Monday, June 27, 2011

A Few Words about the Barebrush Experiment

As many readers of this blog know, I am an artist, entrepreneur and anthropologist.

I began Barebrush as a sort of experiment to see if I could discern any consistent threads in the way diverse curators think about and select art. With the myriad of styles and approaches current in today's art world, I constructed an anthropological model to see for myself if any dominant approaches or preferences emerged.

I am pleased to report that they have. No matter whether the work is super-realist or runs the gamut from impressionist to abstract, professional art curators, curators who know the technical difficulties of many media, look for three major accomplishments from the artworks they review:

Skill: Skill is evidence that the artist exercised care and judgment appropriate to the artwork. Non-artists tend to think of skill primarily in terms of rendering, but curators are aware of the related skills required to pick a subject point-of-view of interest to the art viewer. There is also significant skill required to place the subject in space. In two-dimensional art this is called “placement on the page” even if it is a painting or a mural. In three-dimensional art, the challenge is placement in space in such a way as to compel viewers to want to see the work from all sides and to reward them for doing so. My observation has been that even in sketchy, gesture drawings and paintings, and especially in more rendered work, curators look for evidence of thought and consideration accompanied by technical mastery and a unified presentation. Unified presentation could also be considered mastery of style, but since mastery of style involves mastery as such, for purpose of clarity, style can be considered an aspect of skill.
Emotion: Curators universally love looking at art. The ability of a visual artist to evoke emotion is highly prized. Just like the rest of us, they love to be surprised, delighted, touched by tenderness, impressed by dignity. And it seemed to me that as art professionals, they would rather be goaded into anger than to feel nothing about an artwork.
Significance: The artwork necessarily has significance to the artist, as is self-evident by the fact of its very existence. Curators seem to look for artworks which “speak” to them about the things they care about. This is the reason why we ask each curator to submit a personal statement in order to help the artist understand at least something of what the curator is about.
As year number five draws to a close, the process continues. Barebrush is growing. We are working on the next big upgrade which will introduce direct selling by the artists on the Barebrush website. My thanks to all the curators and the artists who together have made Barebrush the website to find excellence in contemporary art.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

DG13: Composition Based on Human Visual Dynamics

Looking for Principles of Composition with the Diagonal Grid 13.

Composition in art refers to the visual organization of the work.  In The Art of Color and Design, Maitland Graves writes, "The aim of composition is to create an interesting unit. Interest is the result of variety. Unity is created by dominance."1

In 2005, I was studying the anthropology of art and I wanted to understand composition. I had two reasons for wanting to understand composition. First of all, my focus in anthropology was the 200 years between 1800 and 2000 when profound changes had taken place in Western Art. During that period, painting went from striving to depict history and beauty to being contempuous of subject matter entirely. Everything that could be dispensed with was jettisoned—important subjects, meticulous finish, beauty, to name just a few of the early casualties. Cutting-edge, “modern” art became, in turn,  a statement of tonality, impression, expression, line, shape, color, and finally nothing at all. I noticed that over time, although many people resisted each new change, eventually people came around, so that today probably the most popular styles in the US are some forms of impressionism or expressionism.

