Friday, November 15, 2013

ART IN PENULTIMATE TIMES

Yesterday, the 5th Annual Doomsday Clock Symposium was conducted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  During the Symposium, one of the lecturers shared Harold Edgerton's photographs of the world's first atomic explosion.

Edgerton, an MIT professor, received a top secret contract from the US government to film the first bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, as well as several subsequent tests.  He invented the rapatronic (Rapid Action Electronic) camera, with a shutter speed of just two milliseconds, to capture the very instant the nuclear blasts ignited.  These ghostly images were taken from seven miles away in the desert to protect the camera from being incinerated: 

The beast Extinction, unchained for the first time

Edgerton's photos remind me of Phil Hale's skull paintings:



As nuclear weapons proliferate, it becomes more difficult to run the calculations on the Great Actuarial Table and come up with a happy ending.  After all, we can never un-learn the science of how to inflict catastrophic harm.  That knowledge can only become more widely disseminated, easier to use and harder to prevent.

The math suggests we're living in penultimate times.  What role can art play under such circumstances?  Can it raise our consciousness?  Humanize our attitude toward nuclear technology?  Provide us with solace for what appears to be an inevitable fate?

Art and death have been best friends since the very beginning.  Our mortality is one of the greatest inspirations for art.   Yet, despite all the effort that generations of artists have spent contemplating individual death, they have never quite figured out how to react to death's ugly big brother, total extinction.

Oh sure, there have been pretenders along the way.  The Black Death in Europe had the potential to end the world, and it inspired artists such as  Bruegel, Bosch,  Chaucer and Defoe.

The Triumph of Death by Bruegel
However, the Black Death ultimately helped to usher in the Renaissance by breaking  the grip of a repressive feudal system and an autocratic church, thereby awakening the modern western mind.

As another example, the genocide of World War II was pretty damn impressive.  At the end of the war, Picasso (who had painted the slaughter at Guernica a few years earlier) visited the extermination camp at Birkenau where 20th century technology had been employed to massacre over a million people.  He walked the camp in stony silence and left oppressed by the inadequacy of art.

The front gate at Birkenau, circa 1945
That night he turned to his friends and muttered, "We had to come here to understand.  To think that painters once thought they could paint 'The Massacre of the Innocents.'"

Until now, even the worst slaughters have been redeemed by the possibility that a surviving audience could bear witness to (and perhaps give meaning to) the tragedy. That slender consolation may no longer be available.

Artist Ralston Crawford was commissioned by Fortune Magazine to witness and illustrate one of the first atomic bomb tests in the south Pacific in 1946.  Perhaps his senses were damaged by the blast, for he came up with this laughable reaction:


Another artist, Enrico Baj, sensed that the jig was up and urged in his manifesto that traditional painting be demolished and that art be re-invented to respond to the new reality.  However, despite the sincerity of his intentions, his art was not up to the challenge.



Today an occasional museum exhibition will work up the nerve to take on this biggest theme of all. Artists such as Isao Hashimoto make their point effectively with hard data, while artists such as Carol Gallagher take a very personal and emotional approach and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has prepared a graphic novel about the first Trinity explosion.  Some of these efforts are more successful than others, but they are all well-intentioned.

The ancient Greeks tragedians understood that even a doomed person retains enough control to elevate his or her fate from mere misery to the dignity of tragedy. That's not much, but if it's the only way to extract salvation from despair, it's important.


99 Comments:

Blogger Laurence John said...

the first image looks like any primitive life form sending out feelers into darkness.

11/15/2013 4:35 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Colonoscopy with polyps and diverticulitis.

11/15/2013 5:46 PM  
Anonymous gunsngloria said...

I enjoy reading your insightful posts about art. It's always something unexpected.

11/16/2013 12:10 AM  
Blogger K said...

"Today an occasional museum exhibition will work up the nerve to take on this biggest theme of all."

For "biggest theme of all" replace with most overused and cliche theme of the 60s through the 90s. One does get tired of "art" as an encrypted political cartoon.

11/16/2013 3:48 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- aren't these unusual looking images of a nuclear blast? I never would have imagined that the vast fireball began like this. I agree that it looks like some monster peeping its head into our dimension for the first time and looking around, but it turns out that those "feelers" are the supports which held the bomb aloft, and which incinerate a nanosecond faster than the air around the explosion.

Etc, etc-- Well yes, there is that resemblance too. They say that when the devil comes, he will come to you in the most banal form.

gunsngloria-- Many thanks!

K-- Given the physical capabilities of this technology, it is not surprising that the first fumbling artistic responses seem shrill or cliched or propaganda-ish. Given the potential consequences of this technology, it is not surprising that people have focused on it enough to create many cliches. But if you listen to the scientists who know the most about this phenomenon (from Einstein and Oppenheimer on down) those are fairly petty charges when compared to the crime of ignoring the elephant in the room because it has become "cliched." In fact, one of the greatest fears of the people who work in this field is that we will dull our senses to the reality because we can't bear to think about it. Now THERE is a challenge for art.

11/16/2013 7:56 AM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

Speechless. Those pictures are some hardcore physics porn.

You made me remember my first (and only) time at a nuclear reactor (physics undergraduate "field trip", feels like a previous life), looking down at the pool, at the ghostly blue of the cherenkov radiation. Eery stuff. There was a round lifebuoy on the little bridge over the pool, like you would find on a cruise ship. Felt so out of place. Then again, that blue was strangely inviting. You had the feeling it would start talking to you if you stayed alone with it for too long: "come play with me".

Grim jokes about the half-lives of nuclear physicists; the feeling of the air flowing into the low pressure chamber (to ensure air always came in, not out of the reactor room); the irregular chatter of a geiger counter. Lots of exciting physical memories from a single visit, and yet, not once, ever, did I consider following nuclear physics. Ever. There is just something too grim about it. That Cherenkov blue is the stuff of beautiful night terrors.

> it has become "cliched."

I guess people can yawn even at the four riders of the apocalypse . One has to admire that. :)

11/16/2013 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see what artist will try to do with future events i see the visual area(painting, drawing, sculpture etc..) becoming less of a factor to this contribution, the film area(moving pictures) will be the one to record and make statements about this.

No need to worry if you want to know what lies ahead, Revelation has a preview of events to come: i will say it is not a full/complete picture giving every single detail but there is enough to know that humanity does not cease to exist but there are very hard times ahead.
an excellent book about this is Footsteps of the Messiah by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum

11/17/2013 10:37 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I am far more afraid of fiscal collapse or recession being the new normal in the U.S. than I am of nukes.

The current economic sluggishness is clearly delaying R&D dollars going toward fostering the coming biotech revolution. And because of that, the cures for most of the major diseases are being put off by years, costing trillions of dollars in healthcare expenditure and allowing tremendous suffering and needless deaths on a constant basis.

Excuse the rhetoric, but three times the amount of people die every year from heart disease in the U.S. than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Who knows what the numbers are worldwide; A holocaust a year, I imagine.

As far as making art about nuclear disaster, I think John Martin's The Great Day of His Wrath is the best painting ever made about nuclear war. Although Martin didn't know it at the time.

11/17/2013 3:53 PM  
Blogger Mellie said...

I enjoyed your post, David, as always.

Like Kev, I think there are more immediate dangers than nuclear war. The greatest threat facing humankind is climate change. If we don't control our carbon emissions the planet will change irreversibly. The polar ice will melt, the seas will rise, vast areas of the planet will become uninhabitable, species will go extinct. And this is not a fear, but a process that is already happening: science fact, not fiction.

As for politics, there's nothing wrong with art being political, and actually I don't see how you can make art about nuclear war without it being political.

11/19/2013 5:48 AM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

The way I see it, if you are worried that climate change (or economic upheaval or whatever) will create huge political problems in the near future then it should follow that you should worry about all those nukes still waiting in their silos for the time when political tempers run hot.

The time to disarm should be when nukes seem a relic of the past. It surely won't happen when they again seem relevant.

While they exist we are constantly rolling a many-sided die and hoping it won't stop with the wrong face up.

11/19/2013 6:48 AM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

Also, issues of climate change or economic problems are mostly orthogonal to this. There is no reason it should be an either-or situation. If anything, dismantling all the nukes should make for a nice little bit of Keynesian stimulus.

11/19/2013 6:52 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Antonio Araujo-- I agree with you about "the ghostly blue of the cherenkov radiation." Disturbing and inviting at the same time.

Art about our nuclear future would be more potent if it avoids cliche, just as any other important art form would be. However, the notion that the "biggest theme"is merely an "overused and cliche theme" suggests that some people are too concerned about the stylishness of the end of the world.

Anonymous-- whether you give it any religious credibility or not, the Book of Revelations is certainly a beautiful, disquieting treatment of Armageddon.

Kev Ferrara--Heart disease and fiscal collapse may be more likely in the short term but on the other hand they could not lead to the end of complex life on the planet. That's quite a difference.

As for John Martin's series of end-of-the-world paintings, he is great at achieving a dramatic likeness of an explosion or an eruption but I think his work falls short of what is needed for a true nuclear art. Color movies of nuclear tests are just as powerful and frightening as Martin's work, but for me they both lack the philosophical / conceptual element necessary for an art form that does justice to the subject matter. Perhaps this is more of a job for Sophocles or Shakespeare.

11/19/2013 7:02 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Mellie-- It's interesting that you raise climate change; The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has now taken up the dangers of climate change (along with bio-warfare). Unlike nuclear explosions, climate change is described as "the slow, silent catastrophe." Each is on its own timetable, but all three require science to fight scientific illiteracy and the will to disbelieve. Scientists are hoping that artists may have better communication skills for this task, although that has yet to be proven.

Antonio Araujo-- I agree with you but the world's largest possessor or nukes, and perhaps the country best equipped to prevent fissile material from falling into the wrong hands, has descended into a state of self-imposed dysfunctionality, so don't expect anyone to make good use of this opportunity.

11/19/2013 7:18 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David,

It sounds to me like you are looking for anti-nuke political campaign, not art.

Perhaps this is more of a job for Sophocles or Shakespeare.

This is wise. Although I'd love to see a film talent at the level of a Ridley Scott taking a whack at it.

