Sunday, October 06, 2019

ROBERT FAWCETT'S LIMP FIGURES

It has been a while since I've shared another reason why I like the work of illustrator Robert Fawcett.

Even at the height of his career, Fawcett continued to sketch from the model every week.  At the end of each session, he'd open the lid of his model stand and toss in the day's efforts.  When he died, there were several hundred drawings stashed there.




One result of Fawcett's continuing commitment to observation is that when he illustrated a figure, he was not content with the usual simplistic shortcuts: symmetrical people standing perpendicular to the ground.  Instead, he observed that people are often bent or lopsided, reflecting life's tug of war between gravity and organic matter:   




One of the ways Fawcett's life drawing regimen paid off is when he received an assignment to depict a limp figure--  someone whose muscles went slack and who collapsed in a jumble-- Fawcett was able to capture such figures in a very convincing way.  Again, no stereotypes here.





33 comments:

al mcluckie said...

Fantastic - every time I look through your book on RF , it's as fresh as the first time . His fig. drawing books are something I review often - wish vol. 2 was coming --- of all your books !

Robert Cosgrove said...

I agree that a volume 2 would be lovely, especially on Fawcett. I notice that Manuel Auad's website ad for the Briggs book states, "I do not reprint." True so far, but I wish he would make an exception for the Fawcett book. I've got my copy--but some things deserve to be kept in print.

kev ferrara said...

Look again at Michaelangelo's Pieta. What gives the expression of limpness is not the amazing mimesis, but the draping, near dripping liquidity of flesh suggested by the expression; an idea which clearly guides the rendering from within.

I don't feel the limpness in these figures. I only see academic life drawings of models playing dead on the model stand; schematic accuracy, textural accuracy, surface accuracy. The excellences of Fawcett's efforts and plain to see and appreciate, but what is there to feel beyond that? His compositions are perfectly acceptable and often interesting solutions. But they are ossified by being forced through his obsessive descriptive compulsions, then washed out by his dull values and dull colors. I know he wants me to admire his drawing, and he's succeeded at that. But is that a worthy artistic goal?

I know I should leave out the color commentary per se, because he was deficient from birth in that area. However, his work not only lacks good color, but in over-describing in the lights, outlining dogmatically, and going ahead and stating general dull colors and general dull values, he leaves no room for the viewer to even imagine good color or light effects where they might have been. By not allowing us to fill in his natural blanks with our natural plenty, he is, in effect, forcing us to experience his unpleasant chromatic and artistic limitations. And for every picture he makes, no matter what possibilities the individuality of the picture might have held. Which is just why his work has a pronounced monotony to it. With no light effects to speak of, his work stays flat in more than affect.

No one could accuse Fawcett of lacking integrity in his drawing, certainly. He was a master of a certain kind of academic accuracy. And the blocking of his scenarios is equally serviceable. But his lack of expressive juiciness and fixation on descriptors makes his art dry as a bone. Everything in his work drags on the eye like a cat's tongue on sandstone.

At the time he was working, his parched style was radical and new and influential. But like a lot of radicalism, in the long run one often finds that far more babies were thrown out than the state of the bathwater warranted. Every one of his pictures would have benefited from a brief period in the rain.

David Apatoff said...

al mcluckie and Robert Cosgrove-- Thanks for your kind reactions. A large part of this process is to put the work of deserving, under appreciated artists back in front of the public. it's particularly gratifying when readers recognize and engage on the qualities of this work.

Kev Ferrara-- I agree that Michelangelo's masterpiece (he was said to have spent 9 months picking out the marble alone) is superior to Fawcett's illustration, despite the Pieta's clear flaws. (I suspect that if Fawcett had two characters so far out of proportion you would've burned him for it here.)

As for some of your other points: I generally agree with you about Fawcett's use of color, and I don't cut him any slack for being born color blind. A number of artists (such as Peter de Seve) are color blind, although many of them have a heightened sense of value which helps them compensate, and others are great draftsmen. If the resulting art can't cut it they should find another line of work.

