Friday, January 28, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty III: Digression on Method

You may have noticed that in this series, I'm a little more hesitant than usual in proclaiming what I think. There's a reason for that. What it comes down to is, I'm less convinced than usual that what I think is correct - and less convinced that I should be trying to convince you.

Culturally speaking, I am not an intellectual. Which is to say, I think about many of the topics that intellectuals think about, but I do not sympathize with the methods of intellectualism. I do not sympathize, for the same reason that I do not sympathize with the methods of religion. Religious people have their faith, which I cannot abide, and intellectuals have their long and tenuous chains of logic, which amount, in the end, to something like faith. Both are too far removed from observation. I refuse to believe in anything too far removed from what I can see or clearly deduce from what I can see.

But look here, you say, we showed up at this blog thinking it was going to be all handy tips on damar varnish and gum arabic, and instead, it's reasoning on the most abstract of topics.

True. But it is the most empirical abstraction you will find. Have you ever met a grunt-work scientist? The kind of scientist who actually does the dissections of rat brains and the checking of electrical potentials in individual cells? Those people are making real observations. I have a lot of sympathy with them. And to the extent that I am comfortable making claims about abstract things, it is because I model my investigative process on their plodding, cut-and-dried methods.

Let me explain. I am not in a laboratory, messing around with mice and monkeys. I write a lot of cognitive science here, but I am spending the other half of my time talking about things pertaining to the soul. I am not in a laboratory - I am using myself as a laboratory.

I think that a lot of pre-scientific philosophizing, particularly on epistemology, had something of this method to it. You sit in a quiet place, and you think about things, and you train yourself to become aware of the twitches in your mind, and your brain. Observing these twitches, you learn things about what your mind and your brain are up to. You've been thinking about abstractions, but you've been making empirical observations of their interaction with you.

This is not entirely the abject quackery it sounds. You've seen a map of brain centers, right?

When I was quite small, I became aware that such maps existed, but I hadn't seen one. So I sat myself down in a dark, cool, quiet room, and thought about all the subjects I could think of, one at a time. I noted what my brain felt like - a kind of hollowness throughout, but a more dense, copper-wool-like feeling in the place where I was holding the subject I was focusing on.

When I was done, I made a diagram of where every subject seemed to occur. Then I looked up the standard brain map. The subject areas listed in the map were not quite the same as the ones I thought of, but mostly they were close, and the diagram and the map corresponded.

This was the very beginning of the method I am still applying in thinking about thought and emotion, and it is the method I am using to write this blog. We are discussing abstract things, but we are not going on faith - at least not on my end. Similarly, we are not indulging in chains of reason more than a few links long. Reason is a mighty tool, but it is also prone to letting you conclude whatever you like, if you are reasoning about a complex topic and get too far from observation.

This brings me to the weakness of these posts on beauty. I am working up a large general argument about beauty, but too much of it reeks to me of received wisdom and reasoning. It is an immensely complex topic, and I am not even convinced that when we say "beauty" we mean one single phenomenon - I think in the end it is more like "schizophrenia," a term that increasingly seems to sloppily group together a host of similar-looking diseases.

I am doing the best I can to honestly interrogate myself - ferret out my hidden motives, question my assumptions, test my responses to different phenomena. But I cannot promise that I am not pitching you a line of pure and utter bullshit. So just - keep that in mind, will you? These notes are more like a good jumping-off point for your own inquiry, I think, than the word from on high. I hope they'll provide you with some interesting material, if this is the sort of thing you like to mull over.

And let's not forget one final, unpredictable force - sudden insight, which is also called revelation. I think of revelation as the empiricism of the non-physical. Without our ability to set aside all of our thinking, we cannot make sudden leaps. I don't write this blog, much, from the perspective of the sudden leap - but I work that way entirely as an artist. I cannot make a single picture unless I first make the sudden leap. And these leaps are non-reducible, non-analytic, and have no specific rational content.

