Monday, December 26, 2011


I normally write about politics, not art. But I care about art. I've been drawing and painting all my life, and I helped my ladyfriend attain her degree in Art History.

Crap like this has been bugging me for years. Is there anyone out there who genuinely considers Paula Scher to be an artist? She can't draw. She doesn't display any awareness of color theory. Her calligraphy is primitive and ugly. Her work shows no craftsmanship, no talent.

Nevertheless, her "map" paintings have received wide publicity -- and I feel certain that they fetch high sales prices. Why? Because of their literary content.

Too many people who should have become English majors went in other directions because it is not very easy to make large sums of money in the book business. They wandered into Art History because that's where the cash is. People pay tens of millions of dollars for paintings; there's gold in them thar galleries.

In most universities, you can get an Art History degree without taking any studio classes. These students never learn what it feels like to use pencil or charcoal to make marks on paper. They don't know what artists know.

As a result, we have had several generations of so-called art critics who place little or no value on composition, color, draftsmanship or any of the other things that I care about. They cannot discern the difference between the beautiful and the ugly. All they care about are ideas.

These poseurs discuss painting purely in terms of literary content. And they have, in turn, produced a generation of artists who are not artists at all.

Call them Fraudists. (My ladyfriend invented that term.)

Imagine if we discussed, say, Beethoven's Symphony #6 in purely literary terms. Imagine if songs or operas or cantatas or oratorios were judged by their lyrics.

Imagine what would happen if we allowed all conversation about music to be commandeered by people who don't know C major from E flat -- and who sneered at anyone who suggested that such knowledge might be beneficial.

In the world of painting, we've seen just such a transvaluation of values. As a result, millions of dollars have been spent on vomitous canvases emitted by hoaxers whose only talents lie in the area of self-promotion.

One measure of the corruption of art criticism is its reliance on lit-crit terminology. Any poseur who talks about how to "read" a painting deserves to have turps poured down his throat and #9 bristle brushes stuck into his eye sockets.

The ultimate example of art-reduced-to-literature must be the vile Ward Shelly. You have to see this shit to believe it. In his "History of Science Fiction," Shelly neglects the visual altogether, filling his canvas with words, words, words. Even his calligraphy stinks. (He could have used an old-school Ames guide. They're still on sale.) Worse, critics discuss his "paintings" in purely literary terms, even though these works don't have the literary value one should expect from a high school essay.

Painting is for painters. Subject matter is the least important aspect of any work of visual art.

Only poseurs and Misplaced English Majors discuss art in terms of ideas. They refuse to learn anything about the craft -- and yet, like all lazy people, they are very clever when forced to come up with rationalizations for their laziness.

Consider, for example, this extraordinary masterpiece (on the left) by Matthias Gruenewald -- a work that changed the life of French writer and art critic J.K. Huysmans. In terms of purely literary content, how does the Gruenewald differ from my ultra-crude drawing on the right?

True, I've cut out a few figures, and my dog Bella has been cast as the lamb of God. Still, from an Misplaced English Major's point of view, the two images are pretty much the same. They convey the same idea. Therefore, one is as good as the other -- if you are a litterateur.

But if you are a painter, or if you care about painting, you will come to a different conclusion.

Because the barbarian hordes of Misplaced English Majors have commandeered all discussion of art, we have produced a generation of artists who simply do not possess the skills necessary to produce a work like the Gruenewald. Nobody encourages a young artist to learn how to make a painting like that. Those few who make the attempt encounter only derision.

Suppose a modern artist attempted to create a work similar to the Gruenewald. What would happen? In all likelihood, the painting would be judged purely on the basis of its religious or literary content -- as though anyone should give a shit about that. The painting's beauty, or lack of beauty, would be ignored.

Over the years, a lot of crap has been written about what the Mona Lisa "means." The most famous, most crap-filled essay on this theme begins with the words "She is as old as the rocks on which she sits..." People have written entire books about how that one image has been variously interpreted over the years.

Let me clue you in. Let me tell you how an artist sees that work.

It's just a picture of a lady. Beyond that, it has no meaning whatsoever.

And yet it is the greatest portrait ever painted -- because of how it was done.

Art is not what but how.

The people who tell you otherwise can mount endlessly polysyllabic defenses and attacks. But that doesn't make them anything other than a parade of nude emperors.
If you have a purely intellectual idea to convey, do what I do nearly every damned day: Write an essay.

Ideas are for word people.

