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New in the WDBA: George Bethea

Post #1430 • December 11, 2009, 8:23 AM • 248 Comments

George Bethea: Moss Man, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 40 inches

George Bethea continues to be one of the very best artists of his generation, one of a small group of ambitious, original painters in Miami working at a very high level with little recognition. That he is not celebrated for his accomplishments says more about the Miami art world than it does about his work. It certainly accords with the modern tradition of obliging the best to work in relative obscurity. Perhaps it should not be surprising in a time when art can be anything and therefore usually amounts to nothing.

Read the whole essay.




December 11, 2009, 10:07 AM

This was also in the show, which apparently didn't stay up as long as it deserved to due to Basel-type considerations involving the gallery space. There's more up on Bethea's Flickr space. The images, of course, are never the same as the real thing.



December 11, 2009, 10:34 AM

This one is great!



December 11, 2009, 10:50 AM

I have some issues with this essay, but I am not about to get into them here. I do, however, offer this quote from an interview I read in a publication called Works & Conversations.

EMC: Being ethical away from the world is easier than when we are involved ourselves. I think some people see the path of abstraction as pure, uncompromised, but it’s a purity of avoidance instead of distillation of what’s essential. And that goes for art too; artists who insist on removing their work from human struggles take an easier path, an easier path that seems particularly wasteful when we know that many live themselves in turmoil and confusion.

This is more of a personal issue I have with Abstract Expressionism, than with this work.



December 11, 2009, 11:52 AM

DCP, this sounds like the old "abstract art lacks humanity" argument people used to hassle about 50 years ago.

Is it?

If so, answer this: does instrumental music also "lack humanity"?



December 11, 2009, 12:09 PM

DCP: Of course EMC is right to say "being ethical away from the world is easier than when when we are involved". However, the suggestion that therefore art, to be ethical, must be "involved" is beside the point of art, though quite in keeping with a lot of the explanations that are commonly attached to art. Involving art in ethics is the easier path, not vice versa as EMC asserts. A couple of years back, the explanation of the poop machine at the New Museumas a work that explored "bio-ethics" helped put it over. Large crowds gathered each day at the appointed time for it to release its waste, and every last specimen sold for $1,000 each. The association with the noble cause of bio-ethics made it much much easier for everyone to regard the piece as important as well as fun. It probably was fun, too, though hardly important.

Art, both good and bad, has a poor record of solving human problems. The poop machine didn't improve the bio-ethical situation, though no one seemed bothered by that fact. Propaganda art in the former Soviet Union did (apparently) succeed in helping their citizens temper any public statements against their government by reminding citizens that the government was totalitarian and might get them for deviation from the program. Though close to what the art was supposed to do, compliance out of fear fell a little short of its ambition to make happy citizens out of the Soviet people, who ultimately revolted against that government. And of course Goya - how many wars did he prevent?

But for artists in personal "turmoil and confusion" the discipline of art therapy might have something to offer. As I understand such therapy, the aesthetic result isn't important to the therapeutic effect, nor is the therapeutic effect necessarily going to extend itself to anyone except the patient under treatment. In short, art as therapy is something quite a bit different than what Bethea or most other artists who show in public seek to create.

Tim Lefens, who started Art Realization Technologies, has found the greatest positive effect making art has on his disabled clients takes place when he disallows their problems as an excuse for making anything less than the best they can make. By making art that stands on its own, without reference much less indulgence in their own "turmoil and confusion" (of which they have plenty), they wind up feeling better about themselves. I would call this the dignity that comes with honest work, but then I'm old fashioned that way.

As far as the AbEx nutty artists go, one of the most popular contemporaneous interpretations of their art was proffered by Harold Rosenberg. He said for them their art and their life were the same thing, with literally no distinction between the two. So, if you believe Rosenberg, they avoided what EMC calls the "easier path", not the opposite.

But you are right that many here understand art to be autonomous, that this autonomy is indeed part of its gift to those of us who are alive, by providing a time-out from life's issues in which we can experience the pleasure art alone can provide. But it is exactly this - a time out - and nothing more. Life, if one is forced to choose between life and art, is more important than art. If buying art supplies means you can't afford to buy food for your children, you don't buy art supplies.

Now, there is some appeal in the statement that removing work from human struggles is "wasteful" even if we know art can't resolve those struggles. I mean why devote time, energy, and resources to art when people are homeless and starving in our streets? But then, the same rhetoric applies to why watch the Super Bowl? Why play golf? Why do anything until that problem is solved? And when that problem is solved there are plenty others that should not be allowed to exist.

Well, I'm not God so I don't have an answer to such ultimate questions. The world as it exists is full of crap that seems odious and problematic, but it has some wonderful stuff too. Art can only do what it can do, and must exist, if it wants to exist, in this context.



December 11, 2009, 12:12 PM

Beautiful Paintings ! Excellent essay! Can't ask for more !



December 11, 2009, 12:19 PM

the painting is interesting to look at.some on his flickr site are actually beautiful. i would like to see more.



December 11, 2009, 12:23 PM

@opie: No. I did not mention anything concerning lack of humanity in Abstract Expressionism.

@John: I don't think art is supposed to solve human problems, but can be a tool for clarity. Which, I think, is where EMC is going with this, and where Ab Ex falls short.



December 11, 2009, 12:25 PM

George Bethea appears to be joining Susan Roth in making a visual case for "tough painting". There is some "difficulty" in seeing this picture at first, but when I work my way through that, it is smooth sailing, just like when a plane breaks across the sound barrier and gets to the smooth air on the other side. His "rawness" is only apparent, not the effect of defects. But it does take some getting used to, like much work that elects to use a direct path to its final result.



December 11, 2009, 12:34 PM

Lucas, what about this painting makes it great?



December 11, 2009, 12:41 PM

DCP: Are you unaware that clarification is one of the most important steps in solving human problems?

But I like "can be a tool for clarity". You seem to be backing off from "must be a tool for clarity". And yes, AbEx did not clarify anything about life, Harold Rosenberg to the contrary.

However, unless you really mean "must be a tool", it does not follow that AbEx "falls short" because that phrase is pejorative and not warranted if there is no mandate for art to do such things.

For a thoughtful, thorough statement about art and moral values, try this.



December 11, 2009, 12:45 PM

It looks like a dragon. Moss Dragon.

Bethea's work continues to remind that painting isn't dead and pop/shock junk is nowhere near as meritous of a show.



December 11, 2009, 12:56 PM

John, I am aware that clarity is a step, one of many, towards solving human problems.

Who said that art "must be a tool"?

Thanks for the article.



December 11, 2009, 1:07 PM

No one here, so far, DCP, has said that. But it is implied when you use a phrase like "falls short" with respect to AbEx's "failure" to clarify.

A different example. Let's say I said: "The annual football game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State falls short of clarifying the issues involved in giving a 'peace prize' to a commander-in-chief who is conducting two wars in foreign countries, both far distant from his own". That wouldn't make much sense, would it? Football games are not mandated to provide such clarification. The fact Okies call this game "bedlam" might be a lever for an art critic to associate it with such clarification, but most people of common sense will say it's just a game, and all it clarifies is which team scored the most points on the day the contest was held. They might even feel the art critic was a little nutty.



December 11, 2009, 1:21 PM

No, the football statement does not make much sense. I don't pretend to hold football or the Nobel Peace Prize on the same plane as art. In addition, art is not mandated to do anything. Paintings like these tend to make me think of watching TV, though.

I guess I hold my idea of art on a higher level than entertainment.



December 11, 2009, 1:23 PM

This reproduction is very handsome, though as always I can't evaluate any work properly in reproduction. I wish George had sent me an announcement for the show,though. I would certainly have mentioned it in my column (as I have with previous shows of his).

As followers of that column know (or those who have read my book) I don't believe that abstract art is "removed" from the world at all. I say it's connected (though in a different kind of way).

That said, there is also no justification for the claim that any kind of art (abstract or representational) must focus on the troubles of the world, as opposed to its beauties. Any more than that every play should be a tragedy, and that comedy is an inferior art form.



December 11, 2009, 1:44 PM

"Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen." -- Lev Tolstoy

Where did art assume any other function than conveying beauty and/or emotion? Why all this talk of "clarity" or solving the world's problems through art?

Abx conveys beauty and emotion just as well as any style.



December 11, 2009, 1:49 PM

john (with a little j), if you have to ask, you are not going to be able to 'see it' even if it were explicable. One of the regulars on artblog came up with a new category of art the other day called 'explainable art' (I think it was big John who coined the phrase). George's paintings are a country mile from whatever that encompasses. I guess you are just going to have to take my word for it.



December 11, 2009, 2:14 PM

The article cited by DCP is here.



December 11, 2009, 2:25 PM

OK, DCP, let me ask you in your own words.

Is instrumental music "a purity of avoidance" and "an easy path", and are these musicians "removing their work from human struggles"?

This is a discussion blog. When you make an assertion you are expected to be able to back it up, not weasel out with semantics.



December 11, 2009, 2:32 PM

And when we get through with that, let's talk about scientists.

That Einstein was certainly some kind of avoider of human struggles with that E=MC2 stuff.



December 11, 2009, 2:42 PM

Little john, you might try reading the essay.

That may help, or it may not.



December 11, 2009, 2:45 PM

Opie, those were not my words. However, to attempt to answer your question, I would say that music and art, for me, are perceived differently and no, instrumental music does not do those things.

Second, I know what this blog is, as I have been following it for some time now, but thank you for your insight.



December 11, 2009, 2:58 PM

"Instrumental music does not do those things."

OK. But given that instrumental music does not represent or involve human struggle (or whatever it is that whomever you are quoting and which gives you trouble etc etc) is it some other factor in abstract art apart from its lack of subject matter that is the problem? If so, can you tell us what that is?

Please be specific.



December 11, 2009, 3:14 PM

The problem I have with abstract art is, partly, its claim of purity and a feeling I get when looking at it that reminds me of people who mainly talk to hear themselves speak.

To comment on the last sentence that Franklin posted from the WDBA article I feel like abstract art cannot claim to be any higher than the "art that can be anything and amounts to nothing," when it is about nothing other than fleeting emotions. (Emotions are connected to thoughts, which can lead to clarity, depending on the thought of coarse.)


George R

December 11, 2009, 3:25 PM

The "whole essay" doesn't do Bethea justice, it spends too many words on what Bethea is not. Marketing 101: Promote the product, not the competition.

DCP in #3 is quoting EMC and clearly EMC doesn't understand some things about art that are essential. The point in incorrect and should be ignored.

The flaw in many discussions of abstract paintings is that they don't address how the works are perceived by the viewer. I am cautious about discussing Bethea's paintings because I haven't ever seen one but I'll throw caution to the wind for a moment.

What holds Bethea's paintings together is their consistent pictorial space, a space which references our knowledge of the photographic.

His spacial structure serves to locate the viewer in a specific way, in Moss Man we are arial, looking down on a topology. Again, hampered by only having a reproduction, topology means that I am viewing a surface, or at least only a shallow depth relative to the surface. The gestural movement is imbedded in this surface removing it somewhat from an the gestural association with the artists hand.

In the Eggo (see comment #1) the viewers location is less specific but the sensation is one of looking into or down into a liquid space with the various pictorial elements floating at various levels within this space. This is considerably different than what occurs in Moss Man, the scale differences between the floating elements forces the pictorial space to be much deeper, relatively bottomless. Moreover, by allowing the various squiggles to float, their gestural qualities remain intact allowing the viewer to empathetically connect with the artist in a kinesthetic fashion. It's more "humanist."



December 11, 2009, 3:38 PM

I read the Celaya interview. In a way, he's repeating the sentiment of Guston, whose feelings about what was going on in the world caused him to lose interest in abstraction, and goaded him to take up politically and socially charged imagery, not that doing so made the paintings effective as political action or political commentary. I sympathize with this even though it doesn't pan out rationally. It speaks of a kind of emotional morality that motivates an ethical life - the mistake would be to base too much upon it. Like policy, for instance.

Abstract art doesn't make any claim to purity, only a claim to abstraction. People who like to hear themselves talk tend to stay away from it because it doesn't lend itself to exegesis. I don't want to presume, but it frequently happens that people who think that abstraction is some kind of cult of purity typically have misunderstood certain writings by Clement Greenberg, or have heard critiques of a distortion of something he wrote. No 20th Century thinker is known so wholly in the form of caricature, so this isn't terribly unusual, though it is terribly unfortunate.

At any rate, abstraction isn't any more about fleeting emotions than it is about politics. That it can convey emotion is a side-effect that makes it identifiable as art, but this is not the point of abstraction. Abstraction is simply a limited way of working. Fruitful action in art requires limits of some kind, which is why the state in which everything can be art ends up amounting to so little. That doesn't mean that abstraction is a preferable limitation in all cases. Neither does it mean that any other limits would be equally fruitful. There is something particularly interesting and wonderful about the problem that causes talented people like George to produce great work.


Chris Rywalt

December 11, 2009, 3:56 PM

Just an aside: I note that Mr. Bannard briefly mounts his acrylic medium hobby horse in the essay, and I wanted to add that I've seen a number of artists working with acrylic medium and adjusting the pigments and so forth. Two that immediately come to mind are Steven Alexander and David Mann.

I'm not sure that either of them are working at the high level cited of Bethea here. I can't really judge since I've never seen Bethea's work in person. Neither Alexander nor Mann struck me as GREAT or anything, but within their ranges they're at least good.

The point is, though, that the "relatively new" acrylic mediums are being exploited more and more, which should make Mr. Bannard happy.



December 11, 2009, 3:57 PM

OK Franklin thanks for saving me the trouble. I thought DCP had some sort of worked-out rationale but it seems to be simple petulance stemming from fantasized claims of snootiness on the behalf of abstract artist. He must have had a bad experience. I should have known better.



December 11, 2009, 4:04 PM

Franklin than you very much for the post. As always, I appreciate your support.

Good comments!

The show went pretty well.The worked looked good but not good enough. I knew a head of time it would be up for only 2 weeks. Not ideal, but I wanted to get these seen and didn't want to wait.



December 11, 2009, 4:05 PM

Chris there is a difference between "working with" and "exploiting". "Exploiting" means really taking advantage of the material. finding out what arylic can do that is differerent from oils, different from just working colored paste around a flat surface with a brush.

Few people have done this, and I have not seen it effectively taught.



December 11, 2009, 4:07 PM

Opie, for the record, I don't appreciate the jab. I was simply trying to state my opinion, which is obviously very different from yours. I'm sorry you feel lead to degrade my opinions.



December 11, 2009, 4:10 PM

Piri, I did send you a brochure and invitation. I'll get another one out this weekend. Thanks for letting me know.



December 11, 2009, 4:22 PM

DCP, it's one of the sad facts of online forums that no one ever thinks that they threw the first jab. Thank you for your participation.



December 11, 2009, 5:55 PM

Reactions to photos of Geo. Bethea's paintings:

The paintings are something like Soutine or perhaps Tamayo (or others) just before they start putting the details in.
Bethea proceeds to the point just before his composition gels into a tableau or at least identifiable stuff. His paintings give a collection of flavors that combine to become a dish just before they would've spelled something out literally. They're not especially challenging and they don't really take me anywhere I haven't been, but the trip is nonetheless pleasant.


George R

December 11, 2009, 6:16 PM

Tim, what do you mean by challenging? Can you give me an example?



December 11, 2009, 6:24 PM

Although the Bethea show is down, the Darby Bannard retrospective is still up. For those in or visiting the Miami area who'd be interested in seeing it, all necessary info can be found here.

A couple of images from the Bannard show:

Courier (7/09)
Gideon (5/08)



December 11, 2009, 6:25 PM

Sorry, DCP. I guess I was just disappointed because I thought a good debate might be shaping up, and I love a good debate.



December 11, 2009, 6:47 PM

moss man does look good.

and from page one on his site i especially like ry, rr, both ananke pics and #4. #5 on page one is nice as well and somewhat in the style of moss man.

#4 seems like it just happened in a mysterious way and is super with fine color. and based on george's older pics i thought it would have been very built up and heavy, but for the most part the application is thin and delicate (excluding the cream/white based form).



December 11, 2009, 6:49 PM

george why do you say it did not look good enough?


Chris Rywalt

December 11, 2009, 7:03 PM

OP sez:
Finding out what arylic can do that is differerent from oils, different from just working colored paste around a flat surface with a brush.

Maybe it's not clear from the JPEGs, but I thought of those artists in particular because they're both doing something with acrylics that is different from oils. In person it's clear the surface isn't oil paint -- in parts it looks almost encaustic. What both of them do is play with the opacity and body of the acrylic medium, adding pigments in different proportions.

I suppose you could maybe do that in oils, if you mixed your own from scratch, but who does that?

Alexander's work has a low-relief sculptural quality, also. And he confessed to me using acrylics saves him on shipping: One of his galleries is in Texas, so he takes the canvas off the stretchers, rolls it and mails it, and the gallery restretches it at the other end. You could do that with oils, but not too many times, I don't think.


Chris Rywalt

December 11, 2009, 7:05 PM

Franklin sez:
It's one of the sad facts of online forums that no one ever thinks that they threw the first jab.

I do, sometimes.


that guy

December 11, 2009, 7:14 PM

1 Compressed space would make any sensible artist say what was said. George's paintings need space. Enough said.



December 11, 2009, 7:18 PM

You are right, Chris. They both seem to be using acrylic mediums to get characteristic acrylic effects, especially Mann, although Alecander is by far the better painter.

Unfortunately it is very hard to tell from the photos, which I think are rather poor in either case.

I have seen Alexanders paintings before and I think he is damn good. One of the few who manages color nicely.



