Monday, October 31, 2011

Throwing up my Naked Lunch

I read Naked Lunch based on it's reputation, on a long, drunken plane ride to San Francisco about ten years ago. At first it was slow going, as my mind groped for some feature of the story upon which to construct my understanding… like searching for a handhold in the dark, on a cliff. But any hold you find lasts only a paragraph or two. Even within the span of sentence your handhold crumbles, and you slide down… desperately flailing your arms about in the hopes that the next moment or sentence will provide something to grab hold of. But all grips are fleeting, and you are left pinwheeling through a series of false features that promise security, but never deliver.
After about the eighth beer, the inhibitive presumption of a rational universe melted away, and I could meet Naked Lunch where it truly existed… as a feverish, non-rational, evacuation of mental content from a mind gone haywire.  Naked Lunch is the topographical description, in literary terms, of a mind lost in drug addiction. It is a series of flash-backs, fragmented memories, and random associations dancing on the surface of the totality of one man's drug addled experiences. It is like an electroencephalogram… those electrical patterns that indicate brain function, but that don't describe what one is actually thinking about. We see the neurons firing… we see the lightning bolts of electricity shooting around the brain.. but what does it mean... what is the lab rat actually thinking about?
But even that neurological simile is inaccurate, since we presume that the electrical patterns could (if we learned how to interpret them) provide us with insight to some underlying idea of what the brain is thinking about. But when the underlying brain activity are insane flights of fantasy… an extreme products of volition… the trail of causality goes cold. The insane is always constructed from the ruble of the sane, collaging appropriated fragments into some representation. Presented with this representation, we do the only thing a human mind can do... we look for meaning. And that is the first mistake.

We cannot turn off our minds when we read Naked Lunch. All we can do is suspend that part of the brain that searches for answers. It's not really possible, but getting drunk is a useful approximation. Perhaps dropping acid would be better. But ultimately, it is an impossible task. At the very least, we must be conscious to read Naked Lunch… we must be lucid enough to comprehend the words. We could reduce our minds to such a low level that we view the letters of the words as simply graphical symbols... where they become opaque ends in themselves, not the transparent mechanism of ration thought. But we cannot go all the way there. We must still consider the words as having intended conceptual meaning. In the end, it is impossible both to write a work of total nonsense, and to read a book of total nonsense.
But you can get really close. Naked Lunch gets really close. In face, as a matter of epistemological clarity… you might assert that Naked Lunch is the standard by which nonsense texts could be judged. It is as nonsensical as humans can get in language. Since words are a product of reason, their use (like the appropriation of fragments from the real world) imbues writing with some content that can be interpreted… from which some conclusion can be drawn. 
But I never drew any conclusion from Naked Lunch, other than what I say here about it.  Perhaps that is the truest test of nonsense… that after it is all said and done, there is nothing to say other than that nothing was said. 

A question always arises in reviews such as this, where we wonder if something isn't being given unearned legitimacy through the act of saying it has no legitimacy. This may be so, in which case the review ends up not being about the inherent relevance of the work, but of the social relevance that has grown up around it. This book has become celebrated for various reasons, and is therefore taken seriously, despite it's apparent lack of meaning. This is  completely maddening to the objectively minded, who presume a book (or any work) should derive it's meaning by how well it channels some aspect of reality, and not by having become cool or popular through some unspecified social mechanism.

Such social relevance (like celebrity status), once achieved, is long endured. Oddly enough, the less objective the social status, the brighter it glows, and the more maddening to consider by the objective minded... who in their protestations keep the spotlight on the very thing they wish to ignore.

I undertook to read Naked Lunch because I had heard so much about it. After a few pages I had the distinct impression that it was going nowhere. After a few more pages I knew it was going nowhere. But being trapped in a plane with a beer in my hand left me few options but to read on. I was determined to finish the book, despite the pain induced by plowing through page after page of incomprehensible writing. I just wanted to be able to say I read it. I wanted to know absolutely that I it made no sense. I didn't want to run into a future conversation where some jack-off tells me... "Oh, but it is the last 50 pages that are really great".

So I have the dubious status of being able to assert with conviction that an apparently incomprehensible book is in fact incomprehensible, or nearly so... and perhaps I could dissect it to reveal something about it... which leaves me wide open to the charge of taking it too seriously. Which is true from an objective point of view, but not from a social point of view. The need to understand nonsense doesn't stem from reality... it stems from society.

For example... might know that the emperor is naked, and choose to not participate a the public display of fawning over his new clothes... but if we live in such a society we are not immune from the effects of those social attitudes. To understand society, we have to at least focus our attention on the products of social attitudes, such as the high regard given Naked Lunch. The awareness that they are meaningless is the first thing that comes to mind, and on the basis of this you could turn away from it and announce that it is meaningless, and just continue on with one's personal agenda in life.

But if you can stomach to analyze it further... if you can choke back the bile in your throat... if you can handle thinking about something beyond the moment it is immediately relevant to your life or to objective reality... then you can enter the realm of the social. It's a creepy place for someone who is inherently individualistic and ego driven. And oddly enough, when you take "the social" seriously for what it is... you can hear in it the echo of yourself... or maybe more accurately... you can hear in yourself the echos of what society has wrought... because society has wrought each of us. No matter how closely guarded and and nurtured one is about themselves as a unique individual, we are all in large measure the product of society. To be ignorant of the social forces active in ourselves is to mistake those social influences for our own... to assume that the entire content of our soul has been constructed by us through a closely guarded screening of reality, when in fact the very screen we filter through is itself constructed for us by the society we grow up in.

Investigating the apparent nonsense of social product is not about celebrating nonsense, but of gaining some familiarity the socially sanctioned canon of nonsensical works. Kind of like the inverse of the "Great Books" of western civilization. Presumably we read the "Great Books" in order to familiarize ourselves with the history of great thoughts, and absorb them into our lives. Just so, perhaps we need to read the "Un-Great Books", not so much to absorb them, but to purge them from ourselves... because if they have been socially sanctioned, they have NO DOUBT helped shape social attitudes, and have thus found their way into our souls.

I'm sure this essay seems like yet another unwarranted rationalization of nonsense. It even reminds me of that. It reminds me of how art critics can write thousands of pages trying to understand a Jackson Pollock drip painting, yet have few words to describe the apparently sane and rational works of Michaelangelo. It seems like yet another affirmation of the idea that language, thought, analysis, art, and expression are continually poured into the broken and obscure parts of life. How many poems are written about being happy, or about a day where everything was reasonable? How many songs capture the spirit of a solid 8 hour work day where you were really productive?

If everything has to reduce to reason and logic and personal goals... then just become a scientist I suppose, or some equivalent. I pseudo-support Naked Lunch not in itself, but for what it stands for to me... and maybe this is part of it's social sanction... that it represents a rejection of the conformist insistence on things making sense. It is a form of passive resistance to the aggressive and pervasive power of reason to always demand that we draw conclusions 24 hours a day. It is very post modern... it is very Dada-esque in it's subversion of the sane.

In this respect I can see it representing certain popular attitudes that at least some people have. These being... the desire to subvert... the need to reject the cackling of conventional social attitudes despite their apparent rationality... the need to assert yourself against authority even at the cost of forgoing reasonable gains you might otherwise achieve. One trades off reason for something else in those situations. In so doing I think I see, from my external point of view... the presence of social attitudes toward reason and authority that have their genesis in such apparently inane movements such as Dada or Beat poetry, and which have been delivered into your consciousness by social processes that you had no control over.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What do butterflys have to do with poetry?

What do butterflies have to do with poetry? I don't think the word butterfly occurs even once in the entire Norton Anthology of Poetry. Poetry generally comes in one of two forms... either a lyrical record of struggle... or as a greeting card.

What does it mean to lead a poetic life. If the history of poetry is any indication, the poetic life (at least the life of the poet) is one of tragedy... of endless struggle against the forces of sorrow, loss, alienation, and death.... and the afterlife!!! Granted, there are some moments of unbridled joyfulness, but such moments are few and far between.

Joy doesn't seem to offer the intellectual heft that draws the poet into the life long search for expression. I have often wondered about this... why so few artists (in general) do not take "happy-happy-joy-joy" as their theme. I think it is because happiness is an end in itself... it doesn't need to be figured out or expressed... it only needs to be experienced. Expression serves as psychic therapy for the wounds inflicted on us by society, by life, and by ourselves... the pain of which torments us and begs to be understood... to be fixed... to lead us to some elusive happiness, where expression ends, and pure experience begins. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

"But not so, how arrives it joy lies slain, and why un-blooms the best hopes ever sown... crass causality obstructs the sun and moon, and dicing time for gladness casts a moan..."

