Monday, December 31, 2012

Head of a child

Of what beauty I saw there
In that cheek and chestnut hair
A glimpse if that to make my way
And faded light to scrape the floor
Withholding breath for what's to come
With falling leaves what's done is done
But still in all as time has shown
As other world's have come and gone
Our dreams of each other
Are held in reserve
To explain who we are

"Head Of A Child", Picasso, 1896

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Barnes Foundation: New vs. Old vs. Whatever

Is it possible to find fault with the new Barnes without rhapsodizing the old?

The Merion location was unquestionably less accessible, and the process for gaining admittance seemed intentionally obscured to discourage visitation. Once there, the process of parking and getting into the collection was overseen by a band of Blue-Hairs and Mainline types trying to substitute elocution and neat handwriting for efficient management.

So puh-lease, don’t glorify the stodgy, dusty, old Barnes.

Having said that, I do agree that the new Barnes is an uninspiring tourist attraction, created by the one-percenters as a feather in their civic caps. I too find the entrance confusing and oddly cramped behind the gigantic doors that have a very tight turning radius, thus requiring significant heft to open.

It’s unfortunate that there is no “front door” onto the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as a front door onto a grand boulevard would be in keeping with grand boulevard logic in general. Why put a museum on a grand boulevard, and have the entrance on a side street?

I also agree that the museum should have just re-engineered the space to show the works in more conventional ways, so that I don’t have to crane my neck to see paintings that are 9 feet off the ground, simply because that was the best spot for it in the over-crowded mansion. There can be no doubt that the ensemble arrangements of Dr. Barnes… though thoughtful and educated in their conception… are not bigger than the works themselves, nor bigger than the alternate arrangements that scholars of future generations may require. The pompous, unquestioned regard for these arrangements is nauseating, and you have to hear it intoned repeatedly at the Barnes if you are unlucky enough to be within earshot of guided tours.

Here’s a fun fact that supports the supposition that art museums are simply playthings of rich, with only lip service to any deeper meanings. The fact is… you CANNOT DRAW or SKETCH in the Barnes galleries. This is an absurdity, especially considering that all of the artists in the collection would have regularly visited museums and drawn from the masters. To disallow it in the Barnes is to ignore the history of art education… and this from a supposed master of art education.

A principle conceit of the Barnes is that they presume to have the authoritative approach to educating the public on how to view and understand the art in the collection. Having “A Way” to understand something is fine… the more the merrier… but to claim to have “The Way” is disturbing. It announces an institutional insularity that is inconsistent with the ongoing efforts of hundreds of other intellectuals and institutions.

The only good thing about the Barnes Foundation is the art itself. The non-conformist Barnes (relatively speaking, for an industrial millionaire) imbued his foundation with an authoritarianism and exclusivity (albeit non-conformist exclusivity) that have cultivated (over time) a stale culture of maintaining the dream of a dead man, wherein the great art has been viewed an accessory to Dr. Barnes success in collecting it.

Organizational ruin was inevitable given the stakes involved, and the resulting New Barnes tourist site is a fitting memorial to the money and power that usurps all other values in this society.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Brian the imploded ultra nerd
Titanic gravities compress to black hole point

Composition & Perspective

My drawing has taken another one of those mysterious steps forward.  A big part of this improvement is my recent discovery (while in Europe) that to situate figures (or any object) in a landscape, one must first compose the landscape on the page, and place the figure within it. To make the figure the sole focus of the drawing is to NOT SITUATE the figure in relation to anything else, making the figure a portrait or a study, but probably not a composition.

This last point is becoming increasingly clear to me… the need to make a composition. Certain things arise in making a coherent composition that do not arise in making studies. First, one must consider the relation of the overall space to the more specific objects within that space. Second, one must consider perspective. Not simply linear perspective as usually understood (i.e., making houses and fences look like they recede)… or aerial perspective as usually understood (reducing tone and color saturation as objects recede). Instead, I'm thinking of perspective in the broadest possible way… as in… how does the visual field relate to myself.

The visual can relate two ways… first, in terms of visual perception (how do the objects appear to my vision)… and secondly, in psychological terms (what do these objects mean to me).  These two things are related, as the ability to access psychological meanings is related to the ability to understand how things appear to you visually (visual perspective, so to speak).  This seems intuitively true, as whenever we draw something well, we feel a connection to the drawing. We might think that that success of such a drawing magically derives from out connectedness the subject matter of the drawing….but I think that our connectedness to it derives first from our ability to draw it in the first place.

The kind of visual perspective required to make compositions (vs. studies) is important. To seriously persue visual perspective requires certain basic structures be enforced in a drawing. This might all seem trivial, but I think they are not so much trivial as they are fundamental… and like all fundamentals, they are easily overlooked… and the resulting works become unhinged. The first fundamental is the establishment of a horizon line. Without this, one can easily lose track up what is up and what is down. This is probably not a problem in figure studies and portraits and other such close-up work, where the object is not integrated into a visual space. But if you try to construct larger spaces, and to represent complex spatial relations, you must know what is above your eye line, and what is below.

It is not necessary to literally draw the horizon line (obviously), though it is useful to do so in the beginning of the drawing. I realize that doing so seem silly to a more experienced draftsman, who is (in a sense) beyond such rudimentary techniques, and can probably maintain a horizon line instinctively in their minds. But I have to wonder how many people can actually do this consistently… or how many people can render complex spatial relationships without such techniques.