In answer to your question about whether admirable drawing is a worthy artistic goal, my answer is "yes."

As for your assertion that "his work has a pronounced monotony to it," I think the words you were looking for is a "distinctive style." Fawcett is a virtuoso of ink and line, with a broader range of marks on paper than Gibson, Coll, Flagg, Booth or any other pen and ink illustrator you might name. His opinions are so strong and his style is so virile (and sometimes arrogant) that it sometimes overwhelms his subject matter (which is why, for example, he could never compete with lesser artists such as Jon Whitcomb when it came to painting pretty girls in romance stories).

As for your parched vs. juicy dichotomy, I understand you have a genetic predisposition for shiny, wet looking colors; I admire Sorolla too. But there is a separate aesthetic out there, a god so ancient that it was old long before your oldest gods of oil paint were born. Many people (including you, apparently) have come to believe that "radical" means new and avant garde, but in fact radical means pertaining to the root or origin of things. You are unintentionally correct that Fawcett is "radical," in that the carved lines, scratches, gouges, drybrush, and other marks that make up the fossilized ink trail do indeed go back to the root of things. I promise, I like your symphonic embellishments too but those older gods have not lost their sway over me. Maybe it's a lizard brain thing.

kev ferrara said...

I suspect that if Fawcett had two characters so far out of proportion you would've burned him for it here.

I overlook mimetic errors made in imaginative good faith all the time. In fact, if I don't see those errors, that's an immediate tell that the work lacks aesthetic imagination. (And, depending on the year, was probably photo-slaved.)

"In answer to your question about whether admirable drawing is a worthy artistic goal, my answer is "yes."

That wasn't what I was flagging. What I feel is that Fawcett wants me to admire his drawing more than he wants me to enjoy his illustrations.

As for your assertion that "his work has a pronounced monotony to it," I think the words you were looking for is a "distinctive style."

I find each picture monotonous on its own.

Fawcett is a virtuoso of ink and line, with a broader range of marks on paper than Gibson, Coll, Flagg, Booth or any other pen and ink illustrator you might name."

No doubt. However, that the implementation of a broad repertoire of descriptive marks can still result in deadly dull images is the deep point of about half of everything ever said about expression.

As for your parched vs. juicy dichotomy, I understand you have a genetic predisposition for shiny, wet looking colors

No, that wasn't the idea. I mean by "expressive juiciness" anything that will break the monotony of his obsessive discreteness, allowing for the imagination to enter the picture. That Fawcett's values have no resonance or graphic evocative power shows how monomaniacally fixated he was on the one burrow he knew how to dig. It's like he never learned that among the basics, there was more to it than where his talents naturally led.

Laurence John said...

Like Kev, David, i can't really fault Fawcett on a technical level. Even the washed out colours and muted values don't bother me. The main problem for me is that i can feel the presence of the photo ref too clearly (but that's my criticism of a lot of '50s-'70s illustration too). That, coupled with the fact that the figures are usually too perfectly arranged, and the acting a bit wooden (in a TV melodrama kind of way) lends the whole thing an air of staginess.

There's a whole separate discussion here - which will take too long to go into now - about different types of 'artifice' and how one artist can make the most ridiculously, stylised confection seem utterly believable, while another labours away trying to create 'realism' and it falls flat. In short; the difference between good and bad artifice.

Notice that my problem is with how he dramatises a scene, and brings it to life (or doesn't), rather than anything to do with surface mark making.

chris bennett said...

Great exchange between David and Kev - thanks guys.

I think Fawcett's 'dullness' (in all its aspects) is largely a consequence of his weakness in realising images as forms fluxed in depth. Awareness of space/depth/proximity (and the poetry to be mined thereof) is, I believe, one of the senses most important to the vivification of an image.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- It seems to me that our difference of opinion about Fawcett echoes previous differences about Dubuffet, prehistoric art, Morris Louis, tribal art, Burri, Rothko and abstract art in general (despite the fact that many of these other artists reside on the opposite side of the solar system from Fawcett).

