Friday, October 29, 2010


In which we find Maidman arguing, peculiarly, against himself.

So, many years ago, when I started dating my wonderful wife Charlotte, she said, "What do you want to do?" I said something along the lines of, "First I want to take over the world..." I lack many virtues, but ambition is not one of them.

Charlotte said, "Here's what I'm going to do for you. I'm going to set a bullshit alarm. And should you get successful, and you start doing some assholish thing, and it sets off my bullshit alarm, I will let you know."

Well, I can hardly be called successful, but Charlotte gave me a call yesterday and said, "OK, I read your last blog post, and it set off my bullshit alarm. Because really, what you're talking about here is a picture of a naked lady, and not an essay on intellectual history."

One would be wise to head Charlotte's hunches, on account of she is a smart cookie.

Nor was she alone in expressing this general idea. Because generously frequent commenters Ed and Fred, who I thought were my friends, had a few things to say.

Ed: "I love this painting, but you knew that. I love that you discover things about your paintings - and why you paint them the way you do - throughout the process. A lot of this is over my head and I'll have to read it a couple times more, but I wanted to chime in with congrats and to express my admiration for your painting and your ability and willingness to share your thoughts about it."

This translates from fake-humblespeak to: "I like that painting and the writing is interesting, but I'm not really buying your rationale."

Fred: "I kind of enjoy reading your thoughts about the dead end of reason and such, but when it comes right down to it you could forget about all that and I would still appreciate that you can paint a damn fine naked lady."

Fred is expressing an admirable willingness to shank your more unlikely ideas right in the gut, instead of sneaking up on you like Ed.

Well, I respect Charlotte, Ed, and Fred quite a lot, and I kind of set off my own bullshit alarm in the last post. Therefore, I thought it was worth going back and questioning exactly what I thought was true about that post. Because I do think it's true - but it might not be true in the sense of being literally correct, so much as being a legitimate but irrelevant way of thinking about the painting.

The problem here is the extent and nature of allegory in the visual arts.

Let me tell you an interesting story. I was tripping on LSD in Florida this one time -

Actually, let me tell you a different and completely unrelated interesting story first. Doctor Albert Hofmann, the poor sonofabitch who discovered LSD while trying to synthesize a fertility drug for Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis) from the ergot fungus, got some of his discovery on his fingers in 1943 and experienced peculiar effects. Science being somewhat more free-wheeling back in the day than it is today, he decided to follow up on his observation by, you know, making more of the stuff and eating it.

This led to the famous "bicycle trip," so-named because he found, after eating some LSD, that maybe it would be a good idea to go home and go to bed. So he rode his bike home, and once there, was either looking at a book of abstract art, or thinking about abstract art (I forget which - he recounts this story in his memoir). And suddenly, he thought, "I get it! I get it!"

What this tells us is that every goofball on LSD who has ever claimed they suddenly got abstract art (including me) is following in the footsteps of the first acidhead, who experienced the same hackneyed thing the very first time he properly tried the substance.

This is not unlike Christopher Walken already playing a deranged lunatic in Annie Hall, at the very start of his career, before everyone was like, "Oh, you know, Christopher Walken - deranged lunatic."

This tells us something valuable, if only we could grasp it, about abstract art, and about Christopher Walken.


- but back to my interesting story. I was on LSD this one time (an experience I recommend, but in the opposite of excess). And I was looking at this Man Ray photograph:

What I found myself thinking was this:

"At the base of her hair, her hair is separated into distinct clumps - this is the large number of analytic categories which philosophy and science present to us. They are orderly enough to be counted, identified, and understood. But as you pursue each one farther down its chain of logic and phenomenon, it separates into innumerable strands. Some of the strands mix with one another. And you finally get all the way to the bottom, where the fruits of reasoning are beyond analysis, beyond comprehension, and finally, beyond observation. This photograph could have been oriented the other way, so that we would see this falling from the top of the hairs to the bottom as a rising action. But Man Ray has positioned this woman with her face upside-down, and eyes closed, because he sees this progression of thought as a progression toward death. This image is a symbol of the blossoming of the seed of death that is concealed in the structure of reason."

