Figure the Future

Figure the Future
By Michael Newberry
Presented by The Atlas Society, 2008

Michael Newberry reflects on how the nude supports the best within us and shows that it has been present at the conception and implementation: of democracy; of systematic philosophy; and of art history.

0:17 Introduction by Robert Bidinotto

2:33 The Nude as the Personification of the Individual
The Status of Clothed Figures
Ramasus, Queen Elizabeth 1, Ingres, Millet, Whistler, Wyeth, Pearlstein, and Richter.

15:12 Individuality Expressed Through the Nude
Courbet, Durer, Bellini, Boucher, Manet, and Renoir.

23:26 The Best Within
First Artists to Sign Works
Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Humans as godlike.

27:39 Nude as Inspiration
Michelangelo, Galileo, Joseph Dauben, Capuletti.

30:05 The Nude Adjacent to Moving Humanity Forward: Interesting Cultural Developments — Bridging Ancient Greece to the Renaissance – Orbit of Individuals
Solon, Democracy, Aristophanes, Botticelli, Translation of Aristotle, Vasari (First Art Historian), Madame de Pompadour, Diderot, Manet’s Olympia, Hugo, Bizet, Copley, American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren, Rossetti, Eakins, Walt Whitman, Emerson.

42:53 An Aside: Turning Leaves of Grass to Trash to Postmodern Art

44:18 Nazis and the Heroic Nude

45:43 Cultural Conflict — Sabotaging the State
The Last Judgment, Heroic Nudes Create Conflict with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Religions.

47:50 Where We Are Today
Lucian Freud, Schipperheyn, Collins, and Feldman.

51:19 Q & A
Roman Copies, Nudes Convey Individuality of Traits, Erotic Elements, Postmodernists are Grumpy People, Heroic Nude Helped to Defeat the Nazis? Humanism vs Christianity reflected in Renaissance Art, Courageous Figurative Artists, Nudes as Dangerous to Status Quo Cultures, Obscenity, Michelangelo’s Popular Appeal, Propaganda, and Appropriation of Great Art.

Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. In the Fall of 2017, he has a solo show at the White Cloud Gallery in Washington D.C. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.

Innovation in Art by Michael Newberry

On October 6th, 2003 The Foundation for the Advancement of Art presented this conference at New York’s Pierre Hotel. Stephen Hicks gives the introduction to the conference and to Michael Newberry’s talk, Innovation in Art. Part 1

0:09 Stephen Hicks Introduction
3:03 Michael Newberry Innovations in Art
4:11 Zuburan, Mondrian, John Moore
6:05 Color and Light Theory, Vermeer, Monet, Rothko, Rutkowski
7:59 Illustration of Ideas, Bosch, Magritte, Larsen
10:48 Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Newberry
12:54 Form, Henry Moore, David Smith, Martine Vaugel
14:17 Sublime, Egyptian, Michelangelo, Stuart Mark Feldman

Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. In the Fall of 2017, he has a solo show at the White Cloud Gallery in Washington D.C. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.

Drawing the Line between Pornography and Art

Porn and art generate two classic human responses: “Art is in the eye of the beholder” and “I know porn when I see it.”

Sometimes these responses overlap such as in reaction to erotic Egyptian drawings, Ancient Greek wine vases, 19th century etchings and literature, and in 20th century erotic photos, movies, and adult cartoons. In these cases, we observe art with erotic touches or eroticism with artistic touches. What is the difference between them? And can we find the spot that divides them?

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Erotic and Satirical Papyrus. Papyrus, Der el-Medina, New Kingdom,
Dynasty XX (1186 – 1070 BCE). Turin Museum

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Erotic scene on the rim of an Attic red-figure kylix, c. 510 BC.

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Alfred Beardsley

Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand is passionately adamant about where her boundaries are: “I want to state, for the record, my own view of what is called “’hard-core’” pornography. I regard it as unspeakably disgusting. I have not read any of the books or seen any of the current movies belonging to that category, and I do not intend ever to read or see them.”

John Stagliano, a porn producer and an Objectivist, said,: “My argument that pornography is art hinges on the value I put on sexual arousal. I submit that is as valid an emotional response as fear, hate, joy, or any other emotion. Those that don’t think pornography is art perhaps don’t value the sexual response and therefore dismiss porn as art. Still, if their response to it was immediate revulsion than that in itself proves that it is art.”

Rand saw explicit sex in movies and writing as porn. Stagliano implies that if it conveys emotion, it is art.These perspectives raise some questions: Is there a difference between sex in a book and a movie? What about non-art situations that raise heated emotions such as football games, and traffic jams?

In ancient Greek theater sex and murder took place off stage behind the skene, yet, in Greek comedies, male characters paraded exaggerated fake genitalia. Contemporary films portray murder, medical operations, and romance but none of these things happens for real; they are make-believe.