I suspect many people begin their drawing by focusing on an object of interest and drawing it, and then fitting other things around it. These "other things" end up being the space in which the object is located… i.e., the context of the drawing. Such drawings are (in a sense) done in reverse… where the space is constructed AROUND the object, rather than the object being place WITHIN the space. The difference between these two approaches may not be very apparent in the finished work.

For example, if I draw a bottle sitting on a table top, I can approach it in either of these two ways. I can draw the table top and the surrounding space, and then situate the bottle on top of it. Or, I can draw the bottle, and then draw the table-top and surrounding space. The two drawings might be very similar… BUT… if I draw the space first, I am able to consider MANY possible relationships from the beginning, whereas if I prioritize the bottle by drawing it first, I can  accommodate FAR FEWER spatial relationships… if for no other reason than that simply by choosing a size of the bottle (at the beginning of the drawing) I constrain the size of all the other relationships, and it is possible that I don't leave enough space for other visual elements to be realized. These unrealized relationships represent possible limits on the drawing.

By focusing on the object of interest, I feel like I a hamstring my drawings from the beginning. The drawing becomes a glorified study, rather than a composition… as the object isn't COMPOSED into a space, but the space retro-fitted around an object. It occurs to me that this has a parallel in personal identity… such as… do we exist in the world, or does the world revolve around us. When we become ego maniacal and demand that the world revolve around ourselves, we limit what we can consider. The ego maniac only considers things that directly relate to themselves at the moment, and therefore cut themselves off from maximum experience. Drawings that proceed from the focus on a single object have the same problem… they are egomaniacal drawings, so to speak.

At any rate, I suppose both approaches are valid, but I know for sure that taking the OVERALL approach is necessary for making the kinds of large narrative type paintings one might admire. When I see the David paintings, the Gericault paintings, and the Delacroix paintings in the Louvre… I know for a fact that I am looking at visual constructions of high complexity. I think to myself… "How does one get to that level of composing ideas?". It's tempting to think that their paintings result from some SUPER DRAWING SKILL and SUPER PAINTING SKILL, wherein they make things LOOK REAL. And while they do have high level drawing and painting skills, that is not what their paintings are fundamentally about.

Their paintings are fundamentally about composed elements… and those composed elements are realized through an appropriate level of drawing and painting skills. The more that one can draw and paint, the more things can be coherently incorporated into the composition. Consider Holbein's "The Ambassadors", with two richly clad figures standing on either side of a table that contains many symbolically important objects. Such a composition is not possible without the ability to draw and paint the many detailed elements of the painting. If Holbein's skills were less richly detailed, he would have to do a different composition. This is not to say that detailed painting is required to do great compositions… but some level of proficiency is required, otherwise visual elements cannot be rendered, leaving one fewer and fewer things to work with. After all, you need to have actual things you can represent and relate.  At the very least, one's drawing and painting skills need to be appropriate to the ambition of the composition.

Without content, one is hard pressed to created meanings through composed associations. That's actually a good definition of composition… COMPOSED ASSOCIATIONS. You compose the associations of visual elements in order to convey some intended meanings. Without content (visual elements), you end up on the far abstract end of the spectrum, like Rothko, where you compose in color blocks. One can argue that Rothko's compositions are beautiful and meaningful… but the beauty and meaning of such works derives NOT from an expression of the intellect as it relates to the specifics of the visual world, but to unconscious associations between formal elements of line, color, shape, etc. Such highly abstracted relationships are not invalid, but I do not think they serve to purpose of expressing meanings directly, in the way that representational compositions can.

It is not necessary that one work in the styles of Gericault, or David, or Delacroix… or to use their subject matter. The issue is more fundamental than that. The issue is… how can one construct visual meaning in representational work. That meaning can be narrative, it can be symbolic, it can be allegorical, it can be whatever… but whatever form of meaning one pursues, it must be presented inside of the space of the painting in terms of composed elements.

I was talking earlier of the need to establish a horizon line, for the simple purposes of keeping track of what is above and below the eye level. But I've noticed something more than that… that the horizon line is necessary for projecting a ground plane… and for coherently establishing major shapes upon that ground plane. Imagine Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa". There are figures above the horizon line and below it, and they are pitched and tilted in complex relations… all of which are themselves related to the plane of the raft, which has it's own perspective. The point of this example isn't to exalt Gericault's draftsmanship, but to point out that the composition (composed elements) require that VISUAL PERSPECTIVE be established and maintained consistently throughout the painting. Without such discipline, not only couldn't all the complex figures be rendered.. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY… the composition could not be realized. A figure draftsman might be able to draw each of the figures individually, but to have them all composed together into a coherent space is a different issue.

This is my big point… that composition relies on perspective. We tend to think that perspective is simply a rudimentary drawing device… and it is. But it is also a compositional device, and it is a compositional device first. This is where drawing and composition blend together. To talk about drawing and composition as distinct things is something of an artificial distinction. The term composition is usually considered to be some highly abstract idea of the painting, whereas drawing is considered to be the way in which such a high abstraction is realized. But composition is really the arrangement of space and the visual elements in that space. It might begin in the imagination and in abstract notions, but it takes shapes by a consideration of the rectangular canvas, and of the projection of space within that rectangle. In other words, it takes shapes through the establishment of a visual perspective system that is unique to each painting. Such a system sets up and establishes the drawing, so much so that I would call it the meta-drawing. Once established, the drawing takes place within that compositional structure.

