Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Last week the Society of Illustrators opened a wonderful exhibition of pulp magazine covers from the 1930s and 40s.  The show includes nearly 90 paintings of scantily clad damsels in distress, hooded fiends with elaborate torture devices, and futuristic space heroes.  This is probably the most emotionally uncomplicated art you will ever find: big, juicy paintings with the open heart (and emotional maturity) of a 14 year old boy.

Some of the paintings, such as this gem by the great Baron Leydenfrost, are executed with astonishing skill:

But most of these pictures are painted with a technique as vulgar as their content. There was no room for subtle colors and elaborate compositions on a magazine rack crowded with competing pulp magazines.

The girls on these covers always seemed to be in peril, and ripe for rescue by the proper hero.  

Young male readers were tantalized by the prospect of what lay beyond those slightly parted dressing gowns or those strategically torn shirts.  They pored over these illustrations for clues to what awaited them someday.  It's a mark of their innocence that their best plan for winning such favors was by rescuing a girl from space monsters.

If you're looking for a holiday from moral complexity, pulp art may be just the oasis for you. In fact, the owner of this marvelous collection, Robert Lesser, calls it “escape” art.  But its simple mindedness is the source of both its joyful strength and its gnawing weakness.

Which brings me to my question of the week: Is it okay to like pulp art?

Let's put aside that this stuff is politicallly incorrect.  My question is focused solely on artistic merit. Is this stuff anything more than “chewing gum for the eyes”?  What are we to make of art that is not particularly well painted and does not challenge us mentally or emotionally, that raises no questions and doesn't expand our vision, but is undeniably likable for nostalgic reasons?

Beryl Markham cautioned us about the temptation to look over our shoulder at simpler, bygone days:
Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour.... Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone I learned it late.
This is a worthy sentiment, but I nevertheless think pulp art is a valid art form.  The moral obviousness of these pictures gives them an ethical virility that you won't find in more sophisticated art. They are akin to religious paintings from the age of faith, which left no ambiguity about who was the bad guy, who was the hero, and which blonde needed to be rescued.

The fact that such ethical clarity is an illusion doesn’t mean it isn't art.


Richard said...

This post needs more babes

MORAN said...

A number of pulp artists such as R.G. Harris painted crudely for the pulps but did beautiful work for magazines that paid more, like the Post.

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

One of my favourite pulp paintings:

Jonh the Baptist

Anonymous said...

It's fun, but is it art?


Donald Pittenger said...

Interesting question, David.

I empathize with artists who had to crank that stuff out to put food on the table -- in particular during the Depression.

Some of them were talented enough to make it to the "slicks" including Walter Baumhofer whose pulp covers were already pretty good (I'm thinking of those Doc Savage ones where he added violet shading to complement the copper tones of Doc).

But a lot of the pulp stuff was pretty bad for some of the factors you cited as well as for a genuine lack of ability by some of the artists.

My take right this minute? The subject matter doesn't bother me. Of course it's cartoonish fantasy much of the time. After four years in a frat house and three in the army, I have a working understanding of "gross."

Neverthless, I'm not too fond of the art in general. It's often technically and artistically crude and garish. Plus, there's plenty of better illustration out there to enjoy. Like looking at sexy babes? ... then check out the work of Robert McGinnis, for example.

David Apatoff said...

Richard-- I added another "babe" image, courtesy of the Society of Illustrators, just for you.

MORAN-- Harris was an extreme example; he did impeccable work for mainstream magazines, but I agree with your take on his pulp work.

Lennard Grahn-- there's no doubt that some classical, vintage art has gory subject matter. But I am unaware of an historical school that abandons traditional aesthetic concerns and discipline to embrace such lurid sensationalism. Perhaps they were working for a higher class clientele. I'm not sure your John the Baptist is dopey enough to qualify as pulp art.

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- Yup, that's the question. Should we feel guilty about liking this stuff? Should we be aiming higher? Or don't these standards matter?

Donald Pittenger-- thanks for your thoughtful reaction. I agree with you that much of the art is "often technically and artistically crude and garish" but there's plenty of art in museums and art galleries I would describe the same way. We are told that we shouldn't judge museum art by traditional standards of technical skill or beauty. We are told that the apparent casual sloppiness or the superficial ugliness in such paintings is offset by some redeeming concept, or by some political statement, which was the true interest of the artist. Marcel Duchamp, for example, subordinated traditional artistic standards for a dadaist message.

If we are willing to rethink our criteria for such art, would it be such a crime to rethink it as well for "technically and artistically crude and garish" pulp art? Is the dada message any more worthwhile than this childish, youthful, melodramatic pap?

Also, on the subject of McGinnis, do you think these trashy pictures would be nearly as persuasive if they were done in a tight, lucid style by McGinnis?

kev ferrara said...

I may have said this before, but I do feel there is a kind of higher calling to art, that it isn’t just entertaining fantasy that ships us away for a moment. David Mamet once quoted a line that went, “whomsoever rises from their prayers refreshed has had his prayers answered.” This seems to apply… that great art should restore us in the process of entertaining us. And I think that is where the hidden moral component of art comes in. (Which is not to say that art should moralize. Not at all. As Robert McKee points out, storytelling is a living moral argument. It isn’t pedantic or didactic.)

Fantasy for the sake of fantasy does not have this restorative quality. Because it has nothing to say about how to live life. It has no moral argument. It simply draws us in and substitutes a different reality for our own, without giving us anything tangible to bring back and work with in our real lives. So we are returned to life, after experiencing the art, disappointed, spent, and no wiser, rather than empowered. Fantasy for its own sake would probably conform to Joseph Campbell’s definition of pornography.

Even the 3 Stooges say more about life than the average hack damsel-in-distress pulp cover.

Incidentally, I’ve met quite a few girls who identify with damsesls in distress. Stranger still, I’ve met a few “hard luck with the ladies” type guys who would probably sympathize with the villains, who recognize that they need to plot rather fiendishly to trap a female in their vicinity. And harbor enough resentment towards the fairer sex, coupled with certain frustrations of the basic kind, that thoughts of lurid revenge were never far away.

Donald Pittenger said...