And so on and so on.

So when one references the poetic life.. is it the Hallmark version, or the "To be or not to be" version. And even though I have put a pejorative spin on those choices... where the "Hallmark" version is seen as weak minded and banal... I should say I am totally fine with that choice. Why shouldn't someone live in a Hallmark world.. a world of looking deeply into each others eyes while saying (or thinking) thoughts such as "Your eyes are liquid pools of mystery"... or "Our bodies exploded with the joy of newfound love"... etc. Such experiences are exquisite, even if their expression seems silly... seems embarrassing… like watching ones parents make-out. I sometimes think that the truly beautiful experiences can only be understood in the act of experiencing them... that is... in our minds... such that expressing in words is to rob them of identity.. to turn it into a set of cliched physical acts that don't add up to how it felt. In such a case, the most intimate and spiritual sexual encounter becomes the equivalent of two dogs doing it in the side yard. Sad but perhaps true.

The life of the poet is not the same as the life of the reader of the poem, the painter is not the same as the viewer of the painting. The creator is not the spectator. The actor is not the audience.  Is this poetic life one of creative expression, or the life of consumption... and does this consumer cast about for verse that reaffirms their worldview... which is the all too frequent tendency in consumer driven, on demand world we live in. After all, why should anyone trouble themselves in the life... all too short a time we're here. And yet without such troubling, there would be no poetry. When art buckles and folds to the consumer demands of such pressure, when it conforms itself to the expectations of the audience, it ceases to be art... it becomes entertainment... and poetry is no different than television.

Poetry, poetry, poetry... why bother to suffer at it's hand at all.

"Tis true the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale
But take it if the smack is sour
The better for the embittered hour
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul's in my soul's stead
And I will friend you if I may
In that dark and cloudy day"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Polykleitos and bicycles

The ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos constructed an ideal figure referred to as the Kanon, which was meant to exemplify his theories of the ideal human body. In so doing, Polykleitos did not simply create a particular sculpture... but created sculpture itself... as the Kanon became the basis for the art of sculpture moving forward.

I was thinking of this in relation to bicycles. Is there a Kanon of the bicycle? I'm not sure that there is a specific bike in existence that would be the ideal bike, but there certainly are theories of ideal bike proportions. You hear these things all the time... chain stay length, fork rake, seat tube angle, etc. etc.... and usually these things are discussed as if there is an ideal frame in the mind that everything refers to. Usually the 56cm frame is the basis for such things.

The 56cm frame is the frame size for a certain sized human being. Probably someone who is 5'8" to 5'10" tall, or there about. So if the ideal frame dimensions are based on 56cm, then this means the ideal rider is 5'8" to 5'10".  Bike frames are scaled up and down for smaller and larger riders, but the truth is, that very small and very large frames are simply not correct.

Like all rationalized, canonical ideals, they are based on presumptions about what is ideal. In the case of
Polykleitos, the ideal would be defined in terms of numerical relations between different parts of the body, and their relation to the whole.  These numerical relations would have derived from (I assume) Pythagorean numerology, and the general love that the Greeks had for number and relations.  Of course, there are many different systems of numerical relation, so the use of one over the other has to be argued for somehow. In the end, the selection of something as the basis for idealization will be disputed and rejected by those who choose different standards.

This seems to be the case in bike frame design. For instance, I reject the canon of the ideal bike, because I am 12 inches taller than the ideal rider. I reject the notion that their is even such a thing as an ideal rider. There certainly is the "average rider" height, but that is not the same as the ideal. And although we might presume that "the average" is all that anyone is really talking about, I think that in practice the average has taken up the role of the ideal.

Rationalizing an ideal is a convenience. It allows one to not deal with any existent that does not fall within it's parameters. In this sense it excludes much of reality, in favor of a selective subset of reality that conforms to... well... conforms to the basis from which the subset was derived. It is self-referential. And again, the basis of that self-referential subset is always open to debate... particularly from those who are not within the parameters of the subset.

In the case of cycling, this is me... so tall that my bike is wrongly dimensioned in many ways. My cranks are too short... bottom bracket too low... stem too high... wheels too small... handlebars too narrow.... knee to pedal ratio all wrong, front end too far forward, and so on and so on. The canon of the 56cm bike gives rise to the entire cycling industry... to the production of bikes... to the sizing of all components and frame geometries...  and when the performance of a tall rider suffers, it is a self fulfilling prophecy. It's easy enough to say that the 5'8" rider is ideal, because they perform well on average. But part of their performance edge is the fact that they have bikes constructed to their bodies... whereas the very tall or very short do not.

So clearly, rationalized ideal canons can serve as self fulfilling prophecies of exclusion.

In the case of the human figure, one can argue for canons of proportion, because in the end one can refer to observable characteristics of human beings... and can arrive at an "average" body.  But at what point in the thought process does "average" become "ideal"?  The shift from observation to idealization occurs when we look for the average... because the average is a numerical abstraction. If the length of a body is "on average" equal to 7 heads, then we have an abstract head size. We are no longer dealing with specific reality.

Once we have an "average" head, it natural to presume that there must be something in the nature of humanity that produces such an average. Such an average proportion plays into the construction of human identity... of what it means to be human. This then becomes the ideal. Depending on how one constructs and uses such abstractions, one could be Aristotelean about it... or Platonic. But when one constructs a SPECIFIC instance of the ideal, one is definitely Platonic, because it is an attempt to show the form of the ideal.

The Aristotelean argument against Plato's forms is that for them to exist, they must be something particular, and thus they cannot be ideal. An Aristotielean would never construct a canonical object. Only a Platonist would do so... only a Platonist roots the ideal in an object, rather than having it simply exist as an abstraction.

In the case of the bike industry, they are Platonic. They have a Platonic ideal of the bike. If they were Aristotelean about it, they would understand the bike in terms of "any rider"... they would not exclude tall riders or short riders. They would formulate the nature of the bike in terms of it's fitness for the purpose to which any person puts it. But they don't do this.

The whole bike industry is Platonic.. and it doesn't exude understanding... what it produces is an endless stream of Platonic ideals derived from rationalized standards that are usually not explained. If you dig behind the assumptions... you will find the same presumptions about rider size and the canonical bike. And probably if you found the average height of all the people in the bike industry, in bike shops, and in the bike media... it would be 5'8" to 5'10".

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Does classical art achieve the same level of emotional impact as expressionistic art?

If we recognize the distinction between expressionistic art (french, german, abstract expressionism, etc) and classical realism (french neo-classical realism or the classical realism of today), do you think that classical art can achieve the same level of emotional impact as expressionistic art?

I ask this question because I often read or hear from classical realist types who assert that the high degree of skill and finish and pictorial clarity (or whatever you want to call it) that goes into classical art is the vehicle by which the highest minded ideals of human existence can be most effectively communicated.

I'm not sure why this claim is made with such confidence, given the obvious examples in the history of art, of artworks of great emotive power that are not classical in nature. Do classicists simply ride on the coat-tails of the classical Greek & Roman cultural traditions of western culture? Do they rely on the general public's love of realism in art?

This claim seems similar to the claim that classical music buffs make about classical music, and the logic by which they discard any modern music. The obvious training and talent that get channeled into classical careers is indeed long and daunting. But is the effort to perfect a very evolved and complex art form (and craft form) enough to secure for that form the mantel of artistic high ground?

Sub-questions about classical art...

Does classical art rely on subject matter to tell the viewer what to feel?
Can one really be told what to feel?
Does this make classical art analytical?
Does the pictorial clarity of classical art hinder the conveyance of emotional content?
Is precision inherently incompatible with emotive intent. If so, then why do it. If not, then is there some limit to what can be conveyed unambiguously.

Sub-questions about expressionistic art...

Does expressionistic art rely on formal elements (deliberate distortion of line or color ) to affect the viewer at the emotional level?
Does this make expressionistic art less analytical and more emotional?
Does the pictorial ambiguity  of expressionistic art lend itself to emotive communication?

Is there a continuum of clarity, whereby on one extreme we have total clarity (a white canvas), and on the other end we have total ambiguity (visual chaos).

Drawing, craft vs. art

I had heard a Pafa instructor refer to printmaking as the "craft extension of drawing". Clearly, the inclusion of the world "craft" was meant to convey lesser status and significance.  Of course, we do notice that there is a lot of process involved in printmaking, and we notice that this process lends a certain look to printed material. Wood cuts often have the "wood cut" look... and etchings, with their fine lines and such are said to look like etchings. Furthermore, when we approach printmaking, it seems important to understand the medium, because the medium is part of our creative process, and adds much to the final affect.