I'm sure this sounds very longwinded and tortured and hopelessly idealistic. But I don't think it is. It might be longwinded to explain, but the realization of these ideas is elegant in actual practice. How else can meaningful representational paintings be created?

For Lance Armstrong

I am disgusted by the way so many have abandoned Lance Armstrong. They cave in to the supposed moral authority of Anti-Doping agencies, whose methods are a witch hunt, and whose faceless bureaucrats are gutting the sport.

People... It's time to stand up and get beside your heroes ... Lance Armstrong came back FROM THE DEAD to win the Tour 7 times. There are all kinds of nuanced discussions one can have regarding this doping in cycling, and this case, etc... but to dump Armstrong and flock to the big-brother authority is so weak that it makes me sick to my stomach. It's simply a way for the weak willed to find closure, even if it goes against history. Namby-pampby moralizing while a great man gets pounded by dogs. This insipid behavior makes one thing clear... that there is nothing that the system can't snatch from the hearts of the weak... no history that can't be annihilated for those with no backbone... no lie that is too big to swallow for those who want everything to just go away.

Technoglogical Blindspots

Here's a new idea... that technology removes one from being aware of that they're doing.

As I drove down rt. 30 on my bike for the 5th time in two weeks, the stress of cars rocketing by became nerve wracking. It occurred to me that the people in the cars have no idea (or are indifferent, which is the same thing) that they are threatening me by their actions. But that is the nature of the automobile in this regard, that the driver is removed from any NECESSARY awareness of how WHAT THEY ARE DOING (driving) is affecting me.

In general, all technology relieves people of knowing the full extent of what their actions are involved in. For instance, when you drive a car you are not aware that you are pumping fumes into the air. When you use a blender to make a milkshake, you are not aware that you are increasing the energy consumption in the world. When you walk from the train in a crowd of people down a long corridor to the corporate workplace, you are not aware that that form of transport itself is a grim visual stimuli to those who view it from a distance.

Technologies of all kind are used to achieve results. Transport systems get people to work. Blenders make smoothies. And so on. These technologies have arisen in human society due to a complexity of causes.  If history is any indication, the creation of technologies of all kinds (from stone tools to iPads) seem inevitable and good.

Leaving aside the question of whether the endless manufacture of gadgets and consumer items is actually always good… it is clear that such things are sometimes good. For instance, when I go to the doctor, I am glad there is an X-ray machine, and I don't care if the X-ray tech doesn't realize the full extent of his actions. As long as I get an X-ray pic that aids my health, I'm OK with it. As long as the tech gets paid his salary, he's OK with it. And so on.

The problem with technology OVERALL… is that it provides a potential numbing effect in the mind. We conduct our lives mediated through layers of technology, and at every turn we are unaware of the real effects we are having. We can conclude that much of what we effect in the world is unknown to us. We are not responsible for what we don't see. Furthermore, we don't care.

The problem then, is that the MORALITY of life… of how we treat each other… is based on our humanity, not on our technology. The respect for human life, the prohibition against murder, the respect for each others property, the cordiality of treatment we afford each other from day to day. Such things require a humanistic perspective on other people AND of the way we relate to those people But if so much of our lives are mediated through technologies which cut us off from such knowledge, we are potentially in trouble. This potentiality is not a certainty, but if a cursory look around the culture is any indication, the inhuman effect of technological mediation are really obvious.

I suppose this is simply another aspect of the march of human technology. Not only are the previous technologies wiped away, and not only do we recreate our view of the world in the form of these new technologies… but we are forced (thereby) to re-contextualize our view of morality. For instance, it used to matter how you treated someone in public. But when you're in car, you don't care. This lack of caring isn't conscious... it's simply that technology of the car and of roads creates a context where their is no awareness of the affect you have on others. The real effect of this is to not care... to not take care. We do not take care because we don't realize there is a problem.

As a rule of thumb, one is not held morality responsible for things they were unaware of.  This is problematic with technology, in as much as it makes us unaware of so much. We end up excusing ourselves for immoral behavior, simply because we are ignorant of it. But morality is (ultimately) about the outcomes of actions, not simply of states of mind.

The Two Waves of Technology

Technology comes in two waves.

The first wave derives from existing practices, wherein the technology allows us to do something we currently do, only fast, or cheaper, or more conveniently. It isn't until the second wave that the long-term effect of technology becomes apparent. The second wave liquidates the original activity that was "technolo-gized", and replaces it with not only a new activity, but a whole new concept of what is to be done.

To trace the evolution, consider how phone technology has affected human conversation. For the longest time, people would meet in person and talk to each other. Then the telephone is invented, the motivation for which is undoubtedly the ability to converse "as before" but without having to be physically present. Thus, it made the "prior activity" more convenient, fast, and cheaper.

But with this increased capacity to converse came the diminishing of any single conversation.  The technology does not prevent old-school, lengthy conversations from happening. Rather, it gives rise to potentialities (speed, low cost, convenience) that create value trade offs that people must make. When a person can have 10 conversations instead of one, they have to make a choice. The technology does not "necessitate" the choice… but given other cultural factors, there will be a sociologically dominant choice. With conversation, there has clearly been a move away from singular, in-depth conversations in favor of shorter ones… a choice that the telephone created.

The effects of technology always force a choice in this way, and (given any culture) the choice that the majority are choosing is usually pretty obvious. It's not that everyone has to follow the technology or make the same choices… it's that most will. The determinism of technology is not at the individual level. After all, people have free will. But on the social level, the choices that technology offers up will be answered by some majority… and in retrospect, these seem pretty damned deterministic.