I assume you don't think Dr. Strangelove functions as an anti-nuke artwork because it's just too funny?

I actually don't see how a lone visual image can tackle the issue. Just the wrong medium for the job.

But even if such a work were done effectively, the staff at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art would most likely pass on exhibiting it. (Just guessing, of course.)

11/19/2013 11:51 AM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Art is life affirming. It cannot heal or mend or redeem. The healthier the bell, the deeper it resonates.

11/19/2013 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David it seem we have a different view of Armageddon. Sounds like you equate Armageddon with the end of the world. where as in revelation that is just an area where a large battle takes place and not the end of the world but is the ending of the seven year tribulation and the setting up of the 1000 year reign of The Messiah in which the earth will enjoy close to perfect environment, life, illness is nonexistent

11/20/2013 12:06 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

It seems to me, the problem with images about nuclear holocaust is that too often they try to show what happens *after* the bomb is dropped, but after the bombs dropped there's not much left to talk about. Everything is gone.

Instead, show us what is lost, show us lives before the bomb, give us something to regret losing.

You can't make the loss of a life emotionally accessible by showing us a dead body, but rather, by showing us a living one -- living, loving, etc.

Don't show us an empty decimated Hiroshima on August 7, 1945.

Show us a small Japanese family sitting down to a quiet dinner, a happy dreamy scene, with children playing in the background, and title it "August 5, 1945 -- Hiroshima Japan".

11/20/2013 9:03 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

It's fitting to talk about Hiroshima in that context, not just because of their history, but also because Japanese culture has long known that the saddest images one can make are of youth and beauty -- they call that idea Mono no aware.

11/20/2013 9:08 AM  
Blogger Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

Richard, I don't see that approach as entirely effective because such an image doesn't work as a picture in itself- without the text, it's just a nice picture of a family. You could assign such meaning to any number of images with the title change. Unless there's something in the language of the picture itself to suggest that coming horror.

11/20/2013 10:03 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>Sidharth

Very few representational images ever "work [solely] as a picture" in themselves.
There are types of content which a "pure" visual arts just does not handle well.

Be the additional information coming by way of myth, legend, history, news of the day -- be it by text or oratory -- that's been pretty standard for the medium of visual arts for millenia. Its especially common in illustration (see name of blog).

In the past (and in other countries), visual artist were/are in luck. They had a myriad of tried and true characters to work with.

In the west, if you painted or sculpted Apollo, people knew who it was, and could easily surmise the story of your piece. In the east, you could work with images of Siddharta or Rama and people would know what your work was about.

Today, unless you're painting Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, that's not really an option for us. As a result, we have to help the picture-viewer with textual hints (at least more than people did in the past).

And anyway, the idea that the painting, on it's own, should tell a complete story is pretty silly. Why try to tell a narrative solely with an art-form so ill-suited to narrative?

Nuclear Holocaust is inherently temporal; you have a stark before and after. They're drastically disjointed by the event -- you cannot visually tell much about one by showing only the other. A pre-nuke image gives little evidence of what a post-nuke world will be like. A post-nuke image tells little of what existed prior to the nuke. Nuclear Holocaust is, because of that, especially temporal, and therefore especially illsuited towards a
"pure" non-narrative art-form.

One can try all the sloppy ways that 2D artists attempt to create temporality (eg, show bombers out the window of the scene), but those methods always end up feeling disposable.

11/20/2013 11:06 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11/20/2013 11:16 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

To clarify a little more, if people recognized the pre-bomb Nagasaki/Hiroshima skyline in the US, then we could make a purer pre-bomb image quite easily. They don't -- we don't have the luxury of recognizable twin towers to work with here.

That's our world in general now -- there are increasingly complex stories to tell, but a population would need a god-like level of visual literacy to understand the bulk of these stories.

Does that mean the artist has to step away from those subjects where the audience hasn't the visual literacy to understand without some explanation? I think that would be a big mistake.

We're better off allowing some text to aid the viewer than to become a culture which only makes super-hero fan-art -- be it Jesus or Harry Potter, Siddhartha or Batman.

11/20/2013 11:18 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Why are you selling something you just gave away for free?

It's an internet-ready idea. Just needs the photo of the Japanese Family from google, and a caption (also known as the punchline) below, then you post it on facebook, get 11 "likes" and move on.

Just in case, at the end of this common internet cycle of throwaway editorial art, you feel less than satisfied artistically, here are two thoughts to consider: Dean Cornwell pointed out that a picture that you could explain in words is not a fit pictorial subject. Harvey Dunn said, a picture is its own definition.

11/20/2013 12:57 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>Dean Cornwell pointed out that a picture that you could explain in words is not a fit pictorial subject. Harvey Dunn said, a picture is its own definition.

An yet...
Dean Cornwell,

Harvey Dunn,

are doing the exact sort of hero thing I'm talking about. They're just using the old simplified cast. Look at how Dunn plays off all the stereotyped characters of 1950s mythical life to give his work solidity -- indians, cowboys, etc.



>Why are you selling something you just gave away for free? It's an internet-ready idea. Just needs the photo of the Japanese Family from google, and a caption (also known as the punchline) below, then you post it on facebook, get 11 "likes" and move on.

Should Cornwell and Dunn skipped the actually rendering of their pieces because the subject matter could be said in a sentence or two?

How the artist makes us empathize with that Japanese family, to make their life feel important to the viewer, to express the philosophical and emotional complexities of that moment (both for the family, and our own, knowing the future), that job does not disappear simply because a fact must be known before the work can be explored.

11/20/2013 1:56 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>also known as the punchline

Isn't an image of a prostitute washing Jesus's feet with her hair a "punchline" as well?

If you don't know who the characters are, what is Cornwell's image?

11/20/2013 2:10 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Richard:

The Harvey Dunn you posted demonstrates exactly why your argument cannot be used to explain how meaning is communicated by way of hand-made images. That particular picture sucks in equal proportion to how much it follows your argument.

11/20/2013 2:25 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>chris

It's actually not a Harvey Dunn at all, I posted another Cornwell by mistake, which would explain a good portion of why it sucks. Dunn is undoubtedly the better artist, but I don't think it has anything to do with their use of subject.

If Dunn had painted a picture of the anointing of Christ I think it would be a damned great painting -- even though one would have to know the story to appreciate a portion of the picture. If you don't agree, I'd love to hear what you have to say about Michelangelo's Pietà.

11/20/2013 2:48 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Richard:

I can certainly do that, but which one? The early one, the middle one or the Rondanini?

11/20/2013 2:54 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I meant the early pieta, but does it matter?

Either way we'd be dealing with the same problem -- a piece that requires significant prior knowledge to appreciate.

And don't you see this as a problem with other Dunn works?

His images of WW1 soldiers are interesting, but would they be if we were not culturally aware of whom their helmets identified them as, what period they were from, and what war they were fighting in? They'd just be guys with guns running around. Pretty mundane subject matter without the historical context.

And without knowledge of Native Americans, what good are Dunn's pictures of them? To a Mongolian man unawares of American history they'd just be strange pictures of oddly dressed people.

11/20/2013 3:28 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

And to make that relate to the image I was describing, one could easily add LeMay bombing leaflets, and specific cultural elements that would denote the place as Hiroshima, to a Japanese person of that time period. But so what?

I'm guessing most of the people posting on this blog would still need the title to understand the "punchline" of the painting.

Does that mean the painting wouldn't be "pure" because the people on this blog would not understand it without the title?

11/20/2013 3:37 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"To a Mongolian man unawares of American history they'd just be strange pictures of oddly dressed people."

Richard, this discussion has been had already in the post of Oct 3rd. the answer is that in most 'dramatic narrative' paintings it's obvious from body language, staging, facial expression, thrust of action etc what the 'drama' is.
however, there is usually a cultural 'backstory' that enhances the work further if it is known. Jesus is just a man nailed to two planks of wood unless you know the story.

11/20/2013 6:43 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

David,
Both the Edgerton and Hale images are powerful and frightening. The quality of Hale's desolation is bold, almost mockingly evil. The Edgerton photos are terrifying as bizarre anti-life realism. There is an instinctive repulsion to both and possibly a macabre fascination as each represents some degree of a triumph of evil.

Richard's point that desolation fails to communicate what is lost is a good one. The overuse of desolate images such as video game backdrops for example, trivializes their threat to what is lost as they simply come to represent a new hopeless reality. Morality is the ordering of things so value isn't trivialized or lost in seemingly senseless obstacles. Another way of putting it is that morality is the practice of valuing things, trying to value them in their entirety and life in its entirety.

Total annihilation or the complete triumph of evil is an intolerable thought which demands some kind of moral response. The practice of fighting evil has always been to abandon oneself, or breath life into to that which is good, usually in simple acts available to one as part of the real world; to cultivate belief in life, to affirm. The fear of annihilation is a legitimate inhibition and stimulus, but sometimes it becomes part of the loss itself, a chase into an abstraction of fear with no hope. So I agree with the statement by Chris, that art is life affirming. The healthier the bell, the deeper it resonates.

11/20/2013 10:41 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Richard wrote: I meant the early pieta, but does it matter?

The answer to which was implicit in my question to you. It does matter. And it certainly mattered to Michelangelo, otherwise why would he have made three different sculptures under the same label? He was dying when he was making the Rondanini; if it was just a trivial bit of variation to placate the vanity of his patron, why all that struggle with hacking away at the earlier solution in the sculpture itself? What was he seeking, and by what means?

It mattered to Michelangelo because the meaning he was expressing was embodied in the music of the forms themselves, not the label or title that signalled the scenario, but forms that looked like human beings in relationship to each other. That relationship is expressed in the plasticity of the work itself. The early Pieta could be ‘Alien Autopsy’ or ‘I’ve Just Stabbed My Boyfriend’ or ‘The Healing Witch’ or ‘The Dying Land’ or ‘Defeat’ etc etc… or even, dare I say it; ‘Mother and Dead Son’. Most of these labels could be slapped on the Rondanini as well. So why bother with all that agonising over how to orchestrate the infinite possibilities of shaping a block of Carrara marble?

