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Post #799 • May 30, 2006, 4:48 PM • 29 Comments

This weekend I saw Stolen, the documentary of the theft of the masterworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on St. Patrick's Day in 1990. Thieves overpowered two guards on duty and netted Rembrandts, Degas, a Manet - thirteen works in total, including Vermeer's The Concert. The film concentrates on Harold Smith, the art detective on the case, affable, charming, and dapper despite the brutal ravages of skin cancer on his face. (Sporting a derby, suit, eyepatch, and prosthetic nose, he makes for a character rivaling any from the history of detective fiction.) Director Rebecca Dreyfus follows him as he trails his leads, punctuating his story with interviews with a rich cast of art experts and Vermeer aficionados (including Tracy Chevalier), as well as dramatic rereadings of letters between Gardner and Bernard Berenson, exchanged as he sneaked around Italy in search of paintings to procure for her. What at first seems like an informative little documentary evolves into an ever more gripping narrative as Smith's investigation takes him to the outer rings of the Irish Republican Army, as Gardner describes to Berenson her incipient pennilessness brought on by her pursuit of masterpieces, and as art lovers break into barely restrained weeping.

Once abstraction became a viable mode in its own right, art shed a function that it had served for many thousands of years: to tell the human story. Watching people describe the Vermeer, I thought of how a contemporary artist might produce something equally capable of drawing people in and fixing their imaginations there. Ah realism, and the comforts of orthodoxy - your artistic life decided as thoroughly as your religious life would be if you converted to Hasidism. I doubt I have the patience for it, but I doubt equally that anything else could have the effect that that Vermeer has - conveying in exacting detail the gestures and depictions that communicate the human experience across time.




May 31, 2006, 9:58 AM

Wow, just surfing by, but -we enter the narrows- "art shed a function that it had served for many thousands of years: to tell the human story" ? Is it beneficial to start up this tired old polarity of abstraction vs. realism.? There is no contest, realism has morphed into a combination of photo and painting language. Vermeer was a pioneer of this development. As our culture has expanded throughout the world so has this language come to be understood worldwide. Also, it might be noted that literal representation of imagery is the abstract representation of imagery simultaneously. One reason for fascination with realists of the past, is due to the marginalizing of representational art in the present. That one can neatly assign ALL of any mode to "orthodoxy" requires a bias and a severe perceptual limitation. Sounds like the old Academy, or Jacques Louis David at work. Abstraction has served the purpose of freeing us from the limited views of the old academy, only to become, for a short time, it's own Academy. It has connected our culture also to many other cultures with abstract iconography based perhaps mostly on their own idiomatic, often religious sources. But it hasn't replaced representational imagery old or new. Abstraction seems to be struggling to present itself as useful at all, with a subject and content that is "itself". This content loop and justification is perfect for providing corporate wall designs. Euro-American abstraction is badly in need of reproving it can be a "viable mode" more than a viable mess. This is also probably true of anything calling itself "realism"



May 31, 2006, 10:47 AM

Feneon, I didn't mean that in the way it might have sounded - abstraction, as practiced in the 20th C., was an achievement of the highest order, and a necessary, fruitful step in the development of art. And I didn't mean "orthodoxy" in any kind of disparaging way. It's just an observation about what one has to go through to create realism at the Dutch level - you look at something, and try to represent it as faithfully as possible. Your artistic life is decided for you to a great extent because a very small set of behaviors is going to generate those realistic results, and the aspect of art that values freedom does not play into the process as much as it does in, say, expressionism. I'm also not saying that Dutch realism was the pinnacle of artistic achievement and everything else went downhill from there, although in terms of conveying the human story, it's near the top. It's not a polarity so much as a simple reality that individual works of art can't be all things to all people.

This is an artist asking aloud how to make something that connects in the way that the Vermeer connects. It may be the wrong question, but that's never stopped me before when I don't know the answer...



May 31, 2006, 11:25 AM

Feneon: If you want to indulge in "the same old polarities" then compare abstract painting to "corporate wall design". I know you meant just "bad" abstract painting, but the comparison is tiresome.

Franklin: "Tell the human story" is a little grandiose for me. It starts turning painting, just ever so slightly, into illustration.

Art just has to be good.



May 31, 2006, 12:24 PM

Let me ask you, OP - although your work is completely different, do you ever compare it to Vermeer's and find it wanting?


madame Defarge

May 31, 2006, 1:50 PM

but, as a friend of mine would say, "it's not illustration because it has a source of light..."..
and light it has.
As far as the pinnacle of The Human Story? I don't know about that..What about the German expressionists? Whose Human Story are you talking about anyways?
And, Oldpro, do not dare to put your own endeavours above those of Vermeers. T'would be foolish old man....


