Sunday, December 06, 2020

NEW BOOK: A LIFE IN INK BY RALPH STEADMAN

Many years ago, the famous Chinese artist Huang Erh-Nan would fill his mouth with black ink and paint pictures with his tongue.

Ralph Steadman seems to love black ink only slightly less than Huang Erh Nan.  Over a 60 year career he has splattered great gouts of dense black ink on his pictures, misted ink through an atomizer and scratched it into the surface with technical drawing tools.  He describes this career in his new book, Ralph Steadman: A Life in Ink.  The book contains a cross section of his work as a political cartoonist, a cover artist for album covers and movie posters, a children's book illustrator and perhaps most famously for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson.

Self portraits by Steadman in 1965 and 2020

The self-portrait above of Steadman in his covid mask is the only example I could find in the entire book of Steadman being muzzled.  He seems to have started right out of the gate with outspoken, often barbed opinions.


1967


1975

Detail from The Malevolence of War (2001)

When I spoke with Steadman about his career path, his choices seemed as impetuous as one of his ink splatters:

My first job was as an apprentice at an engineering factory in Liverpool. I went once a week to learn technical drawing.  I was drawing straight lines and circles; I was going to do a 5 year apprenticeship but after nine months I had to leave. I couldn't stand it.  My mother was very upset. She didn't know what to do with me.  I eventually ended up working at Woolworth's as a stockroom boy.  My headmaster saw me one day sweeping in front of the store and he looked at me with contempt.  He said, "Look at you.  You had a good job at de Havilland Aircraft Company and what do you do? End up sweeping the streets of Wales." 

Yet, he stumbled across an ad for a correspondence art class and his long career was launched. 


Book cover for Animal Farm

Slash

In addition to hundreds of pages of art showing the evolution of Steadman's style, the new book contains photographs from Steadman's life and an interesting interview discussing his philosophy.  

At the end, Steadman lists his personal "Honour Roll" which includes his artistic heroes such as Marcel Duchamp, Terry Gilliam, William Hogarth, Anita Kunz, Ronald Searle and Leonardo da Vinci.



In addition, his honour roll includes Kurt Vonnegut, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Winsor & Newton. 


 

We are living in a great era for art books.  Art publishers have been scooping up the best work from the top illustrators of the 20th century-- talented artists who led long and productive careers.  Many of their  brilliant images existed only in yellowing, crumbling back issues of magazines.  They are being rescued from obscurity by monographs such as this one, which enable us to look at artists in a fresh light.    

136 comments:

chris bennett said...

In my view Steadman possessed only the talent of Ronald Searle but not his humour, compassion or subtlety, and whose default response to the human condition was a wearisome leftist litany of bitterness and bombastic resentment.

Happy Christmas...

Mort said...

On the "brilliant images existed only in yellowing, crumbling back issues of magazines" front; you sometimes can get luck and you get something like the Archivo Histórico de Revistas Argentinas, and find the whole run of Hermenegildo Sábat´s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H64EKYaTRgw https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzMbMxbjE0c https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pU4snwk1fDk) Sección Aurea https://ahira.com.ar/revistas/seccion-aurea/

I´m waiting with baited breath for them finishing the last 50 issues of Fierro that can´t be found anywhere.

MORAN said...

Steadman did the best caricature of Henry Kissinger ever. Does the book have many political cartoons from the Nixon years?

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I'd be hard pressed to identify a better, more influential pen and ink illustrator than Searle for the second half of the 20th century. Many of the very best, including Oliphant, MacNelly and Drucker were clearly influenced by his brilliance.

Despite that fact, I think Steadman (and to a lesser extent Gerald Scarfe) brought something to the table that Searle did not. You might dismiss the ingredient as "bitterness" but there is an important tradition of social anger / indignation which I think is not so easily cast off. The righteous anger of Daumier, Kollwitz, Low, Goya, The Masses, Szyk, etc. takes us far. But beyond even that anger, there's a kind of destabilized art that screams so loudly, the vehicle of traditional picture making standards begins to break down. I think this kind of art contributes something different than Searle, something that deserves to be measured by different standards. I think that some of this art, such as Otto Dix's World War I drawings, takes things too far (despite Dix's obvious sincerity). But other artists who go wild manage to be effective by skating along at the fringe of control-- Grosz, Lasansky's Nazi drawings, Cuneo, Guernica, surrealism, etc.

I think Steadman's background in technical drawing often keeps him from going over the edge the way some others. At his best, he works in a category that Searle never reaches; Steadman's savage, grotesque, distorted faces and monstrous forces, the violence of his splatters (compared to Searle's controlled droplets). Is Searle wise to refrain from going there, or does he just not feel the same level of anger? It doesn't bother me whether these are a "leftist litany" or a "right wing litany," I am most interested in how they say what they are saying.

Mort-- Very interesting, I was not familiar with his work. Thanks.

MORAN-- I showed some of Steadman's Kissinger and Reagan drawings in an earlier post (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2020/06/ralph-steadman.html )

Li-An said...

@Chris Bennett - thanks to @David Apatoff to give such a good and complet answer to your comment. And maybe I misunderstood you but I don’t see the relation between "leftist" opinion and artistic talent.

chris bennett said...

David,

Thank you for a well considered response to my negative (and perhaps slightly truculent) comment about Steadman - which btw, I agree, would doubly apply to Scarf!

...there's a kind of destabilized art that screams so loudly, the vehicle of traditional picture making standards begins to break down. I think this kind of art contributes something different than Searle, something that deserves to be measured by different standards.

Any work whose function is to communicate an antithesis to something is in the same communicative spirit as work whose function is to communicate a thesis and therefore both are the two sides of the same coin; propaganda. And I have never encountered any work of propaganda that affects me in the way any work of art does. Picasso's 'Guernica', as a design, is certainly way superior to his 'Massacre in Korea' and way, way superior to the war panel of his 'War and Peace' in the chapel at Vallauris, but all three do not move me in the way art does. This is not an issue of subject matter, but of intent.

It's obvious war is bloody awful, so any work that does nothing else other than tell me that is effectively just poking a finger in my chest. I believe that for art to touch us it must always bypass the intellect and reach into our subconscious. This is why a painting like Lady Butler's 'Scotland Forever!' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotland_Forever! is far more successful at articulating an archetype of experience than any of the aforementioned works.

And I would apply the above reasoning to political or situational caricatures. So my answer to your question, Is Searle wise to refrain from going there...? is 'yes'.




chris bennett said...

Li-An,

And maybe I misunderstood you but I don’t see the relation between "leftist" opinion and artistic talent.

There isn't one. I'm saying that I think Steadman's talent is wasted on bitterness and bombastic resentment, and that tends to be a feature of ideologues along with their lack of humour, compassion or subtlety.

Li-An said...

You miss the most important: Steadman needed this fight to create. It’s part of his inspiration and expression urgency. Without this urge, he would have paint boring soldiers charging or cute cats. There is a ton of artists who painted cavalry charges with great talent. But I don’t know a lot of artists with such violence in caricature as Steadman. And I’m not particularly fan of Steadman’s work. My taste goes more to Searle. But I don’t need two Searle.

Mort said...

To change a bit the atmosphere (and put the important part that I left out)

Luis Scafati, the Argentinian Stedman
Instagram (I hate myself): https://www.instagram.com/luisscafati/
Blog (not updated): https://luisscafati.blogspot.com/
Illustrations in Sci-Fi magazine El Péndulo: https://ahira.com.ar/revistas/el-pendulo/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bK92gfaZwY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qaA_SVPtWM

chris bennett said...

Li-An

Steadman needed this fight to create.

What fuels a person's motive for creation is not the same thing as what they create. A person needs to be in love to write a love letter, but 99.99% of love letters are anything but art.

Without this urge, he would have paint boring soldiers charging or cute cats.

Yes, of course, how silly of me to think otherwise.

There is a ton of artists who painted cavalry charges with great talent.

Picasso, Steadman and Lady Butler all have talent. My point was the differentiation between meaningful expression and propaganda. You appear to have missed it.

kev ferrara said...

There's a myopic, fixated type of artist that grows up drawing faces only. Then attempts to build an entire artistic world out of them, without taking the pains to probe and memorize the anatomy or structure of anything else.

So they resort to any ready or improvised means to 'suggest' the rest of the body outside the face, and the rest of the world outside the body; usually hitting upon expressive sensationalism; abstract rhythmic babble and loose use of media to misdirect the eye and disguise the anatomic vacuity uninforming everything.

Naturally - their world otherwise impoverished - every idea ends up being face-based; the lone countenance anyway being the best bang-for-the-buck crutch to limp around on.



David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- So many of the discussions here over the years have centered around the axis of "control" in art. Progress in the visual arts used to focus on increasing refinement and control over the picture: improved pigments and mediums for more precise color gradations; technical skills and trade secrets compounding as they're handed down from one generation to the next; better tools and optical devices to achieve a more perfect likeness, etc. This brand of progress may have reached its high water mark with Ingres, Bouguereau, the Flemish painters and the Academy crew.

But inevitably this trend was besieged from all sides, as different types of artists realized that control might not be such a great virtue after all. Art that was overly refined and precious was found lacking in vitality and relevance. Artists who once celebrated detached intelligence and erudition were replaced by artists who celebrated an unschooled and spontaneous look, avoiding any appearance of labor. (I count Searle among these.) Photography swept in and eviscerated much of the market for careful, skillful painting. The underlying culture also changed as people became horrified by the results of "civilized" control and Freud ushered in an era where we question whether "control" is really what we once thought it was, or whether we are ruled by our subconscious.

I agree that Lady Butler's 'Scotland Forever!'is very stirring but it's hard to ignore that it speaks in the language of that traditional control-- it is an artifice carefully mapped and constructed by a woman who was never near a battle and was not invested in the outcome, who altered pigments, pictorial elements and anatomy to maximize the military drama. It was constructed in comfortable surroundings, employing a scale, timetable and materials that are the antithesis of a frantic race across a battlefield to death. An artist who truly experienced such a charge might find that Butler's deliberate, controlled language breaks down when it comes to conveying the authentic experience. This doesn't mean Butler's version isn't more effective. "Scotland Forever!" strikes me as emotionally powerful in the same way that Frazetta's work is emotionally powerful, by employing classical methods but deviating from the placid subject matter of the Academy by conveying the moment of energy, when the horse leaps or the battle axe strikes. My point is only that today we may be more skeptical of that kind of effectiveness, and we may place a higher value on a less staged, less sophisticated form of honesty.

Some of the later schools of art may appreciate Butler's painting but still question the authenticity of this type of picture, manipulated to give false order and "control" to the chaos of the battlefield. Other schools of art question whether it satisfies the highest potential calling of art. For example, following World War I, some people felt they'd been misled by such paintings to believe in the glamour and nobility of war (as you may know, Scotland Forever was later retouched and used by German generals to motivate German soldiers.) People who felt they'd been victimized by generals and prime ministers felt that artists who use the tools of refined technical skill implicitly buy into a morally bankrupt system. Some felt that a rougher, cruder art style (for example, Bruno Paul's drawing for Simplicissimus) was more "true" than more controlled art forms. Lady Butler could control the tools of illusion (fake foreshortening, or having every horse flying through the air at you without touching the ground) in more clandestine ways.

Steadman's flinging of ink may be more honest, or it may be nothing more than the self-indulgence of a primal scream. YMMV. But I think there is a genuine discussion to be had.

David Apatoff said...

Mort-- Thanks for the additional links. I was surprised by how close Sábat's and Steadman's pictures were. And a little bit of Sorel in some of those pen and ink drawings too, I think. There's always another lode of talent, just over the hill.

Li-Ann-- I think you raise some very good questions. A number of commenters have struggled here with the difference between propaganda and art. More than once I've quoted Yeats' theory that we make propaganda out of our arguments with the world but we make art out of our arguments with ourselves.

I agree with you that there is an important role for rage in the great family of artistic motivations. Whether it's rage against injustice or rage against an ex-lover or rage against the hopelessness of the human condition, "fight" art cannot be dismissed. I think some powerful propaganda has been created by an artist with neutral feelings who is just earning a paycheck, while other powerful propaganda is created by true believers. For me, the key is less the content of the image (left wing, right wing, or an ad for laundry detergent) and more about the way the content is expressed. In a recent post about Phil Hale's new book, chris bennett, kev ferrara and others disagreed with me, insisting that some level of human compassion is essential so that art doesn't lapse into nihilism.

While I disagree with that, I do think that fight art is where artists need to be most guarded that their anger doesn't get the best of their manner of presentation. The temptations are great. We make allowances for rage, we like it when such artists shatter norms, but it would not be enough for Steadman to throw a tantrum on paper.

I've added another example of Steadman's work at the end, one which I think illustrates the place where Steadman will go but Searle will not. I think it is devastating territory, but unquestionably art.

Kev Ferrara-- I'm not sure if you're suggesting that Steadman is such a "face-based" painter but I've not found him to be so. Obviously faces are important to an artist specializing in political portraits and caricatures, and obviously too if your goal is to make a savage statement about a person or political philosophy you should probably not be "taking the pains to probe and memorize the anatomy or structure" of the surrounding world. A more moderate example might be David Levine, who I think is a very good watercolorist but on his political caricatures indicates only the slightest body to support a large head, with no background.

chris bennett said...

David,

Again, thanks for a thoughtful and well laid out response.

From what you have written you appear to have an extremely narrow understanding of what 'control' means in the plastic arts, limiting it to little other than the refinement of mimetic techniques; a refined form of polishing, let's say. And you do Lady Butler along with countless generations of others a severe injustice by defining her achievement in such terms. Control is far broader and far, way far, deeper than that. To put it briefly: To have control of a work is to pursue the expressive realization of its composition, the organization and orchestration of it forms, colours, values, textures, rhythms, harmonics, depths, proximities, emphases, contrasts, key and tonal umbrella... and all these things imagined as a cross-pollinating unity so that it bears the fruit of meaningfulness. That is a dammed tall order, as any practicing artist worth their salt will tell you, and you need a serious grasp of what you're doing to even have a chance of achieving that. To say control is about refinement is like saying an orchestra needs no more than the gowns and tuxedos.

I should also strongly emphasise that control (mastery would be a better word), tough as that is to achieve, is only the half of it. To go about making anything meaningful involves having one foot in the known and one foot in the unknown, to walk that fine line between order and chaos and not stray too far either side. An artist, like a good explorer, is both wise and adventurous at the same time. So control, like chaos, should not be a destination (desiring either is a form of malady in my estimation), but together they define a path to meaning.

It is for this reason that I do not buy into the argument exampled in your last paragraph.

On the 'what does a Lady know about life on the battlefield' argument; what does Steadman or Picasso know about life in the Gulag or getting machined-gunned for you beliefs, or a bayonet through the eye? Did Tolkien ever see Mordor? These evils would not be being played out in the world if they were not capable of being imagined by each of us in the first place.

Wes said...

Kev said:
"There's a myopic, fixated type of artist that grows up drawing faces only."

Thats very interesting. Can you give some or any examples?

Is it a kind of artistic solipsism, or just the artist being stuck on one type of motif that seems central?


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Laurence John said...

David and Chris,

Re: control; The politics of the artist shouldn't be an issue in your discussion. The point is that Steadman, like Picasso and Bacon before him, is moving away from drawing that 'maps' to a correct 3-D form and into gestural mark making that is more about an impression of movement and form. The final image being made out of fractured graphic statements, that sit on a flatter space (albeit with some 3-D correctness within). There's clearly more room for letting go of 'control' in this gestural type of work than there is in trying to do a realistic oil painting of a nymph by a pond a la Bouguereau.

The question is whether this type of picture making 'works' as well as a more correct 3-D / realistic scene. Can it even do certain things better ?

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

The politics of the artist is not my concern, even though it came up by way of passing, and I'm pretty sure it is not David's either. My point to him was that mimetic skill constitutes only a small part of what 'control' means in the plastic arts and therefore the argument that Steadman is practicing a mode of creation that demands less control is utterly invalid regarding the wider and deeper meaning of control, or to use what I consider to be a more helpful term, mastery in the service of expression.

In my view, most of the time Steadman's splats, smudges and slashes merely communicate his desire to vandalize the object of his loathing.

Tom said...

The ability to develop a gesture mark into something more substantial reveals mastery other wise the mark is merely a flourish. Almost anyone can imitate a Rodin sketch but how many people realize a sculpture like his John the Baptist?

Tom said...

David wrote,
“Some of the later schools of art may appreciate Butler's painting but still question the authenticity of this type of picture, manipulated to give false order and "control" ...”

Isn’t that one of the main principals of art and one of its main difficulties, to give order to experience?

Laurence John said...

It seems that David is talking about degrees of fidelity to reality when he uses the word 'control' (above), which peaks with Bouguereau.

'Gestural' picture making is moving away from fidelity to reality and toward non-representation. The question is whether it was a worthwhile avenue to go down or a dead end.

When you get into the area of the more gestural mark making with (for example) violent slashing lines and splattered paint (Dix, Bacon, Steadman, Arisman etc) it does often feel that the histrionics have been dialled up.

That says something though; is this type of picture making closer to a type of 'visual music' where a mark left by the artist's hand is interpreted by the viewer directly in a visceral way ? The same way that a series of discordant motifs hammered out on a piano would have a jagged emotional effect on the listener.

Tom said...

I would say there is no avenue to go down Laurence. David is just choosing two extreme points on a scale. I don't think the road analogy is a good one, art isn't going anywhere. A period of art my make what is at first vaguely intuited explicit after a certain amount of time but that has more to do with what that era is attempting to express or represent.

Leonardo saw pictures in the cracks of walls. It sure seems something can be visceral and intelligible but a visceral that doesn't stand up to scrutiny robs it of interest like the promises of advertising. After all nature delivers on all levels of interest.