That's what I thought.

A marvelous thing about LSD, you see, is that it collapses hierarchical thinking. Anything in front of you is the most fascinating thing ever; everything is important - it is all significant. It all carries symbolic significance. Thus, anything in front of you is connected to all other things you see and know. The drug triggers intensely metaphorical and cross-linked thinking, and eventually, it overwhelms your ability to process the thoughts tumbling across your mind.

Or it could just be me. Who knows? Perhaps it simply accentuates to the point of caricature certain tendencies one already has.

The point being, I tend to see images in symbolic terms anyway; and I am using the instance of this Man Ray photograph to help explain exactly what this symbolic thought means for me.

The fact remains, however, that if you don't happen to be under the influence of LSD right this minute, you likely are not experiencing spontaneous symbolic visual thinking.

So what are we to make of this in relation to the visual arts? Good question. Writing, overall, is more amenable to involved symbolic association than pictures, I think. Consider this passage from Moby Dick, where Melville is both mocking and taking advantage of the lateral jump of symbolic thought. His ship, the Pequod, has a tremendously heavy sperm whale head attached to one side and a right whale head attached to the other:

"As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right."

It is a strange image - it might provoke you to laughter - but you can see what he's getting at. That's what makes it so wonderful, this creative leap he has made from the one to the other.

This kind of leap is natural to verbal expression, because words are the nest of reasoning and logic, including the intuitive and creative kinds.

In contrast, pictures involve direct perception. Direct perception is the home of linkage relative to cause-and-effect, not abstract theme. That is, it is easy for us to link a facial expression, to a cause:


It is easy for us to link a position of the body to an action extending in time before and after the immediate image, and the attendant emotions:

Giant psychopath eating person, Horror

But it is not so easy for us to grasp the symbolic meaning of a more abstract-analytic thematic scene, because it goes against how we visually process things:

What the fuck is going on here? Frankly, I don't have a clue.

Programmers call inelegant solutions to programming problems kludges. A kludge patches over an issue, just barely, but it's ugly. There is a kludge in the arts for the discord between the essentially literary nature of abstract-analytic symbolism, and the essentially concretized cause-and-effect nature of visual understanding. And that's attaching a symbolic image to a scene from a canonical book or story.

Now let's go back to this perplexing print:

It's a picture of the Judgment of Paris. Paris was a famously fair-minded (and studly) Trojan to whom Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, for complicated and improbable reasons, presented themselves so that he could tell them which was the most beautiful (I'd have gone for Athena without thinking twice). This incident, including as it does three hot naked chicks posing before a dude, is currently running a close second to Susanna and the Elders for the Suspiciously Overused Literary Image award in art history.

But this print, dating to sometime between 1510 and 1520, engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi after a design by Raphael, does not include three chicks and a dude only. It includes Hermes - recognizable by his winged helmet and caduceus - Zeus, holding his characteristic thunderbolt - Artemis, in her funny moon-tiara - and so on. We can recognize all the figures in this painting, if we really want to (including which naked chick is supposed to be which goddess) because they all have an iconic image attached to them, each of which would have been familiar to educated contemporary viewers of the image.

This same mechanism is deployed in religious art:

St. Lucy, the one with the eyes on a plate

St. Agatha, the one with the boobs on a plate

St. Sebastian, the one with the arrows

Each of these saints has a story explaining the presence of these peculiar objects, which would have been known to the target viewers of the paintings. It has been argued, in fact, that this kind of iconism helped the Church to provide emotional resonance to Bible stories when preaching to the illiterate in the middle ages - the stories were known to the viewers, and the visual both reminded of the story, and packed the emotional wallop of the concretely visual.

This illustrates the second part of the symbolism-visual arts kludge: attaching an iconic object to a figure to place that figure in a shared narrative is only step 1. Step 2 is up to the genius of the artist - to allow us to understand the stated literary theme in a new way by providing the artist's own spin on the story.

