Friday, December 07, 2012


"The shudder of awe," wrote Goethe, "is humanity's highest faculty."  This shudder may explain why many people are attracted to the arts.  But others, who aren't so comfortable shuddering, have found more orderly ways to approach art.

For example, art historians try to understand art by researching the lives of artists.  (The new biography of Saul Steinberg, a splendid piece of scholarship, devotes 732 pages to how Steinberg's childhood, his sex life, and his paternal grandfather might have shaped the pictures we think we enjoy today.) 

For a different approach, chemists analyze the composition of pigments for whatever insights chemistry can contribute.  Then of course radiologists x-ray paintings, searching for earlier, discarded drafts.  Psychologists rummage through an artist's underwear drawer for psychological explanations for creative decisions.

But that's not the worst of it.  Prominent economist David Galenson explains that with the benefit of new "quantitative methods," we can now conclusively list the top 25 "most important works of art of the 20th century." (Number one is Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon, in case you wanted to know.)

Physicist Charles Falco, an expert in molecular beam epitaxy, won headlines with his "scientific proofs" and "mathematical calculations" explaining how great artists painted pictures

Statisticians have even resolved the long debate over the merits of drawing vs. painting.  According to the experts at 
Drawing is no longer and will never more be considered a poor relation to painting.... [O]ver the last ten years (January 2002 – January 2012) the price index for drawings has progressed more than 197% versus 161% for that of painting.
Don't think for one minute that's researchers shy away from the big issues.  Here they address "the entire anguish of humanity":
Edvard Munch’s The Scream, which condenses in a single image of just 79 x 59 cm the entire anguish of humanity, can be considered the “Mona Lisa of Expressionism.”  In just one adjudication, the Norwegian artist has completely outperformed his 2011 revenue total ($7,645,527 from 82 lots ) and has gained the potential to climb to a substantially higher level in the global ranking of artists by annual auction revenue (219th in 2011).
Ambitious academics, authors and social scientists are emboldened by the triumph of information  technology, clambering over the arts like over-ardent monkeys. They mistake information for ideas, and rarely come into contact with that "shudder of awe" stuff that Goethe wrote about.

 A survey of 230 art critics by Columbia University found that passing judgment on art was at the bottom of their list of priorities, while "providing an accurate descriptive account" was at the top.  Such descriptions provide information, but there is a big difference between information and wisdom.  James Elkins, chair of art history at the Art Institute of Chicago, concluded that "contemporary art criticism is entranced by the possibility of avoiding judgment."

If your prejudices are anything like mine, right about now you should be objecting: "How can more information ever be a bad thing?  Are we supposed to avert our eyes from whatever science might contribute?  Is art just some magic trick we shouldn't spoil by thinking too much about how it is done?"

I am a big fan of scientific research, but science and art seem to work by different rules.  In science, each new fact brings us closer to truth but in art, more facts can take us farther from-- not closer to-- the highest aesthetic experience.  Facts can dilute the most meaningful aspects of art.  They can distract and deceive the viewer.  Art can wilt under the weight of too much empirical data.

Michelangelo destroyed his preliminary drafts because he wanted the final work stand alone;  forensic investigations would only siphon off attention from the important parts.  For the same reason, Matisse claimed that "all artists should have their tongues cut out."  While we should not necessarily limit ourselves to Michelangelo's or Matisse's notions of the best way to experience their art, we should at least think twice before adopting the alternative approach offered by some ambitious economist.

Furthermore, my disagreement with scholarly research should not be viewed as anti-science.  To the contrary, science itself offers us a more suitable model for connecting with art: 

Chemistry tells us that the strongest bond between two substances is formed when their molecular structures are not too complete, and thus they are receptive to sharing pairs of electrons between them.  A substance with gaps in its electrons can fill those gaps with the electrons of another substance.  In this way, two molecules can unite into one bigger molecule-- a connection called a covalent bond, heavily crosslinked and powerful in a way no mere glue can match.  (This is why  epoxy, which combines the electrons of two ingredients, is so much stronger than regular glue applied unilaterally to a surface.)

