Wednesday, January 29, 2020

CROQUET, SEX AND CONCEPTUAL ART

In the 19th century, croquet was considered a flirtatious game. One scandalized observer, incensed by the erotic symbolism of the game, ranted:
The brute beast which underlies the thin polish of civilization is unchained by the game. Goaded to fury by each corrosive click of the croquet balls, the hoop which beckons so temptingly is the gaping jaws of Hades.
Today we don't see it.  We look at Winslow Homer's painting, The Croquet Game, and see there's no nudity so how could it be erotic?


Only an imagination borne of constraint could find hidden meaning in driving balls through hoops. Male hearts would flutter when women, bound by corsets and concealed behind hoop skirts, lifted those skirts to expose a foot or even an entire ankle to place it on their opponent's ball.  Homer's painting shows the recently introduced "elevator skirt" which enabled daring women to raise or lower their outermost layer as needed to play the game.  And art historian Randall Griffin explains the man kneeling down:
Hoop skirts look archaic today in part because they, along with corsets, limited their wearer’s mobility. It would’ve been impossible to bend over decorously while wearing a hoop skirt. This explains why men often had to bend down to see if a ball was legally through a hoop, or to set the balls for a croquet shot.
On the croquet field young couples stood safely out of earshot of their prying chaperones, seizing   precious moments to negotiate the tantalizing boundaries of hemlines and relationships.

Whether we're talking about paintings or petticoats, today we seem to have less patience for the process of lifting veils and parting layers.  As a result we miss the undercurrents in Homer's painting of a boring lawn game, so we move on to the next picture in the museum. 

Let's say the next picture is Homer's 1865 painting, The Veteran in a New Field


Is this just a boring scene about farming? Mature audiences in 1865 would've looked at Homer's painting and seen something far more poignant.  The year the Civil War ended, the entire country lay devastated.  Hardly a family was left untouched by the slaughter, and maimed veterans limped back to their farms in search of renewal.

Instead of the scythe of death mowing down a wall of troops charging across a field, this veteran's scythe is mowing a wall of wheat in what Homer calls a "new field."  The veteran works alone, despite the fact that harvesting was usually a job for a group, because he has been isolated by his traumatic experiences.  The cycle of harvest might possibly be a path to restoring his scorched soul.  What today's viewers might dismiss as a boring scene, Griffin calls "a psychologically acute meditation on the effects of war."

Fifty years ago there was a tectonic shift away from representational, narrative illustration.  As pointed out in the definitive History of Illustration text book, photography and television invaded the traditional narrative role of art and "left illustration to capture abstract meaning and phenomena not easily described by literal representations.... Conceptual illustration [relies on]... visual metaphors and other nonliteral approaches."

For example, conceptual illustrations for an article about the psychology behind a "change of heart" effectively convey the subject this way:



If a magazine such as Psychology Today wanted to visualize such a sophisticated topic, it could scarcely rely on old fashioned narrative realism, could it?

Well, look at how beautifully Saul Tepper handled the very same subject in 1933:  a young woman decides at the last minute not to take that cruise, and turns and bolts down the gangplank.  It's a story, yes, but as we've seen from the Homer paintings above a story can mean so much more to the receptive mind.


Like the  Homer paintings, Tepper's literal narrative is not incompatible with abstract meanings or sophisticated concepts.  It can "symbolize" a change of heart just as effectively as conceptual art.  All that such art requires is a little patience and intellectual engagement.  That requirement (as well as competition from photography) may have played a role in the public's turn to conceptual illustration.

92 comments:

kev ferrara said...

I'm very grateful to see the full original version of that masterful Tepper illustration. I'd only ever seen it in reproduction, where it was hacked apart and printed bluntly. Thanks much!

You've also offered the best version of Homer's New Field I've ever seen; one of my favorite paintings of his. I admit I had no idea of the historical story behind it. Without looking into it, I had always thought 'Veteran' referred to a 'veteran' farm hand, wise and seasoned, yet still young. The pathos-point being that young farm boys were beasts of burden worked to the sinew no different really than the oxen.

Your proffered historical context provides an interesting study in whether or not titles and historical knowledge influence the experience of a painting in any significant or positive way. I obviously think not. I think this painting already explains itself - the boy farmer in burning heat, alone, implacably scything into an vast seawall of grain. That, to me, is the actual content of the painting and it is more than sufficient (as I think the image a masterpiece.)

That the boy was in war is not knowable from the image alone. There is no evidence he has been injured in any way. The exact year is not known from the image alone. There are no guns or uniforms etc. That nobody else is mowing with him is unknownable from what we see. Even the unemotional, dutiful quality of the boy's attitude has nothing to do, necessarily, with prior experience of war.

If this picture had been titled "His son finally came home to work"" or "Late Start" or "Pa had become too ill for the season" and so on ... the fundamental aesthetic content of the picture does not change. And its fundamental content will never change, no matter what the title or the era or what history is remembered or forgotten. And any pathos or confusion or backstory that accrues to the picture due to its title or ancillary information is, in my view, a kind of cheat. The point of art is that it does its own work. Anything outside it meant to provoke feelings in the audience that were not earned through the art alone is hype and selling.

This idea was cemented in me a few years ago when I met a peculiar fellow at a model session who came armed not with canvas and paint, but with a composition notebook filled with incoherently scribbled & doodled drawings. Any particular "image", all awkward garbling of pen strokes and bits of watercolor with no sensitivity or reference to speak of, was indistinguishable in content from any other. Every page though had a different pathos-soaked title to indicate the meaning of the work. "After the explosion that killed his mother in Kabul," was a particularly loathsome example of a title. But every title cloyed at maudlin importance with similar naked ambition.

Richard said...

> A boring scene about farming? Mature audiences in 1865 would've looked at Homer's painting and seen something far more poignant.

Note that absent the title, none of the narrative content you describe can be “seen”.

The title is a punchline. The viewer enters the gallery and spies yet another moody painting of a peasant farmer. Upon closer inspection, they can see the title plate and are forced to nod sagaciously at such a suddenly emotionally rich piece of conceptual art.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I agree with you that a picture must be able to stand alone, without title or explanation. A picture does not need to have a title, just like a picture doesn't need to have color, but once color is added or a title is attached, that element has the potential to raise or lower the quality of the image.

For example, I think the Homer and Tepper pictures are lovely and stand alone because of their design and other visual features, as we discussed this month. In fact, I'd go farther than you and say that those could be strong pictures with neither a title NOR any recognizable content. Turn them upside down, convert them to abstractions and I still like them. Would you?

To test my view about the title affecting the quality of the image, try changing the titles: if the Tepper was called, "damn, I left the stove on" rather than "change of heart" I think it would transform the emotional quality of the visual image into a cartoon.

Similarly, if the Homer was called, "Dang it Paw, if I don't get a raise in my allowance I'm running away from home," that too would affect what we think we're seeing.

In both cases, I think the words inform the image and deepen our enjoyment of the work, just as Beethoven's addition of words to the Ninth Symphony (words in a Symphony were unheard of at the time) affected the overall quality of his music. There was no law that prohibited him from mixing words and sounds for a combined effect.


Richard wrote: "Note that absent the title, none of the narrative content you describe can be “seen."

True enough, and even with a title, some of the background about the civil war is not apparent (although that content certainly would've been more obvious to viewers in Homer's day. It's not clear he cared about audiences 150 years later.) As with my response to Kev, I like the picture even without the title but I like it even more with the title. Personally, if I didn't like the picture visually first, then no title could redeem it. I don't think everyone reacts that way.






Laurence John said...

David: "... but once (...) a title is attached, that element has the potential to raise or lower the quality of the image"

No, not raise the quality. Just alter the way the image might be interpreted. The painted image stands or falls on its own merits, on the decisions made by the artist. A bad painting is still a bad painting regardless of the gravitas of the attached backstory.

That said, I'm well aware that we bring our own knowledge of culture and history with us when we view paintings, which will effect how we interpret them. It's simply unavoidable. However, I think it's good to be able to view a work dispassionately, on painterly merit alone. I can think of lots of paintings that i rate highly despite their feeble concept (often in the case of advertising art, not the artist's fault).

kev ferrara said...

Typography has visual aesthetics. Words do not. Typography can 'color' a picture as textures, motifs, and patterns do, but words when read can only turn art into quasi-literature.

Turn them upside down, convert them to abstractions and I still like them. Would you?

They're already abstract works from top to bottom, from the minor details to the general, in the strict sense of that term. Drill down on any detail and you'll see it is broken up into distinct abstract notes that require imaginative closure in order to apprehend as an element of some character. Analyze how any of the structures are expressively built, and you'll find the same level of abstraction with the same imaginative requirement of the viewer.

I think what you mean is that you would like to dispense with all the local, minor, special, detail-level abstraction, leaving only the flat general abstraction. And of course that would not be as good an image, as you'd be slicing out and tossing integrated information from the whole to arrive at your mandate for a broad graphic result. No doubt, one could still appreciate the general design (and any good work of art should probably work upside down) but removing all other levels of design would be gross reductionism which I can't understand sanctioning.

if the Tepper was called, "damn, I left the stove on" rather than "change of heart" I think it would transform the emotional quality of the visual image into a cartoon.

No, if the title is so key to you, it would transform your experience into a quasi-literary experience while screwing up the pure Art experience. There's a reason that illustrations dominate the page (and gallery paintings dominate the wall) while the text they purportedly illustrate is relegated to small type below or to the side. That way the picture is experienced first, its meaning free from the cage of literary influence. Thereafter, image and text may integrate to inform the story, but not at first blush. At first blush, illustration is Art.

And since the Tepper is not a cartoon, a comedic title would only further confuse the viewer after the first blush when the artwork starts to integrate into the text.

Tom said...

Well I think your right David knowing the narrative of a painting can definitely enrich your understanding of what your looking at or explain why the subject is being presented. But I would rather look at the work of Monet or Sisley of 1860's and 1870's then Winslow Homer as there is so much more joy in their work which comes from how they executed their paintings . One doesn't marvel at a foot carved by Bernini because of the narrative he is presenting. Or as Sargent said of Homer's watercolors of Bermuda, "there's no reflected light."

I think the difference between the Tepper and the modern illustration is, the Tepper painting is the representation of a choice an individual is making, because of the painting's realism it's hard to see beyond the specific moment, to the more general idea of choice itself. The modern conceptual illustration doesn't want to be bogged down by specifics it only wants to address the "idea" of choice itself.

Wes said...