The spoon-shaped Rondanini teeters over us like a frozen wave, two people seemingly preventing each other from falling over an eroding cliff – the man holding the woman up, the woman stopping the man from slipping away. The man’s legs are like unearthed tree roots; the ground crumbled from under them, no longer feeding their trunk. But wait! It’s as if it’s being prevented from falling by its own foliage; the stuff it used to give life to; the figure holding him. But wait again! Is he supporting her? Is the tree still capable of feeding its foliage? Is the food deeper, or other than the soil? Who is helping who? What is freezing this wave? What stops them both from falling? Is it because they are in fact rising?

All this would be possible to intuit without knowing anything about the Bible. And even then it misses the point. My interpretation is still coming after the fact of the non-verbal meaning. I’m merely trying to put into words my non-verbal response to ‘a certain orchestration of forms that look like two humans’ before me. But my words are not arbitrary. They are being pushed out of me by a feeling I cannot quite put a textual, that is to say, conscious, finger on.

Words only describe. They are not the meaning itself. Slapping a label on something does not change its meaning. It only changes the meaning’s context - the stuff of politics.

11/21/2013 4:49 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>chris

Great description of the Rondanini. When I look at it, I don't see anything you've just described, but the way you describe it allows me to imagine a really awesome epic sculpture. Great stuff, it's amazing how language can do that. ;)

Still, I don't see how that responds in anyway to what I was just saying. Your last paragraph seems a nonsequitor.

11/21/2013 9:04 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "It sounds to me like you are looking for anti-nuke political campaign, not art."

Kev, I think it's an important question: is art or propaganda a more helpful response to this situation? Yeats claimed that we make propaganda from our arguments with the world, while we make art from our arguments with ourselves. It should not be surprising, then, that propaganda seems more effective for rallying people to a cause or changing their behavior. Art on the other hand seems to give us more depth of understanding, but less of a motivation to act. Propaganda, of course, is more simplistic and has a much shorter shelf life. (Look back at the propaganda of World War II and it's difficult not to be embarrassed).

Also, if propaganda is more effective at motivating people with a pared down, simplified, exaggerated version of reality that dehumanizes our enemy, that technique can be aimed in all kinds of directions. Dueling versions of propaganda can make conflict more likely.

All of which is to say that I don't think I am looking for a political campaign rather than art. Both contribute different elements to the conversation. And of course, there is much overlap between the two (Flagg, Raleigh, Grosz, Kollwitz).

Chris Bennett wrote, "Art is life affirming."

Is it? What's your view of the art of George Grosz or Ivan Albright? Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night or David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross"? What about the nihilism of existential art, or Dadaism, and anti-rationalist movement born from 20th century disgust with World War I and despair over the end of the age of reason?

Anonymous-- I take your point about the original notion of Armageddon in the Book of Revelation, although I think some of those specifics blurred in later medieval texts and illuminated manuscripts.

I can't attest to its accuracy, but I think that the Book of Revelation is an astounding work of art about the end of days and I would recommend it to everyone. I have thought about what makes it such a powerful, unnerving piece of writing, and I think part of the answer is the combination of huge metaphysical concepts (such as an epic battle between good and evil) with very specific names and numbers. Its mystical, speculative themes gain persuasiveness from its certainty and literalism. ("One of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God....") It is an astonishing document, and quite relevant to this discussion.

11/21/2013 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

The power of the passion is the drama between desolation and life and in the passion life wins, there is a an alternative to cynicism, despair and stoicism is given hope. War too has been said to bring out the best in people along with the worst in them. But what can one make of this strange stuff used to kill off cancer cells, which equally can kill off all life?

Thinking of the continual radiation leaking at Fukishima and the dispersing of nuclear waste into roads and products instead of a nuclear holocaust, reminds us that radiation is something the world is ignoring, or trusting that experts in these matters know what they're doing. But I have no answer to the question of how it might be treated as art. The film of people running full speed from Chernobyl might be all one can ever say about it.

Life is so compelling that regardless of one's training, people value their immediate and next moments when threatned, so there is something about our own death which is incomprehensible. It follows then that the subject of total world annihilation is equally beyond comprehension.

11/21/2013 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

The power of the passion is the drama between desolation and life and in the passion life wins, there is a an alternative to cynicism, despair and stoicism is given hope. War too has been said to bring out the best in people along with the worst in them. But what can one make of this strange stuff used to kill off cancer cells, which equally can kill off all life?

Thinking of the continual radiation leaking at Fukishima and the dispersing of nuclear waste into roads and products instead of a nuclear holocaust, reminds us that radiation is something the world is ignoring, or trusting that experts in these matters know what they're doing. But I have no answer to the question of how it might be treated as art. The film of people running full speed from Chernobyl might be all one can ever say about it.

Life is so compelling that regardless of one's training, people value their immediate and next moments when threatned, so there is something about our own death which is incomprehensible. It follows then that the subject of total world annihilation is equally beyond comprehension.

11/21/2013 11:44 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>It follows then that the subject of total world annihilation is equally beyond comprehension.

Well, and even if we can conceive it, it doesn't feel close emotionally. I'd argue that that's the difference between being dead, and dying. It's hard in any media to slow down the annihilation of the world to the point that we can linger on enough individuals actively dying to make the point stick.

Something like 100 billion people have lived and died over the course of the last 10,000 years. The fact that they're all dead now doesn't feel like an enormous tragedy, yet if a work lingers on the actual dying of them, it has the power to turn stomachs.

11/21/2013 12:33 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

We can also make the annihilation of mankind closer by allowing a handful to survive in a work.

E.g. See the way 'The Road' maps out the lack of people, by showing their absence through a perpetual stark loneliness of the main characters.

And unlike most post-apocalyptic work, it doesn't use that stark absence towards a sort of self-serving ego worship (as in, say, Waterworld), but makes the situation of the main characters even more hopeless, arguably, than that of the dead.

Still, in a single image it would be pretty hard to make clear that even those who are still alive won't be in time, and so you'd still end up leaving the viewers hopeful that the species may still exist.

It's a damned difficult problem.

11/21/2013 12:43 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

David, as my pre-bomb picture has been vetoed, do you have any theories about how to make 'pure' image about nuclear holocaust that also feels close, without 'redeeming by the belief that there would be a surviving audience to bear witness'?

How does one do it?

11/21/2013 12:50 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David,

If we presume that art is a poetic fiction that tells the truth, the question arises; why do we desire either fiction or truth? And why do we desire them packaged together in poetic form?

Seeking after truth should result in living in an increased state of knowledge or wisdom. But what is the good of having knowledge or wisdom about subjects and issues where nothing is to be done with that knowledge? (Since we aren’t talking about propaganda here.) And it’s not like you don’t already have enough information about the subject. You don’t need to be educated about nuclear annihilation. (I think this provides anecdotal support to the idea that the subject of an artwork is only a way of reminding you about what you already know.)

The fact that art is a fiction gives us entertainment. But, good fiction, while occupying us pleasantly and dramatically, also then offers us catharsis, releasing the gathered tension.

And poetry makes things beautiful by abstracting them, emptying them of the grit of existence and leaving only the pure essence of the thing to be contemplated in the mind.

So, if we add all this together, maybe one role of art is to give us entertainment and catharsis regarding difficult prior knowledge. And the point of that would be to bring acceptance regarding the subject, which is not the same as solace.

I think the solace comes in with aesthetic qualities of the delivery system. The need to find poetic catharsis about nuclear annihilation is really an attempt to find a way to see it as beautiful.

11/21/2013 1:09 PM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

A question that keeps coming up in the comments (in this post and previous ones) is whether some subject is fit for visual art or not. The usual example that comes up as unfit is the sexual act (I never understood why, when for instance violence is such a fit and common subject, but whatever) and apparently the preoccupation with "the bomb" is another such case.

I don't get why the question is put that way when at the same time we keep talking about what great art came out of the rater humdrum assignments of people who illustrated crappy short stories in women's magazines, or adverts for variegated products from bleach to real estate. Not to speak of weird myths involving biologically improbable pregnancies.

Another subject that gets the cold shoulder is the space program. Take this:

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/08/29/nasa-art-program/

You get a nice contrast between for instance the Wyeth and the Warhol. The Wyeth manages to get somewhere in both the intellectual concept and the visual construction. His painting both means something and is visually interesting. The Warhol fails in both regards - it is the application of the patented Warhol filter over a photo, meaning it is about his commercial persona and nothing else.

Still, the thing that the Wyeth also is not is the "madonna con bambino" of the space age. I mean, it is really hard to get to a design that will serve such a purpose. It is simply very hard to get at a picture that will serve as an icon to a complex concept, so no wonder that once people got to the basic design of the "madonna con banbino" they started churning them up ad nauseum to now fill to the rim every museum in Europe.

Perhaps the problem is not that the moon landing or nuclear holocaust are unfit subjects but simply that nobody put in the necessary manpower to unearth the few compositions that would flesh out the subject in a really iconic way.

Come on, it's really weird that, say, the pioneers of the old west are intrinsically a fit subject and cosmonauts are not, or that the fictional end of the world is a great subject and the (rather possible) nuclear holocaust isn't. There's just a cultural thing going on, these things came up at the wrong time for representational art of a certain type, or they came up under the wrong cultural viewpoint (say, in the sex vs violence case, where the problem is not so much visual but rather that we have a weird society were nudity is tagged NSFW but violence isn't).

11/21/2013 2:00 PM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

Or, consider the relative pictorial merits of the following themes.

The assassination of:

a) Julius Caesar
b) the Gracchi brothers (pick any)

Then count how many pictures were made of one subject versus the other. Is a) so much better than b), visually? I don't think so. The difference is just political sympathies.

Or take for c) the assassination of JFK. The reason here is just that it happened at a time were we'd rather watch the zapruder film and mutter "back and to the left" over and over. It's just bad timing.

11/21/2013 2:26 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

David Apatoff wrote: "Art is life affirming." Is it? What's your view of the art of George Grosz or Ivan Albright? Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night or David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross"? What about the nihilism of existential art, or Dadaism, and anti-rationalist movement born from 20th century disgust with World War I and despair over the end of the age of reason?

