Sunday, January 19, 2020

A FILE OF GOOD DESIGNS

It has been said that form and content are jealous cousins-- they don't always get along well.

Sometimes it seems that today content has scored a TKO over form.  So many pictures in the information age focus on content, while giving very little consideration to the principles of design.

Previous generations of artists would collect entire files of strong designs:
















At first I didn't understand what the pictures in this file had in common.  They were of different subjects, by different artists, in different styles, from different eras.  How could this file possibly be useful to a working artist looking for reference?






Then I realized they were all pictures where the form dominates the content, where bold designs and compositions reach out and grab you and only then fold you into the content.

I think these pictures were chosen to embolden-- something a working artist needs as much as they need accurate information about the anatomy of a hand, or the buttons on a military uniform .   

62 comments:

Knits and Weaves said...

When I first looked at the Fortune cover, I saw it as a purely abstract design. It took a few seconds before I could interpret it as a representation of a train passing over a viaduct. Magical. Wonderful economy of artistic resources. Thank you for posting!

kev ferrara said...

These are fantastic. This level of poetic concision really seems to lend an epic quality or sense of profundity to the subject. Technically, these are interesting edge cases that fall just at the boundary line between the concept of "illustration" and the concept of "graphic design" - and it's near relative, cartooning. (This boundary, to me, should be a major area of Aesthetic investigation in the colleges. But.... nope. Crickets.)

Regarding form and content, in my understanding, where form and content are an identity, are a synthesized unit existing in duality or superposition, that is Art. In other words, in Art the language of form expresses the content. And to the extent that content can be separated out from form, the work is no longer speaking in the language of Art just there; aesthetic suggestion has been supplanted by reading/decoding.

Tom said...

It seems to me you could argue the illustrations were saved as a group for the idea of silhouette. In the older illustrations it appears the artists were much more capable of defining the internal planes, and the actions or forces, that give form to the silhouettes which give their illustrations a much greater strength, sense of space and visual interest. The newer illustrations feel more like tracings of the outside edge of things and lack that inner motive that animates form.

I agree with you David that bold design and composition are as important if not more important then detail or literal accuracy, but it would be great if you addressed what you mean by form and if it is different from composition and design or is it the same thing? Content is another tricky concept which I think needs some clarifying especially in regards to pictures.

Glenn Lumsden said...

this is a general comment regarding your blog, David, i just wanted to say what a total joy it is, wandering through it...this is where my heart and my aesthetics and my happy place is! thank you! :)

David Apatoff said...

Knits and Weaves-- Yes, isn't that Fortune magazine cover a honey? It required a courageous artist and a courageous art director because Fortune had never done a cover like that before. But decades later it's the only cover of Fortune that anyone remembers-- a fitting reward for their bravery back in 1932.

Kev Ferrara-- I agree on all points. These are definitely on the border between illustration and graphic design. In my view, for example, Bob Peak was a far better graphic designer than he was an illustrator so there is a genuine difference between the disciplines. But I think there is substantial overlap too. If the academics aren't interested in testing the boundaries, that sounds like something we should be taking up here. None of the galoots who participate here have to worry about tenure or losing foundation grant money.

I think a totally synthesized unit of form and content is a goal to be pursued but is very rarely realized in life. Do you have any examples in mind? It doesn't bother me when artists come in to the left or right of equipoise--in fact, I think the examples in this post show how joyful art can be when artists flaunt their excesses in one direction or the other. What I don't like is when artists disrespect--or are oblivious to--the tension between the two.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "It seems to me you could argue the illustrations were saved as a group for the idea of silhouette."

I agree that most of these examples tend to be flat and high contrast against a white or light background, although some of those black shapes, such as the Herbie Hancock piano, aren't necessarily silhouettes. Yes, the "outside edge" is crucial to these designs, just as it is crucial to the design of Japanese woodblock prints which had such an impact on Western taste in the 19th century. Does that lessen the artistic accomplishment for you?

I also agree with you that the earlier illustrators were more adroit at incorporating flat black shapes into internal planes. Perhaps they were better trained, or perhaps no one before them had the guts to be so emphatic with flat, bold statements that did not compromise with three dimensionality.

I also agree that the epistemology and metaphysics of "content" are extremely challenging topics, especially for illustration which tended to have more of a narrative message than fine art over the past century. I've nibbled around the edges of that controversy here, suggesting that even purely abstract art can't be wholly without content. For example, a solid red canvas might be called "blood of the proletariat" or "red number 47" and the name would have an impact on content. But even "red number 47" could convey fight-or-flight content on a purely biological level. Do you have a theory about content you wish to propound here?

Glenn Lumsden-- Thanks for writing, I enjoyed hearing from you. I love this stuff too and I post it on the theory that "pleasure shared is pleasure doubled."

Laurence John said...


The problem with the word 'form' is that it has at least two different meanings. It can mean - the illusion of - physical masses that build up a person or object in a painting. So Rubens has lots of 'form' (light & shadow on sculptural figures) but the Fuchs example in this post has very little (flattened space and not much modelling of shape). I'm assuming this is the type of 'form' Tom is referring to.