“And any pathos or confusion or backstory that accrues to the picture due to its title or ancillary information is, in my view, a kind of cheat. The point of art is that it does its own work. Anything outside it meant to provoke feelings in the audience that were not earned through the art alone is hype and selling.”

Ha! These pronouncements are tantamount to saying that the only “message” that can be gleaned, taken, interpreted, allowed is inherent in the painting itself as viewed by the viewer, and no other message is acceptable, most especially if it’s from the artist, for that is mere “hype and selling”. In other words, a million interpretations from the viewers are acceptable, but the artist’s interpretation is a “cheat”?

Yikes! Who made this rule?

There is great pleasure (and probably some disappointment) in knowing what the artist’s given story was for the work of art, and banal stories e.g., “Man’s Inhumanity to Man”, are certainly good for a chuckle that scorns the work itself. Whitney Darrow’s cartoon of a dog pointing at an abstract bird in flight gently mocks the artist’s intent, even as it celebrates it.

Simon Schama’s great books re how to read art come to mind – his Embarrassment of Riches and Landscape and Memory -- would be tossed to the dustbin if we followed this rule.

Anyway, the backstory “hype” usually is outlived by good art, as in the Homer work, as no erotic element can now be gleaned/detected by us, so the story is dead in the long run, no matter the artist’s intent. Some stories live forever in the art – helping them stay marvels e.g., “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”, by Demuth. The painting is extraordinary by itself and always will be, but the poem makes the work magical.

The John Peto trompe l’oeil paintings using Lincoln imagery had great pathos intended by the artist, well understood by most contemporary viewers. But those paintings don’t resonate too much for us now, since Lincoln’s been dead for over a hundred years. But understanding the point of the imagery greatly enhances the pleasure of the viewing and doesn’t “cheat” the viewers appreciation. Still, you’re free to hang it on the wall and wonder why Lincoln has a knife hanging over him.

kev ferrara said...

These pronouncements are tantamount to saying that the only “message” that can be gleaned, taken, interpreted, allowed is inherent in the painting itself as viewed by the viewer, and no other message is acceptable, most especially if it’s from the artist, for that is mere “hype and selling”. In other words, a million interpretations from the viewers are acceptable, but the artist’s interpretation is a “cheat”?

Interpretation is opinion and opinions are a dime a dozen. Often an artist has no intellectual contact with his deeper talents and so what he says about the work can be just as guessy or hyped as that of a bystander.

The only thing about a work of art that is incontrovertible is itself.

However, nothing is 'disallowed' in the arts except what your own conscience dictates. So you don't need me to tell you that you are free to enjoy any work in any way that you please.

Richard said...

> “ No, if the title is so key to you, it would transform your experience into a quasi-literary experience while screwing up the pure Art experience. ”

A painting of the sinking Titanic has real narrative value that derives from what it depicts. If I was born in 2100 AD, the title “Titanic” on a sinking boat picture would have real narrative significance in that it would allow me to inform myself about what I’m viewing. That significance would not be “quasi-literary”.

There’s room for a considerable distinction to be made between Homer’s punchline which seems to have nothing to do with what’s visually depicted, and a title that supports the picture by allowing what’s already there to be understood.

If many viewers in Homers time would see that picture and instantly recognize it for a Veteran, it would be a different story. Similarly, a painting of a homeless Vietnam veteran dressed in Civvies with a patch covered baseball hat titled “Homeless Vet” wouldn’t have this issue, since many of us would already recognize the picture as depicting a veteran. Is this just an issue with temporal bias? Maybe, I wasn’t there.

kev ferrara said...

There’s room for a considerable distinction to be made between Homer’s punchline which seems to have nothing to do with what’s visually depicted, and a title that supports the picture by allowing what’s already there to be understood.

In both cases the title must be referring to something missing in the picture. For the whole point of the aesthetic transmission of information is to be understood without exegesis. There's literally no other art to Art but that. If a picture requires explanation, it is a failure. And that explanation may just as well come from a thesis paper as a title.

However, again, if a picture is associated with text... there comes a later point after the crucial moment of encountering the picture and helplessly feeling its meaning... where the text and image might meld. And some additional narrative context can add to the painting as it relates to the story, and, in turn, the tone, setting and characters depicted in the image can add to the story as it relates to the illustration. But such an exchange of information should be absolutely inessential to the value of either the picture alone or the story alone. Or both are failures.

The inherent dogmatism of words is a very powerful thing to those who are commanded by it. And most people have been commanded by it since birth. It is their mother's hypnotic milk. People are so prone to the influence of words that people will disbelieve their own eyes at their request. That people are accustomed to and, in fact, comforted by being told what they see, is no recommendation of the practice.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "No, not raise the quality. Just alter the way the image might be interpreted. The painted image stands or falls on its own merits, on the decisions made by the artist. A bad painting is still a bad painting regardless of the gravitas of the attached backstory."

Really? Why can't an alteration in the way an image is interpreted raise its quality? If you think the meaning of an image is so completely segregable from its quality, then I welcome you to the ranks of unabashed fans of abstract art. Closer to home, I don't think that the images in Maus or Fun Home are well drawn, but when combined with the accompanying words they take on a greater significance. Standing alone, Spiegelman's crude drawings of mice strike me as third rate. Once I understand the story, I think of that rough, stark line like barbed wire.

Kev Ferrara-- Your separation of words and pictures is too Manichaean for my taste.

Yes, typography embodies the forms of visual art. Robert Indiana's "Love" art is more design than word. And of course, there's always wordificator.com.

At the other extreme on the spectrum, pure text adjacent to a picture is, as you say, words without visual aesthetics. But there's an awful lot of significant art that blends those two extremes. Think of Steinberg who draws actual words in ways that have both visual aesthetics and textual content. A few inches closer to the visual aesthetics end of the spectrum you have Steinberg's faux words, that only suggest a literal meaning. Ed Ruscha. It seems to me that the gray area between the two categories is littered with examples.

Kev wrote: "I think what you mean is that you would like to dispense with all the local, minor, special, detail-level abstraction, leaving only the flat general abstraction."

No, I mean I would dispense with all content, leaving just visual aesthetics (or what you would call an inferior brand of visual aesthetics. Turning the picture upside down is my overly simplistic way of obliterating the narrative.

chris bennett said...

Really? Why can't an alteration in the way an image is interpreted raise its quality?
If you substitute the word 'image' with 'bridge' I hope you will see the absurdity of this statement. If a structure is faulty then no amount of apologies will change that fact one iota.

chris bennett said...

In fact, the whole stinking edifice of post modernism and cultural relativism is founded on this very conceit.

Laurence John said...

Good point Chris.

David: "If you think the meaning of an image is so completely segregable from its quality..."

I'm pretty certain i've heard you say that you also (like me) appreciate a lot of beautifully drawn / painted art which happens to have a dumb concept.

"...then I welcome you to the ranks of unabashed fans of abstract art."

Not sure i get the point about abstract art.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not immune to the power of narrative in visual art. But, most of my favourite painters are favourites because of how they translate recognisable things into paint, not because of the meaningfulness of their narrative / storytelling. Sargent is the prime example (If they do also happen to be powerful storytellers... great).

I see the 'narrative meaning' of the art as separate from the formal quality. For example, i love Edward Hopper's work for the staging, mood, lighting and psychological atmosphere, but up close, the painting style is quite weak, especially his figures.

David Apatoff said...


chris bennett wrote: "If you substitute the word 'image' with 'bridge' I hope you will see the absurdity of this statement. If a structure is faulty then no amount of apologies will change that fact one iota."

Don't you pre-judge the answer by your use of the word "faulty"? Wouldn't it be more accurate (and fair) to substitute the world "different"? Not every bridge looks like one of Frank Brangwyn's bridges. What about Frank Gehry's bridge in Millennium park? What about the famous pontoon bridge that King Xerxes I built in 480 BC for the Persian invasion of ancient Greece? What about a rope bridge? Those bridges may look disorienting to someone raised on Brangwyn, but with a little discussion they become perfectly serviceable. And with even more words, a humble bridge like the Bridge of San Luis Rey can become downright profound.

chris bennett also wrote: "the whole stinking edifice of post modernism and cultural relativism is founded on this very conceit"

Whew. Putting the aroma of its edifice aside, I have to agree that for the most part, post modernism represents a fairly bleak and forlorn interregnum in the history of culture. As Arthur Koestler wrote, "The place of God has become empty, and there is a draft blowing through the world as in an empty flat before the new tenants have arrived." However, I do think that "cultural relativism" offers us challenges that are worthy of some energy and good faith. Most renaissances seem to stem from an openness to new ideas and external traditions. The Italian Renaissance only flowered when a rigid, centuries old medieval biblical tradition cross fertilized with ancient Greek philosophy, with Islamic influence as the catalyst. And at the height of the British empire, when it had the most cause for jingoistic pride, its receptivity to an infusion of Japanese culture paid off in the 19th century.

Laurence John wrote: "I'm pretty certain i've heard you say that you also (like me) appreciate a lot of beautifully drawn / painted art which happens to have a dumb concept."

Definitely. I think that was indisputably the situation with a lot of the great comic art of the 20th century. For example, the content of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon was simple minded, but oh those drawings.... And I love some of the art in ads for car parts or laundry detergent... hardly lofty concepts.

"Not sure i get the point about abstract art."

My point was just that if you are a person who is able to appreciate images detached from the quality of their content, then perhaps you find room in your heart for content-less images from Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Ellworth Kelly, etc.

kev ferrara said...

Howard Pyle often told his students, "You simply can't go to every newsstand in the world and explain your pictures." Harvey Dunn said, "If you have to rely on a title to explain your picture, you have failed." He also said, "A picture is its own definition."

By the 1940s and 50s art students were being taught "A thing is only as good as it looks." Which is another way of saying that the work, as a unity, must stand on its own merits.

With postmodern relativism, the ethic instantly became "I bet I can sell this thing with my mouth if I learn the right words."

Sometimes there are cultural villains (and ruinous tendencies) worth fighting against. And sometimes giant cultural disasters have tiny roots that seem innocent for a long time.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

> Kev: In both cases the title must be referring to something missing in the picture.

Pictures contain nothing on their own. Absent prior knowledge of humans and light and lions and curtains, the works of Rubens are as empty as a blank canvas.
Humans are a limited. To use the title of the image to inform the audience of the existence of the Titanic is to correct a shortcoming in the audience, not the picture.

It is not the “inherent dogmatism of words” that causes us to use words to explain the existence of the Titanic. If we could transmit history and experience by pure thought, that would surely make for a clearer title.


> David: If you think the meaning of an image is so completely segregable from its quality, then I welcome you to the ranks of unabashed fans of abstract art.