As for persuasion, that means I need to put on my imaginary art director's cap. Were I a pulp magazine AD (in practical terms, the editor or publisher probably handled that bit) yet retained my quantitative bent, I'd carefully track issue sales and try to relate them to (1) cover art, (2) presence of "name" authors in the genre, and (3) subject variation in the ish's stories.

Let's assume I have a golden gut and can somehow isolate the cover art effect on sales. Then, to keep food on my table, I'd push for similar content -- lots of red color, 3/4 - exposed breasts, a drooling, pockmarked goon with machete -- whatever it takes to keep those presses rolling.

No McGinnis wouldn't make it in that environment. But he did just fine with paperback covers that, too, are point-of-sale tools.

Stephen Worth said...

The irony is that the trash of the past is often more skillful and imaginative than the "good stuff" today. Who cares if it's Fu Manchu or Arrow Shirts? If it's pleasant to look at, that is better than average in today's world.

Stephen Worth said...

Also, I don't see anything wrong with tasteless subject matter. I prefer that to tasteless presentation. Appropriateness has no place in art, but eloquence does. It is possible to eloquently express a vulgar idea.

lennardg said...

Mr Apatoff: maybe the old question of art/ not art is really a question of taste and not subject matter?..but tastes change... and why should historical schools dedicated to the assembly line creation of religious imagery receive more merit for what they do than the assembly lines of popular culture? should we believe that the dogmas of religion are more noble than the democracy of the newsstand?..

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- in my heart of hearts, I share your view of the "higher calling" of art (at least if it is going to qualify as "great art"). But my definition of art is not so air tight that I can't enjoy lots of other stuff-- improvised and spontaneous drawings, action painting, tribal crafts, much comic art, etc.

If the only art in the Museum of Modern Art was art with a "higher calling," they could rent out three vacant floors for bar mitzvahs and Elk's Lodge meetings.

You write, "Fantasy for the sake of fantasy does not have this restorative quality. Because it has nothing to say about how to live life. It has no moral argument. It simply draws us in and substitutes a different reality for our own,"

I hate to overlap this conversation with the one from the previous post, but doesn't your criticism apply equally to Frazetta? His work is far better than a typical pulp artist (and maybe you will say that his excellent technique is enough to satisfy that inspirational role) but most people would probably say that a fantasy painting of a barbarian bashing someone with an axe is just fantasy like these pulp covers-- no "moral component," no "restorative quality."

I agree that pulp art may come close to meeting Campbell's definition of pornography: pulp and pornography both tap into some of the same undeniable power. In fact, when weak "fine" artists such as Koons or Currin need to import strength for their anemic work, they have piggybacked on pornography to do it (much like the way film makers import strength into otherwise weak films by adding a rock and roll soundtrack). In all three cases (fantasy, pornography, rock and roll) these "lower" pursuits can be added like a spicy condiment to contribute strength to more refined work. It may be manipulative but creators use them because they work quite reliably, and I think we must respect their power.

Stephen Worth-- I absolutely agree with you on both counts. I often cross swords with my friends in the gallery art community over just these points. But having said that, I draw a big distinction between Leyendecker's Arrow shirt man and these pulp artists. Lots of pulp artists painted rivers of blood with red paint right out of the tube, while Leyendecker was the consummate craftsman. Lots of pulp artists painted fingers that looked like sausages, while Leyendecker understood anatomy inside out. So I don't care if it is Fu Manchu or Arrow shirts, but I do care when there is a difference in the quality of the brush strokes or the composition.

Matthew Adams said...

It's ok by me if you like pulp art, David. But if you feel guilty maybe you should see a priest.

David: Forgive me father for I have sinned. I lust after a green skinned martian girl.

Father Todd: I have that issue of Spicy Adventure Stories too. So it is green skin that does it for you eh?

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- If you were trying to determine what is persuasive to potential buyers, I don't think you would have to repeat your analysis too frequently. I think Topic A has been interesting since the world was new, and will still be the most interesting topic when the world flickers and goes out.

As for McGinnis, I agree that his covers managed to do just fine persuading consumers at the point-of-sale. He was far more meticulous than most pulp artists, but he was a smart cookie and used high contrast (pale flesh against dark backgrounds) to attract the eye on a crowded book rack. While we are on the subject of McGinnis, am I the only one who thinks that as he matured, his women became longer and skinnier so that they ended up looking like freaky extruded space monsters? El Greco would have looked at McGinnis' figures and said, "now just a cotton picking moment...."

Lennard Grahn-- "should we believe that the dogmas of religion are more noble than the democracy of the newsstand?"

Not necessarily. The democracy of the newsstand turns teenagers into juvenile delinquents, but the dogmas of religion lead adults to the Spanish Inquisition, Islamic terrorism and holy wars.

As I said in this post, I think pulp covers and religious art from the middle ages have a lot in common. They both offer a comforting, manichean view of the world. Look at depictions of the Last Judgment by Memling or Bosch, and you'll see how excited artists can get about tearing people limb from limb, once dogma has relieved the artist of the burdens of conscience.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Adams-- Don't knock guilt. Arm in arm with lust, it is responsible for whatever progress the human race has made.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same exhibition that was at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago?


Stephan Chobanian said...

I take a more simplistic view of pulp art, do I enjoy some of it? Yes? then I will enjoy it. It doesn't have to have high intellectual value for me to just enjoy it. Does it contain the quality of eternal beauty? No, not necessarily, it is kitsch plain and simple.

Do you think that a gourmet or gourmand occasionally can enjoy a hot dog with macaroni and cheese? I bet some might. I see Pulp art in the same way. It isn't one or the other. I think we can enjoy both without confusing the difference between beauty and kitsch.

David, Off topic a bit, "but the dogmas of religion lead adults to the Spanish Inquisition, Islamic terrorism and holy wars." The dogmas (A doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church) have also lead to noble-hearted acts of love, compassion and self-sacrifice and beauty for 1000's of years... The word is usually used for it's potential negative qualities and not the positive benefits it brings.

Just my two cents :-) Thanks for your ever thoughtful and interesting posts! I enjoy and appreciate them including everyone's thoughts as well.