I just finished a painting. Let me tell you a bit about it. I was working with the model for the first time. She is very assertive of herself, with a sexual edge to this self-assertion. At the same time, she seemed to me very vulnerable. For many of us, at least some of our vulnerability lies in the flesh, in the physical boundary between ourselves and the world. Not for her; her flesh is not the locus of her vulnerability, but vulnerable she is. So I wanted to do a painting where this unusual personality mix manifested. For completely random reasons, I also wanted the painting to have rainbows in it. All these concepts were in my head for months before I had an idea for a painting. Then all of a sudden, where there was no idea - suddenly there was an idea. Perhaps it relates to the things that were on my mind, perhaps it doesn't. Here it is:

The Prism, oil on canvas, 60"x40", 2011

I'm not sure what my point is here - except for this: don't trust me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty II: The Beauty of Functional Things

I hope you'll excuse my tardiness. But the extra time did help me to clarify what I was thinking - it went from an amorphous mess of impulses to a slightly less amorphous mess of impulses. Nonetheless, I feel that this entire inquiry is along the lines of - See ye this branch? Watch me crawl along it till I fall off or it breaks.

Last time, we talked about the experience of beauty. This is a part of the topic of beauty in general. Another part is objects which, in themselves, we think of as beautiful. Which is to say, some quality inhering in the object (yes, I'm going to include people in the category of object for now) induces in the viewer an experience of beauty. As we well know, not all objects induce an experience of beauty at first glance. This is why we bother to identify beauty at all - to distinguish beautiful objects from plain ones, or ugly ones.

Before getting to that, I'd like to catch y'all up on something that arose in the comments to the first post. Andrew asked:

So if in close proximity to the boundary our sensations become extreme and binary (good and bad; ecstasy and terror) then is your definition of beauty not simultaneously the definition of ugliness?

I chose to answer a slightly different question:

Andrew - You raise a good point, and I would contend that when we see properly, all things threaten to become beautiful - that ugliness itself is a concept pertaining only to evil, and not fundamentally to physical things, where it serves only to inform us that we are still sleeping.

I'm glad I could clear that up for you. The point being - there are no things ugly in themselves. The ugliness resides only in our inability to see. When we become wakeful, the thing we thought was ugly is seen as it is: beautiful. Beauty is, as Andrew almost says, a meaningless term, because it is synonymous with Being.

Let's turn again to Rodin, who has some things to say when his interviewer, Paul Gsell, quizzes him with regard to his sculpture Celle Qui Fut La Belle Heaulmière (She Who Was the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife):

Rodin says:

The vulgar readily imagine that what they consider ugly in existence is not a fit subject for the artist. They would like to forbid us to represent what displeases and offends them in nature. It is a great error on their part. What is commonly called ugliness in nature can in art become full of great beauty.

He then goes on to list some things people call ugly, and adds:

But let a great artist or a greater writer make use of one or the other of these uglinesses, instantly it is transfigured: with a touch of his fairy wand he has turned it into beauty; it is alchemy; it is enchantment!

[Rodin on Art, pp. 42-3]

Now, the more I re-read Rodin, the more I realize that staying up all night for a week reading his book when I was fifteen really influenced how I think about things. But I think he has got it topsy-turvy here. The alchemy is not worked upon the thing the artist depicts: it is worked on the viewer. The ugliness does not inhere in the thing, it inheres in the incapacity of the viewer to see beauty where it lives. The discipline of the artist is not to make things beautiful, but to make beautiful things comprehensible.

And that said, Rodin sculpted his belle heaulmière, like, once, preferring to spend most of his time on subjects more like this:

Only Rodin has the genius to see a monster like me as beautiful.

So, now that we've established that ugliness, like foreshortening, is all in your head, let's get down to the practical problem of the totally obvious distinction between beautiful objects and ugly ones or, more precisely, objects with a strong tendency to induce an experience of beauty, and objects with a weak tendency to induce an experience of beauty.

This is where the tardiness comes in handy, because I was trying to moosh up all the beautiful things into one definition, but I thought about it some more and I think I need two.

1. Beauty as pertains to material function.

This is a category of beauty with regard to objects that have a function and observably correspond in form with the requirements of that function. We can call this physical excellence, and it applies to a great many things. Two of them are extremely familiar, particularly to men:

Apologies if the car isn't the right instance, I don't know diddly about cars. This is my idea of a good-looking car:

The AMC Pacer, the coolest car ever made.

But I digress.

What I'm talking about is this - function, and perfect adaptation of form to function. Let me present you with two more instances of things so magnificently adapted to their functions as to be breathtaking:

The humble ice cream scoop. A tool of one part, adapted to allow torque to be used to accelerate the sharp end of a wedge. The wedge itself, curved to match the optimal scoop of ice cream. Perfect!

