Thursday, January 17, 2019

SELLING CARS IN BLACK AND WHITE

For many years car manufacturers hired illustrators to paint photo-realistic pictures of cars in brilliant, eye-catching colors.

by the famous team of Van Kaufman and Art Fitzpatrick

These pictures were designed to radiate power.  Their perspective was deliberately distorted and the cars were stretched to make the cars appear more muscular.  The colors were enhanced to shine like the sun.  The chrome was intensified.  These ads, which typically employed little text or white space, were masterpieces of propagandistic art.

But when cars were first invented, illustrators didn't have such tools.  They had no access to sharp, accurate color printing, photo projection or some of the other devices of later car illustrations.  They painted small, black and white pictures for text-heavy ads reproduced on inferior, uncoated paper.  These limits called for a different aesthetic but the illustrators made it work.  Here is an ad campaign for Packard from the early 20s:


Rather than show a photographic full view of the car, these artists selected an important detail-- a front grill or a tire or a silhouette-- to imply power and class.  Without a full color palette they relied upon the advantage of black and white art: stronger compositions.  Here are other illustrations from the same series.





There was one painting for each new ad.  They were done by different talented illustrators (such as the great Andrew Loomis) but in a similar style. 




What interests me is how, even without the tools that later illustrators employed to convey horsepower, these illustrations still conveyed their own strength.  There is a strength that radiates from selectivity, from strong compositions, from opinionated designs.




  

47 comments:

Tom said...

Nice illustrations David.
"Their perspective was deliberately distorted and the cars were stretched to make the cars appear more muscular."

The perspective looks a lot the photos on my iPhone especially in the boat and car in your first illustration. The excessive tapering from the foreground to the background is a product of camera seeing. Interesting in Loomis book on illustration he devotes a good amount of time on how to "avoid," such affects so things appear more natural, more in accordance with the human eye.

Maybe the older illustrators also emphasis not just the status of the car, but the world that the car would open up to the consumer, he could visit beautiful places, the countryside etc. What the car give you access too was as important as the car itself. In the 60's illustration you already fell the opportunity to explore the world is a given and what is more important is arriving in style!

" There is a strength that radiates from selectivity, from strong compositions, from opinionated designs."

Maybe also its the strength of drawing itself, which artists of earlier generations at least attempted to master. Drawing really exists to experience space itself, it reflects the experience of being embody .

Richard said...

Fantastic compositions, no doubt, but I think you've passed by an important point: these compositions became possible only because of the actual design of the cars themselves.

Were those same artists to give treatment to a 1960s Rambler American or a 2019 Miata, it's not obvious that they'd be able to build the same effect.

Cars were boxes.

Their forms were at odds with organic nature. They can look architectural against a copse of birch. Their grill is tall and regular, and can thus be made vaulting.

Embedded in the design of old cars is this fantastic interplay between the roundness of the wheels and the square of the hood. Today cars are all halved suppositories, so adding a few more rounded elements to them doesn't produce any internal play between shape at all.

They can look geological so that the men atop them become giants, and their open tops mean those riders can take a leading role in the composition. That's impossible with a car today, where even in a convertible the rider sits so deeply in the seat as to be lost from view.

And to these paintings' beautiful charcoalesque treatment -- it's that flatness of form that makes it possible to get these great high-contrast patches of shade. With a modern car, the form has to be treated in more subtle gradation to be at all legible.

What a beautiful tension all of this produces, it makes these drawings so fantastic, and it's the design of the car that does it.

Obviously our cars today are better for uncountable reasons, but pictorially they just don't have it.

kev ferrara said...

David,

Great selection of images. These illustrators really knew their stuff.

kev ferrara said...

Embedded in the design of old cars is this fantastic interplay between the roundness of the wheels and the square of the hood.

There's a whole lot of aesthetic effect going on then and now. Not every current car is just a slug of mercury. But the concentration on aerodynamics and ease of production has reduced the palette of aesthetic options considerably. Yet every car still has what is called its own "stance."

it's the design of the car that does it.

This kind of pronouncement is difficult to deal with without countering with something like, "I don't think you know enough about composition."

Tom said...


Kev wrote
it's the design of the car that does it.

This kind of pronouncement is difficult to deal with without countering with something like, "I don't think you know enough about composition."

The statement Richard made cause me to think of what the teacher of archery said to his student, "It's never the bow its always the archer."

Richard said...

To argue would be to try to prove a negative. I've said no such picture can be made with a modern car. You said, nay, the artist is king, he can make a square car out of a round car if he's good enough.

Fine, if its actually possible to make a picture of a rounded modern car with the same grandeur in architectural form or moody value, surely an example of one such picture should exist for you to share.

We should all be better educated for having seen it.

Grégory Cugnod said...

"If its actually possible to make a picture of a rounded modern car with the same grandeur in architectural form or moody value, surely an example of one such picture should exist for you to share." I think I have an objection to make to that statement...

All those pictures of old cars only exist because artists were paid to draw them, right ? Today advertising companies do not resort to a drawn image to sell their cars. So even though a modern equivalent does not exist, it does not necessarily prove that coming up with a strong picture of a rounded car is impossible. It may only be that no one was commissionned to do it, don't you think ?

Laurence John said...