Tom said...

Just like the great painter of China who fill the end of his hair with ink and splatter his paper with that ink. He did not leave his work at that, he transformed the natural energy of the splatter ink into a landscape painting. Philosophically he probably saw no difference between the energy that created the spatters on his paper and the energy that forms all the other objects of the world.

Like the line in a Rodin drawing, it is informed by knowledge and years of studying the human body. This is what really separates it from a flourish which is more like an imitation of a real action or an attempt to avoid the difficulty of developing that knowledge.

Laurence John said...

Tom,

Your examples of seeing something in a random shape (Leonardo) or turning some blown-ink marks into a picture (Chinese artist) are a different topic.

I'm talking about the point where the dedication to creating a 'realistic' scene (what David is calling 'control' or Chris is calling 'mimesis') turns into 'gestural' mark making.

I used to work in animation so i think of a 'wireframe' model that a drawing must 'map' to, to create a believable sense of 3-D reality. But use whatever term you prefer, such as 'sculptural form', 'planes' etc.

My question is "when marks detach from the wireframe, does it all descend into gestural meaninglessness" ?

kev ferrara said...

'Gestural' picture making is moving away from fidelity to reality and toward non-representation.

I would say that "gestural" picture making is an attempt not at representing nothing in particular (non-representation) but at to combine expressive distortion and abstract simplicity without laboring over the facts that pin down the truths.

Thus the method of pigment flailing is a problem. It's laying a big bet on one pull of a slot machine's arm; on mimesis, expression, and abstraction each coming into alignment with one's artistic hopes and dreams all at the same time.

But what's the odds of getting all Jackpots on a slot machine? The house - nature - usually wins. And nature's default symbolic expression is gibberish.

Every assertion, artistic or otherwise, is putting an argument. The problem is justification. Anybody can slop pigment around, anybody can bluff and bark and make up words and mumble incoherent facts and spurious theories.

The professing becomes justified only when it actually expresses something beyond mere sensation, something that rings the bell of shared experience and relates the artist to the audience. For this the art must be tethered to the world.

That says something though; is this type of picture making closer to a type of 'visual music' where a mark left by the artist's hand is interpreted by the viewer directly in a visceral way ?

I've mentioned this before here, but vague or ambiguous marks are interpreted through the lens of the coherent larger context. In good paintings, there are many indeterminate areas. But they don't bother us because 1. we can easily figure out what they probably indicate using educated guesswork, and 2. the areas aren't that important to the narrative.

The same way that a series of discordant motifs hammered out on a piano would have a jagged emotional effect on the listener.

I would say this is a different issue. This is more a tonal matter. And discord certainly is a legitimate artistic tone. But tone is only the beginning of content. The same can be said generally for sensations or expressions of emotion for their own sake. The inchoate is beneath even the primitive.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "Thus the method of pigment flailing is a problem. It's laying a big bet on one pull of a slot machine's arm; on mimesis, expression, and abstraction each coming into alignment with one's artistic hopes and dreams all at the same time."

Good argument, but it assumes that the result must include 'mimesis'. See my last comment above.

If an artist 'detaches from the wireframe' (my phrase) or from 'mimesis' (you & Chris) then they're not playing by the mimetic rules anymore.

Why are you convinced that a painting has to map to 3-D reality to be meaningful ?

kev ferrara said...

Why are you convinced that a painting has to map to 3-D reality to be meaningful

I don't think I said that exactly, did I? There are levels of mimesis. A crude sun glyph has a mimetic component. If it didn't it wouldn't be a sun glyph. It would just be a symbol of unknown meaning. And obviously cartoons are meaningful and most of them are board flat.

And I recall making arguments here about the difficulties of being 'non-representational' at all. I made the point that one can find mud splashing on a car fender that roughly equates to Jackson Pollock's action-painting 'technique.'

I may be unclear on the argument you're making. Can you restate it?



chris bennett said...

Tom wrote: "Isn’t that one of the main principals of art and one of its main difficulties, to give order to experience?"

I agree Tom. But I would phrase the question slightly differently in order to more effectively challenge David's argument. I would ask; 'what is the purpose of trying to discover order in experience?' Which is another way of asking; 'why make stories out of experience?' Which is another way to ask 'Why make art?'
I would say it is to find and communicate the meaning in the world.
Which is why expressing anger about something is not to make art out of it.

kev ferrara said...

Isn’t that one of the main principals of art and one of its main difficulties, to give order to experience?

Journal entries give order to experience, no? Newspaper articles, routine, habit, the persistence and limitations of the senses, life, death, day, night, and the position of the sun all do as well.

More importantly, there are an infinite number of arbitrary orders one might impose on any particular reference or scenario.

Developing arbitrary orders is as easy as applying a filter or algorithm to a photograph. Distortion per se has no poetic value necessarily, although millions certainly see any mimetic distortion as meaningful. (Again, people endlessly mistake the meaning-like for the meaningful.)

The moderns, as arrogant and tendentious as they were 'open-minded', succeeded in confounding the meaning-like with the meaningful in the mass mind. But that doesn't mean we should go along with that dumbing-down-cum-brainwashing.

'Why make art?' I would say it is to find and communicate the meaning in the world.

...aesthetically. Via suggestion, evocation, poetics, drama. Otherwise art equates with philosophy.

Also, subjective experience and the objective world cannot be separated. Art, we might say, shares the objective through the subjective.

Tom said...

"Journal entries give order to experience, no? Newspaper articles, routine, habit, the persistence and limitations of the senses, life, death, day, night, and the position of the sun all do as well.'

I guess I should have said making one's visual experience into a work of art. Ordering is finding how what is most important and what is of minor importance or creating a hierarchy that allows one to communicate that experience in the form of a picture.

I'm not sure what arbitrary orders has to do with it, as the development of most skills is a submission to the rules of the game. Try baking a cake arbitrarily.

Tom said...

Laurence wrote
""when marks detach from the wireframe, does it all descend into gestural meaninglessness"

That's why I used the Rodin example. A meaningful gesture is "attached to a wireframe," or artistic knowledge if it is really profound.

In the Steadman drawings the splash of ink surrounding the pigs functions as a frame so it is attached to the idea and meaning of a frame.

In The Slash drawing one reads the ink as hair and also as ink spilled on the paper but the ink is still attached to the wireframe of "hair." A context carries its meaning. When the ink is just splattered on top of his drawings it does contribute a sense of excitement and frenziness to what is being depicted. It seems like your question has to be address on a case by case basis.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "I may be unclear on the argument you're making. Can you restate it ?"


1. In this painting there's a very real sense of three dimensionality. A skilled CGI artist could build a wireframe model of this scene that you could rotate. A sculptor could model it out of clay:

https://www.bpib.com/illustrat/schaef1.jpg


2. In this painting the 'wireframe' or 'sculptural form' is much less solid. The marks are more gestural and are sitting 'on the surface' more. They aren't describing 3-D form so much.

https://archive.shine.cn/newsimage/2015/03/20/020150320113516.jpg


3. This painting would be almost impossible to model in CGI or clay, because the marks are almost entirely gestural, and the sense of 3-D form isn't realistic enough.

https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2019/10/Francis-Bacon_Pope.jpeg


There seems to be on this blog (with the exception of David) a strong preference for the 1st category, some interest in the 2nd, and almost universal condemnation for the latter. I'm interested in why.

chris bennett said...

...aesthetically. Via suggestion, evocation, poetics, drama. Otherwise art equates with philosophy.

Yes indeed, and thanks for the addition. I took this as a given, but you are right to point it out, because it is important to distinguish art from philosophy.

Also, subjective experience and the objective world cannot be separated. Art, we might say, shares the objective through the subjective.

This is a wonderful way of framing it. I'd say it also explains why truth does not come into being unless it is acted out. And vice versa; only by action can truth be discovered.

Tom said...

"There seems to be on this blog (with the exception of David) a strong preference for the 1st category, some interest in the 2nd, and almost universal condemnation for the latter. I'm interested in why."

Maybe its because it doesn't correspond to how we experience space or the strength of things. I don't know about CGI but a skilled artist could resolve the lack of 3D in the last two images. Being stuck in a one dimensional plane isn't a very satisfying experience unless its a decorative pattern which isn't calling for the viewer's full attention the way a painting does and even decoration is subjected to a satisfying geometric arrangement which has a correspondence to the forces that govern the nature of things.

David Apatoff said...

Wow, I come back at the end of the work week and the conversation has galloped beyond where I left it. Let me try to plug a few holes as I weigh back in.

I agree that chris bennett's definition of "control" is superior to the one I started with. It's more comprehensive and it covers the more important aspects of picture making. It's also more slippery to apply because it goes beyond objectively verifiable factors such as technical proficiency to include highly judgmental factors such as "the fruit of meaningfulness," which means people quickly come to an impasse. But it's worth exploring the more ambitious scope of "control" to see how far it can take us.

As some of the comments have noted, I wasn't trying to distinguish between "mimetic" and non-mimetic pictures. There's plenty of abstract art (such as Josef Albers' color squares) that is non-mimetic but is the epitome of precision and control. To clarify, by the term "uncontrolled" art I was really trying to address art which believes that careful, conscious, deliberate planning-- traditionally the hallmark of high art and civilization-- is inadequate to certain subject matter. When previous generations of artists addressed extreme subject matter (for example, apocalyptic art such as Durer's Four Horsemen, paintings by Bruegel or Bosch) it was still done with jewel-like precision because artists believed in an eternity with a god who might be pleased by their craftsmanship. Today, on the other hand, an artist concerned about the end of the world, who believed nuclear war was imminent, or who believed civilization was beyond redemption because of genocide, is less likely to find value in patient skill. Their medium is not the medium of Persian miniatures or Faberge eggs. Why employ the tools of discredited civilization? What good have those tools done centuries of artists who have gone before? Artists post-Hiroshima are more likely to turn to the art of the subconscious, to the immediate and spontaneous, to the violent and the shocking and the shrill, using the least flammable materials they can find. Artists such as Steadman who believe that the basic tenets of civilization, such as empirical fact, have been abandoned by Trump followers, are less likely to labor to give art "fidelity to reality." (When I spoke with Steadman, he told me in the first 15 minutes that he thought Donald Trump was "the most disgusting creature on earth.") After chris bennett first raised the comparison with Searle, I added the last picture on this blog post to show the grotesque distortions that Steadman was willing to use, but where Searle would never go.

Steadman tells you that he throws ink down and is always a little surprised by what he gets. (Searle, on the other hand, always seemed to have a pretty good idea where his droplets would land.) Perhaps Steadman is working out his primal anger or disgust, taking his hands off the steering wheel because conscious "control" simply could not do the job. The vocabulary of the technician is inadequate to Steadman's despair, so he's recording a violent gesture in ink.

Steadman may seem to be an extreme example, but I think looseness is now a mainstream virtue in art, as opposed to 19th century careful planning of pictures. Back in 1949 Henry Pitz wrote that technical craftsmanship in ink work was being supplanted by a "new approach" in which artists "clown and grimace and cavort in a medium once approached with a certain amount of trepidation." I'll remind you that he was talking about Ronald Searle's generation.

kev ferrara said...

I'm not sure what arbitrary orders has to do with it, as the development of most skills is a submission to the rules of the game. Try baking a cake arbitrarily.

There are an untold number of artworks that have mindless design schemes installed into them. Mostly in the last 100 years, ever since high modernists declared that tennis no longer required a net. Or; cake-making no longer need result in an edible cake.

kev ferrara said...

There seems to be on this blog (with the exception of David) a strong preference for the 1st category, some interest in the 2nd, and almost universal condemnation for the latter. I'm interested in why.

Well, you've linked to a lesser Schaeffer in that first link, where the chunky-sculpted form thing, learned from Cornwell, took control of the picture and resulted in something static rather than imagistic and alive.

The second picture, which I also have on my hard-drive somewhere, for me, is quite interesting poetically, but fails in too many ways pictorially to really make a purchase on the soul.

The Bacon, coming in third, is crude junk. At about the aesthetic level of one of those day-glow-painted carnival haunted houses that roll into small towns on a trailer.

I think I know what you are getting at generally. I can only speak for myself, but what I think is going on is that Illustration was the last stand of no bullshit. Of artists who were real poets. Thus real artists.

And the people who really appreciate illustration, particularly the Golden Age of it, can sense quality and meaning on their own. They don't need to be told what is good in order to feel secure in their judgment. And they/we can equally sense - despite assertions to the contrary, hype, emotional pleading, and peer pressure - the vacuity of bluffing, splattering, randomness, vagueness, 'that's just my style', sophomoric surrealism, symbolic bafflegab, edgy sensationalism, poor craftsmanship, weak talent, and so on, that one seem doomed to endure in this postmodern cultural age.

I mean, if you imagined that Francis Bacon painting as a movie, it would look like Ed Wood directed it.





Laurence John said...

Tom: "Maybe its because it doesn't correspond to how we experience space or the strength of things."

Could be. However I love a lot of Japanese Ukiyo-E prints by artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro which were also a big influence on artists such as Degas and Vuillard, who went on to influence Fuchs who influenced Sienkiewicz etc.

The fact that those Japanese prints have wrong perspective, and a lack of correct-looking weight doesn't ruin them. In fact it's part of their appeal.

Kev: "...but what I think is going on is that Illustration was the last stand of no bullshit. Of artists who were real poets. Thus real artists"

Well, I guessed that you would prefer the paintings in category 1 (not a tough guess) but i don't think "No BS: Thus real artists" is much of an argument as to why.

Why does a painting have to follow the rules of perspective, volume, light and shadow etc that we see in the real world in order for it to work ?

Isn't the joy of the - flattened space + more visible mark-making images - precisely the fact that they have deviated from how we see things in the real world, and the mechanics of the picture-making illusion are being made visible ?

If a painting is always a proxy for illusionistic / realistic 3-D space then why not just be a film-maker ?

kev ferrara said...

i don't think "No BS: Thus real artists" is much of an argument as to why.

I was trying to short-hand the matter, given how long you've been reading my arguments on this very question.

Why does a painting have to follow the rules of perspective, volume, light and shadow etc that we see in the real world in order for it to work ?

Obviously creative types can do whatever they like. And they can feel justified in doing so according to whatever rationales they choose.

A picture can 'work' for any number of reasons, depending on what 'job' it was intended to perform. So long as it does what the artist intends, why should he/she not declare it a success for themselves?

The question then arises, was the job worthwhile or at all interesting or ambitious beyond the artist's interests? Does it contribute something? Is it poetry? Anybody, after all, can follow a recipe and bake a cookie. That doesn't make one a pâtissier.

Isn't the joy of the - flattened space + more visible mark-making images - precisely the fact that they have deviated from how we see things in the real world, and the mechanics of the picture-making illusion are being made visible ?

This goes to the point I made earlier about the implementation of meaningless design concepts. The number of different ways of distorting the visual world is infinite. And what of it? Meaningful distortion - poetic tropes - are a very specific, technical subset of all available mimetic distortions. They aren't the result of luck.

The joy of great art is not, at first, the facturing, the joy is in experiencing the aesthetic world that lives and breathes of its own accord via mysterious meaning-structures. It is the wholistic psychic hit that haunts us and transfixes us.

Then, once we fall out of aesthetic arrest, once the meaning download has finished, and we have been allowed to take back control of ourselves, then the craftwork, in all its elegant falsity, might become intensely interesting. Because, like Penn and Teller's act often, we are being shown the tricks, yet we still don't quite understand the mystery of how we were so affected.

If one gets kicks from random or accidental form, that's fine. But let's stop pretending it is poetry. If an artist is going to communicate anything beyond self-indulgence, or their ability to create decorative projection-tests, it requires engagement with experience. And to actually abstract from the world, from experience, requires experience; and then intense perception, memory, contemplation and synthetic imagination, structural study, and the courage and faith to do and to make.

Tom said...

"The fact that those Japanese prints have wrong perspective, and a lack of correct-looking weight doesn't ruin them. In fact it's part of their appeal."

All I would say in regards to the painting of the east Laurence, is the space is still legible. Which is more to my point. One knows what is in front, what is behind and what is near so it doesn't negate our lived experience. Forms overlap in a intelligible manner. Renaissance artists as well as Classical artist compressed form into a narrow space in the same manner to strengthen the compositional impact of their painting. Relief sculpture, facades of classical buildings or the stage of the theater are great examples of forms maintaining a clear order from front to back in the confines of a shallow space.

All one has to do is look at photo remakes of great paintings to see how photographic perspective can severely weaken a composition.


chris bennett said...

Today... an artist concerned about the end of the world, who believed nuclear war was imminent, or who believed civilization was beyond redemption because of genocide, is less likely to find value in patient skill.

Even if I substitute your phrase "patient skill" with 'mastery', why are they less likely? By your argument a parent who worried about such things would be less likely to bring up their child properly. And even if such an argument were true, sloppiness of construction remains sloppiness of construction regardless of the circumstances in which it takes place.

Why employ the tools of discredited civilization? What good have those tools done centuries of artists who have gone before?

A tool and the things it makes are two entirely different things. The same goes for principles, the axioms of chemistry are used to create mustard gas and penicillin. Hate and love can both be expressed in English. Why should the fundamental principles of the aesthetic language be an exception to this?

Artists post-Hiroshima are more likely to turn to the art of the subconscious, to the immediate and spontaneous, to the violent and the shocking and the shrill...

All art is predicated on the subconscious in that it utilizes the synthesizing part of the mind in consort with the conscious intellect in order to realize an aesthetic structure that can be communicated.
And this is why "immediate" and "spontaneous", i.e. impulsiveness, is, by itself, inadequate at forming anything more articulate than, on the high end, such things as quips or on-the-fly improvisation, and on the low end, anger and frustration. A dreams has to be consciously restructured in order to realize and thereby communicate its meaning - which, I stress, is not the same thing as explaining it.

