Wednesday, April 30, 2014

DEAN CORNWELL PAINTS A NEWSPAPER

 The following design was created by renowned international artist Jean Arp, a pioneer of abstract art and one of the founders of Dada:



The next design was created by illustrator Dean Cornwell:



So was this one:
 

And this one:



 Unlike Arp,  Cornwell put his designs to use in order to achieve something addiitonal:

Original from the Kelly collection of American illustration.  
Note the first design in the crook of the man's elbow


In my view,  Cornwell's abstract designs are at least equal to Arp's, yet Arp is celebrated in museums around the world, while Cornwell is not.  The reason for Arp's fame is not so much the appearance of his designs but the concepts behind them.  As the Museum of Modern Art explains, Arp's designs were  part of "a search both for the absolute and also for a new order, following the disorder and chaos of war."  Cornwell's designs, on the other hand,  were mere illustrations of some potboiler about a sobbing dame.

How should we compare the two artists?

Cornwell's art was able to communicate with multiple audiences at multiple levels, both high and low.  Many of today's critics turn up their noses at art that is accessible to "low" audiences; they tend to rate such work at the lowest of those levels.  Yet, Shakespeare kept the uneducated crowds titillated with violent melodramas and overheated romances, while simultaneously employing some of the most lovely and elegant prose the world has ever seen.

As for Arp, his claim to "search both for the absolute and also for a new order" may gain him access to certain social venues, but does anyone over the age of 21 seriously believe his designs contribute useful insight to these philosophical problems?

Illustrator Bernie Fuchs referred to this painting as "the picture of the guy with the newspaper."  It apparently escaped his attention that the subject of the picture was a young woman breaking down in tears in an office before two officials.  But then, it really doesn't matter. What interested Fuchs was the way Cornwell flattened the shape of the newspaper to create an important abstract compositional element with rich colors unrelated to the form, then highlighted it with a graceful white swoosh.  That swoosh serves two purposes:  an insightful representational feature that restores three dimensionally and  a compelling abstract shape.



I've been to a lot of museums, but I've never seen anything by Arp that I like as much as Dean Cornwell's newspaper.

97 Comments:

Blogger Laurence John said...

David,


how much of your enjoyment of this painting is down to its abstract qualities such as shape (as you've already mentioned) and also: use of colour, surface texture, application of paint etc. ?

... and how much of it is down to the dramatic-narrative content of the specific scene ?


4/30/2014 2:12 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence, I enjoy both the form and content of these illustrations. I offer no pretensions-- I admit I'm a sucker for the rough and the lurid and the vulgar in many of these images. But part of my professional time is spent dealing with work by artists such as Arp (and Ellsworth Kelly and Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell) as well as dealing with the auction houses and galleries that trade in such art.

I do like some of this abstract work very much and I think I know how to speak the lingo. I also know, however, that many of the people in the fine arts community can't get past the "dramatic-narrative content" of illustration.

My main point to that audience is, "forget about the content if you don't like it, or if you think it imperils your ability to fabricate inflated prices for highbrow fine art. Judge Cornwell solely by the surface criteria you apply to Arp, hold Cornwell's painting upside down so you won't be distracted by the content, and he'll still come out ahead of Arp."

4/30/2014 3:36 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I like this line of argument when it works.

In this instance it falls flat because the micro-compositions from the Cornwall simply aren't as exciting as the Jean Arp composition.

Go for the mulligan -- these aren't the postage-stamps you're looking for.

4/30/2014 4:26 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David: "forget about the content if you don't like it... Judge Cornwell solely by the surface criteria you apply to Arp..."

i get your point, but the problem is a painting like the Cornwell isn't intended to work purely on its surface merit. nor is a small abstract part of it intended to work in isolation. it is first and foremost a narrative painting.

i'm not suggesting that the formal / surface qualities of narrative art shouldn't be celebrated, but asking people to not see the picture (and form some sort of judgement of the art based on the picture) is a bit like asking people to look at an elephant and not see the elephant, but only see it as something big, grey and wrinkly.

4/30/2014 5:37 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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4/30/2014 8:08 PM  
Anonymous Bruno Gadenne said...

I've been following your blog for quite a while now, but today's post is everything i've been trying to tell people in and outside the artworld, but with better words. Thank you for spreading a maybe more ambitious way of seeing narrative or at least figurative works, by revealing the different levels intertwined in an image !

4/30/2014 9:24 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>In Mucha's lecture notes he would often admonish his students to "hide your artistry." That was the mantra all over the art world before it went primitive. It's the curse of great work from that era that its artistry is invisible to the average critic, academic or opinionator. Yet this invisibility was by design.

Excellent

5/01/2014 8:46 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Kev
Are you saying that the abstraction is what makes up the image? The cutting of planes makes up a stone sculpture. Are the planes the abstraction?

"the art of learning, is too conceal learning." is as old as the hills.

What is plasticity and how is it telling the story?

I agree with Laurence John the Arp piece asks you to
look at a shape, the Cromwell asks you to experience a story. To force the Cornwell to do something else feels like a distortion. Manet's small still life's, to me would be a better example of abstraction of shape melding into an image.

5/01/2014 9:01 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Tom and Laurence,

A few centuries after the Baroque and Rococo (and by no means am I suggesting abstract design began there) and we can't legitimately consider what an artist may have to offer in terms of abstract design?

The irony of 20th century abstract art is that, while it certainly produced some different looking paintings and "art", anything that might have made it worthwhile simply echoed abstract design principles found in art before or even centuries before the 20th century; they broke no new ground in that respect.

5/01/2014 10:00 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Richard, looking back at my examples, perhaps I handicapped Cornwell by stretching to find examples that closely matched this particular Arp (that is, a white shape on a black field) to make my point. As a general matter, I think Cornwell's design sense is stronger (and more layered) than Arp's. If you go back and look at the arm of Cornwell's standing man (and not just the excellent negative space punched out of the center) it is a stronger shape than anything I have ever seen from Arp. I may go back and re-crop the last example or two.

Laurence John-- I think you make a valid point, and one that we have struggled with in the past on this blog: Is it possible (or fair) to compare abstract art with representational art by isolating some of the visual ingredients of representational art? (That debate is a variation of other range wars that go on around here, such as "Hey, you can't compare sequential art with drawing because they have different objectives," or "Man, you're not allowed to contrast commercial illustration with religious art because their motives are completely different." I recognize there are pitfalls in making such comparisons, and that they must always be approached with humility and good will. Nevertheless, I think valuable lessons can be learned by juxtaposing different categories of art.

My inspiration for this Arp / Cornwell comparison was a statement by Robert Fawcett long ago, when abstract art was being hailed as an important new evolutionary stage of art. Fawcett wrote that this view "demonstrates a misconception that abstract qualities are new to contemporary painting, whereas they have been the comparison of excellence since painting began." That strikes me as correct, and I think it is fair to make that point by singling out some of Cornwell's choices in abstract form, even if it requires us to block out the subject matter temporarily.

Kev Ferrara-- I agree that this Cornwell is a seamless combination of many admirable qualities. I suspect that most people see the entire image but with a focus on different attributes. The housewives who read Cosmopolitan Magazine in the 1920s were probably caught up in the image of the poor girl trying to find her way home. Fans of drawing may have seen an interior constructed with architectural solidarity, while fans of color or of design may respond to other ingredients. I like the idea of looking at the picture as the sum of its parts. I like the idea that Cornwell's "suggestive abstractions" are there for those who want to go hunting for them, but they don't stand in the way of the sensory titillation from the initial impact of the picture. I give Cornwell credit for leaving buried treasure buried.