No matter how much scientific data we compile to understand and capture an art object, we will never bond with it the way we might if we kept our outer electron ring open and receptive.  If we come to art fortified with too much information, we have fewer free electrons available for the new combinations that make so much of art worthwhile.

Ambiguity is the enemy of science, but ambiguity in art is a precious thing; it  provides the space essential for personalizing our reactions.  A covalent bond with art enables us to find greater inspiration than the art might supply if we simply followed a script produced through factual research. 

There's no doubt that research provides genuine benefits to art dealers, historians, grad students, voyeurs and economists.  At the same time, it can hinder a more meaningful relationship with art.  Anyone who still yearns for Goethe's shudder of awe may find scholarship a poor substitute.


Casey Klahn said...

Well done!

Artists do pass judgement on each other's art, so perhaps the critics would take a clue.

MORAN said...

Thanks for another of your interesting perspectives. It was worth the wait.

kev ferrara said...

There once was a Religion of Art, David, that believed it was smarter about the human mind than science could ever be. And it held that there would never be a microscope powerful enough to see love. And they were right. And it held that the worship of fact could only lead to stupidity. And it does. And it held that truth was the only reality, and the imagination was its receiver, a patchbay of symbolic emotions.And in order to be of the order of an artist-conduit metaphysician, one had to sacrifice their physical self to an emersion in transcendent conception.

But nobody believes that anymore.


Strong essay, David. Thanks for saddling up one of my hobby horses. (And nice to see good 'ol Wally!)

Anonymous said...

Look for the way out.

Donald Pittenger said...

I happen to have one of those fancy Ivy League PhD degrees in a social science (SF writer Larry Niven says that the word "social" in a sentence negates the meaning of the following word -- and he's pretty much right). Having seen first-hand how the sausage is made, I'm fortunate to be immune from most of what you delightfully describe. Too bad many others out these are snowed by the mere presence of academic credentials of a higher order than their own, because simple life experience plus a little skepticism trumps a good deal of soft-science research.

I find that I can't stand plowing through even descriptive material about art because such descriptions usually embed a good deal of academic theory and world-view (i.e., intellectual fads). Unfortunately, my own recent book about modernist art is crammed with descriptions because budgetary constraints ruled out paying for image permissions. But I tried to avoid academic fashions. Honest.

All that aside, I really enjoyed this post, David.

David Apatoff said...

Casey Klahn-- Many thanks. My experience is that many artists today are reluctant to pass judgment on each other's art, at least in public, for fear that they will look petty or trigger a rivalry. Artists seem to know that a number of popular artists today produce expensive junk, but they will not say so out loud.

MORAN-- I appreciate it.

Kev Ferrara-- I know how you feel about this issue, Kev, and I even thought about you while I was writing it. You always have a good poetic flourish to add to this issue, although I suspect you would go farther on the substance of this position than I would. There are many examples of how finding facts in science can produce more awe rather than less, and I think the same can be true in the arts. For me it's really a matter of maintaining a sense of proportion. We need to have enough free electrons for a covalent bond.

kev ferrara said...


The philosophical point behind my understanding is that it isn't the new fact that causes the awe, it's the distance bridged by that fact, the awesome new shape of the undergirding reality suggested by the new boundary drawn, the change of key implied by the new note at the bottom end of the chord. Einstein blows us away not because of a formula, but because of the implication of the formula. And as we all know, he arrived at the implication before he arrived at the formula.

Conceptual territory which corresponds to the scope of a knowledge set, is an implicit thing. It isn't substantive.It is the principles, and the formulas, aka the abstractions. The instantiations of these symbolic representations, one might argue, are merely the iceberg tips that crest into our realm of perception.

All principles and formulas transcend substance, which is why they are also, pace Plato, called Truths. How can one believe in math and physics without believing the so-ness of the formulas which are so stunning descriptive of physical events. And this is why, as a mathematician friend of mind often says, many math and physics fellows are "sneaking platonists."

Fact outside of abstract principle can never be meaningful. And this is the reason for the embarrassment of the modernist and postmodernist and scientific analyst attempting to comprehend the nature of art. They have no sense of the truth of the matter, no map of the principles involved. So, in this dark room, they throw darts into the Pacific and announce they hit land (because they heard a thump as the point penetrated the paper).

