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)

Monday, March 28, 2011


Producing artwork is often thought of as requiring that one find a rhythm, or a groove, or a process that allows one to produce the work on a consistent basis. This seems to be the case, and not just for art, but for anything. To do a thing consistently is simply to do it over and over again within some period of time such that each doing of it builds on the previous act of doing it. These connected experiences produce momentum, or forward movement... which is not the same as a series of experiences over time that are not connected. Another term for this is continuity.

If you run every day, then each run exists not only as its own event, but becomes connected to the run from the day before, and leads into the run you do the next day. This connectivity between events is "continuity". Continuity is not contained in any single run… it is what you get when you have a series of connected runs. It is the continuity of actions that gets you into shape, not any particular run you do on any given day.

It occurred to me that without continuity, you can't get anything done… and you can't improve. For instance, if you run once a week, then each run exists as an isolated activity. It is not connected to the run from the week before because too much time has passed.. and it doesn't lead into the run coming up next week. It is a sad and hopeless thing to run once a week. You can't get in shape, you can't improve. The best you can do is exhaust yourself once a week, and go nowhere.

If you sketch once a week, or make a drawing now and again with no regularity… then there is no continuity… and therefore no improvement. It can be depressing and pathetic to go on that way.  That is the challenge the artist faces… to create and maintain continuity. Without it, there is no chance to improve and develop. The good news is, it is surprisingly simple to create continuity. All you have to do is get off your butt and do some drawing. Boom. Instant forward progress. Be continuous.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why post-modernism is hard to learn

I've been curious about post-modernism ever since I was told it existed. Things are funny that way. One day you're living your life just fine, and the next someone comes up and tells you that you are living in the midst of a tectonic shift in human consciousness. How does one process such news?

My reaction was typical, I suppose. The first thing I asked was, "What is post-modernism?" I went forth trying to read and comprehend all manner of writings on post-modernism. Some writings were source documents of post-modernism, others were essays that tried to explain what the source documents were saying, and yet others were surveys and overviews of post-modernism. In nearly all cases I walked away confused and annoyed, often not being able to finish reading a piece because it ceased to make any sense, and my mind ground to a halt.

Through sheer determination, a few lucky breaks, and a background in more sensible philosophic perspectives, I was able to construct for myself a coherent idea of what post-modernism is. Like so many things that are obfuscated in their learning, the payoff is so much less that the effort involved in learning about them. Which means that the most interesting thing about post-modernism is not what it purports to be, but why it is so hard to learn. In fact, the obscurity of it tells most of the tale. The pathology of disease is always more interesting and illuminating than it's victim, whose particular maladies are just so many sad inevitable consequence fatuously set in motion at the moment of infection.

Post modernism is hard to learn about because it is essentially a skeptical take on culture which denies reason, logic, objective knowledge, and the very idea that abstract, unifying ideas can really describe reality. Given this, writers on post modernism do not employ reason, logic, or unifying ideas when they write about various topics, and especially when they undertake to describe what post-modernism is in itself. Given that they deny unifying theories and grand narratives, they are not free to describe post-modernism itself in an elegant and unified way.

The paragraph above would seem to be an outsiders critical view of post-modernism, which is true. But this critical view is exactly what post-modernism says about itself. Post-modernism comes right out and says that unifying theories and knowledge are not possible. The problem comes when post-moderns then try to communicate a broad range of ideas. They bring to these ideas the obscurity demanded by their premises, and so produce confused writing. If their writings were clear, they would undermine their committed belief that clarity is an illusion.

Their writings present a fragmented, non-unified view of the world that is difficult for the reader to understand... because "understanding" really amounts to a unified view of the world... which is precisely what post-modernism denies. In the end, post modernism cannot even be understood as a philosophy, because it cannot represent a unified body of knowledge. Instead, it offers a fragmented collection of observations designed to have us conclude that unified knowledge is not possible. Many of the observations of post-modern thought are not entirely without merit, as they are effective at casting a useful, critical eye on social and cultural institutions and ideas. However, these critical insights do not add up to a philosophy. And despite the examples that post-modernists put forward to prove that knowledge is a suspect quantity, their very ability to do so rests implicitly on their belief that they have discovered the truth... a truth that their skeptical philosophy denies. Again, a contradiction.

It is a well known truism that one cannot make the skeptical claim that "Knowledge is not possible", because whoever says that is claiming to know it. In effect they are saying, "Knowledge is not possible, and I know that", which is self refuting. Whatever aspersions are cast upon knowledge by a philosopher, those same aspersions apply to the philosopher casting them. The moment you criticize knowledge, the knowledge you employ in doing so has to be held to the same criticism. If  you deny knowledge, then your knowledge has to be denied. It's a terrible cycle of pointlessness.

Skeptical philosophies (such as post-modernism) exist only to the degree that the skeptics ignore, evade, or are ignorant of this fundamental aspect of knowledge (that it can't be refuted).  It really is very curious how a philosopher can dedicated an entire theory to describing how knowledge is not possible, yet that philosopher never sees the contradiction in claiming to have such knowledge.  We don't need to fall for this, but unfortunately we are subject to its effect in post-modern writings. And more than anything else, we are subject to it when post-modern thinkers attempt to explain what post-modernism is.

But before we get to any of this, let us first administer a post modernism test. This test will indicate to what extent you are open to understanding post-modernism. The test below presents two sequence 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

If you chose A, you can stop reading now. 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 will not find post-modernism hard to understand.

If you chose B, then you might be confused by post modernism. Read on.

Returning to the two kinds of errors referred to above, let us continue.

Post-modernists don't believe in objective knowledge. They believe that knowledge isn't based in reality, but rather, that knowledge is the name given to the stories (narratives about the world) that people tell themselves and each other. As such, these stories are conditioned by personal bias and cultural conditioning. These stories are true for a person, or for a people, but they are not true of the world. Unfortunately, this comes across as a simple case of skepticism being repacked for modern times.

In its basic form, skepticism is the assertion that knowledge is not possible. The root of this belief, from the time Plato, all the way to last Tuesday, is the desire to define knowledge in absolute terms. But for absolute human knowledge to exist, we would have to be all knowing and infallible. But that is not the nature of human consciousness. We are not all knowing and infallible, and therefore absolute human knowledge is a meaningless category.

We might ask if absolute NON-human knowledge could exist. To assumes that, we would have to identify some form of consciousness that was all-knowing and infallible. There is no such thing. People have supposed that supernatural gods are all-knowing and infallible, but their existence is as yet unproven.

The fact that absolute knowledge doesn't even apply to humans is pretty obvious. So what do we do with this conclusion? To some, this is clear evidence that humans cannot really know things, and so the only conclusion is that whatever humans claim to know is simply subjective and relative... that is... not objective.