David: "There is a strength that radiates from selectivity, from strong compositions, from opinionated designs"

can you explain the difference between your use of the terms 'composition' and 'design' ?

(i'd like to hear David's, but if anyone else wants to explain their take go ahead...)

chris bennett said...

Thank you David, these are a real treat to look at.
Me being me, had I been given the choice to own the car or the illustration I'd have chosen the illustration. My artistic self that is, my pragmatic self on the other hand..

chris bennett said...

Laurence,
I'll take a bite:
Design refers only to itself.
Composition implies.

Richard said...

I'm not sure what the terms mean in the annals of aesthetic philosophy, but for me, I think of them as;
Design refering to the internal logic of 2D elements on the picture plane, whether pattern, relationships of areas of colour and value, and even the specific effect of our iconographical presentation of symbols as pure aesthetic marks.

When refering to composition I mean something more like the internal logic of a specific view upon 3d objects within the 3d picture space when projected on the 2d picture plane, which is a nearly sculptural relationship, three dimensional lighting effects, et al. 3D made 2.

Composition is a higher concern for the very boring reason that it concerns aesthetic relationships of higher dimension. Similarly motion picture design is a higher concern than composition, and 3D motion picture design a higher concern than traditional film design. That's not to say that all, or even most, 3d films are better than 2d, or 2d films better than paintings, or paintings better than designs, but that as a whole the dimensional concerns are larger and thus provide more space for meaning. (Fair paintings are still light years better than the best movies, but animation/film is a greater artform in pure terms.)

kev ferrara said...

can you explain the difference between your use of the terms 'composition' and 'design' ?

In my view:

Design is the more general term. I take it to mean; any kind of intentional forming.

Composition I take to be a particular kind of designing that results in particular kinds of linguistic organizations.

More specifically; Composition is the structuring of aesthetic forces to expressively narrate a complex abstract thought process.

(I mean 'abstract' in the original sense of; poetic summary of something from experience. Not as "non-referential.")

I believe that what are known as the 'principles of design' are actually conventionalized reductions of more expressively wide-ranging principles of composition.

It is the development of this handy design toolkit, easily passed along, that precipitates the endlessly inventive graphic boom of the last 130+ years that includes modernism.

Tom said...

I liked all the definitions

Design to me seems to have more to do with intention, what one wants to express or build or the feeling an artist wants to create in a picture or a space. Or how the energy of the picture will be directed to create a specific response in a viewer.

Composition seems to be more about the arrangement of the forms, materials or the elements that will make up the picture, interior etc.
The raw material the artist uses to create his picture, for example the cars and their backgrounds in David’s post.

One can compose with the same subject/material but design with different intention.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "the excessive tapering from the foreground of the background is a product of camera seeing."

I agree that camera seeing played a significant role in these pictures. However, based on my discussions with car illustrators, I think the cameras-- and these pictures-- were purposely used to distort in accordance with the client' wishes. Artists seized upon that "camera way of seeing" intentionally to manipulate the effect. In other words, the distortion wasn't just a byproduct of a new tool, it was a deliberate artistic use of the tool.

Richard wrote: "these forms were at odds with organic nature. They can look architectural against a copes of birches."

An interesting point. Yes, these cars were boxes, but so was the Acropolis which the ancient Greeks tried to design in accordance with universal mathematical principles of balance and harmony, gleaned from nature. Like these old cars, it did not look "organic" and it clearly radiated human intellect, but it was made to enjoy a place in the natural world.

Putting that aside, do you have a theory on why more organic looking cars are harder to incorporate in the environment without diminishing the composition? I mean, we paint landscapes with no man-made ingredients and still have strong compositions.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "these illustrators really knew their stuff."

I'm glad you feel that way. Paging through old copies of The Saturday Evening Post these pictures jumped out at me for their backbone and certainty. Even working with early, primitive tools these illustrators created quality I rarely see these days.

David Apatoff said...

Gregory Cugnod wrote: "Today advertising companies do not resort to a drawn image to sell their cars….It does not necessarily prove that coming up with a strong picture of a rounded car is impossible."

Yes, when you think about the talented artists who were once retained to draw car advertisements (Bernie Fuchs, Robert Fawcett, Fred Ludekens, Austin Briggs, Mark English, Bob Peak, and others) and the diverse solutions they chose, the current solutions seem pretty soulless. I'm uncertain what it's fair to conclude from the current approach.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "the concentration on aerodynamics and ease of production has reduced the palette of aesthetic options considerably."

I agree with this, although aren't those the same production criteria applied by mother nature? Animals built for speed are designed aerodynamically, and all animals are produced without extraneous or delicate bells and whistles which might unnecessarily complicate their function. Useless mutations are quickly winnowed.

Laurence John, Richard, Chris Bennett, Kev Ferrara and Tom:

I like these various approaches to distinguishing composition from design. I think there's truth in each of them and they're causing me to broaden my own intuitive notion that composition is a subset of design, the portion that can be highlighted by the contrast between positive and negative space. (That's one reason I think higher contrast pictures such as these have a competitive advantage over more nuanced pictures when it comes to strong compositions.)

kev ferrara said...

"the concentration on aerodynamics and ease of production has reduced the palette of aesthetic options considerably."

