Thursday, August 12, 2021

GARTER BELTS, THEN AND NOW

Compare this picture of a garter belt by Olivia de Berardinis...

...with this one by John Sloan:
 
John Sloan, Subway Stairs, 1926

Why is the Sloan illustration more suggestive and provocative?  What makes it a more successful work of art?

In Sloan's picture, a random updraft reveals a small, brief glimpse of thigh in an otherwise cold, impersonal sea of travelers bundled in winter coats.  Look at the narratives that radiate from those few inches of flesh:  Only one person (presumably Sloan) among hundreds is positioned to witness this unexpected gift:


The experience clearly left an impression on him.

The woman catches him looking:



Is he embarrassed?  Does he avert his eyes?  What is she thinking?  She can't hold down her dress because her arms are full.  Does propriety even matter any more if they're anonymous ships passing in the night?  Her face, her exposed thigh and the back of the man's head form a narrative triangle here.  It took Sloan seven versions of this drawing before he felt he got the balance just right. 

Olivia's fantasy trambo, on the other hand, has no such narratives.  She's too one-dimensional to contain penetralium. 

Amorous pictures today have become fairly predictable, even from masters of the skill such as Frank Cho or Adam Hughes.  We see the same routine provocative poses with the same anatomical distortions.  We see nudity, or at least an abundance of flesh, drawn with the same smooth, rounded lines.  We see soft, blended colors.  When censorship disappeared and printing quality improved, the same formulas became more and more entrenched. 

But 100 years ago, artists working with far less freedom and more primitive tools created pictures that were more intense than much of what is produced today.  Creativity, like passion, often comes from constrained circumstances. 

For example, etchings-- an inky black medium full of smudges and scratchy lines-- could be quite steamy, especially capturing moments of passion in a gritty, urban world.       


Edward Hopper (above) and John Sloan (below) show us couples grasping for intimacy in a crowded city.  These drawings capture serious moments that we know were preceded by hours of anticipation and followed by hours of reflection.



In Sloan's etching, Turning Out The Light, we see a woman preparing to remove her nightgown but simultaneously turning out the light.  There will be no unearned intimacy for us here; our imaginations will have to work for it.  But these are figures with real humanity, and the expression on her face as she looks over her shoulder at her partner shows us that there is another worthwhile narrative taking place. 


This last etching by Hopper, Evening Wind, is a sensuous tour de force.  Once again an errant breeze plays a central role.  


This time it brings relief from the heat of the city in an era before air conditioning.  Hopper didn't need spandex or corsets or stiletto heels.  He didn't need huge breasts.  His evocation of the sweetness of sticky summer sweat is enough to demonstrate the difference between a real artist and amateurs.

106 comments:

Walter Plitt Quintin said...

Nice note. Thanks. It even seems to be the "let the brain fill in the blanks" routine, the brain always does something better than reality itself. I like pinups that use nudity as a catch, but anyone looking at this style long enough realizes that an explicit tone is bound to desensitize the viewer.

kev ferrara said...

The Hopper of the sequestered train couple is him at the top of his game. Subtle, suggestive and moody. And of course, wonderfully drawn. Surprised I'd never seen it before. Thanks for passing it along.

In my opinion, the Sloans are poor in drawing, weak in composition, and ugly in pattern. Other than that, they're masterpieces. The drawing of the face and hat you keyed in on is, I would say, wretched, lost in a foggy and fakey middle state between cartooning, realism, and suggestion, somwat like H.J. Mowat. Both either have a poor memory or are unobservant. Or detest gathering reference.

For me, the sudden lucky upskirt breeze is no less obvious than the clichéd Olivia pose. Both result in Kitsch. That Sloan sets the scene for this incidental cheap thrill doesn't make it any more worthwhile of an artistic payoff. Particularly as the drawing is so bad. I think the great cartoonists from Playboy would have done the idea right, in all its low comedy, with no pretense to 'fine art', a lighter touch, and better skill.

Adam Hughes may do cheesecake, but he's a pro at it with a clearly recognizable style, a sense of humor, and a high standard of quality. Like Dave Stevens before him. Both may be slick, but so much art is so bad, to even point out that quibble seems ungrateful.

MORAN said...

"Creativity, like passion, often comes from constrained circumstances." Awesome.

David Apatoff said...

Walter Pitt Quintin-- I think that's a large part of it yes. Of course, the work of art has to provide an adequate springboard, but I think the greatest art is loose enough to permit a partnership-- a covalent bond-- with the mind of the viewer. Someone (I think it was Schlegel) said, "the only music that interests me is music that is too good to be performed."

MORAN-- It seems to be true, again and again.

Kev Ferrara-- I deliberately chose Sloan to juxtapose against Olivia to make a point. I assumed that many people would instinctively be drawn to Olivia because her picture is super tight, while Sloan's is a loose shamble of lines. But that's a 12 year old boy's notion of artistic quality, just like Olivia is a 12 year old boy's notion of erotica. I'm trying to see if people are willing to look beyond that.

I think we have to judge a drawing by its objectives and by its success or failure in meeting those objectives. Sloan's objectives here have nothing to do with "the great cartoonists of Playboy" or the cheesecake of Hughes and Stevens. If this was an image from Art Frahm's "falling panties" series ("Oh gosh, look at me, my skirt accidentally flew up and my panties fell down in public") then I agree the artist would have to be concerned with the things you mention: a pretty face, well drawn legs, a light touch. But Sloan is on the opposite side of the universe from that.

Sloan's people, like his lines, are a mess. They're packed in a crowded subway and nobody looks anyone else in the eye. They file past each other in a stupor. It's noisy and cold. Everyone is protected by multiple layers of clothing. It's hard to imagine a more dehumanizing, less erotic environment. Yet, by a fluke a few inches of thigh and underwear are revealed, and that nanosecond is enough to remind these two participants of human feelings such as desire, embarrassment, modesty, sexuality, privacy. These two people even break the primary subway rule of not looking anyone else in the eye. Sure, the girl is no movie star, and we can't tell what her shape is like under all those clothes but she's a human being and that's pretty damn sexy. Her facial expression-- beyond the meeting of their eyes-- is nondescript, but that's as it should be. If this were a playboy cartoon she'd surely have a twinkle in her eye or a smile or a look of pride that she flashed him, and that would ruin everything.

Bottom line, I'd say Sloan's sloppy drawing is perfectly suited for this purpose, and that Hughes or Stevens-- no matter what their technical skill level-- would be incapable of drawing this drawing and capturing the substance and mood that Sloan does. There are too many artists today who believe that erotica is a slavishly drawn illustration from a gynecology textbook. Sloan effectively uses contrast here with a very asexual background, and he uses only the smallest glimpse of flesh to set a much more worthy narrative in motion.

Alfonso said...

Gonna side w/ kev on this one. Hopper and Sloan know how to set the scene but graphically Hopper just knocks it out of the park.

(After following for ~8 years, before it's too late, massive thanks for an underrated resource.)

David Apatoff said...

Alfonso-- I agree with you (and Kev) that Hopper is a much stronger artist than Sloan. I lump them together as artists who worked 100 years ago and conveyed a kind of intense eroticism using scratchy black lines and a minimal amount of flesh. There were of course other good artists from that period working with the same limitations.

The Hopper drawing of the couple on the train is more tightly drawn, so it didn't create as much of a contrast. I used Sloan's drawing-- nearly devoid of technical skill-- against Olivia's drawing-- nearly devoid of anything except technical skill-- to express a personal preference, one that might baffle Olivia fans.

kev ferrara said...

It isn't just that the Hopper on the train is 'tightly drawn' - its that the picture is deep and refined compositionally, artistically. That's the reason why it is so clean and clear... because it is clear in mind and contains beautiful aesthetic thought. It is 'tight' as a refined work of visual expression. (And it is barely 'erotic' per se. I would say it is more intimate with a touch of flirty.)

Meanwhile, Sloan writes us letters about his inability to draw a hand or to make feet look like they are stepping on steps. He writes us note after note that he doesn't understand how light works. Or how shadows fall. Or how to obtain a basic tone with lines. His pictures are confessions of ineptitude which endlessly distract, like talking with someone so inarticulate and neurotic that you can't hear what they are saying.

It is exactly the case that in going for light and shadow effects, and hands and feet, that Sloan sets up expectations that he can't meet. That's why the cartoonists of Playboy would be better than him at the same image. Because they hit what they go for. They don't shank the shot and then hope the titillation gets the sale.

And that's the problem with 'erotica' as a general matter - is that the 13 year old boy reptile in all of us has no taste. The titillation makes the sale when the artistry cannot. And I hate to break it to you, but all erotica is for thirteen year old boys. No matter how it is couched, upholstered, or appointed.

This is why the 'disinterestedness' debate we had regarding Kant long ago was and is so relevant to good art. Cheap methods of giving a picture 'heat' are reptile tricks to snatch undeserved attention. To justify titillation the rest of the picture better be masterful and full of insightful observations, such that the artistry overwhelms the come-on.

'Sophisticated erotica' reminds me of a famous comedian's point about 'sophisticated' jokes; that no matter how smart the premise or clever the story, no matter which big words or concepts you use, to actually get a laugh, "Henny Youngman still needs to be in there somewhere."

I once had the privilege of sipping spirits with a wine connoisseur who had written a number of articles for the national magazines. He eloquently explained the various mixture and sequences of tastes - 'notes' and hints and espers (etc) re: the various wines he brought to the table. He spoke of which glassmakers he preferred for his snifters and flutes, and which bowl shapes made for the best olfactory experience. Then on to the soil content of the various vineyards throughout the world, matters of climate and season, and so on. It was all very informative, even spellbinding, until he became shitfaced.

Anyway, in my opinion, Adam Hughes could easily redo the Sloan garter image and knock it out of the park. The idea that he doesn't have the talent or heart or sympathy to successfully portray downtrodden and huddled punters trundling through thundering tunnels is absurd. Anybody who can draw that well can draw anything he wants if he wants to. That he doesn't seem to want to, is no mark against his ability to do so. Whereas Sloan can't even draw his bosom subjects.

Richard said...

John Truby, king screenplay editor, famously advised young writers “you can’t montage love”.

But every piece of visual art about love is trying to do exactly that. We have no sense of time, the relationship has no weight or depth, we can’t see what the couple has gone through to provide substance. What makes the kiss so sweet? We can’t answer.

You can’t solve that fundamental problem of art by wrapping the picture in pseudo-plot like Sloan is doing here. It’s still all montages of love.

Forget all that, give it to me straight, I’ll take the pinup or the ancient Greek nude before it — at least the pinup is honest about what it is. Given what the classical painters did with their pinups, see Sargent for example who is scarcely more than a pinup artist, I’m not sure an artist can do much better than making pinups.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "It isn't just that the Hopper on the train is 'tightly drawn' - its that the picture is deep and refined compositionally, artistically."

I agree. The Hopper is all that. But for purposes of this comparison I was trying to isolate a few key factors. The fact that Hopper has mastered perspective, anatomy, composition... the fact that his lines are straight... brings his example closer to Olivia's smooth, perfect lines and would only be a distraction.

I also agree that the Hopper is "intimate" (although not "flirty"). I think it is intimate in the same sense that Sloan's is intimate, but in the sense that Hughes is never intimate. There is a lot of passion and intensity going on in a small corner of that very public train car. Part of Hopper's genius is that he intensifies the heat by contrasting it with the cold, disinterested, mechanical world that makes up the bulk of his composition, and the bulk of the world. Hughes doesn't do that. Hughes says, "Here are my fantasy breasts. Here is my ass." Those are are the true "reptile tricks to snatch undeserved attention." I don't think you can fairly say that a scruffy black and white drawing with no nudity, where 90% of the drawing is an impersonal crowd scene, is a "cheap method of giving a picture heat."