To others, the fact that humans are not all knowing and infallible is clear evidence that human knowledge cannot be judged by an absolute criteria. If humans by their very nature are not all knowing and infallible, then this idea of absolute knowledge has nothing to do with the knowledge produced by humans. If it is not in human nature to be absolute, all knowing,  and infallible, then why on earth would you require that of people? Why denigrate the status of human knowledge because it doesn't meet a criteria that is irrelevant to human beings?

This is the problem at its core. It is a philosophic issue... an issue in epistemology. It is not unique to post-modernism. Post-modernism simply applies skepticism to a range of later 20th century issues that are of interest to... post modernists. The issues seem to be centered on highly politicize topics in sociology and cultural criticism, and trace their historic roots to the general Marxist idea that ideology is determined not by truth, but by power.

I can already hear post-modernists howling at this claim... that is, if they deign to take my seriously at all. But if they do, they will insist that I really don't understand post-modernism. However, if I ask them to go ahead and explain it to me, they will deliver to my ears lengthy, cartwheeling, tangent laden, never ending explanations that don't seem to zero in on a clear idea of what post-modernism is.

But here's the funny part... that NOT EXPLAINING is exactly the point. If you put forward a theory that claims knowledge is not objective, then you are skating on thin ice. After all, theories themselves are claims to knowledge. You can hardly put forward a theory that human knowledge is simply a narrative that people tell each other, but that has no objective connection to reality... but then ask that your theory be considered as objective fact.  The theory itself must be understood to be simply a narrative with no object connection to reality.  So your theory negates itself. Simple as that.

Nobody who puts forward a theory wants their theory to be understood to be subjective and relative. Everyone wants their ideas to be taken as objective, that is, as explaining how reality really is. Even when their idea is that there is no objectivity, they want that idea itself to be objective. This is a terrible and pathetic state of affairs to be put into. It reduces these arguments to self-refuting deadends. When all the complexity of the post-modernists issues are stripped away, you are left with people saying simply... "You can't know anything, and I know that". The self refutation in that is so blatant, so obvious, so raw-bone stupid, that one is hard pressed to understand how anyone can accept it. At that point, the reason it is accepted is NOT contained in the argument itself, but rather in the pathology of the mind that accepts it. To claim that making claims is invalid is the self-refuting endless loop of insanity.

So far, this might be making all too much sense. One might be lured into thinking that post-modernism is easy to grasp because this philosophic analysis is making sense. This is not the case. Post-modernism works very hard to not be understood. One way they do this is by NOT engaging their philosophical underpinnings in the way I have above. I can reduce their ideas down to essentials, but they refuse to accept the validity of that. That's no fun. Instead, this modern skepticism is dressed up in a broad range of costumes.... that is... a broad range of socially relevant issues. All of the endless ambiguities and self-contradictions that arise in human society, and that are reflected in sociological and political fact gathering, are beamed back at us as proof that knowledge isn't possible.

And who can deny it. If you walk into a crowd of arguing people, and take what they say at face value, and don't judge it... you end up concluding that there is no truth... because there is no agreement. If several people within the crowd form a faction, and by so doing achieve political power, and by that power are able to sway people to their beliefs, then you end up concluding that there is no truth, because it is only raw power that sways people. So in general, if you look to the crowd (society) as the locus of truth, you probably conclude that knowledge is not possible. 

Classical philosophy has not looked to the crowd to theorize about human knowledge. They looked at the individual, by way of a theory of the mind. The mind was considered as an aspect of the individual. But post modernism doesn't work that way. They look to the group (society). I don't know why they find that so persuasive. Certainly, group behavior is made possible (necessarily so) by aspects of human nature. But human cognition is a function (primarily) of individual consciousness as it perceives the external world. Obviously, we are subject to external pressures and cultural influence, and a person can succumb to those pressures and come to believe a lot of nonsense. However, a person can also not succumb to that pressure, or not fully, and therefore they can pursue knowledge on their own, free from that influence. 

The point that I am aiming to make here, is that post modernists are oddly unable to explain the meaning of what they suggest are their ideas, and that this inability derives from the these very ideas. If your position is that knowledge isn't possible, but you then want to have a cool intellectual career and publish lots of books and articles that claim to be knowledge, then you cannot engage in a clarification. 

Clarity, as a style of thinking and writing, derives from objectivity. To clarify the endless flux of the world, one has to first comprehend the endless flux of the world in terms of ideas, and then arrange these ideas in elegant relationships, so as to gain conceptual control over thinking about the endless flux. If you do not believe that abstract thinking is an objective understanding of the endless flux, then you will not be able to do this. Instead, you will do as the post modernists do.... you will engage in journalistic reportage about the endless flux. But reportage is not understanding. It is simply the act of pointing at things. Post modernists don't have clarity, they simply have a love affair with facts. In place of conceptual understanding, they have developed a kind of poetical, allegorical, and even fanciful manner of writing about the endless flux. A flux that terrifies them.

Let's return to the post-modernist test again. 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 is the endless flux list. List B has been ordered. The act of ordering has imposed human meaning on the otherwise irrelevant endless flux of numbers. The human mind is attracted to such order, because it is the only way to grasp something about the flux.

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

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 list B does make sense, but 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.

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.

So the question arises... if you want to comprehend what post modernism is... where should you turn? Should you read post modern writers? It would seem you should. It's usually best to engage source materials when studying history. Of course, there is great benefit in reading surveys that are written by contemporary thinkers. This is especially true when the source documents might be a bit too complicated to understand without an introduction to their background. Fair enough.

It seems to be the experience of many people that grabbing a so-called post modern intellectuals book off the shelf, and diving it, is to experience complete confusion. This has been my experience as well. So then one turns to surveys in order to get a background picture of what is going on. But the problem there is that these surveys are written by practitioners of post-modern thinking. This renders the surveys themselves confusing. Having been written by post-modernists, they will lack clarity. They will refuse to define post-modernism succinctly, because succinct definition is exactly the kind of thing post-modernists don't believe in. Instead, they will attempt to survey all the NON-CLEAR things that the source documents contain, but this act will lack clarity as well, for the reasons cited above.

And this goes on endlessly. To engage in post-modern study is to wade into a vast sea of thinkers who recognize no connection between what they say and reality, or between what they say today vs. what they said last week, or between what they say and what some other post-modernist has said. You couldn't invent a more confusing paradigm.

Another tactic that post-moderns use, in order to not be nailed down on an issue, is to frame the issues of post-modernism in terms of what other post-modernists have said in the past.  This diffuses everything through a decentralized collective opinion. The only way to even grasp what the issues are is to engage in a lengthy process of indirect referencing back and forth between what the members of the collective say. But what they "say" is like-wise refracted through this same collective. There is an overwhelming sense of constant indirect references. The rubber never meets the road.

