Monday, December 1, 2014

Arts of the Beautiful: Part II

This is a continuation of my post Arts of the Beautiful: here's Part I. In that post we noted four marks required by our interlocutor in a work of art:
  1. The work must require skill.
  2. The work must represent an object from nature.
  3. The work must evoke an emotion.
  4. The work must refer to something.
So far we've considered only the first mark. After discussing the other three, we shall, as promised, mount a (necessarily unsatisfactory) defense of the work of Paul Klee.

Whistler's Mother?

Whistlers Mother high res.jpg
Arrangement in Gray and Black
In the introduction to Arts of the Beautiful, Etienne Gilson ponders an illustrative example, James McNiell Whistler's Arrangement in Gray and Black, popularly known as Whistler's Mother. He quotes a reference to it in an essay published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This essay, after pointing out that the purpose of the painting is more than merely to produce a likeness, goes on to assert that its real subject is a certain mood which the image presumably evokes in the viewer.

Gilson observes that this interpretation equally well ignores the evidence given in the painting's title, which would seem to indicate that the artist's purpose was to produce an arrangement in gray and black. It's curious. The author of the essay (one John Canaday) rejects the popular notion that the painting is merely a representation of nature, only to call it a representation (or evocation, rather) of mood. Whereas the painter himself seems to have regarded it first and foremost as a plane surface covered with pigment so as to achieve a pleasing unity.

So these, then, are our questions: Is the primary end of art to represent (an object or an emotion)? Is art that does not represent even possible?

Les Demoiselles d'Gotham

Some time ago I saw an outraged citizen set Picasso's bull from Guernica side by side with a bull drawn by Gustave Doré, and challenge a proponent of modern art to give a good-faith argument as to why we should regard the former as anything but the deranged scrawling of a conman foisting a piece of trash on a facile public. The unstated assumption here is that the better artist produces the better bull, that is, the bull more closely approximating the immediate visual impression the cerebral cortex receives upon looking at the live animal.

Guernica. See upper left for offending bull.
This is to say that the ends of the illustrator are the same as the ends of the painter. The idea is nothing new; in centuries past there have been no lack of those who assert that, yes, a painter is nothing more and nothing less than an illustrator on a grand scale. William Blake, who here agrees closely with Mr. Wright, rails about this in his "Descriptive Catalogue" of 1809 in several places, e.g.,
As there is a class of men, whose whole delight is in the destruction of men, so there is a class of artists, whose whole art and science is fabricated for the purpose of destroying art. Who these are is soon known: "by their works ye shall know them." All who endeavour to raise up a style against Rafael, Mich. Angelo, and the Antique; those who separate Painting from Drawing; who look if a picture is well Drawn; and, if it is, immediately cry out, that it cannot be well Coloured— those are the men.
William Blake, Isaac Newton
thus referring to the tendency of critics at the time to prefer paintings with muted colors and blended forms. As he elsewhere puts it,
When Mr. B. formerly painted in oil colours his Pictures were shewn to certain painters and connoisseurs, who said that they were very admirable Drawings on canvass; but not Pictures: but they said the same of Rafael's Pictures. Mr. B. thought this the greatest of compliments, though it was meant otherwise. If losing and obliterating the outline constitutes a Picture, Mr. B. will never be so foolish as to do one.
Or again:
The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.
Though fashions change, and "wirey" bounding lines have come and gone, what Blake is saying here is much more far-reaching than a critique of a current style. He is saying that the ends of painting are properly the same as those of "drawing," i.e., illustration, his profession. (Incidentally, Blake knew the work of the "Antique" primarily through reproductions.) In something of the same sentiment, allowing for differences in the styles opposed, Mr. Wright routinely posts pictures of scantily-clad comic book nymphets with improbable bosoms as an antidote to the non-illustrative, nonrepresentational derangement of modern abstract art. To him, one well-delineated Catwoman with heaving mammaries is better than a full Pamplona of ill-drawn Picasso bulls.

Perhaps the real question is whether painting-as-an-art has an end outside itself. For illustration is clearly a subservient art: it must submit slavishly to the subject, even when not submitting to the demands of commerce. More importantly, it mustn't call attention to itself or announce itself as an independent product. Its nature is to go with something else, generally the spoken or written word. Works that violate this fail as illustrations (as many of Blake's works do), though they may be very fine paintings. Van Eycks and Michelangelos make poor illustrations except in books of art history. Take the Ghent Altarpiece. It is, admittedly, subservient to an end beyond itself, namely, the depiction of sacred themes, but the difference is this: in possessing that brain-electrifying "gleam of beauty" and fundamental unity that mark the arts of the beautiful, it serves to focus the mind on the altar and elevate it above the mundane, doing so insofar as it is a painting in its own right.