The human femur. Half of a ball joint at one end, half of a hinge joint at the other. Curved to enhance elasticity and reduce the shattering effects of stress, protuberant where cartilage needs a place to hang on. A simple one-part tool, awe-inspiring in its elegance.

This category of beauty pertains only to objects with functions, which is to say, living things and technological artifacts.

Take a few examples from each category:

A beautiful car: adapted to maximum acceleration while causing minimum wind resistance.
A beautiful rocket: adapted to escaping the gravity well of the Earth.
A beautiful sextant: adapted to yielding navigation information.
The escapement: beautiful in its adaptation to measuring time.

We call an eagle beautiful in its adaptation to airborne hunting.
We call a dolphin beautiful in its sleek adaptation to swimming.
We call a lion beautiful in its showy adaptation to hunting on land.
We call a beetle beautiful in its adaptation to exerting force while maximizing protection of its soft tissues.

Before we get to the final category, people, consider this: Apart from strict adaptation, there is a commonality to the instances of these categories which we perceive as most beautiful, and this is the exhibition of simplicity of design, particularly the deployment of the minimal and flawless curve. By this curve, the functional design is recognized. Consider the difference between how we imagined rockets, and how they turned out to be:

The future's gonna be awesome! It's gonna be awesome, it's gonna be awesome, it's gonna be -


The minimal, aerodynamic curve is a massively important part of our intuitive grasp of the beauty of functional objects. All functional objects are more recognizably beautiful if they:

a. are simple
b. incorporate the minimal curve


Well, the simplicity is obvious - it is easier to understand the function of a thing if the thing is simple in form. It limits what it could be for.

The minimal curve can be justified analytically in terms of the optimization for minimal wind and water resistance, and we do see it everywhere, from the bellies of birds to the backs of fish. But it is such a profound factor in our interpretation of beauty that I'm going to go ahead and call neurology. The preference has that irrational, disproportionate, gut intensity that is the hallmark of something we have a dedicated circuit for in our brains.

Don't believe me? Let me expose you to something from the master of turning our gut against itself: David Cronenberg.

Here we have an object from his incredible movie Dead Ringers:

Beautiful, isn't it? But somehow threatening. Haven't seen the movie? Good, it lets me spring Cronenberg's nasty surprise on you. This is one of a set of objects identified in the film as "gynecological tools for operating on mutant women."


Cronenberg and his designer have figured out your buttons for object-beauty: simplicity and the minimal curve. You cannot help assuming that this object is functional, and in its functionality, beautiful. The identification of the function is disturbing precisely because it makes sense - sense at a deep and neurological level which clashes with your conscious, analytic recoil from the entire category.

By the way, horror movies are excellent data sets for identifying neurological phenomena, because good horror movie makers want to push your deep buttons more than almost anyone else.

OK, so where are we? We've identified a category - beauty of functional things - and identified two things about it:

1. its logical properties: it is a category of beauty which pertains to objects that have a function and are adapted to perform that function with excellence

2. its aesthetics: simplicity and the minimal curve

This is all turning out to be quite a bit longer than I anticipated! Why don't we call it a day for now, and pick up where we left off when I've got a little time to continue this discussion? There's a reason I included Farah Fawcett in the post, apart from my wanting to use an awesome gag. I'll get to that next time.

In the meantime, may I recommend this post by Fred Hatt? He is discussing the question of how color is blended - in the picture, by the artist, and in the eye, by the viewer. It's a very interesting topic, and he even references a thing I wrote one time. It pleases me to be able to contribute to his development of his idea.

Until later, friends.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Horseshoe Curve

You know I'm watching you, right? Well, not you specifically, but you in a general way - as specifically as I can on Google Analytics. Which is how I know that Altoona, Pennsylvania was on the blog yesterday. I've got a soft spot for Altoona - who doesn't? Altoona was on Adolf Goddamned Hitler's priority list of places to bomb when he got around to invading the United States. Specifically, he wanted to bomb the horseshoe curve:

Apparently, this curve was really important to railroad transportation in the United States at the time. So - greetings Altoona! The wickedest of the wicked intended evil for you, but the wickedest have fallen, and you survive.

