Knowledge or experience

Coffee house muses (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Malcolm Budd (2012: 205) is not restrained in his admiration for Richard Wollheim’s (1987) influential book Painting as an Art, but he finds Wollheim’s appeal to a distinctive phenomenology by which we encounter paintings to be rather extravagant. Wollheim’s (1987: 22; 181) account of pictorial representation notoriously avoids language-driven accounts of representation, and turns squarely toward our experience of what it is like to look at a painting. Crucially, finds Wollheim, we exercise a remarkable ability (not exclusive to looking at paintings) to be aware of both the painted surface and of something depicted in it–at the same time. He calls this phenomenologically distinct feat ‘seeing-in.’ Budd (2012: 194) finds seeing-in to be inadequately described and unsupportable. What Wollheim cannot escape, he argues, is that our ability to grasp what a picture represents is inevitably grounded in knowledge. Proposing added visual experiences is a superfluous move when we inevitably need to secure representation by means of knowledge.

Wollheim introduces seeing-in between the perceptual experiences of ordinary seeing and illusion. Seeing, on its own, is a wonderfully complex process, but what has been traditionally difficult to account for is that a painting presents us with two very different objects of attention in the one object. The same marks may be seen as marks on a surface or as the scene or person they represent. This adds a layer of complexity to seeing that has proved difficult to reconcile. Ernst Gombrich (1959: 5) champions illusion as the solution, arguing that we do not see both surface and image at the same time, but that we are able to flick between the two visual experiences. When we attend to the image we submit to the illusion. Budd (2012: 187) clarifies that this by no means demands that we hold a false belief; rather, we are able to hover between two different perceptual experiences that have the same representational content. But what he finds unsatisfying about Gombrich’s solution is that it excludes the possibility that we can experience both at the same time.

Wohnzimmer (c) Carl Moll (1903)

If we reflect on the experience of looking at paintings (the kind of thing a phenomenologist would do), it would indeed seem that we can attend to both surface and image at once. Gombrich’s insistence that one cannot seems stubbornly at odds with the experience of looking at a painting. Certainly, sometimes we are so caught up in the picture that we concentrate more on its content, but (aside from plausibly-located trompe l’oeils) we are not prone to mistake paintings for the thing that they depict, nor to really forget that they are paintings. Sometimes we are so enamoured of the paint that we neglect the content, but it is difficult to block out the content entirely. Perhaps the best counterargument to Gombrich is the kind of painting that proudly brandishes its physicality, of which countless fine examples abound. Let’s limit our examples to the Viennese painter Carl Moll. His naturalistic portrayals of Viennese interiors and parks and hills are recognisable scenes of breakfast settings and villages among forests. But their dappled marks of all manner of inflection, their tight design and their honest but somehow augmented colours are inescapable reminders that the object of our vision is a painting. The distortion is always just enough that the paint must always be present in our experience, even when contemplating a Wiener Frühstück.

Mutter und Kind am Tisch. (c) Carl Moll (1903)

Wollheim (1987: 46) begins to describe such experiences, echoing Leonardo da Vinci’s (2008: 173) example of the battles and landscapes to be found in textured walls by the daydreaming eye, but his appeal to phenomenology goes little further, argues Budd (2012: 194). By Budd’s estimation, the phenomenon remains under-described, and in any case, it is not clear that the step is at all necessary. At least one feature of the experience must be established: Budd (2012: 193) argues that seeing-in must involve distributed attention, a specifically non-focused attention that roams the picture as we take in the picture as a whole, or an attention rather meditatively shared among the many properties of a picture (a theme Bence Nanay (2016: 13; 21, 22) takes up with great enthusiasm). Without distributed attention, the perceptual experience simply lapses back into seeing (in which we see only paint) or gives way to illusion (in which we see only the image).

Rather than pursue the necessity of distributed attention, Budd recasts Wollheim’s earlier and later accounts of representation in terms of his own favoured emphasis on depiction. The choice is significant: depiction frames representation explicitly in terms of a referential relationship. It says that a picture refers to something else in the world which it depicts, for which it is in some way a substitute, without being equivalent, for the thing in the world does not ever depict the picture. This explanation insists that pictures are dependent on the world. Moreover, it operates in a very linguistic way, treating pictures (or their parts) rather like propositions that refer to objects or ideas. I am not too sympathetic to this attitude and neither is Wollheim. His explicit rejection of language-driven explanations makes his unconventional appeal to phenomenology unsurprising. It is clear that Budd persists in the propositional tradition of representation, but we shall examine his criticism nonetheless.

