Art and Ideals by David Kelley

Just published for the first time.

On October 6th, 2003 The Foundation for the Advancement of Art presented this conference at New York’s Pierre Hotel. David Kelley, a philosopher, gives the talk Art and Ideals.

0:05 Stephen Hicks introduces David Kelley
1:54 Chavet Cave, images, music. Why artistic artifacts? Some evolution theories.
7:00 Universality of Art, cognitive and emotional needs. Concept of abstraction; language, science. Foreknowledge.
10:27 Earliest narrative in written form, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Choice, normative concepts, good and bad.
12:39 Moral codes, emotions. Issues of life and death why through art? Concept of love. Homer, Shakespeare. Art gives the power of immediacy to our abstractions.
21:20 Modes of the ideal. Polyclitus, exemplars such as Christ through Michelangelo. Beethoven, Chopin, Delacroix. Hunger for ideals.

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

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.

Pandora’s Box Part 3

Pandora’s Box Part 3

by Michael Newberry
There is a newly-discovered version of the legend of Pandora’s Box. In this third version insanity, despair, and hatred had overrun the world and Pandora, driven by a sense of hope, opened the box by unlocking it with a key. Out from the box rose up all the glories of humanity and they spread throughout the world with undiminished splendor. Pandora discovered that the glories had never disappeared, but it was humankind that had lost the key to identifying the magnificence that lay before them.

The form of art and its function in human life are central to the debate between postmodern art and art. In the first two parts of this series I essayed 1) how postmodern art shocks your epistemological processes through its anti-art means, and 2) how it shocks your psychological processes by expressing disturbing content as the ends. Along these lines, I will go deeper in examining the theoretical basis of postmodern art and then, I would like to show you that an alternative to postmodern art exists, today, in the here and now.

To start I would like to address a few of Kant’s concepts of the sublime. These concepts are important because he introduces some profoundly radical concepts into the history of aesthetics that have, in a fundamental sense, become the blueprints for postmodern art.

Kant states: “The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form.”

Kant is contrasting the beautiful with the sublime. He connects, quite reasonably, the beautiful with the form of an object but, oddly, he attaches formlessness to the concept of sublime. To give you two examples, think of the Venus de Milo and Duchamp’s Fountain. The Venus de Milo derives her aesthetic value because of the sculptor’s superlative skill in creating a fluid, graceful female form in stone. The Fountain, on the other hand, is a urinal. It derives its postmodern aesthetic esteem because Duchamp exercised no skill and used no means; it is the antithesis of making sculpture. In a very true sense it is aesthetically formless, it represents an idea, but the actual urinal is of no aesthetic value in itself.

Kant’s view is that a concept communicated through a formless means is superior to a concept communicated through the form of sculpture or painting. In other words, it is the concept that counts and not the artwork.

venus11

The Venus de Milo is an example of a concept communicated through the form of beautiful sculpture, requiring great skill.

Beauty, however, is inferior to the sublime, which can be communicated through formless artlessness, requiring no skill, by Kant’s reckoning.

fountain

The Fountain is a urinal. It is also an example of postmodern sublimity.

Kant’s concept of the formless nature of the sublime is the ideological birthplace of the postmodern aesthetic that art, visual art, doesn’t need to be expressed through the means of representational painting or sculpture. In practice, this aesthetic opened up the floodgates of a nihilistic revolution in the 20th Century in which postmodern artists deconstructed art and/or substituted any object but painting or sculpture for art, i.e. arranged rubbish, excrement, installations, etc.

An opinion voiced by many people in response to postmodern art, such as Andre’s bricks arranged on a floor as exhibited in the Tate, is “my eight-year-old could do this.” It is easy to understand their perspective; their assumption is that a value is something that takes effort and skill, the higher the value the more it would require superlative skill, not something assembled at random.

Andre

Arranged bricks at the Tate Modern.

This attitude, in part, echoes Aristotle’s comment that “art is identical with a state of capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning.” The idea is that a sculptor sculpts and a painter paints and they remain true to their arts forms, to the means of creation. There would be no room in his concept of art to include assemblages of factory-made objects. “All art is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being and whose origin is in the maker.” An Aristotelian definition of a person who scattered bricks would be a brick arranger, not an artist.

A contemporary take on the nature of art comes from Rand, who connects humanity’s need of art to the process of translating concepts, through painting or sculpture, into an immediate perceptual concrete. She observes: “An artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.”

In Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, we literally see a woman leading people forward, an immediate perceptual concrete, and this scene projects concepts such as fighting for one’s values, overcoming barriers, and life or death struggles. Experiencing this phenomenon is what can give humans the sense of the reality of their possibilities. The idea is that artistic visions can and do inspire our dreams and goal-directed actions in real life.

delacroix

The nature of art is to be a beacon to guide one’s path in life. In what direction does your path lead?

Both Rand and Aristotle keep aesthetics grounded to art. On the other hand, Kant, through his concept of the formless nature of the sublime, divorces aesthetics from art.

As the means of an artwork deals with the form, the end deals with the “point”, the intellectual and emotional expression of the art. In Kant’s view the end point of the sublime should “excite[s] a feeling of an outrage on the imagination, and yet it is judged all the more sublime on that account.”

Kant’s theory of the sublime is the foundation for all the derivative theories of shock aesthetics that find realization in such postmodern works as: meat grinders for humans, Hatoum’s Mouli Julienne; the irrelevant defacement of the Mona Lisa image by the inclusion of a moustache, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q.; canned shit, Manzoni’s Merde d’artista; empty room as art, Creed’s The Lights Going On and Off; etc.

hatoum duchamp-LHOOQ artshit creed

On a basic human level there is a touch of nastiness in all these works. They are displays that take us to states of mind that are either envious, grotesque, or senseless.

The Dalai Lama by contrast believes that your happiness is threatened if you embrace negative states of being. He eloquently states: “…hatred, jealousy, anger, and so on are harmful. We consider them negative states of mind because they destroy our mental happiness; once you harbor feelings of hatred or ill feeling towards someone, once you yourself are filled by hatred or negative emotions, then other people appear to you as also hostile.” Though he is not making an aesthetic statement, his idea serves as an ethical stance in which happiness is a proper aim for one’s life.

The question arises: what role does human value, as a subject matter, have in aesthetics?

Kant has already shown us his negative stance by the idea of an “outrage on the imagination”. In contrast to Kant’s aesthetics, Rand and Aristotle have benevolent views of what the end point in art should be. In Rand’s case she thinks art can/should create the experience of “a moment of metaphysical joy–a moment of love for existence.” And Aristotle thinks that: “Every art is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.”

Rand and Aristotle come from the standpoint that every act of human creativity has a human value as an end point, including art. The converse would be that if an act has a negative state as its end, it would be destructive or meaningless for a healthy humanity.

So let’s start afresh, away from Kant’s malapropos use of the word “sublime”, and find out what the dictionary definition of it is. The American Heritage Dictionary defines sublime as 1) characterized by nobility; majestic. 2) a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth. b. Not to be excelled; supreme. 3) Inspiring awe; impressive. 4) Archaic. Raised aloft; set high.

Keep those definitions in mind as we look at the following work.

Feldman’s sculpture group, The Future In Our Hands, 1992, Reservoir Park, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is four life-size bronze statues placed around a large outdoor fountain. There are two males and two females, life-sized, each playing with a child.

bw

Instead of looking at each sculpture separately, let’s first look at their common features.

Each adult is standing with one leg solidly anchored on the ground, giving us the sense that they are grounded in real life. Their other leg is relaxed and slightly extended, giving them a sense of balance and flexibility. Each adult is intently looking at their child and, more, their entire body language is directed to and in support of the child. Notice how each adult has an extended free arm poised for maintaining balance. Their free arm is also extended in an expression of care.

Each child is in a moment of freedom; they are rising, reaching, or flying.

Notice that none of the children are held or held back.

There is an intensely intimate physical connection between the adults and the children. Aside from the one child literally in flight, the other children are balancing themselves on their parents. As well, in beautiful exchanges of tenderness, the parents are balancing the children with little more than a touch of a finger, the support of a palm, or the tip of a nose.

F1 F2 F3 Future

If we continue to look more closely at the sculptures, we will notice that each adult is a unique body type: the lithe girlish figure contrasts with the full womanly figure; the men’s figures are similarly contrasted between slender and solid builds.

F1detail

Unique individual features merged with a theme of benevolence, perhaps meaning that goodness starts with the individual?

Notice the face of the mother tossing the child; the line of her mouth and the tilt of her nose are distinct features. We have the sense that if the model walked by we would recognize her. Each figure has these unique characteristics, which marks them as individuals. But common among them is the elegance of the proportions of their body parts. Not a hand, head, or foot seems out of sync with the whole body. Here Feldman has stepped away from the generic prototypes of the ancient Greeks, where, for example, youths’ heads look very much alike.

