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Archives for November, 2006

Compelling Fiction

Arthur, in the comments to this post, wrote

This is so, I think, because great (or even merely good) art is not primarily concerned with presenting literal truth. (This is more the role of science and philosophy). Rather, the role of art is to present compelling fictions. By “fiction”, I don’t mean necessarily a conventional narrative. I mean that works of art create their own worlds, with their own rules.

Robert Adams expressed some thoughts that I think are related to this in his book Beauty in Photography.  First thought – “The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.” And the second thought is “There is always a subjective aspect in landscape art, something in the picture that tells us as much about who is behind the camera as about what is in front of it.”

It seems to me that quite a lot of landscape art (painting, sketching, photography) is not so much about presenting a compelling fictional world, separate from reality.  It’s about presenting a glimpse into how that reality is seen by the artist.

I’m not sure if that’s agreeing with Arthur or not.  But I think Arthur’s got a fascinating insight, and I’d sure like to see more discussion along those lines.

(photograph above not particularly relevant to this discussion.  I just think the blog looks nicer with images embedded in the stream of posts.)

Religious art


Larger version.

One of the big nagging questions in my mind during this year has been how we look at art from cultures that are not our own. When I did this course, for example, it was a question that the tutors shied away from.

Things which troubled me have included how we distinguish universal icons from mere local cultural references, and how we begin to look at art when we don’t understand the references.

Mostly when I’ve talked to people about this they seem to have assumed that I’m talking about non-western art – say African, or Chinese. But to me, the same issues apply within the European tradition. Our culture is diverse, and add in a time dimension – say 500 years or so – and I can be pretty well adrift on any ‘shared cultural experience’ assumption.

Religious art is an obvious example. What some Renaissance Italian was thinking as he painted the walls of a church is pretty remote from my perspective.

Nigel Warburton has written a really interesting post about whether aetheists can appreciate religious art. It is recommended reading even if, on the face of it, the subject matter doesn’t appeal to you.

Also posted on Photostream.

Why paint? (part ii)


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The Universal Survey Museum

If anyone in any western part of  the world wants to look at historical works of art of universal truth, visits a museum. Museums collect and care for scientific, artistic, historical objects of importance and display them for public viewing through exhibitions that are either permanent or temporary. Unlike art galleries, museums are usually not run for the purpose of making a profit but to provide historical education to the public. No other place has the wealth and the importance of a museum and its arts that can draw the attention of millions of visitors every year.
The national museums for instance are design to remind temples with its monumental distinction. The stairs are elevated from the ground to give rise to the culture and the high ceilings and columns resemble an Ancient mythological sanctuary. This architecture is designed and studied to make an impact in our perception and change our behaviour as just in temples, churches, palaces and places of worship.
Museums exemplify the idea of state by following the roman architectural style to symbolize authority. The contents are not displayed randomly, the structure of how things are organized, layout of the rooms and works related to each region are super imposed, making the viewer independently of age, education or class to walk as if in a ritual. The works of art stand as adorned pieces just like in sacred ceremonial monuments, and are displayed chronological as teaching the evolution of its history. Art is displayed as a progress that comes from a gradual change; next evolution refines what previous generation has done. An individual piece of art in a museum for instance becomes an important piece in its historical relationship labelled by name and date. The different types of museums hold a vast collection of important selected objects of each field and have their different iconographic programme but the universal survey museums are the ones who present a wider variety of art history. These museums different from other kinds of institutions, are of peak importance and are meant to impress visitors and royalties that come from anywhere else in the world.
The royal art gallery and the public art gallery for instance were very different politically. The royal art gallery stand for the king’s possession while the public art gallery belonged to the citizens. 
The first public museum was the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1793 during the French Revolution allowing access to the royal collections for people of any status. The Louvre museum is one of the most important in the world and holds the most prestigious works of art.
This has revolutionized the experience of viewing art in museums through history by its open doors to the public. Anybody from any class or background can visit a museum and take as much from its intellectual wealth. Museums became as sites for educating the masses in taste and refinement until our days. Today, museums are as the most important places for educating children and adults, after schools and libraries, and one of the most reliable sources of information, more valued than books, radio, newspapers and the Internet. 

Exploding Technique

In my last post, I gave a definition for art as the “quality of communication.” That was the shortest conceivable statement.

The long version of the definition, without using the words “communication” or “quality” would be,”That which is imparted or transmitted by any means and is perceived to have a supreme or very great degree of excellence.”

By classing art within the broader confines of communication we have tools we can use to make the study of art quite a bit less arbitrary and a quite a bit more useful to explain, predict, and enhance. So that is a useful definition.