I agree with this, although aren't those the same production criteria applied by mother nature?


Sure. And mother nature has winnowed down its own aesthetic options considerably too. Everything she makes is a variation on a theme.

Animals built for speed are designed aerodynamically, and all animals are produced without extraneous or delicate bells and whistles which might unnecessarily complicate their function. Useless mutations are quickly winnowed.

Designed? Have you become an ID advocate all of a sudden?

In my understanding, everything in nature is just good enough to be in a position to reproduce. No adaptive reason to be better than that, let alone optimized. Which is why we get noticeable vestigial bits here and there. For all we know, the amount of vestigial/not optimal stuff that we don't appreciate or notice might be extensive.

If the cheetah were truly optimized for hunting, killing, and speed, it may have died out long ago, having wiped out the populations of what it eats. Nothing is too clever to fail.

Reminds me of the story of the New York appliance store that advertised with Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows just as it became a phenomenon. Their ads turned out to be some of the most fortuitous in history, resulting in sudden barn-burning spending sprees at their store. But they were quickly forced to pull their ads from Caesar's show. For almost instantly they had been completely bought out of goods, and then found it would take months to restock back to even adequate levels. And so, with nothing left to sell, they quietly closed their doors and went out of business.




Untitled said...

Hi David,

Great post! Thanks for talking about a topic that never occurred to me and is so fascinating. The comments are also insightful. Not to say the least the illustrations are fantastic!
Best wishes,
Amitabh

Laurence John said...

David: “...the portion that can be highlighted by the contrast between positive and negative space.”

David, i was hoping for a bit more from you on your ‘design / composition’ terminology as i’ve noticed you use the word ‘design’ a lot when talking about paintings, and i wanted to clarify what you mean by it.

from that snippet above, i’m guessing your thinking is along the lines of: ‘design’ is how the abstract passages of an image interrelate, regardless of the illusionistic space of the image. i.e. if you could ‘not see’ the image but just see the image as an interplay of darks, lights, colours, shapes etc on a flat surface …. that would be the 2D ‘design’ of the image.

is that correct ?

David Apatoff said...

Correction: When I said, "these cars were boxes, but so was the Acropolis" I meant, "so was the Parthenon," the box-like temple on top of the Acropolis.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Designed? Have you become an ID advocate all of a sudden?"

Well, perhaps "designed" by random mutation, with the winning entry determined by survival.

Actually, I think the judicial opinion on ID written by (Republican) Judge John E. Jones III in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District should be read by every American as the single greatest example of the triumph of reason in an era where empiricism has been devalued. With the benefit of a meticulous, objective fact finding process (including sworn testimony under penalty of perjury) Jones used calm, responsible language to ferret out lies at the heart of the ID advocacy in Dover.

Having said that, I'm not sure about the mantra that "everything in nature is just good enough to be in a position to reproduce." There do seem to be examples of "luxury organs"-- most notably the human brain-- which seem to have more capacity than we currently use, and certainly more than is required for survival. And most tantalizing for a blog such as this one, why do the results of a process aimed at mere survival produce reality which we perceive as "beautiful"? The feathers and songs of birds, the camouflaged fur of that cheetah you mentioned, the muscular symmetry of that galloping stallion-- do our artistic standards of beauty, our appreciation for "design," our sense of harmony, balance, etc. come from a natural world built on "what's just good enough to be in a position to reproduce"?

Amitabh-- Many thanks!

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- You're right to expect a higher level of precision in my language here-- one of the founding principles of this blog is that it is healthy to apply our best reasoning to what makes art good and why we like it. I know the people who convene here like to be tough minded and to push back against the lazy, sloppy language which is so trendy (and unsatisfying) in the arts today.

At the same time, we have to be mindful of the fact that several of the most intelligent and rigorous systems builders, such as Plato, Kant and Hegel, have expended mighty efforts to bring order to aesthetic experience and define key terms, but failed to produce much more than internally consistent games. I have yet to find the philosopher or encyclopedist or cataloguer whose lexicon subsumes my experience of the arts.

Mencken wrote, "Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops." Is the core of good design, or the boundary between design and composition, truly unknowable? There have certainly been some good and valuable approximations offered here, but is any one of them absolute and comprehensive? As I try to define a precise boundary between design and composition, I find I can describe a serviceable line (and I will continue to try to improve those efforts in response to your question) but so far I always find one or two inconvenient examples that puncture any airtight rule I can come up with. For example, your restatement of my snippet, saying that design is "how the abstract passages of an image interrelate" is pretty good, except then you think about those pictures where the content is inseparable from the form, where its truth importantly becomes one with its beauty: then design might no longer be limited to the purely "abstract passages."

These caveats are consistent with the writings of analytic philosopher Frank Sibley who claimed that, unlike more quantitative or empirical terms that can be defined with precision, aesthetic concepts cannot: "We may have to abandon as futile any attempt to describe or formulate anything like a complete set of conditions or rules , and content ourselves with giving only some general account of the concept, making reference to samples or cases or precedents."