So my first reason related to my budding theory that over the 200 years, until art reached the dead end of pure nihilism, the great artists were still making great compositions and great compositions matter to people as much or more than the actual subject matter, finish and beauty. I wondered if there were a basis in biology for what humans consider great composition. How do we recognize them? Why do they resonate with us?
My second reason for wanting to understand composition was simply to be a better artist.
When art historians talk about composition, they seem mostly to talk about the objects and “things” represented in paintings. They might also talk about the relationship of the people and objects in the painting to each other. Sometimes they sketch vague triangular shapes, angular v or w shapes, loopy m shapes or arrows indicating the direction of eye movement.
Books for painters are no better. They are filled with do’s and don’ts, and general exhortations, but not with any clear principles or procedures that work to serve as a guide for either students or art historians. Even design books, which talk about harmony, balance, diversity and areas of interest, seemed to leave the student on his own to find what is “pleasing” as a composition, or they recommended using the golden ratio.
Golden Rectangle
The golden ratio is the most famous constructive method for making the overall length to width of the artwork according to “pleasing” proportions. It can also be used to determine the size of subsidiary elements. The most famous building said to be constructed along the lines of the golden ratio is the Parthenon of Greece. Thus, this ratio has fascinated artists and mathematicians since Greece's Golden Age, about 2400 years ago. It is associated with the Fibbonacci series. The rectangle at right is an example of construction using the golden ratio.
 Construction of a golden rectangle:
1. Construct a unit square (red).
2. Draw a line from the midpoint of one side to an opposite corner.(arrow)
3. Use that line as the radius to draw an arc that defines the long dimension of the rectangle
The Wikipedia discussion of the golden rectangle notes the on-going debates about which great painters used or did not use the golden ratio in which of their works.
Generally, the golden rectangle means nothing to the viewing public. For art viewers, viewing great art, the reaction is immediate. If the painting’s overall dimensions do or do not conform to the golden ratio, what does that tell us? Only that the overall dimensions should be pleasing, if we even bother to determine whether the overall dimensions are in a golden rectangle.
 For artists, the problem with the golden rectangle is that the reality of what the artist needs to accomplish often does not conform to the golden ratio in terms of shape and size of the art. If the picture space is square, almost square, very tall, very wide, or just not in conformance with the golden rectangle, the question becomes, what should the artist do to make the composition designed within the given space as dynamically interesting and pleasing as possible?
The bottom line is that whether or not the outside dimensions of an artwork conform to the golden rectangle, the contents, meaning the forms and shapes, may still be arranged poorly. The golden rectangle does not help us to understand the arrangement of the art within the two dimensional space – unless, as in the rare case, the artist painted a compositional spiral like Velasquez’ Las Minenas.
So I eventually discarded the idea that even great artists routinely used the golden ratio for their work. The evidence does not support that conclusion. I also discarded the idea that artists would construct sections of a painting to conform to the golden rectangle, even if the work did not follow the golden ratio overall. I discarded it because artists are constantly and consistently concerned about the unity of their work, because great painting has an immediate emotional impact as a single whole, not as a sum of parts. Basically, a method construction that teaches the artist to address parts of a painting while saying nothing coherent about the entire painting would be pointless.
So it seemed to me that I had reached a dead end. There seemed to be no theories on visual harmony which presented specifics on how humans process the information within a two dimensional space of a picture as a unified whole. Thus I found no principles of composition of which I could take advantage, either as an anthropologist or artist. Finally I had nothing left but my two eyes and a blank piece of paper, and that’s when I had a breakthough and invented a new type of visual grid for composing and judging two-dimensional art.

Because most of us have two eyes and we want to take in as much of the image as we can in a single glance, I reasoned that there could be a natural visual flow to looking at a painting that is informed by these facts. I marked the edges of my paper into thirds both along the length and the width so that each side had two marks. If I connected the marks horizontally and vertically, I would have had a tic tac toe grid. However,  since my goal was to mimic how the eye might move around the picture plane, I knew that a static, horizonal-by-vertical grid would impede eye motion rather than promote it, so I drew the grid on the diagonal.
The Diagonal Grid 13 in steps
Construction of the diagonal grid with 13 shapes (DG13)
1. Construct a rectangle (or square) of any size.
2. Mark each edge into thirds.
3. Draw 4 short lines (adjacent marks, left box, above)
4. Draw 4 long lines (far marks, center and right-hand boxes )

The resulting grid has exactly 13 shapes: 8 triangles, 5 quadrilaterals (four-sided figures), never more, never less. Four of the triangles are right triangles, and 4 are isosceles. The mathematical relationship of each shape to the whole is constant with the smallest triangles being 1/36th of the whole. If we were to draw diagonals from the corners of the rectangle, we would wind up with 12 triangles and 12 quadrilaterals, each quadrilateral being twice the size of each triangle. It would be a nice pattern, but bascially static: we would lose the visual dynamics of the grid when it has the 13 areas, four different shapes of various sizes, including the large center shape which is one-third of the entire area.