Wes said...

Assuming the theory that disgust/delight is the original biological trigger for morality, it would make perfect sense (yet inane) to extrapolate our disgust/delight with a particular work of art as bad/good, according to our lights. Why not start there?

For example, I dislike R. Stedman, but not more than I dislike R. Crumb, because both tend toward the ugly. But that’s not to say their subjects or even techniques are “bad” art – just that I don’t like them (or their techniques – splatters and rubbery swollen bodies). They are clearly both geniuses and compelling in their own ugly way. Yet Francis Bacon’s stuff is repulsive beyond belief to me, and fits no vision of the world for me, so I find it to be absolutely without value, it’s bad art, according to my lights.

And I find Searle tedious and overwrought, but his style is no sloppier (it appears to me) than say, Whitney Darrow, whose work I love.

Much of modern art does seem to be a bit of “joke” on the rest of the world, and so its easier now to bring in yet another standard – its art, and it doesn’t take itself very seriously, but the artist is hoping that others take it quite seriously. The problem then is not whether the art is valid (or the techniques, however lame), but rather then that it appears to be an artistic joke.

How do we figure out what’s going on here? Why, for example, is Cattelan’s taped banana art?

kev ferrara said...

Why, for example, is Cattelan’s taped banana art?

Doesn't the defense of that claim fall on those who make it?

As the cliché goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Unfortunately, we then are forced to consider the position of the magic-word people, for whom mere symbolic declarations -- "this is art" or "a smart person said this was art" or "I saw it in a gallery or auction house or studio" -- confer art status.

kev ferrara said...

When previous generations of artists addressed extreme subject matter (for example, apocalyptic art such as Durer's Four Horsemen, paintings by Bruegel or Bosch) it was still done with jewel-like precision because artists believed in an eternity with a god who might be pleased by their craftsmanship.

This sounds so bizarre to me. Do you have some proof of this belief? Most high-finish artists I know like a high-finish because they like a high finish. They like detail because they like detail. They find it satisfying and they like being in that polishing and perfecting zone while working. I presume the same has gone for innumerable artists down through the ages.

kev ferrara said...

Why employ the tools of discredited civilization? What good have those tools done centuries of artists who have gone before?

I have no idea what argument you are trying to make here. Nazis used the radio, should we cast out the radio? They also used graphics and uniforms and automobiles and typewriters.

chris bennett said...

Assuming the theory that disgust/delight is the original biological trigger for morality, it would make perfect sense (yet inane) to extrapolate our disgust/delight with a particular work of art as bad/good, according to our lights. Why not start there?

Because I think it seems to be a wrong assumption Wes. Perhaps we can tell this is so because applying it to the question of ascertaining quality in art results in the confusions and inconsistencies you sketched out.

I wrote a few blog posts back that I believe morality to be deeply allied to our fundamental yearning for truth, despite the seductive temptation to lie for short term gratification. As I exampled, it is why, in the movies, sane people always want the good guys to win. Acting out the truth sustains us, acting out a lie, like a hard drug, slowly poisons us.

So, I believe a more useful approach would be to ask of the artist's work you mentioned; 'does the meaning they are communicating embody the principles of being that can be abstracted out of experience?' In other words; how true are they? Does the work feel like it contains sustenance? Or poison?

David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "The question is whether this type of picture making 'works' as well as a more correct 3-D / realistic scene. Can it even do certain things better ?"

I agree, that's exactly the question, not only for this post but for so many of the discussions on this blog. I believe we need to be on our guard against giving too much credit for familiarity and conspicuous virtuosity, especially since so much of artistic growth seems to stem from receptivity to cultural cross-fertilization (as with the Renaissance). No one would dispute that Steadman's spatters are weaker in many respects than the oil paintings of Sargent or Sorolla; the question is, are they are stronger in other respects? If an artist wants to express horror or revulsion, might it not be more effective to tip over the bottle of ink, to grab the lapels of the viewer and shake them to convey that time is short and the circumstances are dire? In such a circumstance I think Laurence John's question is the right one: Does Steadman's "gestural mark making" do this better?

chris bennett wrote: "In my view, most of the time Steadman's splats, smudges and slashes merely communicate his desire to vandalize the object of his loathing."

Quite possibly. So what do you make of that? For 95% of the history of art, artists have had a totemistic relationship with their work. Cro-Magnons painted animals on a cave wall and struck the image with spears or dabbed it with red pigment in the hope that it would bring them luck in the hunt, enabling them to survive for one more day. In my view, that process led to some extraordinarily beautiful art. , art with a more profound commitment than much of the technically proficient art produced by high civilizations.

Tom wrote: "The ability to develop a gesture mark into something more substantial reveals mastery otherwise the mark is merely a flourish. Almost anyone can imitate a Rodin sketch but how many people realize a sculpture like his John the Baptist?"

OK, but how do you respond to J.M.W. Turner, who started out painting very "substantial," masterful seascapes and gradually obliterated content into foq and steam and blurs and shimmering seas of color? There, the fully realized masterpiece, the one that required mature, sophisticated vision, was the one that required the least technical skill and control.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "pigment flailing is a problem. It's laying a big bet on one pull of a slot machine's. arm; on mimesis, expression, and abstraction each coming into alignment with one's artistic hopes and dreams all at the same time. But what's the odds of getting all jackpots on a slot machine?"

People play slot machines, despite the crummy odds, because the pay off is so great. These artists achieve a result they believe cannot be achieved through a direct "tether to the world." I quoted an essay above by Henry Pitz about the "new generation" of loose, spontaneous artists circa 1949. In that essay he wrote, "Looking at their pictures the average person is likely to believe that anybody can draw in pen and ink. All this is deceptive, of course. The better artists are almost all first-rate draftsmen; their ease springs from experience and natural competence. And a great many of them consider a large wastebasket the most important article of furniture in their studios, for they rely upon a succession of renderings of the same composition, discarding them one by one, until the accumulated lesson of many failures leads to a final happy and sparkling result."

That large wastebasket is the artist's equivalent of the rolls of quarters in the purse of the slot machine player. The "jackpot" pay off for the artist is a free and uninhibited line that appears to be instantaneously recorded.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "Professing only becomes justified when it actually expresses something beyond mere sensation, something that rings the bell of shared experience and relates the artist to the audience. For this the art must be tethered to the world."

I don't disagree with this point, I disagree with the length of your tether. You seem to require a tight choker leash, while I think that abstractions by Rothko or Miro are tethered and "ring the bell of shared experience" quite nicely.

In the movie Wall Street, the mogul Gordon Gecko has a huge office which was carefully planned and fabricated from scratch by Hollywood set designers in a converted auditorium. On the wall is an immense abstract painting which conveys the message, "this guy's balls weigh 20 pounds apiece." Everyone in the viewing audience gets that message, either consciously or subconsciously. It's not just that the painting is audacious, it's a bold, virile composition (and, I would add, quite beautiful). If the painting didn't "relate the artist to the audience," the set designers wouldn't have selected it for that role. We get only a few short glimpses of it in the background, yet it transforms the perception of the office for a popular movie-going audience. In this way it "expresses something" just as much as the careful work of a Vermeer or a Norman Rockwell.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett and Kev Ferrara-- you both seem to have trouble with my assertion that "an artist concerned about the end of the world, who believed nuclear war was imminent, or who believed civilization was beyond redemption because of genocide, is less likely to find value in patient skill.... Why employ the tools of discredited civilization?"

The point hardly seemed objectionable to me, so let me try again. If an artist believed that the world was about to end due to nuclear war or an errant meteor, then avoiding "sloppiness" (chris bennett's term) or "polishing and perfecting" (kev ferrara's term) might move down their list of priorities a notch or two. Similarly, if an artist believed that audiences had been deaf and blind for centuries to the necessities of religious salvation, and that the second coming was nigh, then sitting in a monk's cell and laboring over dainty illuminated manuscripts for another ten years may seem like less than what your God would expect of your gifts. Kev apparently believes that such a monk should remain oblivious in his cloistered cell if he is one of those who "like detail because they like detail. They find it satisfying and they like being in that polishing and perfecting zone...." That's fine for some artists but it doesn't delegitimize others with a different view. (As George Whitfield wrote in 1739, "I love those that thunder out the word... the Christian world is in a deep sleep. Nothing but a loud voice can awaken them out of it.") If an artist lived through a gas attack in the trenches during World War I, he might feel that the elegant galleries of inspiring paintings that convinced him of the nobility of the cause were all artifice and lie. His instinct might be to burn down the temples of art, or at least stray from the laws of perspective.

There are many other issues that have come to a head in the 20th century-- artists in Weimar Germany desperate about the rise of fascism, artists concerned with climate change, artists in Trump's America-- where it could make perfect sense to say, "We don't have enough time left to apply subtle layers of oil glazes, we need to make ourselves heard to numbed sense over the din of state propaganda." An artist could justifiably think, "I've watched generations respond to the beauty of painters like van Eyck or Velasquez to no avail, and the current generation is even more tone deaf than the last, so I need to raise the decibel level."

[CONT.]

David Apatoff said...

[CONT.]
A good concrete example might be Sargent's painting, Gassed . It is essentially a 19th century depiction of the first great 20th century proof that the sun had set on the age of reason. It abides by all the "fundamental principles of the aesthetic language" we love, but in others way it was clueless about the new realities. Back before it became transformed by nostalgia and sentiment into a great masterpiece, many contemporaries who were closer to the war ridiculed its orderly, centered single file profile of victims, calling it simplistic and idealized. One prominent art critic wrote: "This picture is a descriptive work; it recounts the result of a gas attack in very much the language that an English schoolboy of the self-conscious age might use.... Both mental and physical aspects at this scene can scarcely have been more poignant, and of this Mr Sargent has made a picture, a reproduction of which many a young lady will hang up in her boudoir, and in sentimental moments will regard with that taint glitter of a summoned fear and murmur. 'Poor fellows.'"

By comparison, Otto Dix was a machine gunner in the trenches, lived through gas attacks, was wounded and came back with recurring nightmares. He, or other artists such as William Roberts (another gunner in the war who painted "The First German Gas Attack at Ypres" for the National Gallery of Canada) were not gifted masters of the medium like Sargent but they knew his art was a canard which did not capture the fear or pandemonium of a gas attack or the unpleasant lifelong consequences-- a canard which might ensnare future generations unless different kinds of artists made a different kind of statement.

Tom said...

David wrote

"OK, but how do you respond to J.M.W. Turner, who started out painting very "substantial," masterful seascapes and gradually obliterated content into foq and steam and blurs and shimmering seas of color? There, the fully realized masterpiece, the one that required mature, sophisticated vision, was the one that required the least technical skill and control."

Now how could a man with that much knowledge produced a painting that required less skill? Turner didn't get rid of his skill, his skill made his vision possible. That's my point, how many people can produce The Battle of Trafalgar or sculpt John the Baptist? And how do you know from experience it would it require less technical skill to produce Steam Rain and Speed ? The level ground plane, the clear perspective, the sense of gravity and compositional arrangement was earned not given. Art is specific not vague.

Splash some ink on paper and all of the sudden you penetrating the nature of reality then see if you can draw an arm like Rubens. The thing is one would probably have no comprehension of the thought that went into the creation of Rubens. The dumbing down is painful.

The exaggerated drama you create around cave painting is not the only possible interpretation of these works. This view is much richer and life affirming then just survival. A representation of the world as they knew it not just a practical problem of hunger.

You can listen at the 28 minute mark if you don't want to watch the whole thing,

https://vimeo.com/170664047













chris bennett said...

If an artist lived through a gas attack in the trenches during World War I, he might feel that the elegant galleries of inspiring paintings that convinced him of the nobility of the cause were all artifice and lie. His instinct might be to burn down the temples of art, or at least stray from the laws of perspective.

That an individual's reaction to witnessing hell on earth can be permanent despair about the entire edifice of civilization, I am certainly not contesting, and neither, I think, is Kev or Tom. But to argue that this despair can produce anything other than anger and resentment and malice at the condition of our being is absurd in my view. A depressive state experiences all things as meaningless. I would say depression is the catastrophic loss of a person's sense of context, which is why life losses its meaning for them. It has lost its fruit and leaves and nothing will ever grow from its rotting trunk again. Not only this, but what was once there was a delusion. How on earth is such a view going to produce anything but a tortured cry of nihilism about the state of being? Let's put an end to it and burn the whole stinking, fucking lot of us.

It is a world view that thinks only darkness is the true reality of our being. This is as untrue as believing we are essentially angels only corrupted by evil, or, as the post modernists would have us believe, nothing more than blank slates that can be altered by a theory of what should be. All these viewpoints are partial and reductionist cosmologies formed from extremes of aspects of experience. It follows that none of them can be 'the truth of being-ness'.

And it is because 'the truth of being-ness' is so deep, so fundamental to whatever consciousness is and therefore our perception of things, it requires a person to be in a very special state, quite unlike despair, bliss or ideological possession, to have any intimation of what that truth might be, and the language used to communicate whatever is found there, we call Art.

Wes said...

What's wrong with the "extremes of aspects of experience"? Are they not full aspects of being, or of experiencing being? Isn't any point on a line of reality both in media res AND at the extremes?

Haven't there actually been Hells on Earth, actually too many to count? Why can't art come from these harsh places?

chris bennett said...

Because extremes, by definition, are only the boundaries of a wholeness, not the wholeness itself. Violet or yellow are the extremes of the spectrum and not the totality of light, which is itself just an aspect of electromagnetic radiation...
Therefore extremes of experience, while they are aspects at the border of the fullness of being, are not the fullness of being itself.

Haven't there actually been Hells on Earth, actually too many to count? Why can't art come from these harsh places?

Of course there's been Hells on Earth, and we can quite easily visit them in the orbit of our own lives if we have a mind to. But if art is an expression of 'truth of being' I cannot see how it is able to emerge from such experiences if those experiences are believed to account for the whole truth of being. The content of such works will be, in essence, sentimental*. (We're back to the rose-tinted sunglasses and the x-ray specs again...)

*Which is why I strongly disagree with David Apatoff about Sargent's 'Gassed' - a work that depicts devastation, unlike Otto Dix, within a wider context of experience.

kev ferrara said...

When Andrew Wyeth would splash watercolor over his work, his intention was to wake himself out of aesthetic slumber, not to put the work, and himself, to bed.

Under stress, it is a mark of character to keep one’s head and continue to provide service. Farmers, Truckers, Grocers, and Shelf Stockers have kept the food stores full and shelved in an orderly fashion and to the best of their abilities through many a mass panic and calamity. I’m sure no one on this blog has gone without heating oil through this entire pandemic. That means there are entire networks of people out there keeping their heads and wits about them.

There’s any number of excuses, true or not, for the high strung media-addicted types to set their hair on fire and run screaming down the street. The noises they make certainly qualify as ‘expressing themselves.’ Fat lot of good it does anybody. Expressing one’s self hardly qualifies as a service. Rather, in times of stress, those with a high viral load of anxiety often provide a net negative to their community by spreading their counterproductive panic; vomiting it all over the place in symbolic, indexical, or signifying form, and then looking for attention-pity like an infant.

There is no catharsis in the ugly, random and meaningless; no elevation, no transcendance. If that’s all an artist can offer, they aren’t doing their job of truth distillation and aesthetic transfiguration. They’re just another piece of driftwood tinder spreading the flame of rank emotionalism through the populace.

The Age of Reason has never exactly been upon us, nor has it ever left. It is just one distributed state of mind amid many others that is with us perpetually. There always was, and always will be a ready excuse to drink booze, eat Fritos, and have a meltdown; seek and ye shall find: The Plague, The Kaiser, The War, The Commies, The Nazis, The Bomb, Ennui, Shame, Kids These Days, Corporate Media, Politics, Ideological Arrogance/Ignorance, The Weather, The Climate, Hysteria Peddlers, Race Hustlers, The Pandemic, Lawyers Who Appear On Television, Cancel Culture, Cardio Vascular Prevalence, Algorithm-Induced Social Media Addiction, Cardi B, etc.

An excuse to act like a basket case is not a reason to act like a basket case. We have agency over both our actions and our emotions. We have willpower. And with any luck the fellows driving the refrigerator trucks full of vaccine are the steadfast type and won’t be utilizing the same excuses for slapdash execution of their jobs you’ve presented here.

Wes said...

"the wholeness itself" is a human concept that ranks parts of reality, which reality probably doesn't have, and making the rank a linchpin for a piece of art. You've effectively "objectivized" standards of art and therefore the artist's work.

But doesn't art have more in common with illusions rather than truth? So when we reject a work of art, for whatever reason (not related to skill), aren't we just rejecting the artist's illusion? Why not with a smile, and just say "not for me"? Why does it need to be an "error" i.e., not truth?

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I'm not clear, are you suggesting that the loose, abstract work of a Turner or a Rodin could not have been created by an unschooled artist? On the surface Turner's most brilliant mature watercolor sketches might be mistaken for a child's finger painting. And you yourself wrote that anyone could imitate a Rodin drawing, yet Rodin said at the end of his life, “My drawings are the key to my work.” Should we be able to detect the mastery and the arduous path of skill and control beneath the surface of these spontaneous looking pictures? I'd like to think yes, but the answer is far from clear to me.