Doré's bull may be very fine, but what his bullfight illustration lacks that Picasso's painting possesses is the gleam of beauty considered as a whole, the mark of independence and unity.

Please recall, incidentally, that I am not attempting to prove such paintings as Guernica beautiful. I am merely using them to illustrate what I mean when I say that painting and illustration are distinct arts. If you disagree with my assessment of Picasso and Doré, well, I'll not argue the point; I'm only attempting to show that a reasonable person might distinguish between their roles as makers, as a great many persons actually do, without being guilty of bad faith.*

Art and Imitation

Now, even if it be conceded that the ends of painting are not the ends of illustration, perhaps one might still hold that a primary, or perhaps the primary, end of painting is the representation or imitation of natural forms.

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd
The Pre-Raphaelites (some of them, anyway) are famous for their meticulous attention to natural detail. Their extreme naturalism was a conscious revolt against the muted formlessness decried by Blake; they were influenced by the critic John Ruskin, whose later invective against Whistler for "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" brought about the famous libel case that marked the decline of his reputation.

Beautiful though the detail is in such paintings, there is a tendency for the parts to fail to coalesce into a unified whole. Good examples include Hunt's Hireling Shepherd, which seems to fall into several pieces, and Millais' oddly disproportionate Sir Isumbras at the Ford with its gradually diminishing horse. It has been said that detail serves to underline a section of a painting, and that nothing but confusion is accomplished by underlining everything. Unity and abstraction have to work hand in hand to bring the painting into a coherent whole. But as soon as you grant their roles, you arrive at the question: How much abstraction is too much abstraction? Is there a limit, and, if so, what is its nature?**

Pieter Claesz, Still Life
As Whistler said, if the imitation of surface appearance were the end of art, then the photographer would be "king of artists." Or again, if mere imitation were the highest end of painting, then the Dutch still-lifes would be the pinnacle of painting. It may be countered that this misrepresents the position: many paintings, it is true, are beautiful in that they idealize their subjects, and are thus not purely naturalistic, but their beauty still owes to what they represent. But this involves a confusion of categories, the categories of Art and Nature. The beauty of a flower is distinct from the beauty of a painting, even if the painting is of a flower. I have visited the Los Ranchos church, and I have seen Georgia O'Keefe's painting of it at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, but my enjoyment of the church is distinct from my enjoyment of the painting. Again, a crystal may be very beautiful, but it is no sculpture; and a sculpture that mimicked a crystal would entrance us only until we discovered the deceit and the novelty wore off.

So suppose we grant that the beauty of a painting as such is distinct from the natural beauty of what it represents. Who can tell where the beauty of nature leaves off and the beauty of art steps in? I certainly can't. There are no hard divisions between beauty and beauty in concrete objects, but this doesn't mean that they are not distinct in principle.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are convinced that they love art, when in fact they love what is represented in art. But what harm does it do? It actually does a great deal of good, for many a painter has been able to please the lover of subjects (and thus secure patronage) while pursuing the ends of art.

Klee, Separation in the Evening
On the other hand, I submit that no painting, not even the most abstract, is entirely independent of naturalistic representation. For every painting abstracts from nature. Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, a short but profound illustrated handbook, documents how he translates sense-impressions from the physical world, which can be purely visual (line, perspective, color) or more abstract (force, energy, motion), into the terms of his art. In Paul Klee on Modern Art he puts it this way:
May I use a simile, the simile of the tree? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.
From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.
Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.
Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into his work.
As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work.
Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergences.
But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion.
And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules—he transmits.
His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.
One of my favorite Klee paintings, Separation in the Evening, is clearly drawn from the muted golds and blues that drape themselves across the sky soon after the sun has set. (The image above is a tad oversaturated.) The opposing vectors embody the descent of dusk and the shutting-down of the day. It recalls to me a certain evening when I was a little boy, and went with my parents to the big downtown library, and looked out onto the street from the children's section. It fills me with a strange sweet melancholy. These are subjective impressions, I know, but the point is that I am responding to a naturalistic representation in this painting just as surely as a lover of grand American landscapes might respond to a Bierstadt or a Moran. The level of abstraction is just higher, and the focus narrower.