For instance, can we imagine any technology that makes things faster, cheap, and easier that isn't taken up straight-away by Americans? And even when such technology achieves these effects by bleeding the value out of something, it doesn't seem to make a difference. There are cultural values at play in American society that always seem to privilege speed, cost, and convenience over anything else.

There seems to be an unlimited potential for technology to sway the culture in this way. If this is so, then a strange logic applies here…. which is… that anything that exists today that contains nuances of meaning and value (i.e., quality) can probably be "automated" in some way so as to make it cheaper and faster. This is because "quality" takes time and money to construct. By removing the cost of quality via technology, we can consume the object a new way. Granted, the object is now "LESS GOOD" (i.e, fewer inherent qualities)… but it is also "FASTER, CHEAPER, MORE CONVENIENT"… and if these latter values are privilege by culture (which they are in America) then the sky seems to be the limit for how much quality can be removed from the object.

You would think that you can only remove so much quality before an object (or activity) ceases to be what it is. This becomes a philosophical question. For instance, what is the nature of an apple? Can you remove the seeds from an apple and have it still be an apple? Probably. Can you also remove the color if the skin? Hmmm. Ok. At least it would still have it's shape and flavor and texture. But what if you removed the flavor from the apple… presumably because a new high-tech apple farm could produce more of them faster, such that the high-tech apples (with no seeds, red color, or flavor) now cost 10 times less than an old-school apple, and will last indefinitely on the shelf, and won't rot if cut into slices. Let's just imagine a whole host of advantages this high-tech apple would have.

It's not hard to imagine that the preference for these high-tech apples would overwhelm the market, pushing old-school apples to the point of being a niche product… indulged in by gourmands who could afford their (now) higher prices. New apples would be everywhere. Old apples would have to be sought out. In time, old-school apples would disappear… and with them… the flavor, the color, the seeds… i.e., everything we formerly thought an apple to be.

Critics would say that the new apples aren't apples at all. Defenders of the new apples would assert that they still retain the shape of the apple, and that the chemically simulated fake flavor is actually just as pleasant as the old-school apple. They would argue that the red skin was simply an accident of pigmentation of a fruit, and not essential to being an apple. The manufacturers of new apples would continue to advertise their apples as before, with images of apple trees and grannies cooking apple pies, etc.

There arises then a conflict.  Is an apple to be understood as the naturally occurring object that grows on a tree, or is it understood to be the new product being referred to as an apple?  The majority (the mass market) will decide this issue. They see the the manufactured object as real. In time, what we know today to be an apple will disappear from consciousness.

By this logic, there is nothing in our world that cannot be systematically annihilated.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Infinitely Grey

I wear my life like a cheap suit
Infinitely grey
Tugging at the sleeves all day
Drapes my mannequin way
Infinitely grey
Pacing in my window all day

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Body Identity

Let us consider the power of art to construct body identity, be it gender, political, or individual identity. Usually, the analysis leaves one with a general distaste for the apparent abuse of arts. I would like to explore a few aspects of this recurring theme.


There is an implied desire to have body references be neutral. However, neutrality doesn’t seem to be an option in art, since the very construction of art is shot through and through with value associations… and in the context of art, neutrality is the equivalent of not choosing. But in not choosing, nothing gets made… and art is something that must be made.

A similar notion to neutrality is freedom. We hear writers refer to the body being freed from body images.  But I wonder, what would the body look like if it were free… and free of what? I think this idea of freedom is simply the idea of a neutral, nude body.

If no particular body can be neutral, can we at least have a generalized notion of a neutral body? Oddly enough, since every separate body is unique, to even speak “of the body” is to speak of a concept of the body. But to conceive of the body, we have to first observe several bodies, and then abstract from them certain characteristics that are (to us) relevant. So again, we are in the position of having to impose meaning on bodies even to form a concept of them.  How can bodies be free, if in the very thinking about them we have already conformed them to essentials?

Neutrality seems like a pervasive desire… the desire for freedom… but the desire for freedom can never be satisfied. Yet it comes up over and over again in the essays. I suspect that, ultimately, concerned writers are not interested in neutrality… but rather positing neutrality as a placeholder virtue, which when combined with the apparent evil of imagery full of non-neutral bodies, will buy them enough time to substitute their preferred imagery for the current status quo. Meet the new boss…

Private Body VS Social Body

I think another approach to body image neutrality is to define it in terms of a private body image, where a socially defined body image is seen as non-neutral… but that which we create from our own body is neutral.

This is intriguing, because it raises the questions of where body image comes from. As was stated above, body image (being a conception of the body), must obey the rules of any conceptual knowledge. That means, it’s creation is ruled by three things… first, perception of several bodies… secondly, the full context of what we already know about bodies at any point… and thirdly, the purpose we have for pursuing the knowledge in the first place.

Knowledge is purposeful; it is a means to an end. We don’t pursue knowledge for it’s own sake; we pursue it for our sake... as a means to some end we provide. Even intellectuals, who seem to read for no apparent purpose, actually have a purpose in mind. After all, even the absent minded philosopher doesn’t read just anything… but reads that which attaches to some pre-existing interest.

So if all knowledge begins (at least) with purpose… and purpose must be of value, then what is the purpose (or value) of a private body image? What would be the basis for a private image of the body? What would be the purpose?

I suspect that conceptions of the body are really of two sorts… public and private. It is tempting to say that conceptions of our own body is the primary conception… and that public body images are grafted over top of this at a later date as part of the general socialization we experience.

