Sunday, June 27, 2010

Those Hideous Forms

Let's take a look at my hotel in Minneapolis last week:

Where was I staying, the Overlook? Not quite. But I would like to draw your attention to a certain shape on the hall carpets:

Here are similar shapes elsewhere in the pattern:

Can you bear another?

To you, these might appear to be innocent loops. To me, there is something utterly hideous about them. Something unnatural, gleaming with threat. A loop should be circular, or close to circular. These elongated loops - these are terrible shapes. I recognized them as soon as I looked at the carpet. I haven't thought much about the evil loop before, but it does appear elsewhere. Look at the blank heads of De Chirico's metaphysical mannequins in The Disquieting Muses:

It is the same elongated loop. And what is similar to a loop? A dome. Here is a natural dome, a good dome designed by Dr. William Thornton in accord with the good lord's own plan for domes:

Here is an elongated dome, a hideous dome:

Nice one, Michigan.

Since I saw that carpet in Minneapolis, I have been thinking about what I detest about this murderous shape. I phrased it like this - you take an ordinary human head. This head has a generally round shape. It is the throne of nature, of intelligence, of beauty. Stretch it out as De Chirico does, and empty it of features. It becomes an uncanny shadow of the natural, stripped of intelligence, outside the question of beauty. Is it empty? Perhaps it is empty of matter, or filled with a homogeneous stuff. But it retains a kind of muted awareness. A blinking, vague, malignant awareness. If you stumbled upon it in the day, it would seem inert, lifeless, pitiable. If you should meet it in the night, it might awaken and mutilate you. It is a horrible thing, this head, this long loop.

That's a description, but it's a description of how I feel about it. Outside of me, it makes little sense. Or rather, it makes sense, but it is not necessary; it does not inhere in the object. It inheres in my response to the object.

So what's the point of my describing my mania about this hideous form to you? Because it is a useful example of a fascinating topic. For each of us, the world is not evenly distributed. Some things provoke less response than pure reason implies they ought. Some things provoke as much response as they should - they provoke linear responses, in proportion with their nature. And some provoke utterly disproportionate responses, unique to the distortions of subjectivity and personality we bring to our perceptions.

This final category of thing, the thing that can provoke a disproportionate response, is terribly important to the artist. We cannot force our response to inhere in the object, not exactly. But we can seize hold of our response to the object, and consider it, and become acquainted with the intensity and texture of our response. And then we can seek to convey what we feel - either in a depiction of the object, or by willfully attaching the response to the depiction of another object convenient to the art piece in question.

This is a large part of the source of intensity in art. It is not linear alone; it depends on unreasonable intensity in ourselves. Art which draws on this intensity has that quality of the creative, the original, the strange, which we are searching for all the time. We must recognize our intensity where we find it, and make it a tool in our toolbox.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Today's Thought on Picasso

Extreme expressionistic stylization of visual phenomena is all well and good, but in order to depict the stylized figure, it is:

(a) necessary to develop an idiom of representation which is stylized in an artistically worthwhile way and
(b) necessary to develop an idiom of representation sufficiently unrealistic that its departures from reality do not read as mistakes.

Property (b) is absolutely vital. If you don't do it, it doesn't look stylized. It just looks like you can't draw. A critic once said of Gauguin that he simply didn't draw well enough.

I think this problem, insufficient and inconsistent stylization, is what made the idea occur to the critic.

Picasso is a master of this type of figural stylization, the "I meant to do that" effect.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On Undecidable Propositions

So... maybe I'm not as done talking about Professor Kuspit as, at first, I thought. I'm reading his book, The End of Art, which is very interesting. I'd like to discuss a point he raises, but given my absolutely crap track record for interpreting him correctly, let me say that any text not actually in quotation marks does not necessarily represent Kuspit's thinking. Even if I say it does. Just take it with a grain of salt, is all I'm saying.

Kuspit devotes a lot of time and energy to having it out with Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp, you may remember, is the fellow who gave us this:

That's the "readymade," the famous urinal converted - presto - into art on Duchamp's say-so. It's been all downhill for art since then, basically. Here's what caught my eye in Kuspit's discussion:

"Clearly the readymade has a double meaning. It is a conundrum, a Gordian knot that no intellectual sword can cut. Simultaneously an art and non-art object, the readymade has no fixed identity. Regarded as art, it spontaneously reverts to non-art. It collapses into banality the moment the spectator takes it seriously as art, and becomes serious art the moment the spectator dismisses it as a banal object. Just as the spectator critically reacts to it, thinking about and looking at it in a more creative way than he thinks about and looks at non-art objects, it becomes one of those non-art objects. The readymade always outsmarts the spectator, outwitting his interpretation of it ... it...remains indecipherable. It is absurd..."