December 11, 2009, 7:21 PM

DCP, for the record, I enjoyed my exchange with you. It went far enough to reveal what are respective positions are, and I thought your accommodation of our differences was quite civilized, as I hope mine was too. Keep on commenting, please.



December 11, 2009, 8:26 PM

1- just an attitude that the work can always be better. It's not uncommon among artists.The urgency to get back to work is there.



December 11, 2009, 8:39 PM

George R, re #36, I don't know why I thought of Pollock as an example of a challenge. Just convenient, I guess. At my intro to Pollock's drip paintings in the late '50s I was totally at sea. Those paintings seemed like pointless chaos. But exposure over time along with placing Pollock's paintings into my expanding context of formal visual language brought me to see Pollock's drip paintings as delicate, lyrical. So, Pollock's work challenged me in my illiteracy.


George R

December 11, 2009, 10:31 PM


Pollock isn't a fair response, because of time, your experience then and now, rather than Pollock's or Bethea's paintings.

Since you brought up Pollock: A lot of abstraction of this type (color field painting, new decay) utilizes an association with visual phenomena, paint is coaxed into a (pleasing) chromatic textural surface marginally organized into a whole. It is similar in association to the photos of decayed painted walls (see Sean Kelly) It is this associated reference to the wall, the picture plane, which makes these paintings acceptable but not particularly challenging. I think what makes Richter successful at this is that his paintings don't pretend to be anything else, they don't have aesthetic pretense, they don't try to be good. It's mostly accident, so when they work they're somewhat miraculous in the sense of "how could all this shit look so good?" When they don't, they're just phenomena.

Pollocks drip paintings don't rely on this type of phenomena, in the world of "painterly phenomena," there isn't any reference for them. They do rely on Pollocks skills as a draftsman. The dripped lines eloquently describe a pictorial space linearly, a space which the viewer can find a way to engage in. It is capable of eliciting both deep illusion and the sense of kinesthetic movement.

Of the two Bethea paintings, Moss Man is the least successful for me. It is the most conventional and the pictorial space flattens out making the painting an exercise is painterly phenomena.

The other painting, which Jack linked I'm jokingly calling Eggo, is something else. Allowing for the limitations of only seeing a reproduction, Eggo does something completely different. Regardless of the acrylic techniques involved, as a viewer I am not engaging with the painting on this level as painterly phenomena. Rather Bethea has created a fairly complex pictorial space where all of the individual painterly elements serve to logically reinforce the paintings illusionary opticality in a way not unlike some of Pollock's paintings.

Most paintings of this type of abstraction die at the picture plane, the paint slides around on the surface and the pictorial space is as shallow as a cubist box. They lack the ability to generate a pictorial world of substance and mystery which is the very essence of painting itself.

I wouldn't have bothered to comment If I hadn't seen the second reproduction. I think Bethea is really onto something interesting here which could be easily derailed by backsliding into the world of known rules and prejudices of Modernist painting. I hope that doesn't happen.



December 11, 2009, 11:00 PM

"I think what makes Richter successful at this is that his paintings don't pretend to be anything else, they don't have aesthetic pretense, they don't try to be good."

George, do you every read what you write and say to yourself "now wait a minute, this doesn't really make much sense"?

Just asking.



December 11, 2009, 11:30 PM

George, if Richter does anything, he self-consciously pretends. His work is utterly premeditated. No accident there. Did he not edit his 'squeegee' output, for instance, because he saw some trick or other in some of them which he thought might catch the eye of a collector who couldn't distinguish a trick from etc.? Whew, that really seems cynical when I read it. But Richter seems to have gotten himself into a place where he's about the business of harvesting his bag of stunts, fun enough, but does it have any staying power?

As for Bethea's "Eggo," it presents a world of stuff put in illusionary terms. And? Not at all sure about 'substance and mystery'. Caveat: I've only seen Jack's link.



December 11, 2009, 11:33 PM

Tim, you just recapitulated what I wrote about Richter nine years ago.


George R

December 12, 2009, 12:38 AM

Regarding Richter - Funny how everyone locked onto my minor remarks about him. I'm not very interested in his abstract paintings and have no interest in defending them. Whatever technique he uses, it looks like he's good at it. He just does it, they really don't feel like he is fussing with them.

I would add that when the beautiful young ingenue asks Richter if he works in "oils or acrylics" he has the right answer.

Tim, as far as Bethea's painting goes, you're entitled to your own opinion but consider that your are missing what the real issues in this type of painting are.

In my view the painting Jack linked is a breakaway work which is unlike the other paintings linked in this thread. As I said in my earlier comment, the problem for this type of abstraction, including Richter, is flatness -- they lack an optical pictorial space of any significant perceptual depth.

Some of this might be an artifact of working with canvas flat on the floor, how anyone can see what they are doing I'll never know. Whatever, it's a method that has been beaten senseless. There are a number of open issues which Bethea needs to explore. In particular, the relationship between all the 'objects' in the painting, their relative sizes in particular. Their shapes and coloration are irrelevant, essentially they could be anything, a point which opens up his pictorial possibilities considerably compared with his peers.

The danger lies in locking up the pictorial space of the painting in the surface, burying it in the scrapes and fissures of globby acrylic -- it's not necessary. Any decent painter should be able to make an image appear without all that fussing around. I also think there is a danger of getting too cute, of trying to hard. Again, I would suggest looking at Kandinsky, in this the late Kandinsky's. Although these are fairly geometric, several are masterpieces of composition, scaling, and dynamic movement which would be applicable even in a more organic pictorial world.



December 12, 2009, 7:20 AM

Regarding Richter - Funny how everyone locked onto my minor remarks about him.

Not really, George R. You brought him up on the Bunny thread as well. It was bound to get some attention eventually.

Your comments about George's painting look more like an airing of your irritations with modernism than thoughts particular to his work. He's always been good at relating small parts to big parts, and one of the reasons that the high textures work so well is because they provide a wealth of small parts to compose. That variation in scale contributes to the effect of space, but most of that is being accomplished by value, specifically by putting lighter foreground shapes on a darker background, and lately by knocking areas back by spraying them with dark paint. They markedly defy flatness, both with composition and texture. That's neither here nor there in itself, but in George's case it works extremely well.

If working on the floor has been beaten senseless, then working upright has been beaten senseless ten times over. Obviously if you're going to work with this quantity of material it's going to have lie on the floor for a while. George used to keep a ladder in his studio so he could examine the horizontal work. In fact, back in grad school, he used to hang paintings off the side of the building from the second story, stapling the top edge of the canvas into the wooden railing, and then walk out into the green space and look them over. Back then he was working ten feet by twenty feet. Those were some extraordinary paintings.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 8:38 AM

Another aside into Bannardville: I'd left the JPEG of Bannard's Courier up on the laptop and wife caught sight of it.

She's completely in love with it. She wanted to know if she could buy it. I explained that Bannard is, unfortunately for our budget, a "real" artist and his work goes for many thousands of dollars. (Not that two thousand, or, heck, even five hundred isn't well out of our price range.)

Nevertheless she's totally in love. I showed her Gideon, which is the one I like, but she prefers Courier.



December 12, 2009, 8:51 AM

"If working on the floor has been beaten senseless, then working upright has been beaten senseless ten times over."

Yes, of course, and he comes perilously close to equating good painting to factors of depth illusion, which he seems to not be able to see in George's paintings.

I think MOSS MAN is deceptively bland and "naturalistic". When I first saw it my eye judged it better than my head did, becasue hy head said "simple pattern of rough pale green on plain darker background", which was accurate but dismissive, but my eye caught the curdled "boiling" effect of the green, which said "color coming at you".

These paintings fiddle with deliberately dopey composition to get color & surface effects across, something I can sense a lot better than I can say.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 9:56 AM

Just now my wife asked me why I hadn't gotten her a print of that Bannard painting yet.

"He doesn't do prints," I said.

She made a sad face.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 10:10 AM

Incidentally -- I keep coming back to the laptop in between bouts of cleaning the living room preparatory to putting up the Christmas tree -- Jack only linked to the low-res image of that paintings, but I highly recommend going to the full Flickr stream and also reading the comments. The thread under Gideon shows people working and thinking in abstract art at a very high level. The idea of George and Darby going back and forth on cropping, while names like Leger, Matisse, and Mondrian come up -- it's the kind of environment I dream about.

Maybe I should move to Miami. If I'm going to be an unfulfilled artist, I might as well do it near interesting people.



December 12, 2009, 10:13 AM

Chris, tell her the painting would probably be too big anyway (it's 54.5 x 52.5 inches), unless you have that kind of wall space, and even then it would probably take over your house. I don't remember the actual price (low five figures), but compared to the price of a smaller, run-of-the-mill and inferior Richter, it's a bargain.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 10:30 AM

If we could find room for a 50-inch TV, we could find room for a big painting. I'd just take down one of my own.

The low five figure price would be fine as long as there's a decimal point about halfway through. Somehow I suspect not.

Right now I'm using the 50-inch TV to show the painting. That makes it about half its actual size. (The TV isn't 50 inches tall, just diagonally, of course.)

Maybe we could sell one of the kids...oh, who am I kidding? We'd have trouble giving them away with hundred-dollar bills pinned to their shirts.



December 12, 2009, 10:42 AM

the recent bannard show which had courier also had some of the early brush and cuts which these new paintings came from.

on see lithia 1993, it is one of the best of the earlier pics if no THE best and interesting it is the one closest to these new ones in that possible figurative connections can be deduced. other old brush and cut day glow pics have a more similar color palette, but the composition on lithia shows a nice connection to the current work in another way. and it is an amazing pic if you have not seen it.



December 12, 2009, 10:45 AM

Well I've done all the reading and followed all the links. Thanks Franklin for posting the two relatively good quality images of G. Bethea's paintings. I'd love to see better images of his early large paintings. They're not very clear on his website. I appreciate DCP's bringing up the issue of the ethical life and how it relates to the art process and abstraction. John clarifies the issue in #5 and of course Greenberg even more so in "Autonomies of Art." (and I love Terry Fenton's Sascatchchewan landscapes - what incredible skies and space). Looking at Celaya's paintings (as much as I can judge from a few reproductions), I don't see any link at all between his sentiments and his actual work, making the case for me for the autonomy of art. My teacher and mentor Kaji Aso used to say "Art is not life. Art is an illustration of life," and was an example for me of how to live an ethical and engaged life as an artist without resorting to simplistic statement and commentary - without saying anything in particular in fact, while still living a life richly engaged in metaphor. Piri's book is on my Christmas list and hopefully, if I've been good enough, I'll be reading it Christmas day.
Finally, I'll share this: I took my son to the MFA yesterday for a quick visit after making a furniture delivery in Boston. He's just decided to change his major to art at the community college here after much thrashing around and after throwing himself into a drawing class this past semester as a refuge from statistics, sociology and french. We saw (in order of our ramble): Toulouse-Lautrec in a small hallway show ("how do you pronounce his name?"),with the odd Bonnard thrown in; Sargeant (portraits, Venetian studies), Whistler Nocturnes, in a room of contemporaries including a fabulous Herter Brothers sideboard and japonesque chairs, 1890 or so, that relate to what I've been doing with my own furniture designs; then a mixed room that included Pollock, Max Beckman, a Morandi, some contemporaneous Italians who I didn't know: And then some contemporary galleries that included art related to music including John Cage scores; then the large glass piece (installation really, though it's more like a mirrored room turned inside out), by Josiah McElheny, which we agreed was fantastic; and we ended in The Secrets of Tomb 10A, Egypt 2000 BC. Almost all this, except the Egyptian art and a few things he knew from reproductions, was new to the kid. Yikes. Make that 30,001 art school grads in 2012.



December 12, 2009, 12:06 PM

F. Ho Ho Ho. I brought up Richter because I thought it was totally ironic that the world renowned king of the squeege painters would raise the ire of all the other squeege painters here. (except John and Piri who couched her dismissal with a I'll have to go back)

And now, I see you have a little more to say about Bethea's paintings. If you fancy yourself as an art writer, then maybe that's what you should have done in the first place. If you consider the makeup of the art audience, those who will be reading something you write, you are going to find that there are some people who buy the current program, their minds can't be changed. The remaining audience is composed of KH bashers to one degree or another, those who more or less see things the same way you do.

You should consider the most effective way to use the alloted word-space you have alloted to you in order to help make the artist's (Bethea) paintings accessible and understandable. It is not a crime to attempt to give the audience a hint about what to look for in a painting -- why else is someone like Richter stealing the show. All this blather about "taste" is elitist bullshit if you as an art-writer aren't willing to provide some guidance towards connoisseurship.

Now specifically what Franklin alluded about what I wrote. I have no irritations about Modernism, it was exciting and inspirational to me as a painter. I happen to think it's over with but don't feel it's worth arguing the point.

I have no problem with "texture" in a painting. I do think that paintings which rely on paint phenomena, including texture, fall into a class if image making which exploits the "corroded wall" look. This is a very popular strategy because is provides certain visual clues to the viewer allowing them to accept the surface as decoration. Unfortunately almost all these paintings look very similar to one another which is why very few achieve high prices in the aftermarket.

Franklin said They markedly defy flatness, both with composition and texture. That's neither here nor there in itself,...

To the contrary, this was my whole point (I hope GB is listening). The major problem in abstract painting today is the "working space." The residual problem has been the notion of "flatness" as some sort of requirement. Now any painter with a few paintings under their belt knows that a painting is nothing more than a marked surface. There is no literal space behind the picture plane but their can be the illusion of space which occurs because of how our visual perception works. The creation of illusionistic space within a painting requires an acknowledgment of the surface but that's all. (example, Olitski's edge marks)

The process of creating a working space, illusionary or not, is linked to the idea that a painting presents a world space as envisioned by the artist (the artist's world) What a painting attempts to do is to allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief and enter the world of the painter. Simple enough, but taking this farther than a textured, scraped, and colored surface is not a trivial pursuit but unfortunately where most painters stop.

One of the phenomena which has occurred over the last decade is the widespread use of digital reproductions of paintings. I think this is affecting how we see paintings, in essence a digital image is equivalent to the "view in the mirror" trick painters have used for decades. With this idea in mind, I addressed the second painting of Bethea's and suggested it was a breakaway work.

Since I am only looking at the jpeg, I am just seeing the image of the painting, not it's physicality. Moreover, I am suggesting that it is the image that is important, the delightful ordering of the pictorial space, and not how he arrived at it. What may be occurring only by accident here because of a painterly interaction with random bumps on the surface, is a visual clue to a whole other path forward for his paintings, a path which diverges from what others have been doing in this particular niche of painting.

Mechanically, I don't think it's necessary to rely on either texture or process to move this program forward, but then I don't have to make the paintings and Bethea will have to start somewhere.

I still think it's better to work on the wall, but then I spend more time looking than actually painting.



December 12, 2009, 1:25 PM

First, to Franklin(#27). You may find abstraction "limiting," but many other painters have found it liberating -- the opportunity to work with shapes & colors alone, without being tied down to the necessity to represent something. Helen Frankenthaler expressed this outlook beautifully, when I first interviewed her (for Time magazine, upon the occasion of her 1969 retrospective at the Whitney). In the early 50s, when she and Greenberg were going around together, the two of them used to go out into the countryside to paint landscapes; then she'd return to her studio to paint abstracts. "The landscapes were the discipline," she told me. "The abstracts were the freedom and the joy." Obviously, though, preferring to paint either abstract or representational is a personal choice, and good work can be done in either category.

Second, to George R.(#52 & #62) You seem to be tied down to the standard misinterpretation of Greenberg's position on "flatness," as he discussed it in "Modernist Painting" (1960). I discussed all of this in the June issue of my online column, upon the occasion of a two-day symposium at Harvard devoted to Greenberg. In addition to mentioning Greenberg's 1978 postscript to that essay, in which he dismissed the notion that he advocated "flatness" as "preposterous," I also advanced a theory regarding "Modernist Painting" itself. In brief, I suggested that in this particular essay Greenberg was merely describing the development of abstract painting up to and through the 50s, and including in his description not only the abstract painting he admired (from Pollock up through Noland, at that point) but all the abstract painting he didn't admire (most of the second-generation abstract expressionists, who were working out of de Kooning, and slathering on the paint without rhyme or reason). He wasn't recommending that anybody imitate the bad abstraction, any more than he was saying one should imitate the good -- both were equally "flat." And where is it written that "flatness" is a "problem"? Greenberg again: "art cannot be prescribed to."

You, George, may think modernism is "over." Maybe it is for you -- that's your problem (though God knows it's shared by a heavy majority of those people who fancy themselves as art lovers). I don't agree, though, not while we still have good work being done -- and it is being done, even though it doesn't get shown in Manhattan very often, and almost never gets the publicity it deserves. I try to review good modernist exhibitions in my column whenever I can see them (and by artists who are younger than the stars of the 60s, as well as the 60s stars themselves), but such work is created these days over a very wide area, and exhibited as often as not outside of NYC.

If you're curious as to my final opinion of Richter, that review is contained in my December issue, which went on view this past Sunday (12/6). In brief, I concluded that Richter has a little something (not much) and that 3 out of the 47 works in the checklist were at least "good" -- not very good, & certainly not great, but better than the rest ---hardly enough to enable him to deserve the superlatives being heaped on him by the sort of critic who goes along with majority opinion instead of stopping to question it.

Third, to David (#61) I do hope you get my book for Christmas, and I do hope you enjoy it.



December 12, 2009, 2:06 PM

Piri, Permit me to quote a few quotes from

"Limitation of means is a precondition of excellence. Creative freedom chooses its limitations. Destructive freedom rejects them heedlessly."

"Too much freedom inhibits choice. Constructive narrowness clarifies choice."