5/01/2014 10:36 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Kev: "And nobody sees what's really there, all over the picture; shorthand."

i don't think there's a single person who reads this blog who isn't aware that a drawing or painting is made up of visual shorthand.

David, it's a nice idea that if we can convince the 'sniffy critics' that there is equally good, or better abstraction in a Cornwell than an Arp, then they might finally overlook the 'low brow' subject matter and undergo some sort of epiphany. for that to happen though, they would have to drop the whole 'kitsch vs avant garde' training that their outlook is based upon. i think that's highly unlikely.

5/01/2014 10:44 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/01/2014 11:12 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

etc,etc : "A few centuries after the Baroque and Rococo...and we can't legitimately consider what an artist may have to offer in terms of abstract design?"

Dean Cornwell said "there are no rules for good composition. the subject matter and the spirit or idea should dictate and govern the composition of any particular picture"

if you ignore the storytelling - the picture - the drama - then by what criteria do you judge the abstract qualities of a narrative painting ?

5/01/2014 11:17 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Bruno Gadenne-- Thanks for joining the discussion. I see from your own paintings that you are consciously trying to address the abstract design in representational art.

Richard (and Mucha and Kev)-- I agree. My question is, should Mucha's calculus change based upon the audience? In other words, in an era of short attention spans, where pictures not only move but move fast, an era where people are illiterate in the vocabulary of pictures and would not know how to begin searching for "hidden artistry"?

Tom wrote: "the Arp piece asks you to
look at a shape, the Cornwell asks you to experience a story."

Isn't it possible that the Cornwell asks you to do both?

5/01/2014 11:29 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Dean Cornwell said "there are no rules for good composition...."

Laurence,

I'm always careful to avoid the use of the word "rules" in this context, and instead I use the word "principles". There are indeed principles, and Cornwell was well aware of them as evidenced by his work; in fact its design continuity with Baroque and Rococo is a great part of its appeal to me.

5/01/2014 1:21 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>My question is, should Mucha's calculus change based upon the audience? In other words, in an era of short attention spans, where pictures not only move but move fast, an era where people are illiterate in the vocabulary of pictures and would not know how to begin searching for "hidden artistry"?

The audience will intuitively experience the hidden artistry, as long as the picture is enticing enough in other important ways (ways which I cannot herein describe). It's not a literacy problem at all, the general public at the Paris Salon did not understand what went into a Bouguereau. They just liked it because it felt good to look at.

The problem with artists today, who focus on the more subtle realist aspects of image making, is that they aren't any good at making pictures that feel good.

Why is photography more popular today than painting?

Because there are many photographers making images that are pleasurable to take in. I can't think of any living 'realists' who do the same.

It's a simple thing. While the realists are spending vasts swathes of energy filling their pieces with subtle artistry, the photographers, designers and cartoonists are vastly outpacing them by spending all of their energy on just making pleasurable images, and compounded by the speed of media today, the rate of evolution of that pleasure makes realist art prohibitively time-expensive.

In the end, perhaps those cartoonists and photographers and designers will discover all the ways that images can be pleasurable, will have built codified systems to achieve those pleasures, where fine artists can pick up where they leave off (adding back in their subtle artistry), but as it is, that is a long way off -- graphic designers, cartoonists, photographers, etc. are still discovering incredible, overpowering new sensations by the day.

5/01/2014 2:50 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/01/2014 3:48 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Richard,

pleasure, sure.

but what's pressing the pleasure buttons of your hypothetical zeitgeisty audience ?
i'd wager it's novelty. more specifically: stylistic novelty.

5/01/2014 4:30 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

"the art of learning, is to conceal learning." is as old as the hills.

Hmm, dunno. This quote sounds garbled to me. Can you source it?

Regardless of where you heard it, it is a different matter entirely to conceal one's artistry versus concealing one's learning. The latter is more like life wisdom.

5/01/2014 7:44 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Kev: "Well, Arp ignores most of that..."

the question wasn't referring to Arp. it was referring to Cornwell.

if anyone else wants to have a go at answering it then please do.

5/02/2014 4:27 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Isn't it possible that the Cornwell asks you to do both?
David
Of course you can do both. But his shapes are creating the appearance of something. There in service to his picture. Who knows what things and ideas  can be pulled out of a work of art.  But it remains me of  Malreux's Voices of Silence where every work of art becomes equalized through reproduction.   Where the Sistine chapel is reduced to an 8 by 10 inch postcard.  Proportion and scale  are eliminated from the experience of the art work.  One might even say the experience of the actual work is eliminated.
Everyone gets up close and looks at the shapes that constitute a picture an often notices  the materiality of the paint and  how the shapes created by the paint can have their own independent existent that  contrasts with the appearance of the picture   DeKooning used to remark on how the oil stains on the streets of New York would make great abstract paintings.
    
It seems like you are questioning some of the shibboleths of modernism, which do  need questioning.  But maybe some people find the narratives of illustration annoying.  So annoying in fact that they cannot find  the compositional elements of the picture interesting in their own right.  As if they are being manipulated by the elements of art to go out and buy some toothpaste or being told how much more interesting their life would be if they where a pirate in some imagine novel.

5/02/2014 7:03 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Kev
I can't remember where I first heard it, maybe in a movie. It's a Latin proverb ars est celare artem.  Isn't your artistry your wisdom? Making something that is difficult look easy is hiding your learning. But if you are going to say artistry is different from learning you will have to help out with some specifics.

I was just trying to understand what you meant by  abstraction. Are you saying the artist uses symbols that make us think where seeing reality, but it is not reality, it is only symbols which are abstractions that conjure a reality in the viewers mind?

"The planes are part of the abstraction. The other part is their relation to one another and the rest of the work.  These relations are much harder to appreciate than the planes (which are the notes) because they are invisible"

I really can't make sense of this. Planes are not notes, they represent surfaces.  They link up,and form a rhythm, like notes but any element that links to another and forms a serpentine  line can be called a note.  Relations between planes are visible.   Relationships between parts are visible. One plane leads to the next creating a rhythm and an architecture.  Can you give us something specific maybe using the three points of a plane instead of a chord in music? Or something related to art.

  How does one appreciated the invisible unless you mean something in the nature of the Tao,  or in the nature of revelation, like Heideggar  on Van Gogh's shoes. But it sounds more like you are describing an invisible structure.

5/02/2014 7:48 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Tom: "But his shapes are creating the appearance of something. There in service to his picture"

my point exactly.

the 'abstract designs' that David singled out in this post only have significance when you see what they actually represent (they're functional marks / shapes; they describe form or negative space).

what they represent only has significance when you see the entire picture and comprehend the 'narrative meaning' of it. when divorced from the entire picture the 'abstract designs' become rather like the random lines, squiggles and blocks of colour in an abstract expressionist painting and - as has been discussed on here many times re Barnett Newman et al - you can push those elements around all day and not achieve one overall design that has any more significance than another. all becomes arbitrary.

arbitrary abstract designs and gestural marks have never interested me. what interests me is how a seemingly casual mark eloquently describes the form of something recognisable.

5/02/2014 8:42 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>>"but what's pressing the pleasure buttons of your hypothetical zeitgeisty audience ?
i'd wager it's novelty. more specifically: stylistic novelty."


I've never been interested in moralizing about what and why people find pleasure in Art. My point is simply 'Make Art that pleases.' That's what the masters did, but that no longer seems to be what technically skilled people do today. Kev is right that a lot of 'realists' today are mere meat-cameras. What's worse, they're not even good cameras -- they take ugly pictures.