More broadly 'form' can mean any visual qualities at all, as in the phrase 'the formal properties of the artwork'. So, a completely flat abstract work can be discussed on the level of 'form' even though it has none of the above. And the surface mark-making of an artist who DOES do the above can also be discussed under this use of the word. So, lots of room for confusion.

Personally i think of the first type of 'form' as a kind of sculptural, wire-frame (CGI terminology) understructure that a representational illustrator / painter is bringing to life. I think of the entirety of the finished painting (all visual properties taken into consideration) as 'style'.

'Content' simply means 'subject matter'. It doesn't mean the amount that can be read into a work and essayed about (what Kev is referring to as 'reading/decoding').

Wes said...

McLuhan's theories re form/media and content may be useful here. He was a proponent of the notion that the form or medium was often more significant than the content ("the medium is the message"). These illustrations show that the content is pretty close to nil but the design and form is powerful and memorable. Both illustrations of trains show the irony that something as powerful in life as a train (even in the distance will compel a look) can be a delicate and small abstraction in art. In the Fortune example, the viaduct nearly swallows the train, but not quite, and in the other, the smoke dominates the imagery. Both require sensitive scrutiny to “see” the content. I too, could not “see” the viaduct at first. A pleasure to see these wonderful illustrations.

Richard said...

Pointlessly flat, emotionally boring, and aesthetically self-indulgent.

The worst offenders are the Fortune cover and Schnackenberg's Orient Express, neither of which show the faintest love or understanding of the subject, the particular qualities of trains and what makes them so visually energizing.

I don't think its particularly bold to flatten your objects into weakly-designed or photographically-literal cutout silhouettes, so that single objects get the same treatment all throughout.

Boldness is lovingly designing visual effects, clearly caricaturing an area of light or shadow with verve. See, for example, the way that photo-manipulator extraordinaire Eytan Zana deals with the highlights on the rocks here.

I think you guys are off the rocker with this one.

Anonymous said...

Often wrong - never in doubt , as usual .

chris bennett said...

The worst offenders are the Fortune cover and Schnackenberg's Orient Express, neither of which show the faintest love or understanding of the subject, the particular qualities of trains and what makes them so visually energizing.

The subject of these examples is not the train itself but its movement through an airy and engulfing environment. As succinct statements of such they are absolutely to the point and the limited means is so artfully employed their reductive boldness shades into poetry all its own.

Sheridan said...

#1 COMPOSITION/DESIGN

#2. DRAWING

#3. VALUE

Follow those, in that order, and you most likely won't screw up too badly. Things like COLOR, and TECHNIQUE are usually the least important. Even the black & white Ali Baba design has values in it. As to the train pieces, I think JWM Turner did a few that were interesting also, but a little "out there", as well ;-)

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "Content' simply means 'subject matter'. "

Your use of the word "simply" suggests to me that you may be taking an artificially narrow view of "subject matter." Do you mean the artist's conscious and subconscious subject matter? Do you mean the subject matter as perceived by the viewer? Are you including the subject matter the artist choses to convey explicitly and the subject matter the artist chooses to imply?

One thing I really like about the Fuchs picture you discuss is that the face and hands sensitively convey "form" in the molded, sculptural sense of the term, but those legs are exaggerated and extended in flat "forms" purely for design purposes. The former was clearly done with photo reference but there's nothing photographic about the latter. Fuchs combines them seamlessly.

I intended to use "forms" in the most open, generic sense-- like "shapes."


Wes-- I agree the content is pretty close to nil in the examples you cite--obviously these artists slipped the leash and went out to have a rollicking good time with pure forms. They make no pretense of striving for the equipoise that Kev describes, and sometimes that imbalance results in artistic failures but these efforts are so good hearted I have a hard time holding it against them.

Richard-- There are several illustrators, such as Peter Helck or Leslie Ragan, who are justly famous for their "love and understanding" of trains, and if the Fortune cover had followed that approach it would be just one more talented train painting in a field of 100. Here I think the artist is offering us huge manmade achievements-- the architecture of that bridge contributes more horsepower than that locomotive-- in a more dynamic capitalist version of the fascist monumental style of Mussolini and Ayn Rand. They all share that irresistibly impressive muscular look that dates back to imperial Rome.

You say these examples are self-indulgent, but in my view anyone who can seize control of the forms, and all of their accompanying assumptions, that way is self-legitimizing instead. Only an artist has the magic power to make smoke from a train weigh as much as a ten ton locomotive. But to exercise that magic power I think the artist must have both talent and guts.

Richard said...

“Only an artist has the magic power to make smoke from a train weigh as much as a ten ton locomotive. But to exercise that magic power I think the artist must have both talent and guts.”

Evidently it didn’t take THAT much talent since Roy schnackenberg pulled it off and the guy is an absolute hack.


“As succinct statements of such they are absolutely to the point and the limited means is so artfully employed their reductive boldness shades into poetry all its own.”

