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unorganized thoughts from boston

Post #434 • December 21, 2004, 11:01 AM • 30 Comments

Travel: It is possible to go from the Boston MFA to Logan on public transportaion in forty minutes. The equivalent trip from the Miami Art Museum to the appropriately abbreviated MIA could probably be clocked using a calendar. On the other hand, the chances of your flight out of MIA being delayed three and a half hours because of snow are remote at best.

Travel: those Orbitz mobile travel alerts are da bomb. Three hours before your departure, you get a call on your cell phone with a report on the status of your flight. Because of the above snow issue and subsequent delays of my flight, I was able to hang out for two extra hours at the MFA instead of at Logan, and I didn't even have to call in. Just one thing: if your plane is at, say, 7:25 AM, the (expletive deleted) alert comes in at 4:25 AM, so adjust your ringtone accordingly.

BMFA: Going from the Trecento room to the Impressionist room is electrifying. Going from the Himalayan room to the Francesco Clemente painting hanging immediately outside of it is not. Boy, that thing is one ugly piece of shit.

BMFA: A sleeper display of Meisen kimonos held up with surprising verve next to superb katana, tachi, and tanto. Meisen were sewn during the first half of the 20th Century and reflect the influence of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Postwar Abstraction. I'm going to start wearing kimonos to openings. I'm going to start carrying a tanto as well.

BMFA: What's worse than Judith Butler's writing? Judith Butler's writing rendered as Morse code rendered as art. Excuse me while I go check out the exquisite Josef Sudek show.

Travel: Sorry, "Miguel". I'll drop you a line next time.

BMFA: Wall label for painting of wrestlers by Luks: "Luks' lurid color, spotlighted figures, and broad, rugged brushstrokes add to the scene, which he proudly claimed would distress the 'pink-and-white idiots' of the official art world." Sign me up for the lurid color and broad brushstrokes - amen, brother. And that epithet is begging for re-use, don't you think?

BMFA: Although the majors were a thrill to see, the minors jumped out at me. William Paxton, Joseph Decamp, Tarbell, Crivelli, Dumoulin, Le Farge (I've always had a soft spot for stained glass), Mancini. I noticed works like the Jochobed by Franklin Simmons, the Duveneck tomb effigy, and the Ascending Child by Horatio Greenough. While they come off as a little saccharine, they convey sincere feeling - excruciating despair over the loss of family - and I thought of the frequency with which contemporary art demands that you extract the feeling, if there is any, by decoding its referents.

BMFA: In the Modern room, a great hashing out took place: Pollock? You betcha. Stuart Davis - hey, these are better than I thought. Adolph Gottlieb? No. Take one giant step back: O'Keefe, Marin, Hartley. Take one giant step forward: Charles Scheeler. Stay where you are: Arthur Dove.

Gardner: I got into the Gardner for free because it was closing early for a special event and a guard waved me in so I could run around inside for a half an hour. Any day you get to see a Rembrandt is a good one. And that's quite a courtyard you got there.

Fogg: the Busch-Reisinger collections have been folded into the Fogg, so I got to see more Lovis Corinth than I've seen in a long time, as well as some Max Beckmann. Also, Bonnard just looks better and better every time I see him.

Travel: Dear Mr. Cab Driver - "go to Calle Ocho, hang a right on 22nd, and pull up in front of my car" does not equal "pass Calle Ocho, toddle down Coral Way, and fail to get on the same side of the street as my house," so don't look at me like a sheep on Quaaludes while I wait for you to give me my change. You want a tip, show some skills.

Miami: I'm back. And, well, my stuff is here. It's warmer. I kind of wish I could go see those Corinths again. Oh well.




December 21, 2004, 7:32 PM

The #7 bus goes from the downtown Miami terminal (half a block from MAM) to the airport in 34 minutes: not bad.



December 21, 2004, 7:37 PM

I stand corrected.


Miguel Sánchez

December 21, 2004, 8:55 PM

Sorry, "Miguel". I'll drop you a line next time.

