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Feeling and sentiment

Post #1223 • August 26, 2008, 5:25 PM • 57 Comments

When someone with an eye for art looks at art, he has a felt response to it. That feeling makes viewers with taste value art as much as they do. It appeals to a sense of visual rightness that most people experience to some degree, and some people experience to a high degree. Our descriptors for it are horribly inadequate. Quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength all point to something that we can experience but not prove or measure: the value in an arrangement of forms.

It is also possible to have a felt response to what we usually refer to as content. (Actually, content is everything contained in the work of art. To avoid confusion, I refer to recognizable form as "content," and to what we probably ought to be calling content as "traits.") This latter response is a different sort of thing. It appeals to one's emotional or intellectual life, as the art in question drums up feelings that accompany memories. This isn't so much feeling as sentiment. Feeling occurs in response to formal qualities presented to the viewer in the moment. Sentiment, in contrast, accompanies memories and things remembered: ideas, concepts, mental abstractions, and generalities in addition to recollections of one's personal history.

Sentiment has an important role to play in art. Art that uses content in any way at all appeals to sentiment, and likely came into existence because of sentiment. But ideas cling to all human endeavors, and formal art-making is no exception. Excitement about the idea of abstraction in general, or the culture of abstraction, is a sentiment. (Excitement about a particular abstract work might not be.) Lots of things motivate artists to get into the studio and relatively few of them are purely formal, even for the the purest of abstractionists. Modernists make visual art for visual reasons, but the forms of their particular efforts are shaped by life experiences that are unique to each of them. In that they resemble every other artist at work. What distinguishes them from non-modernists is not the lack of sentiment in their work, but the understanding that sentiment will not save their work from failure. Stated optimistically, they know to rely on form for quality rather than sentiment.

So modernist work can deal with content: images, ideas, narratives, and all else. While this doesn't square with what people usually think of as the products of historical modernism, it doesn't, to my knowledge, contradict anything written by Clement Greenberg. Supposedly - I've read variations of this nonsense again and again - Greenberg commanded all art to get in line with his vision of ever-increasing purity, to the exclusion of content. I challenge anyone to produce an excerpt that says as much. He refused to make prescriptions and his aversion to generalities only ever seemed to grow more acute. One rather gets the sense from reading his observations in the 1940s and '50s, particularly that the best art of the time was abstract, that he knew fully that art, immune to rules as it is, might at any time decide to veer off in another direction and take the best art with it. Now the best art is not being produced by any particular movement or style. The new modernist artist has all the sentimental options afforded to the non-modernist by the pluralistic art world. Anecdotes do not equal data, but I know through Artblog.net that a lot of people who work figuratively identify with modernism. They have plenty of room to do so.

It's too bad that "sentimental" sounds as pejorative as it does. Sentiment and sentimentality have distinct meanings. (Sentiment is sincere; sentimentality is weak, mawkish, or affected.) But sentimental can make either adjectival. Sentimentality is a vice, though hardly the worst of them. But fond feelings for a memory, person, or notion is consummately human, and might not even qualify as a foible except according to some stoic ideal. Depending on the nature of the affair, sentiment might enable better judgment than rationality. (Pairing up a potential couple, for instance, or some equally emotional decision.) Certainly any rich emotional life - about which art theory has said nothing worthwhile, despite the nature of the subject - is going to contain a large measure of sentiment. Where English fails me, Yiddish comes to the rescue: I'll use sentimental here to refer to sentiment, and schmaltzy to refer to sentimentality.

Again, any felt response to content is sentimental. An image that reminds one of childhood bliss is sentimental. An image that reminds one of the iniquities of consumer culture is sentimental. All art about something, as people commonly say without thinking enough about it, is sentimental. Increasing the complexity or profundity of the content does not make it less sentimental. And again, sentiment is not necessarily inimical to the success of a work of art. It could prove enabling. Even sentimentality is not inimical to success, at least theoretically. Art can make an end run around the artist's intentions and succeed no matter how fervently the artist tries to derail himself. I'm not a huge fan of his work, but Douanier Rousseau may prove as much.

If its form fails, the content of a work becomes a trivial concern, a bit like talking about the charming personality of a person who has recently stopped breathing. But conversely, sentiment and even schmaltz don't disqualify a work from modernist success. Feeling and sentiment are parallel phenomena, and while the former is indispensible, the latter can operate quite freely and with notable importance within a modernist outlook. Modernism is not puritanism, but a high demand upon art to be good. How we get there is wide open. Whether we ought to get there is not.

(Posted from the Lady Zog, Edmonton, AB.)

Comment

1.

MC

August 26, 2008, 5:56 PM

A wide open tightrope...

2.

Bart

August 26, 2008, 6:28 PM

I'm not sure I understand your point, or even if you have a point.

What are you for? What are you against? Why should I listen?

F

3.

Franklin

August 26, 2008, 7:43 PM

My point is that feeling and sentiment are different. I'm for good art and against bad art. You should listen just in case I'm right.

4.

Bart

August 26, 2008, 8:07 PM

Feeling and sentiment are different, check.
I'm for good art too, check.

So what good is all this nascent theoretical posturing? Is this a call for some new form of conceptualism? Or, are you suggesting we attempt psycho-surgery on the existing forms and content, which can be found in the strata of modernist practice? While this might be entrancing to some, the chance meeting between Olitski and My Little Pony as a reconsideration of Cervantes, I would find it hard to strike a course based upon your initial premise. On the other hand, maybe you are not suggesting anything other than the obvious, feeling and sentiment are different. I can accept that, it's a non threatening concept, but of little use in an attempt to extend the current paradigms of modernist practice.