Does this mean that we're not allowed to use the words "design" or "composition" if we can't come up with a universally accepted definition? I don't think so. The underlying concept is too valuable and even incomplete fragments can be useful. Nietzsche, who was no slouch in the philosophizing department, urged: "May your virtue be too exalted for the familiarity of names. And if you must speak of her, the do not be ashamed to stammer of find I her: 'This is my good. This I love."

kev ferrara said...

There do seem to be examples of "luxury organs"-- most notably the human brain-- which seem to have more capacity than we currently use, and certainly more than is required for survival.

The great takeaway, for me at least, from modern computer science has been the crucial matter of compounding effects in the development of emergent phenomena. From Wolfram's cellular automata to adversarial Machine Learning, the smallest interesting code change when iterated has been shown time and again to produce not only vast changes in an emergent system, but often incredible complexity.

So I wouldn't be too hasty in assuming anything about the brain is luxury or extra. For it may have been that a very simple change in a single dna strand that codes for brain proteins or their folding could have not only altered but revolutionized, once iterated through the whole organ, the whole quality of our primate consciousness; thus opening up a great deal more imaginative potential all at once.

Leaving that proposition aside, let's postulate that only a small evolutionary change occurred in the brain. And that change made us only slightly more reliant on thought and only slightly less reliant on instinct. But that brings up a second order problem. Which is that the more we rely for survival on the brain, the better it damn well be at what it is good at. Because, as we all know, a little knowledge is more dangerous that none, because at least instinct is nothing but survival heuristics. But with 'a little knowledge' we have this bizarre thing called ego that leads us to believe in any sky castle that excites us, and we might be tempted to think that some pretty game-like model of a real world problem is sufficient basis to attack a complex real world problem. And then we've really screwed the pooch.

Thus, a little evolutionary change of brain mode might actually be a bad thing. So evolutionary pressure would naturally caused a revolution upstairs to escape the dangers of being only a little bit smart. For it takes a great feat of imagination to understand in some depth how little one knows and how foolish one is.

chris bennett said...

Thanks for the thoughts in the above post Kev, very interesting, and your; "So evolutionary pressure would naturally caused a revolution upstairs to escape the dangers of being only a little bit smart" is a very interesting explanation for the relatively vast intellectual gap between humans and crows.

kev ferrara said...

Glad your enjoyed those conjectures, Chris.

Does this mean that we're not allowed to use the words "design" or "composition" if we can't come up with a universally accepted definition? I don't think so. The underlying concept is too valuable and even incomplete fragments can be useful.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So long as we know what you mean, then understanding will be transmitted well enough. But if you leave it that even you don't understand what you mean, that's a problem. I don't see how that gets us anywhere useful.

"May your virtue be too exalted for the familiarity of names. And if you must speak of her, the do not be ashamed to stammer of find I her: 'This is my good. This I love."

Why not just dump raw sewage on us while you're at it? Jesus.

These caveats are consistent with the writings of analytic philosopher Frank Sibley who claimed that, unlike more quantitative or empirical terms that can be defined with precision, aesthetic concepts cannot: "We may have to abandon as futile any attempt to describe or formulate anything like a complete set of conditions or rules , and content ourselves with giving only some general account of the concept, making reference to samples or cases or precedents."

Had Mr. Sibley bothered to spend a few years learning how to make art under an actual artist before pontificating on it, he might have been humble enough to have realized his severe limitations in that field and learned a useful trade instead.

He is another in a long series of fake authorities elevated by fake academicians in the field.

Chris James said...

Actual working artists have varied definitions of these terms according to their field. To look for universally accepted definition of each across the board is to be behind the curve, although all definitions may be understood. What is design to a narrative illustrator creating a night club scene is not the same to an industrial designer creating a spaceship for entertainment media. As well, for the former, design and composition may be interchangeable, but for the latter, depending on the job and his task, composition may not be a factor at all. But it may be for the environmental designer on the same project.

And a layman might really be confounded once they are presented with 'design' as both verb and noun. Michelangelo designed figures and also the compositions that those figures fit into. He also may have called his composition a design, maybe his figures too.

I don't think dead eggheads have any weight in the matter, either way.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I don't disagree with your point about the potential for compounding effects; they aren't aren't unique to computer science or evolution-- every child in school knows the proverb, "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost." And I don't disagree with the point that "it takes a great feat of imagination to understand in some depth how little one knows and how foolish one is." Donald Rumsfeld schooled us all on how "we don't know what we don't know," and every child in school will learn about his colossal mistake borne of arrogance about his ignorance.

The part of your comment I find less persuasive is that part in the middle. I don't know enough about biology or evolutionary science to speak authoritatively on this subject, but if there were "a very simple change in a single dna strand that codes for brain proteins or their folding could have not only altered but revolutionized, once iterated through the whole organ," creating more changes than "what's just good enough to be in a position to reproduce," the recipients of those superfluous brains should've been quickly rubbed out by natural selection. Those big brains are a huge drain on our bodies, sucking up far more energy, oxygen and nutrition than any other organ. If this immense burden wasn't necessary to enable us to adapt to immediate circumstances (such as eating or reproducing today) it should've been a disadvantage. Instead, brains which have apparently remained anatomically stable for 100,000 years have taken us during that time from tree dwellers to astrophysicists, with the promise of even greater potential if we learn to make better use of the currently uncharted parts of our brain. (Does parapsychology lurk in their somewhere? Do we have the cerebral circuitry for some higher level of consciousness, if only we can figure out, perhaps in another 100,00 years, how to put it to its proper use? I don't know, but then again neither do you.) . When has mother nature ever demonstrated such patience waiting for one of her random mutations to justify itself?

