Sunday, November 21, 2010

On Darwin and Esthetics

When broaching the subject of beauty, especially in the realm of the arts, people can very quickly go up in arms. Why is this such a contentious subject? Isn't beauty supposed to sooth, to heal? How is it that beauty can divide people, when it's supposed to bring us together? The answer likely goes back as far as the feeling of esthetic pleasure itself. As Denis Dutton describes, at least as far back as the cave paintings 30,000 years ago, at least as far back as the Venus of Willendorf 100,000 years ago, but as he suggests, all the way back to paleolithic hand axes, nearly 100,000 years before verbal language. Perhaps in some way, our ancestors were attempting to define beauty even then, even if they didn't have the abstract concept to define it.

There are two primary camps. The dominant theory is that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". That is, beauty is entirely subjective and is either decided only by individual perception, or by culturally learned perspectives, or both. Dutton is an advocate of the other side: that beauty is biologically determined and that we have evolved our sense of beauty due to natural selection.

His most interesting example are the paleolithic hand axes, which have been found in the thousands all across Europe and Africa. They have been finely crafted and show little or no signs of being used for butchering. So, Dutton hypothesizes that these axes were made for esthetic purposes.

In the realm of painting, my niche, the argument falls generally along the dividing lines of the abstract vs. realist and the concept vs. the object. I would argue, another false dichotomy. Yes, we can all tell the difference and many people have a preference for one or the other. Both camps argue that their side is more natural and fundamental, and the other only chooses what they like because they were conditioned to choose it by society. And I certainly have an opinion about this - which doesn't fall into one camp categorically, but simply by a degree of shared values. But, that's for the many other articles that I've already written. Suffice to say, both camps seem to have something of the truth and neither side is benefiting from facing each other across the battle field. Just as in politics, we are expending much of our energy trying to win, rather than understanding and problem solving. Just as in politics people are aligning along ideological lines based on an imprecise analytical tool. What is it that they say: "Divide and Conquer"? It seems to me that both sides of this argument have already conquered themselves.

Personally, I don't think it's necessary to choose one side of this false dichotomy whether in the abstract or in the specific. First of all, there are other possible explanations for the use of hand axes, and though I like the charm of his theory, it's also possible that most of them were used as weapons. Yes, to protect oneself from other proto-humans who might try to steal one's mate or food. For these objects to be useful, one needn't use it for butchering, all that would have been required would have been to simply threaten or cut someone, which wouldn't produce much more wear on the tool. Sorry to be a little cynical, but mankind has been violent towards each other far longer than we know, and it's a bit naive to project our ideal of peace and beauty for all onto our ancestral past. Further, we have to admit that there are other, equally viable explanations, though they may be less elegant and compelling as Dutton's. I'm not writing off his theory, in fact I rather like it; but it seems necessary to introduce a healthy amount of skepticism into the discussion. It's also possible that these hand axes served both purposes: a beautiful symbol of intelligence, skill, and resourcefulness, as well as a means of self-defense. In terms of the general argument regarding genetic vs. culturally defined beauty, objectively speaking, it's equally likely that both theories are true. That is, it's likely that the human perception of beauty is determined to some degree by genetic pre-disposition, and that sense of beauty is refined and molded by a layering of other factors such as genetic variation, culturally learned behavior, and the accumulation of individual life experiences. Hence, embracing one does not mean that we must reject the other. I think both give valuable insight and both give value to the esthetic experience.

But, as much as we like to think it, we are not so different from our flint carving ancestors. Fundamentally, our DNA is the same. And as we likely did then, today we do have a tendency to categorize things. We are hardwired to see patterns in complex and seemingly random data- whether it's there or not. We like to find order in chaos. We like to create abstract principles such as good and evil, light and darkness.... this is both a useful tool for understanding, and a cloudy lens which can distort our perception. But, you know, this is the beauty of it. This is part of the joy of being human.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Sustainable Studio

Hermetica Oil on Linen 46" x 60"


Whether or not you agree with the conclusions of climate change science (and I certainly do), we can all agree that our studio practices as artists can be very toxic. With the vapors from solvents, carcinogenic heavy metals in pigments, chemical dryers; even a simple painting studio holds many dangers to ourselves and especially to children and pets. It also has larger economic and environmental effects that I choose to take into consideration.


With this in mind, I've set out to reduce the toxicity of my studio (in the interest of my health) as well as the environmental impact of my studio practice as a painter. Over the past two years,I've developed and implemented a few points that will help reduce your risk of cancer, put more money in your wallet, support your local economy (when possible), and even reduce your carbon footprint. Of course, your own system should be adjusted to your working methods and your aesthetic philosophies, as I have had done, but even a little change can make a difference. Above all, I don't suggest that we should feel that we need to compromise our work or our creative vision, but it turns out there are so many things we can do without effecting the quality of our work and our working process, that that idea needn't even be on the table.


1. Oil Paint: Since my work is very inspired by the old masters, I really enjoy the color harmonies of working within a limited palette. So, it's no sacrifice for me to use only earth pigments such as yellow ochre (I use yellow brown - much more yellow than it sounds), mars black, venetian red, etc... and instead of using lead white (which has it's own wonderful qualities) I prefer to use Sennelier titanium white. It's non-toxic (just don't spread it on your toast every morning) and dries faster, both qualities that I prefer. As you can see in the painting above, I find that with a little knowledge of color theory, I can get a broad range of color, as saturated or as muted as I need. Also, because I often use my fingers and can't paint with gloves, it's nice to know that I'm not absorbing anything through my skin.

A few added bonuses are that earth pigments tend to be cheaper than modern pigments and they have a proven track record of lasting a very long time (even cave paintings 40,000 years ago!). I prefer to buy locally made paints when I can. For instance, in NYC, Vasari, Robert Doak, Williamsberg, and Kremer pigments make excellent paints, by hand. Earth pigments require less processing, therefore less energy, less shipping, less manufacturing, and buying locally reduces the amount of shipping necessary as well as supports the local economy. For me this is a perfect solution.

2. I stretch linen canvases myself and make my own ground out of Blanc de Medeun and linseed oil. It's an incredibly strong surface and is far superior than any factory made ground or gesso. This gives me more control over the dimensions of the composition, the surface, and more man power usually means less machine power. Two birds with one stone!

3. Recycle old clothes and cut them into pieces to use as painting rags.

4. The biggest issue I've had is with solvents. The vapors can be harmful and disposal is tricky. For my medium (just stand oil and turp), I find that I can't replace old fashioned turpentine. I've tried mineral spirits, turpenoid, gamsol, etc... and it just doesn't have the same quality and all of these still release vapors, even if you can't smell them. However, I've discovered a solvent produced from soy that has no vapors, is completely non-toxic, bio-degradable, and works quite well: SoySolv. I've known both painters and printmakers who love this product. Since I'm in Europe, the lack of availability and cost of shipping would be prohibitive for me, but for people in the states, this might be a good solution.

Update: At the suggestion of my good friend Alexander Rokoff, I've begun cleaning my brushes with Safflower oil. I've been able to substantially reduce the amount of turpentine I use and an added benefit is that it conditions and preserves the bristles so they stay soft and supple for around two weeks. Additionally, I save time on clean-up because I don't have to wash my brushes with soap and water every time I use them.

5. For drawing supplies, I've found that Strathmore makes a paper which is manufactured completely with renewable energy. Legion Paper sells several papers that are tree-free and chlorine-free, produced with solar, wind, or water power.

You can recycle your old or second rate drawings and make your own paper. In fact, recycling is not such a new concept: during the Renaissance, painters and draughtsmen would reuse their old drawings to make rag paper out of them (originally made from rags). Though, it was because of the great expense of fine paper and not for environmental reasons, it was a common practice for hundreds of years. Paper making.

This is just my studio practice, but the ideas of sustainability have been applied by artists working with nearly every medium. Here are some very interesting and innovative solutions that others have come up with.

If you have any ideas you'd like to add or suggest, I'd love to hear them. And if you've already made some innovations in your own studio practice, please share your work.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On Kitsch and Politics: a Brief History

To me, the unwritten history is much more fascinating than the written. This history has already been recorded, though the particular connections I make have not, as far as I'm aware. We can only begin to piece together such connections from what has been handed down to us, but we can never be certain. Likewise, we can never even be certain of our written and certified accounts of history, for all history is written by the victor. All we can do is determine the facts as best we can, and try to stay objective and logical.