I enjoy Hughes' work for the same reason I enjoy George Petty's work. It skillfully shows a sanitized, streamlined, idealized sexuality, one with no freckles or birthmarks, one that doesn't have the human smells of the girl in Hopper's "Evening Wind" at the end of a long hot day. Hughes' version of flesh doesn't feel the tingle of the cool breeze on sweaty skin because Hughes' flesh is made of polyethylene. I don't question that he is excellent at what he does. He is not like Olivia or Vargas or Rowena. But if you can show me an example of his work that suggests he has the range to do what Sloan did, I'd like to see it.

Richard-- I agree with Truby (with the exception of course of the montage from Love Story where Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw frolic in the snow).

Nevertheless, one of the founding principles of art is that sometimes things that seem small and mortal are in reality immense and divine; it's just that they can only be experienced in small and mortal increments.

"I’m not sure an artist can do much better than making pinups." Wow.

Donald Pittenger said...

Artistic considerations aside, the Hopper/Sloan versus the likes of AH! can be considered from an historical subject-matter perspective. Some of this was noted or suggested in passing in some of the above comments. It boils down to what is considered sexy/erotic from a normal male perspective.

And that can be a generational thing. I'll set aside all those pre-1930ish paintings featuring female nudes or semi-nudes where the subject matter (Greek goddesses, Orientalism, etc.) was the justification for the nudity. Those were the ages when women were usually seen fully clothed in public.

Also set aside are the early Playboy centerfolds and even the calendars hung on the walls of automobile repair shops. In real-life 1940s and 1950s USA, young women's daytime clothing was far more puritanical than what we often see today. The result was that even small hints of more-than-usual skin struck young guys like me as being especially sexy/provocative. The imagination was set on fire. But to my way of thinking, the more skin that's shown, the less the imagination and fire are triggered: one can become more analytical. But that's just me and my generation reacting to life as we experienced it in day-to-day life -- not when having a hot makeout session.

So Sloan's glimpse of thigh was sexy stuff in the real life of his time. Though I'm not sure how erotic his etching might have been to his contemporaries. I'm also not sure how erotic 1950s and later pinup art is to today's youth. After all, art and real life don't always overlap a great deal.

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Images tell different kinds of stories than in literature or cinema. The Image tells of a moment, but since the picture is still, in order to be true, everything else about the moment must be suggested and in such a way as to come alive. In telling a story in its own mysterious way, in this way, an Image can be a complete story of its own kind.

A cartoon or a peek-a-boo is like a one liner from a comedian. It's not so much a story as a sentence or a paragraph. But the sentence or paragraph too must be complete for the joke to be a joke. The point is, that there are levels of story. Every complete sentence is a kind of story. Every complete paragraph is a kind of story. Every complete essay is a kind of story. This applies to art, but in a much less obvious way, since there is no surfaced 'code' to art that can be read in the ordinary literal way.

The idea that Sargent was merely a pinup artist is a deranged assertion. However it is topped by the idea that art's highest aspiration is to be a pinup. May you accidentally bonk your head soon.

kev ferrara said...

I also agree that the Hopper is "intimate" (although not "flirty").

When a girl leans in like that, 'intensely interested', in a corner of an empty train car, offering hat-shielding from any other eyes should they be there and prying, I take that as a flirty move. But, of course, I am reading into the drawing, and it doesn't need it. The picture speaks for itself in what it already expresses.

I think Hughes is far better than Petty, not even in the same league. I think Hughes could draw anything. And I can certainly imagine him doing a fine job on the subway upskirt gag, either jokily, half-seriously or seriously. If you disagree, that's horse races for ya.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "For me, the sudden lucky upskirt breeze is no less obvious than the clichéd Olivia pose. Both result in Kitsch."

I'd be interested to hear how you define 'kitsch'.

As you mentioned obviousness and cliché, I'm going to guess that you think the more a work relies on the re-used / clichéd situation or stock image (rather than unique, personal experience) the more it descends into kitsch ?

Tom said...

Well David I have to agree with you both the Sloan and the Hopper etchings are "more successful," as works of art.

They set the stage and frame their narratives. They haven't forgotten depth, the "z" axis or "z" plane. They lead the eye to the subject where one finds the greatest contrast of value in their pictures. One not only feels the emotion of the pictures but one feels an underlying intelligence reflected by clearly defined space. The women are not in a subordinate position as in the top illustration, but they are equals to their suitors or admirers in every way.

The one thing that modern illustration, (that becomes more and more photo dependent), and modern art share in common is the elimnation of the "z" axis or depth, which is where the sense of life resides in a picture.

But that is my bias. What I find interesting in art is not the in the "story," being told, but in how objects are conceived and space is understood. Which of course leads to what you wrote David;

"But 100 years ago, artists working with far less freedom and more primitive tools created pictures that were more intense than much of what is produced today." LOL! Maybe in that last post you should have added a foot drawn by Michelangelo.

Your statement also remains me of the Zen master who responds to Eugene Herrigel's disappointment at his own attempts at the "art of archery" by declaring, " It is never the bow, it's always the archer."

Walter Plitt Quintin said...

This dialogue here in the comments reminded me of a comment, if I'm not mistaken by Roger Scruton, about music - "music (or an illustration) is an object to find a conclusion in the distance. Today it is a mat to reduce all thought and feeling to the your own level." For my personal taste, if an illustration doesn't seem to be within the context of a story bigger than itself, it's just plain flatter. On an even more personal note, in the context of my work as an art director, what bothers me the most today is using sex and sexuality as an excuse for a thousand other subjects such as romance, transgression, frustration, aggression or sadism. I prefer to approach the topic of sex, whether in a text or an image, for what it is.

chris bennett said...

Your statement also reminds me of the Zen master who responds to Eugene Herrigel's disappointment at his own attempts at the "art of archery" by declaring, " It is never the bow, it's always the archer."

Herrigel's 'Zen in the Art of Archery' was recommended to me by a tutor at the Slade when I was a student there and I read it from cover to cover. It was my initiation into Eastern thought and the start of a warm and fruitful friendship. Wonderful to find the book mentioned here after all those years Tom. I have it somewhere, and will dig it out!

kev ferrara said...

As you mentioned obviousness and cliché, I'm going to guess that you think the more a work relies on the re-used / clichéd situation or stock image (rather than unique, personal experience) the more it descends into kitsch ?

Hi Laurence,

After giving this question a long think; maybe Kitsch can be simply defined as a marketing strategy that fails badly pretending to be Art.

The marketing strategy in realistic Kitsch work is generally the central use of ‘hot’ subject matter that causes ‘interestedness’ in order to attract limbic attention (then hopefully payment.)

Any time the subject engages us as if it were an object, that is ‘interestedness’: When we are aroused by a picture, when the still life makes us hungry because the tomato is so luscious and the bread so crusty, when the blood pouring from the warrior’s exposed entrails grosses us out, when we long to lounge in the golden sun with languorous Grecian ladies on an Apollonian terrace, when the cuteness of the baby just makes us want to pinch that pink and marshmallowy flesh… and so on.

But the lure can also be the use of cynicism or politics (pandering to resentment or tribal self-righteousness) or clichés or conventions (subjects or methods that provide comfort). Anything that has a ready and active demo that might buy the thing for what is depicted or how, even if the work sucks as poetry.

I don’t think Kitsch is a class thing. More importantly, I don’t believe 'subject matter' has anything necessarily to do with Kitsch. I think a great picture can be made of any subject at all.

Which I understand is a challenging notion. But I truly believe that great dedicated talent and taste can win any battle against cliché and absurdity. In fact, most pictures I truly love are those fearless high wire acts that successfully tightrope walk directly over a vast gaping maw of Kitsch.

But, on the other hand, I don’t think there are any subjects that can’t be turned into Kitsch. Every ‘subject matter’ can be a pure marketing play faking as a work of art.

The question must then become how does any subject become more than a marketing play?

Well, the answer is by ‘not failing badly pretending to be a work of art.’ In other words, by actually being a poetic achievement. By expressing beyond the object.

Richard said...

> "In real-life 1940s and 1950s USA, young women's daytime clothing was far more puritanical than what we often see today. The result was that even small hints of more-than-usual skin struck young guys like me as being especially sexy/provocative. The imagination was set on fire."

And this was no less true in 1880s, when Sargent's "Madame X" was considered an outrageous work of pornography (especially before he self-censored by repainting the most lascivious bits). Or "Lady Agnew", which seems today a chaste image, but by the standards of the time was far too familiar a pose and an expression for a nice girl to give anyone but her husband. And of course, the pin-up intentions of his work are clearest in pieces like the "Nude Egyptian Girl".

And then, as a homosexual, Sargent didn't smoke his own Nude Egyptian Girl stash, he kept his top shelf gay porn like "Man Wearing Laurels" away unless Oscar Wilde was over.

"The idea that Sargent was merely a pinup artist is a deranged assertion. However it is topped by the idea that art's highest aspiration is to be a pinup."

I believe the highest aspiration of art is beauty, and few things are more beautiful than a pinup done well, whether Madame X, Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Aphrodite. I have to assume gay bishops and vicars feel the same way about Michelangelo's David.

Sure, there are other themes one can use to provide the foundational material for great art besides pornography, whether a mountain lake, a battle, a horse, but porn or pinup is the most tried and true. The vast majority of great works fall into that category.

Richard said...

>"When we are aroused by a picture, when the still life makes us hungry because the tomato is so luscious and the bread so crusty, when the blood pouring from the warrior’s exposed entrails grosses us out, when we long to lounge in the golden sun with languorous Grecian ladies on an Apollonian terrace, when the cuteness of the baby just makes us want to pinch that pink and marshmallowy flesh… and so on."

Then every great picture was kitsch in its own time, because every great picture was limbicly hot when it was first displayed.

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Ya know, the word pinup has some long held associations to it that obtain even though you've apparently decided to redefine the word for the purpose of having a provocative thing to say. Same with the word beauty in Art, which you seem to be confusing with beauty as desirability in humans.

I suppose the proverbial gay bishop might find Michaelangelo's giant marble David sexually desirable, rather than appreciate it in contemplation as a work of grand Art. However that would be a quixotic lust to pursue, as it would take quite a lot of shoving to fit that giant fellow into his rectory.

Anyway... as I explained, every subject can be an object. But what makes Art poetry is when it isn't. Not surprisingly, when the experience of an artwork overwhelms someone unschooled in inside baseball, it is very difficult for them to tell just what is performing the magic. Generally, they will see only what they know when they go looking; the 'subject' aka the reference. The treatment of that subject is written in an alien language and remains invisible.

But, as I've remarked before - and I recall you appreciating this point - the treatment and subject in great art are actually the same thing.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I agree there's no denying that history and sociology infect our response to pictures (despite the fact that we like to think of good art as having universal and timeless attributes.) I don't think Sloan intended his drawing to be salacious; it wouldn't replace the French postcards of his day. I think the little surprise he witnessed was an awakening experience during his commute, and he wanted to convey it as such.

Tom-- One can think of plenty of reasons why the Z axis gets left out today-- it requires artistic abilities that are increasingly rare, people don't have the attention span to appreciate it, pictures are often viewed in a compact format, etc. But I agree that when it shows up, it does make a substantial contribution.

Walter Plitt Quintin-- Your quote from Scruton (who I always remembered as being a little stuffy) set me off looking for context, and it turns out that he has a lot to sensible things to say about the difference between art and fantasy or pornography. “Fantasy objects are substitutes. They are a way of titillating real emotions and giving substitute satisfaction. The imaginative act, in contrast, is an endeavour to create a possible world, an imaginative world, where the emotions are also imaginary."