However, does awareness of our own bodies count as a conception of it… or as an image of ourselves? We don’t see ourselves as multiple, but as a singular self… and singularities don’t require conceptualization. In fact, the idea of singularity is a more advanced concept.

I suspect that our idea of the body is really the idea of bodies other than our own; since that is the thing we are always looking at, especially when we are young. And other bodies are multiple, and require conceptualization in order to be dealt with. Of course, we understand other bodies because we have our own body… we have a reference point.

I could argue that it doesn’t matter that we have a body or not, since we could still form the idea of bodies. After all, I understand the concept of “chair” despite not being a chair. Couldn’t I understand “human bodies” in a similar way… whereby the things about it I comprehend don’t require my own humanity?

But, I suppose that since we do have our own bodies, that our conception of bodies draws upon our awareness of that body. I suppose too that we end up including our own body into the collection of bodies that we consider when we form conceptions of bodies. In this way, I think our idea of self is inevitably drawn into sync with our ideas of others.

Along the lines of public body image… I wonder, what was the status of appearance in pre historical society? The analysis of prehistoric art typically yields insights into the anthropological sources of imagery.  In prehistoric art in which bodies are basically stick figures, seems to suggest that the human body was seen as irrelevant. I wonder if this argues for a public conception of the body as being the primary one.

If prehistoric thought is meta-social thought, then wouldn’t the lack of identity of the human body argue for the primacy of external reality as the fundamental focus of human thought? Since these prehistoric societies were not very socially sophisticated, wouldn’t the emergence of body image (as related to the development of figures in images) be tied to the emergence of society? Would the body become gain in significance as a locus of conceptual focus only when other bodies had social survival value to us? And if this is so, it would seem to tie body image into social forces, and in fact would make body image a function of culture.

I think that when we speak of public or private body images, we are speaking of two very different things. Body image, as it is most commonly referred to in critical writing, seems to be the public body image. As such, it cannot be neutral, and it cannot be outside the grasp of cultural forces. In fact, it will mirror the nature of cultural forces, and must necessarily do so. Private body image seems like a more advanced conception of the self. Its existence is implicit in self-awareness, but doesn’t exist as a conception until such time as we conceive of other bodies, of ourselves as similar to other bodies, or ourselves in opposition to other bodies. In either case, it is other bodies that frame the full awareness of ourselves. 

George Bataille's "Tears of Eros"... observations

George Bataille’s The Tears of Eros unfolds, innocently enough, as a simple timeline of the history of eroticism in art. According to Bataille, eroticism is set in opposition to Christianity, then aligns with Satanism (a real career killer), and is finally forced underground by god-fearing folk. From here on out, Bataille associates eroticism with (choose any three scary adjectives)… violence, sadism, and horror.

My response the essay The Tears of Eros took form early in the reading of it. I became simultaneously baffled by the content, and annoyed by the manner of the writing. For my befuddlement over content I’ll respond in a Reasonable Way, but for my annoyance over the manner or writing, I’ll respond in an Unreasonable Way.

The Reasonable Way (a response based on content)

I’ll begin by asking, “what is eroticism”? The standard dictionary definition is something like the following; Eroticism is an aesthetic focused on sexual desire, especially the feelings of anticipation of sexual activity. Sounds good to me. But now I have a problem… what do violence, horror, and death have to do with the anticipation of sexual activity? What is Bataille talking about?

I’m not sure that Bataille proves this central point in his essay; he merely asserts it. If I were to attempt a defense, I would say that it is NOT that images of violence, horror, and death are themselves erotic… or that actual death is erotic… but rather, that these images, in as much as they deal with the non-idealized body of vulnerable human flesh… the body of mortality… the body of sensuality, which like life is a fleeting experience… then to this extent they symbolize the nature of eroticism, but are not themselves erotic.

Bataille provides a clue (i.e., words that are literally right there in the essay, but whose meaning must be deciphered) when he writes… “But what is sobriety, if not the fear of everything that is not lasting, at least of that which seems as if it will not last”. Hmm, what could that possibly mean?

I take it to mean that sobriety is linked to reason and idealism, all of which focus on the unchanging, everlasting truth. The world of the erotic is the world of flesh, emotions, and sensations… a transient world derived from our animal nature.

Bataille makes another bold assertion with the following.
“… human consciousness – in price and humility, with passion and in trembling – must be open to the zenith of horror”.

Now clearly, we’ve all met people that we think should be open to the zenith of horror, but we don’t usually follow through with a threat like that. But why should all of humanity be open to such suffering?

I think this is a statement of the existentialist admonition to live in the truth, whereby we accept that the world of meaning, identity, and idealism that we create in order to make sense of living… is merely a diversion from the underlying truth of our lives. That truth being that we will all die, and that there is no meaning in life other than that which we project.  Living in truth is to live with the realization (which seems horrible) that our lives have no inherent meaning. But what does this have to do with eroticism, other than to equate the non-rational source of eroticism (our animal nature) with the blunt truth of our animal nature, which is that we are finite, material, and decaying things.

I suppose this last thing is exactly how it applies. Evolving as it has in a western cultural tradition that has historically maintained a dichotomy between the mind and body, eroticism is trapped forever on the body side of that dichotomy… and though the sensual pleasures of the body are many, their summation into the concept of the erotic unites them with other bodily conceptions, such as sickness, death, and decay. Thus doth the politic of the mind/body make strange bedfellows of eroticism and death.

