Friday, August 03, 2018

SOCIALIST REALISM, 2018 STYLE

Compare these two illustrations of a swamp:

John Cuneo's Donald Trump golfing in the swamp

Jon McNaughton's Donald Trump and his cabinet "Crossing the Swamp." 

One is a simplistic cartoon for infantile minds.  The other is a cover for the New Yorker.

How do we evaluate which of these pictures is more "realistic"?  There are several different varieties of realism in art.  In the words of painter Burt Silverman, "realism has a long history and has, at various times in the past, been used to describe very specific kinds of art."

For example, a loose, distorted drawing by a caricaturist can still display more knowledge of physical reality than a painstaking, so-called "realistic" painting by a lesser talent:



Alligators by Cuneo (above) and McNaughton (below).


More importantly, if representational art is going to remain relevant in a post-modern world, it can't be content with repeating (however meticulously) what we already know (or assume we know) about the way things look.  It should contribute to our perceptions and alter our awareness of experience.  Contrast Cuneo's treatment of swamp water (below) with McNaughton's undifferentiated soup.





Even in a humorous caricature, Cuneo demonstrates better understanding of foreshortening, depth and color than McNaughton's "realistic" painting.

McNaughton's website suggests that he would like his brand of realism to be associated with Norman Rockwell's:
 Just as Rockwell painted inspiration into his scenes giving meaning and hope to Americans during the Great Depression, World War Two years and after, Jon McNaughton offers the same hope and inspiration for Americans facing moral, cultural, and political crisis today.
In defense of Rockwell, I would like to comment that these are the words of a moron.

No, Mr. McNaughton's version of realism is much closer to what is known as "socialist" or "heroic" realism, a 20th century enhancement of the timeless use of images to buttress a cult of personality.

Under Lenin, the "People's Commissariat for Enlightenment" sponsored sentimentalist painters who possessed the proper kiss-the-whip mentality for unquestioning worship of powerful bosses.  This school of art, later named socialist realism in Stalin's era, was further refined by Mao and other autocrats as a method of shaping culture.  It required artists with the technical skill for extreme realism and the commercial instinct for salesmanship to produce work free from any creative nuances or complexities that might make the art challenging for the lumpenproletariat to grasp.

                                    *               *                *                 *

All visual realism is something of a lie because it creates an illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface.  And from the very beginning, pictures have always put a subjective spin on editorial content.  Nevertheless, the 20th century witnessed a great leap forward in the use of "realistic" images against reality.

Realism as an art form was devalued during the 20th century, largely due to the incursion of modern art.  But I suspect realism played a role in hastening its own disrepute as it became increasingly glib using the tools of realism to manipulate mass audiences on behalf of authoritarian regimes, or to have no normative content at all.   These led audiences to reconsider the meaning of "accuracy" in art.  Sometimes "unrealistic" images turned out to be the more truthful.

Silverman wrote that for realism to be redeemed as an ongoing method of making art, "the form and the subject matter of the painting [must be] fused in an emotional matrix....  My difficulty with the current upsurge of "realism" is that much of the art lacks psychological toughness or great insight.... [This type of] rendering of the external world clearly seems superficial." 



   

126 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's just one thing I want to know - did you vote for Trump ?

James Gurney said...

Don't know if I completely agree with "realism played a role in hastening its own disrepute as it became increasingly glib using the tools of realism to manipulate mass audiences on behalf of authoritarian regimes."

Realistic and flattering portrayals of leaders have always existed, from Egyptian pharoahs to Holbein's King Henry VIII to Van Dyck's Charles I and David's Napoleon. And both realism and abstraction were wielded as cultural instruments by governments during the Cold War, as Saunders documented in the book "The Cultural Cold War."

I think some of the most remarkable portraits cut with two edges — flattering enough to be acceptable, but as caustic as they need to be, such as Velazquez's intelligent but shrewd Pope Innocent X or Repin's fierce Archdeacon.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- If you look at my previous posts, you'll see that I had similarly unkind things to say about Shepard Fairey's famous portrait glorifying Barack Obama. Not only did I consider it a bad picture, I also described how a court found that Fairey stole the photograph he used, then lied about it to the court and tried to destroy the evidence to cover it up. (I suppose that makes Fairey both dishonest and inept.) I hate to say it, but perhaps the consistent theme here is that I've turned into a misanthrope.


James Gurney-- A most interesting topic. The reason I wrote that I "suspect" realism played a role in hastening its own disrepute is because it's impossible to prove one way or another. Similarly, one cannot be certain how large or small that role may have been.

I agree there is a long and rich history of sycophantic court painters, as well as painters of idealized versions of military battles, etc. There are many entertaining stories in that history, such as Goya painting flattering portraits of royalty while he personally supported the revolution, or Napoleon's efforts to shape culture by awarding prizes for "good" art. The history of CIA involvement in promoting abstract expressionism is fascinating, as is the bolshevik rejection of truly revolutionary modern art in favor of reactionary realism.

My point is that while traditional 19th century realism was being chipped away from the outside, by the same social forces that produced cubism, futurism, fauvism, dadaism, surrealism, etc., and by game-changing technologies such as photography, realism was also taking on a new role on the inside. Realistic paintings were mass produced for the first time (new kinds of paper from wood pulp could be used in new high-speed rotary presses, imprinted with newly accurate images, and delivered to millions of homes across the country.) These paintings were not flattering pictures to be hung on the wall of a Medici palace, they targeted the less educated grass roots, and were weaponized for purposes unrelated to artistic integrity. On the commercial side, realism was called upon to glamorize corn flakes, car tires and mouthwash. Gradually people learned that wearing an arrow collar will not make us look like a Leyendecker painting. On the political side, heroic portraits of Stalin were hung in government buildings throughout Russia. At the same time Stalin was murdering millions of his subjects, posters with representational paintings of a benevolent Stalin embracing children were widely distributed. Portraits of happy, brawny laborers harvesting bountiful crops under the red sun were painted while hundreds of thousands of kulaks were in fact starving due to bad government decisions. Hitler was painted as a heroic Teutonic knight, wearing a golden suit of armor, correctly painted, but that form of "realism" turned out to be unreliable.

After decades of that kind of "realism," how could audiences not gradually devalue realistic painting as a reliable window to the world of reality?

Laurence John said...

‘realism’ to me David, basically means studies from life, such as portraits, nude figures, landscapes etc, where the objective is to draw or paint an accurate depiction of what is in front of you.

as soon as you start re-staging reality you’re in the realm of what i would called ‘staged fictions’ which is what you’re actually talking about in your examples, not ‘realism’ (even if the staged fiction attempts a high level of ‘realistic-ness’).

(these are my own definitions, and i don’t expect everyone to agree with them, but they work for me).

when you re-stage reality you are attempting to introduce some poetic, dramatic, idealistic, ideological (etc) narrative meaning that is lacking in a straight observational study (realism).

the picture then succeeds or fails on the merits of it’s narrative fiction, and ALSO on the merits of it’s formal qualities (painterly style).

you can see therefore that the potential for variability of quality within ‘staged fiction’ is vast, to put it mildly.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I don't know if you're familiar with the work of Burt Silverman but I regard him as one of the more respectable and thoughtful contemporary realist painters. He published an essay in 1990 called "Rediscovering Realism" in which he complained about the "successive waves of varied new 'Realism,' all wishing to inherit the credentials of the Realist tradition," and how inaccurately the term "is now used to describe almost any and every kind of representational image." As a result, he agrees with your point: "Lacking a coherent definition of of the term and a set of aesthetic values derived from it, we are deprived of the ability to make reasonable critical evaluation of the art bearing the name "realist."

However, this causes him to go in an opposite direction from the path you've taken. He believes that the "accurate depiction of what is in front of you" must be "fused in an emotional matrix that recreated the world in a manner unique to each artist's personality.... this emotional content-- the compelling perceptions that altered our awareness of experience-- was a pivotal factor in the impact and durability of great Realist art."

If your view is that true realism requires an objective, un-editorialized rendering of whatever is in front of you, then you may have solved the problem created by content (Which artist staged it better? Whose political view do I find more agreeable?) but at the cost of what Kev Ferrara calls the "meat camera" phenomenon: an artist doesn't simply "point and click" at whatever scene happens to be in front of him or her. In fact, I question whether it is even possible for an artist to avoid introducing "some poetic, dramatic, idealistic, ideological (etc) narrative," just by making certain unavoidable choices: do you crop the view with the tree strong and straight in the foreground, or as an insignificant element in a bleak landscape? Do you paint with textured, full oil paints or thin water color? You never get away from editorializing altogether.

However, with the present examples, I do think it is possible to conclude that even if you didn't know anything about the political figure at the heart of this, the McNaughton picture seems oafish and one dimensional while the Cuneo picture (admittedly a lighter picture with different ambitions) seems more imaginative and thoughtful.

Laurence John said...

David: "In fact, I question whether it is even possible for an artist to avoid introducing "some poetic, dramatic, idealistic, ideological (etc) narrative," just by making certain unavoidable choices: do you crop the view with the tree strong and straight in the foreground, or as an insignificant element in a bleak landscape?

i’m not suggesting that even the greatest meat camera of a painter doesn’t make decisions, and that their personality doesn’t come through in the way they render a subject in front of them. of course it does.

i’m saying that it’s one thing to draw or paint what is in front of you (a study) and quite another to orchestrate a narrative image (a staged fiction), and i disagree that the term ‘realism’ is useful for the latter.


The Seditionist said...

That first paragraph amused. The old jokes still work.
And not that I'm any expert but let's just say I completely disagree with the position that rendering is the most important part of an artwork.

Sanford Herzfeld said...

"One is a simplistic cartoon for infantile minds. The other is a cover for the New Yorker."

Thanks for noticing. Now you can return to your day job of suck-starting the siphon down at your trailer park's pump out station.

Sanford Herzfeld said...

It's amazing to me how many of your spoilsports manage to fill up your drool cups with Trump hate and then are compelled to spew the contents online. It really is a mental disorder. You folks need to look into it and get some professional help.

Anonymous said...

You're right about Rockwell. He'd never paint putrid shit like that.

JSL

xopxe said...

That thing, awful as it is, has nothing to do with "socialist realism", nor in style, nor in subject, nor in intention.
I'm a bit stumped at why did you make that connection.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- Where does a representational painter such as Nelson Shanks fall on your scale? He "orchestrates a narrative" by staging the objects in front of him (props such as large sea shells or interesting objects, costumes and fabrics) staging models in unorthodox positions, etc. and then he paints the result in a totally literal way. He did the "staging" in front of his eyeballs rather than behind them, but it is clear that he has "re-staged reality" and so "the picture then succeeds or fails [at least partially] on the merits of it’s narrative fiction."

The Seditionist-- My first assumption was that by "rendering" you meant the drawing, but upon reflection there are about 20 other definitions of rendering which could be relevant (such as "interpretation" or "layout.") So please correct me if I've got this wrong. I admit that I'm a sucker for good drawing, and if pressed I probably prefer good drawing to good painting. But I certainly love the latter as well, and have written many times of my admiration for abstract art involving no draftsmanship at all. I'm not sure that I said here that rendering is the most important part of an artwork, but rendering aside, I think the McNaughton piece is very badly painted as well.

Anonymous / JSL-- That was actually a significant reason for speaking out. Rockwell has many gushing admirers who misunderstand the nature of his contribution, just as he has many snooty detractors who refuse to accept what he did as art. I think his legacy is equally imperiled by both. Those who praise McNaughton by likening him to Rockwell seem to think that Rockwell was about cheap, stupid patriotism-- a most superficial understanding. The fact that Rockwell's brilliant painting was light years away from McNaughton's ridiculous stereotypes is lost on them. I felt that somebody needed to point out their great difference.

Laurence John said...