I casually discussed the question of art versus porn with two contemporary philosophers, David Kelley, Founder and Chief Intellectual Officer of TAS, and Stephen Hicks,  philosopher at Rockford University. Kelley commented, “Art and pornography raise thorny questions of definition — and even thornier questions of application, a real briar patch.”

Hicks added: “Art and porn are often put in different categories. But my view is that porn can be art — though in the range of kitsch, slapstick, or doggerel. That is, it’s of a kind with portrayals that take important human values but present them in crude, reductionist, or only semi-authentic ways. The issue is not ‘that’ sex is presented but ‘how’ it is.”

Georgina Leahy, singer, performer, model, and social media diva, who recently posed for two of my paintings in the Lovers Series, Arabesque, told me: “I never thought about it, art is art, porn is porn. I would never do porn, but I am always pushing the boundaries as an art muse.”

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Newberry, Arabesque – Heterosexual Couple with Georgie Leahy and Jase Grimm, oil on linen, 48 x 72 inches

So where is the boundary? The re-creation of sex in art requires the viewer to consciously or subjectively decide whether it is in good or bad taste, which also holds true for how we judge art in general. Giving us a clue, Rand defines art as a re-creation of reality, not as a literal transcription of it. It seems to me that the documentation of sex with real people through photos, movies, and on stage is the edge of the issue. Where would you draw the line?

Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence at The Atlas Society. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, and Rome. Follow him on Instagram at @artnewberry.

Originally published with The Atlas Society.

Art and Judgment

Over three decades ago, in 1982, I booked a private telephone consultation with an Objectivist philosopher (associated now with the Ayn Rand Institute) on reading The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand’s classic non-fiction work on aesthetics.

At 24, I was both an artist and an Objectivist.  A fine art major; I had taken several art history classes including contemporary art theory. At the time, I had just completed the painting Promethia, and even though it was a thematic work, I didn’t understand how one objectively identifies a theme of an artwork. With that in mind, I was excited to be mentored by an Objectivist philosopher.

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In our consultation, he pointed to Willem Kalf’s still life painting in the classic art history book, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

“How do I discover the theme?” I asked, genuinely.

“The theme of this painting is malevolent because of the dark background!” was the swift and vociferous response.

This was “obvious” — i.e. self-evident — he said.  No further reasoning or discussion was necessary.

I ended the session and never consulted him again.

Alas, I had yet to learn how themes work in painting. So I returned to what Ayn Rand herself had written.

In the Romantic Manifesto she writes:

“Now a word of warning about the criteria of esthetic judgment. A sense of life is          the source of art, but it is not the sole qualification of an artist or of an esthetician,             and it is not a criterion of esthetic judgment. Emotions are not tools of cognition … In essence, an objective evaluation   requires that one identify the artist’s theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing no other, outside considerations), then evaluate the means by which he conveys it—i.e., taking his theme as criterion, evaluate the purely esthetic elements of the work, the technical mastery (or lack of it) with which he projects (or fails to project) his view of life.”

—Ayn Rand, Romantic Manifesto, Chapter 3: Art and Sense of Life

To discover the theme of a painting, you have to observe almost everything about it, catalog it, and find the common denominator among those things that unites them. Then when you know what the painting is about you have to persuade the viewers and yourself that indeed that is the theme of the painting. Also, it takes the observer some knowledge in art technique to note the successful execution of the theme.

In Kalf’s painting, we have exquisitely painted glasses with beautifully crafted metal stems. Ornate silverware. A luxurious table carpet, which is typical in Holland, even in today’s pubs. And a small pumpkin and a beautifully cut lemon. The background is dark which offsets the light on the pumpkin and the lemon, emphasizing their lightness and color.

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Notice the ellipse on the top of the glass: It is delicate and superbly done! Notice the form of the carpet and how it pivots towards us giving us a sense of spatial contrast between the foreground and background. We can tell from the light and the shadows that the light source is coming from behind and above our left shoulder. Notice the shadows and the bright illumination of the lemon.

The subject of the painting is some of the finer things in life: good drink, fine craftsmanship, and fresh produce. The tantalizing lemon and the silverware suggest that there might be fish roasting. The means of conveying the subject are spot on in perspective, precision, clarity, and a very dramatic use of light and dark. Imagine a banker, merchant, or a professor (has to be a person of some means to afford the finery): After working a day of solving problems elegantly they come home and are met by the rewards for their efforts. I would say the theme of this painting is “rewards,” and I would title it as such.

While I was painting Promethia, the work above, prior to my consultation with the Objectivist philosopher, I was certain about the feeling and the vision driving it. Putting it into words the famous quote by Nietzsche serves best: “The noble soul has reverence for itself.”  Conveyed through my ideal pairing of figurative sculpture, modern architecture, and nature.

Themes in painting are not absolutes and they have to be tried on and confirmed by what the paintings show us. There is no room for knee-jerk dogmatic judgments; understanding comes one step at a time through each individual’s lens.