The Unreasonable Way (a response based on form)

An alternative response to the essay is to focus on the form of the writing, rather than the content. The essay just comes across as so poorly written, in the sense that the reader is not immediately, or even eventually able to understand many of the points being made. I was overwhelmed by seemingly obscure passages, such as the following.

“Certainly, the possibility of error played a part: the demon, it seems, had the power to bestow good fortune. But such an appearance proved in the end to be deceptive. The inquisition had the power to disabuse”

“Lightness might have mad an appearance then only to open the way for heaviness… Sometimes laughter sets the stage for a hecatomb.”

“In his agitation there was the equivalent of an explosion that tore him apart but suffocated him nevertheless”.

And so on. And of course, the essay does contain five exclamation points! At any rate, what accounts for these strange and (to my mind) difficult formal writing devices?

My initial thought was that Bataille, being a French intellectual, was predetermined by his cultures (French culture, intellectual culture, and French intellectual culture) to be circumspect, emotional, and smugly unconcerned that his audience might not understand him. Curious about the man, I researched a little into his background. It turns out that really is a smug intellectual. However, a much more interesting picture emerged.

Bataille was a philosopher, a surrealist, a novelist, and a seminary school dropout. He was fascinated with human sacrifice and founded a secret society, the symbol of which was a decapitated man. These facts shed some light on his essay. I can now imagine a seminary student rejecting the priesthood, who then becomes a philosopher who rejects the Christian attitude toward eroticism. I can imagine someone fascinated with human sacrifice as being someone who is committed to the world of the flesh… perhaps one that would argue for the earthbound nature of Satanism. I can see the existentialist in him demanding that humanity live truthfully in the awareness of their own meaningless bodies.

Most significantly, I can imagine him as a surrealist, with the surrealist emphasis on subconscious processes… automatic writing, unedited by the rational mind. I can imagine him not writing essays, but spewing them.

This last point brings up a question that might explain why Bataille writing appears so confusing. If he does work in a more automatic way, tapping into the subconscious, then I have to ask, “What is the status of the unconscious mind in relation to this aforementioned mind/body dichotomy”. Is the unconscious (being non rational) assigned to our animal nature… or, since it is an element of consciousness, does it have the status of being mind? Is the unconscious mind, or is it body?

I don’t know the answer, but I can suppose that if it is the body, and if Bataille spontaneously spews his thoughts unprocessed… like a beat poet… can we interpret his words (to the extent that they are of the body) as being in themselves, erotic? Can words be erotic simply by being of the body, by being automatically called up from the subconscious?  If this is so, then a strange thing has occurred… that an essay, whose content is eroticism, is written in an erotic form.

As a final thought, it occurred to me that if one had never been drunk, but wanted to understand intoxication, that should talk to a drunk. Of course, when you do, you won’t understand what they’re saying (because they’re drunk).  So then you yourself might become drunk, so that you can understand the drunk, and therefore understand what intoxication is all about.  But when you are drunk, you won’t need to ask another drunk person what drunkenness is… you will be immediately aware of what drunkenness is all about. You have to physically enter the world of the drunk (or any world) to understand it. As you-know-who said… “No one can be told what the matrix is, you have to see it for yourself”.

By this analogy, Bataille is the intoxicated man, drunk on a cocktail of “of the body” automatic connections to his animal nature.  If his prose seems circumspect and emotional, it might be that I am sober to his intoxication.  Perhaps a precondition to awareness of eroticism is to enter the world of the erotic… the world of the body… the world of automatic writing where the mind must abandon consciously controlled literary sobriety. If the ideas produced there seem to stagger and swoon, who are we to say they’re out of control, maybe we’re standing too straight for our own good.

The Naked and the Nude... some thoughts

Kenneth Clarke’s essay The Naked and the Nude asserts what it will with such directness and clarity, that one could be excused for responding with a simple “I agree completely”. However, since complete agreement is boring, and complete disapproval is presumptuous, it might be better to explore a singular point of interest, so as to avoid being either dull or boorish.

The essay is chock full of observations, which are worth summarizing below in order to hold before one the sum total sum total of Clarke’s insights.

Nakedness and nudity
Nude as form of art, not subject of art
Nude as perfection
Aristotle’s concept of art bringing nature to a finish
The Classical Greek Mind
Mathematical perfection, harmony, order
Cult of nakedness, conquest of inhibition
Human wholeness, mind and spirit are one
Matter and form are one
Theories and difficulties with ideal proportions
Impossibility of the photographic nude
The nude as representing ourselves
Animal representations vs. Human representations
The desire for human contact in our reaction to the nude
The absence of nudes in Asian art
The nude as dependent on abstract view of body
Classical desire for figure gone forever

Such a thorough analysis of any subject matter will tend to produce respect for the subject, if only a begrudging respect. However, one suspects that Clarke’s respect for the nude is not so begrudging, and that the depth of his analysis equals his reverence for the subject. Given that, it seems unexpected that he should wrap up his essay with the following statement.

“Such an insatiable appetite for the nude is unlikely to recur. It arose from a fusion of beliefs, traditions, and impulses very remote from our age of essence and specialization.”

One can imagine modernists heaving a collective sigh of relief, and traditionalists feeling betrayed. But no one should feel vindicated or eradicated by Clarke’s remark. For just as the nude is not a subject of art, but a type of art… so too could we should see Clarke’s remark as asserting that the nude is not an simply a product of culture, but that nude is a type of culture.