David, the arrangement of model, objects, drapes etc in a Nelson Shanks painting is nowhere near the amount of re-staging that happens in a painting by someone like Rockwell (who is creating characters, who 'act' in a fictional setting / scenario, which we are asked to believe in). so Shanks is very much on the realistic ‘studies’ end of the scale. i don’t see ‘narrative fiction’ going on in his work. nor in the work of Lucien Freud who works in a similar manner.

likewise, you don’t get to smuggle still lives of food in either by arguing that they’re also ‘re-staged’ reality. i’m pretty sure you’re aware of the difference i’m talking about and you’re just playing devils’ advocate.

David Apatoff said...

xopxe -- I'm not clear why you don' t think the McNaughton picture is akin to socialist realism, so let me expand upon my reasons for thinking it is and if I've missed your concerns perhaps you can help me.

Like socialist realism, this picture is one dimensional propaganda masquerading as art. It displays a cartoonish notion of good and evil, painted in a realistic style with simplistic, hackneyed cliches to make it most accessible to an unsophisticated proletariat class. (There is nothing challenging or nuanced here, no issues of artistic integrity, nothing that might create ambiguity or dilute the political message which serves the party. This is surely the visual equivalent of "Two legs bad, four legs good.") The characters in the boat are glorified as heroes of the revolution much the way that Stalin or Mao were.

McNaughton's style in this and other paintings is a little darker than classical socialist realism, but perhaps rage is a more effective way to motivate the masses today than images of a glorious future. But that, as I said in my title, may be socialist realism "2018 style."

David Apatoff said...

Sanford Herzfeld-- This is not a political blog, and I hope to keep it from becoming one (or it might capsize everything else). It's not my place here to criticize people for having liberal or conservative views, although I do think it is my place to distinguish between art and propaganda, or to explore the delicious view expressed by Burt Silverman (who has thought conscientiously about realism for over 50 years) that subject matter is relevant to the quality of form, because in quality realism, "the form and subject matter were fused in an emotional matrix that recreated the world." In Silverman's view, a simple minded or shrill content would undermine the quality of the image. (I'm not sure I concur-- as regular readers know, I think an image portraying a coke bottle can be beautiful-- but I sure think Silverman's view is worthy of respect and should be discussed here.)

As for your concern about "Trump hate," I think we can put aside the substance of either side's political views, or the veracity of either side's position, and still conclude that Trump supporters have a fundamental problem with symmetry. They delight in a president who uses more hateful language than any president in history (can you name anyone else who has employed so many insulting nicknames and angry epithets, or used such vulgar behavior?) Yet they become indignant when such language is directed back at the president. Purely as a matter of process, that double standard will not make people sympathetic to your complaints about hateful language.

Anonymous said...

I would bet McNaughton is jockeying for an official portrait . If he gets it , it'l probably end up next to Sargent's T.R.

Al McLuckie

chris bennett said...

David,
I'm finding it very difficult trying to understand why your comparison between McNaughton and Cuneo underscores your question about the function of realism in culture.
I mean, would not a more telling comparison be between a Thomas Kinkade cottage and one painted by Helen Allingham?

chris bennett said...

I deliberately chose this comparison rather than a cottage painted by Kinkade and an artist whose politics one might suppose lean to the left such as the young James Guthrie or George Clausen.

Anonymous said...

Can we be sure the McNaughton painting isn't a parody? It seems more a ship of fools take on Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. Remove Trump from the boat and one could honestly not tell which way the vessel is supposed to be travelling. In fact, even as it is, the front seems to be pushing off and paddling back, while the stern seems to be steering and rowing forward.

Marc.

kev ferrara said...

In my opinion, McNaughton's work is beneath criticism.

xopxe said...

Sotsrealism was about depicting ideals in a realisting setting. It was state sponsored, and it was supposed to instill a sense of dignity and agency on the common folk, who were to be the content and the consumers of the art. It was formally postulated as an "-ism" for literature by Maxim Gorki in mid 30s, and was partly a reaction (both artistic and political) to the post-revolutionary vanguards (Constructivism et al). Under Stalin, being the only recognized style all work was judged against, everyone who wanted to get known was a Sotzrealist, from hacks to artists through humorless technically proficient artisans. And you would never, ever find an allegory involving a swamp.

If anything, that ghastly McNaughton work is a typical case of a "mashup", a style made popular in this century. Like those "let's record Rolling Stones songs as if they were Bossa Nova" things. In this case it is "Let's do a heavy handed political cartoon like it was a heroic portraiture painting". Both a very rich XIX century European tradition. I bet there's exactly that idea drawn already by some "political cartoonists", and also bet every European country and ex-colony has at least one of those "bunch of people from history on a boat going somewhere" paintings, in a Museum.

To be honest, there's a trend in the US of making associations between Trump and Russia / USSR which I find very annoying. Like spelling Trump with a hammer-and-sickle, or using faux cirillic Я for R. It's just wrong on so many levels.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- I wanted to start out with a contrast between a sketchy drawing and a careful, full color, modeled oil painting, because the obvious assumption (at least, my assumption) would be that the painting is more "realistic" in the traditional sense.

If we challenge that assumption, questions about the nature of realism begin to arise: What if the "form" of the painted picture is accurate, but its "content" is a lie? Does the picture still count as realistic? When are the tools of illusion-making (perspective, anatomy, color and light theory, etc.) tools of veracity and when are they tools of deception? In the latter case, can the picture that is more distorted and uses fewer of those tools (the Cuneo drawing) qualify as more realistic in some essential way? More realistic about human nature? More realistic about the slippery nature of good and evil? What if a few quick sketch lines give us genuine insights about the real world, but a photorealistic image is flat and superficial, repeating shorthand assumptions about what we see, with no honest commitment to the external visual world?

I thought a contrast between the two extremes might provoke more interesting responses than a contrast between two representational oil paintings.

Laurence John wrote: "i’m pretty sure you’re aware of the difference i’m talking about and you’re just playing devils’ advocate."

Well, I hope you're right that I'm aware of the difference you're talking about, but I keep nibbling away at the distinction because, if I do understand you, I'm not sure what exactly the distinction does for you. You say that it "works for you" to draw a bright line between painting "an accurate depiction of what is in front of you" and "re-staging reality." But wouldn't that exclude all kinds of art that we commonly think of as representational, including what Silverman thought of as the highest type of "realistic" art: the type where the artist distorts the physical scene in front of him or her with the artist's own "emotional content-- the compelling perceptions that altered our awareness of experience." Silverman thought that fusing the forms we see with this emotional content "was a pivotal factor in the impact and durability of great Realist art." He may or may not be right, but it sounds like he would disapprove of a convenient standard that excludes any pictures that "re-stage" reality.

Al McLuckie-- There was talk that when Sean Hannity bought one of McNaughton's masterpieces he was going to donate it to the White House for Trump to hang, but apparently Hannity decided to keep it.



David Apatoff said...

Anonymous / Marc-- I wish the painting were a parody, but if you check out McNaughton's website and look at his other art, it's quite clear that he's deadly serious.

Kev Ferrara-- You would think so, wouldn't you? The reason I'm nevertheless criticizing him here is because of the number of "experts" currently comparing his work to Rockwell and buying up McNaughton's expensive giclee prints. I felt that an opposing voice was warranted because there are a lot of decent artists going hungry while McNaughton peddles his simple minded nonsense.

xopxe-- it never even occurred to me to link McNaughton to socialist realism because of the Trump/Russian connection, although I understand now how people might construe it that way. Never my intention.

Regarding your point about socialist realism, I agree that the original version would never include an allegory of a swamp, but if you go to McNaughton's website ( http://jonmcnaughton.com/patriotic/americana/ ) you'll find plenty of pictures of a glorified Trump meeting with the common man to teach him how to fish, or to plant; you'll see Ronald Reagan together with Moses bringing law and enlightenment to the common man, you'll see "empowered citizens" standing bold together. You'll see Trump with the US flag bathed in a celestial glow-- plenty of paintings that may be closer to conventional socialist realism. However, consider the possibility that in the 2018 version of socialist realism, it is not enough to lure the proletariat forward with cheerful images of how great life will be under the dictatorship of the proletariat. These days to shape the masses effectively you have to add in a healthy measure of hatred (which Mcnaughton certainly does, in between his paintings of the prince of peace).

I agree that there are a lot of facile connections being drawn between Trump and Russia, but I fear that epistemological criteria have taken a nosedive here. Anyone who tries to apply traditional evidentiary standards to Mr. Trump will never be able to keep up, as he will shamelessly change his explanation of reality from day to day, denying even that he said things he was publicly videotaped saying. Under such circumstances people eventually get frustrated and start resorting to the things you describe.

chris bennett said...

David,
Thank you for clarifying your thesis a little further. What if the "form" of the painted picture is accurate, but its "content" is a lie? Does the picture still count as realistic?

I understood this to be your underlying question, but the comparison you have chosen involves too many variables which, in my view, scramble any attempt to isolate a core difference that would enable one to ask the deeper questions fundamental to a definition of realism in art.

Thus my suggestion of the Kinkade cottage versus the Allingham cottage because they share roughly the same species of romantic sentiment albeit in different dosages. Yet the Allingham feels more 'realistic', more true. Why?

Laurence John said...

David: "But wouldn't that exclude all kinds of art that we commonly think of as representational, including what Silverman thought of as the highest type of "realistic" art: the type where the artist distorts the physical scene in front of him or her with the artist's own "emotional content-- the compelling perceptions that altered our awareness of experience “

when i look at the work of artists like Silverman, Soutine, Freud (or any artist who does studies from life) it’s as if i’m viewing reality through a Silverman, Soutine or Freud ‘filter’, or distorting glass. i can sense the ‘real’ object or person in the image, but i’m seeing it through the distorting filter of the artist’s particular style (which is what i think Silverman is talking about).

you’re probably going to argue that there’s no difference between that and what i’m calling a ‘staged fiction’ but there clearly is; when i look at a ‘staged fiction’ i’m looking at a created scenario that never really existed (even if elements of it were copied from reality). it’s like a staged tableau or a film still in which reality is re-enacted for the viewer. characters ‘act’; they look forlorn, they stab each other with bayonets, they are saved from drowning by a plucky terrier.


- - -

David: “ What if the "form" of the painted picture is accurate, but its "content" is a lie? Does the picture still count as realistic? When are the tools of illusion-making (perspective, anatomy, color and light theory, etc.) tools of veracity and when are they tools of deception? In the latter case, can the picture that is more distorted and uses fewer of those tools (the Cuneo drawing) qualify as more realistic in some essential way?


when you use ‘realistic’ i think you actually mean ‘believable’.

i’ll mention the ‘uncanny valley’ effect again: the more a painting attempts life-like literalness, the harder it can fail, because anything ‘off’’ starts to glare, whereas a painting or drawing which uses reduced information, stylisation, cartoony-ness etc, can allow for more imaginative entry for the viewer.

the latter is something like: “ i know this is a fiction, but i’m going to play along with it anyway, because it’s such an appealing and easy-to-believe fiction ”

the former goes: “ this fiction is attempting to convince me that it IS reality, but something doesn’t feel right ”

those two reactions are what is happening in your Cuneo vs Mc Naughton comparison.




Tom said...

The form of the Cuneo drawing drawing is clearly better, but there is nothing new or radical about it. The plane of the water is clearly level and the snakes body breaks the plane above and below. It seems a better focus of the conversation would be on the form and language of form then on vague concepts like realism, content and accuracy. Having been in Rome recently it is amazing how beauty can still shine through art work whose’s content has long been forgotten or is no longer believed in.

The art of China has known for centuries that accuracy and likeness have little to do with truth, and isn’t that what you are really talking about? And to talk about it you need to talk about the elements of art which is a more difficult conversation then style. It amazing how much you can find in common in thought and form in art works produced centuries apart.

Discussing realism, abstraction, and style to me you really seem to be discussing beliefs. People who like McNaughton share his beliefs which has very little to do with art and beliefs are much more important to most people then form and beauty.

Anonymous said...