Michael Newberry

Originally published with The Atlas Society

Energizing the Eye: Abiodun Olaku

“In the broad valley, far below him, in the first sunlight of early morning, he saw a town. Only it was not a town. Towns did not look like that. He had to suspend the possible for a while longer, to seek no questions or explanations, only to look.”

The above was Ayn Rand’s description of Howard Roark’s Monadnock Valley development in The Fountainhead. Rand is revered — and reviled — as a philosopher and novelist, but to me she was also an artist. She defined art as a recreation of reality according to an artist’s values, and in her work, she recreated an inspirational world of heroes, light, and flourishing.

labour

That is why The Atlas Society chose art as an arena for intellectual and spiritual engagement with Ayn Rand’s ideas.  The 25-year-old philosophical organization capped 2016 with winners of first annual Atlas Art Contest. Over 400 entries were narrowed down to 21 artists by a panel of four judges: Sabin Howard, sculptor; Judd Weiss, photographer; Agnieszka Pilat, painter: and myself. The public was then invited to vote, further spreading the engagement with the outstanding work of our finalists.

The winners were, from first to third place, Abiodun Olaku, Eric Armusik, and Danielle Dalechek. Given Ayn Rand’s aesthetics, it is rather fitting that Olaku won first prize with his clean style, perspective, and nuanced light. Olaku is a Christian Nigerian, and he paints townscapes lit by twilight’s glow and dotted with the sparkle of electric lights and roasting fires — honoring both nature’s magnificence and humanity’s place in it. His winning work, Silhouettes of Labour, fit nicely the contest’s theme of entrepreneurial pursuits., fit nicely the contest’s theme of entrepreneurial pursuits.

Abiodun-Olaku

Before the Atlas Art Contest Olaku was unfamiliar with Ayn Rand, but during the contest; the did some research on her and concluded: “I could sum up her thoughts as the recognition and glorification of human endeavor, enterprise, and due reward.”

Like most artists, financial obstacles are the biggest roadblock to painting full-time. Olaku feels that his drive to perfect his unique style, which consequently brought him collectors, and his belief in God helped him practically and emotionally.

“An obstacle I overcame was the challenge of earning my livelihood, solely, on the income generated from my art. Eventually, though, I mastered the art of staying steady and balanced on the raging and wildly-bucking bull of survival. I discovered early that my art was my bargaining power. So, I pursued a uniqueness of it.”

Like many Ayn Rand fans, Olaku balances his reason with spiritual beliefs: The infinite grace of God had always been my Divine Intercessor at crucial junctures and critical times in my earthly sojourn. This emboldened me in no small measure career-wise, and also propelled me forward with renewed courage, instead of hesitation, apprehension or debilitating fear.”

Though Romanticism, notable for its dramatically driven themes of human character, is important in Rand’s thought, she has high regard for the importance of light in painting.

Indeed, it was for this reason she considered Johannes Vermeer “the greatest of all artists.”  She wrote: “Vermeer devoted his paintings to a single theme: light itself.

The guiding principle of his compositions is: the contextual nature of our perception of light (and of color). The physical objects in a Vermeer canvas are chosen and placed in such a way that their combined interrelationships feature, lead to and make possible the painting’s brightest patches of light, sometimes blindingly bright, in a manner which no one has been able to render before or since.”

This description works equally well for Olaku. Each patch of light is slightly different in tone and hue, creating a hierarchy of lights. Vision scientists Jan Koenderink and Andrea Van Doorn told me one night in a Scottish pub in Glasgow that the eye constantly compares and contrasts tones, bouncing from spot to spot. If tones and hues are identical then the eye becomes bored. Conversely, if there are subtle differences then the eye feels energized.

Olaku,24-7

Olaku’s sensitivity to light manifests in how deeply his landscapes recede — not only are the lights themselves different, they are placed in depth. Though light is the outstanding feature in Olaku’s paintings, he is also a master of perspective and the reflective nature of water.

What Ayn Rand says about Vermeer is very much how I feel about Olaku: “What his style projects is a concretized image of an immense, nonvisual abstraction: the psycho-epistemology of a rational mind. It projects clarity, discipline, confidence, purpose, power — a universe open to man.”

Originally published with The Atlas Society.

You can follow Abiodun Olaku on Facebook, he welcomes queries about his art.

For over four decades Michael Newberry has been pioneering figurative art with his unpredictable brand of beauty. www.michaelnewberry.com

“24/7, Lagos”, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2016

“Silhouettes of Labour”, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

Innovation, Substance, Vision – The Future of Art Conference in Art in NY, 2003

On October 6th, 2003, The Foundation for the Advancement of Art presented Innovation, Substance, Vision–The Future of Art at The Pierre Hotel in New York City. With a panel of philosophers, artists, and scientists, the conference addressed the importance and future of art.

