Tuesday, October 27, 2020

A NEW BOOK ON THE ART OF PHIL HALE

 Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of the work of Phil Hale, whose strange and powerful artwork has earned him an international following.  Hale is an artist well worth following because he continues to grow and evolve in interesting ways

I've just received an advance copy of Hale's beautiful new book, Use Music to Kill, a collection of his work from 2004 to 2018. 


The book shows three types of work: paintings, drawings and photographic assemblages.  Each is interesting in its own way.  

Paintings: In addition to examples of Hale's well known character Johnny Badhair, the book shows us Hale's more recent work, including several of his gallery paintings.  

Some of the new work is dark, some of it carnal (my personal favorites) 

but all of it is interesting.  One of the illuminating pleasures of the book is this double page spread showing Hale's brush strokes up close.  


For decades, most fans have only seen his paintings reproduced whole and at a safe and respectful distance. 

Drawings: Hale's drawings have a different spirit than his paintings.  They don't seem as vigorous or dynamic, the mid-air leaps and car crashes are rendered in something closer to controlled diagrams to establish what Hale describes as "angles, points in space, proportions."  

Still, the drawings don't end there.  They sometimes seem closer to paper sculptures; some are folded, cut, or taped together with cellophane tape which is clearly intended to be part of the picture.  They are drawn on selected papers from vintage books and magazines in a various shades of cream, taupe, or tapioca.  The paper may have textures, random stains or wrinkles, or an occasional stray bit of text.


Photography:  Like his paintings, Hale's photographs often have an ominous undertone. 



Hale says, "Photography has been a huge part of my practice since I was a teenager, for all sorts of reasons.  Some are not so obvious: I love it, in part, because it removes some of the more technical considerations and lets me deal directly with image-making...   But also, so wonderful that photographs include information you don't choose; you don't get to decide. Not just content/subject but also composition, coloration etc. I get to collaborate with reality, rather than operating in my self-generated zone."



Despite the different character of Hale's paintings, drawings and photographs, he has designed this book to combine them in clusters, as if the individual works are building blocks for some larger conglomerate work, or atoms in a more complex molecule:
 
Double page spread

Right now, Hale's book is still available on kickstarter.  It won't be for long.  His work is not generally published in other formats, so if you want to see what he is up to and you can't make it to one of his gallery shows in London or New York or Beijing, this book is your best opportunity.  It is a solid, handsome book, 272 pages, 11 x 11. 



188 comments:

MORAN said...

Hale is awesome.

kev ferrara said...

When I saw this suite of paintings at his NYC show a few years back (no j. badhair paintings were included) I was put in mind of Norm Macdonald's take on Andrew Dice Clay: You might appreciate his performance, but afterward you remember none of the jokes, only the lingering dismal undertone.

We had a discussion at the show. Mr. Hale expressed his succinct philosophy that it was his right to be meaningless. And surely it is. That is, if it were at all possible to fill a canvas with carefully selected symbols that reference the world and not be saying something. But as far as I can tell that's not how art works. And saying nothing isn't why an artist gets up in the morning anyhow. So who was he fooling?

As I see it, his basic nihilist philosophy has taken its spiritual toll. He's degraded from fun and vigorous to dim and depressed, from images to pseudo-images, from a new take on the great tradition of narrative art to meaningless postmodern juxtpositions and repetitive ambiguity with vague whiffs of the political or industrial. In short, the buoyant red balloon is now deflating in a mud puddle.

Luckily, it appears he still has all his talent and technique. Maybe he'll reinflate again. with any luck he won't go full Mark Shields.

I'll remove this unpleasant post in a few days.

chris bennett said...

Kev, that is a very well observed assessment of Hale, and I'm glad I've had the chance to read it before it's deleted. I also agree with your comparison of Hale's comet arc (har bloody har) to that of Mark Shields, and although Shields is a very different temperament, the loss is just as pitiable and depressing to behold.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Agreed

Kev Ferrara-- I hope you won't delete your post, Kev, unless you cease to believe it. As you know, we don't restrict ourselves to pleasantries around here. (Personally, I never did get why anyone appreciated Andrew Dice Clay's performances.)

I went to that NYC show as well, and those paintings (some of which are in this book, and two of which I've reproduced here) weren't my favorites. Like you, I prefer the "fun and vigorous" Hale, such as the work I've written about on this blog before. I also agree that the tone of the NYC show was dark and nihilistic.

But an artistic message about the meaninglessness of the world is not meaningless. Dostoevsky wrote some pretty devastating existentialist fiction but his message didn't discredit the importance of art with which he expressed it. Similarly, "carefully selected symbols that reference the world" often say something even if they don't speak in a linear narrative. I really like Hale's Badhair paintings but for me his less literal imagery, such as his Conrad covers for Nostromo and Lord Jim, are superior works of art. The second image on this blog post, that looks like a fire hose on a cement floor, makes us queasy because the fire hose looks like human entrails and the floor has a red hue that makes us wonder what kind of unholy mess has just been hosed down. This content is ambiguous, and neither fun nor vigorous. It reminds me of the closing scenes of the film, Jacob's Ladder. It reminds me of Hale's sinister vacuum cleaner which I've discussed before (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2019/06/two-vacuum-cleaners.html) but I would never hang it on my wall. I prefer the pantings where his brush strokes and spatters are visible.

If Hale did nothing but BH paintings from now on, he'd be very reliable-- a known quantity-- but we'd get no growth from him. If you locate an artist of quality and seriousness of purpose, it seems to me that you strap on your seat belt and continue down new roads with them for a while to see where they can take you. That's how art expands us.

To use an analogy that I know you'll despise, somebody had to linger in front of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon long enough to ask, "Is this guy crazy or am I?"

chris bennett-- I was not familiar with the work of Mark Shields. I can't say I'm grateful for having made his acquaintance.

One of the interesting things about this book for me is that it shows a number of different paths that Hale has been exploring. I'm curious what you think about Hale's "carnal" paintings. They are relatively current work, but which side of the spectrum do they fall on for you?

Tom said...

Well I agree with Chris. Kev put that well.

kev ferrara said...

David,

Mark Shields went from this and this to this.

al mcluckie said...

Kev - you once stated on this blog awhile back , that you regarded Alex Kanevsky as the greatest living painter , which I wouldn't

disagree with . How would you compare K's "meaningless" with Hales ? K resists explaining meaning or symbology , as does Hale

Jeff Jones or David Lynch for that matter .

Al

Anonymous said...

Kev you don't like that Phil Hale has moved from illustration to fine art. You want him to tell you a story.

JSL

chris bennett said...

David,

I was not familiar with the work of Mark Shields. I can't say I'm grateful for having made his acquaintance.

Kev has already kindly supplied you with two out of three examples that should make you change your mind about this. If you look at his even earlier work you'll see just how tragic the story is. I believe Shields to have been a great artist in the fullest sense of the word.

One of the interesting things about this book for me is that it shows a number of different paths that Hale has been exploring. I'm curious what you think about Hale's "carnal" paintings. They are relatively current work, but which side of the spectrum do they fall on for you?

I tried googling 'Phil Hale, carnal paintings' but could not find anything that put images under that distinct category. Assuming you mean such paintings as the couple copulating outside a white van at night, a man pulling along a seemingly levitating gutless corpse and some things that look like the aftermath of car crashes, I would put these works most definitely within the darkening reaches beyond the infra red end.

As to what I think of them:
Unsettling subject matter for its own sake is just exchanging rose-tinted sunglasses for gloomy x-ray specs. Now, Sargent's painting 'Gassed' is unsettling, but it is also shot through with redemptive compassion. I believe that when we love something, be it a person or a thing, we are externalizing our self into something outside of our body, and in doing so both connecting with it and simultaneously making it part of us. The opposite to this is the vandal who in destroying something is externalizing their hatred. But Hale, in these 'carnal paintings' neither appears to love or hate what he is depicting. He seems to be in the middle and in this sense I'd call him a nihilist. For such a state the value one places on sensation is just a matter of degree, the grossest having the strongest effect. If art is sensation as a communicator of meaning, then the vandal and the nihilist are impotent.

kev ferrara said...

you once stated on this blog awhile back , that you regarded Alex Kanevsky as the greatest living painter

If I indeed said that long ago, it's a belief I didn't hold long, long ago.

I see Hale's approach as in line with Kanevsky, Jenny Saville, and others. They're all excellent technical painters compromised by pomo hipster trappings and hooks, the better to beckon the favor of the radical chic set while putting distance between themselves and stale Grand Central academicism.

The basic difference between the two styles is that the latter, the René DeSance group, will paint pleasant objects and modestly posed nude models in the most banal classical style possible. While the Edgy McGrimdark group prefers distressed, gritty industrial/urban still life subjects and environments, and wants a bit more porn, neon, and gore in the figural work with loose brush strokes and the face smeared out.

Kev you don't like that Phil Hale has moved from illustration to fine art. You want him to tell you a story.

Thanks for letting me know what I want. I had no idea my viewpoint was so limited. I owe you. By the way, what's this "fine art" thing you refer to. Awaiting your response.

kev ferrara said...

Unsettling subject matter for its own sake is just exchanging rose-tinted sunglasses for gloomy x-ray specs.

The Mot Juste!

kev ferrara said...

To use an analogy that I know you'll despise, somebody had to linger in front of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon long enough to ask, "Is this guy crazy or am I?"

I never despise an honest argument made in good faith.

I don't even despise the wacky Picasso cartoon you mentioned. In fact I tend to like wacky cartoons. (I do bridle a bit when someone demands I equate a thatch hut with a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, however.)

If Phil Hale only ever painted Johnny Badhair paintings, I too would be disappointed. I look forward to seeing if he has any better ideas as to how to progress his art.

Its rather shocking how I've come to hate crosswalks and traffic lights.

Wes said...

The dirty nasty gritty industrialism look that is instantly recognized as nihilist has easily run its course but because it is a juvenile style/theme it still appeals to many. How could you NOT smudge out a the heads of a couple making love by an old heap of a van? It's required by the club you've joined.

Comics and graphic novels love this nonsense -- its "shock" art, and as old as the hills, now.

Richard said...


People who are sheltered (or mildly autistic), who haven’t fully comprehended the real ugliness in the world, will flock to horror films. The gore seems to them fantastical and occult, like some secret wisdom that transmutes the world into something exciting and dangerous.

Of course, if you go to Rwanda, you will find no such appetite for horror and danger. The victims of General Butt Naked are not in search of movies about cannibals or zombies. In Colombia you will not find people watching crime flicks, they want love songs. And it is no coincidence that the greatest generation gave us Leave it to Beaver, and that the people who came of age watching Leave it to Beaver gave us Marilyn Manson and SAW.

When I was younger, I thought Phil Hale was kind of interesting. But I lived through the 90s, I saw all the snuff films. I crowded around the CRT with the other little boys as we waited for the raw CCTV of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris stalking the halls of Columbine to download over dialup.

We watched hours and hours of real people’s bodies torn to shreds, their skulls crushed, beheaded by terrorists, murdered by loved ones, and I’ve taken them all to heart.

Looking at Mr. Hale’s work, I’m struck by the juvenility of it. What use is this now? Why spend your time on a shallow proof?

It is not the 90s anymore, we don’t need the darkness he plays at. We knew the little girl that got run over by a car. We watched as the cancer metastasized. We know that mom and her lesbian lover are fighting. That dad is drunk in his one bedroom apartment, and his liver is failing. That the suburbs are a wasteland. That somewhere a woman is living in slavery. Talk about that no more.

I have nothing against Phil, but he seems like a vestige of a much more naïve time, and I don’t particularly have time for that. I want to see a picture about a happy wealthy loving good-looking straight white family, now that would be rebellious and dangerous and far-out.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- Kev's comments are always extremely well put. Problems only arise when they're not fully baked.

Kev-- Thanks for the Shields examples. I was not familiar with him but I really like his early work. I spent some time on his web site looking through his later work, and reading the essays on his site to understand why/how he evolved into his later style. They say, "For Shields the mind of the artist must penetrate beyond the tricks of likeness to a new depth of reality, where the thing seen may be created anew.... The images come out of the process of working, the long hours spent looking and changing what has been already achieved.... His dread of formula, of slipping into habits of depiction, makes him question every little advance.... trying different solutions that will bind the elements together into a new and startling harmony which will satisfy his own high standards and arrest the eye of the viewer. This kind of painting is primarily a working-out of pictorial problems, a process that results in the slow distillation of a resonant image which may move us or entrap us with its beauty. It may even puzzle us, but if it is fully resolved, it will be difficult to ignore."

Sounds like you're one of those who are puzzled.

Al McLuckie-- Both Kanevsky and Hale imply enough realism to show us that they have paid their dues and can do it if they wanted, before moving on and chopping up their image to show they aren't content to rest with something that a camera might approximate.

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- I'm not so sure about the distinction between illustration and fine art, but I think Hale has become less accessible as he has matured.

chris bennett-- Sorry, "carnal" was not Hale's term, it's just the adjective I cooked up to cover a group of recent works with erotic content (not the car crash or the carried corpse). I included one, along with a close up, in this post as examples. The book has other examples, plus examples of photo assemblages where he seems to have taken 1950s era porn-- old black and white photographs with a certain amateur purity, which he has cut up (again!) to make more ambiguous and less explicit, and taped together on old battered books or toned paper. The reason I thought it might appeal to you is that, unlike some of his other recent work, it is painterly (note close up) and figurative, with an appreciation for light. Hale does smear these identities, but he has done that for years, in some of what I think are among his stronger paintings (for example his cover of Lord Jim or his painting Haetmiser. You seem to object to a lack of redemptive compassion in the subject matter, but I assume that is not disqualifying, or else you'd have to rule out Goya's black paintings and half of his etchings, Grosz, Francis Bacon, and 23% of medieval Christian art which shows its "compassion" with excruciating details of eternal torment. Can you help me understand why you think this is "unsettling subject matter for its own sake?" Would there have to be some of Sargent's redemptive compassion in order to justify unsettling subject matter?

I think I would be defending "rose-tinted sun glasses" if this were a blog post about the romance illustrations of Joe Bowler and Joe De Mers and Al Parker. I don't rule out the gloomy X-ray specs or the rose-tinted sun glasses if I think the art is there. So for example, I'm not a fan of Elaine Duillo's saccharine romance novel covers, but I am a fan of Coby Whitmore's saccharine romance magazine illustrations because I think they're well painted.

Al McLuckie-- I'm a fan of Kanevsky too, although I feel completely inadequate to the task of crowning anyone "the greatest living painter." I'll leave that to my betters.

I do think you make strong points about "meaning" in art. I question whether it is even possible to create meaningless art, and that includes art by Rothko or Reinhardt. Artists who decline to make it easy for us, either by word or brush stroke, are generally to be commended, in my view.

kev ferrara said...

Problems only arise when they're not fully baked.

At least I put them in the oven.

I spent some time (...) reading the essays on his site to understand why/how he evolved into his later style.

I've read those dispatches from his devolution as well. I can't say I'm grateful for having made the acquaintance.

I await your sage nodding at Phil Hale's upcoming essays explaining why, nowadays, he's only painting with his feet.

Let's admit; the idea that representation is 'a trick' is a risible statement that, as risible statements go, ranks quite high for cultural damages accomplished. Many similarly petulant artistic hot takes from 1912 have also long since overstayed their welcome and deserve to be mocked into oblivion. If not, we'll never get out of this hole.

Sounds like you're one of those who are puzzled.

No. What's there to be puzzled about? What's there is there. There's no mystery to any of it.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote "I see Hale's approach as in line with Kanevsky, Jenny Saville, and others. They're all excellent technical painters compromised by pomo hipster trappings and hooks, the better to beckon the favor of the radical chic set while putting distance between themselves and stale Grand Central academicism."

I'm not a big fan of Jenny Saville, and I'd place her mountains of bruised and gouged flesh in a different category than Hale's work. In fact, she makes him look downright cheerful. I can understand why today's "excellent technical painters" want to take advantage of the new possibilities afforded by today's world. Who wants to be a Bouguereau even Sargent clone, even if it were possible? We live in a world where speed and metal have transformed everything, where it it is acceptable to depict explicit sex, where our relationships and our fates and other major topics of art have been transformed, and where art now has competition from other visual media such as video. (Hale is also a film maker). Are these artistic reactions to new circumstances, or just "hipster trappings and hooks"?

My own sense is that there are plenty of technically excellent painters around, and even more painters who can simulate excellence with auto-toning. But there is a reason Hale stands out among mere technical excellence.

Kev Ferrara also wrote "figural work with loose brush strokes and the face smeared out."

When Hale began his Johnny Badhair series, his metaphor for the clash between man and machine, the faces were sharply delineated and the colors were golden, almost candy colored. The images "popped" as the human figure slammed the machine. But over the years as he painted more variations on that theme, the machines began to prevail, the palette gradually became darker, the human figure became less distinct, and yes, the faces began to blur. If that's not a substantive message, I don't know what is.

Wes wrote: "dirty nasty gritty industrialism look that is instantly recognized as nihilist has easily run its course"

There seems to be a whole chorus of commenters who consulted their watches and concluded that dark artistic content expired on Tuesday. And I agree that, given all the genuinely horrifying conditions these days-- the plague, economic turmoil, international trends toward authoritarianism-- a turn toward more constructive, optimistic content in art could be welcome. But no matter what the fashion is on a societal level, individual artists can always be dark or pessimistic for for personal reasons (Ivan Albright and Henry Darger are two examples). I don't understand the notion that "dirty nasty gritty industrialism" has run its course. For me, it's all about the painting.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- you saw all the snuff films??? Yeeks!

I don't disagree that-- with all our problems-- we live in a blessed country at a blessed time, and that much of the darkness we find in the arts can be attributed to decadence and puerile adolescent cynicism. It's easy to see that some of these trends are pure affect.

Still, even rich and healthy individuals can be haunted by personal demons or have their hearts broken or be psychologically damaged. Even during a generally sunny social era, individuals can be traumatized by epic misfortune, or they can perceive truths about the human condition that they need to express. These conditions are of great interest and artistic validity, for what they reveal about all of us-- even the most bovine among us.

Alfred Hitchcock chose to make films about horror, but critics agree he was one of the greatest directors in history. Horror was just the vehicle he chose for a variety of reasons. Francis Ford Coppola chose to make films about crime and death, but again his dark subject matter didn't hinder the quality of his art.

How are we supposed to tell the difference between great art about dark subjects and bad art about dark subjects? Well, that's the trick, isn't it? That's the challenge of all art. I wouldn't presume to tell people what filter to use for separating wheat from chaff, except to say that disqualifying "ugly" subject matter is clearly not the right way to go.

al mcluckie said...

I would not actually declare anyone "the best painter" , and although Kev did write that , I think as a response to a comment and not as a dissertation , I wouldn't hold anyone to perhaps momentarily feeling that .
Does anyone feel Hale Kanevsky Kent Williams Daniel Piten etc. etc. are insincere and chasing some trend that someone decided to invent a name for - gritty nihilism industrial etc - that in their mind has" run it's course " . I feel that it's possible they are reaching for something , perhaps without being able or needing to articulate what it is , so viewers can put it into a comfortable familiar internal category .
Hate to always mention Frazetta , but in an old interview he expressed irritation at being lumped in with his imitators and that he was now a member of a "school" , that he in fact created or brought back to life .

Laurence John said...

Kev: "...from images to pseudo-images, from a new take on the great tradition of narrative art to meaningless postmodern juxtpositions and repetitive ambiguity with vague whiffs of the political or industrial"

Al: "I feel that it's possible they are reaching for something , perhaps without being able or needing to articulate what it is , so viewers can put it into a comfortable familiar internal category ."

I think one can be too cynical or too naive about a particular artist's intentions, when the reality is often somewhere in the middle. Good artists are always 'reaching for something' but I don't think we should underestimate the power of trends, to steer artists in certain directions.

For some time gallery-art (or more correctly; a certain sector of the gallery-art world) has seen narrative painting as a problem. A figurative painting with an understandable point is usually seen as sentimental, propaganda, or hopelessly retrograde. So artists who like to paint figuratively took it upon themselves to find a way to still paint what they want to paint (or near enough) but avoid a narrative. Hence all of the 'meaningless postmodern juxtapositions', arbitrary surface marks, wiped-out areas, painted-over areas, dripping paint etc that are so common in the 'disrupted realism' school.

What I see in Hale's work is no different from what I see in the majority of the 'disrupted realism' trend, which is essentially a capitulation of the illustrator or figurative painter to market trends. If the market says that a certain kind of darkly ambiguous, disjointed realism is in demand, then artists will tailor their work to fit.

I don't even mean that to sound like a cynical take of clearly good work such as Hale's. It just seems obvious that artists will always work within the confines of the art world that they wish to get ahead in, and if the art world says that narrative is out, then artists will find a way to work with that.

chris bennett said...

The reason I thought it might appeal to you is that, unlike some of his other recent work, it is painterly... and figurative, with an appreciation for light...

