis a fine thing to illustrate literature, but a mistake to do it literally.




23 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love that !

Paul Sullivan said...

David—I’m sure there are more important things to post and ponder but this latest feature is so silly that it's funny. After studying the images, I sat here laughing like I was in the eighth grade. Remember those days when all it took was something to be totally mindless for it to be hilarious!

However, after reading the text, I think you may have been swinging at something that caught the corner of the plate, rather than simply a bad pitch. You offer this quotation, "Oscar Wilde wrote that art that is "too intelligible" fails. No matter how skillful, no matter how impressive the technique or great the virtuosity, art that is fully intelligible will always be a closed box.”

I can’t help but wonder about the opposite side of the equation. In other words, art that lacks any intelligible merit is doomed to the netherworld of nonsense. As we all know, that is a closed box that needs no lid—one with nothing there to begin with.

That last pitch may have been right over the plate. "Room service”, as Joe Gradiola used to say.

Nice pitch, David.—PS

kev ferrara said...

I don't see the radicalism in these. They're pretty basic goofs. I don't find myself wondering what is meant by what has been drawn. And more than enough explanatory words are thrown in there to seal the meanings tight as a drum head. If you are seeking to promote the value of vagueness, incomplete thoughts, and the rankly unintelligible in art, I'm not sure where these pieces have a place in the argument.

Regarding your appeal to authority, Wilde's character "Gilbert" in the dialogue/essay you quote from (The Critic As Artist) seems to be putting down both historical painting and illustrations of literary works. I doubt you agree with that.

Another point regarding Wilde; Beardsley did some elegant drawings, now world-famous, for Salome that Wilde found "too Japanese." A critique that, to me, couldn't be more indicative of uptight-ness. The idea that these three pieces you've posted would find favor with Wilde because of their supposed "lack of intelligibility" seems preposterous. My presumption is that he would have found them worthless.

The Wilde essay, by the way, is no masterwork of aesthetic philosophy. It can be rather dumb, and I wonder whether the dialogue was more about poking fun at the critic character than a direct statement of Wilde's own views:

The domain of the painter is, as I suggested before, widely different from that of the poet. To the latter belongs life in its full and absolute entirety; not merely
the beauty that men look at, but the beauty that men listen to also; not merely the momentary grace of form or the transient gladness of colour, but the whole sphere of feeling, the perfect cycle of thought. The painter is so far limited that it is only
through the mask of the body that he can show us the mystery of the soul; only through conventional images that he can handle ideas; only through its physical equivalents that he can deal with psychology. And how inadequately does he do it then, asking us to
accept the torn turban of the Moor for the noble rage of Othello, or a dotard in a storm for the wild madness of Lear! Yet it seems as if nothing could stop him. Most of our elderly English painters spend their wicked and wasted lives in poaching upon the domain of the poets, marring their motives by clumsy treatment, and striving
to render, by visible form or colour, the marvel of what is invisible, the splendour of what is not seen. Their pictures are, as a natural consequence, insufferably tedious.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Many thanks.

Paul Sullivan-- Yes, I agree completely about the opposite side of the equation. In fact, I think that's what makes these particular drawings so good. It's not enough for a drawing to be nonsensical. Quite the contrary, these three artists have started with a perfectly sensible set of assumptions that most people would recognize and process on automatic pilot-- for example, recognizable figures or words with accepted meanings that we are accustomed to reading in a straight line-- and then halfway through the artist slips from one convention into another, forcing us to re-examine our assumptions.

