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.


  1. Neat post, Dani! I've noticed that phenomenon of different art styles looking strange when you accept the other as the norm... I don't think I had as strong an emotional response as you did, though. I was able to switch into that artist's world pretty easily after just a few seconds. Maybe I'm not having as deep a viewing experience : )
    As for the conflict between figurative vs abstract, yeah, I'm with you on more tolerance and acceptance. We humans seem to like things to be black or white and to define ourselves by our preferences. I'm not sure if it's our society or just human nature, but you see this everywhere, right? Democrats/Republicans, vegetarian/carnivore, Protestants/Catholics, NY/LA etc. Things that aren't really all that different yet people really like to stress the little things. Same with art I guess.
    Thanks for your eloquent and thoughtful post and Happy New Year to you too!

  2. I love the sequence of images you've selected. They definitely make your point!

    I really value diversity, myself. I used to make mix tapes that would have, say, J.S. Bach followed by John Cage, then Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill and Airto with Flora Purim, Debussy, Tuvan throat singing and bagpipes from Normandy. Combining diverse things is an art in itself, and can reveal things that segregation by genre and period might obscure.

    I think great works of art, music or literature are like fascinating charismatic characters. To experience them you have to give yourself over to the whole package. And some of these characters are really incompatible - putting them together in a room stinks the place up. People who host dinner parties think about sequencing guests this way, putting transitional people as buffers between strong but clashing personalities. But a party in which everyone is of the same character is a party in which nothing interesting will happen, and a society that does not tolerate difference is neither free nor healthy.

    Before the invention of photography, any image that was a sufficiently convincing depiction of visual reality was a rare and magical thing. But when photography came along and images proliferated, the simple illusion lost its magic. Some artists saw this as a liberation, freeing art to go in many other possible directions. A new direction doesn't have to be towards abstraction, but there needs to be something to the work besides just accurate depiction, because if that's the only criterion photography will kick your ass every time. Even in the pre-photography period, the most interesting artists all have elements to their work that go way beyond academic representation.

    Our culture did go through a period when only abstract expressionism was recognized as serious contemporary art and only twelve-tone music was serious composition, but that era is as long dead and gone as the era of the Salon des Refuses or the exhibition of Entartete Kunst. Today's contemporary art scene accepts figurative, abstract, conceptual or just about any style or medium, and while there remain blind spots and taboos, I think we can expect those to diminish over time. Major art museums are now showing Norman Rockwell, even though in his time he could get no respect, and they'll show his work alongside Matisse, Rothko, Ana Mendieta, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. It's wonderful that we have all these different personalities. Each one deserves to be entered into fully on their own terms, but we can appreciate them even more if we see their particularities in the context of an enlarged pool of possibility.

  3. This reminded me of an Oscar Wilde quote:

    "It is only an auctioneer who can equally and impartially admire all schools of art."

    - A

  4. Hi Dani
    I was follower no 100 and glad to be here too...great blog!

    Enjoyed reading this today. It makes some sense, your points. I think balance makes to world go round in a way. The dark makes the light bright, bad times can make us appreciate the better times more, etc. Everything has it's merit and once one can learn to appreciate somewhat the things that don't necessarily turn us on, the things that do become even more attractive. Keep thinking, keep posting, and definitely keep painting.
    Peace and love

  5. Joy - I'm so glad to hear from you! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and if you find switching easier than me, perhaps you're simply less crotchety and stiff! I do think your point about general tendencies is correct - the way I think of it, there are two major alternative-options scenarios in life. In one, there is a right choice and a wrong choice. In the other, there are multiple acceptable choices. People tend to assume all scenarios match version 1, and vigorously condemn choices they didn't make, even when the scenario actually matches version 2. Although PC's suck, and people who use them are bad people.

    Fred, thanks as ever for your thoughtful comments. Sounds like I would have enjoyed a mix tape from you, back in the day. And the dinner party analogy seems quite good to me. I'm afraid I'm less optimistic about the current and future art scenes than you are. If you compare, say, Mary Boone and Arcadia, or ARTnews and American Artist, I think you'll see that a powerful ghettoization still exists; and considering the amount of money and prestige that has been invested in setting up and maintaining barriers, I don't expect the constellation of dealers, collectors, academics, and journalists to shift positions anytime soon.