All to say, the understanding of the conceptual world, the structure of thought, was thought well understood in the upper echelons of artists, mathematicians and scientists just before Anti-idealism & Media struck their dual blows against the human ability to think coherently.

If you followed that hyperlink, you might find yourself interested to see that the structure of the brain itself, as it is being understood, corresponds with increasing fidelity to the structure of thought as understood in 1880. Except our men in white coats are still playing catch up; maybe, as I see it, because they don't appreciate that a synapse is nothing more than a single unit of implication.

Anyway, I've gotten a long way from wally wood here. My apologies. ;)

David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc-- An unusual selection for you... and an interesting soundtrack to Plato.

Donald Pittenger-- Speaking of your e-book, Art Adrift, I just finished your chapter on illustration in the 1920s and enjoyed your discussion of the modernist strains in Everett, Leyendecker and Cornwell. Well done-- a most interesting and well informed discussion!

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- yes, Wally Wood's potrzebie system of weights and measures in MAD #33 is a sheer delight.

I did follow the link to the article in MedicalXpress, a site with which I was not familiar, and while I skimmed the article, it was dense enough so that I wanted to understand more about the nature of the site before I made an intellectual investment in its theories. I'll get back to you on that.

As for your larger point, I think one reason I come out in a more moderate place than you is that I'm not sure facts can be severed neatly from abstract principle. Is the digital data from the Hubble telescope which makes up the image of the "pillars of creation," awe inspiring factual information by itself (because of size, scope, etc.) or is it awe inspiring only because of its conceptual implications?

One reason I think purely conceptual art, just like Plato's forms, gets boring real fast is that the ideal needs to be married to flawed, frustrating, perishable substance to attain the status of meaningful art. It may be that "All principles and formulas transcend substance" but much of the glory of art seems to lie in how the artist chooses to compromise those principles in the process of translating ideas into substance.

kev ferrara said...

Medical Express is allied with Physorg, which is just an aggregator site for publicity releases for various kinds of institutions that conduct scientific research. You can skip to the bottom of any of the articles to find a link to the actual research paper under discussion.

I did not mean to say that facts can be severed from abstract principle. I am merely pointing out that facts are nodes, they aren’t the network. How we connect up facts is where understanding comes in. So for instance, you imply, related to Hubble’s fact gathering, that size and scope of the collected data inspires awe. But this is an error, and in the process you are making my point for me. Because a data point does not provide size and scope, as size and scope are sensual understandings that can only come from thinking of the relation of all the facts to one another. And this relation is not mapped by data, the relation is what is between the data, the invisible abstraction that ties all the data into an association which comprehends it.

I agree with you that purely conceptual art is boring. Without the tether of fact the concept has no meaning either. (i.e. a blue square on a canvas) because what are we talking about if we aren’t talking about something. Although, I would say the struggle to materialize a concept is not necessarily a beautiful thing. Which is why most pro artists reference gather and do preliminary sketches before proceeding to final.

I’ve drifted us off the point, however. The issue is why science has been so inept at understanding art. And I think one part of it is that the aesthetics attending Modernism are gibberish. And over the long term, the gibberish has benefitted greatly from academic fan boys chatting it up, legitimizing it, and by now it is considered canonical. My assumption is that scientists, naturally, get no whiff of sense off modernist aesthetics, so they assume the field is wide open. The secondary factor is the fallacy of scientism, which does seem to be a real problem.. which is an over-reliance on instrumental analysis.

Anonymous said...

Art has become a racket.


Tom said...

Really isn't the art world and art thought just a mircocosm of our society at large? The same dynamics the same structures, the same beliefs?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- It's difficult to say whether "scientism" has invaded the realm of the arts because science has been expanding for the past 300 years, or because art has been in retreat for the last 50 years.

The fruits of science have been pretty darn impressive; science has transformed our daily lives with cars, cell phones and Xboxes. It has produced results in many areas where we originally thought science had nothing to offer. It is undeniable that science offers progress, while art has made it quite clear that progress is not a concept applicable to art. So you can understand why science wins the hearts and minds of the people, and why even if scientists do "get a whiff of sense off modernist aesthetics" they could still conclude that "instrumental analysis" is a more reliable yardstick.

