Tuesday, January 01, 2008

" NEW "

The artist Marcel Duchamp claimed it is easier to be original in the US because Americans are so ignorant about history:

In Europe, the young men of any generation always act as the grandsons of some great man. Of Victor Hugo in France, and I suppose of Shakespeare in England. They can't help it. Even if they don't believe it, it goes into their system and so, when they come to produce something of their own, there is a sort of traditionalism that is indestructible. This does not exist [in the US]. You don't give a damn about Shakespeare, do you? You're not his grandsons at all. So it is perfect terrain for new developments.

Of course, Duchamp's insight wasn't original either. Previous generations had already complained loudly about the paralyzing effect of history. Nietzsche wrote, "the large and ever-increasing burden of the past" makes us envy the beasts grazing in the field, who are able to live for the moment.

It ain't easy to create meaningful art after a thousand generations of artists have already taken their turn. How can you justify picking up a pencil to draw after Rembrandt or Degas or Ingres or Carracci?

Similarly, anyone who wants to draw a slick, soap opera comic strip today must find elbow room between Alex Raymond and Leonard Starr.

And what would be the point of starting out to paint a nude more realistically than Bouguereau?

This may explain why so many modern artists are obsessed with finding a new direction. Rather than compete with history they simply move on, redefining art and establishing new rules and standards.  Originality seems to have eclipsed many traditional criteria for artistic merit. This can lead to wonderful results, but often artists whose goal is "originality" end up settling for "novelty" or "strangeness."

And sometimes we learn that a new approach hasn't been tried because earlier generations of artists figured out that it wasn't worth trying...

So as we begin a shiny new year, it might be appropriate to pause for a moment on what it means to be "new."

The author Alan Gurganus recalled returning to his hometown and visiting the house "where I experienced what I believed to be the first French kiss ever invented by humankind." Nietzsche might argue Gurganus was ignorant about the historical facts of kissing, but I'd guess nothing he learned-- from that kiss forward-- could diminish his shiver of new wisdom. His kiss was not the first but it was undeniably new.  

As usual, many of the principles that apply to art apply to kisses as well.  Ask yourself what kind of person would abandon kissing in search of something "original" because previous generations have already kissed.  Originality means more than mere novelty.

The poet Peter Viereck, who was older and more experienced than Gurganus, understood there is a long line of kissers who preceded us stretching back to the dawn of time:
That sofa where reclining comes so easy
Is far more haunted than you'll ever guess.
This lifetime is our turn on the sofa.  Generations of artistic geniuses are dead and gone, but as Emerson said, the gift of our instant life is "the omnipotency with which nature decomposes her harvest for recomposition."  Great artists tend to be the ones who don't waste energy fleeing ghosts and instead embrace history to enrich the present.


idle. said...

Fortunately, humanity, just like everything is subject to change. New technology, new societies, evolution. It is not like we all have to cram into the same space between Degas, Rembrandt, Raymond or Herriman. There really are new things and new stories to be told.

Sakievich said...

Thanks for the thought, it's one I've been trying to point out for years. Novel is nothing new and it certainly is not art simply because it's original. Artists are not out for emulation either. Their's is a matter of pure skill being brought to bear with sincere experience. Art is outside of originality and it's outside of cheap tricks. The great painters you mentioned in your post are excellent examples of painters who brought their great skill to imagination in the vehicle of experience to show themselves and us something beautiful. That drawing of a house by Rembrandt is beautiful for it's abstract qualities inclusive of it's subject matter. Both would work well separately, but together they work much better.

Art is the trace of great souls.

Mark said...

My mentor in college would always ask "What do you bring to the table?" I was frustrated by not knowing what to do when everything had been done. This became compounded when I discovered that I wanted to be an illustrator after graduating with a degree in Graphic Design. Anyway I decided that I would concentrate on what I liked and be the best at that as I could be.

This has lead to what is now an ongoing journey of discovery involving the past and the present, leading I know not where. I acknowledge and learn from what has been done and see how it effects what I'm doing. I don't concern myself with orginiality, but what best tells the visual story and excites me. I no longer waste time on what I think the market might bear, but what is inspiring instead. Hopefully somewhere along the way I will speak with my own voice and someone out there will listen.