If you have a computer drawing program, you can draw a square as a multiple of 3 units. Then you can easily place the lines and group them. After they are grouped, you can change the size of your box and the lines will automatically adjust. My theory is that this grid mirrors is the way the viewer's eyes efficiently scan the image and that art which conforms to this grid is more visually satisfying to the viewer.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein
The very first painting I analyzed with the diagonal grid was The Ambassadors  by Holbein. Here is the painting to the left.  If you have a drawing program you can draw a grid and place it over the painting and do your own analysis all electronically. Or you can print out the image and draw the grid by hand.
In the next post, I will show how the grid helped me to understand both the visual dynamics of this composition, the relationship of the men to each other and to their instruments, and the strange, stretched skull in the lower center. 

I will also show more examples of work which seems to "obey" the grid and work which does not.

The key concept to remenber is that the rectangle or square is always divided by thirds along each side so that the resulting grid has 13 shapes.

When dealing with constructing a composition, I will show how the diagonal grid 13 (DG13) helps the artist actually create the unity of composition to which all the design books would have artists aspire. DG13 will not automatically make an artist a better artist -- it's a tool, like any other. I don't claim to have all the answers, just an interesting way of dealing with the question. I'm going to assume that the grid can be used or misused. My purpose is to introduce it, turn it loose, and see what people make of it.
1. Graves, Maitland. The Art of Color and Design.  New York. McGraw, Hill & Company. 1941. p. 242.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Uneasy Truce: The War Between the Sexes in US Art

Review of Naked: The Nude in America by Bram Dijkstra

As a coffee table book, Bram Dijsktra’s Naked: The Nude in America has a lot going for it. It is big, it is beautiful, it is a conversation starter. Even better, it is controversial, with plenty of gorgeous images you’ve never seen, some you’ve seen and half forgotten, others so shocking you’d be happy to forget, (except when you want to see them again). Best of all, Naked is eminently readable.

©Naked: The Nude in America,
Rizzoli New York, 2010.
Bram Dijkstra is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Cultural History at University of California, San Diego. As a cultural historian, his focus is the cultural importance of the art, the context in which it appeared and the narrative it furthered. He starts with the contradictory effects of misguided American puritanism – that the campaign to make nudity and sexuality forbidden thereby made them irresistible.

The Forge of Vulcan
John Singleton Copley
Dijkstra’s story is of male domination, female acquiescence and surrender. When the fight appears won, the artists (both male and female), strike out for more forbidden territory and the nudes get younger and younger (both male and female). Symbolic references abound, such as the oval mirror representing female sexuality. Later, widely-accepted pseudo-scientific theories misapplied to evolution both thrill and warn the male population of the base nature of the female – as a siren intent on enticing men to serve her sexual destiny. In poetic terms, this is the age of vagina dentata.

Soon after, the larger European art story, the deconstruction of art into modernism, invades the US and all figurative art becomes “vulgarity.” This notion functions as received wisdom from American art critic, Clement Greenberg, “then the ruling satrap of abstraction.”“Serious” art deconstructs the body into cubism, expressionism, surrealism and abstraction. But instead of surrendering representation entirely, in the US the story takes an unexpected twist. Illustration, in the guise of cartoons, comic books, and pulp fiction cover art makes a fetish of body parts, especially breasts, vaginae and penises (although penises are not on covers).  Later, abstraction waning after its heyday, the battle lines blur and cross again, with serious art using sexually explicit body parts expertly represented, and illustration devolving into ever more crude content and styles. In the end, Dijkstra seeks rapprochement, “to the simple, unadorned realities of everyday the naked truth of life itself.”2

Ganymede (Lyric Poetry Series)
Henry Oliver Walker
It’s a compelling story, but it is after all, a story told by a man, and though true enough, perhaps not the whole truth. Being a woman, an artist and an anthropologist means that I bring a different gender, visual and cultural perspective to any reading of art purporting to be universal. That’s why Naked is so much fun. There is so much to learn, so much to like and much with which to take issue in this huge beauty of a book. For example, in chapter one, Dijkstra’s explanation for The Forge of Vulcan (1754) by John Singleton Copley, is an opening tour de force, unmasking, so to speak, the “playfully obscene visual iconography”3 which young American artists were acquiring from the French and Italian rococo.