I believe in going along with science as far as it can take you, and then a little farther. (You can never tell whether you've gone far enough until you go too far). I guess what I'm suggesting in this post is that the jury has returned.

Anonymous-- Well, I think there are legitimate and illegitimate components, like anything else. I'm not sure its possible to have that much loose money floating around without attracting racketeers and snake oil peddlers.

Tom-- I agree with you, and I think economists should continue to investigate the economic aspects of art, and chemists should continue to investigate the chemical aspects of art. Nobody should try to censor the social scientists or the art historians. The problem is only when the consumers of this stuff endow it with a significance it doesn't deserve, and let it crowd out the more challenging, more rewarding aspects of the art experience.

kev ferrara said...

Why do you assume I am disparaging science?

What I am worrying about is the creeping of pseudo-scientific method into places it is ineffective. And the misunderstanding of epistemology (and the nature of understanding) that allows for all sorts of assumptive errors to infiltrate the process of discovery. I am very pro-science, David. I thought that has always been obvious. I certainly don't need to be reminded of the accomplishments of the field as if I were a flat-earther.

But let's, for the right reasons, be skeptical of it as well. Scientists, after all, are just people, and fallible. And instruments are just tools in the hands those fallible people. And science has its limits, which aren’t always understood... one of them being the inability to understand, through technical means, the symbolic manifestation of an informal concept, which has led to the proverbial pinhead “trying to ascertain the nature of art through an interferometer” which I thought was a criticism implicit in your post.

We also have problematic cultural runoff due to the success of science, a host of fields trying to scientize in order to seem more professional. This has resulted in the pseudo-sciences we all know (political polling, sociology, model-based predictions of highly chaotic systems, freudianism, Dianetics, most theories of markets, labor and capital, The Secret, advertising and marketing theories, Astrological charts, movie audience tests, IQ tests, etc.)

A second runoff from Science’s obvious success was a belief that somehow science had done away with metaphysical notions that derived from how all the various strains of idealism (some of which have nothing to do with absolutes or deities) dealt with the nature of thought. Analytical philosophy’s failure do without a concept of truth has proven, quite directly, the fallacy in that project. Induction, our natural way of ascertaining truth, can not be done away with without also doing away with experience and knowledge. Pattern recognition is not a deductive process, which is why such things as genetic algorithms and neural nets have come into being in AI research fields.

As you may know there is more empty space in any solid object than there is matter. And in between any two points plotted on a graph there is an infinity more. And there is always more left unspoken than said.

Anonymous said...

There appears to be an academic rift opening up between humanities and hard sciences over the matter of art scholarship.

I'm not betting on either, but I think much of the blame for the absurdity of contemporary art "scholarship" can be laid on humanities departments drinking way too much of the Marxist kool-aid, opening the door for the "School of Resentment".

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I didn't mean to suggest in any way that you disparage science, or that you needed reminding of the accomplishments of science. I think your response draws a useful distinction between the "pseudo-sciences" where the humanities inappropriately try to borrow the credibility of science by adopting its methodology, and the genuine, hard sciences. Both may erode the domain of the arts (and for that reason I seem to have commingled them in this post). But I know you'll agree that it is hard to accuse the x-ray technician or the chemist of being pseudo-scientists. Genuine scientists do their thing, and it is the fault the viewer, and the liberal arts community more broadly, for flailing around for reassurance in subjective areas and reaching out to science. We are the ones responsible for applying real science inappropriately.

As for the pseudo-sciences, yes, that is a broader and stickier problem. I think psychology, economics, history, etc. all gain rigor and self-awareness from trying to apply the scientific method but I agree the results still aren't useful the way that true science is.

Etc, etc.-- what are you doing reading an enlightened journal like TNR? Aren't you concerned about being labeled a bolshevik?

Thanks for the link to the Fry lectures at Yale, I listened to his lecture on deconstruction because it seems to me that much of what we are talking about here is the deconstruction of art. I found his rationalization of Derrida's incomprehensible writing style totally unpersuasive.

Anonymous said...


The article was linked here. It's a good site for art news stories.