"Convention and restriction release inhibition and provoke the imagination."

In other words, in art (and in most human activity) limitation and liberation are not opposed, they are the same thing. This is what Franklin mean by "fruitful limitation".


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 2:19 PM

George R sez:
What a painting attempts to do is to allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief and enter the world of the painter.

This is possibly what some painters are aiming for, but it's hardly the only way to paint.

Is this the same George as the one who was slumming earlier, and who used to comment here, or is this a whole new George?



December 12, 2009, 2:37 PM

The best cubist pictures of 1910- 11 were very restrictive - pared down brown,black,and white paint, occasional hits of blue when Picasso was on the coast. They were robably there best pictures and some of the best of the last 100 years.


George R

December 12, 2009, 2:40 PM

My opinion that Modernism is over is related more to changing history than anything else. The evolution from an agrarian society to an industrial society provided the major impetus towards the idea of the "Modern" I believe that this social change to the industrial society has been replaced by the transition to an information based consumer society, we are "Modern." The major impetus here is the internet which is changing art as we speak.

Regarding Richter, I looked at the jpegs on the gallery website and decided it wasn't worth seeing the exhibition. I just really don't care. I did see an exhibition of 1950's Paris abstractions by Sam Francis (at L&M Art) which I liked. Tomorrow I'll spend an afternoon at the Guggenheim seeing the Kandinsky's -- best exhibition in years.

Correct or not, Greenberg is stuck with "flatness" - it just won't go away.

Disregarding flatness. The problem (failure) of so much of the thick paint abstraction (except recent Poons) is that is is nothing more than paint phenomena which relies on the corroded wall association as a method of engaging the audience. Another set of this type of painting is utilizing the physical phenomena to act as a form of drawing within the painting. I suppose in itself this wouldn't be so bad but the danger lurks that the painter becomes too enamored with the tricks of the process which then also becomes problematic. In this respect I see little difference between Richter and Bannard for example. I think Bethea escaped it marginally and that Larry Poons' last exhibition was one of his best.

The question that occurs to me is what is all this process based drawing in these paintings all about? Why don't the artists just get on with is and make a painting which doesn't have to use all the lumpy gooey paint as a crutch? A rhetorical question might be are these painters using process accident to do something they have a conceptual or historical bias against?

Further, I wonder if anyone is thinking about how we actually see a painting, how we process and interpret what is there. What actually is happening when the viewer is looking at a painting? Remembering that the painter spent days looking but the viewer spends about 30 seconds, maybe less, before moving on. (Really, I timed people at this at a couple of venues) What happens in that 30 seconds? A painting is an accumulation of thousands of small decisions expressed visually. Whether or not the viewer is consciously aware of these decisions is irrelevant, their final response will take them into account subconsciously or consciously. Further the viewer will make subconscious associations during the viewing process in an attempt to understand (decode, interpret) what they are seeing. Abstraction is just a different way of ordering this visual information.


Goerge R

December 12, 2009, 2:44 PM

Chris, it's the same George you all love to hate. I was trying to avoid confusion with George Bethea

Re: What a painting attempts to do is to allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief and enter the world of the painter.

If this doesn't occur, the paintings fail.


George B

December 12, 2009, 2:57 PM

"Fruitful limitation." Wow! would I like to see this in action. As an exercise all the floor painters should stretch up a canvas and paint on it orientated vertically -- the same stuff as you always do without the pour and scrape -- then we'd see what you're really about. Yeah baby, simplify.


George R

December 12, 2009, 3:00 PM

"Fruitful limitation." was by me not B, sorry about that.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 3:46 PM

I don't hate you, George. Not even in that "you're beneath notice" kind of way. I actually missed you.

What a painting attempts to do is to allow the viewer to suspend their disbelief and enter the world of the painter.

If this doesn't occur, the paintings fail.

I don't see what belief, or disbelief, has to do with a painting. Suspension of disbelief is a verbal, textual thing. You don't have to have any belief to view a painting, except perhaps in the painting's existence, which I must admit is rather hard to disbelieve.

You've got this idea, with this statement here and your earlier assertions about George B.'s depth of field, that viewers must be approaching paintings as windows into some space behind the frame -- some world they can enter. That very idea was one of the foundations of painting questioned by Modernism. Playing with how deep the pictorial space seems to be is what Cubism is about.

I think it's much more fruitful to approach painting as making shapes which trigger certain neurological responses in the viewer. Some of those responses are purely visual, and some subset of those responses engage neural structures associated with depth perception. But they don't have to. Some responses are emotional, some are physical, some are deeper and some are shallower. There's no necessity for there to be a space behind the frame -- I don't get that at all from, for example, Still or Newman.



December 12, 2009, 3:51 PM

Piri, Opie speaks for me in this case. What one could do with abstraction is limitless. Abstraction itself is a limited problem. I don't mean that in a pejorative way in the slightest - you're limiting yourself in the studio as soon as you decide to do one thing instead of another thing. That abstraction has produced so much good work speaks well of it as a finite problem set.

George, Richter's use of a squeegee would matter more if the results were better. As I said above, some of his larger squeegeed oils were quite good. These smaller, more recent ones, not so much.

I wonder if anyone is thinking about how we actually see a painting, how we process and interpret what is there.

I've thought harder than anyone I know about what happens when someone looks at art. Doing so gave rise to my distinction between lookers and readers, as well as my theory of the panjective from a couple of years ago.

I think that now that I've been hired by several publications, one of which is The New Criterion, my status as an art writer has been externally formed apart from whatever I fancy myself. As it happens, I already have written about George's work at some length. Much of the rest of your comments are attempting to solve problems for either me or George that I don't believe that we're having in the first place. Thank you for thinking of us, though.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 4:13 PM

One of these days you're going to have to tell us how you got hired by several publications. I suspect the answer is something like, "I applied," but I'm curious anyway.


George R

December 12, 2009, 4:36 PM

Chris, "Willing suspension of disbelief" is a phrase frequently used in regards to film. All I mean is that the viewer "gets into" whatever world the painting presents, from Ryman to Velasquez, it doesn't matter, good paintings have a consistent logical presence that the viewer is willing to accept.

Pictorial space can take many forms, I'm not advocating one necessarily over the other, nor am I suggesting that that the painting needs be like a window. Forget about what you think Modernism was questioning, that's all past. Any spatial organization is just as valid as any other. It is illogical to say one illusion is better than another.

Anytime you place any shape/object on a canvas you alter the viewers spatial clues. The viewer either sees a shape on a flat surface, or a shape in a perceived space, or both simultaneously. The working space is the way these shapes are organized on the canvas, if two shapes overlap, one is in front of the other, etc. A 'good' working space has its own logic which must be consistent across the painting or the painting will fail.

"Logic" as used above can have many interpretations. Analytical Cubist paintings (Picasso, Braque 1910-12) have a precisely developed space which can appear transparent and deeper than just the drawing would suggest at first glance. Other spatial logics can rely on what we know of the real world, or its reproduction or abstraction. There is no particular limit to the kinds of logics which may be developed, but what's important is that they are consistent.

In the case of Bethea's paintings I think that his development of a pictorial space which is not stuck on the surface is significant. What I mean by this is that while his paintings acknowledge the surface, the visual/perceptual activity does not feel like it is locked down, pasted on, or scraped off, of the painting surface. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this (Newman, Still) most of the current painters taking this approach seem stuck in the same way all the lesser AE painters were 'stuck' The paintings all look alike, sometimes one's better than another, but for the most part they are not very compelling. I feel Bethea is working his way away from this trap, but I'll admit I could be wrong.


George R

December 12, 2009, 4:52 PM

Re #72. Franklin, I still get the feeling you're fighting the last war (pomo) which wasn't quite what I meant with I wonder if anyone is thinking about how we actually see a painting, how we process and interpret what is there.

You may have written about Bethea's work before but that doesn't count here, where you headlined the blurb you just wrote. Whatever, now that you've thrown your hat in the wring with the other art writers -- good luck.

My remarks about Bethea's paintings are a lot more open and honest than anyone else is going to express. Yes, he might think I'm wrong, but that's between me and him, not you. I think there is a value to hearing a response which comes from outside ones 'safe territory' and I don't see how anything I said could be construed as anything but complimentary and encouraging.



December 12, 2009, 4:57 PM

You may have written about Bethea's work before but that doesn't count here, where you headlined the blurb you just wrote.

Have you been laboring all this time under the misapprehension that I wrote the blurb in the original post? Oh my.


George R

December 12, 2009, 4:59 PM

Franklin, excuse me but yes. So I must apologize to you and transfer my criticism onto WDB. Whatever, it doesn't change my opinions.


George R

December 12, 2009, 5:05 PM

Funny thing too, I had just listened to this which describes what happened from a scientific point of view.
THE SIMPLIFIER A Conversation with John A. Bargh



December 12, 2009, 5:05 PM

Opie, your ideas about limitation equalling liberation are certainly interesting but paradoxical, which is to say contradictory & therefore necessary to define (as you have). Otherwise they are open to misunderstanding.

As for Analytic Cubism, George Bethea, I would agree that these are very great paintings, but I don't see their palette as narrow. To call this exquisitely and richly varied palette of grays, browns, beiges, blacks, blues (and sometimes pinks and greens) "narrow" is a cliche based in the assumption that Picasso & Braque were withdrawing from external reality and had to eliminate impressionist color in order to concentrate on their forms. My position is just the reverse: I say that these paintings represent a new and radical way of depicting reality, the reality of the Montmartre environment in which Picasso & Braque were living & working. My logic is too involved to go into here, but I will say that in the matter of color, I got my ideas from Michel Seuphor, Mondrian's biographer, who wrote that these grays & browns are the palette of Parisian street facades. When I once quoted him on this subject to Jules Olitski, Olitski's response was on the order of, I didn't know Seuphor had that much sense.

George D (is it? I can't keep all these George's straight). If Greenberg is stuck with flatness, it is only because so many people refuse to accept what he wrote for reasons best known to themselves. But then it's difficult to argue with somebody who passes judgment on paintings -- even Richters -- without seeing them. I may not like looking at the art of people like Richter, but I figure I can't knock it without having seen it. (And in this I follow Greenberg, who looked at a lot of art he didn't like as well as a lot of art that he did.)



December 12, 2009, 5:10 PM

Sorry, it seems to be George R I was addressing on the subject of flatness, not George D.


George R

December 12, 2009, 5:20 PM


Re: Greenberg and "flatness." I don't dispute what arguments have been presented here disputing this connection. I'll accept them as true. However in the real world, it's not the case, Greenberg and flatness are joined at the hip forever:-)

But then it's difficult to argue with somebody who passes judgment on paintings -- even Richters -- without seeing them.

Regarding Richter -- I've seen some of his squeegee paintings and I'm just not all that interested in spending the time to go see more. There are other exhibitions that are competing for my time and energy and I have to make choices.

As for Bethea's paintings I made it explicitly clear that I was going out on a limb because I had only seen the reproductions. For the most part I only addressed points which could be inferred from the jpegs.



December 12, 2009, 5:23 PM

as a whole painting has certainly declined.
however good mr. bethea's work is I just
don't see it reaching the level of some of the
best work in the past.


George R

December 12, 2009, 5:26 PM

Re #79 The same point applies to the earlier paintings made by Picasso and Braque in Horta. If you see photos of the town, well it looks just like the paintings.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 5:39 PM

George R sez:
Chris, "Willing suspension of disbelief" is a phrase frequently used in regards to film.

Thanks to the fact that I am not a complete nitwit, I knew this. Note that film -- at least in regards to suspension of disbelief -- is a verbal, textual medium. The suspension of disbelief is also used in fiction writing, which is obviously textual. The idea is that one can accept unrealistic plot twists through the willing suspension of disbelief -- in other words, "I will accept this as true even though it's clearly something that would never happen in the real world."

This only applies to paintings, as far as I can tell, with the greatest exercise of imagination I can muster. Unless we're talking about someone like Dalí, in which case you might need it to accept drippy clocks and so forth.

All I mean is that the viewer "gets into" whatever world the painting presents, from Ryman to Velasquez, it doesn't matter, good paintings have a consistent logical presence that the viewer is willing to accept.

I disagree most strongly. The only way I can go along with this is in the most metaphorical, least literal terms I can conjure up. Otherwise we're in that scene from Mary Poppins jumping into Bert's chalk drawings and walking around.


George R

December 12, 2009, 5:42 PM

Chris, you don't know much about painting, sorry.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 5:55 PM

You're probably right, George, but probably for the wrong reasons.



December 12, 2009, 6:19 PM

Piri_ yes, I agree the palette of the 1910 - 11 cubist pictures is not narrow. Both Picasso and Braque new the pictures would not work with amplified color. They focused on subtle value and color differences with earth tones. The best of these pictures for me are very simple in composition with thinly applied paint. Some of the pictures I'm talking about were harbor scenes. I can't remember the name of the town in which they were painted.



December 12, 2009, 6:30 PM

Chris, it was under "Courier" that the discussion takes place, and there are other similar but less extensive comments under other paintings.

There's nothing better than having sharp eyes poke around the paintings and come up with observations & ideas.

(I write this earlier and didn't send it until now)

George B please use "Bethea". George R's comments are bewildering enough without mixing them up with yours.



December 12, 2009, 6:33 PM

Bethea you may be thinking of the paintings done by Picasso in the summer of 1910 in Cadaques, on the coast of Spain. To me that was the apogee of Cubism and one of the high points of all painting art.



December 12, 2009, 6:33 PM

George R, re your idea about believing/disbelieving: I don't know what would be in a painting to believe/disbelieve except an illusion of some kind, like space, and that is either sensed or not sensed, not believed/disbelieved. It's not whether I believe it. It's whether I get it. Also, I don't know where in the experience a viewer's 'willingness to accept' comes into play.

And, maybe you're calling 'logical presence' what I'd call 'integrity.'



December 12, 2009, 6:39 PM

Piri of course the color is limited, deliberately very limited, to very unsaturated colors. Cubism would not have worked any other way. That it was subtle and beautiful and very varied is another matter. You seem to have some notion that "limited" = "bad"

That limitations are fruitful and lead to plenty in art, and much else in human life,is contradictory only terminologically. Think about it.



December 12, 2009, 6:45 PM

Opie- yes, Cadaques, and it was Picasso who did the specific paintings I referred to.



December 12, 2009, 8:05 PM

Yeah, Opie, well I never studied abstract painting with Darby Bannard at Miami U., so I have my own understanding of limited. I can sort of see what you're getting at, and I'm sure it's very helpful for a student to think in terms of limitation & discipline, even or perhaps especially if s/he wants to make good abstractions, as opposed to just slathering the paint around, but one of my dictionary's definitions of "limited" is "lacking breadth & originality" so it has that connotation for me.

Would you also say that the impressionist palette is limited because it doesn't have grays or blacks?

With regard to cubist paintings made outside of Paris, Seuphor specifically says that when Picasso and Braque went on holiday they brought their Parisian palettes (figuratively speaking) along with them.

I apologize to George R. for suggesting that he evaluated paintings without looking at them. But I resent not being considered part of "the real world" simply because I believe Greenberg meant what he said. Am I a figment of your imagination, George? How about all the rest of us here at this website? Are they all imaginary, too? I'm perfectly willing to concede that a majority of those people who think they know about art associate Greenberg with flatness, but then an unholy percentage of the US population still believes that God created the world in 7 days. Does that mean the people who accept the principle of evolution aren't members of "the real world," either?

As to "the information age," I consider this an overworked slogan designed for people who like to congratulate themselves on being up-to-date and in the forefront of Progress. The way I see it, history evolves much more gradually & not everywhere at the same time. To the extent that the term, information age, has any validity, it refers to those countries where blue-collar jobs have so largely been replaced by white-collar ones, but this has only become possible because those countries have displaced such a large proportion of their industrial bases outside their geographic boundaries--not because they've dispensed with industry altogether. This displacement is possible because nations like the U.S. can import such a large percentage of their assembly-line goods (everything from clothes to electronics to steel to automobile parts -- and these percentages can be staggering -- I give some of them in my book). In the countries that produce these goods, however, the industrial age is still very much in progress,and even an early stage of it, with the farm population migrating to the factories in the cities. I don't say they don't have the internet in China, but it's more like a thin veneer. (And even in this country, not everybody is online, not even everybody under 40!)

I do see a link between the loss of interest in modernism & the increased size of the white-collar class, though. That is because so many of the new white-collar workers are first-generation artlovers (or the children of first-generation white-collar art lovers from the 60s & 70s). Starting in the post World War II period, and the prosperity of that period, blue-collar workers were enabled to send their children to college, and these children subsequently used their college degrees to land white-collar jobs. Naturally, these children had to have white-collar hobbies to match, so a number of them took up art, but because they'd been raised in blue-collar homes, they hadn't been taken to museums as children. The result was that most of them had never developed any sympathy with or ability to appreciate modern art, especially abstraction (& it's not easy for most people to relate to abstract art, I say on the basis of 40 years of trying to interface between the art I love & the rest of the world). When pop came along in the 60s, the people who hadn't been adequately prepared to relate to abstract expressionism leapt with cries of joy on the pop art bandwagon, and that bandwagon has been rolling merrily along ever since (with its concommitant commitment to crumby abstract painting). Maybe in another century or so, the bandwagon will have successfully flattened out any good painting still being done, but for now I say, with Yogi Berra, it ain't over till it's over.



December 12, 2009, 8:09 PM

as a whole painting has certainly declined.
however good mr. bethea's work is I just
don't see it reaching the level of some of the
best work in the past.