I fully agree that cave paintings from 40,000 years ago are open to a lot of interpretation, not just from artists but from neurologists, anthropologists, chemists and others. I do think the vimeo you sent takes a lot of liberties, trying to draw a connection between the aurora borealis and the flickering torch light inside a cave. What I wrote about the cave painting at Pech Merle was not mere conjecture. I've been in most of the significant prehistoric caves discussed in that lecture, including Altamira and (by approval of the French minister of culture) Lascaux. I was the lead attorney for the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux and I've spoken with the top experts such as Jean Clottes and the paleoanthropologists at the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology. Admittedly, none of them were present when the cave paintings were created, but at the same time they can scientifically confirm when a painting of a wooly mammoth has been repeatedly struck with a sharp point, or they can methodically compare the totemic treatment of tribal art of the 20th century with the apparent uses of ancient cave paintings.

One other point about your vimeo lecture: while the lecturer is correct that the people we call "cave men" did not actually live in the caves, preferring to live outdoors under the shelter of stone outcroppings, the cave paintings themselves were done in the caves, with our predecessors often traveling a mile or more into very dark and dangerous caves populated by bears and other hungry creatures, to find the proper magic wall for painting their pictures. What artist today is willing to take such risks for their art?

chris bennett-- I'm not sure why you'd think it's absurd that artists in despair could only produce "anger and resentment and malice." There has been no shortage of depressed, traumatized, suicidal artists, artists in despair about the human condition or even about their own talents. There are famous suicides such as Rothko and Van Gogh, and many more depressed artists who self-medicated with drugs and booze. After a grim childhood Edvard Munch was suicidal but was saved by electro-shock therapy in a mental institution. There was no one to save Henry Raleigh from jumping out a hotel window. Alcoholics and addicts such as Jackson Pollack or Basquiat died early through self-harm. Wouldn't you consider Eugene O'Neil--author of the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night-- a great playwright?

Tom said...

David wrote

'I'm not clear, are you suggesting that the loose, abstract work of a Turner or a Rodin could not have been created by an unschooled artist? On the surface Turner's most brilliant mature watercolor sketches might be mistaken for a child's finger painting. And you yourself wrote that anyone could imitate a Rodin drawing, yet Rodin said at the end of his life, “My drawings are the key to my work.” Should we be able to detect the mastery and the arduous path of skill and control beneath the surface of these spontaneous looking pictures? I'd like to think yes, but the answer is far from clear to me."

Yes that's what I was suggesting, one can imitate their actions, but without their knowledge it's mere flourish, a pose. If one looks there is a mastery in the work that cannot be faked that is the product of studying nature unceasingly for years. One brings their own knowledge to the experience of art. A great violinist will see and understand aspects of another violinist ability that will be missed and not understood by someone who doesn't play the violin. While most people on the street think you got real talent in drawingt if you can draw a circle head. That is why I mentioned the examples of their finished work which reveals the power of their abilities which of course will influence the acts that appear as mere scribbles on pieces of paper. One of the hardest parts of art is the development of your idea.

David wrote, "What artist today is willing to take such risks for their art?"

Why is your narrative always so dramatic? Which is the main reason I posted the video. The animals had a lot to fear from man. Even tigers know it is best to avoid a pack of dogs. Wasn't the mastondon almost hunted to extinction by man? I'm sure they took the best precautions to protect themselves when entering the caves. They traveled and followed the herds and I'm sure they where well aware of the dangers they could encounter in the world they inhabited.

Sargent may not have had Otto Dix's war experience but that doesn't mean his own experience is a canard. War is one of an infinite number of life experiences. War may change a carpenter's views or beliefs about man but does that mean he will change how he makes things? The great thing about art is, even if you have something "important say," it forces you to start taking notice and considering fundamental aspects of reality that one rarely considers in their day to day existence. If fact it does a pretty good job of destroying one's immediate ideas about visual reality.

The thing is did their art really alter anything when you look at what followed. People do not and can not live in a constant state of excitement and agitation. All fires burn out. How quiet life is when your not reading or listening to the news. It is not art's fault that men don't change and it is a little desperate to think changing art is going to get people to change their actions. People will wonder more about why your spilling ink all over the paper then sense the tragedy your trying to convey. Like Rothko's paintings being hung in a restaurant.

Sargent did many watercolors of the more mundane everyday activities that occupied the soldier's time durning the war, that one immediately recognizes as simple human experinces while reaffirming the things that give us unexpected delight in our daily existence, the play of light and shadow, the joy of color and satisfaction of a thing well done.






David Apatoff said...

Wes wrote: "What's wrong with the "extremes of aspects of experience"?.... Why can't art come from these harsh places?"

An excellent question, and one particularly well suited for this audience. Many of the participants here appreciate art from the fringe that would never make it past the gatekeepers for a fine art museum. "Low" art, lowbrow art, popular culture, oddball drawings from comic strips such as Krazy Kat, lurid pulp covers, magazine illustrations-- these are art forms that live on the outskirts of respectability, but they get a fair shake around here because most of these participants are knowledgeable and confident in their taste, and don't need some curator or auction house to tell them what's good. They recognize that "fine" artists such as Richard Prince steal pulp art from Rafael DeSoto for a reason: because extreme art about harsh places injects coarse energy and spirit into thin blooded, puerile art that would otherwise have none.

Most here would applaud a Frazetta fantasy painting of a battle axe tearing a man's face off. But now we come to a situation where an artist says, "I was standing next to my friend when a machine gun tore his face off, and it ain't the way Frazetta portrays it." Sometimes a human experience can be so extreme that the wheels come off when searching for an authentic artistic response. I think that authenticity-- even faked authenticity-- has come to be viewed in the 20th century as an increasingly important artistic quality because it is one of the antidotes to the patent artificiality of much of academy painting.

Long term participants here may recall that I don't care for Otto Dix's work, but at the same time I don't dismiss him out of hand because he brings a different kind of cargo from the fringe of experience, and with work that fringe could turn out to be valuable.

chris bennett wrote: "I strongly disagree with David Apatoff about Sargent's 'Gassed' - a work that depicts devastation, unlike Otto Dix, within a wider context of experience."

Can you talk a little bit more about this? Keeping in mind that the bulk of my comment was a quote from a critic at the time (a critic who echoed the reactions of many) I do feel that Sargent's painting is a pretty aristocratic, sheltered perspective from an artist who has not dwelled much on human suffering. The soldiers are Hollywood handsome, lined up single file in heroic profile against the sky. I'm not saying an accomplished painter or movie director isn't able to tug at the heart strings very effectively that way. I'm just saying that it lacks the authenticity of Sargent's paintings of crocodiles or an octopus.

Kev Ferrara-- I assure you that your delivery truck drivers are no more sturdy and no less self-pitying than the artists we're discussing. The difference is that the artists have a voice. You don't hear from the truck drivers with despair because they end up sleeping on the sidewalk (or in a state institution if they're lucky).

kev ferrara said...

they can scientifically confirm when a painting of a wooly mammoth has been repeatedly struck with a sharp point,

I can scientifically confirm that the blocking sleds at my High School were repeatedly struck with shoulder pads. Earlier in my schooling, I can prove, circumstantially at least, that cardboard tails were pinned on paper donkeys.

I assure you that your delivery truck drivers are no more sturdy and no less self-pitying than the artists we're discussing. The difference is that the artists have a voice. You don't hear from the truck drivers with despair because they end up sleeping on the sidewalk (or in a state institution if they're lucky).

I grew up with some guys who became truck drivers. My father did some lawyering work for some truck driver unions. Your 'assurances' aside, these are a sturdy stock of people who don't have much truck for excuses and whining. And lucky for us they aren't.

Most here would applaud a Frazetta fantasy painting of a battle axe tearing a man's face off.

Frazetta did not paint gore in the 'hot' pornographic manner you here suggest. Even if you saw blood, you never saw a gaping wound or flesh being ripped so as to disgust. And we all know he did great work and weak work. So prospective applause would depend on the particular piece.

But now we come to a situation where an artist says, "I was standing next to my friend when a machine gun tore his face off, and it ain't the way Frazetta portrays it." Sometimes a human experience can be so extreme that the wheels come off when searching for an authentic artistic response.

This terms 'authentic' keeps cropping up in your writing. What do you mean by it?

Bear in mind it is the goal of journalism to present facts (at least before 1995 it was). If you really want to see a face being blown off 'authentically' you'd probably be able to find that in the same section as "Faces of Death" and other snuff films.

I think that authenticity-- even faked authenticity-- has come to be viewed in the 20th century as an increasingly important artistic quality because it is one of the antidotes to the patent artificiality of much of academy painting.

It takes real guts to declare an entire genre of painting 'inauthentic.'

I doubt most educated people these days have even a passing familiarity with any paintings unmentioned in the average art history survey course.

If you think ink drips are 'authentic' then maybe get yourself an uncovered bottle of higgins, some paper, and a ladder and do some important work about the homeless drug-addict problem in California or the current Muslim genocide in China.

chris bennett said...

I'm not sure why you'd think it's absurd that artists in despair could only produce "anger and resentment and malice." There has been no shortage of depressed, traumatized, suicidal artists, artists in despair about the human condition or even about their own talents. There are famous suicides such as Rothko and Van Gogh, and many more depressed artists who self-medicated with drugs and booze. After a grim childhood Edvard Munch was suicidal but was saved by electro-shock therapy in a mental institution. There was no one to save Henry Raleigh from jumping out a hotel window. Alcoholics and addicts such as Jackson Pollack or Basquiat died early through self-harm.

I'm sure you guessed I aware of this argument before I wrote the line you quoted. But it is fair enough to tease my view of it out into the daylight.

The first thing to say is that despair or depression is rarely the constant state of a person's life, even of the highly strung. Also, the condition, when present, can be episodic, fluctuating, varying in intensity or bipolar. This leaves an artist who can be said to be plagued by it plenty of time to function productively.

The second thing to say is that what does the work of Rothko, Pollack and Basquiat say to us about their world view? Apart from anything else, it is one that drove them to voluntarily take themselves off the planet. Van Gogh and Munch on the other hand were clinically troubled men whose work suffered because of it, with Van Gogh only able to create in his 'lucid' periods, and in the case of Munch his work becoming inferior in tandem with his worsening psychological condition.

Finally, ask yourself, if despair is the current state your existential being, and you are forcing yourself to create something, what themes are you going to believe in?

Wouldn't you consider Eugene O'Neil--author of the autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night-- a great playwright?

I'm afraid I have not read this David, so I'm unable to answer. However, I can say there are great works created in redemptive answer to the experience of Hell rather than moaning and whining about it. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ‎The Gulag Archipelago and ‎One Day in the Life of Ivan are masterpieces of transfiguration.

I'll answer you question from over the pond about 'Gassed' after I've had my beauty sleep...

Wes said...

In my meat cutter days, I knew lots of truck drivers -- long haulers and local. Most of them were alright, and they also were the bringers of new jokes, most of which would not be PC now, but were still hilarious. Its a fine tradition that has mostly died out. Truck drivers are the descendants of Hermes, and so they do deliver amusing messages as well as goods.

So we always liked the truck drivers, but if they didn't know how to work a pallet jack very well, or the beef carcasses were too heavy, or the loading dock was too steep, or the pallets poorly stacked, or it was raining, or they were running late, or their boss was riding their ass, you heard whining.

Oh they whine.

kev ferrara said...

So we always liked the truck drivers, but if they didn't know how to work a pallet jack very well, or the beef carcasses were too heavy, or the loading dock was too steep, or the pallets poorly stacked, or it was raining, or they were running late, or their boss was riding their ass, you heard whining.

Are you sure they weren't just bitching? ;)

Anyway, I think this analogy may have left the trailer behind, partially my fault. The point was the spuriousness of the argument that, simply because one has generalized anxiety, that gives license to cut corners at the job. Why bother 'finishing up'... why bother locking the cab, why bother getting to the destination on time, why not drink and drive? (And so on.) All because the world.

It is no secret that one of the great methods of quelling anxiety is to actually get work done. And the kind of work that works best to calm the nerves is immersive work in the flow state, in the zone. Equally, work that one takes pride in, and appreciates. All this goes to my underlying point about the absurdity of statements like, "Artists only do refined work if they think God is watching."

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- You raise a good point. The experts have assumed that when prehistoric people repeatedly stabbed a drawing of their hunting prey, the wooly mammoth, with pointed spears it probably had something to do with a hunting ritual. But you're right, they could've just been playing pin the tail on the donkey.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "It takes real guts to declare an entire genre of painting 'inauthentic.'"

That's probably why I didn't do it.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "This terms 'authentic' keeps cropping up in your writing. What do you mean by it?"

Well it can mean a wide range of things. For example, there's some value to the idealized style of 19th century neoclassicism where figures with movie star looks have porcelain skin with all freckles, moles and pubic hair airbrushed away. But if you want to convey how the tragedy of poison gas has affected humanity you might be more convincing if you made soldiers look closer to humanity. (And think of the embarrassment it would've saved John Ruskin on his wedding night!) As another example, you say that Frazetta's violence was not painted "to disgust," but some of the artists who went through World War I felt they'd been misled by glamorous paintings of noble military charges in fancy uniforms. They felt that real war was mud and chaos and inhumanity, and that more authentic art would've been more honest and better for the world. Today's equivalent might be kids raised on video games that allow them to painlessly mow down urban populations with an uzi developing an inauthentic sense of the consequences of carnage.

chris bennett-- The deal with Eugene O'Neill was that he was a brilliant Nobel prize winning playwright known for his dark, grim plays such as The Iceman Cometh about alcoholism, addiction, and the agony of life.

I agree that Solzhenitsyn was a paragon of strength, but it was his eastern orthodox christian religion that made him indigestible in the belly of the gulag and also made him a pain in the ass for liberal democracies to deal with after he was freed. For those who are able to retain a deep religious faith, I think that many of the principles were discussing don't apply.

Wes-- I worked in the back of a truck in high school. Agreed, those guys loved to whine.

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

Good morning folks, the coffee is on, it's still dark outside, so I'll address David's question to me earlier concerning Sargent's 'Gassed':

Can you talk a little bit more about this? Keeping in mind that the bulk of my comment was a quote from a critic at the time (a critic who echoed the reactions of many) I do feel that Sargent's painting is a pretty aristocratic, sheltered perspective from an artist who has not dwelled much on human suffering. The soldiers are Hollywood handsome, lined up single file in heroic profile against the sky. I'm not saying an accomplished painter or movie director isn't able to tug at the heart strings very effectively that way. I'm just saying that it lacks the authenticity of Sargent's paintings of crocodiles or an octopus.

The world Sargent was familiar with outside of his studio consisted mostly of hob-nobbing with the aristocrats he was painting portraits of and taking trips across Europe with an entourage of wealthy types staying in hotels and who lounged around in white dresses under the shade of parasols watching him paint the scenery. The world of my grandfather, on the other hand, was one of enlisting in the army when he was under age because a life as an infantryman was better than the one he was enduring at home, four years in the trenches, including the Somme (as a kid I used to pester him to tell me about it, but all he would say was "up to our knees in mud and cartridge cases"), promoted to the rank of Sargant (there's some oblique irony for ya), entered civilian life as a live-in night-watchman at Knowle House, seat of the Sackville Wests (whose recent ancestors had been painted by Sargent, so even more irony there for you), promised a permanent place to live for his services, but this was never put in writing and therefore spent his final years in a dreary, soulless apartment block in London. But he was never bitter, he was a kind-hearted, brave and generous man, and I loved him, and I'm proud to have some of his blood flowing in my veins.

The reason I'm telling you all this is because it would certainly justify me filling my mouth with a generous gulp of high octane liquid Woka-Kola, igniting it and spitting incandescent 'outrage' at the likes of Sargent and all that the subjects of his paintings superficially stand for.

But I don't. To put it bluntly, my understanding means can I see past all that shit and recognise the value of an archetypal image when I'm presented with one. 'Gassed' has this quality. The Hero is the hero fighting to emerge inside each one of us. As is The Ideal, The Quest, Redemption and Transcendence. The shining armour of Saint George slaying the dragon of chaos and despair is there so we recognise him as The Hero. It tells me what my grandfather really was underneath his mud splattered, blood-stained khakis, his tatty overcoat behind the glare of his night watchman's torch, his inexpensive old man's boring clothes on his bent back as he shuffled, unnoticed, from that dammed apartment block in the London drizzle.

Ah, I see there is enough light in the studio. To work.

kev ferrara said...

The experts have assumed that when prehistoric people repeatedly stabbed a drawing of their hunting prey, the wooly mammoth, with pointed spears it probably had something to do with a hunting ritual. But you're right, they could've just been playing pin the tail on the donkey.

I wasn't denying the point the experts were making. Do you know what a 'Blocking Sled' is, which I had mentioned? Both the use of the blocking sled and pin the tail on the donkey are very physically challenging game-like tests connecting sensory abilities with physical abilities. But neither the Blocking Sled nor the tailless Donkey on the poster, though both represent and reference the given antagonist, are ever much consider in terms of Art.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "It takes real guts to declare an entire genre of painting 'inauthentic.'"

That's probably why I didn't do it.


Yes, I noted your qualifier after I posted but didn't feel my mistake warranted a deletion/rewrite. I'm sorry I wasted everybody's attention there.

If you want to convey how the tragedy of poison gas has affected humanity you might be more convincing if you made soldiers look closer to humanity. (And think of the embarrassment it would've saved John Ruskin on his wedding night!) As another example, you say that Frazetta's violence was not painted "to disgust," but some of the artists who went through World War I felt they'd been misled by glamorous paintings of noble military charges in fancy uniforms. They felt that real war was mud and chaos and inhumanity, and that more authentic art would've been more honest and better for the world.

Journalism is different than Art, right?

One would think this key distinction foundational to all cultural education. It isn't Art's fault that Ruskin was brought up as a bubble boy. As Goethe warned, "A confusion of the real and the ideal never goes unpunished."

chris bennett said...