It's amazing how a simple definition can change the coarse of history. A slight shift in one person's perception, the equivalent of a small stone, can, over time, avalanche into a change of global proportions. There is a danger that when we lose sight of a term's origins, we can find ourselves on a speeding bus without a driver. It is so with the origins of the dichotomy of "Art" and "Kitsch". Certainly, dichotomies are not representative of truths, but they do effect our perception, actions, and history. Like in all great origin stories, this one is also filled with drama, deceit, hope, idealism, revolt, and murder.

The origin of the term "Kitsch", at least partially depends on politics and timing. One can say there is a direct correlation between the upheavals in Europe during the middle of the 19th century, known as "The Springtime of the People's", and the proliferation of the term. In 1848, Europe was gripped in the throws of peasant revolutions. As a result, France elected Napoleon III as president of the Second Republic and other countries also established their own civil governments. The only major European countries who did not experience a national revolution during this period were Great Britain, the Kingdom of Netherlands, The Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The origins of these revolutions are many and varied, but it is relevant to point out that The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, and certainly some of the revolting groups fought under the banner of communism.

In the 19th century, painting as well as the other arts held a much more influential role in society than we can imagine today. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (1862), which met universal hostility from the likes of Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Taine, who derided it for being sentimental, vulgar, artificial, and containing "neither truth nor greatness", nevertheless became so popular with the public that the issues raised in the book were soon on the agenda of the French National Assembly. Hugo subsequently became deeply immersed in politics, gave support to the new "Second Republic" and when Napoleon III established an anti-parliamentary constitution in 1851, Hugo denounced him as a traitor, leading Hugo to be forced into exile.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." - Marx

I believe Marx was incorrect in attributing so much to class struggles, but, in this tumultuous period, it was unquestionably true.

The first known use of the term "Kitsch" is hard to determine. There is significant evidence that it had been used as early as the 1850 World's Fair in London, but it definitely came into popular use in the 1860's in Munich: describing popular, cheap, and low quality drawings and prints which were being produced in great quantities to meet the demands of the new class of Bourgeoisie that arose out of the revolutions. Given these dramatic events, it is natural that the remaining aristocracy (in London and elsewhere) would see the world they knew tumbling down all around them, would see their friends and family being executed throughout Europe, and fear that this too could take place on their own soil. It's natural that they (consciously or unconsciously) reacted to this by amplifying a disdain for the attributes and taste of this Nouveau riche, which was already present, but accelerated by cheap decor flooding the markets. It is natural that they would react by emphasizing the obvious hierarchy of "Art" over the commodities of the people: "Kitsch". Am I saying that they actively used this as propaganda to suppress peasant revolt? I don't know, though it is a possibility. But, this is only the beginning, and we're still a long way from the present definition of "Kitsch".

"There is a philosophical background to kitsch criticism, however, which is largely ignored. A notable exception to the lack of such debate is Gabrielle Thuller, who points to how kitsch criticism is based on Immanuel Kant's philosophy of aesthetics. Kant describes the direct appeal to the senses as "barbaric". Thuller's point is supported by Mark A. Cheetham, who points out that kitsch "is his Clement Greenberg's barbarism". A source book on texts critical of kitsch underlines this by including excerpts from the writings of Kant and Schiller. One, thus, has to keep in mind two things: a) Kant's enormous influence on the concept of "fine art" (the focus of Cheetham's book), as it came into being in the mid to late 18th century, and b) how "sentimentality" or "pathos", which are the defining traits of kitsch, do not find room within Kant's "aesthetical indifference".

Kant also identified genius with originality. One could say he implicitly was rejecting kitsch, the presence of sentimentality and the lack of originality being the main accusations against it. When originality alone is used to determine artistic genius, using it as a single focus may become problematic when the art of some periods is examined. In the Baroque period, for example, a painter was hailed for his ability to imitate other masters, one such imitator being Luca Giordano.
Another influential philosopher writing on fine art was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who emphasized the idea of the artist belonging to the spirit of his time, or zeitgeist. As an effect of these aesthetics, working with emotional and "unmodern" or "archetypical" motifs was referred to as kitsch from the second half of the nineteenth century on. Kitsch is thus seen as "false". As Thomas Kulka writes, "the term kitsch was originally applied exclusively to paintings", but it soon spread to other disciplines, such as music. The term has been applied to painters, such as Ilya Repin,[5] and composers, such as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whom Hermann Broch refers to as "genialischer kitsch", or "kitsch of genius".[6][7]" - From Wikipedia

(Of course, like every form of media, we must always be critical of our sources. And arguably Wikipedia is not the authority as far as encyclopedias are concerned. But, I have done some fact checking and this passage seems to be accurate as far as I can tell. Though I encourage you, if you are interested, to investigate yourself.)

The word became popularised in the 1930's by Theador Adorno, Hermann Broch, and Clement Greenberg, all of whom attempted to define avant garde and kitsch as polar opposites. As with the origin of the term, this re-definition took place during a turbulent and violent era: Hitler was rising to power in Germany, Stalin held Russia in an iron grip, and their propaganda was filled with illusionistic depictions of nude, athletic youths. Their films depicted beauty and sincerity with a saccharine sweetness and so it was an easy task for Adorno, Broch, and Greenberg to twist the populist definition of kitsch into a deceitful tool of totalitarianism. During the following years, WWII, and the communist scare during the cold war, modernism and then abstract expressionism, emerged as the champion of the avant garde and the very symbol of American capitalism. See: CIA and the Art Conspiracy.

Interestingly enough, perhaps due to the growth of the middle class and globalization; during the latter half of the 20th century, and especially with the popularity of Post Modernism in the 1980's, the lines separating Kitsch and high Art again became blurred. Many standard political associations became reversed and representational work which was labeled by the critics as kitsch, such as that of Andrew Wyeth, Odd Nerdrum, and others, was increasingly supported and collected by wealthy conservatives in America and internationally. Simultaneous with the development of camp taste (think of Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami) in the 1980's, there arose a growing support of representational works among American conservatives which lead to the rise of the Art Renewal Center, among other groups, hoping to re-establish the representational tradition. Representational work is now being largely supported and collected by what is often referred to as "Old money" as well as many in the middle class and is increasingly being embraced by people of many political leanings. "High Art" is, as always, collected and supported by the wealthy elite and the public institutions that they often contribute to. Though, I'd like to point out an interesting chimera: whereas, many contemporary artists such as Koons, Murakami, and Hirst produce (via factory studios) and sell their work in a very capitalist manner, the content of the work is based on a relativism (equality of all things) which is philosophically related to Marx, (see Kant and Hegel) through Derrida, Foucault, and other post-modern philosophers.

Thus, today we have a confusing array of definitions for both "Art" and "Kitsch", each carrying their own set of associations. But "Art" as defined by the most influential artists and institutions of our day, is only conceptual. Consider Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Christo.... their work is considered only to be the idea, their persona the focus, and the object is simply a marketable by-product. We have the camp of Koons and Murakami, the melodramatic New Kitsch of Marilyn Mentor and Charlie White, and of course Odd Nerdrum's definition of "Kitsch", introduced in his book "On Kitsch", and which is analogous to the term "Ars" used in Greco-Roman culture as synonymous with humanism, skill, and beauty. This is the same concept used during the Renaissance, Baroque, and up until the beginning of the 19th century and is often the same concept that much of the general public today still refers to as "Art".