George R

December 12, 2009, 8:55 PM

In the formalist tradition of art criticism, flatness is inseparable from aesthetic value, or what Clement Greenberg—formalism's leading voice—defined as "quality." This aspect of Greenberg's doctrine has been the most polemical in recent critical reevaluations of his work, but nonetheless his definition of painting's reduction to flatness is still the most complete. Greenberg applied the Kantian model of self-definition to support his view that each art must isolate and make explicit that which is unique to the nature of its medium. The "irreducible essence" of pictorial art, he wrote in his 1965 essay "Modernist Painting," is the coincidence of flattened color with its material support: "Flatness, the two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else"


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 8:58 PM

Picasso's paintings from 1910 are here. The summer starts with OPP.10:015 and runs through OPP.10:078.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 9:00 PM

George, I've read only one of Greenberg's books and maybe a handful of his essays and even I know a statement like "flatness is inseparable from aesthetic value, or what Clement Greenberg—formalism's leading voice—defined as 'quality'" is complete and utter bullshit, only believable if you've never read a word the man wrote.


Chris Rywalt

December 12, 2009, 9:01 PM

Also, I've read some Kant, and the phrase "Kantian model of self-definition" sounds like nothing I've ever heard.


George R

December 12, 2009, 9:12 PM

Re 95: I joined the Guggenheim Museum recently and with the membership I received a catalogue "The Guggenheim Museum Collection A to Z" There is a section for "Flatness" on page 110 which I quoted in part, in comment 95.

In the 70's Greenberg = flatness, in all the painterly dialogues, and it has stuck even into the present day as evidenced above. It's a shame because it really is a flawed concept. A lot of the time what matters most is what people think the truth is, we live in a world of illusions.


George R

December 12, 2009, 9:32 PM

Regarding the "Information Age" We are in it, no question. This does not mean that industrial manufacturing disappears but in the worlds largest economies, the USA and the EURO zone, information technologies generate more revenue by more than an order of magnitude than all industrial economies combined. The Industrial Age didn't penetrate all regions of the world at once but it didn't matter because where it became effective, in the USA and Europe, is where Modern Art was made. "Progress" is a term which belongs to the Industrial Age and Modernism, but not to the Information Age.

I believe the crossover between the Industrial Age and the Information Age was somewhere in the mid 1960's. Postmodernism was the runoff of the Modernist ideal distorted by the confusion caused by the rapid influx of information. The internet was 20 years old in March, but has really only been a factor in the culture for the last ten years.

In the next decade there will be a new generation of artists which have always had the internet, cell phones, texting, TV, iPods, Laptops, Photoshop, Facebook etc. Now, the human brain keeps developing until a person reaches the age of twenty. "Developing" means creating new neural pathways in an intense fashion. Because of this subtle fact, we have no way of predicting what young artists will be doing starting in about 10 years because their preconditioning is going to radically change whet we now call "taste"



December 12, 2009, 9:40 PM

From a random search via google:

One poll (2004) by CBS has has 55% believing god created man and 27% believing in evolution.

Interestingly there was a poll that did a follow up some years later. This poll (1991) had 47% for creationism (God created man 10,000 years ago) and 40% for evolution.(man evolved God guided the process). However an addition 9% also believed in evolution (man evolved God wasn't involved) End numbers 47% to 49%

A follow up (1997) to the last poll, with the same numbers came out 44% creation 39% evolution with God and 10% pure evolution. End numbers 44% to 49%

However, among "scientists" the numbers to the same questions were 5% 40% 55% End numbers 5% to 95%.

A Harris poll (2005) found 64% agreed "human beings were created directly by God," 22% of adults believe "human beings evolved from earlier species,"10% that "human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them" End numbers 74% and 22%.

Enough with the numbers. "Surveys are also fairly consistent in their estimates of how many Americans believe in evolution or creationism. Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time. The wording of survey questions generally makes little systematic difference in this division of opinion."

What's to be done with human unwillingness to accept logical argument? Promulgate wrongheaded opinion or merely shake one's head over such mass delusions?



December 12, 2009, 9:53 PM

My last was in response to the Guggenheim's catalogue essay on flatness.

This is in response to the discussion of the next generation. If we don't know what the next generation of laptop-users will favor, there's no guarantee that it will favor postmodernist over modernist art.

As to when the human brain stops developing, it depends on which scientist you talk to. New research is always being done, and some I've seen recently suggests that the human can continue to develop right up until death. In addition, the Wall Street Journal ran a very interesting article some time ago on how older brains have more accumulated knowledge on special subjects, so they are better able to do things like play bridge or recognize old-fashioned things masquerading as new ones.


George R

December 12, 2009, 10:00 PM

When I say that Modernism is over, I don't think it's a bad thing. As the world economies industrialized starting in the mid 19th century, people move from the farms into the cities. This urbanization was soon accompanied by a number of labor saving devices which reached an apogee in about the late 1950's.

With each new technological advance, the urban population became more "modern," you could see the progress visibly as autos morphed from boxy motorized carriages into streamlined vehicles where the form reflected their potential for speed. These type of transitions, very visible transitions, gave rise to the idea that society was progressing towards the future. "Progress" was the slogan og the Modern Era and this idea was picked up by art as well.

Progress became a slogan for the avant guard, for Modernist Painting, accompanied by the idea that it "must isolate and make explicit that which is unique to the nature of its medium." In the American postwar era this was an exciting idea which inspired some very great art. The quest for self definition inevitably came to an end, and with it so did Modernism. In the case of painting, I would suggest that late 20th century abstraction completed a formal definition of painting which had been ongoing for over a century.

Once you enter "stripe paintings" into the lexicon of painting, all stripe paintings refer back to the initiator losing their ability to remain avant guard. It doesn't mean that one cannot make stripe paintings, but that one has to find a way to use the paradigm of stripe paintings in a different way. Rather than defining the language, one has to exploit its existence -- this is going to be the mandate for painting in the information age. It's a brave new world.


George R

December 12, 2009, 10:13 PM

Piri, Your Google search makes my point about the information age -- but for a few researchers, 10 years ago your comment would have been impossible.

Postmodernism is dead. I suggested this here after the publication of Hal Fosters book eight years ago. On the street, this also seems to be the opinion. As I mentioned, in the NYC art schools, it's just a page in the book.

We are in the dead zone. The baby boom intrelligensia have already done their thing, Modernist or Postmodernist, and the critical community seems to be in a state of confusion FWIW, I have a few very very smart Facebook friends in their early twenties, they see Postmodernism as a gigantic failure which they reject. What they are grappling with is a humanist application of interdisciplinary thinking, art film, literature and psychology (I scare them with math or economics).



December 12, 2009, 10:14 PM

As you say, George, your time is limited & so is mine. I have letters to write, which I have been putting off all day,so I shall refrain from attempting to deal with your last. I just wish that instead of proclaiming over & over that modernism is over, you'd get out and look at what there is to see (preferably without feeling in advance the need to prove that modernism is over).



December 12, 2009, 10:14 PM

George, we have had at it so many times in the past over the same territory, and every time I argue with you is it an exercise in futility. because you make absurd statements at absurd lengths - like the Greenberg/flatness business - and then, when challenged, dodge and weave all over the place. It is like trying to pick up mercury, or catch the proverbial greased pig.

I'm going to cease and desist until I can't stand it any more.


George R

December 12, 2009, 10:38 PM

Piri, regarding brain development. What I was referring to is a condition similar to the one which facilitates the learning of languages. I read the same articles you did on continuing development which keeps me hopeful.

So there are two factors at work here. Specifically with the next generation, they will be the first with total technological immersion and conditioning -- there is no way that this cannot have a profound affect og their logical and emotional thought processes.

The other factor applies to our generation, the only generation which will have a foot in both ages, and it is about grappling with the difficulty of releasing what we believed to be true in our youth, and reexamining the world anew as it is today. As people age their capacity to absorb the new decreases because of the belief structures formed earlier in their lives. This is not a must be condition but in my experience tends to be true.

Hey, remember radio? Who knows? The shadow knows.


George R

December 12, 2009, 10:44 PM

Re: #106. opie,

What's your problem? I have already said that I agree on the point about Greenberg and flatness. Your problem is that you cannot accept that the general but INCORECT opinion is that Greenberg and Flatness are kinked together. I didn't do this, I'm just reporting the facts, that if you ask most people in the art world, that's what they will say. I'm not making this up so get off my fu%#ing case.



December 12, 2009, 10:57 PM

The passage from "Modernist Painting" that George R quoted can indeed be reasonably interpreted as Greenberg's "prescription" for painting, not a "description". I heard Clem, in public, admit exactly this and accept full responsibility for not making himself clear. He had wanted only to say that the best painting of that timed happened to be flat, not that painting had to be flat to be good. In fact, I think I heard him retract that interpretation several times, and each time blame the problem on himself, not those who read the flatness statement as doctrine.

So I have no problem with George reading that particular passage the way he did - a lot of people have read it exactly the same. But I would remind him that writers don't always write perfectly and this is a case of that. If one wants to "pin the tail on the donkey" then "Modernist Painting" affords that opportunity, and you can make Clem look pretty bad using certain passages from the essay. The cost of doing so, however, is to misunderstand one of Clem's most fundamental commitments - writers describe the best art, they do not define what it has to be. And dwelling on what is known to be a misstatement of his position can distract from the vast majority of the essay, which is rather profound.



December 12, 2009, 11:05 PM

Well, #108 popped up while I was writing, and it appears George does not personally read "Modernist Painting" as a prescription. Good.

As far as the "information age" goes, that is another "explanation" that can be attached to art which makes many in the masses of art lovers more comfortable with it. I don't worry about it. If it inspires someone, what's the difference between that and a pear in a still life?



December 12, 2009, 11:24 PM

The other thing that keeps getting repeated was that Greenberg was a formalist critic. He was not.


George R

December 12, 2009, 11:28 PM

The problem with Modernism is the "ism" part. I don't deny that artists will continue to work within the style "Modernism" but what I am suggesting is that the essential conditions which fostered this approach (belief) have passed into history and are being replaced by something new.

I DO NOT think that Postmodernism is being replacing Modernism, rather I believe we are at a pivotal point in art history when a new approach is slowly being developed. I think Nicolas Bourriaud realizes that Postmodernism is finished and is trying to come up with another way of looking at it all. His approach still seems transitional to me.

The most significant technological/social development in the last 50 years is Facebook. It is a palliative to the anxiety of the alienation of modern man. It leads me to believe that the culture needs something radically different from the intellectual displacements of postmodernism.

If we consider for a moment, the particular moment in time when the clock is reset, that moment when we reset the "ism" for the nest century, what do we want?

What do we want? We want Quality with a capital Q? What does that really mean? Look at the whole history of art, what do we ask it to do? This is a question beyond quality, one which can only be answered or created from personal experience. Yet at the same time it has to be a universal experience, not just one for the connoisseur. Elitism is a precursor of alienation and therefor I suggest it is unacceptable. In the information age quality must be transparent, a requirement but not an end.


George R

December 12, 2009, 11:33 PM

Just to be clear, my comment 95 is a direct quote from the Guggenheim Museum Catalog. I read it while taking a dump, thought it was funny, and used it as an example of what others in positions of power are saying. Don't blame it on me, it was an example of what I meant by "real world"


George R

December 12, 2009, 11:40 PM

Re# 111. Hey Franklin, without being contentious about this, if Greenberg wasn't a Formalist Critic what is the best description for his positions?

Second, if Greenberg wasn't a Formalist critic who was?



December 13, 2009, 12:10 AM

John, what you say about Clem taking responsibilty for all the midreadings of "Modernist Painting" is very, very interesting. It's certainly true that he tried to clarify that essay with the 1978 footnote. The trouble is that although he said in that note that he was merely trying to correct a misinterpretation, his tone towards the end of it gets so irate that it's anything but an apology. Rather it must have served to further reinforce the antagonism (and misinterpretation) that the original essay had provoked. Incidentally (though it's not important), I still think that what he thought he was trying to do with the original essay isn't what he did do, and that on some level or another, he seems to have been trying to describe the evolution of all abstraction, not only the best (he only uses that phrase of "the best" once or at the most twice in the entire essay). Writers (like artists) aren't always aware of exactly what they've created (or why). Maybe never.

George R, the difference between you & me may be that I don't feel I have to apologize for my age, or disclaim all of what I learned when I was young. It is true that some people get stuck in their childhoods -- I've come across friends who were raised in the same circles that I was and are still voicing to the same attitudes I was raised with 60 years later, like flies in amber. However (although this may be pure vanity) I happen to think that my particular life experience has led me in & out of so many subcommunities in American life that I've had to be more elastic -- while at the same time recognizing the ongoing validity of some things I learned in my earlier decades. One thing I have been enabled to observe is the arrival of the myth -- in the 60s -- that youth is always right, and its proliferation across many different scholarly disciplines in the 70s & 80s. This now very widespread myth replaced an older myth in the culture, namely that age is always right. The replacement originally took place in response to the historical demands of the 60s, political & esthetic, but that doesn't make it any the less a myth. The truth of the matter seems to be that sometimes youth is right, sometimes age is right, sometimes nobody is right and sometimes everybody's right. Does that cover all the bases?



December 13, 2009, 12:37 AM

What is difficult about so many of your formulations, George, is that they fold in on and negate themselves before you even finish typing them out - like, modernism was essentially a progression but thanks to postmodernism we now know that faith in progress was misplaced and the resulting information age is providing us a better understanding.

How can anyone agree or disagree with these sorts of double-jointed contortions? If you could just activate the super slomo button, leaving it at one assertion per sentence and one sentence per comment, then maybe Mr. Inflexible (me in tights) could track your twists and turns, and appreciate your mental elasticity.


George R

December 13, 2009, 12:52 AM

Piri, LOL, I'm not apologizing for my age, I have a magnificent head of hair, but I'll admit my knees hurt if I walk for more than four hours. Nor were my comments directed at you... see


George R

December 13, 2009, 1:10 AM

Re #116, Ahab: Well you managed top garble it up nicely, I didn't say any of those things.

I've run out of wine, so I'll cut this short. Modernism was essentially a phenomena resulting from the transition to the Industrial Age from the Agrarian Age. As part of this social phenomena, society adopted the idea of the "Modern" which embodied "progress" as we moved into the future. Art adopted these basic tenants, with the avant guard championing the idea of "progress" in art, Modernism.

I'm suggesting that Modernism achieved its goal and completed its reflexive self definition for art. Therefor it can proclaim victory and we should start a new game.

Forget about Postmodernism, it's a meaningless transitional phase.

The Information Age is just the current socioeconomic environment, it doesn't say anything about the art that will be produced. It does represent a significant change and it is appropriate to assume it will have a dramatic affect on the culture, including art. At the moment there is NO NEW ISM to worry about, continue with whatever you were doing and see what happens.



December 13, 2009, 1:11 AM

"In the formalist tradition of art criticism, flatness is inseparable from aesthetic value..."

Ho ho ho! I'll take an order of formalist flapjacks, please. Extra maple syrup.


George R

December 13, 2009, 1:15 AM

Re: Comment #117 - this is a repost..

Piri, LOL, I'm not apologizing for my age, I have a magnificent head of hair, but I'll admit my knees hurt if I walk for more than four hours. Nor were my comments directed at you... see Alison Gopnik and realize that generalizations often miss the mark.

Also, my remarks about the next generation don't imply that they will be "right" just that I feel they have the potential for a radically different viewpoint. To be frank, I'm positive about this, the culture is already in the process of going through a dramatic change which is cyclical in nature. It should be more apparent in a few more years.

We all move through time in a memory bubble, our world view is shaped by our experience and by our shared experiences. They are not necessarily the truth, we believe them to be the truth, but in fact other people see the world in the weirdest ways which, though they are apparently parallel to ours, produce different results. At the same time there also seems to be a clustering effect where we adopt the same world view, even if it is incorrect. So where is the truth?



December 13, 2009, 8:06 AM

George, we've arrived at the point that you're making irresponsible comments, then denying that you said them, or said them about anyone in particular, or meant them in the way that you said them. I was going to suggest that you go sleep it off at 11:30 last night but thought that might be rude. Now I see that I should have.

We've already gone back and forth about Greenberg and formalism on Ed Winkleman's blog back in July. Here's the germane point cut and pasted. You couldn't deal with it then, and I doubt that you'll be able to deal with it now, but here we go:

Does it strike you as odd that the alleged exemplar of formalist criticism never, and I mean never, used the word "formalist" to describe his approach or the art that he advocated? There's a reason for this. It's because he's not a formalist critic. More thoroughly formalist critics were making an active contribution to art appreciation before Greenberg was even out of diapers. Greenberg disdained the term and rejected its presuppositions. If you have John O'Brian's four-volume compilation of his writings, you can read a 1967 piece commissioned by Artforum, "Complaints of an Art Critic," in which he describes the literary origins of formalist criticism and the inherent problems of applying it to art. "More recently," he wrote, "certain artists have been referred to as belonging to a 'formalist' school for no other reason than their having been championed by certian critics whom some other critics call 'formalist.' This is vulgarity with a vengeance." (Congratulations on joining the ranks of the vulgar, George.) The argument against it goes on for a few pages, but the key sentences are perhaps these: "...the quality of a work of art inheres in its 'content,' and vice versa. Quality is 'content.' You know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is 'quality.'"

In 1954, he writes: "Actually, my own hope is that a less qualified acceptance of the importance of sheerly abstract of formal factors in pictorial art will open the way to a clearer understanding of the value of illustration as such - a value which I, too, am convinced is indisputable." So much for formalism.