Gary said...

There is of course one small snag with the theory that no American can ever learn from the experiences of the European old masters...

Its that you don't currently have to be a European to have had European ancestory.

Given that a huge number of Americans could not trace their own ancestors back more than four or five generations without finding a European family in there somewhere then the original statement tends to be rather void of ideas.

ZD said...

Gary it doesn't matter if your ancestors are European, Americans still don't share the culture. I have no idea what the hell my Irish, Sicilian, Portuguese, or native american ancestors went through, and neither do most people.

Unfortunately I think it's impossible for people today to draw or paint like the old renaissance masters did. Those techniques are lost. There are still people around today who draw according to the atelier model, and they do it well, but you can still tell it was made today. I wish the old guys where still around so we could learn from them.

Anonymous said...

You make a very strong point, David, though I'd elaborate a bit more on the process.

People who clamor for the application of the phrase "masterpiece" to the random "line on canvas" pieces - which generally attempt to convey some otherworldly emotion or concept that is in no way related to said squiggles - almost always fail to see that any artist worth his salt starts with the fundamentals, just like any other activity. Learning to draw correctly comes before abstraction, etc.

It does bother me that someone can draw badly, having never been taught to do so in anatomically correct sense, then have lavish praises thrown at his feet as some kind of prodigy when clearly he has no understanding of what it is he's trying to convey.

As for the High Renaissance's style being "lost", well I'd have to say it's less lost and more out of fashion. Take into consideration the number of times we've seen the art world clamor for larger, robust women, only to change their fickle minds to the thinner, less shapely variety. Since society's definition of "beauty" is dynamic, the styles and techniques which govern it's application are too.

Please continue the great work, David!

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is impossible to paint and draw like the old masters, I just think the wrong things are being emulated in their work. The main thing people see is the realism, but they don't take into accout how idealized and simplified the realism is. Forms are always robust and aesthetically proportioned, no matter how ugly or beautiful the subject or what it may have really looked like in real life. The make adjustments to fit their mass conceptions of the various parts. Adult figures are hardly ever less than 7 1/2 heads tall. All this is evident even in student work of the old painters. In modern atelier work, the model is rendered "as is," all quirks of proportion remain, no sense of a preconceived ideal (perhaps the difference is selection of models?)
I also don't see much play between transparency and opacity in much modern realist work that is so evident in the old masters. Shadows appear to be thin body color instead of the transparent umber underpainting that gives the work of the elders that common look and pictorial unity.

In fact, for as much as they speak of classical tradition, the modern atelier approach is somewhat contradictory to the old masters. Works are diagramatic and stiffly rendered compared to the organic, fluid, curvaceous touch of the old artists. Design and beauty seems to be the ultimate goal of the old masters, whereas today it's fidelity to truth and realism. I've personally never seen an old master drawing that started off as the straight lines and diagramatic shadow patches you see in today's realism approach.
As far as their techiniques, the information is out there if one searches and is relatively simple to grasp. But one has to decide if they are going to pursue realism for realism's sake, or higher ideals of beauty and form.

Sam Nielson said...

Thank you for a great post!

ZD said...

"As far as their techiniques, the information is out there if one searches and is relatively simple to grasp. But one has to decide if they are going to pursue realism for realism's sake, or higher ideals of beauty and form."

Can you please tell me where this information is? And if it's really there, how come no one teaches it?

I agree with everything you said about modern realism. It tends to look too real and the concept of ideal forms isn't taken seriously by most people.

Does anyone have one example of a drawing/painting made in the 20th/21st century that is just as nice looking as the art that was made a few hundred years ago?

Anonymous said...

zd, try the following texts:

Classic Point of View by Kenyan Cox
-particularly the chapter on Technique. The whole thing is worth reading though.

Notes on the Science of Picture Making by C.J. Holmes.
-Chapter XV in particular touches on the transparent/opaque approach used by classic artists, its advantages and drawbacks.