"Ars longa, vita brevis." - Hippocrates

As this history reveals, there are no fixed political ideologies that are necessarily fixed to these terms. They shift and evolve with the times, and are re-defined according to the politics, philosophy, economics, and fashion. They are as malleable as any other word because they are simply abstract ideals. Like all dichotomies this too is only useful in as far as it assists in analysis. Beyond that, neither idea absolutely leads to the "truth", and often - just as in contemporary politics - absolute polar ideals such as this can warp the facts and obscure our view of what's before us. Everything we see is colored and distorted by the beliefs that we hold. This is sometimes beneficial, and sometimes dangerous. Where does this history lead us? How does this apply to the questions of our lives? I'll leave that for you to decide. The place to begin is to question our own assumptions.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Takashi Murakami at Le Château de Versailles

There seems to be a trend among contemporary pop artists lately: attempting to inseminate their image into the past - perhaps, with the goal of somehow giving some historical relevance to their work which extends beyond vapid, desultory references to pop culture and 20th century Art history. Perhaps they are subconsciously aware that if you remove all the context, their work has little, if anything to say on its own. Thus, because it only embodies what is projected upon it, speaks only to its own time. It is nothing more than a manifestation of the particular biases and fashions of its day and when these biases and fashions change, will one day be merely a name and a picture in an Art history book. It will likely be regarded with embarrassment in much the same way we look back upon an old year book photograph of ourselves in our "Miami Vice" phase .


Like his American counter-part, Jeff Koons in 2008, Takashi Murakami has mounted an exhibition of his opulent, pop-psychedelia in the Château de Versailles in France. And in some ways it's befitting for the two Art stars to exhibit here. Like the French Aristocracy before them, both Koons and Murakami have built their empires on the backs of the lowly peasant workers, exploiting their skills, resources, conspiring with other aristocrats, and manipulating markets. And Murakami's work, unlike Koons' more minimalist sculpture, does meet the copious extravagance of Versailles with its own exaggerated theatricality. But the accord ends there. The architecture and frescoes of Versailles, even with their Rococo superficiality, display a relative sea of content and gravitas compared with Murakami.

In fact, I can only glean a single message actually conveyed by the work itself, glistening beneath the surface of the tepid kiddie-pool that is Murakami's exhibition:

Let them eat cake.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Judging Art: Part II


"The primary purpose of Art is the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically important to man". - Ayn Rand

I offer for your contemplation the long awaited sequel to Judging Art: Almost Objectively. For you gentle reader, I would like to propose a small suggestion. Find someplace comfortable, select a beverage of your choice (I like a subtle Burgundy or a Chimay) and print this article out. This is not light reading and after a while the computer screen may strain your eyes. And I personally prefer the light reassuring sensation of paper in my hands.

For my Kitsch colleagues, please see my first article to see how and why I'm using the term "Art".

Since the publication of Part I, I have received a great number of compelling responses, both positive and critical which have lead me further down this path of inquiry than I had before expected. For this I am grateful! Though I don't propose to have solved these questions by any means, at least for me, the ideas that I will express seem to shed some light on as of late dusty and un-touched corners of philosophy and consciousness. Indeed, I think that the advances in our understanding of human consciousness play a big part in revealing the basis behind the aesthetic experience. Perhaps science will never completely explain the intricacies of human consciousness, the question of the spirit, the aesthetic experience, but it can and does bring us half-steps closer. All the while uncovering two questions for every one that it answers - a process I think quite worthwhile. In that vein, I've embarked upon a path of research, debate, testing my theories with colleagues. And so, I look upon this as a work in progress and hope that the questions which arise will help us as artists: to foster our own creative and technical process, and as individuals I hope it will result in some greater understanding of these beautiful and strange creatures we call fellow human beings.

I have lately been reading a fascinating explication of Ayn Rand's esthetic theory, entitled What Art Is. What Rand (and the brilliant authors) have illuminated for me, is that there are several levels of meaning communicated in a work of Art. As obvious as this may seem, the understanding of the nature of these levels illuminates something about the creative process, about the nature of communication, and even about the nature of consciousness. And it accounts partially for how and why each viewer can and will read so many different things from the same piece.

The first level, being closest to the individual and the most intimate and emotive form of communication, is the inherent content that a successful work communicates - what I discussed in part I. Briefly, this base-line communication derives from our shared genetic predisposition and the part of our life experiences that are universal. Yes, I've heard the standard post-modernist response to the "universal" argument enough times to know what many of you are perhaps thinking. This content is context ALSO and is not really in the work itself! Of course, objectively speaking, if you were an alien intelligence, gazing at Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring", you would not see this human meaning as inherent to the work, you would not likely feel the gentle significance of her slightly parted lips, the posture of her shoulder, the glint of light upon the pearl, the graphic contrast between her form and the impenetrable darkness around her. And so it would also be context projected upon it by humans.

But, as fascinating as this ET scenario is ... (what would such a being think of our Art?), this brings up an important point, so please bear with me for a moment while I temporarily digress.
Have you ever felt as if you were only half awake? I certainly have. And it seems like I experience "existence" more when I halt the verbal background noise that's always bounding around in my head and I simply focus upon my senses. This is one of the reasons I love painting. It is the point where communication becomes communion: the point where the moment of the artist transcends space and time and meets the moment of the individual viewer. We'll return to this eternal moment later (or perhaps we've never left?). But for now, we have to start at the beginning, for the nature of meaning in Art is directly linked to our consciousness.

Consider the question: "do I exist?"

Seriously, ask yourself this question. If your answer is "yes, of course I exist!" I will kindly ask you to prove it. Oh, don't worry, you don't have to prove it to me. You merely have to prove it to yourself. However, your most reliable method of proof is your sensory input, which under many different circumstances might not be trustworthy - especially since it's meaningless until it's interpreted by the brain. Your entire reality exists in you brain. Everything you see, smell, hear, and touch. Maybe nothing exists at all! Woah, stop there! Now, we're going down a slipper slope, one which I've ventured down before, and I must say it led me through several of Dante's circles of hell. Yet, somehow, I was able to crawl my way back out. But, if you make the necessary assumption that you do indeed exist, the next questions are: "Does the world around me exist?", "Does everyone else exist?" Ultimately, we cannot absolutely prove anything. So, we have to make a fundamental assumption based on the information we have. Yes, we all exist. Great, I'm glad we cleared that up!

We all exist, and we are human beings. Art is made by human beings for human purposes and we have to make certain base assumptions if we are to get anywhere with the question of objectivity/subjectivity. If you remove the human content, it is no longer Art but simply a physical object: paper, scribbles (which the mind may interpret as words), paint on canvas, the motion of a body, etc... The thing that makes a material object into Art is the human gaze, the human mind, the human spirit. This is one thing that much of the Conceptual Art world understands, but what they're missing is the other necessary component. Without the act of communication, the concept is not Art.
As we move away from inherent content, things become a bit more ambiguous. Subjectivity plays an incrementally greater role. So, the second level of meaning is intermediate between inherent content and projected context. I will call it: individual context. This is meaning that draws from individual and social experiences in life that are common to all cultures, but not universal, though we all understand and respond to them in some way: family relationships, friends, hardship or privilege, loss, getting married or having a lover, parenthood, etc...

The third level of meaning, the most conceptual, is projected context. This is meaning that is projected onto the work by the viewer, based upon symbolism and iconography which are culturally specific and are learned: ideas that are absorbed from our specific kind of education (whatever form that may take), specific environment, exposure to the media and advertising, biases and views that relate to the time period in which we live, philosophical/religious/political ideologies, etc....

Related to this description of the different ways content can be communicated by a piece, I think it's important to make a distinction about the kinds of content which may be communicated. I often hear from the Conceptualist Contemporary Art faithful, something which can be summed up by a quote.

"Man is by nature a political animal". - Aristotle


Many of them take this to mean that all human action and communication is political action and communication - an idea that was championed by Marx. This assumption leads much of the contemporary Art world to believe that a work is "relevant", only if it is knowledgeable of this "fact", and addresses political concerns of the time. But, there are two major problems with this assumption. One is that Aristotle's polis, the city state, is a different and less complex form of politics than our current conception of politics (a discussion I'll leave for later). The second, and most important problem, is that only a portion of the human experience is political. Shall we say that Art shall be only for political people?

Not everything is about the struggle for power. Not every action is duplicitious. We may have friends simply because it pleases us. In fact, on a larger scale, Democracies or Republics function only as well as the people understand and communicate with each other on an individual level. Political content is only one kind of content and is often very time specific. So, if a work does not have other, inherent or human meaning, it will simply become a historical footnote. When those particular concerns have changed, as they always have and always will, the work will no longer have much of anything "relevant" to say to the viewer. If you peruse through collections of the finest art magazines and books from the first half of the 20th century, you will inevitably discover many artists who were praised at that time as among the greatest of history, far greater than the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Munch, Pollock. And yet, most of us who were not alive at that time, even with degrees in Art history, have never heard mention of them. Painters like: Bazaine, Da Silva, Bissier, Pasmore, or names that I recall coming across once or twice: Vasarely, Hartung, Soulages. The re-writing of what is important in history is ever constant.