Grosz and Albright’s pictures are posters for their outrage politics and despair. Understandable that they felt the way they did, but that’s what their images are, and I do not consider them art because they lack synthesis within their intrinsic means. I haven’t seen the two plays you mention, so can’t comment on those. But existential nihilism, Dadaism and the anti-rationalist movement are also in my view, just organised versions of the outrage/despair politics I’ve just mentioned.

However, the life affirming nature of art does not depend on optimistic subject matter. To think it does is just another version of the argument Richard is putting forth. That this is manifestly not the case is attested to by such works as ‘Macbeth’, ‘Midnight Cowboy’, Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’ or Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ – works of art that speak human truths via the means of anguish. Art’s miracle of synthesis within the seeming chaotic indifference of our material existence is, by definition, the light in the darkness.

11/21/2013 2:36 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Chris,

Is Waiting for Godot life affirming? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?

11/21/2013 3:46 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Or, what about the works of Salvador Dali? Hieronymus Bosch? The msot fatalistic works of Goya?

11/21/2013 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Art can capture a painful truth and still be edifying, or it can assert an image of despair or tragedy and still have something human and redeeming in it. But what can one do with total annihilation? I just don't know.

An icon is so because it's viewed so many times. Andy Warhol's Soup Can is an icon, but his astronaut is not. The Madonna and Child was rarely painted as an end in itself but as an aid in worship. We've seen so many of them because there were so many churches, but most of them were never intended for museums. Paul Calle's postage stamp of the space walk is closest to an icon of space exploration program, but wasn't included on the NASA link. There are a number of famous artists known for their eroticism and some of them enjoyed much success in their own time and remain popular. Thanks for the NASA-art-program link.

11/21/2013 5:52 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Richard (and Sidharth Chaturvedi and Kev Ferrara)--

Richard wrote: "show us lives before the bomb, give us something to regret losing."

I agree that it's difficult to imagine how art about such a topic could be effective without conveying the importance of what is lost (or threatened). So in that sense Richard's suggestion that an artist should "give us something to regret losing" is hard to dispute.

However, that seems only one of the essential ingredients-- perhaps the easiest one, the ingredient that might be satisfied with the sunny, smiling paintings of Haddon Sundblom, pastoral scenes from Constable, socialist realist pictures of happy peasants harvesting crops, or even a child-like scrawl of flowers. By itself, without the spectre of loss, "something we would regret losing" doesn't take us far.

I think that even if it's only something as slender as the title, "August 5, 1945 -- Hiroshima Japan," the end must somehow be present because the real artistic challenge is in the interaction of the two parts-- what visual form the two parts take, how much weight is devoted to each, how the dance of eros and thanatos is portrayed, what the outcome is, etc.

Of course, all of these factors are traditional thinking-- a vision of art that may be obsolete in penultimate times. If it turns out there is no posterity and no audience for the art, the reason for creating art would change and the balance of the factors described above would lose its significance (except for the benefit of the artist during the act of creation). Obviously, everyone continues to operate as if the world will go on unchanged. However, art should not shy away from uncomfortable questions and difficult truths.

11/21/2013 8:47 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

It's very tempting to judge art of prior eras by 19th, 20th, or 21st century criteria. Art of the middle ages and Renaissance was for the purpose of religious meditation. There were no restrictions on whether or not the images were illustrative. They were supposed to capture the narrative as many of the people were illiterate who viewed them. The medieval stiffness captured a piety which later gave way to the movement of Michelangelo, Raphael and DaVinci, but all were trying to express the narrative. For such, reading what a Thomas Merton had to say about contemplative art makes probably more or as much sense as reading critics who don't really relate to the subject matter at all.

Images evoked by the same stories can take so many forms because different artists were seeing their own images. So as for the era of religious art, both Chris and Richard are making sense because the art can be looked at aside from actual belief because there is so much going on formally or visually in them, yet that wasn't their purpose.

The faith holds that there is eternity, so an image of hell was edifying in that it could remind one of the consequences of their actions, that would be acts with no mercy, no thoughtfulness, etc. in accumulation would transform the soul to a state of perdition. But it differs in certain ways from the warning of nuclear annihilation which is the end of all, a modern concern and of course beyond a dire warning, what other purpose would portraying total desolation serve?

So yes Antonio, some of this is cultural, no doubt about it, but some of it is also an atrophy of certain understandings, a taking our humanity for granted as images of desolation become for some reason more commonplace than can be easily explained.

11/21/2013 10:32 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Richard wrote: Is Waiting for Godot life affirming? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead? Or, what about the works of Salvador Dali? Hieronymus Bosch? The most fatalistic works of Goya?

In my humble opinion: Those two plays are still-born intellectual musings on impotency dressed up as drama. The works of Salvador Dali are sensationalist juxtapositions pimped up into the trappings of art by oil paint and gold frames. The war pictures of Goya are ‘on the nose’ and therefore nowhere near as affecting as the disturbing undercurrents found in his Royal portraits.

11/22/2013 5:51 AM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Thinking about Constable’s ‘Hadleigh Castle’:
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/constable-sketch-for-hadleigh-castle-n04810

This comes very close to answering David’s challenge. The picture is big, 6 feet in length and the surface is very raw indeed – great gobs of paint applied with a palette knife and clinging onto its grey surface like flacking eczema, the off-white seagulls like pterodactyls, the two forms of the castle cleaved open, their treasure blundered, the house no longer a home, two broken hearts empty upon an incinerated bed.

Yet the eternity that has laid waste the efforts that once built this castle still gleams across the waters, beckoning our hopes towards the infinite.

The fact that Constable painted this shortly after the death of his beloved wife adds poignancy, but does not change the image’s meaning. ‘The end of the world’ is an idea, a one-off event that by definition we have not experienced. But to the individual, losing what is most dearly loved is the same as total annihilation. Kill everybody O God, but please, please spare my wife! To a depressed man the world may as well not exist. One step onto the electrified rail takes us away from the suffering; the only thing that is left. Whether he is looking at a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland or the strands tangled in the bristles of his dead wife’s hairbrush - it’s all the same. If he is a great artist he might have the strength to make an image out of it. For Constable it became Hadleigh castle. The lush, homely greens of earlier pictures defoliated by his grief, yet irradiated by a cold, silver light. The same north light of the studio window glinting on the blade of a palette knife no longer at his throat, but gliding across a yielding canvas.

11/22/2013 6:46 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

The problems with making art of thermonuclear annihilation is worth considering.

On the one hand, good art isn't pornographic, in the sense of being a substitute for the thing that is the subject. If we get an emotional reaction to the subject itself, say horror and revulsion at teeming masses of disfigured and burned bodies, this is a sympathetic reaction, not an aesthetic reaction. Which is to say, it is interested, rather than disinterested. If this sympathetic reaction is the goal, photography will do fine. One needn't make art out of it. If you want to see a head exploding, or any other purely sensational effect, call hollywood.

On the other hand, to actually show thermonuclear annihilation in such a way that it is understood to be the subject, one must take into account that appreciating thermonuclear annihilation is a literary idea, wide in scope and scale, necessarily built of a sequence of understandings, some of which are merely fact, and some of which are wholly abstract. Thus many, if not most, of these concatenated understandings can't be successfully explained pictorially. They are literary ideas.

So, the artist isn't going to show that the bomb is predicated on the idea that mass can be converted into energy, or that radioactive elements are both massive and unstable and thus good fuel for that fire. You can't show the flailing failings of politicians over time, or the warmongering of xenophobic zealots that leads up to the nuclear option. You also can't show at once; the bomb itself, the explosion itself (which has both implosive and explosive moments), the aftermath on a city at large, while showing the effects on a unique family (so we personalize the issue), while also getting at the idea of irradiation.

If you show any one of these elements alone, you aren't getting any more than a superficial and/or theatrical sense of the matter. Yet, if you try to put more than one of these elements together in the same scene, you end up using the elements textually, as symbols, and writing a visual sentence with them in the manner of collage, as in conceptual editorials, which function intellectually and thus lack aesthetic power.

All of the above is exactly why a book or a movie is the more sensible choice. Having said that, one should never say never where human creativity is involved.

11/23/2013 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in a situation like events described in revelation it is hard to see art even being a factor maybe so, but seems like so much stress is involved in these events. creating for the sake of art seems like an after thought. the efforts of creating will be applied to survival in this supernatural environment.

David people have always added to what actually the Bible says either in incorrect interpretations or just simply trying to make the bible fit their belief system. Revelation has no direct quotation from the Old Testament but has around 550 references back to Old Testament. The last two chapters of Revelation are the only new information (the eternal state) the other chapters in Revelation deal with giving the prophecies scattered throughout the book of Moses and the various Prophets and Writings order. The book of Revelation gives the old testament prophecies chronological order.
where the world is now in relation to future events a Northern alliance Invasion of Israel Ezekiel 38:1-39:16, A One world Government Daniel 7:23-24, The Ten Kingdoms Daniel 7:24a, The Rise of the Antichrist Daniel 7:24b, The Period of Peace and False Security 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, The seven year Covenant Daniel 9:27, after the signing of the seven year Covenant the event known as the 7 year tribulation will began. that is where revelation really comes in to play describing event of The first half of the tribulation (seal judgments, trumpet judgments), Events of the middle , Events of the second half (bowl judgments), The campaign of Armageddon begins with the sixth bowl judgment. The return of The Messiah, The Interval 75 days (between the tribulation and Messianic Kingdom), the Messianic Kingdom 1000 years, and finally the Eternal Order and the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth

11/24/2013 12:16 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Invasion of Israel Ezekiel 38:1-39:16, A One world Government Daniel 7:23-24, The Ten Kingdoms Daniel 7:24a, The Rise of the Antichrist Daniel 7:24b, The Period of Peace and False Security 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, The seven year Covenant Daniel 9:27

Fissionable Material Pu-239.

11/24/2013 6:38 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

:-D

11/25/2013 4:03 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell and Kev Ferrara--

Sean wrote, "But what can one do with total annihilation? I just don't know."

Kev wrote, "The problems with making art of thermonuclear annihilation is worth considering."

That is exactly why I sent out this post, and exactly where I am struggling for assistance. It is impossible to imagine a work of art capable of addressing this subject in a meaningful way. Even to attempt to do so guarantees a shrill, superficial result. So any artist with a lick of sense would stay far away, and leave this topic to physicists and politicians. (Or as Picasso said at Treblinka, "To think that painters once thought they could paint the 'The Massacre of the Innocents.'") Anyone with a lick of sense or an ounce of artistic pride would pass this subject matter by and go looking for some nice landscape.