The international audience included major figures from the worlds of art and commerce including Stephen Farthing from the New York Academy of Art, Jennifer Thompson from MASS MoCA, and Lee Minaidis from the Organization of the World Heritage Cities.

Also in the audience were Louis Torres, co-author of What Art Is,  Marsha Enright, founder of the College of the United States, and Lindsay Perigo, the founding member of New Zealand’s Libertarianz party.
List of Lectures and Speakers:

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Michael Newberry addresses the international audience at New York’s Pierre Hotel.

Innovation in Art by Michael Newberry, artist and Director of the Foundation.

Michael Newberry: Director of the Foundation, a leading critic and an artist who expresses the human ideal through unique light and color schemes.

“Innovation is the key to positive change. Innovation is the bridge between an artists’ knowledge of earlier discoveries and the zenith of their imaginations.”

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Stephen Hicks     From Modern to Postmodern Art by Dr. Stephen Hicks, philosopher.

Dr. Stephen Hicks: Leading philosopher with wide-ranging insights from Postmodernism and Intellectual History. Dr. Hicks outlined the spiraling descent of postmodern art and argued that we must “look at the world afresh.”

“By the turn of the twentieth century, the nineteenth-century intellectual world’s sense of disquiet had become a full-blown anxiety. The artists responded, exploring in their works the implications of a world in which reason, order, certainty, dignity, beauty, and optimism seemed to have disappeared.”

“The world of postmodern art is a run-down hall of mirrors reflecting tiredly some innovations introduced a century ago. It is time to move on.”

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Jan Koenderink     Science and Art in the 21st Century by Dr. Jan Koenderink, vision scientist.

Dr. Jan Koenderink: One of the most influential scholars working in the field of human vision. Dr. Koenderink voiced his challenge to the future for integrating art and science and the importance of examining human perception:

“Since World War I science and art, indeed society as a whole, have gone through dramatic metamorphoses, leading to a loosening of bonds with the past and a loss of identity.”

“Popular science “purports to deal with cosmology, the subatomic realm, quantum theory, brain scanning… [these] topics are so remote as to be effectively irrelevant to any phenomena of daily life. A sane person would conclude that the sciences have nothing to say on what is important in a person’s life. If the art of our times reflects [this]…then it should be fully remote from your daily life’s visions. A blank canvas, a random pattern, or a nonsensical representation, would be totally appropriate…Such a perspective is manifestly wrong.”

“In contrast to the above there are the novel sciences which take a “holistic and non-nominalistic approach”, and “focus[es] on the phenomena at the human level. One consequence of this is a renewed interest in visualization and in artistic production, primarily towards representational art.”

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Martine Vaugel     Survivor, Worshiper, Fool by Martine Vaugel, sculptor.

Martine Vaugel: “Passionist” sculptor who has pushed the boundaries of expression in figurative sculpture for decades through her innovative methodologies.

“I believe in leaving my work for future generations to understand what it was to be a woman born in 1950, a woman of the twentieth century. And, that is what I will leave to the future, and that is whom I work for.”

“It is the truth of the art of the past added to our personal innovation and perspective that creates the art of the future.”

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David Kelley     Art and Ideals by Dr. David Kelley, philosopher.

Dr. David Kelley: Writer and intellectual on philosophical issues from human perception and reason to the furthest applications of ethics and politics.

“…the enormous hunger for the experience of ideals has had to be satisfied with popular film, music, and fiction, with their simple and often sentimental templates of courage in battle and love everlasting…Our ideals need and deserve the skill of fine artists. We need the excitement of artistic innovation, the experience of ideals rendered powerfully and insightfully.”

”Cynics may scoff at those who speak of ideals, but I think it is the cynic who is naïve…Life is a constant pursuit of goals, a constant striving for what we conceive as good for us…any such judgment implies a standard of comparison, a benchmark representing the best that is possible.”

“I am not saying that the representation of ideals is the only function of art. But I believe it is a vital function—and one that has been neglected in the past century.”

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The speakers fielding questions during the Question and Answer session.

 

A New Medium for Postmodern Expression

A New Medium for Postmodern Expression by Michael Newberry

One of Postmodern Art’s important contributions to art history is cheek. But, far from being simple, there are several requirements that need to be met for a successful postmodern work.

The recent Marco Evaristti exhibition of canned meatballs cooked in his fat inspired me for a moment to see what idea I would come up with if I were a postmodernist. It would have to be a new medium of artistic expression and, at the same time, solve several PM requirements. The thing would have to be temporal; use the body of the artist in some fashion; reference an aspect of mass production; be an unorthodox medium; and use the natural force of one’s spontaneous genius (Kant).

As you might imagine, solving these demands is no easy feat.

Evaristti, Polpette al grasso di Marco.
Evaristti, Polpette al grasso di Marco. Marco Evaristti recently exhibited canned meatballs cooked in his liposuction fat.