I completely agree about the importance of an illustration being "within the context of a story bigger than itself."

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I agree that's a very nice Hughes, and a little broader in scope than his typical idealized girl on a white background (which makes up most of what both Hughes and George Petty did). Still, I think Hughes would have a hard time doing what Sloan did. For one thing, even when he is drawing dark monsters and witches there is an artificial tidiness at the very core of his aesthetic. It is against his nature to paint the wretched refuse of the earth convincingly. For another thing, Hughes (like Hopper) has a hard time disconnecting a picture at its joints. Sloan takes a lot of liberties with perspective, disconnecting planes to put what he wants in the picture. To fit the trains in the background, to show the subway tunnels, to skew the angle of the stairs to expose all the right elements (such as the man in the overcoat who preceded Sloan on the stairs and missed the view by seconds) requires a certain freedom to distort that Hughes and Hopper could not give themselves. The approach Hopper took with the man and woman on the train car could never have assembled those elements into one composition because the drawing is too "tight."

I know you continue to call Sloan's upskirt experience a "gag" deliberately, but my view is that as long as you think of it as a mere gag, you reveal that you don't get it.

Richard said...

"Ya know, the word pinup has some long held associations to it that obtain even though you've apparently decided to redefine the word for the purpose of having a provocative thing to say."

I don't think pinups or pornography are particularly provocative words anymore. I'm just trying to get back to reality here. Michelangelo's David and Olivia de Berardinis's garter belt are born from the same interestedness.

Disinterestedness is fiction. The homosexuals of Florence were gushing over David's beefcake the same way teen boys gushed over Milo Manara's cheesecake. That's how the man, woman, and child in the street consume art.

"Same with the word beauty in Art, which you seem to be [equating] with beauty as desirability in humans."

That's right. Beauty is that which we like to look at. Sometimes it's beautiful because of an entrancing body, sometimes it's a beautiful private sunset, and sometimes it's beautiful merely because of the poetic treatment of a fold of cotton or a rusty flower pail. In the best cases of the great art, it's the intersection of the beautiful treatment of beautiful bodies or beautiful sunsets. Beauty is simple stuff, but all the theorists try to make it complicated.

"every subject can be an object. But what makes Art poetry is when it isn't."

This is ahistorical.

There has never been a great art movement for which its subject was not intended as object.

Whether we're 19th century folks longing for the simplicity of good peasant farming life, or the ancient greeks lusting after hunks, or the medievals lusting after God or a spread of rich foodstuffs, or grandma's longing for a Rockwell Thanksgiving, it's all interested. The treatment exists specifically to strengthen that interestedness, that beauty, not in spite of it.

Sure, with a few centuries separation, we can appreciate the artistic craftsmanship from a slightly less interested place. But when the interestedness dries up entirely the art is dead -- I'm sure there's a world of artistry in Jan Davidsz de Heem's still lives of dead fish and fowl on a table, but I can't see it. When those same Renaissance painters deal with a bouquet of roses, or the naked female form or a sailboat on fire, I'm right back there with them.

kev ferrara said...

...even when he is drawing dark monsters and witches there is an artificial tidiness at the very core of his aesthetic.

I would agree that there is a clean-cut decorative idealization in Hughes' work. And I can understand how in seeing and appreciating that, one might think he couldn't shake it if required to get 'gritty' with more somber subjects. But to me, gritty, sad and depressing are just other modes of drawing. And Hughes can flat out draw. So I imagine - I don't 'know' of course - that Hughes could draw gritty and grubby if he wanted to. (He could certainly compose the picture better than Sloan. And draw the perspective correctly in the process without faking liberties.)

Sloan takes a lot of liberties with perspective, disconnecting planes to put what he wants in the picture. To fit the trains in the background, to show the subway tunnels, to skew the angle of the stairs to expose all the right elements (such as the man in the overcoat who preceded Sloan on the stairs and missed the view by seconds) requires a certain freedom to distort that Hughes and Hopper could not give themselves.

All good art requires distortion in order to produce effect. Yes?

So tell me how Hopper could be producing such great art without taking liberties with reality?

Well of course, that is impossible. He is in fact taking liberties all over the place. And many more than Sloan. Which is just why his pictures are so much more effective.

The missed point is that Sloan can't hide his 'liberties' because he isn't all that talented. So we notice them. Whereas Hopper - and Hughes - have taken the principle of 'hide your artistry' to both heart and the easel, while in possession of the requisite stagecraft to accomplish the task.

I'd go further and suggest that, given how few of Sloan's intentions come off, it might very well be that what you consider Sloan's 'liberties' are actually fudging and ineptitude.

I know you continue to call Sloan's upskirt experience a "gag" deliberately, but my view is that as long as you think of it as a mere gag, you reveal that you don't get it.

If I can explain the gag in a line - "a little glimpse of heaven in the midst of hell" - it's hardly artistically deep. You can keep launching off from the weltschmerz all you want - adding and adding in your own mind a depth that is not there in the picture. And that's fine; it's another form of projection test, but do as you like. But narratively the weltschmerz is solely there to set up the peek-a-boo. A very basic artistic opposition fit for a gag cartoon.

kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Aesthetic emotion is different than regular emotion. Aesthetic emotion is essentially abstract; built from abstractions.

This is not fiction. It is pictorial engineering. Composition.

Once in the abstract realm, the mind is lifted away from both the mundane and the limbically provocative.

This is why Museums aren't nightclubs.

Should the average viewer try to delve into the magic behind an image, they come up against a vast impenetrable wall of artfulness, as most people do when seeing a magic show.

They then retreat to what they know and find subjects and objects. Things. Girl. Circus. The color red. Or they inspect and find an interesting mark or brush stroke. Swooshy lines. And they form this into a bedtime story that they understand, at least in some small way, what is going on. But it's just another form of 'narrative fallacy.'

There has never been a great art movement for which its subject was not intended as object.

I can't tell whether this is just another painful claim, or the start of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy.

Laurence John said...

Richard: "Disinterestedness is fiction."

I've never bought the idea either, in respect to creating arresting narrative images, that are designed to appeal to a viewer.

Kev: "But, as I've remarked before - and I recall you appreciating this point - the treatment and subject in great art are actually the same thing"

As you'll recall from the 'steak knives' thread (March 04, 2021) I strongly disagree with this assertion.

Richard: "...or grandma's longing for a Rockwell Thanksgiving, it's all interested. The treatment exists specifically to strengthen that interestedness, that beauty, not in spite of it."

Of course I agree with this, and you've finally re-phrased my point from that thread when i said: "Without the subject matter to 'realise' the artist would have nothing to marshal their decision making toward."

kev ferrara said...

At no point did I say that subject matter is irrelevant, just that it is no longer a simple thing to discern in the context of poetry.

Once the synthesis of cause and effect happens which brings a depiction to aesthetic life - an entirely unnatural happening - it is inevitable that we be baffled in its analysis.

And it is this resistance to analysis caused by poesis that is central to this conversation.

All representation is illusion, but not all representation is art. That's because poetic illusion is fundamentally different than simpler apoetic mimesis.

The great problem with discerning poetic illusion from simple mimesis is that a key factor in the success of poetic illusion is seeming very much like mimesis alone. Thus the confusion is not just expected, but intended. The synthesis of cause and effect is not something most people can wrap their minds around. Especially because effects eternally obscure causes, even when they are (strangely) more or less the same thing.

And so we fall back on rationalized stories we can understand; the narrative fallacies that what we experience in art is what we notice, and that what we bring to the picture is the same as what it is giving to us. Both dead wrong.

kev ferrara said...

Richard said "The treatment exists specifically to strengthen that interestedness, that beauty, not in spite of it."

Wait, did I miss this... where you equated in passing interestedness and beauty, thus denying aesthetic emotion entirely?

Am I reading that right?

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

Kev: "Once the synthesis of cause and effect happens which brings a depiction to aesthetic life - an entirely unnatural happening - it is inevitable that we be baffled in its analysis."

You're in a gallery, in front of a large painting on a wall 20 feet away. It's an image of a woman wearing a dress, sitting on an elaborate couch, looking at you. You walk right up to the painting until you're inches away from the surface. You notice that the painting is less 'realistic' than it seems from afar. It's actually made up of lots of brisk, brushy marks which look quite 'abstract' up close. In fact, they barely resemble anything at all when seen so close. You walk back to the original spot and look again at the painting. Once again it resembles the woman wearing a dress, sitting on an elaborate couch, looking at you.

Which bit of that scenario do you find baffling ?

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

You just described a generic group of inert subjects-as-objects. Then described looking at how they are rendered so as to look like those inert subjects-as-objects.

This is your translation of what I'm talking about?

Laurence John said...

I was imagining a Sargent painting Kev.

Why 'inert' ?

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "The missed point is that Sloan can't hide his 'liberties' because he isn't all that talented. So we notice them. Whereas Hopper - and Hughes - have taken the principle of 'hide your artistry' to both heart and the easel"

I would say that, far from hiding his artistry, Hughes crows about his artistry-- he has a dazzling facility and he makes sure it is front and center in all of his work. Sloan doesn't have anything close to Hughes' skill but skill seems to be lower on Sloan's list of priorities. Perhaps he thought that a series of drawings about "Life in New York" was not a place for right angles and clean surfaces. These are sloppy, gritty observations of a messy city.

I agree with you that that many of Sloan's "liberties" are fudging, but you're assuming that fudging is scandalous while Sloan doesn't seem to care. If he wants to squeeze a subway train in the background, or slide the stair railing over to fit his concept, he's untroubled as long as the audience understands what he is showing. This is the same methodology used in Frazetta's painting of Kane on the Golden Sea.


Kev Ferrara also wrote: "If I can explain the gag in a line - "a little glimpse of heaven in the midst of hell" - it's hardly artistically deep."

Dang, if only Melville had thought of "that whale hunt isn't going to work out well," he wouldn't have wasted all that time.

kev ferrara said...

I was imagining a Sargent painting Kev.

Okay. But there's no such thing as 'a' Sargent painting. Which painting?

Why 'inert' ?

You listed nouns. Which are not verbs.

Did you describe the attitude of the figure? Her gesture? Is she fair or dark? Is she stocky, lithe, athletic, wan? Does she match the couch more or the wallpaper more? Does the general mass push or pull through depth and atmosphere? What is the atmosphere of the picture? What is the lighting and where does it come from? How does the lighting change on the figure as you read up or down or to its sides or into or out of space? How is the figure sitting on the couch? How is the weight of her figure distributed? Is the couch soft or sturdy? What is the dress doing? What kind of dress is it? What is the attitude of the couch and its light and color relationship to the atmosphere? How big is the couch? How does it fit in relation to the frame edge? Are there any other objects in view? An end table perhaps? A frame on the wall behind? Is the wall behind dark or light compared to everything else? What is the coloring and how does it change from location to location in the picture?

Tell me the relationships in the picture. And we can begin to discuss the question properly.

kev ferrara said...

Dang, if only Melville had thought of "that whale hunt isn't going to work out well," he wouldn't have wasted all that time.

You're comparing this poorly drawn, dashed off cartoon with Moby Dick?

Dang indeed.

Laurence John said...

Kev, I was picturing 'Lady Agnew' by Sargent, just because Richard mentioned it earlier. She's actually sitting on a chair, not a couch, which i mis-remembered.

kev ferrara said...

he's untroubled as long as the audience understands what he is showing. This is the same methodology used in Frazetta's painting of Kane on the Golden Sea.

No, this is the same methodology used in Maus.

kev ferrara said...