I suspect the unifying difference is that I'm willing to assign more value to surface elements such as abstract design, while you require an artist to orchestrate a symphony of different elements into some kind of poetic distillation for the purpose of communicating content about something. (And by that you mean content other than "this is the color red.") Woe unto the artist, or the culture, or nation or generation that omits an ingredient from your recipe for high art (although I suspect most of the art from most of the globe for most of human history would not fit in your straight jacket). I treasure Sorolla and Sargent but I would not limit myself to an exclusive diet of their work, nor would I grade the rich multiplicity of art on the strict criteria of a relatively recent western painting tradition. It's possible to experience excellence in classical music and still appreciate excellence in jazz or blues or rock. Applying different criteria to different kinds of art doesn't require us to give up standards altogether, it just requires us to be more open minded and receptive about which standards apply.

The fact that you describe Fawcett as "a master of a certain kind of academic accuracy" and characterize his work as "academic life drawings" suggests to me that you haven't settled upon the criteria to apply to what he does. Academic accuracy is Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, and it never appealed to Fawcett; he was quite outspoken in criticizing peers who took that path. I'd call "academic accuracy" a gross mischaracterization of this kind of drawing.

One thing we do agree about is what you call Fawcett's "obsessive descriptive compulsions." Not on all of his work, but several of his major pieces have a dense, coruscating look and I would say that "obsessive" is not an inappropriate adjective. The only difference is that in these drawings I don't view it as a fault.

(CONT.)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Our exchange on Fawcett reminds me of the exchange between Andy Warhol and Albert Dorne:

WARHOL: "Art must transcend mere drawing."

DORNE:  "Andy, there's nothing all that fucking 'mere' about drawing"

Laurence John-- I think your point about "different types of 'artifice' " is extremely important, and one we haven't considered around here. I think there is a good argument that a painting by Bouguereau, which goes to extremes to create the illusion of 3D reality, contains more artifice than an abstract painting which has no such pretensions and tries to fool no one about what it is. Getting closer to the middle of the spectrum, Fawcett is less interested in illusion than Sargent-- he doesn't carefully replicate skin colors, he doesn't capture light and perspective, he makes intense whorls and black and white designs. Which contains more artifice?

chris bennett-- the same point could be made about "vivification of an image." Would you say that a Franz Kline painting is pretty damn "vivid"?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara, Laurence John, chris bennett-- Sorry guys, I tried to attach examples of Fawcett's work to illustrate some points in my last answers and failed miserably. Apologies for my technical incompetence; the best I can do is offer you a couple of urls to blog posts where I've reproduced the same images before:

https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2009/04/one-lovely-drawing-part-24.html

https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2013/03/warring-with-trolls-part-2.html

https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/search?q=fawcett&updated-max=2012-09-28T05:26:00-04:00&max-results=20&start=6&by-date=false

One of these days I'll learn how to use this here internet machine.

Laurence John said...

David: "Fawcett is less interested in illusion than Sargent-- he doesn't carefully replicate skin colors, he doesn't capture light and perspective, he makes intense whorls and black and white designs. Which contains more artifice?"

David, you've listed visual properties turned into abstract surface marks, but that's not where my problem with Fawcett's work resides (he excels on the technical / abstract mark making level). Where he falls down is in the staging, composing, acting etc.

If you aim to re-stage reality (with people looking and acting as people look and act, as Fawcett is doing) it can glare when anything is slightly 'off' and feel 'artificial' or 'stagey' ('bad artifice').

Whereas if you build a cartoon world which has its own rules (e.g. Herriman's Krazy Kat), or stylise reality enough that it no longer aims to fool you that what you're looking at is 'realism' (e.g. Cuneo, Jorge Gonzalez, Ralph Barton, John Held etc.) then it can be imaginatively easier to enter the image ('good artifice').

p.s. I got into all of this after hearing about the 'uncanny valley' effect, years ago when i worked in animation. Then i realised it applied to realism in painting too; paintings that attempt a high level of 'realism' but the figures look like waxworks. Then i realised it applied to 'dramatic staging' too; paintings (or films) that attempt to be realistically staged, but fail to convince for various reasons. The uncanny valley turned into a minefield.

chris bennett said...