The Materials and Techniques of Painting by Jonathan Stephenson.
-The whole book is quite thorough, though the actual demonstrations are somewhat lacking, but they get the point across. Art literature's best kept secret.

Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters by Robert Beverly Hale
-Essential to what I'm talking about. Read and see through the clouds.

Virgil Elliot just came out with a book on traditional painting that is informative, though his demos are quite crude as well.

also try the following link:


Why noone teaches it? Maybe the ateliers are too steeped in THEIR own tradition to rethink their curriculum, the credited art schools don't want to spend the time or trouble, the albatross of exact realism, it's not marketable in this day and age, etc. Pure speculations on my part

As far as (relatively) recent work that matches up, I believe there are some who have at the very least captured the spirit of the old works, if not the workmanship and pure beauty(here's one reason why not: layered transparent and translucent color >> direct color mixing)

Howard Pyle could be seen as descendant of the Pre Raphaelites and his work often reminds me of a looser Jean Leon Gerome

Early Disney features captured the idealized fluidity, design and robustness of form (come to think of it old masters' work IS more "animated" than fine art of today)

Take a look at Frank Frazetta's "Destroyer" and tell me you're not reminded of older paintings. The figure composition is masterful for being pretty much wholly invented, and done not half a century ago. (Incidentally Disney wanted to hire this guy at one point. Hmm...)

Odd Nerdrum is a present artist whose work is very 17th century Dutch

JC Leyendecker's work has some of the character of Rubens and the French Neoclassic artists. Very crisp coloration.

Norman Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter" -
Look at the arms and overall proportions, than go look at some of the Sistine Chapel figures.

PestProJoe said...

I disagree. In two fold:

1- Imitating greatness is the first step to becoming great. So yes, there are more knock offs then one can count, but it may lead to greatness.

2- To say that nothing new can be created is to say that we are all the same. Fingerprints and DNA prove otherwise.
Do-It-Yourself Pest Control

Dude Can't Draw said...

"Does anyone have one example of a drawing/painting made in the 20th/21st century that is just as nice looking as the art that was made a few hundred years ago?"

Oh dear me, are you joking? It's not even like I have to dig very far. A little known Spaniard named Picasso perhaps (and if you think he was just an abstractionist who knew nothing of realism, you are sadly mistaken)? Piet Mondrian's early work in impressionism rivals the classics. I could go on, but I suppose you've probably already made up your mind to be biased against it all, so it doesn't matter much.

I do agree with Brad to a degree that abstraction benefits greatly from a foundation in the basics. I feel the same for music or any art form. Pure abstraction has its place, but I do prefer abstraction that starts from a place of classical reference. It's one reason I admire Mondrian so greatly. Despite producing some of the most non-representational pieces imaginable, the fact that he began as a highly accomplished impressionist does inform the viewing of his late work.

That said, I do not dismiss the possibility that someone without technical/classical drawing or painting skills can produce something of value. Emotion alone CAN be enough sometimes. I'd even go so far as to say I prefer purely emotional work over purely technical work. A painting that is technically flawless that has no feeling in it is cold and uninteresting. A well executed scribble that clearly conveys the emotional message behind it will do far more for me.

The best works marry the two, but both are valid components in and of themselves.

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

There are a number of schools, particularily in Florence, that are resurecting the old styles and techniques. John Angel of the Angel Academy has put together a graduate program dealing specifically with how to to compose paintings. You have to remember most of this information was lost and it will take tome to but it all back together.
Zd take a look at www.artrenewal.org for a selection of fine paintings being done today.

Stephen Worth said...

That said, I do not dismiss the possibility that someone without technical/classical drawing or painting skills can produce something of value.

To me, that's like a million monkeys with a million typewriters. Ignorance begets ignorance. Knowledge doesn't always result in greatness, but at least the odds are better.

See ya

Dude Can't Draw said...

To me, that's like a million monkeys with a million typewriters.

I (obviously) disagree. It presumes that technical perfection is the only element of value in art. It's AN element, but it's not THE element. There are plenty of people who are highly technically proficient and yet still turn out what I consider to be crap because they have no concept of how to impart meaning in their work beyond accurately producing an image. What that image conveys is at least as important as (and I'd argue, more important) the skill with which it's created. What matters is whether the message comes across.