Even “abstract” art is representational, requiring our experience of form (bulbs and strings and blocks), shape (silhouettes both organic and crystalline), physics (chaotic particles, splashes, falling, rising, wafting smoke, revolving), optics (foreground, overlap, atmosphere).

To remove the “content” of an image, any image, is to have no image at all.


> David: Really? Why can't an alteration in the way an image is interpreted raise its quality?
> Chris: the whole stinking edifice of post modernism and cultural relativism is founded on this very conceit.


Hardly! Quite the opposite! Classical artists always understood that what a picture was of and what the symbols there-in meant were central in understanding its quality.

Art was for millennia in the service of storytelling. To know the story, and understand the meaning of a picture within that context, was absolutely critical to appreciating its value.

It is, rather, the “pure art”/”pure aesthetics”/formalism that you lot are arguing for that gave birth to post-modernism and the decline of classical art. When you attempt to make art “pure” you remove the only method of determining its value (did it support the interpretation it meant to) and replace it with something entirely relative (sense, how does it feel).

Kev is right that "sometimes giant cultural disasters have tiny roots that seem innocent for a long time." He's just gotten it backwards about which idea was at fault. Unfortunately, Howard Pyle and Harvey Dunn, for all their artistic genius, were spreading the seed of art's decline.

Richard said...

And it is for that reason that illustration was the last bastion of real art. Its the only place where interpretation and meaning remained central to the picture.

It is in "Fine Art" where they took Harvey Dunn and Howard Pyle's statements to their logical conclusions. If art ought need no experience, no interpretation, no exposition, then the best thing to make a picture of is nothing at all -- just shapes and colors, which anyone can relate to, no matter their life experience, race, gender, political feelings, education level, religiosity, and so on.

Richard said...

And the reason Modern Art leans so heavily on written exegesis isn't because the interpretation is necessary, but to hide that fact that the interpretation is not required because the image is plain.

Piss Christ needs a lot less exposition to understand than does the Pieta.

Richard said...

And Rothko needs the least of all.

Tom said...

Well classical architectural space is legible with out words! One knows where to go and how to move, a hierarchy is understood as well as purpose because one can "read," the space. As Montesquieu wrote about axial symmetry, it is, "not a relationship seen by the eyes but perceived by the mind, whereby whatever the angle from which a group symmetrically disposed objects is seen, the geometric disposition or plan is immediately grasped .. it thus aids us in forming quickly an idea of the whole."

I do remember as a boy learning the title of Homer's painting and it definitely give the painting a poignancy and meaning that I perhaps didn't feel originally. It clarified in mind why it was painted. Those charcoal drawing Homer did of the individual Union cavalry soldiers and the drawing of a cavalry man's boots I think are some of his best and energetic works.

I also remember Kenneth Clark complaining about modern critics refusal to recognize the subject of some of Turner's paintings, like "The Slave Ship," and reducing his works to purely issues of color and abstraction.

kev ferrara said...

I would dispense with all content, leaving just visual aesthetics (or what you would call an inferior brand of visual aesthetics. Turning the picture upside down is my overly simplistic way of obliterating the narrative.


Flipping it upside down just hangs the figures and objects from the ceiling, adding absurdity to the content.

You aren't getting that what you call content is first and foremost aesthetic in nature, which is composed and designed. All brandywine work is created as Art through the suggestive mode. Thus, to "dispense with all content" would also delete all the aesthetically expressed meanings. And you would have nothing.


I don't think you are grasping the level of integration involved.

kev ferrara said...

Pictures contain nothing on their own.

This line attacks nothing being argued. Let me try to get us back on track.

If you don't need to decode it; if you understand it intuitively, it is functioning aesthetically.

A young child doesn't need instruction about what constitutes warmness or coldness, what is high or low, near or far, big or small, dark or light, imposing or inviting, similar or dissimilar, what pinches or constricts or what feels relaxed and smooth, what is hard or soft, what yields to a push or what resists, the difference between liquid and solid, harshness vs pleasantness, rage vs love, and so on.

If the child is unable to sense these sensual qualities and differences, they cannot be told these things exist in any way that will establish that reality in mind. Sensory interplay establishes its own pragmatic correspondence with experience or it does not.

Our worlds of experience are built up of an uncountable number of such intuitable understandings interweaving with each other at a level of complexity only the visual cortex could make instant sense of (visual cortex has far more circuit density than any other part of the brain).

Human beings even have a natural tendency to make things look as they mean even if those thing naturally conceal or obscure their meanings; thus causing the meaning of the thing to be more intuitable. Our faces do not naturally look angry or perplexed, but we make them so reflexively to represent our interior state. So many people 'express themselves' through their choice of clothes. Every product of every kind from a flower to a box of cereal is signifying something of its true nature. Every tribe somehow has their Kings and Queens looking more ideal than the commoner... and if a commoner looks as ideal as Kings and Queens, they seem like royalty themselves and are treated better, maybe even elevated to the status of celebrity.

There are so many kinds of intuitable visual meanings. From colors, to archetypes, to facial gestures, to any number of experiential relationships, or comparisons... And just what causes this to be so - surely a combination of innate capacity and experience - is actually irrelevant. What matters is simply that what is aesthetic need not be decoded, and thus Aesthetics is a universal language common to all human beings. Conversely, that which requires decoding in communication is necessarily tribal.

kev ferrara said...

The best titles are simple referrals to some key element of the work, labels which don't get in the way, neither add nor subtract, which are immediately superceded by the image forces and their meanings should the viewer have had the misfortune of seeing the title before seeing the work: The Scout, The Trader, Galleon, Madonna and Child, The Pieta, Night Watchman, Evening Sit, The Shooter, The Kiss, Whistler's Mother, Mona Lisa, etc.

Wes said...



Richard said:

"Pictures contain nothing on their own. Absent prior knowledge of humans and light and lions and curtains, the works of Rubens are as empty as a blank canvas.
Humans are a limited. To use the title of the image to inform the audience of the existence of the Titanic is to correct a shortcoming in the audience, not the picture."

Richard's comments are spot on, as no art can be well "seen" without some prior understanding (interpretation) at work. Its pretty common for a non-educated viewer of archaic art or some sub-genre e.g., trompe l'oeil, to not know what they are looking at, or why, or what for. Research into perception has demonstrated fairly well that people "see" what they know best, and are blind to what they do not expect to see. http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html

To assert a Harvey Dunn rule that said, "If you have to rely on a title to explain your picture, you have failed", is actually a failure to help the viewer understand the art, especially if its novel. One is free, of course, to assess the artist's success and pronounce it wanting.


Laurence John said...

David: "My point was just that if you are a person who is able to appreciate images detached from the quality of their content, then perhaps you find room in your heart for content-less images from Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Ellworth Kelly, etc."

I've said this before so forgive me for repeating: I'm interested in how recognisable things (forms) are translated into paint. That's how i judge the quality of a painter. That's why I've never bought a single book on an abstract (non-representational) painter. If there's a powerful narrative, fine. If the painting is just a life study of a someone slumped on a couch, fine. If it's a trip into the artist's drug addled mind, fine too.

But arbitrary marks on a flat surface ? I missed the memo about why that was interesting.

kev ferrara said...

Research into perception has demonstrated fairly well that people "see" what they know best, and are blind to what they do not expect to see.

Not everything is meant to be seen in a work of Art. Aesthetic forces, in fact, depend on that which is sublimated/sublated acting in relation to what is evident, in order have affect on the viewer. The attention has many levels of awareness and awareness of awareness.

Our brains record visual data all day long. Our visual recordings are rarely hooked up in any strong way with our conscious intellect. Yet we can now and again access them and find something 'new' in a visual memory. The conversation might go like this, "Remember when we were all hanging out on the porch at Aunt Linda's? And Bill was with that girl who was wearing the orange flip flops? Did you notice that one of her eyes was way higher than the other one?" "Oh yeah! Now that you mention it, yes! The right one did look higher!"

Well how can such a recognition happen if we only actually see what we consciously know we see?

On some inaccessible level of visual recording, I would presume all of us saw the Ape in that video. It is just a much more difficult thing to retrieve because the focus was so strongly placed elsewhere.

I've known highly sensitive people who have looked at particular works of art for decades without noticing things that, when pointed out, are blatant. They talked about the subtleties of the work, yet they couldn't see the blatancies? No, hardly likely. They had seen those blatant things. The problem is the disconnect between our types of mind. Some people get so addicted to picayune inspection, they seem to 'lose sight of the forest for the trees.' But of course they've seen the forest. They just can't, don't, or won't handle it symbolically.

If the thing doesn't have a ready symbolic hook, it is invisible to the symbolic mind. That does not mean it is actually invisible to our deeper intuitive mind.

chris bennett said...

Don't you pre-judge the answer by your use of the word "faulty"? Wouldn't it be more accurate (and fair) to substitute the world "different"? Not every bridge looks like one of Frank Brangwyn's bridges. What about Frank Gehry's bridge in Millennium park? What about the famous pontoon bridge that King Xerxes I built in 480 BC for the Persian invasion of ancient Greece? What about a rope bridge? Those bridges may look disorienting to someone raised on Brangwyn, but with a little discussion they become perfectly serviceable. And with even more words, a humble bridge like the Bridge of San Luis Rey can become downright profound.

I think you have misunderstood my meaning David. Let me put it another way: If you are walking across a bridge, or using a toaster, or driving a car, or standing on a ladder and sense it is faulty the risk of injury is in no way lessened by someone trying to convince you they are the very best quality bridge, toaster, car or ladder there ever was. Only a fool believes them rather than the evidence of their first hand experience. The same goes for the effect that a painting has on the one who beholds it.

chris bennett said...

However, I do think that "cultural relativism" offers us challenges that are worthy of some energy and good faith. Most renaissances seem to stem from an openness to new ideas and external traditions.
My understanding of cultural relativism I the field of aesthetics I take to be the dogmatized belief that quality is purely a function of consensus. I do not consider this to be true, which is in no disagreement with the possible fructifying effect on a culture open to new ideas and external traditions.

chris bennett said...

Hardly! Quite the opposite! Classical artists always understood that what a picture was of and what the symbols there-in meant were central in understanding its quality.
Richard, consider this:
A naked youth crudely modelled and cast in resin is standing among the plants for sale in a garden centre, the tag on its wrist says 'David'.
A naked youth expertly carved in stone is standing in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, the card on the wall nearby says 'David'.
They both represent the same thing and the symbols are the same, and these two things, you say, are central to understanding their quality, which by your reasoning, is also the same...

chris bennett said...