No offense intended Chris, but this is the exact kind of nonsense art speak that I’m avoiding by coming to this blog. A picture made only of flat silhouettes isn’t “poetic, to the point, boldness”. That’s koolaid speak. They’re an offense to the viewer, they’re an offense to the art form, even when the illustrator is otherwise a genius.

It was big magazines shoving this kind of shallow fashionable work, from illustrators who should have known better, that made the way for the despicable shape we’re in artistically.

Laurence John said...

David: "Do you mean the artist's conscious and subconscious subject matter? Do you mean the subject matter as perceived by the viewer? Are you including the subject matter the artist choses to convey explicitly and the subject matter the artist chooses to imply?"

No, by 'content' or 'subject matter' i mean only what is visible within the four sides of the picture. I realise that doesn't cover the 'narrative' that the subject matter of the picture might set out to convey, but i think that's another story (no pun intended).

David: "One thing I really like about the Fuchs picture you discuss is that the face and hands sensitively convey "form" in the molded, sculptural sense of the term, but those legs are exaggerated and extended in flat "forms" purely for design purposes"

I wasn't making any judgement on the Fuchs as being a lesser work due to its flatness of form (compared to a Rubens which has more sculptural 'forms'). Merely discussing the use of the word 'form'.

David: "I intended to use "forms" in the most open, generic sense-- like "shapes."

I got that. You're talking more about hard outer edges - silhouettes - rather than inner masses (which are lacking, or very reduced in most of these examples).

chris bennett said...

A picture made only of flat silhouettes isn’t “poetic, to the point, boldness”. That’s koolaid speak. They’re an offense to the viewer, they’re an offense to the art form, even when the illustrator is otherwise a genius.

Richard, what I wrote was "the limited means is so artfully employed their reductive boldness shades into poetry". This is not the same thing as saying that pictures made of flat silhouettes are necessarily poetic, to the point and bold. So please read more carefully and take a moment before you accuse me (even without intended offence) of coughing up Kool-Aid in your Post-Modern-free waterhole.

Be that as it may, I'm curious to know if you still hold to your assertion that the subject of these images is about trains themselves.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett wrote: The subject of these examples is not the train itself."

Agreed. If we consider the small % of the total space taken up by the train, and the absence of any detail or color on the train, it seems clear to me that there is more afoot here than love and understanding of trains.

Richard wrote: "Evidently it didn’t take THAT much talent since Roy schnackenberg pulled it off and the guy is an absolute hack."

Why?

Laurence John wrote: "by 'content' or 'subject matter' i mean only what is visible within the four sides of the picture. I realise that doesn't cover the 'narrative' that the subject matter of the picture might set out to convey, but i think that's another story (no pun intended)."

I'm trying to understand what such a definition of subject matter gets you. Are you talking about the purely physical image stripped of all the assumptions and projections we bring to a painting? The other side of a tree isn't visible but we project its 3 dimensionality. A dramatic element of a picture may be off camera, but we infer its existence from a facial expression or a shadow that is visible within the four sides of the picture. I don't know whether Kev would consider such inferences
to be legitimate "aesthetic suggestion" or undesirable "reading/decoding" but without them I'd think we're talking about subject matter as abstract shapes.

Laurence John said...

David: "Are you talking about the purely physical image stripped of all the assumptions and projections we bring to a painting?"

I'm simply making a distinction between the 'content' (what the painting is OF) and the 'narrative meaning' (what the painting is ABOUT). Maybe you don't find the distinction useful, or see any reason to make it ?

Laurence John said...

David, we could ask (for example) "is the narrative meaning of any of these illustrations enhanced by pushing the formal properties of the image toward flatness and bold / silhouetted / outlined shapes ?"

Richard thinks not, and sees them as superficial exercises in design for designs sake. Perhaps he's right. Is there a point where more and more flatness and boldness starts to take away from the image's meaning ?

If so, where is that point ?

Tom said...

Maybe the Fortune cover is more about the strength of the bridge that supports the train? Revealing the power of the rarely thought about structural supports that give systems there stability. Like the plane of the earth keeping everything upright. I certainly look upon that arch with a confidence.

Richard said...

> "Be that as it may, I'm curious to know if you still hold to your assertion that the subject of these images is about trains themselves."

Well, so first, I think the subject in the sense of what the picture is "about" for the Fortune cover is the fortunes that were being made in 1932 (a market up 50%) and specifically the stock explosion in August 1932. (The primary train stocks and bonds on the NYSE went from a $2 average to a $7 average in a single day. 'Fortunes' were being made.)

But the "subject" of the picture, in the sense of what it depicts, I think is the train not the bridge. This was futurism, and speed was everything. It doesn't depict a heavily laden freight train crossing a terrifying chasm over a monolithic sturdy bridge -- that would be about strength. Instead, it shows a sleek modern passenger train soaring through the sky with a wisp of smoke behind -- I definitely think the train is the subject of the Fortune picture.

Although I'd say the picture fails in part because that's not clear -- part of the issue with this hipster silhouetting.