Stephen Worth said...

I guess that's the answer... It depends on the quality of the painting. Not every ad in Colliers was as good as Leyendecker, but we don't dismiss advertising illustration. It's the same with pulp art. The good stuff is good.

raphael said...

thats an interesting question, david. i think im pretty much siding with you; i enjoy quite a bit of pulp art. in my bookshelf, hemingway sits next to robert e. howard, and shakespeare doesnt need to crank his neck very much to have a look at tolkien.

to say that for art to be of value, it _needs_ to carry this and that kind of "true", or deep, or intellectual (or even political) message, reeks of reductionism. at least to me. its the same kind of reductionism we had in the age of enlightenment with the rational intellect (kant went so far as to proclaim that one and the same deed have differing moral value depending on whether or not they were done out of rational insight!).

existence is such a multifaceted thing that every attempt to subsume all those 'lesser' facets under one master dictum is doomed to fail. its been the downfall of enlightenment thinking, its why communism (mar' historical materialism) was doomed from the very outset. its why there isnt anything to be won with focussing on a politically correct social quality, or utilitarism. why is emotion on a lower level than rational thought? why rank dreams lower than reality? all of them are parts of human existence, and thus, can be the subject of art.

after all, were we to paint a woman, what would we paint? something about femininity as a concept? a study of the female form? the cute thing that makes our loins twitch? or, if we are religiously inclined, will we paint gods fairest creation? is there one view "more right" than any other? can it be answered whether the quintessential woman is a whore, or a saint, or none of the above? i dont think so.

im completely with you when you say that the more important difference is quality - not necessary technical quality, but quality of statement (which is facilitated by mastering technique, though). an artwork may not be of technical excellence but hit a certain nerve despite - or because - of its shortcomings.

another problem with drawing such a hard line to divide true art from pulp by mere subject matter is just where to draw that line? doesnt it get more acceptable by the day to speak of pyle, wyeth and cornwell as worthy artists? if so, does the artwork need to be of a certain age? if there is patina, it can be art, or what?
and what do we make of accepted fine art that has this titillating aspect? sure, rembrandts susannah and the elders is an illustration of a bible story - its sacred material! - but at the very heart of the picture, isnt it about the story of a damsel in distress? doesnt it live from how the old men leer at her while she didnt even turn fully to face them in opposition? how the palace is far in the distance and there is no hero nearby? i certainly think that this is what sells the painting. if someone didnt know the bible story, it would be two lewd old men about to molest a pretty young girl he sees.
it is an immensely well-crafted painting, but the subject matter is pretty pulpy.

Richard said...

Thanks for the babes David.

"an artwork may not be of technical excellence but hit a certain nerve despite - or because - of its shortcomings."

Heck yeah, people who won't let themselves enjoy technically impoverished works are missing out -- in big part, I believe, because half of the time one believes that a piece of art is technically lacking, they are missing ways in which it is technically advanced.

" rembrandts susannah and the elders is an illustration of a bible story - its sacred material! - but at the very heart of the picture, isnt it about the story of a damsel in distress?"

It's illustrating some shitty fiction just like most of the rest of Illustration.

kev ferrara said...

David, each medium has its own way of conveying a message. In literary arts where the narrative spools out over time, we have plot and character arcs and such.

In painting, we have one instant. A tableau. There is no space for a literary argument. But morality isn’t just given through one kind of lesson. There isn’t just one kind of moral statement. Most moral questions come down to the basic building block of morality, which is truth. From truth we can achieve understanding about life and then consider proper behaviors. From learning concepts of truth we can learn to appreciate truth. And this truthfulness awakens our insticts for life and re-organizes our thinking, and then our actions.

Truth in art is not something pasted on or flown in. It is intrinsic to the work, synthesized with it. Which is why truth is so closely associated with great artistry. And falsity with bad artistry.

It is artistry that synthesizes fiction, truth, and reality into a single image. Without the artistry that can perceive truth, all we have is fiction trying to look like reality… aka bad art. Frazetta, at his best, is providing truth… truth about light, truth about human movement, relationships, sexual tension, muscular tension, barbarity, moods, terror, fear, triumph… all legitimate ideas.

His work would not be so beautiful without his sense of the truth of things. It would be fun junk, actually. This sense of truth can’t be taught. This is the flower of his artistry, which rises from the seed of his talent. Bad pulp art (and I love bad pulp art) is bad because it lacks artistry, and thereby lacks truth. (Lies about light, lies about human movement, lies about relationships, lies about sexual tension, lies about barbarity, lies about moods, feelings, perspective, muscular movement, etc.)

To speak truth is a moral act. Untruthful art lacks the morality that attends the speaking of truth. And that is the very reason for its lack of quality. Fact alone also is not necessarily true. Insistence on fact can be dispiriting if truth isn’t also in the mix.

It is truth that we take back to reality from the art experience. Truth made aesthetic. There used to be a verbal connection between morality and morale, and I believe a wise one. Because learning truth uplifts.

Here’s Harvey Dunn on this point, commenting on a picture presented in his composition class: Very nice (Roscow’s: outdoor, under the trees.) Of course, it isn’t factful at all. No more factful than McDowell’s woodland sketches. Nevertheless it has a truth in it, which
transcends the fact. The spirit is the only thing that’s true about anything. And this has a fine spirit in it, and therefore a fine truth in it. Very romantic. A lot of activity. There’s something about that which takes us from our commonplace existence. Suppose that appeared in a magazine — everyone who saw it and went out on a picnic would try to see that kind of thing in it — and they would see it — and you would have enriched their lives.

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- I don't know if there is overlap between the Society's show and the Brooklyn Museum's show, but if you call the Society I'm sure they can fill you in. They're quite good.

Stephan Chobanian-- I absolutely agree that a gourmet should be able to enjoy a hot dog from a corner stand. The extreme contrast can be wonderful. It only becomes a problem when someone never outgrows a narrow palate because they never ate anywhere besides a hot dog stand.

I also agree with you that religion has inspired the high points as well as the low. I couldn't dabble with a blog like this for more than a week without figuring out that many of the most sublime works of art are inspired by religious feelings.