Just looked at Mcnaughton's site , and found a piece to rival Boris's Jesus-bodybuilder crucifixion - Expose the Truth - and how he got Muller and Trump to pose for it I'll never know .

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- Yup, isn't that one a stitch? More than any debate or any book, that picture reveals the simplistic nature of the mind we're dealing with.

Tom-- I agree there is nothing radically innovative about the Cuneo drawing. There are others who draw in the same style today, such as Barry Blitt (although I think Cuneo is a far superior artist). And I also agree that "beauty can still shine through art work whose content has long been forgotten or is no longer believed in." Perhaps that is an additional basis for distinction. Once McNaughton's propaganda message has been forgotten, the sour muddle of visual images left behind will have no artistic value. As you say, "People who like McNaughton share his beliefs which has very little to do with art." I don't think that is true of Cuneo's drawing. He too has a pointed message but his symbolism is more universal and timeless, and his picture is artistically more enjoyable.

However, I'm not so sure that "accuracy and likeness have little to do with truth." There are plenty of portraits that achieve an accurate likeness and reveal all kinds of truths. Sargent was a master at this. And even putting aside psychological truths of a human subject, his watercolor of the alligators is an astonishingly accurate and blindingly truthful piece.

Chris Bennett-- I agree that a Kinkade / Allingham comparison is a more finely calibrated exercise than the one I proposed, and perhaps one that is more likely to lead to a specific conclusion than the wide open brawl I wanted.

I assume you know the answer to your question, "why?" Allingham and Kinkade both share the exact same subject-- idyllic country cottages-- but Kinkade's are heavily tarted up with rouge and mascara while Allingham's have a genuine feel to them. Allingham paints with the sincerity and simplicity of her subject matter while Kinkade is a manipulative fraud.

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

David,
I wholeheartedly agree and very much liked your colourful assessment of the quality of Allingham over Kinkade.
But this does not explain how their respective qualities are being communicated to us. The McNaughton picture is only a lie to those who think Trump is a fraud, and there is nothing in the picture's plastic orchestration (eye-wateringly piss poor as it is) to tell us that the man holding the lantern is a self-serving lout, or for that matter, a saint.
But the qualities you have divined from the pictures of Allingham and Kinkage, because they are painting exactly the same subject, are therefore communicated entirely through the means of their plastic expression. A language therefore capable of intrinsically embodying truth (as your appraisal of the two artists suggests). So the question becomes; 'how does truth, intrinsically embodied in the plastic expression of a picture, relate to 'realism'?'

PaperCoach said...

These are very beautiful illustrations. It's just brilliant, Thank you.

Laurence John said...

Chris, what's your own definition of 'realism' in visual art ?

Tom said...

"However, I'm not so sure that "accuracy and likeness have little to do with truth." There are plenty of portraits that achieve an accurate likeness and reveal all kinds of truths. Sargent was a master at this. And even putting aside psychological truths of a human subject, his watercolor of the alligators is an astonishingly accurate and blindingly truthful piece."

I was was thinking of realistic accuracy of the kind your describing in the McNaughton where everything is recognizable but there is very little art. Sargent is accurate and confident. (although I have been with people who complain about how long he paints his figures) He understands the nature of things so he handle his tools as if inspired, he paints so well that people are more often then not astounded by the painting itself instead of who the painting is of. Master complexity and things become simple again, but of course that simplicity has to be earned. One paints in accordance with nature one does not try to copy nature.

Anonymous said...

Hey David,

I think the first Anonymous poster has your number. Why didn't you answer his question? Did you vote for Trump or not? Because that will shed light on your whole theory. :)

Anonymous said...

There is another way in which the analogy between McNaughton's work and the Communist-era (by the way, what's so difficult about utter the word, Communist?) ‘Socialist realism’ is inept: neither McNaughton’s style nor his themes are mandatory, quite the opposite – he may be a mediocre painter, but he is not a part of an artistic group or movement and there is no Gulag sentence if he does not abide by its rules. Again, quite the opposite: the art establishment probably would rather he didn’t exist at all; if possible, they would purge him off to a Siberia of losers. Instead, they have to suffer his success, although a success limited to people without artistic discretion, who only appreciate the ‘message’ his paintings convey. In this, his admirers are no different from those of Diego Rivera or the socialist-realists. But McNaughton success is not propped up by the Communist propaganda machine as Rivera’s has been.
Cuneo’s drawing is the better piece of art, sure, but it is also a simplistic cartoon for infantile minds. As so many New Yorker covers are.

Anonymous said...

First Anonymous here - hey Anon. - maybe he understood it was a facetious question that didn't need an answer - and maybe it's no one's fucking business .

xopxe said...

I am certainly not afraid of the word Communist. But I don't think the word helps here. For starters there's typically communist art which is not SocRealist at all (ref Hollywood's superanachronistic use of Constructivism all the fricking time). Then, there's a lot of art that looks and feels exactly as socialist-realism from capitalist countries (and the other way).

Anyway, grandiloquent portraits that attempt to build an heroic image of some actually ridiculous subject are far from being Soc-Realist exclusivity, nor even particularly representative.

And yes, I do agree that, beyond the style, the difference between a SocRealist painter and McNaughton is huge: the first is in a very structured and safe position, the second is actually exposing himself (for derision, no less).

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

Chris, what's your own definition of 'realism' in visual art?

As far as I can tell from my experience; the degree of realism in a work of art is directly related to the degree of belief engendered by it.

Thus a typical painterly cartoon by Picasso can possess more realism than one by Dufy, or a Waterhouse more realism than an Alma Tadema, or a Chardin more realism than a Landseer etc, etc.

This is because our belief is induced by the way a story is told and not in the subject of the story itself. This is precisely why the suggestive stokes of a Sargent painting appear far more real to us than any trompe l’oeil.
It is why we cannot (imaginatively) believe in any photograph.


chris bennett said...

It is also the reason Cuneo's marks are more real than McNaughton's.

Laurence John said...

Chris, at first i thought you were saying that ‘realism’ is the degree of likeness to our everyday visual perception of reality ("a Chardin more realism than a Landseer etc”)

then you say "This is because our belief is induced by the way a story is told and not in the subject of the story itself”

… but there are countless way a story can be told and still be believable, and many of them may be unrealistic.

suppose i find the narrative world of Krazy Kat totally believable. does that mean it qualifies as ‘realism’ ?

doesn’t it also just land us in the subjective zone; surely someone who ‘believes’ in the narrative of the McNaughton painting over the Cuneo will simply refute your conclusion and say it is the more realistic work ?

kev ferrara said...

I don't understand what goal is accomplished by teasing out what everybody's own private definition of "realism" is. Its a colloquial word. Use it colloquially.

Political discourse exists at the level of the cartoon and always has. That one political cartoon is wittier than another, or says the right things for your persuasion, doesn't change the fact that it is a cartoon. Whether it covers the ceiling of a chapel or 2 inches square in newsprint.

In terms of art, Cuneo, a pro, pegs what he aims at, and McNaughton, an amateur, whiffs.

The real issue here is that McNaughton is getting away with being bad by nakedly pandering to an audience. Like Kinkade before him with evangelicals.

Then again, what political demographic isn't nakedly pandered to by somebody who doesn't deserve the status thusly achieved? Politics is almost nothing but pandering. Cartoons themselves are a form of pandering.

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

I think you have me around the wrong way. I define the realism of an artwork as proportional to the condition of belief in it because an artfully abstracted realisation of appearances will be experienced as more real than one unmindfully approaching the qualities of photography.

Unlike Landseer and Alma Tadema, the abstractions of Chardin and Waterhouse are orchestrated to evoke more than the sum of their parts. And it is this quality of suggestion in art that provides the conduit for the audience to imaginatively live the work, thus finding it believable.

Hence I wrote: "This is because our belief is induced by the way a story is told and not in the subject of the story itself". All paintings worth their salt are stories written and expressed as a plastic synthesis - 'An Apple on a Plate' as much as 'The Temptation of Adam'. The meaning of each painting does not reside in its subject but in the connectivity of its plastic forms.

Which means that belief in a work has nothing to do with identifying with its subject, and why I cannot agree with this:
...surely someone who ‘believes’ in the narrative of the McNaughton painting over the Cuneo will simply refute your conclusion and say it is the more realistic work.

Laurence John said...


Chris, i think you go too far with this idea that subject matter is irrelevant.

if we’re looking at a painting of a dramatically staged narrative we’re responding to how successfully the drama is staged (e.g. ‘acted' by the characters, composed, lit etc). all of that staged fiction is then given life by the ability of the painter in terms of passages of paint, rendering etc, but to say that the drama itself is irrelevant seems bizarre.

Chris: "The meaning of each painting does not reside in its subject but in the connectivity of its plastic forms”

difficult assertion to prove since we can’t ‘not see’ the subject matter. and since the ‘plastic forms’ describe the subject matter it would seem it’s the inter-relation of the two where we discern artistic quality.

in other words, it’s HOW form describes subject matter (content) which is key. but again, that doesn’t mean that subject matter is irrelevant.

Tom said...

Laurence, why can't the "HOW'," be the actual content of a painting? As the how is he hard part of painting, the mental part, the objective part which reveals the character and spirit of a painter, or a nation or an epoch. Lot's of painters have done the same subjects, but why do some feel so much convincing? The nature of the how is really what makes the distinctions in different art works, much more then the subject. I guess I might even say, the subject is only a carry, a bucket so to speak to hold the water which is the true content of the painting.

Laurence John said...

Tom, if you’re only interested in the HOW aspect of a particular painter / paintings that’s absolutely fine, but i’m not. i’m interested in the final, overall image just as much as how it was realised. ideally i want a memorable image (in the form of a staged fiction) that reveals some sort of psychological truth about the human condition, but is also beautifully painted (in technical terms). oh, and stylistically original too.

big ask huh ?

kev ferrara said...

The meaning of each painting does not reside in its subject but in the connectivity of its plastic forms.

I think an argument can be made that archetype is the intermediate stage between the pure plasticity of form on the abstract end of things, and the outside directing references on the literal end. And that there is a substantial component of archetype to all subjective references which are expressively characterized by the meaningful plastic orchestrations that evoke them.

kev ferrara said...

A key to great art is that, to the furthest degree possible, the surface references that point away from the image to information outside the aesthetic realm have been edited out. The million dollar question then arises; just how much of the meaning of a reference can be expressed through aesthetic forces alone.

This is the grand pursuit of all great artists, as I see it. For pictures to have a life wholly their own. For each work to be sovereign.

And in the act of alienating themselves from quotidian and messy experience, they have that much better a chance at getting at the profound truths, abstract and archetypal, shared among all of us.

chris bennett said...

Laurence and Tom,

I did not say that subject was irrelevant, rather that the engine generating the meaning out of the subject is expressed by way of the connectivity of its plastic forms and not its literary associations. However I admit that the brevity of what I wrote does invite a misinterpretation and what Kev has just said about archetypes is (if he'll forgive the expression) the missing link between pure plasticity of form and the literal references it describes, which in turn contextualises the purely plastic narrative.

I'm short on time right now so I will take up Kev's further points later - I just wanted to slot in a reply here to help flow and clarity in the discussion.

Laurence John said...

“ the engine generating the meaning out of the subject is expressed by way of the connectivity of its plastic forms…”

Chris, it’s hard to disagree with this statement because it’s so open to interpretation. i feel it needs an essay to explain, or better yet, an hour long illustrated video (with examples of work where the idea is absent and present) to really drill down into the finer points of what you’re getting at.



chris bennett said...

Laurence.
I think the easiest way to explain it given the limitations of this form of communication is to compare Michelangelo's David with a typical copy of it one comes across in garden centres. The subject is absolutely identical in each, so what is touching our hearts from one that is entirely absent from the other if it is not exclusively to do with precisely orchestrated plastic expression?

chris bennett said...

The million dollar question then arises; just how much of the meaning of a reference can be expressed through aesthetic forces alone.

