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Essentially itself

Post #1365 • June 15, 2009, 9:27 AM • 32 Comments

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction:

A few years ago, or so I've been told, a group of sound technicians conducted an experiment to discover whether they could heighten the "presence" of recorded music by multiplying tracks and speakers. The result was quadraphonic sound, but on the way to that result a strange thing occurred. A group of composers, musical performers, and critics were assembled to listen to music designed for four speakers, then eight speakers, then more. When listening to music on eight speakers, some of the musicians noted that what they were getting was not more accurate representation of music as we hear it in a hall but something quite new and different: One began to be able to locate the sounds in space. The clarinet seemed to occupy a particular point or area in the room, the trumpet another area, the piano another"not areas correspondent to the seating of the group recorded but areas related as the head, arms, and legs of a sculpture might be related. The music, in short, had become visual, something new under the sun. Writing music for eight speakers, a composer might theoretically shape music—physically shape it—as no one had ever done before. Whether or not any composer has explored that possibility I do not know, but the story, if it is true, illustrates a fact well known among artists, that art does not imitate reality (hold the mirror up to nature) but creates a new reality. This reality may be apposite to the reality we walk through every day—streets and houses, mailmen, trees—and may trigger thoughts and feelings in the same way a newly discovered thing of nature might do—a captured Big Foot or Loch Ness monster—but it is essentially itself, not the mirror reflection of something familiar.

The increasingly sharp recognition that art works in this way has generated the popularity, in recent years, of formalist art—art for art's sake—and metafiction, of which we spoke earlier. The general principle of the former has been familiar for centuries. The first modern thinker to define the mode clearly may have been Robert Louis Stevenson in his preface to the Chesterfield edition of the translated Works of Victor Hugo. There Stevenson pointed out that all art exists on a continuum between poles he calls "objective" and "subjective." At one extreme, the objective, we have novels like those of Hugo, wherein we feel as we read that we are among the French mobs, surrounded by noise and smoke, transported from the room in which we read to Hugo's imaginary Paris. At the other extreme, the subjective, we have Fielding's Tom Jones, wherein we are never allowed to imagine for long that the hero is a "real" young man. As soon as we begin to incline to that persuasion, Fielding introduces a Homeric simile, or an interchapter, or something from the tradition of puppeteering, forcing us once more to recognize the novel as an object, not "real life." By way of illustration from the visual arts, Stevenson compares the effect of early- and middle-period Turner, when Turner landscapes were like vivid scenes seen through a window, and, on the other hand, the work of some unnamed French painter (one suspects that Stevenson may have made him up) who pasted real sand on his beachscape in order that no one should mistake what he's looking at for a real beach on which a family might arrive to spread its picnic.

H.D. Raymond, commenting on the super-realist visual artists, offers a modern version of the old scientific ideal. "In omitting ideology, sublimity, and morality from their vision they are sworn to a phenomenologist credo. They stare unblinkingly at what is 'really' out there, ignoring the mental constructs through which they are peering."

One objection to the credo is old and obvious: We simply do not believe that reality is what these writers (and painters) maintain it to be. The realism is not "lifelike" because it seems to us dead. We may even suspect in the writer's suppression of emotion a certain unwitting dishonesty. Certainly no one who looks at the paintings of Philip Pearlstein, with their strong frontal lighting and accurate but slightly cartoonish emphasis of features—"stupid paintings," he calls them—can deny a faint suspicion that Pearlstein feels an unacknowledged contempt for the human form, even when the paintings are of his daughters.

Comment

1.

opie

June 15, 2009, 9:13 AM

" art does not imitate reality...but creates a new reality "

Of course. That's why art has nothing to do with truth. Truth conforms to reality; art creates reality.

But the urge to conflate is always there, as witness the end remarks about Pearlstein.

2.

MC

June 15, 2009, 9:35 AM

But, art has something to do with 'good', and 'good' is related to 'true'...

I think you're overstating, Opie.

3.

John

June 15, 2009, 10:28 AM

So MC, what do you say about Delacroix's pictures that celebrate the rape and murder of women? Does their goodness spring forth from the "truth" that makes these acts worth celebrating?