David: the same point could be made about "vivification of an image." Would you say that a Franz Kline painting is pretty damn "vivid"?

Yes, indeed. Very much so. I mean 'vivid' as in a strong sense of presence. But it depends on what is being made more vivid or present. A strong design will possess this quality (which is amped up by making it bigger), but because it does not refer to anything outside of itself, this quality becomes one of charisma without content.

With images representing something other than themselves (say, a painting/drawing of violin on a wall), the job of giving them presence is, by definition, contrary to this very condition. As you've no doubt guessed, my example of the violin painting begs the question of how Kev's objections to Fawcett's deadening literalism are any different from criticisms of trompe l'oeil. In other words: in what way is a strong sense of presence in representational art distinct from the literalism of mimetic rendering?

Kev has already supplied the answer to this in stating how suggestion (in all its forms, not just rendering) is the prime mover of aesthetic content. I tend to think of 'suggestion' as the abstracting fulcrum on which poetry and literalism are balanced. But I'm in danger of misinterpreting him and getting in the way of his reply to you, which, I'm sure, will cover these things far better than I.












chris bennett said...

Thanks Laurence you make a good point. (And one which, I'd say, it is obliquely related to the question of presence.)

kev ferrara said...

Fawcett is less interested in illusion than Sargent-- he doesn't carefully replicate skin colors, he doesn't capture light and perspective, he makes intense whorls and black and white designs. Which contains more artifice?

Sounds like somebody has never noticed that Sargent is far more abstract than Fawcett.

Anyway, Fawcett's inky descriptiveness is attempting to do the same basic thing as Sargent's painterly suggestiveness. Except with less success. The amount of 'artifice' involved is basically the same. Which is to say, if you want to say any semblance of memesis or reference is artifice, they are both nothing but artifice. And the same could be said of books and films and plays. They should have nothing to do with reality, if they are to be "pure" according to the high priest of the authentic Mr. David Apatoff. (see, two can play at this dumb game.)

Regarding Dorne… Albert Dorne actually felt his drawing, which is how he was able to both make it so expressive, and construct it so evocatively. Fawcett isn’t in his league.

I don't have time for a big long reply to everything. But here's something...

1/2

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

Let’s start with one basic idea, so we have some agreement to build on.

A hole in a carpet is formed by the carpet surrounding that hole. A window’s view is formed by its frame. When we speak of these things, a hole, a window, we are speaking of something which isn’t, not of something that is. And we only understand each by virtue of that which forms the void. This is the nature of suggestion.

Suggestion is a deliberately-formed implication gap. It is a purposeful void in the weave, where sufficient information is absent, but yet, that gap or interval – what is missing and where - is informed nonetheless. And it is informed by that which surrounds and forms it. It is a window frame, where the frame itself, through suggestive information, evokes to the mind the view within it.

In art, the nature of that imaginative/implicative gap (what would be there if what is not there were instead actually, somehow, there) is located in conceptual space, identified as a reference, and formed on the pictorial surface by virtue of the way that that gap has been notated into being; by its immediate local context, as well as by any larger context necessary to its understanding.

The simplest version of this in art can be found in the consideration of lost edges. This Zhaoming Wu charcoal portrait has many poetic lost edges. And it is the found edges that notate into being its lost edges, the “found” extant descriptors that notate into being the nature of the lost nonexistent descriptions. So the head feels solid, even when there is often nothing there in the rendering to describe the head’s contour or its sculptural form or its hardness. This bit of magic is happening by virtue of the notations that form around the lost information, the described head tells us of, implies or evokes to the imagination, the absent head information. Unless there is sufficient extant information, the lost information cannot be recovered by the imagination.

In the above paragraphs, I’ve done my best to describe the basic structure of suggestion. There are many dozens, perhaps hundreds of different kinds of suggestions in art aside from the lost edge. Each of which has a similar basic structure to what I’ve described, but each of which also has unique aspects.

2/2 (edited since original post)

Laurence John said...