For example, Lynda Barry's crude drawing of a steam iron dropping out of the sky (plugged into what?) tests us by asking what's wrong with the drawing. Are we being asked about the ethics of hurting the dog? The physics of an iron in mid air? The quality of her line? Well, it turns out that the list of possible answers is none of the above. You find yourself in a different type of perspective altogether which has its own internal consistency but you're not sure how to get back. As for that middle drawing by Lou Magila, it's not gibberish but there's a major disconnect. It is in a magazine for men who want nothing more than a cheap opportunity to see women with large breasts. Yet, the artist enlists us to create a mechanism so we can watch the scenery go by outside the train window. Hunh? It's like a cross between Edward Albee and the Marx Brothers. This is not surrendering rationality to irrationality, it's moving from a universe to a multiverse.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- As I wrote to Paul Sullivan above, I'm not trying to promote "the rankly unintelligible in art." Under most circumstances, I am opposed to rank unintelligibility. Instead, I view the artistry in these drawings as a ballet between different types of intelligibility. That's why my title refers to art that doesn't "quite" makes sense.

As for the notion that these three drawings are "pretty basic goofs," you might enjoy Arthur Koestler's epic work, The Act of Creation, more than Oscar Wilde. Koestler posits that humor, art and scientific discovery are three similar types of creative activity with fluid boundaries. All three depend, he contends, upon the spark of a sudden, bisociative shock resulting from the fusion between two or more habitually incompatible matrices. The surprise effect(or originality or unexpectedness) makes our reasoning perform a somersault and also makes us laugh at the joke. All three types of activity also require emphasis through selection, exaggeration and simplification; and they also benefit from economy which calls for extrapolation, interpolation and transposition. I'm not saying you'd be persuaded by his psychological or biological analyses, but the examples of common roots might cause you to view "basic goofs" with a little more interest.

Without trying to defend Oscar Wilde's full (but slender) aesthetic philosophy, I'm guessing you agree with the one quote I used about art that is "too intelligible." Unless you've suddenly become a fan of photorealism (and forgotten everything you said about the importance of abstraction last week) I'm pretty confident that you believe that art requires a little mystery, symbolism or elusiveness which in turn requires the viewer to fill in the gaps and complete the hint. I don't know how Wilde would feel about these drawings, which are several generations beyond where he left off, but I'm pretty sure he would not be a big fan of the oppressively intelligible work of Boris, Bama, Rowena, or Duillo.

Laurence John said...

i think you’re conflating two things here David.

one, that the viewer is required to do more ‘filling in of the gaps’ when looking at a spare line drawing as oppose to a fully rendered oil painting.

two, that imaginative ‘filling in of the gaps’ is required when looking at whimsical, surreal or weirdly stylised work.

in the former, the gap filling is more a case of imagining the missing form. in the latter, it’s more about imaginatively entering the weird fictional world (or both at once in the case of your examples).

as for the over-arching topic of some art being overly literal; i don’t see ‘realistically’ rendered painting as necessarily inhabiting that zone. there are so many variables, including whether the ‘realistic’ rendering is wooden or not, and how poetically the overall idea is staged. a realistically rendered painting can actually allow MORE imaginative flight for the viewer than a vague piece of abstraction, or a whimsical cartoon.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- You surprised me; I thought you were going to say I was conflating filling in the gaps of content (because the words accompanying these drawings create the disconnect in the subject matter) and filling in the gaps in form (as occurs when an artist's image implies things that are not fully stated, or portrays them from an oblique perspective. I think that is a genuine issue with this post, but I decided to live with it because these drawings are such fun, and because I believe that drawings, as simplified diagrams of ideas, are sometimes a cleaner way to isolate issues for discussion. I can see anyone disagreeing with that choice.

Instead, you are concerned about a different type of conflation. I agree that we have to fill in the gaps when we look at a spare line drawing, but I question whether we always have to fill in "more" than with a fully rendered painting. We've previously discussed on this blog how drawings in the style called "information graphics" deliberately strip an image of all ornamentation, decoration, etc. to clarify complex messages and make perception as straightforward and unambiguous as possible. Contrast that with a "fully rendered painting" with deep shadows or moody fog or mysterious angles, and I'd say you may have to do a lot more filling in the blanks with the painting than the drawing.