5.

opie

August 26, 2008, 8:20 PM

Extend them paradigms, Franklin.

6.

ahab

August 26, 2008, 8:30 PM

Good sentiment is distinguishable from bad sentiment, sure. Does any great art carry a significant portion of the latter, I wonder?

Even good sentiment, I'm thinking, sits on top or in front of an artwork, like glazing; and to some degree it impedes viewing the thing for what it is. Sentiment, sincere or schmaltzy, is just another form of feed-forward.

As I'm rereading though, I'm wondering whether it might not be helpful to differentiate further between delivered sentiment and received sentiment. For example, when I sense that it is being projected by an artwork, I tend to shudder and look away; but when I'm feeling sentimental myself, it's all about me and what I know and remember.

Anyway, failings are relatively easy to denounce, but how much harder to speak of positive, felt qualities. It is that very "visual rightness", which we can't confirm in any way but to sense it once, twice and again, that I want to get more of.

My own studio activities are at least partly motivated by the grail of "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength" - maybe I'll find my own that won't cause others to shudder.

7.

Bart

August 26, 2008, 8:41 PM

"... motivated by the grail of "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength"..."

So, that feeds into what you must feel your work is about? Those things you focus on during its creation? An exploration into the manifestations of quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength. Either you have achieved some conceptual and psychological understanding of these qualities which enables you to chart a course for your practice, or it's all chance, hit or miss but coupled with the ability to recognize what you like. Right?

8.

ahab

August 26, 2008, 8:55 PM

I didn't say what my art is "about", but "an exploration into the manifestations of quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength" DOES describe what I'm doing. And only I decide whether I can see it, I mean, feel it. Right?

9.

Franklin

August 26, 2008, 9:07 PM

Bart, I'm immune to your grad-school schoolyard putdowns. I'll leave it to the modernists to decide whether I've done something useful, a group in which you clearly feel no membership.

Opie - I'm trying, but CAN$.20 is only worth about US$.19 right now.

Ahab, that might indeed be a useful distinction. Sentiment forced upon you, even if sincere, is usually galling. Going to a work of art with a sentimental or schmaltzy mind would probably engender a response that says more about you than the work. The virtue of visual rightness is that it outlasts sent messages and incidental mental states. "It is that very "visual rightness", which we can't confirm in any way but to sense it once, twice and again, that I want to get more of." Beautifully put.

Bart again, the ability to recognize what you like makes the process something a little more directed than than hit or miss, but otherwise it's pretty much hit or miss.

10.

ahab

August 26, 2008, 9:12 PM

Have you got your antennae up'n'workin' yet, Franklin? If not, maybe we can install it tomorrow.

11.

Franklin

August 26, 2008, 9:14 PM

Dude, I'm hanging out by the dart board. Let's do that.

12.

ahab

August 26, 2008, 9:30 PM

Darts and laptops. You'd think it'd void the warranty.

13.

Bart

August 27, 2008, 6:09 AM

Ahab, to clarify my previous remark.

Without getting into a lengthy debate about the meaning of 'about,' I was using the word as a way of signifying qualities, or characteristics which have been instilled in the artwork by the artist, qualities, or characteristics that would also be perceivable by the viewer.

Moreover, the qualities which define or identify what an artwork is 'about' also contribute to an artworks identifiable uniqueness when compared to other artworks.

By saying that you are "partly motivated by the grail of "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength,"" you are revealing your intentionality, either to instill these qualities into the artwork, or to discover them within the artwork should they occur by chance, without agency on your part.

While these two courses may seem similar. they are in fact not. In the first case, the artist actively seeks to instill into the artwork the aforementioned qualities or characteristics. This implicitly infers intentionality or direction on the part of the artist and a self-awareness of ones attempt to achieve these qualities or characteristics. If this is the case, the artwork will reflect this process. This directed self awareness to achieve "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength" will become part of what the artwork is 'about'

In the second case, these sought after qualities and characteristics occur with less agency on the part of the artist. They are recognized during the creative process but are the result, or side effect, of chance during the working process and not directly a result of meditated intentionality by the artist.

Considering the potential results of these two creative paths the primary difference can be understood by examining the intentionality of the artist. In the first case, the quest for the 'grail' becomes a self conscious activity which becomes introduced into the artwork as content, in essence the artist is 'showing off' for the audience or viewer. The quest for "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength" becomes dominant over the actual achievement.

In the second case, the artist's intentionality is manifested in the expression of the artwork, it's ultimate success is a result of the artists ability to be sensitive and recognize "quality, goodess, rightness, effectiveness, and strength" as they occur in the working process by chance.

14.

opie

August 27, 2008, 8:06 AM

Bart, "about" as it is used in art writing has a couple strikes against it. Art is not "about" unless it is specifically narrative, and most art is aimed at another effect. To say what art is "about" is diversionary, it misdirects. It also has become a primary art talk cliche in our time and should be avoided anyway.

"Examining intentionality" is useless when evaluating art unless one is specifically judging the relation between clearly stated intentions, which we seldom have, and clearly realized effect.

Same goes for what we call "accident" or "chance". No one has examined this part of the art-making process well enough to allow us to talk about it with any clarity.

15.

