A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Monday, September 24, 2012

Art and Artistry

A correspondent with the insufficiently envoweled name of roystgnr has commented on TOF's post "Observation on the State of Modern Art"
I vaguely recall modern art enthusiasts once *bragging* about a double-blind study in which art students preferred modern artists' work over children's and chimps' a whopping *two thirds* of the time. Pathetic.

Or was that sympathetic? You do have to feel for visual artists in the post-photography age. Now that the mere real is more easily captured by kids with camera phones than by professional painters, apparently the only contributions remaining for the artist to make lie in the surreal... so isn't it tempting to give up on enhancing realistic images entirely and just focus on abstract composition?
This prompts TOF into an unaccustomed (cough cough) philosophical mood. 

The intellect is perfected in two ways, scientia and ars, or "science" and "art" in modern parlance.  Science was in the original sense of knowledge; and art was the application of that knowledge to something practical.  In brief: "know what" and "know how."  Physicians and engineers, indeed any menial who worked with his hands, were therefore counted as artists. 

The original term was "artisan."
"Artists in the sense that we understand and use the word, meaning practitioner of fine art, didn't exist in Leonardo's time it would be more appropriate to use the word artisan in its meaning of craftsman or skilled hand worker."

But in the early 1800s, the term "artist" began to replace "artisan" in English; and by the early 1900s "artisan" had virtually disappeared.  The Romantic image of the starving artist in the garret suffering for his Art appeared and artists as a whole sought to be included among the New Class of intellectuals.  (cf. Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect)  The loss of the sense of "artisan" as a skilled craftsman and its replacement by the sense of "artist" as a sensitive soul full of transcendental thoughts mirrored the shift from representationalism to impressionism, from the scientific "objective" to the Nietzschean "subjective."  (As usual, art ran ahead of science in this shift; but it is no coincidence that pointilism and quantum theory both showed up in the same period.) 

Now you can make an argument that Albrecht Dürer's A Young Hare, which anticipated the Scientific emphasis on precise and detailed observation of physical reality, could have been replaced by photography, although I will argue that the photography could not have captured the image in just this way.  Beside, people did not admire the drawing because they had always wanted a snapshot of a rabbit.  They admired it because of its superb craftsmanship.

Albrecht Dürer.  A Young Hare (1502); Watercolor and gouache on paper;
Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna.
But I defy any mere photographer to snap this photo of the King of Hungary greeting the Cardinal-Infant of Spain in the famous meeting of the two branches of the House of Hapsburg:

Ferdinand of Hungary meeting with Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Spain at Nördlingen.
(1634-1635). Oil on canvas. 328 × 388 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
It would be difficult to convince River Danube personified as an Old Man to hold still for the shutter, even while Germania, dressed in black, slumps in sorrow before him.

Let alone snap St. Benedict ascending to heaven on the ceiling of Melk Abbey:

Photograph this, monkey boy!
Johann Michael Rottmayr.  "St. Benedict's triumphal ascent to heaven" (1721)  Ceiling fresco Melk Abbey (Austria)
From the right spot on the palace floor, the figures seem to be floating in freaking mid-air!  TOF saw the 3D effect himself when he was in Vienna, and can testify to its brilliant craftsmanship. 

Even in genre paintings like landscapes, artists would often move trees around or 'rearrange' the foliage to achieve the desired balance and beauty.  Portraits, while realistic, oft included touches not found in reality.  Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' "Grande Odalisque" (1814) adds five extra vertebrae to the odalisque's spine and gives her a posture (curvature of the spine and rotation of the pelvis) that is physically impossible.  The eyes and expressions of Rembrandt's various self-portraits might be caught by a camera, but... maybe not. 

So it was not the camera exactly that laid representationalism low.  Artists thought their duty was to portray beauty (TOF did not say "prettiness") and raw nature was seldom beautiful on its own.