Michelangelo David

I’ve included here one of the inimitable Michelo Angelo’s most famous pieces. It is an interesting mix of idealism and realism. The contrast between the religious and erotic imperatives informed much of the great man’s work. The overly large head and hands of this David have always intrigued me. It was as though dear Michelo was saying, “The secret of David is his mind and his craft, not his beauty, for beauty fades, but these endure.”

There is really no faulting the technique here. At this level, any nitpicking sounds like the Fox in the old fable who when he could get the grapes he wanted, complained they “sour.”

This piece exemplifies the perfect marriage of technique and message.

But this union is not always obvious.

Someone could say, “Well God made the universe, so when I look at the sky, I am looking at His art.”

Certainly, the sky can be aesthetic. That’s why using the word “aesthetic” in a definition of art is so problematic. The definitions are circular.

Maybe God did make the universe. If so, the above statement could be true. If God did not make the universe, then we might have a hard time considering the sky art since it violates the notion of a conscious creation and hence our sense that communication requires an originator and at least some vague intention. But if we are to define art in a way that encompasses every view of the universe, then we cannot rightfully exclude such beliefs simply because we do not happen to believe there was a conscious cause and therefore not a true communication.

We can narrow our definition of communication to exclude such things; we can broaden it to include the will of God or gods; we can narrow it to exclude non conscious transmissions, or we can broaden it to include non conscious transmissions; regardless, we have a means of understanding why one person will experience something as art and another will not.

Intention need not be a complexly pre-conceived “message.”

“I will now make a picture of a cat,” or “Hmmm… I like the shape of that water line. I think I shall take a picture of that,” is intention enough, it seems, to satisfy the requirement of a creative impulse from a creator for communication to occur. Because communication can be complex does not mean that it must be complex. Often the very best art is based on simplicities so profound they cannot be easily be expressed in words and indeed were not conceived that way by the artist.

If art, while having its own ideals, is classed within the broader category of communication, it follows that art will obey the rules of communication. The success or failure of any work of art can be understood the same way communications succeed or fail.

That summarizes the key points of my previous post. Purposely, I ignored the vast subject of craft or skill to keep the scope sufficiently narrow, but I did say, that understanding that art was a subset of communication can be used to explode the relationship between art and technique.

Here, I make good on that promise.

Our entry point into that explosion is found in the word “quality.”

But I must do a little backtracking and undercutting. Forgive me if the following paragraph is too pedantic, but I cannot assume everyone knows this.

How supreme the “supreme” in quality is, is naturally a matter of opinion, but when we crack the dictionary and look up the word “art,” we see the root meanings in all the Western tongues go back to “craft” or “skill.” In Greek, we have the root, techne, from which we get “technical” and “technique.” Techne and the Latin ars were regarded by ancient peoples to be so nearly synonymous that they were considered merely different sounds for the same thing. In Sanskrit, an Indo-European language also, the word ars is even more fundamental — to make, to fashion, to form. That may be the most ancient surviving meaning. Linguists differ on this. It is possible the Sanskrit word evolved while the Latin remained true to the original Indo-European sense, but common to all the original meanings is an implicit expectation that craft, in order to be considered worthy, must be excellent in implementation.

In the arts you will find people who disagree with this. It might be two tenths of a percent; it might be as high as five percent, but most of the human race will expect that anything which is to be regarded as excellent art must have excellence of execution.

It was that pesky 0.2 to 5.0 percent that defied explanation.

I have dreaded bringing Picasso up.

Picasso Guernica

In about something less than one in twenty households in the US that actually hang art on their walls, you are likely to find a Picasso print or two. He and his consequences need to be explained. In other forums, whenever anyone points out that Picasso was really not very skilled, there seem to be several minions of the mediocre who have to rush in and carefully “explain” how that is not so.

The industrious champions of skillessness will provide links to the same old crappy work Picasso did when he was a young teenager. These are supposed to show just how talented he really was, but in fact only show that when he was fourteen he could paint like the average sixteen year old art student of the era.

We will see the same old beginner errors. We’ll see that same, ugly heavy handedness he never overcame his entire life. Picasso never did learn how light will diffract on the edges of objects and so he always tended to juxtapose his lightest lights and darkest darks in a naíve effort to separate objects from the background to the foreground. He never did overcome his inability to draw conic sections. He never really got perspective. Always his paint is over blended or under-blended.

It’s all so obvious to anyone who really can draw and paint. So obvious, that to us, protestations to the contrary are used as shibboleths.

[Short definition: A shibboleth is code used to test whether someone is really a part of a group or not. For example, anyone who says, “You know, time is the fourth dimension,” reveals that he or she is not a scientist and indeed, really does not know much about math.]