If you want ideas, GO TO THE FUCKING LIBRARY.

Go to a literary symposium. Go to the bookstore. Contribute to the New York Review of Books.

Stay out of the museums and galleries; those places are not for you.
Today, the money and the accolades go to notorious Fraudists like Damien Hirst and Jeffrey Koons. These poseurs have cashed in on the art racket.

It is true that Koons produces paintings that display actual skill. Koons hires other (better) artists to do the parts that require talent. Koons' job is to stand in front of the cameras and explain the ideas behind the works which bear his signature. He does this in a very ingratiating fashion; you can't help but like him. Still, he is nothing more than an idea man, a literary figure. He is not an artist.

Koons and Hirst are hucksters conning the tackiest residents of OnePercentLand.

Last year, I read a book called The Rape of the Masters, by Roger Kimball. Although his high-Tory political stance does not resemble my own viewpoint, I certainly agree with Kimball's disdain for the litterateurs who have disfigured art criticism.

One of the Amazon reviewers offers an instructive summary of one section of Kimball's book:
The chapter on John Singer Sargent's 1882 painting, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" gave me belly laughs galore as leading Sargent expert Professor David M. Lubin of Wake University, subjects a painting of four upper crust little girls at the turn of the century into a critique of sexual oppression and perversion. Playing on the French version of Mr. Boit's name ( i.e. boite, meaning box) Professor Lubin contends 'the Female Child is enclosed within [an]ideological and biological box'. If this is not absurd enough, Kimball shows us how Lubin's reasoning in analyzing the painting in sexual/gender terms depends upon such things as the circumflexed 'i' in 'boite' (remember the Frenchified version of the girls' father's name) as a receptacle into which the 'i' phallus plunges. In addition the word 'boite' the good Professor tells us also means 'house of prostitution'. From this he concludes that the little girls represent the father's (remember Dad doesn't appear in Sargent's picture) harem.

One could laugh one's head off if it wasn't so frightening to consider this is what young people are subjected to in universities across America.
Lubin is a literary critic, even if he pretends otherwise. Not once does he discuss the work in terms that would make sense to an artist: Composition, color, draftsmanship, brushwork, light, glazing, quality of rendering and so forth. All of the aspects of painting that the few remaining real artists spend years trying to master are absolutely invisible to the poseurs who affect to tell us what art is and is not.

When a Misplaced English Major stands in front of a 19th century painting, he tends to make up imaginative stories about the figures depicted: Who are these people and what are they thinking? That's a favorite pastime of the litterateurs. It's an exercise which may have some (slight) value in an introductory creative writing class -- but everywhere else, it is pure Fraudism.

In contradistinction to an endlessly eplanatory Fraudist like Koons, Gustav Mahler had two favorite maxims: "My music begins where words end" and "Perish all programs." In other words: To hell with anyone who tries to turn music into literature. Although Mahler was a well-read intellectual, the ineffable appeal of his complex, radiant, incredibly moving symphonies stems from their resistance to verbalization. If he had wanted to write an essay, he would have written an essay.

Our painters should take a similar stance.

Oddly enough, English majors do care about craftsmanship -- but only when the topic turns to literature. Visit a bookstore, look for the shelf filled with "how to write" books, and you'll find much discussion of elegance and style. Many people seek to give budding writers advice regarding adverbs, paragraph length, alliteration, metaphor and so forth. An author who expresses himself with the crudeness of an eight year old won't get published.

By contrast, modern critics and teachers never encourage young artists to learn the basics of drawing the human form. Today's artists are not taught about the extraordinary effects they can achieve by mixing small brushstrokes of cool and warm colors of similar value. An artist who draws like an eight year old can earn millions.

Artists are now taught Damien Hirst's maxim: Only ideas matter. Intellectual ideas. Literary ideas.

Visualize two boxes: One is labeled "How to write" and the other is labeled "How to paint." Our corrupt society has decreed that craftsmanship belongs in the first box and intellectual content belongs in the second.

I believe that we've been putting the wrong things in these two boxes. What would happen if we collectively said: "Strike that; reverse it"? What if we put ideas in the "writing" box and beauty in the "painting" box?

The result might be a new Renaissance.
You've read The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe? He's got a similar beef.
As one of the barbarian horde, I totally agree. I have attempted to do art on occasion, with poor results, tho I can sorta sketch landscapes (thanks to taking some drawing courses.) I've always felt that to truly appreciate art you must appreciate the craft and then look at its emotional impact on you.