What laid it low was its stunning success.  It aimed to capture a similitude of nature, and no one would ever do it better than the great masters.  They were artisans, and their craft has never been surpassed.  What's a poor starving artist to do but try something else?  And so, impressionism, surrealism, pointilism, abstractionism, and all the other shard-isms of a fracturing culture. 

James Chastek comments here and again in The death wish in the contemporary West, where he says:
Chartres: always beautiful; but they
don't build 'em like this any more.
Anyone can see in music or architecture that one style goes from freeing in one generation to being a straitjacket in the next, even if it is always beautiful. Mozart and Chartres will always be beautiful, but it would be insipid to simply imitate them forever
And in jugjugjugjug... he comments:
The death of the noble makes high art: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Ionesco, Beckett, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Sartre, James Joyce, Picasso, and any number of other artists in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century got to depict the meteoric death and collapse of a culture, and their art is wonderful. The sexual revolution was after all this, when things had already burnt out and gone black. Eliot had fragments he could shore against his ruin – these were the last intelligible fragments of a dying culture that fractured and blazed before it finally burnt out.
Marcel Duchamp.  Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).
Oil on canvas.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Duchamp did capture something.  It is not a nude and it is not a staircase; but it is descent.  It is as if art was moving away from matter and toward form.  

Or not.

Pablo Picasso.  Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
Oil on canvas.  Museum of Modern Art (NYC).
Cy Twombley.  Untitled (1960
Post-modern art -- it is not actually correct to call it "modern" art, since from the birth of the Modern Ages in the Renaissance to its collapse in the early 20th century it has been representationalist -- is still searching for a mode (imho) and moving from one fashion to another.  (And fashion is not art, for the excellent reason that art is what endures and fashion by its definition cannot.)  Even Picasso's Demoiselles or Gustav Klimt's Der Kuss retains some small amount of depiction-of-matter; but by Twombley (and Pollack et al) even the depiction-of-form had followed depiction-of-matter onto the ash heap of history.

Artists, having abandoned a sense of artisanship feel driven to Make Statements or issue Manifestos instead.  Hence, such things as Piss Christ, which involves virtually no artisanship.  The same has been happening to music, in which melody was abandoned for harmony, then harmony for  harmoniousness, until finally nothing was left but pounding rhythms.  As if the old art had to be scraped down to the bedrock before something new could be built on top.

Along the way were stunning successes and equally stunning failures.  As Lukacs points out in The Passing of the Modern Age, the impressionists were profoundly revolutionary.  Compare Cézanne or Ravel to Delacroix or Brahms.  Their epigones were merely revolting – revolution and defiance had become standard and avant garde had become orthodoxy – but with steadily diminishing returns.  In the fifty years from 1863 to 1913, art was overturned, but in the fifty years from 1913 to 1963, very little changed.  That is the way of experiments: most of them fail.  

But there is a curious anomaly.  Science fiction art teems with representationalism -- of things that could never possibly be photographed.
Barzun, Jacques.  The House of Intellect.  (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002)
Lukacs, John.  The Passing of the Modern Age.  (Harper & Row, 1970)


  1. And yet there are contemporary paintings that do a better job of representing reality than any photograph ever could. My favorite example of this is a painting in the lobby of Minneapolis' Multifoods Tower; it is an enormous canvas showing a seemingly endless blue sky littered with occasional cumulus clouds. No photograph captures the wide blue skies of the Great Plains as well as this painting.

    1. Agreed. That's why 'representationalism' was never about photographic depictions. But I will go further and say that there are non-representational paintings that are equally effective. Klimt's "The Kiss" is powerful; Duchamps "Nude descending..." Even many of the abstractionists are agreeably colorful and might grace a middle class parlor. Lukacs observed that regarding late modern art and music: it was coming out of the concert halls and museum walls and onto the dance floors and living room walls a great deal more than in the recent past.

  2. Hey Flynn, the jugjugjugjug link is busted.

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