As for Schneckenberg's Orient Express picture. Yes, I think the subject is the Orient Express, a famous train. Insofar as Schneckenberg was competent enough to try to make a picture about something more than solely what it depicts, I think he meant for it to be about that specific train and its peculiar "mystery, legend, and intrigue".

That said, I would repeat again that he was a complete hack. Seriously, just look at his work.

Richard said...

Richard thinks not, and sees them as superficial exercises in design for designs sake. Perhaps he's right. Is there a point where more and more flatness and boldness starts to take away from the image's meaning ?

I don't know where that point is, but I'd say we crossed it since everyone seemed to think the picture was about the bridge.

Careful use of value, texture, detail, atmosphere, edge control, and so on, would have been able to make clear that the train was the subject -- for example, if he made it a sleek chrome picking up orange and red spectacular highlights from the sunset, in front of a purple sky, and above a low-saturation blue-to-black bridge.

Richard said...

Also, correction, I called the fortune picture Futurist, but I guess more accurately it was Art Deco. I think the rest of that argument still roughly stands.

Richard said...

Another correction, Chris did not say it was about the Bridge, I just wasn't paying attention. I'm done now.

Tom said...

Richard
Maybe the "stock market," lifts all trains!

kev ferrara said...

For the sake of a necessary clarity, I distinguish the more abstract word "Form" from shape-form or sculptural-form.

Form is the general idea of any type of visual manipulation at all -- the infinite plastic possibilities inherent in the entire suite of visual qualities that may be utilized to produce artistic effects, marks, structures or other graphic relations.

Meanwhile shape-form and sculptural-form are merely two instances of that general idea. Two instances among many more ways that something visual may be 'formed' (in the sense of manifested) in Art. (e.g. Tensions, color coding, vibrations, vagueness, undefined negative space, expressions of mood, blur, tropes, synaesthetic sensory illusions, and so on)

In the act of producing art, the creative decisions result in, with each work, a new suite of formal properties never before manifested thusly. So, in the act of creation Form becomes formalized. Possibility becomes actuality.



kev ferrara said...


On 'Subject' - here again we get caught up in the confusion engendered by the unrigorous thinking of the gallery, academic, and art-fandom worlds. By virtue of its unity, a picture should be its own definition; a unique symbol defined aesthetically.

A picture's title, then, which usually states its subject, is a redundancy; a word symbol label for an aesthetic symbol reality. This confounds people for two reasons. One, the text title is in a different linguistic medium than the picture and separate from it and thus disunifies the viewing experience, causing distraction. And two, the viewer takes the picture to be the definition of the word title; when the picture is actually only a definition of its own symbol; and this causes confusion about the actual nature of the Art experience as it is happening.

The subject of a work of Art cannot be adequately discussed in words because the references and the expression are unified; inseparable. Any artistic presence or element is only what it does to the viewer. There are no nouns in Art. There are only sensations; movements within the imagination's firmament. Verbs are a poor substitute for aesthetic sensations. But even if we accepted verbs as a substitute for aesthetic sensations, verbs still couldn't form the element while also characterizing it, as effects do in art. Thus there is no way to translate aesthetic sensations into either the grammar or lexicon of English.

In a sense, there are only two kind of pictures; The picturing of an overall event mood. And the picturing of an anomaly that emerges from an overall event mood. The "subject" of a picture is either the overall event mood, or the anomaly emerging from an overall event mood.

A picture is what it does to the viewer. That poem is the subject.

chris bennett said...

In a sense, there are only two kind of pictures; The picturing of an overall event mood. And the picturing of an anomaly that emerges from an overall event mood. The "subject" of a picture is either the overall event mood, or the anomaly emerging from an overall event mood.

I've been trying to figure out what you mean by this and while I can equate the first instance with a concept like 'scenario', I find myself at sea trying to understand what you mean by 'an anomaly emerging from an event mood'. Then again I might have misunderstood entirely. Could you give any examples of what you mean by this?

Thanks in advance Kev, and thanks in retrospect for the clarifications about form and subject; very sharp and much appreciated.

Laurence John said...


Richard: "Careful use of value, texture, detail, atmosphere, edge control, and so on, would have been able to make clear that the train was the subject"

The impetus toward flatness mainly came from the world of posters, where quick visual impact was the goal on the passing pedestrian or commuter. Tom Purvis (British) did the best flat colour poster work in my opinion, during the 20s and 30s, in particular for Austin Reed and GNER (railway). He had some interesting ideas about the use of flatness. Quote: "I always think that a good poster should start from the surface of the hoarding outwards and not recede into the hoarding as though the spectator was looking through a window. The surface should look solid as if anything hitting it would bounce off instead of going through a hole".

He credited the Beggarstaffs (pseudonym of William Nicholson and James Pryde, also British, late Victorian) with influence, who in turn were influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec's famous Moulin Rouge poster from 1891.

So, to answer my own question "is the narrative meaning of any of these illustrations enhanced by pushing the formal properties of the image toward flatness and bold / silhouetted / outlined shapes ?"