And yet...

If art provides us with nothing to help confront the greatest looming issues of this or any other generation, one has to question the long term cultural significance of art. What is its relevance if it averts its eyes from this astonishing and unique predicament we have made for ourselves?

Your thoughts on this subject (Is there another medium, such as movies or books, better suited for this task? Can we break off a digestible piece of the subject without becoming superficial? Can we employ icons today as a vehicle for "religious meditation" on the subject?) are all worthy considerations, although you seem to share my frustration over their adequacy.

For me the key frustration is this: art is becoming increasingly remote from the heroic and tragic levels of human experience, and as a consequence we are losing our best, most sensitive vocabulary for relating to those experiences. We pour all kinds of artistic effort (and money) into childish games, flirtations and niceties but nothing that attempts to measure up to the grandest challenges of our times.

Years ago I wrote something on this blog about William Blake's admonition that:

"Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street." (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2006/08/where-men-and-mountains-meet_09.html)

All around me I see art "jostling in the street." I don't dispute that there will always be a role for such art. But do either of you see anyone on today's cultural scene "meeting mountains"?

Perhaps it is unfair to ask such things of art. It may not be suited for such a role, although I don't want to define the boundaries of art with the boundaries of my personal imagination. But consider this: the Romantic Era in music began at a time when no one could conceive of anything beyond the genius of Mozart and his classical composer peers. The rich complexity of their beauty seemed impossible to top. Then Beethoven came along and said, "are you fucking kidding me? These beautiful, complex aristocratic tunes are utterly useless for responding to the tumultuous world of today. The Enlightenment has turned everything upside down, monarchies are crashing around us, Napoleon is shaking up the world, and the western philosophical concept of the worth of an individual human has been utterly transformed." So Beethoven changed western music in a direction that no one had dreamed possible.

I'm not saying that art today will be saved by a latter day Beethoven, although I would feel better if I thought Damien Hirst or John Currin or somebody was at least feeling a hint of the anguish that motivated Beethoven.

I don't have the answers to our larger dilemma, but I think it has to be right that we are asking these questions. I hate to think of us marching into such a dangerous future stripped of even the meager defenses that art might have provided.

11/26/2013 4:29 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I think you are leaping the more foundational argument, David.

It seems to me that, in a physicalist conception of the world, where adults deal with matters of grave importance, the consolation of poetry (~ meaningful beauty) has no place. What is germain is exclusively that which is material. And attempting to correct anything other than material conditions is the religious instinct going about deluding us into false consciousness, as per usual, wasting our energy. Thus, if one has anxiety about nuclear annihilation, there is a pill to take that can change the emotional-chemical balance in the mind. If one wishes to attack the problem of nuclear annihilation directly, that's a political issue which requires mass mobilization in many nations at once in order to accrue the requisite amount of power to pursue the idea of global nuclear disarmament. If one feels such grand unity is impractical, a more defensive strategy might be more palatable, in which case, funding a "star wars" type missile shield technology is the way to go.

Poetry is dead, David. All that is left is atoms, chemicals, DNA, neurons, and power politics.

Unless, of course, you can successfully refute physicalism, in order to open the way for poetry to re-enter the world. And then maybe I will understand your application of the quote; "Great things are done when men and mountains meet: This is not done by jostling in the street." For in my present physicalist, anti-art state of mind, I think it must refer to the Manhattan project.

Yeats claimed that we make propaganda from our arguments with the world, while we make art from our arguments with ourselves.

I believe Yeats said that we make rhetoric of our quarrels with the world. In Yeats' time, rhetoric was understood as the method of artful persuasion through deftly formed communication. This does not mean a method of using lies, ad hom, scapegoating, fear-mongering, stereotyping, billboard ads, etc -- which are not artful in the least -- to increase one's consumer base or constituency. The art of rhetoric is more a matter of deftly pleading a case for sanity in the world. It has nothing to do with hysteria.

11/27/2013 1:49 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"I'm not saying that art today will be saved by a latter day Beethoven, although I would feel better if I thought Damien Hirst or John Currin or somebody was at least feeling a hint of the anguish that motivated Beethoven."

Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr (in cinema) and Arvo Part and Steve Reich (in music) have all dealt with big anguish-heavy themes in recent times.

11/28/2013 12:43 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Yes Lawrence, Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Nostalgia' deals directly with nuclear annihilation.

Though I think David is wondering why the hand-made, still image cannot come up with the goods.

11/28/2013 1:51 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Chris,

it's Tarkovsky's 'The Sacrifice' you're thinking of.

anyway the point is, there's heavy themes out there if anyone wants them. Beethoven didn't work in still images either.

;-)

11/28/2013 2:04 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Oops, you're right! ;)

11/28/2013 2:11 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

there's "When the Wind Blows" too; a children's book and animated film.
the animation will probably look a bit ropey today, but i remember people being devastated by it when it came out.

11/28/2013 2:18 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

'Bombi' :)

It's a long time ago since I've seen that, but I guess a lot of its effect was to do with the subject playing out against the grain of our hard-wired expectations of the cartoon feature genre. In that sense its effect was achieved partly through vandalism.

11/28/2013 3:51 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev and David,

Hegel is so relevant to your discussion. How the both of you can (and do) so casually dismiss or ignore him after a google search or two, without having read him, never ceases to amaze and perplex me.

11/28/2013 3:53 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Kev said,Poetry is dead, David. All that is left is atoms, chemicals, DNA, neurons, and power politics.

Meaning and hope inspires life yet are considered pablum because they escape the discernment of instruments. Antidepressants can't replace inspiration, hope nor meaning. A loss of hope, possibility and inspiration is a degree of desolation, not unlike total annihilation, but for one.

On a recent weekend, four teens succeeded in committing suicide in nearby towns where I live. Two more attempts were unsuccessful which I know of only because I happened to know the teens.

Life defined as physicality is as intolerable as is total annihilation. It has to end because it's a contradiction. There is something in the intangibles which are required to go "where men and mountains meet". Though such is not made of the crude stuff of matter, there is something in meaning which possesses life.

The very desire to get something right, to do one's best is more than art, it's a part of the spiritual economy, the spirit of life verses the spirit of desolation. Life is that which refuses to surrender to desolation. It is a force, just as desolation is a force. Just as nuclear waste is a force, life is a force. Art by its nature cannot surrender to desolation because it's part of life. Young people deserve our hope, not our intellectual exhaustion for novelty and paralysis.

I don't believe what Kev says because his intelligence, tenacity and desire to do everything well defies what he is saying. From simply reading him, he strikes me as a life force. At the same time, what David is yearning for is also a life force, meaning, hope and so forth. Faith, hope and charity or mercy are not only tolerable, they are indispensable because it is their opposite which is intolerable.

11/29/2013 8:05 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

Sean wrote: "A loss of hope, possibility and inspiration is a degree of desolation, not unlike total annihilation, but for one.

Well put Sean, as was your entire post. This is why I believe Constable's 'Hadleigh Castle', I mentioned above, answers David's question.

Nuclear annihilation is the concept of apocalypse, which, as I believe Kev stated earlier, is an essentially literary idea. Or at least better expressed by literature/film. (BTW; I believe the statement of his you were responding to was deliberately facetious - but I'll let him answer you.)

Durer's 'Four Horsemen' is essentially a symbol in this regard, more interesting than the 'ban the bomb/CND' sticker, but not something in my view that intrinsically contains the scenario. (Re the CND symbol: the story goes that the designer found his inspiration from the outstretched arms of the central figure of Goya's famous firing squad picture...)

11/30/2013 5:24 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Chris,
Thanks and also for your deeply felt and intimately observed description of Constable's 'Hadleigh Castle'.

The things introduced on this site amaze me. Mono no aware... I never heard of it. A very heartfelt human understanding.

Yes, I imagine Kev was expressing his exasperation at the larger mess to which art is subject.

It can certainly get to a person.

11/30/2013 11:09 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I imagine Kev was expressing his exasperation at the larger mess to which art is subject.

No, that wasn't my point. I was, as Chris noted, using rhetoric. But in this case to try to prompt David to consider the particular question about Nuke Art more broadly, as a sub-question in the grand "Why of Art" debate. I was trying to imply that the only way to answer specific questions about Art (to really answer them, as opposed to just talking about them) is to engage in the philosophies of aesthetic expression, which David tends to be loathe to pursue, (as he has a reflexive antipathy toward top-down proscriptive views of the arts).

Furthermore, I believe David to be in the physicalist camp, philosophically, and prone to a bit of scientism now and again. And yet his interest in the transcendence offered by grandly thematic art, particularly as it applies to the subject of nuclear eschatology, strikes me as spiritually striving.

All this interests me because of my interest in non-religious metaphysics; particularly Piercean Pragmatism, which is the only philosophy I've come across so far that exhibits deep understanding of both art and science at once.

12/02/2013 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Thank you Kev, I appreciate your explanation.

12/02/2013 5:50 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Sean Farrell wrote, "beyond a dire warning, what other purpose would portraying total desolation serve?"

Well, I am assuming that art responsive to penultimate times need not be limited to "portraying" total desolation. Direct portrayal has all kinds of problems, as many here have noted.

I do think "dire warnings" could be a worthwhile purpose for art, but it's not the only one. In theory, art could also help to humanize us and develop empathy, thereby reducing the likelihood of a thermonuclear ending (or conversely it might coarsen and dull our senses with violent video games, perhaps hastening the end). Or, it might help to make the time we have remaining more meaningful and significant, as the concluding pages of a novel give meaning to everything that has gone before.

I hate to keep returning to the example of Beethoven, but he lived in an era of fear and uncertainty where much of Europe (but especially Beethoven's Viennese and Germans) lived with a feeling of futility and subjugation. Beethoven's music introduced a mood of human glory and heroism, displacing a decorative culture of elegant, aristocratic art that had become irrelevant to human self-expression. Europe embraced Beethoven, they were hungry for this new kind of art and it became wildly popular. I would think our era would be receptive to big art, transformative on the scale of Beethoven, the way it was receptive to rock and roll.