Franklin

August 27, 2008, 8:14 AM

In practice, especially in intelligent modernist practice, intending to do something and allowing something to occur are pretty much the same activity. The latter necessarily takes place in the course of the former. Sometimes your intentions get you good results. Sometimes what you're not doing, or what you're screwing up, gets you good results. If you're paying attention and not taking yourself too seriously, you'll recognize it when one of the latter occurs, and you'll change your methods accordingly.

When you shoot for visual goodness, process has no meaning. Nothing "becomes dominant over the actual achievement." Only outcomes matter.

16.

MC

August 27, 2008, 8:24 AM

Re: #13
LOL

I particularly liked "implicitly infers"...

17.

MC

August 27, 2008, 8:43 AM

"Without getting into a lengthy debate about the meaning of 'about,' I was using the word as a way of signifying qualities, or characteristics ... in the artwork... that would also be perceivable by the viewer."

... In other words, in music, it's what you hear, and in visual art, it's what you see.

"Moreover, the qualities which define or identify what an artwork is 'about' also contribute to an artworks identifiable uniqueness when compared to other artworks."

Artworks tend to look different from one another. Check...

"By saying that you are "partly motivated by the grail of "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength,"" you are revealing your intentionality, either to instill these qualities into the artwork, or to discover them within the artwork should they occur by chance, without agency on your part."

But, intentionality don't mean shit, and, um, NEWSFLASH: just because you didn't make something, doesn't mean it happened "by chance", obviously. Moving on...

"While these two courses may seem similar. they are in fact not. In the first case, the artist actively seeks to instill into the artwork the aforementioned qualities or characteristics. This implicitly infers intentionality or direction on the part of the artist and a self-awareness of ones attempt to achieve these qualities or characteristics. If this is the case, the artwork will reflect this process. This directed self awareness to achieve "quality, goodness, rightness, effectiveness, and strength" will become part of what the artwork is 'about'"

"In the second case, these sought after qualities and characteristics occur with less agency on the part of the artist. They are recognized during the creative process but are the result, or side effect, of chance during the working process and not directly a result of meditated intentionality by the artist."

Obviously, intention doesn't automatically result in achievement, so the artwork may not necessarily "reflect this process" at all. Then, you are left with an artist judging their own work, however it comes about, and a viewer, judging the work before them, however it came about. Hey! The "two courses" ARE similar after all...

18.

opie

August 27, 2008, 9:28 AM

My favorite is "identifiable uniqueness", MC

19.

McFawn

August 27, 2008, 1:08 PM

I'm still not sure I understand the distinction, or its usefulness. Feeling is the immediate effect of the work in the present moment? Sentiment is the web of memories, associations, personal resonance, resemblance to childhood toys, the likeness to the blur of adult faces over the crib that are drawn up when you look at a work of art? You seem to be trying to say that sentiment can be another tool in the modernist toolkit, and should not be discounted because of a concern about schmaltz or sentiment’s links w/ Po-Mo. (There’s a lot of sentiment overload in Po-Mo work--its all about linking your childhood toys with your grad school Derrida.)

I guess I’m wondering--how might this view of sentiment affect practice? Is this an argument for representational work? Because I don’t see how abstract forms appeal to sentiment as strongly as a recognizable image does (or I don’t see how abstract forms would appeal to sentiment as recognizably.)

20.

Franklin

August 27, 2008, 3:01 PM

McFawn, I think you've rephrased the distinction with complete accuracy. As for how this might affect practice, I'm not really sure - just carry on if what you're doing is working for you. I've never seen it explicitly expressed, at length, that modernism can accommodate content, and that doing so means distinguishing feeling and sentiment. In case it helps anyone out, there you are. As a bonus, I'm looking forward to characterizing the next bit of leaden exegesis of some allegedly deep work of art as sentimental. That will be fun.

21.

opie

August 27, 2008, 3:16 PM

Franklin is making a distinction between reactions, McFawn, and then describing how they interrelate. It has less to do with making art than responding to it.

I'm not sure "sentiment" is the exactly right word to describe reactions which comprehend relating observed visual facts to prediliction or preference established in the viewer but it is an interesting extraction of characteristis.

I think we can have a "sentiment" reaction for non-pbjective work - liking an individual color might qualify.

Your "toys to Derrida" observation is excellent. Sounded just right.

22.

Bart

August 27, 2008, 5:55 PM

opie's remark that "Art is not "about" unless it is specifically narrative, and most art is aimed at another effect." is both incorrect and misleading. Look it up:

'about' – preposition
Definition: of; concerning; in regard to:
instructions about the work; a book about the Civil War.

Digging further, we will fine the word "about' is commonly used to indicate the subject:

'subject' - noun
Definition: What a speech, piece of writing, or artistic work is about.

See also: argument, matter, point, subject matter, text, theme, topic

When discussing an artwork, what it is 'about' is probably the single most commonly used conversational phrase. The 'subject' of an artwork, what it is about, does not have to be a narrative, it can be any topic, theme or point of view, including an an inquiry into the nature of art itself. If an artwork is abstract, or non objective, the qualities used to achieve these ends are the artworks subject, they are what it is about.

To suggest that the subject or content of an artwork, what it is about, is limited to narrative is a misuse of the word. Further, it undermines Franklin's attempt to expand the modernist canon in a way which might make it again relevant in the contemporary world.

Franklin, I think your use of the term 'sentiment' is doomed to failure, its negative associations will distract from the central core of your argument, that modernism can accommodate content. So, just say 'content' and deal with it. I think this is a viable path going forward, certainly the old modernist cannon has both failed to inspire young artists or to produce any culturally relevant new work.

23.