But is it any different for drawing? Is there any artistic medium that does not impart some process, and therefore some "look" on the finished product. Mediums such as charcoal, conte, or pastel certainly have a look to them, and their use (in practice) seems to have matured to the point where one can say, "That's a typical charcoal drawing", or "That's a well done pastel drawing".... all of which are recognition NOT of the drawing, but of the medium itself. To that extent, how are they different from the the printmaker's reliance on process? There is plenty of process and technique involved in using charcoal, despite the fact that instructors seem to view it as a foregone conclusion that one can intuitively use charcoal to it's optimal effect.

So, where is the drawing medium that doesn't have process... or "craft extension" to it? Where is the medium that doesn't reveal itself in the finished image, such that the viewer could never know what it was made from, or what "type of drawing" it was?

A simple Number-Two pencil seems to be a likely candidate for simplicity, in as much as it simply creates a thin grey line. Because the medium gives so little, it would seem that the artist has to invent all the affects. Surely this is a "pure" drawing medium. The same might be said for an ink pen. But the rub here is that the artist, in being forced to invent so much with line, will reveal that he was working with a linear tool. Further, the image will reveal this linear tool, either by the scarcity of masses, or by masses composed of the dense accumulation of line, which is itself a technique.

There is NO drawing without a drawing medium, and all mediums have craft element... a drawing identity.

Is painting the highest art form?

Is there anything inherent in painting that causes it to be at the top of the food chain in art?

I had once made the following comment, which I recognize as being snide and snobbish, but one that seemed to make some sense.... "If one studies sculpture, then one studies how to render the human figure in three dimensions... and if one studies printmaking, then one learns the various techniques of making prints... but that if one studies painting, that one is learning how to make art".

I make this comment because it seems that most of the issues of pictorial representation have occurred in the history of art as a product of drawing and painting. When we talk about a visual vocabulary and visual concepts, we seem to be talking about issues that have come up and been answered through drawing and painting. Surely, these are the core issues of art.

Of course, this reasoning is somewhat circular... in that it is a given that drawing and painting will ask and answer the questions that arise in drawing and painting. The same could be said for any other art form. One could say that sculptural issues are asked and answered by the sculptor, or that architectural issues are resolved by architects as they consider architectural issues. So why be persuaded by the fact that an art form answers it's own questions, and to conclude from that that it is superior? Is it simply the dominance of painting (since the Renaissance) that leads us to conclude that the resolution of two-dimensional pictorial issues is the most important thing?

Can you really learn the rules in order to break them?

I have often heard people explain their interest in PAFA as being based on "learning the rules in order to break them", or somewhat differently, "if you learn the rules, then you can break them".  However, I think this is more often a pre-emptory comment meant to stave off the guilty conscious of someone who desires traditional training, while also wanting to appear poised to join the avant gard (whatever that is).  Furthermore... to think that one has to start with classical training in order to break rules, is to say that classical training is superior, in as much as it characterizes other artistic ideas (broken rules) as being the rebellious children of the classical mother.

I don't think that one learns rules in order to break them, or that rule breaking is an inevitable consequence of learning rules. I think that one learns rules in order to achieve some result. People come to PAFA in order to learn certain rules (ideas, techniques, or whatever you want to call them) in order to achieve some form of realist imagery. There's nothing wrong with that. But those rules do not contain within themselves the ability or rationale to be broken. Rules never do.

Rule breaking is the result of  learning to break rules. One doesn't learn to break rules all at once, nor as the result of classical training. Rule breaking is an attitude that evolves in some people but not others.... It requires the kind of rebellious and curious mindset that is usually forged in childhood.... it combines intelligence, motivation, temperament, and some goal to be achieved. Rule breaking is an attitude usually NOT held by the generally conservative artists that desire to learn classical rules of art at places such as PAFA.

It only makes sense. The rules of realism are hard won, and they can only be gained if one really desires to achieve the final result of a realist image. If one does indeed "learn the rules", then it seems unlikely that one would then break them. What would be the point? Why would one work so hard to paint academic figure, and desire to do so, and then turn around and reject it? But even if this did happen, how would the artist go about breaking them? After all, the learning of the rules does not teach you anything about breaking them.

It is common for Pafa students to look down their noses at art schools that they deem to be "conceptual"... because those schools don't teach any "skills". However, what they probably do teach are the more conceptual skills of being critical, questioning rules, and striving to be original. These are exactly the types of mindsets that will allow for rule breaking, but these are also the kinds of skills Pafa doesn't seem to engage in.

In the end, I could even ask what would "breaking rules" mean?

If I broke the rules of algebra, it wouldn't result in a new mathematical system with new answers... it would simply mean that my algebraic formulas no longer worked.  A broken rules is useless. What one needs isn't to break a rule, but to find a different "working" rule. I think it's better to not break a perfectly fine set of rules (such as the rules of realism), but instead to simply find the rules that suit you best.

I don't get the impression the PAFA is really about breaking rules, or that any such attitude is taught, fostered, or otherwise part of the general purpose of the place. One can bring a critical eye to what they learn, but I don't think the institution instills it.

What is the role of the artist in modern times?

Is the role of the artist to be the person who slows down time, and peers deeply into the fleeting moments of a world that keeps spinning faster and faster? An artist like this might spend months painting a bowl of fruit. When asked what relevancy it has, the artist might say that the relevancy is simply that we must slow down and consider it. He might say that despite the acceleration of much of modern life, that we are (as human beings) still based on a slower time frame. Man has technology, but he does not become technology. Man lives in an accelerated world, but that does not mean he has accelerated soul. We cannot breath any faster, or digest food any more rapidly... we still need eight hours of sleep, etc.  This "slowing down" approach is meditative in nature. It's a meditation on the simple things in life, but above all, a mediation on objects.

The opposite of this would be the artist who accepts the modern world for what it is. This artist accepts the accelerated and abstracted nature of the modern world, and works with it to find perspective, or explanation,or something. Instead of painting a bowl of fruit, he might strive to give representation to a broader notion of what that bowl of fruit represents. Perhaps it represents agriculture, or abundance, or any number of other associations. Perhaps this type of artist wouldn't even have any association with that bowl of fruit. He might simply see it as just another collection of objects of no real significance, other than that of a still life composition for the meditation artist.

This type of artist is might feel the need to move beyond simple objects, since simple objects don't correspond to the complexity and speed of the modern world. Perhaps no object could. Even something as high-tech as brand new rocketship probably wouldn't be subject matter for this type of artist, since the time required to focus on "any one thing" detracts that artist from the flux and change that he tries to capture. What's real about the modern world aren't the people or things in it, but on the relationships between those things, and how they change over time. To show relationship and change is to show the world condensed to a canvas size, and to allow the viewer to gain perspective, if they even want perspective.

How does one make images that depict relations and change? Probably more abstractly than a bowl of fruit. This type of artist meditates not on objects, but on relationships and change... it's a different agenda, more abstract mentally, and probably more abstract visually.

What is the skill required for making abstract art?

People put down abstract art on the basis that there is no skill required. It is commonly believed that it necessarily requires skill to make representational art, but that it does not necessarily require skill to make abstract art. It is also commonly assumed that an abstract painter cannot necessarily paint representationally, but that a representational painter can always paint abstractly if he/she wants to. This, again, is the assumption that there is no skill involved in abstract art making, or that the skill involved is something of a subset of representational skills.

We know that there is skill to representational art, because we usually can't produce it until we have spent time and energy "learning how to" make it. The proof is easy to see. Our initial efforts are far less representational than our later efforts. The improvement is due to learning skills. The main skill is  the heightened awareness of the visual world. We learn what to look for. This heightened awareness is gained in unison with the actual act of drawing, and so our ability to see and our ability to render are really just two aspects of the same heightened awareness of the visual world.

So we see that there is skill and learning involved. One could argue that there is skill involved in making representational images, but that representational "art" is quite another matter. But for the moment we'll assume that a competently made representational image is art, and that the competence of the image is based on it's correspondence to something we can look at in the world.

With (non-objective) abstract art, there is no referent to the outside world in the artwork, no illusion of normal reality. Instead, it seems to be simply mark-making, with no way to assess from the image, whether those marks are correct. With abstact art, the correctness of the marks isn't based on external reality, but on the internal reality of the artist. Representational art is extrospective, whereas abstract art is introspective. But, being introspective, we have the seemingly impossible task of corresponding the image to the internal state of the mind from which it was born.