(I think we enter the Swamp of No Return when we conflate goodness with truth, or vice versa, in art.)

4.

Tim

June 15, 2009, 10:45 AM

Artists are revealers, not creators. People can reflect upon the creation of which we are a part, then transpose those reflections into some form or other. Result: art, the primary source humans have for insights into the nature of being.

John, of Delacroix' dealing with the rape and murder of women, where did he celebrate that? Did Goya celebrate it too then? Or Poussin? Or Tintoretto? Maybe I'm missing the point.

5.

1

June 15, 2009, 11:04 AM

multiple speakers in a system would be to create a new reality or surround sound. not an accurate representation of the actual performance.

but any "serious" audio system trying to recreate an actual live performance uses only two main speakers(with one or multiple drivers) with the exception of subwoofers (low end is much less directional). a great system set up well will create a "soundstage" that places each performer in his or her original position. the height, depth and physical weight can be recreated.

still the recording and mic set-up could alter what may be the best solution to reproduce the required or actual performance.

6.

Tim

June 15, 2009, 11:13 AM

In my experience, the best recordings don't try represent sounds made by someone else. The aim of their makers is to present sounds designed to employ the terms of the recording system to best effect. Like a great landscape painting is not a representation of a motif an artist found in nature as much as a presentation of art elements arranged to give perhaps an equivalent of that motif, but in the terms of the medium of paint.

7.

MC

June 15, 2009, 11:14 AM

The true and the good are conducive to life; their opposites are not.Because of this, we evolved a lust for both.
Art is like a life-form, of a sort.

8.

MC

June 15, 2009, 11:15 AM

... much of it stillborn.

9.

MC

June 15, 2009, 11:23 AM

Speaking of stillborn, here's
the front page of the local paper
.

I even recognize one of the (blameless) 'obstetricians'...

10.

John

June 15, 2009, 11:23 AM

Here is one by Delacroix that combines murder and lust: DEATH OF SARDANAPALUS. It is considered to be a romantic celebration of a king having his servants, concubines, and animals killed. Many other artists have celebrated these acts, especially when the insulating cocoon of a myth was wrapped around them.

Then there is THE RAPE OF THE SABINE WOMEN which is specifically about their initial kidnap with implications that rape would likely follow.

Goya was much more "morally correct" than Delacroix, coming down on the side that murder is evil.

The point is that artists who are roughly equal take opposing moral stances on specific moral issues. Where is the "insight" in that? In the Swamp of No Return, I think.

11.

John

June 15, 2009, 11:27 AM

Tim, I could not agree more with your #6.

12.

Tim

June 15, 2009, 12:24 PM

John, I initially saw Delacroix' 'Sardanapalus' as the Romantic version of a 60s vintage ghetto Cadillac, you know, when in doubt, throw in everything, mud flaps, whip antennas... But I was younger then. Seriously, I never saw or read of 'Sardanapalus' as a celebration of anything except perhaps excess and tumult, right up Delacroix' alley. In all of my reading of Delacroix, his journal, etc., I never came across any sentiment disposed favorably toward rape or murder.

The difference in the 'May 3, 1808' or 'Disasters of War" and 'Sardanapalus' is intention. Delacroix was indulging exotica, and Goya was making a pointed moral statement. Delacroix was, as much as anything, about the paint, it seems to me. His themes were ones which invited all of that energetic brushing and what, in another style, would've seemed overwrought expression.

Would Poussin's 'Rape of the Sabines' be thought of as a celebration?

13.

opie

June 15, 2009, 1:49 PM

"Truth" is a value-laden term through usge, MC, but it is not intrinsically valuative. When you put it on a pedestal as "The True" it is all the more value-laden. One can make a philosophical argument that truth is good, but the point is you have to do that to establish it. In other words, logically there can be such a thing as "bad truth".

Furthermore, truth is confined to verbal expression and determination. When elevated from that function to represent some Platonic ideal, like "The True", it becomes something else altogether.

When "art" and "true" and "good" are associated it is always obfuscatory - that great blind alley in the sky.

14.

John

June 15, 2009, 4:25 PM

Tim asks "Would Poussin's 'Rape of the Sabines' be thought of as a celebration?"

I'd say it doesn't look very sympathetic towards the females in the picture.