    Anonymous, are you the same Anonymous as last time? Do I know ye? At any rate, once again I think we find Oscar Wilde amusing but wrong. An auctioneer admires in proportion with sale price, I imagine. And the auctioneer, in fact, admires the sale price, and not the art. Be that as it may, I do not admire them all equally; but I am forcing myself to take seriously Kimball's analysis, that we should call it all art - then critique sharply.

    Bobby - I had no idea! I am so glad you are #100, I think this appeals to both of our numerological tendencies, don't you? I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and I like your perspective on it. Everything, as you say, has its merit; one need not love all things, but it is best to be able to see the value in everything. For me, two of the main outputs of viewing art are emotions and ideas; and I can certainly have emotions and ideas in confrontation with any artwork. I will definitely keep painting, and most likely keep posting. But I did make a new year's resolution not to think anymore. So if you don't mind, it is going to be nonsense words from here on out.
    Peace and love to you -

  6. Insightful stuff, as usual. You know, you can apply the same ideas to music as well. Modern classical music (especially its atonal and minimalistic varieties) in many ways stands across an insurmountable gulf from the music that preceded it. And it engendered the kind of hostility you describe. I suspect it is for similar reasons too: that people have room only for one fundamental artform in their hearts. It's either art or anti-art. This is how I personally describe the rift between the kinds of art you discuss. I feel the same way about music as well. This reveals a certain bias, it is true. But there it is.

    Have you also noticed that there is a certain Marxist quality to the abstract artists as well as to the modern classical compoosers? They seem to think that despite not being understood in the present, in the future humanity will progress to the point of appreciating them.

  7. Chris -

    Thanks so much.

    Abstraction certainly engendered hostility at its inception, and plenty on the part of the public since then, but it and its descendants have long been entrenched as not only the dominant, but the only *legitimate*, paradigm in the part-that-matters art world, the odd Norman Rockwell show notwithstanding (Fred, I'm not convinced those are anything more than museum administrators bowing to economic reality). Did modern classical drive out classical classical from the hearts of music cognoscenti quite as thoroughly?

    Incidentally, for any of the rest of you still reading this, Chris is too modest to link to his own blog here, but I will. He has a lot more very fascinating stuff to say on this topic at:

    Highly recommended. And you will notice a cameo from an old friend of ours over here.

    As for the Marxist quality you describe, I think of that as a more general quality, in which the Marxists are but a particularly noisy subset. It describes all utopians - including the one 19th century socialist who thought the seas would turn to lemonade, and the other one who thought the otters would inherit the Earth.

    While I'm here, I ought to apologize to Anonymous. A friend pointed out to me that I was, perhaps, reacting more aggressively than your comments demanded, and postulated that it was not the comments, but the anonymity, that got under my skin. This was true, so I apologize for being a little rude there.

  8. Hello,
    Let me start out by saying I really enjoyed your thought provoking post. I stumbled across your post as I was doing a little research on Velazques related to my reading of Herold Speeds, “The Practice and Science of Drawing.” The part I am currently reading talks a great deal about the changes in the way artist have created art over the centuries and the effects it has on the way we view their art. It is very interesting and falls right in line with your post I think. For me the value of art comes from the ability of the artist to transmit an emotional experience to the viewer in such a way as to allow the viewer to share the experience in their own way. I think it is for this reason that people react so violently at the thought of being forced to turn away from that which they have made a emotional connection and risk viewing other art forms may not have an emotional connection with. If this fear is compounded by having someone tell them there is something wrong with them because they had an emotio0nal connection to one piece of art but not another only fuels the fire of resistance which is to bad because then they are going to be less willing to even give themselves the chance of possible connecting with a piece from another art forms. Thank you once again for your thought provoking post and allowing me to comment.


  9. This blog is absolutely superb. Please organize it by subject rather than chronologically, for it appears your back posts are well worth raiding and it is an acute rectal discomfort to do so randomly.

    1. Klaus - thank you, but I'm afraid you're going to have to wait for the not-free book edition before I bother to undertake a project which will dwarf, in the magnitude of its annoyingness, the sorrows of your butt. Try searching key words if you've got anything in particular in mind, that oughta work at least 17% of the time.