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.