Saturday, June 03, 2017

MY FAVORITE LIGHTNING


From the perspective of a cartoonist:

If a lightning bolt's trousers came unbuckled and it slipped on a banana peel, it would look like George Herriman's marvelous, loopy version.  Plus, his black cloud and raindrops put Robert Motherwell to shame. 



From the perspective of a graphic designer:

This brilliant design is not only visually powerful but substantively strong as well: for a column about "judgement day" it effectively conveys the crack of doom.





From the perspective of a conceptual artist:

Saul Steinberg tugs a loose thread on the fabric of reality, and pulls that lightning bolt straight.  



From the perspective of an animator:

The beautiful pastoral sequence in Walt Disney's Fantasia animates the full story of lightning, beginning when Zeus appears in the clouds  during a storm.  The preliminary drawing is above, the final screenshot is below: 



A concept painting shows lightning from the fingertips of Zeus....

...but the final film shows Vulcan hammering out lightning on his celestial anvil for Zeus, with showers of sparks...


...and captures the motion of Zeus hurling his lightning bolts down on targets below.





From the perspective of an earthwork artist:

Spending the night in Walter DeMaria's Lightning Field , a network of gleaming lightning rods in a remote corner of the high desert of western New Mexico is a deeply moving aesthetic experience.

I find each of these versions of lightning brilliant in its own way,  the casual scribble in the Sunday comics as well as the epic metal sculpture luring real lightning down from the sky.   

As the great Walt Whitman said:
I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any.
Like lightning, originality only strikes once.  Or as the slightly less great Willie Tyler said:
The reason lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place is that the same place isn't there the second time.

81 comments:

kev ferrara said...

Dontcha know... Nicolai Tesla himself was a wonderful postmodernist. Westinghouse was his agent and dealer. And now all our houses are graced with his miraculous Art, which runs our refrigerators and toasters.

(Every time lightning strikes a postmodernist, a "bright idea" alights a dim bulb.)

Anonymous said...

That pencil drawing from Fantasia is awesome. I like it better than the final.

JSL

Anonymous said...

What about Frazetta's Against the Gods ? Or a sample from Burne Hogarth's unpublished masterwork , DYNAMIC LIGHTNING BOLTS ?

Al McLuckie

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I was about to suggest that Tesla was a little early for postmodernism, but I double checked and sonuvagun, the term "post-modern" was coined in the 1880s. You learn something new every day around here.

I'd be interested in your reaction to the lightning field-- I suspect that earth art is not your cup of tea, but if you could see your way to be a little flexible with your definition of sculpture, even your flinty old heart might be thrilled by the experience.

In the meantime, how do you like that Herriman drawing? I think that's one fabulous lightning bolt.

JSL-- Every time I revisit Fantasia, I'm impressed anew.

Al McLuckie-- Hah! Excellent point! They say people love to be complimented for things they are worst at. Hogarth had to have been one of the stiffest, least dynamic artists around yet he kept cranking out those "dynamic" books. He could've made even lightning look leaden and overworked.

Anonymous said...

Disney's concept art is way better than the final result.

kev ferrara said...

David,

I love everything Herriman. And, to be frank, I could really use a cartoon brick to the head right about now.

I think we've already bashed each other regarding the lightning field. But I’ll rehydrate your parched memory on the subject (although they say not to re-wet mold, for it renews the vigor of the bacteria).

My take is that the Lightning Field (LF) is no different, fundamentally, from a roller coaster, which is also “sculpted” in the sense you are using that word; located and constructed by design to subject the viewer to a certain kind of event; one where he is exposed to a particular profound power of nature, rendering him seemingly helpless before it. In the case of the LF we have electricity/lightning/vastness and in the case of Roller Coaster (RC) we have gravity, heights, and inertia.

A hike along a precarious mountain trail would be another version of controlled immersion into the awe and danger of natural forces. Parasailing would be another. (I can't think of a similar earthwork/ride that uses magnetism to expose the audience to awe and thrill. But a visit to one of our greater junkyards where a giant electromagnet is used to crane automobiles around like dinky toys might be comparable.) Bearing witness to an atomic explosion might also qualify as one of these subjugation-to-nature events. As would whitewater rafting, or some method of riding a tsunami.

kev ferrara said...

It may be so, that, because the LF isolates its audience and encourages stillness, it also encourages more contemplation of the dwarfing natural forces at play, and so is a more meditative experience than some those others I've mentioned. But we are, either way, getting into "projection test" territory again, nonetheless... where the presentation offers a certain kind of vague suggestion as content, and the psychological makeup of the subject takes it from there, doing all the work of finding meaning through the caprice of the subconscious.

Such a procedure is not (what I understand to be) the essential nature of Art; as a means to communicate understanding directly and specifically upon the emotional intuition through the subliminal orchestration of the sensations of plastic form. Such is a particular kind of linguistic event requiring tremendous organization of the form itself. The sensations encouraged are not a simplex; the very reason the exact shape of the performance is not left to natural chance. And the sensation complex does not overwhelm by actual physical power, but by, one might say, hypnotic suggestion or symbolic suffusion; which is the key difference between actual life and aesthetic experience.

Once, long ago, in the midst of a stormy breakup and just after a violent summer rainstorm that lasted several hours, I saw a perfect strike of lightning exactly bisect a flawless sky-spanning rainbow. If I could re-generate that event at will, it would knock your socks off. But it wouldn't be art. It would be a designed event generated by a feat of engineering; stagecraft at the scale of the gods, but stagecraft nonetheless.

All to say, I believe many engineered or designed events, though thrilling, moving, enriching, awe-inspiring, and enlightening, can still be distinguished linguistically from Art.

As for my heart, it is forever young. My brain, on the other hand, is up for recall.

David Apatoff said...

Anonymous-- Well, I certainly agree with part of what you say. I love Disney's concept art, backgrounds and even animation drawings. Still, sometimes the final result can have strengths and features that the preliminary art just can't match. Those fabulous lurid blues and purples and reds in Fantasia, the sorcerer's apprentice bailing the water underwater, or swirling around on top of a book in the whirlpool, the movement of pixies and fairies in the Nutcracker sequence-- I think final animation contributes a lot to these.

Kev Ferrara-- Glad to hear your reaction to the Herriman lightning bolt. As for the lightning field, I had some vague recollection that the subject had come up before but I searched for it on my blog and came up dry. I hope I'm not repeating myself.

We seem to agree that "engineered or designed events can be thrilling, moving, enriching, awe-inspiring, and enlightening." That suggests that such events are not necessarily a lower form of experience than art, only different. Their difference isn't in the materials from which they are made (the lightning field, like traditional sculpture, is made from clay and metal) nor is it in the intent of the maker (Bierstadt wanted to inspire awe too). You say they can be differentiated "linguisitically," but to what end? To satisfy a challenge in taxonomy?

I don't want to call a roller coaster "Art," and I'd be hard pressed to draw a principled distinction between the roller coaster experience and the lightning field, but it's not clear how you draw a distinction between the lightning field (or other earth art, such as spiral jetty) and sculpture.

Your linguistic distinction seems to center around the artists's "control." I understand your point that it is not enough for an artist to be an impresario for mother nature, but on the other hand too much control by the artist (communicating "directly and specifically," with "tremendous organization" not leaving the shape of the performance to "natural chance") strikes me as placing too much faith in deliberate acts controlled by the artist. I assume you agree with me that too much control puts a choke hold on an image; Andrew Wyeth might appear to be one of the most controlled artists around, but one reason he is an artist while Steven Dohanos is a technician is that after carefully painting a field of grass with individual controlled brush strokes, Wyeth hurled a pot of paint at the picture and let nature's accidents of hydrology and gravity play an important role. So, much important art relies heavily on intuition and accident and natural forces and materials. Ronald Searle and Ralph Steadman don't control, directly and specifically, where those ink spatters go. Virgil Finlay and Drew Friedman, on the other hand, directly and specifically control each dot in their stippling, and their work suffers as a result. So surely we can agree that much of the highest art has an element of wildness in it, yes?

If so, we're only talking about a matter of degree. I can understand why you might think that the lightning field has too much nature, but I'm not sure where you'd draw the line, or even whether a fixed line is be desirable, except for the purpose of excluding roller coasters.

kev ferrara said...

Your linguistic distinction seems to center around the artists's "control."

The actual distinction is technical and involved. It is really the nature of the plastic control, not just the fact of it, that tells; just how information is encoded through suggestion into the form, and how all those suggestions form various kinds of meaningful grammatical relationships in a picture; all falling under “composition.” Just as one would expect, the composition of a picture is just as governed by principles of thought as the composition of an essay. The difference is the language through which the thoughts are filtered, formed and expressed, which also controls the purview of ideas expressible via the respective languages.

Your question about overly controlled work is a good one. But splashing pigment on dead work, hoping for Andrew Wyeth-level magic isn’t the easy fix you seem to purport. For most artists, daring merely results in disaster. Dumb courage doesn’t stop being dumb just because it is courageous. Andrew Wyeth, who is clearly not “most artists”, never stops being in control of his work even as he dares to attack it with abandon. And even if the daring becomes catastrophic to what had been accomplished up to that point, a master (such as he is) knows he can always regain control and re-master the picture if it warrants further effort. But even for the timid talent, all Art still begins life as improvisation. The difference between the greats and the groans is the creativity to generate striking original material and the sensibility and training to edit it (in order to enhance rather than dissipate the original charge of the idea.)

The real problem of “control”, as I see it, is when it causes stiffness, that feeling of lifelessness… which is really a stifling of the viewer’s imagination, (which is either due to a lack of suggestiveness, or untruthful suggestive relationships which confuse the imagination rather than prompt it to engage in instinctive “closure” procedures which complete the art). Without truth-based suggestiveness, a picture cannot move or breathe and so cannot be truthful to life. (Which is also to point out that “wildness” only has value if it is suggestive. If wildness merely vandalizes an otherwise fine image, it has anti-value.)

kev ferrara said...

As much as I detest stiffness in art, stiffness alone doesn’t stop a picture from being Art. It may stop it from being any good; it may prevent the quality of artfulness to some large degree. But, as I see it, whether something is art or not is wholly grounded on how the thing is put together out of plastic material, and not on how well it is done. This isn’t taxonomy for its own sake. It’s really a matter of communication science to me; that there is something objective in the plastic structure and organization of works of art that define and distinguish them from other kinds of messaging. And understanding these structural tendencies can not only provide instruction and clarity, but can also prevent (or at least flag) cultural pretension and degradation -- which would not only exclude roller coasters, but also punk art jokes (and other kinds of disguised text messaging.)

I also think getting clear about artistic principles can actually be a boon to creativity rather than a hindrance. Because principles sensitize us to the possibilities of the grammar of the language while also directing us where to focus creativity. Which prevents the wastefulness of groping and sprawl, while discouraging the nihilism of meaninglessness. (Imagine if every time you began to write a new blog post, you had to re-learn sentence and paragraph structure, or what exactly a point was, and how and why to bother making one? This kind of regression of expressive ability is why I consider postmodernism a kind of induced cultural alzheimers.)