[The “Forge of Vulcan” is perhaps] the first painting by an American-born artist to feature a female nude with an explicitly erotic theme[.] Copley chose to emphasize what has remained an indelible association in American culture to this day: the suggestion that sex and violence are two sides of the same coin.4

Cover for Cupid's Capers
Enoch Boles
I readily admit it: I never would have guessed either the hidden message of the piece or its place in history. Thereafter follows a most delightful collection of naked American beauties produced in the new republic. Art from this period is polished, luscious, playful, contemplative, sometimes simple, sometimes complex with putti, flowers, forests, draperies and bedsheets.

There are way too many to name, and over 400 artists included in the book from post-colonial days to present. The publisher’s promotion list of artists represented hits only the highlights of the most well known: Romare Bearden, Paul Cadmus, John Singleton Copley, Imogen Cunningham, John Currin, Eric Fischl, Keith Haring, Edward Hopper, John Koch, Willem de Kooning, Abraham Leon Kroll, George Platt Lynes, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Nauman, Alice Neel, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Catherine Opie, Herb Ritts, Man Ray, John Singer Sargent, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Jock Sturges, Andy Warhol, Benjamin West, Edward Weston, Andrew Wyeth.

Breaking the Pose (The Art Class)
Jerome Witkin
In addition, Naked includes many real gems from the lesser known and less exhibited artists. One work I especially enjoyed seeing in the book is my favorite sculpture, Joy of the Waters (1917) by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth. I was a teenager when I saw this beautiful bronze in 1964 in the window of a garden ornament shop on 40th St. in New York City. It is a figure of a naked girl, with arms in the air and one leg raised, about to do a cartwheel. I saw it again in 1967 and I wrote a long poem about it. Frishmuth lived until 1980 and the sculpture was still being cast at least until 1972. I still wish I could have afforded to buy it on the spot, so seeing it in Naked was like a joyful homecoming.

Other works I especially enjoyed discovering (naming only a fraction) include Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1809-1814) by John Vanderlyn, Female Nude Perched on a Stool (1858) by Daniel Huntington, Ruffina (1875) by William Shirlaw, Autumn Gathering Leaves (1902) by John La Farge, and Betty Page, Crandon Park Beach, Miami (1954), by Bunny Yeager.

Kate Moss on a White Horse
Nan Goldin
One particularly striking work done in 1869-70 is a crayon, oil and graphite piece on canvas, Evening (Fall of Day) by William Rimmer. In this piece Rimmer represents an essentially de-sexed, but physically imposing mature male with wings even broader than the Nike of Samothrace. His body arcs full frontal into the sky with one toe touching the horizon. The halo of a full moon (symbol of the “soul-destructive” world of night and women) surrounds his head and shoulders as his right arm reaches skyward out of the halo trying to grasp the last moments of the day (the symbol of the life affirming world of man’s power). Nothing else but Dijkstra’s explanation could make Rimmer's piece comprehensible. That being said, the composition, draftsmanship, imagination and portrayal of dying desperation make this piece arresting in its own right. Without Dijkstra’s explanation, we might enjoy the work visually, but move on wondering what on earth would possess the artist to represent a sexless man in such agony. Thanks to Dijkstra's scholarship, we can appreciate it both for what it looks like and what it represents in the history of American nudes.

Superman Fantasy
Arthur Tress
In another piece also with a compositional halo effect, Dijkstra’s explanation is less convincing. Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), ca. 1899, by Mary Stevenson Cassatt shows a naked three-year old boy with his mother who is wearing a dressing gown . He seems to be standing on her thigh, leaning on her body so that his cheek is next to hers, his left arm around her neck, her hand lovingly engulfing his. In contrast, his right hand has a child’s hold on her thumb. Behind their heads, a mirror in an mahogany frame focuses their love. Although at times the piece has been called The Florentine Madonna because of its similarity to typical Italian Madonna and Child works, Dijkstra connects the oval shape of the mirror to the vagina mythology. In his interpretation, Cassatt is representing the gender ideology of a childlike and innocent-in-spirit mother urging her son to greatness. To his credit, he admits that the interpretation is perhaps “tendentious.”5

Untitled (Art Lover)
Russell Patterson
 Surprisingly, I found one real failure of understanding erotica – and it occurs late in the book, when Dijkstra is being most conciliatory, thinking along the lines that the war between the sexes is over, we survived it, let’s just be people together. In looking at Nan Goldin’s Kate Moss on a White Horse (2001), Dijkstra finds only suggestions of “comfort, trust and parallel beauty.”6 However, to me, being female, this is the most erotic piece in the entire book, instantly riveting. Any woman who has ridden bareback on a horse only has to see this image to know that bareback and naked astride a horse is another level of erotica entirely. All of the hidden messages of masculine strength and feminine dependency are represented in the woman’s dangling leg, dreamy expression and the horse’s head turning to acknowledge the presence of its rider and seemingly, her purpose.