Here is Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew:

In this work of sheer intimidating genius, we not only have Caravaggio deploying his cinematographic sense of light to illustrate the holiness of Christ, we have a new moral to the story. Which one is St. Matthew? Nobody knows. A vague gesture from Christ - a table of gamblers and crooks - a boy, two youths, a man, an elder - we don't know which one is St. Matthew. This table is all of humanity: gamblers and crooks, youth through old age - and any of them might be St. Matthew. Caravaggio takes this scene, familiar to his audience, and uses it to say: each of you could be St. Matthew. We are all fallen, all corrupt, and yet each of us is called. This is a mighty painting of the force of redemption.

But this entire genre of art, from the prancing-goddess school to the Christian allegory, depends on a shared knowledge of a common set of stories, and a shared willingness to suspend disbelief - to ignore the cognitive mismatch between visual knowledge and literary analysis. In this way, it's like accepting the absurdity of opera.

Now, this shared knowledge and shared consensus started to break down in the 19th century; to seriously break down, not just get tweaked at the edges by artistic smartasses.

Let's go back to the Raimondi print for a second:

Look in the lower right corner more carefully this time. Does that group of figures look familiar? You betcha.

Édouard Goddamned Manet, Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe, 1863. This painting has taken on an art-historical iconographic importance all its own. This is the painting (along with the Olympia) where Manet leads artists in issuing a grand "Screw you" to allegorical painting, from which allegorical painting has never recovered.

Before Manet, everyone agreed that a female nude could legitimately and innocently be taken to mean all sorts of things apart from a naked lady. After Manet, a nude was necessarily a nude first, and all those other things second, and only half-heartedly, or smirkingly, or unconvincingly.

This represents, in one way, a masterstroke of progress: that women can no longer be taken as symbols first, but rather must first be understood as people, even if we mean people in a fairly exploitative sense.

In another way, it represents the decline of an entire mode of thinking: of seeing the world not as a concrete event only, but as a kind of chalice holding great and incorporeal themes, filled with meaning and significance beyond the physical.

Back to me.

Living, as I happen to do, after Manet, it is essentially impossible for me to show the innocence of a Raphael or a Raimondi. It is impossible for everyone; some artists are trying to paint in that mode, but it never quite works.

At the same time, it is essentially impossible for me not to think like Raphael and Raimondi. I am so constructed as to have a literary-analytic way of thinking, LSD or no LSD, which applies itself to my writing, my film work, and my painting alike.

I recognize and respect that the themes I discussed in the Alley painting do not necessarily inhere in the painting itself. They inhere in me, and inform how I paint the painting. They are what Stephen Wright and I agreed to call the ghosts of information: the invisible traces of intent and understanding which work (hopefully) to increase the density of meaning in a piece of art, but which cannot necessarily be explicitly derived from the art.

But let's step aside from this allegorical intent for a minute. I am, of course, a follower of the physicality of the flesh itself, in all of its glowing majesty. And there is a more minimal position on the significance of the flesh which I hope we can all agree on - a position derived from that awe-inspiring secular Bible, the works of Shakespeare:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither.
I differ from Hamlet in two regards - I am less frequently prone to the dark side of his analysis, the dust side. And I cannot hold with the distinction he makes between all the items on his list of glories, and women. His list applies to men; women are a second thing, undescribed. For my part, this list must apply to women, or it cannot apply to anyone.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Dead End of Reason

So, I blew right past the first anniversary of this blog without noticing. Woo hoo! One year of posting not nearly enough!

OK, so I'm working on a painting. Here's the painting so far:

The model is Alley, about whom I've written before. The canvas you're looking at is 5 feet tall by 3 feet across, and it's actually the left half of a two-canvas painting. Alley appears in a reversed pose in the second canvas, also 5x3, and the two of her are holding hands.

I don't know about you, but I learn about my own paintings as I paint them. They generally start with the simplest thing - some kind of an image, even just a combination of colors, which has no concepts attached. I'll just be walking along, and this idea will pop into my head, and I'll like it enough to paint it.