Which is all to say, I would disagree with the utterly subjective way you go about bestowing or denying creative works the stature of “Art”, or creative workers the stature of “Artist”. Both Steven Dohanos and Boris Vellejo make art, not because I like their works, which I don’t, but because their art has the objective characteristics of art. (At least in my understanding.)

Anonymous said...

lightning is nice..but I want more Tanglewood Lane stories!..
D.H.

chris bennett said...

Anonymous: The Tanglewood stories are great, but anything that induces Kev's lightening to hit the church of post modernism (and light up aesthetic understanding on the way) is far, far greater. IMO.

Two marvellous posts from him just now. Thanks Kev.

Tom said...
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Tom said...

I have to agree with JSL and Anonymous, the concept drawing is infinitely more interesting to look at the the animation stills. Of course the animation moves while a drawing is fixed. I really like the arms of Zeus. His right arm extends froward toward the viewer while his left arm extends into the depths of space. It really makes you feel the size of the heavens along with the value
changes that take place from dark to light as the clouds ascend. It really has the feel of the actual world of space.

David you lamented the skills younger artist lack today, compared to B Fuchs in your last posts. But could Fuchs have made a drawing like that? I guess what I am asking is when does/did skill start to degenerate? I tend to think the more one can do without the help of "aids'" the stronger the art is.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- If you haven't seen the animated version of Zeus in Fantasia recently, I would urge you to do it. It is marvelous fun, and that extreme foreshortening you notice is played out very effectively several times, not just to show the scope of his reach but to show the height from the clouds, etc.)

In answer to your question, I think it's often difficult to distinguish between skills evolving and skills devolving, at least at the beginning. As artists refine their vision and focus in on what they want, they leave behind excess baggage that may no longer be necessary. On the other hand, as artists become tired and lose their zest for creative work, they leave behind baggage that may still be necessary. If you're asking about B Fuchs in particular, he continued to work all the time (including, as I've noted previously, sketching on his death bed.) He retained his lettering skills many years after he no longer needed them for anything but making street signs for Tanglewood Lane. So I have little doubt that he would be able to draw that arm.

chris bennett-- Don't encourage Kev, we only recently persuaded him to take those horse tranquilizer pills and you're going to get him all revved up again.

JSL and Anonymous-- I feel I've done the animated version of the Disney art a disservice by showing individual screen shots. As Tom notes, "Of course the animation moves while a drawing is fixed." See the animated movie and then think about how the two art forms compare.

Laurence John said...

Tom: "I tend to think the more one can do without the help of "aids'" the stronger the art is”.

i find that (good) drawing which is done completely from the imagination has a power that drawing which obviously relies upon photo-reference lacks.

which isn’t to say that illustrations which use photo-ref (such as Fuchs) can’t be beautiful or powerful, but that the obvious photo-ref gives them a kind of ‘window on reality’ feel, seen through a painterly veneer. whereas an illustration built entirely from the imagination feels more like a view into a fictional realm.

e.g. http://68.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lydfbt78JL1r9hn2oo4_1280.jpg

the latter tend to be considered ‘cartoony’ (even if they’re way more realistic than that extreme example by Dave Cooper) and the former ‘realistic’ so of course, each is suitable for different narrative purposes, but in my humble opinion the strongest draughstmen in any given point of history are the ones who can draw a convincing fiction purely from imagination.

poliveira said...

Hi David, you wouldn't happen to know the KIND OF NIBS herriman used would you?

chris bennett said...

Laurence -- I absolutely agree. The reason work done from nature generally scores over work done from photo ref is because the flux of nature forces the artist to imagine a synthesis of the ever-shifting scene in their mind in order to organise their pictorial thoughts. The photo encourages mindless mapping.

This is the fundamental difference between the photograph and the composed image; the later is always a fiction. So the degree to which a hand-made image manifests its source in photography is inversely proportional to its ability to evoke a purely fictional realm.

It is the same reason that animals and small children on stage, along with REAL tears or REAL anger, always breaks the fictional integrity of the play and therefore our belief in it.

kev ferrara said...
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kev ferrara said...

Chris, thanks.

I think I would stretch the point further regarding photo-dependence.

It seems to me that whatever the source of a work of art, that is what the work is about to a large degree. So, highly fantastical work is to a large degree about the fantastical imagination of the artist and his temperament. A well imagined fiction contains contemplation about the subject filtered through the artist's sensibility and philosophy. A diagrammatic illustration of an editorial point is mostly about the editorial. A portrait painted live from the model is about the living experience of that interaction between artist, subject, material, the passage of time, physical stamina, etc.

And artwork created with heavy dependence on photography is to a large degree about the photos. And I think this truth is evident in such work; provided the sensitivity is there in the viewer to intuit the lack of visual meaning which stems from its photo-basis. (Which may simply be a faint sense that some kind of aesthetic "life" is missing at some inner level of the work.)

What is fascinating is that some people simply can't feel the stiffness of photography. And so can't feel how it negatively affects art that is based on it. This is especially so, and more understandable, in cases where there is a determined effort by the artist to disguise the origin of the work's structure in mechanical processes. But even without this surface subterfuge, I imagine there are some people who are so enveloped into photographic representation that they can't tell what it lacks compared to real life. To them, it is indistinguishable from real life; they have been so indoctrinated by mechanical representation that it has become Natural to them.

This goes back to an earlier point that over-mediation in one's formative years can lead to developmental retardation in terms of visual understanding. Which would explain why so many bookish eggheads can't experience the finer aesthetic experiences that great art avails, and so they prefer infantile representations instead. Which might explain how and why the pseudo-philosophies of modernist and postmodernist manifestos gain such currency in academic circles.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I'll say this for you, you don't leave the kinds of comments that are easy to respond to between court filings. Let me see if I can go back and respond to your thoughtful remarks in a worthy way.

You say you understand the essential nature of art to be "a means to communicate understanding directly and specifically upon the emotional intuition through the subliminal orchestration of the sensations of plastic form." That strikes me as a valiant effort to define something that is worthwhile trying to define, but which is ultimately too open ended, elusive and evolving to be definable (at least that way). The internal consistency of your system may have practical value as a temporary barricade against the barbarian hordes, and I'm sure that that it suits your personal taste (at least for the most part), but I just don't think the process of art can be so confined.

My earlier response to you about "control" pertains not just to physical techniques of painting, but also to the conceptual nature of art-- you seek to keep art in the corral and I maintain it can jump the fence at will.

Let's go back and compare notes on some of your points -- you say that art is to "communicate understanding," yet there are plenty of artists, including some of the greats, who assert they don't "understand" a damn thing. Some say they act subconsciously, or try to let nature flow through them. Some consciously communicate a lack of understanding-- a dismay or despair at the incomprehensibility of the world, or fright at the existential void. Some art communicates feelings with shapes or colors but makes no claim to "understanding." Many artists strive to communicate awe, and would regard claims of "understanding" as blasphemous. And there is of course art which aspires not to communicate anything but just to "be." I'm not sure what qualifies you to exclude profound and illuminating works that fall outside that definition (unless you're prepared to say that everybody is entitled to their own personal definition, which would disappoint me).

Everything on the list I've mentioned focuses only on the artist's half of a two way "communication" process. If you agree that the viewer has to bring his or her own perceptions to the process in order for the artists's compact bundle of signals and clues to open up like a flower, then you'll agree that the "understanding" of the viewer sometimes ends up pretty far down the road from the original intent of the artist. Isn't that a large variable in your requirement for a "performance...not left to chance"?

So, why does this matter? [See next]

David Apatoff said...

It's no secret that I believe in standards, in the value of technical skills, in the importance of meaning and content, in art that communicates. For all these reasons I agree with most of what you say here. Yet, I also believe that too much control is as bad as too little control; that an artist who applies your standard of art as a "particular kind of linguistic event" which communicates "directly and specifically" with an "exact shape" that leaves nothing to "natural chance" is likely to create a closed box, not energized or expanded by the power of things too big and important to fit in that box.

I agree with Nietzsche that "One must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star." And if I don't agree with him completely, I at least sympathize with Bernard Wolfe when he said, "Art makes order out of chaos, do they still teach that hogwash in the schools? Its liars who give order to chaos, then go around calling themselves artists and in this way give art a bad name. When do you see Dostoevsky laying out his reality with a T-square?"

I think your definition works in the majority of cases, and could help to scare away the shiftless and the lazy, the poseurs and pretenders, but I think it fails as a definition because it doesn't account for some of the highs and lows of art. Quantum reality only contradicts our common sense universe at the remote extremes which we will never encounter during our daily lives. Yet our knowledge of that quantum contradiction is crucial to our definition of reality and should be enough to give people who think we are "in control" a little humility and uncertainty about the nature of the world.

David Apatoff said...

D.H.-- I'm sorry to report that two days ago bulldozers showed up and demolished 3 Tanglewood Lane. A foolish and short sighted act by the misnamed “Westport Historic District Commission,” which has methodically jettisoned the only qualities that once distinguished Westport from 100 other New England towns.

But while bricks and mortar come and go, ideas live on. If you'd like another interesting story about Fuchs and illustration in the 1960s, check out my latest column in the Saturday Evening Post: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2017/06/12/art-entertainment/two-kennedy-portraits-reveal-changing-times.html

kev ferrara said...

Yet, I also believe that too much control is as bad as too little control; that an artist who applies your standard of art as a "particular kind of linguistic event" which communicates "directly and specifically" with an "exact shape" that leaves nothing to "natural chance" is likely to create a closed box, not energized or expanded by the power of things too big and important to fit in that box.

Thinking I mean “shape” when I mean “form” in the philosophical sense is a crucial error in your reading here. Truly, composing what is occluded in a work of art is the most challenging and profound task facing an artist. And this is exactly why what I am defining is nothing like a “closed box.” I think your assertions about this point show you have yet to grasp the unique linguistic relationship of form and suggestion in great art and how profound the scope and significance of their tandem effects.

Anyway, the point here is that the plastic structure of the work (its form) must be determined through composition and performance by the artist. And the reason this must be so is because: 1. The communication channel of art exists between the artist and audience, 2. The communication medium is plastic structuring (the language of art), 3. the purpose and expectation of communication is significance, and 4. expressing significance through manifested plastic structure is far too complex a linguistic matter to generate accidentally.

Next, i’ll point out the obvious; that many artists “speak” the language of art without being able to translate or explain any of it into a tribal text language like English. But the artworks themselves contain all the truth of the matter required for a linguistic investigation. (What comes out of the artist’s mouth is almost immaterial compared to what comes from his hand.)

To keep this short, I’ll finish up by pointing out that the quote I’ve dropped at the top of this response is tantamount to your artistic/philosophical manifesto; which loosely translates as “there is nothing essential to art that defines it and so all aesthetic inquiry must be wholly subjective, based on biases and nothing more, and so any attempt to put together a coherent philosophy of art must be impossible.”

Aside from being anti-scientific, I think you should acknowledge that such thinking is presumptive and dogmatic in its own right. In other words, it would help the conversation if you would admit, at least, the possibility that a coherent philosophy of art is possible. And that, as an important corollary to that, some works claimed to be “art” under a real and coherent philosophy of art would be rightly excluded from the category of art by that philosophy.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Thinking I mean 'shape' when I mean 'form' in the philosophical sense is a crucial error in your reading here."