Whether inherent or contextual meaning, there are three types of human content which are related to the levels of meaning mentioned above, that may be communicated in a work of Art: individual, social, and political. Individual content derives from our individual experiences, both subjective and those that are universal. Social content has to do with our relationships with family, friends, lovers, co-workers. Political content pertains to power structures within and between large groups, ideologies, dogmas, ... and because of this political content most often takes the form of propaganda.

From my perspective, it seems like the most successful work focuses primarily on individual content and often social content. It can include political content, but this cannot be its only meaning if it is to most effectively fulfil its purpose. Regardless of what culture, era, or part of the world you call home, and regardless of your political/religious/philosophical views; a work that speaks poetically and profoundly about our shared human experience will always speak directly to you.

Certainly, there are many learned biases, or perceptive lenses which may obscure, distort, or clarify one's ability to apprehend and experience a work. These are examples of unconscious projected context and are not uniformly bad or good. Sometimes they clarify and sometimes they simply blind us from seeing what's in front of us. Thus, it helps to be conscious of our biases and learn how to discard those we don't feel are helping, and perhaps enhance those that we feel are useful. Which is a fundamental role that education plays, and why each person should be actively engaged in their education, rather than just allowing it to be pressed upon them.

So, this brings us full circle. What is it that makes a work "better" than another? Is it skill? Is it emotion? Is it a new or compelling idea? As I said before, yes and no. It is all of these things.
On intuitive meaning vs. cognitive meaning

"Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were precepts"


- Ayn Rand

In order for the work to communicate most effectively, it must do so on an intuitive level so that, as Rand explains above, the work can be immediately grasped, pre-verbally, before any cognition has taken place, as if it was perceived and sensed. This sensing, this understanding takes place in the right brain and is akin to the sense of "being" that many spiritual leaders describe during prayer or meditation.
Indeed, Art is of a dual nature. (Or even further, Art is of a pluralist nature). It is not entirely objective, nor is it entirely subjective. Great beauty requires a bit of the sublime. And the truly sublime requires a bit of beauty. Beauty is not just physical, and the sublime is not purely conceptual or even "non-material" in the transcendental right brain sense. This is why I choose to use different terminology: because of how much baggage is associated with the "sublime". Because of Kant, whether or not he intended it, it has become associated with only the "concept" or Plato's "form" within the Art world. But, as you and I know, originally the definition was more about the absence of language, concept... this higher, transcendental state. But, for this reason, the word "sublime" confuses people.

I prefer to analyze this in terms of emotional and conceptual content. (See Judging Art Part I)Emotional and Conceptual: this necessitates creativity and skill - I use the term "skill" in a more open minded definition than most realists, and I use the term "creativity" in more open minded sense than the abstract or modern artists. As I've said before, great Art requires three things: intelligence, passion, and skill. What I mean by that is, emotional content, conceptual content, a sufficient skill to communicate the two, and a poetic and creative combination of all three. The great thing is that each artist combines them in different proportions. But, the natural result of the effective combination of these three elements will necessarily be: both the transcendent experience (sorry, I won't call it sublime) that we've been talking about, as well as beauty. This beauty can and is defined in many ways, but I think this transcendent "being" or presence is largely the same in every person because it rests upon our universal humanity. Though some are more practiced at achieving this state than others, as one who meditates is more practiced at achieving a trance -this absense of thought is the frame of mind one must have when first viewing the work, or one will not understand the primary point. One can, of course, venture into all forms of context and this is not a fruitless act, but it is additional and not fundamental to the core meaning. This accounts for both the immediate and shared universal response as well as the additional knowledge or experience collected in our unconscious and intuitive mind.

I have long wondered why Art often takes the place of religion for some, and now I understand why. It offers a path to the deepest connection to ourselves, to each other. It gives ghostly form to our hopes, dreams, passions, and fears. It is profoundly intertwined with our very consciousness and embodies the manifestation of our most spiritual moments. The greatest work transports us to the moment of its creation, to peer out from beneath the opalescent layers of paint and oil to catch a wavering glimpse of its creator, as if through a dark foggy glass. His moment of creation becomes our own and for a small space, time stands still, it melts away. We meet this soul and feel "this is my brother, my sister, my father or mother... this is me". All of the tragedies and joys that have graced his life, I too share. And what greater means can we have to address the grave problems ahead of us than this bottomless and shared, individual understanding?

Thanks to my friend Michael Guilmet for sharing with me this very pertinent quote:


"The revelation of art is not ethics, nor a judgment, nor even humanity as one generally thinks of it. Rather, the revelation is a marveling recognition of the radiant Form of forms that shines through all things. In the simplest terms, I think we might say that when a situation or phenomenon evokes in us a sense of existence (instead of some reference to the possibility of an assurance of meaning) we have had an experience of this kind. The sense of existence evoked may be shallow or profound, more or less intense, according to our capacity or readiness; but even a brief shock (say for example, when discovering the moon over the city roofs or hearing a sharp bird cry at night) can yield an experience of the order of no-mind: that is to say, the poetical order, the order of art. When this occurs, our own reality-beyond-meaning is awakened (or perhaps better: we are awakened to our own reality beyond meaning) and we experience an affect that is neither thought nor feeling but an interior impact. The phenomenon, disengaged from cosmic references, has disengaged ourselves, by the principle, well known to magic by which like conjures like. In fact both magic of art and the art of magic derive from and are addressed to experiences of this order. Hence the power of the meaningless syllables, the mumbo jumbo of magic and the meaningless verbalizations of metaphysics, lyric poetry and art interpretation function evocatively, not referentially; like the beat of the shaman’s drum, not like a formula of Einstein. One moment later and we have classified the experience and may be having utterable feelings that are in the public domain and they will be either sentimental or profound, according to our education. But according to our life, we have had, for an instant, a sense of existence: a moment of unevaluated, unimpeded, lyric life, antecedent to both thought and feeling; such can never be communicated by means of empirically verifiable propositions, but only suggested by art."




- Joseph Campbell





I hope I've left you with more questions than answers.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Anarchic Choreography


Michael Clark at Tate Modern.

I thought dance entailed "dancers" and a larger range of motion.... it looks to me like they're lying down on a massive communal yoga mat. Isn't that kind of like playing the piano with one finger while rolling around in someone else's sweaty bacteria?

Well, at least they'll have washboard abs by the end of this, if not unidentifiable skin rashes.


I came across a great response in a discussion pertaining to this article in the The Guardian.

Sounds kind of cool doesn't it? What a reputation to have - "anarchic choreographer" - wow, how trendy! In a few years, if anarchic choreography takes off, there will be undergraduate degrees in 'anarchic choreography' - throwing out all those stale old rules of choreography - maan. In fact, with time, anything that might resemble old fashioned 'dance'. Over time, in order to earn the reputation 'anarchic choreographer', choreographers will have to become more and more 'anarchic', discarding more and more of the things that ever made dance popular. They'll lose public support somewhere down the road of course, but it won't matter, because before too long, anarchic choreographers will no longer be judged according to the standards of old, conservative, stuckist, choreographers. Anarchic Choreography will be self-referrential, self-regarding, self-contained and self-justifying in terms of its anarchic forward-lookingness; they'll claim that there's great value in avant-garde, (controlled / contained) anarchy to the advancement of society. And anarchic choreographers will keep pushing and pushing those assumed benefits in the belief that one day, everyone will have forgotten what dance used to be about, and instead, appreciate new, 'anarchic' dance.

Hell, it might even decide that that's not anarchic enough and in order to be truly anarchic, choreographers will have to vow to destroy dance itself!

There'll be a band of people yelling "but this isn't dance is it?" Who will be sneered at by the media, the dancy - arty intelligencia and the generations of 5,000 or more "BA(hons) Anarchic Choreography" students who graduate each year from formerly hallowed places of learning to dance and to choreograph dance moves.