The lady on the train has been simplified by extreme infolding, but the instant we see it, that drawing pops full blown and 3D into our minds with very little work or supposition on our part. But on the other hand, take a look at the fully painted realistic chair by Phil Hale in this post ( https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2009/07/danger-in-path.html ) and you'll see we have a lot of work to do.

I do agree with you that realistically rendered paintings are not necessarily too literal, although when the artist doesn't even leave eyelashes or fingernails to the imagination, it's a pretty reliable sign that he or she has passed the point diminishing returns. What did you think of my examples to Kev of Boris, Bama, Rowena, or Duillo? I'd also put Dohanos in the same category.

Paul Sullivan said...

David—I agree with your example, explanation and analysis of the equation.

In fact, that is what I meany by, "...I think you may have been swinging at something that caught the corner of the plate, rather than simply a bad pitch."—PS

kev ferrara said...

All three depend, he contends, upon the spark of a sudden, bisociative shock resulting from the fusion between two or more habitually incompatible matrices. The surprise effect(or originality or unexpectedness) makes our reasoning perform a somersault and also makes us laugh at the joke. All three types of activity also require emphasis through selection, exaggeration and simplification; and they also benefit from economy which calls for extrapolation, interpolation and transposition. I'm not saying you'd be persuaded by his psychological or biological analyses, but the examples of common roots might cause you to view "basic goofs" with a little more interest.

That's a lot of big words in reference to 3 basic goofs.

I stand by what I wrote earlier. Unless you can explain the "types of intelligibility" you implied were at odds in these pieces that, in some way, made them not "quite" make sense when juxtaposed.

I have ten times more to say about Koestler than I have time or space to say it. Short version is, in my view, despite his massive erudition and ambition, he's just so-so on this stuff.

Given what came before, I don't see why he is considered seminal even on the material he gets right. Except that most people, most academics who write on this stuff, have no idea what came before. It's a real mess out there; all these super smart eggheads making bald guesses about the language and structure of art, reading and quoting each other, as if they can figure it all out in blind ignorance of 500 years' worth of closely guarded intellectual and creative evolution in the ateliers among some of the smartest and most talented people of their eras.

Meanwhile, Art's structures are considerably more complex and interesting (and hidden) than the text languages academics are so well versed in. So navigating them (or even identifying them) is no easy task, even for otherwise brilliant people.

Koestler is also another one of those academics who mistakes similes for metaphors. This seemingly innocent, common error actually goes to the heart of his (and so many others') sloppiness and presumption.

I'm guessing you agree with the one quote I used about art that it is "too intelligible."

I agree with Pyle that the highest aspiration of art is suggestion, which is a profound and far-reaching ethic; much more difficult to contemplate in full than one might at first imagine.

As for your thesis that Boris and Rowena's works suffer because they are "too intelligible," I think it would be more accurate to say they are simultaneously too intelligible in some aspects and unintelligible in others. They say too much and too little at once. And the reason for this is that they fail exactly where Pyle set his ideal.

Laurence John said...

David: "What did you think of my examples of Boris, Bama, Rowena, or Duillo? I'd also put Dohanos in the same category “

for every overworked, or too photo-dependent, or poorly staged, kitschy example you can give, i can give examples of paintings with high levels of ‘realistic detail' which work; Rockwell, Waterhouse, Caravaggio, Vermeer etc

your premise sounds too much like “intelligible = obvious. vagueness = imaginative”.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "for every overworked, or too photo-dependent, or poorly staged, kitschy example you can give, i can give examples of paintings with high levels of ‘realistic detail' which work; Rockwell, Waterhouse, Caravaggio, Vermeer etc."

Yes, I definitely agree. I love the work of the painters you mention, and I find "realistic" work to be some of the most rewarding art of the past several centuries. But I think Rockwell's best, or Leyendecker's, or Sargent's, is not as plainly and baldly "intelligible" as the artists I've mentioned. Their work is more than realistic; more than a "likeness,"they inject character and personality and poetry and judgment in their visible brushstrokes and color choices and compositions. When Rockwell slipped and did advertising work that had nothing to commend it but intelligibility, it was still very skillful but it was not,in my opinion, good art.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I agree with Pyle that the highest aspiration of art is suggestion, which is a profound and far-reaching ethic; much more difficult to contemplate in full than one might at first imagine."