If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound. That is the conundrum of abstract art. Whether the tree makes a sound or not is based upon how we verify sounds having been made in the world. If sound requires a human to hear it, then the tree made no sound. However, if we consider that sound is the product of vibrations carried through the air, and we infer that a tree falling in the woods would certainly have to create such vibrations, then we can know that the tree would make a sound... that it DID make a sound.

The same logic applies to non objective abstract art. If we define "art" as being able to verify the image in reference to reality, then non objective abstract art is not art at all. However, if we realize that mark making can be made in a mindful, introspective manner, then we can see that it is art.

Anyone can throw paint at a canvas and insist that they are an artist working in the manner of jackson pollock. And a canvas produced this way might not be difficult to debunk visually. However, whether or not it is art is not based upon our ability to verify it, but the process of working that went into it. The random paint slinger did not employ a mindful approach, and therefore did not engage in an artistic process. Hence, the work is not art. If the artist worked earnestly and honestly in making the image, it is art... and the process he employed is an artistic process. This artistic process is a certain activity of mind which, like any activity of mind, has a certain nature, and probably is not something that everyone can necessarily do. I see it as primarily introspective... a way of relating imagery to the mind, often in a very fleeting way. This is certainly not a perspective that everyone shares equally.

What is the basis for color decisions in abstract art?

Abstraction seems to have evolved in terms of abstracting form. We have forms considered considered spatially (cubists), forms considered temporally (futurists), forms considered semantically (Mondrian), forms reduced to essentials (Brancusi), forms rejected (abstract expressionists). And so on. Color isn't related to form, value is.

SO... What is the role of color in the evolution of abstract art?

The expressionists use colors to convey emotions, such that Matisse could paint a face green because he simply felt like it. Gaugin made color choices based on the theory that the color one felt is more real than the local color. Yet these seem more like subjective, emotional reactions to color, and to the cultural association of color with the subject matter of art, rather than an abstraction of color.

Mondrian seems to come closest to abstracting color in his reduction of his color palette to red, yellow, and shades of grey... seeing these as essential. However, I'm not sure why they are essential. Perhaps the use of red on his palette is Mondrian's way of reducing all the hues of red down to a single hue, which then becomes the essential red. This makes sense, because the process of abstraction is one of removing particularity, of removing the variety and nuance of the "real world".

Of course, this is problematic, because the red he chooses to be the essential red is, itself, simply a particular hue of red. This reminds me of Aristotle's argument against Plato's theory of forms, whereby he points out that the form of a tree (of which all earthly trees are merely an imperfect reflection) must either be a particular tree... or no tree at all. Both alternatives break down Platos theory of forms. The perfect "form" of a tree is really what we understand to be the "abstract idea" of a tree, which is not a tree at all. Plato posited a realm of abstractions, whereby the abstractions were actual real things, which he called the forms of things. However, they can't literally exist, either here in reality, or in an alternate reality.

Applying this same logic to the abstraction of color in a painting we can see that the abstraction of color, like any abstraction, is a mental product, not a literal thing. Since art is made of literal things... and since everything on the canvas is a particular thing.... then no thing on the canvas can be literally abstract. In fact, the term "literal abstraction" is probably a contradiction in terms. So, Mondrian cannot assert that his literal red is an abstract red... it's just another hue.

However, it occurs to me that perhaps Mondrian can say that "In my paintings, the red I choose to use will always be the same, and this should be read as the reduction of all red hues to a single, essential red".  The viewer will then relax his critical eye, and accept that this red is the essential red "in the context of this painting".

You cannot paint abstractions... because they aren't literal... you can only paint your representation of them.

Why study the figure?

Question 2. Why study the figure?


    Reasons often given....
    - human subject matter is best (and most accessible) vehicle for expressing human values
    - figure as outward expression of the inner states of consciousness
    - human figure as a landscape of form
    - figure seen as "just beautiful" or "just meaningful".. just argument... it just is

My own, brand new theory on this issue

It occurred to me that one can represent either man-made things, or natural things. Man-made things such as cars, buildings, bridges, soda bottles, etc... are the product of human design, and visually they seem to (in most cases)  bear evidence of that design in the visual form. Man-made things are also visually predictable, in that they are often comprised of straight lines, or curved lines that can be describe mathematically, very often perfect circles.

On the other hand, natural things such as rivers, streams, boulders, grass, forests, clouds, earth, etc... are the products of nature, not of design. They are the product of evolution, and they take the forms they do, due to the countless effects acting upon them for millions of years. The structure of natural things is observable, and it makes sense scientifically... but because of the long evolution that goes into the structure of natural things, their structure is much more subtle, and less obvious. Even today, scientists continue to discover new aspects to even the simplest of  organisms and natural systems.

Does the greater nuance of natural things (if not their greater complexity) leads to the fact that they are less visually obvious and predictable? The curves and forms and masses of natural things often seem to have no obvious systematic explanation. We can observe a boulder that has a bulge and a crack and a shaft of quartz running through it... and there is no doubt some causal explanation that we might be able to understand if we studied it for a long time... but when you're standing in a field trying to paint the boulder, you only have available to your mind the visual stimuli of the boulder.

So it seems man-made objects can be grasped by the mind as a product of the design that went into them, and this helps us understand them visually, whereas the structure natural objects is subtle and non-obvious, such that we can't (as directly) understand them in terms of their structure.

So, how does this tie into the issue of the human body as a subject matter for art? By the following logic...The human body is an organic system whose structure has evolved over millions of years. This makes it, visually, similar to other natural objects. It is curvilinear, organic, and ever changing. However, it is also (visually) similar to man made objects, in that it's anatomical structure (which we can grasp through study) factors into all the ways in which we see the figure. We can look at the human body and see both nature and design. This places the body at a unique intersection of man-made things, and natural things.

It is interesting to consider that the human body is a natural form, but that it is human who create all the man-made forms. And then, beyond that, the human body is itself obeys the laws of it's own evolved design, and that this can be grasped by humans as they look at themselves, and we can see ourselves in terms of our own anatomical structure. So man makes the world in the image of his mind (design of man made things), and then turns around and sees himself as a product of design as well.

The Virus Inside Myself

The Virus Inside Myself

Several years ago, I was listening to the radio, when I noticed that many singers kind-a sound alike. They might sound like Pearl Jam, or Hootie and the Blowfish, or that Smash Mouth guy, or whatever. Times change, of course, and in time the new sound-alikes  come along and sound like whatever else is happening. It felt nice and smug and good to realize that those singers were just copy cats who sold out ever sounding like themselves just to get on the radio.

It occurred to me also, that if those same singers had been born in China, then they'd be singing in a very annoying Chinese way. But then it occurred to me that if I were born in China, that I would speak Chinese too... and that I'd have that annoying Chinese voice, and I wouldn't even sound like me, and I wouldn't even consider it "annoying". So I had to admit that the sound of my voice wasn't anything inherent in me, but was simply a cultural artifact... an accident of my birth and upbringing. It quickly dawned on me that very little of what I consider "essential me" was rooted in anything inherent in me. This was difficult to consider, and very threatening. I have always been one to guard my identity closely, and am not prone to allowing foreign influences into my mind. I don't believe myself to be defined by group inclusion, or by blindly accepting the dictates of religious or social morality, or by anything other than the independent judgement of my mind.

Yet as I reviewed my life, I saw that much of what I considered to be my identity wasn't anything that hadn't been placed there by society. My voice, my clothes, my sense of the universe, my feeling for the east coast (vs west coast), my speaking of English, my penchant for dialog and humor, my owning of a car, working a white collar job, driving a car, etc... I could suddenly consider myself as as being composed to a very large extent of things from that outside world that had slowly invaded the carefully guarded inner sanctum of my being. I characterized them as viruses... as foreign bodies inside myself that had somehow gotten in. The virus had spread to everything.

As I surveyed the "damage" it occurred to me that I had an almost impossible time seeing these external forces as viruses. After all, we only know a virus because we can contrast it to the host body that it occupies. But as I considered myself, I realized that my host body was made up of external influences to such a large degree, that that virus label seemed inverted. Perhaps these viruses were not some rogue minority inside of my majority identity. Perhaps my identity was the rogue faction. Perhaps my sense of myself was the minority. Perhaps these viruses were actually the things that made me who I was in a substantial way... such that they weren't viruses at all. Perhaps my sense of myself was actually the virus.