Hey, no problem. Interesting to read your take on the MFA, etc. Those nineteenth century American galleries are close to the heart of the Museum. And yeah, the Wyn Evans/Morse Code thing -what a bore. That room used to hold a mix of 20th century stuff, much of it good, but a lot of it was loans that moved up to Portland.

The Stuart Davis paintings at the MFA are really something, especially "Hot Still Scape for Six Colors - Seventh Avenue Style".



December 21, 2004, 10:01 PM

I certainly envy your excursion to the realms of real art.

Heres a quote from the Chandelier show:

"Wyn Evans sources range from film to literature to philosophy, creating what he calls a catalyst or reservoir of possible meanings that, for the viewer, could unravel many discursive journeys, leaving it to the visitor to interpret and experience the work in his or her own way."

Gee, I think I would trade unravelling a discursive journey any day for an artist who actually had something to say.



December 21, 2004, 10:09 PM

Franklin - Your description of the Greenough work is compelling. And I agree, it's very terrifying to see the child on the left being touched on the back by another child with such a horrendous birth defect. When you see it, you wonder: Is the child on the right trying to pass along his shoulder deformity to the other one? Powerful work, indeed.



December 21, 2004, 11:40 PM

" I'm going to start wearing kimonos to openings. I'm going to start carrying a tanto as well."

Franklin, before you do something potentially, uh, ill-advised, make sure you have a nice, long talk with Momoko and/or Harumi Abe.


Jerome du Bois

December 22, 2004, 12:17 AM


Thanks for the tour, and welcome back. The Duveneck tomb effigy was very moving, not saccharine at all; the palm frond seems so fragile.

Also, kilts over kimonos, man, and tactical batons over tantos.




December 22, 2004, 1:24 AM


waiting for your report on Robert Parke Harrison at the Decordova:

it was nine degrees this morning.



December 22, 2004, 1:51 AM

Yeah, check out the blurb on the above site. It rivals Snitzer's number on the machete lady.



December 22, 2004, 7:05 AM

The ParkeHarrison photos were consummately well crafted and pretty cool. You can correlate the ParkeHarrison press release with the photos without too much imagination, unlike the machete lady. He has a shtick, to be sure, but it's a likable shtick that results in anachronistic-looking surrealist photographs about one man's attempt to maintain the world and repair its physical and psychic damage. He mounts his prints on panels and coats them with varnish and beeswax, lending them a luscious and authoritative surface. As a photographer I'd put him in the same category as William Wegman but in a superior position.



December 22, 2004, 7:05 AM

Oh, and Necee was kind enough to take me to the DeCordova to see them. Thanks, Necee.



December 22, 2004, 7:22 AM

Hovig (if it really is Hovig), your comment #5 above is, well, incorrect. There is no birth defect; the figure on the right is an angel who, naturally enough, has wings. If the comment was a "joke" by a fraudulent poster, it was in rather bad taste.



December 22, 2004, 7:24 AM

Of course it was in bad taste, Jack. That's why I laughed so hard at it.


Miguel Sánchez

December 22, 2004, 7:05 PM

I'd basically agree with Franklin's take on ParkeHarrison. While his work isn't without its shortcomings or limits, he's a pretty interesting guy and serious about what he does. When I posted about his show at the DeCordova a while back at my site, I think forgot to mention how the beeswax contributes to the surface quality. They are pretty good looking works on the whole, and he (and his wife Shana, who works with him throughout) know how to create a composition. There are a lot of criticisms one could make, but I don't think that he's a total lightweight is one of them.



December 22, 2004, 7:43 PM

Franklin: I will certainly grant you that the ParkeHarrison photos (the two I saw in the site) are way more interesting and attentive to craft and some degree of thought than the machete lady, which did not even look like a good photo, and that his blurb related more to the work, but the emphasis in that bit of writing (presumably done by the museum; it sounds like museum copy) is a classic case of demeaning interesting pictorial work by bringing it down to the level of trite, PC "what are we doing to our earth" twaddle, augmented by overblown phrases about the artist as "everyman" and various current artspeak. If I was the artist, assuming I had not co-conspired in this drivel, I would be pissed.



December 22, 2004, 8:09 PM

Jack - My point was that the work isn't universal. It requires the knowledge of specific concepts, and it requires the understanding ot historical context.

