Monday, August 30, 2010

Judging Art: Part II

"The primary purpose of Art is the meaningful objectification of whatever is metaphysically important to man". - Ayn Rand

I offer for your contemplation the long awaited sequel to Judging Art: Almost Objectively. For you gentle reader, I would like to propose a small suggestion. Find someplace comfortable, select a beverage of your choice (I like a subtle Burgundy or a Chimay) and print this article out. This is not light reading and after a while the computer screen may strain your eyes. And I personally prefer the light reassuring sensation of paper in my hands.

For my Kitsch colleagues, please see my first article to see how and why I'm using the term "Art".

Since the publication of Part I, I have received a great number of compelling responses, both positive and critical which have lead me further down this path of inquiry than I had before expected. For this I am grateful! Though I don't propose to have solved these questions by any means, at least for me, the ideas that I will express seem to shed some light on as of late dusty and un-touched corners of philosophy and consciousness. Indeed, I think that the advances in our understanding of human consciousness play a big part in revealing the basis behind the aesthetic experience. Perhaps science will never completely explain the intricacies of human consciousness, the question of the spirit, the aesthetic experience, but it can and does bring us half-steps closer. All the while uncovering two questions for every one that it answers - a process I think quite worthwhile. In that vein, I've embarked upon a path of research, debate, testing my theories with colleagues. And so, I look upon this as a work in progress and hope that the questions which arise will help us as artists: to foster our own creative and technical process, and as individuals I hope it will result in some greater understanding of these beautiful and strange creatures we call fellow human beings.

I have lately been reading a fascinating explication of Ayn Rand's esthetic theory, entitled What Art Is. What Rand (and the brilliant authors) have illuminated for me, is that there are several levels of meaning communicated in a work of Art. As obvious as this may seem, the understanding of the nature of these levels illuminates something about the creative process, about the nature of communication, and even about the nature of consciousness. And it accounts partially for how and why each viewer can and will read so many different things from the same piece.

The first level, being closest to the individual and the most intimate and emotive form of communication, is the inherent content that a successful work communicates - what I discussed in part I. Briefly, this base-line communication derives from our shared genetic predisposition and the part of our life experiences that are universal. Yes, I've heard the standard post-modernist response to the "universal" argument enough times to know what many of you are perhaps thinking. This content is context ALSO and is not really in the work itself! Of course, objectively speaking, if you were an alien intelligence, gazing at Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring", you would not see this human meaning as inherent to the work, you would not likely feel the gentle significance of her slightly parted lips, the posture of her shoulder, the glint of light upon the pearl, the graphic contrast between her form and the impenetrable darkness around her. And so it would also be context projected upon it by humans.

But, as fascinating as this ET scenario is ... (what would such a being think of our Art?), this brings up an important point, so please bear with me for a moment while I temporarily digress.
Have you ever felt as if you were only half awake? I certainly have. And it seems like I experience "existence" more when I halt the verbal background noise that's always bounding around in my head and I simply focus upon my senses. This is one of the reasons I love painting. It is the point where communication becomes communion: the point where the moment of the artist transcends space and time and meets the moment of the individual viewer. We'll return to this eternal moment later (or perhaps we've never left?). But for now, we have to start at the beginning, for the nature of meaning in Art is directly linked to our consciousness.

Consider the question: "do I exist?"

Seriously, ask yourself this question. If your answer is "yes, of course I exist!" I will kindly ask you to prove it. Oh, don't worry, you don't have to prove it to me. You merely have to prove it to yourself. However, your most reliable method of proof is your sensory input, which under many different circumstances might not be trustworthy - especially since it's meaningless until it's interpreted by the brain. Your entire reality exists in you brain. Everything you see, smell, hear, and touch. Maybe nothing exists at all! Woah, stop there! Now, we're going down a slipper slope, one which I've ventured down before, and I must say it led me through several of Dante's circles of hell. Yet, somehow, I was able to crawl my way back out. But, if you make the necessary assumption that you do indeed exist, the next questions are: "Does the world around me exist?", "Does everyone else exist?" Ultimately, we cannot absolutely prove anything. So, we have to make a fundamental assumption based on the information we have. Yes, we all exist. Great, I'm glad we cleared that up!