Apart from that, this is a pathetic little nothing of a post. I'm mulling over concepts related to the next "on beauty" bit, but I'm hard up for time this week - it's why I haven't replied to the thoughtful comments on the last post yet either (I feel like they deserve thoughtful replies). While you're waiting on my slack blogging, you might like to drop by Claudia's hilarious and wonderful blog where she's done me the honor of posting a drawing of mine.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on Beauty I: The Experience of Beauty

In 1996, I attended a performance of a somewhat unnerving play, The Pitchfork Disney, in Austin, Texas. The play was not as unnerving as I would have liked, especially given the grandiose quotation in the program, which read as follows:

"Ecstasy and terror return to us the gestures of our childhood."

This was attributed to Chazal, a fairly vague term encompassing a large number of classical Jewish commentators.

I don't have the program; I simply remember the quotation. It made a big impression on me.

Now let's talk about beauty. I recently painted two paintings which struck me as extraordinarily beautiful:

Leah, 24"x20", oil on canvas, 2010

The Sicilian Expedition, 60"x40", oil on canvas, 2010

The colors in these paintings surprise and please me. A friend of mine, looking at The Sicilian Expedition, said, "I have no idea what it's about, but it's beautiful." Originally, there was what you might call a point to this painting, which remains fossilized in its title. But somewhere along the way the point fell by the wayside, and in the end, the painting had little to do with it. I said to my friend, "That's fine with me - beautiful is enough. Probably it doesn't really mean anything else."

So I started thinking about beauty - what it is and why we need it.

Let me offer you two quotations. The first is from the novel which Andrei Tarkovsky rather eccentrically wrote for use as the script of his film Andrei Rublev. Andrei Rublev was a late medieval Russian ikon painter, and the film follows his life. In this scene, Rublev is arguing with Theophanes the Greek, an older and more cynical ikon painter:

Andrei notices that for the past few minutes he has been tugging at the handle of the wicket-gate in the monastery wall instead of giving it a shove with his shoulder; turning to Theophanes he goes on: 'Surely people like that are supported by the Almighty? Surely he forgives them their ignorance? You know yourself, sometimes when things go wrong, or you're tired, worn out, and nothing can make you feel better, suddenly in a crowd you meet someone else's eyes, simple, human eyes, and it's as if you've taken communion, everything immediately becomes light and easy... Don't you find that? Why aren't you saying anything?'

Now here's another passage. If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that my profile mentions I'm not only a painter. This is from a novel I'm working on - Railroad to Zanzibar - which is perhaps unreadably long. In this scene, a bronze-age general, Anaxemander Artimus Praximenes, is invading a mountain nation. Unused to cold-weather warfare, his army has failed to gather enough fuel to feed their campfires. Anaxemander has a patroness, a kind of demi-god called Claire or "the patricia," who saves the army by turning into a column of fire:

The guttering and roaring never ceased, and the heat of the flaring was terrible and drove the men back cringing. Only Anaxemander stepped forward, to try to see if it was the patricia that was burning, or if a fire rose up into her from the ground, or fell on her from heaven.

He stood so close as he could to the roaring fury, and gazing in the heart of it, he saw the patricia, blazing white on white, and her Zanzibari gown was twisting where it wrapped around her. He made out a look on her face that was like agony, as though the flame consumed her, but so soon as he knew what his streaming eyes were seeing, the patricia seemed to him to shift, and the look on her face shifted too, so that she had a look of rage, as though she were herself the consuming fire.

The white flames billowed at him, and a hand came out the flame, with the tapering fingers that he saw were Claire's fingers. But this hand was not in the right place relative to the patricia that he thought he'd seen, so that he did not know if he had seen any thing in the fearful light. He grasped the hand that was held out to him, and flinched at the heat. But he found he'd been mistaken, and the hand was icy. Grasping it, he held it, and the heat of him and of the fire never warmed it.

Then he saw again the face of the patricia in its right place. It seemed to him there was a look of love on it, an utter love, that gathered up the General, and all his men, and all the lonely world, in its tenderness. The streaming in the eyes of Anaxemander turned to tears, and he was weeping in the hot place, right by the heart of the conflagration. He clutched at the icy hand, and would have conquered all for her.

But now his shift was burning, and his beard, and the conqueror could conquer all things but the roaring fire of the patricia. He fled, and plunged his arms into the snow, and his head, and remained thus till he had conquered himself at least, so that his men should not see him weeping.