Actually, I thought you meant "shape" because that's the word you used. If you'd prefer to use the word "form" now, that's OK too. My point remain unchanged. If you think art must conform to an "exact form in the philosophical sense," I'd say it sounds like you've joined many failed generations of art police.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "that many artists 'speak' the language of art without being able to translate or explain any of it into a tribal text language like English. But the artworks themselves contain all the truth of the matter required for a linguistic investigation. (What comes out of the artist’s mouth is almost immaterial compared to what comes from his hand.)"

I don't disagree with that, but my point did not hinge on the artist's ability to "translate or explain" in some tribal text language. It hinged instead on the artist's ability to "understand" (once again your word, not mine) content that the artist is communicating. If you are going to insist that art is a "means to communicate understanding directly and specifically," It doesn't matter whether the artist is an inarticulate lump, whether he or she speaks English or pig latin. But it does matter that the artist consciously "understands" something being communicated. My point to you was that some excellent artists feel they are merely a conduit for something much bigger than they are, something that passes through them without their understanding it. They say that when they try to wrestle their content to the ground, to eliminate "natural chance" and make everything "direct and specific" with an "exact shape," it kills their inspiration. In fact I'd guess that some of your hero artists begin a picture by playing with abstract designs and compositions that they they play with until it "looks right," and they'd be hard pressed to "understand" why.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "your artistic/philosophical manifesto... loosely translates as “there is nothing essential to art that defines it and so all aesthetic inquiry must be wholly subjective, based on biases and nothing more, and so any attempt to put together a coherent philosophy of art must be impossible.”

Well, of course I've been saying the opposite of that for ten years on this blog (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2006/08/standards_31.html), whining in dozens of repetitious blog posts about the harm that unbridled "subjectivity" has done to art and culture ( http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2006/10/whatcha-got-under-that-tattered-coat_23.html ) and repeatedly taking a beating from nihilists, Kinkade groupies and Chris Ware fans in the crowd for my pains. If you want to assign me a manifesto, assign me the one I keep quoting from Anthony Burgess: "Art is rare and sacred and hard work and there ought to be a wall of fire around it." The fact that I'm not with you on the rock of scylla does not mean that I've embraced the whirlpool of Charybdis. I keep trying to navigate between the two.

Writing this response, it occurs to me that the role you assign to a conscious, controlling presence in art is a little like Descartes' "watchmaker" analogy for the existence of God. Descartes and Newton wrote the perfect workings of the universe could not be random, but rather the deliberate product of a conscious designer (akin to a watchmaker who has built a smooth functioning mechanical watch). They thought the watchmaker must be God. Perhaps you can't believe that art is not the product of "intelligent design."

kev ferrara said...

Actually, I thought you meant "shape" because that's the word you used.

I wrote that the artist should govern the "exact shape of the performance." This was not meant to be a technical statement about squares, circles and squiggles, more a general notion about authorship, one that goes far beyond the "exact shapes" that might appear in a work (though it obviously includes them.)

If you think art must conform to an "exact form in the philosophical sense," I'd say it sounds like you've joined many failed generations of art police.

Don't think I ever said that. What I did say is that the meaning must be communicated through the plastic structure of the work or else we are dealing with a different animal. Plastic structure is infinitely malleable, so this is hardly a draconian restriction (or Homeric water hazard).

If you are going to insist that art is a "means to communicate understanding directly and specifically," It doesn't matter whether the artist is an inarticulate lump, whether he or she speaks English or pig latin. But it does matter that the artist consciously "understands" something being communicated. My point to you was that some excellent artists feel they are merely a conduit for something much bigger than they are, something that passes through them without their understanding it.

The interesting point you are missing, I think, is that great, immersed artists do think consciously in the language of art, in and through plastic structure. And they often don't appreciate that that is what is going on because the language of art is such a natural one it almost feels invisible or transparent; it seems to play in a realm floating just above the very deepest part of ourselves, rather than on the cresting surface of our awareness like text and texture.

So while it might seem that a great, unseen hand is guiding an artist in his work, I would say that is only because everybody is so accustomed to present-ness of mind spoken in an opaque, coded tribal text language like English, that artists don't even recognize themselves when they think consciously in the transparency of uncoded form-feeling.

Or maybe it is more accurate to say that, when communicating in the language of art, the overly binary distinctions of consciousness and unconsciousness don't really apply.

Either way, the meaning of a visual communication is to the artist's credit. He was awake, acting out of intent, and the one holding the brush. I don't believe in an aesthetic deity.

The fact that I'm not with you on the rock of scylla does not mean that I've embraced the whirlpool of Charybdis. I keep trying to navigate between the two.

It is clear that you do have aesthetic footholds. That you can't or won't articulate them as principles frustrates any attempt at progressing in these kinds of conversations.

chris bennett said...
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chris bennett said...

David Apatoff wrote: They thought the watchmaker must be God. Perhaps you can't believe that art is not the product of "intelligent design."

I know Kev has just answered this, but it occurred to me that when something is not understood (in this case the communicable language necessary for art to exist at all) the notion of the supernatural is courted. Now, if we consider the Post Modernist as a sort of aesthetic atheist we can see how belief in the muse has been supplanted by a claim that the operative arbiter of value is the trinity of context, relativity and subjectivity.

In other words, the inability to feel the innately sensuous grammar with which all art is written means the existence of such a language is doubted, even denied, and so the idea of non-subjective communication of aesthetic content is dismissed. The 'mystery of art' is therefore accounted for with a superficially rationalist dogma as pernicious in its effect as superstition.

Laurence John said...

David, i’m with Kev on his take on the lightning field’s value as ‘art’. if you really think it’s great art then you should be assessing it on the aesthetic value of it’s 400 steel poles, when lightning is absent from the equation. i.e. as a piece of minimalist sculpture in the same vein as work by Donald Judd. after all, a visit to the field may very well not include lightning. if lightning is the main appeal then it’s just basically a lightning conductor. or do you think it’s still a ‘deeply moving aesthetic experience’ on a sunny morning ?

these type of ‘immersive’ environments are a bit of an art world trend at the moment. there was a room filled with white mist a while ago at Tate Modern. and here’s another:

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-hidden-room-guggenheim-will-transport-soundless-sublime

i’m sure they produce a calming, meditative experience. but so does a visit to a Buddhist monastery or a floatation / sensory deprivation tank.

Laurence John said...

David: “ Perhaps you can't believe that art is not the product of "intelligent design.”

art IS intelligently designed. even if an artist tries to introduce chance or accident into their work they’re still responsible for setting up the conditions within which the accident or chance element occurs. they’re also responsible for deciding whether the chance element requires further work, and when to stop and decide it is finished, and how to display it. if you know of a random, accidental artwork that exists then let’s see it.

David: “...some excellent artists feel they are merely a conduit for something much bigger than they are, something that passes through them without their understanding it”

intuitive / spontaneous choices often feel like that, but in reality they happen after lots and lots of hard work and practice allows an artist, musician or writer to create in the moment without stopping to consider the whys and what ifs, and usually within a familiar framework which has already been set up by them (as above).

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: Don't think I ever said [art must conform to an "exact form in the philosophical sense"].

You didn't. You said "the exact shape of the performance" but later said that by "shape" you meant "form in the philosophical sense," so I just swapped "form in the philosophical sense" for the word "shape." Not trying to be slippery, just trying to be accommodating for once. Just one more example of why these discussions are better held late at night in a bar or a studio, rather than in segments on blogs.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "It is clear that you do have aesthetic footholds. That you can't or won't articulate them as principles frustrates any attempt at progressing in these kinds of conversations."

It's not that I don't yearn for absolute principles. Who wouldn't? Since the time of Socrates people have tried to make the subjective realm of value judgment conform to objective reason in order to arrive at an infallible policies. The search took on a more ferocious tone with the rise of the scientific revolution. The humanities looked enviously at the material success of the scientific method (with its undeniable progress, showy fruits and process for dispute resolution) and aspired to the same kind of systemic rules. The intellectual history of Western Europe for the last 400 years is the history of major intellects (such as Descartes, Kant and Hegel) trying to come up with a set of consistent rational principles to resolve issues of relative judgment, ethics and taste. So Kant devised his categorical imperative and Jeremy Bentham came up with his moral calculus and Hegel came up with the duties of one's station, etc. etc. But none of these principles proved water tight, and even worse, some of them were used in the 20th century as justification for some pretty nasty, intolerant behavior. It seems that some people will always prefer drawings to paintings, no matter how hard you punch them.

It's pretty easy to separate the artistic opinions of the stupid, tasteless and uneducated. I'm not talking about them. But when you get to the people who engage passionately about the worth of Marcel Duchamp or Basquiat-- well, then you quickly arrive at a conflict as irreducible as whether Fox News or CNN is telling the truth. 34% of the country looks at the objective facts and concludes that Donald Trump is telling the truth. No set of epistemological principles will ever dissuade them, it will just enrage them and cause them to reach for their shotguns. Increasingly, the most fruitful explanations for these human differences in taste come from neuroscience, not philosophical principles. Neuroscience tells us that liberals seem to have a larger anterior cingulate gyrus (the part of the brain responsible for processing and acting on new information) while conservatives seem to have a larger right amygdala (the part of the brain that processes more emotional information—such as fear-based information). I hope someday that neuroscience will get around to identifying the Jeff Koons part of the brain.

Look, I salute the systems builders, the ones who try in good faith to define things and identify objective criteria. I'd rather make my bed with the enlightenment thinkers and encyclopedists than the existentialists and nihilists. But I think any honest assessment of the history of human efforts to develop such a system for the humanities should cause us to be wary about applying them in a ruthless manner. To the extent that I "can't or won't articulate [my aesthetic footholds] as principles," it may indeed frustrate progressing in discussions with people who share my values, but it won't preclude me from discussions with people who don't.

David Apatoff said...


Chris Bennett-- I'm not sure which side in your theological discussion has the "superficially rationalist dogma." If the agnostics believe everything is subjective and that rationality offers us no binding principles, doesn't that mean that the devout believers in a system are the "rationalists"?

kev ferrara said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: Don't think I ever said, “art must conform to an exact form in the philosophical sense".

David,

I did not use the word "conform" and you are applying that word to what I am saying incorrectly. Nothing need "conform" to some "plastic structure" in particular for a work to be art. Since plastic structure has infinite possibility, there is nothing to conform to anyway.

Plastic structure that communicates suggestively something specific to an audience is equally infinite in its possibility, with a grammar that is mind-blowing in its variation in comparison to text languages. But it has important qualitative distinctions which separate it in kind from the other meaningless, random, vague, or oversimple quasi-linguistic structures possible with manipulated (or found) form.

I take it to be so that such plastic structuring that results in a complex of suggestion that avails the audience of a specific and meaningful aesthetic experience is always art. At least, I've never seen such a work denied "art" status through any kind of sensible argument, (only through easily dismmissible petulance, caprice, or ignorance.)

Of more import philosophically, no other kind of material organization (that I can see) shares this formulation’s distinction of always manifesting as art. Thus I've presumed there is something definitional or essential to Art in such plastic structuring as causes specific aesthetic meanings. (Obviously, I cannot easily detail the vast nature of the language of art or attempt to prove that the kind of meaningful plastic structuring I refer to is only what Art is, due to time, space, media, and sanity constraints.)

kev ferrara said...