John

August 27, 2008, 6:51 PM

Yes, what McFawn said about the difference between feeling and sentiment.

I have no doubt that there is a place for sentiment in abstract art, just as there is a place for it in "abstract" music - 1812 Overture, American in Paris, Rahpsody in Blue, etc. When sentiment and feeling unite, watch out, great things can happen. But when they are steeped in BIG THINKING they disassociate and you get another pile of BS made over and made up to look like revelation.

24.

MC

August 27, 2008, 10:00 PM

#22 points to something I was mentioning the other day, Franklin: the idea that both form and content can be described by the word 'matter'. Perhaps we should be speaking of modernism's evolution into, maybe not New Modernism, but Materialism...

25.

Franklin

August 27, 2008, 11:08 PM

Bart, the strikes against "about" are not that it's incorrect, but that it's worthless. The senses in which you use "about" are technically correct and Opie's is even more so. But it's "probably the single most commonly used conversational phrase" because there is a notion floating around out there that once the viewer gets what the work is about, the primary act of appreciation has taken place and everything else is gravy. As Opie correctly says, talking about what the work is about is much more effective in overtly narrative forms, and skirts meaninglessness in the case of art.

I'm not trying to expand a canon any more than I was trying extend a paradaigm. Do you speak for all young artists? Does "culturally relevant" mean something? Where the hell do you people get this nonsense?

John, I was trying to characterize "big thinking" as schmaltz and I couldn't figure out how to get there. "Big thinking" is the right term for the job.

"Materialism" I like in its way but I'm still not sold on it...

26.

opie

August 28, 2008, 4:23 AM

Fortuntely Franklin answered Bart's "about" before I read it and answered it better than I would have, although I would emphasize that the use of the term is more than merely worthless; it is harmful and contributes to (and reflects) misunderstanding because it promotes the idea that "once the viewer gets what the work is about, the primary act of appreciation has taken place", as Franklin put it.

This is a willful evasion of the effect of art and a lubricant for empty talk.

27.

opie

August 28, 2008, 4:29 AM

Yes. BIG THINKING in caps, as John had it.

MC there is certainly a case for materialism, becuse of the way it directs us to actual stuff. Unfortunately the word has been preempted by all sorts of other philisophical discourse.

It's more like :"factualism", but I would regret foisting such a term on the art world.

28.

Chris Rywalt

August 28, 2008, 9:11 AM

Franklin sez:
If you're paying attention and not taking yourself too seriously, you'll recognize it when one of the latter occurs, and you'll change your methods accordingly.

Or, as OP wrote to me recently: "Always make it easier, and when it gets easier still, trust it."

29.

ahab

August 28, 2008, 9:49 AM

...modernism's evolution into, maybe not New Modernism, but Matterism...

30.

MC

August 28, 2008, 10:33 PM

Here's a relevant quote:
"...not every decision received in the course of making formal art has to be an esthetic intuition or a judgment-decision. There are decisions motivated by extra-esthetic factors having to do with religion, politics, or social considerations. Such decisions are not judgments of taste, not in themselves; they don't contain their results in themelves. But they can become judgments of taste, judgment-decisions, and usually do, for better or for worse. For better in the case of much religious art of the past and even in the case of some didactic and some political art. It's a rare work of art anyhow in which all the decisions start out as judgment decisions, as esthetic intuitions."

You'll never guess the source...

31.

John

August 28, 2008, 11:27 PM

Sounds like Clement Greenberg - Homemade Esthetics.

32.

John

August 29, 2008, 12:09 AM

One of the great problems of modernism is that the "non-esthetic" imperatives that once got art through its bootstrapping process were surrendered - in the name of aesthetic freedom. As Sartre (whom Clem admired very much) pointed out, absolute or nearly absolute freedom is paralyzing. Now that no starting point is mandated or even valued any more than any other, each one of us who practices art does so while dog-paddling in the middle of a chaotic duck soup composed of a zillion possibilities, but very little that is real enough to hang on to.

33.

opie

August 29, 2008, 5:12 AM

30 & 32 - on-the-mark stuff (no pun intended MC).

This is the sort of thing we should be working over on this blog. Examinations of the nature of the decisions that go into the production of a work of art and the consequences of misunderstanding the concept and utility of what we call "freedom" would be very interesting.

If I didn't have a graduate crit in 45 minutes I would love to get into it.

34.

opie

August 29, 2008, 8:15 AM

"matterism" has a nice ring to it but of course the minute you introduce such a term it assumes the public reputation that "formalism" enjoys: cold, impersonal, inhuman, utterly lacking in all the requisite warm, fuzzy and "meaningful" stuff that the jelloworld needs.

"Always make it easier, and when it gets easier still, trust it." This can be taken wrong, out of context. it is a two pronged plea, the first being - for example - if you have a 5x8 foot canvas which needs to be covered in white use a roller, not a brush, and second (and more important)art is damn difficult, so when you have worked something out and get on a roll go with it and turn out as much as you can, because it won't last.

As for #32. if only some wise person would write a clear convincing thesis explaining that no human activity is possible without foundations and worked-out conventions and that this also applies to art, and make it required reading in every art school in the world. We are really crippled by this ingrained 1960s idea that "freedom", as it is commonly misunderstood, is some kind of holy grail.

35.

John

August 29, 2008, 12:00 PM

Opie, it would be difficult enough to write such a tome, getting it on the required reading list would be like swimming up a rapids. Art schools have made BIG THINKING the "foundation", the "worked-out convention" of everything they do, even figure drawing can and is taught with this as the mantra, one way or another. BIG THINKING thrives in the duck soup of a zillion possiblities where nothing is real, that is to say, facts are not allowed to get in its way, so that "flexibility" is never difficult to achieve. The purging of reality evidently makes it more and more confident of its own importance.