In terms of "wonder and resonance," the work simply cannot be appreciated on the basis of "wonder" alone. There's a big difference between the image itself, two children playing, one of them -- let's be honest, shall we? -- a physical mutant; and the concept of a child dying. The majority of the world's population would need to "read the wall text" to have any hope of "getting it." And even then, it's arguable they would fully appreciate the work.

Remember please Franklin's original words above: "they convey sincere feeling." Maybe they do, and maybe they don't. All's I know is, they communicate specific symbols -- crafted in a loving fashion, I admit -- and those symbols engender a specific response among those who understand what cherubs are, and for that matter, know what crypts are.

Either we get rid of all symbols and concepts -- in which case art is entirely abstract -- or we admit symbols are an important part of art. Not just a secondary part, but a primary part.



December 22, 2004, 9:54 PM

Hovig, an angel is not a mutant; it's just an angel, regardless of whether or not you believe such a being exists. Even knowing all the symbolism, this sculpture is a mixed bag. The angel figure is insipid and generic, although the child is rather more successful, dead or not. This is a perfectly competent academic work, but one of minor distinction.

The Duveneck tomb effigy is remarkable for the visually striking palm frond (regardless of what the frond symbolizes) and, to a slightly lesser degree, for the handling of the shroud and the bed clothes. The figure itself cannot compete visually and comes off as almost a pretext for technical display elsewhere. Again, a mixed bag.

My approach to an art object, which no one else is obliged to follow, is to first see how it works (or doesn't) on a purely visual or formal level. It MUST succeed that way for me, regardless of what it's about or what it means. That is my minimum basic requirement. THEN I turn to other considerations, which may certainly be very relevant and may enhance the piece considerably, but the piece must work on its own first.

Rarely, I will go for something on a primarily symbolic or meaning basis regardless of formal shortcomings, but that's the exception that proves the rule. I suppose I'm greedy and want it all, both "wonder" and "resonance," but I will not let an artist off the hook just because s/he had a good concept. I expect an artist to deliver visual, physical ART as a matter of course, or as a starting point, if you will. The basics are not called basics for nothing. At any rate, that's my position.


Jerome du Bois

December 22, 2004, 10:13 PM


So sorry, but I must take issue with two of the dismissive phrases you use for the ParkeHarrisons' work, that is, "likable shtick" and "William Wegman."

I think their work is deeper, and that it's about heartbreak, in a kabbalistic sense:

"Rav Abba wept as he saw the fruit of tree turn into a bird and fly off. If men [sic] knew what these things meant they would rip their clothes down to the navel -- in grief, for having lost this wisdom. Even more so in relation to the rest of Creation."

I'm not talking tree-hugging ecology. As I say, it goes deeper than that.

In the meantime, Zendog, Happy Nirvannukah.




December 22, 2004, 10:17 PM

Jack is making the case for art quality as primary, rather than either/or.

If we could remember that the point he is making (and that I make and many other bloggers make) is that ART is the PRIORITY, rather than an exclusionary principle, it would make our discussions a lot smoother.



December 22, 2004, 10:20 PM

Jerome: Since when is (sic) used to correct political incorrectness?

"Nirvannukkah" is good. It would work with an added "mas" too.



December 23, 2004, 1:51 AM

Jack - Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I also "want it all," and I agree with you for the most part, that physical expression comprises the "first level" of art appreciation. But I'm glad to hear you admit there might be exceptions, even if they're in the minority. (P.S. I still disagree about the cherubs, but we'll beat that dead horse again another time.)


Jerome du Bois

December 23, 2004, 4:37 AM

To All:

You know, I was talking to Franklin, and only Franklin. That's why I included the salutation "Franklin." I don't even like most of the rest of you.

But I'll answer this insensitivity. The [sic] has nothing to do with political incorrectness and everything to do with misogyny, and I will apply it across time any damn time I want to, without fear of anachronism. Rav Abba would have been a wiser man had he been mensch enough to include women in his statement, and his life.

And "Happy Nirvannukah" was fine on its own, without any embellishment.




December 23, 2004, 8:09 AM

Hey Jerome, old buddy. Rieally into the spirit of the season, eh?