And if some wag were to write 'Apatoff' after the word 'David', just think how that would lift the quality! :)

Richard said...

Chris— Let me show my ignorance here: I’ve never felt anything from M’s David except a twinge of mild disgust. But I was raised an atheist and don’t know anything about David except that he was some king in the Bible. Maybe if I knew who he was I’d be more impressed by this big head/small penis naked man?

Richard said...

As with the Titanic, to a viewer who doesn’t know the water was icy cold, an image of people swimming away from the boat in the dark takes on a muted meaning. To know a picture depicts the Titanic is to have the foundational information to understand the picture. To know the people in the picture are going to die.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Howard Pyle often told his students, "You simply can't go to every newsstand in the world and explain your pictures." Harvey Dunn said, "If you have to rely on a title to explain your picture, you have failed." He also said, "A picture is its own definition.""

I agree, but hasn't the dynamic changed since Pyle's time? The general audience magazines that hosted the Golden age of illustration all went out of business, one by one, after a long twilight struggle for readers. The audiences are different now; more fragmented, more specialized, less literate, less patient.

Accessibility is the key to Pyle's advice but accessibility became less important for illustrators with the demise of the Saturday Evening Post, and for many other working artists today accessibility is eschewed (and NOT always because they are incompetent at communication. Stravinsky, Mahler and Bartok all suffered for their inaccessiblity and so did many visual artists). Pyle was a forward thinking artist who embraced the future (which in his case was photo engraving). It would be interesting to think about what he would tell his students today.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "With postmodern relativism, the ethic instantly became "I bet I can sell this thing with my mouth if I learn the right words.""

There are many rich and loathsome artists, such as Koons and Prince, who this describes perfectly. I will even grant you that it is easier for such charlatans to find camouflage in an era of cultural relativism. That just means that we have to be more vigilant in separating wheat from chaff. That's not too much of a burden, is it? Certainly not a reason to throw out cultural relativism as a whole. You'll never find a period in art totally free from charlatans.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Even “abstract” art is representational, requiring our experience of form (bulbs and strings and blocks), shape (silhouettes both organic and crystalline), physics (chaotic particles, splashes, falling, rising, wafting smoke, revolving), optics (foreground, overlap, atmosphere). To remove the “content” of an image, any image, is to have no image at all."

Agreed. Even a bare color, stripped of all form (there's that word again) contains content. There's no escape. But to the extent we are capable of isolating the content to consider it separately for analytical purposes (which Kev would consider heresy) can the visual existence of the concept (the design, forms, composition, lines, colors) achieve excellence independently, when tied to a mediocre concept? Is it cheating for the visual existence to be aided by a good concept (or undermined by a bad one)?

Richard also wrote: "Piss Christ needs a lot less exposition to understand than does the Pieta.... And Rothko needs the least of all."

Sure, but with any complex work of art there are different levels of understanding. Many of the madonnas contemporary with the Pieta are so laden with symbolism and iconography (the bird stands for this, the lily stands for that…) that they are as incomprehensible to the modern viewer as a wall of hieroglyphs in an Egyptian tomb. Exposition may enhance our experience, but ultimately don't those images stand or fall on their visual presence?

And as for Rothko, it might help viewers to know of his aesthetic theories, his struggle, his suicide, but I agree that a viewer does not "need" exposition if they approach his work with enough maturity and depth. The same with Robert Motherwell. It would help to know his poetry and his aesthetic theories, but ultimately you don't need exposition to be bowled over by his wall sized Spanish elegy.

Richard also wrote: "When you attempt to make art “pure” you remove the only method of determining its value (did it support the interpretation it meant to) and replace it with something entirely relative (sense, how does it feel)."

We need some graduate students in economics here to discuss the concept of "value" but I'm pretty sure there is more than one method for determining the value of art to more than one person. For example, the minute you rule out art that makes me "feel" good, you start to lose me.

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "Well classical architectural space is legible with out words!"

That sounds right to me. At least, the structure and order of classical architecture (and classical music) give them an intuitive comprehensibility (or legibility) which is part of their appeal. But then someone comes along to fight against that, sometimes for worthwhile reasons--the architecture in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the architecture in Mr. X, the aforementioned architecture of Frank Gehry, etc.

chris bennett-- If you come to a rope bridge stretched across a chasm, and you are only accustomed to solid, old-fashioned Brangwyn style bridges that you know will support your weight, you will probably "sense it is faulty and the risk of injury is in no way lessened by someone trying to convince you they are the very best quality bridge." I wouldn't be the first person to venture out onto that rope bridge myself. I suspect we all have different methods of testing what someone is calling a "bridge." For a while people thought that what Stravinsky was calling music was not really music.

With respect to "cultural relativism," perhaps my response was shaped by the current culture wars, where an angry and resentful crew believes that teaching about the accomplishments of foreign cultures and trying to open students' eyes to a variety of concepts of quality is a mortal threat to the superiority of the Western canon. For them "cultural relativism" is an epithet, although they seem to lead lives and think thoughts very different from those who made the Western canon great.

I am thinking of writing the name "Michelangelo" after the name David, to see if it will lift the quality of this blog.

chris bennett said...

David (Michelangelo),

If we were standing before a rope bridge I would no doubt offer you the chance of going first, regardless of the awards it has received listed in the guidebook. Our senses are telling us this flimsy array of nothing but planks lashed together with rope swaying over the raging torrent below is going to buckle alarmingly with each step we take and there's nothing to stop it twisting sideways if we misjudge our balance. And this is indeed what happens as we gingerly make our way across it (not together of course, I'll see you arrive safely the other side before I get going). Yes, the more we use it the less difficult the experience becomes until reaching a point where it is no problem for us at all (your name even ends up as an endorsement in the new edition of the guidebook). But none of this changes the qualities intrinsic to a rope bridge. After all, they are what makes it so much fun to cross!

And the quality of your blog is what makes it a so much of a pleasure to read. :)

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

I’ve never felt anything from M’s David except a twinge of mild disgust. But I was raised an atheist and don’t know anything about David except that he was some king in the Bible. Maybe if I knew who he was I’d be more impressed by this big head/small penis naked man?

The fact you are prepared to feel differently about the sculpture if you knew that it represents the young lad who slew a giant with a slingshot stone is an admission of how indifferent you are to the sensual narrative of its forms in relation to one another. When I gaze up at this colossal tower of slightly tensed yet poised muscle crowed by a head that seems both near and far and whose gaze is directed beyond the horizon, I become these things (along with many, many others also sensually written into the marble) because I'm made made to feel them as I behold the movement (the drama) of slowly shifting relationships of mass authored into the image of the young man before me. That is its subject (Kev has defined the principle of this very well above) and it is not changed one jot by any knowledge of what myth is being represented.

kev ferrara said...

That just means that we have to be more vigilant in separating wheat from chaff. That's not too much of a burden, is it?

"This guy says he can make gold by drenching cow dung with aluminum hydroxide. It hasn't worked the first 4,397 times, but let's keep watching, maybe he'll surprise us!"

The audience-burden-per-unprincipled-claim ratio of high modernism leading into postmodernism is so extreme only a masochist (or art world knave) would bother looking at the results. But you go ahead being "open minded."

But to the extent we are capable of isolating the content to consider it separately for analytical purposes (which Kev would consider heresy)

Stasis is falsity. Any organism is a dynamic unity reliant on controlled movement or change (both externally and internally) in order to sustain itself and its experience. When we freeze a thing for the purposes of analysis, we kill its life systems; everything about it that made it what it was, that was true about it, is no longer functioning as it had been.

...hasn't the dynamic changed since Pyle's time? (...) The audiences are different now; more fragmented, more specialized, less literate, less patient.

Ars longa, vita brevis.

Pyle was a forward thinking artist who embraced the future (which in his case was photo engraving).

The new printing technologies opened up new possibilities in representing Art through reproductive means.

1960s-to-1970s postmodern philosophies are much like the cults (and frankly much of the culture) of the time. The charismatic 'trickster figure' leader offers the flock a 'philosophy' of infinite freedom from the shackles of Western bourgeois morality and standards, rendering the indoctrinated easy prey to every timeless lie, manipulation, scam and hedonistic degradation imaginable; all at the whims of the profoundly narcissistic head sociopath. (Nice work if you can get it.)

Now pardon me while I figure out if that faint white line in the distance of a poorly photographed street scene is considered a 'crosswalk' by a 23-year-old insomniac with Aspergers chained to a workstation at a Silicon Valley Techno-Cult.

kev ferrara said...

...if you are a person who is able to appreciate images detached from the quality of their content, perhaps you'll find room in your heart for content-less images...

How can an image have no content?

If you extract the content from the image, the image goes away. The image-ness is happening at every scale of an Image. You can't just blur out the details without blurring out a great deal of the image (everything but the poster, presumably.) Image is a complex unity. Rothko, Gottlieb, Kelly, et al were not producing images.

perhaps you'll find room in your heart for content-less images from Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Ellworth Kelly, etc.

Woe be unto these poor poor orphans! A farthing for the children, Guvna?

Richard said...

“where an angry and resentful crew believes that teaching about the accomplishments of foreign cultures and trying to open students' eyes to a variety of concepts of quality is a mortal threat to the superiority of the Western canon”

As one of those angry and resentful people worried about cultural relativism, it’s not that merely experiencing the caveman rock decoration of Australian Aboriginals art threaten Rembrandts supremacy.

It’s that the lies and brainwashing required to make someone think there’s anything to see in Australian Aboriginal rock painting is a threat to all culture — Western Canon or otherwise. The Western Canon just happens to be near universally agreed to be the height of culture, even by Harvard Art grads who pretend otherwise, but there’s plenty of other traditions that it threatens as well.

OscarR said...

Relevant context, trhough titles or other means, can aid immensly with the experience of the work. I don't understand this prententious stance of only being able to appreciate soley the picture. it's such a one dimensional and narrowminded view of art.

@Chris Bennett

Regarding your bridge analogy, The way you look at any object can alter its quality. A "bridge" unfit for the purpose of being a bridge might be if interpreted as some other object very functional. For example, in a certain context a frying pan might not best be seen as a frying pan but be better suited as a weapon.

OscarR said...

Multi-media art, even as simple as writing and paitning, alows the result to be greater then the sum of its parts. Allowing for subtleties and ambiguities in both mediums but yet achieving clarity and emotional potency when layered against each other.

kev ferrara said...

I don't understand this prententious stance of only being able to appreciate soley the picture.

There's nothing pretend about my arguments. However, I agree you don't understand them.