So I had no idea what this Alley painting was about when I started it. But it's been showing itself to me as I painted. First, I found out why I thought to have Alley stand like that. Here's the reason:

That's Augustus St-Gaudens's Diana, originally designed for Stanford White's Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. I've seen it many times at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and had gotten its 19th-century classicism of figure stuck in my head. This classicism is different from actual Greek classical sculpture; there is something sleeker and thinner about it. The forms are less pronounced, certain facial characteristics (a more heart-shaped face, a narrower nose, eyes more widely spaced) are common to the genre but not to its Greek origin.

Alley, from the angle in my painting, looks like this angle on the Diana. Let's look at another angle so you can see how similarly their torsos are structured:

Well, OK. I learned that. So I started thinking about why, beyond the resemblance, this St-Gaudens image resonated with me. I placed the cultural context of the Diana against the lighting I chose for Alley's face. She has that proud pseudo-Greek forthright gaze, but her eye is sunk in darkness - she herself is lit, but she is looking into the dark.

To me, this second element completed the concept I was seeking. The painting is about the dead end of reason. The Diana represents for me the last great gasp of baroque classicism, of enlightenment idealism. Choking beneath the weeds of the modern, this sculpture was a final burst of decadent creativity from a dying worldview, a worldview based in the concept that rational analysis was a legitimate method, and the steadfast application of this method could reveal a truth, called The Truth. It was a worldview that was profoundly shadowless. Just as Socrates considers, and then dismisses, the very possibility of evil, so this rationalistic worldview did not accept that unreason might abide, might be built into the fabric of things. All present irrationalities were problems not yet solved.

This is a worldview with which I have a lot of sympathy, even though it was an attenuated and aestheticized echo of itself by the time St-Gaudens came along.

Now, this Alley I have groped my way into showing, is an Alley coming from the land of bright shadows, of form and optimism, but her eye is shadowed because she is looking into darkness. I might like to live in the aerodynamic world of St-Gaudens, but I cannot; I know what has happened since. So my variant on this goddess looks into the dark. She is standing at the very dead end of reason.

This is what the painting means to me now - sure. But the painting is less than half done. The second Alley faces the first one, and her face is lit. Perhaps I will find out that this is hopeful. But I think I will find out that it is uncanny. The two of them mirror one another, and they will stand (eventually) in an intricate, abandoned maze of arches and staircases. I think that I will find, in the end, that this is a painting about the fearfulness of analysis in a region that is beyond analysis. In this region, to persist in analysis is itself unreasonable. Reason, in this context, is like an unwelcome tumor. The brutal irrationality of the space refracts reason, producing two where there was one. Beauty, form, hope, humanity - all of them are unwelcome in the cold inhumanity of the seething, irreducible complexity of the uncharted maze.

It is just as likely, however, that I will conclude the painting means something else entirely. In the meantime, I am simply painting it.


I meant to include this link - it's a post describing a very similar process which my friend Kevin Mizner went through in a painting he's working on:

I did think to write this post before reading his, but I would say I'm damn near ripping him off. The similarities and contrasts are worth a ponder if you're a painter yourself. He writes well about the evolution of his painting.


Much, much more on the rather dubious contentions made in this post, here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


My paintings start out as rough thumbnails I draw in a sketchbook I carry around. For instance, this is the thumbnail for the painting of Claudia that I'm working on:

So where did this get drawn? Well, I can't usually get anything productive done at home, owing to a temperamental disorder of some sort, and I pretty much don't design paintings in the studio - I only paint there. So I need to sit someplace that I don't rent and control when I'm drawing these thumbnails. This raises a practical issue - where can you go and doodle a bunch of naked women and not cause trouble? Starbucks and Barnes&Noble are right out.

I have discovered a room. This room is above a deli somewhere in lower Manhattan. It is supposed to be used for Internet station rentals and eating food bought at the deli. But it is usually hot and dim in the room, and there is a horrible low-frequency vibration from the over-amped heating system. Also, it smells slightly of turned food. Hardly anyone knows the room exists, and people who do know of it don't seem to like it. I discovered it by accident myself. It's usually empty. This makes it perfect:

An empty public room to oneself on a high-traffic street in one of the most crowded cities I know, for the price of a box of apple juice. I'm not going to tell you where it is, because it's my room, and I want to keep it that way.