Sound like a familiar story? :-)

Lee Woods, www.leewoods.com


Well said.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Odd and the Crazy

"You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegan's Wake and Picasso." - Philip Larkin

When I first came across the work of the Norwegian master Odd Nerdrum, I was in my studio during the summer following my first year at NYAA. I had just recovered from the culture shock of moving from rural Georgia to New York, never even having visited the city before. I had grown up in a trailer park, had experienced poverty and struggle, and had finally paid my way through college between three jobs and scholarships. I had escaped, though I never thought I would end up in New York. I had never in my life had access to museums such as the Met, and for the first time I could see the Old Masters in person. It was indeed a life altering experience. The incredible technical and theoretical training I was getting at the Academy gave me a newfound ability to understand these masterpieces from many different perspectives. In my mind, I had already achieved success.

I had joined Ted Schmidt in copying at the Met, and was working on a copy of a Rembrandt in my studio when he stopped by with a heavy book under his arm. It was a large tome of Odd’s work and I was so taken by these bizarre and haunting paintings that Ted suggested I should study with him. I laughed. I didn’t think it was possible, but then again, I also never imagined I would be copying a Rembrandt in oils at the Met. I was a long way from Georgia, and eventually, I would be farther still.

I bought both of his large books and memorized every detail. I went to see his exhibition at Forum Gallery and started experimenting with his heavy herringbone linen, but I just couldn’t seem to crack the code. People told me horror stories about his vast temper and cult like students, stories of them wearing nothing but animal skins and living some kind of crazy ascetic lifestyle on the Norwegian coast. So I just forgot about the whole thing and concentrated on my immediate situation. I was graduating soon, with the burden of student loans on my back, an overpriced apartment in Brooklyn, and I was in desperate need of a job.

Luckily, a friend of mine was working as a painter for Jeff Koons and set up an interview for me. When I got the job I was thrilled, but after a year and a half of long hours and overtime I found that I was no longer painting for myself and was just making ends meet. I learned much (mostly about the Art market), but all my energy went in to Jeff’s work. Though it was a good stepping stone, I could not see myself working there for years, so I finally decided to take the risk and I sent Odd a letter. When, a few months later, I learned that I was accepted, I had a feeling of both elation and trepidation. I was elated because I knew many people had been rejected, but still I had no money saved up and I had student loans to pay off. This was not a practical decision. Of course, that hadn’t held me back before. The feeling only slightly lifted when I finally arrived in a cold, desolate land, jet-lagged and bleary on March 1st , to find three feet of snow on the ground and even more swiftly falling. I couldn’t see ten feet in front of my face, but through the eddies I could barely distinguish a car waiting for me, and standing beside it, a tall, imposing figure wearing a long double breasted black coat and a shock of hair - writhing in the wind and white as the snow. This must be Odd Nerdrum.

As soon as I entered the car, he began to drill me with questions, the first of which was "Why do you wish to study with me?" In my exhaustion I somehow managed to answer him coherently, then I collapsed on the bed as soon as soon as I got to my room. My first thought upon waking the next day was, what have I gotten myself into?

It turns out that what I had gotten myself into was one of the best choices I have ever made in my life. I soon discovered that Odd was not only a masterful painter, but also a very kind man with a quick wit and an enigmatic personality. He holds a vast knowledge of art history, philosophy, literature, and technique, all just as bottomless as his sense of humor. And yes, he is very eccentric, but quite open-minded. (During my first week there, he called me into his studio and asked me to tell him what was wrong with his painting. Then he actually did what I suggested!) I was not required to wear animal skins and paint post-apocalyptic scenes. I didn’t have to slave away as a studio assistant, grinding pigments by hand, stretching canvases, and modeling. Yes, I did have to do these things sometimes, but most of my time was available for painting and learning. After six weeks, Odd invited me to study with him for a year in Paris: an invitation I couldn’t refuse. My wife and I moved out of our apartment, put our things in storage and ventured onto the plane. In Paris for the first time, I went to the Louvre, Le Petit Palais, the Rodin Museum, and many galleries with Odd; all the while debating everything we saw. I recall fondly the time we were kicked out of a Scandinavian run gallery in the 4th arrondissement. The owner chased us out screaming something about "Nazi-Kunst". Apparently, they take Clement Greenberg very seriously in Finland.

Watching other students struggle to understand what he was trying to teach them, it dawned on me how many invaluable lessons I had learned at the Academy. Everything from aesthetic theory, anatomy, to historical techniques quickly sprang to memory and enabled me to grasp what he was demonstrating. Without this education, without these tools of analysis, I would perhaps have missed the deeper relevance and might have ended up going no further than a failed mimicry of his techniques.

Odd once told me how, when he was about my age, he met a great American painter: a mentor. Odd felt that this man was one of the greatest artists to have lived and esteemed him along with the Old Masters. One day, he was leaving an exhibition in Philadelphia to find a limousine waiting for him outside. The driver informed him that the car had been sent by this artist and inquired if Odd would like to meet him. Odd accepted with surprise, and when he arrived on the farm, Andrew Wyeth and his wife were there waiting for him with glasses of champagne. They talked long through the night and there began a deep friendship, carried by letters and infrequent visits across the decades. Wyeth had just died when I met Odd, and it was very hard on him. He spoke of all the wealth the world lost when Wyeth passed on. And sitting there with Odd Nerdrum, before his paintings, thinking of his friendship with Andrew Wyeth, I felt a deep loss. I imagined myself at Odd’s age, mourning on the day when he will sadly, and inevitably pass. But I also felt a stirring hope. In this connection there was something. There was a taut string extending from me to Odd, from Odd to Wyeth, and connecting me through them back into the vanishing past. I sensed the similar connections I had made while studying with Steven Assael and Ted Schmidt, still vibrating within my chest. And in the accumulated vibrations of all those thin strings stretching across the ages, it seemed I could almost hear the distant voice of Rembrandt himself, as if whispering into a paper cup at the other end. They may have died, but their voices live on: faintly, but eternally.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Absolutely no way this is a Caravaggio

There isn't much to say. The Vatican claimed it was Caravaggio, then they retracted the statement.

I think most of us can tell immediately that this is not a Caravaggio.

Why would they make such a claim in the first place without doing their homework? That's the question.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Artists Respond to BP


There was never a "wind spill", nor has there ever been "toxic sun waste". We don't have to process water to generate energy from it. We can make plastics quite efficiently out of corn. There are very few things that we can't produce less dangerously, less expensively, without petroleum.

Even if you're one of those who doesn't believe in climate change (a debate for another day), the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico has made it increasingly clear that there are many, many more repercussions to our addiction to oil effecting us directly, right here and now. So, why are we still subsidizing oil with tax payer money? Why don't we stop subsidizing and let the "free market" fix the problem?

Now that I've dispensed with my two cents, I'll descend from my soap box and we can move on to the art.

For these listed above, among many other reasons, artists have been emerging in mass to respond to the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. A recent article featured many of these responses, most of them derivatives of the BP logo. I donated a piece to the exhibition entitled "Oil Slick", reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, which opened in Bushwick Brooklyn and marked perhaps the first wave of exhibitions on this theme. One specifically poignant image which was used in both articles, was a detail from a painting by my great friend and brilliant colleague Adam Miller.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

John Currin: Embarassed


This interview (the official interview on the Gagosian site) is quite worth a look.
I found it interesting that Currin said he was "embarassed" to the point of apology by his love of the old masters, the figure, beauty and skill. But then he was quick to confidently point out his modernist influences. Which, certainly don't reveal themselves in his work. Yet when I ran into Currin at the Met - gazing at a Titian nonetheless - he only expressed his deep love for the work.

I've often heard the same apologetic language, and the same modernist references from Vincent Desiderio, Eric Fischl, and Julie Heffernan. This is not to say that I doubt that they are influenced by modernism or that they should or shouldn't be so, but simply to point out the double standard here. This underlines the fact that the artist can't reveal his sincere love of the old masters, and or a traditional sense of skill and beauty, and also not be marginalized by the art world. If there is any reference, it must be purely ironic, or coldly cerebral. This is pluralism? All things are equal, they say - except of course humanism, traditional skill, and emotional sincerity. They state equality, and at the same time reinforce a subjective hierarchy based on historical revision and the artificial inflation of prices.