But this is exactly as it should be, given the post-modern mentality. Because in addition to rejecting objective knowledge, and the belief that all that exists is narrative.... post-modernism raises up language as the ultimate authority. Words become reality... or rather... words become the only thing we'll ever know. Since there is no chance that words can frame reality in an objective way.... and since our narratives are all we can claim to know (in a subjective fashion, of course)... and since language underlines narrative.... then the only reality we know is words.

Instead of language existing to represent our objective ideas about reality.... language becomes reality. The means of representation (words) become the object of representation (words again). This is clear enough in post-modern writing, which talks endlessly but seems to say nothing. We keep waiting for statements to come forth... statements about the world. But they don't come. Instead, only more words.

The amusement park

One of the advantages of not being able to afford the entrance fee for the amusement park, is that you are forced to sit outside in the parking lot. Without the prepackaged activities of the park to entertain and distract you, you are left to your own mind. It's just you and the parking lot and whatever you can make of that. You can walk around and see what you can see. You can walk around the amusement park and view it from outside. You can observe the coming and going of the customers to the park. You can observe the employees of the parking coming to work, going in the employee entrance, and occasionally coming outside for smoking breaks. You can notice delivery trucks pulling up and unloading soda and popcorn and whatever else they sell in the park.

Over time, you will come to observe the entire coming and going of all those involved in this enterprise of the amusement park. The nature of the park will then be seen as having two distinct parts. The first part is the illusory part... which is what you consume when you enter the park and succumb to the prepackaged entertainment and distractions that have been created for your consumption. The other part is the behind-the-scenes part... the part you have observed from the parking lot. If the first part (the illusion) is the fantasy part, then this second part (the non-fantasy part) is the mechanism in the real world that gives rise to the illusion.

If you never actually enter the park and experience the fantasy, then you will never be able to figure out exactly how the behind-the-scenes mechanisms work. It will remain very mysterious why people show up and walk through doors labeled employee, or why soda and popcorn are delivered daily, or why trash is hauled away at the end of the day. You might start to theorize about what is probably going on in the amusement park, but you won't know for sure, because the experience of the illusion is not the same as the way in which the illusion is constructed.

On the other hand, if you never leave the amusement park, then not only don't you know how it is constructed, but very possibly you won't even know that it is constructed. You might behave as if the illusion is real. You could spend your whole life in the amusement park, and never know it.

Such a scenario is reminiscent of the movie The Matrix, where the distinction between constructed reality and actual reality is unknown to the captive inhabitants of an artificial world.

If only our own situation were so simplified. If we were literally trapped in a matrix, then at least we would be free of the blame. But we aren't trapped in a matrix... we walk into that matrix freely, and stay in it not because our minds are controlled, but because we choose to stay. We drive up the amusement park every day, park the car, get in line, pay the fee, and float off into whatever fantasy awaits us.

If there is one flaw in the otherwise pretty flawless logic of The Matrix, it is that the machines had to keep the humans trapped inside.

Is reality really that bad?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Theory of human history

Man's birthright is... warm weather. And woman's birthright is... a man bringing her a margarita on the beach.

If we believe that life emerged from some swampy goo billions of years ago, on some long lost stretch of sand between the warm salt seas and the unknown land masses of Pangaea... AND... if we further admit that such primordial states are locked deep in our DNA, or collective subconscious... THEN we must admit that it is man's natural state to be lying on a warm beach. Woman's state too, even more so... and probably the first creatures that did crawl up on that beach, the male of that species carried a bag full of towels, bottles of water, suntan lotion.

How it ever came to be that man migrated from warmer climes to colder ones, is beyond me. I suspect that those prehistoric wanderers were more likely trouble makers in paradise. Maybe they spilled the pitcher of margaritas one too many times. Maybe they kicked sand on someones suntan-lotioned back. Maybe they left soda cans on the beach. Who knows... but I suspect they were asked to leave, and to take all of their agitated non-mellowness somewhere else. So they all went to Europe and started universities, losing themselves in reading and writing, so they wouldn't have to think about how uncool they had been.

Of course, it was the men who screwed this all up. I'm sure the women wanted to stay on the beach, with headphones in their ears, occasionally rolling over to "get their back". It just had to be the men who grew impatient with paradise. The Bible blames Eve, but I'm sure it was Adam... or maybe in my version of history his name was Tommy. So Tommy screwed it all up, and he said to (let's say) Debbie... "Let's get out of here, I'm bored, plus they don't like me here". I'm sure she was not amused, but somehow she followed him out of paradise. He must have promised her something... like he would take care of her and let her mother visit whenever she wanted. I can just imagine them walking hundreds of miles on foot, while she complains bitterly about how he  screwed up her life, about how she was happy on the beach, about how she should have married that guy named Carlos.

This version of history actually makes sense, as it provides a theory for behaviors we see today. I should be an anthropologist.

Of course, the joke is on those who stayed in tropical paradise, as they now third world dopes, with unstable governments and low incomes. Meanwhile, the descendants of the exiled Europeans have inherited tenacious work ethics, fine jobs, and tons of cool shit to buy.

But even given all the strange twists and turns of history, we can all be transported back to a billion years ago each time some winter air blows up our pant leg, and reminds us that our great-great..ultra-great grandfathers fucked up back on that ancient beach. But come spring, we are relieved of that guilt by the warm air.

The British are interesting

The British are more interesting than americans, and I'm jealous. Not only do the accents sound really cool, and imbue their communication with a certain calm flair, but the manner in which they phrase even simple things suggests a poetical soul, a literary soul.

A brit might say, "Oh what a tangled web"... an yank says... "Don't fuck with me".
An American might say, "2.7 million families have an average income below 35,000 per year", whereas a Britain conveying the same idea might say..."A lot of families aren't too happy at Christmas"

Now maybe the British just can't count, or aren't smart enough to reduce their world to information and science... but for god sake they sure can express complexity in an interesting and comforting way. 

Americans are the opposite. We seem to have no capacity to express things poetically. We place so much emphasis on facts and figures and science and technology... that we take our poetical souls out of the equation. Our educational system reinforce this bias. We don't produce interesting people. Except for me, of course. But even I am not interesting in the way I describe.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. I was watching this documentary on The Sex Pistols, and as the band-mates (now in their 50s) recount their violent past, they report on it in the most understated, British way. To describe a knife fight in an alley where someone was razor-bladed to death, they'll say something like... "John and Wally had a bit of a disagreement"

It's funny as hell... the simplicity of the viewpoint... the quiet and peaceful way in which their minds describe what looks (to me, anyhow) as acts of insanity. But nobody cares in England, I suppose. Somehow, capturing the simple truth is more relevant than detailed explanations. Explanations are not detailed, in that sense... they are literary. They are narrative. They set the stage. This type of approach is inherently literary, and suggests a very different approach to education.