Laurence John said...

David: "What are we to make of art that is not particularly well painted and does not challenge us mentally or emotionally, that raises no questions and doesn't expand our vision, but is undeniably likable for nostalgic reasons?"

we file it under 'guilty pleasures' . we can always go and look at something high-brow later. people who feel they aren't allowed to enjoy something pulpy or trashy because it might corrupt them morally are usually a bit creepy, frankly. (btw i think the last painting IS well painted).

Stephen: "...It is possible to eloquently express a vulgar idea."

nicely put.
pulp art that works is still pulp, it's just well done pulp.
pulpy / vulgar subject matter doesn't excuse poor execution.

Richard: "Heck yeah, people who won't let themselves enjoy technically impoverished works are missing out "

as long as they are aware that it is technically impoverished (e.g. so bad they're hilarious thrift store paintings). it's a sad thing to see people fawning over an artist who sucks.

Mose Busby said...

Kev Ferrara said: "Even the 3 Stooges say more about life than the average hack damsel-in-distress pulp cover." First of all, what do you mean "even"? Second, asking for a "higher calling" from art is absurd. Define "higher calling." Is my "higher calling" higher than yours? What about an atheist's? What about a nihilist's or a misanthrope's? How provincial. How snobbish. How archaic & unenlightened. That exact argument was used to attack artists who dared paint anything but Madonna & Child. It was used to attack Impressionist art, Abstract Expressionist art, any non-representational art. Let it rest, already. Bottom line: It's OK to LOVE pulp art -- & to think it's wonderful. If artists believe it to be art, it's art. By the way: And so are comic books. And so are the Three Stooges.

kev ferrara said...

Mose, I'm not sure if you comprehended what I was saying. Your response was kinda hysterical.

For one, if you read closely, I did say I love pulp art.

I don't think it is a bad to love pulp art. But I am trying to establish the reason why some art is good or bad, whether we like it or not as entertainment. Because there is a function to good art that is worth preserving.

By "higher" I do not mean religious, necessarily. I am not religious. I just mean truthful. Which I posit as the cause of quality in art (much to the chagrin of many, I'm sure.) And there are many different kinds of truths. I'm sure even a nihilist can paint a masterpiece full of truth with enough prozac and red bull in his system.

Mine is not "the exact argument used to castigate any painter who dared paint something other than a religious painting". I don't know why you immediately jumped to religious fascism from what I wrote. Maybe its on your mind?

By "even the 3 stooges" I meant... well, let's just say you should probably be aware that the 3 stooges are considered lowbrow entertainment.

Spitting out epithets like "snobbish", "archaic", "unenlightened" , "provincial" is a child's way of trying to win an argument. Grow up.

Laurence John said...

"Frazetta, at his best, is providing truth… truth about light, truth about human movement, relationships, sexual tension, muscular tension, barbarity, moods, terror, fear, triumph… all legitimate ideas."

i see where you're going Kev, but it sounds like you're trying to justify your enjoyment of Frazetta's art by turning it into something more high-minded than it is, because you can't admit to yourself that you actually like 'fantasy for fantasy's sake' (why... because it sounds juvenile ?).
or, if you insist that Frazetta is about 'truth' perhaps we need to invent a subsidiary category of truth such as 'fantasy truth' (it takes place in a mythical land of barbarians, elves and buxom wenches but is exactly how you'd imagine such a place to be) or 'pulp truth' (it's inhabited by dames and tough guys but it feels emotionally real in a lurid 'noir' way).

kev ferrara said...


Since the internet is absolutely full up with fantasy art, so much fantasy art that it is coming out of our ears, then you would imagine I would be in hog heaven. Yet I detest 99% of what is being done. And yet I adore hundreds of illustrations by Cornwell, Biggs, Everett, LaGatta, and others that take place in a drawing room.

So you clearly aren't thinking through what you are contending.

As well, you can't see beyond subject matter to truth. You are stuck on the surface, the details. This is the exact same problem with the people who are die hard fans of fantasy for its own sake, or dead set against fantasy. Each are fixated on the trappings of the surface, and they cannot detect anything beneath the obvious.

Laurence John said...

what's this 'truth' stuff that you keep going on about ?

Laurence John said...

which is the more 'truthful' ?


Stephen Worth said...

The Three Stooges may be considered lowbrow humor to some, but they were great comic performers who were able to improvise complex, rhythmic routines of action at the drop of a hat. Their timing and imagination was sharpened by years of performance in front of live audiences. They were consummate performers. It's easy to mistake lowbrow subject matter with lack of skill and creativity. I imagine that's the point of this post.

kev ferrara said...

I agree with you Stephen. I don't think it takes anything away from the Stooges to say they were lowbrow entertainment. I'm sure they didn't think they were doing Shakespeare, given that they had callouses on their cheeks from being slapped so much. (My favorite scene is where Curly falls off the witness stand while sitting in a chair, btw. I adore Curly as an entertainer.)

Laurence... if there were no such thing as truth, art would not work. I suppose I feel safe in saying that what is true are shared concepts of experience.

Not everybody can recognize all truths, certainly. Not everybody has the sensitivity/talent. And the various medias are constantly trying to influence one's concepts of experience. I'm not sure truth can be explained to somebody who does not, for whatever reason, recognize it.

The two images you linked to seem to have about the same level of "truth quality" to me. That is to say, some.

Anonymous said...

Laurence John said...
"which is the more 'truthful' ?"

Dude. That's a one-hitter.

David Apatoff said...

Mose Busby-- You had me at, "First of all, what do you mean 'even'?"

Like all the other intellectual patricians around here, I am a big fan of the Stooges (although Shemp never really won me over, and Curly Joe--forget about it). You gave us a funny and succinct reminder, as Stephen Worth notes, that we should not "mistake lowbrow subject matter with lack of skill and creativity." Bravo.

I must confess I am less persuaded by your second point. I don't find it difficult to conclude that some art is "higher" than other art. In my view, that's not "snobbish, archaic or unenlightened." That's just what it means to have standards. I agree with you that it is important to approach art with an open mind, but I believe forming standards (and being accountable for those standards so you are able to make your opinions stick) simply proves that you have grown as a result of your exposure to art.