This is kind of a cutesy story that also illustrates something which may not have occurred to you, but which I feel duty-bound to point out. On this blog, I am excited to tell you about ideas I've had about art (and by art, of course I mean cognitive psychology, physics, and math). I am also covering a lot of the practical territory involved in actually making art. But there are some things I can't tell you. Art, after all, involves people, and politicking, and so forth. I have a lot of interesting thoughts about a lot of interesting topics, which it would simply be career-suicidal to share.

So please don't conclude that this blog is a complete coverage of its theme, especially if you are a working artist yourself. If you're an artist, you'll probably encounter some phenomena which seem curiously absent here. I'm not so much luckier or saintlier than you that I don't have to deal with those things. I do, and it's not so pretty, but that's part of the job. All I can say is that I try to deal with them from my usual position of doing my best to figure out the decent thing to do. This seems to work for me - I think it will work for you. I apologize that some of my observations remain hidden.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

You Have a Right to Art

I don't mean you have a right to own art. That's between you, your accountant, and Larry Gagosian.

What I mean is you have a right to the legitimacy of your experience of art. Rights cannot be given, they can only be taken away. Anybody who tries to take away the validity of the feelings and insights you had in confrontation with a piece of art is trying to violate your right to art.

I've been thinking about this, because I associate with a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about the difference between good art and bad art; and I think a lot about it myself.

Let's consider two of the dimensions of art:

1. Art is struggling toward a maximum of quality. There are certain properties we can think of as characterizing art. We may not agree about their relevance or importance, but let me throw out a few of these properties, so you can get a sense of what I'm talking about. The incorporeal properties are things like theme, emotion, concept, philosophical insight. The corporeal properties are along the lines of color, value, composition, brushwork, and so forth.

2. Art is a forum of the spirit. Because of the intense human need to form symbolic representations of all kinds of experiences, art is important to the balance of the psyche. Art represents not just the forms of possible experience, but their meaning.

To use the ordinary cliché in cases like this, consider how much more than just a physical event is represented in the Lascaux cave paintings.

Art attends on that aspect of experiential processing which has to do with our conceptions of the spiritual aspect of ourselves, our fellows, and the world. When we come face-to-face with art, it may trigger what you could call an artistic experience, a breaking down of what we were and a replacement of it with something larger. During this experience, we undergo shattering, on a big or a little scale. It is a variant of that experience of death and rebirth which characterizes religious revelation.

It is clear that dimension 2 is not related to maximal quality as it relates to dimension 1. Maximal quality enters into the question, generally, like this: optimal corporeal qualities help to increase the probability of an artistic experience. Incorporeal qualities help to increase the probability of something constructive and positive being imparted to the viewer in the event of an artistic experience.

But neither optimization is necessary. An artistic experience can happen without the presence of either one. Consider the stories of two very good friends of mine. One of them, C, wandered into the Prado in Madrid, and found himself in front of Velazquez's Las Meninas:

Two days later he extricated himself. I've been to the Prado, and I've seen Las Meninas. I would walk into Thunderdome itself and argue that this is one of the best paintings ever painted. Leaving aside color, composition, and brushwork - this painting is terrifying. That famous aspect of the missing about it is palpable in person. It is like a ringing in your ears. There is a shuffling of cloth in the room depicted in the painting, and the piercing looks of the occupants. They are waiting expectantly - for you. They lay hold of you, and soon you find that it is you who are in that room, not them. You are in that room, and you will never leave it. This room holds in it compassion and sympathy, but cruelty and evil as well. Las Meninas is an entire universe, a mesmerizing universe you fall into and cannot escape. Your sense of possession of yourself dissolves in confrontation with this painting. Velazquez humbles you and remakes you.