Okay, but aren't there a myriad of ways to introduce suggestion into a picture besides just staging realistic elements to imply an open ended narrative? For example, concealment? Odd priorities? A trout in the milk? Hints that things are not as they seem on the surface by the unexpected clash of conflicting rules?

You invited me to "explain the 'types of intelligibility' [I] implied were at odds in these pieces that, in some way, made them not 'quite' make sense when juxtaposed." Of course, the point of such drawings is that they float lightly above the narrative and any attempt to pin them down and vivisect them will inevitably coarsen and diminish their qualities, but for the sake of rational discussion, I tried to spell out the contradictions inherent in the Barry drawing above:

Lynda Barry's crude drawing of a steam iron dropping out of the sky (plugged into what?) onto a dog challenges us by asking what's wrong with the drawing. Are we being asked about the ethics of hurting a dog? The physics of an iron descending in mid air? The quality of her odd drawing? Each of these could reasonably be called "wrong." Each could be the subject of a sensible, well composed response. But it turns out that the list of possible answers is "none of the above." We find ourselves in a different type of perspective altogether which has its own internal consistency; it is perfectly common English to say that "something awful" is wrong but that derails our train of rational inquiry and we're not sure how to get back.

I share your high regard for Pyle, but he did a lot of work--such as many of his pen and ink drawings for Pepper and Salt or the Wonder Clock-- that I don't find nearly as suggestive, or as intelligent, as these three "goofs." Despite Pyle's "aspiration," they were a closed box.

Katie A. said...

David-- I'm an art historian working on an article about drawing instruction (namely George Bridgman's and Kimon Nicolaides') at the Art Students League. I'm really interested in the info in your article from a few years ago: http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2010/08/george-bridgemans-art-class.html Could you tell me where those marvelous quotes came from? I'd love to cite your blog in my footnotes and can't wait to hear more about these details. You can find me at my email address: kat1e[dot]anan1a[at]gmail[dot]com. (Both of the number 1's in there are actually the letter i.) Thank you so much!

Emilie said...

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kev ferrara said...

Okay, but aren't there a myriad of ways to introduce suggestion into a picture besides just staging realistic elements to imply an open ended narrative?

David, who in history has ever suggested there weren't?

(What you're saying to me is equivalent to, "But aren't there more letters to the alphabet than just A?")

Also, by the way, I strongly believe there is actually no way to close the obvious narrative content of an image. Every scene is open-ended in some way or another, thus always suggestive at the scenario level in the sense you mean.

So you don't need a canoe in the sky or a chihuahua in a tuxedo nor any other stark juxtapositions or off-putting peculiarities or anomalies, conflicts in narrative physics, odd changes in mood or tone (etc.) to make it so. Without having some expressive raison d'être, that's all just finger-painting anyway, random creativity for its own sake. And I believe it misses the deeper point besides.

The deeper point is that the malady you are reacting against in bad realistic work is not what you think it is, nor is it "located" in the work where you think it is located. Rather the problem you are experiencing is occurring all over the place and at the aesthetic level.


kev ferrara said...

Lynda Barry's crude drawing of a steam iron dropping out of the sky (plugged into what?) onto a dog challenges us by asking what's wrong with the drawing.

The text asked us that, not the drawing.

And the iron is not plugged in; it is streaming behind and up. Irons are generally not plugged into the ceiling nor kept near the ceiling, and their cords aren't all that long that they can be coming down from above and be plugged into a wall at the same time. And there is no evidence of the scene taking place indoors anyhow.