Yes, in this regard they do appeal, including the 'gore' paintings, and also the lesser work of Kevin Beilfuss for the same reason. I can discern and appreciate painterly wizardry through both gloomy X-ray specs, rose-tinted sun glasses and even the discombobulating Kanevskian fly-eyes shades of post modernism. But these lenses are not aesthetic filters and they should not be confused with art.

You seem to object to a lack of redemptive compassion in the subject matter...

Without redemptive compassion what are we? A rock? A camera? A robot? A beast? All are attributes of those who have lost hope. Our well being is what we choose to give our attention to and we make what makes life worth living. We don't need reminding of how brutal life is because that is self-evident. What is not self-evident is the meaningfulness of our human condition within it. I believe this to be the function and reason of all art.

...but I assume that is not disqualifying, or else you'd have to rule out Goya's black paintings and half of his etchings, Grosz, Francis Bacon, and 23% of medieval Christian art which shows its "compassion" with excruciating details of eternal torment. Can you help me understand why you think this is "unsettling subject matter for its own sake?" Would there have to be some of Sargent's redemptive compassion in order to justify unsettling subject matter?

These are all examples of 'unsettling subject matter for its own sake' along with 'outrage' and journalistic sermonizing. So David, I do indeed rule them out. And this, I stress, is not from some ideological position out of what we've been discussing on the matter. I've never cared for most of Goya's black paintings or etchings (strong as they are technically) or Grosz, and have always had a distaste for Bacon of the Francis kind.

kev ferrara said...

I can understand why today's "excellent technical painters" want to take advantage of the new possibilities afforded by today's world. (...) Are these artistic reactions to new circumstances, or just "hipster trappings and hooks"?

Laurence supplied the term I was looking for; Disrupted Realism. Also Grunge.

Do you think grim industrial objects, dilapidated environments, despondency, pornography, violence, drug addiction, bad artificial lighting, and gore weren't around in Sargent's time? Of course they were.

But there was an ethic or morality permeating the cultural sphere that saw its mission as moralization not demoralizations, appreciation not depreciation, making the truth-beauty connection to raise people up and ennoble life and popular sentiment, rather than spitting at such ideas as hegemonic heteronormative grand narrative-believing white-nationalist fascistic... blah, blah blah, whatever cultspeak bafflegab one endures.

Most negative ideas are not possibilities, but limitations. The negative is small minded, petty, myopic, resentful, divisive, fear-mongering, hot with primal interest. And humans are already so easily lured toward the darkness. We need the opposite lure. And we have scant few ways of accomplishing that outside of blunt pharmacology.

There is some truth to the idea that all art 'celebrates' what it depicts. Yet one has heard endlessly from media culture the value of 'holding a mirror up to society.' This is the remit of the crusader or muckraker, not the artist. The reality is that when one holds a mirror up to ugliness, we get twice the ugliness. Serialize and propagate that ugliness and you saturate the culture with it, and marinate the people in it. Which helps explain the kind of psychic roiling we see culture wide.

And none of this goes toward catharsis. Catharsis is a process, not a tone.

But over the years as he painted more variations on that theme, the machines began to prevail, the palette gradually became darker, the human figure became less distinct, and yes, the faces began to blur. If that's not a substantive message, I don't know what is.

When one leafs through Charles Crumb's last comic book effort, one also notes a panel by panel descent into nihilistic indeterminacy. If you think that is a 'substantive message' I agree, but one best received by a psychologist rather than an audience.



Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Some of these comments remind me of a few quotes by Andrei Tarkovsky I bumped into the other day:

"Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal."

"Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in order to affirm the value of the individual for his own sake."

"What purports to be art begins to look like an eccentric occupation for suspect characters who maintain that any personalized action is of intrinsic value simply as a display of self-will. But in an artistic creation the personality does not assert itself, it serves another, higher, and communal idea. The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitable, losing all sense of a human calling."

"It seems to me that the individual stands today at a crossroads, faced with the choice of whether to pursue the existence of a blind consumer, subject to the implacable march of new technology and the endless multiplication of material goods, or whether to seek out a way that will lead to spiritual responsibility, which ultimately might mean not only his personal salvation but also the saving of society at large."

"Art affirms all that is best in man: hope, faith, love, beauty, prayer...what he dreams of and what he hopes for...What is art?...Like a declaration of love."

Source: https://www.nitch.com/notes/1603939041 - https://www.instagram.com/__nitch/

To me, creativity is intrinsically spiritual. When an artist loses sight of the spiritual, despondent art in a way is inevitable.

That said, I'm on the fence about Hale's work and that of other artists mentioned in the comments. I can respect and appreciate it, but only occasionally does it resonate with me.

There's something strangely symbolic about their habit of smearing, in particular smearing faces. As if they are searching to create that alchemic something spiritual in their work, don't find or achieve it, so instead passive-aggressively destroy what it does have. Though I wouldn't want to over-assert that notion.

On a side note, I'm wary of phrases such as calling his Johnny Badhair series "his metaphor for the clash between man and machine". I find it comes dangerously close to fine art marketing speak. Does Hale really paint them from a point of insight or concern, or does he just think robots and violence look cool? Aside from his obvious talent I'd say the latter feeling has been a much more important factor in his popularity than the first.

Laurence John said...

Chris: "I can discern and appreciate painterly wizardry through both gloomy X-ray specs, rose-tinted sun glasses and even the discombobulating Kanevskian fly-eyes shades of post modernism. But these lenses are not aesthetic filters and they should not be confused with art."

I don't get your point here Chris ... 'Not aesthetic filters'

Seems to me that's all they are, unless we're thinking of the term 'aesthetic' differently.

kev ferrara said...

I too think that rosy or gloomy tones or disjointed effects are indeed aesthetic filters. Point being that; so is any random photoshop filter.

Filters are automatable because they are shallow, the opposite of poetic structure which is utterly wed to the idea, and thus is never the same twice. The latter being a complex of effects synthesized with everything and all unified to the great effect of meaning; the epiphany and its clear generation and delivery as a kind of song-like thing. That's the apotheosis of the language.

Trappings in paintings are equally related to tone and nothing more, just as with holiday decorations. We put out the red bows at Christmas, the orange pumpkins and black cats at Halloween, and pastel eggs at Easter. Similarly, we put out the rusty metal, the scarred walls, the biological something-or-other, and the artificial light to indicate high-end grimdark. All this stuff is cosmetic mood-generation by rote props.

Reminds me of that cutting remark about chain theme restaurants, that their ambience is bolted to the walls.

Wes said...

I think the discussion is worth slightly more than Hale's art, but I do think the badhair character paintings are significantly more affirmative than some of his other stuff -- which tends toward the "dirty nasty gritty industrialism look that is instantly recognized as nihilist", to quote myself. The badhair paintings are energetic, beautiful and intriguing and more importantly -- interesting. I couldn't see (at first) that he is battling machines, but I don't think that changes their visual appeal, regardless of what it is supposed to mean that he is battling machines, which frankly would limit the appeal, I believe.

The discussion does remind me of a question that Santayana posed in his Life of Reason:

"Why is that sensuous optimism we may call Greek, or that industrial optimism we may call American, such a thin disguise for despair?"

Why since the demise of the Precisionists do we only get a nihilistic view of heavy industrial scenes? Sheeler and Demuth and others found beauty in such forms, an approach that has died out (or been snuffed out) in modern art. Hale seems to embrace both the sensuous Greek (and American) optimism, as well as the despair in these paintings. Perhaps that’s the source of their appeal – some new view of strength and optimism in the face of despair?


Anonymous said...

Lawrence - Frazetta was lumped into a school coined by whoever , and resented it , as his work spawned many imitators that people filed him in with . Speaking of Hale and Kanevsky , and Kent Williams , they developed their work and spawned imitators which necessitated the spawning of a title of a movement , grunge or whatever , and they are lumped into a convenient category . They strike me as sincere artists that did not lazily join a trending style .

Al

chris bennett said...

I don't get your point here Chris ... 'Not aesthetic filters'

Hi Laurence,

I notice Kev, felt the same as you about this. I'm using the word 'aesthetic' in its modern sense of pertaining to the appreciation of the beautiful, where beauty is an expression of spiritual meaningfulness. So what I mean is that any content passing through the aforementioned lenses will be filtered, but not into poetry.

chris bennett said...

"Why is that sensuous optimism we may call Greek, or that industrial optimism we may call American, such a thin disguise for despair?"

It isn't. Unless you choose to see it that way. Optimism, when it is real, is always pulled from the front.

Laurence John said...

Al: "They strike me as sincere artists that did not lazily join a trending style"

I agree Al. There are always leaders and bandwagon-jumpers in any zeitgeisty movement or trend. That doesn't alter my point (above) that we are at a stage where narrative in painting is a problem for artists - who seek a certain kind of gallery success- to wrestle with.

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- I don't know how to distinguish a pioneer in a school of art from a unique artist being copied by imitators. Frazetta was very influential within a narrow category but of course he had his own sources (Foster, Coll, St. John) and some of the latecomers to his "school" made distinctive contributions that Frazetta did not make (Jones). David Spurlock recounts how Frazetta sat at the dinner table and complain about the artists who stole from him. He sometimes got carried away, as when he tossed Wally Wood on the list until he was corrected by a brave soul. I don't think Frazetta was as influential as some of his contemporaries, such as Bernie Fuchs or Bob Peak, but he did seem to be more resentful.

Also I don't believe Hale/Kanevsky/Kent/Williams are insincerely "chasing a trend." I think they've shared some experiences and have perfectly understandable reasons for seeing some things similarly.

Laurence John-- Following up on my point to Al McLuckie, I don't think it's so much "capitulation to market trends" or "wishing to get ahead" as it is reacting to a common set of phenomena. For example, I think photography has played a huge role in the changes you're describing-- it has gobbled up roles traditionally played by great artists, such as portraiture, memorializing important events, military battles, and even capturing images of nekkid women. Yes, Bouguereau and Rockwell continued to contribute things that cameras couldn't, but why should new artists suffer through that long painstaking apprenticeship if you can achieve even 70% of their result painlessly, with the push of a button? Photography answered ancient riddles (think Muybridge) and taught artists about new distortions (blurs, aerodynamic warping) and movies gave rise to a vocabulary of multiple images and cinematic stuttering, like 16 millimeter film coming off the sprockets in a projector.

In that sense, perhaps the realism isn't "disrupted" so much as captured from different perspectives, like x rays or infrared.

On top of that many of the other cultural explorations of the 20th century, such as subconscious and stream of conscious literature, purports to be "more real than classical realism." These don't seem to me to be marketing trends, and we should be very surprised if artists remained unaffected by them.


kev ferrara said...

So what I mean is that any content passing through the aforementioned lenses will be filtered, but not into poetry.

There is such a thing as a tone poem, or mood music. And this consists mainly in a motif, or vibe, a particular rhythm, or feeling that more or less stays consistent throughout. It is a kind of decorative art. And, as such, it does have some evocative capacity, it can set a specific mood, as even wallpaper does. It just isn't complex linguistically; it has no thematic structure. So it can't say much, develop, or offer epiphany. Which is also why it can be computer-generated.




Tom said...

David wrote,

"....perhaps the realism isn't "disrupted" so much as captured from different perspectives,..."

Realism has always been disrupted when realism is considered a photographic view. The 20th century often presents the past as they want to see it as if there is some desperate need too rebel or reject its "realism." The painters of the past new the problems and limitation of the perspective or the photographic view. They knew art was more then making things look like things.

Here is part of lecture on the issue give about 5 minutes, its interesting

https://youtu.be/PbYxpZJxF00?t=3180

chris bennett said...

There is such a thing as a tone poem, or mood music. And this consists mainly in a motif, or vibe, a particular rhythm, or feeling that more or less stays consistent throughout. It is a kind of decorative art. And, as such, it does have some evocative capacity, it can set a specific mood, as even wallpaper does. It just isn't complex linguistically; it has no thematic structure. So it can't say much, develop, or offer epiphany. Which is also why it can be computer-generated.

Yes, you and Laurence are right about this, because if you put a bossa-nova lilt to a tin pan alley song it does affect how the song feels.
So I'll amend;
"...these lenses are not aesthetic filters and they should not be confused with art."
to;
"...these lenses are only aesthetic filters and should not be confused with the structures they are being applied to."

Laurence John said...

David: "I don't think it's so much "capitulation to market trends" or "wishing to get ahead" as it is reacting to a common set of phenomena"

I agree David. I was trying to suggest that the situation is very much a response to the present state of things in (painting) culture. I don't know why you're making 'wishing to get ahead' sound like such a cynical thing. Artists are competitive and many are in the game for the rewards, and many will play the gallery game if that is where the rewards are. To me, that's not the same thing as 'only in it for the money'. It means rather that you're willing to acknowledge the marketplace, the competition, the zeitgeist etc and work within those confines.

I was also going to mention the impact of cinema. I've long thought that cinema has robbed painting of its narrative importance, and even the need for narrative at all. It seems to me that painting is almost entirely about the 'aesthetic' now (which is why I asked Chris to clarify his use of the word above).

(by 'aesthetic' I simply mean the overall look).

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

David, (and those engaged in the disrupted realism debate)

Rather than asking questions about the commercial or career motives behind particular artists adopting what can be called either disrupted realism, discombobulation, Kanevskyfication or grunge I think we would get further if we asked; 'why is the look of it so appealing to many people?' I'll offer an answer:

Modern culture does not believe in the relevance, let alone fundamental truths, that are embedded in our ancient myths concerning the human condition. This started to creep up on us in tandem with the emergence of impressionism, then (by way of Cezanne) cubism, then 'abstraction' and now pure relativism. In other words; this ideology, by dismissing belief in intrinsic content (embodied in the myths and archetypes) as an illusory construct, has left us only with games of language (it is no accident that this is what ethics in the political arena has been reduced to).

So what's the only game in this particular town for a talented artist to play? What game is approved by the high sheriff that obeys the rules stating that the value of the chips is subjective and the stakes are only relative, yet includes something objective like skill to win?

Welcome to Casino Grunge where you can spin the wheel of disrupted realism, shoot discombobulation dice or sit down to a hand of Kanevskyfication, shuffled each deal.

Laurence John said...

Chris,

What you've outlined is the bigger, rather depressing, culture-wide backdrop for the phenomenon.

On a more superficial level I think the whole 'disrupted realism' thing is popular because it's 'edgy' and new. There will always be an audience for edgy and unsettling art, and people respond to novelty.

On a positive note, at least there is some really good painting within a lot of the vague, glitched-up imagery.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Do you think grim industrial objects, dilapidated environments, despondency, pornography, violence, drug addiction, bad artificial lighting, and gore weren't around in Sargent's time? Of course they were."

On the other hand, do you think the artistic context remains unchanged? Sure, there are aspects of human nature that seem universal and timeless, but if someone from Sargent's time saw one of us take a cell phone out of our pocket and connect to youtube, they'd think we were a god or a creature from outer space. And if they witnessed a space launch from Cape Canaveral they'd fall on their knees and write another book of the Bible. In Sargent's day, pornography was dog eared French postcards. Don't you think that today's porn would blow the minds (and transform the relationships) of his audience? When Sargent was on his deathbed, the futurism movement in painting was already grappling with artistic reactions to "speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city." Sound familiar?

Equally important, in the days of Sargent, most people had no art in their homes except an occasional printed calendar on the wall and whatever black and white illustrations the Saturday Evening Post brought into their home. Today we are flooded with images every minute of the day (the same with music). Artists scoop up thousands of images, incorporate them, sample them, deal with them and try to distinguish themselves from them.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "Most negative ideas are not possibilities, but limitations. The negative is small minded, petty, myopic, resentful, divisive, fear-mongering, hot with primal interest."

I don't know about that-- the power of negative thinking has been central to a lot of great art, not to mention social progress and scientific advancement. It is our number one weapon against smug complacency and the acceptance of injustice. If you want art to probe beneath the superficial (and what MAD magazine called the "creeping meatballism" and Madison Avenue culture of the 1950s); if you like that Manet painted working class people instead of the aristocrats and gods favored by previous generations of artists; or even if you understand why the prophet Jeremiah cried out, "They have healed the wounds of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace," then you shouldn't be so negative about negativity.

Most of all, I suppose I'm surprised by the sophisticated commenters who seem to be judging paintings based upon the preferred moral tone of their content. Perhaps we're all just exhausted by the plague and the negativity of the political season? Personally I'd like something a little more upbeat than Hieronymus Bosch hanging on my bedroom wall, but for me that doesn't detract from the magnitude of his artistic accomplishment and I'm glad his work is there to be consulted when it's time to expand the range of human reactions to experience. I feel the same way about Francis Bacon.

kev ferrara said...

I don't think Frazetta was as influential as some of his contemporaries, such as Bernie Fuchs or Bob Peak

Without question Frazetta is one of the most admired, imitated, and copied artists in modern history. Fuchs was copied intensely for a while - pretty much every hack in New York was aping his tracing and 'scrub and bubble' jive at one point - but now nobody does. Meanwhile Frazetta has launched an entire industry of imitators and the influenced that is going on 55+ years strong.

I won't list all those who are known to have swiped from Frazetta or betrayed him in some way in art or business, because there aren't enough hours in the day. If he had a few lapses into resentment who among us would look down upon him for that as if we were entirely innocent of the same and for lesser crimes against us.

kev ferrara said...

if you like that Manet painted working class people instead of the aristocrats and gods favored by previous generations of artists

Why do you consider images of working class people 'negative?' There is truth and beauty everywhere.

If you want art to probe beneath the superficial

Why does it take negativity to 'probe beneath the superficial? The whole point of poetry is to get beyond surfaces. I truly don't understand what you're thinking.

MAD magazine called the "creeping meatballism" and Madison Avenue culture of the 1950s

I've come to the conclusion that satire and mockery are garbage tactics, a passive aggressive attempt to disguise submissiveness. And often a combination of ignorant and arrogant.

Both tactics assume that one is in possession of sufficient morality as well as sufficient information to make ironclad moral or ethical determinations. And this is rarely the case. Perspective is distorted by emotion. And mediation is a wilderness of competing manipulations. And most people are too busy, too lazy, too self-satisfied, too emotionally, socially or financially invested, too confused, too unsophisticated, too ignorant, or too dumb to dig beneath what they are told.

Such purveyors as Mad and The Daily Show are manipulative as well. And have taught even the most uneducated, inexperienced dimwits in their audiences to feel emboldened to use satire and mockery without knowing anything but those things.

Now here we are down the road and everybody uses this kind of sassy combative petulance all the time, from the obnoxious six year olds of bitter parents to bitter retirees who act like six year olds, from twitter trolls to lame broadcast media figures trying to make up for low status in high school. Diehard fans of mockery sit in their hidey holes and listen to mockery, and read mockery, and go on twitter and mock, mock, mock, around the clock.

The result is stalemate of constant division and rancor and bile and none of what is essential for moving forward; real discussion and difficult decisions and compromise solutions.

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

On a more superficial level I think the whole 'disrupted realism' thing is popular because it's 'edgy' and new.

I believe the apotheosis of 'edgy and new' as evidence of quality in art is a symptom of the modern era and no other, and therefore a direct consequence of the post modern cultural malady I outlined. And although pomo theorists might want to refute this by pointing to examples like, say, the Dionysian temperament replacing the Apollonian in ancient Greece, the argument is false because the change was an emergent property of a civilization's slowly altering beliefs rather than an unquenchable thirst for novelty in lieu of intrinsic content.

Tom said...

David wrote

...if you like that Manet painted working class people instead of the aristocrats and gods favored by previous generations of artists;..."

Why so much emphasis on the subject? The development of the subject, how it is done is what really captures peoples attention isn't it? People remember the painter long after the subject's initial meaning is forgotten.

Tom said...

Laurence wrote

"On a more superficial level I think the whole 'disrupted realism' thing is popular because it's 'edgy' and new. There will always be an audience for edgy and unsettling art, and people respond to novelty."

That reminds me of Hilton Cramer's view of Francis Bacon's work. From 1975,

"But do we really experience any genuine “horror at the rawness of the subject,” as Mr. Geldzahler claims, or are we simply titilated—and rather pleased—to see the materials of a hundred popular movies and plays and novels and poems and autobiographical confessions resplendently transferred to canvas and expensively framed in gold? Are we not, indeed, titilated by a body of work that not only gives emphatic priority to subject matter but to this particular subject matter? And is the subject matter really so daring—or is it only “daring”? Let's face it: in the world where Mr. Bacon's paintings are seen and bought and judged and talked about, to be avowedly homosexual, to traffic in images of sexual violence and personal sadism, is a good deal less shocking than, say, to be avowedly Methodist."

https://www.nytimes.com/1975/03/30/archives/art-view-signs-of-a-new-conservatism-in-taste.html

kev ferrara said...

the futurism movement in painting was already grappling with artistic reactions to "speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city." Sound familiar?

It is a mistake to equate that movement with what is being criticized in this discussion. The futurists were thinking poetically and musically. The distressed smearfaced rust-and-blood realism crowd is thinking only superficially about the poetry of what they are doing. They aren't structuring for meaning. You are actually making my point for me by bringing up the Futurists.