In each sculpture notice the flow of the surface skin and how it molds the underlying anatomy from the hips to stomach up to the chest to around the shoulders. Look at the natural shape of the knees; we can sense how they are either locked into place or totally relaxed. This is a virtuosic display of modeling clay. It also shows the breadth of Feldman’s anatomical knowledge from the delineation of a neck muscle to the hardness of an elbow.

It might be easy to overlook the simple naturalness of the children. But there are several very difficult technical things going on here. One is that their proportions are true to little children: the largeness of their heads and the fullness of their torsos. Another aspect is the modeling of their flesh, which gives us a sense of a malleable plumpness. The third is that these toddlers are in incredibly dynamic poses. Children, throughout the history of art, from the Egyptians to modern times have often looked, simply put, weird. It is refreshing to find in sculpture children that look like children.

Futurekid F1kid F2kid F3kid

Stepping back, let’s take in the sculptures from a distance and look at their big forms. The big form is, in contrast to details such as ears, the essential “sweep” of the whole sculpture. If you use your imagination it is like waving a magic wand in ascending arches, in large flowing curves, or in shooting diagonal exclamation marks. And imagine that your gestured arches, curves, and diagonals magically turn into wildly arching backs, shoulders pivoting against thrust hips, and ecstatic children soaring.

Looking at the sculpture of the lithe woman with the flying child, follow the bow-like sweep from her right shoulder through her left hip down through left leg that ends at the curve of her left big toe. Notice how the child is flying diagonally off the sweep of the mother’s body, like an arrow shooting off a bow. Feldman is using this big sweep to dramatically accent the child’s flight.

Parenthetically, Rodin’s greatest historical innovation was his integration of big sweeping forms of the human body, which he used to give a sense of immediacy, of living in the moment, to the expression of the figure. His figures never feel “posed”, like the melodramatic poses you might see in silent movies. It is outside of the scope of this essay but it could be argued that Rodin sacrificed proportions, the flesh-like texture of the modeling, and the completeness of the entire figure so that he could achieve the big sweep of immediacy and form. On the other hand, Feldman has integrated this technique without sacrificing any of these other sculptural values.

FuturesmallP F3smallP F2smalllP F1smallP

A swirling twist of space is the big form in the sculpture of the child who is raising himself off his mother’s shoulder. She is taking a step, rotating in the direction of her turned head, following the direction of her child, whose back enhances this line and whose head is turned in such a way as to continue this sweep out towards his furthest sight. The whole composition is like a waltz of balance.

Looking at the sculpture of the child balanced on his father’s shoulder, we can sense a flowing “S” sweep from the father’s right leg, swinging up through his torso, curving through the tilting torso of the child, ending in a burst of joyfully flung arms and legs, much like the ascent and explosion of fireworks.

Perhaps the most impressive of the four sculptures is the one in which the father has raised the delighted child on high. Notice the soaring line from the father’s right shoulder through his arm up through the child’s high flung leg.

The Future in Our Hands has a lot to take in: the theme of joy of supporting human growth with its sub-themes of individuality, flight, comradely, and equality of the sexes. There is its multi-faceted execution of intimate detailing, naturalism, dynamic movement, and big forms all of which underlie and support the theme. In one way it simply looks natural but the aesthetic construct is a tour de force of integration.

I don’t know if contemporary critics, curators, and collectors have lost the capacity to feel awe for good things. Whether they have or have not, it would be hard to miss the qualities in The Future in Our Hands of nobility, value, excellence, and raising the human spirit aloft, in essence those things which make the sublime.

The Postmodern project substitutes exaltation for rage, visual means for formlessness, and sublimity for nihilism, but it can not destroy the existence and nature of art, or other human accomplishments. But these anti-art definitions can and do destroy our general ability to identify important aesthetic values in works of art; if we are not careful we could lose the language to distinguish the good from the absurd.

The antidote to postmodern and the key to understanding the dilemma posed by this Pandora’s Box series is identification: open your eyes and name it for what it is.

All three versions of the legend of Pandora’s Box are true: the swirling demons and the diseases of insanity; the hope; and, as well, the magnificence of human creation. But it is the third version of Pandora’s Box, the one in which “out from the box rose up all the glories of humanity and they spread throughout the world with undiminished splendor” is the real one. It is the version that has value for those of us wishing to achieve a flourishing existence on earth.