I think this is possibly a misleading question. If we think of the aesthetic forces and the reference as a star and a large planet inducing a particular orbit around each other it could be seen as a metaphor of how meaning is induced by the relationship of form and subject in art. If one or the other grows in prominence changing their mutual orbital ellipse this is always evidenced by the star (form) and not the planet (subject) because the aesthetic glow is always given off by form. It is only when either shrinks to nothing that meaning is extinguished.

I know how you enjoy these tortured analogies of mine... :)

kev ferrara said...

If we think of the aesthetic forces and the reference as a star and a large planet inducing a particular orbit around each other...

I think your star must have already collapsed in on itself, because no information escaped that analogy.

I know how you enjoy these tortured analogies of mine... :)

I see them more as deconstructions of the analogy trope itself.

chris bennett said...

Isn’t the purpose of an analogy to shine understanding on old information rather than provide new information? But no matter.

What I am saying is that although form and content are mutually dependant, the sensual communicator of meaningfulness out this essentially binary relationship is form.

Perhaps I should have said that in the first place. :) 

chris bennett said...

So I'm suggesting that differing the balance of form and content within their relationship should affect only the intensity of the meaning rather than its nature.

kev ferrara said...

Isn’t the purpose of an analogy to shine understanding on old information rather than provide new information?

The purpose of an analogy is to use known information to help explain new information.

To the extent I understand what you are trying to express regarding the relationship of form to content, I would say first, I don't see you grappling with the fundamental problem of where and how form and content are the same. And secondly I don't think you've fathomed the sheer number of associative relationships involved in complex expression, and how notes from multiple realms react and chord one to one, as groups, as well as altogether.

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

The purpose of an analogy is to use known information to help explain new information.

This is good, so thanks Kev. You are absolutely right. I was in error. It explains your difficulty with my analogy and also why it was so tortured.

On your second points:

I think we agree that pure form (design), such as a completely non-figurative painting, does not convey any intrinsic meaningfulness. And neither does ‘pure content’ (nature itself) such as the physical actuality of the sun setting behind a field. Both these conditions are only given meaning by subjective attitude.

So in these cases ‘form’ and ‘content’ can readily be seen to share something in common. But in the case of a painting by Whistler or George Inness you have an object deliberately designed to express content outside of itself. In other words; a physical form that evokes something that is not actually present.

It might lead us to suppose that this, in the strictest sense, explains why pure form is the sensual communicator of meaningfulness and not the content it evokes.

However, I agree that this does not answer the question of how the complex and subtle combining of from and content mutually affect both in the process.

kev ferrara said...

I think we agree that pure form (design), such as a completely non-figurative painting, does not convey any intrinsic meaningfulness.

Number one, can any painting ever be completely non-figurative? Or, better yet, non-narrative? Same may be asked of music without poetry/lyrics or without anything resembling melody attached.

Number two, what is meaning? What is its nature or structure? Is there only one kind of meaning structure, or are there several? Is there a difference between the non-meaningful and the proto-meaningful? Also a key question: Are only complete thoughts meaningful? And what constitutes a complete thought? Can a complete thought exist outside an incomplete context? Or vice versa?

And neither does ‘pure content’ (nature itself) such as the physical actuality of the sun setting behind a field (convey any intrinsic meaningfulness.)

We cannot experience "nature itself." We can only live our experience of our experience of nature, whatever the latter may be in its actuality. And, as I understand these things (pace Pragmatic Evolutionary Epistemology) our experience consists only in what is meaningful. Everything useless to us may in fact be invisible to our senses or uncomputable by our brains.

One would think the issue at core is; what constitutes meaningful signification? But even the most inept signification attempt still signifies an effort to communicate, which is meaningful.

So the real issue is, as in letters, it is not *that* you say that is important (important simply because it is communication). Any idiot can say or splatter or point or yell or gush emotionally. The issue is; what constitutes High Quality signification? What is Greatness? What is Profundity? In what sense is Truth conveyed by signification and what exactly do you mean by truth when you discuss it?

Outside the Atelier said...

I see we have a lot of highly educated artists talking among yourselves about realism and truth and meaning. Y'all clearly know what you're talking about. But how would try to explain this to the people that like Mr. McNaughton's painting? They're likely not going to be art school graduates. But they do see what McNaughton intended them to see, a painting that communicates an honorable endeavor. Mr. McNaughton's audience may not understand realism or deconstructivism, but they know honor when they see it. Mr. McNaughton succeeds because he knows his audience.

Mr. Cuneo also knows his audience, or at least the terms of this particular commission. He wasn't asked to portray his subject as honorable. He created satire, and his medium and style are aligned to this. Regular people will look at Mr. Cuneo's picture and understand that he is making fun of Mr. Trump, just as intended. Mr Cuneo too succeeded.

More and more, the people who proclaim superior education or superior station lack patience to explain why they matter and therefore belittle the other person for not getting it. Everyone demands respect.

kev ferrara said...

Y'all clearly know what you're talking about. But how would try to explain this to the people that like Mr. McNaughton's painting? They're likely not going to be art school graduates. But they do see what McNaughton intended them to see, a painting that communicates an honorable endeavor. Mr. McNaughton's audience may not understand realism or deconstructivism, but they know honor when they see it. Mr. McNaughton succeeds because he knows his audience.

I wasn't addressing the basic editorial content of McNaughton's pictures. What I was getting at was rather simple. That McNaughton's picture does not come even remotely near to its inspiration, Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing The Delaware, artistically. That this is so is brutally obvious.

You seem to be responding that if people like the painting because they like what it says, why is that not legitimate art appreciation?

My response is that people who believe art is good because it says/shows what they want it to say are not fans of art. They are fans of their own viewpoint.

And people may, and do, consume products that cater or pander to their viewpoints all day long at their pleasure. Many such people may not have the sensibility to recognize artistic quality as its own sovereign good. Or it could be that any sense they might have had of artfulness has been subjugated over time to their overriding political, ideological, or religious allegiances. Either way, artistic quality per se, isn't really the point of the purchase.

I have often said on this blog that I don't think the inherent languages of art and politics ever actually interact. At the technical level, one cannot speak politically in the language of art, nor artistically in the language of politics. One can only attach a bit of one to a work of the other; always in service of a political moment that will eventually pass and be long forgotten. And in the long term, only the art aspect of the agglomeration will survive, leaving chunks of dead political mud marring its expression into perpetuity.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

Taking a lift with no stops from the basement of Tower Form&Content to its penthouse:

After much reflection I have become increasingly convinced by your notion that truth can only be embodied within narrative. In other words; structures that resolve the arguments they posit. So a definition of ‘truth’ might therefore be ‘the recognition of a narrative that can be widely transposed’. This certainly holds for such things as mathematics and dialectics. And this is how narrative forms such as music, painting, literature or film are able to embody truths of the human condition.

So does your question now become: ‘Is there a difference between a truth expressed through High Quality narrative and the same truth expressed through poor quality narrative?’ And if there is, would this mean the difference is in their degree of transposability? - The idea that High Quality narrative (High Quality signification) is that which is most widely transposable, as is the case, for example, with the plays of William Shakespeare.

kev ferrara said...

I have become increasingly convinced by your notion that truth can only be embodied within narrative. In other words; structures that resolve the arguments they posit.

I want to emphasize that in order to understand what I meant about truth needing to be embedded in narrative, you have to appreciate what the minimum possible narrative structure is, how simple it is. Maybe a mere demonstration of a change in sensation; a story written in qualia, a single equation. What makes an argument (what we call an argument) is the complex orchestration of any number of such simpler demonstrations interacting toward an inevitable end state.

So a definition of ‘truth’ might therefore be ‘the recognition of a narrative that can be widely transposed’.

This is the same idea as those who say that what defines truth is that it is predictive. But this is the utility of truth, not its nature.

Every truth statement makes a prediction, and thus offers a possibility of transposition of its essential idea between instantiations. But this prediction isn't the truth of the statement, because it's static. Just as the conclusion of an argument isn't the argument.

Rather, the prediction actually implies some optimal abstraction of the narrative process that, if instantiated, would result in the prediction coming to pass. It is this abstracted narrative process that is the truth, not the prediction.

‘Is there a difference between a truth expressed through High Quality narrative and the same truth expressed through poor quality narrative?’

I think the answer lies in belief in the narrative. To the degree that every aspect of a narrative is aesthetic... expressing truth in every regard, at every scale and level and through every component... yet the whole thing remains utterly engrossing as its own reality, that is the mark of excellence.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous wrote: "I think the first Anonymous poster has your number. Why didn't you answer his question? Did you vote for Trump or not?"

I didn't think it was a real question. I thought it was a humorous insult.

xopxe: I agree that constructivism was an interesting school of art by true believers in communism. It was enhanced by debates between genuine artistic schools of the day, which may be why the soviet government began purging the constructivist artists the way they purged other Trotskyite troublemakers in the 1930s. But I think that socialist realism, a form of basely intelligible art, styled in form and content as propaganda to cheer the lowest common denominator, remains useful as a reference point for McNaughton.

Capitalism surely has more than its share of similarly fake heroic art, but I think it would be a mistake to conflate social realism (much of which also employed a representational, accessible style, but to raise questions of injustice and to emphasize the worth of the individual) with socialist realism. The WPA was nothing like the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment.

The "difference between a SocRealist painter and McNaughton" is not, in my view, that "the first is a very structured and safe position, the second is actually exposing himself." McNaughton is nested in the heart of a very insular and protected community that enjoys the ultimate safety: Jesus is on their side, guides Donald Trump and will see that his misguided critics from the blue states will suffer eternal torment in a lake of fire (along with fine art critics). If McNaughton was genuinely willing to risk exposing himself, he might read a book or a newspaper.

Other anonymous wrote: "Cuneo's drawing is the better piece of art, sure, but it is also a simplistic cartoon for infantile minds"

I agree that many New Yorker covers are, but I think Cuneo's work is smarter than you give him credit for being. If his were a McNaughton style political screed, Cuneo might've put devil's horns on Trump, or shown Trump being vanquished by the forces of goodness. Instead, the joke in Cuneo's cover is that, notwithstanding all of the forces that encircle him, Trump persists in doing what he wants to do, playing the ball where it lies perched on that leaf, making use of a turtle's back. Is he undeterred because he is so determined? Is he undeterred because he is oblivious? Are we amazed that he is able to keep the game going when any conventional politician would've been gobbled up long ago? In my experience, Cuneo's jokes are never for infantile minds.

xopxe said...

"I have often said on this blog that I don't think the inherent languages of art and politics ever actually interact. At the technical level, one cannot speak politically in the language of art, nor artistically in the language of politics."

I think you suffer if a reductionist view of politics.

Marx is full of first rate literature. When you read the Communist Manifesto it fucken drives you to a higher level of consciousness.

And the list of artists who were motivated by politics and who seeked to convey a political message is huge. Songwriters, poets, illustrators... (My experience is mostly lefty, tough, and as all mainstream US politics is right wing, perhaps there is a blind spot)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "I don't understand what goal is accomplished by teasing out what everybody's own private definition of 'realism' is. It's a colloquial word. Use it colloquially."

It may be a losing battle, but my original intention was to reflect on the different types of realism at play here. Some people appear to believe that a highly unrealistic idea gains credibility if it can be articulated "realistically." For others, the most loose, undetailed drawing can present an observation whose realism has no bottom. Some may believe, like Burt Silverman, that the highest representational art must contain a fusion of form and content, perhaps compromising on both in a marriage which is at the heart of art. And then, as discussed later in this dialogue, there are great artistic forms that contain a "reality" all their own. I'm not suggesting that one definition of "realism" has to emerge triumphant in all of this, but I do think the diversity of these interpretations should cause those who applaud photorealism to think twice about what's real and what is not, and even to consider that realism can be a tool of the devil.

"Cartoons themselves are a form of pandering."