The world of letters is constantly encroaching into the world of Art almost never with a good result.

Words are used to solve problems that should have been solved aesthetically/narratively -- thereby giving lazy or unperceptive or untalented artists rationales for why their works do not suffice as complete unto themselves. (Unity is a basic principle of art. If you don't accept this point, it is not to your credit. Dismissing Unity doesn't make you freer or more sophisticated or more clever.)

Words -- opinions, verbal guesswork, pseuoscholarship, sociological and political hectoring -- interfere with the art experience and with art creation, and arrogate into the text-based milieu the judgement, analysis, and teaching of Art, miseducating people across the cultural spectrum and world in the process.

Tom said...

David wrote

‘But then someone comes along to fight against that, sometimes for worthwhile reasons--the architecture in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the architecture in Mr. X, the aforementioned architecture of Frank Gehry, etc.”

I wasn’t arguing for or against anything. I was just saying reality is intelligible without words. The eye is attracted by light, it naturally gravitates to it, a fix point reveals the relationships between things creating a natural hierarchy among parts. If you want to express disunity or confusion you naturally work against order and clarity. I don’t know DrX but it is interesting that the two architectures you mentioned Dr.Caligari and Frank Gehry where/are creating forms in cultures that are under the stress of enormous monetary debt and uncertainty.



Tom said...

Kev wrote

“Now pardon me while I figure out if that faint white line in the distance of a poorly photographed street scene is considered a 'crosswalk' by a 23-year-old insomniac with Aspergers chained to a workstation at a Silicon Valley Techno-Cult.”

πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚

chris bennett said...

Regarding your bridge analogy, The way you look at any object can alter its quality. A "bridge" unfit for the purpose of being a bridge might be if interpreted as some other object very functional. For example, in a certain context a frying pan might not best be seen as a frying pan but be better suited as a weapon.

But the intrinsic qualities of a frying pan do not make it as good a weapon as a sword for the same reason the intrinsic qualities of a sword do not make it a good frying pan.
And as to you first, general point: a person's understanding that the intrinsic qualities of a frying pan do not offer as efficient a protection as a shield made for the purpose is not that person being pretentious, one dimensional or narrow minded, it is an expression of their sanity with regard to the evidence.

Nick Jainschigg said...

This may be slightly off-topic, but I noticed the name of the cruise company in the Tepper illustration, while cropped, tempts us to read it as, "Canard", after the famous Cunard Line. This might have been an avoidance of copyright or trademark trouble, or a sly wink at the viewer.

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David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- does your calculus about that rope bridge change if you are being pursued by angry cannibals? I know you're familiar with the school of thought that art was chased into abstraction because it had nowhere else to hide. On this theme, John Canaday wrote that there's simply no denying that the camera robbed painting of what was historically its primary economic reason for being. Even worse, he says, the camera stripped artists of much of their shaman aura, gradually forcing painting into the isolated position it now holds in our lives. ("The effect of the camera was not merely to outdate the artist as a recording technician--this was not important--but to reduce his stature as a magician.... Photography has not liberated the painter into the realm of pure art, but has robbed him. He is left with pure form and pure color, and he is left free to manipulate them in abstract exercises for the special pleasure the manipulation may give him. There can be a kind of magic here, too, but it is an odd, inconclusive kind. The gestures, the manipulations of paraphernalia, seemed always on the verge of producing a revelation, but in the end nothing happens and the performance must be accepted as an end in itself.")

I'm not saying I fully agree with Canaday about the threat to the historical role of painting or the quality of abstract art, but I think there's certainly enough truth there to affect one's risk assessment for that rope bridge.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Stasis is falsity."

Obviously you've never met my uncle Fred. He has to be 250 pounds of very real stasis.

"Ars longa, vita brevis."

If this is true, the realization that we are using something limited to pursue something that is unlimited should only make us more humble about generalizations. Long ago on this blog we listed just some of the varied art movements of the 20th century. Here is some Ars that proved not too longa:

Futurism
Fauvism
Dadaism
Surrealism
Orphism
Abstract Expressionism
Op
Pop
Minimalism
Neo-expressionism
Conceptualism
Magic Realism
Patternism
Graffiti
Color field
Performance
Post modernism
Installation
Deconstructionism

David Apatoff said...

Tom wrote: "If you want to express disunity or confusion you naturally work against order and clarity."

I'm not sure whether you intend this in a purely pejorative sense or not, but I do think a major role of art through the ages has been to make us pause over things we take for granted, to raise questions and even doubts about the "natural hierarchy among parts" that seems to surround us. Obviously too much of this would result in paralysis, but I think the theory is that in appropriate quantities it can lead to a richer and more fulfilling life.

I agree with you that "reality is intelligible without words," and reality can even be made unintelligible without words if so desired (for example, the impressionists can help us move something as seemingly straightforward as sunlight from the rote side of the brain to the hard-working, " new experience" part of the brain without the use of words). However, when it comes to seriously unraveling life's surface intelligibility I think few tools are as effective as our wonderful gift of language. I've never seen an artist accomplish what Descartes accomplished.

kev ferrara said...

art was chased into abstraction because it "had nowhere else to hide."

Round file the source of this idea. It's horse hockey.

Art moved into abstraction because it was necessary for poetic suggestion. This realization hit like a suite of meteors circa 1800 in a few different spots and spread out from those impact zones, with increasing force and consequence throughout the 19th century. The blast of this realization gave us everything from Impressionism and Nouveau to Tonalism and Imagism to Poster Graphics and Comics.

At the moment when "high modernism" hit the town in say 1912, The Golden Age of Illustration was already in full swing and was being chased nowhere. And Illustration would stay in the stratosphere, with ebbs and flows, until around 1960. At which point, modernist pseudo-abstraction was in equally dire shape; usurped by everything from soup cans to artist's-dung-in-a-cans.

kev ferrara said...

Obviously you've never met my uncle Fred. He has to be 250 pounds of very real stasis.

The top half of your Uncle Fred's body is pushing downward toward the center of the Earth with more force than yours. And all his bones are pushing upward against this force more than yours. His heart is probably pumping more blood volume than yours and more times per minute than your heart pumps. And if eats crap food, which he presumably does, his brain has more inflammation and thermal run off and thus is churning through more energy than your own. You lazy bastard.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "If you have to rely on a title to explain your picture, you have failed."

In 1573 the painter Paolo Veronese was dragged before the inquisition to explain why he had committed sacrilege by painting the Last Supper filled with "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities." The nimble Veronese escaped a very nasty fate by quickly changing the title of his painting to "Feast in the House of the Jew Levi." Hardly a failure.


Richard wrote: "The Western Canon just happens to be near universally agreed to be the height of culture"

Who did you consult on this? Someone who truly believes in the values of the western canon, from Socrates through the enlightenment, would surely be reluctant to make such a generalization without first having a thorough multicultural education so you can judge on a level playing field (and that includes taking a regular refresher course; a mere 20 years ago it was "universally agreed" that cave art began in western Europe, at places such as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira. Now much older art has been discovered in Indonesia and Africa).

I think it is universally agreed that the western tradition of science is the model to emulate, not for any aesthetic or moral reasons but because it is indisputably the most effective when it comes to making guns, poison gas, trains to transport undesirables to concentration camps, and nuclear weapons. I'm afraid the world's admiration is nothing loftier than that. These tools are particularly potent when combined with another popular export from the west, Marxism.

Here I can't resist one aside about the west's tradition of the empirical sciences (a heritage started in ancient Greece and developed through Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton): I note the irony that many in the west now seem to be tiring of the burdens of carrying empirical science. From climate change to evolution, from the geological age of the earth to environmental science, from the medical treatment of HPV, ebola and AIDS to the life support of Terri Schiavo, we seem to be experiencing a rejection of empirical fact and "elitist" scientists in favor of emotionally satisfying superstitions. How widespread is this ? Sufficient to elect as a leader a pathological liar who fabricates stories about Obama being born in Kenya, or about the size of an inauguration crowd, or about Mexico paying for his wall. Lies that are easily disproven by the leader's own inconsistent statements a few days before, yet his constituency simply doesn't care. One can only hope that the rigor of empirical science will be picked up by another, better educated, less embittered culture.

As for the Western canon being the height of (artistic) culture, there are obviously many great examples to support this theory, although I think you had a better argument before western culture led us to Jeff Koons and Richard Prince. If you haven't read Thomas Mann's Reflections of A Non-Political Man, it contains his scathing attack on what he calls "the Roman west" and its legacy of classical spirit, classical realism and "academic rhetoric in honor of the human race." He draws a bright line between western "fanatics of abstraction" and the Germanic culture which he believes to be from a different tradition. ("Germany never wanted to combine her word and will with Roman civilization.") I think you'd also get push back from scholars of other cultural traditions in China, Japan and elsewhere.

Tom said...

David wrote
"I'm not sure whether you intend this in a purely pejorative sense or not,"

No I didn't mean it in a pejorative way, but in a unhappy way. It's like the Tom Purvis quote Laurence share, art works take their form for many different reason. A picture that is meant to be contemplated at leisure will take on a different emphasis then a poster that is going to be view quickly.

David also wrote
"However, when it comes to seriously unraveling life's surface intelligibility I think few tools are as effective as our wonderful gift of language. I've never seen an artist accomplish what Descartes accomplished."

Well different cultures have found different methods of philosophy, in China the painting of pictures was consider one of the highest forms of insight into the nature of the Tao, or the "unraveling of life's surface intelligibility."

Not that I know much about Descartes, but his giving geometry a mathematical form in his creation of Algebra and his creation of the Cartesian coordinates is oh so much like the perspective of the western artist who using the horizon line, the vertical line and the line of depth (or the X,Yand Z coordinates) is able to locate his forms in a specific volume of space. The language of point, line, plane and volume is the language of geometry which are the elements an artist uses to create form.


kev ferrara said...

Re: "Ars longa, vita brevis." If this is true, the realization that we are using something limited to pursue something that is unlimited should only make us more humble about generalizations.

Rules are dogma, and dogma limits. Principles, on the other hand, free. Principles are pluripotent. I'm after the principles. I believe certain principles are provably inherent to the activity; otherwise they would not keep being rediscovered for two thousand years in a row by all the best people.

Such consistency of phenomena may not be 'cosmic truth' (in the silly idealistic godlike sense that relativists attack) but it is truth enough to be a sound basis for proceeding with investigation.