But it is just as well to look at Lepage and Breton's works of field hands, or Thornton Oakley's cityscapes, Leslie Ragan's trains or boats, or Harvey Dunn's speeding auto painting, or any number of images of planes and battleships... to prove that truth and beauty is in everything everywhere. It goes beyond subject, but it requires a bigger mind than normal to see that it indeed does; it requires a perspective with some breadth of spirit and an ability to withstand the lures of cheap intensity.

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

Why so much emphasis on the subject? The development of the subject, how it is done is what really captures peoples attention isn't it? People remember the painter long after the subject's initial meaning is forgotten.

I don't agree Tom. If one looks at, say, Rembrandt's portrait of Margaretha De Geer one sees that the poetic structure of the paint marks, the larger forms they build, right up to the composition as a whole are aesthetic choices predicated on its subject. The union of the two, the subject and its realization, is the painting's meaning. And I believe this to be true of all art; the subject is the wellspring of its poetic realization and the realization is thereby the poetic wellspring of the subject.

Tom said...

Couldn't you say the subject is the form Chris? The subject my be the aging of form( I don't know the painting off the top of my head) and so his brush expresses that affect or as you wrote builds the form upon that understanding.

I would say the aesthetic choices are predicated upon what the artist feels about the subject or what the artist wants to say about the subject.

But I was writing about the actual subject, (maybe topic is a better word) a boat, a car, a Madonna, a vampire etc... One doesn't often know who the portrait is of, or one may not know the story that is represented in a painting or understand the context and reason for a work's existence but one can still find aesthetic satisfaction in the work and probably discover a more profound meaning (or subject) as your comment suggests.

kev ferrara said...

In Sargent's day, pornography was dog eared French postcards.

Sorry, what I meant was, these artists circa 1900 were sexual beings. Yet they didn't make explicit work. They made poetic, suggestive, evocative work, and of a great variety of subjects. They weren't perverts or decadent in their expressions.

I presume had they been as demoralized by whatever "mind-blowing" pornography you cite - as you suggest they might have been if they lived in the modern day - we wouldn't be bothering to talk about them or their work. They'd be as dissipated as NC Wyeth's Opium Eater.

Therefore, to talk about these great artists as we understand them, one presumes they would still have had the fortitude and sense of mission to stay away from hard drugs, and keep to their honorable oaths as poets and imagists. NC Wyeth talked of how pathetic he found the Opium den's he visited.

I should have included NC Wyeth's Opium Eater as a great example of taking the terrible and making it beautiful, but without lying about it. This goes to Dunn's quote* that, no matter the subject, even if gruesome, the painting must still be a singing thing when you take it off the easel. A song is still a song. And songs are still sung, even if it is a melancholy dirge like Auld Lang Syne. That is the power of art and the method of cathartic ritual.

*You are hereby granted one Arthur Koestler quote-token.

chris bennett said...

Couldn't you say the subject is the form Chris?

I don't think so Tom. Imagine a still life of a white jug with daylight falling on it from one side. Now, in your mind's eye cut out one side of the jug and place it on a blank surface. It could now be the breast of a dove, the mainsail of a galleon under full wind, a gibbous moon, the corner of an eye, a broken shell, rain scurrying in across a misty sky...
This is like isolating the musical note F# from a song. It is the melody that gives the note, depending on its context with the other notes a specific, authored meaning within the whole.

kev ferrara said...

Chris, Tom...

My understanding as it relates to your debate...

Once the subject is expressed aesthetically, it has its own being by virtue of the effects that demonstrate it. The subject is no longer a reference as a noun is a reference. It simply is, it is self-presenting; the nouns have become verbs.

As Harvey Dunn said, 'Don't paint a picture of a man. Paint a man.' A self-justifying aesthetic reality is the goal. But this can only happen through effects; abstractions structured to produce illusions.

One step further in artistry, where the subject is expressed thematically and as part of the overall thematic presentation, and the subject ceases to be primarily a unit unto itself. It instead becomes part of the larger complex unity of thematic effects.

And so, with good composition, the elements submerge into the overall unity, and effectively pass away as 'things' at the gestalt level.

Point being, a 'subject' per se, is only superficially the subject in thematic work. The real subject is the theme.

But while it is surely true that some themes go better with certain scenarios in certain genre-moods rather than with others, it is also true to say that certain scenarios and genre-moods provide ingredients for thematic creativity that are completely unique and can be derived from nowhere else. Theme is at least as abstracted from the subject as the subject is abstracted toward the theme.

So theme and the abstraction of the subject simply cannot be separated.

chris bennett said...

I would say the aesthetic choices are predicated upon what the artist feels about the subject or what the artist wants to say about the subject.

Yes, I agree. This is why recognition of the subject as the subject of the work is vital to its meaning.

One doesn't often know who the portrait is of...

Knowing the sitter's name and history is only to be informed of a label and data. The aesthetic experience is received entirely optically and the relevant poetry is authored into the portrait's compositional appearance (from its brushstrokes to its largest structures).

...or one may not know the story that is represented in a painting or understand the context and reason for a work's existence but one can still find aesthetic satisfaction in the work and probably discover a more profound meaning (or subject) as your comment suggests.

When I first beheld Waterhouse's 'The Lady of Shalott' I had absolutely no idea of what story it was depicting, let alone which part. I just gawped at this painting of a preoccupied young woman casting off in a small boat with this exotic tapestry carelessly dangling out of it into a murky river on a dull day in the countryside. But I was transfixed to the core of my being, as if it was painted for me alone, as if it had been waiting to nourish a deep part of my psyche. And although I am now familiar with Tennyson's poem it adds not a jot to my understanding of this bewitching masterpiece, an understanding no different to that of the young man who once stood before it one morning in the Tate Gallery.

chris bennett said...

Kev,

Thanks for your pitch in; extremely helpful because it's a more comprehensive account of the subject/realization connection and at the same time a sharper understanding by way of how you are relating subject to theme.

There is much to ponder on in this so I'll need a night to sleep on it. I'm sure Tom will too!

Tom said...

Chris wrote

"magine a still life of a white jug with daylight falling on it from one side. Now, in your mind's eye cut out one side of the jug and place it on a blank surface. It could now be the breast of a dove, the mainsail of a galleon under full wind, a gibbous moon, the corner of an eye, a broken shell, rain scurrying in across a misty sky... "

Now isn't that the magic of artistic thought, the power to conceptualize the complexity of the universe via analogy . A few simple underlying forms gives the artist the ability to create the multitudinous forms of the universe. The artist senses the underlying geometry that all forms share. Of course depending upon how the forms are arranged or composed all sorts of meanings can come into being.

All objects are form so the artist's first effort should be directed toward the comprehension of the nature of form, the point, the line, the plane, and volume. Form in it's very nature is architecture. To my mind architecture is closer in nature to the visual arts then music, as it implies strength, stability and actual physical existence. To use Kev's term, that may be my own personal projection of a "theme" onto others work.

I don't think we are in disagreement I probably was not very clear. I was trying to say the same thing as you did in your description of the Waterhouse painting. The power of the work comes from the work itself. People stand in awe when looking at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne because of it's own inherent presence which really has very to do with Apollo and Daphne. That's my experience anyway when looking at something I really enjoy and admired, it's more like being captivated then anything else. What is being communicated is something I already intuitively understand or recognize but now it has been given actual physical existence in form. As Kev wrote, "It simply is, it is self-presenting;"

Kev did state it well, "Point being, a 'subject' per se, is only superficially the subject in thematic work. The real subject is the theme."



David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Without question Frazetta is one of the most admired, imitated, and copied artists in modern history."

If you're saying that Frazetta does a huge business selling posters and trade paperbacks to adolescents and Walter Mitty types who love the subject matter, I'd certainly agree. But it should give you pause that the untalented Boris also does a huge business in those same markets. Perhaps part of the explanation for their joint popularity is that they worked in an era where the fantasies of Burroughs and R. E. Howard, muscle bound heroes and half naked women captured the public imagination? Before he came to that subject matter, he was far from "one of the most admired, imitated, and copied artists" of the week, let alone in modern history. He had trouble finding work. And whenever he unwisely strayed from that subject matter the results could be painful indeed. As further evidence, look what that subject matter has done for Game of Thrones or the Lord of the Rings movies-- it seems that when other creators apply a more modern medium to the same subject matter, the audience and influence are multiplied far beyond Frazetta's market.

Don't get me wrong, I like Frazetta a lot, and I think some of his work is even great, but you seem to have a double standard when it comes to an artist's popularity: If Frazetta is popular, it's a measure of his quality, but if another artist is popular, it's a measure of how tasteless and nihilistic his audience is (and how western civilization is on the verge of collapse). You do realize, don't you, that if you step outside our narrow niche most people would say Frazetta's popularity is a measure of how childish his audience is, and how our society is on a flight from reality?

As for the popularity of Fuchs and Peak, I don't totally disagree with you, but I'd modify your point. There was a period of about 4 years in the 60s when Fuchs and Peak shook up every artist in magazine illustration and advertising art-- a far broader and more influential market than Frazetta's covers for Creepy and Conan.
Every small commercial art studio across the country had to have a staffer or a free lancer who could simulate the Bob Peak “look,” because that's what the clients demanded (and that's what the artists themselves admired-- they thought it was the future, when in fact it was just the times). Those guys were like the Beatles.

It didn't take long for things to simmer down, although Fuchs was chosen for the Society of Illustrators annuals every year for 40 years. (I believe Frazetta made it in four or five times?) I'm not sure what you mean by Fuchs' "scrub and bubble" technique but of course he didn't turn to his oil paints until the 70s and 80s. Some of the artists who still imitate that style have gone on to the illustrators hall of fame themselves, right alongside Frazetta.

kev ferrara said...

You seem to have a double standard when it comes to an artist's popularity:If Frazetta is popular, it's a measure of his quality, but if another artist is popular, it's a measure of how tasteless and nihilistic his audience is (and how western civilization is on the verge of collapse).

I am almost completely uninterested in popular opinion and wholly dedicated toward esoteric qualitative factors. This is provable by my arguments and citations alone. Who is yammering on about poetic structure in Art in America or at Art Basel or on DeviantArt? Who wants to hear that the old methods were better, most shortcuts cheat the work, that Photoshop is a Faustian deal, and so on.

I think it is beyond dispute that many of Frazetta's fans just like boobs, butts, violence, menace, fire, and dragons. Frazetta himself said many of his fans couldn't tell his work from that of his imitators and couldn't care less either.

I have too often been asked, since I am a fan of Frazetta, that I must also be a fan of Boris, Kelly, Brom, Achilleos, Rowena, and every cover artist for Heavy Metal there's ever been. But that's the opposite of the truth. My interest isn't based on genre at all. When I name Sorolla, Hammershoi, Garber, Fechin, Carlson and Carlsen as among my favorites, eyes glaze over. Teapots? Willow trees? Pueblo children? Empty rooms?

But I realized fairly early on, when I found myself staring at Pyle and Wyeth in the same way I would stare at Frazetta, that it wasn't the props and trappings that made me look. It was something deeper, something mysterious and intangible. Something intentionally hidden. A visual technology at work that I did not understand.

Fuchs and Peak shook up every artist in magazine illustration and advertising art-- a far broader and more influential market than Frazetta's covers for Creepy and Conan.

This is the difference between hot fashion and lasting cultural influence. Fashion goes far and wide, gets into everything, then vanishes seemingly overnight down the memory hole. Lasting cultural influence builds and builds.

The fantasy market, for better or worse, has been growing and growing for generations. It is a gargantuan, multibillion dollar world-wide industry and Frazetta is the common denominator of almost all of it. From comic books to fantasy novels to video games, movies, 'gaming', LARPing, and so on, his name keeps coming up as seminal. Additionally, Frazetta had a titanic effect on both the neo-realism movement and the disrupted realism movement, the Jacob Collins' of the world as well as the Phil Hales. Even the Jeff Jones' of the world. Frazetta's effect on re-popularizing realistic figural art cannot be overstated.

chris bennett said...

Good morning Tom,

Yes, I think we are in agreement about the essential nature of the outcome but a little adrift with each other in terms of how it is achieved.

People stand in awe when looking at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne because of it's own inherent presence which really has very to do with Apollo and Daphne.

When we look at Bernini's sculpture we see a young man attempting to grasp a beautiful young woman who is being subsumed by or transformed into a tree. And this by way of a consort of abstractions which simultaneously illustrate the scenario but also direct our poetic sensations of it as we look from form to form, structure to structure so we are aware of two slippery, sensuous forms combining as one of them is fluttering into evaporation.

If we can agree that the story of Apollo and Daphne inevitably arose out of the need to express one of the deep truths of the human condition then we can say that our sensuous experience of the sculpture's formal relationships attuned to the action it illustrates is constant to both this and the literary story whether we are intellectually aware of it or not.



Anonymous said...

Kev - I thought of bringing up a few of your points on FF , but thought you would chime in , far more eloquently . You ever met or spoke to Doc Dave Winiewicz ? He mentioned arguing with a friend about Frank being one of the best pen and ink artists in history. His friend was able to , after years of trying , get permission to go into the Vatican archives and look at some ink from DaVinci and others , called him from overseas , and told him that he was right . Maybe he was misguided , but I always thought that if an exhibition was held , with you name the master artists , and one of Frank's best works were included - that is where the people would be clustered . Yes maybe they would shake it off and disperse and be embarrassed - or maybe they wouldn't .

Al McLuckie

Richard said...

Alfred Hitchcock chose to make films about horror, but critics agree he was one of the greatest directors in history. Horror was just the vehicle he chose for a variety of reasons. Francis Ford Coppola chose to make films about crime and death, but again his dark subject matter didn't hinder the quality of his art.

How are we supposed to tell the difference between great art about dark subjects and bad art about dark subjects? Well, that's the trick, isn't it? That's the challenge of all art.



I think that’s a false dichotomy. Dark art is itself bad art, it fails to perform the central spiritual duty of art.

Now, there is great art which shows darkness overcome, but in the end that’s not actually dark, it’s uplifting. To uplift is to cast light. Art which shows darkness being overcome is probably the best art, but only insofar as it is uplifting, and the darkness adds to the illumination. If Hotel Rwanda ended with them driving over the bodies in the fog, it would not be good art.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as good art which remains dark. This makes producing good dark visual art particularly difficult, since it’s hard to show darkness being overcome by light in a single image.

Perhaps the easiest way is to base the art on a known story which turns out alright in the end, but this is a bit of a cheat.

Christian art has the unusual ability to be both dark and uplifting simultaneously, because the dark event and the uplifting event are the selfsame event. Pieta, etc.

That is a rare situation, and the examples of good dark Christian art should not be interpreted as evidence of broader value in dark subjects.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Richard, if you're implying eg. Apocalypse Now is bad art, I will have to disagree with you there.

As I wrote earlier, I agree that art and creativity are intrinsically spiritual. But spirituality is not about lifting up, per se, it's about transcending. This is exactly why so much modern Christian art is bad art--it's so often only about being or looking uplifting, and therefore it remains superficial, without intuitive insight, authentic feeling, or mysticism.

To return to Apocalypse Now, it is certainly far from uplifting, but it does transcend. Certainly aesthetically--with its cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, as close to a mystic you will find in film making today, and the guru or even God of the cinematography world--but also morally. It may close on the phrase "the horror, the horror" but as an audience member you've arrived somewhere beyond morality, where the distinction between right and wrong, sincerity and madness, honesty and corruption, the advanced and the primitive, life and death, have blurred.

Richard said...

>Apocalypse Now
>beyond morality, where the distinction between right and wrong, sincerity and madness, honesty and corruption, the advanced and the primitive, life and death, have blurred

I think you’ve overcomplicated the fascination with Apocalypse Now. It is a common tactic to make media about something immoral to cast it as a cautionary tale, even when the draw for the audience is the act itself, not the moral. Many movies about drug use, alcoholism, sex, murder, etc. fall in that category.

I believe AN does too. That it is supposedly a critique of war is just cover. Wanton disregard for life is pleasurable, it sets off power receptors in our brains.

Young men seeing helicopters lighting up villages to Wagner aren’t having a complex aesthetic experience. They’re just enjoying the simple pleasure of murderous violence, one of the oldest pleasures, one of the most popular forms.

When Kurtz is killed the sadosexual act is consummated, the load is blown, and critiques everywhere get to gush about the heady orgasm they just had.

kev ferrara said...

You ever met or spoke to Doc Dave Winiewicz ? He mentioned arguing with a friend about Frank being one of the best pen and ink artists in history.

Hi Al,

I agree that FF is one of the best pen and ink artists in history.

I've never met DD, and most of my interactions with him online have been thanking him for posting images of unknown FF works. I once briefly tried to explain to him that FF wasn't a Classical artist, but rather, coming out of the illustration tradition and with the particular compositional and expressive tactics FF used, he was more in the Brandywine tradition. But I don't think DD understood the point/distinction.

Given how DD managed to parlay his fandom for FF's work into access to FF, and then used that access to get originals far below market value, his lucrative sale of his entire FF collection, bolstered with enthusiastic videos of him extolling the virtues of the work, left a sour taste in my mouth.

kev ferrara said...

I think you’ve overcomplicated the fascination with Apocalypse Now. It is a common tactic to make media about something immoral to cast it as a cautionary tale, even when the draw for the audience is the act itself, not the moral. Many movies about drug use, alcoholism, sex, murder, etc. fall in that category.

While it is surely true that many popular presentations about lurid topics are merely disguised exploitations of the same, I would not put Apocalyse Now in that category. Which is not to say that its spectacles aren't prurient, lurid, sensationalistic, or otherwise 'hot' with interestedness. But it is not 'merely' that.

Except for a couple of exceptions, most famous Christian art also uses 'hot' spectacle; glowing heads, flying figures, cherubs, nudity, expressions of power, despair and death, etc. (DaVinci's rather static Last Supper is the glaring exception.) The ethical question is whether the spectacle is performing some aesthetic service. By which I mean that the spectacle must help the audience to understand the narrative point at a level deeper than language.

To understand the descent into barbarism of Apocalypse Now without understanding within yourself, the ecstasy/lure of bloodlust, is impossible. As Solzhenitsyn put it, "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." One cannot understand Nazism without appreciating that, under the same circumstances in Germany at the time, the odds are overwhelming that we too would have been Nazis. (See Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men.) To not recognize this fact, is to not understand either humankind or our history. Or politics.

We are all hovering around the same topic of the moral purpose of Art, or perhaps the necessity of entertainment or representation or storytelling having a moral purpose. I don't think its fair to demand every aspect of life be blazing with meaning all the time. I think we all need a perfectly zen moment of repose or extended blithe period now and again.

But I agree that earned uplift is definitely a moral service that art may provide, particularly when catharsis is part of the equation. However, there are other services you seem to ignore. There is transcendance of the material that comes with aesthetic presentations of truth. Also we should note that the aestheticization of the awful, terrorizing, and depressing aspects of experience are essential to their acceptance, and the ability to move on with life without useless wallowing. This is the role of rituals and rites of passage. There is also the aesthetic recognition of the true for the sake of making connection and fostering community over time, distance, and differences in culture.

For these reasons, I think that Poetics itself is the bedrock necessity of Art, and always has been. Once we are in the poetic mode, all the other moral possibilities mentioned become available.



chris bennett said...

Benjamin (and Richard),

While I have sympathy with Richard’s plea for the purpose of art, I also find it lacking. However, I do not agree with your claim that transcendence involves going beyond morality where the boundaries between good and evil or right and wrong are blurred. This is an attribute of nihilism (unless one considers subceeding to be an upside-down version of transcendence).

But truths, being distinct from facts in that they are principles governing the way the world behaves, are, by this definition, ‘apart from’ the world. Now, to say that the world is fundamentally shitty and evil is no truer than saying it is fundamentally beautiful and good. I understand ‘truth’ to be the law of why things are as they are.

So while I agree that art should offer an opportunity for transcendence, I consider transcendence to be the realization of truth, which is not to be above opposites but to understand their governance.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I agree with you, Chris. I somewhat regretted going into detail on Apocalypse Now because it gave too narrow an example of the transcendence I was trying to talk about.

Though I don't agree that going beyond morality points to nihilism. If anything I would say nihilism is in itself a type of morality, perhaps a distorted one. Morality is a construct based on context--something can be good in one situation and bad in another, right if you were born in one society, and wrong if in another. It is a veil in front of truth.

I see Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on which it is based, as an attempt to lift that veil (if one pays attention beyond the violent pleasures that may have attracted one to watch it). I don't see it as saying the world is fundamentally shitty and evil, I see it as saying we don't nearly understand the world as well as we pretend we do.

Richard said...

I’ve spoken very imprecisely and been misunderstood.

When I say dark I mean self-denying, disempowering, lowering the mojo. I don’t mean merely moody. Hale isn’t just moody, he’s /weak/.

The Pieta is moody, but it’s /strong/.

Strength is moral, weakness is immoral.

When I said that Apocalypse Now was misunderstood it wasn’t to say that AN is bad because it’s “hot”, but that it’s uplifting because it’s hot. It’s not bad art. It would be bad art if it was just trying to convince that “war is bad mmkay” while offering nothing empowering.