Michael Newberry
2002, first published in the Free Radical #54

Pandora’s Box Part 2

Pandora’s Box Part 2
by Michael Newberry

… pathetically, only Hope remained inside. In the other version the box held all of humanity’s glories. When she opened the box progress, knowledge, and exaltation vanished into oblivion, forever lost to humanity.

Art, in all its forms, plays an exalted role as one of humanity’s glories. It also plays a profoundly personal role. Think, for instance, of the impact your favorite artwork has had on your life. Has it moved you to tears, to resolution, to moments of joy? Have you felt that an artwork was as close to you as a lover, a friend, or a child? Have you imagined what your life would be like without art? Picture your most beloved painting or recall your favorite song or regard your most treasured book and ask yourself what if it had never existed. Would that leave a gaping hole in your soul where once something precious had been? When Pandora opened the box, marvelous things rose up and vanished into space before her eyes. Without grasping the nature of this phenomenon, she unleashed Postmodernism on humanity.

Artistic creation is fragile. For most artists creation calls on the limits of their intellectual, sensory, and psychological resources; each artwork is, in essence, the artist’s summation of what is important from his or her existence. Additionally, it is usual that an artist’s career calls on the limits of their financial resources. Given the nature of such a daunting task, it is no wonder that artists can break down and give up. Imagine young students impatient to express their visions and passions on canvas and imagine their vulnerability in hoping they will have what it takes to realize their dreams. Without the certainty of accomplished works behind them, they are, indeed, vulnerable to peer pressure, authoritative experts, and the influence of the icons of their day. If their profoundly personal visions and attempts are not acknowledged and supported, then it merely takes an air of disapproval to blow away the sparks that would blaze their future.

Several years ago I taught foundation classes at Otis College of Art and Design, one of the most reputable art colleges in the United States. While there, I offered seven students a private apprenticeship program outside of their schoolwork. These students had everything one could ask for: they had fire, talent, intelligence, and drive; they had that “lightbulb” look in their eyes. They studied with other foundation teachers who taught them rock-solid basics, but in the following year they entered into the fine art program, which was dominated by postmodern teachers.

During a critique, one teacher and his students called my 18-year old apprentice a “fascist”, an “imperialist pig”, and “naïve” because he had exhibited a realistic oil self-portrait with studies that documented his creative process, which was dramatically lit. He was not criticized for lack of sincerity, passion, or talent. By contrast, another student received the highest mark and praise for a goldfish cast in resin which had its eyes plucked out and sewn to its tail. A day after the critique my student came to me crying and passionately asked “why?” What horrible things did my student do to deserve such nasty condemnation from the teacher and his cohorts? Could it possibly be that they were chastising him because he displayed skill and passion in painting?

(A sad postscript is that this student, one of the most passionate and talented artists I have met, gave up art some years after college, tried to live in the normal world, and committed suicide at 39 years old.)

Another apprentice of mine took classes with an abstract expressionist teacher (in the style of Pollock) who deflected answering students’ direct questions. In the third week of class, this apprentice came to me with tears bursting from her eyes and blurted out, “what does this teacher want from me?” I guessed that the teacher was looking for expression divorced from thought so I recommended that my apprentice use a stream of consciousness technique to make it through this class. I told her to unscrew her head and leave it on the shelf before entering this class. She followed my advice to the letter. She did not “think”, did not ask questions, and did nothing to aim for a realization. Later in that class, the teacher waltzed around the room with my apprentice’s “creation” and claimed that it was a museum piece and that she was a genius. Overnight she became the teacher’s star pupil. My apprentice said in a mood of distaste “that work took only 5% of my capacity”. Was this teacher so out of touch with these students that she confined their potential by ignorance? Or did she do it on purpose?

During our apprenticeship program, every one of the seven broke down in frustration due to their postmodern education. “What do they want?” Was the unanswerable query. After witnessing two years of these episodes, it became apparent to me that it wasn’t knowledge, dedication, skill, or love of art that was wanted by these teachers. It was both obvious and inconceivable that the teachers acted to thwart these students’ minds and abilities. Did the teachers really want to turn students into confused wrecks? What sort of people embrace such a stance?

Rarely have I seen genius and rarely have I seen the completely hopeless. One student was sent to my class with the aim that she would finally pass, having failed the course given by other teachers twice before. She had no interest, had no touch, and had no understanding for drawing; she had no “light bulb” in her eyes. Shockingly, just before our holidays she presented me with an invitation to her exhibition at a modern art gallery. I will never forget the look on her face after she watched me read her invitation; she was gloating. I thought of the struggles of my apprentices pouring their passion, their egos, and their overtime into developing their potential for art; I thought of the psychological abuse they were taking for it, and I thought it unjust. Was it the way of the art world that this pathetic student should displace them?