The drawing asks us little if anything. The dog is obviously a silly drawing. And so there are no moral questions nor moral consequences to anything involving it. So basically whatever questions one might have about the drawing don't really matter. There is no attempt to induce belief. (Alternately one could say, if the answers actually mattered, the questions would have mattered.)

If one wants to idly wonder who threw the iron or why or what kind of dog it is or what the location is, that's fine. But there's obviously no solution to these questions, so it is a mistake to view such as even a mystery or a puzzle. This lack of narrative information is immediately obvious. Which is why the narrative energy immediately flags and the whole thing states itself as a goof almost instantly.

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David Apatoff said...

Katie A.-- I've responded to your question privately. If you write something about the Art Students League, I hope you come back and share it with us, as there are many people who participate in this blog who would be interested.

Kev Ferrara-- Yes, I was certain we would agree that "there are a myriad of ways to introduce suggestion into a picture." Therefore, Pyle's point that "the highest aspiration of art is suggestion" does not preclude these drawings from containing suggestion (or in fact, containing more suggestion than the drawings by Pyle I mentioned).

As for the other points you mention, I think you're straining too hard for something to fight about. I suggest there may be something "wrong" with Barry's drawing because it looks "odd." You argue instead, No the drawing looks "silly." Whether odd or silly doesn't matter to me (or to my point). I suggest there may be something "wrong" with the drawing because a weird steam iron is falling from the sky onto a dog. You argue that you can tell the steam iron isn't plugged into the sky (off stage) because of the nature of the cord, as if that would somehow make this scene normal. I suggest it may be "wrong" to injure a dog, and you argue that is not a moral question. I'm glad I'm not a dog in your neighborhood where it's normal for steam irons to fall from the sky and nobody cares when dogs get hit. Let's just say that when the two of us have such different burdens of proof for this drawing, it's a mistake to try to explain the humor in words.

(P.S.-- On the separate subject of "The text asked us that, not the drawing," In the past we have discussed on this blog the artistic compromises required by the combination of words and pictures in comics, and I argued that, while the speech balloon is usually little more than a truce line separating text and pictures, some imaginative artists such as Cuneo, Gonzalez and Steinberg have done marvelous things to combine words and pictures in a unified visual statement. I should've included Barry on that list.)

kev ferrara said...

David,

You might be mixing together several argument threads. You also seem to be mixing up narrative and aesthetic arguments.

In a world built entirely of silliness, there are no consequences, moral or physical, so the presented reality isn't an existential concern. A cartoon dog isn't going to be hurt. This does not mean I am cruel to real animals, dear sir. (talk about 'straining too hard')

Should I have reacted like this: "Oh my god, that poor, poor scribble drawing of a dog! I am so concerned about it that I must wait and see what happens to it, the poor thing. Even though the iron doesn't appear to be moving any closer, I guess I'll keep staring at the scribble until i get my answer!" (Dies of old age.)

Good realistic work often looks odd, or as if something is 'not quite right.' So that is a different tonal suggestion than the silliness of a cartoon. And tone matters because it hints to us whether we are living in a consequential realm with stakes to contend with or not.

Barry may write funny, but it's still writing, requiring intellectual decoding. The majority of the content of writing is not from its drawing, but from its coded message. When one remarks about the 'drawing' the default presumption is one means that which has been drawn. It seems rather scramble-brained to talk about questions posed by a drawing and to use as an example of this a question posed in English.

I never said the dog-ironing scene was 'normal.' Just that whatever questions one might have about it obviously don't have supplied answers, nor consequences. Which reveals straight away that the questions aren't actually important.

Yes, meaningless, unanswerable questions result in an open-ended narrative. But, again, all narratives are similarly open ended (due to the unavoidable presence of unanswerable questions usually of the "what happens next" or "what is being looked at or thought?" type.)

Charles Shelley said...

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John Dyke said...

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Solutions Cloud Contact Center said...

the first picture got me. i cant stop laughing for 10 minutes.

They voted for Cloud Contact Centers said...

indeed.. all pictures really does not make sense.

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