One presumes that you keep arguing from the position of pathological open-mindedness because it salves some deep-seated claustrophobia you feel towards anything resembling stricture (Unless the stricture is repeated into your soul by your political tribe via your news church.) No doubt, somewhere in your education some clever chap told you that since there was no such thing as a valid induction, therefore there is no such thing as a principle. Therefore you can call any attempt at discovering a principle to be a "rank generalization' and feel both intellectually and emotionally vindicated (clearing your conscience to give the benefit of the doubt to every buffalo-and-baloney dog-and-pony show that duct-tapes a banana to a wall within earshot.)

But I think the validity of normal distributions has long been established. And so too have timeless principles echoed through cultural history such that denying them is far more absurd than believing them.

Long ago on this blog we listed just some of the varied art movements of the 20th century. Here is some Ars that proved not too longa

It is not the 'movement' that I care about, but (again) the principles. Unity and poetry goes back to Aristotle and beyond. You show me a creative work without both unity and poetry, and I'll show you a meaningless waste of time.

Wes said...

“Rules are dogma, and dogma limits. Principles, on the other hand, free. Principles are pluripotent. I'm after the principles. I believe certain principles are provably inherent to the activity; otherwise they would not keep being rediscovered for two thousand years in a row by all the best people.”

The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks. Ad hominin attacks suggest an unstable ground:

“One presumes that you keep arguing from the position of pathological open-mindedness because it salves some deep-seated claustrophobia you feel towards anything resembling stricture (Unless the stricture is repeated into your soul by your political tribe via your news church.) No doubt, somewhere in your education some clever chap told you . . .”

This simple dogma, stated concisely "If you have to rely on a title to explain your picture, you have failed" hardly seems a principle, but I remain on the jury to be convinced. Thus a simple query from a simple mind:

What is the basis for saying it’s been “rediscovered” over and over by the “best people”?


Richard said...

“I think you'd also get push back from scholars of other cultural traditions in China, Japan and elsewhere.”

Scholars in China and Japan are not so naΓ―ve. They would argue that they’ve taken the Classical forms, mastered them, and made them their own.

In fact, in my experience, East Asians seem to have a deeper appreciation for the height of Western Civ than anyone – more interested in Classical Music, more interested in Classical Art, more interested in Classical Literature. They take pride in their having adopted and mastered high Culture more fully than even most westerners.

Rather, the people you will find who would attempt to argue that Classical Music wasn’t the height of music, for example, are Westerners themselves. But theirs is a fundamentally racist argument and has nothing to do with the quality of the work, and they will contradict their thesis at the earliest possible opportunity.

Those sorts of people will hear a simple drum beat, and believing it to be an ancient Indonesian tribal beat will feign ecstasy, and upon being corrected that it was actually a White guy in his garage in Cleveland will say “It’s actually not so good after all.”

You shall never find a person whose opinion of a recording of Bach’s Cello No. 1 in G Major changes for the worse when they find out it was played by the Chinese Yo-Yo Ma or the Jewish Gregor Piatigorsky or the female Jacqueline du PrΓ©.

Instead, those racist western relativists will finally allow themselves to appreciate the classical work when it’s brought to them by way of a “diverse” musician – “This is indeed the height of music” they will accidentally whisper, having momentarily forgotten their creed.

And then a moment later those racist relativists will return to their soft bigotry of low expectations, breathlessly gushing that there is indeed something magnificently high-culture in the moaning of those Australian aboriginals.

kev ferrara said...

The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks.

Make an argument. This is schoolyard stuff.

"If you have to rely on a title to explain your picture, you have failed" hardly seems a principle, but I remain on the jury to be convinced. Thus a simple query from a simple mind:

Great art teachers (like Dunn) are always giving specific advice that stems from foundational principles. The principle at play here is Unity. Every teaching of every artform makes mention of Unity as a founding principle. You'll find it in Aristophanes as well as Bob Fosse.

Unity means aesthetic self-sufficiency, nothing wasted nothing wanting, "the thing speaks for itself", the content stems from a core idea, as does the tone, and the tone suffuses and pervades. Unity means no hifalutin nor fashionable excuses needed to hype the "deep meaning" to a potential buyer in order to sell what isn't manifested. (Although, in the sphere of Pragma, changing a title to sell a thing or not be killed... sure, why not? Just goes to show how unimportant the title is. The title is just a form of call number. Why die for Dewey Decimal?)

What is the basis for saying it’s been “rediscovered” over and over by the “best people”?

It goes back to Aristotle at least. It has been reiterated in great Art, in sensible Art teaching, and in Art theory since then until now. There's probably been a billion words spilled on the principle of Unity in the annals of art talk.

Regarding Ad Hominem: David's (and your) suggestion that I am a pretentious close-minded authoritarian dogmatist is adhom by implication. I returned fire, though not with malicious intent. Nobody's feelings are hurt. Although, you seem to be trying to win argumentative points by pretending to be hurt on David's behalf. Good luck with that cheeseball tactic!

Wes said...

Much better. Sorry, us lawyers are used to hearing citations attached to arguments. I sincerely wanted to know the root of the principle.

Nuff said, I'm sympathetic to the argument, ala Sontag's Against Interpretion, but perhaps I've been hanging around in the wrong schoolyard.

Hurt feelings? Nah, just looking to learn. I'm not a real artist, just trying to learn how best to "read" art.

This blog is incredible for that. I don't need unanimity or agreement.

OscarR said...

@Chris Bennett

The intrisic value of something is decided by the interpreter of the frying pan. That's why Context matters. Are you in a lifetrheatning situation or in the kitchen about to fry some eggs. Or an image with these x idea in mind, communicated by words, remind us of a certain flavour of emotions.

People don't experience art in a vacuum equipped by a check list of the intrinsic qualities of good art. That's why we see crossbreading of mediums and and aestetic development depending historical periods, technological advancements etc.

kev ferrara said...

...just trying to learn how best to "read" art.

Feel it. Be with it. Nobody else's opinion matters. Even your opinion doesn't matter. If it's good, you will know it in a place inside you that is deeper than opinion.

The intrisic value of something is decided by the interpreter of the frying pan.

No. Interpretation is extrinsic.

The intrinsic value of thing is solely the qualities it possesses; its potentials and affordances; which derive from its nature and structure (structural nature, actually.)

The only way to change the qualities of a thing is to somehow deform its structural nature, thereby altering its potentials and affordances.

chris bennett said...

I'm not saying I fully agree with Canaday about the threat to the historical role of painting or the quality of abstract art, but I think there's certainly enough truth there to affect one's risk assessment for that rope bridge.

The reasons for what has happened in the plastic arts in the last hundred and fifty years is of course a complicated story. But I'd say that it generally stemmed from the emerging belief that pictures are in their very essence nothing more than a crude prototype for what has been made possible by modern technology, reaching towards its mimetic apogee by way of the moving image. Hence the scramble by plastic artists to produce products unencumbered by picture making's supposed function within the historical context of technical development.

Many believe this to be a mistaken understanding of what a picture actually is. I share their view, but will offer a reason I've through of only recently:

Our recollection of some past event is assumed to be, like the event itself, also temporal in nature. But this is not the case. Try as we might, we cannot remember truthfully the very next moment. Our mental image refuses to move, stubbornly remains in stasis like a fuzzy freeze frame resisting any attempt to be shunted past our mental projector lens onto the next frame. The best we can do is skip it and project another freeze frame that has survived into our mental archive.

The reason the 'play' button doesn't work in our memory must be predicated on the evolutionary requirements of the human brain's hard wiring. That's to say; in recollecting the significant events of its past it is more efficient for the brain's imaging function to recall them as static pictures. In other words the brain will only provide meaningful inner-image stasis points from which the temporal passage of a past event can be evoked.

Which leads me to consider that a picture is an externalised expression of this 'evoking as recall' function of the mind. So an artful picture would be this function at the service of meaningful evocation. (The functioning of the temporal arts has a different aesthetic purpose.)

All that I've just said is provisional of course, and I may be quite wrong. I only offer it as a possible argument supporting the claim that the meaningfulness of any work of art can only reside in its intrinsic evoking qualities.


chris bennett said...

EDIT:
I should have written:
Which leads me to consider that a picture is an externalised expression of this innate 'recollection as image evocation' function of the mind.

OscarR said...

@ Kev Ferrara

I agree there are some given intrinsic qualities from a common sense ontology. However The quantifiable differences of a scourching fire and and water is much different than a canvas with a thin layer of pigment and another canvas with thin layer of pigment. The main distinction there would be the experience of it, the extrinsic quality. Like you say about how to best read art is feel it, and be with it. I think this is something that is lost in the dicussion. That art as oppose to engineering is not to calculate and record an intrinsic quality, it's actrually all about human expression and expereience being recorded on a piece of canvas.

kev ferrara said...

The main distinction there would be the experience of it, the extrinsic quality.

Again this goes to the question of the different phases of the Art experience.

The first phase is the aesthetic phase, when everything the art has to offer just hits us all at once and one goes into what is called "Aesthetic Arrest." During this first phase the forces one feels causes us to understand the sensual meanings in relation to the narrative or subject. We are all similarly stunned into this uncontrollable data upload, so to speak.

Unless the work isn't affecting us aesthetically, which means either the work isn't artful, or we either aren't in the mood for aesthetic experience or we frankly lack the capacity to feel aesthetic expressions.

This brings us to the matter of "normal distributions" of human sensitivity. We cannot make an art theory based on outliers who might be either hypersensitive to aesthetic information (those people who cry at the color red) or those who are utterly anaesthetic (those people who feel nothing when they look at art, and have never understood why anybody might be interested in it.

In the normal distribution, most people react pretty much the same to the Art in the first encounter with a work. And this stands to reason because the artwork does not change depending on who looks at it and human beings' sensory apparatus are all pretty much alike.

Now, in later phases of the art experience, after we are no longer "arrested" by the aesthetic upload, experience can diverge wildly.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- The issue of who represents "the height of culture" is a lot more complex than whether Korean pianists love to play Beethoven. For centuries while the west was living in relatively backward conditions China believed it was the most advanced civilization in the world. That's what the "Sino-Barbarian dichotomy" (Hua-Yi) was about, as well as the sino-centrism of the Hans, and zhonghua minzu. And for centuries the Islamic empire credibly believed that it was the height of culture.

I don't begrudge anyone their cultural pride, but it seems that so many of history's greatest atrocities are justified by groups resentful because they've slipped from their "rightful" place at the height of culture. Islamic terrorists are out for revenge for the fall of the Islamic empire; Nazis wanted revenge because the superior German culture was shamed by non-aryans at Versailles; China wants "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people" to the empire which was, for over a thousand years, "the height of culture." Somehow, everyone is certain their culture belongs on top and they feel entitled to use any means necessary to achieve that end. Today, I see white nationalists supporting a grotesque caricature of a human being in the hope that he will restore their fading culture. Nothing seems to justify bad behavior like a sense of lost entitlement.