I have a copy of The Truth in Painting in my book queue. As of now, I have come to understand the following important truths about Derrida from the important sources:

Derrida deconstructs things. Derrida is cool.

If ever you should discern more than this, please do tell.

kev ferrara said...

I know you'll agree that it is hard to accuse the x-ray technician or the chemist of being pseudo-scientists. Genuine scientists do their thing, and it is the fault the viewer, and the liberal arts community more broadly, for flailing around for reassurance in subjective areas and reaching out to science. We are the ones responsible for applying real science inappropriately.

I don’t think you really believe that technicians are scientists, do you? In what sense are they doing research as they run some particular apparatus for which they have training? When I add some new memory chip to my computer, that is certainly a technical matter, but hardly science.

Nor is the collection of data (by hand or by instrument) necessarily Science. Just because you are looking through the most advanced gizmomenometer in the world, and writing down what you see, that doesn’t mean you understand gizmos with any greater acuity than somebody who’s never looked through a gizmomenometer. Just like looking at a photograph doesn’t necessarily mean you have gained any wisdom about the captured situation. (Assuming you agree that the point of science is to arrive at understanding, rather than simply gather facts at random.)

What is pseudo-science is in thinking that any instrument has a kind of mind. Madness to think that a machine can properly understand/conceptualize any problem that hasn’t already been solved in the abstract and manifested in the very design of the machine. All tools are realized conceptual solutions to technical problems; The technical problem being based on a belief about the best way to solve the real problem which is phenomenological in nature; The problem of Scientism rearing its head when that foundational belief, baked into the tool, is erroneous, but the tool is brought to bear on the problem anyway.

This is certainly not a problem wholly confined to the humanities. In fact, Science would have long ago solved every problem there was to solve if it had been able to make the proper tools in the first place to gather needed data. Which is to say, if the correct assumptions had been in place to build the correct tools. But that’s the nature of science... the willingness to be wrong in order to winnow away everything that is not true about a perception. To not appreciate just how fallible science is right now as we write, is to misunderstand the scientific process. Therefore no cultural space should be ceded to the idea that Science is immune from considered skepticism and epistemological challenge. Anybody who thinks that should be forced to read the thousands upon thousands of peer reviewed and published science papers that have turned out to contain errors devastating to their thesis.

Matthew Harwood said...

David - thank you for another thought provoking post
You put me in the weeds with your new biography of Saul Steinberg link. I was reminded of writer Neil Gaiman’s three bits of advice to artists getting freelance work. I‘m paraphrasing: “Do good work. Be on time. Be easy to get along with. And, you only need to master two of the three.” From reading the book review you posted on his biography, it sounds like the unpleasant Steinberg was punctual as well as talented.
For Gaiman’s great advice for artists see:

jaleen said...

You'll be annoyed to know that the big fad of the last ten years in art scholarship has been "affect" theory - one its guises being the theorization of the sublime, which is what that Romanticist Goethe was getting at. I have to say, most art historians pay far too much attention to the qualitative than the quantitative stuff you're citing - to their detriment. Neuroscience is contributing the most important new stuff right now, including on "awe", but try and get an art historian to pay attention.....

David Apatoff said...

Jaleen Grove-- It's pretty ironic that some people who are moved by that "feeling of awe" think they can prolong it by vivisecting it and institutionalizing their findings. I understand the urge, but it never seems to work out that way. The butterfly flickering in the sunlight never looks the same pinned to the lepidopterist's mat.

You say that today "most art historians pay far too much attention to the qualitative than the quantitative stuff." Does this mean paying quantitative attention to the qualitiative stuff? And if so, does that count?

Matthew Harwood-- Thank you for the nifty Gaiman tidbits. As for Steinberg, it will be difficult to view his work the same way. I am one of those who has trouble enjoying Al Capp's work because he was such a creep.

kev ferrara said...

David, if you just look at the art of Saints, you are going to be very bored..

The history of empire and exploitation is tied up with Brangwyn's work.

Look how Leyendecker treated his brother.

The way Einstein or Picasso treated the women in their lives.

The way Cornwell treated his spouse.

Frazetta once quoted Rush Limbaugh.

Edison electrocuted elephants to scare people away from the competition.