Furthermore….

I hardly need to be warned of the perils of philosophical systematizing and rationalization. (And the great philosophers hardly need a condescending “salute” for their efforts.) You, however, might need a potted history of the profound successes of such thinking and thinkers... which rarely has to do with the coherent completeness of any particular mental model... but rather the staggering insights generated through the effort. Talented, hard-working artists and writers are still quoting Aristotle to each other more than two millennia after he wrote. (Two millennia hence, will anybody be quoting Heidegger, Benjamin, Greenberg, Derrida or any other of the cultural destructors of the past century?)

“Yearning for absolute principles” isn’t a frame of mind I recognize in any of the great aesthetic investigators I’ve read. Nor do I “yearn” for truths that are only true in my fantasies. I think of this as science and I try just as hard to destroy my beliefs as support them. I neither hope for nor fear any results I come to and I have had to change my mind on a bunch of deeply held stuff as I’ve gone along. Really, I just want to know what lies beneath. I want the insights from the effort.

But I think any honest assessment of the history of human efforts to develop such a system for the humanities should cause us to be wary about applying them in a ruthless manner.

Subtlest Reductio Ad Hitlerum ever?

Its effectiveness as misdirection aside, it did not go unnoticed that your entire response to me consisted of historico-political hand-waving. Not a jot of actual engagement. Which is fine. And understandable. But others reading along shouldn't be fooled into thinking there was an actual dialog here on substance.

Speaking of bloody-minded bs, I've not much to say about television news. It is, as I see it, self-regarding, self-aggrandizing, madness-promoting, bloodlusting, divisive garbage entertainment for the psychically exhausted mobs who need to pretend to be informed exactly according to their ideology (while getting a daily hit of righteous dopamine, which, like porn, only further exhausts them.)

At this point, the media has completely captured the culture, holding it hostage with its cheaply-produced ideological vaudeville. (If politics is show business for ugly people, then the media is the very theater for that trashy and dangerous art form). At this point, my only wish is for CNN, FOX, MSNBC and every other garbage divide-and-conquer-the-demographic propaganda outfit to curl up and fucking die, so civilization and science may crawl out from under the rubble of their insane pandering nastiness, mass manipulation, and pseudo-scientific blathering… to resume uplifting the human spirit with actual progress and real education. (Though, won't it be a sport to see what the world looks like piloted by China and Allah.)

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff wrote: If the agnostics believe everything is subjective and that rationality offers us no binding principles, doesn't that mean that the devout believers in a system are the "rationalists"?

Well David, belief, as you may well know, has nothing to do with the provable truth of something and everything to do with our emotional investment in it. I know that Pythagoras' theorem is true, but I can't honestly describe myself as 'believing' in it. Yet I can say that I believe in the truth of a Dickens story while being perfectly aware that it is not a true story.

So with this principle in mind, it is the degree of rigour applied to rationalism that is key. Thus, when investigating the deep, deep water of the sensual language of art, it requires Herculean efforts to tunnel into it and examine the mountain of different ore that will be extracted.

Therefore another way of framing my point would be:

The wishful thinking romantic will look at the smoking mountain and believe it to be the signals from The Muse. The Post Modernist will say its whatever you want it it to be. And the geologist will descend from the mountain, push up his hard hat, take off his welding goggles, wipe the sweat from his brow and declare he has seen the fires from the centre of earth.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: " I try just as hard to destroy my beliefs..."

Gosh, I tried to give you some help with that but you sure don't seem very receptive.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: "'Yearning for absolute principles' isn’t a frame of mind I recognize in any of the great aesthetic investigators I’ve read."

For me, that's the most surprising part of your response. Isn't the lure of the absolute what draws us all forward? Isn't that why Plato devised Platonic forms and why the Pythagorean brotherhood embraced the perfection of math? Why the Egyptians built an empire around infinity? It's undeniably why Kant wanted a moral standard that imposed an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances. And yes, for all of the antipathy expressed toward subjectivity by...errr... certain participants in these discussions, I should think it would be a little difficult for such persons to disavow a thirst for absolute principles.

P.S.-- just so I can sleep at night, when you say, "no other kind of material organization (that I can see) shares this formulation’s distinction of always manifesting as art," do you also mean to say that this kind of material organization is somehow the exclusive and coterminous domain of art, so that art by definition excludes the lightning field?

chris bennet wrote: " it is the degree of rigour applied to rationalism that is key."

In my opinion, that's the truest comment that has been made so far in this discussion. I am a big believer in rigour in rationalism, and I think it should be respected even if I doubt it will ever get us 100% of the way to certainty before the universe dissipates and entropy makes all life impossible. The dignity and valor is in trying.

The patron saint of "rigour applied to rationalism" was Descartes, who set out to doubt everything he could not prove with logic, and he never got out of the gate until he finessed his search with cogito ergo sum. So despite his ambitions, if Descartes was as self-aware as I think he was, he knew there was a leak in the boat. My point to Kev is that there is a leak in his boat as well, so we should all be a little open minded about this process.

kev ferrara said...

do you also mean to say that this kind of material organization is somehow the exclusive and coterminous domain of art, so that art by definition excludes the lightning field?

There are an infinite number of different kinds of “blue” each of which, compared to others has a slight bias toward some other cardinal color direction in color space. So there are strong and weak tints of blue, more neutral blues, a deeper blue, a blue-black, shades of blue, there’s navy, baby, robin’s egg, cyan, etc. So many different blues, each gradable into all others. And there’s also a perfectly smooth gradation between, for instance, cyan blue and teal green. Which is to say, between blue and green generally. There’s no hard border that exists between those neighboring colors that says “you have now left the land of blue for the land of green.” Yet we are able to distinguish blue from green perceptually, conceptually and instantly. For each domain has a distinct quality and range or gamut that is clear enough from the other to be significant. And through this significant distinction we understand them to be distinct domains in our conception. So the domains of green and blue are distinct without there being a hard and fast border between the two. I call such borders “porous” and I believe many, maybe most, maybe all conceptual distinctions have porous borders that separate them from their conceptual neighbors, even though the domains themselves are distinct. So I wouldn’t want to insist on the idea of a “coterminous” border in this instance. (Related; I believe in principles, not "absolute principles." We can only sensibly translate into language the consistency of phenomena that we have available to our experience. And, also, principles are conceptual. And conceptual borders are porous even though conceptual domains are distinct.)

So clarity in any conceptual investigation becomes a matter of noting the evident general distinction(s) between the characteristics of neighboring domains, and then pushing hard into an investigation of what’s happening at the borders where the changeover is occurring.

On that note let’s get to the very most crucial question to test the porous border of your largely unspoken semi-relativist philosophy of art…

Dear David: Please provide an example of a situation where a lightning rod is not part of a work of Art and explain just why it is not in that particular instance.

Alternately, explain why every lightning rod is part of a work of art.

Or ignore this question as a tacit admission that you realize it wouldn’t be tactically wise to answer it.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "the porous border of your largely unspoken semi-relativist philosophy of art…"

I think that's a fair characterization. It seems to be the best I can do right now. Tighter boundaries would impose what for me would be unacceptably high costs in terms of excluding experiences about which I am still aesthetically curious. But I do continue to eye the borders. It's a work in progress.

Kev Ferrara also wrote: " I believe in principles, not 'absolute principles.'"

Well, now you're backing into my territory. A principle that only applies sometimes is not really a principle. (Of course, if we can articulate rules for when it doesn't apply then we have two principles. But if you can't-- if your principle is not "absolute" to the extent you can't say in advance when it applies and when it doesn't-- then it has no value when applied to new circumstances, or new art forms. Which is of course exactly what we want principles for.) I don't fault you for this, I think it brings our positions closer together.

As for your questions for me, yes , those are exactly the right questions to ask and the hard questions to answer. It is the Zeno's paradox of aesthetics: if you define art broadly enough to include phenomena that should be included, how do you exclude phenomena that obviously should be excluded?

For me the dilemma is more extreme than your example of gradations of blue. You suggest that there's a little uncertainty around the penumbra of art. But what do you do about new art forms? Your "principles" can deal with the invention of acrylic paint, but what do you do about people who paint with light that actually stays in place for viewers wearing VR headsets? What about sculpting with Oculus or Tilt Brush? What about how Anish Kapoor expands the experience of color? How do we evaluate the images by Jay Mark Johnson's camera that emphasizes time over space? Or the lightning field? This technology is not shades of blue, it opens up all kinds of ontological questions. And it's not just a matter of new technology that can't be disregarded. There remain serious fundamental questions about whether the logical extension of art, the evolution of art, goes beyond the limitations of a frame on the wall. Dubuffet is, in my opinion, one of the more articulate gadflies raising these questions: "What is true of art is true of many other things whose virtues fly away as soon as their names are spoken.... [I]t is quite probable that soon the painting, a rectangle hung with a nail on a wall, will become an outdated and ridiculous object-- a fruit fallen from the tree of culture and henceforth considered an antique....[T}he notion of art... will have ceased to be conceived of and perceived when the mind will have ceased to project art as a notion to be gazed upon, and art will be integrated in such a manner that thought, instead of facing it, will be inside it...." Again, we're not talking shades of blue. Dubuffet's world would make it even harder to "provide an example of a situation where a lightning rod is not part of a work of Art." Yet who is to say that such a state of mind would be a less rewarding aesthetic condition?

Laurence John said...


“…when the mind will have ceased to project art as a notion to be gazed upon, and art will be integrated in such a manner that thought, instead of facing it, will be inside it.”

conceptual thinking of that type (e.g. john Cages’ 4’33” or Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’) is really about returning us (the viewer, listener) to reality and deriving our sustenance purely from the beauty and wonder of the everyday, the world, the universe.

i.e. doing away with art altogether.

well fine. then we can close all of the galleries which show such work and just put a sign on the door which reads “gallery is redundant: you are already inside the work of art. enjoy”.

Tom said...



"conceptual thinking of that type (e.g. john Cages’ 4’33” or Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’) is really about returning us (the viewer, listener) to reality and deriving our sustenance purely from the beauty and wonder of the everyday, the world, the universe."

Good point Lawerence. This, in my mind, captures the pedantic nature of modern and post modern art. To me it sounds more like education or charity work. And a educator is always doing something for somebody else. So the things he makes have a purpose. But such education is rarely delightful the way that art is.


"...will have ceased to be conceived of and perceived when the mind will have ceased to project art as a notion to be gazed upon, and art will be integrated in such a manner that thought, instead of facing it, will be inside it...."

It sounds like he is just saying art is life, or art is part of the whole, but thought doesn't know it yet although he just thought it. He seems to suffering from the delusion that he is trying to cure. Thinking that your thought is inside art is the same a thinking art is outside your thought. It is just thinking, and all thought is already obviously inside the whole. Or we can call the whole,
"art," if Dubuffet wants to.

As far as art evolving and progressing, where the hell ;-) is it trying to get to? If art does anything, it develops one's appreciation for what is already here.


David Apatoff said...

Laurence John and Tom -- That's the extreme example but you're right, that is the concept under discussion.