I had never seen Sargent's "Daughters" before, but I had to go find a larger version, then stare at it while. It had an impact on me. Now that's what I call good art. The others? Not at all.
"I don't know anything about Art. But, I know what I like,"pretty much expresses how we see Art. Beauty is the eye of the beholder. One man's masterpiece was done by Rembrandt and another man prefers De Kooning. Your particular view is biased by a certain kind of education that prefers representational art to expressionism, abstraction, cubism, surrealism, Dada, or Pop. And, there are other areas you just don't want to wade into for fear of showing a preference for what 'you like'. Superiority in knowing what is good is little more than authoritarian. Keep in mind Hitler preferred realism, as did the Soviets.
The pix aren't large enough to be sure, but both the map and the sci-fi "diagram" seem to come from the concepts of Edward R. Tufte of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

While Tuft's ideas about displaying information in ways that graphically reinforce the data could be considered an art form within statistics and information, they are not art.
I know little about this world but I think your argument is very persuasive. But this kind of fraudism is not soley the preserve of the art world. Economics is rife with it. Mathematical economics seems to me to be the desparate attempt of the high priests of bureaucracy to create a theology that is both misunderstood and held in high esteem by the layman.
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"One man's masterpiece was done by Rembrandt and another man prefers De Kooning. Your particular view is biased by a certain kind of education that prefers representational art to expressionism, abstraction, cubism, surrealism, Dada, or Pop."

Bullshit. Pure bullshit. You did not understand my argument at all.

I was not talking about representational art versus abstraction. I LOVE a good abstract piece. I've tried to produce a few abstracts in my time, as did my father. A beautiful abstract is in many ways harder to pull off than a good representational work.

Even representational works should be judged as abstracts. One good way to do that is to turn them upside down.

Cubism? The artists that everyone talks about these days simply don't have the talent to pull off a good work of cubist art. Braque knew how to draw, and that foundational skill helped him create some great work. There are some good neo-cubists working today, but they don't get anywhere near the attention of the Fraudists. A Fraudist like Hirst could not create a halfway-decent cubist piece if you held a gun to his head.

Your reference points go back to the arguments of 70 years ago. You simply don't know what's going on today.

(That said, I do think that most Pop Art is Fraudism.)

"Keep in mind Hitler preferred realism, as did the Soviets."

Oh, fuck you and your predictable reactions.

It is ludicrous and hyperbolic to argue that a man must long to break out the Zyklon-B simply because he thinks it would be a good idea for artists to learn a thing or two about drawing.

Being a low-IQ type, anonymous, you completely missed my point about the art world's current mania for literary content. You reacted to some ancient argument you THOUGHT I was making. You completely missed the argument I actually made.

Most of the current art I hate actually IS representational.

What I despise is that this art is judged for its intellectual content, not for its beauty. Thus, if you scribble out an ugly image of Richard Nixon with a dick for a nose, you can be highly praised by BBC art expert Andrew Graham-Dixon. (You can see him make a fool of himself in this fashion in his recent "Art of America" documentary series.) Yes, it's a representational image -- even though it has no merit whatsoever. But Graham-Dixon agreed with the "idea" of the thing. I guess he liked its politics. And is art.

Well, maybe to HIM.
It seems all of the fine arts are infected with this nonsense. Movie criticism has ruined many films because of the idiotic "auteur" crap spewed by the French back in the fifties and sixties which ignored the contributions of hundreds of people in the making of films while focusing only on the director. Book criticism, meaning novels, has been ruined by idiots who try to deconstruct a novel in order to find some kind of meaning in what the author is trying to convey. I no longer read fiction because this type of criticism taught in college killed my enjoyment of novels. Enjoyment of the arts has taken a backseat to this nonsense of seeing "meaning" where none exists.
Susan, there are many great novels out there, and I see no reason why you should deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading those novels just because some college prof let Derrida go to his head.

As for the auteur theory -- well, I'm not sure I'm with you here. That theory was huge forty years ago. Not so much today. As I said to Anonymous in the comment above, you're fighting yesterday's war.

The main auteur theorist, Andrew Sarris, was American, not French. The bad guy is "Galaxy Quest" was named after him, which indicates how many screenwriters view him. That said, I still think that Sarris is worth reading, even though I never really agreed with him. How many film critics today have anything interesting to say?