As an American, I run my mouth non-stop... but in America the best you can hope for is to be accurate. Nobody cares if you're interesting here... only that you're accurate. No matter how intriguing or subversive your expression may be, the first thing you'll hear back is ..."hmmm, well I don't know about that". It's as if you have to clear some veracity hurdle on every statement... like intellectual censorship... where what is being squelched is not information, but using information to make a point. Using information to make a point is tricky... because the POINT you make is always something more than just the sum of the information... and so even if you clear the veracity hurdle on the information, you'll still get shot down on the POINT... because the point is not something that is confirmed, but something that has to be understood.

What makes a city a music city

It's interesting how some U.S. cities are known as music cities. Cities such as Austin, Memphis, Chicago, and New Orleans are music cities. What makes these cities music cities, whereas a city like Philadelphia is not?

To think about this, I look at the analogous situation of the theater. What makes New York a theater city? The obvious answer would be that it has Broadway, with its big time theaters. But other cities have a large theater houses, and they aren't theater cities. What New York has is not just more large theaters, but many smaller theaters off Broadway. It is this grass roots presence that makes a city a theater city. 

Any city can build a grand theater, and usually do. Philadelphia has the Kimmel Center. Does that make Philadelphia a theater city? I don't think so. When I go to the Kimmel center, I leave feeling like I just consumed high end architectural luxury, complete with high ticket price, parking garage fee.... and a night-on-the-town, dinner and drinks, dressed-up, upper-middle class consumptive attitude.  I do not like the feeling that culture costs 100 dollars per experience.

Philadelphia is not a theater town and it is not a music town, and building palaces dedicated to music and theater will not change that. When you consider what makes Austin or NYC or Memphis or Chicago music towns... it isn't that they have giant music venus (though they do)... but that the spirit of music is alive and well in all the small venues. That is where the true culture resides.

As Robert Henri says in the opening paragraph of his "The Art Spirit".... "Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums."
I could also ask, what makes a city an ART city? A great museum? If you put the Metropolitan museum of art in Las Vegas... would that make Vegas the art capital of America? Sadly, I think it might... and it wouldn't take long to put a thousand room hotel over top of it, and slots in the lobby... and take a cab right from the airport.

If small venues are the key to being an art city, and if the "art spirit" is required to sustain small venues... then what exactly is that art spirit?  I'm not sure I know what the "art spirit" is in essence, but I can think of an example that seems to exemplify the art spirit. The example I have in mind is that of New Orleans, and it's small music venues.

In New Orleans, there are a lot of small music venues where many different types of bands play. Some of these places are simply bars, with an area for the musicians to stand in. The musicians play for tips, it seems, as often there is no cover charge at all. I get the impression that the proprietors support the presence of the musicians not because it profit-maximizes their business, but rather, that it is simply what they do. Having musicians play live music in your bar is just how things are done. In this regard then, the presence of the musicians is part of the culture. It is part of the culture because culture is really only made up of the things that people do without thinking about it. Culture is the unquestioned, the pervasive, the given. Culture is all those things that do not change, and thus provide a stable identity to a place. This cultural attitude toward music is exists in some cities, but not in others.

In a non-music city, the presence of musicians in bars is not a given. In a city like Philadelphia, the bar owners only use musicians if they can bring in revenue. If they can't, the bar owner will use a jukebox, PA system, or karaoke machine to pump music into their bar. And not even this is a commitment to music, because if the bar owners could make more money by not having those things, then I'm sure they would do that instead. In short, bar owners in non-music cities do not consider having live musicians to be a given. They don't have the music culture.

The commitment to music found in a music culture isn't so much something that the members of that culture consciously choose day by day. The commitment is actually simply present in the culture, and no one much questions it. It is culturally induced. This commitment is what allows the music and musicians to live and thrive in these cities.

Humor is uniquely human

The ability to make sense is not unique to humans. Rocks make sense. They are what they are, they conform to the law of identity. If things act upon them, they are affected in a predictable way. If they act upon something, they affect the other thing in a predictable way. This sensible nature is shared by everything in the universe, so really, everything in the universe makes sense. 

The only thing that isn't controlled by this overarching materialism is human consciousness. Our minds are free to roam. What should we do with this freedom? Should we conform our minds solely to consideration of the material world? Should we fill our heads with facts and figures and information and theories?  Should we use our freedom to turn ourselves into biological containers of the boundless information of the dead material of this universe? Our minds are free in their capability, but if we put them only in the service of the material world, with it's infinite facts and figures... we are not free. The details of the universe are endless... and pursuing them without limit will fill up every nook and cranny of our minds, pushing our humanity out. We will be slaves to the real.

The only escape from being not that much different from a rock, is to NOT deal with reality. Tell the universe that you don't give a shit. Laugh at reality. Humor is only possible to humans, because only humans can look at reality and NOT draw the reasonable conclusion. We choose to look the other way. We can draw unreasonable ones... unexpected ones... ones that make us laugh. Laughter is freedom, laughter is determinism leaving the body. 

Laughter reminds us that WE determine how to view the world, not the other way around. Laughter reminds us that there is irony in the human condition. We are so dependent on knowledge to survive, yet that survival is pointless without decisions that cannot be constructed from that knowledge. 

These decisions can only be made by free individuals.

Laughing at reality is not, ultimately, to disrespect it. If you need to achieve some materialistic goal in the universe, then by all means focus on the facts, as that is your only chance of success. Laughter doesn't serve the material requirements of survival, it serves the psychological needs of a human being. The need to feel free, to be reminded that our existence is not entirely rooted naked facts.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Problem with Barnstone, Color Theory

One of the books that I read and re-read and analyzed is the book "The Enjoyment and Use of Color" by William Sargent. You might recall that this was the pseudo-assigned text for Barnstone's color class. The book is really really fantastic. Considering how critical I am, you can take that as high praise. Interestingly enough, the book explained much more clearly some of the things Barnstone was teaching. In fact, I can work backwards from Barnstone, and show you an example of how my reading has clarified much of my "learning".

It goes like this...

Barnstone teaches his color palette based on the text of Fletcher. Fletcher's theory is not as unique as Barnstone would have us believe. The idea of a "color key" (as Fletcher talks about ) is simply the color bias that occurs when one uses a SPLIT COMPLEMENT palette. A split complement palette is one where some  color (for example, yellow) forms one point of a triad, with the other two points being on either side of the complement of this first point (in this case, the complement is violet). To the left of violet on the color wheel is RedViolet or Red. We cannot go so far as Red Orange, because that contains yellow (which takes us too close to the first point). To the right of violet is Blue Violet  and Blue (we cannot go so far as Blue Green, because that too contains yellow).