Perhaps I was the virus within myself... a self formed substantially from external influences that have settled the vast territories of my consciousness, beyond the control of me. Formed when I was young and unaware... formed while I slept... formed while I passively absorbed the continuous onslaught of all that goes on around us 24/7. An open door immigration policy for external influences... enacted in youth, and necessitated at every step of the way in order to conform to social expectations. School, more school, socializing, work, romantic relationships, absorbing culture. And so on.

This can be read in one of two ways
    (1) my identity is composed of a collection of external forces, which we call viruses, but since these viral elements make up who I am, I have become (my identity is) a virus, such that there is no difference between the inside and the outside.

    (2) my identity is NOT made up of the external (viral) elements. My identity is actually equivalent to that which has become aware of the viral infection.

This situation remind me of Descarte's Cogito meditation, wherein he casts doubt on all that he knows... but cannot escape the reality of himself being the one who doubts, such that the one true thing he knows is that he exists as a thinking thing, and therefore, Cogito Ergo Sum... I think, therefore I am. He exists because he is aware of himself doubting.

In my case, the doubt is not in terms of knowledge, but in terms of identity. Like Descarte, I review all the former road signs and markers of identity, and find them to be nothing more than external things that have infested my identity. However, the one thing I cannot doubt is that there is some sense of ME that exists outside of all those external influences, which shuns those things and stands horrified by those influences. That is the true and protected self. I may be composed of external things, but there is another level at which I exist NOT defined by those things. Descarte can say "I think, therefore I am", and I would say of myself, "I question, therefore I have an identity".

So this places me at war with the external (non mental) aspects of my being. They are viruses, and only being "in here" (in my mind) makes me safe.This type of thinking makes you want to start throwing out parts of yourself that seem irrelevant. First you toss out stuff that you don't really need. Maybe fifty  percent of your material possessions and personal habits are simply unnecessary... things you simply picked up from the world around you. So you thrown them out. That felt really really good. So you look for more things to get rid of.

Over time, you can divest yourself of many things that you formerly considered to be essentially you... and as you do, you feel as if you are being reborn... that layers of waste and decay are being stripped off of you, like layers of an onion being peeled away to reveal the "real you" that lies buried inside. But the more you divest yourself from, the more you start to feel vulnerable. It's one thing to throw away a pair of shoes that don't really define you... it's quite another to throw away a career that you fear has defined you. As the layers peel away and you wait anxiously for the pure you to appear under all the layers of real "stuff" that imprison it, a strange fear starts to creep into you... the fear that perhaps there is no "real you" under all the layers. The fear that perhaps the layers are actually part of who you are, such that when they are finally all stripped away... there is nothing at the core... nothing material... just the immaterial mind, now unbounded by the matter that must exist in harmony with... and so it escapes unchecked into personal breakdown and madness.

Round and round and round

As I sat collecting my thoughts this morning, I noticed across from me a tiny bug that was walking around the cap of a jar. As I sat there it made several such journeys, disappearing around the far end of the cap as it moved away from me, and then re-emerging on the other side of the cap as it came back to where it started. It dawned on me that the bug did not realize that it was moving in a circle. From the bugs point of view, it was moving in a straight line, and from it's speed it seemed intent on getting somewhere. Realizing the hopelessness of he bugs predicament, I took mercy it by reaching my giant hand out and killing it. If at that moment a giant meteor rocketed out of the sky and annihilated me, I would be hard pressed to begrudge the irony, though I would be majorly pissed.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A post-modernism test

This test will indicate to what extent you are open to understanding post-modernism. The test below presents two sequences of numbers. Choose the list that seems to make the most sense.

A:   4, 7, 3, 8, 5, 1, 9, 2, 6
B:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Choice A:
This choice is the post-modernist choice. If an unordered list of numbers makes as much sense to you as an obviously ordered list, then you might not find post-modernism hard to understand.

Choice B:
If you chose B, then you might be confused by post modernism.

Analysis of test:

Both lists present numbers of no particular relevance. After all, what does the number 4 or 7 (or whatever) have to do with anything? List A is unordered, and makes the meaningless of the numbers obvious. This list symbolizes the endless flux of reality. List B has been ordered. The act of ordering has imposed human meaning on the endless flux of numbers. The human mind is attracted to such order, because it is the only way to grasp something about the flux.

But where is the truth in an unordered list of numbers? There is none. The numbers by themselves don't mean anything. Even in list B, the numbers themselves have no intrinsic meaning. The truth of list B is contained in it's order. Truth is that which humans bring to endless flux, to structure it, to represent it to the mind in a way that allows one to usefully deal with it. The opposite is to have no useful representation, which is simply confusion.

Post-modernism asserts that the imposition of order on the world, and the desire to grasp the nature and structure of things... is a culturally induced fantasy that has no relation to reality. They look at the list above and chose A, not because it makes sense to them, but because list B does make sense, and they believe that this sensible ordering of list B is a lie. In their view, they choose the truth of the endless flux over the lie of the ordered universe. They believe that not knowing is the truth, and that knowing is a lie.

The progressive formulas of modern art history

In reading art history, one often comes across an assertions of a certain type, the general form of which is this... "After X, nothing was the same".  In this formulation, the X can stand for any number of things... an artist, an artwork, an art movement, a new philosophy of art, a new way of painting, a new way of thinking about art, a new way of criticizing art, etc.  Let's call this formulation the progressive formula. Below are some examples of the progressive formula.

"After Van Gogh, no one looks at color the same way"

"After Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, painting took a new direction"

"After Kandinsky, the object lost it's hold on the mind of the artist"

"After Impressionism, the old ways of seeing were dead"

"After Pollock's drip paintings, the picture plane become flat"

These progressive formulations raise two questions. First, is it literally true that after some event, that the future was never the same. Secondly, how is it that an event might cause one to literally change their view of the future.

I. Was the future really affected as asserted by the progressive formulation?

There is a boldness to the above assertions that is exciting, and if art history is to be believed, these assertions seem very true. After all, each of the artists mentioned above did affect the art that came after them. And each of the artists mentioned above was at the forefront of avant garde art in their times, so their actions had the affect of steering the cutting edge of art in a new direction.

It is no accident that the examples above are from the history of modern art. Modern art is conceived of as a progression, as an evolution, and so there must be points of departure from one stage to the next. The artists who are considered to be the transition from one stage to the next are afforded the highest prestige in this kind of history. This is the official method of describing modern art...that of a historical progression from one breakthrough to the next.

But how it is that new ideas can destroy old ones, when they don't actually contradict the old idea. After all, in the formulation above, "After Van Gough, no one looks at color the same way", I have to wonder, "Why not?" Does Van Gogh's expressionistic use of color really contradict and destroy the previous views on color?  Or is it just something new and different?

It would be one thing if artistic discoveries revealed errors in previous artistic ideas or practices, but that doesn't happen very often. An example might me the Renaissance discover of linear perspective, which revealed the error in how perspective was understood by Gothic painters. But even at that, one could argue that the "incorrect" Gothic perspective functioned artistically within their creations. It seems difficult to criticize art practices as being in error, since even errors can be successfully integrated into the work. The only true errors seem to be those that would prevent successful construction of the artwork itself.

In art history, the meaning and value of artists are inevitably tied up in the way in which they have been woven into the historical narrative. To reevaluate a single artist may raise or lower their status, but to reevaluate the way in which the narrative of art history is conceived is to throw the whole system of artistic prestige out the window. A critical examination of the progressive formula is just such a reevaluation, which is unfortunate, because I have no bones to pick with the artists themselves.

What can be said about the progressive formula then? The first thing, I suppose, is that the formula relies on presumptions about the relevancy of what of what comes AFTER the watershed event. For instance, for the progressive formula "After Van Gogh, no one looks at color the same way", there is a built in presumption about who "no one" consists of.  Obviously, most people continued to look at color the exact same way. For the formula to remain true, those people are not allowed to count. Those who count are those fellow avant garde travelers who picked up on the new thing pioneered by Van Gogh.

What this points out is that art historians do not write a narrative of all the people, only some of the people. The history of modern art is the history of a small stream of avant garde artists and intellectuals, otherwise know as the art world. This group is made to be representative of the entire world through the sheer will of the artists and intellectuals who assert that the avant garde are the only group that matter. Judgments such as this require a morality, and the morality of modern art is clearly the morality of progress. From a post-modern perspective it would be called the mythology of progress.