Kev: "The amount of 'artifice' involved is basically the same. Which is to say, if you want to say any semblance of mimesis or reference is artifice, they are both nothing but artifice"

This is my fault for bringing up artifice. I said to David in my comment above that I'm not using the word to mean mimetic rendering. I'm talking about dramatic staging, and varied attempts at 'realism'. And how some fail at that.

Of course, all paintings and drawings are 'artifice' if we simply mean 'illusion'... fooling us into perceiving 3D space where there is none. But that's not the way I'm using it.

chris bennett said...

Thanks Kev.

I'll just add a little if I may.
I believe the vividness, sense of presence or actuality given off by the Zhaoming Wu drawing comes entirely from its suggestiveness, a large part of which is the lost and found principle you have so well described.

The literalism of trompe l'oeil paintings means they can only really fool the eye when depicting a very shallow space. With an artful image our subconscious reading of its suggestive elements means they are coercing us to imaginatively 'fill in' or supply the missing special sense given to us by binocular vision, changing position (be it subtle or profound) and past experience in relationship to things visually apprehended.

kev ferrara said...

I'm talking about dramatic staging, and varied attempts at 'realism'. And how some fail at that.

I agree with your insight about the uncanny valley principle applying to realistic blocking. I'd never thought about it that way.

However, I would add that one big reason that over-describing is such bad illustrative poetry is because it freezes action. Thus, Fawcett's figures aren't simply stiff because they are melodramatically clunky, they are also stiff (and undramatic) because they have been frozen, permanently knitted into place by relentless description.

I also take Chris' point that his figures don't really express through spatial depth. This was what I meant when I wrote earlier that "With no light effects to speak of, his work stays flat in more than affect." A lack of believable light effect actually causes flatness.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- I agree with Kev that your "uncanny valley" analogy introduces a very helpful concept here. So many artists work hard for realism, and may even get 95% of the way there, only to expire in the dreaded uncanny valley. The horrifying 5% that doesn't work leaves them so far short they might as well not have tried to go at all. So they try to salvage the 95% for which they slaved, through gimmicks like heavy shadows to conceal their inadequate parts, or distracting lighting effects, or poses which hide faces or hands that don't quite work. Those tactics can preserve the benefit of the doubt for a picture or two, but ultimately the artist's weaknesses reveal themselves.

I think the uncanny valley applies far more to realism in faces than to staging, because a near miss in faces looks affirmatively creepy and unnerving to us-- those facial expressions that make you think of a dangerous mental patient or a pod creature from Invasion of the Body Snatchers-- while a near miss in staging often just looks clumsy and amateurish, not threatening.

Fawcett was capable of doing highly representational work but after the first few years of his career rarely attempted to go there. In fact, pictures that looked photo-representational on the surface (such as his Sherlock Holmes series) quickly disintegrated into the craziness of sub-atomic particles when you took a closer look. Fawcett obnoxiously upbraided students and even his peers for polishing and polishing their images in order to achieve a dazzling likeness. He urged them to reconsider their goals. But when it came to staging, he was widely respected as a master of British understatement, employing a tilted head or a raised eyebrow where his American born peers would use an explosion or a splash of scarlet to affect the dynamic of a picture. I would not say that the two illustrations here are the best example of that, but if you read his book on The Art of Drawing or his materials for the Famous Artists School, you will see that he was quite eloquent on the staging qualities being discussed here. I think at some point he decided he had other fish to fry.

chris bennett wrote: "because it does not refer to anything outside of itself, this quality becomes one of charisma without content."

This is a point I've waltzed around with Kev on, and I'm not sure there is a place for a meeting of the minds. Kev has yet to show me a picture that totally "does not refer to anything outside of itself" because I think that the color blue can refer to something outside of itself, just as a vertical stripe can refer to something outside of itself. As long as we are psychologically complex human beings who process data subliminally and think in analogy and metaphor, I don't see how even an abstract painting can be quite without content. Obviously this doesn't satisfy Mr. Ferrara's notion of content. I also believe that while there is much to be gained from spending hours poring over the layered iconography and symbolism of a precious Van Eyck, there is also much to be gained from a huge red Rothko painting over your shoulder adding warmth, solemnity and depth to the tone of a room, (or a wall sized action painting by Kline or Gottlieb painting shaking up your metabolism). I understand that these last examples of content fail some people's legislative definition of "art." I'm saying that's OK.