It’s an unchristian heat, yes, but its violence is just as life affirming as any great piece of religious art. It’s great not in spite of its violence, its heart , but because of it. That’s spirituality. It works because it isn’t a moral play, it works because it is pornographic.

> to say that the world is fundamentally shitty and evil is no truer than saying it is fundamentally beautiful and good

Truth in art is overrated.

Seeing the world as beautiful and good is salutary to the viewer, even if the world isn’t “good”. Seeing the world in a demoralizing way isn’t.

The greatest art is often that art which is simultaneously the most false while remaining believable. The greatest possible lie which can still be believed gives life spiritual purpose, see Christianity, Islam, et al.

kev ferrara said...

Witnessing thrills, chills, spills, and other spectacles intense, erotic, supernatural or strange can certainly speed the pulse and amp the blood pressure. If you want to call that 'empowering' or 'life affirming' I guess that's fine. But there are many other ways to have one's life 'affirmed' in and out of an aesthetic context.

This new line of argument that you're on -- that Apocalypse Now is 'great' because it is 'pornographic' in its violence, and thus 'uplifting' -- is really a sensationalistic and theatrical argument, not an artistic one. Even though one can find a similar argument in Ruskin.

Mostly, I would say it is a radically myopic take on the movie. Though there is a strong sensationalistic/theatrical aspect to Apocalypse, its violence is only effective because it is surrounded by a million artistic choices small and large that create a harrowing overtone of near-constant rising suspense and menace throughout the film. It is the suspense that marks the depth of the artist, the ability to sustain and intensify the narrative decision by decision as it leads towards its inevitable climax or epiphany.

If you want to witness explosion after explosion without suspense and artistry, without catharsis or epiphany, I'm sure you know how to find that on You Tube and mainline that 'empowerment' directly into your cephalic vein.

Truth in art is overrated...

...mmkay.

The greatest art is often that art which is simultaneously the most false while remaining believable. The greatest possible lie which can still be believed gives life spiritual purpose, see Christianity, Islam, et al.

Diamonds arrive in this world through prolonged inward pressure not sudden blasts of heat.

Anonymous said...

The greatness of Apocalypse Now is the integrity of its vision -- the horror and irrationality of war, crazy madness, the fetid unforgiving jungle, the easy destruction, the departure from norms of civilization. Conrad's vision is well served by the movie.

There's not a fake pleasure in the movie to relieve the tension, the "horror", to try to salve the wound for the viewer. It is indeed harrowing.

And there's not a moment of crowd pleasing sensationalism -- its all intended to drive home how easy it is to return to and be in primitive barbarity.

Beautiful movie.

Richard said...

> It is the suspense that marks the depth of the artist, the ability to sustain and intensify the narrative decision by decision as it leads towards its inevitable climax or epiphany.
>If you want to witness explosion after explosion without suspense and artistry, without catharsis or epiphany

People watch Apocalypse Now for the napalm.

It certainly takes artistry to make the thrills and chills work, but the end goal is the money shot, the artistry is just sausage wrapping on the porn.

How can you make the audience buy war crimes to Wagner, how can you get them to swallow stupid lines like “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”? It takes a subtle hand, that’s the craft, absolutely.

If you made a warporn but without the gritty setup, audiences in the 70s wouldn’t bite. But then again, pornographers only recently realized they don’t need to have scenes explaining why the widow is banging the pool boy, turns out they don’t even need the porn music.

And in painting they only just realized in the 19th century that they didn’t have to tell us that the young woman sunning nude in the forest was the goddess Aphrodite, they didn’t even need to add a satyr.

If telling us why these guys are torching villages makes the idea more believable, they’ll have incentive to keep telling it, but once that stops being necessary maybe they won’t.

Truth in art is very overrated. Rubens is the greatest artist who ever lived and the dude lies like there’s no tomorrow.

Richard said...

> its all intended to drive home how easy it is to return to and be in primitive barbarity.

Good thing you were here to remind everyone what the official take on Apocalypse Now is. Don’t forget to wear your mask tomorrow while inside your own car.

kev ferrara said...

I do commend you on being able to hold together a façade of intellectual sobriety for a lot longer than you once did. But the Twitter troll in you still surfaces under pressure. (Twitter trolls being those who blow off steam by attempting to inflict the maximum psychological inflammation with the fewest number of words.)

Some of your clickbait brainfarts are more tempting than others. But they're wafting in seven different directions and I'm only one table fan.

Wes said...

It did seem like you needed a reminder, since it was unclear which Apocalypse Now you had seen. Glad I could be helpful to you.

chris bennett said...

Benjamin: Morality is a construct based on context--something can be good in one situation and bad in another, right if you were born in one society, and wrong if in another. It is a veil in front of truth.

My understanding of morality is that it is an innate sense-knowledge evolved in humans that compels them towards behavior that is beneficial to the individual and those it feels kinship for. This puts it, like truth, essentially outside of cultural conditioning. It is the framework in which morality finds itself that is the construct, and that is the ‘veil’; the justification of a wrong made to appear right with a lie.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Chris: I'm not sure I'm grasping what you're saying. I think we may agree while using different language.

What I mean with "beyond morality", especially in the context of that film, is coming to understand that there is no universal morality, that what is right or wrong differs depending on the context. In your definition both "beneficial" and "kinship" are variables. One can disagree on what action would be beneficial, and one can have kinship with different groups. And how you fill those in usually depends on your society or upbringing. So instead of outside of cultural conditioning, I'd say it's dependent on it.

And beyond that, because morality is considered, at least in the western world, a kind of universal absolute, despite having plenty of evidence to the contrary (not so long ago we didn't feel much kinship with homosexuals, therefore homosexuality was immoral), it creates a sense of superiority towards those with different moral standards. Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness aim to show how our sense of superiority towards those we see as "savages" is misplaced, and we are much more equal than we think we are.

Interestingly enough, religion is one element in society that plays a large role in creating such a sense of moral righteousness. Yet you could consider "love thy neighbor as thyself" as a method to erase morality, by erasing kinship, or rather expanding it to everyone and as such rendering it pointless. Because what can you do that is beneficial to everyone? As I'm typing this I'm probably killing bacteria. And I'm certainly typing it on a computer assembled by exploited laborers somewhere in Asia.

So you're left with only yourself, and only the here and now, to decide what is right or wrong. And the only way to do that is intuition, which is a direct and personal connection with truth (or in the language of religion, God). And it can be in direct opposition to what is considered moral in the society you live in.

kev ferrara said...

Benjamin,

This word 'universal' is a thought-destroyer. The question is whether some moral stance is universal among the human tribes. And, moreover, what morals do we have that are so natural that they cannot be denied. Pain and suffering, the frailty of one's own body and mind, begins things, surely. Secondarily, empathy for the same in others.

Thus morality begins with the undeniable knowledge of being.

Starting there, I think we can get at the 'universality' issue through the back door by asking the negative; given the undeniable knowledge of universal frailty, aren't there species of thoughts and actions and beliefs that are irredeemably evil?

For instance, Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now talks of the children of villagers being inoculated by soldiers. And the tribal males of the village lopped off all those inoculated arms and set them in a pile to demonstrate their resolve to the enemy.

For your position to be true, such an act would not only be deemed necessary, but it must be actually necessary, incontrovertibly. And I don't think the latter is true at all. Rather, aside from the utter failure of imagination involved, there are several species of irredeemability in play. And each one is, unto itself, ancient reptile brain primitive and grotesque beyond words, showing insane misprioritization, symbolic-associative thinking, wanton infliction of pain upon innocents, and so on

I agree that in some radical circumstances, morals seem to go out the window by necessity. But rather than such circumstances showing that morality is conditional, it actually shows that it is the moral thing to do to avoid those compromised situations. And then to get farther and farther away from those situations, farther and farther away from barbarism. And this leads to the build-out of all different kinds of knowledge on the road to eradicating more and more kinds of suffering of the mind and body.

In other words, the primitive, barbaric, savage state is inherently evil because it so rife with suffering felt and caused. Therefore the universally moral thing to do is to proceed in the opposite direction as fast as possible, taking into account any and all unintended consequences/collateral damage of progress that might bring about new kinds of suffering.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...
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Benjamin De Schrijver said...

And the tribal males of the village lopped off all those inoculated arms and set them in a pile to demonstrate their resolve to the enemy.
In their situation, they felt showing their resolve (or 'morale') was the moral and right thing to do, even through those means. If we deem that ignorant, why shouldn't we feel empathy for the ignorant? Is that not a kind of suffering? Would we not want to be forgiven for our failings? As you said yourself One cannot understand Nazism without appreciating that, under the same circumstances in Germany at the time, the odds are overwhelming that we too would have been Nazis. So yes, it is incontrovertibly necessary for the simple reason that it is inevitable.

So then we arrive at the ancient paradox of free will and predestination, which mankind has been mulling over through philosophy and religion and science for millennia, so far without an answer that can clearly be put into words. So we are left only with our direct experience, only our selves. And judgement of others becomes only judgement of ourselves.

We can and do look at those savages, or at nazism, or at Trumpism today through moral spectacles. But it only makes us feel superior and blinds us to the real underlying causes and prevents us from looking deeper, particularly, again, within our selves. The reason those arm-lopping savages could consider that act moral is because they saw the devil in the Americans instead of within themselves.

Which brings us back to art and creativity. If it is intuitive, it is in direct connection with your self, with truth, with God. The more it is just you and the canvas, the more chance there is of transcendence.

Tom said...
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Tom said...

There is Kurtz but there is also Robinson Crusoe.

David Apatoff said...

On the day after Election Day: those who’ve written that dark nihilism has already run its course should remember the sage advice of Lily Tomllin: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.”

kev ferrara said...

In their situation, they felt showing their resolve (or 'morale') was the moral and right thing to do, even through those means. If we deem that ignorant, why shouldn't we feel empathy for the ignorant?

My point failed to land, it seems. Let me try to make it more clear.

Was it necessary to lop off the inoculated arms of thirty innocent children to demonstrate intense resolve? It doesn't matter whether it was 'deemed necessary.' That is morally insufficient. Was it actually necessary?

Which goes to the point I was making later in the post, though briefly, that refined moral choices cannot be made in ignorance.

Thus, a key to moral development is realizing the need to get educated, then getting educated, and becoming sophisticated about information: learning epistemic humility, appreciating complexity as a systems problem, becoming attuned to unintended and unexpected consequences, avoiding reactive emotionalism, resentment, arrogance or petulance, learning the difference between 1st order effects and 2nd, 3rd, and Nth order effects, fostering creativity and imagination in problem solving, allowing difficult, anxiety-producing dialogue to go forward, avoiding selfishness, dogma and ideology, understanding how corruptible we all are, stacking and concatenating understandings, appreciating that morality is nested in a scalar way and is not just transactional or local, and so on.

It usually goes unspoken, it is considered discompassionate to say, that the ignorant, over-emotional, arrogant, feeble-minded, and intellectually clumsy have difficulty manifesting moral results in their lives. Not because those so afflicted are amoral or immoral per se or necessarily, but because their mental conditions themselves are amoral/immoral. We can feel sympathy towards them, even empathy given our own experience of immaturity or wildness, but that doesn't actually solve the problem. Which is their situational inability to reach sufficient moral sophistication so as to, thereby, reduce personal and aggregate suffering.

Sufficiently moral choices in complex situations may be hard - very hard - to derive. But it is still a calculus. Such requires intelligence, education, dedication, and sufficient time. The latter being the final necessity, the condition that underwrites all the others, and the one forever in short supply and slipping away.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Which goes to the point I was making later in the post, though briefly, that refined moral choices cannot be made in ignorance.

My point is that we are all far more ignorant than we think or pretend we are.

Thus, a key to moral development is realizing the need to get educated, then getting educated, and becoming sophisticated about information: learning epistemic humility, appreciating complexity as a systems problem, becoming attuned to unintended and unexpected consequences, avoiding reactive emotionalism, resentment, arrogance or petulance, learning the difference between 1st order effects and 2nd, 3rd, and Nth order effects, fostering creativity and imagination in problem solving, allowing difficult, anxiety-producing dialogue to go forward, avoiding selfishness, dogma and ideology, understanding how corruptible we all are, stacking and concatenating understandings, appreciating that morality is nested in a scalar way and is not just transactional or local, and so on.

Show me one person who has mastered all this? Even if there were a true morality, there still remains the problem of everyone mistaking their own morality for the true one.

Which is their situational inability to reach sufficient moral sophistication so as to, thereby, reduce personal and aggregate suffering.

Many spiritual paths teach that the only way to truly reduce suffering is to go within yourself, because the suffering comes from our limited perception, from our mind. Physical, worldly suffering is an inescapable part of life, and most ways we end up suffering are out of our control. To the point that some who commit to a spiritual path impose suffering (or what appears to be suffering to others) on themselves.

Sufficiently moral choices in complex situations may be hard - very hard - to derive. But it is still a calculus.

But it is only calculus in hindsight. Just as you can analyze aesthetic harmonies and principles in, say, a Michelangelo, if he'd constructed it with only those principles and no intuition, it would have not been that great work of art. In the same way you can't know what right or wrong is solely based on conclusions or intelligence, without applying intuition.

This can be illustrated by a wonderful Chinese parable told by Alan Watts:
One day, a farmer's horse ran away. His neighbors came by to console him. "We're so sorry, that's awful." The farmer replies "Maybe."
A few days later, the horse returns from the wild, joined by other horses. The neighbors came to celebrate. "How wonderful!" - "Maybe."
The farmer's son then tries to train the horses, but falls off a horse and breaks his arm. "We're so sorry, that's awful." - "Maybe."
Then a war breaks out and the conscription officers stop by and reject his son because of his broken arm. "How wonderful!" - "Maybe."

The story is told in a passive point-of-view, with things happening to the farmer, but the same lack of perspective applies in active choices. Of course we're talking about fiction, but we only know lopping off those arms was unnecessary because it didn't succeed in scaring off the Americans. Or perhaps it was successful, because it did prove a point, and therefore it was necessary. Agree or disagree, but that's how calculus lets you play with conclusions. And what does our judgement of that even matter? If it happened, it happened. It doesn't change that we only have the here, the now, and ourselves, in all our intelligence and ignorance, to make our own choices.

Perhaps what you call the true morality is what in the previous post I already called the self, truth and God? In which case it's merely language that's failing us. Or am I still not grasping your point?

Mitch said...

Hi Kev, Hi Chris,
A relief, frankly, to see you confronting the shallow, opportunist work of Hale and his gravy-train friends. I have no problem with people milking a necessary cow...but the absurd self-regard. They don't want to call it a cow. It's a cow. Your intellectual rigor and moral authority is a welcome flashgun going off in a closet, and I salute you for that.
Mitch

Wes said...

This is quite well-stated and insightful:

“Thus, a key to moral development is realizing the need to get educated, then getting educated, and becoming sophisticated about information: learning epistemic humility, appreciating complexity as a systems problem, becoming attuned to unintended and unexpected consequences, avoiding reactive emotionalism, resentment, arrogance or petulance, learning the difference between 1st order effects and 2nd, 3rd, and Nth order effects, fostering creativity and imagination in problem solving, allowing difficult, anxiety-producing dialogue to go forward, avoiding selfishness, dogma and ideology, understanding how corruptible we all are, stacking and concatenating understandings, appreciating that morality is nested in a scalar way and is not just transactional or local, and so on.”

And it is not well-questioned by “Show me one person who has mastered all this?”

That’s not really the point. The point is that a healthy moral sense is complex and evolves, and those that have it don’t expect or seek glib answers. A child with a lopped off arm is a glib answer and illustrates a barbaric morality. Doesn’t take much to see this.

chris bennett said...

Benjamin,

Let me try another tack and see if we can find the area of our agreement. Since you are using a film to example the points about morality being discussed, I’ll take the movies in general:

There is a Hollywood trope we’re all aware of in which the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys wear black hats. In other words; the hero is the embodiment of good and the villain is the embodiment of evil.

Now, it seems to me that the essential, salient characteristic of the white hats is that the truth is the path to their goal whereas for the black hats it is lying and cheating. In this sense the white hats, the good guys, are the embodiment of truth whereas the black hats, the bad guys, are the embodiment of falsehood.

So here’s the thing.

While we may have the odd soft spot for the villain, we always, deep down, aspire to identify with the hero. We can’t help ourselves; the population forming the majority of the normal bell curve distribution between sane and insane all want the white hats to win, every time. They yearn for the hero, the embodiment of goodness, to prevail. And in so doing they are yearning for the truth to prevail. This is to say that our moral compass is always attracted towards the truth.

And as I hope you’ll agree, truth is not culturally defined even though the conditions within which it operates are. Hence it was OK for Aztec priests to rip out the beating hearts of new born infants as sacrifices to the Gods to make sure the crops don’t fail.

So what makes for an inherently evil act? I would define it as when we lie to ourselves; when we justify an action that we know to be wrong. Hence a hypothetical Aztec priest, sincerely believing their sacrificial action is for the greater good is behaving morally unto himself, even though from a more enlightened standpoint the act itself can been seen to be immoral.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Such an act is anything but glib. Desperate, perhaps. You call it barbaric morality because of your context. In their predicament you might disagree.

My point is that when your healthy moral sense evolves to its ultimate point, there is evolution and complexity beyond that. See the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna, to put it simplistically, dismisses Arjuna's moral dilemma on warfare.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

My previous comment was in reply to Wes--Chris commented while I was typing.

Chris: Where I disagree is the jump you make from yearning for goodness to yearning for truth. What I'm trying to say is that there is no such thing as an inherently evil act. Yes, we yearn for goodness, but that's because it's the next best thing to the truth, the point we haven't reached yet: where we realize, or rather experience, that it all is, it's all maya, it's all God.

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

What I'm trying to say is that there is no such thing as an inherently evil act.

So sneaking over a fence, quietly, and offering a lollypop to a child playing in the yard -- and then covering that child's mouth with your hand as you stab her repeatedly in the eye with a steak knife -- that's not inherently evil?

(There's a nonzero chance you haven't thought this all the way through.)

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

As paradoxical as it may sound, correct.

I'm not saying it's wrong to consider it evil or treat it as evil. I certainly would. Because I have morality.

But the universe doesn't, it doesn't judge. It's just a thing that happened. That can be a nihilist attitude, but it can also be spiritual. It's all God, it's all how the Big Bang is playing out.

I'm not saying morality doesn't exist, or serves no purpose, or is something to be avoided. I'm arguing that there is a place beyond morality where transcendence can reach, which is what Chris was disputing.

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

But the universe doesn't, it doesn't judge.

This is precisely why I'm equating morality to truth. The universe is a manifestation of its own laws and it always obeys them, is never equivocal, can never 'lie' to itself. It is, quite literally, an embodiment of The Truth. Humans, being a part of the universe, are therefore psychologically and behaviorally, subjects within this unalterable governance. That is to say; we are inextricably bound by truth. Which is why we have an innate yearning for it regardless of how we might choose to deceive ourselves for short term gains. So whenever our behavior is not aligned to truth, if we ignore or attempt to be break it, there are psychological, behavioral and social consequences. This is what I mean by innate morality.

So in this sense the universe is the ultimate judge. This is what I understand is meant by the biblical words; 'we are made in the image of God'

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Chris: Is there not a contradiction between saying the universe always obeys its own laws, and saying we can ignore or break them? Are we not part of the universe?

The Sanskrit terms dharma and adharma are interesting here. In English we would be inclined to translate them as morality and immorality, while "according to cosmic law" and "against cosmic law" are considered more accurate, but really they have so many shades of meaning as to be virtually untranslatable and are not even binary antonyms.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Let me try the veil analogy again. Everything we do is in fact truth. We just don't perceive it that way because there are veils hiding that from us. When an act is more aligned to truth, transcendent, it is not because that act is more true, it's that the act has less veils or removes some from in front of us for that moment.

Within that understanding, morality is such a veil, because it tries to make a distinction between right and wrong, while in fact all is right.

Wes said...

Don't be so enamored of Being, the Universe, the All, the Big Bang. Its not deserving of a sense of sacredness. Often, more often, it should be scorned, and then scorned again.

Truth with a captial T? Useless.
Cosmic Law? Dumb and blind and mechanical forces.
God? A disease no one dies of anymore. (Cioran).

Sorry, but thems the facts, Ma'am.

Richard said...

“So sneaking over a fence, quietly, and offering a lollypop to a child playing in the yard -- and then covering that child's mouth with your hand as you stab her repeatedly in the eye with a steak knife -- that's not inherently evil?”

How would we know if it was evil absent knowing it’s effects? Was it our enemies child? Was it an evil heir to the throne? Were we doing it to send a message to a powerful adversary? There are too many situations in which it would be moral to handwave it as inherently immoral.

As with the Africans lopping off arms, if it has the effect of making the Europeans demoralized in their colonial efforts then it could be successful and thus moral. Whether it is moral or not depends on what is most sacred to you — avoiding physical pain or your independence from an alien people. Neither of those choices is universal — the imperial Japanese kamikaze have a very difference answer than modern day Parisians.