If you want an example of art that is a "higher calling" than other art, how about the following: I believe that Kathe Kollwitz's beautiful, powerful graphic art, made in the slums of Berlin as she stood her ground against the Nazis, qualifies as a higher calling than S. Clay Wilson's puerile "Captain Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates."

Is there a role for artists to be as childish and obnoxious as possible for the sole purpose of irritating people? Yes, and sometimes it is even a socially useful role. Is there a role for artists who draw badly? Apparently there is. But I still have no hesitation in saying that Kollwitz's art was a "higher calling" than Wilson's. If I had to throw one or the other of them off the lifeboat, it would be an easy choice. In fact, I might throw Wilson off just for the fun of it.

I should add, in view of the subject of this post, that I draw a bright line between the innocence of the charming pulp art at the Society's show and the willfully vexatious character of Wilson's art. I would say that pulp art is the "higher" of the two.

SKIZO said...


Laurence John said...

"...Yet I detest 99% of what is being done. And yet I adore hundreds of illustrations by Cornwell, Biggs, Everett, LaGatta, and others that take place in a drawing room.
So you clearly aren't thinking through what you are contending."

Kev, i didn't say that you loved ALL fantasy art. i said that it sounds as if you have a problem with the idea of liking fantasy art (because of it's low-brow, adolescent connotations ?) so have to turn it something higher sounding (and using the word 'truth' repeatedly is one way of doing it). your description of Frazetta is clever (truth about 'barbarity' is the sort of thing i would expect to read on a gallery wall at a Frazetta-made-respectable gallery show) but doesn't ring true. if i were to make a list of artists who i thought were trying to portray 'truth' about the human condition Andrew Wyeth would be on there. so would Lucien Freud. Frazetta certainly wouldn't.

Robert Cook said...

There's no reason ever to "feel guilty" about liking any art. Presumably, however, any aficionado sophisticated enough to even consider such a question (or feel such an emotion) can make distinctions among the art he likes of that which is "better" or "higher" art and that which is of lesser worth or which offers only the most tawdry or superficial of pleasures.

One may be a lover of fine wines yet still enjoy a Pepsi on a hot summer day. One wouldn't, however, confuse the differentiating qualities of the one and the other.

(And even if what? No one is judging us for our preferences in art...or in beverages.)

kev ferrara said...


I don't have a problem liking fantasy for fantasy's sake. I just don't like it. No problem there. I like art that has content, which is to say, artistry, which is to say, truth. Do you think Wall-E was a good movie because it was set in the future and had lots of robots?

Saying Frazetta did not portray truth about barbarity and violence seems to be a willful bit of contrarianism on your part. I played rough sports my entire life, wrestled, rough-housed around with my friends, got in some fights along the way... and it is very clear to me that Frazetta's portrayal of such experience is very true. More than any other artist known to me.

Many many other people also recognize the truth of Frazetta's work in this regard, whether they have experienced brutality and violence in life or not.

For whatever reason, (whether you simply can't process Frazetta's conceptions, whether you are getting hung up on the trappings of fantasy, whether you simply haven't experienced rough and tumble in your own life, or whether you are just not able to appreciate truth when you see it), you don't get what I'm saying about Frazetta's art. This redemonstrates the point that truth is something that can only be recognized.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I've yet to encounter any pulp art that I consider more distasteful than Odd Nerdrum's "fine" art (just to name one). He has set the bar quite low.

Laurence John said...

"Do you think Wall-E was a good movie because it was set in the future and had lots of robots?"

i don't think Wall-E is a good movie because of the completely unconvincing 'love' story between the two lead robots.

you seem to be saying that you like Frazetta's art because of the believability of the physical violence (you talk about him as if he's a sports illustrator) rather than the fantastic elements of design and setting ? the monsters, babes and barbarians don't come into it ? the past-fantasy world doesn't interest you at all ?

Laurence John said...

etc etc: "Personally, I've yet to encounter any pulp art that I consider more distasteful than Odd Nerdrum's "fine" art (just to name one)"

i'm sure Odd Nerdrum thinks there is 'truth' in his art too, which is i think the point of Mose Busby's post above (please correct me if i'm wrong Mose. great name by the way)... that one artist's version of 'truth' might look entirely different, even completely opposite, to another artist's. if truth, as Kev suggests, is where the quality of art comes from, we'd better all agree in advance which version of 'truth' we're going with.

Anonymous said...

Truth is we all defecate . Is it art? I vote no.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrarara and Laurence John-- I find this discussion about truth in art very interesting, but when I try to think about how it might be applied, I find myself echoing Laurence and Pontius Pilate: "what's this truth stuff?" It's obviously a complex, multi-faceted concept and a whole lot of good art has nothing to do with it. Kev's quote from Harvey Dunn distinguishes between truth and mere "factful" accuracy. But before we even get there, the fact that representational art is an illusion of 3 dimensionality on a 2 dimensional surface starts art out on a life of crime. Then there's art like Triumph of the Will which is an impressive film furthering a dastardly lie. There are Norman Rockwell paintings which are meticulously accurate in one sense, but which peddle a fantasy view of middle America as inaccurate as Frazetta's fantasies of cavemen fighting dinosaurs. And these pulp covers are, of course, in a category of fakery all their own.

So much of art is a conjurer's trick, employing fakery to achieve some effect, I think it is difficult to put truth at the center of art unless we define the term down a bit.

Robert Cook wrote: "There's no reason ever to "feel guilty" about liking any art."

Well, that's brave talk but let's put it to the test with an example from the law of pornography. (The law always provides such fabulous examples for these theoretical arguments). It is against the law to make movies of child molestation. Now pedophiles are making highly realistic CGI movies of children being raped in excruciating detail. As the law tries to shut these films down, the animators object that this is only art, no actual child was injured, and "There's no reason ever to "feel guilty" about liking any art." While the law is busy trying to sort out what to do with such material under the First Amendment, would you say that anyone who likes such work should at least feel guilty about it?