On the other hand, I think of Auguste Renoir as possibly one of the bullshittiest douches ever to become a famous painter:

Just look at this fucking lazy, talentless dreck.

His insipidly vague brushwork, bland pastel colors, radically de-individualized faces, and incessant flogging of the same three or four passive nude female poses make him seem to me not even an artist, but basically a hack pornographer. I had the good fortune in Philadelphia not long ago to run into the one decent thing this overrated pandering schmuck ever accomplished:

Be that as it may, my other dear friend, R, is not an art guy. He doesn't get it and he's not much interested in it. One time I dragged him into an art museum and I lost track of him. Some 45 minutes later, I found him, to my horror, in front of a Renoir, lost in artistic experience. He explained to me that he was in love with this woman in the painting, he was awestruck and overpowered.

I was probably not too charitable with him, because I was making the same mistake that I, and my art friends, make all the time: confusing dimension 2 - the artistic experience - with dimension 1 - maximal quality. This is an error we are prone to make because we are all actively engaged in making art and trying to make it good. We tend to forget that good ain't the real question. The artistic experience is. Good is the servant of the experience.

All kinds of factions will try to delegitimize having the artistic experience in the context of art they don't like. Consider three major bogeymen of three major factions:

Norman, called Rockwell

Bougeureau, the sentimentalist


It kills me to admit it, but I cannot argue against your right to have your world blown away by that fricking balloon dog. I can't even argue against your right to have a transcendent experience when you look at paintings by a certain crotchety northern European painter of persons wandering around/sitting morosely/dropping dead in bleak twilit landscapes. There was a good deal of back-and-forth about whether he's a great painter, in the comments to a certain post I wrote that still gets googled twice a day. Let me explain the parameters of this kind of argument.

This is an argument about taste. Taste, the way I think of it, is an issue of identifying and backing up arguments with regard to dimension 1 - maximal quality. To some extent, these arguments can be said to have a basis in objective truth. To some extent, they're necessarily subjective. The point of developing good taste is to surround oneself with worthwhile things, and to assure the greatest utility of artistic experiences when they happen. People who care deeply about art argue a lot about taste, and one reason they argue is so that when they show their non-art friends some art, the chances of those non-art friends having a really transformative artistic experience are increased.

But answering to good taste does not confer validity. Here's a picture that changed my life:

Da Vinci, Head of an Angel

To me, this is not only an image of beauty. It is also beautiful in itself, and more, it teaches us how to see beauty.

Here's a group of pictures that don't really do anything for me:

Rothko chapel

But when they enter that room, a lot of people have the exact experience that Rothko seems to have intended - they find themselves broken and made better. If you'd asked me two years ago if I'd ever be sitting around defending Rothko, I'd have said no. But I've been thinking over what happens to us when we look at art, and here I find myself.

Why make such a fuss about the legitimacy of any and all artistic experiences? Maybe it's not such a big deal. But I see a lot of bullying by all sides in the art world. The focus of this bullying is on the legitimacy of the opposing side's experience of the art they like.

Now I'm not here to defend people saying that something is better, and I'm not here to defend people feeling self-righteous about one painting or another. I will go at you tooth and claw on those topics if I disagree with you. But if you find yourself in front of a piece, and suddenly you are crying like a child because the thing that was weighing you down has fallen off from you, and you are suddenly remade fresh and new - then I will defend you, because you have partaken of the only real thing art, which is so useless and so expensive in so many ways, has to offer in the end. So I just wanted to make it clear that, as far as I'm concerned, you have a right to those feelings, and you have a right to ignore everyone who is telling you that you shouldn't have those feelings in confrontation with this particular thing.

Except in one case.

There are only five people in the history of art who had an authentic emotional and spiritual reaction to Jackson Pollock's work. Their names were Manny, Elmer, Flo, Davis, and Jack, and they lived in the East Village until June, 1962, when Frank Castle, AKA "The Punisher," hunted them down and killed them.

Frank Castle, AKA "The Punisher"

Since then, anyone coming up to you and claiming they have had their lives changed by Jackson Pollock is a poser and a low-down dirty liar.