If you'd stop beating up on cartoons, I could stop dredging up old arguments about Saul Steinberg, Cuneo, etc.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett and Laurence John: "Surely someone who 'believes' in the narrative of the McNaughton painting over the Cuneo will simply refute your conclusion and say it is the more realistic work."

If this were simply a debate over the interpretation of economic statistics or regulatory policy, then I think the word, "surely" would be appropriate. But seeing as how we are comparing two works of art, it seems to me that any refutation should have to take into consideration both form and content. Even if I believed in the narrative of the McNaughton painting, that doesn't relieve me of the obligation to address the shallow, cheesy visual presentation. In fact, any artist who finds satisfaction in such a dopey presentation should cause a conscientious viewer to re-examine his or her belief in the narrative portion of the work.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The million-dollar question then arises; just how much of the meaning of a reference can be expressed through aesthetic forces alone."

If not the million-dollar question, that's certainly the $990,000 question. I may be willing to push the answer a little further than you, based upon past exchanges. In the act of "alienating themselves from quotidian and messy experience," some earnest artists are willing to venture into degrees of abstraction. Are you willing to accompany them there?

Vanderwolff said...

There are many voices perfectly calibrated to the sport of critical thrust and parry, so I will defer to them on the greater questions of ultimate truth in art. All I would like to suggest, outside of the context of political partisanship, is that Mr. McNaughton's audience isn't necessarily less-informed, artistically myopic, or for that matter, less sophisticated than Mr. Cuneo's. The difference is that they could probably care less about the niceties of pictorial honesty or graphic ingenuity because the context is second to the war they feel to be engaged in. Mr. Cuneo's audience has, just maybe, a fuller cup of whimsy from which to draw because they view the world in a less binary, combative light. This isn't a judgment on the collective intellect of Mr. McNaughton's audience, but more of a chalk line on the metrics of their approach. When world views are so fundamentally irreconcilable, the side that believes itself to be persecuted and in true danger on all perceived fronts will always care less for nuance than for reaffirmation, backup with a blunt object, regardless of the source, skill level, or the want of an aesthetic espoused by an imagined foe.

Not so very long ago, the chasm between social commentary and popular art was still bridgeable, so to speak. One quietly memorable example is Norman Rockwell's 1966 Look magazine painting "The Peace Corps (JFK’s Bold Legacy)" (which David could comment on far more insightfully than I). It is devoid of zealotry or editorial pyrotechnics, but achieves a thoughtful power by deemphasizing the obvious central figure, and in so doing achieves a cohesiveness in spirit and mood forever absent in McNaughton's work. Perhaps an inaccurate comparison, as Rockwell was remarkably disinterested in stoking doctrinaire grievances on either side, and the beauty of that is now mostly dead on our cultural watch.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett wrote: "pure form is the sensual communicator of meaningfulness and not the content it evokes."

Are we talking about "sensual" in the sense of being communicated by non-intellectual, physical senses (sight, touch, sound, hearing, etc.)? And if so, does that mean there is a parallel line of communication for the intellect (such as mathematical symbols, words, etc.?) You mentioned earlier the "essentially binary relationship" between form and content, but do you believe in a purely sensual art form, perhaps some types of abstract expressionism?

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Are only complete thoughts meaningful?"

I'd say a complete thought is usually a lesser form of art, even though it may be "meaningful" and internally consistent. I've been meaning for a long time to put something out there for discussion on this exact topic. Now that I'm back from my travels, I'll cue something up next on this topic.

xopxe said...

Oh, coordinated posting :)

Just to wrap up my point: the heroic portrait under SotzRealism is only a subproduct, not all of it, and even that subproduct does not look at all as that McNaughton work. SotzRealism is defined by the intention (depict the reality in its revolutionary progress, to educate in the socialist spirit, etc, etc), not style nor subject. All stylistic properties come from this, and thus changed over time as the political plan for that intention changed, and styles changed their assigned meaning. So, under Stalin many works have a weird timelessness, because there's a conflict between a perfect future to come and the inability to express why the present is not already perfect. Or see how the works go razor sharp on not being too academic, but worked on enough, but not too artsy, but grand, but not pedantic nor condescending, but, but... Because of this the "Heroicness", monumentality, etc., once agreed upon, permeate all depicted subjects from the time. Even frikin nature mortes, I kid you not. Oh, there were SotzRealist nature mortes. And rainy impressionist city views, which also were vetoed by the community as worthwhile. None of these issues and conflicts apply to McNaughton.

Works from the '60s look different because what is considered needed for that same original intention is different.
Just check this random list on "SotzRealist paintings about planes, airports and their workers": https://kulturologia.ru/blogs/010217/33241/

After all there was a SotzRealist literature and architecture (some of it quite powerful). McNaughton literature would be probably internet memes, but what would be a McNaughton building?

About McNaughton being actually brave to display that stuff perhaps you're right. It's perfectly possible to live in a bubble were that stuff is not exposed to ridicule. And yes, Cuneo's work here is pretty subtle. There's even a disappointed voter reading ("he said he was going to drain the swamp, but look")

Laurence John said...

David: "Even if I believed in the narrative of the McNaughton painting, that doesn't relieve me of the obligation to address the shallow, cheesy visual presentation"

you obviously have much more faith in the non-art-interested-public’s ability to discern quality from dross than i have.

there’s an audience for almost anything, no matter what the level of cheese. i’ve seen the general public go for art that is way cheesier (and worse in painterly terms) than McNaughton’s. that he should find an audience receptive to his narratives and who don’t recognise bad painting doesn’t surprise me in the least.

kev ferrara said...

I think you suffer if a reductionist view of politics.

Marx is full of first rate literature. When you read the Communist Manifesto it fucken drives you to a higher level of consciousness.


I think you suffer a reductionist view of literature, economics, history, morality, 2nd order effects/unintended consequences, sociology, art, and my linguistic position regarding aesthetics. But have a nice day, comrade.

xopxe said...

I don't particularly care about your linguistic position regarding aesthetics, but dismissing someone's morality in passing is kind of gross.
We don't do that here.

kev ferrara said...

"Cartoons themselves are a form of pandering."

If you'd stop beating up on cartoons, I could stop dredging up old arguments about Saul Steinberg, Cuneo, etc.


I was speaking irrespective of content. The content could be dumb or brilliant, but the art is always pablum. Even at its wittiest, even at its most crafted.

kev ferrara said...

I don't particularly care about your linguistic position regarding aesthetics, but dismissing someone's morality in passing is kind of gross.
We don't do that here.


Communists murdered ten times the number of people as Nazis. Nazism may have been worse qualitatively, but Communism makes up for it in quantity and continued psychological attraction. Those who still advocate for either are historically ignorant moral retards who deserve public rebuke.

Let me know if the above post is "something we do here."

xopxe said...

Stop talking to me as if you knew who I am or what I think, thank you.

kev ferrara said...

"I don't particularly care about your linguistic position regarding aesthetics"

Okay, let's agree to not communicate at all. Take care.

kev ferrara said...

I'd say a complete thought is usually a lesser form of art, even though it may be "meaningful" and internally consistent.

My two cents, to clarify my position before you embark...

A statement that nails something directly, leaving no room for participation of the audience's imagination is a complete thought, but not one expressed in the terms of art. Direct reference is not artful, not aesthetic, it direct the audience out of the work. So this is not what I am talking about.

Rather, it is a suggestion that is a complete thought in art's terms. So that is what I mean by a complete thought; one expressed through plastic form and graphic relation where the audience's role in performing imaginative closure is both necessary and installed into the design.

Vagueness would be an example of something that is not a complete thought.

And again, a suggestion can be made incomplete, or may be negated by a faulty context. And vagueness can be turned into suggestion by a strongly realized context that narrows its possibility.

Anonymous said...

Anon from 8/07/2018 10:28 PM here.
“McNaughton is nested in the heart of a very insular and protected community that enjoys the ultimate safety: Jesus is on their side, guides Donald Trump and will see that his misguided critics from the blue states will suffer eternal torment in a lake of fire (along with fine art critics). If McNaughton was genuinely willing to risk exposing himself, he might read a book or a newspaper.”
Is McNaughton really ‘nested in the heart of a very insular and protected community’? Insular? That insular community elected a president, if you mean Trump supporters. He, McNaughton is surely insulated in an art world that despises the kind of realism he purports to practice on one hand, and the message he conveys on the other. Protected? What’s the ratio between the Trump supporters attacked, beaten, banished from social media etc. and those on the other side who have been through similar ordeals?
Would you say the people who enjoy the kind of art the Podestas hoard are insulated? I believe it is an apt description, insofar as sane people would stay away from people with such a bizarre taste in art. And the Podestas are certainly protected by their power, money and influence.
As for ‘safety’: xopxe meant and I implied another connotation. The socialist-realist was in a safe position in a more mundane way (by enjoying prestige, money and the like, and not being sent to a Gulag); not the ultimate safety of one who, for instance, got to save his soul through martyrdom. The Communists killed and still kill millions of people enjoying the ultimate safety of knowing History is on their side, guiding Stalin, Mao or Castro. Since the notions of eternal punishment, sin, heaven and hell are just bourgeois’ superstitions, they see to it that the apostates get their punishment already in this life, sending them to prisons or labor camps.
‘I agree that many New Yorker covers are [simplistic cartoons for infantile minds], but I think Cuneo's work is smarter than you give him credit for being. If his were a McNaughton style political screed, Cuneo might've put devil's horns on Trump, or shown Trump being vanquished by the forces of goodness. Instead, the joke in Cuneo's cover is that, notwithstanding all of the forces that encircle him, Trump persists in doing what he wants to do, playing the ball where it lies perched on that leaf, making use of a turtle's back. Is he undeterred because he is so determined? Is he undeterred because he is oblivious? Are we amazed that he is able to keep the game going when any conventional politician would've been gobbled up long ago?’
You say you see an ambivalence in Cuneo´s cartoon – is it a mockery of Trump’s obliviousness, or a veiled appreciation of his fierce determination? I don’t see it, and the thought seemed to have occurred to you as you wrote it: a moment before you said that, had it been a McNaughton piece, he would have put devil’s horns on Trump, or shown him being vanquished by the forces of goodness – no ambivalence in that translation of Cuneo’s intentions to McNaughton terms. The cover was obviously a mockery, the familiar trope of a ‘clueless Trump’. There can be no doubt about it. One can recognize this piece as a ‘simplistic cartoon for infantile minds’ and also admire its fastidious line work and artful subduedness of color.

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The million-dollar question then arises; just how much of the meaning of a reference can be expressed through aesthetic forces alone."

If not the million-dollar question, that's certainly the $990,000 question. I may be willing to push the answer a little further than you, based upon past exchanges. In the act of "alienating themselves from quotidian and messy experience," some earnest artists are willing to venture into degrees of abstraction. Are you willing to accompany them there?


I think you are missing what I am saying. What I'm really after is how you make people understand the narrative significance of a 1930s new york city police officer without ever having seen one before. Or that a dirigible is both full of air and floating high in the sky. Or that one house is full of happy people and the other sad. How do you make a Chinese woman who has worked in rice fields her entire life understand everything narratively significant about an anti-aircraft gun even if she has never seen one in her life? How do you show twin sisters so that the audience, whoever comprises it, understands one is a mother and the other a lonely aunt without resorting to obvious indicators?

The point of converting everything to aesthetic forces and archetypes is to universalize every picture. To gird against the tribalisms of symbolic codes and politics and fashion. So pictures are for everybody, and have the potential to join together any two people, no matter their lives, in a moment of beautiful truth-sharing.

And as far as I am concerned, abstraction is the necessary predicate for the entire suggestive language of Art, everything I yammer on about. Our differences lie in what we both mean, respectively, by "abstraction."

xopxe said...

Okay, let's agree to not communicate at all. Take care.

It's not like you're going to recognize your error, so yeah.

kev ferrara said...

You simultaneously told me you don't care what I'm talking about, and that I have a reductionist viewpoint. Be a little more self-aware, chief.

xopxe said...