5/02/2014 9:42 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote: "if you ignore the storytelling - the picture - the drama - then by what criteria do you judge the abstract qualities of a narrative painting ?"

First of all, I don't think it's controversial to suggest that it is almost impossible to squeeze all of the storytelling out of a picture, even an abstract one. A pure red canvas might tell a story of "heat" while a pure blue canvas might tell a story of "cool." Soft, rounded forms might tell a story of "repose" while jagged, angular forms might tell a story of pain or anxiety.

And even if the story isn't inherent in the abstract forms, it is easily inserted via the title. That same pure red canvas, if re-titled "blood of the proletariat," might inspire all kinds of narrative reactions. So I don't think the world divides up neatly into abstract and narrative paintings.

You suggest that asking people to focus on abstract shapes and not what they represent "is a bit like asking people to look at an elephant and not see the elephant, but only see it as something big, grey and wrinkly." But it's not at all clear that even representational shapes tell a single story. When a poacher glimpses an elephant in the jungle, his first vision may be the money he will receive from the ivory, and not the elephant qualities of the thing he is about to butcher. When an innocent bystander is trampled to death by a stampeding elephant, he might perceive the elephant as a big grey cloud of pain rather than an elephant. An evolutionary biologist might view an elephant a third way. Is it so unthinkable that an artist might view an elephant as a big grey compositional element, and that we are not supposed to focus on its elephant-ness?

With that as a long-winded background, I'm having trouble understanding your suggestion that we can't "judge the abstract qualities of a narrative painting" by the very same criteria that we apply to Arp: Do the colors work well together, is the composition interesting, etc. There are excellent abstract shapes and lousy abstract shapes, and I think that is an important basis for judging, even if we have nothing more to guide us than Richard's notion that they "feel good to look at."

Kev has gone a long way toward persuading me that "The plasticity is the storytelling" but I still think that for analytical purposes we can pick apart elements and say, "Cornwell did exactly what Arp did, but he also did more. Those abstract shapes were just one ingredient in his finished art." Some will argue that Cornwell's "more" tainted his abstract shapes by tying them to corny melodramas, rather than allowing them to fly around unfettered on butterfly wings. But this answer is already getting too long so I'd better address that notion later.

5/02/2014 10:53 AM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Tom,
Sometimes there is a tension between two shapes. The tension is neither of the shapes but is that formed by and exists between them and is invisible.

The leaf of newspaper catching the light is part of a hinge-like flip to the arrowed corner of the paper in shadow as it directs us spatially into the picture a short distance and to our right. The device is made up of two separate elements but is invisible, though part of a longer line of continuity or serpentine line of movement you mentioned.

The image would reveal a good many such relational devices with study where the Arp is an isolation of a simple meandering circular type movement and that's the end of it as Kev said.

Isn't it possible that the Cornwell asks you to do both?
Yes, interesting artists often do or can't avoid leaving little hints for discerning viewers and the abstract shapes which David picked do have that signature.

Thankfully artists do leave little hints and following one, leads to discovering a second and a third and many more you may never learn from any other source.

5/02/2014 11:38 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David: "Do the colors work well together..."

the real question is whether the colours serve the narrative well. without a narrative it becomes a bit like choosing a carpet to match the walls, or a tie to match a jacket.

"...is the composition interesting, etc. There are excellent abstract shapes and lousy abstract shapes..."

i think we've been here before and i'm afraid i see no criteria by which one can objectively say that one abstract shape is better or lousier than another.
without the compositional rationale that makes a particular narrative painting work, abstract shapes are purely arbitrary, and whether you think one is 'excellent' or not is totally subjective.

by taking small details out of context and isolating them so we can't tell what they are, you're actually doing an artist like Cornwell a disservice because the joy of those marks and shapes is in seeing how elegantly they describe things.

5/02/2014 11:54 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/02/2014 12:06 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

PS: I meant, an artist may never learn from any other source.

5/02/2014 12:34 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Laurence,

The aesthetic experience is a perception (perhaps best on a subliminal level) of organization that lies somewhere between chaos and monotony. This can apply to a single shape or an entire canvas. All abstract shapes are not created equally.

http://arxiv.org/pdf/physics/0505088v2.pdf

http://www.acadeuro.org/fileadmin/user_upload/publications/ER_Symmetry_supplement/McManus.pdf

5/02/2014 1:05 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Kev, I'm sitting here saying i, a, ah, oo, or bing, bang, bong, boo as fast and slow as I can and I don't get it, but it is intriguing whatever you are saying and I am kind of enjoying it!

Your explanation of the children's art verses truth of an elephant was very clear, a true aesthetic experience verses a watered down version. It helps me understand the meaning of aesthetic, or at least as you are using it and I know you understand that some like myself are very interested in what you are trying to explain.

On an abstract level, the light hitting the paper and the angular shape to the right are symbols, yes, but we understand them as symbols because we know that light exists in reality and the angular symbol exists as a symbol in reality. Or at least we understand the angle as directional intuitively, having learned it before words. As artists, we understand that. To an audio technician, the angle as a symbol refers to a different direction. To the layperson it is believable. I'm not sure I'm in the same area as you here.

The flipping movement which takes place between the two visual things, (light on paper and angle to its right) is a new creation which doesn't exist at all, except in the relationship. It is a new visual reality born of the relationship though it doesn't exist in either, nor do we actually see it. Is this any closer?

David is right, the moderns believe that the direct simple visual experience of modern art is purer than that integrated into a more complex setting, or the dramatic-narrative content.

The objective requirements for purity or objectivity by the moderns is very similar to the scientific view of life as only that which exists materially. Of course such misses the whole spectrum of wider relational reality and what is birthed by them, I mean here, visual relationships, but also other complex relationships no longer considered real parts of life.

5/02/2014 1:47 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

etc, etc,

don't worry i get it... some shapes are harmonious and some are chaotic. some are soft and squidgy and others are hard and angular. i've seen Disney character designs; i think most people grasp those things intuitively, and artists use them intuitively.

well try this: give me a reading of what the newspaper contributes to the Cornwell painting on a purely emotional-abstract-shape level.
your reading can't be influenced by what you already know is going on in the picture by having seen the human drama.

5/02/2014 1:55 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/02/2014 2:01 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>>"If you've ever experienced an elephant up close and personal, it is the sheer massive gravity of the thing that is the crucial reality, the way it occupies space. To represent an elephant without representing its massiveness is like representing the sun without representing its heat."


Shouldn't the truth crucial truth of the sun be its massiveness as well? No, the most valuable reality of the sun is the light in shines on people here on earth Earth.

The reality of the elephant is similar. The reality of an elephant (just a large dumb pachyderm) over in Africa means a hell of a lot less to me than the joy I felt, or my son felt, learning that the elephant exists.

An Arp-like representation of an elephant can transport me to that head-state, a child learning about this large animal. And that's what I want from an elephant, it holds much greater truth to my life than the massiveness of some evolutionarily-obsolete animal in a desert backcountry.

5/02/2014 3:09 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

It seems to me that some of these comments are making it too easy on ourselves by dismissing without even a tussle whatever modern abstract art had to offer. My preferences lie on the Cornwell side of the spectrum, but I don't think we honor the debate by making a caricature out of abstraction.

Kev Ferrara criticizes Arp's reliance on "pure design principles" and concludes, "Yes, Arp's work is pleasant and elegant and doesn't exhaust in the least. There, we're done."