The lapse is small and unimportant in the larger scheme of the book which grows out of the author’s youthful discovery of a stack of pulp magazines and comic books left behind by an American soldier in a Dutch second-hand bookstore after World War II. As he writes in a note introducing the bibliography of works cited, “The lust for forbidden knowledge is all the encouragement a twelve-year-old boy needs to keep him doggedly pursuing the motives for metal bras in science fiction illustrations, or the double-entendres of a Matt Baker ‘headlights’ comic....”7
Of Yin and Yang
Ynez Johnston

All in all, the book represents the male point of view very admirably, and frankly, the fact that I come at the subject from a different gender viewpoint only served to heighten my enjoyment and appreciation of this impressive assemblage of art and scholarship.

For a sampling of the art in Naked, you see a variety of the images here. Some of images mentioned in this review are not shown due to restrictions on the publisher. At least some are visible individually the internet.

By Bram Dijkstra
Hardcover 9.75” x 11” / 476 pages / 450 illustrations
$75 U.S., $88 Canadian, £45 UK
Rizzoli New York
ISBN: 978-0-8478-3366-5
Release date: November, 2010

Georgette in Giverny Garden, William de Leftwich Dodge
1. p. 212.
2. p. 469.
3. p.  25.
4. pp. 21-23.
5. p. 175.
6. p. 458.
7. p. 470.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sweet Nike of Samothrace, Enduring

In December of 2001, I visited the Louvre. The statue of Nike of Samothrace (known also as the Winged Victory) enthralled me. Over 10 feet tall, dating from about 190 BCE, she stands at the head of the sweeping Daru staircase. There was a brisk wind blowing up the stairs. The wind seemed to be responsible for pressing the folds of Nike’s garment against her body. Of course, this was nonsense since both her body and garment are marble. The wind is merely a device to heighten the experience for the viewer. For me, Nike was the highlight of the Louvre, if not all Paris. More than thirty years earlier, I had written a sonnet  dedicated to the great Hellenistic statue and the spirit she represents.
My first glimpse of the statue as I ascended the stairs was all I had hoped for and more. Thrilling, inspiring, overwhelming, there was no end of words to apply. I circled the statue in wordless admiration. I just couldn’t get enough of every angle. I circled slowly again and again in complete thrall. How long was I there? I don’t know. Eventually, I had to tear myself away so I could see more of the Louvre and its other treasures, but later, before I left the immense museum, I returned to the head of the Daru staircase and made several more enchanted circuits.
I wasn’t the only visitor circling Nike that afternoon. Many of the people I saw were also walking around her, looking at the thrust of the leg, the ripples of the fabric, the set of the shoulders and the angle of the back and wings. When most people look at sculpture, especially the greatest sculpture, they automatically walk around the art to view the work from different angles so they can really appreciate and understand it. Viewing sculpture is acknowledged to take effort and time to achieve the full experience. With sculpture, you simply have to see it from all sides to really see it. The image included here might be the “best” angle, but you’ll never know that for yourself unless you walk around it.
That being said, below is the sonnet I wrote 44 years ago. I was very young, just married, and it was written after my first visit to the Cloisters, which overlook the Hudson, the opening venue of the poem. Apologies for the quaint language; it still seems to fit.
To Nike of Samothrace

The sun was on the river bright today,
And golden was the sky and all below.
But verily, my thoughts were far away
In France and in the Louvre. They did go
To proudly powered Wing├Ęd Victory
With outstretched body arched into the wind.
No breath have I when of that stone I see
The smallest photograph. What kind
of Time has left the spirit and the flesh
But took away the Head from its high place?
So of all worldly grants that I could wish,
I wish that once I might have seen her face.
In triumph, beauty guiles eternally,
E’en so as sweet the smile of Victory.