We all exist, and we are human beings. Art is made by human beings for human purposes and we have to make certain base assumptions if we are to get anywhere with the question of objectivity/subjectivity. If you remove the human content, it is no longer Art but simply a physical object: paper, scribbles (which the mind may interpret as words), paint on canvas, the motion of a body, etc... The thing that makes a material object into Art is the human gaze, the human mind, the human spirit. This is one thing that much of the Conceptual Art world understands, but what they're missing is the other necessary component. Without the act of communication, the concept is not Art.
As we move away from inherent content, things become a bit more ambiguous. Subjectivity plays an incrementally greater role. So, the second level of meaning is intermediate between inherent content and projected context. I will call it: individual context. This is meaning that draws from individual and social experiences in life that are common to all cultures, but not universal, though we all understand and respond to them in some way: family relationships, friends, hardship or privilege, loss, getting married or having a lover, parenthood, etc...

The third level of meaning, the most conceptual, is projected context. This is meaning that is projected onto the work by the viewer, based upon symbolism and iconography which are culturally specific and are learned: ideas that are absorbed from our specific kind of education (whatever form that may take), specific environment, exposure to the media and advertising, biases and views that relate to the time period in which we live, philosophical/religious/political ideologies, etc....

Related to this description of the different ways content can be communicated by a piece, I think it's important to make a distinction about the kinds of content which may be communicated. I often hear from the Conceptualist Contemporary Art faithful, something which can be summed up by a quote.

"Man is by nature a political animal". - Aristotle

Many of them take this to mean that all human action and communication is political action and communication - an idea that was championed by Marx. This assumption leads much of the contemporary Art world to believe that a work is "relevant", only if it is knowledgeable of this "fact", and addresses political concerns of the time. But, there are two major problems with this assumption. One is that Aristotle's polis, the city state, is a different and less complex form of politics than our current conception of politics (a discussion I'll leave for later). The second, and most important problem, is that only a portion of the human experience is political. Shall we say that Art shall be only for political people?

Not everything is about the struggle for power. Not every action is duplicitious. We may have friends simply because it pleases us. In fact, on a larger scale, Democracies or Republics function only as well as the people understand and communicate with each other on an individual level. Political content is only one kind of content and is often very time specific. So, if a work does not have other, inherent or human meaning, it will simply become a historical footnote. When those particular concerns have changed, as they always have and always will, the work will no longer have much of anything "relevant" to say to the viewer. If you peruse through collections of the finest art magazines and books from the first half of the 20th century, you will inevitably discover many artists who were praised at that time as among the greatest of history, far greater than the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Munch, Pollock. And yet, most of us who were not alive at that time, even with degrees in Art history, have never heard mention of them. Painters like: Bazaine, Da Silva, Bissier, Pasmore, or names that I recall coming across once or twice: Vasarely, Hartung, Soulages. The re-writing of what is important in history is ever constant.

Whether inherent or contextual meaning, there are three types of human content which are related to the levels of meaning mentioned above, that may be communicated in a work of Art: individual, social, and political. Individual content derives from our individual experiences, both subjective and those that are universal. Social content has to do with our relationships with family, friends, lovers, co-workers. Political content pertains to power structures within and between large groups, ideologies, dogmas, ... and because of this political content most often takes the form of propaganda.

From my perspective, it seems like the most successful work focuses primarily on individual content and often social content. It can include political content, but this cannot be its only meaning if it is to most effectively fulfil its purpose. Regardless of what culture, era, or part of the world you call home, and regardless of your political/religious/philosophical views; a work that speaks poetically and profoundly about our shared human experience will always speak directly to you.

Certainly, there are many learned biases, or perceptive lenses which may obscure, distort, or clarify one's ability to apprehend and experience a work. These are examples of unconscious projected context and are not uniformly bad or good. Sometimes they clarify and sometimes they simply blind us from seeing what's in front of us. Thus, it helps to be conscious of our biases and learn how to discard those we don't feel are helping, and perhaps enhance those that we feel are useful. Which is a fundamental role that education plays, and why each person should be actively engaged in their education, rather than just allowing it to be pressed upon them.