Laurence John writes, " abstract shapes are purely arbitrary, and whether you think one is 'excellent' or not is totally subjective."

Etc, etc writes, "anything that might have made [20th century abstract art] worthwhile simply echoed abstract design principles found in art before or even centuries before the 20th century; they broke no new ground in that respect."

I have not been shy here about trashing successful artists who I believe are buffoons, or "important" art movements that I believe are crowd delusions brought on by slick press releases. But I don't believe there is as little to abstract art as some of you suggest, and I believe that the elements of value in abstract art have an ongoing relevance to our appreciation of other types of art.

After Bouguereau, I think there would have been something terribly wrong if art didn't start asking some tough epistemological and ontological questions, at heart most of them relating to the question raised by Richard: Why does it "feel good" to look at good pictures? For me, it's hard to find a more important question in the arts. Laurence John responds with the right question of Richard ("what's pressing the pleasure buttons?") but then disappoints with his answer, "I'd wager it's novelty." The path of abstract art-- dismantling pictures into their most basic elements and testing them one by one, simplifying them so there is no hiding place for impurities, turning them over and seeing what you get-- may not be a long term fruitful path but it could well be the most honest approach to starting to tackle some very important questions.

I can understand how we might come quickly to a dead end if we believed that "all abstract shapes are equally arbitrary," but I question whether any of the skeptics here really believe that. (We recently had a discussion comparing the abstract backgrounds of Frazetta and Boris (http://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-abstract-paintings-of-frazetta-and.html) and if any of you suggested to me that you believed Boris' backgrounds were better, or even equal, I would call you a liar. We may have a hard time articulating the objective criteria that distinguish wheat from chaff (driving some to turn to Etc, etc's studies of aesthetics by theoretical physicists) but I believe they are real.

Representational and abstract art both have more than their share of charlatans. Modern abstractionists are quick to denounce representational art because of Kev's "meat cameras" (great phrase, by the way) but it seems equally wrong to denounce all abstract work because of the silliness that occurs within its precincts.

(cont.)

5/02/2014 3:09 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

(cont.)

Mark Rothko was one very smart and tormented guy, and he agonized over the color choices in those big abstract paintings. He could sit before them and stare and meditate and almost hypnotize himself with those color pools. If that's where it all ended, you might conclude that it was a failed experiment, a one way exercise where a psychologically troubled person dumped all of his anguish onto a canvas and nothing ever came out. But quite the contrary, people sit in silence in monumental rooms with Rothkos lining the walls and they bungee jump into those colors and think about their lives and they cry. What is that? It's different from Cornwell's kind of art, but does that make it meaningless? How should we categorize the catalytic effect of that kind of art? I'm not sure, but we know for certain that it is not nothin'.

Those who argue that form cannot be separated from content ("the joy of those marks and shapes is in seeing how elegantly they describe things") cannot avoid addressing the questions that arise over the quality of the things described. Would you think any less of Cornwell's artistry if it illustrated an ad for toe nail fungus ointments? Does an illustration for the NY Review of Books have an advantage because its narrative is more worthy and creates the potential for more artistic depth and complexity? Tom is correct when he writes, "It seems like you are questioning some of the shibboleths of modernism, which do need questioning. But maybe some people find the narratives of illustration annoying. So annoying in fact that they cannot find the compositional elements of the picture interesting in their own right." Does an illustration of the Brothers Karamazov necessarily have a leg up on an illustration for a laundry detergent ad because the artist has a wider and more challenging range of suggestive abstractions? I think that at some level, what Kev calls the "decorative blobs" in the ad have the potential to make the ad a superior picture to the "storytelling" illustration in the Brothers Karamazov. Yet, that would appear to be a minority opinion in our culture today.

5/02/2014 3:13 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

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5/02/2014 3:15 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

"The path of abstract art-- dismantling pictures into their most basic elements and testing them one by one, simplifying them so there is no hiding place for impurities, turning them over and seeing what you get-- may not be a long term fruitful path but it could well be the most honest approach to starting to tackle some very important questions."

Really glad to read this; I've intuited this, but haven't been able to put my finger to the thought well enough to put it into words. That is definitely one of the valuable parts of abstract art.


To Laurence's -- "What's pressing the pleasure buttons?"

I agree it is (in part) novelty, but it isn't mere "stylistic novelty", but rather, the novelty of the head-states it puts us into. Those are valuable.

5/02/2014 3:26 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David: "Some will argue that Cornwell's "more" tainted his abstract shapes by tying them to corny melodramas, rather than allowing them to fly around unfettered on butterfly wings"

true, and many modernist critics will concede that illustrators such as Cornwell have tremendous technique even though they find the subject matter corny.

however if the Cornwell painting could be put through a visual cut-up-and-defamiliarizer i argue that we'd be back in arbitrary-ville, with a meaningless image in front of us and no point of reference by which to tell if the image 'worked' or not (apart from "ooh i like that red" or "that's a nice squiggle").

David: "...but then disappoints with his answer, "I'd wager it's novelty"

never underestimate how much people respond to novelty. especially today.

David: "How should we categorize the catalytic effect of that kind of art?"

my own theory of why Rothko's arts moves is because it basically resembles a landscape.

5/02/2014 3:30 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Richard: "...but rather, the novelty of the head-states it puts us into. Those are valuable."

maybe. depends.

reminds me of this from the 'avant-garde and kitsch':

"the reduction of experience to expression for the sake of expression.
the expression mattering more than what is being expressed"

... a key characteristic of modernism.

5/02/2014 3:47 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Laurence-

Indeed. It's hard to tell what head-states are going to have been valuable before we experience them. In my life, I operate by the more experience is better system. It works for me.

I've found that given how little time it can take to appreciate modern work, the loss of time experiencing the ~95% of shitty modern work is easily paid for by the value of having experienced the other ~5% of modern work which can provide some really valuable emotional content to mull over, and expand my "spirit" through.

5/02/2014 4:04 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I realized that 95:5 difference is probably an exaggeration. It's probably more like 99.9999 to .0001. Of course, the more you follow that sort of stuff, the better you get at finding more of the good stuff and less of the bad.

5/02/2014 4:08 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,

It appears we are on opposite ends of the spectrum in form vs content; I can't imagine any further discussion would be anything other than us talking past each other.

5/02/2014 4:47 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/02/2014 5:42 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

The path of abstract art-- dismantling pictures into their most basic elements and testing them one by one, simplifying them so there is no hiding place for impurities, turning them over and seeing what you get-- may not be a long term fruitful path but it could well be the most honest approach to starting to tackle some very important questions."

Really glad to read this; I've intuited this, but haven't been able to put my finger to the thought well enough to put it into words. That is definitely one of the valuable parts of abstract art.


This so-called "path" of abstract art was already being traversed in Art studios, prominent ateliers and in Aesthetic theory. All the modernists were born into a culture well into investigating these problems.

All the modernists did was dumb down the problem and plop it on the surface.

I've already relayed this Burt Silverman quote here, but its worth revisiting: "I feel that much of modernist art has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises."

If only these exercises weren't so pretty, intellectuals wouldn't find them so deep. Alas.

5/02/2014 6:11 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Why Mr. Etc, are you finally admitting that you don't understand Aesthetics?

I think you've made it clear on numerous occasions that your understanding of aesthetics is largely informed by semiotics, poetry, symbolism, etc. My fundamental understanding focuses upon art history formalism and philosophy, and certainly is not shaped by (pun intended) your preferred sources; so since your question obviously means aesthetics as you understand them (including, among other things, a definition of Romanticism that rejects traditional elements and appropriates elements I haven't encountered anywhere else), the answer is no, I do not understand aesthetics.