Fletcher's theory insisted that if you start with Yellow, then you can choose as your split-complements either RedViolet (one step to left of violet) and Blue (two steps to right of violet)... or else Red (two steps to left of violet) and Blue Violet (one step to right of violet). By insisting that one split-complement be one step from the complement, and the other two steps... he was attempting to add another level of color bias by moving one of the split-complements closer to the first point. The first point of the triad (yellow), is called the KEY.

This all sounds so scientific and theoretical. But it is simply an expansion of the split complement palette... and perhaps an overly complex one at that. At root, the split complement is common knowledge... certainly useful, but NOT worthy of the god-like love Barnstone throws at it. By reading Sargent's book I was able to debunk the teachings of Barnstone to some degree.

Also on this point... I also was reading Juliette Aristede's book "Classical Painting Atelier", in which she talks about Open Palettes vs. Closed Palettes. Closed palettes are ones where you mix all your colors before you begin painting... open palettes are ones that you mix as you go. Barnstone's approach was a completely closed palette. This approach has some benefits, but the downside (which Barnstone never mentions) is that it can be (a) too time consuming (b) lead to color palette that doesn't really match the subject and (c) lead to paintings that all have the same look and feel. This author (Juliette Aristedes) goes on to say (interestingly enough) that this closed palette is good for impressionistic approaches. When you consider that Barnstone is an OPEN advocate of British Impressionistic painting (and his assignments were impressionistic in nature)... you begin to see a BIAS in Barnstone's teaching. By the way, Juliette Aristedes was a student of Barnstones, and had gone to Pafa... so her perspective here is quite enlightening.

So by reading these two texts and cross-referencing... the meaning and context of Barnstones teachings could be fleshed out. And so on and so forth. And in general, as I engage in this project of looking for clear views on these things by way of reading... I am able to figure out what is going on.  These cross-references do not necessarily invalidate Barnstones teachings... they simply invalidate the ABSOLUTISM of his teaching... and remove all the ATTITUDE that attaches to what he says. And in general, when all the cross referencing ends, much of the bullshit of much of what we are taught gets sheered off... and what is left are the essential issues. Once you distill things down to these essentials... you can begin to order and arrange them, and understand them. At least this is my hope, and I'm having some success at this approach. Again, time will tell.


The Problem with Barnstone, Having Drawn

I was in New York recently,  achieving clarity by drawing some sculpture in the Greek and Roman room at the Met. Later, as I walked down 5th Avenue, a thought jumped into my head regarding Barnstone. It occurred to me that Barnstone doesn't teach you how to draw. Notice how little actual drawing goes on in his class. What Barnstone teaches is not how TO DRAW, but how to HAVE DRAWN. It sounds funny to say it that way… but it is the only way to put it. He is only interested in what you should HAVE DRAWN, not what you actually drew.

His critiques always reference a preordained result that you should HAVE DRAWN. In this sense, Barnstone is only interested in the ANSWER… but not the QUESTION… and he has very little interest in the work you put into what you produce. Imagine that you used this approach to teach someone how to think clearly. Employing the Barnstone method, you would give the student the answer and all supporting arguments, and it would be up to the student to simply repeat the argument and conclusion. The students thinking skills would then be criticized if they failed to deliver the preordained content.

The student would not learn how to think in this way. The student would only learn how to repeat the answers they were given.  Learning how to give an answer through mimicry is not equivalent to giving an answer that arrives from thought. It's not even correct to say that thinking skills are being critiqued, because thought doesn't actually happen. It's the students memorization skills that are critiqued, along with their willingness to do be cowed by authority and do what they're told.

Barnstone would argue that it is better to mimic the correct answer than to come up with your own, incorrect answer. But if the goal is to learn to think, then even an incorrect answer that arises from actually thinking is superior (as thought) to an answer that you mimic (non thought). That is, if your goal is to think for yourself.

Barnstone might further counter-argue that mimicking the correct answer puts you on the right path… so that even if you aren't actually thinking when you mimic it… that you will somehow absorb the correctness of it into your mind, and it will then trickle down into all your future thinking… and make all that future thinking correct. This Barnstone-trickle-down theory makes some sense, but at the very least it still shows that while you are memorizing stuff,  you are not actually learning to think… and it is not at all clear how memorizing the right answer will find its way into your future thinking. In as much as memorization is NOT the same as thinking, then I don't see how memorization necessarily leads to anything except a head full of what someone else told you. And since Barnstone does not provide the linkage between mimicry and thought, he really can't claim the latter.

The fact is, that thinking is a tricky process… full of false starts, dead ends, and mistakes. It is only by struggling through these difficulties that we construct an understanding of the world.  The only alternative to this effort, is to be given the answer. But what use is an answer when you don't know the question? It is of no use. If you are given answers, you might ask.. "What is this an answer to… is it correct… is it relevant… what does it relate to…etc". But i the absence of thought, you will never know. You will rely on the same authority figure (in this case Barnstone) to supply you with the answer, and so on and so on… the cycle of dependency never ends.

If we substitute "drawing" for "thinking" in the above example, it pretty much describes Barnstone's  drawing classes. All answers, no questions, and no thinking.. or should I say.. All perfect drawings, no individual input and no struggling with the real issues of drawing.

I don't think it is coincidental that there was so little drawing done in Barnstone's class. His only strength is as a lecturer of abstract ideas. The ideas he asserts are generally quite valid on the face of it, but the manner in which he demands you engage these ideas works against their being properly understood (as opposed to being memorized). His distaste for the honest effort of trying to draw is apparent, as he storms around the drawing room getting pissed off when someone isn't doing it exactly the way he thinks he described it. He sets aside only a small amount of time for actual drawing, but even at that the drawing session breaks up quickly enough, and it's back to the lecture room for more talk. After all, why "waste" time "trying to draw"… when he already gave you photocopied hand-outs on what you should HAVE DRAWN.

This is typical of Barnstone, and I no longer have any interest or desire to take any class he teaches. Aside from the negative vibes and harshness of his personality and of the environment he creates, I think it really doesn't make any sense in the end. Just as you can only learn to think by thinking, you can only learn to draw by drawing. Teachers of thinking or drawing need to engage you positively in the act of your thinking or drawing… assess what your level is, and develop you from there. That is how you develop with a teacher. Just because modern art schools don't have a strong structure for teaching drawing or painting DOES NOT mean that Barnstone's rote, authoritarian approach is correct.

 In General Then...