Ilene Leslie Skeen
March 26, 1967

Monday, April 18, 2011

Male Art Comes Into Its Own

Fifty years ago this book, 100 Artists of the Male Figure, may have been considered an outrage or an affront. Few artists were working figuratively and fewer still were concentrating on men. Thirty years ago, this book might have been dismissed as a “gay” thing or a “guy” thing, as something relating to “coming out” or grandstanding. Thankfully those days are over.

Kelley, Pan

Today, the most remarkable aspect of the book is not that it is only about men, but that it has tremendous range, expertise and emotion, even with the narrow focus. But maybe the focus is not so narrow. Men, after all, number about half of the 7 billion people on the planet, why shouldn't they have an art book (or many art books) celebrating themselves?

Furthermore, speaking as a heterosexual woman of a certain age, I frankly have to admit that I enjoy looking at men! As the founder and publisher of the nude art calendar contest,, I have often heard the complaint from women as well as men, “There are not enough men in the calendar! Where are the men?”

Lin, Steam
Thus it was with great anticipation and delight that I leafed through the pages of this book, reading the artists' statements and enjoying the art. To my surprise I found some old friends. I discovered also many new artists to respect and admire. Lovers of figurative art will find the range, depth, skill and sentiments of these 100 artists very satisfying. Some of the artists are straight, some gay, and some are not saying. A handful of the artists are women. 
The difficulty of writing about this book is inherent in the very range of the works. There are elaborate scenes from mythology – most of them expressing at least a hint of a modern twist which makes them unmistakably art of our times. There are studies of form and color in oil, watercolor, drawings and sculpture. There are cubist, outsider, ash can, abstract and surreal figures.

The curator, E. Gibbons, prefaces the work admirably, explaining how the range of the content, representing various approaches, styles and emotions is designed to increase the reader's interest and satisfaction. The introduction by Grady Harp sets the male figure in its historical context, from the Kuros figures of ancient Greece, through Roman, medieval, Renaissance and modern depictions. Then each artist has a say: a two-page spread with a head shot, self-portrait or signature image, accompanied by text and, of course, the artist's images. Artists' contact information is also included in the book.
Icarus Landing
Several of these artists are known personally to me: John Woodrow Kelley, for his slim, American figures, sublimely at home in Greek mythology; Tai Lin, whose solid oil portraits and simple compositions display both strength and sensitivity; Michael Newberry, whose inventive genius translates common myths into fresh, surprising and delightful new images. All three of these artists have work in the Barebrush Nudes of the Month calendars. The fourth artist, Jordan Mejias, who monitors the open studio sessions at Spring Studio in New York City, is a master of watercolor, creating solid form with a splash of pure, confident abandon. His figures have the vitality of the natural flow of water, tamed by a sure hand and a masterful eye. 

Mejias, IC
Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross

There are also several artists new to me whose work caught my eye. Some of the images are clothed, including the very remarkable and disturbing Jesus is Nailed to the Cross by New York artist Doug Blanchard.

For humor, composition and pizazz, I love Thigh of Relief by Campbell Paxton of Ohio.

For pure physicality of form, my copy of the book obeys my silent command and falls open automatically at Anonymous by Chris Lopez of Florida.

And finally, the artist whose work most seems to capture my feeling of what is needed to be an artist today: Sunday Morning Sam by Steve Cronkite (Connecticut) shows the artist's primary focus on reality, but with the strength, confidence, and a certain brutalized bravado to express the truth. If I could paint like that, I'd be a happy lady.

Paxton, Thigh of Relief
 That I mention these artists does not mean that those whose work goes unmentioned are less worthy. After almost five years of running the Barebrush website with guest curators for the online calendar contest, I often point out that selection into any particular calendar is usually more about the curator than the artist.

I am sure that the reader will find his or her own personal favorites and delights. The curator, E. Gibbons, is planning more books devoted to the art of the male figure. As the first of a possible series, it is a worthy beginning.