... I would argue that a flat / bold / graphic magazine cover (such as the Fortune one) is probably motivated by the same goal as the aforementioned posters: eye catch-ability. But then, the internal magazine illustrations probably are too. I tend to agree with you, however, that flatness for flatness sake applied arbitrarily to any image can feel mannered, and somewhat superficial, stylistically. A bit like a traditional dramatic-narrative approach jazzed up. Painting is a slower art form, and many of the signifiers in painting of quality are very subtle, and include the things you listed above. To move painting more toward flatness... you have to ask "for what reason, and at what price ?"

chris bennett said...

I agree with you Laurence. And the quote you give from Tom Purvis (also a favourite of mine) is very interesting. Is there a monograph on him you are quoting from? I'd love to get hold of it.

Laurence John said...

Chris, the quote is from 'Tom Purvis - Art For the Sake of Money'. Recommended.

chris bennett said...

Ah, many thanks Laurence.

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

A picture shows an event -- one event. The character of that event can be anything imaginable: somber, wild and savage, silly, desolate, determined, mysterious, celebratory, reverent, spooky, claustrophobic, good-natured, dank, etc.

A picture may be only about the chosen event as a whole. And in being so, the artist naturally unifies the elements of and participants in the event to the overall expressive quality of that event. Everything falls into one weave or pattern. Which would make the picture itself - as a compositional unity - somber, wild and savage, silly, desolate, determined... as suggested by the event-subject.

But if the picture -- as well as depicting an event of some unified expressive character -- also portrays some character or point of interest within that event -- that is to some greater or lesser degree pulling away out of the mood-quality of that event so that it takes some degree of extra focus such that we may notice it -- then this is the Event + Anomaly type picture-subject.

(I call the interest "anomalous" because it must, to at least some slight degree, depart from the mood in order to be of more-than-average pictorial interest. More subtle pictures have interests that subtly emerge from the event and its mood. More oppositional pictures have interests that violently assert their agency by erupting from the event mood. In all cases, the anomaly catches the attention due to our orienting reflex auto-detecting that which is different in an otherwise regular or consistent context.)

In 1905-era discussions, the John F. Carlson's of the world believed the former 'Event Only' type was sufficient content for a picture. While the majority of artists believed in the necessity of 'an interest' found within the Event.

Manqueman said...

FWIW: https://www.printmag.com/advertising-2/vintage-graphic-design-ads-1960s-2/

chris bennett said...

Thank you for illuminating this Kev, it makes a lot of sense, but I'll have to let it digest properly.
If I have understood you correctly the event mood only picture and the event mood plus anomaly picture are the extremes poles of a continuum of every kind of picture in between, so most pictures are a varying proportional mix of these two extremes. Even the most tranquil late Inness landscape has a touch of anomaly in order to intensify the piquancy of its mood. I'd say off-the-cuff that Euan Uglow's Root Five Nude, Constable's Hay Wain, Michelangelo's creation and Adam or Monet's water lilies are close examples of event only paintings whereas Poussin's Man Killed By A Snake, Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott and William Dyce's Pegwell Bay are close examples of event mood plus anomaly.
Is this the kind of thing you mean?

kev ferrara said...

Yes, there's a continuity between the poles. Exactly.

And yes, a successful picture with no anomaly at all is unlikely. In my thought, the 'Event Only' types usually use anomaly as part of the template for the overall pattern; the interesting change becomes akin to a motif, it is repeated like a recurring glitch in wallpaper (although more organically, obviously).

So the anomaly appears regularly amid the compositional units. Which entails that, although for each unit the anomaly catches sudden attention... causing effect... at the general scale that effect becomes distributed, and that causes it to manifest as a mood or gestalt action or overall dynamic. This goes to the point that the mood/tone of a picture can be built of any idea at all; and that idea does not need to be simple or static.

It's probably easiest to note this anomaly-as-repeating-activator in pictures with a circular flow. In order to get the eye to flow in one direction, there must continually occur anomalies in the direction of flow. Just what those interests are has variation, but they all are causing the same forcing of the eye in a particular clock direction; a regular pattern built of a particular brand of irregular event.

Often, accompanying such a circuit composition will be 'accents' that weakly tend against the flow direction; which are also distributed and so become part of mood/tone. The point of the accents is to prevent the harmony of the gestalt clock-flow idea from becoming over-dominant and too obvious, thus boring and unrealistic. But these accents are never so forceful that they break the dominant flow idea.

The area of 'fingers nearly touching' in Michaelangelo's Creation is a very clear example of an anomaly taking focus from the general event. The crux of an event is always emerged from the general mood of it, thus anomalous. A pure 'Event Only' picture would have no crux at all; or a somewhat regular series of more or less equitable cruxes per compositional unit.

Hay Wain has a very subtle crux with its tiny figural zone. Otherwise it just has an overall feel of openness and windswept bluster; a meandering spirality. Many, maybe most, landscapes naturally fall within the almost-Event-Only-but-with-just-a-touch-of-crux zone; often because a small figure is required to establish the vastness of the environmental scale, and this became an entrenched tradition in the genre.

chris bennett said...