You also say "Delacroix was, as much as anything, about the paint" and I totally agree. However, the look of celebration is there, whether it is celebration of paint or of the depicted events, and hence those who want to find moral truth and goodness have some visual facts to get upset about. What his documented beliefs are don't change the visuals. Ask any feminist. I really should not say that, though I did. Maybe ask any close minded feminist would be a better way to put it.

Where I used to teach there was a class taught called THE BODY AND ART and it focused only on 1/2 of the human race's bodies, and any male in the class was automatically suspect, and immediately convicted if he didn't agree totally with the party line espoused by the teacher. In at least once case a grade was lowered to a C over having the "wrong" convictions on the part of the student, who painted pictures of women undressing in his studio classes. This was not a studio course, though students were required to draw for it, and draw according to the acceptable canon that female images were misused by male artists throughout the history of art.

Well, I'm going on and on here only to illustrate a little of the lay of the land once you enter this swamp.

15.

Tim

June 15, 2009, 5:08 PM

Close minded feminists' responses are predictable, aren't they? Why would we ask them about anything. Not to pre-invalidate their answers. It's just that we already know their answers.

John, it's interesting: Not disputing you, but I really don't get celebration out of Delacroix' 'Sardanapalus.' Perhaps a celebration of goulishness. It's mainly an illustration of the story of a ruler who is destroying everything he owns, including the women, before destroying himself. History painting. Critically it's not thought of as one of Delacroix' high points. It was done as a machine for a salon. I can almost liken it to 'Les Demoiselles de Avignon.' Does Picasso really let on about how he feels about those women? I bet feminists have taken on that painting and the violence in it with relish, entirely missing the point in the process because of taking the painting out of context.

I see 'Sardanapalus' as a brilliant failure. But, for me it has provided some of the insights I found in abundance as I studied Delacroix' lifting color and drawing out of a moribund tradition and making his refreshing of color and drawing a key part of the foundation for just about everything to come.

16.

MC

June 15, 2009, 10:05 PM

" art does not imitate reality...but creates a new reality "

In order for something to be a "reality", it has to not be a "falsity". Bad art is inauthentic: not 'the genuine article'.

This all seem plainly to be about goodness and truth, simultaneously.

17.

opie

June 15, 2009, 11:17 PM

You are scrambl.ing words, MC.

A "falsity" is, in fact a reality. False things are real. The opposite of "false" is "true", not "real".

Bad art is simply not good art. Truth has nothing to do with it.

Come to Miami and thaw out on the beach.

18.

MC

June 16, 2009, 9:48 AM

Don't stay in the sun too long, Opie.

19.

MC

June 16, 2009, 9:57 AM

"When "art" and "true" and "good" are associated it is always obfuscatory"

We associate "art" and "good" often around here, and some might find that obfuscatory, but I don't let that bother me much.

Associating "good" with "true" is not just easy: it's necessary.

The "good" is that which we value. We may not value all particular truths, but humans nevertheless value truth.

I suppose we're really just arguing at cross purposes, judging by John's references to Delacroix, etc...

In order to be "good", an artwork must register correctly with out perception and intuition... it must check off those mental boxes to say that the "good" features are "truly" there.

It's probably not worth going over and over this, though... if we disagree, so be it.

20.

MC

June 16, 2009, 9:58 AM

"... with OUR perception...", I mean...

21.

opie

June 16, 2009, 1:04 PM

I'm not trying to disagree with you; I am trying to clarify something as a matter of interest to the blog. To sensibly talk about what art is and does we have to understand our terminology.

Yes, we do associate "good" with "true". That was part of the point I made. It is an association. We associate "good" with many things: Justice, honor, fairness, friendship and so on. This does not mean they are coterminous.

A work of art is said to be "good" (that's the word we use to indicate value) but art really can't be "true" except tangentially, in a literal sense, as the point in a political cartoon might be "true". Truth is conformity to reality expressed verbally. Goodness (in art) is the estimation of the value of an effect. It's apples and oranges.

I know it's splitting hairs, but I find it interesting to discuss these things. If others don't, that's OK.

22.