December 23, 2004, 6:46 PM

"Nirvannukah" made me laugh hard. Next year I'll throw a Nirvannukah party. Happy Holidays to you too, Jerome, whatever solstice-related activity floats your boat.

Hovig - You think of angels as mutants? You're just yanking Jack's chain, right?

Oldpro: " ART is the PRIORITY, rather than an exclusionary principle..." Yep.



December 28, 2004, 6:44 AM

Franklin - I think the mind decodes symbols before it considers aesthetics. After it decodes everything it recognizes, the mind chooses between wonder mode or resonance mode. Only then does it admire aesthetics, or consider concepts.

The angel is a cultural symbol. Saladin might have seen cherubs and gone straight into resonant mode. So might the everyday residents of Saudi Arabia today. Only because cherubs are "acceptable" symbols to us do we say we see the aesthetics "first."

With all due respect to the intelligent commentators gathered here, I think it's a pretty shaky argument to say aesthetics can be seen independently of other considerations. I invite anyone who disagrees to submit their purely aesthetic review of Hirst's Armageddon works, and tender their admiration of those works, or lack thereof, on that basis alone.

The distinction of certain symbols from others merely moves the discussion from one of aesthetics to one of the acceptability of those symbols. I have difficulty sympathizing with the argument that symbols introduced into art from "this year" through "that year" are acceptable, but somehow those introduced into art from "this year forward" are not. The same goes for picking and choosing symbols from one culture, society, sub-culture, time period or tradition, but not from another.

Let's get something straight: I don't mind the admiration or even veneration of classical western art. It deserves every accolade, and perhaps even then some. I bristle however at generalizations or attempts at universality which use it as its base.

Classical art, including the cherub statue and Matisse painting, forces people directly into wonder mode by portraying only naturalistic subjects (people, animals, landscapes) or "acceptable" symbols (from Christian or Greco-Roman religion). Abstract art does the same thing by trying to remove symbols altogether.

There will always be primitive arrangements that can never be avoided (color, compositional balance, relative scale, genetically-recognizable shapes), so anti-symbolism can only go so far. Since we can't get rid of symbols altogether, we're merely "haggling over price," i.e., deciding how many are allowed, and of what type.

Damian Hirst is only the latest example of viewer subversion. Robert Mapplethorpe turned the arrangement straight on its head, forcing the viewer immediately into resonance mode, but then, for those viewers who still wish to rate the image at all, into wonder mode. Gauguin did the equivalent as well, using formal technique to portray primitive scenes, quite licentious ones for the time. If I'm not mistaken, many of his works were destroyed by moralistic import officers in his own day.

So the human mind sees symbols first, then immediately decides whether or not to take the path to wonder, or to resonance. Symbols may be recognized because they were programmed into the DNA (faces, flowers, figures), the culture (angels), or the intellect (words, language), but they are always the first things we see. Aesthetics and concept come second, and higher concerns third, if ever.

Unless someone can see art through primitive or "acultural" eyes, I can't believe they'd have a purely aesthetic response to every work upon first glance. Some works are more "aesthetically pure" than others because they eschew symbolism more than others, but aesthetic purity can never actually be achieved, so we all struggle with the exact placement of the line between too many symbols and too few. Since the angel is a fictional, cultural, western, Christian symbol, I tried to draw attention to this argument with just a wee bit of sarcasm.



December 28, 2004, 7:29 AM

So the human mind sees symbols first, then immediately decides whether or not to take the path to wonder, or to resonance.

I totally disagree, and I have a demonstration that I do for my students regarding this. I throw a pencil to one of them. Then I tell them to throw it back. Then I ask them what is written on the pencil.

They can't say, because the mind percieves shape and movement before any kind of symbolic or detail-parsing activity takes place. I do this to explain gesture, which has to take place in a purely perceptual, non-symbolic state. The aesthetic response is hooked up with that initial perception, and precedes symbol parsing if only by moments.

The basis of art is sensual. There's no need to eliminate symbols or choose between them and percepts - my mode is to evaluate their success, and they succeed mostly because of physical decisions made about the work. The beauty of the whole deal is that purity need never be achieved - we can sort the experience according to our favorite priorities.