Bob Dylan became a born-again and said that most of his renowned 60s era lyrics were nonsense.

Shall I go on?

If you really believe that a man and his artwork are inextricably tied up, so that if the man does something nasty, it is reflected in the work, downgrading it. Then why don't you believe that things might reflect in the opposite direction, as well. That the beauty of a man's work is evidence of the beauty in his soul.

My personal feeling is that if you want perfection look to man's ideas, not to man. Otherwise you are going to end up hiding in a cave.

kev ferrara said...

You'll be annoyed to know that the big fad of the last ten years in art scholarship has been "affect" theory - one its guises being the theorization of the sublime, which is what THAT ROMANTICIST Goethe was getting at. I have to say, most art historians pay far too much attention to the qualitative than the quantitative stuff you're citing - to their detriment. Neuroscience is contributing the most important new stuff right now, including on "awe", but try and get an art historian to pay attention.....

Really now, Jaleen.

Romanticism is the foundation principle of art and it always has been, even before it was named. Romantic just means the subject is portrayed with reference to an idea which suffuses the work in the abstract or transcends it in some way, thereby unifying the work thematically to the idea. If you can find me an artwork you like that doesn’t fit this model, I’ll eat it.

Most other art movements are simply subsets of Romanticism where one particular kind of idea is used to narrow the thematic scope of an artwork, to the exclusion of all others, or where some new poetic technique or use of the romantic idea is developed or discovered and added into the aesthetic mix. Romanticism is how art works and to be anti-romantic is usually the result of not understanding art.

There is no painting ever painted, sculpture ever sculpted, movie ever directed, play ever staged, dance ever choreographed that doesn’t conform in large part to the theory of Romanticism. Even supposedly “journalistic” artworks use Romantic theory constantly. There is no other way to dramatize a thing but to clarify it according to an idea. Otherwise you get sprawl and the audience gets bored. This theory of artmaking has been tested in practice for thousands of years.

Romantic theory... symbolism... is a wholly different order of intellectualization than the kind of art theorizing that passes for serious in Academia. The crack theoreticians of “Affect Theory” are still arguing about what it is supposed they are arguing about, still coming to terms with the meaning of their terms. They can’t even agree on the meaning of Affect! To try to derogate Romanticism just because a few Affect Theorist use the word “sublime” is absurd. These verbal obsessives pitching each other high-sounding jargon in collegiate settings... they are just as foggy about Romanticism as anybody anybody educated about art in a classroom is. I mean, it is absolutely impossible to read a few essays from Kant, a few snippets from Goethe, a chapter from Ruskin, a few poems from Coleridge and then jump to Heidegger and think you’ve gotten the gist of Romanticism. Survey courses are shallow as all hell and they should be banned as educational frauds.

Which brings me to the issue of the sublime. The Sublime in its meaning as “awe-inspiring” is a very narrow meaning of the term. This comes from Kant probably, and it was picked up by any number of idealist/romantic philosophers early on as a nice important bone to mentally chew on.

Whatever the case, discussions of “that ineffable thing that causes awe” in artistic circles happened long before Kant, and, in fits and starts, lead to theories of the subliminal and the unconscious which eventually encompassed an infinitely greater scope of aesthetic opportunity than awe alone – reflecting not just the greater creative possibilities that lay ahead, but the great range of creativity that had already come to pass (but which wasn’t as well appreciated as it might have been). Archetypes, symbolism, dreams and the strange associations of the unsconscious were hot topics long before Freud and Jung showed up with their shingles.]

When neuroscientists can devise an image as good as Lady of Shalotte, I’ll believe they know something about art equivalent to the artists of Waterhouse’s era. Until that unlikely event, they are just knocking on the door to the clubhouse.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I know you're right about the "art of saints." I am usually pretty good about separating quality art from personal conduct. In discussing this issue with a friend recently, I recalled Diane Ackerman's little poem about artists and writers who have such sensitivity and insight into the nature of love, yet treat their loved ones so brutally:

I didn't know that bad men
Could write good poems,
Be spiteful to all,
Cruel to their children
But wholly compassionate
To ideal compassion.

It's just that every once in a while, the inconsistency between art and conduct makes it especially difficult to live up to those intellectual principles.