Modernism and formalism intersect historically but accidentally as well. His formulation of modernism, as a self-critical enterprise rather than an explicitly formalist one, is quite sound in the context that he is describing. There is no evidence, not in the passage cited in #2 [in some point that George was making, see the linked thread for details] or anywhere else, that this description applies anywhere except to that context, which was the best work he saw being made at the time. You can read the whole thing here, an essay in which he carefully notes, "...I want to repeat that Modernist art does not offer theoretical demonstrations. It can be said, rather, that it happens to convert theoretical possibilities into empirical ones, in doing which it tests many theories about art for their relevance to the actual practice and actual experience of art." No program means no program.

Earlier on that thread I wrote, "The main thing I take away from Greenberg is that there is no program. 'Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles,' he said." I call this modernist out of convenience, but his approach is an affront to the very idea of category. This is why I was arguing at one point for a new modernism as distinct from historical modernism. But really the point is to put your person in front of the art and feel what happens.



December 13, 2009, 9:37 AM

Thank you Franklin. It nags me when I don't answer the guy, but then I think all I am going to get is a "double-jointed contortion", as Ahab put it, and it is a great relief to see a cogent response.

I don't mind his obvious need to stir things up, and, as someone said, get us functioning at our best, but it is frustrating to run around in circles and never resolve anything.

MC the flapjacks were very good.

Clem and I often discussed the flatness thing, and the things John & Piri have written are pretty much accurate. My contention to him was that the drift towards flatness was a consequence of mechanical changes in painting rather than specialization in the medium (the two are not necessarily exclusive but it gets complicated) and he always found that very interesting because it said the same thing he had said but from a painter's angle.

No one seems to complehend the fact that these Greenberg "chinks in the armor" betray nothing more than an expectation of perfection, on the part of friend and foe alike. Attacking him on a ridiculously fine point like this means nothing more than accepting Greenberg as the epitome of criticism. Every jab is implied tribute. Whoever brings up the minor gaffes of Harold Rosenberg?



December 13, 2009, 9:45 AM

George, re #108, my " fu%#ing" problem is that you will make an utterly baseless assertion like

"you cannot accept that the general but INCORECT opinion is that Greenberg and Flatness are kinked together"

which then demands retraction, but if I make such a demand we will be off in some lalaland of phantom-chasing semantic gymnastics leading nowhere. It is an annoying bore.



December 13, 2009, 10:01 AM

Piri, you write "Would you also say that the impressionist palette is limited because it doesn't have grays or blacks?"

I would answer, yes, to that extent, but less limited, and limited in such a way that there is no point in saying so.

When I say that limitations are enabling, I would point to your accurate description of the richness of Cubist color as proof rather than contradiction. Eliminating saturated color in Cubism led to enhanced coloristic richness through variation in value and subtlety of touch.
Limitation is the mother of possibility.

You may be realizing that arguing with George is a commitment to irresolution.


Chris Rywalt

December 13, 2009, 10:07 AM

Clearly I was busy putting up the Christmas tree last night while you were all arguing with George.

As far as I'm concerned, George has shown himself unable to get basic facts right, and that, more than anything, obviates our need to argue against his positions.

The Internet was 20 years old in March? I've been with my wife for 21 years and we sent e-mail to each other over the Internet after we met. The earliest versions of what would become the Internet date back to the late 1960s; TCP/IP (the protocol you could sort of call "the Internet") started in the late 1970s. Certainly by the 1980s we were well into the Internet proper, and I personally was on it in 1988.

Now, we didn't really get on the Internet fully, aware of what we were doing, in a serious way, until 1990 or so. In 1992 I was writing seminars on navigating the Internet; in late 1993 the World Wide Web was developed and rendered all of that moot. I put up my first Web server in 1993, maybe early 1994.

The World Wide Web and the Internet tend to be used as interchangeable terms, although of course the Web is just one protocol that runs on the Internet, which is much more general-purpose. The arrival of the Web heralded the importance of the Internet to the wider culture; note that occurred five years earlier than you say it did, George.

A fair amount of the Web culture pre-dates the Web, too. Smilies, for instance, and abbreviations like LOL. A lot of Web culture came over wholesale from Usenet.

What's neat about the Information Age is we can actually go back into the near-perfect archives we have and find the absolute first use of a given neologism. Smilies were invented in 1982, for instance.



December 13, 2009, 10:16 AM

My lack of participation in this increasingly drawn out exercise has been deliberate. It appears my memory is longer or my tolerance shorter than that of some of you. I suggest greater circumspection.



December 13, 2009, 10:32 AM

Opie: "Whoever brings up the minor gaffes of Harold Rosenberg?" I'd add, what about the major ones, like there is no distinction between art and life? Well, Rosenberg himself brought some of them up himself shortly before he died, writing that some of the worst art imaginable had been made on the basis of his theories ... though he did not find that fact to be a reason to retract them.

George: "We all move through time in a memory bubble, our world view is shaped by our experience and by our shared experiences. They are not necessarily the truth, we believe them to be the truth, but in fact other people see the world in the weirdest ways which, though they are apparently parallel to ours, produce different results. At the same time there also seems to be a clustering effect where we adopt the same world view, even if it is incorrect. So where is the truth?"

George, you are describing how most of us remember when we don't test our memory against accessible facts. But you really need to get a copy of Piri's book. (No, I'm not her agent.) It is a "memoir" to be sure. While I speculate there are a lot of contemporaneous personal notes behind it, what is so outstanding is the utterly amazing amount of documented research that is provided which substantiates and informs her memories, as she presents them.

It would be a very good book for you to read because you are so interested in cultural history. Besides her take on that subject, she has conveniently, for those of us who don't have the time, thoroughly researched all the documentation that is available which relates to them. You might reach a different way to describe what happened than she has, but I fancy that, once you confront all the data she presents, you would change your own thoughts as they now exist. Facts have a way of doing that. You, Piri, opie, myself, and some others are all approximately the same age (15 years plus or minus no longer seems significant), that is, we each qualify for the geezer club, no questions asked. The research present everywhere in her book continue to impress me, and in the end, revise what I thought I remembered. I find this much better than simply digesting and re-digesting my own aging brain cells.



December 13, 2009, 11:02 AM

Still, a very engaging thread. I appreciate the clarification on Greenberg that is a regular feature on Artblog, especially from people who actually knew him and those who've read his work in depth. I followed the link on New Modernism Franklin and yikes, a lot of flak and digression, but you had me at your original proposition. I've always thought intuitively that abstraction and realism were two sides of the same coin (or biological process, to borrow from language in the New Modernism thread). I'm most fascinated by the serious attempt to challenge master narrative and received opinion in Piri's proposition regarding abstraction and the related discussion. Thanks all and rock on.


George R

December 13, 2009, 11:36 AM


I didn't mention anything about Greenberg until Comment #67, after the point was already raised. I did address the issue of 'flatness' in relation to the paintings under discussion but I never used Greenberg's name nor did I even allude to him.

You must all think I haven't been paying attention all these years to believe that I am not aware of the debates about Greenberg and the chronology of his use of the term flatness. I have already acknowledged that I am aware he tried to rephrase/recant his position.

In comment #67 I said Correct or not, Greenberg is stuck with "flatness" - it just won't go away. This was in response to Piri. My point is not whether or not Greenberg advocation of flatness is true (I have already stated I agree it's not)

My point is that a majority of people in the art world believe it is true

Please be aware that I understand that NO ONE HERE believes it to be true.

Secondly, I never called Greenberg a "formalist critic" Franklin used that term in comment #111. FYI, the Guggenheim quote didn't call him a "formalist critic" either but used the phrase —formalism's leading voice—

Further, comment #95 is a direct quote from the Guggenheim Catalogue and was offered NOT as proof that Greenberg advocated flatness, but as an example that the art world, in this case a major museum, believed it was true. This quote also introduced

I posted the quote separately with the attribution and explanation posted in comment #99.

Finally, the only reason I entered this discussion was because I liked George Bethea's paintings and had something to say about them that I thought might be of some value. I have already admitted I made a mistake in thinking that Franklin wrote the opening blurb. I now realize that it was written by Bannard but I stand by what I said in comment #26 The "whole essay" doesn't do Bethea justice,... I don't see how anything I said on Winkleman's blog has anything to do with what I am saying about Bethea's paintings. I am the one who has had the most to say about them and right or wrong, I stand by my remarks. I am really not interested in being dragged into an argument over Greenbergs ideas. I accept the notion that painters should aspire to make good paintings, to achieve "quality" but I don't think I need Greenberg to tell me how.


George R

December 13, 2009, 11:43 AM

Re #123 Opie:

Well excuse me. If I am reading you correctly, you are saying you accept the idea that Greenberg's advocacy of flatness is the generally held belief by most of the members of the art community. I'm sorry I misunderstood you, we have no disagreement and I appologize for my blatent use of punctuation marks.


George R

December 13, 2009, 12:01 PM

Re #125: Chris, your right. I was quoting the number from memory of a NYT article, it should have been 25 years. On April 30, 1993 CERN's directors declared that WWW technology would be freely usable by anyone.



December 13, 2009, 12:12 PM

John, Thanks so very much for the testimonial -- and for having read the book so carefully. I wish I had an agent like you! Re contemporaneous notes: no really, I haven't kept a journal or anything like that since I had to for several weeks in a college writing course. But the early part of my life anyway was lived close to the written word, so there were many sources I could go back & read. And -- as you realize --- when researching the book, I tried to read sources that didn't confirm earlier recollections or current opinions as well as ones that did.

David, thanks for your interest in my challenge to received wisdom on abstraction. This is a controversial topic in Greenberg-land (which is why I offer it only occasionally & very carefully at this website). Clem never liked my theory of what I call multireferential imagery, and many if not most of those nearest & dearest to him are similarly unimpressed. But I feel that if these ideas of mine could catch on more widely, it would be one small step toward making it easier for more people to appreciate good abstraction, & distinguish between it and bad abstraction. If you want to know more about these ideas, the Introduction to my book is posted at my website & includes an introduction to my theory.


George R

December 13, 2009, 12:22 PM

Re #127 John:

Can you give me the Amazon link to Piri's book?

TIA, off to see Kandinsky...



December 13, 2009, 12:33 PM

george is good for artblog, but it may also be good for artblog to have the cut and paste replies to many of his comments/rants (pot stirring) at the ready, which it seems franklin has a jump on already. no need to constantly retype the same responses, but it is good for some of the folks to hear it out who may not have been here for years.



December 13, 2009, 12:45 PM

Piri, I read the intro on your site earlier in the game. I'm a furniture maker/designer who thinks of himself as a painter. Neither the painters nor the furniture people quite get me and I suppose I'm not sure myself just what I'm doing - although it all makes sense in my studio. Nevertheless, the general proposition of multireferential imagery is second nature to me and I look forward to reading the fully developed version in your book. My ideal art object and talisman is the Japanese tea bowl - how weird and anachronistic is that? I appreciate that there may be sympathy for that position here. If you think that through and think about crafted objects as vessels for the art experience, you (one) might see how abstraction could be more a quality of the mind than a category of art. Yes, a painting is more or less flat, a bowl is mostly round. So?



December 13, 2009, 12:55 PM

here is a link to a video preview of the kandinsky show. it looks like a great show. those pictures really seem to fit that space as well.

the oversized kandinsky book by prestel which came out in 2008 or 2009 is very nice as well.


Chris Rywalt

December 13, 2009, 2:13 PM

Japanese tea bowls? What are those? I've never seen those before! Do people still make and collect them? Whyever would they do so? I can't even picture a Japanese tea bowl! If only someone could put up links to some images....



December 13, 2009, 4:00 PM

Just for you, Chris:

Karatsu 1
Karatsu 2
Karatsu 3



December 13, 2009, 4:03 PM

George, here is the link to Piri's book at Amazon or for slightly less money and autographed here.

Clem disliked being called a "formalist", but that did not stop him from speculating about the idea:

"What I'm getting at, in a way I hope isn't so roundabout, is the fact that art and the history of art can be approached and discussed illuminatingly all by themselves, as though taking place in an area of experience that's autonomous, a place that doesn't have to be connected with any other area of experience in order to have sense made of it. What I've just said is the most radical expression I can think of what's called vulgarly "formalism." I want to go on to say that better sense can be made of art, justice can be done to the experience of art qua art, if it is dealt with as autonomous, as being abstracted from all political, social, economic, or religious or moral issues or factors. That is, if art, so to speak, is dealt with in a vacuum. I know, that is horrendous -- we're not supposed to do that. All the while we realize, of course, that art doesn't take place in a vacuum." ( From "Autonomies of Art")

And with respect to "Modernist Painting", here is the transcript of a statement he made at Western Michigan University in 1983:

"Now, I haven't written a word in favor of a certain kind of painting that hasn't been made yet. You only write about art that's already been made. My prejudice, as Professor Link says, is towards representational painting, and it's the only kind I can do, but I had to accept the fact that the major painting of our time, and the major sculpture too, after a while, was abstract, because you can't choose what to like and what not to like. I say major because the difference between major and minor is very important. It became very important for this country in the '40s when the Abstract Expressionists finally decided they could compete with the French and stop being in tutelage. But my rhetoric wasn't very careful, otherwise I couldn't have been misunderstood to the extent I have been. I recognize that and I don't put the blame entirely on the people who misunderstood me. Though I still say I haven't written a word that gives you reason to think that I'm for abstract art, as such, as against other kinds of art. I wrote a piece called "Modernist Painting" that got taken as a program when it was only a description, and I was thought to believe in things that I was describing [as a program]. Again, it was the fault of my rhetoric. I was in favor of "pure" art in spite of the fact that I put quotation marks around "pure" or "purity" whenever I used them, because I don't believe there's any such thing as pure art. It was an illusion. It was a necessary illusion, apparently, for modernist artists and it helped produce some great art and some great poetry. A necessary illusion for Mallarmé, say, and for Valery, and maybe even for Ezra Pound. It was a necessary illusion for Picasso and for Cézanne. There is no such thing as pure art, or pure poetry, or pure music. Anyhow I don't believe there is such a thing. But I made the mistake of contenting myself with quotation marks and not saying "look, I don't believe this as a program, I'm simply describing." And so people assumed that was my program. I'd been describing what I thought had happened under modernism, and nothing more and nothing less. It was also inferred that I had said there was some necessity working in this although I said nothing to that effect. But I blame myself. I should have been more careful."

Note the last two sentences.



December 13, 2009, 4:45 PM

I'm not entirely sure here (red makes me leery), but I like it better than the average Richter:

Minou 1
Minou 2
Minou 3



December 13, 2009, 4:47 PM

I am entirely sure, Jack. It is a great pot.



December 13, 2009, 4:54 PM

Just the thing for a cold night in the chashitsu. Jack, you've read Okakura, I trust?



December 13, 2009, 5:09 PM

Thanks, 1, for the URL in # 136.

It was interesting how the video "explained" Kandinsky, as if, now, being innovative is in itself an explanation. The conservation department's comments were very interesting and related somewhat to his method.

I'm not sure anything "fits" FLW's space. I've always thought he was something of a jerk for designing a museum space that competes with what the museum is supposed to do, make the best art visible.



December 13, 2009, 5:23 PM

I should read it, but I haven't. As aesthetically rich and satisfying as these pots are as objects, they were not made to be simply looked at and admired, but rather to be used as utensils. This passage from an interview with a modern potter is apt:

Morisato's pottery teacher always admonished him not to think like an artist. "He told me, 'You are a simple potter, not an artist, so all you have to think about is whether or not your pots are easy to use and whether they give people a sense of comfort'." He was assured that a well-made pot will "naturally reach out to the heart of the user." Now he passes the same message on to his own students. He says the question is, does the pot exhibit harmony and he points out that the importance of a traditional craft is in how useful it is, not in how it looks on a shelf.



December 13, 2009, 5:38 PM

What a beautiful way to end this thread (not that I'm assuming it's ended). All we need now is to put Ugetsu into the DVD player and fire it up. Jack the red is very unusual. On a par with Richter on his best day.



December 13, 2009, 6:54 PM

Nice pot. Looke like a low fire glaze over a high fire glaze. Kind of gilding the lily, though.

John, Clem and I also talked abo0ut the purity problem He had an inborn, or maybe culturally derived, aversion, to thinking of art as "pure" while at the same time advocating the separation of art experience from other experience. He never seemed to be able grasp the essential difference between direct experience and context, much as I pleaded the case. He was painfully tentative about it.

I mean, If I thought of cows everytime I ate a steak I would never eat a steak.



December 13, 2009, 7:39 PM

"Kind of gilding the lily, though."

That's more or less my reservation. It seems a little, uh, impure.



December 13, 2009, 8:54 PM

Well opie, I think Clem put it rather nicely. "Context" is certainly not "everything", nor is it even a major issue, but it is "something". Art, as he said in AUTONOMIES, "doesn't take place in a vacuum". But treating art as if it has no specific context led to some amazing results. In a way, that extreme position WAS part of the context.

In any case, context has been overemphasized lately, which I suppose both you and he (and I) would agree. It is a matter of how far to take the separation. I could never take it out of consideration altogether.

Myself, I often think of cows when I eat steak, especially the anatomy from which the steak came, and sometimes exactly where that would place the steak, relative to the floor, when it was part of the cow, maybe 4 - 5 feet up, depending on the cut, and its orientation at that level, according to the grain of the meat. It is a way of paying respect to the animal that is providing me with its protein, though it causes me pause from time to time. Is this the zen of the conscious carnivore?



December 13, 2009, 9:31 PM

John, you never cease to amaze me. I bet the PETA people are just loving this. I don't think they are going to be able to wrap their minds around that one.