Whether that need is better served by music, or cinema, or literature or visual art, or something else, remains an open question.

Chris Bennett-- It seems to me that you're being pretty tough on Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Bosch and Goya. (You can say what you want about Dali, I don't care for his work). I'd say your assessment of Goya's war pictures is an unorthodox one.

But I do find your assessment of Constable's "Hadleigh Castle" very interesting and quite on point. I saw it in person and was struck by its harshness (or even ugliness) in comparison to Constable's other work. It was clearly a work of unusual power but I didn't appreciate it until I read the back story. I think it gains a lot from explanation (especially about Constable's wife).

12/03/2013 8:00 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- I share your view that "to actually show thermonuclear annihilation in such a way that it is understood to be the subject" is fraught with difficulty, but I'm not sure our conclusion should be that "thermonuclear annihilation is a literary idea." Some of these artistic truths are concatenated and some of them are not, but in both visual and literary arts, taking on the subject head on, in a literal way, is starting out with a big handicap.

I do agree with you that "using elements textually as symbols and writing a visual sentence with them" is usually a lesser aesthetic solution (as I tried to suggest in my next post about words vs. images) but of course Saul Steinberg and others before him showed us that symbols with intellectual content do not need to be arrayed in a linear fashion like a sentence. Also, when you say that conceptual editorials "function intellectually and thus lack aesthetic power," are you suggesting that the intellectual necessarily lacks aesthetic power? There are many schools of art (particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries) with intellectual underpinnings that can be, IMO, aesthetically more powerful than merely beautiful pictures of flowers or landscapes.

12/03/2013 8:38 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I'm not sure our conclusion should be that "thermonuclear annihilation is a literary idea."

I suppose a silent film might be able to portray the idea. And I would concede that such a film would be a sequential work rather than a literary one.

But that still doesn't give us much play on the question of whether a still image has the capability to handle the same subject effectively. The more I think about it, the more interesting this challenge seems.

Are you suggesting that the intellectual necessarily lacks aesthetic power? There are many schools of art (particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries) with intellectual underpinnings that can be, IMO, aesthetically more powerful than merely beautiful pictures of flowers or landscapes.

In my understanding, the intellectual (which is literary by nature) is the opposite of the aesthetic. But that doesn't mean literature doesn't have its own kind of power, availing us of epiphanies that can leave us dumbstruck and reeling.

We should take care to distinguish true intellectualism or literarity from anti-intellectualism that has been bolstered by supplemental intellectualism, philosophy, or literature. So for instance, Robert Fawcett is one of the most literary artists I have ever seen. Whereas Rothko's work has absolutely no literary quality to it, but a tremendous amount of critical and academic literature surrounding and supporting it.

I'm not much for merely beautiful pictures of flowers or landscapes. But great landscape paintings need not be aesthetically powerful to have aesthetic effect. Many great landscape paintings sneak up on you, rather than bash you over the head.

12/03/2013 1:05 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John and Chris Bennett-- Those are good recent examples of thoughtful, sober, "big anguish-heavy themes," and they represent a good start. But the art I'm thinking about would not necessarily be anguished.

True, I am interested in an art that is at least aware we are living in high stakes times (perhaps the highest) and is responsive to the significance of such an era. I would think such art might turn out to be big art with grand themes, art that frames important conclusions or plumbs the heroic and tragic levels of experience.

I'm guessing the answer doesn't lie in the sniveling drawings of a Chester Brown or a Chris Ware, the noisy messes of a Gary Panter, or the marketing schemes of Koons or Hirst.
These types of art ignore or even deny the existence of the heroic and tragic levels of experience. Maybe they are correct, maybe such notions are an illusion. Maybe they are obsolete. But if any era challenges us to aim higher, and to summon up art of consequence, you'd think it would be this one.

Such art might be totally free of anguish. It could be comical, or even giddy.

Etc, etc.-- When I was younger and had more time, I invested a great deal of effort in those great Teutonic systems builders-- especially Kant, Hegel and Marx. It was one hell of an investment, as none of them go out of their way to make themselves accessible. Despite their genius, and despite my admiration for their ambitions, and despite the value that their insights still contribute, their systems all seemed to be flawed products of their moment in time. Perhaps Nietzsche's more open ended approach turned out to be more suitable for an existential era. But in any event, for all of the above reasons I, like many others, mentally placed Hegel in a particular category and put him on a shelf. I'd have to have a pretty good reason to take him down again except to drill down on a particular passage or section. Is there something in particular Hegel has to say about the potential of art in such times?

12/03/2013 9:01 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "the only way to answer specific questions about Art (to really answer them, as opposed to just talking about them) is to engage in the philosophies of aesthetic expression, which David tends to be loathe to pursue, (as he has a reflexive antipathy toward top-down proscriptive views of the arts).

Furthermore, I believe David to be in the physicalist camp, philosophically, and prone to a bit of scientism now and again."

Kev, I believe that the physical has earned our respect because of its one insurmountable advantage: it can be disproven, and therefore is more accountable than metaphysics, spirituality, and the other camps that allow people to feel superior with no constraints at all. Any solution that underestimates the importance of materialism, physical sciences, economics, sensualism and the other tests of the physical world, is fatally flawed as far as I'm concerned.

However, to the extent that physicalists believe there is nothing other than the physical, that's not me. My encounters with the transcendent have been all too persuasive for me to attempt to deny them.

You are correct that I am cautious about engaging in "the philosophies of aesthetic expression." That's because I don't enjoy standing waist deep in definitional quagmires, unpacking talmudic distinctions and dodging self-fulfilling prophecies. Or rather, I do kind of enjoy it up to the point where it begins to drain serious time that I might spend experiencing art, or even making it. It seems to me that each of us has to be watchful for that tipping point where reading about art and talking about art begins to detract from experiencing art.

I like to think I have a pretty decent threshold, as the long history of this blog suggests.

12/03/2013 11:03 PM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12/04/2013 7:02 AM  
Blogger chris bennett said...

David Apatoff wrote: "However, to the extent that physicalists believe there is nothing other than the physical, that's not me. My encounters with the transcendent have been all too persuasive for me to attempt to deny them."

The insight that plucked Archimedes so suddenly from his bath was indeed tested for its truth by watching it play out on the material billiard table. And the synthesis that takes place between the artists’ mind and his materials to result in Art’s alchemy can be, to some extent, ‘proved’ or ‘checked’ after the fact. Kev Ferrara has shared, and with generous patience, shown me how to use some marvellous tools developed in his studio lab to do just this.

But the soul’s displacement never reliably matches the object dropped into its midst, belonging, as they are, from two (apparently) different realms. This doesn’t mean there is no correlation between the ‘engineering’ or ‘understanding’ that helps us makes art. It just means it’s not exact. For the artist, there is always the moment when he simply has to believe. A moment comes when the material bridge stops just short of the other side. It always does. It is a sign the river is worth crossing. He has to jump and trust that his instinct in carrying him thus far will land him the other side, spanning the void that separates what he has made from its meaningful destination and purpose.

As to your point about high risk times seeming unable to induce significant art equal to the stakes; it is perplexing. No doubt there are many causes, and I doubt if the literary nature of the idea of Armageddon is the real problem. The global communications explosion and the browser culture it has engendered along with its incumbent technology’s effect on the subconscious beliefs of our society are possibly deep at the heart of it. But I’m only guessing here.

12/04/2013 7:05 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Any solution that underestimates the importance of materialism, physical sciences, economics, sensualism and the other tests of the physical world, is fatally flawed as far as I'm concerned.

However, to the extent that physicalists believe there is nothing other than the physical, that's not me. My encounters with the transcendent have been all too persuasive for me to attempt to deny them.


I think, then, that you and I share the same position essentially. Even though I have become a bit more skeptical of scientific claims recently, and you are more skeptical of aesthetic claims.

12/04/2013 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

David, Kev and Chris, I enjoyed reading the very nice exchange above.

It's a curiosity that the physical and thought are seen as such strangers. Of course matter is matter, but requires a human being to contemplate it. Reality may be the test of ideas, but reason remains part of the interplay in discovery and creativity. Also some real very things aren't separate from thought at all.

It's very hard to avoid the actuality of love and mercy when contemplating them. In such, the thought and actuality are inseparable, but not mechanically as that's not their nature. Yet true it is that even here, the deed is a test of the measure of love acquired in contemplation.

The problems arise when goods, virtues and subjects get mixed up or unmoored. For example, liberty is a good when submitted to love and mercy, but when it takes precedence we get something else, a drifting to anywhere and everywhere. We see the same thing happened with economics and other subjects as they were unmoored from humanity, that is, we saw and continue to see very peculiar justifications arising for the unmooring of all things.

Walking backwards into history, the drift began when love and mercy were dismissed by the empiricists. It was the social philosophers, not the scientists who first put forth empiricism. The social philosophers have remained determined, trying to patch or find the missing elements, trying to sell their worlds, reinvent the wheel, or for some, remake humanity, but in the end, they have to come back to the virtues which were dismissed.

Could love and mercy take their rightful place ever again? If we are truly are in penultimate times, they must. Yes, art could be apart of that process too.

12/04/2013 10:54 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"But the art I'm thinking about would not necessarily be anguished. Such art might be totally free of anguish. It could be comical, or even giddy."

David, what you're now describing sounds like nothing less than a replacement for religion; an all encompassing, life-affirming world view. you might find an eastern philosophy that ticks those boxes, but i think you're asking too much of still imagery.

"I believe that the physical has earned our respect because of its one insurmountable advantage: it can be disproven "

you mean it CANNOT be disproven ?

12/05/2013 5:08 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David, what you're now describing sounds like nothing less than a replacement for religion; an all encompassing, life-affirming world view.

Art was a religion, aligned with Idealism. When idealism fell into disrepute, with the grand wave of scientific materialism that swept into the world after 1900, so did Art. And to a great extent it been replaced with the religions of entertainment and politics.

you mean (the physical) CANNOT be disproven ?

No, David had it right. This is the concept of falliblism, which comes into science with the influence of Charles Sanders Pierce, who influenced Karl Popper, who articulated it as the necessity for "falsifiability" in the claims of science.