I will say that in my opinion we are rapidly approaching the condition where our luxury brains are becoming more of a threat to our survival than an aid to it. You say, "the more we rely for survival on the brain, the better it damn well be at what it is good at." Well, as Henry Adams already said in the 19th century, "We have mounted science and it has run away with us." If we have something dormant in our brains that will enable us to keep up with the pace of 5g computing and AI, if it can defend us against a robotic world and squelch the ever more powerful and accessible nuclear weapons, now would be a good time for it to surface.

David Apatoff said...

Chris James-- I agree. Within the confines of a busy commercial art studio such terms tend to have practical, consistent uses. Car painters in Detroit doing highly specialized technical paintings knew the difference between color, hue and tone because the paying client's engineering team used such terms in specifying particular adjustments to the reflection on the hood or in the chrome.

The "dead eggheads" that you describe were looking for something different-- an intellectual purity that could only be achieved with a universal definition. Today we tend to view such searches as a relic of enlightenment thinking: the pursuit of a universally accepted definition, on the road to finding a universal truth. The searches always proved too exhausting, the pedants who searched always proved too irritating, and the results of the searches always proved too disappointing. Still, I don't think such searches are ignoble and I would be sad if we gave up on them altogether.

Kev Ferrara-- anyone who thinks Nietzsche is raw sewage hasn't spent enough time with Nietzsche. The fact that he is the most eminently quotable philosopher in history may be misleading, but he is the real deal-- a tough, brilliant philosopher who tackles the toughest issues.

I wouldn't say the same about Frank Sibley, and I do think that analytic philosophy turned out to be a dead end on the big issues, but I do think your sweeping rejection was a little like bashing him over the head with a rock attached to a stick. Why not instead try his thought experiment: Is there any aesthetic concept (such as "beauty" or "tension") where you could list the necessary and sufficient ingredients to achieve that result without relying on other aesthetic concepts?

kev ferrara said...

David,

Your implication seems to be that a hypothetical minute dna-change that causes orders of magnitude more brainpower when propagated would have resulted in a sudden equivalent increase in relative energy use compared to the prior version of the brain, thus wasting valuable resources. Why not allow for the possibility that the new model was actually using the same energy as the prior model, but far more efficiently? We already know inefficiency in brain physiology caused by inflammation and waste products causes cognition problems.

I am iffy on the "using the full capacity of the human brain to bring progress," which I've heard you remark on before. I think that's an idea from 1940s sci-fi. When researchers studied the thinking of chess grandmasters it was discovered they thought far less than amateur players, expending much less energy for far greater results. Also related is the fact that humans have far more inhibitory neurons than animals. In other words, a great deal more of our brain is dedicated to preventing itself from reacting, thinking and acting in certain ways. This seems to point to the idea that the evolutionary way forward is actually reducing the amount of the brain used at any given time, rather than expanding it. Again, efficiency.

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara-- anyone who thinks Nietzsche is raw sewage hasn't spent enough time with Nietzsche.

That was a joke about you inflicting us with such flowery language, while using it as a cheap way out of the problem of defining "Design" and "Composition" in some useful (and thus arguable) way.

I deeply respect Nietzsche as a philosopher.

kev ferrara said...

(Sibley) Why not instead try his thought experiment: Is there any aesthetic concept (such as "beauty" or "tension") where you could list the necessary and sufficient ingredients to achieve that result without relying on other aesthetic concepts?

Ugh. Why is that an important question? There's no way to define anything without resorting to aesthetic concepts because all meaning comes from aesthetic interactions/mental processes of some kind. There's nothing but qualia to our experience and all of it has inherent sensible abstract meaning. (Even concepts exist in a conceptual space in our minds that is aesthetic.)

The closest we can get to the anesthetic (in non-anesthetized experience) is in the analytical decrypting of symbols. Because codes are unnatural aesthetic entities. And even there we are dealing with endless aesthetic micro-experiences as we reflexively apprehend letters, spaces, words, and punctuation. It is a huge mistake to assume just because the aesthetic effect of some experience is unremarkable (micro) that it wasn't aesthetic.

Although, we know that repetitive exposure to the same stimulus deadens the aesthetic response to it. So for instance, this typeface you are reading has probably long gone dead for you in terms of it's forms and field expression. (It is usually one of the objects of text face design that it read 'transparently' in just this way after a short period of adaptation.)

Much of our language usage consists of "dead metaphors"... where the aesthetic meaning of the reference has been deadened with overuse. (Or the case where the 'vehicle' of the metaphor is something that people don't use anymore, so the transposition of its meaning has no sensory/memory component derived from the reader's experience.)

The problem with defining words is that words (again, code) are unnatural things... that shift in meaning, often for tactical rather than rational reasons. We can't chase twenty different usages. What we are actually trying to do in Aesthetics is define our common "sensed and imagined" experiences, particularly the extraordinary ones. Beauty is just such an experience. So is tension. So what causes those common experiences? is the question of interest.