In the court of common sense, the need for real starting points borders on the self evident. If you understand it, no proof is needed; if you don't understand it, no proof will ever change your mind.

Sartre was not entirely right. The paralysis he described certainly diminishes the efforts of the most talented and serious artists. But BIG THINKING (exaggerated freedom made up to look like revelation) has released a plethora of activity from its vacuous followers, who have acquired a legendary place in what is commonly called "the art world". BIG THINKING probably should be regarded as a convention now - it has so many followers that to deny it this description goes against the facts. And it is so "worked-out" that predictablity is its middle name.

I am content to simply recognize what has happened. Having been influenced by Jack, proving it has happened would be a waste of my time and energy.

But I do remember a conversation with Lynne Munson in which she lamented the type of art that certain ultra conservatives in the Bush administration favored. Something like the illustrationism taught at Franklin's former school mixed in with history painting, the Hudson River School, contemporary Christianity, and patriotism. Lynne correctly observed that such stuff did not stand a chance of becoming a "player", whereas pomo did have a chance - an unlikely chance, but nonetheless a chance. Our discussion carried what you are talking about one step further - without the right "conventions" the chance of making it to the majors leagues is slim to none, that not all conventions are equal. Perhaps when you say "worked-out" that is your way of saying this.

It is not only that we need "worked-out conventions", we need ones that support the good stuff. BIG THINKING, unconditioned freedom, all that stuff is a case of emptiness in, emptiness out. That never works. So what does work? I think we are faced with the same thing the impressionists faced. Instead of going back to Goya and painterliness, perhaps we go back to neo-platicism, abex, minimalism - not to copy ihem, but to mine them. I'd throw in the humor that flourished in post 60s southern CA too - it is a good antidote for the puffery of the big thinkers.

36.

opie

August 29, 2008, 2:02 PM

Going back to just about anything would be a great relief at this point. And going back is the best and quickest way to find the good stuff.

By "conventions" I was thinking more of material, working conventions rather than thinking and attitude conventions, but obviously the latter greatly influence the former.

The real problem, if you want to be totally non-PC about it (and I do), is that art got too popular and drew in too many mediocre people, and they took over.

37.

George

August 29, 2008, 3:25 PM

Hello all. I don't teach, never have, so pardon me if I suggest that this thread sounds a trifle academic, as if you all are trying to arrive at a lesson plan rather than a way of unravelling the mysteries of the universe.

John suggests: "Sartre was not entirely right. The paralysis [of freedom] he described certainly diminishes the efforts of the most talented and serious artists." I suspect this is not true, at least for great artists. Absolute freedom is an illusion, but can be solved by just choosing a path, any path, to follow.

He goes on to say: "It is not only that we need "worked-out conventions", we need ones that support the good stuff." It seems to me, that is what we have, the 'conventions' exist within art's long history. They are not subject to some science of logic but exist as historical guideposts for artists in the present.

I agree that theory, 'big thinking', doesn't lead to great art. However the pursuit of "worked-out conventions" is not how I would choose to phrase an alternative view.

If you examine the path your own work has taken and examine your historical precedents, I think you will find that there is a personal logic to the way your work has developed, that you tended to gravitate towards certain artists as a precedent because their work resonated with your own personality and interests.

Further, what constitutes 'big thinking' is for the most part, locked in the present, it runs horizontally relative to a vertical path for history. In other words, 'big thinking' provides only a momentary reference, a viewpoint defined by the present, an Artforum moment.

Any artist who intends to move their work forward must connect it with the past. The work must connect with history in order to vector its development from the present into the future. Further, as noted above, the choices one makes for historical precedents, consciously or not, uniquely define a path forward, including all the potholes, potential traps and diversions.

This spine that is history, links back in time with an unassailable logic that is directly connected to the present. The momentary history of the present is a vociferous distraction away from the making of great art, the spine of history is capable of drawing our focus to a precise point.

Most importantly, this spine I call history, is personal and unique for every artist. We do not, cannot, all walk the same path but we can aspire to the same direction, one leading to a connection with our audiences, present and future, in a deep, meaningful way.

38.

John

August 29, 2008, 4:23 PM

Welcome back, George. I like your phrase "Artforum moment" and how it is tied to the present or, more importantly, locked out of both the past and the future. It ties into opie's "too many mediocre people" to describe a certain pervasive toxicity that, for the moment and probably for quite some time, cannot be changed. The result is babel-like.

But I don't think paths forward are unique for each artist. Groups of artists typically have followed a collective path, rococo, pre-raphaelite, surrealist, impresionist, cubist, fauve, futurist, abex, minimalist, and so on. Some paths have worked out better than others and I suspect that is just the nature of paths. There is good, better and best on each path, as well.

But now that collective paths have been banished to the land of old hats in a frenzy of a freedom that sings "don't fence me in", something vital has been lost. Of course, as those on one path struggled with those on another path, there was "rebellion" against one in favor of the other. But the ultimate rebellion against all mutually agreed upon foundations/conventions has taken place, and we are left with little or nothing as a starting point.

Ironically, the meandering individuals when viewed as a crowd seem quite similar, few or none of them unique, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. Thus, "personal and unique for every artist" looks like an illusion to me, though the automaton wanderers clearly have connected to an audience, a rather large one.