Thank you Kev, that's wonderful, and I much appreciate you taking the trouble to lay it out so comprehensively.
As I thought about it the idea occurred to me that this principle would be taking place within smaller compositional units but did not want to overburden my question, so I'm delighted that you brought it up as a matter of course in your further explanation.

kev ferrara said...

Just to try to get this clear one more time - because this stuff is so difficult to articulate in words because it is such a different kind of language...

The subject of a work of Art is the unique symbol it broadcasts. This symbol is defined by the way it is manifested, by how it is articulated and rendered and notated and coded and arranged, and so on.

A work's symbol is the abstract of its poem... the comprehension of its abstraction complex, the haiku of the poem, the unifying concision. The 'poster' or graphic design would be a key part of this, but not the whole magilla.

Richard said...

By virtue of its unity, a picture should be its own definition; a unique symbol defined aesthetically.

The subject of a work of Art is the unique symbol it broadcasts.

Should be, or is? Two very different statements here. You believe it Ought to be that way, or Is universally that way?

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

If a picture is created via the mode or method of suggestion, that will entail abstraction, which entails that the duality of symbol-with-definition happens. (Symbol just means a formalism that has some meaning associated with it. And Form is abstract in nature. And abstraction just means a formalized concision of an experience* that, using minimal, deftly-selected means, can generously and beautifully revivify in the imagination the given experience sans anything extraneous to its salience.)

Further, if the picture is functioning as an aesthetic unit - that is, if its component intuitable meanings merge into one intuitable whole - that will entail that a singular symbol results of the work as a whole.

So, that's two tenets - both of which I believe are provably foundational, thus definitional, to Art - that provide the rationale for the two lines you bolded.

One; a key factor that defines Art is the use of Suggestion (thus abstractions, thus defined formalisms, thus symbol.)

Two; in tandem with Suggestion is the necessity of Unity, which entails that what is in a work of art is there for a reason, and that reason governs everything about the particular work including what is excluded. (So anything that doesn't contribute doesn't belong. Which includes errors such as redundancy, indecision, bluffing, tricks, literalism, and meaninglessness.)

And the combination of One and Two causes a picture to be a singular self-defined Symbol; an Image.

*Or 'experience component.' Although each component of experience is also an experience. And all we can experience, really, is a component of total experience.

(good question, btw.)

chris bennett said...

Thanks again Kev, that seems very clear and I've been giving it some deep thought.
When a painting I'm working on feels to be going extremely well I have the sensation that I both recognise and do not recognise what it is depicting simultaneously (although in physical terms it would have to be my mind's fast oscillation between the two). So would you say this is a manifestation of a picture being apprehended as a unique symbol and as its depiction of something thereby evidencing, while working in this state, that one is producing art?

Richard said...

> The subject of a work of Art is the unique symbol it broadcasts.

> Suggestion (thus abstractions, thus defined formalisms, thus symbol.)

If the concision or abstraction of the constituent elements of a mood-event is self-referential for that mood-event, if a picture is sign for its own distilled evocation, I don’t think it’s accurate to call it a “Symbol”.

A person experiences mood-events by pictorial empathy. Not analytically, referentially, or sympathetically. We experience them because our brains are extremely willing to suspend disbelief when presented with illusions, even relatively poor ones.

We experience mood-events entirely firsthand, and what the "aesthetic brain" is busily consuming in the mood-event is not stylistic, technical, or formalistic.

Style, technique, and formalism only describes in which ways the picture-technician concised or distilled.

But the thing being experienced isn’t the concision itself, it’s not the distillation, it’s not stylistic, technical or formal. Not ever. What’s experienced is the evocation itself, and the evocation is pre-Artist. That's why it can be objective, universal.

Richard said...

And just to fall back to the age-old debate for a moment: I’d also add that I believe that paramount among all of the forms of concision, and its ability to produce a mood-event, is the choice of subject/narrative.
To pick this image over all others in the world, because it produces the foundation for the experience, is the most central act of distillation one can take. To take the infinite universe of moments and subjects, and select one from it.
It is for this reason that Photography is an artform after all. The Photographer, like all artists, performs the most important act of concision that there is – answering the What?

Unlike his distant cousin the photographer, the traditional artist has decided to ignore this most central question.

The painter or draftsman produces endlessly repetitive Rocky Mountains, Vases, Reclining Chubby Nudes, Shiny Chrome Knights, Blank-faced Ethnic Women, Boxy Spaceships, Italian Ruins, Placid Lakes, etc. Images that audiences really have no desire for. He has focused on the how of concision, but not the what of concision, and so his pictures are increasingly valueless.

Unfortunately, most of the significant artists of the 20th century have been photographers, in spite of the inferiority of the artform.