What type of culture would that be? Well, a culture of nudity, of course. In the simplest terms, the nude stems from nudity, with which the Greeks were familiar and comfortable, and in which they exalted. 

The difference between this Greek attitude and our own can be measured by noting how odd it sounds to relegate the exalted category of The Nude to the term nudity… a term which connotes a kind of campy silliness… images of nudist colonies, flaccid penises, butt cracks showing above towels, and cartoon caricatures of women desperately covering their breasts and naughty-bits when the bathroom door accidentally slides open to reveal their pale flesh to a gentleman caller.

Nudity to us is silliness… a silliness at one end of the spectrum of our collective body image. The other end is pornography. And there we are, stuck in the middle… turning away in laughter from the one end, and shame from the other… and in the end requiring the exalted category of The Nude to even see ourselves. Alienated to that extent from our bodies, the mirror is not good enough.

The very differentiation between the naked and the nude serves to define this distinction to a modern western mind that needs to dress up nudity (nakedness) in order to make is socially acceptable. Would the Greeks have held this distinction? Greek pottery reveals endless images of nudes men and women in countless arrangement…. all of them would be totally ridiculous in our culture… but the Greeks wouldn’t bat an eye.

Imagine going to department store and buying a vase covered in drawings of contemporary people running naked through the country. If one could hold up a scientific instrument to measure how absurd that would feel to us, then THAT would be the difference between our world and the Greek world.

Would the Greeks even understand the distinction between the naked and the nude? For Clarke, the need to distance the naked from the nude derives the need to correspond his thought to the general mind/body dichotomy that dominates western philosophic thought. The Greeks originated philosophic thought on these matters, but don’t seem to be subject to this particular duality.

Clarke alludes to both of these conditions ( culture of nudity and absence of mind/body duality) in the following paragraph, in which he also frames the issue of the cultural relativity.

“Greek confidence in the body can be understood only in relation to their philosophy. It expresses above all their sense of human wholeness. Nothing related to the whole man could be isolated or evaded; and this serious awareness of how much was implied in physical beauty saved them from the two evils of sensuality and aestheticism.”

Mind/Body Duality

In  the last sentence above, Clarke equates isolation with sensuality, and evasion with aesteticism.

Cultural Relativity:

“Greek confidence in the body can be understood only in relation to their philosophy.”

The use of the word confidence seems innocent enough, until one considers that it is not as assertive as a term such as belief, which might just as well have been used here.  Confidence is an empirical notion… the idea of a reasonable expectation, not an absolute awareness. To use the stronger word belief would require one to argue more formally. This would require a formal philosophic system. It would also imply that cultural ideologies are somehow contained in formal systems, which is not generally the case.

So instead we are given the term confidence, which means we don’t have to jump down the philosophic rabbit hole, and can instead simply accept that whatever the Greeks were, that they were the product of whatever came before them, that led to their particular evolution.

A parallel situation can be seen in the evolution of animals, where the identity of the mutation (the new species) is contained in the scientific analysis of the mutation. However, the identity is not the cause of the new species. The new species is a mutation of an old species.  If we apply this thinking to Classical Greek culture, then we can say that the identity of Classical Greek culture is contained in the historical analysis of those times, but that the cause of Classical Greek culture is not.

I can more easily imagine a great cosmology springing forth from a young child staring intently into the heavens, than I can imagine a great cosmological theory stoking the desire to explore. Theories may explain natural inclinations, but they do not give rise to them. Mostly, theories give rise to other theories, and theorists.

Body references in art

The claim that all art refers to the body is odd at first. After all, it seems we search in vain for the bodily reference in things like Ad Reinhardt’s (nearly) solid blue canvases, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or Kazimir Malevich’s squares.

But however odd this appears, the various explanations of how these artworks refer to the body actually make perfect sense. After all, who can deny that Pollock’s drip paintings captured the gestures of his body as he laid the paint down… or that Malevich’s squares were coded by their size and color to represent social groups (of bodies)… or that Rheinhardt’s (nearly) solid blue canvases somehow challenge the visual acuity of our bodies. 

There are other examples. Bodies can be referenced due to their absence, such as when we interpret a bed not simply as a bed, but as being an empty bed, that is, a bed without a body.  Performance art uses the body as a medium. Depicting any object that humans create or utilize is also a reference to the body, and so any still life painting probably refers to the body as well. We also require bodies to make or view art… and of course, there are always actual depictions of bodies (yawn).

This type of analysis is gratifying. By expanding the concept of body reference beyond simply representations of bodies (as subject matter), we are able to explore the non-obvious relationships that the body brings to the production of art. The body as the subject matter becomes a subset of body references within art, multiplying the power of art to reference bodies. Given the crucial role that the body plays in life, it appears that the ability to consider its expanded presence in art is of considerable value to artists and viewers alike.

HOWEVER… When we scratch the surface of all this newfound wisdom, things start to get weird.

The general idea behind expanded body references in art is the awareness that anything man creates or affects will bear evidence of the man… and since the man is a body too… all things created or affected by man are references to the body. The difficulty here is that this includes not only convenient things like paintings, artistic constructions, and performance art… but also less convenient things, like lead pipes, shoehorns, and cornflakes. It might strike on as disturbing to have vested so much significance in the ability of art to reference bodies, and then to turn around and find out that cornflakes share in this virtue, perhaps even more than Malevich’s squares.