But connecting to a large audience is a side effect, one that art does not need. It is just us artists that lust for it.

39.

ahab

August 29, 2008, 6:19 PM

Matter-of-factualism, then?

40.

George

August 29, 2008, 6:21 PM

re 38:
History is the narrative cliche of what was once the present, the horizontal shape of the present is collapsed onto the vertical spine of history, the truth of the present is distorted and its memory passes to dust. With this in mind...

Opie's "too many mediocre people" may be nothing more than a statistical artifact of the present moment in history. Today, the art world is bigger, a lot bigger, than ever before in history. Old paradigms which once worked for determining a critical structure have collapsed under the weight of the sheer number of artists alive and working today. A single style critical model is an anachronism of the past and inadequate for dealing with the current condition. Essentially this is a marketing problem which needs to be rethought.

I do believe that "paths forward" are potentially unique for each artist.
In the present, the unique course can be diverted when an artist becomes too attached, by association, with a well followed path or a stronger artist. Typically this occurs because it is a 'more comfortable' course to follow, and provides validation by association. The problem here is that the directive strength of this association lies in the horizontal present rather than in the spine of history. To be fair, there are many cases where groups of artists started with a common historical inspiration and moved their work forward in such a way that, despite stylistic similarities, their work was individually identifiable.

Digging further into this morass I'll ask, "How does the world work?"

John made an interesting point about a conversation with Lynne Munson. Adding that Lynne correctly observed that such stuff [35] did not stand a chance of becoming a "player" Why is this?

Why did the course of art follow the path it took after Abstract Expressionism? Was it because the alternative paths weren't well argued? No. Were the artists weaker? Not necessarily. So why did one style or philosophy win out over another?

41.

Franklin

August 29, 2008, 6:56 PM

I think the problem is not an excess of freedom, but a misunderstanding of freedom. There is the permission to do absolutely anything as an artist (short of transgressions against life and property), and the sentiment behind this is correct. Then there is the freedom to do something, power, which requires some kind of starting point and history. I have the freedom to play Bach's Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor, in the sense that no one will stop me from doing so should I choose. But my organ skills being nonexistent, it hardly matters.

Big Thinking gets both of these wrong. It is too driven by neophilia to permit all options. It has to characterize certain modernist or traditionalist options as old hat in order to hold together as a brand - the latest example from the weekly in town is here (don't worry, I've already sent a letter) - with the ironic result that All Options Have Been Exercised has become a period style and the latest WhiBi ends up looking worse than a drunk driver hitting a Home Depot.

But because it thinks of itself as permitting all options, it opposes the second sense of freedom as well, because craft entails hierarchies of skill, discipline, better and worse outcomes, and refined choices about materials. Craft doesn't permit the free-for-all that Big Thinking demands.

Adding that Lynne correctly observed that such stuff [35] did not stand a chance of becoming a "player" Why is this?

I may have some insight into this question because I've spent the last year surrounded by it - not the Patriotically Correct version, but the neotraditionalism. The short answer is that it's just tired as hell. It succeeds about as often as any other style these days, but instead of the pile of stuff at the bottom produced by Big Thinking, you get a pile of stuff in the middle pushed upwards by competence and pushed downwards by monotony. I respect traditionalists a lot but their efforts tends to pull everyone involved to the suburbs of artistic achievement.

I very much like this:

Instead of going back to Goya and painterliness, perhaps we go back to neo-platicism, abex, minimalism - not to copy ihem, but to mine them. I'd throw in the humor that flourished in post 60s southern CA too - it is a good antidote for the puffery of the big thinkers.

I'd throw in the Bay Area figurative guys for good measure.

42.

George

August 29, 2008, 7:03 PM

"Instead of going back to Goya and painterliness, perhaps we go back to neo-platicism, abex, minimalism - not to copy ihem, but to mine them."

In case you haven't noticed, this has already occurred.

43.

opie

August 29, 2008, 7:04 PM

"Opie's 'too many mediocre people' may be nothing more than a statistical artifact of the present moment in history.

Yes, that is precisely what it is.

I like "Arforum moment" too. But "unique" should be banned from all art discourse. Nothing is unique unless it is really unique, and in art, nothing really is. It certainly should not be used as a value term in any event.

But George, what is all this "necessity of history" stuff you are talking about? It really seems quite different from your standard refrain of "old hat".

"So why did one style or philosophy win out over another?" Answer: mediocre people. mediocre brains, lack of talent. You name it. It all goes back to that.

44.

John

August 29, 2008, 7:52 PM

George: Adding that Lynne correctly observed that such stuff [35] did not stand a chance of becoming a "player" Why is this?

In the practice of art and art criticism, it is important that your observations be true. Lynne never bothered to explain why but Franklin said some stuff that I bet she would echo. Myself, it just rang my bell and that's all I really require.

George: So why did one style or philosophy win out over another?

The optimist in me says the fight is not over. The pessimist says God has forgotten about art, to mangle Whitehead a little. Opie's answer is the most practical and down to earth.

George: The problem here is that the directive strength of this association lies in the horizontal present rather than in the spine of history.

If that means too many Artforum moments, I totally agree.

Franklin: There is the permission to do absolutely anything as an artist (short of transgressions against life and property), and the sentiment behind this is correct.

I would not attempt to argue that it is incorrect, but that kind of freedom is not necessary for art to thrive. Certainly, art has not gotten any better since this sort of freedom has become part of the standard environment for art practice. I think it has done more harm than good, though I damn well don't want anyone telling me what to paint. In any case, Big Thinking does not permit all options, that's for sure. "Neophillia" is a great word, too. And Big Thinking is both telling what to paint and what not to paint - and I happen to be painting what it says not to paint. But that doesn't matter much, either.