Wow. Next time i'll go right to "you have dubious morals and are into genocide apology", to make this worthwhile.

chris bennett said...


Kev,

Thanks for the further points about truth being only embodied by narrative. A part of my testing of the principle was asking such things as if it holds for the simplest narratives I can think of such as 1+1=2. Your further points about a truth’s usefulness as prediction being the same idea as its transposability were very illuminating indeed. So thanks for that as well.

"Is there a difference between a truth expressed through High Quality narrative and the same truth expressed through poor quality narrative?"


I think the answer lies in belief in the narrative. To the degree that every aspect of a narrative is aesthetic... expressing truth in every regard, at every scale and level and through every component... yet the whole thing remains utterly engrossing as its own reality, that is the mark of excellence.

In so far that I understand belief in something to be measured by the degree of emotional investment in it, it would follow that any narrative structure that is self-defining (‘sovereign’ as you call it, ‘a definition of itself’ as I think Dunn said) would therefore solicit the deepest and most comprehensive emotional investment. The corollary to this would be that superstitions, ideologies, dogmas etc, which because they do not engender “truth in every regard, at every scale and level and through every component” are only capable of garnering the wilful belief of those wishing to escape truth, which is by definition superficial belief. We all do this when we indulge in escapism from time to time; entertainment for entertainment’s sake or nostalgia – it is the point of it; to take a temporary holiday from reality.

chris bennett said...

David,

Are we talking about "sensual" in the sense of being communicated by non-intellectual, physical senses (sight, touch, sound, hearing, etc.)?

Yes.

And if so, does that mean there is a parallel line of communication for the intellect (such as mathematical symbols, words, etc.?)

Yes. But the thing to remember is that all thought is sensation. The words and numbers and sounds and pictures come after; they are our tools for organising them and therefore communicating them. For example; a story written as text communicates sensations by way of its ‘story beats’ as do musical notes by changing their frequency, duration, volume, timbre etc. The words themselves are being transposed by the intellect into abstract conditions which by way of their ordering one after another induce a sequence of sensations in the reader. It is this sequence of sensations that the reader understands in the same way as the direct writing of them by the language of the plastic arts.

You mentioned earlier the "essentially binary relationship" between form and content, but do you believe in a purely sensual art form, perhaps some types of abstract expressionism?

What I have said just above means I consider that all art forms express themselves by purely sensual means. Art cannot appeal to the intellect because the intellect is not evolved to synthesise. It's just that literature requires an intellectual consensus about its linguistic code so that the structuring of its embodied sensations, the ‘story beats’, can be induced in the in the ‘non-intellectual’ part of our being and therefore understood by it.

So you see our sensations are intrinsically caught up with the phenomena that induces them. Therefore any attempt to write a ‘purely sensual work of art will necessarily wind up as referencing something. And this brings us back to what Kev was addressing with his million dollar question, or your $990,000 one. :)

kev ferrara said...

Thanks for the further points about truth being only embodied by narrative. A part of my testing of the principle was asking such things as if it holds for the simplest narratives I can think of such as 1+1=2.

Actually addition is just an identity in disguise. It's not narrative. The pythagorean theorem would be a better example, or the quadratic equation, or any algorithm.

I think the answer lies in belief in the narrative. To the degree that every aspect of a narrative is aesthetic... expressing truth in every regard, at every scale and level and through every component... yet the whole thing remains utterly engrossing as its own reality, that is the mark of excellence.

I should have added that the whole must altogether synthesize to express, even through its complexity, a singular narrated idea, which the viewer experiences in full through the intuition.

In so far that I understand belief in something to be measured by the degree of emotional investment in it, it would follow that any narrative structure that is self-defining (‘sovereign’ as you call it, ‘a definition of itself’ as I think Dunn said) would therefore solicit the deepest and most comprehensive emotional investment.

An Agatha Christie novel can completely engross a reader without the slightest whiff of the emotional. Belief is the result of a host of factors, including the combination of self-consistency and sufficient suggestion. Whether emotions come roaring into it or not is up to choice, talent, and dedication.

Also, a daydreamer can get utterly lost in the vagueness of a projection test pretending to be an artwork. (Or even the vagueness of the blotches on an alley wall.) And this might lead to an emotional catharsis wholly dictated by whims of the daydreamer's psyche. How can we argue that such an experience was not "emotionally invested" or sovereign?

So there's more to this than you seem to be capturing.

Yes. But the thing to remember is that all thought is sensation. The words and numbers and sounds and pictures come after; they are our tools for organising them and therefore communicating them. For example; a story written as text communicates sensations by way of its ‘story beats’ as do musical notes by changing their frequency, duration, volume, timbre etc.

Now Chris... I'm glad David is finally perking up to these ideas I've been working away at for all these years, like the clouds have suddenly parted, but you need to watch out about filling in your theoretical blanks so blithely and declaratively. There's a lot of information you're missing because I've purposely not shared it on this blog or elsewhere for various reasons. I also work at not even implying stuff I don't know or which is unknown or which is confused by the current state of the science. So if you paraphrase me without actually knowing where the science hooks up to the linguistics and aesthetics, you will go wrong. I actually have done the homework so I can vouch for the way I word things.

If you care to go back and read what I have actually written, not what you remember me as having written, you will see that I try to be very specific to not go beyond what I have personally tested and researched, in order that the theory as a whole can't be shot down because of specious minor claims. All to say, what you have just written is wrong by errors of commission and omission and certainly suffers from too much certainty in the face of those errors. Just say what you are absolutely sure of. Or, if that ain't your bag, as I've asked of you on several prior occasions, just "let me say my own lines."

chris bennett said...

Yes, You're right. It was getting late and I took a few short cuts. Considering the work I know you have put into all this stuff, that was careless of me to say the very least. I'm sorry.

The Social Pathologist said...

As someone who would have voted for Trump--(let's just stick to the art, OK)--but wasn't legally able to, I very broadly agree with David's comments, though the political partisanship displayed is....dare I say it........."deplorable". :)

McNaughton's painting is, quite simply, proletarian schmaltz. There's now way in hell it reaches the technical excellence of Rockwell or his ability with subject composition. It's C grade art and it's never going to appeal to the connoisseur. U.S. conservative pundits, just like their liberal opponents, will always try to exaggerate the virtue of their representative and the vices of their opponents, and it's the same when it comes to art. But you know what, it really doesn't matter. Like socialist realist art it's pabulum for the faithful and in that regard it does the job quite well.

The nascent science of neuroaesthetics has already started yielding some important insights into how the average person, as opposed to art connoisseurs, experience art. And let me tell you, one does not speak for the other. The cognitive process are totally different. The average person finds realist art far easier to appreciate than abstraction. It's cognitively easier. Simple themes, positive messages that they can associate with, easily recognisable forms are all de rigur for popular art. Art snobs, arguing about the merits of the work are speaking for a very limited audience. Google the work of Komar and Melamid and you'll see that McNaughton is literally painting the "people's art".

http://awp.diaart.org/km/index.html

Now, how about we try this work against Cuneo's, which I think is a better comparison.

(Yes, I know it's a rehash of an old drawing, but the juxtaposition is done quite well)

https://www.flickr.com/photos/expd/32278056891/in/dateposted-public/

McNaughton's art is realist art, but it's art of a low standard, but it's good enough for his intended audience.

David Apatoff said...

Vanderwolff-- Thanks for a very thoughtful observation. I agree that Mr. McNaughton's fans probably feel imperiled in the way you describe. I also agree that no one looks for artistic nuance when they believe themselves trapped in a war over "reaffirmation" of their core principles (although when a group is desperate enough to abandon all its core principles in order to "reaffirm" them, one has to wonder what principles remain besides resentment and rage).

It's hardly surprising that a group in the situation you describe would throw "the niceties of pictorial honesty or graphic ingenuity" overboard. But when they proclaim McNaughton to be the "new Rockwell" and talk about hanging his work in the White House between the Sargents and the Zorns, they should not expect to go uncontradicted around these premises. I thought your comment about Rockwell was very astute, but McNaughton's art is the art of dumb rage, painted for dopes.

xopxe-- Thanks for your insights into SotzRealism. My own understanding of the style did not penetrate so deep, and you have caused me to do look further. Learning from commenters is probably my favorite thing about this blog.

You say that socialist realism "changed over time as the political plan for that intention changed, and styles changed their assigned meaning." I originally offered up McNaughton as a "2018 style" of socialist realism, not like the posters of Stalin or Mao, but a modern version, designed to rally and shape the perceptions of gullible masses. Is there a different type of art today which you would say is most closely related to Sotzrealism (whether in a capitalist, communist, or other form of society)?


xopxe said...

Hmmm... I can not think of anything thought on such a grand scale, like to be an educational tool for a whole society, being deployed today. Does anyone think about art on a nationwide level, across all the population?

If you were to look for a style that could serve the purpose of SotzRealism today it would have to be close enough to real experience as to allow empathy, leave space for idealization to show the path forward and how things should be, no to be too jarring on the eye, and be heavy on convention to be legible by everyone. Perhaps Manga, or the language of TV ads and street publicity.

No wait, the answer is obvious, SotzRealism today would be just whatever ad agencies crank out when they go big.

Tom said...

David;
Norman Rockwell, still waiting for a drawing from life!? Talking about social realism maybe we should create a category called Corporate Realism TradeMark. :) ( I know you don't agree. I just had to say it!)

David Apatoff said...


Kev Ferrara-- I'd say your definition of a "complete thought" is a mite eccentric if by "complete" you mean something that is not finished or comprehensive, but instead a suggestion or implication from the artist which requires the audience to fill in the gaps and see through the symbolic veil. However, if that's what you mean by the term, we are in full accord.

You also write: "And as far as I am concerned, abstraction is the necessary predicate for the entire suggestive language of Art, everything I yammer on about. Our differences lie in what we both mean, respectively, by 'abstraction.'"

I fully agree that abstraction underlies the quality of all art. I have often quoted here Robert Fawcett's retort to abstract expressionists who looked down on representational painters; he was amused by the "misconception that abstract qualities are new to contemporary painting, whereas they have been the comparison of excellence since painting began."

But once you've let abstraction into the tent, I don't understand why you remain so wedded to a narrative content. You write: "What I'm really after is how you make people understand the narrative significance of a 1930s new york city police officer without ever having seen one before. Or that a dirigible is both full of air and floating high in the sky. Or that one house is full of happy people and the other sad." If you truly want to "universalize every picture" and you're not averse to making the recipient of the picture work a little bit, to struggle with the elusive and oblique and allegorical, why do you draw the line at recognizable, representational content? It seems pretty arbitrary.

Finally, on the subject of cartoons I'm glad to see that you remain consistent in your dogmatism. You claim to understand the virtues of economy and simplicity; you claim to appreciate the insightfulness that even a quick preliminary sketch may display. Yet, you dismiss all cartoon drawing as "pablum," something soft and bland and trite. The cartoonist's tool of extreme economy of means is not only correlative to the tool of abstraction by your favorite painters, it is also correlative to the schematic diagrams or symbolic representations by scientists. It is related to the cartographer's extreme simplification of a rich and full color 3D landscape into a simple line drawing of a few relevant features such as roads or boundaries. Extreme simplification, a caricature of nature, is the only way to make elements such as as underground mineral deposits or hydrological processes comprehensible. The schematic diagram of a semiconductor is necessarily a cartoon. A painting by Sorolla of such subjects, or the subject of a Cuneo cartoon, would be a horrible flop.

All such drawings exaggerate the relevant and simplify or ignore the irrelevant. All are a caricature of reality, and a great deal rides on the nuances of selective emphasis of factors deemed relevant as well as the blanket omission of the vast majority of other factors; a diagram of atomic interaction may take the most simplistic possible form but still require as much care and precision as your most brilliant and complex painting.

kev ferrara said...