The problem with being given "an answer" ahead of time (i.e., ahead of the actual thinking process), is that you don't know what an answers is an answer to. You don't know what question is answers because you have not formulated the question. Without thinking for yourself, the only way to approximate knowing the relevancy of an answer is to "just be told" what the relevancy is.  Of course, being told the relevancy is to be given another answer, and so this just puts you deeper in the hole, as you are now two layers deep in answers with no questions. You are now well on your way to requiring that answers be supplied to you from outside of your own mind. You will grow dependent on external sources of answers, and will spend all of your mental energy memorizing and automatizing these answers. You will construct entire systems of thought that are not your own, with no way of checking it against physical reality, or against your own mind and emotions. You can even have a very complex hierarchical system of answers, where not only the answers are supplied, but also the relationships that make it a hierarchy.

This description of the situation seems direful, and I am tempted to say by proceeding this way, you will be alienated from your ideas. However, in as much as you are adept at accepting answers that do not come from your own thought, then you will come to experience yourself in terms of these externally given systems. This means that your sense of identity can be taken over from outside influences. Now that sounds bad, but I wonder if it is unusual. Certainly, many ideas we hold are of this sort, especially the ideas we accept when we are young. But even as adults, we are continually bombarded with answers, where we never asked the question. In a complex work or social environment, we assume there is relevancy to these answers. And as I theorized before, the relevancy of an answer is given to us as yet another answer, and so on. And so it seems somewhat natural to construct complex hierarchies of thought based not on questioning reality, or ourselves... but instead by absorbing assertions from other people, i.e., from society. Social metaphysics gives rise to social epistemology.

But if one is studying to be an artist, one must ask themselves if they want to be molded from the outside in this fashion. It is a warm-and-fuzzy idea to think that a young person can put themselves in the hands of the master, and be molded into a mature artist. But beware, most of those who are molded exist forever in the shape of that mold, never achieving independence of mind or spirit. That fits many just fine, in fact, I think it fits most. The question is, does it fit you? Be honest.

People who cough loudly during live performances

I'm sick to death of people coughing loudly during live performances. Whether it is music or theater, the these coughing audience members drive me nuts. They are rude, and the behavior is inexcusable. They should be escorted out of venue, and made to watch from a TV monitor in a basement room.

Case in point... I was at a concert tonight at the Kimmel Center. The performer was John Williams, the classical guitar player. Classical guitar performances are notoriously quiet settings, which is required for the subtle beauty of the acoustic guitar. At one point, just as Mr. Williams had finished a flurry of beautiful notes to end one piece... as the notes hung in the air, vibrating softly... and before he officially lowered his head solemnly to signify the end... in that transcendent moment of beautiful silence where the audience is temporarily transfixed before they burst into applause... three people started coughing really loud.

The audience of maybe 400 people had a dozen or so suffering from some form of tuberculosis. I wish. No, these hacking audience members aren't suffering from TB. They're just freakin' rude. The usual suspects are older white males, typically overweight, whose throats are apparently covered in mucus, or whose fat chests are pressing down on their lungs like a big dead weight. Occasionally the hacker is an oddly petite woman, in which case I'm dumbfounded. How is it that women can suppress burps and flatulence, but can't manage to not hack their lungs out during quiet moments of Shakespeare.

To be, or not to be, that is the question... COUGH COUGH COUGH
Whether tis nobler in the COUGH COUGH COUGH mind to COUGH COUGH COUGH
 suffer the COUGH COUGH COUGH...

Jesus H Christ!!!!!!! People... you're ruining it for everyone. We paid money here, I want my money back.

Ironically enough, the profile of the hacker (older white male, or oddly petite woman) is exactly the kind who go to quiet performances. They go to the Kimmel, or the live theater, or to acoustic sets at World Cafe Live. They go, they appear normal, they seem like quiet and sedate people... but the minute the curtain goes up, they start coughing. Why don't they go to a rock concert instead... then they could hack themselves into a coma and collapse on the floor and be trampled to death. Justice.

I refuse to believe that these audience members are innocent victims of the same coughing issues that affect all of us. The issue isn't so much that they cough, it's that they obviously are not doing anything to suppress the cough. We all know what a suppressed cough sounds like, and feel like. It's muffled. You hold it in. It's a tiny bit uncomfortable to hold it in, but you suffer the small inconvenience in order to not make hacking sounds that disturb others. You cannot possibly be holding in a cough when it is loud. If a loud cough is actually a suppressed cough, then I'd hate to hear the unsuppressed cough of these people. Would it be like a shotgun blast, or a car horn? No, no, no... the only conclusion that makes sense is that they're not trying, because they don't care.

In conclusion... Those who cough loudly during live performances are not even trying. They just don't give a shit about the rest of us. I think it's high time that the polite members of the audience take these rude people out back and put them out of our misery.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Problem with Barnstone, Overview

Myron Barnstone runs a private art school called The Barnstone Studios, in Coplay, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Allentown.

This series of essays is intended to shed some light on the reality underlying Myron Barnstone's school and his teachings. I think that Barnstone is subject to both unfair criticism, and unfair praise.  Though the comments in what follows are mostly critical, I would like to recognize at the outset that there is a core set of ideas that Barnstone teaches that I have found very provocative, interesting, and even useful. However, I don't believe that the value of these teachings justifies the negative aspects.

Normally, one does not write multiple essays to analyze and criticize someone that one disagrees with. This is especially true in art, where poor teaching seems to be the rule. Why not just move on then, and forget about it? The reason is this... that Barnstone has taken upon himself the image of a kind-of latter day Renaissance Master, who defies the ignorant contemporary art scene, and trains would-be artists in the true knowledge of what real art is. Or something like that. There are many ways to express the same idea, many of which are pinned to his studio walls in the form of newspaper clippings, where the reporter gushes over how ingenius his school is.

Barnstone revels in this massive ego trip, and self promotes it shamelessly.

Some patience is required in what follows. The negatives aspects of Barnstone's teachings are not necessarily obvious. It took my quite a while to put together this critical overview.

I feel qualified to make critical judgments for two reasons. First, I attended 3 of his of his courses. I attended his basic drawing course twice (as is recommended) and his color course. Secondly, I have quite a bit of art education under my belt. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a full time student for 2+ years, and also had received an associates degree in art from Montgomery County Community College. So I had a lot of studio instruction under my belt, as well as a lot of art history and theory.
I found out about Barnstone's school when I was casting about for an alternative to the art education I was receiving. I think I first heard about him via a reference in Juliette Aristedes book Classical Drawing Atelier. Aristedes had attended the Pennsylvania Academy (where I had heard her name mentioned), and had studied with Barnstone as a teenager.

What once looked like an interesting studio school with a gruff but likable old timer at the helm, has revealed itself to be more of an art copying factory, with a miserable cuss spending his last days on earth being pissed about how lame everyone and everything is. His occasional expressions of admiration are reserved for either unassailable master artists of the past (with whom he is in some kind of spiritual union), or else those artists of today that he has trained personally, and who use his methods.  