(p. 23)

Now, there's nothing I like more than an ontologically ambiguous phenomenon! And who doesn't, really? Sometime, we'll talk about De Chirico. But not today.

Frankly, I had never given much thought to Duchamp's readymades before, because basically, it's a goddamn urinal, so who cares? I had never experienced this frisson of the irresolvable that Kuspit describes. But his description of this particular frisson was immediately familiar. He describes an object which, when contemplated, triggers an endless oscillation between two unstable states, the acceptance of either of which immediately causes a collapse of the state and a recoil to the opposed state. Why is that familiar? Because it is exactly the same frisson triggered by the following sentence:

This statement is a lie.

Think about it for a second, you'll see what I mean.

The urinal dates to 1917. The sentence comes to our attention in 1931. It is the plain-language example of Kurt Gödel's first incompleteness theorem. Imagine a theory, called T. A slightly less plain-language version of the statement is called "sentence G for the theory T," or the Gödel sentence:

G cannot be proved to be true within the theory T.

The incompleteness theorem is a devastating discovery which effectively ended a program, championed by Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert, and the adorable Gottlob Frege, to put mathematics on a really solid footing by finally demonstrating the completeness and consistency of certain absolutely necessary and fundamental mathematical propositions.

"Completeness" and "consistency" have special meanings here. A "complete" system is capable only of generating statements that can be proved or disproved inside the system. A "consistent" system is incapable of generating statements that can be both proved and disproved in the system. Got that?

1. Completeness: capable of generating only statements that can be either proved or disproved within the system

2. Consistent: incapable of generating statements that can be both proved and disproved within the system

For the system of fundamental mathematics to live up to the hopes of Russell, Hilbert, and Frege, it must be both complete and consistent. What Gödel does is to prove that *no* system capable of generating a theory of fundamental mathematics can be both complete and consistent. If it is complete, it is inconsistent. If it is consistent, it is incomplete.

Incidentally, you haven't missed how Gödel proves this, because I haven't described it here. It's fiendishly complicated and involves a lot of notation that you'd probably be happier not knowing. It's a short book, if you're really interested. A short book, but if you're anything like me, a long fricking read.

What's interesting for our purposes here is that Kuspit's description of his experience of looking at Duchamp's urinal is categorically identical with the experience of looking at the deadly Gödel sentence. Given that, let us entertain for a moment the possibility that the Duchamp urinal is a Gödel sentence. Wow! What would that mean?

It would mean that art, when looked at from a certain perspective, can be functionally considered to be a formal system of logic. It would mean that the urinal is a statement, consistent with the language of this system, which makes an assertion that is undecidable within the system.

Well, what is the character of this system? And what assertion is the urinal making?

A system is a set: it is a set of axioms and theorems. One really important property of sets is that they should define what they include and don't include. How is the set defined? This property, the formation of the boundary of the set, allows the analyst to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant phenomena when conducting an analysis of the set. For instance, "1 + 1 = 2" is an important member of the set of fundamental mathematics. "Meow" is not.

In the art context, defining the boundaries of the set amounts to answering the question: What is art?

Whoa! Holy shit! The big question!

What Duchamp has done, in proposing the urinal as a work of art by signing it, is to point out a contradiction implicit in the set of axioms which underlie the definition of art. Axioms are statements taken to be true (though not proven) at the base of a logical system. Good axiom selection involves picking axioms that generate a minimum number of inconsistent results (theorems).

Well, art has a little axiom problem with its boundary definition. Duchamp has figured out that we have at least two axioms determining the boundary of the set we call art:

Axiom 1: "Art" consists of that set of human-produced objects which use aesthetic means to produce some kind of enlightening transformation in the viewer.

Axiom 2: "Art" consists of that set of objects produced by people called "artists" who come up to you and tell you that the thing they just made is "art."

Feel free to re-interpret axiom 1 as you like, depending on your personal tastes. Axiom 2 you'd have a hard time arguing with in any consistent way.

Duchamp, noticing the not-necessarily-identical outputs of axiom 1 and axiom 2, has gone ahead and generated an object which, under axiom 1, is "not-art," and under axiom 2, is "art." Because both axioms are deeply and viscerally active to the modern art viewer, Duchamp's object produces a sense of rapid and unstable oscillation between art and non-art states, as described by Kuspit: it is a contradictory object, a basilisk, a Gödel sentence.

Any artist could have done this at any time, because this problem has always existed in art and is intuitively obvious to any working artist. But before Duchamp, there had kind of been a tacit agreement among artists not to be a total dick about it. Functionally speaking, the artists would exploit axiom 2, while ensuring that they did their best not to violate axiom 1.