If any claim is not falsifiable, that is, it cannot be subject to direct testing, then it is considered by Science to be, essentially, nothing... "not even wrong." It doesn't rise to the level of a theory even.

Since our awareness of our own thoughts and ideas, the words we hear in our heads, our visualizations, our consciousness... all of these experiences have no physical reality (per se) and can't be directly proven to be happening, there is a major conflict between the Scientific view and our personal experiences of our own minds.

12/05/2013 10:43 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Idealism was the religion that replaced faith. Systems such as the Constitution curbed impulses to power, so long as it was respected. The systematic thinking of the era became its own endless monologue of reason, sans the virtues, attempting to solve itself.

Love and mercy was dismissed as if either self evident or the musings of a sentimental child and in its place came elaborate systems of thinking designed to shape or control human behavior. Such became the new culture with few questioning or being much aware of it.

In a recent statement, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson claimed that class envy was used to spur economic activity. What is truly startling about the statement and why his words are so denied is that what he said was actually true. Ideas arguing that one wasn't going to get rich thinking of their neighbor did affect behavior as did the general envy of the success of others spurred on by advertising.

The genius of modern technologies isn't in question, but the lack of wisdom in modernity requires inculcation for it to endure.

12/05/2013 12:34 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Sorry, Sean, I meant Idealism, the philosophy, which is neoplatonist, believing in the reality of abstract concepts outside of human existence. Such philosophy was a highly intellectual part of Christianity, as far as I can gather.

I think you refer to the "idealism" of progressivism? Which is the teleological view that humanity is infinitely perfectible if only the proper top-down control systems could be implemented.

12/05/2013 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Thanks Kev,
It's a little tricky, but the Neoplatonism of the Enlightenment was more like the Neoplatonism of the medieval era (Mainmonides and Averroes) which contended that the ethics of Aristotle was adequate for Christians. In the Renaissance it possessed another twist with the inclusion of magic (Pico). Neoplatonism of the Church fathers was in service of Christianity and not a replacement. It made Christianity palatable to the Greeks and Romans.

Deism is radically different than Christianity.
If you look at the pyramid on the back of the US dollar, there's a space separating the upper part with the all seeing eye from the lower part. That separation is what is re-connected in Christian thought but is separate in Deism. Thus, Christ was reduced to a prophet of ethics in Deism. It was a new religion, a kind of Christianity without the Divinity of Christ.

But what I was trying to get at was that the wild class viewpoints of the mayor of London is not inconsistent with both the Enlightenment and social engineering today and the statement on envy as a tool for stimulating economic activity could have come from an Adam Smith or any number of thinkers of his day.

The idealism of progressivism is a good point and this too has roots in the Enlightenment with Rousseau.

12/05/2013 9:29 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Sean, I was exclusively talking about what I understand to have been the philosophical basis for "the religion of art."

Outside of this limited scope of discussion, things do indeed get very complicated, and my interest in many of these complications (Theology, Ontology, Teleology, competing systems of the organization of concepts of understanding, etc), as well as my confidence in my education or comprehension on said matters, falls off.

12/06/2013 10:22 AM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

>"Since our awareness of our own thoughts and ideas, the words we hear in our heads, our visualizations, our consciousness... all of these experiences have no physical reality (per se) and can't be directly proven to be happening, there is a major conflict between the Scientific view and our personal experiences of our own minds."

>can't be directly proven

Few things outside of maths can be proven. I'd say this only looks like a problem if we equate rational thought with logical thought. Mere logic is a very weak tool. It tried for centuries to bite more than it could chew. It was mistaken for the whole of rational thought simply because it was the only part of rational thought that had been formalized (in various ways, either by Aristotle's syllogisms, or the propositional calculus of the stoics, or later developments).

Our knowledge of our awareness is direct knowledge. More serious is that one cannot prove that there is a human awareness inside another person in front of us. Or even that the person is more than a figment of our imagination. This is the problem of solipsism. But as Russell said, solipsism, though logically irrefutable, is a form of madness. I would add that this example shows that rational thought cannot be simply logic. And that we shouldn't be so preoccupied with "proving".

In fact, nowadays we have extended the field of formalized rational thought to include not only logic, but inference, through bayesian probability. Still, the most interesting thing is precisely that there should be a quasi-certainty that bayesian probability still doesn't encompass all of what should properly be seen as rational thought - that is, the kind of rational thinking that a person does intuitively right now. Meaning: things are in flux. Just as people argued logically before there was aristotelian logic, and people made inferences before there was bayesian inference, people are thinking in rational ways right now that we still can't quite get a grip on. In the same way, there is a difference between the current idea of science as seen by epistemologists of science and science as practiced by working scientists. This too because epistemology is in flux. Fortunately we can think before understanding how we think, just as we can walk before understanding how we walk.

>all of these experiences have no physical reality

The voices in our heads and the pictures we imagine do have physical correlates in the brain. We can already do some sort of very limited "mind reading", in the sense that we can tell from the brain activity whether a person is having a certain type of thought or another. It is not impossible to expect that in the future we may read even more, to the point were we can "listen" in on the words of someone's inner voice or see the shapes of his imagined pictures. Will this *prove* he/she is "in there" having that awareness? Again, no, I fully agree. But it makes it pretty unreasonable to think otherwise. Science is not about proving beyond all doubt. Having no such objective in mind, I don't see that science has any conflict with the idea of inner awareness: it reasonably accepts that it exists and it reasonably can study its physical correlates, with profit, to whatever limits it may or may not be able to go - said limits to be established only by experience and effort, and themselves to remain uncertain.

12/07/2013 5:31 AM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

ps: Descartes and his followers made a big mess precisely by going all the way on a derivative form of solipsism. Humans of course, had awareness because basically "I think, therefore I am" (direct experience), so I have "awareness" (just a word to state the same), and you do too because you sort of look like me- this of course being "proved" in far fancier terms by philosophical word acrobatics. But animals were just mechanical contraptions that "simulated" emotions - and thinking otherwise was the antropomorphic "fallacy" (a dangerous concept still being taught without warning to its proper sphere and limitations).

So Cartesians felt pretty good about torturing animals (through vivisection with no anesthetics) and laughed of the old ladies and children that, in their ignorance, felt the creatures suffered.

They were being very logical, yet totally irrational. There is no such thing as an anthropomorphic fallacy in thinking that if an animal seems like he is crying, then I should reasonably assume that it is suffering. I can't prove it. But neither can I prove the opposite. But even before reasonable physical correlates can be shown to exist, to at least give the proposition some physical evidence, there is something that is emminently rational and that should always be a part of rational thought: the principle of precaution.

The whole problem is that people don't want to base great systems of philosophy on something as sloppy as "let's find ways to do our best to have as reasonable a certainty as we can about stuff while mostly avoiding monstruous mistakes along the way". And because that isn't good enough they end up creating even weaker and more dangerous systems.

12/07/2013 5:51 AM  
Blogger António Araújo said...

Sean,

>Love and mercy was dismissed as if either self evident or the musings of a sentimental child

And yet self-interest and greed were seen as the proper bases to whole systems of thought. Isn't that cute?

I love the argument were even impulses of charity and benevolence are argued in terms of "dopamine rewards", therefore selfishness in disguise.

Nasty people love systems that justify their worst impulses. Pessimists love systems that assume the worst in others and try to work around it ("invisible hand of the market" and so on). Young, smart kids, love systems that start from shocking propositions and reach unintuitive results (so they can show they are so smart, though unfortunately not yet wise). Those are the big reasons, I think, why there are so many Rand-bots, extreme capitalists, and other such people around. There is even a bit of that in the just-so stories that tend to come out of the "selfish gene" interpretation of evolution. I suffered from variations of such delusions until embarrasingly late in my life (now I have fresh delusions which I am blissfully unaware of :)).

By the way, there is an interesting book that you may like: "The Bonobo and the atheist".
The author claims that he still gets a lot of flak whenever he tries to convince audiences of the existence of "feelings" in primates (unless of course it's nasty feelings and then everyone is happy to antropomorphize like crazy)

ps: the captcha was "priests meatWes". This seemed significant somehow! :D Who's Wes?! :D

12/07/2013 6:07 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Antonio,

I substantially agree with your first two posts above (well said, too). However, the issue of interest to me was really how a great deal of good thought about thought was thrown in the wastebasket because it was insufficiently tied to physical or biological processes or mathematical logic. Truth, meaning, and beauty were three such notions. One might call these the constituents of the poetic or romantic perspective.

It seems to me that such notions bled out of artistic and intellectual life over the course of the 20th century, resulting in a kind of demoralization and exhaustion of cultural thought which has washed over the world.

Yet, in the last ten years, I have read quite a number of papers in cognitive science that reflect almost exactly what was being taught to artists and poets in 1900 about how to compose meaningful images. This is a kind of resuscitation of romantic understanding, the synthetic-imagistic viewpoint, but from a scientific perspective.

I think (or hope), over time, the reigning analytic-linguistic approach to meaning (which has had both great successes and failures) will increasingly give way to a synthetic-imagistic approach, and great progress in cognitive science will be made. And in the process, it will be seen that there is a kind of grand unity to the projects of science, art and philosophy not recognized since antiquity.

Assuming civilization doesn't collapse first.

12/07/2013 12:33 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Kev, You are always interesting. I did understand and appreciate what you were saying about art and platonic idealism.

I was trying to find a twist to keep the story turning. Since earlier, the notion of Armaggedon was raised I brought in love and mercy as a dismissed notion in the era with its developments of the scientific method, prolific breakthroughs, Empiricism and countering Romanticism. I also raised the mercy idea because it's central to the notion of the final judgement in Armaggedon.

Antonio, thanks for many interesting comments and the suggested read, "The Bonobo and the atheist".

"let's find ways to do our best to have as reasonable a certainty as we can about stuff while mostly avoiding monstruous mistakes along the way".

Well said, yet the gentlemen were trying to recreate the world and put a end to the previous one. Eventually, even some of them had to run for cover from the radical Jacobins.

There are curious things being discovered as you noted and after seeing a little movie on Penguins I was stunned at their dignity, feelings and determination even if in what is a tough and gruelingly simple existence. The stoic little creatures were downright inspiring.