The progressive formulations of the art world are not surprising. Those with power always write the history. The problem is that power-based histories are not only a selective retelling of events (which is the nature of history in general), but that the power that underlies the narrative crushes alternative narratives. The suppression of alternative points of view perpetuates a cycle of opposition, of continual cultural warfare, with new victors and new histories emerging over time.

If these were real wars, with real dead bodies, people might ask "When will the killing end?" As it is, we dutifully commit to memory the history of cultural warfare, with no concern for the trail of destruction. We call this, being educated. It's a start, at least.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What is classical drawing?

People speak of classical drawing (or classical painting) as if it were something definite. Art schools offer classes in drawing the figure, portrait, still life, and landscape... with the emphasis on drawing things as they appear. Those contemporary artists who call themselves classical realists assert that they produce classical drawings, and that they teach classical drawing methods. In addition to this, when people say they want to learn to draw, they probably have in mind some traditional notion of drawing whereby their drawings are realistic renderings. But what exactly is classical drawing?

First of all, let's suppose that classical drawing really does describe something definite, and that it is our job to figure it out. Let's begin by considering what classical drawing might look like. Upon hearing the term, we might be put in mind of the many drawings we might have seen in books or museum that show accurate renderings of figures and faces and objects, usually with a elegance or beauty of line and tone that is missing from modern and contemporary art. On the other hand, if we look carefully, we'll see that these drawings can be quite different from each other ways. But leaving these differences aside, what is the nature of their perceived similarities... and are these similarities the classical element we're looking for? Maybe... but let's consider another question.

Can we locate classical drawing in art history, and if so, which period would it belong to? A likely suspect would be the drawing of the French neoclassical artist, such as Ingres, David, or Prud'hon. But given the long history of art, you would think that maybe we're leaving some people out by only looking at neoclassicism. What of Michaelangelo, or Rembrandt, or Durer... artists who worked in different historical periods. Holding up neoclassicism as the defining reference for classical drawing seems inadequate.

Part of the problem here is the varied usages (and thus ambiguous meaning) of the term classical. The term is thrown around a lot, and applied to a broad variety of experiences, where it typically reduces to some idea of something beautiful, or traditional, or old fashioned, or elegant, or non-modern, etc. Perhaps the term classical is simply another one of those terms floating around our mental space that has long since been ripped from it's historical moorings and fixed meaning, and has been subject to definition through usage.

The problem with definition through usage is not that a word will take on multiple definitions that are context dependent. After all, many words have multiple definitions that have evolved over time. The problem is that even within a specific meaning, the usage of the word doesn't refer to the same thing. This is the case with the term classical, as we have seen above. The word become ambiguous. This makes it less useful, as we have to unpack it's meaning each time we hear it. We have to figure out what the person saying it means by it, and often what they mean when they say classical can vary greatly. For this reason, it is worth getting to the root of the word classical, and reconstructing what is meant by it historically. Perhaps the historical meaning will seen to have lost it's authority over time, but maybe not. In either case, it is illuminating to consider.

The term classical is traditionally meant to refer to Greek and Roman culture. In the context of this discussion, we will simply refer to Greek art. Our knowledge of Greek drawing is very slight, as little of it survives. Greek art focused more on architecture and sculpture than on drawing and painting. If the meaning of classical drawing is not rooted in examples from the classical period, then where does it come from?

The idea of classical drawing does not derive from a historical period nor from the work from any one historical period or from a combination of works taken from one or more of these periods. It is not synonymous with the Ancient Greeks, or the Renaissance Italians, or the Dutch Masters, or the French Neo-classicists, or with any group... though depending on who you ask, they may have one or the other group in mind, based on their personal preference. This is the case with the aforementioned contemporary classical realists, who define classical drawing by pointing to French neoclassicism.

The only way to consider classical drawing as a definite thing is to not define it in reference to artists, periods, or examples... but rather to define it abstractly by reference to the classical view of art. The classical view of art (as originated by the Greeks) is that of imitation. Art imitates life. This imitation takes the form of the art object. The art object is not the thing in nature being imitated, but rather a translation of it from the visual awareness (of the artist) to the specific medium the artist uses. The medium can be drawing, painting, or sculpture... and the materials can be as varied as charcoal, graphite, oil, watercolor, clay, marble, etc. Clearly then, the artist does not literally imitate nature, but instead uses his awareness of the visual properties of nature to fashion his materials into a representation.

Of particular note in the sentence above is the phrase "awareness of visual properties".  This awareness is something more than just being able to see the thing we seek to represent. The awareness has to be formalized into some form of knowledge, even if very slightly, because human consciousness is not capable of directly grasping the continuous and infinite details of nature. All human apprehension relies on constructing models in our minds to account for the boundless details of raw nature. These models can be complex or very naive. But they exist at every level.

The artist who professes to clear his mind as a precondition to making his art, cannot literally do so. After all, he must still make decisions on size of the art, the point of view, the material, etc. And as the work progresses, he must work in some kind of order... working on one part of the art, and then another, and so on... and if he steps back to critique his work, he no doubt drags ideas into his process. The only way to literally clear one's mind of ideas while making art is to be bounded by nothing, not even presumptions about objects in space, in which case the art object will bear no resemblance. Some people do proceed this way, but they do not generate representations.

Knowledge is required NOT because we require knowledge to see things, but because we need knowledge to make representations of what we see. This is what classical means at it's most basic. Any and all knowledge and skill that goes to representing nature by way of visual abstractions can be considered classical in a general sense.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Color abstraction

I have been mulling over the idea that...

basic geometric forms give specific identity to objects in reality that have none

I was exploring this idea, using "nose" as an example. We all have a simple concept of the nose as something sticking out from the face with holes in it for smelling things. Like all concepts, it unifies all the noses we have ever seen, while leaving out the details. The absence of details is oddly empowering. I say "odd", because we usually associate "knowledge of reality" as being knowledge of actual things in reality. But reality is so overwhelming, that if we tried to contain all of it's specific things in our minds, we would fail. Consciousness cannot contain reality, it can only represent reality, and these representations cannot presume to be the thing itself. Concepts give us power over reality precisely because they give us distance. Power (or usefulness) is relationship too, just like knowledge, and so it must be detached from reality in this way. One has to detach from literal reality in order to gain conceptual reality.

So then I shifted focus from the ordinary concept of a nose, to a "visual concept" of a nose. So I drew three views of a nose (line drawings)... one in profile, one in 3/4 view, and one in frontal view. Immediately these present a problem. First of all, for any of the three, it is not obvious where the nose should begin and end. This relates to the "continuity problem" inherent in the continuous shapes in the reality of the face. The second problem, is that the frontal view of the nose (for instance) cannot be "rotated in the mind" to produce the 3/4 or profile view, because the frontal view doesn't abstract anything general about the nose. The same goes for the other two views, which cannot be rotated to produce other views. These three views of the nose are NOT abstractions of the nose, they are simply icons for (or symbols, or signs) that tell us "nose thing" in different position, but they do not function as visual abstractions. Because they strive to "look like" a nose, they represent the nose using specific details, which makes them simply "another nose" in reality.  Interestingly, this is the exact point of one of Aristotle's criticisms of Plato's forms... that if they literally exist in another realm, then they must be something in particular, which means they couldn't be any thing in general, which means they can't be forms.
Formalizing this drawing issue of drawing made it clear in my head, and I made an interesting connection to the issue of color. I have been studying and considering the issues of color for a long time now (well, since 2004). Color is addressed in art school both directly and indirectly, and I have also read a lot on the subject, etc, etc. This studying has had the effect of stuffing my head full of various details, facts, observations, and pragmatic suggestions, as well as any number of conceptual organizations of paint on a palette. Obviously, that kind of stuff is not satisfying for me, as I cannot rest until I reach the magic, transcendent moment of a unified theory and practice. I think I just achieved this in the past few days.

I bought this book called "Still Life Painting Atelier" last week, and began reading it. I was hoping it would be on the level of the "Classical Drawing Atelier" and "Classical Painting Atelier" books by Juliette Aristedes,  in terms of weaving deep thought about art into the subject matter of Still Life Painting. Unfortunately, it does not do that. Instead, it is simply a simple step by step book that describes some basic palettes and approaches to still life painting. But a funny thing happened as I sat there reading the chapter on the Blue/Orange two color palette. A light went off in my head. The author showed the two color palette in a photo, along with a range of mixes that could be produced by it. The author mixed the the orange and blue to get a neutral, and then between orange and neutral he mixed a dull orange, and between blue and neutral, he mixed a dull blue. Then he tinted those 5 little piles of paint  (which were dark) to get a middle value, and then tinted some more to get a light valued mix. In all, there were 15 little piles of paint.