I would argue to you that both Rublev's story and Anaxemander's experience are descriptions of beauty. But they could not be farther apart from one another, coming as they do at opposite poles of human experience. Rublev describes salvation from despair. Anaxemander undergoes transport by glory. Rublev is at the minimum of humanity, and Anaxemander at the maximum. So what do they have in common?

In mathematics, which is always helpful with the metaphors, we have the concept of a boundary condition: a condition defining the region within which a mathematical function is to be solved. Let Wikipedia make it intuitive for you:

The boundary condition defines that curve surrounding the region.

Now, let's replace "differential equation" with "human condition." Then the boundary condition is the borderline of humanity. More than this, we cannot sustain. Less than this, we cannot bear. But as we push up to the edge, we undergo an intensity of perception which is comparable with the nostalgia we may experience seated at the window of an airplane, as it rises above our native city. We are preparing to take our leave of humanity; we are close to something, which has death in it, but is not death alone. But it is not life, human life - and its alien quality shocks us into awareness of human life, because we are beginning to slip away from it. We undergo ecstasy and terror, as Chazal puts it, and it returns to us the gestures of our childhood, for this reason:

In infancy, we have not broken the universe into so many categories. There are only maximum and minimum, good and bad. We have two states of response - maximum evokes ecstasy. Minimum evokes terror. We have two emotions - love, of the maximum, and hate, of the minimum. All the things we know as adults are refinements of maximum and minimum. All the states of response we undergo are dulled fragments of ecstasy and terror. All of our emotions are the children of love and hate. The comfort of our comprehensible adult life is obtained by living far from boundary conditions, among our complex categories.

But we lose all of that as we approach the boundary condition. The nearness of the boundary condition returns us to our initial state. This experience, I would propose, is the experience of beauty. It encompasses the magnificence and terror of our confrontation with beauty, our perception of beauty as both saturated with humanity and horrifying inhumanity.

But, argueth you, what am I to make of this? The experience of beauty, just as you describe it, can happen anywhere - at any time - with regard to anything. What makes one thing beautiful and another not?

Haha! I reply. Perhaps our old friend Empedocles can answer this problem for us.

Empedocles says:

God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

Let's fix that up a little bit for our purposes here:

Humanity is a circle whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere.

Which is to say, every moment of our life is lived right at the boundary condition. We just don't know it. We get used to things we see all the time, like birds that forget about a motionless cat. Rublev describes being shocked from his complacency by meeting the eye of a stranger. Anaxemander is shocked from his complacency in a more classical adventure-book manner, by confronting something actually strange.

Art tends to shock us into awareness of the boundary condition; that's a big part of the entire point of art - to give us back our wakefulness.

I will have more to say on this subject in the next post or two - but for now, it's worth candidly acknowledging a few things:

1. I have little idea what I'm talking about.
2. There is more to be said on beauty than I can say.
3. Much has been written on this subject, none of which I have read.
4. What I advocate for today, I will likely reject tomorrow.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Foreshortening: Be Not Afraid

Every once in a blue moon, somebody who doesn't know me well enough asks why I don't teach an art class sometime. My answer tends to be along the lines of, "Because I'm crabby, disorderly, and busy, so I'd be a lousy teacher." This is true, but the question always gets me wondering what I could possibly teach. And the only answer I generate, lesson 1 I suppose, is:

Don't be afraid of foreshortening.

People deep in the process of learning figurative drawing and painting tend to be scared of foreshortening. Why? Because it's hard as hell to do a good job, and often, you can't even tell if you've done a good job. Is this a good job?

Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, c. 1490

Well, probably. Who knows? The feet look small and the head looks big. But if you backed way up and shot a real person in this position with a telephoto lens - at 150 mm or more - they'd most likely look like that.

So why am I telling you not to be afraid of foreshortening? Because I'm proposing a different way of thinking about it. My proposal is this: there is no such thing as foreshortening.

This is very strange. No such thing? But everyone knows what foreshortening is, and it sure as shootin' exists. OK, fine. What is foreshortening? Some outfit called Princeton University offers a definition of the usual level of glibness and uselessness:

foreshorten (shorten lines in a drawing so as to create an illusion of depth)

But that's not what we mean when we use the word in a sentence, is it? For instance, when we say, "The foreshortened perspective I had of the model made me pee in my pants in abject terror," we're not talking about "shortening the lines" to "create an illusion of depth."