I agree with you these latter examples do have "charisma" (which as you know comes from the Greek word for "blessing" and refers to a divinely conferred gift or power.) We could discuss whether their charisma is "without content" as discussed in the preceding paragraph, or I could save us all time by asking, "who says that a blessing without a specific narrative content necessarily fails as art?"

Laurence John said...

David:" ... while a near miss in staging often just looks clumsy and amateurish, not threatening"

To be clear: i wasn't implying that bad staging felt creepy. Just that the 'off' feeling was analogous. Rather than the creepy feeling you get when you see a human but not quite human painting or CG model, the feeling (in the case of staging and acting) is more 'this doesn't feel realistic' or 'this feels wooden'.

David: "But when it came to staging, he was widely respected as a master of British understatement..."

I can see that, but i also see a theatrical stiffness in the overly formal, overly precise blocking, which could equally be the result of a British theatrical vein.

kev ferrara said...

On the Uncanny Valley analogy...

The 'uncanny valley' is a dip in a curve, that represents a sudden decline in comfort as cgi nears mimetic fidelity. There is some research to back up this dip. Though I'm not sure the model of pictorial experience used was all that sophisticated. But there is certainly a truth in there somewhere. It has been said that the dip in comfort relates to the discomfort in recognizing mental disability. Probably physical disability as well; the stiffness of parkinson's, old age, facial paralysis, or the frozen corpse, and so on. Even the strange feeling we get from one of those stiff plastic halloween masks might relate to the effect.

(It is worth thinking of this in a wider way through something Howard Pyle said; "The better your picture, the more a little error calls attention to itself. As a single pebble in an otherwise comfortable shoe will quickly call attention to itself.")

Getting back to Laurence's analogy, I think we can walk it back to something else he pointed out earlier; which is the photo dependency. I think the connection here is that photography is so unnatural in the stiff, inexpressive, non-compositional way it freezes reality that allowing it to unduly influence a work of art will inevitably result in its unnaturality being transferred to canvas. Life is change, life is movement. There is no truth in a frozen instant, only fact. Having said that, I think photography can do well capturing the story of an interesting face. Because a face can contain a full story on its own. But it must be one heck of a face, and the credit for the photo goes to the face, not the finger pressing the shutter down.

With gesture and action, the problem is shown more plainly; the frozen instant captured by a camera is akin to the frozen mask-like face. There is some uncanny about it, literally.


kev ferrara said...

*There is something uncanny about it, literally. (Sometimes that pebble in a shoe is a single syllable.)

kev ferrara said...

Kev has yet to show me a picture that totally "does not refer to anything outside of itself" ... As long as we are psychologically complex human beings who process data subliminally and think in analogy and metaphor, I don't see how even an abstract painting can be quite without content. Obviously this doesn't satisfy Mr. Ferrara's notion of content.

This is a dire paraphrase of my arguments. I have clearly done a poor job explaining my points.

We’ve never had a deep discussion on here about the nature of “content.”

As with everything I am interested in the qualitative hierarchy of visual content, in order to get to the high end and see what makes it tick.

At the low end of the spectrum (literally), yes, you can say a red wall has content. You can say excellent performative crying indistinct from real crying has content. You can say passing gas during a staff meeting may have content (I mean symbolic content; hopefully nothing more than that.)

The issue in the above cases is that the proffered ‘content’ is dead simple. It is so simple in fact, so basic, that in each case, we may not even be dealing with communicative intent at all. The red wall may have been painted by kelp, butchery, or oxidation, the crying may be real or caused by brain damage, the gas a purely accidental emission. And without communicative intent, I don’t think we are talking about ‘content’ in the sense that we mean it.