Every question you ask him is either cut off before it ends, or else is misunderstood by him... as he desperately seeks to superimpose some pre-ordained answer he has long since memorized. In either case, the answer more than likely misses the point of the question (which he didn't listen to anyway), and the tone he takes in answering it… directing his answer to the room, not to the one who asked the question… serves as a mocking reminder of how you know nothing. The bravado contained in that moment would be thrilling if he were an were a bullfighter, or operatic tenor, unleashing a crecendo of emotional turmoil in song. But seeing the so called teacher there, beating the question into submission for the pure thrill of being a know it all… the pure, naked ego defensiveness is sad. 
He has erected and maintained a useful art school far from the clutches of the evil modern art world. But apparently the effort to do so has turned him mad, like the evil scientist in the movies, who turns his powers to destruction because of some past injustice that an "ignorant society" had perpetrated against him. Instead of being a steady mentor, who disseminates his wisdom with a calm hand… he has become a bully, to whom anyone who does not toe his line (to the letter) represents an infidel in his midst. 
The content of what he teaches, and his methods, are in stark contrast to the modern art school. He is strict, where they are lax. He explains the ideas, where they are unconcerned with conceptual content.  He demonstrates what he explains, where they only occasionally demonstrate without much explanation. He has structured home work, and a plan to build knowledge over time... where they have only 14 weeks of sitting in a studio with the occasional pointer or two whispered in your ear as your plug away at the art.  
But, the power of all that he has arranged there seems to disintegrate due to a series of corrosive attitudes that aren't immediately apparent. The number one problematic attitude is that, though he strives to explain the idea of things, in actual practice, he doesn't want you to "understand" what you do so much as he simply wants you to do what he told you to do.  
 The presumption is that by doing what you are told… that is, by doing specific exercises, in very particular ways, in a specific order… that you will come to understand the nature of the art problem that those very exercises are designed to teach. In union with his explanations, this is generally true. His system of doing things does indeed cause you to understand some fundamental ideas.
 The problem arises when you consider that he wants you to do it exactly one way. In his mind, it is the right way… and being the right way, why would you want to do it any other way than that. But in practice, the energy required to do something exactly as you are told is so complete, that it seems to leave no room for your mind to actively think about what you are doing. Absolute doing in this way makes you reject your own mind, in favor of the requirements that another mind has given you. This kind of annihilation… the shutting off of my active mind in favor of doing what I am told to do… I just can’t do it.
In Barnstone’s view, the doing is the end in itself. In my world, the comprehension of what you are doing is the most important thing. Of course, you can’t comprehend what you haven’t done… so the doing is needed. But I want to first comprehend the thing in a general way, so that I have a conceptual grasp of the idea. This allows me to connect it to the broad base of experience and knowledge I have. Once I have that comprehension, I can decide for myself if I need to push myself to a more exacting execution of technique. But I do not presume that some exacting execution is my goal.
 Barnstone’s approach makes exacting execution the goal. You are not required (nor are you encouraged) to form ideas along the way. All he wants if for your homework to look exactly like the homeworks of former Barnstone Champions that he has pinned to the back of the room, or that he shows in his slides.
 As an example of the mindless I give you the following scenario… two weeks ago in class I asked that young guy named Sam a question. I asked him what Barnstone meant by a certain procedure of mixing. Sam looked at me funny, as if he didn’t even understand my question (which was clear enough I think). He tells me that I can watch him if I want. So I said to him… “In other words, you don’t have an explanation”.  Then I told him that I could watch him, but still not understand what was going on. In my mind, just watching an action doesn’t explain the reason for the action, and certainly doesn’t connect the action to any broader picture. He just looked at me with a scared expression and said… “I can only do what I was trained to do”.  To unwittingly express your epitaph at such a young age is sad. He can only do what he was trained to do.
But in Barnstones view, that’s what art is. It is to be well trained in the practices of making certain paintings in a certain way… his way.. the Barnstone way. Although the lectures contain plenty of explanation of the concept of the things, he demands an absolutism that is inconsistent with understanding. For all of his talk of ideas, I believe that his school reduces to rote training, an emphasis on technique, and thereby locks the minds of his disciples into a rigid way of thinking. Their way of thinking allows them to dutifully learn and execute a collection of techniques that will make correct and reasonable pictures. But at what cost? When your mind is taken out of the equation, you aren’t even a human being anymore, let alone an artist.

The Problem with Barnstone, Absolute Doing

Yeah, I've thought it through all right.  These thoughts have been building since halfway through that first drawing class, so it's not simply that I became instantaneously pissed a week or two ago. I was originally very excited by the ideas he taught. I feel his lectures are generally very good. But his manner of assigning and evaluating homework has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I have struggled to make sense of it.  The email I sent you was my attempt to make sense of it... to produce a singular critique of Barnstone, and although I brought up some good points and examples to myself, I don't feel like I quite put my finger on it.  

The closest I came was was the term I devised for the critique called absolute doing. More blunt ways of putting it might be to call it robotic, or mindless, or drone-like, etc... all of which are valid. But I like the term absolute doing because it is super abstract, which makes it useful, because then I can decompose the problem of Barnstone more generally. And in this general view of things, the problem is not  simply Barnstone himself... the singular individual who tortures people on wednesday nights. He simply is a perfectly crafted adherent to a certain way of thinking about things. It is his way of thinking about things that is the problem. His way is absolutist, and that is not simply inconvenient, or personally hard for me to deal with... rather, absolutism is wrong thinking.

Absolutism in any cognitive activity is not just a problem with the domain of that activity, but is a general problem, a problem of the mind... a philosophical problem. Absolutism is, by it's very nature, anti-conceptual. Conceptual activity is, by it's nature, an activity of generalizing experiences and thoughts so as to retain them in your mind in relation to other things that you already know. Absolutism, by it's nature, is not a generalizing behavior. It is a mental behavior that desires to have the content of the mind be equivalent to various absolute statements that you simply store in your mind, and repeat when called upon. It is memorization.

Memorization is useful at times. For instance, I memorize that the AMC channel on my cable box is channel 235, and that I left my shoes in the living room. That kind of knowledge isn't really knowledge at all. It is simply recall, simply a memory. It is stored in your brain, but it is not conceptual. You do not have to engage in generalization in order to remember that AMC is channel 235... and conversely..."knowing" that AMC is channel 235 isn't conceptual knowledge. We say that we "know what channel it is"... but really, we simply recall what channel it is. The ability to recall things, or to memorize things... is not itself knowledge, but it is a pre-condition to knowing. The reason is, if you couldn't remember anything, you would have nothing in your mind to generalize from.  But memory is memory, and thinking is thinking, they are not the same thing.