I agree that Solzhenitsyn was a paragon of strength, but it was his eastern orthodox christian religion that made him indigestible in the belly of the gulag and also made him a pain in the ass for liberal democracies to deal with after he was freed. For those who are able to retain a deep religious faith, I think that many of the principles were discussing don't apply.

By what logic do you come to the conclusion that the principles we are discussing do not apply to someone with religious faith?

Thanks for the Eugene O’Neill bio-byte BTW. I’d heard of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ but was unaware of what it was about. What you've told me, along with its great title, has tempted me to read it… 😊

Ryan Garcia said...

David I would love to hear your thoughts on the latest New Yorker cover by David Hockney. It's getting some pretty wild reactions!
Long-time fan of your blog, thanks David

David Apatoff said...

Ryan Garcia-- In my view, Hockney is a cautionary tale for all of us: talent can be spoiled and made rotten by too much success, too soon. I think he started out as an excellent artist-- smart, taut, talented and inventive. After he became a celebrity artist, his every soiled kleenex was snatched up by fawning, indiscriminate art collectors. One of his paintings sold for $90 million. He bought a mansion on the beach at Malibu. Perhaps it's inevitable that he began to believe his marketers and press agents. Whatever the cause, I think his filters became numb and he produced decades of vapid art. Most artists I respect would be embarrassed by that NYer cover, but Hockney is past the point of worrying about standards and actually felt his "accomplishment" was worth expounding upon:

"Jonathan Wilkinson, my technical assistant, said he could make a new app with a mathematician in Leeds. It was rather good, and then I got six or seven new brushes custom made. I did say I was drawing on the iPad, but actually I’m painting on it. I’ve got two hundred and twelve paintings done this year, with only eight more to do."

I think a high school student today could do just as well without having to hire a "technical assistant."

chris bennett-- I only meant that artists with cast iron religious beliefs may have a kind of natural protection against some of the despair we're discussing here. If you believe that every injustice will be addressed in the afterlife, or that there is a supreme deity who oversees all this but whose motives are not for us to understand, it may prevent you from going into free fall.

Regarding Eugene O'Neill, he wrote several tragic plays about the dark midnight of the soul, but I should caution you that they tend to be very, very long.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Journalism is different than Art, right?"

I used to think so.

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Journalism is different than Art, right?"

I used to think so.


What's your justification of the position that Art and Journalism are the same thing?

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- Its interesting to contemplate what kind of artist Sargent might've been if he'd spent more time with the likes of your grandfather. One with more humanity, I'd wager. That seems to be the primary gripe about Sargent: he was a truly great painter, but with a certain coldness that stood between him and the highest heights.

It's impossible not to be touched by the story of your grandfather, and I know there were many other stalwarts from his generation who withstood ordeals that today we imagine are unbearable. Were they strengthened and inspired by heroic archetypes from artists such as Sargent? That would be a great reason to commend idealized art, but I just don't know enough about their thinking to speculate. I know that the ancient Greeks, who invented more than their share of archetypes in their heroic statues, were involved in a lot of up close, personal slaughter on the battlefield, and they seem to draw inspiration from the ideal. But most of the people I know from your grandfather's generation have been too stoic to talk about their experience.

I also know, from my work with organizations dealing with mental illness and disabilities, that there were a lot of damaged human beings who did not make it through wars your grandfather did. For generations they've been warehoused out of sight in VA hospitals because they were bad for recruiting. Or, they lived like hermits in forests and deserts. The lucky ones found shelter in the spare room of a family member. Some were left physically intact but with dark memories that kept them from ever socializing again. Were these disabled people weaker than your grandfather, or did they just catch a bad break? Hard to say.

Bottom line, I've long defended illustration and comic art against those who criticize its idealized people and scenes; I compare idealized characters to the mythical figures who have shaped our character and ambition ever since the Iliad and the Odyssey were first chanted around campfires. So, I get that part. But at the same time, when I look at Sargent's "Gassed" I consider the decades of slow days to come in wards smelling of stale urine, with chronic pain from missing limbs, with patients crying out at night... the dashed relationships, the suicides... and I think, "This is a picture of soldiers at the peak of their tragic glory, but the largest part of this experience is something Sargent doesn't know, and cannot portray.


Kev Ferrara-- Modern journalism seems to involve as much fantasy, whimsy and subjectivity as the most imaginative Art.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "If one gets kicks from random or accidental form, that's fine. But let's stop pretending it is poetry"

I wasn't arguing for 'random or accidental form'. I was asking about illusionistic paintings / drawings that 'map' to 3-D reality vs those that don't. The categories were:

1 - maps to correct 3-D reality.
2 - deviates from 3-D reality (marks becoming more 'gestural' and/ or 'flatter')
3 - breaks completely from 3-D reality (almost completely 'gestural')

There's an argument that photography (and more importantly - cinema - i would argue) freed painting from having to depict a 'realistic' dramatic-narrative moment, and left it to explore things that only painting could do. That were about the use of paint on a surface.

To re-word my earlier question: why spend time and effort creating an oil painting that depicts one paused / static moment from a pirate adventure (for example), when you could create 2 hours of a pirate adventure on a screen ?

Weren't all of those static moments from realistic dramatic-narratives (westerns, pirate adventures, gangster stories, romances etc) that were the stock and trade of the 'golden age of illustration', ultimately superseded by the greater realism of the cinematic image ?

Didn't cinema actually beat painting and illustration at its own game... to provide a believable, realistic window into a narrative fiction ?

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara-- Modern journalism seems to involve as much fantasy, whimsy and subjectivity as the most imaginative Art.

Well, we're obviously in agreement about that. But this is a different point than suggesting that it is the role of Art to present fact. Particularly since the nature of art - the nature of mark-making, design, evocation, relationships, association, signification through form, symbolism, and so on - is suggestive and abstract.

Tom said...

David wrote
" I consider the decades of slow days to come in wards smelling of stale urine, with chronic pain from missing limbs, with patients crying out at night... the dashed relationships, the suicides... and I think, "This is a picture of soldiers at the peak of their tragic glory, but the largest part of this experience is something Sargent doesn't know, and cannot portray."

Maybe your on too something David. He did spend a lot of time looking for a subject that would lend itself to painting when he was hired by the (I think) the British imperial war Museum to make the painting. Like Manet, Sargent as an artist realized all mental ideas do not always lend themselves to pictorial ideas. Plus his work was commissioned. He was suppose to portray British and American troops performing some sort of joint action and he expressed the difficulty of finding such action in the actual war zone.

As a commission work the painting also had to meet the clients exceptions which immediately changes the nature of the work. It is no longer just and expression of personal point of view. Plus the painting is huge 8 feet tall by 20 feet long, and he expressed his concern and worry in regards to painting what were essentially life size figures. No small undertaking and something of a very different nature then a studio painting concerned with the painters own personal point of view.

It sounds like what you really want is something written instead of painted or a maybe a movie of which many have been made.

Laurence wrote
"There's an argument that photography (and more importantly - cinema - i would argue) freed painting from having to depict a 'realistic' dramatic-narrative moment, and left it to explore things that only painting could do. That were about the use of paint on a surface."

That argument is so old and I have too say kinda dumb at this point. Painting never needed to be freed from anything and it certainly would not exist without subjects.. Painting and drawing engages and explores our actual lived experience. People, places, things and space are the reason for paint. It is what makes painting possible, the movement of the brush itself. Artist want to say something about the world not something about paint. The attempt to comprehend and depict what is seen or felt is the challenge that nature presents the artist and it is the resolution between the two that brings the grace and the beauty of mark making into being.

What kind of mind is interested is in moving paint around on a surface for it's own sake?

kev ferrara said...

There's an argument that photography (and more importantly - cinema - i would argue) freed painting from having to depict a 'realistic' dramatic-narrative moment, and left it to explore things that only painting could do. That were about the use of paint on a surface

Painting didn’t start at realism and work towards cartoons, visual music, pigment splattering, or postmodern gibberish. It started as primitive graphic symbolism and forked its way toward mimesis on the one hand and toward expressionistic mark-making on the other. And the combination of all three, in whatever ratio, was where the poets found their métier.

And it just so happens that the combination of all three (graphics/symbolism, mimesis, and expressionistic mark-making) requires, even forces, upon the Creative a particular structural language unique in human culture. One that is different from photography or cinema.

Which is to say, you are not really appreciating just how much ‘only painting can do.’ It is far, far more than eye-catching surface applications of paint and pigment. The use of a wholly plastic medium (as opposed to a semi-plastic medium like photography) allows all of visual reality to be re-arranged, distorted and torn asunder for expressive and poetic purposes. (Thus, Imagism surely isn’t ‘one paused, static moment’ if it’s any good.)

Only animated films have a similar power to do this; but they don’t usually utilize this power fully. Because film has its own best uses and limits which its natural aesthetics, more or less, force on its artists. A painting has time to drill down, to stack layer upon layer of meaning; intervals are used in all graphic relations to break open gaps where the imagination is prompted to produce the closure.

While Film needs to spool forward in time, accruing meaning as it goes; its most natural closure-gaps are between beats and in the cuts. It doesn’t have time to build a wholly imagined, aesthetically-generated, yet believable world in every frame twenty four times a second. The best it can do is a consistent cartoon style, or some kind of consistent aesthetic tone laid over photographic-cinematic realism. 1/2

kev ferrara said...

And because each language has its natural scope, there is no need for overlap; one artistic form does not render another obsolete. Photographs offer us the surfaces of an instant. Images suggest and symbolize (something like) the embedded complex meaning of an event moment. And Cinema takes us through (something like) an unfolding narrative arc of personal enlightenment via diligent inquiry, error correction, and increasingly risky heroic action.

Though, it surely is true that, for many, illustration’s great interest or service was factual documentation. There certainly is a long history of reporter-illustrators (going back to Winslow Homer and Frederick Remington and Joseph Clement Coll.) And yes, in this case photography is the quicker, cheaper, easier replacement.

But Art and illustration never was ‘realistic’ as photography was. It only seemed so because of the level of finish of some of the top notch academic painters, like Bougereau or Ingres. Those who look at the work of either men and ‘see reality’ are so thoroughly under the aesthetic spell of the artwork, they don’t realize their intellects have been utterly compromised into ‘believing’ self-sustaining aesthetic realities.

As far as film eating illustration’s lunch, the height of ‘The Movies’ was parallel to the height of illustration. It was the ability of companies to get their mediation into individual households that allowed them to wedge themselves into family life and indoctrinate the masses into constant passive consumption. Thus making them the dream partner of the advertising world. It was television that killed illustration, not films. And it is ubiquitous screens that are killing public life and the experience of shared humanity generally.

The lone advantage illustration has over cinema in terms of business is the former takes a few weeks or less, a single dedicated artist, one room, and costs almost nothing. While the other takes a year and half, ninety seven million dollars, and an army of dedicated creatives, equipment, sets, locations, and technical people. 2/2

Tom said...

David wrote
"Jean Clottes and the paleoanthropologists at the Center for Research into the Anthropological Foundations of Technology. Admittedly, none of them were present when the cave paintings were created, but at the same time they can scientifically confirm when a painting of a wooly mammoth has been repeatedly struck with a sharp point, or they can methodically compare the totemic treatment of tribal art of the 20th century with the apparent uses of ancient cave paintings."

It might be more fun to see the experts draw a Mastodon;)

chris bennett said...


So, I get that part. But at the same time, when I look at Sargent's "Gassed" I consider the decades of slow days to come in wards smelling of stale urine, with chronic pain from missing limbs, with patients crying out at night... the dashed relationships, the suicides... and I think, "This is a picture of soldiers at the peak of their tragic glory, but the largest part of this experience is something Sargent doesn't know, and cannot portray.

Well, there was another artist living in England who was drafted into the army as a medical orderly in the same war, serving in Macedonia and later as an infantryman. Which means he had direct, practical experience of exactly what you are referring to.

This was Stanley Spencer, and as a personality and as an artist was almost the polar opposite of Sargent, an eccentric, humble man and aesthetically a creator of visionary (or imagist, to use Kev’s word) type. And he was also commissioned to paint a sequence of murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in memory of the great conflict:

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/place/sandham-memorial-chapel

So, do you think this work, by a very talented artist who had direct experience of Hell, achieves what you consider to be lacking in ‘Gassed’?

For my part, I have great admiration for much of Spencer’s work, but these murals, seen purely in terms of their intrinsic qualities, only convey to me the peculiar goings-on and rituals of a toytown world of munchkin-like creatures with an obsession for concrete crucifixes.

Applying the same test to Sargent’s ‘Gassed’ what do we see? A devastated landscape seen through a sulphurous colour haze in which two lines of men dressed in filthy and torn uniforms, physically in the prime of their life, who have all, seemingly at the same time, been suddenly blinded by something. Stumbling along with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front, they are a literal embodiment of the blind leading the blind. But they are ultimately putting their trust in the one man who can see, the medical orderly, the embodiment of care, and good sense, and conscientiousness. ‘Love’ in other words, whose eyes are those they must trust. And at eye-level, is the golden orb of the sun. But the question of whether that distant light is setting or rising, is given to us to decide.

Which work of art, I therefore ask, takes us closer to the truth of being when trying to survive an apocalypse?

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

Great debate about "Gassed". The line that seems to have stuck with me is David's comment that the "painting is a pretty aristocratic, sheltered perspective from an artist who has not dwelled much on human suffering. The soldiers are Hollywood handsome, lined up single file in heroic profile against the sky.”

Can't seem to get that earworm to leave, and it makes the painting hard to take seriously. But somewhere there was the comment too that in the background, other soldiers are playing football, so the apparent irony or cynicism is that those soldiers won't be long for sight either, which seems to redeem the painting some. Maybe the better message is not that they were heroic, but that they were mere cannon fodder, and plenty more to come?

kev ferrara said...

This was Stanley Spencer, and as a personality and as an artist was almost the polar opposite of Sargent, an eccentric, humble man and aesthetically a creator of visionary (or imagist, to use Kev’s word) type.

Hi Chris,

Forgive the correction, but I wouldn't call Spencer's work Imagist. It has far too much overt symbolism and structural cartooning in it and not enough observation, metaphor, and synthesis.

The Imagist seeks the sensual symbol for the idea that is natural to the environment, and then keeps it hidden and organic, as per naturalism, so it does not interfere with the audience's belief in the depicted reality, the aesthetic evocation of the drama, setting, and event. The audience is meant to sense the meaning - by a curious intuition - without being clobbered over the head with it. The is the beautiful mystery of imagism. It bypass the intellect.*

Whereas Spencer is utterly willing to destroy his narrative for the sake of 'expressive' form and allegoric symbolism. Spencer is 'visionary' in the same sense that Blake is visionary. Or Thomas Hart Benton. And that vision is a blatant regionalist style heavy on front-facing planes and graphic power.

*Although the poet Ezra Pound is credited with this idea circa 1912, artists had figured it out long before. Howard Pyle was teaching it in 1894.

kev ferrara said...

These Harvey Dunn pictures from WWI are more in line with the Imagist tradition. As per Edgar Allen Poe, all elements are subsumed to the overall effect. Note: The second painting of the explosion is a truly terrible image of the actual picture. But you should get the idea.

1

2

3

4

chris bennett said...

Thanks Kev, and for posting the example. (Image 3 is particularly affecting in its subtlety)

Your distinction makes a great deal of sense, so apologies for my mis-use of the term.

Applying this understanding to your comments a few blog posts back about artists who are essentially 'captors' and those who are 'conjurors' (leaving out the 'constructors') leads me to ask you this:

Do you consider the aesthetic success of what might be a 'captor's' painting (say a typical Chardin still life, a great portrait, a sur le motif landscape, even something like Sargent's 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose') to be dependant on the artist concerned recognizing how the conditions of the subject laid out before them can be realized as imagist?

This, currently, would be my belief.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I'm not wild about the Spencer paintings, although I think they contain some truths (in both form and content) missing from the Sargent painting. (For example, the painting "ablutions" seems to show the kind of effect of mustard gas on human skin that was tastefully left out of Sargent's painting.)

But our options aren't limited to those two extremes. Ivan Albright was more realistic than Spencer, a soldier in World War I who was put to work drawing and painting the injuries to young soldiers from poison gas and other new weapons. For medical records purposes he was assigned to accurately capture burnt or putrefying skin, gangrene, exposed tendons and organs and broken bones. This experience left a lifelong mark on his subject matter and particularly his understanding of human flesh.

Please understand, I'm not suggesting that an artist must earn credentials with first hand experience of hell, only that there can be collateral artistic benefit to having the empathy to appreciate the unclean human toll involved. I'd view Bruegel's Parable Of the Blind (which apparently influenced Sargent)or even Michelangelo's The Last Judgment as more successful than Sargent in this regard. I also like some of Kev Ferrara's Harvey Dunn WW I paintings, although I think that explosion picture is awful.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "this is a different point than suggesting that it is the role of Art to present fact."

Please see my next blog post, a little holiday gift. Mrs. Everett Shinn and I would agree with you.


Wes wrote: "Maybe the better message is not that they were heroic, but that they were mere cannon fodder, and plenty more to come?"

I'm trying not to let Sargent's political message color my view of the quality of the painting, although some paintings have become so iconic it's impossible to separate form and content. As far as I'm concerned the greatness of Sargent's image shouldn't hinge upon its pro-war or anti-war sentiment, but rather the way in which its content is expressed. The same goes for Steadman. In the case of Gassed, I do feel that Sargent's cleaned up image draws upon only a small selection of what's potentially at issue when sounding out one of humanity's most troubling preoccupations. If not "mere cannon fodder," at least perhaps "The Slaughter of the Innocents."

Tom wrote: "As a commission work the painting also had to meet the clients exceptions which immediately changes the nature of the work."

