Smacking Down Postmodern Art

First published by The Atlas Society.

It is rare in our contemporary postmodern culture that its representatives get a smack down. But that is what happened with the Tyler Shields’ photoshoot with Kathy Griffin holding a realistically-rendered decapitated head of Donald Trump. Massive public and professional fallout ensued, and no one was going to let it go because it was “art.” This event finally enraged a public that for decades was so desensitized you could fling shit at them from a stage, as performance artist G. G. Allin did, and they would either take it or ignore it.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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Five Ayn Rand Questions for Michael Newberry

1) Tell us who you are and what you do.mndana2

I grew up on the beach and have been an artist ever since. I’m a figurative artist and my work explores light, love, and appreciation.

2) When did you first become familiar with Ayn Rand and her works?

When I was 19, my sister Janet—a world top-20 tennis player—told me she had a book I needed to read. That book was Atlas Shrugged.

3) What most interested you or hit you with an “Ah hah!” about Rand’s thinking?

I felt like Rand was giving me a pat on the back for being an artist. She has a very high regard for artists. It was like she was saying to me: “You’re doing a great job; keep going.”

4) How does her work inspire you today?

evesme SmallShe’s a great champion of creators. Rand’s work is a reminder that it’s the creation that matters the most, not superficial things. That is inspiring.

5) Rand wanted us to aspire to a world as it can be and should be. Can you tell us something optimistic you see in the world today or in the future?

What a great question! When I started my career, there were only a handful of figurative artists and they were not held in esteem. Now there are thousands upon thousands of exceptionally good artists who’ve paid their dues and really learned all the skillsets to create incredible figurative works. This is a huge, monumental development and I think Rand helped to set the stage for it.

Michael Newberry is Artist-in-Residence with The Atlas Society

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.

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