Frank

June 16, 2009, 2:18 PM

Taking a long look at Pearlstein's work I cannot help but think of Charles Pfahl, a realistic painter himself. I saw his latest show at 101/exhibit and though fierce and sinister, I simply could not let go of his savage imagery; an intelectual scenario where sexuality grows teeth and gender could be as relative as beauty. And so it is I agree with Opie. Pfahl has created a whole new reality. Take a look at Archetype, one of his most commented -if not celebrated- pieces. As disturbing as the first glimpse may seem, it only takes a few more seconds to figure out all major human fears are there for the eye to feast upon and the mind to attain.

23.

opie

June 16, 2009, 3:15 PM

Frank: this looks like a plug for Pfahl's work, which sounds pretty grim. The "agreement" part escapes me.

24.

ahab

June 16, 2009, 10:59 PM

The latter excerpt from Gardner relates directly, no, exactly to the Ron Mueck sculpture I handled the other day - thanks to tight webmeasures at the local newspaper M.C.'s link in #9 now goes almost nowhere, so here's the fix. You can't see that I'm wearing my COMMON SENSE t-shirt.

If: "Truth conforms to reality; art creates reality" (as in #1). Then: Truth conforms to art's creation?

What's true for a person conforms to that person's perception of reality, whether said perception is acute or grainy, whether said reality is good or bad.

From observing my own observations (fallible though the exercise is) I recognize a helical pattern in how we see what we are looking at, how we judge what we are seeing, how our judgments modulate how we look at things. When these whole-me processes are allowed to occur in their natural order (uninterrupted by shallow or fashionable aspirations, e.g.) I gain in discernment.

25.

opie

June 17, 2009, 6:25 AM

Ahab, are you asking if truth conforms to art's creation? If so, could you explain what that means?

I am missing the point.

26.

ahab

June 17, 2009, 12:05 PM

The initial formulation was yours, from comment one, opie: "Truth conforms to reality; art creates reality." I tried pointing out that the two phrases don't really add up.

27.

Tim

June 17, 2009, 12:14 PM

Try this, Ahab and Opie: Truth conforms to actuality; art makes realities.

28.

opie

June 17, 2009, 1:15 PM

The phrases are not meant to "add up; they are meant to be concise statements embodying my position that truth is a verbal expression about actual circumstances and art is a physical thing meant to be experienced. Truth is "about" something; art "is" something.

I derived the comparison because there is confusion about the relationship between these things, which has been amply demonstrated here.

Tim said it in another way; maybe that will help.

29.

ahab

June 17, 2009, 8:21 PM

I'm relaxed about all this, because rest assured I consider myself one of the dimmer bulbs on this particlar tree.

Yes, I understood the expressed distinction between truth being verbal and art experiential, and I'm sure that, as such, it is, well, true. But it still strikes me as odd that the formulation in #1 sets up a hierarchical relationship between truth and art, with art at the head. This is what prompted the 'if, then' comment, which ended with that sometime confusion indicator, a question mark.

So, art creates a reality that truth conforms to. The experience of art is necessarily an aesthetical reaction, secondary expression of the experience is a truth response. What is the human faculty that acknowledges and expresses truth(s)? And can truth then not be experienced?

30.

Tim

June 17, 2009, 8:52 PM

Ahab, it has been noted that truth has nothing to do with art. Truth conforms to actuality. A work of art is a reality unto itself. I didn't understand Opie's formula as hierarchical, and it seems that he tried to clarify his thought accordingly.

Where is the truth in the secondary expression in your scenario? And, by truth being experienced, do you mean like a eurica moment?

31.

Tim

June 17, 2009, 8:55 PM

I meant Eureka moment.

32.

opie

June 17, 2009, 10:42 PM

You are making it too complicated, Ahab. There is no hierarchy here, not at all. The exercise of truth and art in life is very complex indeed and gets all mixed up but what they each actually are is fairly straightforward. You experience art, and you tell the truth (or not, in either case).

The function of truth is not to affect you but to tell you something about reality, which may or may not subsequently have an effect on you.

The function of art, as art, is to have an effect, period. If you see a Rembrandt you may get a thrill from it. It will not, it cannot, impart truth. That's not what it is for.

If you then tell someone you got a thrill from it you are telling the truth. These are separate operations.

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