45.

ahab

August 29, 2008, 8:37 PM

I'm way behind on the conversation, but I'll toss this in: I half-wonder if there isn't a kind of human discernment specific to choosing the best jumping-off point, or so-called path. A sort of taste for direction. An internal compass that is oriented to one's desired destination.

46.

George

August 29, 2008, 9:06 PM

All individuals are unique products of their genetics and environment, uniquely individual products of a psychology merged with experience, and as such, capable of eliciting a unique creative vision. Alas, 'capable' does not mean they necessarily will, because individual behavior predictably resists change. Never the less, the potential is there.

Re: "what is all this "necessity of history" stuff you are talking about?"
I don't think my position is any different than it was before, I may just be explaining my thoughts differently.

I noticed that the historical artists who interest me today are the same ones I bought art books for 30 years ago. These are artists on what I called the vertical spine of history. For whatever reason, call it sensibility, my heros haven't changed over the years. I still prefer Velasquez to Rembrandt, and it occurred to me that these simple choices made in my youth reflect my sensibility as a painter and describe a lineage I can honestly trace back to the 15th century.

As a young artist, the sense of ones history is short, it is acquired knowledge. Ones awareness is focused upon the topic, art or artist of the moment, the present. The present is the broad plane of awareness of millions of individuals and in my imagination lies perpendicular to the path of history.

History happens by forgetting, space given up by lost memories for condensed recollections of a fleeting present, soon to become past. There is no escaping this, but as artists we might leave something behind that connects history, Velasquez, with the present, me or you.

This connection between the past and the present is one quality which makes the arts unique. It is the potential for the recreation of the same experience over time, defeating deaths loss of memory.

What can confound us is that the present is slowly distilling into history but remains in our memory as it was still the present. It's not, its some idealistic memory we regard as true but for someone not there, it's already fading into history. I remember the 1963 Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, I was there at the opening, but this memory is slowly fading for me, and for most here it's but a picture or two in a book, history.

So, I see history as a tool for self revelation, points to plot a course through the present into the futures past.

Opie's answer to: "So why did one style or philosophy win out over another?" doesn't explain much. An answer like "mediocre people, mediocre brains, lack of talent" fails to account for anything resembling the truth.

47.

ahab

August 29, 2008, 9:10 PM

Examinations of the nature of the decisions that go into the production of a work of art and the consequences of misunderstanding the concept and utility of what we call "freedom" would be very interesting.

As to "freedom", I think we all know that autonomy and boundary go hand in hand. And although freedom and constraint are obvious factors, neither more nor less of either is a guarantee for success in the studio or the field.

[Franklin's two types of freedom is a more nuanced presentation than my own blunted handling, but humour me.]

Each artist makes his own choices according to the passes and blockades of his temperment and circumstance. Of course. Ideally. But as with Seldon's Plan (Asimov, Foundation), no matter how unique or prescient the man he is an insignificant non-event in the sweeping path of the many. Of course, Asimov's Hari Seldon had at hand the mathematics to accurately plot the mob's path aforehand.

We haven't such a science, that I know of. I haven't enough knowledge of others to speak for all y'all. So I speak only for myself. And it will surely seem self-evident - that I choose my medium and my mode from what's before me. When it's the full-up past that's before me I choose my inspiration, and when it's the unfulfilled future I invent the very options.

So, my choices then: if I really did have it my way, they'd be solely at the whim of what I sensed was the best of what was before me, in order that I could myself make something as good as all that.

48.

opie

August 30, 2008, 4:07 AM

Nothing wrong with "freedom" as such, but like anything it can be misconceived and misused. We all want to do what we want when making art, but art (and anything else) only gets made when choices have been appropriately and severely limited.

Useful freedom is the the freedom to choose our own limitations. Destructive freedom is to proceed under the guidance of the notion that limitations are intrinsically harmful

In crit yesterday there was a discussion about certain parts of a figure painting that looked "interesting" but did not clearly enough delineate the character of the requisite body parts. I agreed that the parts looked "interesting" but maintained that the choice to render this way had been eliminated by the nature of the painting.

The dissenting student (not the artist but another one in the crit)) is a very talented abstract painter who makes a habit of putting all kinds of wacky dissonance in his paintngs. I understood where he was coming from, but in his case the paintings he makes are prepared for "alien" elements, and end up being improved by them. His kind of "freedom" did not work for the figure painter.

49.

Jack Action

September 1, 2008, 9:33 AM

please read thomas mcevilley's 'heads it's form, tails it's not content' from 'art & discontent: theory at the millennium'. it eloquently addresses the mythologizing of much of that 50s era work through atmospheric affirmation; feeling, color, etc. "passionate belief systems pass through cultures like disease epidemics"

50.

opie

September 1, 2008, 10:29 AM

"Passionate belief systems" are at the center of most important human events and changes. They are neither good or bad, as such, but they are always influential.

Characterizing them as "disease epidemics" in the given context would appear to be a rhetorical device to discredit "50s era work", as would the implicit negative valuing of the word "mythologizing".

This willfully disregards the positive possibliities of "passionate belief systems" , such as, say, those at the founding of our democratic political system.

I would need further persuasion before wasting time reading something like this.

51.

ahab

September 1, 2008, 4:41 PM

Thankfully, I took my last art histrionics seminar class back in 2003.

52.