So let's go to somebody who has a much better definition of this completely imaginary phenomenon:

Foreshortening is a fundamental concept in drawing, designating the distortion of long shapes when seen end-on.

This definition is from a post on foreshortening at Fred Hatt's blog. The post is seriously worth checking out - it features Fred's usual elegant and insightful writing, and a lot of his really gorgeous drawings of radically foreshortened poses. Don't worry about jumping there now - I'll post the link again at the end of this little screed.

Now, the element that Fred adds, which Princeton overlooks, is that the object is long. Let's build up to a full understanding of the implications of this clause.

Consider a sphere:

A sphere is uniform in appearance: rotate it as you like, it will be identical with every other view of it.

Under the Princeton definition, the central area of the sphere is not foreshortened, and the edges are increasingly foreshortened, up to the boundary, which you could say is infinitely foreshortened - it is right on axis with the viewer, and becomes, geometrically, an infinite succession of infinitely foreshortened points. Or, in common language, a line (a circle, as it happens).

Here, this picture makes it clearer:

You notice how those lines get denser at the edges? That is because equal amounts of real surface area are compressed, visually, into smaller and smaller apparent areas, until they are totally foreshortened into line rather than plane.


So, let's look at a cube:

As this cube rotates in space, various of its surface planes become more or less foreshortened. In the top left image, four planes are severely foreshortened. In the bottom right image, only two planes are severely foreshortened.

But nobody ever thinks of a cube as being foreshortened, any more than they think of a sphere as being foreshortened. Why not? Because all of the faces of a cube are identical. It is nearly as uniform as a sphere. If you draw a line from the center of any face, through the cube, to the center of the opposite face, it will be just as long as any line drawn between two other opposed faces.

This is not true of the simplest "long" object, the cylinder:

You damn skippy there's a foreshortened view of the cylinder:

In this view, the long axis of the cylinder is oriented nearly parallel with the viewer's depth axis, so that it becomes shorter than we are used to seeing it. And this is the crux of the concept of foreshortening. As Fred says, the concept applies, as a practical matter, only to long objects, because we are used to seeing the long axis as much longer than the short axis.

Apollo 11

Apollo 11, lookin' all weird and squished and stuff

We do not think about planes being foreshortened, as Princeton suggests, or we would see the optically "thin" faces of the cube as being confusingly foreshortened. Rather, we have a distinct class of objects which, considered as whole objects, we think of as foreshortened: long objects, particularly those with regard to which we have a common experience of seeing the long axis as longer than the short axis.

Like humans.

Can you believe I actually found this picture on Wikipedia
by Google image-searching "human"? How awesome is that?

So, to get to the core of my point - foreshortening does not exist in nature. All objects, at all times, from all perspectives, include planes which are technically foreshortened and technically not foreshortened. The functional conception of foreshortening, as identified by Fred, is a categorical distinction based entirely on an arbitrary classification of objects by:

1. their geometry (long)
2. our experience of them (long axis parallel with or nearly parallel with viewer's depth axis)

Foreshortening is just a fancy and specific way of saying "unusual." There is nothing to be afraid of here. It's not a real distinction. It's just a hopped-up method for freaking yourself out about your chances of getting your drawing right.

And let me tell you, your chances of getting your drawing right when an object is foreshortened are already low enough. You don't need to be freaking yourself out.

Wait a minute! saith you. You've just been telling me there's no such thing as foreshortening! Now you're saying it's extra-hard to draw?

Sure. Because it is unusual. But not because it's in some spooky category. Take a look at these two drawings I did last week, when the ever-delightful Vadim was modeling at Spring Street:

Only the foot is "foreshortened."

The foot is not foreshortened, but the rest is.

Now, that bottom, foreshortened leg, is pretty nicely drawn, if I do say so myself. I was really switched on because I've been searching for an opportunity to do these two drawings for a long time - because I've been planning this post for a long time, and I was psyched to finally get the graphics I wanted.

Why was I able to get that leg to look pretty good? Because I've probably drawn legs from that angle a hundred times (I was psyched to write this post, but not psyched enough to go through the heaps of drawings in my closet). I'm not some magical foreshortening ninja, I just have endless experience of most of the angles of view of the human body. This happens when you go to life drawing twice a week for twelve years.

But that's not all - and I wouldn't have been able to tell you this next bit if I hadn't lucked into talking over the concept of foreshortening with my friend, the dazzling artist Jonathan Soard. I was running my analytic rigamarole past him, and he came at it from a different angle. He said, "The wonderful thing about foreshortening is that it lets you see things directly, without preconceptions of what they should look like."