An excellent point, and one which we haven't addressed. How would the government sponsor react if Sargent added a more personal editorial slant? (Of course we don't know what Sargent's slant might've been, but I suppose it's fair to assume his client wouldn't have faulted him for a more patriotic, militant theme).

Art history is full of artists who risked antagonizing their patrons on large commissions. I just read in Dan Zimmer's biography of Dean Cornwell that when Cornwell got into a dispute with William Randolph Hearst over a mural of Queen Elizabeth, he altered the painting to make someone urinating on the queen.

kev ferrara said...

Do you consider the aesthetic success of what might be a 'captor's' painting (say a typical Chardin still life, a great portrait, a sur le motif landscape, even something like Sargent's 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose') to be dependant on the artist concerned recognizing how the conditions of the subject laid out before them can be realized as imagist?

I think the closer we get to mimesis, the more artistry and imagination falls away and we get a 'study.'

That the root of 'imagination' is 'image' is, I think, no coincidence. I think Images are the end result of applying the full suite of poetic-synthetic types of creative thought' to a pictorial idea.

Chardin's still lives are clearly far more than studies. They are full artistic effect, yet they are not quite Images. They are poems of observation. I think Emil Soren Carlsen's still lives take the same poetification idea even further than Chardin, and Carlsen's landscapes are equally dreamlike in their re-imaginative poetics. Any number of other artists created poetic landscapes that weren't quite 'Images' per se beginning in the 1850s (Monet, Manet, Inness, Sorolla, Levitan, Sargent, Streeton, Garber, Payne, Guthrie, Sydney Long, Harry Watson, Weir, NC Wyeth, and so on.)

Sargent, Sorolla, and Fechin take the same level of poetic transformation into portraits. Waugh, Vickery, Ritschel and others to seascapes.

Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is clearly a fully composed work of imagination and observation. The world is not found in the arrangements found in that painting. It is certainly Image-adjacent if it is not quite as Imagistic as say Waterhouse's Lady of Shallotte or any given brandywine image. You can feel that C,L,L,R is beautiful, but it doesn't quite feel strange in that telltale mysterious way that clues us in that there's something else going on under the surface. It doesn't quite have the self-similarity that would tag it as highly compressible. So it's a kind of hybrid.

Tom said...

David wrote
"Of course we don't know what Sargent's slant might've been, but I suppose it's fair to assume his client wouldn't have faulted him for a more patriotic, militant theme)."

Sargent clearly is more interested in the appearance and science of things that in conveying a opinion on man's actions. But I won't assume he always held his clients in great esteem, from reading his biography years ago, he fond many of the extremely boring and uninteresting.

His description of the Church of Santi Domenico e Sisto in Rome, where he describes the arrangement of the church's composition hints at his own feelings about the class he did so much work for "a magnificent curved staircase and balustrade, leading to a grand façade that would reduce a millionaire to a worm".

Tom said...

Nice description and explanation of what an "image," is Kev.

David Apatoff said...

Yes, and "illustrate" comes from the root, "to shed light on, or to illuminate." Introduced from the late Latin 1590s, that made an illustrator "an enlightener."

chris bennett said...

Kev,

Thank you for the thorough answer to my question, it's tightened up my understanding of the term and therefore as a tool to help tease out and distinguish the aesthetic ingredients to any given painting.

Just to check if my understanding of this is well in tune, if we compare two artist's whose landscape paintings are superficially similar, Richard Schmidt and Tibor Nagy, I would say that the latter's are generally more "image adjacent" than the former's.

Would you agree?

kev ferrara said...

Yes, and "illustrate" comes from the root, "to shed light on, or to illuminate." Introduced from the late Latin 1590s, that made an illustrator "an enlightener."

Not coincidentally, Howard Pyle's student Violet Oakley said that Pyle taught that illustration was 'teaching under an aesthetic guise.'

The term Illustration is an interesting rabbit hole to go down. Pyle said his task was to 'illumen' ("A difficult task indeed," he said) but he also said, and his students repeated, that illustration was a 'making clear.'

Sullivan's A Dictionary of the English language, a fine book from Howard Pyle's day, had some interesting entries on this family of words.

Illumen: to brighten; to adorn; to adorn with artificial light on festive occasions;
Illumination: A display of light as a sign of joy
Illumine: to enlighten; to illustrate; to adorn
Illustrate: To brighten with light; to make clear, to explain, to elucidate.
Illustration: elucidation, explanation.
Illustrious: bright; conspicuous; eminent; distinguished; noble; famous

What interests me is how all these concepts connect up; light and brightness, clarity, enlightenment, illustrious, adornment, joy, distinguished, etc. These were not people who took education for granted. Or daylight. Or candlelight. Or sanity.

kev ferrara said...

if we compare two artist's whose landscape paintings are superficially similar, Richard Schmidt and Tibor Nagy, I would say that the latter's are generally more "image adjacent" than the former's. Would you agree?

Not really. I would put both in the same poetic-journalizing camp.

It is very rare that an image can be made directly from a reference source, and even rarer still, from nature. Reality simply does not compose itself so as to create all the effective meaning-structures, resonances, metaphors, and poetic concisions found in a good image. Images are sustained creations of the imagination, usually based in narrative, and are naturalistic, while also having curious formal distortions. Paint quality and painterly effects are seen as distracting surface affectations compared to the larger complex idea. Suggestive, artful brushtrokes are welcomed, but should not call attention to themselves. The point is the song, not the note.

Landscape and Figural Painters use any number of contrasts to ensure that their effect area attracts attention and focus, as per the rules of design. The core of an Image, on the other hand, attracts attention because it is the moment of epiphany, where a sequence of demonstrations in a complex abstract 'argument' suddenly merge/synthesize to make a great revelatory connection that unifies and defines the whole.

This goes, again, back to the difference between meaning-like structures and actual meaning structures. An image is an attempt to cram as much aesthetic meaning into the depiction of a narrative moment as is humanly possible.



kev ferrara said...

After a cursory survey, it looks to me like Homer, Sorolla and Brangwyn most consistently hit the mark of working from life extensively while creating Images.

chris bennett said...

Hi Kev,

Again, thank you for such a well-thought out and comprehensive reply - I can't tell you how deeply what you have just written has illuminated my own understanding and pulled it into sharper focus. At a single stroke it has cleared up some very tangled questions I've been grappling with - I guess this has led to my asking you the perfect question. And you have given to me the perfect answer. I owe you much.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Well...

I have great respect for your notion, oft stated in these precincts, that a picture requires a symphony of elements (such as effective meaning-structures, resonances, metaphors, and poetic concisions) melded together seamlessly by a full suite of poetic-synthetic types of creative thought, but I continue to believe that chamber music can be as great as any symphony. You say "the point is the song, not the note," but some art challenges us to find the song in the note. Some even says that before even assembling notes into a song, we first must delve into the nature of a note.

Your recipe, which is highly useful for some forms of art, seems to me to be a closed box which in my view is antithetical to the open ended, exploratory nature of art. If we we wish to find the whole truth about anything we must aggressively seek out its contradictions, and in this case it doesn't seem we have very far to look.

The great Degas once wrote to the great Pissarro, "It would be such a treat if you could produce some very careful outlines of cabbages." Where would you find your meaning-structures and metaphors in Pissarro's picture? And if you are able to find them, how can you deny the existence of meaning-structures and metaphors in Motherwell or Ellsworth Kelly or Adolph Gottlieb?

You say "It is very rare that an image can be made directly from a reference source, and even rarer still, from nature. Reality simply does not compose itself so as to create all the effective meaning-structures, resonances, metaphors, and poetic concisions found in a good image." In this sense, you could've been an expert witness at the divorce trial of Mrs. Shinn. Degas would also agree with you, as he didn't believe in sitting down in front of nature and going to work there, he thought nature needed to be "distanced, filtered and reorganized." But on the other hand Rodin tried to sit down in front of his model and let the form flow immediately onto the page without even looking at the paper. He said, "Not once in describing the shape of that mass did I shift my eyes from the model. Why? Because I wanted to be sure that nothing evaded my grasp of it. Not a thought about the technical problem of representing it on paper could be allowed to arrest the flow of my feelings about it, from my eye to my hand. The moment I drop my eyes that flow stops." Often his pencil went right off the page but it didn't matter, he still produced some stunning drawings. Are his images "the end result of applying the full suite of poetic-synthetic types of creative thought' to a pictorial idea"?

With respect to the cave painting of the wooly mammoth mentioned earlier, it's not at all clear that the mind of Cro-Magnon painters was capable of the pageant of conscious meaning-structures and metaphors you require, yet the picture stands before you, self-justified, and speaks for itself quite beautifully. The same might be said for some tribal art and folk art.

And a step beyond subconscious art, what about art dependent upon accidents of nature? Not just Steadman's splatters but Andrew Wyeth's too. Dubuffet's transformation of "found" art. There the artist's critical judgment is used to curate the value of different accidents, but again are such images "the end result of applying the full suite of poetic-synthetic types of creative thought' to a pictorial idea"?

Laurence John said...


David: "And a step beyond subconscious art, what about art dependent upon accidents of nature?"

David, if you don't know what Kev's answer to that is going to be by now, then you haven't been paying attention to your own blog's comment section.

Kev has outlined his own hierarchy of art, of which the pinnacle in his view, is the Brandywine / imagist school. Anything else is either a lesser form of art (e.g. graphics, cartooning, random juxtaposition, projection test, decoration) or not art at all.

He may on occasion profess some admiration for an earlier or slightly later school of art or particular artist (for example the sculpture of Bernini), but it will be seen as belonging to the lineage either to or from the Brandywine / imagist school (i.e it is 'Real Art').

And bringing up Dubuffet again is just asking for a mauling.

Laurence John said...

p.s. The reason I persist with my 'painting is irrelevant now / cinema is THE art form' argument is because I haven't heard a good rebuttal yet.

Also, it doesn't fail Kev's Brandywine / imagist test at the first hurdle. I maintain that a modern day Brandywiner would be a film maker (including animation or CGI) not a painter of still images.

chris bennett said...

Laurence,
Would you accept that the phrase 'moving image' is an oxymoron?

Laurence John said...

Chris, not sure where you're going with that teaser question, but if you have an argument for why a 'moving image' isn't real art then let's hear it.

kev ferrara said...

Yeesh, guys. Contend with the steelman not the strawman.

I've never forbid anything. Nor do I have the power nor interest to do so. And, while my language is specific, because I'm trying to get at something very specific and technical in the organization of the language, it isn't limiting as you seem to think. Its an offer, not a command.

For example, how has what I say been taken as a critique of chamber music? Chamber music is orchestrated just as well as a symphony. In fact, the fewer instruments involved, the more import each one has, and thus the more concentrated the poetics of each instrument must be and their interaction with the other instruments. There is no 'get out of jail free' card just because the orchestra is tiny or the piece is modest. The fewer elements or instruments lifting the piece, the more weight each must carry.

The same goes for art. Just because the idea is intimate, that doesn't make it any easier to execute well than an idea that requires wholistic intensity. (Although, some artists don't have the psychic provisions to handle intensity or much complexity. The principle, however, stands.)

The canvas of a piece of music is not the loudness nor the size of the band, but the length of the piece. There are small, quiet ideas and giant, bombastic ideas. There are meanders and races, tenderness and rage, propriety and punk, country and city. And each are fine in their own way. Each create art in their space of time equally, the quality to be determined by the qualities present.

We each look for certain qualities in art, which play into us aesthetically. Change the qualities of the artwork, the aesthetic effect changes. I am interested in the full suite of possibilities that plastic opportunity affords.

This includes the way a sensitive line encodes suggestive abstract information which seeps inward and informs a shape. It amazes me how much is evoked simply through a proportional gesture slightly outlined. There are so many principles involved, and they translate to other visual instruments besides line. Rodin's drawings are interesting for the haptic auto-writing that results; the linear encoding, the proportional gestures and relationships; we can see the essences of what he is going for. Essence being the key to good work, but the not the sum total of it. Essence, abstraction... needs justification. We pin truth to the world with fact, essence doesn't exist unless it is manifested.

The essence is the great effect. But the great effect cannot be great unto itself. There is no release without suspense, and no suspense without narrative structure, and no narrative structure without organized complexity built of sub structures and sub-narratives, foreshadowings and aftermaths. You don't get flowers without a garden. Unless you want plastic flowers.





David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "David, if you don't know what Kev's answer to that is going to be by now, then you haven't been paying attention to your own blog's comment section."

I know what you're suggesting: why doesn't David simply resign himself to the fact that Kev has closed his mind and hardened his heart against the varieties of excellence in art, contenting himself to till the soil of that small sliver of art that flourished in his individual time and place? It's not a bad question. But it's precisely because Kev is such a thoughtful and articulate spokesperson for what may be my favorite school of art that I continue to maintain optimism that he may one day enrich himself with a little cultural cross-fertilization, and thereby have a wider foundation from which to defend himself against the vastness of the universe.

Laurence John also wrote: "And bringing up Dubuffet again is just asking for a mauling."

Norman Rockwell kept a book of the art of Dubuffet on the small shelf of art books in his studio, along with a book of the art of Rembrandt. I salute Rockwell for continuing to explore and explore, despite the fact that he had already invested more time and effort in his particular formula for success than any other artist of his day.

Schnabel said, "I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed." Aiming for such heights can sometimes make artists look silly but it can also be a source of great advancements in the arts.

chris bennett said...

Chris, not sure where you're going with that teaser question, but if you have an argument for why a 'moving image' isn't real art then let's hear it.

Laurence, how my question "Would you accept that the phrase 'moving image' is an oxymoron?" implies that play-acting (cinema for example) cannot be art, I do not know. But I can assure you I do not hold such a view.

I ask the question because the differentiation between painting and an art form like cinema rests entirely on this issue. The whole point and efficacy of the aesthetic function of 'an image' is predicated on it being motionless. One glance at any painting that has been 'animated' (even a holographic 3Ditization) will demonstrate the truth of this. Believing cinema to be the technological apotheosis of what painting, at its most potent, has always been trying to do is the outcome of not feeling, and therefore not recognizing, the two modes of aesthetic transmission unique to each art form and thereby the aesthetic contents peculiar to them.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that you do not appreciate painting Laurence. I'm only challenging your assumption that one art form is, in effect, a more comprehensive manifestation out of another, and the artists you mentioned would have been film-makers if born in a later epoch. I believe this to be a mistaken conclusion about cinema and its place in cultural history.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I didn't intend to suggest that you don't like chamber music, I was only offering chamber music as a midpoint on your spectrum between the song and a note. You've long written about the importance of symphonic complexity in art, about the manipulation of "organized complexity built of sub structures and sub-narratives" in ways that support and enhance each other. And it seems that if we remove one musical instrument from the orchestra (such as "narrative" or "subject matter") it lessens the level of the artistic accomplishment in your eyes. So I refer to chamber music as a way of paring down the number of elements while still maintaining the highest quality. And if I can get you to go that far, then perhaps we can talk about going further, from chamber music down to "note."

Goethe wrote, "In der beschraenkug zeigt sich der maister"-- The master reveals himself in the economy of his means. That's why the subtlest wisp of a line in a Rembrandt sketch can be more of an artistic revelation than one of his his oil painting portraits with those overworked lace collars. Obviously there are times when simplification goes too far (all the more so in an era of low standards and shameless self-promotion). But that is part of the challenge of making sense of this human preoccupation: tailoring criteria to the intentions and the ambitions of the art rather than applying a "one size fits all" standard with which we've grown comfortable. Is a single musical note too de minimis to warrant attention? Well, usually... but as the theosopher Raghavan Iyer said, "Nothing is as important we think it is, but at the same time everything is more important than we think it is."

You write, "Essence being the key to good work, but the not the sum total of it. Essence, abstraction... needs justification. We pin truth to the world with fact, essence doesn't exist unless it is manifested."

I agree that abstractions don't fly around the room on butterfly wings, they must be grounded in tangible effort. My question is whether that effort necessarily requires "narrative structure with organized complexity built of sub structures and sub-narratives, foreshadowings and aftermaths." Can it be grounded with one musical note, such as color? And does it matter whether a shimmering field of color is produced by Turner at the end of a long career of "organized complexity built of substructures," or produced by Rothko before his suicide, or produced by the "color field" school of artists?

Laurence John said...

Chris: "The whole point and efficacy of the aesthetic function of 'an image' is predicated on it being motionless."

I don't understand why you're hung up on the definition of the word 'image' and trying to claim it only refers to motionless images. The 'moving image' is a colloquial term that's commonly understood to be synonymous with 'film' or 'cinema'.


Chris: "I'm only challenging your assumption that one art form is, in effect, a more comprehensive manifestation out of another..."

I didn't mean to suggest that painting or illustration was just an embryonic form of cinema (I'm well aware that they are two different mediums. However, it would also be weird to suggest there's no continuity between the two).

More that cinema has assumed dominance as being THE narrative medium of the present (because it expands the static narrative moment into action over time, sound, movement, character development etc.)

kev ferrara said...

Why doesn't David simply resign himself to the fact that Kev has closed his mind and hardened his heart?

“Oh Kevin, dear, dear… why not try new things, be more open? There’s a magical world out there of imagination and creativity, if you’d only open your heart and eyes!”

Thanks, but I already had a pair of wide-eyed bleeding heart 60s parents.

I heard the “open-mindedness” mantra prenatally, then perenially. Meanwhile we’ve all seen enough creativity for creativity’s sake to ruin museums, vandalize cities, net Adobe Inc. a billion dollars, and infantilize/narcissize four artistic generations. I’m long past new-sensation-seeking as an endpoint of discussions about art. That’s the designer’s remit, in my view. And the seller of art supplies’.

Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate anything modern. From Cezanne to Mondrian to Pollock to Dubuffet, I’ve seen and appreciated them all. I love cartooning, design, and graphics. I’ve been ‘enriched’ by their presence all my life.