It was all very simple. But within those 15 mixes existed all the fundamental elements of painting.

HUE: the tube colors of orange (burnt sienna actually) and blue (ultramarine blue).
CHROMA: The mixes between the orange and the blue.
VALUE: The tinting of the tube orange, tube blue, and the 3 mixes in between them.
TEMPERATURE: between the orange and the blue.

With that simple palette on could model form, have a range of neutrals, and have contrasts of hue, value, and temperature.

The breakthrough thought here was this... that THAT is exactly what painting is. It is representing reality via (first drawing), but by modeling form with value... of creating depth with neutrals... of creating interesting with contrasts of value, temperature, hue. And so on. Those are the ESSENTIAL aspects of painting.

It's interesting that HUE, CHROMA, VALUE, and TEMPERATURE are often described as the essential aspects of color... BUT what I have found is that these are ALSO the essential aspects of painting. This last point is not taught very well from my experience, and I think I know what the reason is. The reason is that we presume that the purpose of painting is to match reality. In attempting to match what we see we are drawn so close to the phenomenon that we cannot see it for what it is, i.e., we cannot see it for it's essence. We have not distance from it, and therefore cannot form useful conceptions of it.

The essence of artistic vision is related to value, chroma, temperature, and hue. Because value, chroma, and temperature are all aspects of hue, we can (in a sense) drop hue from the equation. Hue is the least important aspect of color in art, though in our minds it seems the most important. This is not to say that hue doesn't matter, but simply that hue becomes the omitted measure of color, relative to the other aspects of color.

Given this, it is clear how misleading much color theory and painting classes are. These classes put undue emphasis on hue. And this reinforces the mistaken notion that matching the specific hues in reality is the objective of painting. I myself have been totally sidetracked into considering hue as the most important thing. For instance, wondering how many reds could be mixed from a collection of tube reds. I have wondered how many reds could be mixed by combining various combinations of burnt sienna, cadmium red, indian red, iron oxide, etc. I have actually felt guilty that i didn't spend hours mixing up the endless permutations that could be created from them. I thought that the answer must certain lie in that. And the same logic applies to the yellows, and blues, etc.. to all the colors. And once you have mixed 100,000 variations on all those colors, you can turn around and start combining the reds with the yellows, and yellows with blues, etc. And this could (and would) go on endlessly, as you attempt to reconstruct every possible combination of every color that can possible be mixed. And then you start in with tinting and shading them, and so on for forever. This endless exercise is a literal analogy with the mindlessness that is inherent in trying to match reality. Such an approach implies that painting is simply the matching of a infinite spectrum of colors.

It is the reality trap. Thinking you have to match natures hues is the reality trap, and allows for no conceptualization or control.

Just like the forms of the face, the hues in the world are infinitely nuanced and continuous, such that no order can be found in them other than what we bring. The means of ordering form is geometric abstraction. The means of ordering color are the abstractions of value, chroma, temperature. To restate the idea from above...

value, chroma, and temperature give specific identity to hues in reality that have none

Once hue is dropped from the equation, simple palettes suddenly seem relevant, and not simply as training exercises. This is another point of failure in art teaching... that limited palettes are presented as training grounds for full palettes, where the superior virtue of the full palette is the range of hues that can be mixed from it. This reinforces the idea that matching nature's colors is the goal of painting.

So, I am really excited by this breakthrough idea. It settles in my mind much of what was confusing.

As a side note, I was thinking that the obsession of with specific hues might be related to impressionism, with it's emphasis on impressions of light (hue) rather than on form and space, which is more an issue of value, chroma, and temperature.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The immorality of Dr. Barnes

The immorality of Dr. Barnes stems from his acquisition and control of a vast collection of culturally significant art, and the subsequent enforcement of arrangements of those great works that diminishes their being viewed.

Dr. Barnes is usually described as having been an eccentric, irascible, curmudgeonly genius. These descriptions seem intended to both honor him (the genius part), and to reduce his stature (everything else). His existence no doubt shocked the sensibilities of the cultural elite who had to deal with the blunt approach of a self-made American millionaire art collector. I'm sure there is much truth to this characterization. But whereas I have read dozens of similar accounts of the man, I have yet to hear anyone call him out for something far more serious than simply being a pain in the ass. My thought is, that he was being immoral.

The first and foremost act of immorality by Barnes was his insistence that the art be arranged on the walls of small, poorly lit rooms... and that they be arranged in a very strange way.  Nearly everyone who views the Barnes collection comes away confused about why they are arranged so oddly. Knowing ahead of time that the arrangement corresponded to Barnes specific instructions satisfies most peoples ire, since they can assume that the great man knew what he was doing. One's frustration over the poor arrangement is also quelled by the sheer volume and quality of the works on display. It is hard to argue about placement when you are buzzing with excitement in a room full of masterpieces. It is only after multiple visits that the annoyance of the poor placement begins to grow on you.

The paintings are crammed together in configurations that don't seem to make any sense. As many as a dozen paintings will be on a wall that is not much more than fifteen feet long. These groupings typically place some paintings high above one's eye level, and the groupings typically have a pyramidal shape overall, with a small painting forming the tip of the pyramid, and the larger paintings forming the base. In between the paintings are hung small metal works, often spoons or hinges. On the floor at the base of the wall are typically antique chairs or small tables, or small wooden sculptures.

One is told that these arrangements correspond to ideas Barnes had about how these paintings could best be understood. I think there is literature available that explains the rationale behind Barnes groupings. However, like so so much associated with the Barnes Foundation, this information was not obviously available. Without a written rationale, one is forced to consider why the hell the paintings are grouped so oddly. I had a hard time coming up with any, and I sat there and stared for quite a while, in multiple rooms. After a while, it just became annoying.

I think it is clear that there is no rationale (for the groupings) that can be gleaned by just observing the paintings themselves. This means that the rationale requires a theoretical explanation. But what is the nature of this theory? What theory could possible explain such groupings?

Museums typically arrange the works on well lit, white walls, with enough space between the paintings so that you can get a brief moment of visual quiet between each work. The works are arranged in galleries by various criteria... such as by artist, or by time period, or by theme, etc. These groupings are meant to be logical arrangements that correspond to ways we conceptually understand the works within the history of art. Groupings might cause us to reconsider artworks, but these new interpretations are not visual, they are conceptual.

Of course, all the factors present in the museum will ultimately affect how each viewer reacts to the art. I'm sure that if painting A and painting B are side by side in a gallery, that their proximity will affect how I view them, and will affect how each person views them, to some degree or another. And I'm sure that there is some combined experience I have of the paintings, since they are side by side. But such an affect is simply inherent in viewing things in the world. Unless you view things in a vacuum, you are affected by the environment. But again, this is not a significant effect.

Museum arrangements are not meant to produce new visual meanings. If painting A and painting B are placed side by side, we might KNOW that they are related by being in proximity in the same gallery (they are logically related). However, we would not presume that the perception of painting A materially affects the perception of painting B (or that B affects A)... and we don't presume that painting A and B taken together produce some combined, synergistic affect.

One can always produce a theory ad hoc in order to rationalize any arrangement of paintings. One could also produce a theory after long contemplation, and use that theory to arrange those same paintings. But I have to conclude that there is no way to produce a theory of how to group a large collection of paintings in a series of small rooms in the manner that Barnes has done, with the assertion that the arrangement is a significant aspect of viewing the art.

Any theory of how to arrange paintings so as to communicate various meanings of the pieces (either singularly, or in groups) necessarily assumes that the aspects of the paintings can serve as elements in a system of communication. But there are two problems with this.

The first problem is that artworks are too complex to be broken down into a finite system. When one considers all the aspects of paintings that could serve as a guide to their placement, the number of aspects is large, and the ways those aspects could be related is exponentially large.  For instance, each painting has a size, an artist who created it, a subject matter, a palette, a manner of painting, a time it was painted, a reason it was painted, etc. And for each of these obvious aspects, they can be broken down into more detailed considerations. If you took only two paintings, and compared the complex aspects of each to the other, the resulting analysis would be quite complex. And even if you mastered that complexity, I'm not sure how it would guide you in placing them on a wall. When you add to this the further complexities of the rooms themselves, of lighting, and foot traffic... there is literally no way to know how groupings will be understood by the viewer. Therefore, unless one uses a the kinds of conceptual arrangement used by museums, there is no way to assert  a placement other than to assert a subjective point of view.