Marc Country

June 1, 2006, 1:05 AM

I'll take a "human truth" over a "human story".



June 1, 2006, 7:49 AM

Franklin: Your question to oldpro reminds me of what it would have been like to ask Bach if he ever compared his music to that of the folk songs of his day and found it "wanting".

Music without lyrics "tells the human story" just as well as music that has them. How music sounds is the basis, not what it illustrates.

And for those who might whine that Vermeer was no folk artist, I remind them that "illustration" is the issue here, not how one stands in the ultimate hierarchy. It does appear some suspect that including illustration in art gives it a boost. That suspicion is a sign of an eye that does not quite work as well as it could.



June 1, 2006, 8:15 AM

Or we could ask Wagner if he didn't feel just a little bit superior to Bach.



June 1, 2006, 8:29 AM

Catfish, in the Vermeer there's a woman on the right, holding her hand in a particular way. As pointed out by one of the scholars in Stolen, she has just turned it, because she's singing. She performs the gesture, exactly as if she has just taken a breath and has begun a new passage with slightly greater intensity. It doesn't make the Vermeer better or worse, but how wonderful it is! Abstraction is incapable of this. It shouldn't be made to be capable of it. You could say that it tells a different human story, one you could tease out by intuition and imagination. But not fact by fact, as in the Vermeer.

If I were Bach, I would wonder ceaselessly if my work was as good as Baroque folk songs. In the midst of launching salvos of arpeggios at potential listeners, I'd be considering whether to scrap it all and see if I could write a good simple tune. Me as Bach would have gotten much less accomplished than the real one. I can think of a few examples where pop musicians turned their hand to children's music, for what I understand were similar reasons. One of them, amazingly, was Tom Lehrer, a biting satirist who penned some brilliant songs for the Electric Company.

Illustration doesn't give art a boost unless done well. Otherwise it has the opposite effect. My BFA is in Illustration, so it interests me. Also, I recently had a conversation with someone with no background in art, but who clearly had an eye, a good one. He told me that his feeling for art stopped at 1900, and I've been thinking about why. I'm wondering whether there's something about narrative worth investigating further. It seems to form an instant connection between the viewer and the work, which could be useful as a means to an end.



June 1, 2006, 8:52 AM

Franklin, if your conversant can't see anything after 1900 he does not have a very good eye.

Of course narrative can be investigated further. But the "instant connection" does not have much, if anything, to do with what narrative contributes. In many cases, it can be a distraction because the connection is not about art, but rather sentiment and other irrelevancies. The experience of art is direct, hence when something steps in between and mediates, it impedes experience. Of course, the interference is easy enough to overcome, one can still get into the contemplative mode and see it for what it is anyway.

What really seems screwed up is when someone like your conversant insists that art must be mediated before it can be seen. That is a mark of an amateur, a hobbiest, albeit a serious one.



June 1, 2006, 9:16 AM

I'll tell you more details: he runs a shop that commissions furniture from New England craftsmen, some of which he designs. I ordered a bedframe from him. He told me of a time when he saw a painting labeled as a Titian, and his guts rebelled - he could feel that it wasn't a Titian, and was so overcome by the discrepancy that he was struck with nausea and had to go sit down. Finally, he went over and looked at the label more closely, and saw the "school of" written over "Titian." His eye is good. I told him, essentially, use that same ability when you look at modern work. If you see something you don't like, don't like it. You'll be all set.

The experience of art is direct, hence when something steps in between and mediates, it impedes experience.

I think the brain is recognizing imagery before sentiments about it can form, and I get the feeling that it tries to recognize imagery on some level even when looking at abstract work. This is not an impediment, but an important component of that direct experience you mention, as your eyes apprehend the world and your feelings react accordingly.

the "instant connection" does not have much, if anything, to do with what narrative contributes

In your opinion, what does narrative contribute?



June 1, 2006, 9:34 AM

Narrative contributes discipline.


Marc Country

June 1, 2006, 10:19 AM

catfish, one thread over:
"There is a lot of talent to be seen here. But Kant said, correctly, that when the choice must be made between talent and discipline, choose discipline."

... and here:
"Narrative contributes discipline."

So, there you have it. Choose narrative.



June 1, 2006, 10:35 AM

There YOU have it, Marc ... a beautiful example of an undistributed middle and where that fallacy can lead you (not me). "Discipline" must be distributed at least once for the sillygism to be valid. That is, it must at least once pertain to all possible instances of discipline. In each of its occurences in your argument, it pertains to only one instance.



June 1, 2006, 10:45 AM

Um, narrative? Isn't this the old form vs content discussion?

Whatever elicits that positive "direct experience" it will be stronger when both aspects are functioning at a high pitch.