Laurence John said...

etc etc: "Truth is we all defecate . Is it art? I vote no."

if an artist turns defecation into art, yes. whether you like it or not is another matter.

Anonymous said...

I suppose it all comes down to a definition of "art" and ultimately whose definition is authoritative. Shall we arm wrestle? :)

kev ferrara said...

Ugh... Bad faith all over the place.

David, you're just throwing the whole thing in the mud without even looking at it.

Shared Concepts of Experience.

Relayed aesthetically through a fiction.

I know you don't believe that fiction cannot portray truth. So why try to knock fictionalizing as being tricks, fakery, and "criminal"? Just to be contrary? Silly argument.

Triumph of the will was Propaganda or advertising, meant to be perceived as journalism. Journalism provides fact, supposedly. And fact can't be portrayed aesthetically, but only through description. Propaganda or advertising, is a whole different ball of wax than telling truth through aesthetics. It tries to reshape one's concepts of experience in order to warp the perception of truth. This only underlines the danger of "believing everything you read" which is a hazard of people who consume too much 3rd party information, without having sufficient real experience to judge the quality of their intake.

Norman Rockwell's so-called lies about Middle America look a heck of a lot like a lot of my Italian family and their friends from my grandmother's generation. I knew those people. I know a lot of other people who knew Rockwell's people too. Some of them are still alive. It gets pretty tiresome to hear this reflexive slander against his work just because he wasn't a cynic or muckraker by nature. Yeah, some of what he did was corny or false. A heck of a lot of it was true, though.

Saying that Frazetta's paintings containted Dinosaurs and Cavemen has nothing whatsoever to do with truth. Its fiction. Your issue is a journalistic one. But since art isn't journalism it is another red herring.

That we all have bodily functions is again, a fact. There is nothing conceptual about it.

All these comments are off point.

"Art is a lie that tells the truth." so sayeth Picasso.

Laurence John said...


believe it or not i understand your position; that art is a 'fiction' that expresses universal truths / shared human experience. that's wonderful ! let's all share our experiences of life shall we ?
great... unless they conflict with our own.

you seem to fail to take into account viewpoints that don't express the good old traditional family values.... some people don't believe in god. some people see life as meaningless and chaotic. some people are what you like to term 'nihilistic' (and they even create 'nihilistic art' ...the demon, as far as you're concerned). unfortunately (for you) you can't rewind the clock to 1919 (or whichever date you believe the rot set in). you are alive in the present amid a teaming morass of conflicting versions of what constitutes 'truth'.

you still haven't offered your version of what this elusive 'truth' is.

(you're a brilliant wordsmith by the way, and why you haven't started your own blog yet is a mystery)

David Apatoff said...

Kev, rather than "throwing the whole thing in the mud without even looking at it," my intention was to clean off the inherently muddy term, "truth" so we could have a better look at your assertion.

If you want to argue that "truth is so closely associated with great artistry. And falsity with bad artistry," I can agree if you define truth narrowly to mean some type of integrity or internal consistency. But my point (not to throw the whole thing in the mud) is that there are lots of other kinds of truth that are not essential to the the greatness of the art, and may even be an impediment. Art's methodology seems chock full of lies, illusions, delusions, slippery prevarications and evasions. I agree with you and Picasso, "Art is a lie that tells the truth."

I am a huge fan of good art, but I am very wary about ascribing truth or other moral virtues to it. It can certainly happen, but at the same time it is too easy to find counter examples.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence, I am not discounting that there can be other truths than my own, or than Rockwell's own, etc. Of course this is so. That why, if you look at great artists work, they all look different. They are all bringing personal conceptions to the table.

Yet we recognize in each, truth.

It is a question of our sensitivity to truth, and the artistry of those who work from outside our experience, that compel us to believe truths that are not our own.

It is rank tribalism that makes us say, "no, those fictions are lies, and my fictions are truths."

I am not saying that the kinds of truths that bring quality to art are all universal truths, although some of them may be. I am saying that truth, regardless of its origin, is something we recognize intuitively. Otherwise nobody would bother to listen to anybody tell a story. Otherwise movies like Bend It Like Beckham or Slumdog Millionaire would not play here in the states. Their exoticness would make them "lies."

But instead, all the idiosyncratic trappings of Indian life fall away, and we perceive the human truth within. The same goes for a great science fiction movie, where, with reflection, all the trappings of the alien milieu fall away and we are left with "the shared concepts of experience" the lurked beneath the techno-fantasy pizzaz.

David, I tried to define truth as "a shared concept of experience." This is an abstract category of understanding which becomes a muddy term when it is used interchangeably with fact, opinion, advertising, or ideology.

Tom said...

Sex and Violence, it's what sells.
I find the best art deals with form and space and since everything is either form or space the subject just does not matter that much. What tends to hold my attention is how something is done. Greek myths mean nothing to me but the Greek sculptors’ understanding of planar arrangement is mind boggling satisfying. (Just like in Leyendecker's work) In such work there is no point to get except the beauty of relationships, how one plane leads to another plane and how everything connects to everything. Which in a way is much more profound, then sex, violence or whatever the apparent or given subject is. This fact always seems easier to see once the context that give the work it’s original meaning and often it purpose has totally disappeared.

Picasso's wrong, Art is Art, art is part of reality it can't be a lie, I don’t think anyone has looked at a painting and mistaken it for something other then a painting. If you want to go down that road words are the biggest lie of all because there just arbitrary sounds we attach to things. Anyone who has tried to draw a tree will know how far words are from reality.

MORAN said...

Pulp art is probably accepted today as art. This show and the Brooklyn Museum show and the Smithsonian Institute are proof. Why haven't we seen any shows about the covers of "the sweats" men's adventure magazines? Mort Kunstler and Syd Shores and Mel Crair did covers of adventurers trapped on islands of virgins and Nazis flogging girls in lingerie. Why not?

kev ferrara said...


I think Picasso meant that art is a fiction that tells the truth.

In saying that art exists therefore it is true, you are conflating truth with fact. It is a fact that an artwork exists, it is not a truth in the philosophical sense. Because you are conflating these notions, you are also confusing the judgement of the true-false value of the communication with the question of whether the object exists or not.