Think about the variety of unorthodox mediums PM artists have used: straw (Kiefer); human excrement (Manzoni); elephant excrement (Ofili); urine (Serrano); blood (Quinn); islands, buildings, trees, etc. (Christo); rocks (Smithson); earth (Turrell); toenail clippings (Jones); sperm (Meste); Vaseline (Barney); mayonnaise, hot dogs, ketchup (McCarthy); and, of course, human fat (Evaristti, above).

My thoughts are going along the lines that it is absolutely imperative that a postmodernist use a medium that is unique to art, yet, is common to the human experience. The result should be temporal. Here today, gone tomorrow kind of stuff. Piffft, piffft. Something that bypasses argument and is distasteful–important PM qualities. That’s it! Flatulence. Canned flatulence. Yes. Flatulence d’ Artista. No, wait, don’t go off dismissing my idea too quickly. I think this has merits.

Newberry, 2007, Flatulence d' Artista, canned flatulence, 8x2 1/2x2 1/2"
Newberry, 2007, Flatulence d’ Artista, canned flatulence, 8×2 1/2×2 1/2″ $ priceless

Think about it:

1) It’s temporal, it instantly dissipates, there is no waiting around for weeks on end for a Christo project to come down or for Merde d’ Artista to decompose.

2) It uses the body as a stool … I mean a tool of artistic expression.

3) It’s a unique medium, and so minimalist that it’s totally transparent. There is no painting white on white. In fact, way beyond that it is almost nothing. Yet it leaves an unmistakable suggestion of our experiencing it, experiencing something subliminal, and, depending on the taste and the good sense of the audience, something sublime.

4) It’s mass produced, or at least it has the reference of being mass produced. And it is something that every human has experienced and produced, yet they have never thought of as art, until now.

5) It’s a natural force of one’s expressive genius. No explanation needed. After all, Kant has said that: “[Genius] cannot indicate scientifically how it brings about its product, but rather gives the rule as nature.” Genius in art is an explosive force with no thought about its coming about.

6) And this artwork is interactive. Say some boorish acquaintance comes along and fills your space with thoughts that smell suspiciously of romanticism. You get out your can of Flatulence d’ Artista, piffft, piffft. This lets him know exactly the position you take on that! Piffft, piffft, pifffffft.

So when it comes to Postmodern Art, be clever and use a little cheek.

Michael Newberry
New York, June 2007

Note: Sometimes it is helpful for an artist to contemplate the absurd. Michelangelo once wrote a viciously satirical reply to the Pope’s request for gigantic marble sculpture in which several massive blocks would be needed. Michelangelo outlined that if the subject were a smoking man, he could hollow out a smoke shop at the base, ground floor, charge rent, and even create a funnel and chimney, in which smoke could escape through the marble pipe. The concept of using marble as building blocks was the antithesis of Michelangelo’s prime concept that the figure is inside the block of marble waiting for the artist to release him/her.

Michelangelo wasn’t simply ranting, he was examining the aesthetic issues of the concept of using blocks to create a sculpture, and the absurd directions that it could lead.

Likewise, with my satire above, I am seriously looking at possible PM pathways, and drawing the conclusion that postmodernism is a crippling aesthetic.

MN

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art by Michael Newberry

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1923, Grey Line with Black, Blue, and Yellow

Representational painting, such as landscapes, people, and furniture, is normally viewed at face value. A flower is just a flower; a chair a chair. But the manner in which an artist uses shapes can convey more than the literal content of the painting.

Once you grasp how an artist plays with shapes to convey another layer of meaning it can open up a universe of deeper insight and, sometimes, powerfully erotic subtexts. You may never see art again in the same way.

When thinking about erotic symbolism in art Georgia O’Keeffe springs to mind. The painting to the right is a detail of a flower, but it is also an excellent visual symbol of an open and flushed vulva.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
At first glance you see a flower and, on reflection, you might grasp features of female anatomical details such as the clitoral hood, the clitoris, the labia majora, and the labia minora.

O’Keeffe is making an interesting statement in associating the vagina with a flower. The vagina is to humanity what a flower is to nature: it is life-giving, beautiful, and fragile, yet resilient.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1924, Light Iris
Continuing with another O’Keeffe painting, notice that there are no sharp vertical lines here. Rather, there are organic, fluid shapes and outlines. These shapes are easy metaphors for the soft lips of the labia and the yellow bud serves for the small erectile body of the clitoris.

There is a strong sense that we are entering into the flower, but we also get a sense that inside is a whole new universe open to us.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda

A painting that has intrigued artists, such as Dali, is The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez.

This painting is loaded with phallic shapes: vertical, rigid spears, as well as thrusting weapons meant to penetrate human flesh.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Erotic Symbolism in Art

On a less obvious note, the spears in the upper part of the canvas are balanced below by phallic shapes of the men’s and horse’s legs and the vertical negative spaces between them.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

In a fantastic stroke of scope, Velázquez incorporated feminine, fluid, organic forms into the panoramic landscape. It is as if the organic landscape is imprisoned by the bars of weapons and the soft feminine mounds of earth are pressed underfoot by the rigid men’s legs.