Barnstone's methods operates in this gray area between rote memorization, and thinking... leaning almost totally (or maybe just totally totally) towards the rote. He thinks that by cramming memorized absolutes into your mind (or fingers), that you will (some day in the future), be able to tap into the power that these absolutes are supposed to represent. The problem is... the absolutes don't mean anything. They mean no more than recalling that 235 is the AMC channel.  Being able to recall that 235 is the AMC channel is useful when it comes time to watch a movie playing on the AMC channel, just like being able to mix a pile of paint EXACTLY like Myron told you, is useful when you are painting a painting that myron tells you to paint. But beyond that, no claim can be made to it's meaning. To grasp the meaning of mixing a pile of paint , one has to consider the paint mixing conceptually.  But Barnstone is not about the conceptual.

Supposedly you can be conceptual later, long after you have left Barnstone's school. In theory this seems possible. But in practice, I find it hard to believe that any disciple of Barnstone is going to be able to get around the lock that absolutism has on their minds. They will simply look for more and more "correct" answers, and then dutifully execute them. There is a market for that sort of thing, and a subculture in this world that wants such things.  It is art that looks like what art is supposed to look like.

So the problem of Barnstone exists on two levels... the level of the man himself, and the impact we allow him to have on us when we go to his class.. and on another level, the problem is that he represents (what I think) are bad ideas. The idea of absolute behavior instead of conceptual behavior. We can solve the first problem by not going to his classes. The second problem is more insidious. It is the idea that absolute execution of the absolutely right thing (as he defines it) is the key to art. If he were to define it more loosely.. such as... generally correct execution of generally correct things.. then I would agree. But he doesn't really say that... and he certainly doesn't accept it in any of the work you do around him.

Aesthetic Packaging

Aesthetic packaging. The layers of polish and finish that art objects undergo in order to make them digestible to the general public.

art that looks like it's packaging.

art that is conceived of as packaging

While walking around inside a Sears department store looking for an air conditioner, I noticed that all of the separate items for sale are each imbued with their own unique stylizations, which are designed to attract the eye of the consumer. For example, you only ever see spoons that have a pattern embossed on the handle... bowls are usually painted with a very particular design... stereo speakers are stylized with beveled edges and chrome touches, or unique grill cloth covers with emblems on them... and so on for most everything. It is hard to find anything that has no stylization.

It reminded me of the history of advertising in the auto industry, probably back in the 1940s. In order to differentiate their cars, manufacturers began to "stylize" the cars, where stylization was in terms of surface details. The cars themselves could be very very similar, often including mass produced engines and chassis. But from the consumer point of view, they were different because they were stylized. This meant that the relevant difference from the consumers point of view existed at the superficial level... either the consumer was superficial, or they could be persuaded to become superficial. 

Stylization was a shift of focus from the utility of the object, to the perception of the objects superficial qualities, and thus it ushered in the era of marketing... which has grown in sophistication and persuasiveness to where it is today. It is not necessary to love or hate advertising to see the truth in this remark. We only have to observe the power of the media to sell us all manner of objects and ideas.

Getting back to the Sears store... with all of it's stylized objects. It occurred to me that when an object is stylized, it becomes an end in itself, and therefore has a hard time functioning as a means to some further end. For example, we would hardly think to purchase lumber that had carvings on its surface. What would happen if we made a table out of it.. and all these fragments of the carvings intruded into the design of the table.. of which they had absolutely no connection. 

We see the wood (rightly) as simply a raw material.. a means to an end. Yet when we purchase the myriad of objects that we desire in our lives... we are forced to purchase them with stylization already attached to them... which is to say they cannot function (very easily) as means to an end.. they are fully evolved ends in themselves... every object is king.

The marketplace creates this situation, in as much as the reality of modern marketing requires that objects be sold in terms of these stylized features. People seem to prefer spoons with grape-leaf patterns on the handles, rather than spoons with a simple handle.

The market cannot sell us anything that we don't (at some level) desire, or that we cannot (by some logic) be led to desiring. In as much as our subconscious desires and unspoken belief systems are not at a conscious level of control, we are vulnerable to the marketing forces, whose purpose is to draw them to the surface as the basis for purchase decisions. It is true that if some marketer plays on my need to feel loved, and on that basis I purchase his product, that the marketer has not coerced me. However, the marketer has played a negative role in my life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Artistic Anatomy vs. Form

Some people say "study anatomy"… while others say "study surface forms". But I think it's a false alternative. Firstly, there's nothing that says you can't just study both. But secondly (an more fundamentally), I think it confuses the nature of anatomy vs. form.

Anatomical knowledge is not form-awareness. Anatomical knowledge is really just abstract knowledge about the relations of the parts of the body. Although it can be made visual in the form of photos and line art, it does not by itself allow an artist to successfully draw the body, because a successful drawing should be made up of form-awareness. Anatomy is not form-awareness... it is a conceptual understanding of the relation of parts. But "parts" are not forms... a form is an actual, visual abstractions.

Nothing about the anatomy of the zygomatic bone is a block-shape, and no anatomy book (that dealt strictly with anatomy) would ever say that.  The blocky-ness of the zygomatic bone is a visual conception used by the artist to aid in the perception of that part of the body.

On the other hand, form-awareness is not anatomical knowledge. Conceiving of the zygomatic bone as a block does not inform one of the nature or function of the arch, or of anything else. The nature and function of what these forms represent is the domain of anatomy.

I have to conclude that anatomical study is good because it makes one aware of the nature of the various parts, and in that way it can guide the focus of the artist as they consider the body. But this abstract anatomical focus (without form conceptions) will yield rationalized drawings (all knowledge, no reality)... and is hardly more useful than a purely perceptual approach. Perceptual approaches, in fact, will yield a reality based drawing, but will fall down badly on presenting understanding. And so that seems like a pretty harsh mind/body dichotomy... and one to be avoided.

I guess these distinctions seem pretty obvious, but I have to say I had been confused on it. I also suppose that the field of "artistic anatomy" makes these distinctions clear... but if they did, I must have missed it, or not appreciated the distinction. This distinction hit home just now as I started to draw a skull, and said to myself.. "My knowledge of skull anatomy allows me to draw this skull". BUT... as I drew the skull, I realized that I was simply drawing a skull contour that I had memorized from books... and it had no form. So I started to try and draw form, which required a WHOLE DIFFERENT set of ideas. I even tried to draw a zygomatic bone in 3/4 view, so as to show 3 sides... and it became very clear that there was a difference between the idea of the arch as a functional anatomical thing (anatomy), and the arch as a perceptual entity represented by a geometric abstraction (form).


Any attempt to recreate some aspect of reality requires that it be created in some form. That form will necessarily be an abstraction. And this is true of knowledge in general isn't it? All scientific knowledge must still be conceived of in the forms of abstractions, and this includes anatomy.