5/02/2014 6:24 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

and they bungee jump into those colors and think about their lives and they cry. What is that?

I've related this episode before, but once during a watercolor demonstration I saw an artist brush two wet colors together on paper, and as the colors trickled down and bled together a woman began to cry and said, "It's so beautiful". It's just not the kind of thing to build serious aesthetic arguments upon if you ask me, David.

5/02/2014 11:41 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

as the colors trickled down and bled together a woman began to cry and said, "It's so beautiful".

This is my favorite anecdote of yours. It really makes concrete the problem of treating subjective emotional response to a projective test as somehow indicative that Art is afoot.

5/03/2014 12:37 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/03/2014 12:40 AM  
Blogger Olivia Kiernan said...

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5/03/2014 1:07 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>'a woman began to cry and said, "It's so beautiful". It's just not the kind of thing to build serious aesthetic arguments upon if you ask me, David.'


Yes, real life makes people feel things (thank god). Ideally, artists make people feel things with more predictability.



Kev & Etc Etc--

Would you guys just have a fucking draw off already, this whole game is nauseating.

5/03/2014 1:08 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David, you seem to have made your mind up over the Boris vs Frazetta backgrounds debate, but you failed to reach any conclusion when it came to rating the purely abstract works. quote:

David: "Perhaps I was misleading, but I didn't mean to suggest that Frankenthaler or Olitski were predictably superior and inferior, the way I think Frazetta and Boris are"

i'm still waiting for anyone to explain how one abstract design or shape is 'better' than another.


Kev: "...the modernists were born into a culture well into investigating these problems. All the modernists did was dumb down the problem and plop it on the surface."

yes, but putting it on the surface was the whole point of the exercise.

while i pointed out recently that a Whistler nocturne resembles a Rothko, there's still a fundamental difference that occurs when you make an image 'of' something or not 'of' something. it changes the viewer's relationship to the image and how the image is 'read' (or not 'read' as the case may be). i think most abstract art leaves the average viewer cold because there simply isn't enough there for them to see something in, to project onto. occasionally though - as with Rothko - an abstract artist creates something that is so empty and open to suggestion that it's almost impossible not to project onto it, and those seem to be the ones that score with the public more.

(i'd never heard of the phrase 'projective test' before, but i wrote this last night: we project onto abstract imagery sensations and emotions formed by things we've experienced in real life).

5/03/2014 6:43 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Richard,

Yes, my exchanges with Kev often deteriorate into petty bickering. But I do respect and admire his intelligence and passion to answer his own deep questions about art. Would you rather conversations about art be focused upon emotional responses to art?

Laurence,

What I am referring to is basically form play. I'm not sure that questions of form vs matter can be resolved dialectically; obviously the more anthropomorphic a form is the more difficult it will be to separate form from matter. The point of my links was to try to establish that it is organization that makes shapes interesting, so the big question is what creates (or better yet, suggests) the impression of organized form? The answer(s) can't possibly be mathematically complex; it must be something rather simple for the sake of our perceptual and phenomenological apparatus. That is a question that requires a great deal of reflection.

5/03/2014 9:49 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/03/2014 11:19 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Etc, etc and Kev Ferrara-- There is an expression in the law that "bad facts make bad law," meaning that if a judge decides a case on a particularly unusual or heinous or emotional set of facts, the precedent will end up becoming bad law for the vast majority of "normal" cases that follow. When judging art you can postulate a set of facts (such as a weepy school girl) that will predetermine the outcome, but that's precisely what I was talking about when I said we make it too easy on ourselves by making a caricature out of abstraction.

Change the facts: what if the person contemplating the monumental Rothkos is not a girl in pig tails but an aged intellectual who is meditating on his life in a concentration camps, or a mature adult trying to decide what to do about a crucial life choice-- perhaps a terminally ill child, or the break up of a marriage. They don't want Dean Cornwell showing off his virtuoso skills, they want a deep, rich and tranquil sea of color to free associate and become lost in. To feel Freud's oceanic feeling, they need something more impersonal and less specific than any narrative picture (whether from a great novel or a pulp magazine).

I anticipate that some of you will be tempted to argue that this is primarily a role for a therapist, not an artist, but if we are to measure art for its contribution to human life, I'd have to say that the emotional reactions to the Rothkos seems like a more worthy contribution than the far less subjective, more quantifiable reaction of the cold blooded money lenders who pursue Cornwells today becaue they are looking for more toys to collect.

Laurence John wrote: "David, you seem to have made your mind up over the Boris vs Frazetta backgrounds debate, but you failed to reach any conclusion when it came to rating the purely abstract works."

Perhaps my explanation back then was inadequate. A commenter was asking, between Frankenthaler and Olitski, which one was Boris and which one was Frazetta? I was trying to say that there was no correlation between the two pairs, that neither Olitski or Frankenthaler was predictably superior to the other, the way Frazetta is predictably superior to Boris. But I have never had any problem drawing firm conclusions rating purely abstract works, including Frankenthaler's and Olitski's. I think both have done some beautiful work and both have done some dogs.

My reactions may be personal and subjective but they are consistent over the years and for some reason they seem to mirror the conclusions of others whose taste I respect.

Let me flip the question back to you: If we eliminate the narrative portions of those Frazetta and Boris paintings, are you telling me that you do not feel you could tell from the color choices and the forms and the brush strokes which pictures were superior?

5/03/2014 11:41 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

Kev,
i understand the distinction, but are you suggesting that we only use the terms 'representational' and 'non-representational' ?

5/03/2014 11:49 AM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David: "If we eliminate the narrative portions of those Frazetta and Boris paintings, are you telling me that you do not feel you could tell from the color choices and the forms and the brush strokes which pictures were superior?"

i'm afraid i'm not attracted to either. anyway, those aren't non-representational images. they may be virtually devoid of form, but they describe clouds and water.

if i had to choose a non-representational painter on the basis of paint sensuality and / or general attractiveness of the image i'd go for the dark plummy Rothkos as i like the moody colours and fuzzy edges.
i think some of Kandinsky's designs are rather jazzy and appealing. Miro can be funny-cute (although he's getting a bit too anthropomorphic to be purely non-representational) and Mondrian has a certain elegant calmness (well it would wouldn't it... it's grid-like and reminiscent of stained glass).

5/03/2014 12:33 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

p.s.

David "but if we are to measure art for its contribution to human life, I'd have to say that the emotional reactions to the Rothkos seems like a more worthy contribution than the far less subjective, more quantifiable reaction of the cold blooded money lenders who pursue Cornwells today becaue they are looking for more toys to collect."

that's a rather damning picture to paint of illustration art. i don't think you entirely believe it, otherwise you'd be writing a book on Rothko rather than Fuchs.

5/03/2014 12:57 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

David,

You are a consummate lawyer. You have made me empathize with those weeping Rothko-ites. Philosophically, you have provided ontological justification with a strong moral basis. Impressive. But, as a reply, I'll just quote Kant (whose disinterested formalism, by the way, provided firm ground for Clement Greenberg to defend abstract art):

§ 13.: The pure judgement of taste is independent of charm and emotion

Every interest spoils the judgement of taste and takes from its impartiality, especially if the purposiveness is not, as with the interest of Reason, placed before the feeling of pleasure but grounded on it. This last always happens in an aesthetical judgement upon anything so far as it gratifies or grieves us. Hence judgements so affected can lay no claim at all to a universally valid satisfaction, or at least so much the less claim, in proportion as there are sensations of this sort among the determining grounds of taste. That taste is still barbaric which needs a mixture of charms and emotions in order that there may be satisfaction, and still more so if it make these the measure of its assent.