Richard said...

“ Truth with a captial T? Useless.“

Useless by what measure? Seems like believing in Truth with a capital T can be very useful to all sorts of ends propaganda-istically, socially, militarily, psychologically, biologically, etc.

kev ferrara said...

I'm not saying it's wrong to consider it evil or treat it as evil. I certainly would. Because I have morality. But the universe doesn't, it doesn't judge. It's just a thing that happened.

Really, who cares that the universe may not have a moral code? Who bloody cares?

The answer is a guy who just wants to win an argument while avoiding the actual problems and complexities of this world. Which is all we really care about. Your whole line of argument is a cop out based on taking word meanings as cosmic proclamations to knock down with basic relativist boilerplate. Plus a load of hopeful rubbish that merely wastes time. And as such, it stinks morally. You ain't an astral traveler, you're just a dude mouthing hopeful myths. This ain't your college dorm room.

Maya... it's all illusion. There's maybe a billion people in the world that 'believe' in Maya. That's a hell of a lot of screwing for people who don't believe in reality. (This here's what's called a 'performative contradiction'... a kind of pretentious hypocrisy that self-cancels its own core claim.)

Perfect Morality isn't possible, true, but it is a direction to strive toward. And in striving, we at least move toward the ideal. And that is something, because pain is real - and useless pain is evil - no matter how you argue, no matter what you say or claim. And any little bit of alleviation helps. That's why when you bash your elbow, you ice it down. Because you can deny almost anything else but pain and suffering. If you claim to the contrary, then you're just lying to yourself. Which heads you in the wrong direction morally, as far as I can tell.

No striving toward and/or no belief in a more perfect morality leaves us exactly where we are; in the moral mud, stuck and suffering away, probably needlessly. Because there is always something that can be done. There is always a way forward.

Is that really your position; nothing matters, its all good, so lets sit here and suffer. Can't be, because that isn't how you live. You ice the wound. So you're just talking to talk.

Many spiritual paths teach that the only way to truly reduce suffering is to go within yourself, because the suffering comes from our limited perception, from our mind.

A crocodile lurches out of the water toward a healthy, sweet, and intelligent child. The mother, in response, sits cross-legged and tries to achieve a state of inner peace. The child is devoured in a prolonged writhing, blood spurting, screaming death agony.

As the crocodile quietly digests the gnashed and now-lifeless child, the mother experiences a wave of relief. For she knows that life is only an illusion. An illusion where an illusory crocodile has eaten her illusory beautiful, promising child because the illusion of her self didn't do an illusory damn thing to prevent it. Ah, screw it, we'll all be dead eventually, and it was just a thing that happened. Whoop de doo.

I don't see such moral escapism as 'spiritual' in the least. Sounds more like depressive dissociation.

kev ferrara said...

How would we know if it was evil absent knowing it’s effects? Was it our enemies child? Was it an evil heir to the throne? Were we doing it to send a message to a powerful adversary? There are too many situations in which it would be moral to handwave it as inherently immoral.

Don't you think I would have included such information? The point to the example was to test Benjamin's absolute theory. The killing was pointless for that reason; just the wanton infinitely painful defacement of an innocent human being with loving parents who, after witnessing the child's desecration and profane pain, will suffer and suffer at the thought of the act until their dying breaths.

chris bennett said...

Benjamin: Is there not a contradiction between saying the universe always obeys its own laws, and saying we can ignore or break them? Are we not part of the universe?

This is why I was very careful to use the word 'attempt' in my sentence: "So whenever our behavior is not aligned to truth, if we ignore or attempt to be break it, there are psychological, behavioral and social consequences."

As to your second point, Kev has just put his substantial jaws around that... :)

Richard: As with the Africans lopping off arms, if it has the effect of making the Europeans demoralized in their colonial efforts then it could be successful and thus moral.
"Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health... what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Sorry, but thems the facts, Ma'am.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

Really, who cares that the universe may not have a moral code? Who bloody cares?

Any moral philosopher that's ever lived?
Any saint of any religion that, in part through that realization, achieved a joy of life that we can only envy?
The hippies in the 60s--just read Be Here Now--who started a major moral shift in Western society?
I do?
Chris does, as, again, the discussion is about our disagreement on whether transcendence can go beyond morality? Perfect Morality isn't possible, true So you agree then?

What's the point of any metaphysical discussion? Who bloody cares about the aesthetic theories you defend all over this blog?

The answer is a guy who just wants to win an argument while avoiding the actual problems and complexities of this world. Which is all we really care about. Your whole line of argument is a cop out based on taking word meanings as cosmic proclamations to knock down with basic relativist boilerplate. Plus a load of hopeful rubbish that merely wastes time. And as such, it stinks morally. You ain't an astral traveler, you're just a dude mouthing hopeful myths. This ain't your college dorm room.

I've been reading this blog since year one, and have occasionally waded into the comments. But in all that time I've only rarely seen you resort to ad hominem attacks. I guess I should take pride in that you couldn't come up with something better this time? And I'm the one trying to win an argument?

I joined the discussion this time around because the comments happened on a subject that combines my two major passions--cinema and comparative religion--and I thought I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. Again, I'm not trying to convert anyone, only clarify my proposition that transcendence can go beyond morality.

As a matter of fact, after my last post I started thinking the argument between Chris and myself is essentially an argument of dualism vs monism, or perhaps panentheism vs pantheism, arguments as old as religion itself. In my opinion each of these can be right because, like all true religions, they are each attempts to translate into human understanding the great mystery that is essentially beyond human comprehension. They are each paths to the same thing. But when worldviews differ at such a foundational level, we're never going to convince one another in a few paragraphs in the comments of a blog post. But it can still be worthwhile to clarify our positions. But sure, I'm trying to win an argument.

Maya... it's all illusion. There's maybe a billion people in the world that 'believe' in Maya. That's a hell of a lot of screwing for people who don't believe in reality. (This here's what's called a 'performative contradiction'... a kind of pretentious hypocrisy that self-cancels its own core claim.)

Like "dharma", "maya" does not translate so easily and simplistically into the english language, or into western thought. But in some ways it is still present:
- "The Kingdom of God is Within You": God, Truth, whatever you want to name it, is everywhere, you ARE it, you just fail to perceive it. Hence it's a trick of illusion.
- "I think, therefore I am.": We only know we exist because of perception.

You may dismiss a billion people in the world out of hand, but you know who didn't? Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most influential writer of 19th century America. Walt Whitman, America's great poet. Henry David Thoreau with them. William James, one of the most important American philosophers and the "Father of American psychology" (though in fairness, I believe he did reject monism). Nikola Tesla, arguably the mind who had the greatest effect on human society in the last few centuries.

Which brings me to: [next post]

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Perfect Morality isn't possible, true, but it is a direction to strive toward. And in striving, we at least move toward the ideal. And that is something, because pain is real - and useless pain is evil - no matter how you argue, no matter what you say or claim. And any little bit of alleviation helps. That's why when you bash your elbow, you ice it down. Because you can deny almost anything else but pain and suffering. If you claim to the contrary, then you're just lying to yourself. Which heads you in the wrong direction morally, as far as I can tell.

I happened to be reading a few pages of Bhakti Yoga by Swami Vivekananda this morning, who was one of the major figures in bringing eastern thought to the west, and an influence on William James and Nikola Tesla specifically. In these pages he wrote:

The highest direction is that which takes us to God; every other direction is lower. [...] Still, pain has its uses. Let a man feel pain because he has not reached the Highest, because he has not reached God, and that pain will lead to his salvation.

This is essentially the same as Chris was saying: we are inextricably bound by truth [and yearning for it.] But if when we experience pain, or psychological, behavioral and social consequences, that pain is pointing us towards truth, isn't it right instead of wrong? Is there even such a thing as "useless" pain? Pain is simply a mechanism, even biologically.

No striving toward and/or no belief in a more perfect morality leaves us exactly where we are; in the moral mud, stuck and suffering away, probably needlessly. Because there is always something that can be done. There is always a way forward.

Is that really your position; nothing matters, its all good, so lets sit here and suffer. Can't be, because that isn't how you live. You ice the wound.


Again, I never said that we shouldn't strive to do the right thing. Because we are moral beings. Just as Arjuna had to wage war, because he was a warrior.

You confuse acceptance and surrender with passivity. Surrender is an essential theme across all religions. And again it pops up even in accepted western thought. Take Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous. The central theme of the Twelve Steps is not about controlling your addiction, just the opposite. It is about giving up control of your addiction, even your life, to a greater power/God, as you understand it. This should go against any modern rational line of thinking, yet it has been so effective that it is imposed on addicts by the courts. And the reason it came up for me now is you used the phrase "cop out" earlier. I read a book on the Twelve Steps which stated that, yes, absolutely it is a cop out, and that's fine! Necessary even! If you don't cop out you are trying to take control of something that you don't realize is beyond your control.

So you're just talking to talk.

Nope, but thanks for the arrogance. I'm actually enjoying this discussion; I usually don't get a chance to put such thoughts into writing and it is a great exercise. But if replies continue to be rude and dismissive you can count me out.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

"Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health... what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Well, some acquaintances of mine in the hospitality industry had all of these things yet still decided to take their own lives during COVID lockdown. I wish they could've seen that, yes, "it's all good" is not just a phrase, it really is all good.

Yet some friends who live in near poverty in Mexico and lost their family home in the big earthquake a few years ago are religious and some of the most kind and happy people I know.

To bring it back to cinema, I will never forget a scene near the end of "Into Great Silence", a documentary on Carthusian monks. The scene shows a monk, in his 80s or 90s, who's lived there and has not seen the outside world since he was a young man. He doesn't have any or little of the everday comforts we take for granted. Over the years he's become blind, and all he can do is read some braille scripture. He thanks God for his blindness and is one of the most deliriously happy people you will ever see.

Richard said...

I think perhaps this whole morality-in-art argument is focused on the wrong side of the equation.

The important question isn't whether morality is objectively true or even popularly true, but whether the artist has a moral thesis. (And that they believe that moral thesis, that it is true to them.)

Does the artist look at the world with a lens of meaning? Do events in the world have content? Do objects in the world have moral content? Do light and color and heat and cold have moral content?

That does not require any belief in a philosophically suspect moral objectivity or big-T Truth.

It does not require that the piece makes an explicit moral argument like Banksy or Christian Propaganda (but I repeat myself), far from it. Rather it requires that there should be an implicit morality in the worldview of the artist (see Thomas Cole).

And of course, morality is not the only part of this equation -- good art has a POV with multifaceted narrative/psychological/spiritual depth, and morality happens to be one of the central way that a POV can have a POV.

Hale's most recent work fails this test, not because it is immoral or evil, but because it is ammoral, it lacks moral content. Its constituent parts have mot been filtered through a substantive worldview where things have meaning. Its left unfiltered through a lack of meaning.

He has embraced the primary way that photography fails as a medium, by unmeaning, by being emotionally idle, motiveless, purposeless, and he has magnified it. Credulous fans of nihilism mistake this for having a new novel POV, but it's actually just the full realization of a lack of content

Richard said...

>Credulous fans of nihilism mistake this for having a new novel POV, but it's actually just the full realization of a lack of content

Which isn't to say that there's nothing on the canvas, but that there's scarcely anything about the artist on the canvas.

Art is something like objects and narratives being filtered through a specific soul that distills the world for us anew.

To filter the world through your soul is inherently an act of self-fulfillment and power -- it's inherently uplifting -- whether I believe the soul I see is good or evil (Aztecs, porn, violence porn).

But having no soul, no driving moral thesis, means we don't get to see the world anew. That is a failure, it's bad art.

Tom said...

A lot of the sages see our pain as life's way of trying to awaken us to the truth of what we really are.

“Pleasure puts you to sleep and pain wakes you up. If you don’t want to suffer, don’t go to sleep.” Nisargadatta Maharaj


Benjamin, your COVID example reminded me of Jacques Lusseyran's auto biographical memoir "An Then There Was Light." Have you read it?

"Of myself I can't say why I was never entirely bereft of joy. But it was a fact and my solid support. Joy I found even in strange byways, in the midst of fear itself. And fear departed from me, as infection leaves an abscess and bursts.

By the end of a year in Buchenwald I was convinced that life was not at all as I had been taught to believe it, neither life nor society."



Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Tom, I have not read it but I will seek it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

Richard, I think that's a great take.

kev ferrara said...

Is there even such a thing as "useless" pain?

Intractable pain from an intractable malady is useless pain. In contradistinction to pain that tells us, for example, to get away from the fire because it is causing cellular damage. That pain has utility.

Richard said...

Intractable pain from an intractable malady is useless pain

So, like, pain for the death of a loved one? Death is particularly intractable.

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Something I've repeated again and again in different ways here is that a main key as to what makes Great Art -- linguistic in the aesthetic way that suggestion affords, and composed so as to develop its visual submeanings into a single meaningful general image -- great is that it is a beautiful formalization of a fulfilled thought process. Thus it evidences consciousness, personality, discipline, coherence, narrative drama, a worldview, etc... all at once.

I think this is similar to your POV-meaning argument and the connected argument that the artist must have a moral belief system that filters into the work.

In trying to parse the rest of your argument, I think the core original notion behind it which I agree with - and correct me if I have this wrong - is that all nihilism is pretty much the same. It is all similarly anti-conscious, narcissistic, dismal, dissipated, and lacking in the force of meaning and fire of life. Thus it lacks the positive, decisive energy of personality, consciousness and will, even though it may superficially try to fake those things.

kev ferrara said...

So, like, pain for the death of a loved one? Death is particularly intractable.

Without that pain, we don't really embody the passing of loved ones from our lives. That deep recognition is the first step on the road to accepting the loss as real, a prerequisite for getting past it and moving on.

After returning to living, there still may be a void, but the pain gets less and less acute because we have gone through that tunnel. With sufficient time, and enough recovery of life, the void starts to be filled and the pain lessens considerably, and the long good memory of the beloved takes the place of the acute remorse phase. Coupled with a tinge of bittersweet melancholy, which is not a bad flavor to have as a contrast to make you understand deeply, for example, the value of joy and innocence.

If the pain remains acute and constant, further living becomes impossible, and yes that would be useless pain.

Richard said...

I think the core original notion behind it which I agree with - and correct me if I have this wrong - is that all nihilism is pretty much the same. It is all similarly anti-conscious, narcissistic, dismal, dissipated, and lacking in the force of meaning and fire of life.

Yes, it is anti-conscious and dissipated. I think narcissism and dismal-ism can be made morally, they are not necessarily nihilistic or bad per se. Narcissism in art is almost certainly a benefit, if that narcissism is held to a high standard. And there are great examples of dismal art which are not nihilistic by any degree (has anyone seen A Woman Under the Influence by Cassavetes?).

But true nihilism is always anti-conscious and anti-sentiment, inherently anti-artist, and therefore anti-art, and that’s the issue.

Thus it evidences consciousness, personality, discipline, coherence, narrative drama, a worldview, etc... all at once. I think this is similar to your POV-meaning argument and the connected argument that the artist must have a moral belief system that filters into the work.

I think consciousness, personality, narrative drama, and a worldview all fall under the rulership of the moral qualia.

Morality to me is that most fundamentally human qualia. It is that all pervasive relationship of a human to the world. It defines how we perceive the world, value the things in the world, and defines our oughts in relationship to is.

That interplay between valuations, is and oughts, and the way we express it in the context of the world at large, is the fundamental core of being human. Humans are fundamentally moral beings.

To be clear, I don’t mean morals like the 10 Commandments, I mean the larger expression of our individuality as sensing/judging entities in the world. The 10 Commandments are tiny window into this broader relationship.

Perhaps it would be more accurate if I used the Greek Arete, or perhaps Virtue, but there is the issue that the Greek sense of Arete was eventually defined to mean specific virtues (e.g., patience), where I mean it more broadly. I think morality is the English word closest to this meaning. If you have a better translation for “broad/subjective arete”, please let me know.

To put that arete into action is a sort of prayer, we are also fundamentally praying beings.

My apologies that I cannot be clearer about this.

Richard said...

You could say I’m trying to repackage Tolstoys insights for a modern pluralistic society —

“In all his novels after Bel-Ami … Maupassant evidently submitted to the theory which ruled not only in his circle in Paris, but which now rules everywhere among artists: that for a work of art it is not only unnecessary to have any clear conception of what is right and wrong, but that on the contrary an artist should completely ignore all moral questions, there being even a certain artistic merit in so doing. According to this theory the artist may or should depict what is true to life, what really is, what is beautiful and therefore pleases him, or even what may be useful as material for ‘science’; but that to care about what is moral or immoral, right or wrong, is not an artist’s business.

I remember a celebrated painter showing me one of his pictures representing a religious procession. It was all excellently painted, but no relation of the artist to his subject was perceptible.

‘And do you regard these ceremonies as good and consider that they should be performed, or not?’ I asked him.

With some condescension to my naïveté, he told me that he did not know about that and did not want to know it; his business was to represent life.

‘But at any rate you sympathize with this?’

‘I cannot say I do.’

‘Well then do you dislike these ceremonies?’

‘Neither the one thing nor the other,’ with a smile of compassion at my silliness, replied this modern, highly cultured, artist who depicted life without understanding its purpose and neither loving nor hating its phenomena.”

kev ferrara said...

I probably know less than you about Arete. But the very broad definition of morality as you've just defined it seems asymptotic with my understanding of how meaning is generated in an aesthetic context, and its effect on mimesis and therefore the viewer.

I have come at this through poetics and structure because I saw that, as a visual technology, it could be learned and taught to some extent as other technical matters are. Also because the Brandywine artists' notes were often more voluble on soul, spirit, truth, belief, love, inspiration, the epic, giving yourself to the picture, etc. and only would discuss this stuff technically, symbolically, or linguistically briefly now and again. Even after gathering a hundred pages of rare notes, I still only had about half the technical story and only half understood what they were saying. So I was forced to reconstruct their poetics academically in order to get at their teachings in both forms it was being taught. And, not surprisingly, the two methods mapped to one another. Though they emphasized the non-technical, more inspirational formulation in order to keep their students out of their heads.

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

Sufficiently moral choices in complex situations can only be calculated in hindsight. (...) you're left with only yourself, and only the here and now, to decide what is right or wrong. And the only way to do that is intuition, which is a direct and personal connection with truth (or in the language of religion, God). And it can be in direct opposition to what is considered moral in the society you live in. (...) Physical, worldly suffering is an inescapable part of life, and most ways we end up suffering are out of our control.

While you are deciding that all is hopeless yet good and right (including unnecessary pain and anguish) so go with your gut on complex moral decisions... other people with deep moral intelligence and profound moral imaginations will keep on trying to thoughtfully reduce suffering in the world and push civilization forward morally and medically.

I never said that we shouldn't strive to do the right thing. Because we are moral beings. Just as Arjuna had to wage war, because he was a warrior.

What we do is what we truly believe. Because only in action do we actually place a bet on what is real with something we cannot deny is real.

My point is that when your healthy moral sense evolves to its ultimate point, there is evolution and complexity beyond (judging the lopping off the arms of your own tribe's children as a method of scaring off the enemy as a glib, barbaric, immoral military solution.)

Nope, but thanks for the arrogance. I admit, I find it hard to be consistently polite toward someone who implies that they're sitting at the 'ultimate point of healthy morality.'

The point we haven't reached yet (is) where we realize, or rather experience, that it all is (good), it's all maya, it's all God.

What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

While you are deciding that all is hopeless yet good and right (including unnecessary pain and anguish) so go with your gut on complex moral decisions... other people with deep moral intelligence and profound moral imaginations will keep on trying to thoughtfully reduce suffering in the world and push civilization forward morally and medically.

Again you are confusing surrender with passivity. Surrender is not about stopping, it is about giving up control, letting someone or something else take the lead. It is about moving with the flow of things, rather than trying to control the flow. But that flow can and will still lead to attempts and desire to reduce suffering, push forward, etc etc. Otherwise the Twelve Steps wouldn't work, yet they're proven to be a better cure for addiction than anything medicine has come up with.

And "going with your gut" is a simplistic reduction of what I'm trying to get across. When I say you only have yourself in the here and now, that includes your intelligence, imagination, thought, even your personal morality. You are not erasing it, you are using your intuition in the context of it. Surrendering to intuition means having the humility to realize that our intelligence and knowledge and experience have limits, and so acting on mere conclusions has dangers, as well as to realize that we have complexities and faculties that we do not yet understand or can control.

What we do is what we truly believe. Because only in action do we actually place a bet on what is real with something we cannot deny is real.

And millions of people, including myself, have placed such a bet on the view I am trying to share, and won. (With which I mean it has improved their lives.)

Nope, but thanks for the arrogance. I admit, I find it hard to be consistently polite toward someone who implies that they're sitting at the 'ultimate point of healthy morality.'

I genuinely don't grasp how you can think I implied that, when such an evaluation requires a universal morality, and the center of this whole tangential discussion is that I deny such a universal morality exists!