Here are all the artists:

Sunday Morning Sam

Lopez, Anonymous

E. Gibbons. 100 Artists of the Male Figure: A Contemporary Anthology of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture. Atglen, PA. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2011.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Introduction IV: The Arrow of Time

Mid-twentieth-century paintings like Jackson Pollock's, One, left, astounded the art world and horrified the “real” (read non-art) world. Squint and you see gray. Look closely and you see drips, drops, lines of paint. Influential modernist art critic, Clement Greenberg, applauded the purification of form and the elimination of historical content.

A current exhibit in the National Gallery (October 30, 2010—April 22, 2011, Washington, D.C.), is entitled, “Modern Lab: There is nothing to see here.” The on-line exhibition text begins:
Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them. Some emphasize the basic properties of their medium, be it photography, drawing, or sculpture, while others make it difficult to tell just what the medium is…

These two images can bring us to the state of the “art world” in the present day, or do they?

First of all, to put it more bluntly, why bother? In the Pollock, there is a lot to see: drips, drops, spatters and lines of paint in different colors, summing up to: drips, drops and spatters. In the Modern Lab, we can take them at their word, there is nothing to see, so asking again, why bother? What’s the payoff?

In Body Language, I am trying to connect us with the principles of art. It would be easy to be dismissive and simply declare that these are not art and we need think no more about them. However, if we want to discover what art is and is not, as if we were putting the concept of art under a microscope and studying its attributes, we cannot, however tempting, eliminate examples of works commonly called art from our field of study, just because we do not like them or understand them.

A second clarification is also in order at this point: there are no bodies in these two art examples. What do these non-representational images have to do with Body Language? The simple fact is that the title, Body Language, refers to us as human, to the primacy of our bodies, the unified existence of body and spirit, and how we communicate with the world. It does not refer to the art we are discussing. Whether this art is non-representational, non-objective, conceptual or only theoretical, humans exist only in their bodies. We can speculate about other realities and eternal life in heaven or hell, but for life on earth, here and now, our bodies cannot be denied.  We have our memory and imagination and we can relive the past or imagine other realities, but we cannot deny or long ignore the continuing requirements of our physical existence for survival. Our bodies require food, water, air and sleep to survive. They can exist in a wide range of temperatures, if we can provide external heat to warm them or cool them. So whether our humanity is part of our art does not change the fact that our humanity is part of us, our humanity is us. We can fall prey to accidents, diseases, perils of nature, attacks by others, and old age. If we deny our bodies, we can die, and that’s the reality of life and death.

It is my thesis that our bodies are controlled by our minds, that our mind is the driver and regulator of all our actions, both conscious and unconscious, and that our mind requires self-esteem – the assurance that we are worthy and competent to survive and that survival is a worthwhile goal. Art is just one (of many) of the psychic rewards of survival.

The second thesis of this book is that art mirrors the biology, culture and philosophy in which it is produced, and it cannot be otherwise. It takes artistic genius to crystallize the essence of any era into great art. So we are going to talk about these artworks because they occupy a certain niche in art history – a niche we want to understand and conquer, whether they are representational or not.

 There’s a saying in the movie business when the public doesn’t flock to a film which critics acclaim and critical acclaim is accompanied by financial disaster. The public, they say, got off the ride. 

When Jackson Pollock’s One appeared 33 years after Matisse’s Auguste Pellerin II, it was ridiculed by many and venerated by a few. For the most part, the public was effectively “off the ride” in 1950.[1] Clement Greenburg, the influential art critic, called any portrayal of subject matter “kitsch,” thus denigrating 3,000 years of art history from the Egyptians, going straight through the Greeks, Romans, Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond, to the Impressionists, and even the radicals like Picasso and Matisse.  Greenberg compared Pollock to Picasso, saying that Picasso was dated. This may have helped impel elite collectors to collect, and elite museums to acquire the pieces. In fact, public distaste and distrust of “modern” art may have contributed to the elite mystique of “modernism.” This is the familiar, if you don’t get it, I can’t explain it ploy.

Anthropologist, Stuart Plattner, recognizes that “the nominal criterion for high art is some meaningful contribution that advances our cultural vision.”[2] He calls the high art aesthetic experience “transcendental” in that it can “change the way the viewer looks at reality.”[3]

In other words, the best art of our age sums up our age and tells us what we are facing next – it is not about where we have been, but where we, as a culture, as a civilization, are going. In so far as the philosophy of an age determines the path of its civilization’s progress, then we can paraphrase Thomas Aquinas and say that Art is the handmaid of Philosophy.[4]

The third thesis of this book is that time passes, we can look back, but we can never go back. Seeking to re-create the past is impossible. The arrow of time moves in one direction only, forward.