12/07/2013 1:36 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: " i think you're asking too much of still imagery."

Perhaps you're right. We've seen some respectable reasons advanced here on why film or some other more modern medium might be better equipped for the challenge. It's also possible that the challenge is just too big for the arts.

But that has always been the concern in the past, until some bold artist comes forward with some entirely unanticipated direction. Nobody thought Beethoven's kind of music existed, and after the initial shock when they finally figured out what the hell they were hearing, it had a huge impact on his culture. Nobody would have guessed when Bobby Vinton was topping the charts with "Blue Velvet," that Jimi Hendrix would come barreling in with "Purple Haze" just 4 years later. That was nowhere on the horizon.

I'm assuming that if there is some "big art" around the corner, whether it takes the form of still images or macrame or something else, none of us currently has a clue about what it will be. But I am reasonably confident that the need I am describing is not likely to be filled by snarky, acerbic "small" art. There are huge challenges out there, and the arts seem to be in retreat. I'd like to see people struggling for something more ambitious.

12/10/2013 11:08 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David,

it's telling that you keep returning to musical examples - Beethoven, Hendrix - rather than still image examples.

12/11/2013 5:40 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- It may be "telling" but I'm not sure what it tells, other than that I happen to be besotted by Beethoven right now.

My larger issue-- the best artistic response to end times-- has not escaped the attention of writers, musicians or visual artists. There are some excellent books by literary critics and essayists (the two best being Frank Kermode's "The Sense of an Ending" and W. Wagar's "Terminal Visions" in my opinion). They study the way that previous authors (from Saint Augustine to Teilhard de Chardin to Herman Melville to Kurt Vonnegut) have struggled with eschatology, always mindful of the fact that the scope and mathematical certainty of our 20th century secular eschatology surpasses all precedents, and that we must face it largely stripped of the religious faith that cushioned us in the era of the Book of Revelation. (As Wagar writes, "Every truth, every motive, every value has dissolved in the acids of skeptical inquiry, leaving [us] as clean as a well picked bone.")

I can't say whether writing Moby Dick is the best way to deal with this momentous situation, but I do know that several writers understand the stakes and have stretched to create similarly ambitious literature. I have not written about it on this blog because you could do far better with Kermode's or Wagar's book, and besides visual art is more my thing.

As for music, it has the advantage of being shorter and more emotive than Moby Dick; Beethoven's Fifth symphony exhilarated and brought the pulse of life back to a tired and cynical culture. Other musical work, such as Mahler's 9th Symphony, or the Kol Nidre played at the Papal concert for the Holocaust have a far less triumphant more sorrowful tone, but they too qualify as big, "end of days" music.

But what are the visual arts doing in response to all of this? They seem to be stuck in "the cult of chic bleak," wallowing in cultural despair but afraid to take one step toward the high heroism or deep tragedy suitable for our predicament. Very smart, clever work but ignoring the comet in the room. Can that be right?

I wouldn't say that the musical precedents I cited are adequate for our cause, but I do think they are valuable examples of how an art form can turn unexpectedly and become powerful and emotive and valuable for its time. We may think that visual art is a flimsy tool for reacting to the end of days, but nobody guessed music could do what Beethoven did, or could change the way that Jimi Hendrix changed it, until it happened.

12/11/2013 4:02 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

i think you're simply asking for things which still imagery cant provide (and shouldn't feel obliged to provide ) but which time based media can have a good go at discussing.

i also think you're asking for a virtual replacement for religion. this may not be the job of art at all, but in fact may require a spiritual awakening akin to the Buddhist idea of giving up all earthly desires to free yourself from suffering and anxiety.

if a painter's response to an 'end of times' scenario is simply to paint a life affirming picture of a loved one's face or a flower or some abstract flim flam (something essentially transient or ephemeral) then so be it. you admire many artists simply for the lively sense of play in their marks. why then should still imagery have to tackle huge heavy themes when it might be better off expressing the simple joy of the moment ?

i believe there's a cultural crisis in the west, but it's down to modes of expression being used up and nothing new being left to say (as mentioned in the 'changing etiquette of theft' post).
if, as you suggest, art is (currently) dominated by lightweight nihilistic posturing i think it's down to the above. i don't believe that we are currently living on the brink of nuclear annihilation (or that it is a pressing theme for today's youth the way it was in the mid 80s).

12/12/2013 6:09 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- At this moment in time, you may be right about the role of still imagery. (I'm guessing you're less right about the role of religion in our age of credicide.)

But at various times in the past, still images have performed very different roles. They have been the vehicle for magic (on ancient cave walls), they have performed totemic functions, they have conveyed messages of the afterlife and symbolized eternity (in ancient Egyptian tombs) inspired dread and awe (Michelangelo's Last Judgment), they have ripped up our organic mode of perception and stung us with fractured planes of space and time (cubism) and provided us with wall size focal points for reassessing the elements of beauty in the natural world around us (abstract expressionism), they have inspired us to a higher plane by confronting us with divine beauty and humbled us with images of vast scope (like the NASA photos of the so-called "pillars of creation.") Perhaps images will play one of these roles, or a totally different role, in the future. I don't know. But I wouldn't feel constrained in any way by your snapshot of the current role of still images.

You ask a perfectly good question, "why should still imagery have to tackle huge heavy themes when it might be better off expressing the simple joy of the moment ?" Of course, still imagery should not "have to" tackle any theme. It's not expected. But as we flail around for modes of perception for understanding and coming to grips with our condition, it seems to me that art is in at least as likely to be helpful in writing a meaningful coda as science or engineering or music or any other discipline. Perhaps more. It takes some exploring, and I don't know of any visual artists who are seriously exploring these days.

12/12/2013 11:22 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David, i honestly can't imagine what you hope art to come up with that isn't already provided for by all the philosophies, religions, music, novels etc. when it comes to pondering our human condition.

i don't think art needs to be directly about the big themes in order to touch us and move us, and be important to us. you've already given examples of visual art that failed when attempting the topic of annihilation. often the result is preachy, didactic or just laughable.

in my experience people mostly treasure art that moves them inexplicably because it somehow connects to them on a human level and says something about their life but not in an obvious or grandiose way.

12/12/2013 12:15 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John- Fear not, I am not loony enough to start prescribing the form or content of art. There is no requirement that art address "big themes." Remember, I like illustrations of laundry detergent.

But I do note that historically some of the greatest artists have been ones that responded to serious times with serious art. Ancient Athens and Renaissance Italy stand out as two eras of major social upheaval and war linked to cultural excellence. Why this is, who knows-- perhaps when the protective insulation provided by society is threatened, we begin to look beyond man made comforts to first causes and existential terrors. Perhaps great threats make us retreat into the private solace of beauty. Perhaps art results from a search for meaning or perhaps it's all adrenalin.

Today we seem to be facing times as serious as any ever were, yet the arts seem to be on a largely frivolous path.

That doesn't mean there is no role for happy, light hearted arts. (There is a perfectly legitimate argument that we may be better off meeting our fate in an anesthetized state, distracted by pornography and video games.) It's just that I would have expected some portion of the art world to respond to the larger issues confronting us-- to rise to the challenge of finding meaning in the closing pages of a novel, or drawing conclusions about everything that has gone before. Or even just to put a message in a bottle saying, we were once here and we're not anymore (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008/09/secret-listener.html)

Today's version of secular eschatology seems to amount to little more than cultural despair or decadence, and most of that on the trivial level. It may be that the visual arts are capable of doing no more than that in our era. Perhaps the relevant disciplines lie elsewhere. But that would be easier to accept if I saw the ground littered with failed attempts.

12/12/2013 5:51 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David

1. i don't believe as you do that we're living in the 'end of times' or that we're on the brink of extinction. it's arguable that we're living in the most peaceful era ever. after all, if we'd been born in 1900 we'd have lived through two world wars by the time we were in our mid 40s.

2. i think that what you perceive as a lack of engagement from the art world with important themes, is really a response to what i've already mentioned several times: a feeling of impotence due to the fact that everything has been done and said already.
couple this with the fact that (i believe) art is in a transitional phase brought on by the rejection of religion in the west. to paraphrase Nietzsche: mankind is currently in a nihilistic state of self reflection which he has to overcome before something meaningful will be found. essentially we're awaiting a kind of 'new dawn' to take us out of this phase into something else. i believe that visual art (specifically painting) is currently being rendered superfluous, or simply reduced to the level of mere entertainment or product, because we are discovering that we have no further real need for it in its current state. it no longer occupies an important place as it once did in most people's lives. it's essentially just a luxury.

3. the current post modern cynicism and cut and past recycling of imagery is simply a response to 2; a kind of helplessness or impotence when faced with the challenge of producing something vital and new.

12/13/2013 7:46 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- While I don't stand on street corners with a sign saying "the end is near," I share the view of Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and many other experts that once the genie is out of the bottle, it's only a matter of time before it is used. We can never put the genie back, the knowledge can never be unlearned, so there will never again be a time when the world will be safe from nuclear weapons.

Bertrand Russell, a major peace activist, nevertheless advocated that the US attack the Soviet Union to preserve the US monopoly on atomic weapons because once there was an arms race between two or more nations, control of nuclear weapons would be lost forever.

The theft of nuclear technology and the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue countries such as North Korea and Pakistan (and perhaps soon Iran?) seems to confirm Einstein's vision; I know of nothing that contradicts it. As nuclear devices proliferate and become more portable and more accessible, and more likely to end up in the hands of nations that sponsor terrorism, the passage of time can only increase our risk. (That's the simple math of the actuarial tables I mentioned in my post). Then of course you have to multiply that risk by modern enhancements in biological weapons and chemical weapons and climate change, all of which have the potential to wipe out the biosphere, and it is hard to conduct a sober, hard analysis that shows this coming out well.

In my experience, most people who don't believe in that kind of stuff, believe it is "unthinkable." I agree that using these weapons is unthinkable, but as Abraham Lincoln said, "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew."

12/13/2013 3:23 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

"once the genie is out of the bottle it's only a matter of time before it is used."

David, it's already been used; twice on a populace. about 2000 times in tests. we're still here.

12/13/2013 4:28 PM  

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