Kev, I was picturing 'Lady Agnew' by Sargent, just because Richard mentioned it earlier. She's actually sitting on a chair, not a couch, which i mis-remembered.

Well, this is obviously a particular kind of Sargent picture, one done from life, not one of his more imaginatively composed ones.

Yet, my earlier point still stands. Look at the abstract relationships. And see if you can find any aspect of the picture that does not qualify. And in the weave and flow of them, the effects produced, you will find the actual inner life of the picture.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "Look at the abstract relationships. And see if you can find any aspect of the picture that does not qualify"

Does not qualify as an abstract relationship ?

I've never said that paintings aren't built of abstraction; what i usually call 'abstract passages of paint' (I illustrated it above with my gallery example). The abstract relationships form an image OF something (the subject matter) which is what they were intended to do.

Again, which is the bit you find baffling ?

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

I was using the 'royal we' when I initially talked about being 'we' being 'baffled.' I was trying to discuss the matter politely, rather than accidentally be accusatory.

Anyhow... yes, the abstract relationships form an image. But not simply OF something. In forming the image, a great lot more than just things are expressed in the relations. (I encourage you to follow the relations that cross between objects to demonstrate this to yourself. There are many.)

Moreover, because the entire picture is built of abstract (in the original sense) relationships, thus sensual effects, which are all illusions of movement of some kind or another, there are no 'things' at all. But weaves of visual verbs, gestures we follow. Which 'exist' in process, not in situ.

This is how 'things' come alive in art. By being part and parcel of, and really incidental to, larger sensual/compositional processes that escort our intuitive attention across the canvas entire.

Each particular painting has its own complex formula of sensually effective abstract relationships that form the gestalt. These aesthetic movements define the painting not the subject matter. For there are other representations of today's 'subject matter' de jour "Lady Agnew" that are so differently defined visually that they completely alienate from Sargent's classic artwork. With only the proper name as the lone frayed tether.

To say then that the subject matter of Sargent's Lady Agnew is Lady Agnew is reductive. Sargent's Lady Agnew is actually Sargent's Lady Agnew; a painted Image and an expressive unit.

The person Lady Agnew is an aesthetic ghost. She doesn't exist on the canvas or off it.

Laurence John said...

Kev,

I trust that you can see the painting as two things at the same time; as an illusionistic image of a woman in a dress, sitting on a chair, and also as a collection of orchestrated abstract passages of paint ?

Richard said...

>> There has never been a great art movement for which its subject was not intended as object.

> I can't tell whether this is just another painful claim, or the start of a 'No True Scotsman' fallacy.



The art modes I’m aware of which are inherently disinterested fall into two camps:
- Abstract art, which removes all subject matter in an attempt to destroy interestedness.
- Art specifically about the ugliness of ugly things.


Mondrian is an example of the former, David Lynch’s paintings are an example of the latter.

(The latter must be contrasted with art about the hidden beauty among seemingly ugly things, like tragedy, which can produce great art but which are themselves driven by interestedness. Rather, the ugliness of ugly things, which no great art has been made about nor can be made about, because disinterest cannot produce high art.)


> Aesthetic emotion is different than regular emotion. Aesthetic emotion is essentially abstract; built from abstractions.

Aesthetic emotion is to emotion as a dream is to an experience. One is random and one is composed by the mind, but both function on the same mechanisms.

They wash over our minds as sensations of qualia, one intentionally crafted and one procedurally generated, but in either case our experience of that qualia is interested because we are inherently interested.

We are lizards contemplating god, and our contemplations are inherently lizard-like.

Pornography and Art are differences, I believe, of quantity not kind. By being intentionally crafted, Art can be more porn than porn. That is, Art is superior to Porn not because it is less interested, but because it is MORE interested.

It is possible to make a piece of art which will harass us with pangs of love more reliably than any gynecological hardcore clip. That is what makes it Art.

Dean Cornwell can more reliably produce the perfect woman than can genetics. He can more reliably set her in the perfect atmospheric conditions and pose and narrative than can chance -– thus is he an “artist”.

He can make something we desire more than reality itself -- that is the nature of Art.

kev ferrara said...

I trust that you can see the painting as two things at the same time; as an illusionistic image of a woman in a dress, sitting on a chair

Even dwelling at the figural level, you are not giving due attention to what you are actually seeing. I am trying to get you to do that in the hope that you will give the vague rote verbiage you have inherited a rest period.

Just as there is no such thing as 'a' Sargent painting, there is no such thing as 'a' dress. Or 'a' chair. There is a specific dress. A specific chair. A specific curtain. A specific reclined pose. A specific composition.

The aesthetically-vivified ghost of the woman once known as Lady Agnew that apparates in the midst of the poem Sargent painted about her attendance in his studio is not 'sitting.' That is a fake active word for a static position. 'She' is sat and leaning away from us into depth. 'She' is sinking into the chair as her body weight pushes into cushions and as gravity pulls on her.

What else 'she' is doing, actively, is craning her head toward us counter to her languorous recline. And she is transfixing us with her stare. And she is limply holding onto a flower or corsage with one hand and onto the chair with the other. The chair is actively pushing the curtain back. The curtain is actively sending very weak cool light against the back of her head. And so on.

Everything I'm mentioning is part of the 'subject'... that which was subject to Sargent's poetic interpretation.

kev ferrara said...

Aesthetic emotion is to emotion as a dream is to an experience.

No, an aesthetic emotion is always the result of an orchestration of abstraction. While a dream can be absolute gibberish and yet feels real. Aesthetic Emotion is more akin to Dewey's definition of An Experience.

They wash over our minds as sensations of qualia, one intentionally crafted and one procedurally generated, but in either case our experience of that qualia is interested because we are inherently interested.

In order to make this a debate, you have to use the terms I introduce and define (from Kant and others) as I (and they) are using them. Don't confuse 'paying attention' or 'dramatic interest' or 'rooting interest', for the 'insterestedness' we are discussing here. The 'transference' that happens to the audience in bearing attentive witness to Art and Sport is three steps removed from the hot interestedness of Kant.

A dream with a strong emotional component is experienced as a reality and so indeed can be quite 'hot' with fight or flight, true sadness or joy, eroticism or disgust.

There is also the matter of reacting to archetypes in art, which I still haven't put enough thought into to really make a case about. Though I think at basis, archetypes are just common abstraction complexes.

kev ferrara said...

Pornography and Art are differences, I believe, of quantity not kind. By being intentionally crafted, Art can be more porn than porn. That is, Art is superior to Porn not because it is less interested, but because it is MORE interested.

It is possible to make a piece of art which will harass us with pangs of love more reliably than any gynecological hardcore clip. That is what makes it Art.


Not sure what you are getting at here. Virtual reality or some kind of induced hallucination is just another kind of porn. A fake substitute for the real thing that takes your time, money and energy and leaves you back in reality with nothing real to show for it, and probably less to show for it than when you started.

Allow me to go back to this:

Aesthetic emotion is different than regular emotion. Aesthetic emotion is essentially abstract; built from abstractions.

Once in the abstract realm, the mind is in a different place, literally and figuratively.

Laurence John said...

Kev,

You didn't answer the question and I'm genuinely interested in your response, so I've edited it slightly to remove the offending truncated description of Sargent's painting:

- Are you able see a painting (imagine any painting you like) as two things at the same time; as an illusionistic image, and also as a collection of orchestrated abstract passages of paint ?

If anyone else would like to answer the question, please do.

Tom said...

Doesn't it depend upon what your mind decides to give attention too Laurence? Such observations take place in time. At one moment you can think about the paint and the next moment you can admire the verisimilitude. It seems like your talking about thought's response to sight.

kev ferrara said...

- Are you able see a painting (imagine any painting you like) as two things at the same time; as an illusionistic image, and also as a collection of orchestrated abstract passages of paint ?

Good paintings, no. Bad paintings yes.

Good paintings are integrated, synthesized as form-content and thus difficult to disassemble and analyze in such a binary literalist way.

Bad paintings are not; they are a-synethetic; built of parts easily separated for the purposes of analysis.

Of good art, which is good poetry, this is like asking of Tennyson's classic Charge of The Light Brigade, "Can you feel the war without reading the poem?" or "Can you read the poem without feeling the war?"

The answer to both questions is no. The feeling of the war is an apparition caused by the reading of the poem. The only way to break apart the art is to neither feel the war nor read the poem. The apotheosis of modern day academicism.

This of course returns us to the issue of the invalidity of myopic fixations on words to define 'subject matter' as somehow utterly distinct or distinguishable from artistry.

kev ferrara said...

Just to be clear, I can imaginatively and intellectually distinguish the illusionistic representation from the method of realizing that illusion in good work in my mind. I can speak about them as distinct things abstracted from each other technically, or in the asensual academic way or myopic literalist way.

But I cannot (and nobody else can) actually see that distinction in good work while actually experiencing the good work. Only in bad work do the seams show.

chris bennett said...

This raises an intriguing point, which needs a brief thought experiment to illuminate it:

I am looking at Sargent's painting titled 'Lady Agnew' or Waterhouse's painting titled "The Lady of Shalott'. Now, let's say, by some advanced tech wizardry, these images, although remaining absolutely static, are turned into 'life-like' 3D presences. And let's say, for the sake of this argument, I move just enough to be aware of the fact (my binocular vision would do this anyway, but a slight movement just makes sure of the effect).

Now, by imagining this happening I am aware that most of the aesthetic effect would be lost.
Why is this?
Because, for me, the relationships would be critically disrupted. Which means that the precision of the painting's surface relationships and hence their illusionistic evocations must be the foundation upon which the poetry of pictorial art is built.

So the governance of a painting's relationships between its illusionist evocations depends on it being frozen. In other words; a picture. Thus illusion and abstraction are caught up together, and so it follows that the better a painting is the less this distinction becomes apparent, such that a 'great work' is defined by illusion and abstraction becoming reciprocal and therefore inseparable.

Laurence John said...

Chris,

If you saw a 3-D holographic version of "The Lady of Shalott" you'd dismiss it as a cheap gimmick of a painting you already know and love, and rightly so. In order to test the experiment, it would have to be with a new artwork that you'd never seen before that was created just for that medium, not a recreation / new tech spin on an older painting.

Secondly, knowing your preferences, if it was a photographic hologram you'd dismiss it on the grounds that you don't think photography is an art form. So, it would have to be some form of digital 3-D 'painted' hologram.

Something like that almost certainly already exists but I can't think of an example.

Richard Long said...

"Now, by imagining this happening I am aware that most of the aesthetic effect would be lost."

I think you'd end up with a work as good, if not greater.

Formulating this another way, if nature made Sargent's Lady Agnew real, in front of you so you could reach out and touch her, I think it would be a more powerful aesthetic experience, but for one problem:
It's not possible, I believe, because in real life it isn't possible to be that beautiful.

E.g. in real life, the skin has pores. In real life that woman would not lock her eyes upon you with that quiet sultry look as you study her for minutes.

Artists can make something we desire more than reality itself -- if it were possible to find the real Lady Agnew, and have her stare upon one so, as the definition of female perfection in all ways, we wouldn't need art at all. We could be done with the whole thing.

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

You are assuming I would be putting the handcart before the thoroughbred racehorse. The point of the thought experiment is that it is an ideal situation where the painting literally becomes what it represents so faithfully that comparisons with the vulgar 3D productions currently on offer are not applicable.

The same holds for your second point, the painting, by miraculously transforming into a living physical reality of the thing it represents will not, by definition, equate to a photograph, and thus my view of photography itself would also not be relevant to the situation.

All to say, I think the principle of the exercise still holds.

chris bennett said...