My argument is a bit different. My point is that too many people look at a painting and ask "What does it say?" That is a question better applied to essays and books. When it comes to painting, the better question is "Is it beautiful?"

Intellectual argument is for words, not pigments.
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Plus, I am still laughing at the Hitler trump card. Evil people can like good art too.

Liking the art of the grand masters of the Renaissance and Baroque is not a part of a sequence leading toward the classification of that person as evil (just as liking Fraudist art does not make someone hip - just a purveyor of dubious art).

Ms. Vandal.
gregoryp, your comment was removed by accident. I am so sorry; what you had to say was quite good.
The French started the auteur nonsense, but Sarris and Kael were the biggest offenders of promoting the director as author nonsense. Regardless of who originated it, all it did was create some monstrous egos in motion pictures.

In the golden age of Hollywood, movies were primarily a group effort, with the exceptions of Griffith and Hitchcock who REALLY were the "artists" of their films.

In any case, current criticism has killed the enjoyment aspect of the fine arts. I try not to read critics. Many of them were failed "artists" or writers anyway.
I suppose artists, or so-called artists, are always trying to produce something different, new. Possibilities aren't infinite - there was bound to be a terminus at some point, and I suppose it was reached by artists of the past (and very near past). So artists looked elsewhere to make change. I've often thought the same applies to music today. All the best songs have already been written (lyric-wise) - so what do we get? Hip-hop, rap and the need to watch music. Video has become an integral part of music these days. And as you point out, Joseph, a painting doesn't have to "mean" something - equally a piece of music doesn't need visual representation. Both arts are becoming hybrids - of a sort, aren't they?
Brilliant post-modern abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler died today...

Cut and paste the URL.

Ms. Vandal.
You know, Twilight, you raise a good point. Rap -- which has been with us for AGES now -- is pseudomusic. It's really just bad poetry, recited very fast. Rap pseudosongs are judged by their words, not by their musical value, which is usually nil.

If you were to hear a rap pseudosong in another language, without a translation, would it have anything to say? If not, then you are dealing with a work of literature, not a work of music.

So pop music has been afflicted by the same plague that hit modern art. Call it the plague of literature. The Word is all.
Ironically enough, some of the strongest notes against the literarying [sic] of the visual arts were sounded in that most literary of 20th Century works, William Gaddis's The Recognitions. (The reception of which also inspired the infamous and entertaining (perhaps infamously entertaining?) attack on the Fraudists of the literary world, Jack Green's Fire the Bastards!
I would hope that after that perverted critique of Sargent's Daughters, the closest this Lubin person gets to art students is when he pushes his three wheeled shopping cart full of dead cats and broken bottles past a museum.

But then if Sargent wanted to do a portrait of four upper crust children why didn't he plop them down on a settee in a traditional pose?

I think the artist tried to convey the personalities of the girls and possibly the feelings that the parents had toward their daughters to the viewer. I can imagine Sargent at the Boit household with a charcoal and sketch pad recording daily activities for a period of time before going into his studio.

In the painting of the crucifixion the outstretched fingers say it all.

Any way that's my two cents on the matter of interpretation of the paintings. The technical details, even less of an expert.
Mr Mike, your comment about Lubin made my lady and I laugh so loudly I think we woke the neighbors. Thanks!

(With our luck, the Vandal will end up in one of his classes during grad school...)
It is interesting to see how words are now literally used within art. All the language used to describe art now becomes a subculture through which this new art is understood and 'appreciated'. It's a derivative from real art, and it needs someone to inflate it's value. It's only chance for growth is to make it appear sophisticated and unintelligible to the casual observer, creating a false value for those 'in the know'. Oddly enough, just like the financial instruments used today to create wealth from crap. It's scary that real value and merit has been so debased.
As a young philosophy student, I naively came under the influence of the Logical Positivism school of epistemology. It was clear from that theory that most of European philosophy itself was nonsense, and also that art criticism, styled as art history, was also mainly nonsense.

I enjoyed a Western Civilization course's digression into art history/criticism as an exercise in nonsense writing, in which I wrote nothing but cliches I had picked up ('the organic wholeness of the repeated circular form'), and it was well received.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Logical Positivism suffered from its own nonsense problem (self-contradictions), and perhaps my use of its criteria to laughingly dismiss art history/criticism had led me to a false conclusion.

If so, I have cheerfully ignored that possibility, and still find this alleged 'discipline' a risibly silly exercise in gum-flapping and noise-making existing apart from reason and sense.

