Sunday, February 27, 2005

Why Are Paintings Rectangles?

Why Are Almost All Paintings Rectangles and Squares?

Why not circles or triangles?

Clement Greenberg was the most influential art critic in history and through him his philosophy of art became dominant in the mid-twentieth century. That philosophy had precisely to do with rectangles and squares.

It was Greenberg's philosophy that each of the arts should distill out its essentials, those things that it had and that the others didn't, and concentrate on advancing those differences.

For painting, and Greenberg was almost exclusively a "painting," not an "art," critic it was the canvas and the physical characteristics of the paint itself that should be emphasized, to the exclusion of figuration and beauty for example.

So with so much attention that got, and still gets paid, to the physical properties of painting art, why do we almost exclusively have paintings on parallelograms?

One can see how the format for painting would have evolved from cave walls to canvases by the demands of art's benefactors, the royal court, and later an aristocracy and still later a prosperous bourgeoisie, none of whom would want to trudge off to a cave to look at his likeness.

But that doesn't account for the shape. Mirrors were ovals, windows were sometimes; the circle had philosophic symbolism of eternity going for it. The triangle's solidity and stability was celebrated by the Egyptians in their greatest monuments.

In Philosophizing Art, Arthur Danto, a ying to Greenberg's yang, convincingly explains why so many paintings of the "New York School" were so huge:

"More likely, living as they did in lofts, out of necessity then rather than fashion, artists in their natural sensitivity to such matters must have felt a discrepancy between the size of their studios and the disproportionately reduced dimensions of the easel painting, and since nobody was going to buy things anyway, why not make things more suitably sized?"

Voila, sometimes the simplest explanations are the right ones.

But with so much experimentation going on at that time, when you had artists dripping paint onto canvasses lain on the floor of a barn, when you had artists making gargantuan sized works, to say nothing of what was to follow in the '60's,when you had all these rules being questioned and broken, why didn't someone think, "Wonder how this'd look in a circle?"

To state the obvious, I'm not talking about the odd painting here and there that may have been painted on a circular or oval canvas, although I've thought about it and I can't think of one prominent one, but I'm talking about a "school" or a "movement" that caught on, however briefly.

I don't think it exists. Whatever else they were doing they were doing it on parallelograms damn it.

The only other art of a culture other than the west that I'm even passingly familiar with is that of China and there of course you have the hanging scroll format. There may be simple reasons, involving ease of rolling for example, to explain why scrolls are rectangular rather than circular, but even Chinese canvas painting is still four-sided.

Talk about the need to "think outside the box." What would account for this?

-Benjamin Harris

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Art: Emotion and the Intellect

Art: Emotion and the Intellect

Anybody who thinks about art even a little, those of us in the general public when confronted with an unfamiliar instantiation, and scholars who write about it for a living have been asking and attempting to answer--for the past century really-- the question, "What is art?"

Arthur Danto defines art as (1) being about something, and (2) embodying that something's content. I've read a lot of Danto and I don't know exactly what that means but it's Hegel's definition of art as Danto says. For Danto, art is philosophy. He has vigorously objected to that distillation of his thinking but that's what it is.*

Clement Greenberg by contrast was a Kantian art critic. For him, each art form had to find it's true essence, the one thing that seperated it from other art forms, and to work single-mindedly toward advancing and refining that thing apart. Famously-now infamously-Greenberg held that painting was defined by its physical forms: the frame of the canvas and the qualities of paint itself. This definition allowed Greenberg to be the first to identify the genius of Jackson Pollock.

Pop art, installation art, art "happenings", video, et al blew Greenberg's definition all to shit and as Danto notes Greenberg essentially stopped writing art criticism after the early 1960's.

Art is not philosophy either, however. Philosophy is a construct of, and appeals to, the intellect. What people think of when they think of art is something, however it's defined, that appeals to their souls, that "moves" them. That is not an adequate definition of art, it's not even an exclusive component of art, it might have to do with distinguishing good art from bad art but there is something to that that is closer to capturing what art is, or should be, than either Danto's or Greenberg's definitions. Its appeal should be to the soul not the mind.

Recently, Dennis Dutton, of Arts and Letters Daily, wrote one of his ever insightful blurbs on some articles on the art of Henry Darger. Dutton asked rhetorically whatever Darger's work is, "Does it move anybody?"