I don’t mean to imply that all postmodernists are untalented, but talent in the sense of mastery of drawing and painting is not a consideration for a postmodern art education. Before their second year, my apprentices were advised by the Dean of Otis College, by the Director of Foundation, and by the Director of Fine Art that if they wanted to continue drawing the figure they would have to go into Graphic Design and forgo Fine Art. If the postmodern community does not want skill, could it be that they want students who embody a “getting away with it” mentality?

A few years ago I went to an artist’s talk given by a postmodern teacher/artist at a prestigious university gallery. Prior to the talk I was embarrassed to find, after several minutes of looking around the gallery, that, in fact, there was an exhibition in the room, but I hadn’t seen it. Her works were camouflaged within the architectural setting. One of them was a 3″ x 1″ wide plaster band that wound around on the floor of the room. It was there to be “sensed” and to subtly affect movement within the room, changing the traffic flow of the space intended by the architect. In her talk, she proudly stated that she couldn’t draw, couldn’t paint, and didn’t know anything about architectural design. Yet all her works were dependent on architectural settings designed by others. She condescendingly referred to one of the buildings as a “fascist”. When asked if she had ever created directly from nature she said she had never “thought of that.” Without any skill in art, she had several museum exhibitions in which she presented her deliberate acts of subtle subversion. Could it be possible that subversion was the standard by which this postmodern exhibition was chosen?

With every postmodern exhibition, with every class, with every critic’s praise, clues emerge as to the motives of the postmodernists and the general direction of the postmodern movement. I believe there is a key concept guiding postmodernists but they, in their obscure way, don’t want us or perhaps themselves to understand what it is. Let us dig deeper and see if we can find what that key is.

Museum directors are the guardians of art. They strive to protect art by heightening cultural awareness: they give artists venues in which to exhibit; they cultivate public interest in their exhibitions; they arrange recognition of artists through critics and media; they raise funds to pay for their initiatives; and they produce educational programs for adults and children. They have media, millions of dollars, and educational institutions at their disposal to influence culture. Directors are the middlemen between important new artists and the public; their influence is profound in shaping “high” culture.

The mission statements of many contemporary art museums include aims to express the “aesthetics of our time,” to seek out artists that are creating “new inroads,” and to exhibit the “best” artists alive today. “Best” here does not have the meaning that it has in sports, where the winner is the better athlete. Artistic value is interpreted, meaning that it is up to the curators to evaluate who are the best artists based on contemporary aesthetics, which is postmodernism, and to support them accordingly.

The Encyclopedia Encarta describes the aims of Dadaists’ (the first postmodern artists) works as “… designed to shock or bewilder, in order to provoke a reconsideration of accepted aesthetic values”. But postmodern art goes deeper than merely raising challenges to specific values; it is meant to disrupt your psychological and epistemological processes or, in other words, to shatter your sanity and throttle your mind.

To accomplish this, postmodern artists mangle either or both the content and means:

1) They can choose a subject matter that will stretch your capacity for the unimaginable, usually by projecting a thoroughly disgusting state. Cultural Gothic by P. McCarthy is a good example of this in sculpture. It is a mechanized sculpture group in which a father encourages his adolescent son to fuck a goat.

gothic

A Postmodern version of a close family?

Branded by J. Saville is an example in painting. It is a self-portrait in which the obese woman thrusts out a fistful of her flesh towards us in an angry and defensive gesture. Incised scalpel-like wounds that spell out words “delicate” and “decorative” cover her rotten-colored flesh. Both these works intentionally take us into psychotic states.

saville

Saville, Self-portrait
Parenthetically, it could be implied that I take issue with the artists’ right to express themselves, which is not the case. My point here is that these works are esteemed by the postmodern establishment for their shocking content and not for their quality as painting or sculpture.

Strictly speaking, Saville and McCarthy aren’t postmodern purists; they compromise their postmodern, grotesque subject matters with figurative painting and sculpture. For purists, matching the means to the ends is a hallmark of the highest reaches of art, postmodern or not.

fountain

“…art cannot be art and anti-art
at the same time.”