Richard Long,

What kind of desire are you referring to? Carnal or spiritual? Desire to possess something explicitly material or the longing for what it is that the material implies?

kev ferrara said...

if nature made Sargent's Lady Agnew real, in front of you so you could reach out and touch her, I think it would be a more powerful aesthetic experience,

That would not, definitionally, be an aesthetic experience.

The manifestation of ideality in reality would be more a religious experience.

Laurence John said...

Chris: "...the painting literally becomes what it represents so faithfully that comparisons with the vulgar 3D productions currently on offer are not applicable"

Sorry Chris, I can't translate a painted image into another visual medium without seeing it as being a completely different thing; a reinterpretation.

However good it was, it would be new work of art, and would have to be assessed on its own terms.

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

Sorry Chris, I can't translate a painted image into another visual medium without seeing it as being a completely different thing; a reinterpretation.

That's the whole point Laurence, it does become a different thing. But as Kev is saying, it is one that is unable to act upon us aesthetically. The little thought experiment is a means by which one can imaginatively embody the 'how' of why this is so.

Richard said...

> “ What kind of desire are you referring to? Carnal or spiritual? Desire to possess something explicitly material or the longing for what it is that the material implies?”

That depends on the viewer. A Christian-Neoplatonist may look on Lady Agnew and have his desire for a sort of quasi-religious innocent perfection that he believe she embodies quenched. A horny drunkard may look on her and have his desire to be near sexual beauty relieved. A lonely man may look on her and have his desire for the attention of another relieved. An old woman with a tart for a daughter may look on her and feel her desire for a good girl vindicated. The poor man may have his desire to be rich to be massaged for a minute. The young painter may look on her and have his desire to see excellent craftsmanship realized.

Lady Agnew, like any good work of fiction, can get all sorts of people off in all sorts of ways. That’s what makes it great. It’s proto-Hollywood.

Richard said...

> That would not, definitionally, be an aesthetic experience. The manifestation of ideality in reality would be more a religious experience.

You like that definition, because by having two definitions it subtextually implies those are two different things. I don’t think they are, and I don’t think having two definitions is helpful or clarifying, I think it keeps us locked in the blind alley of Christian-Neoplatonism we’ve been in since the Middle Ages, as crowned by the perpetually-wrong Mr.Kant.

kev ferrara said...

Lady Agnew, like any good work of fiction, can get all sorts of people off in all sorts of ways.

Actually, we are all pretty similar in terms of experiencing aesthetic effect. As the great painter Stanley Meltzoff put it, "The suggestions of Art are so powerful, they scarcely can be called suggestions. They are more like commands."

Once an aesthetic spell breaks, late or soon, and the mind is free to wander in and out of the picture and back into its own interests, I suppose anything goes. But we shouldn't confuse the two phases of artistic experience; they are wildly different.

I'll point out again that there is some percentage of people that seem completely unable to experience aesthetic suggestion. And most who have the ability have no idea how it happens. Those folks easily fall into narrative fallacies if they seek answers capriciously.

You like that definition, because by having two definitions it subtextually implies those are two different things.

There's no subtext about it. A person is different than a poem. A poem is a kind of narrative-based stage magic. It isn't real magic.

Though, one might say, the mysteries of talent, inspiration, imagination and passion can certainly seem magical at times. Maybe they are, I don't know.

But I do know there are a lot of layers to the onion of Art that are sensible, articulable, natural, coherent, and actionable. I try to stay in that pragmatic lane, as it tends to lead to good insights and good results. Long experience prevents me from believing in either easy dogma or anything goes know-nothingism.

As the wise man said, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.

Laurence John said...
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Laurence John said...

Sorry Chris, you'll have to highlight the part where Kev says a reinterpretation of an artwork is "... unable to act upon us aesthetically."


On the ongoing 'subject matter' debate:

Tom: "At one moment you can think about the paint and the next moment you can admire the verisimilitude"

Kev: "Just to be clear, I can imaginatively and intellectually distinguish the illusionistic representation from the method of realizing that illusion in good work in my mind."

Yes, and that's what i was illustrating above in my gallery scenario. Of course it is nearly always scale dependant. Once you're back a certain distance from a large painting it's almost impossible not to see only the illusion, because the paint marks are too small to see individually, and coalesce into the image. Same thing with looking at reproductions of works when reduced and printed in a book.

When just inches away from the canvas it's fairly easy to isolate a passage of paint and see it as just paint marks (trickier, of course, if you're looking at a smoothly-blended, hyper-realistic painting... which is possibly another discussion).

The 'illusionistic image' is what I refer to as 'subject matter' (I've never claimed that the 'subject matter' is the title, or how the image can be summed up in words. It's impossible to sum up any visual phenomena in words).

The abstract passages of paint - seen usually in close up - and indeed the entire 'method of realizing' (Kev's phrase) which you might call 'process' which lead to those final abstract passages of paint is what I refer to as the 'treatment'.



Kev: "But I cannot (and nobody else can) actually see that distinction in good work while actually experiencing the good work"

I agree, assuming that by 'experiencing the work' you mean viewing it from the correct distance to take in the whole image.


Chris: "...such that a 'great work' is defined by illusion and abstraction becoming reciprocal and therefore inseparable."

Ditto. If you mean 'inseparable' when viewed at the correct distance, then yes. But, as I've tried to point out above, they are separable when viewed in certain ways, such as close up.

Tom said...

Kev wrote
“ As the wise man said, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”


Just fo fun! LOL!

“Any fool can make things more complex. It takes a touch genius to move in he opposite direction.” Albert Einstein

‘If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.” The Mustard Seed Manuel of Painting.

‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein

Richard
Isn’t a state of desire a state of incompleteness where as a state of completeness desires nothing? The first state arises from a sense of lack and creates the expectation in the mind that the world can fill it’s need, it creates movement, while the second state is that of stasis and wholeness which lacks for nothing. The best art work holds us.

kev ferrara said...

I've never claimed that the 'subject matter' is the title, or how the image can be summed up in words.

You're glancing off the issue.

You've expressed in words the 'subject matter' of any number of paintings during the course of these discussions. In each case it was 'subject-as-object.' Foregoing all other artistic qualities, effects, feelings, experiences....

Which I've pointed out is natural because the 'subject-as-object' mindset is implicit in all traditional discussions of 'subject matter.' Stemming as it does from the myopic intellect getting involved and trying to freeze the nonlinear and unknowable as some static thing by putting a label on it.

How were you - how are we - even discussing the traditional idea of 'subject matter' except as individual objects conceptually frozen, isolated, and identified in a picture? What else is it but that?

Meanwhile, my refrain has been that images include effects and 'treatment' that go far beyond the rendering of 'objects which coalesce at a certain distance'. Such that it is hardly the case that a picture can be said to be 'about' objects at all. I'm talking about composing, expression, mood, movement, narrative, and other abstract relations that run from edge to edge. (Abstract in the original sense, not the modernist sense.)

And now you say 'It's impossible to sum up any visual phenomena in words?!" Yes. Right. Then what were you even talking about when you argued in support of the traditional idea of 'subject matter'?

Laurence John said...

Kev,

You actually thought that when I described the 'Lady Agnew' painting as "a woman wearing a dress, sitting on an elaborate (chair)" that's all i can see ?

That when i view a painting i have to reduce it to simple descriptive words in order to comprehend it ?

Do you also imagine that drool comes out one corner of my mouth as i say the words slowly for emphasis in my monotone caveman voice ?

kev ferrara said...

Stop evading the question.

What exactly did you mean by 'subject matter' aside from subjects-as-objects? And what evidence does anybody have to the contrary?

Laurence John said...

What the image is OF.

The entire 'illusion'.

kev ferrara said...

So when people use the term 'subject matter' and name the objects in the picture as the subject matter, what they really mean is 'the entire illusion'? Including mood, and action, and gesture, and depth, narrative, and all the thematic poetic relationships, lost edges, effects of light, the walls and floors and furniture, and so on?

And that's what you meant too?

That's what you're going with now?

Laurence John said...

Kev,

I can't speak for what other people see in a painting. Perhaps I'm over generous, but I always assumed they could see the entirety of the image, with all of its complexity, yes.

I've never imagined that people reduce an image to simple words in order to 'see' it. But maybe some do, I don't know.

Anyway, none of this changes the fact that i disagree with the statement that 'subject matter and treatment are the same thing' as i tried to tease them apart above.

kev ferrara said...

It is exactly the case that the phrase 'subject matter' is used to describe the conceptually and physically frozen objects ostensibly depicted centrally in paintings. Have you ever read any book on art ever? Have you ever read an exhibition essay or gallery publication or monograph treatise?

If not, then why are you even discussing the topic?

And, furthermore, how in hell do you reconcile these two following sentences of yours:

1. (Subject matter equals) the entirety of the image, with all of its complexity (including lost edges, lighting, thematic poetics, illusions of movement, gesture, narrative, mood, atmosphere, and so on.)

and

2. I disagree with the statement that 'subject matter and treatment are the same thing' as i tried to tease them apart above.

Laurence John said...

Kev,

It's clear you aren't seeing the distinction I'm making, and i can't be bothered with insult slinging this time, so I'm not going any further with this thread. The arguments are above.


Here's another thing for you to consider, which relates to the painterly hyper-realism issue i mentioned above; let's call it 'The sculpture problem' (it came up in the last 'subject matter' thread).

A sculpture such as 'David' isn't built from abstractions that coalesce to form an illusion in the minds eye.

Its surface is smoothly continuous, and it physically inhabits / embodies the thing it represents, albeit at a different scale (sometimes, not always).

This is a problem for your theory that art is always built from 'abstract relationships' and that 'suggestive abstraction' does all the work.

Either you're wrong (and that is not the only way that 'art' produces its effects) ... or sculpture can't be 'art' as you define it.

kev ferrara said...

It's clear you aren't seeing the distinction I'm making.

How do you know you're making a real distinction and not some conceptual error as I've suggested?

After all, I think I've made a good argument on the point. While you've just ignored my request that you reconcile your incompatible statements on the rock bottom basics of the issue.

A sculpture such as 'David' isn't built from abstractions that coalesce to form an illusion in the minds eye.

Oh really?

So a pose isn't an abstraction? A silhouette isn't an abstraction? A through-line isn't an abstraction? A gesture isn't an abstraction? Are these visual journeys all not narratives at essence?

David's hair and face aren't abstracted? Are they like a photo? (No they are not.) The same goes for all the musculature and skeletal reveals.

Have you looked at David's hands? The fingers? Do you notice the clear distinctions made where form turns? (Same goes for all the muscles and bones.) Have you noticed the idealized knuckles and fingertips?

Have you looked at Bridgman? He demonstrates why decisiveness is the key to abstraction.

What do you think idealization is?

It is abstraction all the way down. And David is one of the most brilliantly idealized sculptures of all time.

Its surface is smoothly continuous, and it physically inhabits / embodies the thing it represents

You think smoothing between abstracted planes and abstract volumetric slabs deletes the abstractions? Essentially vanishes the abstractions from being sublimated beneath the finished form? Have you looked at Bargue?

You think cylinders and spheres and spirals and other geometric solids aren't abstractions?

Do you think people actually look like Ingres paints them?

"Realism" is a performative veneer over organized abstractions. As one becomes more sensitized to the many forms abstraction takes in art, the veneer slowly fades.

Either you're wrong (and that is not the only way that 'art' produces its effects) ... or sculpture can't be 'art' as you define it.

This isn't my theory. I'm just a guy trying to put humpty dumpty back together after the crackup caused by punk modernist/academic radicalism and the collapse of the Golden Age of Illustration during the Great Depression.

Sculpture does have some differences from painting, yes. But all the arts are working from the same deep principles.