You know what? This is true. No matter how much you practice - and Jonathan Soard has practiced more than I have - those "foreshortened" views will still be less familiar than the usual long views, because the circumstances of life dictate that the foreshortened views of humans are just not as frequently experienced (unless you're a pigeon).

Because they will be comparatively fresh, your eyes will have fewer scales upon them. This leads to endless trouble for people trying to draw foreshortened views - they will try to impose their mental template for the upright view onto the foreshortened view. But once you recognize your templates and cast them out, you will be seeing directly: you will see shapes and curves and forms without preconception, you will see as an infant sees. And this is very exciting. Jeno Barcsay, for instance, spends a disproportionate amount of time in his masterwork on anatomy for the artist depicting foreshortened views of the human body:

I am claiming, oddly, that my foreshortened leg works (at least I think it works) for two contradictory reasons: 1. I have a lot of practice at it, and 2. I am seeing it as if for the first time.

I don't think we need a big long reconciliation of these two points. It would be tedious.

But I will add this: this combination - this combination of the ability to practice until you're good at something, while retaining the ability to see it afresh - makes for some very delightful experiences. For instance, I went through a brief, strange period where I felt like mimicking Manet. Don't ask me why. It happened, and now I'm over it. But I fell into thinking about his dead toreador painting:

And I decided I was going to make my own version of the painting, imitating Manet's broad brushwork and flattened planes as much as possible:

The Daydream, 48"x30", oil on canvas, 2009

Well, that was really delightful! And it involves a great deal of exciting foreshortening. That was a big part of the fun.

Anyhow, my point is not as radical as I first presented it. It is more honestly and minimally stated as this: "foreshortening" describes a real category of perception, but it does not describe an objectively distinct category of perception. Rather, its boundary is based in our experience. So for god's sake, don't be afraid of it. It's just another thing. Therefore, practice will improve your ability to portray it.

I will have more to say about Jonathan's work at some point. In the meantime, if you have a few minutes, I recommend you enjoy Fred's writing and work in the post I cited, and throughout his blog.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Art Criticism: Toulouse-Lautrec versus Renoir

"I am discontent with my condition.
I do not have the imagination or intelligence to escape it,
but my discontent alone constitutes a transcendent act of rebellion."


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Why Must We Always Be Right?

Happy new year, my friends, and whichever two of you bumped my "follower" number from 99 to 101, thank you very much! For my part, the reisling and prosecco snuck up on me, and my head is not so happy as I would prefer it to be. Reisling! Prosecco! Who knew?

Anyways, here's a comparatively minor thought I've been pondering during happier times for my head. When I'm in an art museum, I encounter a particular phenomenon. I checked with Charlotte, who reports, "Nope, never experienced that one." So this might be more about my idiosyncrasies than a real thing. If so, take this post as the testimony of a bigot who is trying to reform himself - and nothing more. Even so.

The phenomenon is this. Let's say I spend a while looking at some Velazquez:

Then I go in the room where they keep the Giovanni Battista Tiepolos:

Well, those distinctively blue skies, so shimmering and dazzling, seem trivial to me - insipid, irrelevant. "Where is the substance of the Velazquez outlook?" I think to myself. And I cannot bear to look at the Tiepolos.

But if I go look at Tiepolo first, then I am enchanted by his serene women, his gusting clouds, his weightless, billowing world, crossed as it is by cool, fresh breezes:

Then if I go to look at the Velazquez paintings, they seem insupportably turgid to me, dark, heavy, without joy and airless:

The effect is even more pronounced if I jump from the baroque to the 19th century - I cannot easily go from looking at Rubens:

to looking at Cezanne:

And yet, if I should happen to look at, say, Monet:

Then I simply cannot force myself to look right afterward at that same Rubens:

And most pronounced of all is any jump between western art and eastern art:

I cannot make them sit beside one another.

So I got to wondering why this problem occurs; and I think it is not just a problem for me - I'll give you evidence in a little bit.