December 13, 2009, 10:48 PM

George R., hope you enjoyed the Kandinsky. I thought it was a wonderful show, but also very crowded when I was there. What was art strictly for connoisseurs a century ago now approaches the realm of the universal (though of course still over the heads of most of the cab drivers out on Fifth Avenue, to say nothing of all the upper-middle-class people who whinny with disgust at the mere mention of abstraction)

David (#135), I agree that in the realm of pure esthetics, a tea bowl can be as beautiful as a painting. In fact, there's a fruit bowl designed by Josef Albers in the current Bauhaus show at MoMA which is vastly superior to anything in the Richter exhibition. However, CG to the contrary maybe, art doesn't only exist in the realm of purity, it also bears a relationship to the world around it, and in that context, I find that the functional role of the tea bowl gets in the way of whatever it is that a painting can convey.

Rembrandt (#82 & #94): I think the comparison you make is beside the point. Every era has its own level of greatness, some which produce very great art, some which don't. Myself, I love the Elgin Marbles a lot more than any Hellenistic sculpture I've ever seen, but even the Hellenistic is better than most Roman sculpture, which is largely copycat Greek (except for the portraits). Likewise, mannerism is a pretty sad comedown from the Renaissance--even the greatest mannerists (El Greco, maybe?) don't approach the level of Leonardo or Michelangelo. I also don't know who in the 18th century measures up to Rembrandt, Rubens, & Vermeer in the 17th (Watteau, maybe?) So the question with Bethea is not whether he measures up to Pollock, but how his work compares with what else is being done today. And even on the basis of a reproduction, I'm prepared to say that he's head and shoulders above Richter, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, etc., etc.



December 13, 2009, 11:04 PM

I guess the concept is hard to understand, perhaps because it is so very simple.

Experience is always particular, It is always what it is at any moment. Things have particular characteristics but can have different uses, definitions or effects according to our experience, usage, etc. Otherwise they are just dumb stuff.

You can think of cows while eating steak if you please, and use the steak for two varieties of experience: experience of food and of cow thinking, variously intermixed. If you choke on it while you are cow musing then the experience is suddenly and violently altered, and the steak becomes something that might kill you. At that time, you are likely to cease musing on cows

Art, like everything else, exists in context. But when art is being art it is utterly separate from everything but itself and the viewer. This is the choice we make that causes the object to be art. Without that choice the object is just stuff. That is what art is and what it does. Recognizing this is the first and most necessry step in any reasonable theory of art.

Clem (and you too, I guess) just wouldn't see it this way, and always, at least temperamentally, saw art only as a thing anchored in the context of the world, even though when art is in that condition is it not, and even as his experience with art told him something else.


George R

December 13, 2009, 11:58 PM

Piri (#150), Yes, each time Kandinsky continues to amaze me. This was my fourth visit, it's always been crowded, even with todays rain. However, because many people tend to ride the elevator up, and then walk down the ramp, there s crowd cycle which allows you to see the paintings unobstructed if you're patient.

With almost all other painters I can deconstruct how the paintings were made. With the early Kandinsky's (1910-1918) I find this more difficult. These paintings still have references to the representational but then everything swirls around or clumps together or overlaps into an abstraction of sorts. Sometimes they feel rough with the Germanic black lines and raggedy edges but everything seems so aptly placed and with his amazing instinct for color the paintings end up being taut and also tough.

I grew up near a museum with a decent Blaue Reiter collection and when I was young he is one of the first modern artists I was exposed to. Twentieth century abstraction more or less traveled in the furrows of Picasso's wagon. I wouldn't say Kandinsky was underrated but he may have been overlooked. He does turn up in the top 10 lists of artists who are popular with the public.



December 14, 2009, 12:09 AM

Piri #151

"I find that the functional role of the tea bowl gets in the way of whatever it is that a painting can convey."

I agree. But one of my projects is to think about use as meaning in craft objects. From the craft side, to take away use is to take away meaning, as when the Albers fruit bowl is sitting in MOMA instead of being used in a domestic setting, although use might be present metaphorically (Arthur Danto brought up this possibility). Another thought is that the meaning of a medieval tea bowl is changed when it is removed from medieval Japan. I also think about times when the fine and decorative arts brushed up against each other, like in old Japan or more recently maybe the Art Nouveau period or even early Modernism. These are not those times, but as I say, my project is to think about these things and to think about what a contemporary artist can do with such thoughts.



December 14, 2009, 12:09 AM

The concept is easy to understand (as are most extremely "pure" concepts), it just does not jibe with my experience, which is not pure - and is more difficult to understand.

One looses "purity" as experience with art accumulates. History, methods, styles, and media residues remain from what you correctly describe as "particular" experiences and play a part, no matter how small, in the next experience. Current circumstances intervene as well, including the nature of the presentation. Art in the studio can look a lot different than art on the living room wall than art on the gallery wall.

Art, like life, does not present many complete disjunctions (can't think of any right now). "Disjunction" is a way of framing things intellectually, to shed light on experiences that tend, but do not actually reach, such "pure" divides.



December 14, 2009, 12:14 AM

BTW, I am leery of art theories, reasonable or otherwise.


George R

December 14, 2009, 12:21 AM

John (#143).

Innovative? Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky -- considering the historical context "revolutionary" is probably a better term -- all three worked our from representational painting into a form of abstraction, with no precedent to build off of. This is particularly evident in Mondrian as he cautiously coaxed the paintings into existence. With Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon it took two more years to sort it out into cubism. Kandinsky was a visionary.

I agree about the museum, it's a pain (literally) to walk around in but the exhibitions don't seem to suffer. The original part of the building is truly an amazing piece of architecture and they have added on several large conventional galleries which gives them flexibility. The bathrooms are cute but cramped.



December 14, 2009, 12:23 AM

I should have said in #153 regarding fine and decorative arts brushing up against each other "early 20th c. modernism." And btw I'm aware of John and Opie's overlapping discussion of context and purity and I think it relates to what I'm saying in some way.



December 14, 2009, 10:23 AM

John, what I can't understand is why I can't make this extremely elemental concept clear to extremely smart people like you and Clem. It is not a "pure" concept, it is one drawn directly from observed experience of everyday life.

Whan you say that "Art, like life, does not present many complete disjunctions" you are simply not observing everyday experience accurately. Although I would argue with the phrase "complete disjunction", which is misleadingly absolute, the very action of looking at an object esthetically is, in fact, a disjunction of which we freely and purposely choose, as we do constantly in other ways every day in every way. Our lives are constant series of partial to full disjunctions. This is how we live.

That we do so in the midst of the buzzing confusion of life around us, or that all kinds of things contribute and impinge and enhance, or that life itself is a maelstrom of things and feelings and experiences does not obviate the simple, clear character of what we do when we look at art. It is a simple action among other simple actions that we do everyday. It is not "pure", it is merely narrow, specialized. it is so absolutely basic and fundamental that it seems to simply escape notice, like not seeing the forest for the trees, and it leads directly to this huge misundertanding, which almost amounts to a romantic prejudice, of the infinitely "rich, complex, difficult, complicated, impure" etc etc nature of art.

I just don't know how to say it more clearly, and, as usually happens, I guess I will just stop trying. But until this is understood we will continue to run up against a brick wall when we talk about art.


George R

December 14, 2009, 10:40 AM

So's a car.



December 14, 2009, 11:30 AM

Taking the time this morning to catch up on this thread has been a pleasant (albeit incomplete and impure) disjucture from the quite literally cold realities of the day that lies before me.

Thanks folks.



December 14, 2009, 11:55 AM

Hey opie, I haven't noticed any brick walls when I talk about art with you. Did you see any when you talked with Clem?

The point we are discussing is theoretical. If there is a disjunction anywhere, it is between the theory and experience of art.



December 14, 2009, 12:05 PM

John, it is NOT theoretical. It is simple, clear, direct observation. Does anyone else see this? I feel like I am pissing in the wind.



December 14, 2009, 12:07 PM

George, yes, exactly. So's a car.


George R

December 14, 2009, 12:26 PM

It is about paying attention to what you are perceiving.

Art objects inherently require that you pay attention.

The aesthetic experience comes as a result of paying attention.



December 14, 2009, 12:38 PM

George, FLW did not believe people should spend much time in bathrooms, hallways, or kitchens, which is obviously not news to you. He also thought people should not store anything in their garage except their car, so he built carports, not garages.

Whether she used the term "innovative" or "revolutionary", the way she was talking in the video seemed to address the public's need for explanation. Saying Kandinsky's abstractions are innovative has only a little to do with the direct experience of them, though once you know that about them, it can be part of the experience - that's part of what I've been arguing with opie about. But the woman in the video made too much of it, as far as I was concerned.

I have read a lot of Greenberg and a lot of Bannard. Greenberg's strength was in shedding light on his experience of art, which was executed on a very high level. But he did not shed as much direct light on the art, except as verbal judgments, which are an extension of his experience.

Bannard, on the other hand, leverages his "other life" in the studio, not to explain his experience of art, and certainly not art as art, but to put into words many of the structural methods and results that exist in the best abstraction, artist by artist, picture by picture. These words are not as easy to grasp for even the well educated reader as "Kandinsky was innovative", but they are the only ones I've read that border on "explanation" for, say, Morris Louis. No one explains art as art, but he said more about Louis's pictures than Greenberg did, and that's a very high bar to clear.



December 14, 2009, 12:39 PM

OP, I have no problem with what you're saying. Sounds straightforward enough to me. Maybe it would help to replace "pure" with "relatively pure" or "as pure as reality will allow," but I think that's understood anyway.



December 14, 2009, 12:58 PM

That's right, George, and that "paying attention" is in continuous flux in our daily state of awareness and it is a matter of continuous deliberate choice.

When we go to a museum we are directed to see things esthetically (usually), to see things as works of art. When we stand in front of a rectangular thing with a frame around it in a museum we will consciously choose to see it esthetically,and this action is purposely narrow and excludes all other considerations FOR THE MOMENT. In that moment it is art. At all other moments it is a thing on a wall the character of which has the potential to make us choose to look at it as art.

This action is "pure", if you want to call it that, although I don't like the word here because it leads to misunderstanding. It does not make anything else pure - the art or yourself or the world. That is completely beside the point. It merely allows one to look at the thing in a manner which we have learned art should be looked at. It is a CHOICE, one of many, perhaps, but one we make because of the circumstances, as we do with everything.

Then when we go out and go to our car we make the choice to get in it and drive it away because that is what cars are for.

Clem, and apparently John, just don't see it, and yes, John, it really does seem like a brick wall.



December 14, 2009, 1:09 PM

George (and opie), paying attention does not occur in a vacuum, a "vacuum" that has just one exception, the work you are looking at. Good museums go to great effort to exclude as many distractions as possible (FLW's circular sculpture at the core of the Guggenheim is one of several exceptions), but they can't exclude the distractions the viewers bring in themselves. Of course it helps a lot when the viewer stifles those distractions, especially those that are not relevant, such as the name of the artist. On the other hand, refined taste is inseparable from the many experiences that went into refining it. And you never want to leave your taste at the door.

Duchamp (here we go again) showed how easy it is to place just about anything into the near vacuum of an aesthetic situation. He further showed that the object so placed need not have much, if any aesthetic merit (he preferred those of no aesthetic merit). So yes, looking at something aesthetically is an everyday event, easily accomplished by a wide range of viewers. Rather than prove it is completely divorced from everyday life, it suggests the opposite, that it shares some continuity with everyday life.

We may be arguing about the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin.



December 14, 2009, 1:22 PM

Jack, once you say "relatively pure" or "as pure as reality will allow" you are saying what I am trying to get across.

I was present when Greenberg gave his "Autonomies of Art" talk. Even though I had just met him the day before, hearing the talk was like suddenly finding myself in front of the burning bush. A couple of years later after we were friends he told me he had never experienced as intense a "look" from any member of an audience as the one I fixed upon him as he spoke at that conference. His "painful" balancing of the autonomy of art with the not quite so perfect "bracketing off" that we use in our experience of it resonated perfectly with my own experience, and still does.



December 14, 2009, 1:35 PM

Do "brick walls", like beauty, exist only in the eye of the beholder? Maybe yes, maybe no, but I don't see one.

Next up, perhaps, you will compare me to Milton after he was blind.


George R

December 14, 2009, 1:46 PM

Re:168, John, the most distracting element of the Guggenheim is the sloped floor -- everything else can be easily accommodated.

The idea that museums go to great effort to exclude as many distractions as possible is fairly recent and I don't believe an absolute necessity.

"Paying attention" is a conscious act and something most people spend little time doing. Most of our time is spent on autopilot. When you visit a foreign country, making change engages your attention because the currency is foreign, but if you think about what you do here when you break a twenty, you count the change subconsciously (that looks right) and just put it in your pocket.

Going to the museum is no different, some times you are looking but not really paying attention. Sometimes I'll look at art with a specific goal in mind, typically a problem solution of some sort. I'm always amazed at how hard it is to maintain my attention in that particular way

Duchamp not withstanding, paying attention to anything is probably profitable. A lot of our life experiences are perceived through an internal filter, a set of assumptions about what we expect to be.

Art objects exist in a way which makes one of our assumptions about them be that we are required to pay attention -- when we don't I think we usually know it. What we do in the studio is control our attention at certain stages in the process (I don't think all the time, some stuff happens on autopilot) What we might spend hours resolving is presented to the viewer in seconds and if they are paying attention the viewer will realize the artist did too -- the aesthetic experience.



December 14, 2009, 1:47 PM

JOHN: History, methods, styles, and media residues remain from what you correctly describe as "particular" experiences and play a part, no matter how small, in the next experience.

OPIE: Of course they do. I am referring only to a conscious decision to limit the character of an experience with a thing.

JOHN: paying attention does not occur in a vacuum

OPIE: of course not. Who said it did? Once again, I am referring only to a conscious decision to limit the character of an experience with a thing.

JOHN: "refined taste is inseparable from the many experiences that went into refining it. And you never want to leave your taste at the door."

OPIE: Of course not. Once again, I am referring only to a conscious decision to limit the character of an experience with a thing.

JOHN: "looking at something aesthetically is an everyday event, easily accomplished by a wide range of viewers. Rather than prove it is completely divorced from everyday life, it suggests the opposite, that it shares some continuity with everyday life."

OPIE: Looking at something esthetically is not necessarily an everyday experience, nor can it be necessarily easily accomplished by a wide range of viewer. I never said that. Nor did I say it was completely divorced from everyday life. It is part of everyday life if you choose to make it part of everydy life. Everyday life consists of thousands of other similar choices.

Duchamp's basic trick was to request that we apply the esthetic attitude on things that did not direct us to do so by tradition or custom. It is a perfect illustration of what I am talking about.

This is not angels on pins. It is fundamental to understanding how experience engages the real world. Art is just part of this.



December 14, 2009, 2:10 PM

"Duchamp's basic trick was to request that we apply the esthetic attitude on things that did not direct us to do so by tradition or custom. It is a perfect illustration of what I am talking about."

Strange, it is also the perfect illustration of what I am talking about.



December 14, 2009, 2:19 PM

Well, perhaps we are on the same side of the brick wall, just facing in opposite directions.


Chris Rywalt

December 14, 2009, 3:45 PM

OP, I was going to say, before this back and forth began earlier today, that for once I disagreed with you, when you wrote, "Art, like everything else, exists in context. But when art is being art it is utterly separate from everything but itself and the viewer. This is the choice we make that causes the object to be art. Without that choice the object is just stuff. That is what art is and what it does. Recognizing this is the first and most necessry step in any reasonable theory of art."

Because, when you put it that way, it sounds as if the art itself causes the viewer to suspend context, causes the viewer somehow, through its "artness", to consider it outside of any context.

Your later clarifications, however, lead me to think you're saying something pretty basic, and you and John do agree, but for some reason your words aren't quite matching up with what you want to say. I have to assume, knowing you, that this indicates a very subtle idea you're trying to get across and your strong verbal side isn't quite up to it yet.

I was even going to bring up Duchamp and what I consider his only real contribution to art, which was to point out that the only thing that really makes anything art is that we've put it in an art context.

Of course, a good enough art object outside of an art context can, in fact, force something of an art context on a viewer. I'm thinking of the Tamayo a woman pulled out of the garbage because it clearly wasn't junk.

On the other hand, merely being rectangular and made of canvas and paint might provide enough of an art context for most people.

Anyway, I don't think, OP, you're denying that placing an object in an art context is part of what causes us to think of it as art. All you're writing about is that moment where we decide, as viewers, to treat an object as art. As of that moment, there is no context, or nearly none: We're just looking at an object, and there is the viewer and the object and nothing else.

That's a very rarefied state, and I think you agree with that; and even when we're in a quiet museum and trying, that state can slip, drop, or otherwise not come into focus. And not everyone is capable of it in the first place.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I think John agrees that it can exist, but that it usually doesn't, because there are so many distractions.


Chris Rywalt

December 14, 2009, 3:50 PM

George R. sez:
Duchamp not withstanding, paying attention to anything is probably profitable. A lot of our life experiences are perceived through an internal filter, a set of assumptions about what we expect to be.

I'd like to point out that Franklin has said almost precisely this to me: "Probably the quality of your attention in the act of doing something matters more than the activity itself, in the final analysis."

I've thought about this a lot. He also recommended some books on memory, on learning to remember things, and they sort of say the same thing (only they're trying to apply it practically): Original Awareness is what's important, paying attention while something is happening (so you remember it later). Memory training is mostly tricks to cause yourself to pay attention in the first place.

I've thought about this and I find it very difficult, and also very difficult to credit entirely -- is it really more important to pay attention in the long run? What difference does it make anyway?

Part of me is just too rotten and cynical. Still, the idea speaks to the idealist still somewhere inside. Part of me listens to Iron Maiden, and part of me to Peter, Paul and Mary.