Beauty is something like the intuition of an inherent meaningful order manifested in a refined way.

Tension results from unharmonized contradictions or the deharmonization process, both of which might fall under the general heading of alienation.

Both beauty and tension can be ramped up and down, accentuated by greater concision of material or greater effect of meaning, or dampened or destroyed by irrelevant or redundant aesthetic forces intruding upon their effect zones (so making their presentation less refined, or not refined at all.)

Of course, not everybody feels aesthetic phenomena with the same intensity. But most people seem to fall within the bell of the normal distribution. Outliers at either end of the normal distribution are interesting. But one can hardly base a theory of beauty on either those who experience everything as beautiful or those who cannot experience beauty at all.

Richard said...

"When researchers studied the thinking of chess grandmasters it was discovered they thought far less than amateur players, expending much less energy for far greater results."

David's mistake is in assuming that power should be related to the physical organ. If we fix his argument, making it about software not hardware, then your point can just as easily be taken as an argument for a hypothetical about the vast potential of the human mind.

If we read "untapped power" as power to perform useful thinking rather than mere physical processing power, then the history of human thought would seem to support that line of argument.

Pythagoras' brain might have been working much harder than the average college math student's, but if they can compute Euler-Reimann Zeta Functions with far less work, then that appears to be one point scored in the camp of 1940's futuristic conceptions of mind.

Tom said...

David and Kev
‘But the concentration on aerodynamics and ease of production has reduced the palette of aesthetic options considerably”

Well we should also remember that now we make things from single pieces of material that form rounded corners like your kitchen sink. Instead of stamping out flat sheets of metal and joining them forming sharp corners. Which in cars is now done more for safety then aerodynamics, by reducing force concentration and lessening the potenial for cracking. Like the rounded and round windows found on airplane and ships.

kev ferrara said...

I don't disagree with your point about the potential for compounding effects; they aren't aren't unique to computer science or evolution-- every child in school knows the proverb, "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost."

I actually think there is a fundamental difference between the lynchpin idea of proverbs such as "For want of a nail" or "A stitch in times saves nine" (an error in one essential node wreaks havoc on the whole) and an organic complexity emerging from a distribution where every node is essentially the same in initial condition.

Tom said...

David said

“Artists seized upon that "camera way of seeing" intentionally to manipulate the effect. In other words, the distortion wasn't just a byproduct of a new tool, it was a deliberate artistic use of the tool.”

Well it wasn’t exactly a new “tool” (is it a tool like a brush or a pencil? I think not) artist’s have known about camera distortion since the camera was invented that’s why I quoted Loomis and you can go further back then that, just read an old book on perspective like Rex Vicat Cole or John Ruskin. I would say that the photograph has become the authority on what things “look,” in our culture and by the 1960’s an such visual distortions had become acceptable to the eye. Hence the illustration’s photography sense would make the picture feel “of the moment,” and up to date in 1960 which of course is what the client wanted his potential buyer to feel.

I don’t think a photograph is a “tool’”. Was the landscape a “tool,” for Corot? Is collaging a “tool?” A photo is something to look at. It really becomes is a way of avoiding structure which in a way is an avoidance of thought. Conceiving how something will be created is probably the most demanding part of creativity. In the copying or moving around of pre-existing material one has already put us on the path to a future of drawing of circle heads.

I’m not saying that it’s not a really good illustration it is and I like it a lot, especially the value and color scheme. But when you bemoan the present situation in contemporary illustration you seem to ignore the root causes that can be found in these earlier choices illustrators made using pre-existing images. I know “market,” forces and the demands of art directors imposed this direction on illustration (oh the drama of it all), but one has to wonder why older illustrators who could draw where so serve in there criticism of younger illustrators.

The irony is many people may have become weary of good drawing and talented inking because so much of it was used to sell ideas and things that turned out not to be true and where just to far away from ones own experience of reality. Maybe that’s why so many present day illustrators rejected skill or think it’s unimportant, maybe they see skill as a falsehood, and not genuine, something that is used to sucker people.

Richard said...

“The irony is many people may have become weary of good drawing and talented inking because so much of it was used to sell ideas and things that turned out not to be true and where just to far away from ones own experience of reality. Maybe that’s why so many present day illustrators rejected skill or think it’s unimportant, maybe they see skill as a falsehood, and not genuine, something that is used to sucker people.”

Tom, you’re on point.

And as much as I disagree with them on modern art, on this they're right, skill has regularly been used towards debased ends by commercial artists. Whether it's Frazetta's puerile story telling, Fuchs obsession with sex and class, or John Cuneo's pessimistic and rabelaisian reduction of everything he sets his pencil to depicting, theirs is not a good look.

Illustration fans generally defend ourselves with trivialities like “a man's got to eat”, or the more dangerous “subject matter doesn't matter”. Obviously the subject does matter and to pretend it doesn't is as dogvomit as pretending a picture doesn't need to be ‘of’ or ‘about’ anything at all. We can deeply revere the craftsmanship of commercial artists without thoughtlessly elevating those craftworks to the point of Art, but I suppose the blog's title has already begged that question. And of course a man has to eat, but that tells us nothing of the moral contents of his work.