I haven't seen enough of Darger's art to answer that for myself but two things struck me about Dutton's comment. The first is what I've said above about the definitions of art that I've read, and second was the emphasis, also admittedly present in all serious writing on art, on the subjective component of art appreciation. "I don't know if it's art but I know what I like," is a cliche, and a crutch for those--all of us to some extent, let's be honest--who don't "get" a painting or an artist.

Clearly, art is "hard" today. There are no rules. I agree with Danto that that is a good thing but when there are no rules it's hard to judge. We can educate ourselves and read about art and the various schools and the creator's intent and the art historical context in which it was executed and so on and we can better appreciate art as a result. And as a result of all of that we can be emotionally moved by it. Greenberg went so far as to say that noone had the right to comment on, much less criticize, the art of his day unless he/she had this intellectual background for it.

There's much to be said for that view but not for Greenberg's ultimate conclusion which is the logical extension of the intellectual immersion view. It is elitist and exclusivist, to which Greenberg would say, "And your point is?" The point is that it elevates the intellectual over the emotional and who is Greenberg or anyone else to say that that's perforce true? You don't have to go back very far--to Nietzsche--in western thought to get to a profound contention of that principle, or you can go back as far as you want, to the Greeks, as Nietzsche did.

I love Jackson Pollock, I always have. I "understand" him better now than when I first saw his paintings but I always liked him. I can't say that he moved, or moves me, though.

I never "got" Roy Lichtenstein until I went to a lecture on him at a museum. After that it was like that place in The Wizard of Oz when the movie changes from black and white to color. I saw him in a whole different light and now I'm delighted by his work, his creativity, his playfulness and above all by the intellectual content of his work. But again, I don't know if I can say that I'm actually "moved" by him.

This is not a subtle or backhanded criticism of contemporary art. I don't know that I'm moved by the Mona Lisa. I get the mystery of her provenance, of the proverbial enigmatic smile, of Da Vinci's use of vague shading to produce the mystery, the importance of the background, etc. Very interesting, beautiful, wouldn't have missed seeing it for the world but-nail me to a cross-I wasn't moved by it.

Same thing with Guernica. Powerful, powerful depiction of the horrors of war, painted at the height of Picasso's groundbreaking painterly style. But I wasn't moved by it as I have been by some other art, and some other "art."

I have had a few soul-shaking experiences with art. This is switching fields, which might not be wise here but I'll come back to painting in a moment. I was moved the first time I heard Bach's Brandenburg Concerti, I forget which one. I had gone into a record store in college to buy some pop pap, i don't know what, and the Brandenburgs was playing as the store's background music. I had never heard them before and I was stopped in my tracks. I went up to the cashier and asked him what it was and immediately bought it, foregoing Alone Again, Naturally, or whatever I had come for. It "spoke to me," that's all I can say to describe it but familiarly enough to all of us who have had similar experiences.

Same thing when I first heard Sarah Vaughn sing. Stopped dead in my tracks and hooked right then.

Getting back to painting, a couple of years ago I was in a friend's apartment and she and I were about to go out to get some dinner. She had a copy of Artforum in her apartment and as she got ready to go i leafed through the magazine looking at the pictures. There was a small, no bigger than 2"x2," photograph of a large purple painting, just a monochrome, wall-sized. It moved me. The accompanying article was about the deterioration of the painting, which was in a museum in Texas somewhere and the efforts of conservationists to preserve it. My friend came into the room ready to go and I put the magazine down and we left for dinner but the painting stayed with me. It had spoken to me at a very deep level and I was very moved by it.

The greater distance I had from it the more it effected me and the more I reflected on it. Every time I went back to my friend's apartment I looked for it but couldn't find it. I mentioned it to her and we looked together and seperately.

It's effect increased on me over time. It made me soulful, introspective, sad in a way. It had mezmerized me, the more so with time. I looked for it on the internet, I even called museums in Texas. "Hi, I'm trying to locate a large purple painting that I saw in an edition of Artforum a while back. It was wall-size and it was deteriorating and there were efforts being made to preserve it?" I felt really stupid. Nobody knew what I was talking about.

I had not even remembered the artist's name but Rothko was one of the contenders. Eventually I found it on the internet in the Rothko Chapel outside Houston. Since then, I've read everything I could about it, got a picture book on it, read a lot about Rothko too. I "appreciate" the chapel paintings more and was more moved by them after reading about Rothko's history, his suicide and especially the time he spent on his monochromes, sometimes just sitting in front of an uncompleted one for hours. Just reacting to it.