Nor did I ever imply I am beyond morality. I have said I am a moral human being just like anyone else. That morality is part of the flow. But I don't claim that morality to be universal. And therefore my morality can't be superior to someone else's. Which is in my mind one of the themes of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.

What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Might as well dismiss all metaphysics and philosophy, then. These are not attempts to create definitive proofs about the world, otherwise they would be exact sciences, and no philosopher would be able to oppose another's views. They are a search for meaning in the world through various modes of reason. I'd find it surprising that someone so obsessed with meaning in imagery would dismiss the value of the search for meaning in life. And what 'evidence' is there of your aesthetic theories, anyway? Clearly enough for you, but nothing truly, scientifically conclusive. Doesn't mean your theories aren't valuable, or even true.

And if you're truly interested in the evidence or reasoning there is on maya, monism, pantheism, the Twelve Steps, etc. there's plenty of literature out there written by people smarter and more experienced than I, but I'm afraid there's not enough room here to try to sum it all up.

Anonymous said...

Rodin said “There should be no argument regarding morality in art. There is no morality in nature.”

kev ferrara said...

And if you're truly interested in the evidence or reasoning there is on maya, monism, pantheism, the Twelve Steps, etc. there's plenty of literature out there written by people smarter and more experienced than I

Amateur proselytizers are all alike: I didn’t explain it well, but it’s great, the best, it helps people, it’s deep, it’s right, it works. Don’t be arrogant, don’t be mean. We all have to be doubters. Doubt your truth, there is a higher truth. The truth is here, but I’m not saying that. You hafta keep reading the literature to learn more, keep reading, keep reading, you’ll start to get it, just keep reading our literature, keep reading our literature, keep reading our literature.

Every cult-like entity in the world is doing the same thing, trying to herd that demo, brainwash through repetition, and then fence off the range: We have a free decision guide for you, just drop by a meeting, here’s some free wholly non-partisan news apps, everybody’s doing it, it’s the latest thing, a billion people can’t be wrong…

There is a distinction between what works and what is true. Although, if something works there must be some truth in it. The debate becomes the mechanism of action, just how is it performing its function. As I understand the utility of your dogma, it is to rationalize suffering by dismissing reality and normal moral emotions to such an extent that one no longer feels anxiety and negative emotions about suffering and loss. Obviously a kind of brainwashing.

But, you say, this pullback from reality does not prevent moral action because we all must still play our silly little Maya roles in our silly little Maya plays here on this silly little Maya Theater called Earth... because this Maya thing is really really convincing.

Funny thing, how the people who developed this rationale over 4,000 years weren’t the ones to develop anaesthesia, germ theory, medical imaging, penicillin, organ transplants, stem cell therapy, immunotherapy, bone resection, chemotherapy, anti-retroviral therapy, bionic prosthesis, laser surgery, robotic surgery, inhalers, the artificial heart, and so on… all in a span of 150 years with a different moral persuasion. Funny, funny coincidence.

So excuse me while I don’t agree that your Sophist Xanax sits at the pinnacle of moral superiority, as you simultaneous claim and not claim.

I don’t blame you for being skeptical about aesthetic effects and compositional structure. You should ignore what I write about it.

There is a clear difference in kind between linguistic meaning and the kind of 'meaning' one might find in life.

chris bennett said...

Rodin said “There should be no argument regarding morality in art. There is no morality in nature.”

Dear Rodin, have you ever seen a natural work of art?

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Amateur proselytizers

I don't know how many times I have to say I'm not trying to convert anyone. I just made a proposition, it was questioned, I provided a counter-argument, and so on. Not necessarily to find agreement, but to find understanding. You know, a healthy conversation.

Enjoy battling your windmills.

As I understand the utility of your dogma, it is to rationalize suffering by dismissing reality and normal moral emotions to such an extent that one no longer feels anxiety and negative emotions about suffering and loss.

You understand wrong.

And trying to find common ground and interpretation in comparative religion is the opposite of dogma.

And weren't you in favor of reducing suffering and needless pain?

Funny thing, how the people who developed this rationale over 4,000 years weren’t the ones to develop anaesthesia, germ theory, medical imaging, penicillin, organ transplants, stem cell therapy, immunotherapy, bone resection, chemotherapy, anti-retroviral therapy, bionic prosthesis, laser surgery, robotic surgery, inhalers, the artificial heart, and so on… all in a span of 150 years with a different moral persuasion. Funny, funny coincidence.

Funny how the people who developed all of the above included people of all faiths, of many many many different moral persuasions. And let's not even begin to talk about how much of the above and our technology in general found its origin in research for warfare, not wellbeing.

Also funny how none of these things have stopped people from mental pain and suffering. Almost as if material things can provide comfort but are not the source of happiness or contentment.

Richard said...

>Even after gathering a hundred pages of rare notes, I still only had about half the technical story

Incredible. Have you collected that information anywhere that we could see it?

That is an incredibly important database of information. If you ever need help digitizing it, or publishing it, please let me know. I would be happy to dedicate a significant amount of time to that kind of effort.

kev ferrara said...

Funny how the people who developed all of the above included people of all faiths, of many many many different moral persuasions.

All the advancements I listed were developed in western contexts using western methods. And the actual moral beliefs involved, plain to see, among all their innovators was the same; as embodied by the actions; pursue knowledge rigorously to understand biology and physiology in order to develop real methods of reducing pain and anguish for billions of suffering people.

Whether other unfalsifiable disembodied beliefs occupied those involved during off-hours, I can't say. But it is clear that unfalsifiable disembodied claims had nothing to do with the ongoing success of the scientific project and its moral progress.

Moreover, the acute lack of medical advancements associated with the 4000 year history of the dogma you proselytize is, I think, strong evidence of its retarding moral effect. Which makes sense, as it easily translates to something like depressive dissociation, delusional fantasies, and nihilism.

I'm not trying to convert anyone.

Like all squirrely proselytizers, you are at minimum trying to convert yourself. Beyond that, unserviced emotions (the hidden core of ideologies) want control; first of the self. Then they want to spread through the herd in order that the emotion is surrounded only by itself, free from anxiety-producing criticism of the ideological shell.

You understand wrong... (many religious traditions agree that) ...material things can provide comfort but are not the source of happiness or contentment.

General material comfort in a society* is a cradle built of prior moral progress that allows for further moral progress. The cure for cancer and heart disease will be developed in a nest of hard earned comforts. Not in religious contemplation or meditation.

*I am not speaking of personal pockets of luxury for its own sake.

kev ferrara said...

Have you collected that information anywhere that we could see it?

Most of the rare materials aren't digitized yet. (And I'm still waiting on two known notes sets to come to light which have been promised to me.) And the notes are so fragmentary, and sometimes obviously written down incorrectly, it all has to be combined by subject and edited together to be useful. Otherwise, trying to learn from such random material would be completely hit or miss. And it hasn't been my priority to do this collating because my interest was the integration of all this stuff into clean understandings that weren't primarily text-based.

But a lot of information is freely available (also mostly in fragmentary form) if you know where to look. A good starting point would be Harvey Dunn's An Evening in the Classroom which you can search for online. It is available in several formats. There are also old articles in long dead publications and short essays in art instruction manuals, whole sections of the Famous Artists Course, anecdotes online, etc.

kev ferrara said...

You understand wrong... (many religious traditions agree that) ...material things can provide comfort but are not the source of happiness or contentment.

I forgot to say, I agree that there's something clearly correct to ^this^ point, which is surely one the reasons why many/most wisdom traditions keep emphasizing it. But it doesn't constitute moral progress per se, it is a kind of baseline moral idea best used to correct moral progress that gets off track or flies to far too fast and starts causing moral compromises or regression.

Anonymous said...

Chris have you never seen a painting of a landscape or flowers or a human figure or a face? What qualities do you suppose those painters admire?

Rodin

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

Benjamin- I'm from India and I've spent quite a bit of time reading the ideas that you're talking about. And time with the people whose worldviews have them embedded in the text. The philosophy of maya, go with the flow, you/your ego don't really exist, there is no free will, there is only the present so don't worry man, there's no evil if you stand really really really far back- this is all interesting conversation and it does seem to help in some contexts (death anxiety, grief, 12 steps, etc.). But these are not things that the vast majority of the billion in those cultures actually believe, in the sense of acting them out, day to day. They behave *as if* the world is real- which it is, seeing as how it shoves you no matter how illusory the pandit might say it is. They behave *as if* they have control, as if one action will cause a predictable outcome- because how could you or anything function if it weren't so? The idea of surrender when you don't have control is important in certain contexts, which is why it shows up all over the world. But it doesn't function as the foundation of a moral universe. What use is such an idea when it becomes an excuse to 'cop out' of things you can affect, in situations where useless suffering really can be alleviated? (It's telling that at one time, the KGB were interested in promoting these ideas in the US, specifically because they discourage engagement if you really run with them)

Regarding aesthetic theories being discussed here- those airy-sounding ideas have a tangible effect on the things that a practitioner makes.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Sidharth Chaturvedi--I agree the vast majority don't practice it day to day. But that wasn't what I was arguing. I'm simply trying to use examples and the context of such philosophy to clarify why I think morality is a construct and not a universal absolute.

And I get the impression that again surrender is confused with passivity. Of course using such an idea as an excuse to cop out of affecting things is of no use. But that's not surrender. That's wanting to be passive and finding an excuse for it. Of course it can (as in your KGB example) be misinterpreted and lead to passivity. But that's not surrender either, that's choosing to be passive based on a belief or dogma. With true surrender you don't stop affecting things, instead you no longer choose what or how you affect things.

An example is St Francis. A core principle for him was 'obedience'--so much so that in his writings he used the word much more than that of 'poverty', which he is more often associated with. Yet he did more than anyone else in his time to alleviate the suffering of lepers as well as the poor. You could even say his surrender provided him with his moral compass (one which society didn't agree with), since such actions were very foreign to him as a merchant's son and knight. Even his choice of 'poverty' was rooted in surrender--a belief that if he obeyed God, God would sustain him as needed. And it turned out he didn't die of hunger or thirst after a few weeks, but instead revolutionized the Catholic faith.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

And regarding the aesthetic theories: I absolutely agree, and I wasn't trying to pass judgement on them. I even said they were valuable, and kev's own theories could very well be true. Perhaps by phrasing it with a negative that wasn't clear. After 10+ years I wouldn't still be reading comments if I thought they were airy. Instead I was trying to make a point regarding his demand for evidence.

chris bennett said...

Rodin,

A painting of a landscape or human figure or face is not the same thing as a landscape or human figure or face. Do you think your bronze sculptures are real people? As to your question about what qualities those painters admire: My experience in contemplating your statue of two naked people kissing is quite different from coming across two people engaging in the same thing in the park...

(Sorry to have deleted this and posted again but after reading Sid's post I had a glance at mine above and noticed a really awkward typo)

kev ferrara said...

I think morality is a construct and not a universal absolute.

The word 'absolute' is one of those thought-terminating blue-sky words that needs to be avoided.

As mentioned above there is the unavoidable pragmatic interaction with the body and the world out of which human morality necessarily springs. We have senses and we understand that others do as well. Our body and minds tell us to avoid pain and tells most of us not to cause pain in others. And wisdom tells us which kinds of suffering build us up and which breaks us down and how to think morally short and long term to increase the chance of contentment, happiness, health, success, community, and so on.

With true surrender you don't stop affecting things, instead you no longer choose what or how you affect things.

This seems like a gaping hole in your moral system.

Certain intensely complicated problems that must be solved to bring about moral progress are nested very deep within whole structures and networks of other intense and complicated problems. These overal systemic and nested lynchpin problems can't be solved unless we drive against them repeatedly, breaking them down into solvable sub problems and developing ways of, even new technologies for, understanding the systems and interactions involved. Such subproblems even include such quotidian matters as the investigators getting enough sleep or avoiding foods they are allergic to, or putting together a prospectus/business plan and meeting with financiers and practicing their pitches, and so on.

How all this can be done as a leaf waiting to be taken by the wind, I can't imagine.

kev's own theories could very well be true.

An archeologist finds fragments of a beautiful ancient pot during a dig. As he puts together the fragments, he notices they generally form a unique amphora shape never before recorded. But there aren't enough fragments to complete the structure. So he diligently studies what he has, studies similar but complete amphoras already known, brings to bear what technologies and research exists to help the effort, and experiments with developing replacement pieces to fill in the gaps.

After a while, he finds himself satisfied that he's recreated the whole. And he begins showing it to other archeologists, historians of the period, and contemporary amphora makers to get feedback. The completed amphora is not the archeologist's work, but he is proud of it and appreciative of it nonetheless. And he is particularly interested in its existence because it alters the way the history of pottery should be taught.

Tom said...

Kev wrote

"How all this can be done as a leaf waiting to be taken by the wind, I can't imagine."

Just for fun:)

"Often described as a careless lab technician, Fleming returned from a two-week vacation to find that a mold had developed on an accidentally contaminated staphylococcus culture plate. Upon examination of the mold, he noticed that the culture prevented the growth of staphylococci."

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”



kev ferrara said...

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”

Yes, the discovery of Penicillin is a wild tale of chance and adventure.

It begins by the queer fact that, as a fantasy-prone but dumb youngster, Fleming mistakenly had school books in front of his eyes instead of the Hardy Boys' mysteries he thought he was reading. Next, he was stalking his girlfriend when he got lost and ended up at a Polytechnic school. Him and a buddy then started a rolling crap game at St. Mary's Medical School where he, on a whim, studied diligently for four years straight. After bribing the staff at University of London with his gambling winnings, they gave Fleming the Gold Medal of 1908 for top medical student, which was strange because he had only asked for Gold Medal Flour from 1908 (he was looking to get into the stale pizza racket.)

He wanted to get into aviation so he hooked up with Sir Almroth Wright, who turned out to be a vaccine pioneer, rather than one of the Wright Brothers. On guidance from a palm reader, he then dedicated himself to bacteriology, antibacterials, and so on. He was going to do this research in an Opera House, but a friend's buddy died and gave him a room in a building dedicated to science, and by accident it had running water and electricity, the latter supplied accidentally by bunnies jumping on electrostatic trampolines that had been left near the building's fusebox. He sat in this empty room for several months before another few miracles occurred....

A failing circus rolled through town, and for some reason they had gotten a shipment of bunsen burners instead of clown noses, so they put them in a hot air balloon which by accident smashed through the window of Fleming's room and deposited themselves on his formica tables that happened to have gas capabilities. On a whim he hooked up the bunsen burners to the gas turrets. He was away on one of his walks at the time, and on the way home, in a strange turn of events, vagrants kept coming up to him and giving bags of sterilized petri dishes. It was thusly that his famous lab, now a museum, came to be.

Since Fleming now had a science pad, and scored a shit ton of reefer and got to work randomly splashing chemicals around and scraping mud off his shoe into test tubes. And finally, in 1921, he fell and hit his head and thereby the bacteriolytic substance named the Lysozyme was revealed to him.

By the time, 1928 rolled around, Fleming had accidentally looked through a microscope at bacteriological phenomena so often, that upon coming home from vacation package he won on a game show, he accidentally recognized the new mold growing in his staphylococcus as a form of cotton candy. Upon tasting it, he realized it wasn't, and the first antibiotic was born.

chris bennett said...

:D

David Apatoff said...

Sorry folks, I've been away on election related activity. I can't possibly weigh in on all the discussions of the past few days, even if I were intellectually qualified. But here are a few snippets where I can't resist.

Kev Ferrara wrote "Frazetta's effect on re-popularizing realistic figural art cannot be overstated."

Realistic figural drawing was never unpopular in the space where Frazetta worked. It only became unpopular in "higher" venues, where cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Orphism, Abstract Expressionism, Op, Pop, Minimalism, Color Field and other schools of art sought fertile soil away from realistic figural art. Frazetta had no effect on re-popularizing realistic figural art in these quadrants; they were influenced by Pearlstein/Fischl. If we generously grant Frazetta the wider influence you suggest (video games, etc.) then he might have more eyeballs but the prestige, money and intellectual influence go with those higher art forms.

Richard wrote: "True nihilism is always anti-conscious and anti-sentiment, inherently anti-artist and therefore anti-art."

Other than arbitrary taxonomy, I don't understand why a great artist can't be a nihilist-- that is, believe that life is meaningless. There's no shortage of artists who've committed suicide, which is certainly one persuasive way of voting. But there's a much larger category of artists who, traumatized by war or personal tragedy, or haunted by depression, have blackened hearts. Are they all invalid?

David Apatoff said...

Benjamin De Schrijver, Sidharth Chaturvedi, Chris Bennett, Tom, Richard, Kev Ferrara-- I don't know much about moral philosophy but it seems pretty apparent that the adaptive mechanism described by Sid (living day to day "as if") is not limited to maya; it's the prevalent method for dealing with all the leaky dichotomies being bandied about here. Science/religion, materialism/spirituality, yin/yang, maya/metron, illusion/reality, good/evil, objective/subjective, western/eastern... manichaeistic polarities seem as unhealthy and untenable for art as they are for daily life.

The short term material benefits of scientific rationalism ("anaesthesia, germ theory, medical imaging, penicillin," etc.) are undeniable, but every subscriber to the faith of rationalism gets out of bed each morning acting "as if" Cartesian rational skepticism didn't knock the intellectual foundation out from under that world view, and has never been replaced. We get on the bus "as if" Isaac Newton's magnificent rationalist delusion still described the universe accurately. 70 million Americans just voted for a political leader whose brand of empiricism is more fluid than any eastern mystic's. Perhaps most significantly, the obvious benefits of the logical plane of existence, from Pythagoras to today's covid vaccine, have all taken place in the blink of an eye; the vote count has scarcely begun. Science could still extinguish all life on earth tomorrow. If the whole world is glowing hotter than a doorknob on the Sunday after judgment day, the cosmic profit and loss statement for western rationalism would look quite different, wouldn't it?

So, much as I'm attracted to the concept of intellectual purity I tend to steer clear of absolutes. Tolstoy was a great artist until he went crackers with his Christian absolutism. I prefer Dostoevsky's view, less puissant but closer to truth, expressed in Crime and Punishment: "Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity." Dostoevsky was supposedly the first existentialist, a philosophy which concedes the essential meaninglessness of the universe as the necessary predicate for any honest search for personal meaning. (As an aside here, I note that this world view intersects nicely with what science now tells us about the ultimate fate of the universe, expanding forever past the point where it is incapable of sustaining any life at all. In this regard I highly recommend the new book by renowned physicist Brian Greene, "Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe.")

Which brings me back (I hope) to Phil Hale's book. Some have claimed that its subject matter is "amoral" or "nihilistic." One could draw the same conclusions about the latest lessons of physics. I understand that in a period of pandemic and rising authoritarianism, we'd all prefer a Haddon Sundblom Santa Claus. But I think the secret of any vital culture is not the intellectual purity of any the philosophies fought over in the comments above, but rather the way they complement each other by creatively competing for supremacy and alternating in dominance. Plato, Plotinus and Augustine negated the world of the senses; Aristotle, Albert and Aquinas reasserted it. When it comes to art, I find this flexibility a feature, not a bug. In my view, darkness, bitterness and cynicism (or what some here have called nihilism) have an important role to play in that dialogue. The art of despair provides a much needed seasoning at the banquet of art.

The fact that Hale's work is smart, thoughtful and beautifully designed makes it superior, in my view, to badly painted art with a morally uplifting subject matter.

kev ferrara said...

In 1800, the odds of dying before the age of 5 was around 46%. So roughly 1 in 2. That percentage today is now 100 times smaller. So two hundred and twenty years ago, roughly half the people in this conversation wouldn't be here to have it.

I will never understand how you can take unfalsifiable theory over undeniable reality, no matter how impressed you are with the math or intellectualism involved. I'm sure you already know that Dark Matter and Dark Energy remain utter mysteries, both essential to puzzling out the fate of the universe. I'm sure you already know that Brian Green's vaunted string theory club has hit a brick wall due to the LHC's findings. There are still theorists holding out for Gravitons, for which there is no evidence. There have been attempts to correct Newton's equations because they don't seem to account for certain lagging movements at the galaxy scale. We don't understand dimensionality or how many dimensions there are, we don't know if nonlocality is a faster than light speed, a simultanaeity, some kind of entanglement like a singularity that shows up to our senses as a holographic world. We don't understand black holes and we can't check, we don't know how to merge GR with QT, which is one of the most basic issues. There isn't even a coherent and agreed upon understanding of what kind of manifold spacetime is, the most fundamental understanding underlying everything.

I could go on and on like this. But suffice to say, any predictions we brilliant monkeys make based on this wildly incomplete understanding of reality are no more bankable than gibberish from Nostradamus. And one would think you'd be the first guy saying this, given that you don't even believe in small t truth, let alone big T Truth. So strange. Yet you believe with a few impressive telescopes and a few feasible equations, physics can incontrovertibly predict the future a million billion years from now. For the sake of at least being consistent, if you really really want to take the eventual death of the universe as an article of faith, then at least admit that you do indeed believe in both small t and Big T Truth.

kev ferrara said...