This isn't a unique problem to illustration. As noted elsewhere here, the 19th century academics were busily pushing paintings which sold soft sex, wealth, and a general and defuse milky sensuality, to the exclusion of any real moral or ethical content.

And neither did that decline in moral content start in the 19th century, but had likely been infecting European thought and culture since the Florentines decided to artificially resurrect the amoral Roman arts to replace their own homegrown Judeo-Pagan ones -- refiguring our national mythos in gay hunks, and replacing paintings of saints in prayer with portraits of Pope Flathead Narcissus III by his bountiful table.

The last few centuries of Western representational arts is a subject matter/moral trainwreck, where morals may still reassert themselves (notably Rockwell, Bierstadt, Cassatt, the Wyeths) but only in plaintive gasps against the din; meanwhile the conservatives are too busy obsessing over the past to progress, and the progressives are too busy dropping everything's-entirely-subjective-acid to know what planet they're on.

A sidenote: I've noted Tolstoy's thoughts on mortality in Art here before, and I'll extend that if you're not familiar with his entire argument you should be. Don't take my word for it -- it's fvcking Tolstoy! What more do you need to know to spend an afternoon acquainting yourself with his argument?

kev ferrara said...

Expressing Truth under an aesthetic or fictive guise is moral enough for Art.

Even pure entertainment or decoration can be seen as playing a beneficial role in people's lives, enriching it in some way. Provided the entertainment is not full of negativity or designed to addict, and the decoration is there to convey a pleasing mood rather than convey status.

When the main purpose of the work is to tell people how to think and behave, such would be lucky indeed not to fall into the category of propaganda.

kev ferrara said...

Tom,

I agree with you, and all those Golden Age artists, who understood that the camera is not an artist; it not only does not enhance meaning by poetifying anything as aesthetic effect, it's actually brutally lossy in crucial ways for artists' purposes. So those who use it as a crutch without understanding the nature of all it leaves out will produce ignorant work.

But why isn’t the camera a tool? It is clearly an instrument; a device of specific means that assists in accomplishing a certain kind of task; to record the light waves bouncing off a scene from the perspective of a single pinhole. By definition, that sounds tool-like to me. The photograph is the product/consequence/result of the tool being used.

Collaging is a technique that can be accomplished with the aid of an instrument/tool like photoshop. If you had a machine called a Collage-O-Tron, you would call that device a tool.

The landscape itself is not a tool because it is not an instrument. There is no technical convenience involved in its existence that is dedicated to a specific ulterior end. The landscape simply is itself, it exists and that’s really all it does.

“The irony is many people may have become weary of good drawing and talented inking because so much of it was used to sell ideas and things that turned out not to be true and where just to far away from ones own experience of reality. Maybe that’s why so many present day illustrators rejected skill or think it’s unimportant, maybe they see skill as a falsehood, and not genuine, something that is used to sucker people.”

Don't forget jealousy, laziness, fear of wasted effort, lack of faith in one's talents, hatred for anything middle class people like, market forces, and so on. Certainly when Frazetta hit the scene with well drawn inked drawings and dynamic and well painted images, millions of people put their money on the line to own reproductions.

Richard said...

“Expressing Truth under an aesthetic or fictive guise is moral enough for Art. [...]

When the main purpose of the work is to tell people how to think and behave, such would be lucky indeed not to fall into the category of propaganda.”

Works that fall flatly into the category of propaganda, used in the pejorative sense, aren't moral at all. It seems to me that you are using a very “postmodern” definition of moral, as an unjust circumscription of behaviour. The word moral is better understood to mean that which raises up man by reminding him that his actions, life, and world, have meaning.

Andrew Wyeths paintings are deeply moral, but I wouldn't accuse them of trying to force people to think a certain way.

Bierstadt's paintings are deeply moral about the spiritual value of the wild. Greenpeace billboards are conversely immoral, not because they also promote nature, but in how they do it, their reduction of all other measures of value, their mistreatment of the viewer, their fascism.

If your argument that mortality is unimportant is reducible to “morality is bad in art, because immorality is bad in art” then it seems like you've got your wires crossed.

“Even pure entertainment or decoration can be seen as playing a beneficial role in people's lives, enriching it in some way.”

Absolutely. As you know, and as I'd hope you would remind a stoner, pleasure in moderation is moral, pleasure as a sole end goal to life is not. There's got to be something more than that. To call artists to try for something more doesn't make you a propagandist. It makes you a human who cares about the spiritual well-being of your fellows.


kev ferrara said...

Andrew Wyeth's paintings express often profound truths under a beautifully realized aesthetic/fictive guise. That is both why they are good works of art and why they are moral.

To me that which is moral, as I've said before, is that which raises morale. In this sense, I think we agree, that presenting meaning is moral, and communing in the meaning of a work of art brings people together, which I also consider a moral part of all this. (By meaning I mean the aesthetic presentation of truths.)

Frazetta's masterpieces also tell deep truths under an aesthetic-fictive disguise. And while I understand that the sometimes dark surface fantasies might trip up some people, I don't give those complaints any weight philosophically. Frazetta has caught lightning in a bottle on more than a few occasions, creating brand new metaphors for ancient issues. Whether one likes the vehicle for the metaphor or not, if it works as an aesthetic presentation of the idea, then it works as Art and I would consider it moral therefore. I would not say the same thing for an artist like Hussar, who goes dark and offer nothing redemptive in return for our attention.