Zen has a concept of First, Second, and Third Nen that relates to the above.



December 28, 2004, 10:21 PM

Franklin - You're using the term "movement" metaphorically, of course. (A gesture on canvas is not a flying pencil.) And with apologies all around, I think your demonstration shows (a) you can't read a moving object, and (b) you can't concentrate when something's being thrown at you.

Seriously tho, here's the most germaine passage of my piece above: Symbols may be recognized because they were programmed into the DNA (faces, flowers, figures), the culture (angels), or the intellect (words, language), but they are always the first things we see.

And here's the part of your reply I might focus on: the mind percieves shape and movement before any kind of symbolic or detail-parsing activity takes place

In fact I agree with you. In an unposted earlier version of my comment above, I was planning to write this: We look at an artwork by primitively acknowledging all its innately recognizable features first: faces, animals, plants, geography, then well-known objects and linguistic elements; and only then, after parsing the symbols, perhaps sub-consciously, do we look at other things, like aesthetics.

If you're saying a "[drawn] movement" is an elemental feature, I'd agree. If you're saying I'm misusing the term "symbol," I'd buy that too (though then I'd have to go back to Home Depot to find some better terminology). But if you're saying a "movement" is parsed before a cherub or a letter, the more important point I was trying to make was that movements and cherubs and faces and flowers and words -- in whatever order -- are all parsed before "aesthetics."

If the Matisse work had a cherub in it, an anti-Christian person like Saladin would see that symbol before seeing the work's aesthetics. Or if it had a swastika anywhere in it ... I think you get the point. If you want to argue that Saladin sees the sweeping floral gestures before he sees the cherub (or swastika), that's fine. If you want to construct a hierarchy of recognizable elements -- abstract gestures, then faces, then flowers, then cherubs, then Halliburton logos -- we can certainly work together on that. But in either case, I'll still argue Saladin sees the cherub before he performs any form of aesthetic analysis.

As I touched upon above, works like the Matisse sidestep this issue by concentrating on symbols intuitively recognizable elements as basic as possible, and eschewing objects like cherubs and words. Works like Mapplethorpe's exploit it by forcing the human to look past recognizable (controversial, disturbing) elements in order to see the aesthetics.

The more interesting classroom experiment might be to superimpose a prominent and highly provocative four-letter word on the Matisse painting, flash the slide quickly before your students, and ask them what they just saw. I'm guessing "flower," "sweeping gesture," or "black oval" will be in the minority. Another might be to show the class abstract versions of Mapplethorpe photos, and have them assess them aesthetically, then repeat the experiment with the actual works. I'm guessing, even among "kids today," one or two foreheads might get a bit warm for the second version of that one, which hadn't gotten warm during the first version.



December 29, 2004, 12:01 AM

We need to differentiate between aesthetic analysis and aesthetic response. Analysis implies some kind of reflective process - I'm saying that the aesthetic response happens instantly, along with perception. When you eat, you know instantly and irrefutably whether the food in your mouth tastes good. You know in one or two seconds whether you want to continue listening to the song on the radio or surf to the next station. Shape, and by extension, color, work on us the same way. Art designed to defeat this fact involves philosophical trickery that you would never accept in your music or your food.

Saladin is a good example of how beliefs can corrupt the appreciative process in art. (The swastika only invokes Godwin's Law!)

A gesture on paper requires the same kind of vision as the one you need to catch the pencil. I'm not writing metaphorically at all in this case.



December 29, 2004, 1:15 AM

Still unconvinced, I'll let you have the last word, except to say that if instantaneous response is a hallmark of aesthetic quality, maybe R*n J*remy is the next Jackson Pollock.

P.S. It's only a matter of time before Godwin's Law is rewritten for the 21st century. Saladin and his contemporary ilk may not be a "good example" for much longer.



December 29, 2004, 6:10 AM

This looks interesting but I was away and missed it, and it is getting old, and I dont want read it all.

Having said that, I wil comment that immediate response is not "a hallmark of esthetic quality", it is just the way it comes across, just like a laugh (or a groan) is the result of a punch line.



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