Marc Country

June 1, 2006, 10:56 AM

Hee hee! I like that.
I's just fuckin' witcha catfish.

No George, not that form/content stuff again... It is a false dichotomy (form isn't the opposite of content, it IS content, and vice versa), and in any case, it's NOT equivalent to a narrative or representation vs. abstraction debate.



June 1, 2006, 11:00 AM

Marc, Ok,guess I misunderstood the discussion.



June 1, 2006, 11:09 AM

"Sillygism" is what I called them when I taught logic. I also taught that the informal fallacies are the most important to learn because you can use them to persuade just about anybody. The formal fallacies, like the undistributed middle, are too easy to intuit as fallacious.

Among my favorites are "argument from authority" (which I used when I invoked Kant) , red herring, and affirming the consequent (though it reeks of being a formal fallacy, it is just as effective as many informal fallacies). Begging the question works well too.

Hell, if you don't know how to use the informal fallacies, you will never be able to communicate with your fellow humans.



June 1, 2006, 8:29 PM

Well, since you taught logic, ctfish, then you must be an authority on the subject, so I'll ask, in your opinion, where does the "intentional fallacy" fit in (if at all)?


Marc Country

June 1, 2006, 8:30 PM

That last comment was me, oops.



June 1, 2006, 10:25 PM

I'm not an authority on logic. If my mentor in the philosophy grad program heard, even today, that I taught the glories of the informal fallacies, he might cringe that he ever let me loose with 90 students.

That said, there is no "intentional fallacy" among the logical fallacies. I take it to mean placing importance on what an artist intends over what an artist does. Literary criticism uses the term in a similar fashion.

I hate critiques where students are asked "what did you intend to do?" And they answer "experiment with this or that" and the discussion proceeds as if the alleged experiment is the measure of success. It is better to just sit and dumbly stare at the work than attempt to discuss art in such terms. But doing so is not a fallacy of logic. It is a failure of common sense, which is much worse.

I have also noted, with great interest, that faculty NEVER conduct formal critiques of each other's work. Myself, I would try anything to get better, except have my colleagues over to conduct a formal lcritique like we lay on students. I do, however, get crits from selected (very selected) individuals who seem to have eyes.


Marc Country

June 2, 2006, 1:05 AM

"I take it to mean placing importance on what an artist intends over what an artist does... But doing so is not a fallacy of logic. It is a failure of common sense, which is much worse."

Isn't that basically what all the "informal fallacies" are though; "failures of common sense"? An '"appeal to (or argument from) authority" is only fallacious if it is an improper authority, but even then, that ersatz "expert" could still be right, even if they speak beyond their ken (Gretzky working as a pitchman for Ford is an example... It's not illogical for him to suggest that Ford makes good trucks, but common sense tells you that he doesn't necessarily know anything more than the average Joe about them).

My view is that the "intentional fallacy" is like that... although perhaps it is merely a specific example of another recognized informal fallacy, say, a particlar version of the Red Herring, maybe.



June 2, 2006, 8:26 AM

Argument from authority is an informal fallacy, no matter whether the authroity is proper or improper. My problem with logic has always been that you can't dig very deep into a subject if you follow its rules.

Gretzky, for instance, adds to the excitement of owning a Ford truck. For me that's a reason to have one. (And I do - an F-150.) Just like Gweneth Paltrow's owning a Prius adds to having one of your own, even though she does not pitch them for Toyota. Life is so much more full than logic allows. That's a fact of common sense, as far as I can tell.

Yes indeed the Red Herring applies to a lot of situations. The Great Communicator tossed them about all the time, and the millions who paid attention still remember him fondly. He was a pretty good president too.



June 5, 2006, 12:58 AM

Sorry I missed all this. I was in NYC for 4 days. I will have to pick it up tomorrow.



June 5, 2006, 1:28 AM

Franklin, to answer #4, No, I never compare my work to Vermeer. When I make comparisons they are to artists who work in a similar way, and usually it is to see what I can lift from their work to help my work, My comparisons are working comparisons, except when I see my work on a wall with other artist's work. Then I like to see how it stands up in whatever company it is in.



June 5, 2006, 8:47 AM

re #25, OP
"usually it is to see what I can lift from their work to help my work, My comparisons are working comparisons, except when I see my work on a wall with other artist's work. Then I like to see how it stands up in whatever company it is in."

Hurmph, I could have said that, tis true.



June 5, 2006, 9:00 AM

OP, too bad you caught all the crappy weather here.



June 5, 2006, 1:41 PM

Apparently the weather was crappy here, too. But NY was thunder and lightning galore, and my college reunion would have been rained out except everyone was too stewed to notice.



June 5, 2006, 3:34 PM

Op, next time you head this way let me know, maybe we could meet for a drink.



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