And if we can’t tell purposeful signification from random sign-like phenomenon, are we even talking about Art? Let alone Art worth talking about? Why are we bothering? Let's be blunt: If somebody says a Geode slice is ‘a work of art’ they’re a hack interior decorator, and don’t really belong in a philosophical conversation. Nor do collectors of corkscrew Akro Agates belong in the same conversation. For it takes no talent whatsoever to choose among a favorite result of a random form-generating process.

Calling collectors of found objects 'artists' is like saying that the couple that picks out floor tiles, wallpaper, and drapes from the stock available at Home Depot are 'artists.'

If a creator purposefully makes their own geode-slice or corkscrew agate looking painting, this is the same as making your own tile, wallpaper or drape pattern. That is what we call design. It doesn't matter if the pattern is hung on the wall or glued to the wall. A frame merely concentrates interest, it doesn't transform the content within it by some magic means.

There is no need to compare applied designs or fabric swatches to a painting by Harry Watson. Calling what Harry Watson does 'design' denigrates his work, and destroys the basic conceptual distinction between applied design and Art.

In communication, complexity and its structure matters. It keeps us from floundering around with uninteresting edge cases, giving credence to the sophists, pretenders and fakers. Saying design and art are the same is the opposite of saying something useful.

Tom said...

Kev wrote
“Because a face can contain a full story on its own. But it must be one heck of a face, and the credit for the photo goes to the face, not the finger pressing the shutter down.”


http://philippehalsman.com/?image=the-frenchman

kev ferrara said...

The qualitative and structural features of Art that make it more advanced than Applied Design are the same qualitative and structural features that make thought more advanced than mood. That’s the simplest way I can put it.

kev ferrara said...

Regarding reference: We've discussed for years on this blog the probability that there is no such thing as wholly non-referential art. I’ve said that Jackson Pollock's work resembles what happens when a car speeds through a mud puddle. We've talked of patchwork art looking like an aerial map. We’ve discussed how any random arrangement of form becomes a projection test, where one can, with a modicum of imagination and suggestibility, ‘see’ similarities to the world. And so on. Nobody’s arguing for art purified of reference (except pretentious graphic designers of the high modernist stripe.)

The distinction of interest with respect to reference is between Art and Writing. What makes Art different than Writing is the dependence of the latter on ready-made references to convey essential meanings.

References require inspection, decoding, and recall. A clever heuristic for determining how meaning is communicated in a painting or drawing, is to note how quickly one segues from experiencing the picture (being in the stunned state of aesthetic arrest) to inspecting the picture in order to understand it.

It is literature’s basic nature as a mode of communication that its code must be inspected in order to be understood. Which is why nobody looks at a page of text from a distance and thinks they understand it. The meaning of the page cannot be intuited aesthetically. It must be decoded. The page is not the canvas literature paints on, nor is the paragraph shape. The words are chosen, not created.

Everything in Art, conversely, is created from scratch. Thus there is a tremendous amount of freedom in how meaning is conveyed. This allows imaginative gaps to be opened up everywhere and between anything, including within the references. And in these gaps within the references (and without them), the essential meanings of the references may be expressed to the imagination directly by the orchestration of sensual forces. Thus, the references themselves don’t actually require recall in order to be understood. This is the sense in which great art creates its own reality.

This is a difficult concept, so I’ll put it another way. It is easy to think of depiction in art as mere illusion. But there is a distinction between the illusion as trick (Trompe L’Oeil, Op Art) and what is going with illusions in greater Art. Depiction in great art is actually only the illusion of depiction-as-reference. What is actually being depicted is the suggestively meaningful forces that sensually define the meaning of the references. Thus we understand the references sufficiently through aesthetic apprehension to understand the image. This is why Harvey Dunn said ‘A picture is its own definition.’

Beyond the period of aesthetic arrest, once the Art spell loses its power over the viewer, the meaning-broadcasting deed has already been done. And one is free to read the references in a word-like way and recall associations at whim.

chris bennett said...

David: "who says that a blessing without a specific narrative content necessarily fails as art?"