So, this brings us full circle. What is it that makes a work "better" than another? Is it skill? Is it emotion? Is it a new or compelling idea? As I said before, yes and no. It is all of these things.
On intuitive meaning vs. cognitive meaning

"Art brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were precepts"

- Ayn Rand

In order for the work to communicate most effectively, it must do so on an intuitive level so that, as Rand explains above, the work can be immediately grasped, pre-verbally, before any cognition has taken place, as if it was perceived and sensed. This sensing, this understanding takes place in the right brain and is akin to the sense of "being" that many spiritual leaders describe during prayer or meditation.
Indeed, Art is of a dual nature. (Or even further, Art is of a pluralist nature). It is not entirely objective, nor is it entirely subjective. Great beauty requires a bit of the sublime. And the truly sublime requires a bit of beauty. Beauty is not just physical, and the sublime is not purely conceptual or even "non-material" in the transcendental right brain sense. This is why I choose to use different terminology: because of how much baggage is associated with the "sublime". Because of Kant, whether or not he intended it, it has become associated with only the "concept" or Plato's "form" within the Art world. But, as you and I know, originally the definition was more about the absence of language, concept... this higher, transcendental state. But, for this reason, the word "sublime" confuses people.

I prefer to analyze this in terms of emotional and conceptual content. (See Judging Art Part I)Emotional and Conceptual: this necessitates creativity and skill - I use the term "skill" in a more open minded definition than most realists, and I use the term "creativity" in more open minded sense than the abstract or modern artists. As I've said before, great Art requires three things: intelligence, passion, and skill. What I mean by that is, emotional content, conceptual content, a sufficient skill to communicate the two, and a poetic and creative combination of all three. The great thing is that each artist combines them in different proportions. But, the natural result of the effective combination of these three elements will necessarily be: both the transcendent experience (sorry, I won't call it sublime) that we've been talking about, as well as beauty. This beauty can and is defined in many ways, but I think this transcendent "being" or presence is largely the same in every person because it rests upon our universal humanity. Though some are more practiced at achieving this state than others, as one who meditates is more practiced at achieving a trance -this absense of thought is the frame of mind one must have when first viewing the work, or one will not understand the primary point. One can, of course, venture into all forms of context and this is not a fruitless act, but it is additional and not fundamental to the core meaning. This accounts for both the immediate and shared universal response as well as the additional knowledge or experience collected in our unconscious and intuitive mind.

I have long wondered why Art often takes the place of religion for some, and now I understand why. It offers a path to the deepest connection to ourselves, to each other. It gives ghostly form to our hopes, dreams, passions, and fears. It is profoundly intertwined with our very consciousness and embodies the manifestation of our most spiritual moments. The greatest work transports us to the moment of its creation, to peer out from beneath the opalescent layers of paint and oil to catch a wavering glimpse of its creator, as if through a dark foggy glass. His moment of creation becomes our own and for a small space, time stands still, it melts away. We meet this soul and feel "this is my brother, my sister, my father or mother... this is me". All of the tragedies and joys that have graced his life, I too share. And what greater means can we have to address the grave problems ahead of us than this bottomless and shared, individual understanding?

Thanks to my friend Michael Guilmet for sharing with me this very pertinent quote:

"The revelation of art is not ethics, nor a judgment, nor even humanity as one generally thinks of it. Rather, the revelation is a marveling recognition of the radiant Form of forms that shines through all things. In the simplest terms, I think we might say that when a situation or phenomenon evokes in us a sense of existence (instead of some reference to the possibility of an assurance of meaning) we have had an experience of this kind. The sense of existence evoked may be shallow or profound, more or less intense, according to our capacity or readiness; but even a brief shock (say for example, when discovering the moon over the city roofs or hearing a sharp bird cry at night) can yield an experience of the order of no-mind: that is to say, the poetical order, the order of art. When this occurs, our own reality-beyond-meaning is awakened (or perhaps better: we are awakened to our own reality beyond meaning) and we experience an affect that is neither thought nor feeling but an interior impact. The phenomenon, disengaged from cosmic references, has disengaged ourselves, by the principle, well known to magic by which like conjures like. In fact both magic of art and the art of magic derive from and are addressed to experiences of this order. Hence the power of the meaningless syllables, the mumbo jumbo of magic and the meaningless verbalizations of metaphysics, lyric poetry and art interpretation function evocatively, not referentially; like the beat of the shaman’s drum, not like a formula of Einstein. One moment later and we have classified the experience and may be having utterable feelings that are in the public domain and they will be either sentimental or profound, according to our education. But according to our life, we have had, for an instant, a sense of existence: a moment of unevaluated, unimpeded, lyric life, antecedent to both thought and feeling; such can never be communicated by means of empirically verifiable propositions, but only suggested by art."

- Joseph Campbell

I hope I've left you with more questions than answers.


MCG said...

