Monday, October 18, 2010

Introduction III: The Gulf and the Goal

Two French businessmen are painted at the height of their powers. The left is by Ingres, Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832).  The painting has the fidelity of a photograph, but it predates both portrait and color photography (1840, 1861, respectively). The three points of light: head and hands, are the focus. We see the face first. Then we move to the hands, then back to the face. Perhaps we spiral between head and hands several times, our visual experience controlled by a master who transforms his subject into a monument, radiating authority.

The right, Auguste Pellerin (II) by Matisse in 1917, de-humanizes the sitter. The head dwarfs the shoulders and hands; the picture behind the subject diminishes his importance. If we see the face first, we see it pinioned between the lower frame of the background painting. The curve behind the head is countered weakly by the curve behind the left arm. Our eyes move vertically down the arrow of the goatee to the hands, and finding them small, crudely presented and static, move vertically up again to the face where we tend to stop, there being little reason to look at the hands a second time. The effect is stark and strange, even alien. Again our visual experience is controlled by a master. What’s going on here?

These two paintings are separated by a gulf of 85 years. Each is an icon of its time. We could simply assume that tastes changed and not look for reasons, but then we would not be on a journey of discovery to find out why they changed and what, if anything, that change means to us now.

For this blog, each post is 500 words, usually introduced by an image and italic text which sets the scene. The subject of the post is related to the image, hopefully encouraging you to see the question in a new and interesting way. My goal is to make your experience of this blog into a series of “aha” moments.

In 500 words, it is impossible to give the definitive answer to any important question, so the blog will present one aspect of the question or answer and some food for thought. As time goes on, we will spiral back, each time filling in another blank, but in such a way that you, the reader, will have the pleasure of filling in the blanks for yourself at the same time, thus the “aha”.

The order of the book will not necessarily follow the order of the blog, and the blog will circle through art, biology and culture, (with some side trips into philosophy), each time with more knowledge and focus.

Auguste Pellerin was a renowned art collector. To the left is the first portrait Pellerin commissioned by Matisse. When this, more naturalistic and colorful, was rejected as too radical, Matisse produced the second, above. Pellerin eventually accepted both. To our twenty-first century eyes, this looks ordinary, the other still extraordinary. Is that why it is superior?


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Introduction II: Lessons Learned

July 1979. The boy had been making marks on the paper, concentrating intently. The mother wondered at the shapes and complexity. Pretty elaborate for a three-year-old, she thought. “Gavin, what are you drawing?” she asked.

“Honesty,” he answered.

I was blown away. He didn't explain and I didn't pursue it. But I was impressed enough to save the drawing and note the date and conversation.

Is this art?  

There is no doubt that “honesty” is fundamental, worthy of artistic endeavor. There is also no doubt that honesty can be found in the world, although not in a visible, concrete form (devoid of narrative). Is the child to be faulted for lack of skill or for trying to conceive of honesty as something tangible, as something which could be made visibly real?  If an adult had done this so-called art, would we condemn it out of hand, not by saying it is bad art, but by claiming it is non-art, that the adult should “know better” what the child does not?  How could the definition of art depend on who made the work, or whether we understand it, so that for one we say, “That is a child’s art” and for the other we say, “That is not art at all?”

To most Objectivists (those who agree with the philosophy of Ayn Rand), Rand’s definition of art makes sense and is perfectly fine. Rand stands alone among philosophers for the depth, breadth, precision and originality of her thinking. Her commitment to reality as an absolute and reason as the human method of survival are without equal. Her essays on the role of art in cognition and the importance of art to the human psyche are landmarks.

I read Rand’s major work, Atlas Shrugged in 1966. The book changed my life, and I agreed with her ideas with one, significant exception – her definition of art. As an artist, it doesn’t work for me. It has taken me from 1966 until now to figure out why, and to have the courage to offer an alternative.

 In 2000, two independent art researchers revised Rand’s definition slightly.  Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s fundamental values.”[1]  This is an improvement, as most adults can understand the words “fundamental values” where only the readers of other of Rand’s writings would know what is meant by “metaphysical value judgments.”

Back to “Honesty”—I showed the image to my son, now thirty-four. He didn’t remember the drawing or the conversation. However, his immediate reaction offered a clue. “It looks like fingers,” he remarked. 

It’s funny how the mind works. After a night’s sleep, the mother in me woke up understanding the narrative precisely. There it is, for all to see: a child’s conception of two people’s hands, one of them illustrating a common expression, “He doesn’t have an honest bone in his body.”

[1] Torres, Louis and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Open Court Press. 2000. p. 108.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Introduction: The White Rock Girl

™ White Rock 1947
The year was 1954. The corner deli had a picture of a beautiful woman on a rock just at the level of the seven-year-old girl's eyes. The girl was transfixed. She decided that the wings meant that the woman was a fairy. If she were a real person, she could not appear almost nude. Too bad, the girl thought, the wings ruin it.

With this remarkable memory, I introduce Body Language, an exploration of art, biology and culture. Art is often thought of as the province of the initiated art elite. Definitions are either relativistic “in the eye of the beholder;” or circular: art is what artists produce, hangs in museums, or is declared art by critics. Unlike countless books which have written that “art” cannot be defined, Body Language defines it.

Body Language does not say that the problem is cultural, that art is relative, that no one knows what art is, or what art is for. Body Language does not claim that if you know what you like and you don’t like some “difficult” art, you are probably a dilettante, parvenu or boor. Body Language is written so that the average person will be able to understand the definition of this everyday word and discuss “art” intelligently with the average seven-year-old. This in itself might be considered revolutionary.

However, Body Language is more than just a definition of one supposedly indefinable word. It is a journey through the human art experience, not in terms so much of art history, but in terms of human biology and survival. As such, Body Language explores art in terms of our human senses, emotions, rationality and spirituality.

At seven, I did not know that there was any controversy about the definition of the word “art.” I did not know that there were people who would attack such an image with distain as “mere illustration.” I did not know that representational images were considered by the art elite as “old fashioned,” “passé,” or “not real art.” I did not know that the world had no easy way to tell bad art from good art and good art from great art.

At the age of twenty-one, I came across a definition of art which seemed to be incontrovertible. Ayn Rand wrote: “Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.”(1)

Eventually, however, I realized that Rand’s definition of this simple, everyday word fails because it could not have been understood by my seven-year-old self.

I did not know why the artist added wings to the back of the beautiful woman. I only suspected that the woman could not appear semi-nude if she were real – and I accepted that situation with regret. Her beauty was lessened by the wings. If you block out the wings and look at the remainder of the image, you will see that my seven-year-old self was correct: the wings do ruin it.
1 Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto. New American Library. 1966. p. 19. (Italics in original).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Body Language: Art, Biology, Culture

Body Language: Art, Biology, Culture

 Ilene Skeen

Defining art, its origins and importance in human biology, its context in culture.

A work of art philosophy based on a lifetime of questions and explorations.