Though this painting is literally about the civil and very polite-looking surrender of Breda, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see, through Velázquez’s use of erotic symbolism, that this painting is really about destructive rape.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Going back to the first O’Keeffe, it’s easy to see that the inner lips are made up of phallic shapes.

I find it amusing that in constructing this painting O’Keeffe used phallic shapes, not as a dominant force as in The Surrender of Breda, but in subservience to the feminine whole.

I hope you enjoyed this escapade in seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 15th, 2006

Detecting Value Judgements in Painting

Detecting Value Judgements in Painting by Michael Newberry

A few years ago I read the book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Torres and Kamhi. I was disquieted to read their take on Rand’s definition of art, specifically about the meaning of metaphysical value-judgements. Perhaps the thing that was the most surprising to me was that their perspective on this issue is so much not the way that I experience art; either as a creator or as in appreciation, or how I understand Rand’s meaning. In a sense, their book has been the catalyst for this lecture. I hope to answer them by showing how you can detect metaphysical value-judgments in painting. But, more importantly, I hope to show you how to find and, perhaps, share the artist’s incredible passion that lies just beneath the surface of the paint.

Rand defines art as “the selective re-creation of reality based on an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements.” She states that metaphysical value-judgements are the answers to these types of questions: “Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?” The connection between these questions and painting is anything but self-evident as the authors of What Art Is admit “it is difficult to understand how [these] specific questions Rand poses would pertain to any art form but literature…”

Let’s see if I can show you some paintings that answer those very questions.

Parenthetically, Rand claims that in art criticism one should analyze the artwork without outside considerations (1975, 42). This means that the theme of a painting, for instance, should make its message clear without any prior knowledge of what the painting is about. We have to be like detectives and look for clues within the painting itself. I think it is important that I give some guidelines on how to look for these values in an artwork as they underlie the observations that I will make about the paintings.

Here are some of the guidelines for detecting metaphysical value-judgements in painting.

1. Describe what you see.

2. The canvas is the Universe. Approach each and every artwork as if it is a universe in itself. Simply substitute “universe” for “canvas” and a whole new outlook will become apparent.

a. Look for the size of humanity in relationship to the canvas. This is symbolic of humanity’s importance in the universe: is humanity larger than life or tiny and insignificant?

b. How is humanity placed within this universe? At the top, bottom or center?

c. What is the most prominent feature within the canvas/universe and what is the main focus?

d. For non-figurative work, what are the outstanding things and how are they placed in the canvas?

3. What is the relationship of subject or person to their environment? This will tell us how important humanity is in relationship to society or nature.

a. Is there a significant difference of sizes between the setting and the subject?

b. Look for the possible symbolism of the objects and/or their relationships. For example, a barrier to freedom symbolized by a chain-link fence. Or, the state buildings are all-powerful above and humanity is crushed below.

c. Is there more emphasis placed on one thing more than another? For example, is there a disregard for the setting and is all the focus on the main figure?

4. Body language.

a. What are people doing? Are they bent, awkward or upright and elegant?

b. Think about the symbolic implications of their posture: are they approaching life as a servant, a thug, or a hero?

c. What are the most notable facial features?

5. Use adjectives to describe the style, color, and light. This is not a substitute for the facts that are represented in the painting, but using adjectives first to describe a general impression helps you find the facts. We are not analyzing whether the means of the painting are good or not, merely trying to get at the mood of the piece, just as how you might describe the weather outside as cheerful or crystal-clear.

a. Is the painting distorted, smeared, vague or is it orderly, in focus, complex?

b. Are the colors murky, dull or vibrant, bold? Are they in harmony or do they clash?

c. Is the light in the painting subdued or brilliant?

d. The symbolism of light and shadow cannot be missed: are the objects or persons dim and the unenlightened? Or are they enlightened by a radiant universe?

Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60
1.Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60.

“Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable?”

In this Vermeer painting, we can clearly see that it is an interior scene with a woman going about the daily chore of pouring milk into a bowl. This scene is loaded with many refined details: the weave of the wicker baskets, the shine of a metal pot (behind her on the wall), the folds of her clothes, and the decorative images painted on the tiles that line the wall. We can even see the spiral of the flow of the milk. The woman is realistically presented with natural anatomy. She is prominent both in size and location. Notice the natural depth within the painting, she feels quite right in-between the table in the foreground and the wall behind her. The colors of things are clean and there are clear differences between the color of her arms and the colors of her clothes. An interesting element is the prominence of the light on the wall behind her, it takes up a third of the painting and it makes its brilliance felt.

Within the borders of this canvas, Vermeer projects a realistic view of people, of things, and he projects the true to life environment of space and light. This painting projects a markedly intelligible view of humanity and its environment.

Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912
2. Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912.

The universe of this Kandinsky is essentially different from the Vermeer. Here we have abstract objects in fanciful shapes. They may or may not be based on real things, such as mushrooms, birds, bugs, or dolls. But taken literally we cannot know with any certainty what these objects are; we are safer to assume that they aren’t things from reality but are simply abstractions. The colors of green, gold, blue, black, light pink are pure and there are clear distinctions between them. There is very little depth in the painting and though the colors are bright we have no sense that there is any light. The relationship of these abstract objects to one another seems to be arbitrary in the sense that there is a squiggle there, a blob here and we have the idea that they just popped up.

The universe in this painting, though clean and clear and whimsical, is unknowable to us in the normal meaning of the word. Kandinsky projects, quite literally, floating abstractions; abstractions disconnected from an intelligible universe.

Rina, Landscape, c. 2000
3. Rina, Landscape, c. 2000.

“Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair?”

In this lecture, I have included two landscapes to show how we can detect value-judgements even in paintings without people.

In Rina’s painting, we have a view of a dirt road receding in perspective to a pinkish gray sky on the horizon. On the left there is a chain link fence which encloses some dark trees. On the right there are empty lots. Behind there are some telegraph and electricity poles. Notice the blurring of the images, we don’t have here the crystal-like clarity of either Vermeer or Kandinsky. Notice the colors, mostly variations on gray-browns that convey a luke-warm atmosphere even though it appears to be winter, the trees on the right don’t have leaves or are they dead? Note the that the fence blocks us off from the relatively vital looking trees on the left. This is symbolic, the beauty of nature is off limits.

Imagine that you are really in this place do you think that this road leads to happiness on earth? I think not. Everything in this painting leads to a murky despair.

Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868
4. Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868.

This landscape by Bierstadt is very different from the previous one. Notice the glowing golden light right-center and how it is flowing along the valley towards us. In contrast to the oppressive warmth of the Rina painting, here we can almost feel the last of the night chill and we can anticipate the heat of the sun’s rays just about to land on our faces. Notice the height of the purple-shadowed mountains, the reflections on the clean water, and the dewy waves of grasses in the meadow.

This is a spectacular view of the start of a new day, obviously a place that holds the promise of happiness.

Munch, The Scream, 1893
5. Munch, The Scream, 1893.

We are keeping to the same question “can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair?” The Scream by Munch is one of my favorite paintings because of its emotive power and how once you see this image it never leaves your memory. But uplifting it is not. Notice how the main figure is at the bottom of the painting/universe and how the bridge is tilting downwards–these both convey the unmistakable feeling of sinking. The background swirls in such a way as to give us the feeling that we are hallucinating, it gives me the sense of vertigo. Again we have these oppressive warm gray colors throughout most of the painting and a toxic looking orange that dominates the sky. Notice that the main character is sexless and has a non-real structure as if its bones were made of rubber. This aspect adds to our unease. This figure seems to be not evil itself, but a witness to some unspeakable horror and it, unfortunately, is being drawn downward towards this vision. It is curious to note that the two figures on the bridge appear fairly normal, it is clear that one is a man the other a woman, and they are walking away from the scene.

This person is not doomed to frustration and despair but, worse, it is simply doomed.

M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751
6. M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751.

This pastel is a self-portrait and it shows a “man about town” with his powered wig, velvet coat, and his breezy air. Notice the clarity of the eyes and the genuinely good-natured expression of his smile. Incidentally, in the history of art it is really hard to find good smiling portraits; most feel as if the person is grimacing.

This man looks like he is at the height of his powers, he looks at ease, and I think happily content.

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
7. Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

“Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control?”

In Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix notice the woman charging forward with her out thrust arm raising the French flag aloft. Notice her location at the top of the canvas. She is inspiring a rabble of soldiers, dandies, and regular people to carry on even over the obstacles of death, which lie literally at her feet. Though we don’t know whether she and they will achieve their goals, it is startlingly clear that they are not the playthings of destiny, they are acting to fulfill their aims.

Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd 1808, 1814
8. Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808, 1814.

On the other side of this volitional issue, we have Goya’s painting of an execution, in which these poor men have been lead like sheep to their slaughter. Notice that in the background that the State buildings are above the scene, the implication is that the state dictates to the humans below. There is a line of faceless universal soldiers, heads bowed, carrying out their orders. The main victim thrusts his arms out in the gesture of “why”. Notice how the light box is turned towards the victims, they are bathed in its sympathetic glow while the soldiers are in the shadow. Also, notice that the color of the lightbox and the main character is identical gold and white, the implication being that he is the light.

Goya paints an empathic portrait of these victims plight but victims they are; hopeless playthings of the mysterious State lurking in the background.

T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860
9. T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860.

Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?”