Great post Richard, thank you for the mention. I should also mention that I was reminded of that particular passage when I saw a few lines of it posted on Michelle Dunaway's Facebook wall. I sent the remainder to her and we had some related discussions. I hadn't thought of that passage in years. It excited me in my teens because I used to draw a lot then, and because I was a magician. Yes, I have far more questions than answers...

Erling Steen said...

Hi Richard
Great writing again and
thank you for mentioning ET; gives me an opening.
As you of course is aware we have no idea how alien ET may be, and he may not be as alien as Hollywood makers of children's movies would like him to be! And even if he is very alien, Vermeer's paintings may make perfect sense to him, perhaps even more than to humans as he has been transporting himself over millions of light-years and must be the hell of an engineer and therefore may be able to fully understand the “sublime” construction of Vermeer's paintings.

In Fred Hoyles sf novel “The Black Cloud” the scientists, who are communicating with this intelligent cloud, plays Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata for it and it ask the scientists to speed it up and after listening to it in a high speed version the cloud comments something like this: That gave me something to think about for the next thousand years :))
Of course Hoyle express his vision of music with this story but I adopt it with great pleasure as my vision of art in general. :))

So I think your assumptions that art “is made for human purposes” and if you remove the human content it is no longer art” are wrong and far too narrow, it is exactly what the “conceptual art world” is doing; shutting us up in our confined little human space with our confined little human fantasies and most often misguided understanding of ourselves and the reality of the universe we live in.

I don't think that the basics of art is of human origin at all, it was here long before as an integrated part of the universe and something for us to explore, and some of us is doing exactly that. But of course we add to it, or add it to, things of special significance for humans most typically as decoration or entertainment or communication if you wish.

I think you stretch “communication too far”, no doubt Italian opera “communicates”, very much so, but lots of music is made as exploration (and paintings too), and even an exploration of how far or how fast the pianist can reach with his fingers while the rest of us is merely invited to listen in, and I do of course believe that you have no intention to exclude that kind of music (or painting) from “Art”. Actually skill is the only thing that can stand alone sometimes, especially music has a great tradition for that, just watch and listen to Alfred Brendel playing the Hammerklavier sonata (its on my fb wall) he is far too busy employing his skill to even consider to communicate.

From the Explorer to the Communicator
Kindest Regards

New York City said...

VERY interesting points. I will have to ponder them and get back to you.


My Pen Name said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
New York City said...


I've been giving it some thought, and I would say you're correct in as much as ET would likely understand the mathematical components of a work of Art. I think this is a very significant point.

But math is only part of the composition and only part of the content. The emotive aspects, especially related to human gesture and our particular responses to color, light, etc... these things would likely be lost on ET. Yes, a human gesture CAN be described by math. But, that is not necessarily what we respond to. Consider all of those who know very little about math or proportion, this would theoretically limit their aesthetic experience, and the mathematician would always have a greater aesthetic experience. We can see that this is not the case.

Yes, mathematics can certainly lead to an emotive response in some people and for nearly everyone there is a relationship between proportions and ideas of beauty and/or sublime, etc... This is because certain proportions appeal to the human brain. For example, our brains are hardwired to recognize and respond to the human face and body.

But pure mathematic principles, as it seems you might be thinking of, lie more in the conceptual part of the content than the emotive content. And if this hypothetical ET does not percieve the emotive content and only the conceptual content, then to ET it is simply conveying information. We don't know if this information would be significant to this alien intelligence.

Further, math is a human system created by human minds. We can't really say that it would absolutely be universal. Certainly, we can say it's likely. And it's likely that at least ET would in the very least recognize that there's some kind of system, pattern at play. Would ET get meaning from this? Who knows.

I think skill can be very communicative. Not as much as if it's applied to content, but in and of itself, it communicates something about striving to push human limits among other things.

New York City said...

In response to My Pen Name (who deleted his/her comment)

Your first statement is an opinion and is certainly valid and productive, though I wonder if you read my whole argument. I partially agree with you and I'm sorry that you felt you had to delete it.

On your second point, which I will only respond to because several others have brought it up.

It's a fault of logic to say that if you agree with a system of reasoning that Ayn Rand used (but did not create) then you must agree with every conclusion that she came to.

Aristotle's reasoning "matter" lead to the development of modern science and illuminated many things... it even forms one of the primary building blocks of all western knowledge. Yet, he concluded that the sun revolved around the earth. What was lacking was relevant information, not necessarily a faulty reasoning.

If you care to comment in the future, you're more than welcome.

Erling Steen said...