But I’m interested in aesthetic quality beyond its experience. I want to know its cause. I’m interested in the language of art, and what it can do. And how far it can be taken – how far it was taken. After taking that road, seeing how modernists broke it all down into its simple sensational parts just isn’t very interesting in comparison.

kev ferrara said...

You've long written about the importance of symphonic complexity in art, about the manipulation of "organized complexity built of sub structures and sub-narratives" in ways that support and enhance each other.

It isn’t structure or complexity because IT IS GOOD, or because IT IS WRITTEN. It’s a particular kind of structure because that structure creates the aesthetic experience of the thought process in the audience. And a thought process is a narrative that builds and models its own world as it goes.

If that’s not your bag, fine. There’s cartooning, graphics, design, projection tests, decoration, (and so on) to fit whatever bill needs fitting. All of which are legitimate in their own right. (So they don’t need to be willfully conflated with Mucha’s Slav Epic for emotional reasons.)

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

I don't understand why you're hung up on the definition of the word 'image' and trying to claim it only refers to motionless images. The 'moving image' is a colloquial term that's commonly understood to be synonymous with 'film' or 'cinema'.

Let's call it 'pictures' then. I don't mind. But the word 'image' was around long before the invention of cinema and generically referred to something like a static graphic tableau, and specifically, to pictures. All to say, use of the word has been for centuries the means by which such things are described. 'Moving pictures' or 'moving images' refers to something different, even though the words 'picture' and 'image' are used in a phrase to name the phenomena. But there is no aesthetic connection between painting or 'image-making' and cinema. In fact, often the weakest element in a movie, I find, is when it shoots for the set piece tableau for grand effect.

More that cinema has assumed dominance as being THE narrative medium of the present (because it expands the static narrative moment into action over time, sound, movement, character development etc.)

Which is the fundamental misconception I have just sketched out. Painting is not a narrative medium in the way cinema is. Its narrative engine operates plastically and therefore quite differently, for different aesthetic purpose and therefore has a different effect on the beholder. This also applies to music, dance and literature. The depicted event as such, works precisely because it is an implied narrative held in suspension, or something like that at any rate. Kev would be the man to set things straighter about this.

As far as I see it, cinema is a hybrid utilizing all the features of other art forms, and this, I believe, is the real reason it has become the the most popular (as opposed to dominant) narrative medium, and not because it extends depiction through time.

kev ferrara said...

The master reveals himself in the economy of his means. That's why the subtlest wisp of a line in a Rembrandt sketch can be more of an artistic revelation than one of his his oil painting portraits with those overworked lace collars.

Yes, we are all pro poetic concision and underwhelmed by overworking. Fine. But the point of poetic concision (grouping similars, taking anything that can be merged and merging it, synthesizing what can be synthesized, analogizing what can be analogized, discarding the redundant, random, or contradictory, finding the visual mot juste) is to say the most with the least.

It is not simply to simplify; that’s only reductionism. And reductionism results in absurdity or ephemerality. (Which is among the reasons why cartoons are fun and décor is graphic.)

Nor is the point of poetic concision simply to say anything with the least possible plastic material; brevity doesn’t assure wit or something worth saying.

If the point of concision is to have the poem radiant with aesthetic meaning, a ton of coal needs to be crushed to get enough diamond to warrant working it out. Not coincidentally, if one starts with any old hunk of common rock (say, an idea is not worth saying or too simple to bother with) poetic concision will powderize it utterly, demonstrating its essential worthlessness.

kev ferrara said...

And it seems that if we remove one musical instrument from the orchestra (such as "narrative" or "subject matter") it lessens the level of the artistic accomplishment in your eyes.

I think this narrative-as-an-instrument analogy is a clear printout of our misregistration.

Narrative is not an instrument in the orchestra. It is what the orchestra manifests when it plays a song. Narrative emerges. Subject matter is merely a narrative that gives the illusion of being a reference (Assuming the work is poetic, rather than literalist.)

What makes a narrative is not a character going through a story - the character is only an illusion and so is the story. What makes a narrative is our ‘transference’ to the illusion of a character going through the illusion of a story. Our belief and identification yoke our soul to the telling; which is the great trick of aesthetic experience; that what we think is happening to the ‘character’ objectively is actually happening to us subjectively. We think the piece is going somewhere. But actually we are going somewhere.

This is why classical music has narrative. Because it takes us through a thematic story structure (or aesthetic argument structure or abstract thought process… all the same thing) that we perceive to be happening outside of us, but which is actually happening to us.

And if the music is good and well rounded, it forms its own aesthetic world in the process.

kev ferrara said...

My question is whether that effort necessarily requires "narrative structure with organized complexity built of sub structures and sub-narratives, foreshadowings and aftermaths." Can it be grounded with one musical note, such as color? And does it matter whether a shimmering field of color is produced by Turner at the end of a long career of "organized complexity built of substructures," or produced by Rothko before his suicide, or produced by the "color field" school of artists?

I’ve said before that I am willing to grant the possibility that visual music or a purely graphic visual narrative is possible; something akin to classical or instrumental music. But I don’t think it has been accomplished so far, and for good reason.

Mainly because there’s a real difficulty involved; music takes a long time to build a world as it runs its rigorous and complex structural and thematic course. And ‘Instrumental Art’ (if I can call it that) doesn’t have that kind of room to roam, usually.

In good Art, narrative is a layer that forms out of, or emerges from, the structural organization. Metaphor is another layer still. Archetype or subject or reference (near synonyms?) is another emergent layer still (as mentioned earlier).

So an ‘abstract’/’instrumental artwork’ not only doesn’t have the room to run a fully thematic narrative structure that generates a world, but it also rejects the other superposable or subliminal layers available to narrative artists that can produce meaning; the intensity of meaningful sequential experience found in story, or the meaning-into-depth found in poetry.

I would say, this is why the additional intensities of subject, narrative, and trope have been so crucial to the history of art; this is why paintings layer meaning instead of sequencing all of it linearly. This is why there wasn’t a Visual Papa Haydn at the same time as the Audio Papa Haydn. Because the space of a canvas or artboard is so limited. And the work needs to radiate with meaning so it has poetic value and captures its audience in its dramatic-aesthetic spell. Meaning needs to be multiplied against meaning, layer stacked upon layer. Which, again, calls for a ton of coal to be crushed into diamond.

But, if you don’t want the thing to have resonant poetic value, okay. But that’s a different qualitative discussion, about decorative values or utility.

kev ferrara said...

Last one (I couldn't get to sleep last night, so I wrote serious answers.)

You say "the point is the song, not the note," but some art challenges us to find the song in the note. Some even says that before even assembling notes into a song, we first must delve into the nature of a note.

We don’t need a two hour film to tell a story; an entire drama can be made of a moment. That is the whole predicate for great images. But how much further can a moment be subdivided and still contain sufficient content to warrant the telling?

Yes I’ve been captivated by a single note on a violin or sustaining electric guitar. But what of it? I’ve also been captivated by single cries of animals in the night.

Though a single note could ‘warrant attention’, there isn’t enough information in a single note, even one that morphs or warbles in timbre or note, to create a scene, let alone a world. At best, the single arresting note, or the cry in the night, puts us in the position of wanting more and waiting, listening, and anticipating. And we wait because we know instinctively that the story has only begun.

So, no doubt, beginnings are essential, but opening shots don’t close the show. A start isn’t a finish. The orchestra doesn’t go home after it warms up. Suspense by itself is a call without a response; it is not even a vignette.

So if you think the parts of a poem are just as poetic as the poem, or the note is as musical as the song, the line as artful as the drawing, or that a changing beat of behavior contains as much story as the story, I don’t know what to tell you, except; that’s another reductionism, another deepity dogma.

Tom said...

Laurence wrote
"The reason I persist with my 'painting is irrelevant now / cinema is THE art form' argument is because I haven't heard a good rebuttal yet."

You could also say that the cinema has replace the stage. You haven't made an argument. You've just declared a victor in an imagery contest. Both forms exist. Movies may be more popular then painting or "top dog.". More people watch movies and TV which as a product is generally banal, boring and tends to point people in the wrong direction while failing to provide any revelation into the structure of things. But that doesn't make painting irrelevant to the people who find it relevant.

As Chris wrote,”Painting is not a narrative medium in the way cinema is. Its narrative engine operates plastically and therefore quite differently, for different aesthetic purpose and therefore has a different effect on the beholder.”

On the other hand I would say your a little bit behind the times, regarding "THE art form." The internet, politics, television, advertising and the news does a better job of creating and sustaining narratives today than movies do.

Painting wasn't irrelevant to Bill Murray :)

https://youtu.be/8eOIcWB7jSA

chris bennett said...

On the other hand I would say your a little bit behind the times, regarding "THE art form." The internet, politics, television, advertising and the news does a better job of creating and sustaining narratives today than movies do.

Amen to that Tom. And at the moment it's shaping up to be The Worst Story Ever Told.

kev ferrara said...

Painting wasn't irrelevant to Bill Murray

I happen to know that painting because it was also discussed by Harvey Dunn to his students: Jules Breton’s Song of the Lark.

Laurence John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurence John said...

Chris: "But there is no aesthetic connection between painting or 'image-making' and cinema"

If you don't see any common narrative devices between painting / illustration and cinema then I doubt I'll be able to convince you otherwise.


Chris: "In fact, often the weakest element in a movie, I find, is when it shoots for the set piece tableau for grand effect "

But hang on, are you (in the next sentence) admitting that a 'tableau' is similar to a 'static graphic tableau' ? It contradicts your first statement doesn't it ?


Tom: "More people watch movies and TV which as a product is generally banal, boring and tends to point people in the wrong direction while failing to provide any revelation into the structure of things"

Tom, "the structure of things" is your own pet interest, along with 'planes'.

And, the fact that lots of cinema is crap is irrelevant. Do i need to point out that the majority of painting today is also crap ?

AviPBN said...

Hey David, Ralph is on a podcast available on iTunes and Spotify called the Lonely Palette. The link is

https://open.spotify.com/episode/6ATGTrsy3VF9R0jYbwQZqH?si=DsVr7qL7QRuog7Vp9cTj-g

I hope you enjoy it.

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

If you don't see any common narrative devices between painting / illustration and cinema then I doubt I'll be able to convince you otherwise.

Yes, I do Laurence, but I have tried to argue that they are only superficial resemblances. So let me put the argument a different way in the hope that we can find an area of agreement:

The premise that literary stories are better told by literature, drama and, by extension, cinema, is certainly true. However, theme by way of subject is not the same thing as theme by way of action (drama, say). So when the high modernists, using the 'painting is not literature' argument, removed subject from painting, the baby was thrown out with the bath water; the theme was thrown out with the subject. This was meant to reinvigorate the plastic arts and allow its 'true essence' or what distinguishes it from the other arts, to shine forth. Thus 'pure abstraction', an oxymoron if ever you want one, was looked to as the answer.

Now here's the thing:

The more a plastic art tries to embody the effects of the time-based arts the weaker its efficacy becomes. But the holy grail of 'pure abstraction' is to reach the condition of music, a time-based medium. Which means pure abstraction has the same fundamental weakness as 'literalism', in other words; plastic art that attempts to reach the condition of literature.

So, all this begs the question: what is the essence of an ‘image' (a picture or sculpture depicting a subject) that distinguishes it from the essence of other art forms?
Myself, Kev and Tom have tried to answer that. But I'll have a shot at throwing a definition around it: An image is a theme in cyclic resonance. Something like that. It's the best I can do given my understanding at the moment*.

*I should add that this understanding owes a lot to Kev's thoughts and research on the matter.

kev ferrara said...

Cinematic stories are best told in cinema, literature best told through books, images best told as pictures, and so on.

Each artform has its own language but all the main principles guiding the grammar are more or less the same at the deepest level. Each artform offers certain certain aesthetic affordances, certain plasticities, and certain limitations, and from those emerge certain kinds of notes and intervals that can be used for the purposes of statement and suggestion, fact and evocation. And each form can be organized to dramatize a stepwise play of thought, a narrative process that results in some kind of connective insight at the denoument or climax. And such a play of thought, if coherent, will naturally be governed by thematic content.

Humans have awesome visual understanding, near-instantaneous cogitation of appearances of (what one would assume would be) bewildering complexity. No other ability in the brain compares in prowess. Thus it is easy to mistakenly believe, when we 'take in the scene at a glance', that the apprehension has actually been instantaneous. But it hasn't. We've still taken it in as a narrative - in flows and steps and sequences and relations and reads of various sorts - but at such a shockingly rapid pace that it seems incomparable to our other forms of perception. But it is comparable to the way those other senses understand.

And this observation hints to us just how an Image can contain a whole story unto itself, how it can be complete and full of meaning, yet in media res as well. Which is to say, if you drill down on a moment inside an event, and hint at where it came from, how it came together into a unit, and where it might go or what its consequences might be, and what it all might mean or be similar to, and if you comment on it as you render in the rendering, therein is a complete thought, a complete aesthetic demonstration and analysis.

As far as 'cyclic resonance of theme' - I wouldn't say that defines an Image and I'm not sure how you derived that, Chris. I wrote a bunch of stuff on Image earlier, which explains my view at least somewhat. However, it is true that no other artform needs to restart the experience as continually as visual art does. Which is why the recycling of the eye is usually an important consideration in composing. So cycling does happen. But of course if you read the same thing twice it will resonate with itself read to read. ;)

Happy Holidays everyone!

Laurence John said...

Chris: "Yes... but I have tried to argue that they are only superficial resemblances"

We'll have to agree to disagree on that point.

You're fixating on the differences between the two mediums (paintings being hand made, and motionless) when I've been arguing since the start of this thread that it's the shared similarity in narrative possibilities of the two mediums that make them comparable.

I don't think we're going to come to a resolution in this comment section, but I'm sure the issues will come up again.

cheers :-)

Tom said...

Laurence wrote
"You're fixating on the differences between the two mediums (paintings being hand made, and motionless) when I've been arguing since the start of this thread that it's the shared similarity in narrative possibilities of the two mediums that make them comparable."

You also stated that ".. that cinema has assumed dominance as being, THE narrative medium of the present."

"The reason I persist with my 'painting is irrelevant now / cinema is THE art form' argument is because I haven't heard a good rebuttal yet."

Which is more a declaration that one medium, “is now irrelevant,” then describing the way two mediums are comparable.

So it seems natural that Chris would "fixate" on the differences between the two mediums. If you just want to tell a story and you do not want to be bothered with the "how" of conceiving form, choosing a camera is a natural choice. Groping around with the problem of how to draw a foot will really slow down your narrative process and send you off into a world or problems and interest that a cameraman never has to think about. He can just take a picture of the foot or film it and carry on with his story. The forces that drive the two different creative acts are not the same. The "mediums," require different responses from the makers. You are simply reducing painting too how a movie functions. If that is all one wants, yes by all means choose the a movie.

The cameraman never has too consider the fact that almost no plane of his subject is parallel with the picture plane. His choices are one of composition and decorative intent. He is not bother with the question of form, he simply skips over this whole aspect of nature that the artist engages in.

As the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting," states, "Rocks should have three faces."

Eugene Carriere , "nature is plane and volume it is all architecture."

Or Leonardo "The painter, has true knowledge of all the limits(contours) of things as seen from whatever side..."

Planes are at the heart of art making when using the tools of art.


MERRY! MERRY!

David Apatoff said...


Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays to all

Before the holiday I was following the discussion about images versus cinema, and while I have nothing to contribute on the subject of whether cinema is now THE art form, the DOMINANT art form or the POPULAR art form, I had a few reactions I wanted to share:

First, I note that many of the most important illustrators of any era were the ones who embraced new technologies: Howard Pyle was a visionary who saw the field of illustration opening up as new technologies in reproduction and printing created new mass appeal for art. He taught his students to train for the future when color would be reliably reproduced. Mucha was a pioneer in the use of photography and modern marketing. Bob Peak jumped on the use of new Day Glo colors. The first tentative computer artists eventually opened a whole new world of art applications. They didn't always know where the new technologies would take them, but they didn't shrink from them.

Rather than assuming that cinema was qualitatively different, illustrators from Bernie Fuchs to Phil Hale made films with great enthusiasm/curiosity, believing that there were ways to apply their traditional talents to the new medium. So many commenters seem intent on drawing a bright line between painting defined as a static moment in space and film defined as action over time, but Einstein long ago revealed that there was a continuum between time and space. This required him to rise above first impressions. Are we content to let a physicist be more imaginative about space-time than artists?

With the exception of one comment from Kev, I’m surprised that no one seems to be looking in the most likely places for a bridge between static images and moving pictures. One might say that graphic novels, sequential art and storyboards are slow motion versions of cinema, with many overlapping attributes. They pick up speed in animated films which still rely on the traditional qualities of painting.

Kev Ferrara writes about animated film: "A painting has time to drill down, to stack layer upon layer of meaning; intervals are used in all graphic relations to break open gaps where the imagination is prompted to produce the closure. While Film needs to spool forward in time, accruing meaning as it goes; its most natural closure-gaps are between beats and in the cuts. It doesn’t have time to build a wholly imagined, aesthetically-generated, yet believable world in every frame twenty four times a second." Kev may "drill down" and "stack layer upon layer of meaning," but the next time you're in an art museum watch to see how many visitors pause at a painting longer than the second or two that an animated film pauses to establish a landscape. Animators get to establish their own tempo and rhythm. The animator can linger as long as they want.