Of all contemporary works of art certainly, maybe of any painting of any era ever, those Rothko Chapel paintings moved me. When I moved into my new apartment two summers ago I even had my walls painted in that same purple. I matched the color paintstakingly, mixing a little black here and some red there until I got it just right. At least I think so, and so did my 13 year old son. I had my painter seperate the segments of the wall with white borders to give the effect of canvases, because although wall-sized, the Chapel paintings are still canvases, not walls, and I gravely instructed him to paint only in horizontal strokes, as Rothko himself had done. It's the equivalent of my teenager lining his bedroom walls with posters of his bands, I know, but the point is, who is anybody to make fun of this very intense soulful reaction I had, and still have, to them? They moved me. I'm glad that I was moved by a respected painter like Rothko rather than by Thomas Kinkade (sp?) but that I was moved seems to be more important than by what. You shouldn't have to justify or apologize for feeling deeply, even if the object is considered low brow or maudlin.

Which brings me to the conclusion here. I am proud of my ephiphanies at the hands of J.S. Bach, Sarah Vaughn and Mark Rothko. Their works are among humankind's greatest artistic masterpieces but I am unmoved by others equally great and I have been, and still am, moved by some hideously low-brow art. I am ashamed that I am and have been but the catharsis I seek by this admission is not that they are equally "art" to the others, but the self-acknowledgment that there is nothing wrong with being deeply moved by anything.

I have long divorced myself from most aspects of popular culture. The process has been gradual and over a period of twenty-five years or so, but I now own no television, no computer and I rarely go to movies. I buy into the idea that that stuff rots my brain and I am glad I am a luddite.

BUT, I actually was moved by Alone Again, Naturally by whoever-that-was, that pop song about an obviously depressed guy who, among other things, stands up his girlfriend at the alter. I actually went to see him in concert in college. Oh god, I'm glad I write this blog pseudonymously.

I liked The Carpenters and I'm not going to justify it on the grounds that Karen Carpenter really did have a nice voice, I liked them because their songs were romantic and soft, OK?

And whoever out there says he or she doesn't occasionally hear an old song on the radio and go "ahhh" inside at a memory is either a lying mother-fucker or a Vulcan.

Actually most people do admit this, in fact they revel in it. That's why there are so many "oldies" radio stations and socials held for people of this or that generation to get together and listen to "their" songs and relive the good old days.

It's just people like me--and there are a lot of us--who don't like to admit this, who have, and who more importantly think of ourselves as having, "moved on" and who don't like to admit it.

I'm glad I've moved on, I'm glad I no longer listen to that music. I can make the case that life is about moving on and growth and opening oneself up to new experiences and the possibility of being "moved" by other things, especially "better" things; I think it's pathetic to go to an Eagles concert now and see "Nikon Don" Henley etched with age and flecked with gray, or God help us, Keith Richards. Leave it go.

But the feelings. Then. Those feelings were real, as real and pure when we felt them as any we feel now.

That is what art, however defined, however particular examples of it may not effect others, that is what art can do. Alone of all human creations. Move us, go directly to our souls.

*For example, in the chapter, "The Philosopher as Andy Warhol" in his book Philosophing Art, Danto writes, "Hegel had proposed that art and philosophy are two 'moments,' as he put it, of Absolute Spirit...In a certain sense, if he is right, there must be a basic identity between the two, and Hegel believed that art fulfills its historical and spiritual destiny when its practice is disclosed as a kind of philosophy in action." (p. 63)

-Benjamin Harris

Friday, February 25, 2005

Life on Mars

Life on Mars

I've started and restarted this post several times, not sure how to do it. I don't want to sound dumber than I can help it or more moon-beamy but on the other hand when I tried to write about it in neutral journalistic tones it was just redundant to what could be read elsewhere.

So, I'll just wear my emotions on my sleave. We're going to find life on Mars and sooner rather than later and it gives me goose bumps and will represent the most significant discovery in mankind's history and it's impossible to overstate my excitement at the prospect.

Three things happened this week. The first were reports from the European Space Agency that their Mars orbiter had found evidence that convinces them that there is a large, recently formed ocean of ice at Mars' equator. Scientists were struck by the similarities of the Martian sea to that covering Antarctica, where we know there's life.