Where is the humanity?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Judging Art: Almost Objectively


"If I state what I think, and I always do so with certainty, one of two results will follow. 1) I'll be right, and this will clarify things for others. or 2) I'll be wrong and someone will correct me - at which point I can revise my opinion and no longer be mistaken."

This article is inspired by a number of deep debates and especially one intense conversation with my good friend Charles Philip Brooks. As a true friend must, he called me on my very strong assertion that we could compare Soutine and Rembrandt - not just "The Slaughtered Ox", but Rembrandt's late work in general. Given that I've tackled almost every style at one time or another, I felt confident in my comparison. But he very kindly explained in his charming southern manner that such claims could very easily be interpreted by people who don't know me as arrogant, naive, or dogmatic (Not his exact words). He suggested, and rightly so, that if I was going to continue to use such firm language, then I had to have a damn good argument to back it up. Very true. Frankly, I didn't care if I was wrong. I was, and am, looking for sound logic based upon the most objective information that I have available. And if someone demonstrates logically that a particular assertion is wrong, I can and will consider their point of view carefully and alter my opinion accordingly. In this vein, Charles pressed me on the topic, and for the first time, I clarified to him (and to myself) the reasons why I felt they could be compared. Why visual art should stand on it's own visually; why we can compare and judge paintings side by side, and especially why we can and should first disregard context and attempt to regard the piece alone, with no strings attached. Context can be assessed later, and I'll get to that.

Yes, this is an overwhelming and often unpopular task, but something that I've been concerned with for some time now: forming objective criteria for analyzing and judging art, at least as objective as we can get given that we can't possibly step outside of ourselves and our condition as humans. I'm not trying to build an exact science out of the analysis, comparison, and understanding of art, and I don't believe it will ever be one - thankfully. But, in my previous experience teaching art, I often find myself striving for some kind of criteria to analyze and describe the work, which wasn't entirely "wishy washy". How to you teach an art student? How do you give them value for their money without qualitative tools and without teaching critical thinking? How do you or they know what is necessary for them to learn? Like explaining such an unstructured field, creating universal criteria is an equally massive task. But, I believe it is worthwhile and I believe it can be done. Why, you might ask, can you do this when so many others before have tried and ... well, not failed, but not quite succeeded? Historical perspective.

I have the benefit of a great accumulation of history, science, philosophy, art, and it's all at my finger tips. And I was lucky enough (part luck, part hard work) to attain - and continue to build on - an education providing the ability to tackle and process such a task and to have been born in an age where I have the internet, and the ability to sort through the mountains of data that it provides. I'm approaching this first from the perspective of a painter and teacher, secondly from the perspective of philosophy, third from a scientific perspective, and fourth from an art historical angle. Yes, this is a task which speaks of and demands great confidence, but don't mis-understand me. I don't believe I am greater than those who have tackled it before, only in the right time, place, surrounded by the right people, and given the right resources. I'm not the first to propose this. I'm not inventing the wheel. I'm simply trying to synthesize and streamline other approaches into a more objective and clear system. So, on that note, let us go straight to the foundations.


Before I begin I feel it's necessary to define the term "Art" so that we all know what I'm talking about here. When I refer to "Art" I am referring to two definitions. I'm speaking of the original meaning of "ars" in ancient Rome, or "tekhni" in Greek, passed down from at least ancient Greece: which is synonymous with skill, beauty, emotion (the concept being only part of the whole) and is the basis for Odd Nerdrum's definition of Kitsch as well as the definition of Art used by many of the contemporary realist movements. And I'm speaking also of the contemporary definition of "Art" which is primarily the concept.

What is the purpose of Art? This is largely debatable. But most answers you will hear have something to do with a desire to feel connected - with each other, with a deity, or to leave something of ourselves behind when we die. Most answers seem to have a common root in communication. And if we look at the origins of Art: cave and rock paintings 40,000 years ago, small sculptures like "Venus of Willendorf", or even early installation art: Stonehenge (I'm half serious). We can easily conclude that some kind of communication is intended, for these are all symbols or signifiers of something.

Building on the assumption that the shared primary purpose (among many others which might vary from culture to culture) of Art is communication, we come immediately to an impasse. Because each individual person has different experiences in life, they have different contexts and meanings for things. Thus, even the best communication is imperfect. It is impossible to understand exactly the intention of someone else and exactly what they mean. But perhaps this is the reason why Art is so necessary and powerful. Through it we can find other means, or multiple means of communicating. Culture gives us an additional context for meaning, but as culture changes from one geographic area to another, and as it changes over time, first subtleties are lost, and then more and more becomes incomprehensible. So culture is shifting, and context is shifting... does that mean that meaning is constantly shifting? Yes and no.

There is something that we universally share, regardless of where or when we were born, regardless of our gender or language, or ethnicity. We are all human. We have basic needs and desires. We have a common human nature that has not fundamentally changed in tens of thousands of years. We all understand, or have an overlapping understanding of food, sex, death, fear, anger, love, comfort, happiness, longing. When we visit a foreign country where we don't speak the language, the first things we understand revolve around these elements. My first experience of communication in France was at the farmer's market, selecting the perfect tomatoes. (And they were amazing tomatoes). The woman standing beside me tried a sample and the pure pleasure was evident on her face. Sure, this is still western culture. But the same is true for those newly discovered tribes in Brazil or southeast Asia, who, at the time of their discovery, hadn't had contact with any other cultures for thousands of years. Yet, they share the same basic understandings. If we come across a bear in the forest standing on its hind legs and roaring, we all recognize that this is a sign of danger. Of course emotions are more complicated than such basic instinctual understanding. But emotions are first based upon instinct and then altered from experiential input. We are genetically predisposed to these universals, and though we are a very flexible species and our actions can be altered and programed by culture and individual experience, our deepest desires, fears, and passions are shared and universal to humanity.

So, here is where I begin my search for objective criteria. Without context. Genetics are an expression of the laws of nature and physics, and as objectively as is humanly possible, we can measure, quantify, and describe them. And as nearly objectively, we can study, quantify, and empirically describe attributes and universal qualities of human nature and the human experience - many of which we share with mammals. I won't go into the science, but it is sufficient here to point out that it exists. Though genetics may change over a very, very, long time; for our purposes concerning Art, on a human scale - on a mammalian scale, these things are applicably constant and stable.

Of course, it begins to get tricky when we move to Art, because by the very nature of communication, we require at least two people. We require community and culture at least on a basic level. But any anthropologist will tell you that cultures are built upon the foundations of human nature and their interaction with the particular environment in which they live. Form follows function first. And then, form may vary and evolve - based on the initial function. So, if we try to stay aware of our own cultural and individual biases and dogmas, which distort our perception (not always in a bad way) then we can understand some of the basic elements of human nature and of culture, and for our purposes, communication.

Because of human need, there seem to be several purposes for communication. The obvious is, of course, conveying meaning. But we also require other needs of communication, for instance the well-being we receive from simply feeling connected with someone. Communication seems to serve the purpose of both providing information and various kinds of emotional gratification. This nuanced line between the two seems to be where Art lies, in the poetry of our common connection. Strip away all context, and that which is left, is the thing that is Art. What I'm proposing here is similar to the idea of New Criticism, which I've only very recently discovered.

Context, by definition, is something on the outside, imposed upon the subject. The universal human experience is something on the inside. It is the subject of communication. Everything has context, but we cannot judge something based upon its context. The relationship is analogous to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. You cannot simultaneously measure both the position and velocity of a subatomic particle. What I'm getting at is that context is relative to the perspective of the viewer, whether the viewer is in the same culture or time period as the artist. Further, there is the question of what context is relevant. Is what the artist had for breakfast relevant? So, context is entirely dependent upon the knowledge of the viewer and is projected upon the actual piece. I'm not saying understanding the context intended by the artist (as far as we can understand intention) is meaningless. I'm simply saying that context cannot stand on its own. It requires something to refer to for meaning to take place, and the value of the context is absolutely dependent upon the communicative efficacy of the work itself.

The question: "How well does the work communicate" can be clarified to ask "How well does it speak to our shared experience. How deeply and clearly does it fulfill the needs that we require of communication"? Thus, the most objective means of judging the success of an artwork is by judging how well it communicates to our shared human qualities, in the language that we all intuitively understand to the deepest core of our being. How well does it connect us? It is difficult to ask both for depth and clarity... depth entails nuance, and clarity requires specificity. So we have to develop some basic guidelines, or principles by which we can gauge a particular work's success in fulfilling our emotional and intellectual needs.