December 14, 2009, 4:14 PM

Chris writes "Anyway, I don't think, OP, you're denying that placing an object in an art context is part of what causes us to think of it as art. All you're writing about is that moment where we decide, as viewers, to treat an object as art. As of that moment, there is no context, or nearly none: We're just looking at an object, and there is the viewer and the object and nothing else. That's a very rarefied state, and I think you agree with that; and even when we're in a quiet museum and trying, that state can slip, drop, or otherwise not come into focus. And not everyone is capable of it in the first place."

Absolutely right, Chris, except that it is not in any way a "very rarified state". It is something those of us who love art do as a matter of course. It is not rarified, difficult, esoteric, perfect, pure, permanant uninterruptable or necessarily even very sustainable. It is not complicated, rare or unusual. It is not some kind of mystical zen state of being. It is just simply what we do when, as George said, we purposefully pay attention.


George R

December 14, 2009, 4:40 PM

I think "rarified" is a poor choice of words for describing what paying attention implies. When I say "paying attention" I am speaking of an action which involves directed awareness. As an action, it is not something you do continuously, but it is no more "rare" than speaking or picking something up off the floor.

We are not constantly "paying attention" it's hard (impossible) to do and it is not the only way we know things. We know things we don't know we know, they are subconscious unless of course we are paying attention. As individuals we make judgments based on prior conditioning and utilize these perceptions in our daily life without being fully conscious that we are doing this. If you extend the implications of this type of subconscious knowledge and its processing, it enriches the potential of the aesthetic experience, both in the creative process and as the viewers experience.



December 14, 2009, 5:47 PM

Yes Indeed. In fact we pay very little attention to the ways we pay attention because we are so established in the world around us, so much a part of the basic conditions of life on earth, so evolved into it, that our assumptions are met 99.99% of the time without a fleeting thought about it on our part.

When something disrupts these expectations, say UFOs, to use a crude example, we go to ridiculous lengths trying to bring the phenomenon down into terms we can fit into our world view, and by doing so reveal how dependent we are on the consequences of our millions of years of adaption to one environment.


Chris Rywalt

December 14, 2009, 6:06 PM

I meant "rarefied" in the sense of "necessarily even very sustainable", basically. That it's a state that is, at best, evanescent. Because there are so many distractions, and paying attention is difficult for a sustained period.

Personally, I have trouble paying attention for more than SQUIRREL!



December 14, 2009, 6:14 PM

I'll need to write a better version of it one day, but attention plays an important role in the Panjective essay linked above. Attention is the live charge of self-aware energy that runs through the matter of the planet we live on. Art exists to channel that attention in ways that are particular to art. Beautiful things return feelings of pleasure and satisfaction when we run our attention over them. Those feelings are also part of material existence. Attention is a sort of electrical current running from the art object to those feelings.

True, this is normal operation, but attention can be trained to operate at refined levels. This is how connoisseurship develops, and also how meditation practitioners become aware of profound insights.

To answer Chris's question (What difference does it make?), we have no free will except a modicum of choice about what to do with our attention. Everything else is a reaction to some stimulus. Usually we forfeit even that choice, and attention just bumbles around, getting whacked about by circumstances like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer. Directed attention translates to more deliberate living and less suffering.



December 14, 2009, 6:15 PM

I am on the same side of the brick wall that Clem was on when he gave the talk on Autonomies of Art.



December 14, 2009, 6:56 PM

I know, John. As I said I couldn't get Clem in synch with what I was saying either. What he was saying in "Autonomies", the tentativeness about "purity", was exactly what I was arguing against with him. It is a non-issue.

Franklin you & George are absolutely right about our habit of basically bumbling around but that bumbling around is taking place within an extremely low-entropy environment. Ping pong balls in a box.

To split a hair, "attention can be trained to operate at refined levels", actually, attention is fairly singular; what we train is our ability, through processing all that impure stuff John is referring to, to reward a kind of specialized attention when we choose to exercise it.

I am very happy we do not have free will. Free will presupposes chaos. I think the slightest whiff of chaos, true chaos, would be terrifying beyond measure.


George R

December 14, 2009, 7:20 PM

Paying attention is an action, it doesn't care about the results. It is a means of acquiring access to world including knowledge of what we know subconsciously.

Regarding the question of "free will, this Edge article is worth a read. "FIVE PROBLEMS IN THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIND By Stuart A. Kauffman



December 14, 2009, 7:35 PM

Thanks for the article, George R, but I gave up on it when I read that he's basing his ideas on the observation that chlorophyll is demonstrating quantum-like behaviors at 77 degrees Kelvin. Let me know if that angle pans out.


Chris Rywalt

December 14, 2009, 7:44 PM

I see what you're saying about free will, Franklin. I'm not sure I agree or really disagree; I regard free will as one of those hard problems I'm not equipped to work on. Where you lose me, though, is in your twofold conclusion: First, that increased attention leads to decreased suffering; and second, that it matters either way.

Part of the problem is that, mostly, I'm too much of a nihilist, although I have absurdist leanings. The other part of the problem is that there's an optimist in here, too, who leans towards absurdism and some wacky New Agey kind of spiritualism thing.


George R

December 14, 2009, 7:45 PM

Franklin, that's all right I didn't expect that you would understand him anyhow.

For anyone else with a bit of curiosity, it's a difficult read but worth the effort.

Dr. Kauffman's brief bio from Edge.

STUART A. KAUFFMAN is a professor at the University of Calgary with a shared appointment between biological sciences and physics and astronomy. He is also the leader of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics (IBI) which conducts leading-edge interdisciplinary research in systems biology.

Dr. Kauffman is also an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, a MacArthur Fellow and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. He is the author of Reinventing the Sacred, The Origins of Order, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization, and Investigations

STUART A. KAUFFMAN, is a professor at the University of Calgary with a shared appointment between biological sciences and physics and astronomy. He is also the leader of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics (IBI) which conducts leading-edge interdisciplinary research in systems biology.

Dr. Kauffman is also an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, a MacArthur Fellow and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

Originally a medical doctor, Dr. Kauffman's primary work has been as a theoretical biologist studying the origin of life and molecular organization. Thirty-five years ago, he developed the Kauffman models, which are random networks exhibiting a kind of self-organization that he terms "order for free."

Dr. Kauffman was the founding general partner and chief scientific officer of The Bios Group, a company (acquired in 2003 by NuTech Solutions) that applies the science of complexity to business management problems. He is the author of The Origins of Order, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization, Investigations and Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion.


Chris Rywalt

December 14, 2009, 8:23 PM

George R. sez:
Franklin, that's all right I didn't expect that you would understand him anyhow.

Them's fightin words!

I may be going out on a limb here, but I'd posit that if Franklin couldn't understand it, it's because it's nigh incomprehensible. Certainly it's unlikely anyone else reading this would get it if he couldn't.


George R

December 14, 2009, 8:39 PM

Chris (#188) said "Them's fightin words"

Not really, Franklins quick dismissal is an indication of a rigid mindet, if he had actually read the article he would have seen that Kauffman is quite aware of the issues involved for quantum coherence and decoherence at warmer temepratures

In section 6, Kauffman writes:

"I begin with old and new opinions and facts. Had one asked a physicist twenty or even ten years ago if the human brain could exhibit quantum coherent phenomena, the response, after laughter, would have been that thermalization would have destroyed any vestige of quantum coherence, so the answer was 'No'.

It is therefore astonishing and important that recent results on the chlorophyll molecule, surrounded by its evolved 'antenna protein', has been shown be quantum coherent for almost a nanosecond. Now the normal time scale for decoherence is on the order of 10 to the -15 second, or a femto-second. Yet these experiments, carried out at 77K, but thought to apply to chlorophyll in plants at ambient temperature, show quantum coherence of an absorbed photon traveling to the reaction center for over 700 femtoseconds, the length of their longest trial (24). No one expected this. The authors believe that the quantum coherence increases dramatically the quantum efficiency of the energy gathering process in photo-synthesis. More, they believe that the evolved antenna protein either suppresses decoherence or induces recoherence. No one knows at present. It seems safe to conclude that quantum coherence for on the order of a billionth of a second, a nanosecond, is possible and observerable at body or ambient temperature. The evolved role of the antenna protein is testable by mutating its sequence."



December 14, 2009, 8:40 PM

The tentativeness about "purity" - I think Clem, like myself, believed that beauty or whatever the hell is the object that taste seeks, exists outside our perception of it. That is, it is real in its own right. That there is a reason Pollock's ONE is better than CHRISTINA'S WORLD that exists before, outside of, and regardless of whether we perceive the difference.

Once you accept that the aesthetic world is bigger than our idea of it, you quickly realize you must be cautious when you speak about it. Once beauty is understood as objective, it is just another reality in the extra mental world, and subject to all the usual qualifications re: how we come to grips with it, in addition to those that apply specifically to art.



December 14, 2009, 8:56 PM

Here's the conclusion of the section that George quoted:

"In short, we can imagine a physical substrate in cells that could carry a quantum recohereing-decohering, pink and grey, process in cells and between cells.

"My own view of the above is that it remains scientifically unlikely, but given the chlorophyll results and quantum chemistry calculations on electron transport, not impossible at all."

He's constructing a theory of will and quale based on quantum processes that even he doesn't think the evidence is going to bear out. Once I hit that I started skimming, and he seems to think that quantum mechanics indicates a way out of classical determinism, hence the nonexistence of free will, without considering that the quantum processes could lie as far outside of the realm of choice as any example of Newtonian physics. As he says, it's not impossible. It also doesn't sound very likely.


George R

December 14, 2009, 9:04 PM

re #191 Skim on dude!



December 14, 2009, 9:07 PM

Did I conclude something wrong, or are you just saddened by the fact that I didn't pat you on the head for linking to it?



December 14, 2009, 9:15 PM

You know what? I take it back. Thanks for the link to an interesting if extremely speculative article.


George R

December 14, 2009, 9:18 PM

... believed that beauty or whatever the hell is the object that taste seeks, exists outside our perception of it. That is, it is real in its own right.

This is silly. It suggests that taste is quale, but even then it couldn't exist outside of our perception of it. Subconscious events are just subconscious, not outside the sphere of perception.

While I think some part of our aesthetic response response may be genetically based I do not think that is the sole source. I suspect that our own life experiences add up in some way to facilitate what we describe as taste. Moreover, taste is not consistent over history or across cultures, it appears to evolve along with the particular cultures. You can't make a backward argument because you are functioning with todays tastes but if Pollock was viable in the past one would suspect something similar would have appeared.



December 14, 2009, 9:27 PM

The problem with Kaufman's essay is that when you start out with a method that is completely dependent on measurements of one sort or another, the only realities it can shed light upon are those that can be measured. Free-will, if it exists, would not be among them. Neither can chaos be measured.



December 14, 2009, 9:39 PM

George, it is not silly, but it is scary. It means the collective "we" does not determine what is good and what is not so good. It also means mistakes in taste are in fact mistakes, and holds our feet to the fire when we make them. It means taste can get better, or it can get worse, especially when viewed collectively. It also means taste can expand to include beauty it once could not grasp, which is the optimistic side, just as it means beauty itself can grow, evolve, ... or not.



December 14, 2009, 9:42 PM

I agree with John. Evolution has produced us as its fit creatures, and that fitness and quality are the same phenomenon. The visual manifestation of that fitness is beauty. It exists in material fact. I would say that it exists outside of us except that the subjective/objective split is an illusion.

Where you lose me, though, is in your twofold conclusion: First, that increased attention leads to decreased suffering; and second, that it matters either way.

Attention opens up a gap between the stimulus of pain and the response of suffering. Both of these are impersonal processes that you can witness without identification. They aren't "you." If you're skilled about your use of attention you can cut off suffering with a decisive assertion of will, which only exists in that space of awareness. It matters axiomatically - if it absolutely didn't matter on any level, you wouldn't experience it as suffering.



December 14, 2009, 11:20 PM

I cannot agree with the Platonic standpoint of my colleagues. Beauty cannot exist outside of our perception of it. Our perception is the only evidence for it and the only affirmation of it. Beauty is within us. We make it, we perceive it and we consume it. It is a construction by our species and for our species.

The evidence for the existence of anything is our shared perception of it; "proof" is just a matter of how deeply embedded it is in our experience. The evidence for the reality of beauty is different from the reality of the rock on which Dr. Johnson stubbed his toe, but not unlike the evidence for the pain he claims to have experienced.

The pain is not contained in material fact, it was caused by the action of bringing the toe to bear on something we accept as material fact. The perception of pain is an effect of that circumstance, just as the perception of beauty is the effect of another kind of circumstance. It does not exist independently.


Chris Rywalt

December 14, 2009, 11:31 PM

Sounds like OP's been reading his Kant.

Meanwhile George R. sounds like a classical economist:

...if Pollock was viable in the past one would suspect something similar would have appeared.

This reminds me of that old joke about the professor of economics and his protege walking across campus.

"Hey," says the protege, "There's a five dollar bill on the ground!"

"Impossible," replies the professor, not even breaking stride. "If there were a five dollar bill there, someone would've picked it up already."

Or perhaps George has been reading his Charles Fort, who once wrote that it doesn't steam engine until comes steam-engine time.


George R

December 14, 2009, 11:34 PM

Beauty cannot exist outside of our perception of it.

I agree, beauty is a construct of our consciousness. This is not different than sight itself, what we see is also a construct of our consciousness.

Regardless of the stimulus our conscious awareness is an internal event, separate from the stimulus and the awareness of others. It is unique to oneself and only shared with others abstractly through some form of communication.


George R

December 14, 2009, 11:43 PM

re @#200, Sorry Chris, but you didn't understand my remark. I was only addressing the idea that there are certain forms of beauty we acknowledge and appreciate today, which I don't think would be appreciated in the past, and that we cannot use todays perspective to make this judgment. Pollock was only an earlier example and the word "viable" has nothing to do with money.



December 15, 2009, 7:32 AM

Chris I have never really understood Kant when reading him, but when someone interprets I seem to always agree. I mostly just like what seems obvious from plain facts.



December 15, 2009, 7:51 AM

Consciousness is also a material process. Visual input gets organized by consciousness, but not arbitrarily, into sound, for instance, except in the case of the relatively few true synaesthetes. The sensation in Dr. Johnson's foot is as real as the rock he kicked. The only difference is that Dr. Johnson had a mechanism for detecting contact and the rock didn't.

This isn't Platonic, as far as I know. We're not starting with beautiful ideal forms and working towards them with materials. The materials are already beautiful. You abstract painters know this - one of the most fruitful things you can do is take your own aspirations out of the process and coax the materials into arranging themselves in an interesting manner.

Even "Beauty is within us" doesn't necessarily contradict what I'm saying if you agree that within us and without us is an illusory distinction.

Is there any culture on earth that didn't make art or adorn itself on special occasions? What causes that if beauty is a learned construct instead of a material part of human existence?



December 15, 2009, 8:03 AM

This just made Boing Boing:

...when people have looked for links between musical scales and the natural changes in the pitch and rhythm of speech, they haven't been able to turn up any solid evidence of a causal relationship. Purves, along with Kamraan Gill, Ph.D., approached this in a different way, looking instead at similarities between scales and the spectrum of--or frequencies in--speech. Here, they hit paydirt. In fact, Purves and Gill found that you can correctly predict which scales are the most popular by how similar they are to the spectrum of human vocalizations.



December 15, 2009, 10:47 AM

I am not saying that beauty is not real. What is real is what we experience, and what we accept as real is what we commonly experience and (generally) put a name to.

We seem to agree that we experience something called beauty. My contention is that beauty does not exist independent of mind. Neither does Dr. Johnons' pain. The problem is, of course, that neither does the rock, not really.

But rocks are a type of object which mind has determined have independent existence because of the nature of the experience we have of them and "pain" and "beauty" are more directly mind-determined, more an effect of "reality" than good old fashioned rock-type reality. Like just about everything, this is a kind of continuum.

But the fact remains that existentially our notion of reality is 100% derived from experience. Reality as we know it does not exist without experience.

The philosophical consequences of this I do not want to get into. However, I cannot see it any other way.



December 15, 2009, 10:48 AM

That speech thing looks very interesting but I have urgent work to do. Later.



December 15, 2009, 12:08 PM

Re#200 Sorry Chris, George didn't understand your joke...

You know artblog comments are hitting on a hard question when opie starts arguing with himself.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 12:30 PM

No, George didn't get my joke. I'm torn between attempting to explain it or letting it slide.

Opie is arguing with himself for the same reason he can't understand Kant, which is that these are really complex questions. Kant didn't find a final answer and neither did Greenberg and I hope it's not a stretch to say that Opie won't, either, but it's worth the wrestling match to give it a try.

Opie, you do understand Kant, you just don't understand the translations from German. Kant and Freud both have this problem of being translated from precise, clear German into garbled, Latinate English. In German it's perfectly acceptable and comprehensible to tack nouns together into long portmanteaus, but invariably these get translated in English into gibberish. It's unfortunate.



December 15, 2009, 12:48 PM

"The philosophical consequences of this I do not want to get into." I wouldn't mind hearing a few of those? It would save some trips to Wickepedia. Opie are you arguing a phenomenological question? I was with you till you said the rock doesn't exist without the mind. I think the rock came first, then the slime, then us (including Dr.Johnson's toe and mind.)I'm also enjoying, but struggling with, the east/west thing. Franklin is obviously preparing for early transmission to a relatively high Zen order.



December 15, 2009, 1:12 PM

David, I think that's what finally happens to me at some point. I've suspected as much for a long time.

Opie, if the rock goes out of existence because it fails to enter someone's consciousness, that's solipsism. If you're saying that reality is an amorphous flux that seems to have a rock in it because of the activities of mind, sort of what Blake said about the doors of perception, I could go along with that, but then everything else, including judgments about the rock, comes into existence the same way and both the judgment and the rock are made out of the same material, organized this way or that by mind.