Rodin wrote well on this subject. And most of what I know about how time and animation are handled in sculpture I learned from reading him. But I am far, far from an expert on sculpture. But I know enough to know it is the same principles at work.

There are some open questions about how we process archetypes aesthetically. And, as I've also said, there are some aesthetic compromises with subjects which are 'interesting' to us when we see them depicted. Particularly when it comes to eroticism. Or the ultra violence.

But at basis, the known and the limbic cannot result in either aesthetic effect or aesthetic reverie.

Richard said...

> "Isn’t a state of desire a state of incompleteness where as a state of completeness desires nothing? The first state arises from a sense of lack and creates the expectation in the mind that the world can fill it’s need, it creates movement, while the second state is that of stasis and wholeness which lacks for nothing. The best art work holds us."

Fiction can both fill a desire and generate new desires simultaneously.

An Albert Bierdstadt painting (to the degree which the viewer suspends disbelief) will both:
1. Fulfill our desire to believe in a natural world that is grandiose and meaningful and suggestive of the existence of a creator.
2. Imbue in the viewer a new desire to witness this meaningful and grandiose nature, which in reality does not exist.

Fiction paradoxically both fills our spirit by giving us beliefs in things which are not so (like Lady Agnew), and fills us with desire for things which we can/will never have. The roadtripper will discover upon arrival in Monument Valley that is shares very little with its fictionalized account by Bierdstadt.

Similarly pornography, another genre of fiction, will (to the degree we suspend our disbelief) fill our desire to believe a triple E buxom 21 year old blonde sorority chick is interested in shagging us poolside, while simultaneously making us hungry for something which is not so.

chris bennett said...

Sorry Chris, you'll have to highlight the part where Kev says a reinterpretation of an artwork is "... unable to act upon us aesthetically."

Laurence, I was not saying that a reinterpretation of an artwork per se is unable to act upon us aesthetically, I was saying the reinterpretation that was the outcome of my little thought experiment would be unable to do so - for reasons based on principles carefully explained by Kev already in this thread.

chris bennett said...

A Christian-Neoplatonist may look on Lady Agnew and have his desire for a sort of quasi-religious innocent perfection that he believe she embodies quenched. A horny drunkard may look on her and have his desire to be near sexual beauty relieved. A lonely man may look on her and have his desire for the attention of another relieved. An old woman with a tart for a daughter may look on her and feel her desire for a good girl vindicated. The poor man may have his desire to be rich to be massaged for a minute. The young painter may look on her and have his desire to see excellent craftsmanship realized.

Richard,

I consider all theses fulfilments of desire that you've listed belong to the temporal or material kind. This is why I rephrased 'spiritual desire' as a 'longing for what it is that the material implies'. As I see it, longing, by its nature, cannot be sated, because it is a symptom, or expression of the necessary separation of our individuality, or being-ness, from the whole in order to behold it as such. In other words our longing is that that joins us, the part, to the whole and visa versa. And if sated the connection can no longer exist.

This is why I would say that the beholding of aesthetic beauty is the experience of that which materially presences our longing to join with the wholeness whilst knowing the price is the death of our individuality. It is sense of wishing to be enveloped, devoured within something that seems to whisper us into doing so. Spellbound. Hence its essentially elegiac, melancholic taste.

And this, I believe, cannot be said of:

Lady Agnew, like any good work of fiction, can get all sorts of people off in all sorts of ways. That’s what makes it great. It’s proto-Hollywood.

kev ferrara said...

Fiction can both fill a desire and generate new desires simultaneously.

An Albert Bierdstadt painting (to the degree which the viewer suspends disbelief) will both:
1. Fulfill our desire to believe in a natural world that is grandiose and meaningful and suggestive of the existence of a creator.
2. Imbue in the viewer a new desire to witness this meaningful and grandiose nature, which in reality does not exist.


What?

I have been awestruck by the grandeur of nature so many times it would take me days to tell all those tales. I assume most could say the same.

Awe needs neither a name nor an ultimate cause. It cannot be denied in any case, though how fools will try.

Anything that cannot be denied is de facto meaningful. The undeniable is the foundation of our sanity. Sanity being a functional feedback relationship with reality (which is necessarily entirely meaning-based.)

The main thing that happens when one sees a great Bierdstadt painting is being struck dumb. Possibly some primitive exhortation escapes the mouth. But, in the main, words have been bypassed because the intellect has been bypassed, overmatched by a language deeper than words.

It seems to me this period of aesthetic arrest, a hypnotic abstracted moment of absolute upload, is the main point of art. Everything after it is an afterthought.

In the afterthought period, which must come sooner or later, pretty much anything goes. People will jump to insert their intellects or ideologies as a way to reframe the (often disturbing) aesthetic arrest experience so it conforms to their egocentric preconceptions. So they feel like they've regained control. Or as a way to tell themselves they never lost it in the first place.

Your contrary riffing on interestedness, mimetic desire, covetousness, longing for spiritual meaning, nihilism, etc. - it is all afterthought material. (Assuming we are talking about a great and effective work of art) It has no necessary connection to art. (It can have a connection, but not necessarily.)

A poem can be written about anything.

Richard said...

"I consider all theses fulfilments of desire that you've listed belong to the temporal or material kind."

I attempted to provide a spiritual example for you with the Neoplatonist's desire for quasi-religious perfection, which seems to be the popular form of "spiritual" desire sated in Western philosophy of aesthetics since the Middle Ages.

(That is, by seeing perfection in Art, we better appreciate Divine perfection. The most popular formulation of this in the Christian Middle Ages was that optical light shows us God's light. All western aesthetics since the Middle Ages are ultimately operating under this same neoplatonic system -- that the image's depiction of the material has an ultimate goal which is "abstract" and "sublime".)

I would gladly add your Hindu-esque desire for one-ness with Atman to my list.

That is the primary theory of aesthetics in classical Sanskrit literature typified by Natya Shastra. The German wikipedia article on "Rasa" explains the 2nd century BC Hindu notion of aesthetics rather well, which may be of interest to you:

"The Rasa theory is an aesthetic based on a logic of emotions. Their guiding principle is the triggering of a mood in the viewer. However, the proclamation of feelings in the viewer is not only the goal of aesthetic effort, it is also the key to the structural integrity of a work, the form of history and its representation.

The dramatic means described in the theory derive from a semiotics of emotional expression, because the feelings or psychological-physical states of a character cannot be expressed directly, but only by gestures, words and movements. A performance succeeds if performers and spectators ultimately share the same atmosphere. Rasa is the essence of all qualities that make up a poem or theater performance.

The composition of a work is the organization of the expression of various fleeting emotional states - Vyabhicaribhava - to a permanent overall mood (stahyibhava), which forms the basic tone of a work. When this basic tone touches the clear heart of an ideal viewer, Rasa's timeless and placeless experience is triggered as a deep aesthetic enthusiasm and blissful rapture that cannot be put into words.

Through "transpersonalization", sadharanikarana, a process of objectification and universalization, the artist and the viewer are detached from his private everyday experience and elevated to the level of a collective human experience. At the beginning of the creative process is the rasa experience of the author, which is transmitted by the actors, dancers, musicians. The Natyashastra gives meticulous instructions as a manual on how to achieve this."


But I agree that my formulations are temporal and material. I would argue that everything is temporal and material, and whenever we see something else (Platonic ideals or sadharanikarana), we're merely lacking information about how the material world functions. A good and simple aesthetics should be metaphysically nominalist.

kev ferrara said...

Richard, thank you for that translation about Rasa. Bang on the money. And from the 2nd Century BC no less. Amazing.

Richard said...

It seems to me this period of aesthetic arrest, a hypnotic abstracted moment of absolute upload, is the main point of art.

I think you're describing a phenomena caused by a mechanism in operation, not a "point" or "goal".

Aesthetic upload can be for good or ill. The aesthetic arrest from a cruel caricature or a painting about ugliness will upload to our brain whether or not we'd like it to, and in that case it operates more like a virulent strain than a good.

The point of a picture cannot just be that it uploads to our brain, it must be the effect of this upload, which is dependent on what the gestalt of effect, composition and subject matter combined produce in the mind.

Bierdstadt causes the viewer to believe something awe inspiring about nature. Reverse-Bierdstadt might cause the viewer to believe something stunningly diminutive and black-pilling about nature.

They operate on the same mechanisms, but it does not follow that if both are equally successful in uploading their visions that the works are of equal quality. If they are not of equal quality despite being equally successful in producing aesthetic arrest, then it does not hold that the goal was the aesthetic arrest, but it must be something which that upload causes.

If that upload causes us to feel something about the world which we desire to feel, then it is disinterested.


"I have been awestruck by the grandeur of nature so many times it would take me days to tell all those tales."

The tiny arthropod is a truly fascinating machine, I've read a 300-something page entomology textbook entirely about spider biomechanics and it was riveting stuff from cover to cover.

But the majesty of nature in reality is quite unlike the majesty of a Bierdstadt painting. Monument Valley is filled with large rocks, and it can require some effort to convince yourself that there is something magic in those rocks when it's high noon on a cloudy day and no atmospheric effects or dramatic light have cast their spell on the place.

Richard said...

**If that upload causes us to feel something about the world which we desire to feel, then it is NOT disinterested.

chris bennett said...

I attempted to provide a spiritual example for you with the Neoplatonist's desire for quasi-religious perfection, which seems to be the popular form of "spiritual" desire sated in Western philosophy of aesthetics since the Middle Ages.

That was not lost om me Richard, and I should have spared the effort to single it out. I did not do so, however, because I do no believe this kind of 'desire' (which I prefer to think of as 'longing') is ever sated, even temporarily, in the way the other examples you listed are. The reason is that longing is existential in nature in that it is, as I mentioned, the expression of our very separateness defining the condition in which we become aware of the whole. The witnessing of beauty, in that it is an expression of this state, by definition, will not allow union, since union would be the death of the self awareness that enables the appreciation in the first place.

Thanks BTW for taking the trouble with supplying the quote - I would interpret the quenching of spiritual desire in this instance to be the temporary cessation of self-consciousness. But this means that the awareness of any resulting gratification will also cease, thus exempting it from inclusion in the fulfilment of material, temporal desire.

chris bennett said...

I would argue that everything is temporal and material, and whenever we see something else (Platonic ideals or sadharanikarana), we're merely lacking information about how the material world functions.

Your materialist view makes consistent sense within its own assumption Richard, but you are on uncertain ground if you make the hubristic extrapolation that its view of reality automatically accounts for what it cannot yet account for.

kev ferrara said...

Aesthetic upload can be for good or ill. The aesthetic arrest from a cruel caricature or a painting about ugliness will upload to our brain whether or not we'd like it to, and in that case it operates more like a virulent strain than a good.

No. Proper material properly formulated, organized and abstracted so that it beams into the mind during a moment of deep and transcendant appreciation is not the same thing as apprehending ugliness and responding to it in a hot way.

Ugliness, technically speaking, is the unfinished, unbalanced, the truly random, the meaningless, the insane, a fixation on the incidental, grotesque and unique distortion, the cruel, disorganized, confused, disharmonious, etc.

None of this stems from the realm of abstraction and abstract organization. A key aspect of abstraction is to find what is true in a relation, which is to say, what echoes through time in essence should the same dynamic arise. And to concentrate on that; to bring that out. To find what is essential in the midst of all the confusion, and pull that out from behind the confusion and give it center stage.

This requires a sense of the essential, the true, and an aptitude for abstraction without losing sight of justifying reality/facts/substance (which is all incidental to the underlying truth).