Walt Whitman wrote, "Have you reckon'd that the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture?" His notion was that it would be great if we could appreciate the moment, to step out the door and be thrilled by the blue sky or the green meadow rather than being oblivious to it until we enter a museum where Monet or Constable or some artist with enhanced sensibilities points out what is thrilling about them. It would be great if we could appreciate a dance without relying on Degas to show us how lovely the ballerina looks Or, if we didn't need professional illustrators to visualize things on our behalf.

This notion of Whitman's is nothing new. It's hard to argue with Venturi's timeless premise that "What ultimately matters in art is not the canvas, the hue of oil or tempera, the anatomical structure and all the other measurable items, but its contribution to our life, its suggestions to our sensations, feeling and imagination" (unless you're one of those who believes art is more important than human life).

None of this is to suggest that the average slob will be able to look at real water lilies and see what Monet saw in them. , or that anyone can look at a nude loved one and see the poetry that Titian or Velasquez or Ingres or Michelangelo saw (or see whatever the heck Lucien Freud saw). None of these thinkers is suggesting that people should stop going to Beethoven concerts and instead hum their own tunes on the way to the grocery store. Don't feel threatened that this is a binary art-or-no-art choice. It's just a notion that people shouldn't live life vicariously through art on the walls if there are ways for them to begin to experience it more directly through art forms that enable or empower them more directly (for example, a night in the lightning field).

It's not an obvious path or an easy path, and it requires an experimental loosening of "principles" about art that some people, based on history, think should be immutable. There will be mistakes made. Some artists will look ridiculous in the process. But given the stakes described above, I don't know how people of intellectual curiosity can refrain from creeping out a little further on the branch to investigate the new possibilities.

Laurence John said...

David: "Don't feel threatened that this is a binary art-or-no-art choice. It's just a notion that people shouldn't live life vicariously through art on the walls if there are ways for them to begin to experience it more directly through art forms that enable or empower them more directly (for example, a night in the lightning field)”

i can see lightning by watching a storm over the English channel from the window of my flat on the south coast. i don’t need to travel to an ‘earth-work’ site to appreciate weather or landscape, nor have the beauty of REAL nature pointed out to me by an ‘artist’. thank you very much dear artist, but your job is to interpret or re-stage what you see, not simply to stand me in front of the thing itself. that’s what tour guides are for.

the lightning field is a real landscape, and the lightning (that may or may not occur) is also real. that’s why i asked you above what you thought of the 400 steel poles in their own right. they are the only ‘art’ within the work and, in my opinion, the work should be judged on the aesthetic aspect of the steel poles. the real landscape is just the setting.

kev ferrara said...

In full agreement with LJ's last few posts.

---------

Well, now you're backing into my territory. A principle that only applies sometimes is not really a principle. (…)

No, its just I disagree with how you define it just one way. I think there’s a sensible distinction to be made between principles that apparently govern consistently observable phenomena we can experience, and “absolute principles” that hold for all time, space, dimension, in supernatural realms, non-time, Mount Olympus, Katz’ Deli, Heaven, the platonic realm, and across the holographic boundary wall of reality. A principle is just an insight that is extracted from a consistent phenomena and which can be consistently applied to it going forward; an applicable insight about some specific domain of interest. I don't think there's any worth in pontificating from imagined cosmic paradigms that are ultimately unfathomable to us. What is absolute for us, what can only be absolute for us, is observed continuity of phenomena.

if your principle is not "absolute" to the extent you can't say in advance when it applies and when it doesn't-- then it has no value when applied to new circumstances, or new art forms. Which is of course exactly what we want principles for.

I think you misunderstand. The porous conceptual border isn’t actually a blur, except from a thousand feet up. Like studying metabolism, from a distance it looks like if a subject eats too much, they’ll get fat. If they do the opposite, they get thin. But when you drill down, the matter becomes incredibly specific and complex with the interactions of specific chemicals and substances ingested or synthesized and how they react with the existent cellular machinery, etc. With Art, when you really examine the matter linguistically, you also end up looking at specific complexes… linguistic characteristics generated through the manipulation of form, and you can study the way form encodes suggestions of thought in that form. Plus you can see the complexity of that suggested thought and how it concatenates grammatically to form larger general idea. But then as one drifts toward non-art, the thought structures become simpler or dumber, and then upon exit from the domain, the form becomes free of the evidence of linguistic thought. The linguistic changes are specific and technical. There is a movement through a qualitative range of linguistic phenomena around the border, but the domains are still distinct. There’s no caprice involved.

And all this, by the way, easily applies to any kind of innovative plastic organization you can imagine, from sculpted light, to the use of an expanded color palette, higher dimensional VR space… it doesn’t matter. Its all just plastic organization as communication. And plasticity and plastic material is simply something that exists in our reality which we can experience. Since we can’t develop new sense organs, any art you can imagine is still going to be translated into sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Innovations in the arts will always thus be limited.

kev ferrara said...

And who cares if any particular artist who hasn’t the slightest interest or education in this preemptively denies that anything linguistic can be discovered, known, or applied to art. Who cares if artists might not like a scientific investigation into the linguistic properties of what they do, when they feel like they’re “just free birds living a wild, colorful dream of cosmic love”, and, “like, don’t burden me with you programmatic authoritarian intellectual straightjacket, man.” Nonsense. Irrelevant. A man can learn how to build a pretty effective dam by just studying how beavers make them. Beavers! And one will find that, embedded within the procedure of the beavers, there will be principles to extract. There is continuity to the observed phenomena of beavers building dams and artists making art. And in such cases there will always be principles to be found, absolute enough for human use, to be called truth in the pragmatic cauldron of human life.

And “the frame on the wall” is just a particular convention to demarcate a symbolic field, in the same way that a rectangular piece of paper bounds a memorandum. Linguistic organization of plastic material is so unlike nature, that it alone can demarcate a work of aesthetic symbolism. Thus art can emerge from anywhere simply by virtue of particular structural changes in the plastic environment. Art doesn’t need to pop out and say boo.

Yet who is to say that such a state of mind would be a less rewarding aesthetic condition?

people shouldn't live life vicariously through art on the walls if there are ways for them to begin to experience it more directly through art forms that enable or empower them more directly (for example, a night in the lightning field).

It's not an obvious path or an easy path, and it requires an experimental loosening of "principles" about art that some people, based on history, think should be immutable.


I note you keep returning to the idea of experiential reward as your personal test of Art. And you keep saying you wouldn’t want to limit your capacity for experiencing new Art Rewards™ by being principled about what is or is not definable as Art. This is a strange opinion in that it presumes that if a thing is not called “Art” that somehow you would be prevented from experiencing it in all its fullness of effect and getting something out of it. Why in the world would this be so? In my experience, more people are likely to take in a new experience if it is called a ride, adventure, sport, activity, or game than if it is pretentiously called “a work of art.”

Maybe the greatest question regarding absolute permissiveness in the arts is the balance of its consequences. Does it look to be destroying more quality culture than it builds? Which is really to ask, is it freeing more charlatans than geniuses? And if the answer is charlatans, maybe a little humble consideration should be directed towards the historically close relationship of genius and principle.

It is my view that a genius is usually the man who finds more in a truly insightful principle than others, not less.

chris bennett said...

I'll second Kev's agreement with Laurence John's last two posts, and I enjoyed how Laurence's insights on what often seems a thorny issue were expressed by way of efficiently simple and everyday means.

Because plastic art communicates using an innately direct, un-coded sensual language it is a fallacy to think this language is devoid of mechanisms necessary for its comprehension as found in other languages such as text or mathematics.

The principles governing the grammar of a language are at the service of content and necessary to express it. So principles are the means by which content is held, and are quite the opposite of a restriction upon content. (Which is another way of iterating Kev's last sentence above)

For example; music, like the plastic arts, communicates through structuring relationships between direct non-symbolic sensations. But the principle that says frequencies and their duration must be step wise in order to mean anything is universal. Disregard that principle and 'Over The Rainbow' becomes a meaningless blur - as if played without tonguing on a slide trombone.

chris bennett said...

And the principles defining the plastic arts pertain whether one is using a burnt stick, mosaic tiles, marble, clay, plastic, matchsticks, coloured sand, tempera, oil, acrylic, a Wacom tablet, 3D virtual sculpting programs, VR headsets, structuring light itself or sculpting suns within a Dyson sphere.

The underlying principles of the plastic arts pertain to all of them. Take these universal principles away and you are left with unstructured sensation; fairground rides (Post Modern or not), a budgie jump, or holding onto Faraday's kite.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett and Kev Ferrara say that they agree with Laurence John when he writes: "well fine. then we can close all of the galleries which show such work and just put a sign on the door which reads “gallery is redundant: you are already inside the work of art. enjoy.”

As I've already said, I agree with that too. LJ accurately characterizes the concept on the table for discussion, albeit taken to an extreme. (I think most of the works under consideration are merely bite sized, incremental movements in that direction but it doesn't hurt, for analytical purposes, to consider the argument as LJ does, in its most extreme form.)

So yes, it sounds like we are all in agreement with LJ's characterization. The only difference is how we react to it. I gather the three of you think the prospect is so absurd on its face, merely saying it is sufficient to refute the idea. I'm not convinced. Whatever direction art takes is not going to be dictated by some theorist who thinks he or she has divined the laws of history (the way Karl Marx invented dialectical materialism or Hari Seldon invented psychohistory). It will depend on art's continuing ability to play a vital role at the grass roots level, compared with all of the cultural alternatives and distractions. It ain't going away overnight. Whether an artistic revolution takes the form of photography or video games or performance art, it will have to be self-legitimizing.

I think we'll need our senses alert and our minds open in order to evaluate the forces nibbling away at our traditional notion of art.
As I've discussed here over the years, I think a number of those forces represent ignorance, sloth, or the tasteless competition for what economists call positional goods (things that are valuable only because other people can't have them). However, I hope my experiences with those forces don't make me unreceptive to every new suggestion.

Laurence John also wrote: "the lightning field is a real landscape, and the lightning (that may or may not occur) is also real. that’s why i asked you above what you thought of the 400 steel poles in their own right. they are the only ‘art’ within the work and, in my opinion, the work should be judged on the aesthetic aspect of the steel poles. the real landscape is just the setting."

It seems to me that the division between art and the "real landscape" is not so easily divided. Would you say that stained glass images in the Chartres Cathedral window need to be evaluated separately from the sunlight that streams through them because the ambient light is just "the setting" around the art? Why is it important that Alexander Calder's wire sculptures hang in a location that the shadows can be projected on the wall? Is the wall excluded because it is part of "the setting?" Why the huge debate over the placement of Michelangelo's David in Florence? For that matter, when Sargent painted watercolors in the country and dipped his watercolor cup into a brook, was he incorporating the "real landscape" into this painting? Maybe we should insist he make do with dry pigment.

In the case of the lightning field, I thought the sunlight reflecting off those gleaming, perfectly arranged poles was a big part of their intended effect, as was walking among them and seeing them align from different angles into the far distance. So was the incredible stillness of the desert and the blackness of the sky miles from any artificial light. All conscious choices by the artist, although he clearly didn't invent them from scratch.

Laurence John said...