I've been very impressed with how some animation, paused at any given scene, offers images with all the traditional beauty of a painting in a gallery. I defy anyone to freeze frame the character of Nigel in the movie Rio and come up with anything less than an excellent composition, with great colors and brilliant character design. You can't persuade me that the artists responsible for Nigel don't belong to the same club as Howard Pyle. Similarly, Sergio Pablos' astonishing Klaus is just one lovely tasteful image after another-- images I'm sure Hokusai and Norman Rockwell and Sargent would all recognize and welcome.

Taking the next step from animation to filmed live action is a second stretch in the relationship between painting and film, but I think the overlapping qualities of excellence in paintings and animated films is encouraging evidence of a continuum. Regardless of which came later in time, some paintings will continue to be superior to some films and vice versa.

kev ferrara said...

...some animation, paused at any given scene, offers images with all the traditional beauty of a painting in a gallery. I defy anyone to freeze frame the character of Nigel in the movie Rio and come up with anything less than an excellent composition, with great colors and brilliant character design. You can't persuade me that the artists responsible for Nigel don't belong to the same club as Howard Pyle. Similarly, Sergio Pablos' astonishing Klaus is just one lovely tasteful image after another-- images I'm sure Hokusai and Norman Rockwell and Sargent would all recognize and welcome.

How can you be 'sure' of a dead artist's opinions unless they specifically spoke on the subject???

And as beautiful as these movies are, the constant use of intense oppositional color is cartoony, and should not be considered 'traditional' in its beauty. (Nor is blocking, framing, pointing, and design the same thing as composition.)

Leaving aside that both Pyle and Sargent detested cartoons as grotesque caricatures of nature divine, I feel these pictures you mention are indeed wonderful animated movies with great character work and lovely set creations with nice lighting, values, atmospherics, shape design, blocking, direction, imagination and so on.

But we're talking about two different meanings of the word 'image.' For you, it seems, image means 'picture you liked and found striking.' I'm speaking about Images made by Imagists rooted in Imagism. A different thing.

In animation the figures move, therefore complex composing is not required in order give the illusion of movement. Blocking and framing suffice. Similarly, because the characters actually move, they easily attract attention in otherwise static environments. (Other techniques of light are used to shine various types of rimlights, spotlights, with moving subsurface effects on the figures.)

The figures are cartooned already, so they need not use other composing methods to make realistic figures more gestural. They don't require sensitive drawing at the edges of the form, because with movement, such cannot be inspected anyway. The camera can move to cause parallax sensations into depth, therefore there is no need to project and inject space (or the forms of the face or body) using compositional means.

In an animated story, changes in a belief, an emotional state, a mood, the drama, an attempt, the theme... it all plays out over time. While in an image, it plays out as instantly as our eye can apprehend it within a single picture of a single moment. Still shots don't do this, nor should they.

And so on.

So while it may be so that the talent level of some of the artists working on animated films may rise to the level of a Sargent, Pyle, or Wyeth, or one of their students, they aren't working the same artistic back 40 and they're riding a different horse to the rodeo. They are trained to do their job well and they do their job well. But that job does not include being American Imagists of the same nature as Remington, Pyle, Wyeth, Dunn, or Rockwell.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "How can you be 'sure' of a dead artist's opinions unless they specifically spoke on the subject???"

A fair point. I use my ouija board, of course, but beyond that we're extrapolating the same way we extrapolate about what a cave painter was doing 30,000 years ago. For example, we know that Rockwell admired Disney and called Walt "one of the really great artists." We can tell that a cartoon was often at the heart of Rockwell's big oil paintings, and that Rockwell had an open mind about quality, welcoming animation and cartooning into the curriculum for the Famous Artists School and placing tearsheets from "new fangled" illustrators such as Al Parker and Fuchs on his "wall of fame" alongside Durer and Rembrandt. The Federal Trade Commission would tell me that this circumstantial evidence is still not enough to impute a legal endorsement of an animated movie, but Rockwell sounds to me like the kind of artist who would admire the achievements of these animators.

As for Pyle, I'm not sure how we know he "detested cartoons" as he did so many of them over his career-- not just the "comics" he drew in the 1870s but the cartoons that illustrated Pepper and Salt, The Wonder Clock and other projects. Some of the attributes you ascribe to cartoons may be found in those books.

Whatever Pyle may have said about animated cartoons in his lifetime, he died well before Gertie The Dinosaur came out so it's difficult to predict from such a statement what he might think about cartoons that move. I'm basing my presumption on my view that great animators have taken Pyle's core lessons (such as projecting yourself and your emotions into the picture) to heart, and that Pyle seemed to be a pretty pragmatic guy about artists being resourceful, growing with the times and looking for ways to bring quality to new platforms. Do you really believe that Pyle would "detest" Pinocchio or Snow White if he'd lived to see them? We'll never know, but I'd debate that with you.

You are correct that I was thinking of "image" in the broader, generic sense. I recognize that "imagist" is also a term of art, but to tell the truth, I became less interested in investigating that category when I heard Judy Goffman Cutler bragging about how she had popularized the term (originally borrowed from literature, I believe) while marketing Leyendecker and Parrish, two of the hottest painters in her gallery inventory. I looked it up at the time and found there were all kinds of self-proclaimed imagists-- "The Chicago imagists," modern art imagists, etc. It made the category imagism seem less worth investing in. However, I respect your thought processes and if you want to send me to a worthwhile discussion of imagism as you intend it, I will gladly go.

Tom said...

David Wrote

"I've been very impressed with how some animation, paused at any given scene, offers images with all the traditional beauty of a painting in a gallery."

A big part of the issue is art in the past had always address specific contexts. Just consider the size of Sargent's painting Gassed to Otto Dix's paintings. Moving paintings to a "gallery," has rob art of some of it's vitality. Making it "special," and more a topic of connoisseurship, comparsion and privilege. Painting and sculpture originally existed in specific contexts and contribute to the whole assemble of architecture. It had to harmonize with the great planes and coordinates of that architecture. After proceeding through the Vatican museum one entries the museum's modern collection and one immediately feels how this great sense of strength disappears from the newer works and a general feeling of cattywampusness emerges. Like the the Frederick Hart sculptures over the portals at the National Cathedral which feel simply hung onto to the tympanum with no consideration for the larger controlling planes of the architecture.

Paintings where meant to be seen in the light and to contribute to the meaning of a room, or function as grand decorations to the larger project of the architecture. Placed at specific heights and orientations. to be seen from both near and far. Movies have a different relation to the viewer, who must take a seat, not move and be quiet in a completely darken room that could be anywhere like your local mall. The mass production of images all viewed on the pages of a book or a magazine or the internet is not the same as seeing actual works. Or living and seeing works for years.





kev ferrara said...

Pyle's ill will toward cartooning was no doubt conditioned by those he saw in his own time. Who knows what he might have thought of Disney's classics.

I don't agree that his work on Pepper and Salt and The Wonder Clock, though simplified, is 'cartooning' in the same way that I thought we were meaning. There is far too much sensitivity in the drawing, far too much accuracy and anatomy and depth; just too much illustration generally.

Pyle's earliest drawings for children of the 1870s are rather bad, in my view. And given that he had a dim view of his accomplished work even in his peak years, I can't imagine he would think much of that inchoate work. Possibly what he saw in the weak cartoons of his day reminded him of what he struggled to overcome in his own work in his first decade. That kind of thing happens.

Anyway, the cartoonaphobic anecdote was relayed by Dunn. It was in direct reference to drawing, of poorly 'cartooned' figures lacking in structure or anatomy, and a particular point was made about badly cartooned "animals of the forest" being most offensive to his teacher.

I cannot speak for Rockwell on Cartooning. But he, like all illustrators, 'cartooned' their gesture drawings/basis for figures and compositions. But what makes Rockwell and those others in his league so great is just how they justified their cartoons with a torrent of informed imaginative anatomy, and justified their pictorial dreams with real world data, and memories of appreciated moments from experience. (Not to mention all the other stuff I constantly mention.)

I have not enjoyed any of my interactions with JG. And the one text I read of hers, for a Parrish book, was riddled with errors and horse hockey. So we probably share a view there. However, both Parrish and Leyendecker are indeed Imagists in the sense of the poetic movement I'm discussing, despite her saying so.

Since my technical discussions of Imagism seem not to be your cup of tea, no matter how often I make the offer, you might as well read Ezra Pound on the subject. Just know that Edgar Allen Poe and Coleridge in letters, and Homer, Remington, Pyle, Waterhouse, The Wyeths, and many other in Art beat him to the punch, although without hitting on the excellent term Imagist/Imagism.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- As I see it, artists may have plenty of expectations for the "contexts" of their work, but art is an animal ferae naturae, not ferae domitae, so once it's released into the world, all bets are off. People can do whatever they want with it. Yes, some paintings do have the context of a big gallery wall, but banksy paints for alley walls and Persian Miniatures are painted for the portfolios of nobles. Pixar may spend millions of dollars on an animated movie designed for the big screen but if theaters are shut down due to a pandemic, people end up watching it on a cell phone.

I agree that seeing a reproduced work is not the same as seeing the original, but on the other hand some art doesn't even have originals anymore-- just electrons.

Kev Ferrara-- On all the basics, we seem to agree. I share your views of Rockwell, Parrish, Leyendecker and JGC. (If you think her Parrish text was an abomination, don't go near her Leyendecker text.)

When it comes to vocabulary, we seem to have the misfortune of dealing with not one but two words with multiple historical definitions: cartoon and image.

When I say that much of Rockwell's work was "cartoonish," it's because so many of his famous Post covers were humorous situations or anecdotes with cartoon-like facial expressions and cartoon-like "snap" timing. Michelangelo's cartoons were obviously something very different, and the cartoons we've been discussing, especially animated cartoons, are even more different. One must use a slippery word like that at one's peril.

As for the word, "image"and its many derivatives, the possibilities seem endless. If one wants to propose a single idiosyncratic application, one has the burden of coming up with protectable borders capable of fending off the other overlapping uses. Some of the characteristics you ascribe to imagism I'd ascribe to good picture making.



Laurence John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurence John said...

David: "I agree that seeing a reproduced work is not the same as seeing the original, but on the other hand some art doesn't even have originals anymore-- just electrons."

And let's not forget that the vast majority of viewers of Leyendecker and Rockwell paintings saw them on a magazine cover, which is where they were intended to be seen.

David: If one wants to propose a single idiosyncratic application, one has the burden of coming up with protectable borders capable of fending off the other overlapping uses. Some of the characteristics you ascribe to imagism I'd ascribe to good picture making."

David it seems me and you missed the memo that said great visual art has to be definitionally an 'image' and an 'image' is what the 'Imagists' were doing (thereby excluding anything that isn't motionless, such as film, or 'realistic' enough such as cartooning).

kev ferrara said...

much of Rockwell's work was "cartoonish," it's because so many of his famous Post covers were humorous situations or anecdotes with cartoon-like facial expressions and cartoon-like "snap" timing. Michelangelo's cartoons were obviously something very different, and the cartoons we've been discussing, especially animated cartoons, are even more different.

I would say all three ideas are the same idea in different guises. All stem from the need for clarified and exaggerated gestures, so-designed in order to broadcast key visual ideas (whether dramatic, mysterious, or comic) long distances and into many mentalities. The call, in this regard, is for blatancy. That's what the word "graphic" means; the opposite of 'subtlety' or 'refinement.'

But the Michaelangelos, Parrishs, Leyendeckers and Rockwells of the artworld only use their cartooning as foundational scaffolding to rough out their figures and compositions, having yet not begun their justification process or the implementing of compositional complexity that would bring narrative meaning into every stitch of the storytelling weave and bind it all together into an aesthetic unit.

Whereas Disney, Dik Browne, Kurtzman and Picasso simply codify their blatant designs as the actual art, which is what gives us cartooning as it is normally understood (also graphics.)

David it seems me and you missed the memo that said great visual art has to be definitionally an 'image' and an 'image' is what the 'Imagists' were doing (thereby excluding anything that isn't motionless, such as film, or 'realistic' enough such as cartooning).

Many great films are Imagist in their own cinematic way. Just as many great novels are Imagist. That's too long a discussion and this isn't a film or literature blog. Cartoons aren't specific enough to be Imagist because they are so simplified. And they generally don't wade into the deep end of poetics, thematics, or aesthetics.

There is certainly a lot of crossover between Imagism and "good pictures." Even with bad pictures there's some crossover. But there is a difference between realizing a scene and realizing an image. An Image must realize a scene unified to a visual poem. Thus nothing is only what it seems. Whereas a scene alone would still have some poetry to it, as the very nature of art is suggestive, but its governing idea would be believability, not poetry.

Laurence John said...

Kev,

You said the artists you mention - Homer, Remington, Pyle, Waterhouse, Wyeth etc - weren't using the term 'Imagism' to describe their own work.

So, who (as far as you know) started using it in the way you are now, to refer to them ?

kev ferrara said...

So, who (as far as you know) started using it in the way you are now, to refer to them ?

I've heard the term used for them quite often. I've known the term since I became a fan of Pyle and Homer as a kid. And I've been researching just what makes an Imagist different than any other kind of art since I was a teenager. I've been in illustrator's circles since I was in my early 20s, and "American Imagist" was a term used for the Brandywine guys. Not all the time, but often enough.* I've read the term in American Artist quite often. Toth used that term in print, and I personally heard Jeff Jones and Berni Wrightson use the term. There is an impromptu video of Richard Schmid teaching where he uses the term, lamenting how far Art has fallen since the golden age of illustration.

But the above is not a real argument. It's all "Argument From Authority" - a particular kind of fallacy. The more important thing is obviously that the ideas line up. And add up. As has been pointed out, people are loose with terms. Terms get co-opted instantly if some status or a buck is at stake, not a damn given for any technical specification predicating the label. And it's easy to exploit this Sloppy Labeling Problem, as David did, as a tactical trick to explode the whole category. And, thereby, any argument based on that category.

So we must keep trying to get down to the technical. As with everything else about art, what matters is the suite of ideas/concepts that fit together to cause some product to have particular characteristics. That is a concept's true definition, not the symbol we use to refer to it, which is easily misappropriated by bad faith actors.

*As a general matter, Illustrators have been so outfoxed by carnival barking "modernist" and "postmodernist" "fine art" types in terms of publicity, hype, intellectual and cultural status, 'manifestos', dealers, grants, (etc.) that there is a strong distaste for hifalutin labels in the field. Illustrators use the word 'effect' and 'composition' but don't use 'aesthetics' or 'poetics.' Anything that will even vaguely smack of "fine art" pretension (aka selling art by the mouth) tends to be avoided.

Anonymous said...

Image and Imagination are also discussed in Harvey Dunn's notes.

chris bennett said...



As far as 'cyclic resonance of theme' - I wouldn't say that defines an Image and I'm not sure how you derived that, Chris. I wrote a bunch of stuff on Image earlier, which explains my view at least somewhat. However, it is true that no other artform needs to restart the experience as continually as visual art does. Which is why the recycling of the eye is usually an important consideration in composing. So cycling does happen. But of course if you read the same thing twice it will resonate with itself read to read. ;)

Hi Kev, sorry for the late reply – taking time off for the Christmas/New Year festivities. Hope you and yours had a good time. I have also been turning over in my mind how your definition of 'imagist' relates to my own thoughts in order to answer you properly.

As far as I understand this, the sentient-written image can be realized in the following three modes:

Poetic Journalism - the divining of poetry from a set of given facts. (work by Chardin, Sargent, William Coldstream)
Poetic Symbolism - the construction of poetry from a set of symbols. (work by Raphael, Burne Jones, David Inshaw)
Imagism - the evocation of poetry from internal vision. (work by Georgione, Waterhouse, early Mark Shields)

Of course all works of art will comprise these three modes in varying dosages, and any classification will be essentially and usefully based on which class of poetic realisation is dominant.

But it seems to me that all three types of imaging involve plastic narratives gaining traction on our senses by way of resonance induced through the cyclic nature of beholding their themes.

kev ferrara said...

Hi Chris,

Happy New Year.

Yes, theme is iterative. I didn't realize that was what you meant by 'cyclical.' I'll forgo the discussing this in detail. You already know some of them from our discussions a few years back. And I know you know enough for me to know that you know what you are talking about here.

On the picture having sentience, of course it's a kind of feedback loop between audience and picture. The eye is the needle on the record. But while every jot of a work of art is predicated by a thought, it is not always the expression of one, because to be poetry there must be an effect. The thought must be aesthetically communicated, not described/stated in code-symbols.

This is why Symbolism, per se, is a kind of text language. Symbols are codified signs. Codification makes code. Code equals text. Thus text requires decoding, which is not aesthetic in the read. Although, as with literature and poems, it may be aesthetic after the decoding.

Of the names you offered Burne Jones is the most Symbolist. There is obvious allegory. I think Raphael's work has a lot of Imagistic content to it, a lot of Decoration, and only a little Symbolism to it. Both Inshaw and early Shields (also Rockwell Kent and Maynard Dixon) are somewhat Imagist but also somewhat Mannerist - which takes it in the opposite direction of Imagism. None are Symbolists that I can see. (They don't require symbolic decoding.) William Blake may be all three: Imagist, Mannerist, and Symbolist.

By Mannerist I mean there is a kind of dogma to the realization, the cartoon stubbornly asserted into a sculptural form. More like carving a chair than painting.

A great "Poetic Journalist" is usually also an Imagist in some measure. Nature must be rearranged, recomposed, abstracted (etc) in order to make a good picture. And all that stuff results in aesthetically communicated meaning. But it is more distributed, more like a poetic field effect than a poeticized thought process.

Lots of works develop foremost from the imagination. Very few are Images. I can't imagine any artist being an Imagist without being trained to some large extent in the form and being steeped from an early age in Imagist works. It took Howard Pyle 20 years to become an Imagist. But N.C. Wyeth grew up on Pyle's pictures, so once he landed in Pyle's class, he was off and running in months.