It seems to me that you are using a very “postmodern” definition of moral, as an unjust circumscription of behaviour.

No, I am not. What I am getting at is that this is an issue of quality in art that is related to its moral status as a truth-telling creation. To be artful is to be suggestive. To state morals or to present blatant injunctions in the context of Art makes for bad art; called moralizing or sermonizing. Which is not suggestive and shades into the realm of propaganda.

Richard said...

"What I am getting at is that this is an issue of quality in art that is related to its moral status as a truth-telling creation."

Can some truths be more morally valuable or necessary to elucidate than others?

I'd think it a dark day if no one was pointing out that sexy women are sexy, but we're hardly in danger of that. Is there not a stronger moral imperative to show that loving mothers have a spiritual beauty, as Cassatt did? Or rarer in our time, that strong fathers are beautiful in their virtue, as Rockwell did?

Or perhaps some moral statements that no realist painter is expressing anymore: that violence wielded in justice is honourable, that talented men owe a duty to mankind, that young men's play aggression is a phase of growth to be looked kindly upon?

Doesn't the realist artist have a moral imperative not just to paint well, but to choose what he paints well?

Again, are all truths created equally? That too would seem a very "postmodern" stance, and I shouldn't think you'd support it, so why the apparent carelessness around morality in art?

Richard said...

And to clarify on Frazetta (and Cuneo and Fuchs) perhaps my saying "debased" reads as too extreme a rhetorical device.

Hussar is debased in a categorically different way, and as of late he is one of the few visual artists who stirs in me a desire to aggressively censure.

Frazetta is debased in the denotative sense of "reduces in quality or value". In his case I merely wanted something more from him, he reduces himself. In Hussar's case I'd be quite happy were he to stop breathing.

kev ferrara said...

In Hussar's case I'd be quite happy were he to stop breathing.

Well, you just stepped over my moral line, Richard. So we'll end it there.

Richard said...

If you're ending it there, I suppose that means that I get the last word, and I thank you for that courtesy.


I imagine that you're not an extremist pacifist -- there must be some acts that a person could commit which would be worth at least smiling at their demise.

Physical acts -- say rape, murder? Or emotional/intellectual acts -- say serious emotional abuse of children by their parents? Teenagers playing Синий кит ("Blue Whale"), wherein they try to convince youngsters to commit suicide?

If physical acts can warrant violence, but not aesthetic acts, that would seem to imply that aesthetic acts don't take place in the same spatial plane as physical ones -- this sounds like a sort of mind/body duality which is just a bit too far out for me. The mental is physical. That mental states are nano-scopic makes them no less physical than intentionally spreading HIV.

Further, if trying to convince a child to commit suicide verbally can be a crime, yet Hussar's much more serious and much viler visual pronouncements warrant no response at all, then it would appear that you've placed visual communication on a much lower rung in the hierarchy of communication.

You, who understands the power of visual communication more than most, shouldn't make such a simple logical mistake just because it's in vogue.

That one is committed to visual free speech, does not mean that one needs to hold that standard in its most anarchist and extreme form. Society requires some level of decency be upheld, some modicum of order, and there's no reason that should apply to art or music any less than it applies to other modes of communication.

Richard said...

And let me put this to anyone here, as I think you all essentially fall into this camp --

I would like to know how you intend to square championing visual communication's equality with other forms, while effectively downplaying its efficaciousness when compared to other forms of communication?

Tom said...

HI Kev

Well in regards to a camera being a tool, it doesn't seem like a tool in the traditional sense. What you said is right, but one cannot make a cathedral, or a house or a piece of furniture or a sculpture or a painting with it. It is not an immediate extension of our hand and mind. You can not build something with it. It avoids the creative aspect of structure, the how will it be made question.

And the artist uses what the camera produces, the photograph. One looks at a photograph with the same eyes that one looks at a landscape with, and that is why I used the Corot example. One may use the camera to help compose a picture but it some ways that is almost a concession to the fact one can not conceive one's picture. Compared to what people have done with a brush, chisel or the tools that are found in a carpenters bag the camera seems kinda of mindless.

I'm not arguing with your definitions, there right, I'm just describing how I was thinking.

Hi Richard

Thanks for the Tolstoy recommendation. I remember you mentioning him before in pervious posts. Is there a specific essay or book you would recommend? To tell you the truth though, the older I get I have found books on geometry, math and architecture have been much more helpful in making and understanding art then the philosophical essays I read when I was younger.

I'm not sure I really understand the question you asked everyone in your last post.

Richard said...

Tom, the Tolstoy book I refer to is What is Art?

On censorship on art, if one hold that:
- Visual art is as powerful as the verbal towards communication.
- Some verbal communication should we outlawed (advocating to children to commit suicide, advocating for terror).

How can one not agree that some visual communications should be outlawed? It would appear to me that if you believe some verbal communication should be outlawed, but no visual artistic communication, then you have defacto downplayed the efficacy of visual art to communicate.

Could being against censorship in Art have more to do with fear of abuse than reasoned objection to all limits to visual communication?

Indra said...

Cool