Nevertheless charms are often not only taken account of in the case of beauty (which properly speaking ought merely to be concerned with form) as contributory to the aesthetical universal satisfaction; but they are passed off as in themselves beauties, and thus the matter of satisfaction is substituted for the form. This misconception, however, like so many others which have something true at their basis, may be removed by a careful definition of these concepts.

A judgement of taste on which charm and emotion have no influence (although they may be bound up with the satisfaction in the beautiful),—which therefore has as its determining ground merely the purposiveness of the form,—is a pure judgement of taste.

5/03/2014 1:23 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John wrote; "those aren't non-representational images. they may be virtually devoid of form, but they describe clouds and water."

It's OK with me if you want to take that position; some people looks at clouds and see bows and flows of angel hair, and ice cream castles in the air. But if you do, you're going to have to fight it out with those who have written here that Arp is simply making "well-designed decorative blobs." You and I both recognize that Arp's design really represents a ghost at Halloween, or perhaps a man flattened by a bulldozer, right?

There are already way too many books about Rothko. Starting about ten years ago, anything more about Rothko is less, as far as I'm concerned. But there are no books about Fuchs yet, and there should be.

I did not mean to brand all Cornwell collectors as cold blooded acquisitors. There are plenty of true lovers of Cornwell's work out there. My attempted point was narrower: before we rush to the other side of the boat to distance ourselves from those sniveling emotional viewers, we should ask ourselves whether we'd be happier amongst the dispassionate, rapacious collecting types. There are plenty of reasons people are drawn to art, and being weepy is not the least appealing one, by far.

I was quite pleased to read your views on Rothko, Kandinsky and Miro.

Etc, etc-- Kant is attempting something more difficult than I am, and I wish him good luck. I am trying to separate abstract forms and colors from a representational painting for temporary analytical purposes, so that we can compare abstract and representational images on a level playing field.

As hard as that is to do (and some here are convinced that I have failed miserably) it is child's play compared to Kant's proposal to separate "the pure judgement of taste" from the polluting influences of charm, emotion, and "every interest [that] spoils the judgement of taste and takes from its impartiality." I understand how a man with hydraulic fluid in his veins might believe it was possible to accomplish such a thing, and the analytical benefits of achieving it even temporarily would be fascinating, but I'm not sure you would have anything left if you took away every "interest."

5/03/2014 3:10 PM  
Blogger Laurence John said...

David,

when's the Fuchs book coming out ?


5/03/2014 3:50 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

I am trying to separate abstract forms and colors from a representational painting for temporary analytical purposes

David,

Look at it this way: when you disregarded the fact that those shapes visually describe a newspaper and judged them purely by their abstract qualities, you did in fact exercise the disinterest Kant talked about. If you were completely disinterested you would have turned away from even looking at the painting; that's not what Kant meant.

5/03/2014 4:15 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/03/2014 7:40 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

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5/03/2014 9:31 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,

It would be interesting and funny to see your anecdote as a short story satire comic. However, I didn't feel nearly as cornered by it as I did with David's ancedote; I'm not expecting anyone to agree with my perspective here, but I saw it as quite possible that the people David was describing were experiencing such intense aesthetic awareness of order that there could be theistic implications, i.e. a heightened sense of spiritual awareness, and it could be easily argued within my own personal framework that such an experience would trump any simple aesthetic experience of form order.

5/03/2014 9:39 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Kev,
I personally want to say thank you for emphasizing solidity, weight, substance, heat, cold and other forgotten elements as part of reality/subject matter and as they are conveyed as symbols, subjects, or sub-stories in larger stories in pictures. Included in the list are emotional relationships created by combining different persons, places, things and solely visual elements which have been banned from serious consideration. The banning has become a preoccupying subject in itself without exploring the banned interests more deeply as I know you are trying to do.

The idea of creating unseeable things by way of relationships between varying subjects, objects and purely visual elements, like color, tone and many more is a subject which rarely comes up in art conversations.

The intense color sensitivity resulting for example from a viewing the jarring edges of tones and colors of Fairfield Porter is itself a kind of exciting third experience resulting from mixing particular known elements. Our perception of tones and colors are readjusted all the time as they are joined to other tones and colors and yet we don't see these significant adjustments until we pull them apart for analysis or try a different combination. The same is true with a perceived size of a shape next to another shape. I believe this is at least part of what you are referring to in your musical analogies involving an adjustment by the mind affecting what we hear.

I woke up thinking about Edward Hopper's massive buildings and rooftop watercolors and indeed, these were modern works by the treatment of their subject matter of single buildings expressing a dignity in their loneliness, isolated in light and shade, etc., but steeped in a solidity of form which was of a previous era.

What I'm trying to say is that I greatly appreciate the ideas which you have been trying to share here and I hope they become fertile ground for discussions in the future, because it is wildly interesting, not as science, but as stuff to contemplate artistically. Put another way, I hope such finds the opportunity as subject from time to time with its own air to breath.

5/03/2014 11:11 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

"No, you don't see the relations. You intuit them. If you look at an A shape and V shape, you can see that there is a triangular similarity between them. But the idea of triangularity only has reality in your mind. There is no such thing as triangularity."

Kev
You do see  relations, you can run your hand over well conceived  planar relations.  You could crave a sculpture from a  well thought drawing or painting.  You can build a house from a drawing or a painting.   My  point was  not about triangles, or the mind's power to conceptualize, it was about planes.  Planes describe and make surfaces.  If you can not actual draw them or make them, they will never exist.  And I  don't how you know triangularity doesn't exist out there?  You first have too define where you end and where the world out there begins. 

David 
The reason Cronwell was able to produce those beautiful shapes was his understanding of form, his ability to make and orient planes in space.  I  don't know if Fuchs or you said it, but Cromwell certainly did not flattened the newspaper and the color of the paper is totally related to the form. That is, the forms relation to the light source and color scheme of the picture.  The form takes its color and value from the amount of light it is receiving from the window. The graceful swoosh comes from the force of gravity bending  the paper or smaller plane over at the top comer while being raised  into the mass of light coming from the window. And as any dimensional thinking artist would do he gives the top plane of the paper a value change so you feel the papers thickness and orientation.  Look at the two top comers of the paper across from each other suspended by the reader's hand, one could set a basketball between them.  There is nothing flat in any of his conceptions, the "shapes," are products three dimensional thinking, they where " extra added bonus  points," for thinking  dimensionally. The initial conception and relationship of the mass is the difficult part.  The details merely follow. I am sure he conceived the light as a mass that was given shape by the window in which it enters the room.

That is the true difference  between Arp and Cronwell, one thinks in dimensions the other thinks flatly. One thinks only up and down and left and right, Cornwell thinks the same but he also thinks in depth or back to front and visa a versa.  The Arp looks  depressing flat  in comparison as it exists in the same plane and orientation as the canvas. And it is probably why Cromwell dislike using photos, because they flatten the space of life.

Art is always an outlook, it is not something in and of itself.

5/04/2014 7:37 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Laurence John-- We had to change publishers for the Fuchs book, which set us back a bit, but I am happy with our new publisher and we are back on track for producing a lovely book. I will keep this audience posted. In the meantime, I am working with a small group of Richard Thompson admirers on "The Art of Richard Thompson" which will be out in the fall, as well as a biography of Mead Schaeffer and a few other projects.