Perhaps it is the inflated egos and group-think of the Artists which has lead them to believe that Technique and Style are more important than Evocation.
Or perhaps it’s not ego, but fear. Fear of the central question, which strikes out at all parts of life. Fear of the question that made the artist, during healthier eons, into a figure of central controversy. What is worth producing in the viewer?

chris bennett said...
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chris bennett said...

To take the infinite universe of moments and subjects, and select one from it.
It is for this reason that Photography is an artform after all.


That's just 'look what cool thing I've found'. Picasso's statement; "I do not seek, I find" does not endorse your assertion either, because artists do not find. They realise.

kev ferrara said...

...I don’t think it’s accurate to call it a “Symbol”.

The reason it is a symbol and not just a sign, is because the artistic act has crafted and codified the signification. A symbol is a determined sign. A scream in the night, for example, would only be a sign because it isn't formalized; there's no craft involved, no design, no consideration, thus it is too primitive an expression to be used as symbolic currency. (It is the nature of Symbol that it is instantly available to be used as meaning-currency.)

On your point about the experience of mood... What we experience in art is the sensually felt definition of the symbol. That is the aesthetic forcefield, the complex of visually expressed intuitable meanings that explain and justify the symbolic while taking on its own fictive illusory reality.

It is crucial to understand that Aesthetic forces are the felt implications of the concise poetic statements and abstractions. Our aesthetic feeling is the completion of the suggestion structures. If you try to locate the forces in the picture through a literal method of detection, they will not be there. Most of what is between suggestive notes is emptiness. We fill the emptiness by apprehension of the information surrounding that emptiness. This is why Harvey Dunn said "put all the detail you want in the edge of the mass."

The Famous Artist course has a good basic section on Mood Symbols.

kev ferrara said...

So would you say this is a manifestation of a picture being apprehended as a unique symbol and as its depiction of something thereby evidencing, while working in this state, that one is producing art?

I think what makes the Art and the Artist is the flow state. The consciousness works in linear code. Art can only be made synthetically. The linear mind, no matter how crystalline, is death to synthetic-creative modes. Only the deeper mind can work problems on all fronts at once; which is why only the deeper mind comes up with epiphanies and eurekas. Any synthetic creation is equivalent to an epiphany. Which means all the major considerations are being dealt with simultaneously.

Laurence John said...


Richard: "... if a picture is sign for its own distilled evocation, I don’t think it’s accurate to call it a “Symbol”."

I argued years ago on here that a painterly likeness of something can't also be a 'symbol' (and i don't mean in the sense that a picture of a crow symbolises 'death'), but that conversation is long lost.

Richard: "Unlike his distant cousin the photographer, the traditional artist has decided to ignore this most central question"

No... the greatest (narrative) painters re-stage reality in the form of a dramatic narrative / fiction. Only a few photographers do, such as Gregory Crewdson (who i've also argued for in long lost conversations on this topic).

Richard: "Unfortunately, most of the significant artists of the 20th century have been photographers, in spite of the inferiority of the artform."

I would argue the most significant artists of the 20th century have been film-makers. They took over the job of being the prime re-stagers of reality, and painting went off on ever more inward-looking, formal obsessions.

kev ferrara said...

I argued years ago on here that a painterly likeness of something can't also be a 'symbol' (and i don't mean in the sense that a picture of a crow symbolises 'death'), but that conversation is long lost.

This neglects that otherwise different aspects of signification exist in superposition in Art. You get dualities, and trialities and so on, of sign types. So the likeness of an image (its iconicity as a sign) is married to a meaningful graphic abstraction that has been codified as the design of the image (it's symbolism as a sign.) In other words, its both sign types at once, a synthesis.

Laurence John said...

I can't understand the way you're writing in this comment section Kev, sorry. It just reads like academese to me.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- yes, I agree those examples of Schnackenberg's art are pretty horrible. And it's interesting that he recycles the same dense black plume from the Orient Express smoke as abstract shapes in other paintings. Having said that, I've seen a couple of illustrations by him that are pretty original and powerful. I don't see them anywhere online, but if I could figure out the trick to uploading jpgs to this comment section, I would show them to you.


Kev Ferrara wrote: "a picture's title, then, which usually states its subject, is a redundancy; a word symbol label for an aesthetic symbol reality… The text title is in a different linguistic medium than the picture and separate from it and thus disunifies the viewing experience…"

I have to disagree with you there. There are plenty of disonant visual elements that "dis-unify the viewing experience," and we applaud that as creative tension or friction. Handled badly, it's a liability for a picture. Handled well, it's an asset. I think the same goes for juxtaposing word symbols and visual symbols; there is no reason why two different kinds of aesthetic elements need to be incompatible. Words and sounds combine in Opera, Hollywood musicals, Gilbert and Sullivan, etc. and they are not "redundant." The combination creates something more and different than the individual components could achieve alone.

By the same token, words and images combine in decorated Korans, illuminated manuscripts, Egyptian tombs and Larry Rivers paintings. Here too, the combination is not redundant. Sometimes the combination is superior to a purely visual image and sometimes it's inferior. A lot depends on how the artist uses words or symbols to extend the reach of an image.

kev ferrara said...