I would suggest that the reason you find music built of planes (Greek Statuary, Leyendecker) fascinating is because the music builds form and meaning in the process of fascinating you. It isn't arbitrary planes and relations. There is artistry in action.

My assumption is that someone who feels a connection to Leyendecker and Greek Marbles will find a lot less pleasure or interest in music built of form for its own sake, as in these examples of abstract planar sculpture, where design is paramount...





each of which (for me anyway) is of interest for a few minutes, and then after a while, it loses its lure. And then I have no desire to ever look at it again. My understanding for why it wanes in interest is because the human mind soon intuits that there's no "there" there underneath the music of symbols. There's no information of a shared conceptual nature about life, no truth. Just design for its own sake.

Which is why this stuff used to be called "decorative" before politics elbowed its way into the arts and demanded that meaninglessness was meaningful or else you will be labelled a reactionary and shunned.

My theory is that viewers who stay interested in meaningless work are unable to intuit truth as distinct from meaninglessness. So all symbolic arrangements seem of equal cognitive value.

Annie Belle said...

Hate to pull the 20th century relativism argument, but it's okay to like whatever the hell you wanna like. It might be flashy or dumb, but if you like it, then it has merit.

The "you have to do everything like the old masters" argument is complete garbage as far as I'm concerned. I read on this site the aspiring classical painter should stop listening to modern music and only listen to classical. In my opinion, a person is perfectly capable of creating a good painting regardless of their environment.

This is an interesting debate, and thanks for opening it up!

bill said...

Maybe it's simply an aversion to the word truth. Having been persuaded to look through the glasses of dogma during a large part of my earyl life, I have a phobia of the word truth. But I believe that my use of resonance is nearly synonymous with your use of truth kev. I use it with my students because I can't bring myself to say truth. More than one thing is required to cause resonance and I believe that more than one exceptional element - skill, content, subject, etc. - is required to create a good work of art (although let me interject here that can't define art but can recognize it once in awhile).

That is my only contribution to this discussion because I am divided about pulp work. Like a lot of it don't pay attention to most of it.

Now if you'll excuse me I need to put some calamine lotion on this rash that has developed from even typing the word truth.

kev ferrara said...


It is exactly because "truth" has been made into a pariah that I have taken it up!

Don't forget the Benadryl!

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I misunderstand you but your terminology is a little unconventional...are you suggesting that all abstract design arrangements seem of equal cognitive value?

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

No, etc. etc... I'm suggesting that, to those who cannot sense truth, all arrangements of symbols will seem of equal cognitive value.

For those who can sense truth, their instinct for it will indicate its finding emotionally, as a growing attraction toward the truth-containing arrangement (and a waning interest in the lacking arrangement.)

Sorry for not being clear.

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

Kev, i don't see why because a viewer enjoys 'design for it's own sake' (in an abstract form) it follows that they're incapable of recognizing human 'truths' in a narrative form such as in figurative painting or cinema.

Anonymous said...

That isn't what is being contended, Laurence.

Anonymous said...

I would agree that non-representational, abstract design "for its own sake" tends to lapse into meaninglessness; is that what you mean? However, a formalism of abstract design which does employ common, non-abstract, representational objects (which I understood Tom to be championing) is another matter entirely.

Richard said...

Laurence: "as long as they are aware that it is technically impoverished (e.g. so bad they're hilarious thrift store paintings). it's a sad thing to see people fawning over an artist who sucks."

I don't think it should be sad. Art is a means to an end -- if that end is met (say, a spiritually transformative experience), then the art has succeeded. That is true regardless of refinement.
E.g. Early Christian art. It's generally awful, yet was undoubtedly powerful at the time.

Richard said...

"For those who can sense truth, their instinct for it will indicate its finding emotionally, as a growing attraction toward the truth-containing arrangement (and a waning interest in the lacking arrangement.)"

I think that's only true if you take the pieces out of context, both of their physicality and of their place semiotically.

I believe that 'meaningless' works of pure design are intended to frame, shape and amplify other content. (And while I think meaninglessness is, surprisingly, the goal of pure design, and further that those designers/artists often fall short of the mark by accidentally having meaning).

I think this principle is best shown pure design(abstract expressionism)'s place in interior decoration, textiles and print design -- I think meaningless abstract art is undeniably better at creating a space with consistent gestalt, at creating a pleasant textile (I'd take clothing with Mark Rothko over Frazetta any day) and at framing a powerful piece of text.

kev ferrara said...

Etc. etc.

Visual order is a type of language. And language can be used to say something profound and true, something shallow and obvious, or it can be used (without regard for its capability to express meaning) to produce gibberish.

If all order constructed of "representations" of known objects and actions was meaningful, then the phrase "The flipping orange grove parsed the circuitous potato chip" would have meaning, but it doesn't.

kev ferrara said...

Richard, you are confusing decorative principles with content.

Richard said...

I don't mean to sound like I am confusing them. I am saying that a lot of art is created to decorate (as much as they try to relegitamize it in other ways), and that it's no longer a zero-sum game between those types of art, and other more narrative or meaningful types of art.

Anonymous said...

That's a different discussion, Richard.

bill said...

Oh yeah. Let's have the art or not art vs. good and bad art discussion. This wonderful blog is a perfect storm of people to duke this out.

I am kidding about that discussion you know.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how Kev says that truth in art isn't universal but still saying that "truth, regardless of its origin, is something we recognize intuitively." If we all recognize it intuitively that makes it universal. Are these pulp covers true for everyone regardless of origin? Or only for horny boys?


kev ferrara said...

I didn't say we all recognize truth, JSL. Only those with the experience and the sensitivity recognize it.

Young boys, let's face it, generally don't have much experience and aren't likely to be reflecting on more profound truths than "I like hot chicks, fast cars and explosions."

A young boy will probably experience wonder looking at the average sci fi pulp cover. An adult will more likely find nostalgia and humor, understanding intuitively that they are looking at beautiful, clunky nonsense.

Richard said...

kev: "My theory is that viewers who stay interested in meaningless work are unable to intuit truth as distinct from meaninglessness. So all symbolic arrangements seem of equal cognitive value."