The great poets find the absolute minimum of substance that will justify and substantiate the essential narrative they are trying to express. Ugliness, one might posit, is when substance overdominates the essence of the tale. Organization comes from building from the essence out.

So, no, beauty and ugliness do not 'operate on the same mechanisms.' Because the ugly, definitionally, doesn't have the kind of abstract organization that holds us in an elevated aesthetic state. Ugliness can still depress you. It can still have a tonal effect, it can saturate you with negativity and ill feeling, bore you and waste your time. But it can't build anything that has the force of Art. Ugly Art is kind of an oxymoron.

But the majesty of nature in reality is quite unlike the majesty of a Bierdstadt painting.

You are scrambling matters.

A work of art cannot be all things at once, all perspectives, all facts, all stories.

Art must take one moment, one story, one event, one feeling and make that its mountain to climb and peak to achieve.

There are other stories to be told about the west besides the feeling of grandeur and awe. Those, you might find, have other beauties besides grandeur.

But if what is going on here is simply that you've been overtaken by a compulsion to dwell on the negative and ugly, and sullenly declare that's all that is real on this here earth, with porn as the only antidote, maybe good art isn't your bag.

Good art begins with an elevated sensibility feeling or imagining a unique abstract organization worth appreciating and recording. It cannot coexist with a state of high cortisol and dopamine fiending.

Tom said...

Hi Chris

I just saw and enjoyed your comment on Zen and the Art of Archery. Just curious as to why your art teacher recommended it?

chris bennett said...

Hi Tom,

The art teacher in question was Philip Sutton a man who was the polar opposite in temperament and in the paintings he produced to Euan Uglow, my main tutor when I was a student at the Slade. It was for this reason I looked to Phil as a healthy antidote to the highly influential 'Euston Road' paradigm that was current there. But it was a tough hand to play against, possessing as it does, all the strong cards when it comes to logic and rationality. And Phil would say things to me like:

"Not knowing is a wonderful thing."
"If you want it you can't have it. You must not want it in order to have it."
"All you need is a space... and to be empty in it."

I asked Uglow what he thought Phil meant by all this stuff:
"Phil talks in such riddles that I can't... understand what he's talking about."*
(*This is the closest I can recall to what Uglow actually said - it was a loooong time ago)

And questioning Phil himself about it felt, very often, like I was Alice talking to one of the characters in Wonderland. So one fine day he handed me Zen in the Art of Archery. I opened it and so entered the looking glass...

:)

Kris said...

Thanks for sharing. Always a pleasure to read.

Tom said...

Sounds like an interesting and better then most, art education Chris. I found the book after reading Alan Watts and what struck me most was how different Eastern thought was compared to how I internalized what I had learned in school up to that time. It was like a breath of fresh air.

Sorry for the slow response, it's been a busy week!

chris bennett said...

No worries Tom - good to hear it's been busy for you!

Alan Watts, Krishnamirti, Christmas Humphries, Jean Klien... like many of my art books; tombstones of my youth! :)

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett and Tom-- An interesting exchange, harkening back to that decade when the Beatles first sought spiritual enlightenment from the Maharishi and Pirsig wrote his book. Sounds like my youth paralleled part of Chris's. If you haven't read Arthur Koestler's brilliant 1960 book, The Lotus and The Robot, it's an exciting read that anticipated the upcoming east/west dichotomy and still rings true today. A lot about zen.

I checked out the work of Philip Sutton and Euan Uglow, and thought about how their contrasting philosophies may have affected their art. Any views on this?

chris, am I correct in seeing a trace of Uglow in you?

chris bennett said...

Hi David,

The title; 'The Lotus and the Robot' certainly piques my interest - And what you say about its thesis sounds like it could be closely allied to Iain McGilchrist's wonderfully insightful, deeply researched and widely acclaimed book 'The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World' - a work that has had a profound influence in my thinking.
So thank you David, I'll seek it out.

I checked out the work of Philip Sutton and Euan Uglow, and thought about how their contrasting philosophies may have affected their art. Any views on this?

Indeed they have:

Euan, a deeply pragmatic temperament, always said he was painting an idea not an ideal. But he was enough of a poet to know that an idea is only the rationalization of a pre-existing, yet so far unembodied, relation. So he knew his job was to embody the idea. And he did this literally; by posing his models (whether they be young women, fruit etc) within a setting so that it became a physical, organic manifestation of a relation that was occupying his mind. As a typical and obvious example; in his painting 'The Diagonal' the model is holding a pose that divides the rectangular space into two triangles. The whole point of having a human being doing this rather than joining two opposing corners with a line, is that in our witnessing the realization of the young woman straining to hold the pose, we become the diagonal ourselves and so embody the idea, the essential relation of such a thing as a diagonal, and thereby know it rather than rationalize it.

Phil, a profoundly whimsical temperament and at the same time philosophically minded, was however, very much 'of the body' (he ran 10 or 15K every single day and loved being outdoors). To him, fidelity to 'contact with the present moment' was the very aim (I use that word deliberately) of his painting. And hence he saw the condition of giving oneself up, the absenting of one's conscious will, as essential to the truthful becoming of the painting. Hence the improvisatory, sometimes wayward, meandering and serendipitous look of his work.

Bach and Miles Davis. Something (very very roughly) like that anyway.

chris, am I correct in seeing a trace of Uglow in you?

Well, I'm a pretty handy kinda guy, trained as an engineer, good at DIY, designed most of the furniture in our house. But I'm also highly romantic, don't mind showing my tears when I'm moved, philosophical, walk a lot, and love to joke around with the banter. So in that sense there's a bit of Eaun and bit of Phil twisting through the marble that is me. :)

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- Hah! Who doesn't wish they could live "in the moment"? That's the trick, isn't it, since the thin edge of "now" is the only reality we have (everything else being either past or future). As Conrad said, "We live in the flicker."

It's a great place to visit for purposes of smelling a flower or having an orgasm, but it seems an inhospitable place for making art, whether by Sutton or anyone else. (In the words of Robert Coane, "you can't drool and draw.") As far as I can tell, art "in the moment" usually ends up as artistic mush, unless it's a fortunate accident of abstraction. All those experiments attempted by each new generation of 18 year olds, getting naked and rolling around in paint, have never amounted to anything and I doubt they ever will. Still I admire the spirit.

The problem seems to be that submission to the moment requires unthinking acceptance while art on the other hand requires discrimination and challenge. The price of great art seems to involve detachment from the moment and a struggle with the burdens of consciousness. I've quoted on this blog the poet Peter Viereck:

Art, being bartender, is never drunk
And magic that believes itself must die.

Looking at Sutton's work, I may detect a heavy reliance on intuition and instinct, but I question whether it was truly created "in the moment." I see (and like) in his work the same separation between the act of creation and the immediacy of experience that burdens everyone else. Heck, that gap may be the source of the very ache that leads to art.

Personally I prefer Uglow's work, especially his still lifes. And-- perhaps perversely-- when it comes to his nudes I prefer the freedom in his drawings to the rational planning of his paintings.

I must take a look at McGilchrist's book. Koestler's book is exactly what you predicted. In 1960, brought to despair by the divided western brain that has taken us to brink of nuclear extinction, he traveled to Asia to interview spiritual leaders to see if eastern spirituality might heal the divide. Koestler is always erudite, unflinchingly honest, and one of my very favorite authors of the 20th century.

kev ferrara said...

Joyousness has no demarcations, like a running stream has no seams. It is stress that causes focus, and focus that causes discreteness. 'Living in the moment' is already a stressed out/discrete interpretation of experience, like the serialism of words. There are no moments unless one's fixation on the passing of incremental time makes them so.

Uglow is far deeper into what he is doing than Sutton, thus far more into a kind of flow state and the quiet rapture of that freedom. Sutton's brutishness is all surface, a disconcerted pastime rather than an immersion. Uglow's work shows evidence of his process. Sutton's work shows evidence of his struggle.

Chris, glad to see you're spreading the McGilchrist gospel.

Tom said...

Trained as an engineer! Well that is interesting Chris! Has it help you in your artwork?

I was hired by a man who is building a large estate in the "horse'" country of Virginia. I can draw to scale and in perspective. So he set me up in his office the day after I meet him and I have been doing design work for buildings, gardens, and interiors ever since. I do it all with paper and pencil and hand to the brick layers and the carpenters and they build it.

The reason I mention it is because it has help me recover from my art education. The most wonderful thing has been the discovery of geometry as a practical way of organizing elements into artistic design. Geometry sees relations not things. As they as in the "east," seeing beyond form.

David wrote
"It's a great place to visit for purposes of smelling a flower or having an orgasm, but it seems an inhospitable place for making art, whether by Sutton or anyone else."

But isn't that kinda of the point to" Zen and the Art of Archery," David. As the master says , the target is your self. One trains to go beyond the "thinking mind." The serve training is design to abandon one's fears and hesitations, to release the bow when it is ready. A great pianist playing Rachmaninoff is certainly doesn't have time to "think," about what he is doing but he is also not in some sort of pre verbal drooling state.

The Zen master might ask you David, " can you point to who is submitting to the moment?":)

The challenge comes from the serve training which then produces the art.

As the "Mustard Seed Garden Manuel of Painting," says,

"You must learn first to observe the rules faithfully; afterwards, modify them according to your intelligence and capacity. The end of all method is to seem to have no method."

"If you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity."

What one person may see as a conflict another person may instead see a hidden harmony. You just can't choose one side of the scale.

chris bennett said...

Looking at Sutton's work, I may detect a heavy reliance on intuition and instinct, but I question whether it was truly created "in the moment."

As Kev has just mentioned above, this was something of a delusion on Phil's part, but I did not know this as a student. I used to tackle him on it, asking how on earth a painting like Las Meninas could be conceived 'in the moment' and without conscious will. His answers to these questions were gnomic, in the manner of those I mentioned earlier in this thread. I spent many, many years trying to find my way through the resulting fog...

The problem seems to be that submission to the moment requires unthinking acceptance while art on the other hand requires discrimination and challenge.

I largely agree with that. As you are no doubt aware, Zen philosophy expresses existential truths in a different manner (essentially non-linear) to the same truths expressed by the philosophies of the West (essentially linear dialectical reasoning). The difficulty arises when these truths are not fully understood and applied to a function undertaken in the world. The result is dysfunctional. In the case of truths misunderstood as the atomistic, reductionist, relativist dogmas of Western materialism, and taught to naïve students, the results are down right dangerous to a culture's sanity.

chris bennett said...

Hi Tom,

I'll get to the body of your post later, as I'm stretched for time at the moment. But:

The reason I mention it is because it has help me recover from my art education.

That nicely states the problem I was implying in my answers to David above. :)

Sean Farrell said...

The original purpose of comparing the two different types of sexuality was pretty interesting, but where this thread wandered was even more so. I hope to add a few things here and hope they make sense.

Moderns delight in the separation of the Word from the concept of Logos which means what is, the Is-ness of things. Language is part of this is-ness of Logos. It included mystery, communion, unity, etc. with its antithesis, alienation.

Very true are the descriptions of Lady Agnew and no doubt that taught skin of the chair’s upholstery is a sexy rendering as one feels the form hugging the curve with its decorations. Not to assume a connection but it’s far more so than the dress. The dress and chair have cultural meanings as well which might seem exotic to the concerns of say, migrant workers. Spatial qualities are codified in understandings acquired before one even learns to use words and grow in meanings as one grows in feelings, experiences and language on life’s long learning curve. They can also be codified as literary messages as worn and mundane as stop signs which is why listening to moderns can be just as dull.