Chris: "Because plastic art communicates using an innately direct, un-coded sensual language it is a fallacy to think this language is devoid of mechanisms necessary for its comprehension as found in other languages such as text or mathematics.”

i think the reason there is so much confusion and disagreement over the visual arts is because there is no common language. ‘direct, un-coded and sensual’ isn’t language. a ‘language’ is something which can be codified into abstract symbols such as letters or musical notes. the fact that a painting is able to communicate to us is not down to a coded language but down to the fact that it resembles things from real life that we recognise (to put it simply). in other words, it is ANALOGOUS to reality, or a REPRESENTATION of reality which is not how language functions.

if you want to call all the stuff of visual composition such as form, layout, value, colour, contrast etc a visual ‘language’ just for ease of use, then i think that’s acceptable, but a language, strictly speaking, should be able to be broken down into a structural system of code (which is how it is then taught). you are effectively learning code when you learn a language.

i don’t think there is an equivalent in a visual art such as painting with the code / code structure of the English language, which consists of only 26 letters and various dots, commas etc which can be recombined in various ways to produce endlessly different pieces of written word.

Tom said...

Vernon Blake in his book Relation in Art brings up Coleridge's 16th chapter of his Biographia Liberaria in which Coleridge addresses the difference between the poets of the 15th and 16th century and those of his age. It seems relevant to the discussion.

First Coleridge points out that the modern poet, seeks above all, new and striking images, and renders , both his characters and his descriptions, as much as possible, specific and individual, even to the degree of portraiture while accusing him of being comparatively careless in his diction and metre"

When contrasted with the poets of the former centuries especially those of Italy, "The imagery is almost always general; sun, moon, flowers, breezes, murmuring streams, warbling song birds, delicious shades, lovely damsels, cruel and fair nymphs, maids and goddesses, are the materials that are common to all; and which each shaped and arranged according to his judgement or fancy, little solicitations to add or to particularize...In opposition to the present age, and perhaps in as faulty an extreme, they place the essence of the poetry in the art. The excellence at which they aimed, consisted in the exquisite polish of the diction, combined with perfect simplicity."

Blake brings the topic back to the visual art. As he writes, "The modern draughtsman seeks to render his subject eloquent; the renaissance artist, or better still the classic places his faith in the treatment, in its perfection in the eloquence of form....The rhythm of the line is justly looked on as a more beautiful thing than transcribed psychological emotions. Vague enveloped nocturnes, profundity of obscure mystery are not in themselves specially beautiful in a plastic way...and when treated as works of art they amount much more to communications, from artist to public, of a sentimental state of mind than to deliberate, tangible, existing creations of plastic beauty, valid alone in plastic isolation. There is nowadays a confusion of thought, a confronting of moral or emotional beauty (so called) with plastic absolute beauty. As a result of these condition of things we find many people to-day who believe themselves endowed with an appreciation of plastic art, and even set themselves up as professional critics, when really their only baggage is a receptiveness, by a kind of hypotonic suggestion of a vague emotion similar to that which the artist feels himself..."



chris bennett said...

David,
I wholly agree with your point about the long-term future of art being dependent on its self-legitimacy. Fire is fire after all. But the need to understand the immutable principles underpinning art's innate language is not in order to change its direction but to equip the artist with the tools in which to build it - Newton's laws of motion have not altered the Earth's orbit one jot, yet they were essential for putting a man on the moon.

And diving for these principles is not to justify or legitimise one's own efforts as an artist either. Knowing the principles of good seamanship is a universal essential of all captains, particularly so for uncharted seas. I imagine your answer would be that those seas could change in a way never seen by sailors up to this point. My reply is, but water is water after all.

Your final points on the division between art and the 'real landscape' are, I think, confusing ubiquitous, consistent and ever-present physical phenomena such as light and materiality necessary to experience any phenomena (including art objects) with specific context.
Your example of the controversy of the siting of Michelangelo's David was a concern of curators after the fact and not the artistic purpose of Michelangelo when sculpting it. Most people look better sat in an open top Mercedes parked in a sunlit Monte Carlo plaza, but it does not change the quality of their heart.

Regarding straight poles gleaming against the desert night sky, sure, they must look pretty cool. So does the Saturn 5 at launch. Yesterday my wife asked me to move our birdbath because its stone looked better against the ivy... :)

chris bennett said...

Laurence. Why do you believe it is essential for a language to be written in code? You wrote; "a ‘language’ is something which can be codified into abstract symbols such as letters or musical notes."
Musical notes are only a code when written down on manuscript paper. To anyone other than a composer (preferably with perfect pitch) they look like birds on telephone wires. Music only communicates when it is experienced by the senses, i.e. when it is heard, doesn't it?

Laurence John said...

Chris, the 'plastic arts’ collectively utilise a hugely variable set of tools, materials, application methods etc. which can be broadly termed ’techniques’. how you construct a picture which then conveys some sort of narrative meaning from those techniques, is how i assume you’re using the word ‘language’.

well, what’s the common ‘language' between a landscape by Bierstadt, a self portrait by Van Gogh, a Post cover by Rockwell and a triptych by Bacon ?

chris bennett said...

Laurence,
Just to be clear on what I mean by the innate language of the plastic arts:- The effective graphic relationships throughout the entirety of any work from its smallest modular level building progressively larger structures to resolve in the work as a self-contained totality.

So whether we are talking about paint or sand or lava or whatever being applied with a trowel, the fingers, tiny sables or a broom, whether it is a chisel carving marble or scythes shaping bundles of straw or pyrometers slicing polystyrene or bulldozers working a mountain - this overarching principle of the plastic language (from which all the sub-set principles follow), consistently applies.

Laurence John said...

Chris, to have a ‘language’ you have to have a consensus that understands the rules of that language, so that it can be used in a consistent way to carry information, and not lead to endless misinterpretation.

all you’ve done is give a definition of the ‘plastic arts’ (physical manipulation of various media), the results of which are infinitely variable and therefore don’t constitute a ‘language’.

chris bennett said...

Laurence, this is where you are failing to understand my meaning. The language of the plastic arts is not written in code. It is perceived by the senses directly and not by way of a consensus code. I have already explained the distinction between musical notation (code) and the frequency durations (direct sensual communication sensually experienced as meaningful sensation) they represent. Do you not accept this?

Laurence John said...

Chris: "It is perceived by the senses directly and not by way of a consensus code”

that was my opening point.

if you agree that a tree in real life isn’t a ‘language’ (i hope you do) then it follows that a visual representation / likeness of a tree in a painting isn’t a language either.
if the senses perceive the tree in a painting "directly and not by way of a consensus code” (as you put it, and i agree with) then the tree in the painting can’t be a language.

of course i agree that musical notation / sheet music is a language or code; that’s how i’m defining language. music itself however is not by definition a language. it is a sonic art form.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

A tree is not communicating linguistically because its "plastic structure" hasn't been manipulated to suggest any complex thought. A tree growing in the woods is simply growing organically to survive and prosper.

Many mystical philosophers of old (Swedenborg for one, who Pyle studied) would say that nature is replete with a kind of dictionary of symbols which humans may learn to "read." My interpretation of this idea is that human beings have an innate survival sense which evolved with a direct eons-long connection to nature in all her dangers, moods and clues. And so we are evolved to feel nature's "meanings" (by which I mean survival information) intuitively, innately, through the sensual emotions. Such crucial intuition is surely how we survived through our most primitive eras.

And this connection to nature is surely the main reason why we have art; our connection with nature is already supplying us with a vast lexicon of wonderful, powerful symbols, at every level of abstraction. So, for instance, fire, blood, and spicy peppers join together in suggesting the natural symbolism of the color red as hot, passionate and dangerous. All horizontal lumps which appear on the ground join together in symbolizing inertness, slumber, repose, and maybe death. The color green generally tells of water. When a sunny day (which tells of opportunity which gives us the joy of hope) suddenly changes to shady and cold, our mood darkens and our senses perk up to a possible weather hazard and thoughts of shelter. Listening to the pounding hooves of a galloping horse will innately tell of frenzied speed and power nearby, as will any percussive rhythm that is analogous to it. And so on.

As well, where nature is seen to be human-like in its form, we impute the human moods to nature that seem "personified" in nature, personification being another poetic trope that utilizes our basic cognition of analogy. So for instance, a weeping willow is called that because it looks slumped and depressed like a bummed-out human. While a tree that has tall branches spreading out toward the sky looks robust, healthy and happy, seemingly reaching out to the sun like a child to a parent. Etc. That animals too naturally express bodily their moods and ideas shows that this notion of inherent symbolism in nature, that inherent symbolism precipitates out from the marriage of form, function, and intent that evolution determines for each organism, seems to be ubiquitous. And analogous thinking using known symbols, it is widely understood, is the very foundation of language.

Beyond the basic tropes that seem innate to us, is the question of complexity. Where human language really separates from primitive natural analogies and poetic associations is when they are compounded to form more complex thoughts; when the poetic lexicon of nature is used to say more than just “hey that tree looks sad.” And this is where things get interesting, linguistically.

Laurence John said...


Kev, if your definition of the ‘language of art’ is romantic symbolism (which is what you’ve just described) that’s fine by me. at least i now know what you mean when you use the term ‘language of art’.

i’m sure you understand though that much visual art deliberately strove to avoid such analogies as they were deemed by some, to be too obvious or heavy handed.
for instance, the fact that every Disney villain had to look spindly and spidery and every good character rounded and cute became a rather worn out artistic convention.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

Romantic Symbolism is just one part of the language and it obviously goes beyond the too-common disney cartoon conventions that one might whinge about. (Brandywine illustration is filled with much more advanced and subtle examples of this type of symbolism, as well as other visual tropes which are more directly referential.) Anyway, plastic Structuring is the much deeper part of the language, the much more profound, subtle, fascinating and hidden part, taking in grammatical visual-relations and rhetorical complexities that, as far as I can tell, linguistic academics haven't yet even fathomed, let alone studied.

The state of the linguistic research is still so primitive that even a Klee , which is quite evidently an idiosyncratic form of primitive glyph writing, would utterly defeat their attempts at analysis. One can image that a single Brangwyn would simply demolish them entirely. Which is maybe why modernism is so attractive to academics... because it is so simple even a talentless egghead can pretend to understand something about it.

The academic papers I've found that seriously attempt to tackle this subject are, in the main, quite uninsightful about art. Surely because, on the one hand, the authors have absolutely zero talent for, or experience in the language art but also because the researchers are linguistically blinded by being overly influenced by the codified rules of English which has defined and limited their thinking about language from childhood. In other words, they are not only lacking insight about art, but also about text. Otherwise they would be able to appreciate the deeper connections of sensual meanings between all languages.

When Dean Cornwell lectured, "Art is a language complete and distinct from literature. Anything that can be said in words is not a subject for a painting," he was not kidding. Having done the research, I'll put money on it.

Laurence John said...

Kev,

i hope that you can put this research into book form one day (or failing that, a blog would suffice) because you frequently hint at a deeper understanding of certain areas of art (particularly Brandywine school / romantic symbolism) without having the space in this comment section to really get into it.

also, are there any living painters who you think are producing work as good as your Brandywine heroes ? i ask, because you nearly always use old examples of art to illustrate points, rarely new. which makes me wonder if you think painting of that type is basically history.

chris bennett said...