Tom wrote: "art works take their form for many different reason. A picture that is meant to be contemplated at leisure will take on a different emphasis than a poster that is going to be view quickly."

I agree. The art of video games goes by in a flash, and is not meant to be studied at leisure, but that doesn't prevent it from having its own aesthetic.

As for Descartes, I wasn't referring to his mathematical work so much as his famous cogito ergo sum. Descartes set out to understand whether it is possible for us to really, truly know anything-- whether we could ever be assured that we exist, whether we can ever be certain that we aren't seeing a mirage. Art is not a useful tool for that type of mission. Only thoughts expressed through carefully chosen words, applied with the precision of a scalpel, relentlessly following the principles of formal logic, could get us a little closer to truth.

David Apatoff said...

Wes and Kev Ferrara-- I have no quarrel with Kev's overly long but nevertheless elegant paean to the importance of unity in art. I just don't understand why he thinks it's impossible for words and images to form an artistically unified whole. Art successfully combines disparate elements all the time, and sometimes emphasizes those differences for the purposes of creating creative tension or contrast. We see it all the time, for example in the way that Unruh, Ciardiello and Cuneo take a pen and ink drawing and add a soft puddle of watercolor. Does juxtaposing high contrast with soft, borderless elements destroy the "unity" of the image? No-- at least, not in a way that undermines its artistic quality. Does anybody believe that Beethoven's addition of words to the musical notes in his 9th symphony destroyed its unity? I'm sure Gilbert & Sullivan or Rodgers & Hammerstein feel just as strongly about unity as Kev does, and yet they don't hesitate to combine words with music. When Eric Fischl or Phil Hale paints a painting mostly in a 3D representational style, but then interposes flat, 2 dimensional shapes and spatters, that affects the unity of the image, but not in a bad way. I suppose my problem is, I don't understand the dictate... errr, I mean principle... that says the only element that cannot be stirred into a mixed media image is words.

I understand that Kev has a favorite kind of art, where certain select elements are hermetically and wordlessly sealed in a covalent bond. That's fine. But does anybody still question that Steinberg's pictures are art and that they combine both words and images in a visually and intellectually "unified" whole?

Tom said...


David wrote,

"Art is not a useful tool for that type of mission. Only thoughts expressed through carefully chosen words, applied with the precision of a scalpel, relentlessly following the principles of formal logic, could get us a little closer to truth."

Really why do people feel so alive when they are in the flow?

“Be empty of all mental content, of all imagination and effort, and the very absence of obstacles will cause reality to rush in.” – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

Or to quote Eckhardt Tolle

“The philosopher Descartes believed he had found the most fundamental truth when he made his famous statement: "I think, therefore I am." He had, in fact, given expression to the most basic error: to equate thinking with Being and identity with thinking. The compulsive thinker, which means almost everyone, lives in a state of apparent separateness, in an insanely complex world of continuous problems and conflict, a world that reflects the ever-increasing fragmentation of the mind.”

kev ferrara said...

David,

I like this response a lot. I think it implies we are thinking along the same lines. Namely that all the artforms share the same principles at bottom, including unity.

There's some big differences between 'continuity' and 'images' in terms of what constitutes their respective unities.

In continuity, the unity is the narrative flow; and any event that appears along the sequential route, so long as it helps tell the story and continues the tone of the story, is fair play. This is why the word balloons must be designed onto the page. Because they are events just as well as a face is an event, or a sound effect is, or an action gesture is.

And this designed reading flow is itself aesthetic. That is, the flow takes us around the page in order, from event to subsequent event, without us realizing were are being led just so. (Toth was the absolute master at this. Whereas Carmine Infantino in his 1960s Flash work often resorted to arrows and fingers -- surface symbols -- to guide us.) And this is how good comic book work holds unity even though switching between word and picture. Because the real art is in the selection and sequencing of narrative events (not in the sequencing of either words or pictures.)

On cartoons... It is widely understood that humor is allowed to break any principle, rule, dogma, or convention it sees fit. Including unity. Which is why Groucho can talk to the audience and Blazing Saddles can end on a studio lot.

Yet Cartoons (that do not follow the continuity model discussed above) do have a kind of convention of unity; simple association by proximity of toon and tag just below. And the font used on the tag is always smartly deadpan and not too stiff. It is very important that the font not break the tone of the cartoon.

It is interesting to note that when Phil Hale or Nicholas Uribe interpose some flat graphic element into their work, the work immediately becomes comic. It would seem that humor not only tends toward artistic unity-breaking, but artistic unity-breaking also tends toward humor.

With musical theater, the complexity of the enterprise has naturally led to enumerable unities. That there is a narrative through line, that melody and lyric merge into song, that song always serves narrative, that the same actors speaking also sing, that song occurs when words are not enough to express the feelings of the characters, that a single stage is used, that the sets share tone with each other and the music and the story, etc.

Some artforms are pure rather than complex. Classical music is very self sufficient. So much so that, if you were listening to a classical music station and Beethoven's 6th was on and halfway through the DJ steps in to tell you the title, you'd be rightly annoyed. Or what if you are watching a Fosse number on television and suddenly the title of the dance flashes on the screen while it is going on. Well, that would be dumb and distracting, because unity was broken for no reason. Same as if you were in a theater watching a tense suspense film, and the guy behind you leans forward and whispers in your ear "that's the bad guy." Images are the same way.

Of course, not all illustration are images. But images that function as images, don't need titles except incidentally as 'call numbers.'

Richard said...

“For centuries while the west was living in relatively backward conditions China believed it was the most advanced civilization in the world.”

The fact that you can recognize that the western world was backwards and that China was more advanced, undermines your argument from the outset.

China was the height of civilization for a long time. As was the Islamic empire. The Persians. The Romans, Greeks, Israelites, Egyptians, Babylonians, all in their own cultural moments.

But so too were the Austrians, Italians, the French, the English in their cultural moments.
The term “Relativity”, used accurately, shouldn’t mean that cultures cannot be compared.

Quite the opposite – it should mean that we can only weigh the level of advancement of cultures by comparison. No civilization is objectively enlightened, but civilizations can be comparatively more or less advanced particularly when measured in a single way – the English play is superior to the Italian, and the Italian sculpture is superior to the English.

To continue picking on Australian Aborigines, if you transported 19th century Australian Aboriginals to 17,000 BC Lascaux they would have a serious claim to the title of most advanced people in the world. Transport them to Ancient Egypt, and they do not. That's real relativity.

“it seems that so many of history's greatest atrocities are justified by groups resentful because they've slipped from their "rightful" place at the height of culture. Islamic terrorists are out for revenge for the fall of the Islamic empire; Nazis wanted revenge”

While great atrocities were committed by societies attempting to regain lost grandeur, or who believe one culture superior to others, so too were the world’s Renaissances created that way.

The Nazis were correct that something had been lost since the heights of Austrian culture, and wrong in how they attempted to recreate it. We can make those value statements, we can differentiate between those cultures, because (surprise, surprise) cultural relativism is intellectually void. It is the very fact that culture is not relative that we can damn Nazi philosophy. I would be scared to live in a world where cultural relativism is taken so literally that we could not.

When the European Renaissance recognized the importance of the Greeks, they were making value judgements about which culture they believed to be superior.

In their case, they determined that Ancient Greek culture was superior to their own Medieval Catholic culture. Thank God they were not cultural relativists. Recognizing superior cultures doesn’t always look inwards – many times it looked out as the Koreans now do with Beethoven, as most of the world has with Western art. As it was right for English to recognize the superiority of the Ancient Greeks, it is right for the Chinese to recognize the superiority of Rubens.

That doesn’t mean Europeans are better people as many cultural relativists project, betraying their own buried racism. It just means that if you look at who had the highest recent cultural moment, it is the Western Europeans.

“Today, I see white nationalists supporting a grotesque caricature of a human being in the hope that he will restore their fading culture.”

Believing that Trump will restore Western culture is obviously preposterous. I have not seen him make the slightest gesture to rebuild our Symphonies, representational public statues, Classical Art Museums, Western Literature departments, use of Latin in public, and the rest. But that would have no place here anyway, White Americans don’t have an ethnic claim to make for the land of the United States.

But if there were a Prime Minister who had a reasonable argument for why he or she could restore a culturally British Renaissance in Britain, I would be all for it. In doing so, that Prime Minister would make a lot of enemies with people who don’t think British culture should rule Britain.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I should've been more precise. I didn't mean that Descartes's use of words and formal logic got us closer to "all" truth. I agree that there are multiple truths out there, that spiritual truths can be rich and rewarding, that people do "feel so alive when they are in the flow."

My point was only that when it comes to epistemology in particular --what we can truly know and what we can't-- art is not as effective an investigative tool. We were discussing "intelligibility" and I said Descartes was more effective at "unraveling life's surface intelligibility" because he applied a first-class mind to ruthlessly throwing out all the things we intuitively take for granted as we walk through life every day-- everything we view as "reality" but that we can't really know for sure. When you do that rigorously you quickly find yourself in the existential void (without even being sure that you have a "self" to be there).

Laurence John said...

David: "Does anybody believe that Beethoven's addition of words to the musical notes in his 9th symphony destroyed its unity?"

The words in the symphony are sung. They're integrated into the melodic line. They aren't a written description in a pamphlet handed out to the audience, about how to understand the piece (most English audiences don't even understand the sung words, but it doesn't diminish the power of the music).

Tom said...

David wrote
"When you do that rigorously you quickly find yourself in the existential void (without even being sure that you have a "self" to be there)." LOL! I like it.

I understand what you are saying, but just for fun, who is aware of the thinking? To quote Tolle again, when Jean-Paul Sartre, " looked at Descartes’ statement ” I think, therefore I am” very deeply and suddenly realized, in his own words, “The consciousness that says ‘I am’ is not the consciousness that thinks.”

It seems "intelligibility," has a lot to do with order. A beginning artist doesn't start questioning his assumptions about reality until he starts to make a picture. As Renoir said 'You come to nature with all your theories, and she knocks them all flat.' To be able to produce a good picture or sketch etc, one has definitely done some unraveling of life's surface intelligibility.









David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "The words in the symphony are sung. They're integrated into the melodic line."