I think we can break it down into three basic principles: skill, emotion, and content. The emotional component and the content are obvious, as they directly fulfill our needs vis a vis communication. Skill, is more of an indirect but absolutely necessary principle. Some degree of skill is necessary to convey meaning and create emotional resonance. But the more nuanced the meaning, the more nuanced the emotive content, the more skill is necessary to convey it. This is not a quality judgment. Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Son" is a very successful piece with two primary emotional meanings: disgust and empathy. We don't need to know Greco-Roman mythology to feel the impact of this painting. We need no context other than the fact that we are human, that we are alive. What we recognize is another human being, twisted and tortured by experiences and powers beyond his control. Somehow the madness in the eyes of Saturn can seduce us to imagine that we, ourselves, are unwillingly compelled to do something that we so revile, that we so deeply detest, that it twists our physical body to an almost unimaginable extent. Almost. This tension between compulsion, disgust, and empathic understanding is a powerfully harmonic combination. The technical skill is more than sufficient to enable the exact balance of expression and recognizable form/symbolism. The brilliance comes in the specific balance of all these elements. If you compare it to Rubens' painting of Saturn with the same title, we may find ourselves amazed by his skill and subtlety. But the empathy is not quite there. The skill is moving and beautiful in its own right, but the emotional/psychological content (as conveyed by the facial expression and posture, among other compositional elements) contains only a single note: disgust, and therefore is less successful. Notice I said: less successful. This piece is still highly successful in terms of unifying our three criteria in an effective combination. But it is not as successful as Goya. It's not very accurate to say good or bad, what we require is a relative scale.

Yes, cultural elements: narrative meaning, iconic meaning, subtle complexities of context in society and the life story of the artist can and do enrich and add to the value and the power of the piece. Culture and education can contribute subtlety and nuance, and often the greatest works do this as well. But context alone is insufficient and is ever shifting like the sand. Context can only communicate so much, and it is very poor at fulfilling the emotional component of communication. Thus, it must be built upon a strong root, to hold fast to the stone beneath the sand that is our common human bedrock. The greatest works communicate on many levels, but the fundamental level is to communicate our fundamental selves. The esoteric is not entirely without value, but it is secondary.

I will only briefly touch on beauty because that is another very complex subject which we should discuss in addition to this, but not within this article. Beauty is certainly difficult to define, but if we look at it empirically, we can find a significant overlap in people's subjective opinions of what beauty is. Our ideas of beauty are also malleable, given our cultures and individual experiences. Beauty of some kind that, at least partially, meets our overlapping sense of beauty is intertwined with skill, emotion, and concept and will be a natural conclusion of the effective harmony between these elements. I think it possible to build upon the framework here to attempt to define nearly objective means of analyzing and understanding the idea of beauty and many other elements in art.

Something like Damien Hirst's "The Impossibility of Death to the Mind of Someone Living" has a great deal of meaning and remarkably, some small degree of emotional resonance, held within its context. However, though this work is influential and historically important, it's communicative ability will be short lived even if it is physically preserved for thousands of years. The time will come when much of the context surrounding is forgotten, only a fraction being recorded in history, and then it will be just a dead shark. A symbol of perhaps terror, consumption, and our own mortality. A certain amount of logic might lead one to conclude, that as the work of the random acts of evolution: Nature or God - this is Art. But further than that, all subtlety is lost and this will not be the only object inspiring these question in our minds. So, relative to our time it is very successful in fulfilling mostly the conceptual portion of our communicative need to a small, esoteric group, but compared to many other pieces, and given the span of history, it disappears into mediocrity.

I don't speak of historical relevance, nor of influence. These are values placed upon the context of a piece and are not addressed here. This is not a criteria for judging the context, but the physical object or the experiential element (in the case of theater or music) of the piece itself. Of course the clarity of comparison varies according to the nature of the pieces compared. It is more difficult to compare Rothko with Peter Bruegel that it is Bruegel with Bosch, but in terms of basic principles it is possible. I'm not saying this is an absolute separation. There are indeed overlaps. Like all dichotomies, this is merely a useful tool for analysis.

So now, perhaps we can compare a few fundamentals, but it begs the questions: is this meaningful, is this relevant? Why? My answer is to say: because communication is a human necessity. We are social creatures and we need the fulfillment emotionally and psychologically, and we need the content both psychologically and practically. Comparison gives us clarity, obviously in the making and understanding of Art, but also in understanding ourselves and each other. Rational comparison is the basis of the scientific method. Refusing comparison, in the short term may be easy and immediately practical, but in the long term it drives us further apart by creating a chasm between our perceptions and understanding of each other and ourselves; thus fostering misunderstandings both minor and major. By extension, communication and Art are the foundation of social interaction and therefore civilization. Comparison helps to strengthen the stone upon which it was built, and quite simply, enrich each individual human experience. The value comes not in the fact that we can compare these works, but as a point of departure. The value lies in what we can learn from such comparisons about the work, the nature of communication, and ourselves. We can begin to build an understanding of the relationship of these elements.

Without honest objective comparison (again, as objective as we can be), we are likely to fall further and further into the relativism of Post-modern philosophy. Fine, some might say, but the end result of this among other things, is the devaluation of all art and the subtle skills of communication. How is that? Well, if all things are equal and can't be compared, then by logical extension all things are equally meaningless. If all things are Art, then nothing is Art. Value is relative and depends upon a hierarchical relationship.

Why is something more or less valuable? Because it is more or less successful at fulfilling its primary purpose.

These criteria: skill, emotion, content - seem to be as stable and objective as we can get (until someone smarter, or with more information comes along to clarify this difficult subject - and if you're out there and reading this, please fill me in!) Culture changes, contexts shift, and our perceptions can be colored and blurred by learned behavior and life experiences. But the roots of human experience and human nature are the same, and as long as humanity as we know it is around, these criteria will hold. Human art is about human communication, so, we cannot make any claims about ultimate "truth". But the work itself, in order to be the most successful, should first have the qualities within itself - devoid of context - and speak to each person who experiences the work. It must fulfill their impulse for communication, it must stir their longing and speak to them. It must show us that we are not alone.

Again, this is not a value judgment. Though I personally have made my own subjective value judgments apart from this theory and will do so in the future. But this is simply a valuable tool of analysis which we can build on. The result is that there seem to be two options. We can separate the classical arts of painting and sculpture from the larger contemporary art world and judge them primarily on these criteria, whether we call it "Kitsch" or something else. Or we can begin to apply these tools of analysis to contemporary art (at least visual art) instead of ambiguously judging visual languages based on solely their context, by using the subjective tools of linguistic analysis, which focus on verbal and written forms of communication (we can thank Foucault for that).

The simple analytical tools that I've outlined are nearly objective. The conclusion reached from those tools is debatable, and up to you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Philosophy of Kitsch: Kant, Kunst, and Modernity

I've received a lot of questions lately regarding the philosophy behind the Kitsch movement, founded by the controversial Norwegian master Odd Nerdrum. As much as I enjoy discussing, learning, and explaining the new terms of Kitsch to an American audience, I find myself repeating things that I've already said in some previous inquiry. So, in the interest of freeing myself (and everyone else) up for the important work of painting, and in the stead of Odd's new book Kitsch: Mer Enn Kunst (Kitsch: More than Art) now available in English, I'll share with you this unstructured overview.

My goal, which I've said before, is to foster a collaboration between the disparate contemporary humanist (figurative, classical, realist, etc...) movements. As I discuss below, the fundamental goal that I find among all of these movements; from Contemporary Classical Realism, to NovoRealism, to Kitsch, is that they are striving to offer an alternative to the contemporary definition of Art: something more akin to its original meaning. How they differ is their approach to achieving this goal. So, I'll begin with a short, and by no means complete history, of the term "kitsch" and try and cover some major points as I see them.