So “Picasso was an extremely skillful painter” is a shibboleth that indicates the person does not really know how to draw or paint.

But still, regarding Picasso, there will be those same old versions of quotes from writers who did not know how to paint or draw like Gore Vidal, Henry Miller, and Gertrude Stein about what a gre e e eat draftsman he was.

All that misses the whole point.

It’s not that Picasso wasn’t a great artist. He was.

He was a great artist because he could achieve powerful communications. He was not a great artist because of his technique. He was a great artist despite his crude, even disgusting, lack of skill.

Picasso accumulated a fan club of hyperbole wielding people who, like him, wanted “not to create art, but destroy it.”

Art in Picasso’s era was in need of some destroying. It had become too rule bound and pretentious. Only the very wealthiest people could afford it. (Picasso himself found his prices ironic and tried to do cheaply priced things, but collectors drove those prices up too.) The catastrophes of life and betrayals of ideals in Europe during WWI and it’s conclusion, WWII, were not addressed by the earlier aristocratic traditions. People lost their faith in the old guard, for the old guard had brought them ruin. Indeed, the birth of of popular atheism in America tracks right back to this era. Picasso correctly addressed the rage and despair felt by many. His crude technique was appropriate to his message. His was a righteous anti-pretty, anti-beauty crusade. Reality was too horrifying to be faced directly, but the horror, meanwhile, had become internalized. Picasso told the truth. It was ugly.

Unfortunately, some people people learn the wrong lesson. They think that because Picasso could be so successful with his crap technique, so too can they. But lacking his energy, originality, passion, self promotional skills, and stable of pet writers, they flop.

In music, it just drives classically trained musicians batty that bands like AC/DC could rock the house and sell so many tickets while the technically brilliant symphony groups or jazz ensembles so often have trouble making ends meet. But Picasso and bands like AC/DC spoke a message that addressed the needs of certain audiences. It was not about being “pretty” or “beautiful.” It was a primal scream of naked, unadorned emotion.

The mistake is to overly intellectualize this. The lesson is simple. Technique need only be good enough to get the job done.

What technique you use depends on the job you are trying to accomplish.

Technique is subordinate to the message.

To continue a musical analogy, I once came across a little book in the bargain bin of a music store. It was called Harmony. What caught my attention was the author’s name: Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I bought the book. At the time, I was teaching myself the keyboard. Tchaikovsky, interestingly enough, did not even play music until he was over forty. So he knew what it was to be an adult learner. His explanations of music theory were purely aesthetic. He concentrated on the types of feelings that various chords produced. Here’s a quote, “If we accept the notion that in music, as in all art, we are to express all the emotions of the human soul, then we must master dissonance, for our feelings are understood and made known not in isolation, but in contrast.”

I would say that an artist who can only deal in beauty, is not much of an artist. Life is full of ugliness. You may not want to hang it on your wall, but that does not mean it isn’t art. The purpose of technique to is carry the signal. What signal that is, is the choice of the artist.

Some artists get by on technique alone. They really have no message. They can do this because their technique is good enough to itself cause an impact. Their carrier wave is so strong, that there really need be no more signal than that. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder what they could accomplish if they did have a passionate message however, those highly skilled artists.

I wonder what they would do, those passionate but naíve artists, if they actually knew how to draw and paint.

I can’t help but think that both would make better art.

This post also appears on rexotica.

Why paint?


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The Role of Art

In his book The View from the Studio Door, Ted Orland goes on at length about the function of Art in society.  In particular, this passage caught my attention:

Most historical artwork played a role in society or religion or both.  There’s pretty good evidence that Bach himself understood that to make work that mattered meant addressing art at every level – from the purely technical to the completely profound – simultaneously.  He once composed a set of training pieces whose purpose, he said, was “to glorify God, to edify my neighbor, and to develop a cantabile style of playing in both hands.”

Some version of Bach’s three tiered work order might be a worthwhile guide for artists working today.  Today most artwork is not part of something larger than itself.  It certainly isn’t within the art world, where the embattled but still dominant postmodernist view holds that artists are not even the authors of their own work – that there is no such thing as an ‘original’ piece of art, but rather that we make art by taking things out of their original context (i.e. deconstruct them) and reassemble them in a new context.  The idea that the subject of art is art may be a stimulating intellectual proposition within the art world, but it goes a long way toward explaining why most non-artists find zero connection between their own life and that same art.  How deeply can art matter if the only fitting description of its meaning and purpose is “art for art’s sake”?

I’m highly sympathetic to Orland’s view of things.  What do you think?