OK, so does that mean words that are integrated into a painting--for example, colored, stenciled words like those of Larry Rivers or Jasper Johns, words lettered for artistic effect, like those of Claes Oldenburg, or words incorporated into the drawing like those of Saul Steinberg, don't create a problem for you? And while we're at it, does the title of a Symphony (such as "ode to Joy") add to your appreciation, despite the fact that it is in words rather than musical notes?

Richard wrote: "While great atrocities were committed by societies attempting to regain lost grandeur, or who believe one culture superior to others, so too were the world’s Renaissances created that way.... When the European Renaissance recognized the importance of the Greeks, they were making value judgements about which culture they believed to be superior."

Of course it's a dangerous business trying to explain how a Renaissance came about. There are a thousand theories. Lewis Mumford suggests that the invention of soap led to the Italian Renaissance because once bodies didn't smell so bad, people began shifting their focus from the next world to this one, creating oil paint to capture the nuances of newly attractive human flesh, painting nudes, and developing an interest in the secular sciences.

I don't claim to know the magic formula for growing a Renaissance, but it seems to me they all grew from mongrel origins. It wasn't enough that the Italians admired ancient Greece. The ancient Romans and medieval civilizations admired the Greeks, too--so much that they believed civilization had been on a decline ever since that golden era, a decline which would only end with the second coming of Christ. As far as I know, the Italian Renaissance stemmed from the cross pollination of ancient Greek culture (as preserved and interpreted by Islam and spread to Italy by Islamic traders and merchants) with biblical culture, set free by a secular governing philosophy that permitted empirical science. It was not enough to think the Greeks were superior

Laurence John said...

David: "does that mean words that are integrated into a painting (...) don't create a problem for you?

Exactly, although I'm not a huge fan of collage-y, pop-arty pictures in general, with or without integrated / painted words. I do like what Wayne White did with words in pictures; placing funny and surreal phrases into popular prints as if they're monuments placed within the realistic space.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3d/da/de/3ddadea4b0be0e143df8166ffee7ca63.jpg


David: "And while we're at it, does the title of a Symphony (such as "ode to Joy") add to your appreciation, despite the fact that it is in words rather than musical notes?"

No, it makes no difference to my appreciation. Reverse the question: are you unable to appreciate Beethoven's 5th Symphony because it doesn't have a suggestive title ?

kev ferrara said...

Good arguments, Laurence.

I always liked the way Rockwell’s painting titled’Adventurers’ unified the title with the art. A deceptive amount of work went into making this design work and 'look easy.'

Chris,

My memories often move, they aren't still as you seem to be suggesting. Or maybe I am misunderstanding you. I also don't see images as a species of memory, necessarily. More like things that seem like memory because they depend so heavily on the imagination participating in and completing the effects.

There an interesting parallel between what makes images memorable and what makes experiences memorable. John Dewey, in Art is Experience, spoke of Experience as being thematic, and so rhythmic, in the sense of self-resonant (at least as I understand him.) This resonates I think with John McKee's point, that when life is as cleanly soaked with meaning as good art, it feels like you're having a religious experience.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

This could of course be something entirely to do with my own mental make-up, but from what I can tell I'm made the same as others. I'll try to be a little more specific on the point I was making:

Yes, like you, my memories often move, but I sense this movement to be just a subtle fabrication extrapolated upon its 'start point'; the core memory image which appears to possess more fidelity than what happens before or after. In other words I see this static image as the 'truth' of my memory (as unreliable as that may be) which quickly decays as I temporally project each side of it - like the scent of a rose is to the rose itself.

Which leads me to believe that (perhaps) because this 'start point' image feels closest to the truth of personal memory we innately behold all images as a sort of talisman of truth in general.

Thus I am not saying that all images are a species of memory. I'm proposing that the role of the static image in our recollection of past experience is the reason pictures, because of their conditional likeness to this process, possess a unique potency in the means by which they evoke fantasy in relation to truth.

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

I would distinguish between 'Running a Recording' of a past moment and 'Running a Model of that moment.' I find that when I make an effort to run a memory, I can tell I am re-constructing it; it feels dogmatic and I feel I am interpolating between still frames. Whereas if a memory comes to me unbidden when I am relaxed, it is much fuller, more vivid and natural and full of fluent sensation; sounds, movement, emotion.

I agree there is a deep affinity for symbol in the mind. Symbol seems like the shorthand way we deal with complexes of sensual forces we've experience; so as to turn them into an easily-memorable intellectual currency we can model the world with. And so, when we humans encounter symbols in the world; it piques our interest because we associate symbols with the idea 'here is meaning!' (And this leads us to accept symbols as truth statements more readily than we should.)

The way we symbolize experience, though, attaches experience (sensual meaning) to symbol (shorthand); the sensual meaning being the actual truth value (and thus justification) of the symbol. I think what makes images 'Images' is a similar matching of sensual meaning to symbol; as I've explained previously. And that is why Images are so memorable and powerful as works of Art.

When we try to reconstruct memories as a model, however, it's like we are trying to create, on the fly, a photo-real work of cinema art in the mind. This is a monumental task. Making an actual Imagistic work of art is already very difficult and requires a lot of time and poetic thought, consideration, daydreaming, knowledge, and research. And because we can build an Image thought by thought, each thought staying put on paper or canvas as we work on the next one, we can partition the work into manageable bits.

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "No, it makes no difference to my appreciation. Reverse the question: are you unable to appreciate Beethoven's 5th Symphony because it doesn't have a suggestive title ?"

No, but I don't think that's the reverse of my question. If a composer chooses to give me a clue in a title (such as Aaron Copeland's Rodeo or Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols) I am interested in what he or she has to say, despite the fact that words are a different medium than musical notes. However, if a composer chooses not to give me a clue (for example, by just numbering a symphony as the 5th) that doesn't prevent me from appreciating the notes; I'm completely agnostic. I accept whatever mode of communication the artist intends and that I am capable of comprehending. I don't reject the words an artist offers because they're per se impure (although if the music is inadequate to begin with, or the words are poorly chosen and reduce the quality of the music, then they would be a poor artistic choice).

chris bennett said...

Kev,

I like your distinction between 'Running a Recording' of a past moment and 'Running a Model of that moment.' Just to be clear that I understand what you mean about how we symbolize experience; are you saying the distillation of experience as a memory image is the symbolizing function of the mind at work? If so, would you agree that the image symbol's functioning in aesthetic communication differs from that of the linguistic or musical arts because of its intimate connection with the brain's efficiency with regard to memory?

kev ferrara said...

Chris,

Yes the "still photo" memories are functioning as symbols. Whereas the recordings are more documentary. (But there's a problem saying that because, really, we live a poem and so we can only record poems in memory.)

I think linguistic images and musical 'images' have strong similarities to visual images, but with differences based on the way the mediums work. Poetry is poetry.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

I would certainly agree with that. My musings on this memory topic are speculations about why human beings find poetry to be inextricably connected to experiential truth (with particular regard to pictures).

Thank you for the confirmation BTW. I'll have to think about whether I agree with the idea that life is a poem lived. :)

Laurence John said...


David, let me put it this way; I can't think of a single favourite painting of mine where the title (or meaning) has been an influence on my liking the painting, or has altered my idea of the 'quality' of the painting, but i accept i may be an anomaly in this regard, and maybe i focus too much on form alone, and disregard 'narrative meaning'. I can think of instances where i loved the painting (formally) but thought the idea (narrative meaning) was puerile. I can also think of cartoons where the title is crucial to understanding the point of the picture. But I can't think of any instance where the narrative meaning was so powerful that it 'raised the quality' (your phrase) of a weak painting or illustration. Bad drawing and painting is always bad drawing and bad painting to me. I can't un-see it, or transform it into something well done.

There seems to be confusion (in this comment section and the wider world) between what I'll call the 'LITERARY CONTENT' - i.e. what the title refers to, what the subject matter 'means', what 'meaning' a particular artwork has to you and whoever you discuss it with...

... and the depicted 'SUBJECT MATTER' that is integral to the actual visual FORM of the work - i.e. what the image is actually OF and how that has been realised visually and technically.

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kev ferrara said...

Chris,

By "Poem of Life" I mean that we experience subjectively... that we only have five senses... and these few senses only take in certain kinds of vibrations or sensations within circumscribed ranges... that we have limited awareness which we tend to focus to the exclusion of much else... and so the brain is always interpolating and generalizing -- forming our worlds -- from incomplete information.

Titles...

I love some paintings so much that just thinking of the title of the painting gives me a warm feeling. N.C. Wyeth's paintings: 'Crystal Depths' 'Marriage by Capture' 'Winter' 'Ore Wagon' 'Arizona Nights' 'The Giant'... But as I'm looking at any of those paintings, the title vanishes. Again, the title is functioning like a call number, just like any word is like a call number to the idea it is a sign for. If we get caught up in the words, we aren't experiencing the thought for all its worth.

Laurence,

Aesthetic forces and feelings are directly coerced movements in the mind. They are caused by relationships set up in the Art that require imaginative closure. They are not static things that can be named in any way that makes sense in the academic English Lit world; those kinds of minds don't have the vocabulary. This is why the meaning of the artwork is what it does to the viewer; NOT what the viewer notices or thinks it is about. Anything about the artwork that is not Aesthetic in this experiential way is necessarily literary content.

As soon as we start 'talking about Art' we fall into the traps of words as the primary mode of interpretation. The word 'subject' nudges us into the world of words. The word 'content' nudges us into the world of words. The challenge is to think wholly pictorially about wholly pictorial work. English is simply too linear for the job.

Tom said...

Laurence wrote,

"There seems to be confusion (in this comment section and the wider world) between what I'll call the 'LITERARY CONTENT' - i.e. what the title refers to, what the subject matter 'means', what 'meaning' a particular artwork has to you and whoever you discuss it with... "

Philip Rawson goes into great detail on your point in his book Drawing. He describes how a drawing topic has two aspects. He writes." first is the TENOR, which is what promotes the extension of forms into space; second is the special meaning enclosed in the topic, which may not be an obvious direct product of the tenor though it may be "hung on' it."

He goes on to say the true topic of an artwork does not lie in the merely given "subject," but lies more deeply implicit in how that subject is developed. To go back to David's example of Veronose's painting of The Feast in the House of Levi, Rawson writes what the church truly found offensive was his"..world-affriming luxuriance," style, which was really the topic of the painting and which the church felt conflicted with their notion of the subject of the Last Supper .


chris bennett said...

Kev

Thank you for the clarification on what you meant by the 'Poem of Life'.

Matthew Adams said...

Been a long time since I commented on here David. Thanks for this post, got me thinking.

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