Because of the complexity of and controversy over metaphysical value-judgements in painting I have used the most obvious examples I could find that would illustrate clearly how Rand’s questions relate to paintings. This example of Rosseau’s landscape, though, is not obvious. The most prominent feature here is the road, it is placed front and center and it leads into a picturesque old-world village, which is a cluster of very neat cottages with thatched roofs that extend across the width of the canvas. Notice the elaborate detail that is showered on the vegetation and the trees and how light plays upon them. The blue sky is aglow. In the center of the road is a curious figure, very small, which I think is a young girl. Notice that she appears to be waiting and she is in the shadow of the tree.

The symbolism here is very interesting. Humanity is significant in the sense that it is in the center of the universe, but humanity is very small. And that small humanity is not bathed in light but finds itself passively standing in the shadow while nature and community are bathed in light. This painting does not convey that man is to be valued as good or bad but merely small and unenlightened.

Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953
10. Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953.

This painting by Bacon is a free interpretation of a famous Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. Central to the painting is the Pope screaming in blind terror as he sits in a neon yellow colored chair. Notice his claw-like hands; in both in size and shape they resemble the paws of a monkey. The paint looks like it as been stripped in acid. He looks like he is being executed in an electric chair. Notice how his screaming mouth has bared teeth.

This figure does not inspire our sympathy as do the victims in the Goya painting, the empty eye sockets and the teeth bared in a howl are the clues that tell us that this man is filled with hatred. The painting conveys that humanity is central to the universe, but it is evil.

Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992
11. Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992.

When shown this image on a ten-foot screen at my lecture, the whole audience groaned. The next day, four people told me that they had nightmares about this painting. Saville’s painting, Branded, is a self-portrait. The oversized woman overwhelms the space of the painting. Her flesh has the rotten coloring of chicken meat that has been left out too long. Incised on her flesh are the words “decorative” and “delicate”. Her head is thrown back in a defensive gesture and her hand thrusts out a fistful of flesh in an angry statement. Notice how small her head is compared to the rest of her.

Humanity, here, is glutinous, stupid, self-mutilating and is deserving of being despised as evil.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1510
12. Raphael, School of Athens, 1510.

The School of Athens is one of the landmark works of the Italian high Renaissance. Raphael played off the idea of portraying some of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers, scientists, and artists by his own contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. It is a masterpiece of visual perspective both in how the buildings are shaped and how the figures get bigger as they are closer to us. Some of the people are loners while others are in small groups. Everyone is either communicating, reading, drawing, or learning. It is an ode to the nature of creativity. Notice the light atmosphere and the harmony of the colors. In the center of the work are two men, one is Plato with his finger pointing upwards towards the heavens and the other is Aristotle gesturing towards earth. The main figure in the forefront leaning on a block of marble is reported to be Michelangelo, he is in a pose of deep concentration.

This painting is an epic depiction of humanity as creators, thinkers, doers, and students. It gives the optimistic view that our horizons are unlimited and that wonderful things await us in the future–that, in essence, the nature of humanity is glorious.

Michael Newberry

Note: This article was an online transcription of my lecture, Detecting Value Judgements in Art, given at the Ojectivist Center’s Summer Seminar in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on July 2nd, 2001.

List of paintings:

1.Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60.

2. Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912.

3. Rina, Landscape, c. 2000.

4. Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868.

5. Munch, The Scream, 1893.

6. M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751.

7. Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.

8. Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808, 1814.

9. T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860.

10. Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953.

11. Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992.

12. Raphael, School of Athens, 1510.

Images 1,2,4,5,7,8,9,10, and 12 have been downloaded from http://www.artchive.com. The others were scanned by M. Newberry.

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive by Michael Newberry

Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet
Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet

Representational art students are taught to be critical. During critiques, the stress is on the work’s problems. It is not uncommon to see students turning red with embarrassment or anger. Sometimes one will cry. Aside from a bully or two, most of them will accept the critiques as a necessary evil. “Grow a tough skin” is said to oneself and others. In the art world, only the tough survive, at least that is the idea.

Alone and long after college artists agonize over their work by aggressively focusing on their mistakes. This activity does at least demonstrate that the artist knows what is wrong, but it also serves to crush their spirit. The process doesn’t address the one question that matters most: what makes an artwork alive?

Artists could forget the primitive formal critique, let it go and change their perspective towards an inspiring way. Though this is demanding because one has to focus on solutions, understand what works, keep their eye on the big picture, and remind themselves that they are creating.

Some years ago, when I was teaching life drawing, I changed the format of the critiquing process. The artist introducing his/her work would explain what they did, and what they would add given more time. The critiquing students were required to comment on the successful parts of the drawing. A strange thing happened, the group became more confident, enjoyed the process more, and were much more supportive of one another.

Looking for blemishes in an artwork is the default response, but by focusing on what is alive, we will vitalize the critique process, open doors, and fortify artists’ creativity.

Michael Newberry
Revised, Idyllwild, April ’16