Anonymous said...


Don't let David hear this! ;-)

David Apatoff said...

Folks, I have been traveling and unable to join in the dialogue for the last few days but I am heartened to see such a lively debate taking place.

Idle, perhaps we could have a discussion sometime about what is truly new under the sun and what isn't. But perhaps we can agree that mere novelty is not the same thing as meaningful originality.

Sakievich, I agree with you, especially about the reasons why that wonderful Rembrandt works so well.

Mark, doing what you like, the best you possibly can, has to be the surest path to success.

Brad, Crisp and Sam, thanks for your comments! I appreciate them.

David Apatoff said...

Crisp, ZD, Pest, Dude, Off The Coast, Stephen-- this is an extremely interesting topic, and one that is probably worth a whole separate section. I have generally followed the work of the Art Renewal crowd, and I have mixed emotions about their work (and about their sponsors).

Personally, I think many of the artists in that group, including some with their own ateliers, have sacrificed the humanity in their art by pursuing an ungodly level of precision. If you look at some of their web sites, you will find I think) a lot of flat and meaningless "realistic" art coming from those artists. I find such art utterly boring. On the other hand, there are a few artists such as Adrian Gottlieb or Jeremy Lipking who seem to have a real spark. For me, their work stands far above the legions of automotons who would be better off putting down the brush and picking up a camera.

It is obvious that there is a lot of interest from people who are far more knowledgeable than I am in this field. I would be intersted in your suggestions about who are the best paintesr currently using old master methods. Crisp, I am going to go through the materials you suggested and perhaps we can have a more meaningful discussion with some concrete examples in front of us. I would like to pursue this further.

David Apatoff said...

Savage Tania, I knew that wherever I found a mass uprising against the forces of law and order, I would also find you in the middle stirring the pot. You have been strangely silent lately. Out building guillotines again?

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

I agree with you. There is this extreme sense amongst many current painters that fidelity to nature is the only way for traditionalists to paint. And you are right, it often makes for extremely boring paintings. There is even a manifesto, "Slow Painting" Anyone inetersted in it can email me and I will send it along.
Another artist worth looking at is Graydon Parrish. he has signed this manifesto but his work really stands out.
By the way, great blog. I've been following for a while but this is the first discussion I have entered.

Dude Can't Draw said...

But perhaps we can agree that mere novelty is not the same thing as meaningful originality.

Can't argue with that.

I wanted to step back and say that I didn't come here with the intention of picking a fight. I stumbled on your blog and while I didn't necessarily agree with everything you've written, I could see you've put time and thought into it, and I'm always up for a reasoned debate with anyone who can do that. Hope I haven't come across as too combative.

Just as a final note on my take on it all, I certainly not immune to turning my nose up at stuff I consider crap passing as art in museums. I just stop short at declaring that "it doesn't belong there" or that it "isn't art". I have a hard time dividing things into "art" and "not art", "good art" or "bad art".

I can identify with pretty good accuracy "art I like", but I try not to let that define anything outside of that set. In other words, something that's not "art I like" does not necessarily make it "bad art" or "not art". It is simple not "art I like".

And when I see places like Art Renewal using language like "simplistic and infantile ideas" or "vacuous, banal and inane…and above all boring to the point of tears", it gets my ire up a little. Why not simply appreciate what you appreciate without tearing others down? If you are confident that what you do and like is good, then focus on that, the rest of the world can sort itself out.

Stephen Worth said...

"Liking" and "Judging" are two different things... "Like" is based on personal tastes, and only applies to people who happen to share those tastes. "Judgement" is reached by applying criteria and analyzing how well the thing stands up to those requirements. You can disagree with someone's judgement, because your own set of criteria to judge by is different, and still learn from their opinions.

I've always found the people who have the most interesting opinions are those who define their criteria clearly. Our host here is great at that. Every picture he posts defines it perfectly.

RJ said...

"I would be intersted in your suggestions about who are the best paintesr currently using old master methods."

Odd Nerdrum and Vincent Desiderio are two that immediately come to mind.