For example, I enjoy the music of Wagner, untroubled by the fact that he was a loathsome antisemitic philanderer. I get it. But there is something particularly galling about an artist like Capp who presented a cheerful, happy go lucky comic strip to the world, criticizing society's bad guys, while behind the scenes he was exposing himself to young women, misusing his position of responsibility to pressure the poor and vulnerable into surrendering sexual favors.

We can argue that the art historians should not rub our noses in such irrelevant stuff yet once they have, it is intuitively hard to disregard it. Our instincts tell our intellect, "not so fast."

kev ferrara said...

It is quite possible that Capp became mentally ill over time. Most of the lecherous stories about him stem from the late 1960s, it seems. Although it can be argued that he started to lose it in the 1950s, exhibiting strange behavior increasingly. Although, having lost a leg early and grown up in desperate poverty, I guess he was a troubled soul from early on. If indeed he was mentally ill, this is a state worth as much pity as scorn, without diminishing that there were victims of his problems.

But leaving such speculation aside, there's a whiff of magical thinking going on here, David, that you may not recognize. I mean, Al Capp is dead and buried. Who are you taking a stand against exactly? His work is nothing but great fun, while trenchant at the same time. There's no hint of a philosophy that would lead others into a disreputable life. Think of FDR reading the strips aloud during wartime to a frightened nation.

Still, the easiest argument is "throw out the bathwater, but keep the baby." Do you look upon the NASA mars rover in disgust because Werner Von Braun was NASA's foundational scientist? Do you renounce Bill Clinton's presidency because he was a moral creep as well? Do you stop looking a hieroglyphics because they are the products of a theocratic slave state?

So, I guess from now on, it will be your heartfelt duty to withhold judgment on any artwork’s quality until you are absolutely sure the artist in life adheres stringently to your moral requirements.

Anonymous said...

Man I hope your triumphant sarcasm does'nt cause David to scrap this blog while undergoing the sober reevaluation of his values and faculties your comments are certain to inspire .

Matthew Harwood said...

Grudgingly I have to admit you’re making good points. But I wonder, are there exemplary artists you can name who can be appreciated for both the quality of their artwork and the life they led? I admit that most of the artists I admire were deeply flawed individuals who came to bad ends.
Did innovative work that advanced the arts of their time
Were appreciated for their work
Where prolific and monetarily secure (i.e. didn't die in poverty)
Lived a long and healthy life
Emotionally balanced with an outgoing personality (Sorry John Singer Sargent)

Hint: Peter Paul Rubens

David Apatoff said...

Matthew Harwood-- for the last century we have preferred our artists to be depressed and neurotic, so I'm guessing there are fewer examples now than there were in earlier eras. But there are still plenty around. I would say Koons fits your description if "innovative work that advanced the arts" doesn't also require that the work be good. If you want only work that is good, I'd say Bernie Fuchs fits your description. He was a charming, generous, humble artist, a truly dear man beloved by all except his most frustrated competitors.

Kev Ferrara-- Now, now, play nice. I already said that intellectually I agree that art exists separate from the moral character of its creator, and I even shared a nice little poem to that effect. I also said that most of the time, that division doesn't bother me one bit (Wagner, etc.). In fact, one of the primary themes of this post is that pedants and scholars shouldn't even be inquiring into the moral character of the artist if it is going to be used to taint or muddle the appreciation of the object.

But once I have been confronted with such empirical information, there seems to remain one subcategory of art where regardless of what my intellect tells me, my intuition tugs at my sleeve and suggests that moral turpitude can make a difference. That's where the particular theme or message of the art seems directly opposite to the behavior. I might, for example, love a picture by Hitler of an Austrian landscape, but have qualms about a picture by Hitler of religious tolerance. Measured by that standard, your example of the bust gives me no concern at all.

It's probably not an intellectually based objection, it comes more from my olfactory senses.

kev ferrara said...

I am playing nice, David. But my nose is also smelling something..

Firstly, I don't find your argument compelling at all. There are a tremendous number of artists who do art they don't believe in, firstly. That's the nature of commercial art half the time.