Duchamp's innovation lies not in his insight, but in the audacity of his barbarity. Just because you're the first rapist doesn't mean nobody thought of committing rape before. They just had the sense not to do it. Duchamp's program is not constructive, in the sense of seeking to highlight logical problems in order to point a way toward resolving them, as best as possible. His program is destructive; he highlights problems in order to wreck trust in the relevant system. In so doing, he discredits everything previously generated by the system, and shuts down subsequent use of the system.

In a sense, it is a salutary effect, because it forces us from the age of naive art-making to the age of willful art-making, with regard to that aspect of art which corresponds with a logical system. You might call the urinal one of my prime numbers, even though it is not, in itself, productive. And you would do well not to forget this: art is not a logical system.

However, the logical system aspect of art is obviously an important part of it, and since the urinal, a good deal of speculation on the axiomatic problem - What is art? - has gone on. I myself am not particularly a philosophical purist, so I like Roger Kimball's rough-and-ready solution to the problem:

"...the real issue is not whether a given object or behavior qualifies as art but rather whether it should be regarded as good art. In other words, what we need is not definitional ostracism but informed and robust criticism."

(p. 53, Art's Prospect)

You see what he does here? He demotes Axiom 1 - the "aesthetics and transformation" axiom - from its status as a definer of boundaries. He leaves only axiom 2 to define the set of objects called "art." But having done so, he immediately re-applies axiom 1 as an axiom, not of definition, but of criticism.

That works for me, but I tell you what. I described this idea to my wife, Charlotte, who is nothing if not skeptical, and she said, "That's really begging the question, isn't it? I mean, if you want to focus on what good art is, you're presupposing an answer to the question of what art is, aren't you?"

More on Charlotte's opinions soon. In the meantime, here's a huge-ass painting I just finished that I am very happy with, because any time you get to use a lot of cobalt blue, you can't help walking away happy:

Rachel's Room
2010, oil on canvas, 72"x48"

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Now, among the many things I owe you, is an explanation of what I was doing at a talk given by Donald Kuspit. So at the risk of boring you with the details of my real-world life a little more, let me clear up what happened. I thought of a bit of a fun way to lead you through the story.

This is a good place to start:

What's that? That's the art magazine section at the Union Square Barnes & Noble on May 14, 2010. The numbered circles are art magazines in which I was currently featured: 1. International Artist, 2. American Art Collector, 3. Art+Auction, and 4. Modern Painters. I took the picture because "four" is a personal record.

Of most interest to us at the moment is #2, American Art Collector. What am I doing in there? Well, they like to print pictures of paintings that have sold because collectors spotted the artist in their pages. I happen to have just recently sold this painting:

I told you about this back in March. The collector, Howard Tullman, first saw me in American Art Collector. Who is Howard Tullman?

This guy:

We're standing in front of my painting The Shock. I'm the one of the left. Yeah, that's me. There are a lot of scorching hot artists out there. Sadly, I'm not one of them. What are you going to do? I'm pretty happy anyway.

Maidman, you ask, in what room are you standing with a collector from Chicago, and a framed painting of yours on the wall?

Funny you should ask. That's a large meeting room at the Roger Smith Hotel, in midtown Manhattan. The reason the three of us - me, Tullman, and the painting - are all together there is that that place was hosting The Great Nude Invitational Figurative Arts Fair (first annual):

Plus also, I smoke.

I participated in this fair, with two paintings, The Shock and the larger Red:

That's Red in the middle there, by the bartender, who was an incredibly nice guy. And while I'm at it, here's me outside the hotel with the model, Lillian (on the right), and another model, Claudia, whom I am looking forward to working with, and who writes a just wonderful blog on art and modeling, which I have recommended to you before:

Back to the point. One of the organizers of this fair is - well, let's call him Professor Kuspit. He is a professor, and I think Mr. doesn't really indicate the amount of substantial critical and analytic work he has generated over time. Which is a lot. My mom was reading him when she was getting her MFA.

Not to imply I have an MFA. I don't.

So this panel discussion of which I speak, which touched on matters of Mondrian and woman-hating, was part of the art fair. The panel included Professor Kuspit and Vincent Desiderio, who is quite an accomplished figurative painter and a friend of Kuspit's. Clearly very fond of one another, they have developed a smooth patter consisting of dropping nuts on each other. This is delightful to watch, because they fall into a classic comedic counterpoint: Kuspit plays the slow-speaking, thoughtful, kind of crotchety elder. Desiderio plays the hot-headed, impassioned youth. Both have a good sense of comic timing, in terms of pauses and in terms of when to let the personae drop. This dynamic led to the single funniest moment in the panel, when both deployed our old friend, wit, to reply instantly to a question:

So that's how I wound up attending a panel where Donald Kuspit was speaking. Next we'll get back to talking about art, and I promise "next" doesn't mean "when hell freezes over."