Etc, etc-- That's exactly the kind of "interest" that I think is so difficult to purge. If adolescents prefer brash, violent lines and shapes to more quiet and delicate forms, is that ever because of pure judgment or is it because teenagers have impatient, obvious interests? Do I like curvy lines because I like girls, or do I like girls because I like curvy lines? It just seems to me that Kant has his work cut out for him explaining whether certain forms appeal to us wholly because of judgment or because of subliminal interests. But I do think the exercise can be instructive, especially if you have a brain like Kant's.

Kev Ferrara wrote: "Well David if you think that an actual anecdote from Mr. Etc’s experience is “bad facts” but a couple of made-up anecdotes by you is “good facts”, then we’re really through the looking glass here."

Sorry, Kev, but it's back to law school for you. If you think I was offering just a couple of "made up anecdotes" try going to the Rothko Chapel for their annual Hiroshima memorial service. I think even your frosty heart would be moved.

What you suggest is a "through the looking glass" methodology is what judges and legislators do every day to shape the rules which govern every aspect of your life: they test principles against paradigms of human behavior. (In fact, that is also the process that Socrates employed over 2,000 years ago for deciding how humans should behave.) Impressionable girls who cry easily at the wonderment of watercolors merging on a wet page is a recognizable paradigm. So are mature, elderly people using art like this as a vehicle for quiet contemplation. I have personally spoken with a judge at the International Court of the Hague who presided over the war crimes trials from the Serbian genocide. She said that when the stories of the atrocities became too brutal to bear, the judges would escape for lunch to the Mauritshuis museum to try to calm and renew themselves by contemplating the Vermeers in silence. And I personally know an elderly New Yorker who visits the MOMA gallery where the walls are surrounded by Monet's huge water lily paintings (very close to Rothko), to get lost in their abstractions (although there are only a few moments during the day when that gallery is not a cattle car. The Phillips gallery in DC limits the number of people who can go into their Rothko room at one time, but I have seen solemn and serious people, well dressed and mature, sitting there and meditating (and on one occasion, yes, weeping). So I think these are real and recognizable paradigms, and unlike the satirical hypothetical you offer.

If you've never witnessed anything like it, perhaps you should associate with a wider circle of people.

5/04/2014 8:54 AM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

If adolescents prefer brash, violent lines and shapes to more quiet and delicate forms, is that ever because of pure judgment or is it because teenagers have impatient, obvious interests? Do I like curvy lines because I like girls, or do I like girls because I like curvy lines?

Kant never addressed that, so I think we can assume it doesn't matter in Kant's aesthetic system. As long as the adolescents or you disregard what the object actually is and consider only its abstract form, you have made a pure judgment of taste in Kant's eyes. Which leaves, of course, a lot of fascinating questions like yours left to be explored.

5/04/2014 9:33 AM  
Blogger Olivia Kiernan said...

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5/04/2014 11:25 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

etc >"Would you rather conversations about art be focused upon emotional responses to art?"

Not exclusively, but I think more of it would only work to broaden and deepen the lines of argument that some of the cooler minds around here venture.

My goals for art, like my goals for life, are primarily about the feelings I have and can generate in others. I can analyze reality as long as I want, but it only becomes valuable to me when it has an effect on my heart/soul -- the analysis is merely a tool, the heart is where the content lives.

5/04/2014 11:29 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

David,

Sorry, I misread your post and thought you were offering up possibilities, not realities. I accept you at your word that your anecdotes are real. And I hope you will accept that this was a misunderstanding on my part, not callousness.

And I was only speaking of what I had personally witnessed in the gallery (among fine people, too, thank you). If I were to speak more broadly, I can give endless examples of Fine People™ who have found Rothko cold. (Although maybe not someone of such high station as a Hague Judge.)

In reality, just who the people are that you know or I know that have reacted or not reacted to Rothko's work does not matter, does it? (Why is a Hague judge's opinion more valid than a truck driver who just lost his mother?)

What the Rothko viewers were thinking about does not matter either, to actually judging Rothko's art, does it? (Why can't someone cry in front of a Thomas Kinkaide while contemplating the Holocaust? Why can't someone looking at a Rothko be prompted to think about grape jelly and vanilla wafers?

So this idea that I don't have a wide enough circle of decent people to commune with on this question -- or this idea that because one of us might have a wider circle of anecdote, therefore one of us is more right than the other -- this is all just fallacious argument, regardless of the truth of either question.

And above all, I wholly reject your attempt to prejudice the argument by associating Rothko with unassailable moral purpose and unassailably moral people.

Allow me to state what I think is an obvious point: There is nothing especially moral about Rothko's work.

However, if you want to make the case that there is something intrinsically more moral about Rothko's work, then that would be interesting to hear.

But, personally, I think all this is still avoiding the real question. Which is:

What is the difference between having a release of pent-up emotion in a therapist's office from a non-representational "projective test" image, versus having the same in a gallery?

If you want to make the argument that Rothko's work is not functioning like a projective test, I think that also would be interesting to hear.

(Which is also to say, that I reject the implication that "normal" people react to Rothkos in a gallery and "abnormal" people react to "suggestively ambiguous stimuli" in a therapist's office. Which goes to the issue of "bad facts" versus "good facts.")

5/04/2014 11:51 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I can analyze reality as long as I want, but it only becomes valuable to me when it has an effect on my heart/soul -- the analysis is merely a tool, the heart is where the content lives.

Richard,

If you want to limit your responses to "I love this and that, but not that!" I don't think anybody would notice a marked decrease in analytical rigor on this thread.

5/04/2014 11:56 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/04/2014 12:00 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

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5/04/2014 12:44 PM  
Blogger Shane White said...

One thing struck me in your entry is about the idea of fine art or "high brow" vs. "low brow". Most of the time the artists themselves are not even in the same league as these "high brow" types who keep the masses at bay with their "educated" opinions on art.

How asinine to think that art is not for anyone and everyone. That the gatekeepers should let a few unwashed be "appreciated" under their gaze and let them through the doors of the worlds galleries and museums.

How could art ever really have a class system?

Part of me is glad I don't live in a time where my skills are not judged so unfairly and my tongue isn't all-damning.

5/04/2014 2:21 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Apparently weeping over Rothkos is an established phenomenon since the mid 1950s:

I am not an abstractionist. ... I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else. ... I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. ... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!

It would be interesting to discover just what the thought processes are of the people who weep.

5/04/2014 5:52 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

....and Kev wasn't the first to give it satirical treatment.

5/04/2014 6:10 PM  
Blogger Olivia Kiernan said...

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5/04/2014 10:12 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>"It would be interesting to discover just what the thought processes are of the people who weep."

I've never wept in front of a Rothko, but I've certainly gotten teary during pieces of music (even very minimalist pieces of music). I think that's about the same.

It's telling in David's stories that the weepers all had to bring something personal to the Rothko's to feel sad -- it wasn't content in the pieces themselves alone, but the elements of the pieces acting as a conduit for emotional release. There's truth in kev's argument about the projective test in these instances, I just don't know that I agree that that's as damning as he suggests.

Under that rubric, most (all) instrumental music is merely a projective test. You hear fractional intervalic relationships shifting in time, otherwise meaningless abstractions, and they end up expressing a world of emotion. Mozart's 'Lacrimosa' makes me cry, and I don't even know what the Latin lyrics mean (something about Jesus no doubt).