Laurence,

Kev has just covered a point I would have had to make, and I'm grateful to him; he's put it beautifully.

So to answer your other point: of course i agree that musical notation / sheet music is a language or code; that’s how i’m defining language. music itself however is not by definition a language. it is a sonic art form.

If a sequence of pitch durations written out on manuscript paper is a language defining the blueprint of a composition, why does this sequence of pitch durations when 're-coded' as a sequence of sounds (structured sensations) cease to be a language?

And further to this; when a composer writes down musical notation they are doing so as a way of notating sounds in their head, not thinking of it as meaning anything in terms of the positions of little black dots on five lines.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

Yeah, this isn't the venue for the real discussion, which should best be had in person, with talented,practicing artists as students, mostly via diagrams and illustrations, and which would actually take a few years to get through properly. Which is why many discussions like this, and many in real life as well, inevitably find me in a cassandra-like position; bewailing the fallen standards of composition and academic aesthetics to the deaf winds.

I had originally, long ago planned to put all this stuff in book form, but the material is immense and the need to explain every point through diagrams and paintings so that even people who don't have an aptitude for the language could understand the linguistics of it... that would just break me. Plus, the cost of photographing and licensing the paintings alone would be prohibitive.

I've taught aspects to some online and real life friends, and it is fairly difficult and exhausting to do so. I understand very well why Howard Pyle himself declined an offer to put his teachings in book form. At the very least, I will give over copies of all my note sets and research and demonstrations, one day, to several museums or academic institutions, to be made freely available to anybody, just to ensure nobody has to go through the same slog I've been through to put the teachings back together into coherent form.

Regarding present day painters, I don't think there's anybody using the language to the full extent that say Walter Everett was using it back in the Golden Age. But I see a whole bunch of artists still using many aspects of it. Talented and determined artists are still on the hunt for good information about composition and so many will come across the commonly available Pyle or Dunn notes, or the Famous Artist Course material put together by Harold Von Schmidt, or books like Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, Payne's book on composition, or Charles Lasar's Practical Hints book. And any of the really super talented artists out there - in galleries, comic books, illustration, or film -- will do things instinctively that are very deep linguistically and poetically. And for all I know, there are some artists out there that somehow were bequeathed the full suite of information from an artist from a prior generation. Frank Schoonover, who spent the most years under Pyle's tutelage, I am told, wrote that he had put down for posterity the full measure of Pyle's teaching. Maybe somebody out there has that treatise (though I sure haven't seen it.)

Laurence John said...

sorry Chris, it's really just a semantic disagreement over the use of the word 'language'. i really can't explain further without repeating what i've already said (the answer to your last question is what you've pasted in bold above).

kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

Language is a method of expressing an author's thought through a sign system so that the target audience experiences that same thought.

Do you acknowledge the possibility that sounds, their pitches, their intervals, their timbres, scales and chords, can be signs?

Do you acknowledge the possibility that a thought can be expressed as music? Or that music is a kind of thinking?

chris bennett said...

Laurence,
I do not agree this rests on a sematic disagreement. But I am more than happy to leave things here.

Laurence John said...

Chris, the romantic symbolist approach to depicting meaning (as Kev outlined above) is only one set of artistic conventions. not only are pictures which use such devices open to differing interpretations, but they don’t account for the myriad of works which don’t utilise those devices such as observational portraits, still lives, street scenes, landscapes and figure studies by artists such as Sargent*, Degas, Freud, the German ‘New Objectivity’ school, the impressionists, not to mention the deliberate avoidance of such devices by most modernists (whether you like modernism or not it’s still accepted as ‘art’ until proven otherwise).

*Sargent explained his habit of painting views of ‘nowhere in particular’; behind a barn, opposite a wall, in the middle of a field: his 'object was to acquire the habit of reproducing precisely whatever met his vision without the slightest previous ‘arrangement’ of detail, the painter’s business being, not to pick and choose, but to render the effect before him, whatever it may be’ (from ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends').

so the idea that either of you have just described a universal ‘language of art’ is simply not true. the phrase the ‘language of art’ begs the question ‘which language of art ?’

… which is why i asked earlier "what’s the common ‘language' between a landscape by Bierstadt, a self portrait by Van Gogh, a Post cover by Rockwell and a triptych by Bacon ?”

chris bennett said...

Laurence, if you really believe 'the language of art' is different depending on which cluster of artists you are talking about; who gave us the code manual to read the cave paintings of France? Who gave us the manual for Hellenic marbles? Who gave us the one to decode El Greco? Who gave us the graphic phrase book to make sense of Ronald Searle? Who supplied the dictionary and rules of grammar to understand Van Gogh, Picasso, Soutine, Edward Hopper, Alex Kanevsky, Paul Klee, early Titian, late Titian, ancient Egyptian marbles?

I'll stop at the Ancient Egyptians because it demonstrates the point; It is only the Egyptian heliographs that cannot be understood by the layman because, unlike the plastic language of the sculptures, they are written in code.

Laurence John said...

Chris, i’ve already said that representational images aren’t written in code, so i’m not sure why you’re asking that question.
the fact that representational imagery uses a huge varying collection of artistic conventions (such as loaded symbolism) and stylistic devices (such as frenetic scribbly line) doesn’t equal code.

i agree that heliographs are code i.e. they're a language that requires a handbook to understand.

Tom said...

The Chinese brush painters where symbolist par excellence As the forms of nature could reveal the unseen Tao that permeates all things. Rock and water, heaven and earth, host and guest, all became symbols of the Tao which also expressed the simple but powerful aesthetic idea of opposition that is found through out nature. They even codified the aspects of mist, sunshine, winter, humidity into the analogies of the different aspects of how the Tao breathes, how it inhales and exhales. The very analogies became motivating forces for the brush as for example when trees "aspired," for heaven while resisting the force of gravity. Quite a difference from the West"s simply personifying everything in nature as a God in human form. Cupid=Love , River=God and that's about as far as it goes.

As far as language of art, I still don't understand what is being said. If math and geometry are consider a "language,' it seems these would constitute a more common language among the multitudinous forms of art. All artist of worth have dealt with the point, the line, the plane, and volume. In sum sense that is all the artist really draws or paints or cuts and then they make such simple forms look like something else. Proportion, ratio, division, grouping all seem to me to be part of the common experience of art making But maybe this is too much on the art making side, maybe what you are really taking about is how the finished work communicates. But the funny thing about what a work communicates, is that the one who is communicated too can only bring there own understanding to the work.


kev ferrara said...

Laurence,

What makes a language is a coherent sign system which can facilitate the expression of certain kinds of thoughts.

A text language is just one kind of sign system. One that is expressly codified, to provide simplified reference-names for everything known and believed by a particular tribe (for easy abstracted referencing), to provide a consistent framework for the tribe's communications (So that even stupid people in the tribe can express themselves) and to create a communication system that simultaneous identifies members of one's own tribe and prevents those outside the tribe from understanding what the tribe knows or plans. In other words, text is inherently secretive and xenophobic. ;)

Yet, there are still many aspects of text languages, particularly when sounded out in the mind or spoken which are not coded and which are plastic. All such aspects are naturally processed by the human intuition. And are the kinds of artful qualities that convert dry prose to potent poetry.

Some combination of innate capacity and experience provides human minds the elements of natural languages and the experience of their sometimes hyperfluid grammars.

If natural languages are made somewhat simple by an imposition of limiting formalities (say the scaling of octaves into 12 equally tempered tones, the formalizing of how certain elements are drawn into a style, the imposition of grid systems on graphic designs) this does not stop the language from being natural. It merely limits the range of expression... for purposes of consistency, clarity and sonority, all of which is part of the unique poetry of the language as used.

Quite a difference from the West"s simply personifying everything in nature as a God in human form. Cupid=Love , River=God and that's about as far as it goes.

Sorry Tom. Your critique here reveals your own profound ignorance of the symbolic and sign systems of western art. As you yourself put it; "As far as language of art, I still don't understand what is being said."

Here's how to educate yourself. Look at an artform. Then think of every single aspect of that artform that can be manipulated in any way. This is the plastic possibility of the language (This turns out to not be an easy task because, as the ancient saying goes, the truth is what is hidden.) And then subtract out every single aspect of any particular work of art in that artform that must require translation for somebody outside the tribe of the author/artist/performer to appreciate. So, subtract out the references that can only be understood by knowing the tribal code. Do not subtract out the coded elements though, because even they are built of plastic material. And so they will have "natural" meaning or sensual feeling even without an outsider knowing the specificity of the reference.

Sean Farrell said...

I really enjoyed the entire exchange above and found it helpful and inspiring.

The following is for the benefit of a young reader who finds themselves dumbfounded. The painters under discussion are doing some things which are in part accessible to artists even without their particular back material or lost philosophy because what they are doing relates to conventions and if one understands the prioritizing purposes of conventions as choices, then the unconventional becomes more comprehensible. Traditionally for example, a main figure or face might be a picture's destination and if so it was called the subject and certain devises like Rembrandt's point of highest contrast served their ordering. Degas challenged such ordering often by denying access to that expected destination, forcing one back out into the surrounding elements of the picture. Breaking a picture into a foreground, middle ground and background is another type of convention which may be used to stage the players or elements in a picture. Brangwyn and Everett challenged the conventional or predictable tones used for depth. Brangwyn's and Everett's pictures challenged many conventions. What one learns in art books are generally the conventional ways of doing things and that's good, because their purposes need to be understood before breaking them. However, the work of advanced artists like Degas, Brangwyn and Everett are inaccessible unless they are taken seriously and studied intimately, spending a lot of time contemplating their choices, especially the way they break conventions.

A painter's choices can be said to be their vocabulary or language and that's a fair use of the words. Looking to the emotional characteristics of the smallest or even commonplace things was one of the highlights of the discussion above. Each element, no matter how basic, has characteristics overlapping with other elements and those in a particular picture. Some elements don't actually exist as anything but interact with elements such as light. Color isn't really color until it relates to another color, while other invisible forms exist only as part of the organization of things and if one got them all together in a room with all their variables, the most interesting ones would be those most difficult to define as mentioned earlier. It's very difficult to call something a code when the very nature of each element only exists in relation to the whole. Rather a language made of little picture symbols, even electrical impulses is what is generally referred to as a code. Yet there are conventions in art and such may be referred to as formulas and can be referred to as types of preexisting codes. In the same way as has been pointed out, certain emotional content exists in separate elements as preexisting survival understandings.

Referring to painting as linguistics is an accommodation of a word we associate not only with code, but also with the tongue and sound and when we read or think our vocal chords actually respond. Something is certainly responding when we mix and watch paint change color, but I don't think it's identical as when processing verbal coded language where the parts or words have a preexisting designation or meaning within a certain range of understanding. If accommodation of the word linguistics leaves one more curious than informed and such curiosity gets one to really look at things, then it might not be such a bad thing. But if art is of a nature far more varied than coded languages, then I'm not sure of the wisdom of referring to its parts as code and their use as linguistics, even though regarding certain parts, such is true.

kev ferrara said...

Laurence (and the Mythical "Young Reader" who might have been confused by a certain purple cloud head pretending to be a teacher),

The following is going to be boring.