I'd say your definition of a "complete thought" is a mite eccentric if by "complete" you mean something that is not finished or comprehensive, but instead a suggestion or implication from the artist which requires the audience to fill in the gaps and see through the symbolic veil. However, if that's what you mean by the term, we are in full accord.

Its a signifying veil, which is not necessarily symbolic.

And I think you've missed the point that, with suggestion, the viewer's participation, the finishing imaginative closure, is designed into the way any particular expressive unit will express its specific meaning as sensual force. If the artist is good, he'll know/sense just how much information is required to get the viewer to finish the meaning-effect internally, providing the viewer has an imagination that functions normally.

Whereas vagueness has no such design consideration. Which is why vagueness is not a complete thought in artistic terms. The vague artist is not offering the viewer a chance to participate in the completion of his intended meaning because there is no intended meaning. The artist is instead offering the viewer a chance to participate in a search for his own meaning(s). Which is what a projection test offers.

It is key to note that the same goes for a complete sentence; there is much expectation that the reader will necessarily fill in the blanks suggested by the juxtpositions of words in fair accord with the author's intentions. Ascertaining meaning isn't just a matter of deciphering each word.

It is probably so that there is no way to express a thought completely in the "non-eccentric" sense which you originally assumed. Thus, it would hardly be eccentric of me to define my belief with such in mind.

kev ferrara said...

But once you've let abstraction into the tent, I don't understand why you remain so wedded to a narrative content. (...) If you truly want to "universalize every picture" and you're not averse to making the recipient of the picture work a little bit, to struggle with the elusive and oblique and allegorical, why do you draw the line at recognizable, representational content? It seems pretty arbitrary.

Yes, the idea of content is arbitrary. Yet here you are arguing in words.

You might want to try writing something with letters that avoids all recognizable, representational content. Or maybe just speak in tongues for a while. Just warble and babble and make fun baby noises. And see if anybody gets anything out of it. What a poet you'll be!

Of course, chanting nonsense syllables can be a fun activity. So I wouldn't want to discourage it.

If you want to equate chants and grunts with Mozart, that's your business. I won't because I don't particularly want to be a party to the grand cultural stupefaction and psychic destruction that smarty-pants relativism is visiting on the world.

(I'd like to hear your argument against what I've written above.)

To answer the question more in the positive:

It appears increasingly evident that humans are hyper attuned to our experience of meaning; that we don't understand the matter of the world so much as its import, what it affords, the consequences of interactions, and the meaning of relationships between things, in reactive associations, and so on. Which is nearly exactly the premise of the romantic-narrative understanding of art. Which makes me feel increasingly justified in the belief that abstraction, narrative, truth, and meaning are completely intertwined and inseparable. And that those who think otherwise haven't really looked into the question.

Which doesn't mean I don't think it's fun to design with "abstraction" without considering meaning, narrative, and truth. People are free to do as they want, and maybe they'll get lucky and come up with something catchy. Then again, the odds of a monkey randomly typing up some Shakespeare is zero.

_________

No good art, and none that I think of as great, avoids the elusive and oblique. Rather, I think both are essential factors that manifest with suggestiveness.

(Allegory is actually a complex matter which I don't care to tease out in its full extent here.)



kev ferrara said...

On the subject of cartoons, your defense above seemed to unconsciously conflate three different visual communication qualities:

1. Suggestiveness (the stuff of art, in my view)
2. Highly lossy simplification (cartooning, in my view.)
3. Instructive diagramming (information design, in my view)

I don't think a sensible argument for any one of these can be made by throwing all of them together in the same pot.

kev ferrara said...

I want to point out that the subliminal completion offers that suggestions make to an audience when experiencing a work of art are different in kind, organization, and number from those offered in games or game-like circumstances, (as with puzzles, word problems, math problems, and so on.)

David Apatoff said...

Anon from 8/07/2018 10:28 PM-- I would agree that McNaughton and the people who collect Podesta-style contemporary art both lead insular lives (although in different ways). My point about McNaughton was just that it required no artistic courage to paint what he paints. The effete art critics in Manhattan might as well be on the opposite side of the solar system from him; they have zero impact on his compensation or artistic stature. Unless he's masochistic enough to go on the internet to read criticism like this blog, McNaughton lives and works in a cocoon of like-minded people with a Manichaean view of the world. There is certainly no risk of government interference with what he does. He takes no artistic risks: there is no originality or creativity in the time worn tools he employs, or even in the content he conveys.

You also write, "You say you see an ambivalence in Cuneo´s cartoon – is it a mockery of Trump’s obliviousness, or a veiled appreciation of his fierce determination? I don’t see it,"

Well, I don't want to overstate the case. I agree there is no doubt that Cuneo is not a fan of Trump. On the other hand, I think there is complexity and nuance to Cuneo's drawing that elevates it above the "four legs good, two legs bad" approach in McNaughton's picture. Either side of the political spectrum might legitimately wonder, "How the heck does Trump stay aloft and continue to play? How does he get away with behavior that would've disqualified any previous candidate from running for local dogcatcher?" ( I don't view this as a partisan question, many conservatives-- Trump supporters or not-- have recognized that a few few short years ago a candidate who lacked family values or dodged the draft would be anathema to conservatives.) I wouldn't say Cuneo admires these mind-over-matter powers, but I think his drawing recognizes the complexity of a world in which they exist.

David Apatoff said...

Anon from 8/07/2018 10:28 PM-- Here is an ill-advised postscript to my comment above. You write, "Insular? That insular community elected a president, if you mean Trump supporters."

This is the type of comment that I usually let go by, simply because I'm trying to keep this blog about art and not about politics (unlike 97% of the other blogs which have become consumed with political battles). However, I think your comment relates to an artistic point I tried to make here (and to one of my core objections to McNaughton's pictures).

Looking at McNaughton's painting of Trump beating up Mueller (http://jonmcnaughton.com/expose-the-truth/) it may well be that McNaughton feels "persecuted and in true danger" (as suggested by commenter Vanderwolff, above) but it also seems apparent that McNaughton operates at a juvenile level. (As commenter Al McLuckie noted, it rivals Boris' infamously dopey painting of bodybuilder Jesus). You suggest, "That insular community elected a president," but internet traffic confirms that they did not do it alone; they received help from outside communities who recognized a particularly gullible audience and targeted them with a series of fairy tales and conspiracy theories as childish and unsophisticated as McNaughton's paintings (from the "fact" that the Pope endorsed Trump to the "fact" that Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington pizzeria). This is the same sizable audience who insisted that Obama was a muslim born in Africa. Mr. Trump would not have come within 30% of winning an election without them. The role of these internet myths (a modern variation of Snowball's messages painted on the wall of the barn in Animal Farm) can be tracked and quantified in key districts with data science forensics.

I'm not offering an opinion here on which outside communities were involved in the manipulation process. I pass no judgment here on why these internet fables circulated like wildfire only in the "insular community" you describe. My point is that the empirically proven flow of internet traffic shows that this audience is vulnerable to the kind of one dimensional propaganda that is McNaughton's stock in trade. I like to think that if people had more experience confronting more complex or nuanced art, they might not be such such easy prey for the weaponized art of today's version of socialist realism.

Anonymous said...

David,
Anon again.
As a longtime lurker on the site and admirer of your work (I love your book on Fuchs), I didn’t want to pick a fight, and if you read my comments again, you’d see that we mostly agree. My attitude to McNaughton's work is similar, mutatis mutandi, to that of Harold Bloom to Saul Bellow: he said about one of his books, ‘I read it and agreed with every observation, yet suffered from its incessant tendentiousness’. McNaughton, of course, is no Saul Bellow.
I think everyone here agreed he’s a mediocre painter at most, and Cuneo is the better draftsman by far. But conceptually the two pieces on the swamp are not dissimilar; that was my contention.
I also rejected the analogy between his paintings and those of the Socialist-realist school; for it to work, his paintings would have to reflect an outlook made hegemonic in society at large, as transposed to words and notions by its ‘organic intellectuals’ (as Antonio Gramsci would have it). These ‘organic intellectuals’ would comprise the majority or totality of people in mainstream media, academia and government. By that standard alone, Cuneo’s piece would be more representative of a Socialist-realist school than McNaughton’s, since Cuneo’s outlook coincides with that of the media and the academia at least.
There are other criteria, though, and McNaughton, stylistically, comes much closer. The problem with analogies is that an analogy is a combination of difference and resemblance; one can go on forever making analogies; my analogy between Cuneo’s piece and a socialist-realist model may seem far-fetched, but only on aesthetical grounds. Now would a style such as Soviet Union socialist-realism prosper without the propaganda machine that was its symbiotic counterpart? Aesthetic worth must have been only an afterthought for the commissars. Why should we make it so prevalent in dealing with the products of that school?
Since the illustrations we read about in the blog are so often discussed in a broader context which includes the artist’s biography, his times, the function his work was supposed to fulfill, I don’t think these topics are out of place here – but it’s your blog, and I shall return to my former lurking.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "You might want to try writing something with letters that avoids all recognizable, representational content."

My point was whether a painting comprised of abstract colors and shapes may be great art without the kind of representational narrative content you say you are "really after" in art. ("What I'm really after is how you make people understand the narrative significance of a 1930s new york city police officer without ever having seen one before. Or that a dirigible is both full of air and floating high in the sky. Or that one house is full of happy people and the other sad.")

I think the best analogy is music. Even without your kind of "representational content," the musical notes of Beethoven's 9th symphony convey emotional content at least as effectively as Shakespeare. You don't need to speak German to understand the heart wrenching import of Wagner's Isoldes Liebestod in Tristan & Isolde. What painterly representation of tragic love has ever reduced audiences to tears in such a profound and moving way? There's no mistaking the human emotional content in the second movement of Beethoven's fifth piano concerto, yet there is no "representational" content in the sense of a story or narrative or realistic image. But the sad, melancholy notes might be likened to a somber Rothko painting or another non-representational, abstract image.

David Apatoff said...

Anon from 8/07/2018 10:28 PM-- If you bought my book about Bernie Fuchs, I hereby take back any of my views that may have differed from yours. You're absolutely right.

Thank you, I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it.

kev ferrara said...

David,

I think we're very close in our conception of the power of music to move people through abstraction alone. Again, though, the question is what do we mean by abstraction. And what do we mean by narrative. And what do we mean by, again, a "complete thought." Or even, truth.

Great music is full of complete thoughts written in the language of melody and harmony and beat and passage and key and timbre, and so on. Great classical music is hyper articulate, orchestrated to the teeth, structured like dramatized philosophy; thematic, logical, inevitable. And highly narrative; a presentation of an immersive emotional experience that runs like clockwork. An emotion generating engine. A catharsis machine.

And everything Beethoven does to the listener is utterly controlled. By and large, everybody who listen to the 5th or 9th will experience the same emotions at the same time because Beethoven, above all else, knows exactly what he wants to do to the viewer and how to do it. Which is wholly dependent on Beethoven knowing exactly how to suggest the emotional states and the drama to his audience at an abstract level... just beyond the concrete, true, but still narrative. And not in any sense vague.

What Beethoven does is no different in kind than what Everett, Brangwyn, Cornwell, Mucha, Sargent, or Kotarbinsky have done in their best works.

Pointedly, Beethoven is not relying on the viewer to find their own catharsis amid a presentation of suggestive chaos. He's totally in control of the audience's experience all the way through. So his work is decidedly not comparable to Rothko. If it was, everybody would get the same reaction to Rothko every time it was viewed fresh. Whereas, my guess is those who do get emotional reaction from a Rothko may never get the same response twice. They may never even get another emotional response at all from a picture they once responded to. This is because their structures aren't like Beethoven's. They aren't narrative and designed to produce emotion and a particular kind of catharsis. And if they aren't, then they don't actually say anything. Because you can't say anything without having a closable meaning structure.

For me, the greatest abstract narrative moment is the fifth chord strike in the opening of Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano Concerto... the moment where the murk finally dawns as a major chord, only to drift back into melancholy. This chord gets me every time. And I consider this kind of abstract movement that produces an emotion at the core of the nature and power of all Art.