Secondly, why you would believe that Capp didn't believe the thematic content of his work during his heyday in the 40s and 50s is a complete mystery to me. (Do you have inside information about his psyche that hasn't been put into evidence?)You assume what he did late in his life is evidence of what he was like when he was 30? This is a egregious example of inductive fallacy.

Nor do you think your argument rational, as you admit.

So, it seems likely that we will both agree, in due course, that your dislike of Capp's work really doesn't have much of anything to do with his work at all. You just dislike him. Ergo, you dislike the work.

In which case, based on what you have just written in your last post, you must find something about Capp's character worse than Hitler.

And that makes me want to close the ol' factory down permanently.

kev ferrara said...


My basic point is that there is a foundational epistemology problem in judging a work by its artist. For all we know, Norman Rockwell murdered somebody in secret. For all we know Klimt was a frustrated eunich and those 14 people who came forward to claim birthright were frauds looking for money. For all we know Waterhouse despised mythology. For all we know Frazetta led a secret life as a bisexual.

(I am not saying any of the above is true, people.)

The point is, the whole game of judging art by any other measure than its own intrinsic merits is a philosophical sinkhole.. The only thing we ever know for sure about an artist is the artwork.

Tom said...
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Tom said...

"The only thing we ever know for sure about an artist is the artwork"
I would take it one step farther. All we can ever know is our response to an artwork.  A work of art for the viewer is about self discover, it is not about understanding the person who made it. The cult of personality is one of the biggest disorders in our culture. Another way to put it, is the reason for a work of art to find out about the maker?

kev ferrara said...

Interesting notions, Tom.

Assuming we are talking about an artist, rather than a hack -- I would say, since a work of art for the artist is an act of self-discovery there must be something of the artist in the art, maybe even a great deal. Or else the work of art is a failure. What exactly that is may be difficult to pinpoint analytically, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s there as surely as the art is, even if the artist is long dead and gone. When we discover ourselves in someone else's art, this is a psychological communion with the evidence of the psychology of the artist in the work. We can’t commune with something that isn’t there.

In fact, I think we can say that good art is an artist's self-discovery (and experience of life, dreams, concerns, etc.) turned into an artifact through his physicality. It is a manifestation of any number of unique aspects of himself, all of which are personal and yet, for all we know, fleeting. The artist may radically change in mood, or even as a person, between one artwork and another. But nonetheless, the work of art is a record of the artist in that narrow moment of creation.

Tom said...

I agree, but I will take it another step, the viewer completes the work, he knows what the artist knows. Or his experience is the artist's experiences. What we share as human beings is much greater then what makes us unique as individuals. The artist has gone to the trouble to manifest that experience in a new form.

kev ferrara said...

I agree. What great art provides is a unique personal expression of a universal feeling..

MORAN said...

Kev you romanticize art too much because many great artists just made beautiful things to sell and get paid.

We don't know the artwork for sure as you think, even if we don't know anything about the artist everyone comes to the picture with different backgrounds and sees different things so there is no one picture.

kev ferrara said...

many great artists just made beautiful things to sell and get paid.

Not sure I agree with that. I mean, try to "just make beautiful things" and come up with a Sorolla painting. You make it sound like building a bird feeder. The way things are made and how they are symbolically encoded relates to how the things appeal to buyers, and the reason for their perceived beauty. When Coleridge said that "truth is beauty, and beauty truth" this was not an aphorism, but a methodology for poetic practice.

And we sure do perceive the artwork as it is. Because the artwork is a concrete fact. You look at it. There it is. You may not understand how it works, or why it was made. But there it is for you to investigate, or interpret, or ignore. There are no clues hidden from you, except by your own misperceptions or insensitivity to the marks on the canvas in front of your eyes. Whatever is there in the work is all that there ever will be in the work and all that ever was in the work.

The same does not hold at all for a human mind or any view of a life.

Laurence John said...


- it sounds like you're describing a difference in cultural baggage that might result in a strange reading of a work, but doesn't alter the meaning of the work.
however, assuming that the viewers are (near enough) of the same milieu, the similarities of reading will (in my experience) be much more remarkable than the differences.

-in the case of abstract or surreal works which don't have a clear, definitive message, your point makes more sense. the audience is free to see whatever they fancy.