2) The other method of shock aesthetics is to redefine art as anything but painting or sculpture. The classic example is The Fountain by Duchamp, a urinal presented as an artwork. The simple device of substituting anything but art, such as a toilet, as an artwork creates an epistemological disturbance in our minds. Think of substituting “table” for “egg”, “ice-cream” for “go”, “car” for “food”, etc. It is something like a computer virus that plays havoc with your system and ultimately renders your computer’s programs useless. In this way, postmodernists have substituted Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning for drawing, Christo’s Umbrellas for sculpture, and Creed’s Empty Room for substance. Shock aesthetics is also commonly known in art history as part of the anti-art movement. Oddly, modern art historians gloss over the fact that, logically, art cannot be art and anti-art at the same time.

In Part I of this series I stated that the theme of Christo’s Umbrellas magnified the contrast between the huge cost, effort, and scale of the project and its end of non-existence. The thematic idea is that this nihilistic work is not about “nothing” but it is about the non-existence, the absence, of something that had existed before. Stay with me on this idea; it is important because nihilism is one of the key aesthetic concepts of postmodernism. Now let us tweak the context and think of the entire postmodern art movement as one gigantic Christo project, in which “absence” is the theme. The postmodern movement has taken on the universality of representational art, with its history of 30,000 years, and succeeded in, in the eyes of the contemporary art world establishment, of virtually wiping it off the face of the planet. It has ripped the lid off Pandora’s box and replaced “progress, knowledge, and exaltation” with bile.

Notice what this does to the status of the art director as a guardian of art, it creates a grotesque paradox; the directors of contemporary art museums are the promoters and protectors of anti-art. One important way in which they protect postmodernism is by ignoring any alternative; they are silent when it comes to value-orientated, representational art.

Far from being harmless, silence from the art establishment delivers a deathblow to viable representational artists. I discussed this issue of postmodern silence with Dr. Chris Sciabarra and he replied: “[A] dominant ideology “brackets out” of the equation real alternatives: it just doesn’t allow fundamentally revolutionary alternatives to even be considered. I think this is not simply a conscious conspiracy, but a method of silence, of omission. It becomes part of the overall worldview, this tacit exclusion.”

Silence is a very clever weapon for postmodernists to use; it implies that representational art is dead and that even if something is out there it doesn’t merit notice. Tom Wolfe tells the sickening story of young Fredrick Hart scanning art magazines, hoping for a review of Ex Nihilo, the facade of the Washington National Cathedral, an eleven-year sculpture project. “Months went by…nothing.”

The exceptional representational artist faces another kind of wall of incomprehensibility as a consequence of this “silence.” In my long career as an artist, I have met many “regular” people, who don’t know art in depth. Though some of them have mentioned the “silliness” of contemporary museum exhibitions. Yet, they have reverence for the title of “museum” and they do not understand why representational artists should have problems in getting critical recognition. They feel this is something that they cannot judge and it should be left to the experts to decide. The undertone of their unstated words is, “if the experts do not acknowledge you then there must be a good reason for it”. It is also unfortunate that if artists try to retaliate against the silence of the postmodern establishment, then it sounds like “sour grapes.”

In an Agatha Christie story, there is a small aside about the theft of a brooch. In the novel, everyone suspected the maid, as she was the only one in the house at the time of the theft. No one accused her of the theft because she was an elderly woman and had always been very conscientious. The assumption of the locals and her employers was that she desperately needed money. The maid was terribly upset because she could see suspicion in their eyes and she could do nothing about it. The maid died before the mystery was solved. The brooch had been attached to a blouse that had been sent to the cleaners; the laundress had stolen it. The horror of this case was that the maid, in the absence of the solution to the mystery, died without ever being granted recognition for her goodness and honesty.

Just as the solution to this mystery is crucial to clear up where the crime lay and redeem the innocent, understanding the mysterious motives of the postmodern movement is crucial to bringing about recognition of the goodness and honesty of benevolent, representational artists. Earlier I asked questions and raised the issue about the key concept guiding the postmodern movement. Now it should be clear. Postmodernism is literally an anti-art movement. Its objective, ostensibly, is the elevation of postmodern artists, but its motive is the eradication of art.

The postmodern aesthetic is a virus composed of the unstable components of nihilism for its means and disgust for its ends. It will take innovative contemporary representational art and reason-based aesthetic criticism to remedy this plague. Stay tuned for Pandora’s Box Part 3, the last of the series, in which I contrast two contemporary views of the sublime; the postmodern and the neo-sublime.

Michael Newberry
2002, first published in the Free Radical #52