I believe that this is the case. I believe that Barnes arranged the paintings in a largely subjective manner. He placed them the way that he liked them, in a way that made sense to him at the time. This does not make the placement random, or nonsensical.  I'm sure he thought long and hard about placement, and that he filtered his ideas on placement through his very rational and theoretical mind... a veritable model of objectivity in that regard.  However, at the end of the day, his placement reflects his own understanding of his theories, and of the art works, and of the space. These perspectives are uniquely his own, and while I'm sure they are well considered, that does not mean they can be understood either conceptually or perceptually by anyone else.

If you need to be told why something is arranged as it is, it means that it was not apparent in the simple viewing of it. Knowing the reason behind an arrangement may add to the pleasure of viewing it, or it may not. And while we're on the subject I should ask, what is it that we're viewing? Are we meant to view the artworks, or are we meant to view their arrangement?

Are we viewing artworks or arrangements? That is, are we meant to view to the artworks within the context of their being arranged, or are we meant to view an arrangement of objects that happen to be artworks?

If it is the latter reason, then Barnes is trying to insinuate his power of arranging into the display of art masterpieces. The conceit implicit in that is disturbing. Let's assume that Barnes didn't take it to that level. Let's assume he meant the former reason, that art should be viewed within the context of his arrangement. This is a little better, because at least the art is being given primary importance (or so it seems).

But the problem here is that we are forced to consider his arrangement even while we are viewing the art. When you view the art at the Barnes Foundation, you can't view the art without sensing the invisible hand of Dr. Barnes. And mostly this invisible hand is not good. As was stated before, many of the artworks are physically uncomfortable to look at. Small works are placed to high up, so you have to crane your neck to see them. Some small works are kind-of jammed into narrow dark spaces, often right next to door jambs, such that to view them is to block the door. You then have to keep one eye out for other people who want to walk through the door. The lighting is very poor in some rooms, to the point where some of the walls are in shadow, and the art on them suffers. Some masterworks are out-of-the-way, while lesser works enjoy a pride of place.

None of this makes any sense. To reiterate... I can't imagine any theory that could justify these things. What kind of theory of art would mandate that small paintings be jammed into a small wall-space by a door jamb, or that they be placed well overhead? I have to give Dr. Barnes more credit than to think he would concoct such an odd theory. But if it isn't part of the theory, then where does it come from?

For an answer, let's move from the lofty world of theory and drop down to everyday experience. Rather than imaging some deep intellectual process, let's imagine something else. And what is a lot easier to imagine is the image of the eccentric, irascible, and curmudgeonly Dr. Barnes... amassing a large collection of art, and slowly filling his home with it. As the home fills over time, the art gets placed here or there. I'm sure things get arranged and rearranged over time as well. And I'm sure that he applies some ideas about where things should go. And over time, these various arrangements (which emanate from Barnes's mind) begin to feel like second nature to him... begin to feel right... begin to feel inevitable and correct.

We can all imagine such a thing happening in our own lives, in our own homes where we exercise god-like control over the space and the objects in it. One need only imagine one's own bedroom (for example) and how we come to put out clothes into various closets and drawers. Certainly we have theories for where to put every object of clothing, but over time the actual manner in which we store our clothes comes to reflect not simply some theory, but of other aspects of our life that the theory doesn't explain. Some cloths end up on the floor, or draped over a chair. Socks end up in a non-sock drawer, shoes end up under the bed rather than in shoe rack, etc.

If we can step back from our own lives and view our own bedrooms, we see that there is a disconnect between our theory of placement, and how things come to be placed.  If we are asked to give a theory of "How things came to be placed" (vs. where they should be placed)... we are hard pressed to explain it in theoretical terms. After all, how does one contain (in a theory) all the moments of getting dressed and undressed, and how those moments led to where things came to be placed. And even if we did come up with an abstract explanation of how all these objects came to be where they are, that theory would be equivalent to explaining our own subjective nature. It would not be a theory of object placement, but rather a theory of how we come to place objects.

I believe this is analogous to Barnes, who begins with a theory of how the art should be arranged, but ends up with an arrangement that has more to do with his own subjective issues as they arose over time. He is too proud or stubborn to admit this, and instead asserts that his arrangements are fully theoretical and objective.  But that is an evasion, and a lie... and immoral. If we were to assert theories about our bedrooms, the impact would be small, affecting only ourselves. But when you're talking about a priceless collection of culturally relevant masterworks of art, the immorality of it escalates, as it affects everyone.

So this is the primary immorality of Dr. Barnes... that he would enforce an arrangement of these great works of art that diminishes their being viewed.

Earlier, I said that there were two problems with assuming that aspects of paintings can serve as elements in a system of communication, and I reviewed the first problem, that of complexity. The second problem is one of intent.

To produce a communication model from a collection of syntactic elements distilled from paintings must necessarily ignore the fact that the creators of those very paintings are generally not aware of this. In which case, the theoretician views the paintings not as ends in themselves (which is the nature and purpose from the artists point of view) but rather as means to the end of constructing explanations of the group of paintings. This is the work of the art historian or critic, and while not invalid as such, it flirts always with overstepping the boundary between understanding the work in itself, and distorting and/or failing to see the work in the effort to place it within a group.

Written texts will tend to overstep in the direction of over conceptualizing and fitting works into groups, which though unfortunate, is probably just in the nature of writing about art. But to overstep in this way when displaying the art is extremely unfortunate. The display of art is not a conceptual venue. To assert a conceptual model is to override the inherent meaning of artworks (as singular, ends in themselves) and to substitute one's own understanding of them. No matter how well intentioned or well reasoned that understanding is, it can never be as relevant as the works themselves... works which (for their proper viewing)... ask only that they be understood as ends in themselves. A collection of masterpiece paintings requires only a fairly neutral context in which to be viewed. To create a venue loaded with theoretical implications is to step in front of the art works, and thereby diminish their status.

This kind of move is pure arrogance. For Barnes to think that his theoretical spin on the art was even in the same league as the works themselves is disturbing. To amass such a significant collection and to keep it from the public, and to require that they view it under idiosyncratic conditions, is to reject the very idea of culture. Certainly the paintings are private property, and Barnes had no legal duty to share the paintings or to arrange them properly. But this kind of argument is the last gasp of someone who doesn't get it. It is to literally hide behind the law in order to avoid this truth... that morality often requires that we do something that we aren't required to do, or to not do something that we have to power to do. Knowing the difference is key. Barnes could have attached his name to a more elegant legacy if he had had to wisdom to step out of his own way... to relinquish his power of control in order to let the power of great art carry the day.

The Barne's Foundation move... ho hum

The Barnes Foundation is moving from Lower Merion to the Parkway in Philadelphia. Depending on who you listen to,  it represents either the destruction of a great man's legacy and legal rights by a callous and ambitious political-cultural elite bent on seizing control of a billion dollar art collection... or it represents the liberation of a cultural treasure from the bear-trap of Barne's will, which have unfortunately seen the collection overseen by incompetent administrators and mainline blue hairs, where these overseers have been incompetent in many ways, for so long, that the will can no longer function in the interest of the collection.  From what I've read over the years, I conclude that both interpretations are correct.

In the end it's a power play. In the end, there is a billion dollar art collection, and the political-cultural elite want it. When there is a billion dollars on the table, there is no protection under the law, at least not when the facts of the case are as convoluted as they are here.  And they are convoluted. There are some people out there who have studied the facts of the case thoroughly, and all they do is disagree. This ambiguity has given opportunity to those who want to break Barne's will... and they have broken it.

I do not advocate the breaking of wills, or of violating various rights that citizens enjoy... no matter what good may be asserted as coming from it. That's not what this country is about, and that's not what our culture is about. However, I honestly don't know the legal status of the Barne's case. By pleading ignorance, I am free to choose whichever outcome suits my personal desire. My personal desire regarding the Barne's collection is that it should move to the parkway, so as to be significantly more accessible.

If someone were to prove to me that the breaking of the will was not just illegal, but deeply immoral, then I'd be in a tough spot. On the one hand, I support the rights of citizens to have their will honored. On the other hand, I am so majorly annoyed at what the Barne's Foundation seems to represent, that I would not want to support their claim. The Barne's Foundations attitude toward the collection may not be illegal, but it strikes me as deeply immoral. The issue then would come down to the moral status of each side. The morality of Barne's  having the right to leave a will has been talked about ad nauseum. What I am more curious about is the immorality of Barne's, and the foundation he left behind.

(see post on immorality of Dr. Barnes)