As far as I can tell, and I've looked hard and long, none of the abstract-expressionist modernists handled the music/emotion/abstraction problem with half the knowledge the great illustrative painters did; matching in sophistication the great composers.

And if you contend that they did, you would be wrong, my dear fellow. Provably.

Which is not to say that abstract art cannot rise to the level of Mahler, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, or Mozart. I think it can be done... but hasn't yet.

vanderleun said...

"One is a simplistic cartoon for infantile minds. The other is a cover for the New Yorker."

Cheap shot from a cheap and fully colonized mind.

chris bennett said...

Which is not to say that abstract art cannot rise to the level of Mahler, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, or Mozart. I think it can be done... but hasn't yet.


I think this is mistaken. The realm in which the musical narrative plays is linear and time-bound, whereas that within which the plastic arts play is nodal and essentially instantaneous. So I believe that because they do not communicate 'narrative' (a structure that resolves the argument it posits) through linear dependence means they do not address the emotions in the way music does. Though, tellingly, there are overlaps between the plastic arts and literature.

kev ferrara said...

The realm in which the musical narrative plays is linear and time-bound, whereas that within which the plastic arts play is nodal and essentially instantaneous.

First, there's no such thing as instantaneous apprehension. That is an illusion. It is a particularly persistent illusion in the visual realm because we have so much more brain capacity assigned to the visual sense than any other of our senses, that the processing speed seems instantaneous. But, the reality is, the visual sense is just a genius at apprehension; much quicker than other kinds of thought.

All apprehension is narrative. Understanding is always an aesthetic movement. Although, not all narratives are linear in the strict sense. (In fact, none of them are... but that's a technical matter.)

Second, plastic arts are so plastic they can be formed to read in any number of different ways including what is understood as "linearly."

So I believe that because they do not communicate 'narrative' (a structure that resolves the argument it posits) through linear dependence means they do not address the emotions in the way music does.

All aesthetic emotion is caused by the same suite of principles.

A posited then resolved argument is the structure of a particular kind of narrative. When I first introduced this concept to you, more than five years ago, I followed up with a more thorough explanation regarding theme and styles of thought. If you recall, you were resistant to my use of the word "argument" because of the connotation of disagreement. I then laid out to you the much wider view, including the point that "argument" was only a catch-all term as I was using it.

chris bennett said...

I do realise that 'there is no such thing as instantaneous apprehension', but thanks for the clarifications, they were, as usual, very well put.

My point is that apprehension in the plastic arts is so quick it is 'essentially instantaneous', certainly compared to the length of time it takes to digest a symphony, a film or a book. And this means that the experience of its 'argument to resolution' can and does take place repeatedly over a very short time indeed. So much so it feels 'nodal' rather than 'linear'.

This means, I suggest, that we do not 'live' the plastic narrative in the same way we 'live' the musical one. In other words; the apprehension of a plastic narrative and any meaning thereof is different in that the comprehending of it does not depend on a temporal delivery similar to everyday physical experience. This perhaps explains why, for example, we far more often weep listening to music than when looking at pictures.

Anonymous said...

vanderleun what do you mean by a colonized mind? Is it anything like those fucking robots at Trump rallys ?

Laurence John said...

Chris: "I think this is mistaken”

i thought so too.

music uses all kinds of time-based devices, such as leading the listener away from the theme into unexpected areas before rewarding them with resolution, which a static image such as a painting simply cannot do.

i personally, don’t find any painting - even the greatest figurative painting - comparable to the experience of listening to a symphony, because the mediums are so different.

kev ferrara said...
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kev ferrara said...

What Beethoven does is no different in kind than what Everett, Brangwyn, Cornwell, Mucha, Sargent, or Kotarbinsky have done in their best works.

Which is not to say that abstract art cannot rise to the level of Mahler, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, or Mozart. I think it can be done... but hasn't yet.


Chris and Laurence...

In the above quoted passages I do not say that Art and Music are the same thing.

I say that what art does with abstraction is similar in kind to what music does, (because the principles of causing meaningful aesthetic emotion are the same) and that these inherent affordances of the medium are manipulable to the level of orchestration achieved by other great composers in other fields.

So far, very few paintings in history have been organized this way, so skepticism is understandable. Controlling the audience's experience is the key factor; worth endless investigation. Because control of the audience controls the playing of the visual music.

Regarding tears: I have seen many weep in front of paintings. And never bad ones. They're always pretty darn good ones. (Although, personally, I've only ever cried over books and films, as far as I can remember. Although I've had aesthetic emotions or experiences with almost every artform.)

Since both of you are artists, I would suggest you spend much more time thinking about how I might be right on this; working the imaginative problem... rather than presuming I'm wrong and going lazy on the question. For what it's worth, I think I know exactly what I am talking about.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "For what it's worth, I think I know exactly what I am talking about”

well, prove it. show us the illustrated talk. what are you waiting for ? this is the era of the podcast and the Youtube channel. the time couldn’t be better.

i’m afraid this constant refrain of "i have uncovered esoteric (or scientific) knowledge about how great art works, but don’t have the space to go into it here" rings hollow. it’s also a conversation stopper.

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

...I would suggest you spend much more time thinking about how I might be right on this; working the imaginative problem... rather than presuming I'm wrong and going lazy on the question.

This is a flat out insult based on a presumption on your part. And this because you have failed to comprehend what I have carefully laid out twice as a counter to your claim.

I would suggest you spend much more time thinking about what I am actually driving at; working past your hubris... rather than presuming I'm lazy and therefore wrong on the question.
How's that for a presumption? Hmmm?

kev ferrara said...

And this because you have failed to comprehend what I have carefully laid out twice as a counter to your claim.

Are you sure you understood my claims accurately? Did you really think your riposte was some radically insightful point that I hadn't considered from the start? Are you sure you really understood the significance of my response?

i’m afraid this constant refrain of "i have uncovered esoteric (or scientific) knowledge about how great art works, but don’t have the space to go into it here" rings hollow. it’s also a conversation stopper.

If by now you still think it is hollow, you haven't been paying attention. But I know you have been paying attention because, over the years, you've radically come around to many of my positions you once disagreed with vehemently. The amount of information I have already laid out here is immense.

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

Are you sure you understood my claims accurately? Did you really think your riposte was some radically insightful point that I hadn't considered from the start? Are you sure you really understood the significance of my response?

Let me provide the answer these rhetorical questions imply:
I wasn't too sure about your claims, but drunk with the genius of the riposte I'd dreamed up I deliberately ignored the fact it may well have been something you had already considered and posted it anyway. Then, not having much of a handle on the significance of your response to it, I just thought 'what the hell' and delivered the riposte again.

Another insult.
But I'm coming to expect them, sad as that is.

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

You are finding reasons to be insulted. I don't know why. But that's surely a waste of your time and energy.

I have never said anything that would suggest I did not understand or agree that the fundamental passivity of the notes of visual art, waiting as they do for the viewer to apprehend them before experiencing them, unable to be amplified electronically or through synthetic photo-active chemicals without becoming obnoxious, unable to surround the listener stereophonically, unable to actively keep pace with the viewer through time, presents Art with insurmountable deficiencies in aggressive intensity and forced immersivity when compared to music.

And such is not actually a part of my claims anyway. Because what makes music is not amplification (or else quiet music would not be music), nor immersive stereophony (or else monophonic music, or music coming from one direction would not be music.)

As far as I can tell, the only two aspects of music that clearly differentiate it from visual art are: 1. The basic sensual difference between sound and sight, and 2. The active change of form through time versus the illusory change of form caused by active change of perception through time.

Neither of which define against the possibility of orchestrated abstractions producing aesthetic emotion based on identical fundamental principles.

That you haven't done the tests that would either prove or disprove what I actually am saying about the possibilities of Art (rather than what you think I am saying) is not a presumption. The proof otherwise would have come from you in the form of ripostes that either nail me dead to rights on questions that go right to the heart of my contentions, or you would have posted agreements with my assertions. (Or you would have just let the matter go as an open question.)

In my estimation, an informed contrary position would start with something like: "Controlling the eye to the extent your assertions require is impossible because..."

Or; "Even if you could control the eye to such an extent, the abstract components of visual elements cannot be orchestrated as you presume because..."

Or; "Even if you could control the eye to such an extent, and even if the abstract components of visual elements could be orchestrated in a manner akin to music (as you claim to have proven to your satisfaction), the following still tells against your thesis..."

And so on...

So, my suggestion to you to keep your imagination alive to the possibilities I have outlined should not be taken in any way except as encouragement.

chris bennett said...

I have never said anything that would suggest I did not understand or agree that the fundamental passivity of the notes of visual art, waiting as they do for the viewer to apprehend them before experiencing them, unable to be amplified electronically or through synthetic photo-active chemicals without becoming obnoxious, unable to surround the listener stereophonically, unable to actively keep pace with the viewer through time, presents Art with insurmountable deficiencies in aggressive intensity and forced immersivity when compared to music.

I have not said that you did, and this was not what I was addressing either. Did you really think I had not considered and already dismissed such false distinctions?

As far as I can tell, the only two aspects of music that clearly differentiate it from visual art are: 1. The basic sensual difference between sound and sight, and 2. The active change of form through time versus the illusory change of form caused by active change of perception through time..

I understand this to be the case as well. But I was addressing the matter of the difference in psychological effect as a consequence of the difference in physiological process, namely the plastic narrative is apprehended, and savoured by re-apprehension over a very short time (such that it feels ‘nodal’ in effect) whereas musical narrative is apprehended as ‘real time experience’.

Neither of which define against the possibility of orchestrated abstractions producing aesthetic emotion based on identical fundamental principles.

This difference of ‘essentially nodal’ and ‘essentially linear’ apprehension I think is a big difference in how the visual arts and the musical arts are digested. For this reason alone we simply do not ‘live’ a picture in the same way we ‘live’ a song. (Despite what Frazetta said about it).

Now, I fully understand that you think all this is irrelevant to disproving:

I say that what art does with abstraction is similar in kind to what music does, (because the principles of causing meaningful aesthetic emotion are the same) and that these inherent affordances of the medium are manipulable to the level of orchestration achieved by other great composers in other fields.

But something is seriously nagging at me about: Which is not to say that abstract art cannot rise to the level of Mahler, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, or Mozart. I think it can be done... but hasn't yet.

‘Rising to the level’ would have to mean ‘touching us as deeply’. But visual art and music deal with different ingredients. Simply put; music does not depend on literal references to the real world because its linear nature mirrors experience itself. Whereas a visual art divested of its literal reference to the real world (‘abstract art’) is left with nothing experiential to play with other than design for its own sake.

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

Emilie: "I run a slimier blog..."

oh come on. David might overdo the charm a bit now and then, but he's never slimy.

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kev ferrara said...

Chris,

I've deleted the above (obviously disingenuous) response post, having reconsidered it in light of how it might affect the understanding of others reading along.

The bottom line is, some of what you're arguing against isn't anything I've contended, and I've already mostly addressed your actually relevant points. Though, some of my answers seem not to have penetrated into your understanding. For example the implication of the speed of visual cognition. Or every point I've ever made on the key artistic subject of aesthetic substitutes for otherwise narratively necessary references.

One of the original counter-notions offered up amid your contradiction attempts, the word "nodality" is also worth a note of comment. "Nodality" is neither an argument, nor a profitable observation related to visual experience (aesthetic or otherwise), nor anything supported by the nascent scientific literature. Furthermore, to discuss artwork as 'nodal' in the way you seem to be asserting, simply has no connection to any compositional understanding I would put stock in. All structures are apprehended sequentially. It is impossible to do otherwise.

And, finally, when all these errors and flimsy, unchecked notions are thrown together in a posts festooned with "therefores" and "if...thens" as if you were offering ironclad distillations of these deeply complex matters, while key points have simply been discarded out of hand, it is hard to respond in a way that will preserve your feelings.

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