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." 



   

54 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.