What the eastern and modernist share is their adherence to the separation of the word from what is, or the larger meaning of Logos. Understanding is an experience. Some languages use the same word for flavor as they do for wisdom. Wisdom was experienced as flavors are experienced. This is where the biblical connections are made between eating and wisdom. They are connected through the experience of understanding which are not merely representational, but in understanding is actuality something. One experiences understanding and in that one is experiencing something. Understanding is unique from its parts.

Understanding is where wisdom is united to the physical. Yes, taken apart one can see it otherwise just as one can dissect a picture into parts or in medicine and such has its purposes, but from the modern conclusion there is no whole other than its parts.

The modern and eastern views favor a romance with the involuntary, and all of our parts under a microscope are involuntary, but what’s done by our voluntary actions define one’s character. A pleasure is not the same as a virtue. Mystery is disarming just as understanding itself is a mystery and they both reside as real things in the world, in the word as logos, of what is. But where the eastern position is receptive the modernist position is obnoxiously presumptive and assertive and given to Conclusion Talk.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Joyousness has no demarcations, like a running stream has no seams. It is stress that causes focus, and focus that causes discreteness."

I mostly agree with this, but where does it take us? One might conclude that those who would pursue joyousness as a truly felt experience should put down their damn paints and brushes.

"Discreteness" surely has its rewards, but do they outweigh the shudder of awe? Religious exaltation? The oceanic feeling? Bernard Wolfe, who for years made a living writing pornography, wrote an interesting autobiography in which he concluded, "Words can capture what's wrong with sex, what interferes with it and distorts it and frustrates it and pumps tension into it, but never sex that goes smoothly.... [He'd] never read a description of an orgasm that didn't seem entirely a literary device....Those aspects of sex that can be put into words are the ones least worth talking about."

Tom-- I think your introduction of the great pianist raises an excellent question. Normally we might phrase the dichotomy as one between the tortured, hyper-conscious artist on one side (for example, Beethoven who lived an excruciating life even as he wrote "Ode to Joy") and the passive audience member (who feels nothing but unthinking joy as the waves of sound wash over him or her) on the other. You've posited the missing link in the chain, the pianist who practices a piece a thousand times until he no longer needs to think consciously about it as he performs.

I suppose my reaction depends on how the pianist feels as he or she performs. Neurologists tell us that our brains have two parallel systems for controlling behavior. If we practice a behavior enough, we can automate it, and hand it off from our conscious, creative neural system to the part of our brain that handles habitual behavior (just as we can turn the complex process of driving a car into a subconscious activity if we take the same route to work every morning). If the expert pianist is doing that, he or she may be "going beyond the thinking mind" but I'm not sure I would consider that living in the immediacy of the moment.

chris bennett-- I agree that Zen philosophy expresses existential truths in a different manner than those truths are expressed by the philosophies of the West. However, I think we have to concede that the west has multiple varieties of its own home grown (non-eastern) anti-rationalism that are at least as exasperating. They are just as indifferent to contradictions and just as disrespectful of logic. Yes, many of them are born from laziness, superstition, religious fundamentalism or mysticism. But many of them were formed in reaction to genuine paradoxes and structural flaws of western rationalism, from which none of the "philosophies of the West" have been able to rescue us. The anti-rationalists recognize that our "philosophy of As If" as a cop out.

We've had artists such as Rousseau or Gauguin who rejected the cold logic of western civilization and yearned for a state-of-nature kind of purity. There are other artists who recognize that art can wilt under a prolonged spotlight of western rationalism-- that our ability to relate to art in a healthy way can be impaired by too much logic. Of course, after World Wars when people saw western rationality produce poison gas and nuclear weapons and mass transportation to death camps, it's little wonder that they explored irrational dadaism or Freudian subconscious to see what else they might offer. I have great disdain for the irrationalism of anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, but if my scientist friends wipe out all life on earth the anti-science community will be proven to be right.

chris bennett said...

Trained as an engineer! Well that is interesting Chris! Has it help you in your artwork?

Well, obviously on a practical level my knowledge (now long forgotten) of equations for thermodynamic systems or that you need to heat aluminium to around 300 degrees centigrade in order to solder it, or even knowing that engineer's blue (for marking out metal) was made out of ultramarine doesn't seem to help much with wiping coloured mud onto canvas with a hairy stick. :)

But learning about engineering (or any practical discipline) gave me an embodied appreciation of just how much thought, time, effort, expertise, patience, understanding, conscientiousness, and sheer fucking hard work goes into producing even the most humble objects that surround us. And as a consequence taught me to cherish the culture that has dragged us out of the mud and enabled the practice and appreciation of the arts, and at a wider level, the whole damn edifice upon which our very lives depend.

So Tom, I was fascinated and heartened to hear how your ongoing experience at the architect's office has enriched your approach to art in general. Pays well too huh? :)

Tom said...


I like your reply Chris especially the part about appreciation. Which implies an objectivity that comes from learning how things are done.
So much of art school was a pure mystery, or learning how to justify what one was doing with words.

‘Pays well too huh? :)”

LOL! For an artist with no experience it did and does! Plus it was regular work and he allowed me to learn on the job and since he likes traditional classical architecture I had to put in my hours with Vignola. One of the first things the foreman told me when I started was how mad the owner (my boss) got at the ridiculous fees the architectural office charge and he was having none of it.

The job has also gradually over time given me a great appreciation for a level plane. Which in many ways is the “plane” of culture. “ Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”

David wrote
“ If the expert pianist is doing that, he or she may be "going beyond the thinking mind" but I'm not sure I would consider that living in the immediacy of the moment.”

I’m just writing this for fun David, if your thinking in the moment or not thinking moment, you are still in the moment, where else could you be? What does often happen though is our attention is so caught by our thinking mind our natural awareness is greatly diminished. How many times have you taken an interest in something not even knowing why and few months later your doing your work and out of no where it helps you solve a problem?

The Buddha emphasized the middle way Neti-Neti, not this, not that. Or as Giacometti replied to Francis Bacon, after listening to him silently, over an entire dinner, carried on about the meaningless of life, “maybe.”

Then there is Ramana Maharishi “The question who am I? Is not really meant to get an answer, the question “who am I,” is meant to dissolve the questioner.”

kev ferrara said...

"I mostly agree with this, but where does it take us? One might conclude that those who would pursue joyousness as a truly felt experience should put down their damn paints and brushes."

I think one of the great joys of life is to see a vision though to fruition. Deep, positive satisfaction is a profound experience, no?

And the flow state - as well as the dedication predicated on embodied belief - required to see a vision through to fruition is itself another kind of joyousness. Conviction and joyousness are very near cousins, I think. Which is why the hesitant and nihilistic are so miserable.

Which is different than "living in the immediacy of the moment."

I think this 'immediacy' thing needs to be distinguished from 'joy.' Many, particularly the desperate and the endangered, but also those driven by passions and addictions and dysfunctions, live on the hot-wired third rail of experience. A life of constant stress and intensity is hardly joyous. Though it is deeply immersive. And some people seek out such lives because they cannot stand ennui or the terror of moral thought that comes with a quiet life. So immersion at least is respite from consciousness.

Nothing to do with joy though.

kev ferrara said...

The job has also gradually over time given me a great appreciation for a level plane. Which in many ways is the “plane” of culture.

The level plane is to architecture what the blank rectangle is to art. The evidence of consciousness setting aside ordered aesthetic space as a prelude to the recreation of the world.

chris bennett said...

...we have to concede that the west has multiple varieties of its own home grown (non-eastern) anti-rationalism that are at least as exasperating... just as indifferent to contradictions and just as disrespectful of logic. Yes, many of them are born from laziness, superstition, religious fundamentalism or mysticism. But many of them were formed in reaction to genuine paradoxes and structural flaws of western rationalism, from which none of the "philosophies of the West" have been able to rescue us. The anti-rationalists recognize that our "philosophy of As If" as a cop out.

Proclamations of being 'a rationalist' or 'an anti-rationalist' are just two sides of the same hubristic coin; the belief that one mode of thought has the potential to account for and explain all phenomena. The deepening problems of societies today (West and East) is founded upon attending to the world with an almost pathological bias in terms of utility fuelled by the belief that it is purely material and mechanistic.

I have great disdain for the irrationalism of anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, but if my scientist friends wipe out all life on earth the anti-science community will be proven to be right.

Dividing the populace into vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, climate change catastrophisers and climate change deniers, scientists and anti-scientists, is an example of 'either or' thinking which is, definitionally, mechanistic.
The fact that proper, reasonably balanced debate with risk/benefit, cost/benefit assessments has hardly any widespread platform in the media is proof that society's problems are rooted much deeper than the issues concerned. They begin with the overwhelmingly atomistic, mechanistic and thereby reductionist way we have come to attend to the world and each other.

Tom said...

Kev wrote
"The level plane is to architecture what the blank rectangle is to art. The evidence of consciousness setting aside ordered aesthetic space as a prelude to the recreation of the world."

I would not think of it as a setting aside, I would think of it as the constant upon which all relations are established. It's more then a prelude (unless by prelude you mean fix point), it makes the work possible. The mouldings of classical architecture always return to the established plane of the rising flat vertical surface of the building like a rhythm. The plane of the canvas or it's x and y coordinates allows one to established the horizontal plane of depth. The level plane, orientation be damned, is the constant upon which comparisons are made.

But maybe I don't understand what you are saying.

kev ferrara said...

Hi Tom,

Our points are probably near cousins. I am speaking of both vertical and horizontal planes in architecture, but particularly the idea of a level foundation awaiting a construction. And with blank rectangles used for art (and architectural drawing) we have the standing surface plane and the implied planes based on the vertical and horizontal edges. All of these offer ideal baselines, constant comparison and support to all subsequent efforts.

Additionally the perfectly flat plane and the perfectly blank rectangle are unnatural ideal phenomenon that result solely from consciousness. (If we were to find such things on another planet, even a 'lowly' piece of blank paper, it would be world shaking.) Their ideality makes them aesthetic as objects in comparison to anything organic.

As well, there is a kind of aesthetic anticipation they cause because they lay the groundwork and demarcate a boundary for something aesthetic (sensually significant communication) to come. This anticipation, which activates the imagination, then activates the otherwise blank fields. This is what I meant by prelude. Though maybe it is more like a Broadway orchestra warming up in front of a shut curtain as the audience murmurs toward its seats. And then suddenly the lights go off and everybody falls silent.

Sean Farrell said...

Tom and Kev,
Nicely written comments. Understanding precedes the abstraction. Understanding is not necessarily verbal as each creature understands the world according to its needs. Even a dog is one thing with a good master and something different roaming in a pack. One may be speechless in the face of a tornado, but there is understanding.

The invention is part of understanding, not involuntary, yes. Understanding is. The Word, the Logos, what is, or Is-ness is understanding which is part of the organic world accordingly. The Word implies the experiential and if thought of as understanding it would have prevented the verbal non-verbal split that took place in the east and in modernity.

Fear, embarrassment, vulnerability and pride trying to hide one’s vulnerability,
or the shame of vulnerability, all reside near each other without clear categories.
Yet that everyone is insecure is the best kept secret in mankind. Experiencing
such is an understanding. Like the oncoming tornado, one understands these
things. They’re recognized, experienced, understood and often kept hidden.

The sense that the self was an illusion came from observing peace in something else,
but it is the same vulnerability, fear, and shame in being vulnerable, and pride that's temporarily at rest while experiencing peace. The temptation to conclude from such that the self or the “I” is an illusion is an error. The imagined split between the Word and Being overlooked the integrated nature of being human.

Understanding is recognition (and being recognized). The separation of language
from what is has been a confusing error because it dis-integrated being human.
Or one could say understanding is the nature of Logos, the Is-ness of things and that the creative artistic act is one of its expressions.
Take care, Sean