Languages are sign systems. Signs signify and signal. Signs signify and signal significance.

All signs are manifested through plastic means. All signs are definitionally meaningful, even if they are utterly simple and wholly abstract. (This is why there are swatches available, and unique names, for most wall paint colors.)

No single significance can exist on its own. All manifestations of significance (signs) are at least several significances synthesized into one unit of compound significance. (A blue mark cannot be made without an extent to that mark, without a value, and without a location with respect to the edges of the surface upon which the mark has been made.) The necessary relationship of a sign's qualities to itself is itself significant. (Which is why painters don't just put down any old pigment on the canvas. They mix and mix until they get the exact color, value, saturation, pigment load, viscosity, and brush shape at once.)

As well, of course, all signs are also understood to be significant in relation to other signs, locally and generally, within the communication as well as the system. The relations between signs are themselves plastic, are themselves signs. (A pause between words x and y, for instance, means something different than an interruption of x by y.) There are many different kinds of plastic relations between signs, and each language will have unique ones.

Nothing existentially contradicts itself. With human fallibility, signs within the same communication can contradict one another, resulting in an abrogation of meaning or meaninglessness. With increasing complexity, it becomes increasingly difficult for a communication to not contradict itself. (This and other indications lead to the belief that the relationship of meaning to true experience, which is to say true representation, holds even at the heights of signal abstraction.)

Grammars are ways of organizing the sign relations or associations of particular sign systems (languages) so that each unit or complex of sign-relation, at every scale in a communication, has the best chance of making existential sense irrespective of actual semantic content. Codified languages limit their grammars by imposed formal rules. The uncodified Language of Art has no limits on grammar except those arising naturally from the plastic material itself.

Symbols are one kind of sign.

Letters, glyphs, words... these are only one kind of symbol. A red rose symbolizing love, or dark symbolizing night or fear... that is only one other kind of symbol. Symbolism is much, much more than simply text code or greeting card level romantic associations. Structure itself has symbolism. Handwriting has symbolism. What is evidently missing from a picture has symbolism.

The reason abstract modernism, graphic design, and cartooning came upon the world at the same time was because the best of the 19th century romantics were symbolists and they appreciated the extraordinary scope and power of abstract symbolism to an extent never before imagined in the arts. The symbolists teased out the truth of the full extent of the Language of Art, and then the abstract modernists, designers, and cartoonists played in public with what had been uncovered in whimsical ways. And the result was a cultural revolution.

Laurence John said...

Kev, as i mentioned above, Romantic Symbolism is just one set of devices used to convey meaning. it is a subtle (or sometimes heavy handed) way to manipulate the emotions of the viewer, and one that modernism turned away from.

that aside, you haven’t addressed paintings that avoid such narrative devices and are in effect ‘studies’ from life in paint of the effects of light, shadow and form. i listed some examples above. there are far too many to name. readings of such paintings are by my estimate ‘open ended’ since the viewer isn’t being steered one way or another. you disparagingly (and quite amusingly) referred to some of these painters as ‘meat cameras’ once. so how do those works qualify as art in your symbolic-language approach to reading imagery ?

Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

Kev, thanks for the boring writeup. Really nice and simple explanation of some of the bedrock ideas of signs/symbols/language and how they're tied up with artmaking. And it reminds me that I'd like to return to Peirce someday, when I have a better handle on the practical side of things.

One section I've re-read a few times and am still not clear on-

"Nothing existentially contradicts itself. With human fallibility, signs within the same communication can contradict one another, resulting in an abrogation of meaning or meaninglessness. With increasing complexity, it becomes increasingly difficult for a communication to not contradict itself. (This and other indications lead to the belief that the relationship of meaning to true experience, which is to say true representation, holds even at the heights of signal abstraction.)"

I follow each point in isolation- that a thing can't contradict its own existence, and that signs have a higher chance of contradicting each other with increasing complexity (thus the next section about grammar follows). But I'm unable to see why these lead to the point about meaning mapping with experience at high levels of abstraction.

kev ferrara said...

you haven’t addressed paintings that avoid such narrative devices and are in effect ‘studies’ from life in paint of the effects of light, shadow and form. i listed some examples above. there are far too many to name. readings of such paintings are by my estimate ‘open ended’ since the viewer isn’t being steered one way or another. you disparagingly (and quite amusingly) referred to some of these painters as ‘meat cameras’ once. so how do those works qualify as art in your symbolic-language approach to reading imagery ?

Hey Laurence,

The phrase “Meat Camera” seems to have originated with Stapleton Kearns, a landscapist who had a very popular, smart, and funny blog a few years ago. It’s not to my credit, but I agree it’s a great phrase.

On your question: There are lots of different kinds of meaning that may be conveyed linguistically through signs/signals. But, as far as I can tell, each meaning structure in every language shares an essential aspect with all others; mainly that sign-relations connect otherwise distinct signs into larger meaning-units. And however we read any particular meaning-unit in any particular language, our brains compress the associated significances through the sign-relation to yield the meaning of the total phrase. (I’ll expect my Nobel in the mail.)

All artistic interpretations of form, weight, light, gesture, and space are attempts to convey understanding about those qualities in the given scene or setup to an audience. The aesthetic means to manifest a sensual expression of any of these factors necessarily falls into a meaningful relation structure; what I call an “effect structure.” And a picture, no matter how badly done or stiff, that manages, at once, some effect of form, weight, light, gesture, and space has successfully concatenated or superimposed five different kinds of meaningful aesthetic suggestion on a single reference. (Art is the most layered language.)

Sean Farrell said...

What Kev and Chris have been talking about makes sense as part of languages, but art is also a skill between the eye and hand interacting with matter in the creation of an art object. The term linguistics is an abstraction from the actual process of drawing or painting shapes, colors, etc., and such can be understood as symbols in the process of painting, which may be helpful to a painter, but the painting process may be more intimate when unaided by such nomenclature. The point I'm making is that there is a real difference between painting shapes, edges and colors and talking abut systems of symbols. Michelangelo's architecture involved an understanding of vertical and horizontal lines as forces which are symbol and concept, conceptual symbolic force, but architecture is an area separated from art objects of sculpture involving the eye hand skills of the Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica. The iconic Michelangelo sculpture possesses code, symbol, or concept, but it differs dramatically from a giant digital printer or a hydraulic robot hammering out a replica of the ancient arch of the Temple of Bel in front of a bunch of proud politicians; which also involves code, symbol and symbolic force creating an object in form, weight, light, gesture and space. The relationship of eye to hand and hand to object and object to stone involves a relationship of person to reality in intimate action which cannot be reduced to linguistics without in the broadest sense, reducing all human endeavor to linguistics. Yes, each mark is an expression of emotion of some type, but is the act of drawing, linguistics? If that's the case, then there are no grounds for denying David's lightening field as art because it involves concepts, or linguistics and objects derived from symbols that involve forces and divisions of actual space in a real structure, etc. That's why I question the use of the term linguistics when referring to the act of drawing, painting, mixing paints, etc. because its use will inevitably replace the importance of the acts of painting and drawing by deconstructing them into neurological signals.

It's also true that a painting with a diffused focal ordering is going to induce neurological experiences which aren't going to happen as readily in one ordered in a simpler hierarchal manner, but does such make it necessarily a better painting?

Some disciplines are more limited than others in conveying concepts as form and meaning, others are limited in relaying sensory experience as meaning. Then there are specified languages limited to practical or philosophical symbolism. Mondrian painted with symbolism of the Kaballa, but who knew? Oil paints are limited in luminosity and drawing tools are limited in width. All human endeavor involves limitations. We trust an electrician if they are certified. But without trust life turns into a state of continuous vexation. An artist also needs to trust themselves which entails knowing when to out of their own way.

kev ferrara said...

Sean,

You clearly don't understand this material. Please don't engage with me. Thanks.

kev ferrara said...

One section I've re-read a few times and am still not clear on…

Hey Sid!

Umm, yeah. I knew as I was speedily writing that paragraph that I was eliding a book’s worth of info. I ended up not making much sense.

I guess the overall point is that, even at the highest level of abstraction, if we are sane, there is still a kind of physical truth to our thoughts. And by truth I mean there is a relationship among cognitive elements that has some correspondence with the analogs of those elements and their relationship in experience. And, as well, those elements are necessarily in some kind of agreement with each other, too, such as reality mandates.

Which goes back to the idea that every element in a great work of art is on the same page, part of the same network of mutual justification; everything is in agreement with everything else about the overall idea and its setting or content purview. (a.k.a. Unity) Nothing falsifies or weakens anything else into disharmony, disunity, or imbalance.

When, how and where a communication no longer agrees with itself, it is trudging into the realm of irony, bad comedy, madness, or falsehood. Such falls out of unity and looks wrong to those who are sensitive to abstract truth. Errant thought contradicts reality by essentially contradicting its own self-justification, its own physical truthiness. (Delusion is not recognizing that one is holding the impossible to be so. Ignorance would be an unawareness that contradicting information exists)

This would lead to the idea that, just like music, there are ways of organizing almost wholly abstract visual elements to have a better chance of being truthful in some metaphoric way than mere randomness or whimsy could offer. Thus the reason imagination can produce truth in the metaphoric sense, even in the wildest state of fantasy.

The overall point is that characteristic organizing aspects of reality might serve as the inherent grammar of all meaningful linguistic phenomena.

AleŇ° said...

Great comments Kev, as always.

Sean Farrell said...

“The overall point is that characteristic organizing aspects of reality might serve as the inherent grammar of all meaningful linguistic phenomena. ”

My gosh, someone better inform Aristotle about this stuff, contradiction, harmony and the organizational nature of what is. My head is spinning. Yes, we know what you mean by referring to the grammar in making art and music, the linguistic as emotionally felt meaning in colors and other visual stuff as symbol and their affects and part played in the overall picture. How banal and repetitive does it have to get? The only mystery being the cross categorical use of words you use which long followed the earliest making of art and even the ability to sense such. Yet you have the audacity to dress down people here as if you were talking to children? Your wish has been granted and you're welcome.

kev ferrara said...

Sean,

If you'd actually read Artistotle on correspondence (plus C.S. Peirce and Wittgenstein) and understood me, you would appreciate the clear (and I think interesting) distinctions I am drawing. But somehow, as with, it seems, everything we discuss, your brain keeps missing the nuances that lead to actual insight, gravitating instead to what it already knows, or what it can easily understand, (or what is readily available to look up on the net), and the technical difficulties outside your mind give way to the same old purple clouds of pseudo-erudition that you find so comforting within. So you never get it, and never get that you don't get it.

As long as you keep pretending to understand, while making long, disorganized, puffed-up comments that demonstrate that you don't; as long as you pretend to understand, moreover, composition, aesthetic expression and draftsmanship, while producing art that clearly demonstrates that you don't, you demonstrate your own audacity of pretension, which I have no time for. (e.g. You draw like a high school student. And yet you act like you're an authority on draftsmanship. You babble on about composition, name-dropping all the way, without ever having produced a composition worthy of the name. Clearly, the only one who thinks you should teach art is you.)

Friends on this board long ago suggested I shouldn't bother with you, but I gave you the benefit of the doubt because of your wide frame of reference. But your revealing combination of arrogance and ignorance has turned me around.