I argued years ago on here that a painterly likeness of something can't also be a 'symbol' (and i don't mean in the sense that a picture of a crow symbolises 'death'), but that conversation is long lost.

I can't understand the way you're writing in this comment section Kev, sorry. It just reads like academese to me.

Laurence,

The conversation about what a symbol is or is not, and what is or is not a symbol... is a technical conversation. The point of technical words is to be dead clear.

Under C.S.Peirce's simplest formulation for semiotics, the big general idea is...

Signs. Signs are anything that signifies (means) in any way.

And he sets out three categories of Signs:
Icon
Index
Symbol

Icon means there is a natural resemblance between the sign and that to which it refers. (the picture of the dog looks like what a dog looks like, the audio recording sounds like Celine Dion)
Index means there is consequential or sequential natural connection between sign and an event. (smoke means fire, a river means their is a source, a cry for help means trouble)
Symbol means there is an assignment of meaning to the sign by association. (% means per one hundred, crow symbolizes death)

If we see a painting of a skull - it looks like a skull (it has iconicity), it indicates the death of somebody (Index) and it functions as a ready-to-hand and commonly known representation of death (Symbol.) Thus a single sign is all three sign types at once.

Laurence John said...

Kev, I obviously get that definition of symbol. I assumed you were using it in a different way when you wrote:

"The subject of a work of Art is the unique symbol it broadcasts."

and

"... the combination of One and Two causes a picture to be a singular self-defined Symbol; an Image."

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

Its the same idea, just a little more complex to be clear about.

With a symbol like & or $ or %... the symbol is assigned its meaning by decree and we learn it by rote. It is a form of code.

With the crow, the meaning is assigned by a combination of social and natural means. Black is associated with night and the unknown and death. Crows are predators and scavengers and will descend on the dead and dying. One often sees them in Autumn with the falling of the leaves. etc.

With a painting the graphic design (more or less) is the symbol and its meaning is defined by how that graphic design is realized as an illusory reality. When you walk into a gallery of great painting, you get hit by the wall power of all the paintings long before you key in on any particular one to see how that graphic design is defined. Just as with a dictionary definition you look up the word, and then, once the word has been found (the symbol) you can read further to ascertain its definition.

Laurence John said...

"With a painting the graphic design (more or less) is the symbol and its meaning is defined by how that graphic design is realized as an illusory reality."

I disagree that the 'graphic design' of a painting is the 'symbol' (and also, that every painting is even based on a 'graphic design').

"When you walk into a gallery of great painting, you get hit by the wall power of all the paintings long before you key in on any particular one to see how that graphic design is defined."

Well, yes... You have to walk up to each painting at a time to take in the details. But why the sudden obsession with graphic design ? You usually use that term as a pejorative to beat the abstract expressionists with.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

In this context, the issue I take with modern art is that it is only a graphic design. And without anything to define that design, it is a pretense to call it Art.

Further, and not coincidentally, being able to justify a symbol with articulate definition, also hones the symbol into a concise design and makes it beautiful in the process of marrying it to meaning. There's no truth to the thing unless it can be justified.

Symbol is the phrase for it. "Graphic design" (or "poster" which I used earlier) are less specific and maybe have too many connotations for you.

Symbol is the formalized surface design aspect of the painting that instantly welds itself to your memory, such that days, even years later, you could recall it as a form of mental currency.

Laurence John said...

"Symbol is the formalized surface design aspect of the painting..."

Sorry, i'm not buying it, whichever authority you cite. I won't be using 'symbol' in that way ever.

I'm ok with 'design' in the way David uses it repeatedly to mean 'shape' or 'composition' (which i use) but even 'design' i think is misused (in that way) and confusing, because a lot of random gestural shapes that end up in a finished painting aren't 'designed'.

kev ferrara said...

"Symbol is the formalized surface design aspect of the painting..."

Is a different formulation entirely than

"Symbol is the formalized surface design aspect of the painting that instantly welds itself to your memory, such that days, even years later, you could recall it as a form of mental currency."

I'm trying to find ways of explaining things to you so you won't complain of 'academese.' But if you truncate the phrases and attack the parts, we aren't really communicating.

Laurence John said...

Kev, i disagree with the un-truncated version too. I wasn't trying to misquote.

I also disagree that 'graphic design' is the underpinning of great painting (quoting you: "its meaning is defined by how that graphic design is realized as an illusory reality."), but let's leave that one for now, in this comment section. I'm sure it will come up again soon enough.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

I never said 'graphic design is the underpinning of a great painting.' It is not one thing or the other. It is the design of the symbol married to the meaning of it expressed aesthetically, and how that speaks of some kind of truth of experience played out through the fiction/narrative. It is the synthesis of all these things that makes the Art a work of quality. And with this complex unity happening, the symbol - as defined - becomes part of our bank account of visual meaning-currency.

The utter lack of these kinds of superpositions (merged layers of different kinds of content aka dualities, or trialities, etc) is just why the reductions of hyper modern graphic works are simplistic and result in vacuity.

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