December 15, 2009, 1:28 PM

Franklin is onto some meat in #204. The common interpretation of Plato is that what's inside the cave is the illusion everyone has that the material world, as they experience it, is real. For Plato, they were "wrong" because the only reality is our ideas, where reality is ideal and pure. It was his student Aristotle who became uppity and said, wait a minute, common sense tells us that the material world, experienced as extra mental, is where reality in itself is, not the ideas we form based upon it. Ideas/ideals require humans in order to exist, the real world does not.

Thus I was puzzled when opie referred to Franklin and myself as his Platonic colleagues. We are his colleagues, for sure, but we are Aristotelian, not Platonic, because we hold, among other things, that rocks exist whether we know about them or not, that the universe existed long before there were humans to ponder over it, and did quite well, "existence wise", all on its own, without any interaction with us.

For someone who touts common sense, opie amazes me when he twirls words around his Platonic approach to beauty, which he has done for some time. I'm even more astonished when he says:

"Neither does Dr. Johnons' pain [exist]. The problem is, of course, that neither does the rock, not really."

Because this seems like something new - an extension, for sure, of previous statements, but to an extreme that I don't recall seeing before. It moves from the questionable thesis that beauty and pain have the same mentally dependent mode of existence (he may be right about pain, but the case for beauty is very questionable) to the deranged assertion that rocks themselves belong to that same category.

Then he says:

"rocks are a type of object which mind has determined have independent existence ..."

Wow! Common sense says that rocks are a type of object which the mind has LEARNED have independent existence - not "determined". This is a powerful intellect that has run away with itself, taken the bit, so to speak, in its mouth and headed into la la land riding on the horse of over intellectualization, if not outright intellectual hubris. We do not determine reality with our intellect, no matter how smart we may think we are.

But he returns to earth when he says:

"But the fact remains that existentially our notion of reality is 100% derived from experience."

However, much as I wish he would, he does not stop there. He adds:

"Reality as we know it does not exist without experience."

Once again leaving common sense behind. Reality does not give a damn whether or how we know it, and exists all by itself, without any "help" from us. "Reality as we know it" is not reality in itself, and common sense tells us that. History tells us that too. We know, for instance that for a long time "reality as we know it" held that the earth was flat, and for good reasons that were based in experience. But reality in itself was different and eventually we LEARNED (not determined) that we were wrong, the earth was round. The advance in understanding what was "out there", independent of our attempts to cope with it, was based on even better reasons than the conclusion that the earth was flat.

Piri reports in chapter 24 about a pip-squeak professor from the University of Nevada who delivered lectures in NYC that held up Norman Rockwell as painting on the same level as Fragonard and Chardin, lectures that our sophisticated friends in the Big Apple paid to attend, after standing in line!

Now all opie and George R can say about this aberration is that the prof deviated too many standard deviations from the consensus of taste, which determines what is good and what is not so good. But I can say, based on my common sense as I have applied it to these three artists, the prof was just frigging wrong. I can get on my high horse, even, and continue that he should not be allowed to teach art history, though that is an opinion, not the observation of a fact.

Obviously, I do not accept opie's second last sentence in #206. He took a philosophical position. He should not expect the citizens of artblog to just let him have it without comment. It is hardly self-evident.



December 15, 2009, 1:57 PM

"Reality as we know it does not exist without experience."

I think this is what Dan Dennett calls a "deepity". In its mundane sense, it is undeniably true: Reality as we know it, EXPERIENCED REALITY, we can call it, must necessarily be EXPERIENCED. Beyond this, however, it doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. It sounds profound though, doesn't it?

The value we detect in art is a trick. We all know art isn't good for anything (although it can be put to practical uses) so much as making our spidey-senses tingle, a sensation we have evolved to enjoy, because that positive feedback leads to us finding beautiful healthy mates, beautiful healthy habitats with beautiful, healthy nourishment for ourselves and our beautiful, healthy offspring.
The upshot is, now anything can trick us into caring for it, regardless of the biological advantages it does or doesn't offer. If it has that "look of life" we (mostly) unconsciously recognize, our spidey-sense goes off to a greater or lesser degree.

This is a stimulus-response relationship, the response depending ultimately on the presence of our detectors. It is completely physical, which is to say, it is completely mental.



December 15, 2009, 2:22 PM

John, you are ranting. What I am saying is nothing more than simple fact.

When I say "Reality as we know it does not exist without experience" I am just stating the obvious. "Reality" and "existence" are themselves human concepts. That's what I meant by "as we know it". The idea of reality is our creation. The mode of existence of reality is, and has been, a matter for philosophical speculation, and I do not intend to try to deal with that.

This does not need to affect how we live our life. It would make no sense to think that rocks are unreal because there they are. I am not going to go around kicking rocks.
They are sufficiently embedded in our experience that we are convinced that it is reasonable to assume that they have a type of existence that is outside our experience.

However, when it somes to beauty I will say it is part of my experience so I know it is real, but I do not think it is reasonable to think it exists outside our experience.

What is that stuff about the Professor in Nevada? I never heard of him so I can have no opinion about what he said.


George R

December 15, 2009, 2:50 PM

The material world, what we call "reality," the world outside us, is just information which our consciousness can access and form into a model for our internal "reality." Our model for reality is limited by our senses, and while the rock may appear solid it is mostly empty space.

Beauty is a quality, property, attribute, of some thing which gives us the experience of pleasure. It is subjective not objective. While there may be certain structure or orderings which have the effect of stimulating our subjective experience of beauty they are not objects which one can transport and merge with another object conferring beauty upon it as well.

Beauty as a subjective quality can be shared with others by communication and a society will have shared ideas about what is beautiful. Nonetheless beauty is still experienced subjectively. Shared ideas of beauty are subject to dispute as all members in a society may not agree that Norman Rockwell is as beautiful as Fragonard or Chardin. Whatever consensus about "beauty" a culture arrives at, it is always subject to dispute and later reevaluation.



December 15, 2009, 3:16 PM

Beauty is a quality, property, attribute, of some thing which gives us the experience of pleasure. It is subjective not objective.

These two sentences are contradictory. Only the first one is correct. If beauty is subjective or the product of cultural norms, how do you explain why every culture in every period of history that we know about produced some form of art or adornment?

Experiences may be specific to an individual body. I don't feel pain if you prick your finger. But your experience of that pain is completely mechanical. I see no reason why your pleasure at seeing something beautiful is any different. Some of that experience is acculturated, but so is some of the experience of pain - we don't expect grown men to burst into sobbing from a finger-prick, for instance.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 3:22 PM

Which reminds me that I forgot to get back to what you wrote, Franklin, regarding suffering and attention. I was prepared to argue with you until I remembered Thích Quảng Đức. I now understand what you mean.

I'm still not entirely sure I agree about free will, and I still have that problem of wondering what difference our suffering makes to the universe at large; as far as we can learn from applying Darwinism, suffering is at best irrelevant and at worst required.

But I now understand what you're saying about attention. You've convinced me.



December 15, 2009, 3:32 PM

Experiences may be specific to an individual body. I don't feel pain if you prick your finger.

It has been shown that I do register the brain activity of having felt pain at the moment I saw you prick your finger.

(I read it in a The New Yorker article on V.S. Ramachandran.)

Which must at least make me wonder whether "But your experience of that pain is completely mechanical" can be quite true.



December 15, 2009, 3:39 PM

Tossing a rock into the upthread pond - if 'limitations' are considered conducive to creative discovery, and 'attention' is the catalyst for taste, is it to one's benefit to *limit* one's *attention*?



December 15, 2009, 3:44 PM

Franklin, at bottom I am arguing for the primacy of experience, because that's all I know.

I, all of us, move around in an environment which is extremely stable, much more stable than we like to admit, stable in every corner of experience except the little bits and pieces that make our life interesting.

This leads me to assume that there is such a thing as reality that exists outside of my experience. In fact, it would be a little crazy of me not to operate on that assumption. I wouldn't be able to function very well otherwise.

Nevertheless, I do think "irrational" thoughts about these things. That's safe enough, I say to myself.

I think, suppose I am the whole world, there is nothing but me and my experience, and everything elese is just there for me? Or, what if God made the whole thing 3 minutes ago? I don't go around saying these things because it would drive poor John up the wall, but I do think them, and then I go on to something else.



December 15, 2009, 4:00 PM

Well, the pain is mechanical to the extent that we could shoot Novocaine into your wrist and put a stop to it. I'm going to guess that the only difference between that and beauty is that we understand how the nervous system works, but not consciousness. We used to have notions that the nerves were charged with spirit of some kind, and we now know that it's electricity. I expect that we'll find that consciousness has an equally banal basis, and at that point the way beauty works will be as fathomable as pin to the finger.



December 15, 2009, 4:06 PM

AHAB if 'limitations' are considered conducive to creative discovery, and 'attention' is the catalyst for taste, is it to one's benefit to *limit* one's *attention*?

OPIE Attention is not the catalyst for taste it is the vehicle for taste, and it must me limited so that taste can operate. So the answer is yes.

I think we had a long discussion here on subjective/objective a long time ago and actually got somewhere with it. As I have said, beauty is a matter of judgement and cannot exist independent of mind. However, it is clear that certain objects have the ability to create the sensation of beauty, and we characterize those objects as beautiful.

But it depends entirely on whether we actually use those objects to cause the sensation of beauty. If that beautiful painting falls on your foot it immediately becomes painful, not beautiful.

"Subjective" simply means not self-evident or available to proof and usually pertains to matters of judgement which do not automatically compel agreement. I find the distinction annoying in reference to art because I feel that practically speaking there is good art and bad art and your either get it or you don't.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 4:41 PM

OP sez:
Franklin, at bottom I am arguing for the primacy of experience, because that's all I know.

This is basically what Kant was saying. Well, Kant said a lot of things about a lot of things. But as far as this discussion goes, based on what I've read about Kant -- and I'm no Kant scholar, not by a long shot -- he was saying, essentially, that whether or not there is a reality outside of our experience is immaterial since we have no access to it anyway. All we can access is our experience, so that's where any discussion has to start.



December 15, 2009, 5:19 PM

Well, hey! Good for Kant!



December 15, 2009, 5:49 PM

we understand how the nervous system works, but not consciousness

Whether for pain or pleasure, we have a relatively complete sense of the hows/whys of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing when they are impaired, but barely a skimming guess at the hows/whys when at premium operation.

I agree that, from where we now stand, asking how feelings are generated by operational senses leads only to the ether, and to the invisible ether not the foggy ether, either.



December 15, 2009, 5:56 PM

Well, hey! Good for Kant!

Sure, if you want to get philosophically bulldozed when someone comes along and says that reality is created by cultural fiats.



December 15, 2009, 6:02 PM

"Is it to one's benefit to limit one's attention?"

In my experience, yes. Part of the reason is simply practical. Given inevitable limitations of time and opportunity, one needs to be selective to maximize the probability of effectiveness or payoff. Part of it is a matter of concentration: focusing on the best intensifies and reinforces recognition and understanding of quality, to put it that way, just as looking at everything under the sun can have a diluting, diffusing or leveling effect. There is always a trade-off of some kind, but the fact there's no perfect way does not negate that, on balance, some approaches are better than others.

My former approach, for instance, of assuming that all supposedly serious art venues were indeed serious and/or respectable and/or reliable was clearly seriously flawed. When you go somewhere and time after time you're disappointed, well, you need to stop going or go only when the odds are sufficiently high that you won't waste your time. In other words, giving everything the benefit of the doubt may be nice in theory, but it's rather a different story in practice.



December 15, 2009, 6:12 PM

I can't figure out what that means.



December 15, 2009, 6:27 PM

That it's a short step to what you're saying in #222, which is reasonable, to what George is saying in #215, which is overstated.



December 15, 2009, 6:27 PM


"Sure, if you want to get philosophically bulldozed when someone comes along and says that reality is created by cultural fiats."

I can't figure out what that means.



December 15, 2009, 6:31 PM

I'm sorry but I am still puzzled. Can you be more specific?


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 6:57 PM

I imagine, to prevent bulldozing, you'd need to read and understand rather more Kant. And Wittgenstein, Quine, and so forth. I start to lose the thread somewhere in Kant myself.



December 15, 2009, 7:08 PM

Chris is right to say he is no scholar of Kant.

Kant tried to reconcile Plato and Aristotle. He certainly did not say we have no access to reality, just that we cannot say things about it that are certain.

Certitude was always a problem for Aristotle. When you study the real world, conclusions that seemed justified get set aside by new conclusions because you have learned more, but one can object how do we know the new conclusion is any more true than the first? Aristotle's answer is we don't. We just keep going with our investigations and see where they lead. Plato, on the other hand, had certitude running out his wazoo. If you accepted his world of ideals, hook line and sinker, you entered a world that is simply your idea, and left mistakes at the door. The only mistake, as it were, was to refuse to agree with Plato's "cosmology" in the first place, in which case you lived the delusional life of a common vulgarian.

Once Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle completed their work, Western philosophy has been mostly a series of footnotes to what they accomplished. Kant, for all his brilliance, was basically rearranging their air in his balloon. I probably should qualify this, but for the sake of whatever illumination or stimulation it might offer in this extreme form, I won't.

(Comments are no longer coming to my mail box. I thought this thread had died, until I checked it by hand.)



December 15, 2009, 7:22 PM

The mailserver's down. I've submitted a support request.


George R

December 15, 2009, 7:54 PM

Edge Rama links...

MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution [6.1.2000] By V.S. Ramachandran

MIRROR NEURONS AND THE BRAIN IN THE VAT [1.10.06] by V.S. Ramachandran "Researchers at UCLA found that cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked...."


George R

December 15, 2009, 7:56 PM

Re #215-#216 For the purposes of discussion: Subjective
Opie's usage: "Subjective" simply means not self-evident or available to proof..."

My usage: Subjective experience, the sensory buzz and awareness associated with a conscious mind

In comment #215 I preface my remark about beauty that our knowledge of reality is an internal model. I went on to say that Beauty is a quality, property, attribute, of some thing which gives us the experience of pleasure. Beauty isn't something which exists on its own, we as conscious observers attribute beauty to something. This is what I meant by It [beauty] is subjective not objective. (using the definition of 'subjective' above. There is no conflict between the two sentences.

Franklin goes on If beauty is subjective or the product of cultural norms, how do you explain why every culture in every period of history that we know about produced some form of art or adornment?

First the statement "subjective or the product of cultural norms" is not what I said. I assume he is using Opie's meaning for subjective. The sense of beauty exists only in the perceivers consciousness.

When we speak of cultural norms for beauty, we are speaking about something else entirely. We are really then discussing what the cultural consensus for beauty is. This assumes that several people get together and form a consensus, which itself implies there may be disagreement. The fact that the attribution of beauty is subjective, that is it occurs as part of our consciousness, does not say the various cultures will not have a concept and appreciation of beauty.

I suppose it is possible that researchers could find a brain location which lights up with the experience of beauty. Even if this is the case I think it will be difficult if not impossible to isolate the stimulus.


George R

December 15, 2009, 8:21 PM

I think the mirror neurons are incredibly important for artists to consider. As a painter I noticed I tended to follow the motion across the canvas of a brushstroke for example. It seemed like movement where there is no movement. One of the things mirror neuron researchers discovered while experimenting with monkeys was quite startling.

The test monkeys had electrodes tapping the neuron locations in their brain. When a second monkey reached out to grasp a banana, the expected neurons fired initiating the motion to retrieve the banana. However to everyones surprise, the test monkey who was just watching the other monkey, had the same neuronal reaction mimicking the first monkey but with the actual muscle movement suppressed.

I can't say anything with scientific certainty but I think the viewer can engage with a painting in a way which 'mirrors' its activity and therefor the artist. This seems less pronounced, or nonexistent with a reproduction, mostly because of scale distortions. At full size, I think one can experience the sense of kinesthetic movement within the painting.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 9:09 PM

See George? This is why I missed you. The mirror neuron thing is actually interesting. I don't have anything to say about it right now, but it's interesting to think about.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 9:16 PM

And, er, John: Kant is hard. Right now my brain cannot process any of this. I defer to you.



December 15, 2009, 9:56 PM

People haven't heard of mirror neurons? That's a given of this whole neuroaesthetics business. I guess I'd better mention The Philosophers Song as well.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 10:01 PM

I've heard of mirror neurons, I just never thought of applying them to art appreciation.



December 15, 2009, 10:02 PM

OMG, I've never seen this one.


Chris Rywalt

December 15, 2009, 10:03 PM

If Immanuel Kant, find me someone who CAN!



December 15, 2009, 10:46 PM

I see a mirror neuron every morning.

That is a riot, Franklin. Where did it come from? I have seen every sketch at least a dozen times, or so I thought.


Chris Rywalt

December 16, 2009, 12:20 AM

That's from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I don't think I ever saw that; I remember seeing The Secret Policeman's Ball and I think that cured me of wanting to see the Pythons live.


George R

December 16, 2009, 3:55 AM

The previous remarks about experiencing pain made me think about te mirror neuron.

The discovery of the mirror neuron is fairly recent. The initial papers were published in 1996 by Giaocomo Rizzolatti, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma, Italy.

In 2000 Ramachandran called their discovery the most important undiscovered story [Edge-69] and this was the first time I had heard about them. So this discovery has been in the popular literature less than a decade.



December 16, 2009, 8:47 AM

G'day Bruce, and
Bruce, and Bruce.



December 17, 2009, 1:03 PM

thank you so much for the Monty Python, at which I howled with laughter,and am still chuckling whenever I think of it.



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