Is a rose a work of art? Is a thoroughbred at full gallop? Or a flawlessly plastered wall? The arrival of spring? Nicole Kidman's body? A Tiger Wood eagle at Augusta? A large rectangle of dark reddish cloth hanging on a metropolitan gallery wall? (or a highly enlarged single comic panel saying "I know how you feel Brad")
All have their own gush of charisma. To say this alone qualifies these things as art is the same as saying all that glisters is gold.

chris bennett said...

But every one of these examples do have a specific narrative content to them. The question is whether an authored narrative structure qualifies, or fails, as art.

Tom said...

David wrote
“One result of Fawcett's continuing commitment to observation is that when he illustrated a figure, he was not content with the usual simplistic shortcuts: symmetrical people standing perpendicular to the ground. ‘ Instead, he observed that people are often bent or lopsided, reflecting life's tug of war between gravity and organic matter:”

Maybe your not being critical of symmetry David but it sounds like art school talk where a prowerful organizing principal gets knock down as being old fashion and boring by people who can not do what they are criticizing . Or when modern critics try to make modern art sound innovative and revolutionary by rejecting the values of the past. Bad figure drawing is not symmetry’s fault. In fact understanding symmetry makes good figure drawing possible.The human body’s arrangement to gravity could be a “tug of war,” but more then likely it reflects how nature harmonizes and creates beautiful arrangements when different forces come into relation with each other. The “war,” analogy has little to do with art. One can just as easily say gravity’s our friend because it anchors and supports us and harmonizes by relating all things to one point, the center of the earth

The principle of symmetry is felt throughout Fawcett’s compositions in doorways, aisles ways, the church windows chairs and floors.The man made environment of rooms made up of horizontals masses and verticals masses is the perfect contrast to the rhythm of organic matter and the emotional responses of the human body and this staging focuses the viewer on the human drama at hand which is the point of the illustrations. They may feel artificial and not “realistic, or believable,” but most older entertainment feels the same. I like how readable they are as one element in the pictures leads the eye to another. From the hat in the foreground, to the horizontal body in death contrasted with the two vertical figures. Form which the eye rises with the ‘calm and puzzled,’ detective’s arm and continues up to the woman’s body framed by the doorway and finally too her apprehensive and worried face which directs the eye us back to the beginning of our journey. It’s clearly, “staged,” in an old fashion way but it is also comprehensible, in art things should be clear and understandable, especially when you may only have the viewers attention for a short amount of time. When they are not frustrations arises in the viewer.

David also wrote,
“ (I suspect that if Fawcett had two characters so far out of proportion you would've burned him for it here.)”

I’ve seen that sculpture a lot and I never once thought of it being out of proportion. It bypasses such responses. Michelangelo obviously love the rhythm of form in and of itself and would have considered any failure of clear expression of the individual forms that make up the body a failure on the part of the artist. One only has to read about his response to Titian’s paintings. So much of art has to do with what an artist wants to say about reality, it is the reason he picks up his pencil in the first place and this primal intention gives the work its form. Not understanding that simple intention is what leads to muddled and confused works. One may love mystery while another loves clarity.

kev ferrara said...

I agree with you these latter examples do have "charisma" (which as you know comes from the Greek word for "blessing" and refers to a divinely conferred gift or power.)

I did not know the origin of the word.

However, that Charisma is a 'divinely conferred blessing' is a point about the origin of the word in Greek culture. It is not really an explanation of the actual phenomena of Charisma, in people or Art.

A very interesting technical discussion could be had about what causes the sensation of Charisma in people and Art; what causes that property to emerge? Because, no doubt, all great Art has Charisma.

Etymonline.com is one of my favorite site on the net and it is worth looking up the word there.

chris bennett said...

Thanks for the link Kev.
And for flagging up David's somewhat cheeky etymological tactics to foil my argument. :)
I am of course using the word charisma in its colloquial sense as described in Etymonline: Meaning "gift of leadership, power of authority" is from c. 1930, from German, used in this sense by Max Weber (1864-1920) in "Wirtschaft u. Gesellschaft" (1922). More mundane sense of "personal charm" recorded by 1959.