No, I project (unearth, cultivate) my own feelings about my own little life on this planet and my own little sadnesses, and then let them be caught up in the grandiosity of the musical statement. I imagine people weeping over Rothkos are doing something of the same. Is that what art is for? Maybe not, but its good enough for me.

5/04/2014 10:13 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Richard,

Yes, music can easily move one to weep. And I've wept at narrative content of paintings and photographs (pictures of sad or crying young orphans works every time). But a Rothko? It's just hard to get my mind around.

5/04/2014 10:48 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/05/2014 12:13 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/05/2014 12:16 AM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

"Oh, you don't know how good it is to hear you talk, sir—real English talk," said Jenny Dodds. Then to the Consul's horror she dropped forward on the table and cried her heart out.

The Way Home by I. A. R. Wylie — Good Housekeeping, January, 1921

5/05/2014 2:21 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

>Yes, music can easily move one to weep. And I've wept at narrative content of paintings and photographs (pictures of sad or crying young orphans works every time). But a Rothko? It's just hard to get my mind around.


Not knowing you, nor having a Rothko-weeper on hand, it's fruitless to try to discover the difference in "Set and setting", so to speak, that generate these different reactions to the works of Mark Rothko.

A number of questions of aesthetics do not add up to anything approaching universality, there are countless situations that will not divulge any truth to that sort of analysis. This is one of those instances.

When I find that I do not appreciate a work or genre at all, and have little idea why anyone would (suspending my own elitist judgements for the moment), I make a game of getting myself to experience it the way they do. In the end, I usually find that it was not their ignorance, but my own, that kept me from enjoying a work.

For example, to the abject horror of my entire family, I got myself to enjoy Top-40 Pop Country music. It didn't take anything from me to learn to enjoy it -- I still think Shostakovitch is the greatest composer, before and after. The difference is that now I can empathize, and enjoy empathizing, with a culture that was quite beyond me as an upper middle-class Yankee.

Perhaps then, you are the best person to go find out why people like Rothko. No doubt it will be a challenge, but you won't lose anything in doing so.

5/05/2014 12:18 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Exposing the limited nature of modern art addresses but a part of a larger problem which is, why people no longer relate to the physical world and other human things found in former aesthetics.

Cleaner, lighter and more efficient is the modern aesthetic, a modern sense of beauty. It has eliminated all previous aesthetics which weren't economically valuable and so might be called the economic aesthetic. It has disconnected people from the world around them by reassigning definitions to economic purposes. Purity became newness and character the ability to accumulate many (pure) things. Cars came to have a soul and old things were impure, unless they had economic value. An inability to stay current meant one had a poor character, was old, useless, or at best, eccentric.

Specifically, purity as economic hatred of anything old did the most damage. An onslaught of products replaced the interior sense of freedom and innocence especially in the young. A love of what is, was replaced with a love of the new aesthetic which courted the ego, offered escape and promised social coherence.

The world today hates weight and is terrified of global heat. Sitting replaced movement which became an (economic) health activity rather than part of beauty and behavior. Glib sophistication replaced enthusiasm as unknowns were eliminated. Religion became an evil and impediment to wealth and peace. The majestic humility symbolized in the unleavened bread became incomprehensible and thanksgiving an absurdity. Maleness an evil unless one is a sports star and so economically tolerable. Broken families meant double the junk to buy and apartments to rent. Motherhood became the abomination of stupid women unless some diapers were needed. Adventure meant buying gobs of gear and special vehicles to race to a destination within 15 minutes of a grocery store. Continual anxiety and excitement replaced a connection with time and space. Almost every single public message today comes with an accompanying dote supporting the economic or modern aesthetic.

The key to resolving the current confusion is to understand the limited nature of things and especially the limitations of the economic aesthetic and to re-explore things, even old things with intellectual honesty, accepting our own limits in understanding everything.

5/05/2014 2:05 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Perhaps then, you are the best person to go find out why people like Rothko. No doubt it will be a challenge, but you won't lose anything in doing so.

Richard,

I'm fairly well read in pre-20th century artists treatises. I think it's safe to assume that weeping over subtle color modulation is not the result of honed, cultivated, and refined artistic perceptual skill (I'd bet, in fact, it is the result of the opposite). I'm also fairly well read in pre-20th century art formalism aesthetics. I see no way to make definitive formalism statements about something that does not have definitive form. Clearly this phenomenon falls under the purview of psychology, and as far as I'm concerned there are way bigger fish to fry. Not to mention that it is from a century in which everything that is called fine art needs to be viewed with extreme skepticism.

5/05/2014 4:05 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Exposing the limited nature of modern art addresses but a part of a larger problem which is, why people no longer relate to the physical world and other human things found in former aesthetics.

Sean

The weak and the fearful have taken over the culture. And they hate the vital and the real more than anything. They want to live in an a-physical netherworld where only consciousness matters. And anybody who denies or stands in the way of this netherworld coming about on earth is to be destroyed.

It is a mad religion.

5/05/2014 5:54 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I see no way to make definitive formalism statements about something that does not have definitive form.

In what sense is Rothko's form indefinite? What definition of form are you working from?

As I understand it, it is his reference and intention that is indefinite. And his compositional structure has no narrative interest. The form is what it is.

5/05/2014 5:58 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

>The weak and the fearful have taken over the culture.

The more you know, the more scared you become.

In a world as frightening as ours, who has time for art that is anything but simple and joyous? We have more important things to do. Our species is busily exploding in population on a planet nearing cataclismic resource collapse, with a population so large its only a matter of time that we have a plague of horrendous purportions. Governments are buying up Pain Rays, and we're supposed to give a damn about Cornwell? No, let the people have their Avatar and their Spongebob.

And we're not at risk of losing much, despite what you end of culture types suggest, Velázquez popped up after a couple hundred years of serious western painting study. Realist work doesn't go anywhere, the knowledge is written into the fabric of this place.

We will think about serious art when life isn't so damn serious. The rich only invented such serious forms of art because they didn't have to worry in their day to day life anyway.

5/05/2014 10:19 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

Kev,

I'd suggest you refer to "form" in the Grove Dictionary of Art; there are various accepted ways to use the term.

5/05/2014 11:41 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

I'd suggest you refer to "form" in the Grove Dictionary of Art; there are various accepted ways to use the term.

You're kidding right? Still trying to play the snoot? You don't have the horses for that.

I know there are "various accepted ways to use the term."

I am asking what your definition is, based on what you wrote about Rothko.

If you want to weasel out of this (or any and every other) challenge to what you write by appealing to authority and then ducking out, there are only so many people reading along who will be impressed or convinced. I'm not one of them.

5/06/2014 12:01 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Richard,

Those were some profound thoughts for a high school kid.

5/06/2014 12:19 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I will defer to the last chapter of the Dao De Jing on that one. ^___^

5/06/2014 2:11 PM  
Blogger etc, etc said...

I am asking what your definition is, based on what you wrote about Rothko.

Nonsense. It was obvious from the context. You are asking me to quibble with you over why I didn't use your preferred definition, and that was my way of telling you I'm not interested.

5/06/2014 6:06 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Nonsense. It was obvious from the context.

If it was obvious from the context, I wouldn't have asked, would I?

No I wouldn't have. I didn't understand what definition you were using. And citing Grove only tells me what I already know. So here you are again, avoiding answering for yourself. Ducking out when you are challenged.

Why bother making assertions at all?

5/06/2014 9:06 PM  
Anonymous Sean Farrell said...

Kev,
I appreciate your statement on the weakling folk, consciousness-only-netherworld and religion of madness which is running things.

5/07/2014 9:43 AM  

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