Piet Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1911
Many abstract artists of the early twentieth century exhibit this slow, cautious groping upward from the roots of physical reality, from imitative art to pure, almost geometric abstraction, reminiscent of parallel developments in mathematics. Mondrian is the clearest example. Place side by side a tree-painting from his early career, his middle career, and his late career, and trace the development, the reliance on nature that becomes less and less imitative, more and more certain of its ends. But, as Gilson puts it,
To speak of non-representational, non-imitative or abstract painting is not to speak of an amorphous painting. No painting is more abstract than Mondrian's, but this geometric painting is also the most formal of all. Like formal logic itself, it is form without content. [Forms and Substances in the Arts]
Each artist must follow his own path, as Klee said, and nothing can be rushed. But the drive is in every true artist.

Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World
On the other hand, even artists who never move beyond representation abstract from nature in their own ways. Georgia O'Keefe, best known for her flower paintings, insisted that she be known as an abstract artist. Andrew Wyeth made much the same claim.
Painters and sculptors find in objects which they imitate an always-ready outlet for their urge to make. Still, the true artist does not make in order to imitate; he imitates in order to make. Imitation is the first step on the way to creation. [Arts of the Beautiful]
It is interesting, incidentally, that as soon as photography stepped in to assume one of the roles traditionally filled by painting, there began a prolonged drift into greater and greater abstraction, as though painting had been set free to pursue its own ends.

William Morris
Acanthus wallpaper
One last point. Our interlocutor argues that "geometrical" paintings may be very pretty decoration, like wallpaper or tile, but are not truly paintings. As I replied to him, and repeat here, the difference is that decorative work is not meant to be viewed as a whole. Wallpaper, for instance, represents a pattern that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. If a painting were merely to reproduce such a pattern as far as finite bounds allow, then it would be a poor painting indeed. There would be no sense of unity or completeness, which means that no gleam of beauty such as a true work of art reflects would be possible. There could be no recognition, no "aha." Not so with even the most abstract works of Mondrian. They exhibit unity, completeness, balance, dynamism.

Art and Emotion

Millais, The Blind Girl
It remains to consider the assertion that art must represent or evoke emotion. I say these together, for it seems to me that the only way to know if a picture represents an emotion effectively is to see whether it communicates that emotion to oneself.

But how can a variable subjective response be used to gauge whether a painting is objectively a work of art? Beauty inheres in the object, even if different subjects may disagree about its presence, while mood inheres in the subject. Really, though, as I said before, the only emotion relevant to the question is the joy that comes with seeing a beautiful thing, and this joy may have very little to do with what is represented. The crucifixion in Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece brings me this joy, though the subject, whatever religious interpretation we may give it, fills me with horror and rebukes my soul.

Of course, many great paintings induce emotional responses, and it is in practice impossible to tell how much one's enjoyment owes to these emotions and how much to artistic beauty. John Everett Millais' The Blind Girl brings me great joy, but is this owing to the visual elements or the subject? Who can say? Still, this doesn't mean that the things are not distinct in principle. Certainly I can assert that this particular picture is quite lovely in its arrangement of color and form.

The main mistake made by those who insist on a painting's having a clearly recognizable and well-delineated visual subject provoking a universal emotional response is, in my opinion, the confusion of matter and form. Much like pigment or ground, a painting's subject and emotional freight are to the art-of-the-beautiful as matter to form. Perhaps we needn't expect to find a painting without a subject of some sort, just as we needn't expect to find a painting without pigment. But these things are subservient to the form. And what is the form? Gilson gives an admirably simple definition:
A picture is a solid surface which the artist covers with colored forms whose arrangement is pleasing to the eye through the unity of the form, the harmony of the parts and the perfection of the execution. [Forms and Substances in the Arts]
This discussion anticipates our next point, that of art and communication, which we shall continue in a subsequent post: Part III.

* For the record, I don't particularly care for Picasso's cubist work, though I do admire Guernica; I greatly admire Doré and own a number of volumes of his works, including his illustrations to the Bible, Paradise Lost, the Divine Comedy, Orlando Furioso, and the Idylls of the King; I think Blake was an artistic and poetic genius, and I concur strongly with his taste in art; I don't think a great deal of comic-book art, though I do enjoy me a good Roy Lichtenstein now and then; when it comes to delineations of female beauty, I find the princesses in H. J. Ford's illustrations to Lang's fairy books uncommonly pretty.

** Again, for the record, I would much rather see a good Pre-Raphaelite piece than hundreds of Picassos. When I was in London once I spent hours in the Tate on multiple occasions, and didn't so much as set foot in the Tate Modern. I think The Hireling Shepherd a lovely picture, but also recognize its failure to achieve unity.

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