The second of the week's events was additional evidence from the Europeans that volcanic activity continues to exist on Mars. As I understand it that augurs well for life for two reasons. One, we have discovered previously unknown and undreamt of life forms, tubular worms, that live off the heat and sulfuric excretions from the earth's crust at depths where sunlight, until then thought essential to life, could not penetrate.

Second, there had been tantalizing photographic evidence previously that volcanic activity on Mars had been so recent that it had caused liquid water to however briefly break the surface and run in rivers before evaporating into the Martian atmosphere. Everywhere on earth that we know of where liquid water exists life exists. Why would Mars be different?

The third development this week came from evidence found on earth. A NASA scientist examined a 30,000 year old chunk of ice under a microscope and saw frozen bacteria of an unknown form. When he thawed out the ice the damned bacteria starting swimming! They were still alive! Again, if that can happen on earth, why not on Mars? Even if there is no liquid water found on Mars (and there will be) we will find frozen life in the ice there, maybe even life that can be thawed out and made to "live" again.

It's gonna happen, it's gonna happen. Not only on Mars, but on Europa, and maybe in other places in our own little solar system and it makes me so excited I can't contain myself.

-Benjamin Harris

Thursday, February 24, 2005

There Will Always be an England: Nature Magazine's Attributions

"Tell me what a man does and I'll tell you what he is," is an old English saying.

Nature magazine takes it one step further. Their attributions read, e.g.

"Virginia Trimble is at the University of California, Irvine..."

"At?" Yes, one assumes Ms. Trimble is a professor rather than a custodian "at" Cal-Irvine but it is a curious English circumlocution to accredit their contributors in that manner.

It can be a little jarring too. At the end of an article "The power of natural selection," Nature tells us that the author,

"Andrew P. Hendry is IN the Redpath Museum and Department of Biology, McGill University..." (emphasis added), which if literally true would indeed be a remarkable instantiation of the power of natural selection.

Their own staff writers do not always suffer the same vague description. "Heike Langenberg is a physical sciences editor at Nature," is one. "Allison Abbott is Nature's senior European correspondent" is another. But another article is authored by an outside scholar, Russell G. Foster, who the magazine alarmingly tells its readers, "is in the Division of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Charing Cross Hospital..."


-Benjamin Harris

Friday, February 04, 2005

Donald Kuspit, Quote Machine

Donald Kuspit, Quote Machine

Calvin Trillin once wrote of advising his friend R.W. Apple to donate his expense accounts to The Smithsonian, so laden with extravagances and excesses as they were.

Motivated by a similar concern for posterity's interest in the excessive I hereby nominate the following passage by Donald Kuspit from his book The End of Art for most authorities quoted in a single paragraph:

"According to Pater and Greenberg, aesthetic experience is heightened sense experience, separated from all other experience. It is inherently beautiful and affords pleasure. This was also the view of antiquity. In Plato's Philebus Socrates states: 'Thus pleasures are those which arise from the colors we call beautiful and from shapes; and most of the pleasures of smell and sound....such sounds as are pure and smooth and yield a single pure tone are not beautiful relatively to anything else but in their own proper nature, and produce their proper pleasures.' In the Tusculan Discussions, Cicero writes: 'There is a certain apt disposition of bodily parts which, when combined with a certain agreeable color, is called beauty.' St. Augustine agrees, using almost exactly the same words in On the Kingdom of God (xxii, xix). The idea survives in modern philosophy. Thus, for Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Idea (1818), the pleasure of beauty arises from 'disinterested...sensuous contemplation.' As the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne writes, 'the being of the work of art yields itself only through its sensuous presence, which allows us to aprehend it as an aesthetic onject.' Meaning is 'immanent in the sensuous, being its very organization.' More complexly, but in a related way, Hegel, in his Aesthetics (1835), writes: 'art has the function of revealing truth in the form of sensuous artistic shapes and of presenting to us the reconciliation of the contradiction [between sense and reason, between what is and what ought to be, between desire and duty]. Consequently it contains ifs end in itself, in this very revelation and presentation.' The beautiful work is one in which this aesthetic reconciliation seems inevitable. As Hegel says, 'the greatness and excellence of art...will depend upon the degree of intimacy with which...form and subject-matter are fused and united.' " (pp. 34-5)

-Benjamin Harris