The kind of math I have in mind is of course the kind that all painters struggle with either to apply it or to bypass it, and that they not necessarily have much knowledge about and that you can appreciate in a painting without knowing anything about it at all.
But at a closer look the geometrical elements that goes into balancing a painting is rather obvious I should think.

We only use the math stuff to analyse the rules that governs the various partitions of the surface not to paint with it. And I believe that it is a bit more than part of the game; it is actually everything.
No matter how much “human content” you add to a badly balanced painting it will still be a bad painting, on the other hand; in a well balanced painting you can reduce the “human content” to a minimum and it will still be a well balanced painting. Theoretically speaking, you can actually create a great painting with a few splashes of paint in a color way off and no drawing at all.

Of course we don't want to reduce “human content” to a minimum, we want to add more to it, that's what representational painting is all about. But whatever we want to add we have to adapt to rules of some, at first sight, rather primitive math, like the golden section, diagonals and middle points.

However there are many ways to escape this troublesome stuff, like Pollock distributing paint evenly over the surface and vupti, no problem. But what should concern representational painters is that you can drown it all out or blind yourself and your audience by impressive subject matter, by impressive handling of the paint, by size, by name and by you name it! And it is in those cases when you remove the human gaze (imagination) it turns into merely paint on canvas!

Its my impression that you are looking for a new way to judge art based on subject-matter and as such it makes some sense to me, but I also kind of glimpse the good old classicist ranking of subject matter suitable for the arts reappearing in the horizon.

For the fun

New York City said...


This is, indeed, very fun and a fascinating topic to me.

I agree with your point about composition. Yes, a painting can "function" without human content. And we as painters can and do pick these principles up intuitively and use them intuitively when we paint. But does that functionality really mean anything other than good design to most of us? A little. And a painting with a great amount of human content can be a complete bore as well without composition. (Many realists paintings today have this problem). I agree that mathematics are a fundamental part of composition, but I disagree that all composition is only mathematical.

Relating to this, I'm not talking so much about subject matter (though that is a part of what is communicated - more of an iconic/symbolic meaning), what I'm really interested in is the technical narrative (the term was coined by Vincent Desiderio). This is something that I don't hear anyone talking about, but I think it's at the root of our questions.

The technical narrative is how the painting speaks through the relationship between its technical language and its compositional language. For example, the language of the brush, the relationships of values, shapes, colors, the range from transparency to opacity to impasto, warm to cool, light to dark, high contrast to low contrast, soft edges to hard edges, etc.... this is the language that is the hardest to define. The poetry of the technical narrative is the relationship between all of these elements.

But I'll give you an example, compare these two Rembrandt self portraits. One from his early period
and one from his late period.

It's the same subject. It's pretty much the same palette, same Baroque light, but they look almost like two different painters made them. What makes them vastly different? What makes the late Rembrandt more poetic, psychologically and emotionally compelling? Technical narrative.

The human content can be conveyed through the technical narrative as well as the subject matter.

Yes, the golden mean, dividing the canvas into thirds, diagonals, geometry, proportions, are all integral parts of composition. I don't consider a painting strong unless it has them. And fractal geometry can even be used to describe the drips of a Pollock painting. One could calculate the wavelengths of colors and values and perhaps define certain proportional relationships that happen to be more compositionally effective.

But these such calculations, I think, would only be effective and pleasing to the human eye and mind because the aesthetic judgement of whether or not it works is made ultimately by the subjective human mind. The judgement that the golden mean is a good compositional device is not defined by mathematics but whether or not people respond to it visually. Who's to say that an alien intelligence would also respond in the same way?

Erling Steen said...

Technical narrative is a very good name, I never thought of it as narrative when I admire Jan van Huysums tempera/oil technique but of course it speaks.

Our work with the geometry is intuitive, that's the only way, it is not a rigid definitive phenomena but approximate like the human eye that rarely focus on one particular point, only the intuition of the painter can stretch it and twist it to create something more interesting. Not even the geometry of a finished painting is fixed, because the human eye don't care where precisely that diagonal is.

When we work with the technical narrative side of things we may experience it as separated from the geometry, but I think we work over the geometry intuitively at the same time.
It is well known how light and color can change the size and shape of an object and of course we intuitively select color and light so that the balance of our painting is not destroyed.

So I think that technical narrative and the geometry are more or less integrated phenomena.
Think of how specialists in anatomy can determine the size and shape of facial muscles based on the bone structure of a skull.