If we generously grant Frazetta the wider influence you suggest (video games, etc.) then he might have more eyeballs but the prestige, money and intellectual influence go with those higher art forms.

A haute bourgeoisie status argument against Frazetta? That's your play?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote; "A haute bourgeoisie status argument against Frazetta? That's your play?"

Why should that trouble you? It doesn't bother me that you offer the lumpenproletariat on his behalf.

kev ferrara said...

Why should that trouble you? It doesn't bother me that you offer the lumpenproletariat on his behalf.

I don't believe I was the one who made this a discussion about popularity; a measure I would never use to judge quality; the equivalent of judging a movie based on its opening week's box office tallies.

In departing from your original argument about popularity per se (Fuchs v. Frazetta by the numbers over the long term) in favor of a specific lack of popularity of Frazetta among a specific set of "high status" and status-seeking people, you completely lost me. After all, who really cares what rich people or 'cultural intellectuals' think about art? It's as immaterial as what the fantasy, video game, magic cards, and cosplay crowd thinks about art.

Although, I understand you harbor some kind of deep seething resentment or negativity toward Frazetta that has nothing to do with the truth of any given argument about him, I feel we should still be honest. Given that Frazetta has fans of all types and stripes, wealthy, poor, brilliant and dumb, from mathematicians to military men, from revolutionary marxists to deplorables, lumpenproletariat probably does not apply.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I think the discussion here started as a legitimate discussion of "influence." Through imprecision, it seems to have lapsed into a discussion of "popularity."

I don't think we'd have much disagreement about which audiences are the most reliable indicators of quality in Frazetta's type of art, but I intentionally picked three indicators ("prestige, money and intellectual influence") that I believe were important to Frazetta. In fact, I suspect "prestige" was how Doc Dave ensorcelled him, feeding his ego and crooning that he belonged in museums because he was the greatest artist of all. And who could argue that money wasn't important to Frazetta, just as it is to most artists? (He lovingly inscribed a comic art page to his boyhood friend Nick Meglin but years later went back to Meglin and asked for the art-- which was now valuable-- back at Ellie's request.) As for "intellectual influence," I think Frazetta's yearning for that type of respectability is what made him so susceptible to DD's pretentious vocabulary.

I'm not sure where you see "seething resentment." As I've said repeatedly, including in the comments above, "I like Frazetta a lot, and I think some of his work is even great." Like many artists he had his less than admirable moments and was in some ways a real dope, but that did not affect the quality of his artwork, which when he was cooking could be beautiful.

kev ferrara said...

I intentionally picked three indicators ("prestige, money and intellectual influence") that I believe were important to Frazetta.

years later went back to Meglin and asked for the art-- which was now valuable

Another lateral shift in the argument, this time going after Frazetta's character? Can't imagine why I would think you harbor some deep seated antipathy that guides your remarks about him.

Everybody has failings. Now what? Picasso was an absolute wretch toward women, yet how often you cite him! Do I ever bring it up to try to 'win the argument' against Picasso though character assassination? Never. Mainly because we don't know what we don't know about every artist there is. I know all sorts of terrible stories about so many different great artists, even guys you have featured on this blog, and how would it help the world for me to tell that stuff in public? Would that make your life better one iota?

And as well, I know of quite a number of artists who have asked for now valuable gifted work back from friends, family, and fans. Also names you know. Often times it is to pay for sudden medical expenses. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case with Frazetta given his physical decline after 1982 or so. Meglin was frankly lucky to have had the artwork in his life for as long as he did.

I don't think we'd have much disagreement about which audiences are the most reliable indicators of quality in Frazetta's type of art

I can earnestly say I don't believe in the judgment of audiences, nor in 'types' of audiences. The opinions of a few select individuals, usually themselves excellent artists without a shred of jealousy to them, matter to me. Mainly because then we can take a deep dive inside the work and have some fun.

Richard said...

I don't understand why a great artist can't be a nihilist-- that is, believe that life is meaningless.

Not people who *believe* life is meaningless, but who choose meaninglessness. Meaning is a choice.

And they’re bad for the very simple reason that Art is a meaning activity, so people who have chosen not to mean can’t be meaningful.

Richard said...

But there's a much larger category of artists who, traumatized by war or personal tragedy, or haunted by depression, have blackened hearts. Are they all invalid?

Yes. Morally/spiritually weak people are invalid, not just in art but in life. We would be better off if they removed themselves from the world and saved us from their demoralizing presence. They would themselves evidently be better off without the world as well. Anti-suicide propaganda is one of the worst crimes committed against the living.

You travel to Liberia, definitively the most brutalized people on Earth, and you see smiles, joy, life being lived. They are a deeply moral people. If they can do it despite having witnessed their daughters raped, their brothers disemboweled with machetes, their still-beating hearts cannibalized by young boys with AK47s in a superstitious warrior ritual, then no one has an excuse to be haunted by melancholy.

If ya don’t like life, just walk out, no one is keeping us here. The exit is in the back by the concession stands. Don’t stay for the second act if this one isn’t for you. God left the door unlocked.

Anonymous said...

Anybody who knows anything about Frazetta knows he didn’t care about money or what intellectuals (so called) thought. Although he was irritated by some of them trying to negatively influence people against his work or the stupid hit pieces written about him.He was offered millions of dollars for his paintings while he was alive and he chose to keep everything.He preferred enjoying the work himself or sharing it with Family and fans. He was also offered a ton of well paying but soulless ad work which he also turned down. He much preferred to spend time with his kids. Ellie was the tough minded business end of the Frazetta operation.

kev ferrara said...

Meaning is a choice.

I think the argument that meaning arises from biology/our embodied consciousness I made earlier, is a reasonable one. (Not original to me.)

I think many great artists wrestle the concepts of meaning vs meaningless, hope vs nihilism, caring vs selfishness, etc. in their heads, souls, and works. I think such deep oppositional ideas make for fruitful collisions and some great works stem from them.

To even make artwork, I think, requires hope and purpose. So those who express nihilism on canvas, in a sense, are in some kind of confusion about themselves. In a sense they too are in that state of self opposition or internal argument re: meaning and meaningless. But they've neglected to take the dichotomy or argument in their soul itself into the work. Instead they've just negated themselves; making a statement that says nothing. This seems like a loss of psychic energy, passion, and direction, rather than a full-on admission of embodied nihilism.

I don't think we can neglect chemical imbalances regarding nihilism. Very interesting work is being done on gut permeability and mental health currently that is worth paying attention to.


chris bennett said...

A task is fulfilling when we put our heart into it.

kev ferrara said...

What compels us to put our heart into it?

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Morally/spiritually weak people are invalid, not just in art but in life."

Man, that's cold. I don't pretend to know what you mean by "weak." Some people are strong because they're stupid. Some people are strong because they're fueled by hate. Some people are weak because of a fragility that simultaneously gives them other offsetting virtues. Me, I couldn't begin to pass judgment on a concentration camp victim who finds the world meaningless. I'm just glad I'm not Robbie Middleton or Yummy Sandifer.

Kev Ferrara and Anonymous-- I don't know why Frazetta seems to creep into every conversation, regardless of the subject. Some would say that's a measure of his impact, which I agree was substantial. I've got nothing against Frazetta and I understand that very few artists are saints in their personal lives. However, as a defender of logic I must point out a certain shall we say inconsistency between reclaiming a personal gift to a lifelong friend, perhaps to pay for an emergency such as "sudden medical expenses," while at the same time refusing to part with "millions of dollars" worth of paintings.

If I'd written a touching personal inscription on art I gifted to my boyhood comrade, I might consider parting with one of my dozens of million dollar paintings before I felt it necessary to go to my friend and ask for it back. But that's just me.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "any predictions we brilliant monkeys make based on this wildly incomplete understanding of reality are no more bankable than gibberish from Nostradamus."

Of course you don't believe that or you'd never get on an airplane or drive a car. The physicists and mathematicians who calculate the increasing speed of the universe don't need to know everything before they know some things. If you've ever been to a lecture by Sean Carroll or Brian Greene, you know that they draw a big distinction between what we know with certainty and what we do not. We actually know a great deal about black holes, and in 2019 we even photographed one because the EHT was able to synchronize eight radio telescopes around the world to capture the gases and debris orbiting a supermassive black hole 55 million light years away in the center of the Messier 87 galaxy. That ain't Nostradamus.

If your point is that no one has ever crossed the event horizon of a black hole and come back out to describe it in their memoir, I'll grant you that.

But when Greene or Carroll or the other physicists speak with certainty about precise measurements such as Planck time, it's usually phenomena that can be tightly analyzed in the pure language of math. As Greene says, if we can calculate with math the magnetic moment of an electron to ten decimal places(!), then conduct an observation that confirms our mathematical calculation to the same 10 decimal places(!)... well, that's a level of precision that can't be dismissed as "gibberish."

If you want to return to my earlier point about Cartesian rational skepticism, I'll agree that physicists and mathematicians can't really prove that we know anything, or that our senses convey anything that is "real." But since you seem willing to adopt Sid's very pragmatic philosophy of "as if," I assume we've gotten around that initial obstacle.

chris bennett said...

What compels us to put our heart into it?

That is a damned good question.
I don't readily know, and it's too important just to give an off the cuff answer, I need to think about it for a day or two. No doubt you have your own thoughts on the matter. Thank you for posing the question.

kev ferrara said...

Of course you don't believe that or you'd never get on an airplane or drive a car.

You are equating physics that can be verified by a gifted teenager with physics that can't even be understood, let alone verified, by our greatest geniuses.

well, that's a level of precision that can't be dismissed as "gibberish."

Did I say any such thing? Don't accuse me of your strawmen. I certainly have not, and will not deny Planck's Constant. I will however deny that its implications have been fully grasped.

The physicists and mathematicians who calculate the increasing speed of the universe don't need to know everything before they know some things.

When we speak of the beginning or end of the universe, or what is profoundly within or beyond, we speak of never and forever, nothing and everything, infinitesimals and infinities. These are the extremes of experience beyond our imagining, where equations fail. Let's not pretend otherwise simply because you saw a cool Ted Talk.

I don't think you've grasped the significance of the list of current unknowns I typed in... gravity, dark matter, dark energy, spacetime, etc. When you appreciate the level of inside-out alice-in-wonderland thinking involved in ascertaining, for example, just which extended complex plane/complex manifold our reality actually maps to, it might very well be that what we now understand as redshift will not have the same significance as the current fashion assumes. I cannot tell you how many earth-shaking paradigm shifts lie ahead of us, but the number is surely greater than zero.

I'll agree that physicists and mathematicians can't really prove that we know anything, or that our senses convey anything that is "real." But since you seem willing to adopt Sid's very pragmatic philosophy of "as if," I assume we've gotten around that initial obstacle.

You may have missed my early Pragmatic point about the difference between embodied beliefs and disembodied beliefs, and how the former arise unbidden from simply being and force a basic morality on us all. Regarding 'as if'... it is more the other way around, that while you are at dinner eating to quell hunger pangs you cannot deny, you can pretend 'as if' the hunger isn't real and the meal is an illusion. But you cannot really believe such deep down in the pit of your stomach.

David Apatoff said...


Kev Ferrara wrote: "while you are at dinner eating to quell hunger pangs you cannot deny, you can pretend 'as if' the hunger isn't real and the meal is an illusion. But you cannot really believe such deep down in the pit of your stomach."

Not sure where that gets you. "Embodied beliefs" may be no more real than any other illusion. Phantom pain from an amputated limb is an embodied belief but the limb isn't real. We can't solve serious epistemological questions with intuitions fueled by what we believe are nerve endings, especially when you haven't even dealt with Descartes' threshold ontological quandary. If you'll just bite the bullet and admit we're acting "as if," then we can advance to other issues.

Which brings me to your other issues. You seem to have pretty firm opinions about what can qualify as "fact" based on pretty soft notions about what we're smart enough to know. The difference between the physics of airplane flight and the physics of the acceleration of interstellar objects is that the latter is too hard for us. It's OK to use Planck time to make precise calculations about what happened immediately after the big bang, but we can't roughly calculate the effect of the continued expansion of the universe. We aren't smart enough to understand dark energy so you would prohibit us from measuring how its repulsive force accelerates the expansion of the universe.

If we were talking about questions such as free will or the origins of consciousness I'd share your skepticism about what math can tell us, but the laws of physics can tell us that stars use up their nuclear fuel, and that every star will ultimately fade to black. We know how the physics works. We know that accelerated expansion ultimately makes all complex matter go away. Protons themselves disintegrate. Black holes-- the only thing left-- evaporate.

If you want to offer a Boltzmann's brain type escape hatch, and tell us that given an infinite amount of time, far flung inert particles might accidentally collide in a random fashion so as to form consciousness again; or if you want to offer a religious escape hatch and tell us that we can't rule out a divine being parting the clouds and giving us a last minute reprieve with a wave of his celestial scepter; or even if you want to offer us a Nietzschean escape and say that under the philosophy of eternal recurrence, given an infinite amount of time we will all be back here arguing in 547 trillion years... well, you go right ahead and make those arguments but I'm only willing to expend so much energy arguing whether nihilistic tones in Phil Hale's new book fail as art merely because they lack the required "hope and purpose." Heck, don't buy the book if you don't want to.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett and Kev Ferrara: "What compels us to put our heart into it?
That is a damned good question."

One possibility is that art is a tiny rebellion by organic matter against the entropy that will ultimately finish us.


Regardless of what Kev believes about the end of the universe, surely even he acknowledges the second law of thermodynamics, which says we are moving inexorably from a state of uniquely low entropy to states of increasingly higher entropy-- that is, to states of increasing disorder where complex life systems will be increasingly untenable. That one way trip is why the dimension of time only permits us to move in one direction, while we can move back and forth freely through the three dimensions of space. We can't walk backward from scrambling an egg (to use the popular example of entropy showing that the increase in disorder is irreversible.)

I'm not suggesting that people are compelled to make art because they've studied theoretical physics (although even children realize that all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put Humpty Dumpty together again). I'm suggesting that, as each of us is a bag of physical particles that has been gifted with consciousness which includes awareness of our inevitable personal end, it's not much of a leap to suggest that embedded in that same consciousness is an implicit awareness of the destination of entropy and the end of all life. Under this scenario our little efforts to arrange matter in pleasing designs and patterns is a temporary exorcism of disorder, a pocket of resistance (or at least admiration) which gives us pleasure down to our conscious protons. What Thomas Mann called the touching sympathy of organic life for what is destined to decay.


kev ferrara said...

"Embodied beliefs" may be no more real than any other illusion.

If ‘everything is illusion’ how could you demonstrate anything is an illusion?

There’s no basis to launch the test; the whole conversation becomes circular/tautological. In any argument you might make against the reality of reality, the word ‘illusion’ simply comes to mean the same thing as ‘reality.’ That’s not a real argument, it’s just an opinion about word choice based upon unprovable conjectural.

Of course, you can still pretend (sans proof) you actually believe everything is illusional for the sake of an argumentative pose, but since you performatively contradict that shallowly held belief all day long through behavior; you tip your hand as to your true beliefs, verbal protestations notwithstanding. So the whole thing is silly.

Phantom pain from an amputated limb is an embodied belief but the limb isn't real.

This is a very rare circumstance, as you know. I think it is pretty well understood that the phenomena is due to an entire neurological dynamic being in place to deal with the mobility and sensation of an actual limb, which is then stripped of its purpose due to amputation. Unfortunately, in particular for arms and legs, the neurological structures are so deep and not very malleable, it is very difficult to retrain them to feel nothing. Whereas, if you cover your eyes for a few days, the neurology begins mapping away from sight toward touch in the first few days.

As you know, those born without limbs never have phantom pains in the absent body parts. So clearly ‘phantom pains’ originate from real neurological connections to real limbs.

Either way, the fact that the phantom pain is undeniable is also telling you to stop pretending everything is an illusion.

kev ferrara said...

We can't solve serious epistemological questions with intuitions fueled by what we believe are nerve endings, especially when you haven't even dealt with Descartes' threshold ontological quandary. If you'll just bite the bullet and admit we're acting "as if,"

Descartes is words. You can act ‘as if’ his words are more compelling than the incontrovertible physicality that you’ve been forced to accept since the womb, but you never embodied that belief and you don’t now. The fact is, outside of mere words, you can no more deny a stubbed toe than you can your own thought.

kev ferrara said...

Regarding our current state of Physics knowledge, that is a big discussion. Since we don't understand the 'manifold' that ties everything together, we don't understand anything in the range of ultimates.

However, entropy is undeniable, and fuel does run out. Then again, there is something beyond our understanding that is popping particles into existence everywhere all the time. We popped into existence. So while it is true that things degrade, depress, and run out, there also seems to be an undepletable well within, delivering and expressing and giving. Maybe the sun will exhaust itself. But other suns are born. If everything got here in the first place, then surely it can get here in the second place. And the billionth place.

I'm only willing to expend so much energy arguing whether nihilistic tones in Phil Hale's new book fail as art merely because they lack the required "hope and purpose."

I didn’t make that argument.

You seem to have pretty firm opinions about what can qualify as "fact" based on pretty soft notions about what we're smart enough to know.

I see facts as sufficient documentations of specifics. A fact is established as having a particular time, place, location, and behavior. The more extensively the fact has been captured by documentary and journalistic means, the more it can be relied upon.

Whereas truth can only be documented in the abstract, because it is a recurring dynamic between certain suites of facts.

Richard said...

I couldn't begin to pass judgment on a concentration camp victim who finds the world meaningless.

You’re providing a counter example that I’m not convinced exists. Rather, I think more than anyone, victims of genocide and war have a tangible and concrete memory to prove that things in the world matter to them. The holocaust did not shock 6 million people into complete inaction, quite the opposite. There are few populations in modern history who were as compelled to a life of meaning as holocaust survivors.

Nihilism is the opposite Survival – to have experienced a situation where your life was in danger is perhaps the clearest mirror to prove to yourself that you do indeed believe that there is meaning.

I highly doubt nihilism exists among people who have lived through horror. Cynicism, yes. Darkness, yes. But actual nihilism requires a life that is both particularly flavorless and privileged to take root.

Man, that's cold.

In matters so serious, when dealing with such a pervasive evil, I think coldness is apt. A rapist who robs someone of their physical autonomy, most would agree deserves to hang. But a nihilist, who goes through life destroying the very souls of those around them does not?

Take an extreme example --
Millions of tween girls worship Billie Eilish.

Can you watch that video, realize that millions of little girls are designing their life around what they’re seeing, and tell me that the world would not be better if she killed herself?

Richard said...

Fixed link
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUHC9tYz8ik

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Before strolling on to next week's post about John Cuneo's 18 frogs, I just wanted to assure you that I don't live in a freshman dorm so I'm not arguing that everything is an illusion. My point was merely that human language, logic and reason so far can't prove otherwise. Our senses frequently send us false or subjective signals. If you have multiple sclerosis your nerves will report to you that your legs are freezing or your arms are being physically harmed when in fact they are not. If you are a schizophrenic your brain will tell you that you are seeing things that aren't there. If you are a Trump supporter, you believe dumbass conspiracy theories that are patently untrue. You can't persuade these people that their version of reality is less true than yours, so many people who started out searching for objective truth have become exhausted and retreated to Bentham's and James' moral calculus, designating truth as what is useful or the greatest good for the greatest number.

The history of western thought is littered with brilliant thinkers like Newton who wrote, "Hypotheses non fingo," but in fact they DO frame hypotheses, every one of them. We can't prove first principles, we have never been able to fully bridge the gap between reality and illusion, body and spirit, physical and metaphysical-- a fissure which seems to go back as far as humanity. I don't know of anyone who has done a better job than Descartes of stripping everything bare and asking, "what can I really know?" His answer unsettled him, and has unsettled western civilization ever since.

So it's not that I think we're living in the matrix and my stubbed toe is an illusion, it's just that I think human language (and any other human mode of thought and communication, including art) has so far proven incapable of coming up with a unified field theory of human existence.

I'm not trying to resolve that debate here. I'm just saying that when it comes to the physical properties of the universe (assuming you're content, like me, to act "as if" the universe exists) we have a powerful language that is ideally suited to find and communicate truth, and that is the language of math. It is a beautiful language and it doesn't fail us. It can tell us true things about the effect of the acceleration of the universe.

kev ferrara said...

Running Descartes off the road...

I could just as easily ask Descartes, How do you know that’s you thinking? How do you know there is such a thing as “I” that is distinguishable from “you” or “everything.” How do you know, stuck up in your head, that there is some temporal/consequential reality where “therefore” has meaning? Or some corporeal reality where “being” is an intelligible thought?

If these questions elicit shrugs, then how do you know anything you are saying to yourself (cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am) even has linguistic meaning and isn’t just gibberish? So how do you even know you are thinking?

In fact, if he’s thinking in words that he knows he didn’t make up, he not only knows he exists by thinking in those words, but he must also acknowledge that some community of neologists must also have existed in order for those words to exist. And that forces the can of worms back open.

The whole Descartes thing is silly sophist solipsism.