So where is our art going? If we look at these two images as a guide, the answer is: from chaos to nothing. So three thousand years of western art ends with monumental drips and a piece of glass leaning against the wall. Subject matter repudiated, one is left with nothing. The philosophy with the stated goal of achieving nothingness is called Nihilism.

To this, I say, resoundingly, “No!” Although it looks now, in our cultural state of confusion, that most contemporary artists are merely rehashing the past, it is my contention that from within any culture at any given time, it has almost always looked this way. Time passes and cultural trends become visible in perspective. In the course of this book, we will talk about the times of momentous discovery and the period of digestion. Regardless of the times, only a few in each generation are leaders. That is simply a fact of leadership.

Each artist works, and can only work, in his or her style, from his or her psyche, choosing from the world he or she experiences, the materials available, the history of what has gone before, and most importantly, the philosophy and ideas which dominate and permeate the culture, or the new ideas which promise change. These influences define to the artist those images, issues, subjects, and emotions which are important for visual presentation.  When you think about it, this might be what Ayn Rand meant when she said, “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” True enough, but Rand insisted that photography and non-objective art were not really art because neither was truly a re-creation. We will come back to question this requirement for “re-creation” as a definitional imperative again.

For now, we concentrate on the trajectory of art history. The art “world” (the world of art elites) diverged from the great mass of humanity and of artists about one hundred years ago, but the history of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and continuing in this decade, has seen a resurgence of subject, of skills, and of human values like truth, life, dignity, personal worth, and even beauty. Images of degradation are not generally valued. The hero with feet of clay is old news. The art of our century seems to show simply people worth knowing, things worth thinking about, emotions worth feeling, art which evokes the spirit of our common humanity. Art which touches us undoubtedly contains strength, insight or truth shining through. Looked at in this light, figurative art is about shared humanity (who am I, who are you?), landscape art is about evoking an emotional sense of place (where am I, where are we?), abstract art is about the experience of the media (what fun can we have with these materials?).

These two images are separated by a gulf of sixty years. The Jackson Pollock became a symbol of the “new” art, and everything wrong with it – it does remain an icon of its age: nihilistic, impenetrable, and to most people, pointless. It still hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, and people stop in front of it from time to time. It took some skill and patience to produce this gigantic canvas of balanced and running drips and splatters in an overall pattern of chaos (if such an expression makes sense). And it probably took some nerve and “creative” thinking to mount a government-sanctioned exhibition which includes the tag line, “there is nothing to see here.”

Photo of street sign NYC,  2010, ad by MSNBC
So do these two images bring us to the entire state of the “art world” in the present day? The short answer is no. Like atonal music, there is a limited audience for chaos and nihilism. However, there is a broad audience for the new, New Art. This is the art which is coming from artists whose work throws aside the bankruptcy of nihilism and throws aside the pointlessness of producing art to be understood only by artists, art critics and elite collectors. This book is about opening one’s eyes to the art of our human heritage. Seen in this light, art of the twenty-first century can draw upon the wealth of 3,000 years of western civilization, the even longer cultural traditions of the east and the distinctive visions of the third world and result in a new cultural vision for our world and our time.  It is about the art that is already here, because the twenty-first century is underway, we’re alive and life is still worth living. This makes it a good time to reconnect with art.[5]

[1] Many traditional artists and much of the public actually abandoned modern art after Picasso abandoned three dimensional forms in the early 1900’s. Years later, Picasso draws blockbuster crowds of aficionados and tyros alike, principally because the art is now clearly in an historical context and its influence on what followed it is also clear. His early and transitional works are still the major draw for the museum-going public.
[2] Plattner, Stuart. High Art Down Home: An Economic Ethnography of a Local Art Market.  University of Chicago Press. 1996. P.6.
[3] Ibid, P. 7.
[5] This entry is a lot more that 500 words! In general, I’ll keep the posts short, but there was a lot to say and it would have been annoying to string it out over multiple posts.