Aurora

September 2, 2008, 2:11 AM

Art today,is market driven. The vast majority of artists have no clue, why they are doing what they do. The vast majority of viewers ,collectors,writers,curators,and gallery directors are concerned with only one thing, money.Uneducated eyes look for the familiar(ie childhood sentimentality).Therefore what sells, is first, the familiar, Sharks in tanks, basketballs floating in aquariums, ect. (Easy to comprehend, with a bit of shock value thrown in for good measure.)The market is so busy looking for something new,and the artists are working hard to figure out exactly what that is, they often miss the obvious.The "subject" or "style" is fairly irrelevant to wether an artwork is great or not..a great artwork can be made in any medium, style, and with or without sentiment.(or feeling).There is a universal language of art that transcends everything.It just takes time to be understood. Clem said"anything can be art, the question is..is it good?" For example Odd Nerdrum, the Norwegian realist,plays on artists of the past Rembrandt and Velasquez, but heightens the "reality"factor, adds in a lot of sentimentality(Kitsch), and often twists the composition (modernizing the art of the past)or his subjects of the paintings are made to do some peculiar thing.. but it doesn't really matter, he simply paints unforgettable paintings.If an artwork is forgettable, more than likely , it isn't a great one.(Artworks can produce visceral feelings and still not be "good"). And Clem often stated he preferred realism to abstraction, but he felt the abstract artists of his day were far superior to the realists, and that is why he wrote primarily about abstraction.From the mid 1930's to 1994, when Clem was writing, one would be hard pressed to find a great realist.Clem often mentioned Norman Rockwell, a surprise to many of you, I'm sure,(I never liked his work), Fairfield Porter, Dorothy Knowles(I'd say his favorite of the living realists), Horatio Torres (who was alive during part of Clem's career, then died, and was his favorite until Torres death.)And he liked Rita Cowley, Hank Bres(he loved the little gems) and Terry Fenton.(There weren't too many Americans he liked, he considered the Canadian realists far superior to say Philip Pearlstein who was among the popular realists then ,in the USA.)I believe he approved of James Valerio and William Beckman, although still preferred Torres. Of the older artists, Maillol,Rodin,(Balzac and the Burhgers of Callais, he talked about fairly extensively)Lachaise,Degas,Medardo Rosso(of the sculptors),Soutine,Van Gogh, Matisse, Modigliani,Munch, Miro, Cezanne- he loved especially, I often got into arguments as he prefered the later, thinly painted and I prefered the thicker, earlier paintings.And even the occaisional Ivan Albright,or Diego Rivera.I'm assuming you all know which abstract artists he liked ,as the record is pretty clear on that.But what he liked most about Torres(without putting words in Clem's mouth), was the fact that Torres expanded on Manet,and made the human form become abstract without losing the feeling of the lifelike quality.(Torres often cropped off the arms and legs, or the head, so the figure became tactile, sculptural, but impersonal.)Clem seemed to like some of the mannerists, but when the sentimentality took over, it became kitsch(Burne-Jones), while artists like Egon Schiele were dry and cold.(I believe he found Nolde a bit confusing,as he seemed to like the watercolors, yet had reservations about Nolde's earlier political leanings.Nolde had been hired at various times by the Nazi regime,and ever though he later had a change of heart, I think this dismayed Clem.Of all the realists that ever lived, I'd say Clem preferred Ingres.

53.

Franklin

September 2, 2008, 7:02 AM

I finally got to see some works by Torres in person up here in Edmonton, and man, what a disappointment. It's possibly Greenberg's most inexplicable pick.

54.

Jack Action

September 2, 2008, 7:30 AM

The article does nothing to refute the import or affect of that work -- merely to level the playing field and address how work is perceived and promoted. The quote I wrote was merely the first sentence; your blogging efficiency in dismissing it with such brevity makes you sound like a politician. I'm a practitioner, not a historian; McEvilley shows some of the shortcomings not of the work of that era, but of some of Greenberg's empty evaluations of that work. I think the distinction between 'sentiment' and 'sentimentality' is the heart of the matter.

55.

opie

September 2, 2008, 7:48 AM

I was not commenting on the article because I did not have it in front of me. I commented only on the content you presented. My dismissal was directed at that and was carefully framed to refer only to the language and its implications.

I have no idea how it causes you to characterize me as "politician". I assume this is meant to be a slur, but, again, "politician" is a neutral word, like "mythologizing" or the phrase "belief systems", until it gets value-loaded by someone who cannot make the point in a more straightforward way.

If McEvilley points out an "empty evaluation" of Greenberg's, or "shortcomings of the work of that era" why not quote some of it here so we can discuss it. I seriously doubt what you have written so far will impel anyone to run out and buy the book.

56.

opie

September 2, 2008, 7:53 AM

Thanks for the info-packed comment, Aurora.

I like Torres OK, Franklin. The surface has a fine sensuality to it.

I think Ken Moffett and Terry Fenton were keen on Torres too. Because of the testimony of these eyes, and Clem's, I looked carefully, but while I could appreciate the work it never turned me on.

57.

John

September 2, 2008, 11:26 AM

(#53; and others): Greenberg was not "spot on" every time. Nor was he the cause of abex's success. As much as I admire him, I never forget these two facts.

Thus, his pick of Torres is not "inexplicable"; it was just a case of his not demanding enough from what he was looking at, or something of that sort. If you dig through Clem's writing, especially the three-reviews-a-week part of it, you can find lots more.

Basically it comes down to what a great person accomplishes is more important than their mistakes.

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