This is not to say that we aren’t also some kind of hologram, spirit, simulation, or metaphysical entity, or what have you.

kev ferrara said...

I'm not arguing that everything is an illusion. My point was merely that human language, logic and reason so far can't prove otherwise.

Not sure why this matters. Human language, logic, and reason also haven’t disproven the scenario that our entire reality was cleverly taken over and throroughly reconstructed by invisible alien robots in the 1930s. Or The Simulation Hypothesis. Or God.

Why bother proving what you are forced to accept as true and couldn’t prove anyhow; the utterly ordinary idea that reality is real. The idea that all is illusion is the extraordinary claim; that which upends all norms, thus requiring extraordinary proof. To choose illusion as one’s epistemic starting point is contrarian, perverse and unworkable.

Our senses frequently send us false or subjective signals.

Just because a broken thermometer gives the wrong temperature, doesn’t mean all thermometers give the wrong temperature.

The brain that thinks is the same as the brain that feels a pain in the toe. We think via the same neurology that we feel. The major difference being that the toe has a longer tether of neural tissue than a thought. But both are connected up deep into the noggen. Do you believe that shorter signal paths must somehow be more accurate that longer ones, which would make the eyebrow more true than the kneecap?

The point of repeating observations, testing and sharing what one thinks to be true is to get us into the realm of relative objectivity.

The reason art contains truth is the same as the reason mathematical physics contains truth; both contain abstracted recurring relations that are predictive of facts. And both can be instantiated when the specific suite of facts that function to manifest the relationship are ‘plugged in’ to the abstract relations, thus making them concrete so we can appreciate them as true.

kev ferrara said...

Math is a beautiful language and it doesn't fail us.

I've seen a lot of Scientism, but this Mathematism is new to me.

Leaving aside how little of theoretical physics equations are understood, there’s tons of nonsensical math. The history of physics is littered with erroneous but mathematically 'accurate' calculations. Brian Greene’s String Theory crowd has produced some beautiful doozies. Stephen Wolfram’s current pandemic remapping of all of physics to causal graphs and branchial spaces might be producing a whole bunch more.

Even such stalwarts equations as Newton’s gravity formula has attracted revisiting, beyond even the d=0 problem. (There’s a problem with calculating the spiral arms of galaxies using the original equation. Some mathematicians have rejiggered it to work the same as before at normal scales, but slightly differently at cosmic scales.) And if changes to Newton’s equation turn out to be necessary, what of every prior calculation that used it?

Wes said...

"The whole Descartes thing is silly sophist solipsism."

Very true.

The search for certainty in western philosophy has a long and tortured and exhausting history, mainly because Plato set too high a (moral) standard for Ideal/Truth. A more pragmatic approach is needed: rational embrace of a "truth" doesnt require that it always be true, just that its true enough of the time that its roughly reliable. Strangely, that's pretty much the rule that the FDA uses to approve drugs and devices and vaccines (something now more public and relevant to our very lives) -- they only need to show efficacy slightly better than placebo or (and show safety too). Doesn't mean that product will always work better than placebo, and in fact, sometimes the placebo might work better! All which demonstrates that illusions and truth and not so far apart, as long as they work. But woe to he that cannot tell the difference . . .

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- I watched the Billie Eilish video and I can honestly say that I don't think the world would be a better place if she killed herself. I'm guessing you haven't heard the six hour moaning repetitive song by Kjartansson, "A Lot of Sorrow." Even better, at the 2013 Venice Biennale Kjartansson had a brass band repeat the same melancholy notes for 6 months. By comparison Eilish is a ray of sunshine.

My experience doing pro bono legal work with the Center for Mental Health Law over many years is that sometimes people with no external, objective reason for unhappiness carry so much sorrow and depression within them for purely biochemical reasons that they cannot bear to go on.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Just because a broken thermometer gives the wrong temperature, doesn’t mean all thermometers give the wrong temperature."

Sure, and that's the whole point: How we tell whose thermometer is broken.

PS-- Don't feel bad about not having heard of mathematism. It has only been a centerpiece of western civilization since Pythagoras successfully reduced quality to quantity in the 6th century BC and it continued through Aristotle's roots of formal logic, up through the scientific revolution which led to the industrial revolution which led to the technological revolution. Admittedly, digitization and AI are pretty obscure, but once the public hears about them, you can bet mathematism will become better known.

kev ferrara said...

Don't feel bad about not having heard of mathematism. It has only been a centerpiece of western civilization since Pythagoras successfully reduced quality to quantity in the 6th century BC

I would never dispute the greatness of Pythagoras and Aristotle or the mathematics community, generally, nor the importance of the contributions. But their ideas are not the predicate of our civilization.

Heavier/lighter, less/more, stronger/weaker, higher/lower, balanced/unbalanced, supported/unsupported, straight/curved, wet/dry, hot/cold, fast/slow, smooth/rough, moving/still, surrounded/unconstrained, ugly/beautiful, natural/unnatural, tasteful/grotesque, etc. are qualitative assessments requiring no calculations.

Scientific Logic stemming from empiricism and sensible judgment is the technical predicate for western advancement, the industrial revolution, and the modern age. Imaginative and symbolic Modeling of the structuring of force flows, constraints, tensions, affordances, etc is the main assistant to this, with diagramming being the method of symbolizing the models for inspection, with math sometimes used in conjunction with the modeling and diagramming, mostly lately. But historically, not so much...

Water Power.

Steam Power.

Light.

The earliest diagrams or treatises on bridges, aqueducts, farming, hunting, furniture construction, ventilation, smithing/forging, boats, laying stone foundations, framing and roofing, glassmaking, medicine, explosives, dentistry, surgery, bacteriology, and so on... show no numeric calculations. (I do not consider basic formulations arrived at through trial and error or the sensing of resonance or fitness to be calculation. Nor do I consider equalizing or differentiating amounts or using a ruler to be mathematics. Basic tool use is not math; there is nothing special about dragging an arc or a circle with a string attached to a stake. If it can be eyeballed or intuited, it isn't a mathematical calculation.)

And one cannot quantize quality, one can only quantize the amount of a quality. The more odor molecules waft toward one's olfactory sensory neurons, the more forceful the smell on some magnitude scale. That still tells you nothing of the sensation of the smell itself, as distinct from any other smells.

chris bennett said...

A lot of track has been laid to another destination since Kev asked me this question;

What compels us to put our heart into it?

...so I hope my replying to it doesn't derail what is proving to be a very enjoyable journey.

The answer to that question would have to be ‘the need for a sense of fulfilment’. But is this a realisation after the fact and therefore not what in real time, compels us? This is the reason I have had to give this a few day's thought.

I think there are two answers, but both are related to the same principle. The first is that if a task or situation is seen to be completely beneficial then we give all of ourselves to it, body and soul, without even being intellectually conscious of the fact. The second answer is that when a necessary task or situation is not obviously beneficial we may choose to put our heart into it nevertheless because experience has taught us that it yields the most effective return for a given amount of effort.

David Apatoff said...

Wes-- I agree the search for certainty has a "long and tortured and exhausting history,"but isn't our persistence a noble thing? Subjective realms of morality, religion and emotion are responsible for most of the wars, atrocities and hatred in history (along with art, literature, etc.). It's difficult to point to progress in this realm. On the other hand, the realms of objective science and math have been so successful, why wouldn't we continue to look for similarly reliable, objective ways to resolve our moral feuds? Wouldn't it be lovely if there were some kind of rational basis for arbitrating what is fair or even good? That goal has obsessed moral philosophers from Socrates and Plato through Kant and Hegel and up to the present day.

In the 20th century, the need has become all the more pressing as the gap between progress in the physical sciences and the lack of moral progress has become all the more alarming.

The problem I see with your vaccine analogy is, if you had a car where the steering worked 95% of the time, how often would take it on the highway?

Finally, you put a lot of blame for this on poor Plato, but Plato is a prime example of the mind/body dichotomy discussed in earlier comments. He drew a bright line between the world of the senses (which Plato says is an illusion, mere shadows on the wall of a cave) and the world of ideal forms. Plato for example would say for example that Kev Ferrara is one of the slaves in the cave when his stubbed toe defines the reality of the world.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "one cannot quantize quality, one can only quantize the amount of a quality."

You seem to be demanding that math come up with a "paint by numbers" solution. Math doesn't work that way, but then again neither does art. Pythagoras figured out that the pitch of a musical note was directly proportional to the length of the string that produced it. It was the first recorded instance of millions of ways that quantity and quality became synthesized in human experience. His great insight was that numbers were not random things to be clutched from the air as a way of counting goats. They represented hidden laws of balance and order and harmony, eternal laws of form, proportion and pattern that will outlast you and me. The empowered Greeks used their ratios and geometry to create Greek architecture, which they viewed as one of their greatest and most mathematical of arts. Apparently they were on to something, as Greek principles of design were not only adopted by the Romans but later by the Italians of the Renaissance and still later by the designers of the industrial revolution (who used Greek designs in their factory machines).

As I've noted in prior posts, you can raise the temperature of water one degree at a time and that is undoubtedly a quantitative change. But you get to 212 degrees and suddenly the liquid turns to a gas. That is undoubtedly a qualitative change.

You know instinctively that odd numbers of items in your composition are more interesting than even numbers. You know about the rule of thirds. Are those merely "quantizing the amount of a quality?"

You might say that most of what Photoshop will do for you-- changes in contrast, saturation, brightness -- are quantizing the amount of a quality, but that is only a temporary condition. I remind you that the hyena of AI is still slobbering at the heels of art, making those soft, sly sounds that convey its expectation that it will soon close the gap.

David Apatoff said...

A few stray bits and pieces from recent comments:

Richard wrote: "You’re providing a counter example [concentration camp victims who feel the world has no meaning] that I’m not convinced exists."

Try reading "I Summons the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Court," a self-published book by concentration camp survivor Chaim Wogroch who found the godless universe meaningless and wished that the allied planes would bomb the camp and kill him as he carried camp excrement past the crematorium that glowed red all night, awaiting his turn.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The whole Descartes thing is silly sophist solipsism."

Only for those who've given up caring about what we can truly know, and settled for what our stubbed toe tells us. (I'm not saying that's the wrong choice.)

Descartes anticipates all the objections you raise ("How do you know that’s you thinking?"). He does not say it's you thinking, he just says that from any kind of thought we can deduce the existence of some kind of thinker. No guarantees that the thinker has a corporeal self, let alone that he has a goofy haircut like Descartes.

For commenters on the incompatibility of art and nihilism: I meant to refer you to the Book of Job, one of the first (and still one of the greatest) tracts on the meaninglessness of the universe. When the world ceases to make sense for Job, when all the rules have turned upside down and his God has abandoned him, Job cries out and God speaks to him "out of the whirlwind." I always thought that was a lovely metaphor for the meaninglessness of the universe. You have to find God's voice in the whirlwind.

Wes said...

David wrote: "isn't our persistence a noble thing? Subjective realms of morality, religion and emotion are responsible for most of the wars, atrocities and hatred in history (along with art, literature, etc.)."

I agree. Our search for certainty is noble, but we've often mistaken the ramifications of inner certainty with reality. Unbridled subjectivism in some realms = death and destruction, mainly because the subject thinks thieir subjectivism is tantamount to a moral imperative. That is, they reify the the nothingness of their imagination.

"the realms of objective science and math have been so successful, why wouldn't we continue to look for similarly reliable, objective ways to resolve our moral feuds?"

I'm not sure the two realms completely overlap -- yet. The most successful/competent realms are engineering, building, architecture, infrastructure, communication, and the early forms of this success were sans much mathematics, but greatly aided in the last 250 years by the scientific method including mathematics, of course. It seems that we have not yet discovered a mode that corresponds in the moral sphere re human behavior that is analogous to ssound replication and demonstration and reliabilty. So Kev and you are both right -- the earliest examples of success and competency in whatever realm are possible, but sometimes there is some critical ingrediant that doesn't allow for advancement beyond some more concrete level. Example: the MMPI is a barbaric document, but it is considered highly sophisticated and scientific. Example: the legal system is woefully incompetent to solve problems, though some key features work astoundingly well, like jury trials, and appeals to the highest courts, perhaps.

"The problem I see with your vaccine analogy is, if you had a car where the steering worked 95% of the time, how often would take it on the highway?"

A car that steers 95% of the time is a flawed engineering project, and our high standards for reliable engineered technology is rightly expected now, so high certainty re "truth" is required. The Boeing jet with the flawed software is a example -- we require 100% certainty here -- or don't fly it. And since we can acheive it in this realm, its unacceptable to allow any illusions. My point about vaccines is that certainty/reliability has many flavors, and while 100% is needed to fly a jet, a lesser certainty is needed to receive a vaccine. But both are rational.

Plato is the greatest "source" for the initial mistake of hypostasizing ideas into concretes, thereby actually bringing illusions into reality that one is (morally) tasked to accept. Other co-conspirators followed his lead, unfortunately, including Descartes. Platos error (in a nutshell): just because we can think it doesn't mean its real. Plato so loved his inner world that he gave up rationality for irrationality, and those that believe the inner world is where certainty is found will not thrive, but persist in illusion. A beautiful but poetic disaster, really.

"No guarantees that the thinker has a corporeal self, let alone that he has a goofy haircut like Descartes."

Yep, as much as I admire Steven Pinker, and his great use of statistics to show a more objective state of affairs about the world, I just can't get past his haircut . . .



kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kev ferrara said...


Pythagoras figured out that the pitch of a musical note was directly proportional to the length of the string that produced it.

Here you are confusing quantization in the cause of the experience, with the quantization of the experience. They are two different things. Same with the following…

…you can raise the temperature of water one degree at a time and that is undoubtedly a quantitative change. But you get to 212 degrees and suddenly the liquid turns to a gas.

I’m trying to disentangle phenomenal sensation - which, one might say, is an expressive romanticization of physical meaning - with its physical cause. They’re two different things, and two different kinds of knowledge. Two different languages even, one might say, which, though, still translate into each other.

One can say of placing one’s finger in a liquid, if the liquid has less molecular agitation than the finger, the finger will indicate ‘coldness’ to the sensation-recognizing mind; a cooling or a even a colding-stinging-petrifying sensation; while if the liquid has more molecular agitation than the finger, the mind will receive ‘warmness,’ a heating or even a burning sensation depending on the magnitude of the change… all due to translation of the involved thermodynamics into nerve signals which translate into the experience of feeling.

Perform the same thermo-dunking test on a Snickers candy bar, which (due to stifling FDA regulations) contains neither nerve tissue nor a brain, and it feels neither coldness nor hotness. It merely slows in molecular agitation or gains in it. Unconscious things only converse in the brute language. 1/n

kev ferrara said...

2/n

Which brings us here; One might read a dictionary definition of cold, and learn all about: molecular agitation, thermodynamic equilibrium laws, nerve conduction, and so on. But if you were born with Autonomic Neuropathy Type IV, all the thermometers in the world couldn’t make you actually appreciate and understand the temperature difference between snow and dirt. These sensations are a distinct kind of knowledge, and the only kind of knowledge that has any reality. (Reality being that which, when all else is denied, still persists.)

This goes back to Descartes’ erroneous understanding of thought as distinct from other sensations, as articulated here…



(Descartes said) from any kind of thought we can deduce the existence of some kind of thinker. No guarantees that the thinker has a corporeal self.

Thought has neither predicate nor meaning without corporeality, without sensual referent. Abstraction is abstracted from somewhere or else it isn’t an abstraction. Thoughts themselves are only sensations, and sensations require a medium and time. And temporality alone presupposes corporeality. Unless you’re suggesting you accept some theory of time that has no spatio-physical component or aspect.

He drew a bright line between the world of the senses (which Plato says is an illusion, mere shadows on the wall of a cave) and the world of ideal forms.

Neither Plato nor Descartes understood that the same neurology that produces thought also produces toe pain (or sensations of softness or anxiety or hunger.) As far as I understand it, coherent thought is merely highly organized simpler sensations. And the hierarchy of abstractions is actually a hierarchy of complexity (of the relations among simple abstractions.) These two points are probably translations of each other.

So if we would deny the validity of sensation, the thoughts of both Plato and Descartes are also only mere shadows. And we’re in limbo.

But, of course, nobody embodies such a vacuum sucking belief system unless they are in a coma. The mouth still runs, the fingers still type. Who cares that a sophist denies in words? Anything can be denied by mere verbiage, even the undeniable. Anything can be asserted that nobody can see or prove. This is the game of confusing ‘as if’ with ‘what if?’

To a sophist, words are but tools to impress in guise of teaching, or to swindle the argument with verbal signs and wonders.

2/n

kev ferrara said...

3/3

At this point you might be plotting to use the term “romanticization” against my position; as a proof that we’re all broken thermometers to some degree or another. So I’ll take the liberty of pointing out that sensation isn’t a lie. It is, rather, a natural metaphor or organically re-imagined analogy. A kind of midwife between human meaning and brute existence. But with a direct connection on both ends.

On its rightness; One might say, speaking is only a complex vibration of the air waves which your ear reconstructs. But if the reconstruction didn’t sufficiently duplicate the original construction, both speaking and hearing wouldn’t be of much use.

If a bear roared in the woods near Thag Apatoff in 400 B.C. and he only heard the squeak of a mouse, you probably wouldn’t be here. Similarly if humans couldn’t tell an apple from our own fists, we’d all have been gnawed off the mammalian family tree at the shoot tip.

Regarding AI making art, I can easily imagine it being able to analyze the simply non-referential graphic characteristics of a design – say some basic field painting with a drip interest that functions as a projection test to a certain kind of mind – and replicate them. (Ten years ago Ray Kurzweil had a graphics program running in his office that converted a photograph into a new ‘work of art’ every minute, with predictably banal results)

But if you can tell me how a machine can imagine a stoic Midwesterner running an ore wagon through a dust storm somewhere out west in 1908 and translating that into an oil painted composition that makes the viewer feel the dust, heat and danger while showing only the slightest glimpse of either the wagon or the driver, and none of the horses pulling them or the landscape, well… I’ll eat my hat.

I think what we’ll see with AI, is that fake art is easy to fake; graphic simplifications of photographs, basic mimesis, etc. But real art will still require a poet. And a poet requires both a life and a soul.


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Wes said...

Kev said: "Nassim Taleb, a statistical philosopher, has hacked up Pinker's stats pretty thoroughly and publicly."

Well, I would hope his statistical skills are better than his aphorisms, which are pretty banal and lame. He doesn't seem wise enough to be smart enough to take on Pinker.

But you're right that its hard to find his criticism of Pinker. Maybe he suppressed it himself?

Richard said...

concentration camp survivor Chaim Wogroch who found the godless universe meaningless and wished that the allied planes would bomb the camp

Listen to Mr.Wogroch’s oral history, when he talks about staring out at a little water fall every single day on the other side of the fence. How he dreamed about the day when he would get free so he could go down to it. And how finally the day came that the camps were liberated, he made the Russian boys take him down to the waterfall, and they all watched in amazement, thinking he was mad, when he jumped in.

Struggling against pain and survival can make you lash out in anger, but if you he truly believed that life was meaningless and that there was no hope and nothing that mattered, there’d be nothing stopping him from committing suicide on the wires. Instead Mr.Wogroch married, had children, lived to the ripe old age of 86, and if his oral history is any indication, he was a very jovial man who saw life as beautiful and meaningful.

Richard said...

And from his sons obituary one does not get the sense of a nihilist;
“You taught us never to be afraid to speak our minds and to try and do the right thing. From you, Dad, we learned to cope with problems as challenges and not obstacles. We learned to keep a sense of humour and to be compassionate and engaged.

Now, you are on a journey towards your biggest challenge – one that you have been waiting for your entire life; it is with God. We know you will stand proud. You will ask him to explain, apologise, and repent for the horrors that he allowed to occur. We are with you in spirit, in our hearts. We hope that you will get the answers that you deserve to hear. We hope that you will find justice and peace.”

kev ferrara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

David- at the risk of derailing a conversation that's since moved on, re: 'as if,' I seem to have picked a loaded term. I wasn't trying to make the fuzzy case for 'it works, therefore it's true.' I was trying to make the point about a particular set of ideas in Eastern philosophy- that people who say they believe it may be fully convinced of it in their heads, but that they don't actually believe it because their own behavior says otherwise. Just as no one actually believes down in their bones that they don't have free will. I happen to believe that our basic moral programming corresponds to physical reality, but that wasn't the argument I was trying to make there. My point was that the ideas about maya/no ego/no self/meaningless universe/no free will don't work as a moral foundation because you cannot act on them. Even trying to do so means using the other, embodied, apparently illusory system. Now given that these ideas can't be acted on for a moral system because they can't override our embodied model of reality; are unfalsifiable; and unlike many of the ideas from math and science that don't 'make sense,' can't even be turned into technology (which would, at the very least, pass the 'it works' test)- I don't see what the usefulness of such a worldview is. There's certainly no basis for claiming it as the true model of reality.

chris bennett said...

Nicely put Sid.

I happen to believe that our basic moral programming corresponds to physical reality...

And with this phrase you have nailed what I was trying to say earlier so much more succinctly.