Monday, February 1, 2010


If you'll pardon a digression from the main topic, of edges, I have been thinking about this issue of Degas trying futilely to unify Line and Color. This struck me as a branch of pataphysics. Pataphysics is a fairly annoying concept invented by Alfred Jarry, of Ubu Roi fame:
He defines it as "the science of imaginary solutions." He also writes some complicated stuff, mocking over-analytic methodology. I actually don't know much about pataphysics, or Alfred Jarry, or Ubu Roi. But the idea of a science of imaginary solutions stuck with me.

However, it was in a slightly garbled form: what I remembered it as was "the science of solving imaginary problems." And for the purpose of this little note, let's just pretend that's what pataphysics is.

So Degas is a pataphysician. He's trying to solve an imaginary problem: the alleged fragmentation of Line and Color from some original, unknown unity is his problem, and re-unifying them is the solution he's seeking. As we found in the last post, this problem simply does not exist, and therefore does not admit of a solution.

In an earlier post, we also looked at the pataphysical problem of eliminating the perceptual distinction between figure and ground. The Impressionists went to great lengths to present a unified visual field in which the figure and ground were part of a continuous optical experience. As neuroscience has advanced, it has become clear that the figure/ground dichotomy is not a matter of socialization or culture. It's a matter of basic visual processing. And even without the revelations of neuroscience, it should have been clear to the Impressionists that depth perception makes the figure/ground distinction inevitably clear, because we can see the relative distances of perceived objects. But they carried on with their pataphysical work anyway...

Let's look at another example of pataphysical art-making. This is a painting by Euan Uglow (1932-2000), a Cornish figurative painter whose book I would own if it weren't so expensive:

If you click on the picture and look at it closely, you'll see that it's covered in weird little marks. What are those? Let's let Wickipedia do the explaining:

With a meticulous method of painting directly from life, Uglow frequently took months or years to complete a painting. Planes are articulated very precisely, edges are sharply defined, and colours are differentiated with great subtlety. His type of realism has its basis in geometry, starting with the proportion of the canvas. Uglow preferred that the canvas be a square, a golden rectangle, or a rectangle of exact root value, as is the case with the Root Five Nude (1976).[1] He then carried out careful measurements at every stage of painting, a method Coldstream had imparted to him and which is identified with the painters of the Euston Road School. Standing before the subject to be painted, Uglow registered measurements by means of a metal instrument of his own design (derived from a modified music stand); with one eye closed and with the arm of the instrument against his cheek, keeping the calibrations at a constant distance from the eye, the artist could take the measure of an object or interval to compare against other objects or intervals he saw before him. Such empirical measurements enable an artist to paint what the eye sees without the use of conventional perspective. The surfaces of Uglow's paintings carry many small horizontal and vertical markings, where he recorded these coordinates so that they could be verified against reality.

...oooookay, Euan. Why don't we take a look at another one?

Again with the finicky measurements. Does anybody really give a hoot whether or not his work corresponds with phi? I don't. I'm gonna guess you don't. There is simply no problem here to be solved. It reminds me of the most devastating review of David Cronenberg's Crash I read: "The movie explores the link between eroticism and car crashes. Unfortunately, there is no link between eroticism and car crashes." The problem of applying phi arbitrarily precisely to arbitrarily small subdivisions of the human body is an imaginary problem. To try to solve it simply invites obsessive-compulsive behavior. It cannot be solved because it doesn't exist.

Oh, and you remember the part about "no perspective, but rather what the eye sees"? The eye is equivalent to about a 50 mm lens for 35 mm film. How is that more "true" than, say, the perspectival distortions associated with a 25 mm or 100 mm lens? Or with one-point perspective?

And yet, I absolutely love Uglow's paintings. There is a sense of simplicity and light and mass to them that seems to me completely unique and charming and counter-intuitive, because they look, in so many ways, like paint-by-numbers pictures from a hobby kit. They have large patches of uniform color! But they work. So you can't say he got nothing for all his pataphysical trouble.

Now we have - Degas, unifying Color and Line, the Impressionists, unifying Figure and Ground, and Euan Uglow, unifying Phi and Figure. All three entities are working on pataphysics. And yet, by working on insoluble non-existent problems, they drive themselves to make magnificent works!

Art-making was not always pataphysical:

There we have Albrecht Durer demonstrating the laborious application of perspective to the great subject of art (naked ladies). The innovation of the laws of perspective was not an issue of pataphysics, but of physics. And it took us from here:

To here:
Many will argue that a loss of primal emotionality was involved in this shift. I am not one of those who will argue that. I will argue that for any "word" art lost in this advance, it gained a thousand, and that the depth of religious feeling in the Da Vinci outmatches that of the icon because it is faith expressed in the context of a sense of reason, of reality, which outmatches our own. Can an ape convince you of faith better than a superman? You must answer this for yourself - but whatever your answer, it is inarguable that the problem of perspective was a physics problem, not a pataphysics problem, and it was amenable to solution, and solving it expanded the range of possibilities of art. Da Vinci can paint an icon, if he pleases, but an icon painter cannot paint a Da Vinci.

I could raise other physics problems - value, shadow, color - but you get the point. Many of these problems have been solved satisfactorily, leaving the modern period to grapple with imaginary problems if it wishes to grapple with problems at all.

So the questions, which are at least intriguing, if not troubling, are:

1. Does it matter that you are devoting your life to pataphysics if, on the way, you produce remarkable art?

I would answer that it does not. If the process of problem-solving, and not the solution itself, is the font of rewards, so be it. We must all follow the task that is before us.

2. Is there any way to distinguish between a physical and a pataphysical problem?

I would maintain that you'd have to go case by case. In many cases, the specific answer is "yes." But in the general sense, the answer is "no." There is no abstract and universal algorithm for separating real and imaginary problems.

3. Given this issue, how many problems that we are working on now are, in fact, pataphysical?

A man likes to know if he's wasting his time. Consider the issues I address in my work: psychology, the complexity of the three-dimensional surface, self-possession of the nude figure, the "zero space," or metaphysical space, of isolation of the Figure, in an elementary state, from both the figure and the world as commonly understood. I happen to think these are worthwhile pursuits. But they may be as surely pataphysical as Degas's science-fictionistic linecolor and Uglow's ludicrous obsession with 1.61803.

The upshot, then, is that we cannot know. We can be fairly sure we're not working on discovering one point perspective, but we can't know with any certainty if what we are doing is entirely pointless or merely mostly pointless.

We keep at it because the work along the way can be magnificent. And more crucially, we keep at it because we have no capacity to do otherwise. Art is not freedom, it is slavery. But to be enslaved to such a master is glorious, glorious...

1 comment:

  1. “A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status -- all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing).” ~J.G. Ballard
    "Saying it is so doesn't make it so."
    "Saying it is not so doesn't invalidate it for others. On the other hand it is indisputable that some will not share Ballard's opinion but- and here's where it gets interesting- because they don't the idea is not even possible. This is not an issue of aesthetics at all, but rather a kind of lack of object permanence. It's as if my not liking orange juice means *you* don't like orange juice. (I'm gonna guess you don't. ;-) )