In my view, something similar has been going on in music since the advent of the DJ. In recent years, a lot of people have got the idea that a DJ playing records in a club is somehow comparable to what trained and skilled musicians do. It's not.
It occurs to me that it might be part of a general de-skilling. Economic rent capture is a different game to innovation. Microsoft has done very little innovation and lots of rent capture.

So the rewards accruing to innovators and the creative or skilled decline, but the rewards accruing to rent capture continue to climb.

Getting rid of some of the jargo,, there is no money in being good at something, but there is lots of cash to be captured by marketing it or rebranding it.

It bodes very ill. But Im sure the younger generation will begin the process of rebellion against. In the meantime I would imagine these skills will continue to die out. Progress is not continuous. Domination leads to decadence which leads to collapse.

Amen brother.

Someone in your old stomping grounds, or at least on the same coast as where you resided feels the same way. And he is teaching a new generation.

"The best way to convey a message is through western union, not art."

Harry, you just described Apple, Inc.
C'mon Bob, really. Apple products are nice in the fact that they all work seamlessly together, even if you use a non apple peripheral they sync up like a dream. Microsoft platforms, while allowing more freedom to customize, always seem to have more problems. I wouldn't touch a mac pre 2005 and since 2009 I will never own a PC again.

The innovators are in the software market, and over at Apple. Their finished products are things of beauty. I bought my mom a Nook for Christmas per her request, it had to charge for three hours before the first use, when i bought an Ipad for my small business, I opened the box and began using it immediately, they had the foresight to charge it so I didn't have to wait. In this day in age, it's the small details that matter. Where so many cut corners, I appreciate any brand that thinks about the small pictures inside the large. I work with too many that can't even figure out why they are business, let alone how to be an aide to their customers. Bitch gripe and moan, I like my Mac, don't insult them. grumble grumble grumble.

Subject matter and meaning are just other layers of a work of art, along with formal aspects like composition and color. Saying that an artist is not interested in the thing itself or the meaning of the relationships between the things depicted in the piece is to reduce the work of many great artists to formalism.
Where you say formalism, anon, I say beauty.

So what does your argument come to? This: "In this picture, Cezanne paints a basket of fruit including two pears. I like pears. That makes this a good painting. I don't like peaches. If he had painted peaches, this would be a bad painting."

Does that make sense to you?
Paul Valéry called the "delirious professions," those careers that depend on self-assurance and the opinions of others rather than on certifiable skills. The delirious professions, I'd hazard, comprise literature, criticism, design, the visual arts, acting, advertising, all of the media.... [T]he delirious professions, having no agreed-upon standards, require introductions and alliance, protectors and patrons, famous teachers or acclaim by someone reputed. In short, they depend upon that most mercurial of all possessions: reputation.
Riverdaughter said: Ehh, whatever. I liked the map and the octopus. I didn't even read the writing on them. I just liked the composition. Are they my favorite pieces of art in the world? Of course not. My favorite pieces of art in the world are the modern art pieces at kykuit, the Rockefeller estate and you can only see them in person. AFAIK, there are no online galleries.
The map painting would look good in my study. It's interesting to look at. That's my criteria for art. I don't usually try to read too much meaning into it unless that is clearly the intention of the artist. Like guernica. Yep, there's meaning there. But I don't want to hang it on my dining room wall.
I've been to the best museums in the world: uffizi, louvre, d'orsay, the met, Getty, Versailles, pitti palace, and some castles in England crammed with portraits and ceiling art. Even some of the best paintings in the world aren't that interesting. The pitti palace was full of yawnable art. So, I've come to the conclusion that good art is what YOU like. Some of it is objectively bad but if it makes you feel good, whatever.
So. Hours each day studying figure drawing. The many informal lessons in color theory I took from a great painter.

All time wasted.
Joe, this was an excellent post. Plus, the subject matter means a lot to me.

I love the art of the Renaissance, the Pre-Raphealite (sic) movement, and the art of the "pulp" magazines. While I also do freelance art, it isn't in the vein of what I mentioned earlier; it leans more towards animation/comics.

But it still burns me to see what passes for art nowadays.

I do not consider my own work to be very good (even though I've done work for the New York Times and other clients). However, looking at some of what passes for modern art--and seeing the art "critics" slam better works--yeah, it does make the blood boil. Much of what you mentioned here is similar to my own complaints.

Great piece, and well worth reading. Thank you for this.
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