If we take our time, and are not too dismissive, we can deconstruct the simple cornflake, and discover literal and symbolic references to the body. Corn flakes are not naturally occurring objects. Cornflakes are created by man. Cornflakes are made to the scale of the human body, so that they can be readily ingested. The energy they provide allows one to conduct the business of their life… and multiplied across the many boxes of cereal that power America, these simple flakes take on not only the literal meaning of providing energy to run the country… but also ascend to the symbolic importance inherent in every Kellogg’s Cornflakes television commercial… the sociology of convenience, the decline of nutrition, and the marketing of consumer foods. This exercise only scratches the surface of what body references can be inferred from a box of corn flakes.

All sarcasm aside, the point here is to show that underlying the expansion of body references in art seems to push art closer to cornflakes than previously thought possible… a situation (let’s assume) that most would want to avoid.

Whether this cornflake conundrum is relevant requires that we examine the nature of body reference more closely. This analysis will examine body reference using the following sets of parameters;

1. Intended vs. Unintended
2. Perceptual vs. Conceptual


Previously, the only similarity between a painting and a cornflake would have been that both are composed of matter and both take up space. To spend time talking about a painting as composed of matter and taking up space tells us nothing about the painting as an art object.  Existing and taking up space are not seen as necessary or sufficient properties of a painting, but rather, are an inevitable requirement of their physical existence… a condition they share with all paintings, all art, all man-made things, and all matter existing in the universe. There is nothing artistic about the temporal and spatial aspects of a painting.

In general, any characteristic of an art object that is a precondition to its physical existence, or its existence as a man-made object, is not necessarily a property of its artistic identity.

Body reference is just such a characteristic. As has been argued and conceded, it is inevitable that any man-made object has a body reference in it (as we have seen)… and this does not rely on the maker of the object either intending it, or even being aware of it. 

Given that art requires intention, unintended aspects of its construction do not necessarily have artistic relevance. Therefore, though all art objects inevitably contain a body reference, it is not necessarily true that those references have any artistic relevance. For instance, any body reference that results only from the physical requirements of constructing or viewing the art object can be considered unintended, and therefore not necessarily relevant.


Of those body references that we grant intention to (and therefore artistic relevance) there are those that are perceptual, and those that are conceptual.

Conceptual body references are such things as empty beds, still life objects, and canvas size. They are conceptual because their artistic import is a function of inferring a relation to an absent body, rather than reacting to a body directly. They are indirect, which is the nature of concepts.

Perceptual body references are such things as actual images of bodies contained in the art object. They are perceptual because they are perceived. Perception is an automatic function of the mind, whereby the visual field is integrated into a coherent collection of things that we see as distinct objects. This perceptual awareness feeds subconscious processes, including emotional reaction. Art exploits this automatic functioning to arrange and represent objects, allowing perception to feed the subconscious.

The difference between perceptual body references and conceptual body references is that the former evoke emotional response from the nature of the image, where the latter requires an inference from the image. Inference is an operation of the conceptual mind, and its presence indicates (in the case of a conceptual body reference) that the perceptual mechanism has not necessarily been engaged.

This distinction between the perceptual and the conceptual leads to the following idea… that although a body reference may be found in a work of art, it does not mean the work of art is about the body. Only perceptual references can be about the body. Conceptual references are not about the body. Empty beds are about the absence of a body. The about-ness of a work of art is a function of what is perceived in the work… and only the perception of a body can make an artwork about the body. Conceptual references, being indirect, are (at best) about being about the body.

In fact, perceptual body references are not references at all… they are perceptual bodies. They don’t refer to anything. They are the thing itself. One can argue that all images are simply signs, and therefore references to other things… and this is generally true… but the context of art IS the context of visual signs… in which the distinction between a painted figure and a body is non existent. A painted figure is not a reference to another body… it is a body considered unto itself. A painting of an empty bed is a conceptual reference… not to a body (a particular body that is perceived visually).. but to the body (the body in general, which is conceived of  in the conceptual mind).


Whether these arguments and distinctions are correct (and even matter) depend on one’s view of the nature of art, the nature of the mind, and the nature of concept formation. But then again, everything we say about art depends on such distinctions, or (the usual case) their absence.

It is disturbing to consider that so much is spoken about art with so little foundation. We live in a world where it is totally acceptable to say things like “everything is art”… or “who can know what art is”… or “art is what artist’s make”. These statements deny any meaningful identity to art, and provide no foundation for critical analysis of the issues that arise there.

It doesn’t take much prodding to drive most people to claim, “Everything is art”. After all, to deny artistic identity to a cornflake requires the radical act of judging and excluding… both anathema in our  “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” world. The moral relativism inherent in this point of view… this refusal to identify and judge... is an aspect of a more general skepticism, which I refer to as the  “Everything is Everything” mentality. Deny identity and everything is the same, and everyone is right, and everyone is good… and we don’t have to judge or be judged, and we can never be wrong.

The idea that all art contains references to the body seems generally correct, but as this analysis has shown (hopefully), it is not so cut and dry. Distinctions exist that might allow the rejection of certain references, and that differentiate perceptual references from conceptual ones.

The claim “All art contains body references” is potentially a variation of the general claim “Everything is Everything”. It all depends on who says it, and why, and what they mean by it. When I see others accepting body reference as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… and do so without critical debate… I suspect a motive beyond reason… I see the emotional motive of embracing yet another variation of “Everything is Everything”… and the relief that brings them…. which gives yet another sad meaning to the oft cited conjunction “Art and Fear”.