But first, here are my tentative conclusions on this idiom-switching difficulty. I think the problem is this: compelling artwork makes you see the world through the filter of that artwork. It colors the world outside the work, so that while things remain themselves, they also enter into the idiom of the work. Try studying Rembrandt for any length of time, and then looking at the people around you. They will look like Rembrandts - so tragically majestic in their worn faces, their decency, the accidental profundity of their everyday preoccupations. You will be sensitized both to the structures that define aging in their faces, and to their unshakable humanity. Your morality and your eyesight alike will be distorted to see the world as Rembrandt saw it.

To take another example which I think applies to art-lovers and casual art-viewers alike, try looking at Van Gogh and then go walking on the street outside the museum. The sky will seem a-swirl, every spot of color heightened and stylized. You will experience traces of the paranoia and the religious ecstasy which characterize Van Gogh's universe. You cannot help it - Van Gogh has remade you to see as Van Gogh sees.

The post-viewing effects of these extremely distinctive artists are noticeable for the casual art-viewer; but for the art-lover, even the less-extreme artists can induce the effect. Van Dyck can force you to see the world all elegant and Van Dyckish, even Boucher can induce a kind of mildly floral state of erotic distraction.

I am describing here not only a stylization of the visual sensibility, but of the spectrum of ethics and emotions. It should come as no surprise that these changes go together. If you are the sort of person who needs glasses, you have certainly undergone the fallout of getting a new prescription - not only does everything look funny as your eyes adjust, but you feel high. The distortion of the visual field induces changes in overall cognition.

Eyesight is so deeply linked to personality that by changing your eyesight, you change yourself.

I think this is the source of the friction, often violent, involved in trying to look at art in radically different styles in quick succession. Each artwork you study remakes you. It makes you unfit to look at art in a different style. You experience a kind of spiritual breakage when you try to look at the other kind of art - up until your eye and mind adjust, and you become the creature the second kind of art desires you to be.

The evidence I want to cite for how widespread this phenomenon is, is often cited as having a socio-political basis. And that is the uniquely vicious ire and contumely that result from forcing a devotee of abstract art to look at figurative painting, or a devotee of figurative painting to look at abstract art.

The socio-political justification for the sheer rage this procedure can induce, is that abstraction really wants to kill the figurative, and the figurative reciprocally heaps scorn on the abstract as false art, fraudulent art. Partisans of each cause recognize a mortal threat in the opposite cause, and lash out sharp-clawed at their enemy.

But why should they be enemies? Why should the one preclude the other? How did this war begin?

There are lots of explanations, and there has been vicious behavior, foul behavior, particularly by those partisans of the abstract who have systematically denied the legitimacy of academic painting contemporaneous with the impressionists. But, frankly, it would be hard to explain the Apple-vs.-PC-like fury of today's partisans in terms of the injustices of art criticism in 1950; and we aren't all actually active figurative painters who can't make a buck because Jasper Johns and Leo Castelli screwed up the art scene.

So my contention is this: we are angry because the art we like defines who we are. And not in the sense that who we are determines the art we like; but rather, in the sense that the art we have grown accustomed to looking at has remade us in its image, has given us sight in its direction and blinded us in all other directions. To say to an art-viewer, "You must look at this art as well," is tantamount to saying, "You must become somebody else." And if you say that to somebody, what they will tend to hear is, "Who you are now is bad." This is not a recipe for openness - it is much simpler to shoot back, "I know I am good, and your opinion is not only wrong, but illegitimate. Wrong - I might have to argue. But illegitimate? I can dismiss you as beneath contempt."

Why must we be right about the art we like? Because to be wrong about the art is to be wrong about ourselves - to be worthless people, futile people, maybe evil people. In art, to be forced to like that is to be forced, in a deep way, to repudiate this - even if it is only temporary. In art, there is no "this, and that"; without tremendous discipline, the only options are "this and not that," or "that and not this."

We must be right because generally speaking, there is not room enough in us for two things. And we must wage a pathetic little war about the difference because we are stupid enough to think that, if there is not room enough in us for two things, there is not room enough in the whole world for them either. We have once again confused ourselves with the world.

I am tempted to call my high horse over, heave myself onto him, and say, "Let us admit both the Master of Frankfurt, and Richard Diebenkorn. Let us admit both Leonardo da Vinci, and Cy Twombly. Let us admit both Holbein, and Courbet. Let us admit both Rogier van der Wyden, and Willem de Kooning. Let us admit them all, and have peace. Only not all at one time, because it is a little much."

Well, it's a theory. I wish you a year, if it is possible and reasonable, of peace.