People who are interesting in pure design are interested for it's meaning in context to design as a whole. It's all about try to advance design, and appreciating where the designer succeeded and failed. Did they manage to be so current that they're futuristic? Well, you can tell by how it makes you fell. Does their design make your heart pump faster and your palms get sweaty because it is so new, so fresh, or is it wonky, expressing old ideas, and tired feelings.

The meaning IS the design. The meaning is the work's relationship to design and designers as a whole.

It's not about meaning something ALONE, but something within the context of design itself.

Your four examples of design made me feel nothing, but some design overloads my sensors.

I guess what I think is happening here is that you want Art to give you an answer. Good design (abstract art) just makes you wonder. It doesn't matter if there is an answer there to designers, that it has you feeling wonder is enough.

Anyway, it makes me wonder.

Mellie said...

No work produced by any artist anywhere is "meaningless". But it's true that some works are more meaningful than others.

There is an objective reality which is "true". We are all part of it.

But our ability to conceive this reality is incomplete. So every artist mediates truth through their own experience.

Two artists could present completely opposing interpretations of an event, or person, or whatever, but both could be true. They've just concentrated on different bits of it - with some of themselves unavoidably stirred in.

Or both could be complete poppycock, in terms of some scientifically testable association with what actually exists. I've never met a centaur, but I've seen pictures of them.

Art is a form of symbolic communication, and symbols need not accord with any actually existing thing.

Is the art better if they do? Well, I've seen very beautiful Greek statues of the goddess Aphrodite, but I'm confident she never existed. Does this make the statues "untrue" and worthless? No, because they aren't just images of a non-existent goddess, they have many other things wrapped up in them: observation of human women, for example, the qualities of marble, a reference to stories, Greek philosophy, the individual skills of the sculptor, etc.

Every work is a complex creation.

chris bennett said...

Art, unlike life, makes you feel and reflect at the same time.
In life you feel or you reflect.
Someone slaps me in that face and it hurts. Later, even if it’s just a second or two, I reflect on why they did that.

When I look at pulp art (Which I love too – golden age comic covers a favourite delicacy) I mainly feel. And what I feel is generally a nostalgic curiosity about a lurid interpretation of a bygone world so like and yet so unlike our current one. Then I might reflect how the repressed desires vented themselves in this particular form all that time ago. But both my feelings and my reflections about what I see remain separate components of what boils down to a sort of salacious fascination.

It is quite unlike the experience of art. Because aesthetic experience is two things fused as one. Feeling and reflection. The feeling embodies the reflection and the reflection embodies the feeling.

kev ferrara said...


Firstly, not every meaningful or emotional event is an act of communication. For example: A thief murders some man for his gold watch while the man’s son looks on. The thief runs off into the night. End scene. This is a very meaningful event in the boy's life. But the thug wasn’t trying to tell the boy anything, he just wanted his father’s gold watch. No meaning was communicated.

If the thug, later in court, said it was an artwork he did there at the crime scene, would that make it a meaningful communication either? (Oh, but look at how artfully the blood spattered across the street...)

The issue is what does it mean to communicate meaning? As distinct from the creation of senseless visual artifacts.

Which is to say, you are confusing meaning or content with some generalized emotional effect a thing might promote. What you are saying is akin to, “that gas explosion was a meaningful communication because it scared me.”

Just because some aesthetic novelty is the intent of a piece, does not mean it is a meaning that is contained in the piece. For instance, if I say to you “GOOBA GABBA, MAKKA MAKKA LOO LOO BING BONG!” my intent is that you get a comical effect. But there is no meaning housed in the comic babble.

On the other hand, the example you linked to of the “X in the wood floor” does communicate meaning aesthetically, and does not just have some generalized emotion for its meaning as you have suggested. The emotion and the meaning are actually inextricably synthesized.

As I interpret it, the truth that shocks us that lies behind the work is “how quickly it can be demonstrated that we are not safe in our thin shell of civilization.” And that’s the whole shooting match.

You felt something, I felt something. What that something was, was a subliminal idea about the fragility of our existences communicating through the materials. Content communicated aesthetically. That’s art.

But far from being beyond comprehension, the work’s truth is easily surfaced and read as a work of visual text. It’s a classic work of Punchline Postmodernism, if I can coin a phrase. It flatters the viewer by its easy interpretability. And then its over as a conversation piece, which gives it the exact same lifespan and depth as an editorial cartoon, except without the nice drawing.

The dandelions on the fingers, I instantly sensed was nothing interesting in terms of meaning. Didn’t you?

kev ferrara said...

Mellie, those gods and goddesses and fantastic creatures you mention are not factual. But they can be vehicles, just as you say, to present truths about ourselves and the world that we recognize. Just like all the crazy characters in Midsummer Night's Dream. Or the robots in Wall-E.

So, aside from the question as to whether magical beings can be considered as either "true" or "untrue" (I think not) we are actually in agreement.

Unknown said...

They have good to great technique, style and composition as illustrations. But most importantly, and here I must shout, THEY TELL A STORY! No ambiguity, no let the viewer participate, no crap.

To me art is a problem to be solved visually. These people had to figure out, "How do I tease and sell?"

So some is Art and some is illustration. Some is freaking great and some is just "meh."

Anonymous said...

Until fairly recent times much of what is called fine art was illustration. This is particularly true of religious art which is often pulpy in content.

Patrick Ford

canvas artwork said...

now that is a prity cool artwork

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- the Society of Illustrators informs me that there are a number of new pieces in this show that were not displayed in the Brooklyn show a few years back. I'd say it is worth a fresh look if you're in the NY area.

Mellie, Chris Bennett, flatterland and Patrick Ford-- thanks for chiming in.

Kev Ferrara-- “GOOBA GABBA, MAKKA MAKKA LOO LOO BING BONG!” seems eminently sensible compared to some of the views that have been expressed on this blog in the past.

Anonymous said...

Rembrandt's Conan cover.

Patrick Ford

VectorMan said...

I love this style of illustrations! Its very clean comics pictures.. said...

I would like more of illustrator Fred W Small and his carreer in paramount and Columbia pictures ?