The Kitsch movement reasons that the contemporary idea of "Art" came about in the modern era (the enlightenment). Before then, the term "ars" or "techne" was synonymous with "skill and beauty" going all the way back to ancient Greece. The theory of Art as "form" became popularized in the modern era with Kant. Kant was not the first, but he was the most influential and his assertions form the basis for modern and postmodern philosophy and art theory. When he applied protestant morality to aesthetics, he set the groundwork for Hegel, defining Art as ONLY the idea, separate from its manifestation. Kant defined the "sublime" in a slightly different sense than we tend to think of it today. At that time, the sublime was not an absence of thought, but more and experience of the divine thought. Thus the aesthetic experience was the "Form" of God. Hegel took this further to say that the true artist shouldn't even dirty his hands with making it himself. He will pay others to do it for him. This is what made it possible to have Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Paul McCarthy, Gilbert & George, (of course also money, power, and politics). As a side note: Greenberg was known to be a devout follower of Kant and disagreed with Hegel. Greenberg thought the art was the idea, but it must be made by the "true" man, in other words, a primal, primitive/modern man without skills.

As I said before, the term "ars" was traditionally used to refer to skill and beauty. Of course the "idea" or conceptual was an integral part of the whole, but it was not the entirety of it. This is closest to what the term "Kitsch" intends to mean.

Here is where we come to our choice of strategy. As we've seen demonstrated by politics time and again, the group that defines the language, makes the rules, and so always wins the game. And right now post-modernists and contemporary art are the ones who control the language and define what "Art" is. They will not let us co-exist in their world because we threaten them by our very nature. It gives one an immediate pleasure to look at a beautiful, skillful, and emotive painting. But with contemporary Art, you have to be taught to appreciate it. They will not allow us to label them "Anti-Art" or "Post-Art" (as Kuspit, Kaprow, and many others have tried) because they have the power to define Art. They have the money, politics, and the entire media machine behind them. It is much easier to change the definition of "Kitsch" than it is to change the contemporary meaning of "Art". Especially since they label us as kitsch to begin with. Thus, instead of being labeled low Art, a great figurative painter would be called high Kitsch. In the words of Broch :

"There are geniuses within Kitsch, like Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Ilya Repin."

At this point, we will not be able to return the definition of Art back to its original state. I wonder if we even should. But we might be able to offer an alternative to contemporary Art. We can re-establish humanism, beauty, and skill. We can re-establish rationality. This all depends on how many people agree with the positive re-definition of "Kitsch". If people agree, then the meaning changes and we succeed.

The kitsch movement does not want to eradicate abstract art and contemporary art. In fact, the goal is quite the opposite. If people want to continue putting sharks in formaldehyde and others want to buy it, that's their affair. But we want to limit their power to oppress our form of expression. This is why the tactic of the Kitsch movement is not to replace contemporary Art, but to offer an alternative. As Odd said in On Kitsch:

"Kitsch is passion's form of expression at all levels, and not the servant of truth. On the contrary, it keeps relative to religion and truth. A well painted Madonna therefore transcends its holiness. And truth, Kitsch leaves for Art. In Kitsch, skill is a decisive criteria of quality. The work of the hand is self-revealing in the light of long-established norms. In this way, Kitsch is without protection because the standards are the best ever created in history. To Picasso and Warhol, it was different. They were protected by contemporary values, and still are. Art is protected against the past, because it is something different."
A common response I hear to this is to say that another distinction is that if contemporary art is primarily conceptual, Kitsch and the old masters do not concern themselves with concept or content. Many people think this, but it is a misunderstanding to think that the Old Masters did not think of philosophy. Especially during the Renaissance, they were reading Plato and Aristotle, they were reading Pliny's Natural History. If you look closely, the very way they handle the idea of the human figure will tell you about their philosophy.

For example: the Mona Lisa. This is exactly Plato's "form". It is an idealization and not an actual person. Da Vinci based his scientific studies on Aristotle and said observing from nature was the first rule. So, Da Vinci was using both "form" and "matter". Look at much of Michelangelo's work - it is an idealized version of the human body, much like the Greeks, and seeks rhythm. Both of them are also Apollonian, they seek order.

Now, look at Rembrandt, or Velasquez. They are much more focused on observation. This is Aristotle's "matter". Rembrandt would be Dionysian (passion, emotion) as well. So you have two different philosophical dichotomies that they were thinking about and each painter had their own balance between these opposites. So, content is not a distinction between Kitsch and Art, it is only a matter of emphasis.

What is different is that now artists are thinking specifically of "critical philosophy" which does not build things or try to answer questions, it only takes things apart. But it strikes me that critical philosophy has never really been turned upon it's maker. Why not analyze Kant himself according to his own criteria? I won't go into this in depth, but let me just point out a little context. Kant's dichotomy is primarily based on the assumption that the "modern man" is somehow different from his predecessors, that the "modern era" beginning with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, created a new society which is fundamentally different from every society that has come before.

Understandably, Kant was a brilliant and insightful man. But he did not have the historical perspective that we now have, with our explorations of anthropology, among many other relevant sciences. He was not fully aware that the kinds of changes that occurred in the Enlightenment had occurred before (and after). Now we are in the midst of a computer revolution. The way we communicate and distribute knowledge is changing vastly and quickly. But, like the Enlightenment, which was spurred on by changes in the distribution of information, new political philosophies, transportation, among many others... this is not a new kind of revolution.

The Renaissance was made possible by technological advancements in the distribution of knowledge (the Gutenberg press), changes in political philosophy, the development of scientific inquiry, innovation in transportation (navigation, ship building), etc... If you look at ancient Greece and Rome, you find the same: advancements in technology which lead to news ways of distributing knowledge (the availability of paper made the ideas of Thales wide spread and spurred the birth of Greek Philosophy), revolutions in transportation, new political philosophies. We can find the same kinds of changes during the Agricultural revolution, arguably, a much more dramatic change for mankind than the Enlightenment. All of these are changes of degree, not of kind. Human nature has not changed, and as we see, society has not fundamentally changed.

So, what is Kitsch? It is akin to the original idea of ars, replete with skill and beauty: a continuous and seamless harmony between the concept and its manifestation. Kitsch is about humanism. According to Richard Wollheim, Kitsch would be "objectivist". Kitsch is about the universal human experience. Kitsch is Dionysian and follows Aristotle, but does not refute Plato. Odd Nerdrum did not set Kitsch up in opposition with Art. Kant, Hegel, and Clement Greenberg did. Odd and the Kitsch movement are merely offering an alternative to the contemporary definition of Art. And the great thing about the term is that it has it's own built in marketing. It's controversial, yet it enables us to focus on the positive, instead of negative campaigning against contemporary Art like Roger Scruton, Robert Hughes, and so many others do - to little effect. They deride Art, but they don't offer us an alternative, which is counter-productive.

Yes, maybe Kitsch will eventually be labeled as another movement within Art. But it is not post-modern. Post-modernism is dead. We now know that deconstruction is a tool of analysis, not a philosophical conclusion. Relativism is dying. This is because we now know that it just leads to meaninglessness, and humanity needs meaning.

Why foster such a dichotomy? Didn't that exact tactic start all this mess in the beginning with Kant's beauty and sublime? Where Kant went wrong (and I am not alone in this assertion) was where he formulated a hierarchy, where the sublime was inherently superior to beauty. But he could have, more objectively, (like Socrates before him) stated that they both exist simultaneously (much like the wave/particle nature of light), and interrelate with one another - arguably as they do. What I take away from the nature of dichotomies in science, philosophy, and aesthetics, is that they are excellent analytical tools, but cannot represent a state of "truth". For nothing really exists in an absolute state as far as we can tell.

Yet, it is necessary to offer an alternative to contemporary Art, whether it is an older definition of art/ars which involves skill, beauty, emotion, or a redefinition of Kitsch to encompass the same meaning. Kitsch will succeed as being an alternative if enough people accept the positive definition. Language is constantly evolving. So, that will be the key. If they don't, it will be labeled as another influential movement within Art. But, there are many thousands of people who have already accepted Odd's definition of Kitsch, and many more who respect the position, so it will certainly make an impact... in fact, already has. If the definition of Art returns to its original meaning or "ars", then Kitsch has succeeded as well. Either way, Kitsch is a brilliant strategy for returning to rationalism, humanism, and beauty. It creates a superstructure within which beauty, skill, and passion can be rewarded. A place where one can have actual freedom, based on one's talent and hard work. A place where we can again be human.