(c) Carl Moll

Depiction, he begins, demands an awareness of two things: both the marked surface and what is depicted (Budd, 2012: 186). When we are aware of both, we can correctly determine what a painting depicts. Were we not aware of the surface, we would think we were looking at the real thing. Were we not aware of what is depicted, representation would break down and we would be left with an incomprehensible arrangement of paint. Traditionally, work on representation tries to relate these two kinds of awareness, but the real problem, explains Budd (2012: 186), was always a knowledge-based one. The awareness of what is depicted is comprised of two parts: that we can see that x is depicted, and that we know what an x is in order to recognise it. Representation, when it succeeds, hangs on this knowing what before any concern about perceptual experiences. For a spectator to see a representation of snow, he must first know what snow is, then see that there is snow in the picture, and finally see that the picture is on a surface and is hence a picture and not actually snow.

Winter in Preibach (c) Carl Moll (1904)

Wollheim describes his special perceptual capacity, on which seeing-in is based, in two different ways as his theory develops. The early version describes it as two simultaneous experiences; the later version describes it as a single experience with two aspects. Budd treats each version in turn. The early stance states that seeing-in is based on a special perceptual capacity that involves simultaneously seeing two things: one that is present before the eyes and one that is not. The paint (or the rough texture of the wall) is what is directly visually perceived; the snow is also visually perceived but it is not there. Seeing what is not there, by Wollheim’s account, is a ‘cultivated experience,’ and here, argues Budd (2012: 196) lies the gap that Wollheim cannot fill perceptually. Wollheim can see that there is snow, but must bring his knowledge of what snow is to the picture. The what is hidden beneath the that.

Wollheim’s later account simply buries the problem even deeper, Budd (2012: 199) continues. In merging the two experiences into a single perceptual experience, twofoldness, with two aspects, a configurational and a recognitional aspect, Wollheim neglects to explain from whence this recognition arises, if not from some prior knowledge. The gap, the epistemic blank, reemerges in this subordinate part of the unified perceptual experience.

Let us examine this knowledge gap. For Wollheim (1987: 44; 89), it is crucial that all the resources that a spectator needs to engage with a painting are contained within that painting. This is because he wants to locate the meaning of a painting within itself, rather than use the painting as a tool for getting at the meaning of the world. The latter kind of position, held by proponents of symbol-driven theories like Nelson Goodman (1977: 241; 260; 265), see the painting and its elements as substitutions for concepts or objects in the world, as something that must always be interpreted in relation to the world. To ascribe a painting this kind of placeholder-status is to treat it propositionally: like language. Wollheim knows that we bring our own preconceptions to a painting, and he does not utterly discredit this type of meaning. But, he argues, it is not the most illuminating nor the primary type of meaning that paintings can have (Wollheim, 1987: 22). Indeed, we can engage meaningfully with a painting in spite of a lack in our knowledge.

At the sideboard (c) Carl Moll 1903

Consider a painter, perhaps from Australia, who has never seen snow. She has, however, seen paintings of snow, and has heard a few things about it. Everything she knows about snow has been gained from second-hand sources. Nevertheless, she may go on to convincingly paint a snowy picture that conveys the unmistakable airy softness of thick, freshly-fallen snow, its icy sparkle in the sun, its mellow blueness in the shade. This knowledge of what snow is seems very mysterious for it was gained through knowledge that certain pictures represent snow. Budd’s knowledge requirement is not as primary as he claims. The same might be argued for mythical creatures, of which we become acquainted through fabricated pictures. Importantly, it seems that this knowledge stems from perception in one way or another: sometimes perception of the world, of snow itself; sometimes perception of other pictures.

Nanay (2016: 51) directs us back to perception for an explanation of this knowledge gap. He adds some nuance to Wollheim’s twofoldness by extending it into ‘threefoldness’ (Nanay, 2016: 48). Not unlike Budd, he distinguishes between three aspects, with the crucial difference that he considers each of them to be accessed by a perceptual experience. He lists them thus:

A: the two-dimensional picture surface
B: the three-dimensional object the picture surface visually encodes
C: the three-dimensional depicted object

Like Budd, Nanay distinguishes between the that and the what: B is the painted snow, and C is snow in the world, or the village of Nußdorf itself, to return to Carl Moll. For representation to succeed, by Nanay’s (2016: 58) account, we only need to perceive A and B, not A and C. The unfortunate Australian painter who has never seen snow, and those unfamiliar with Vienna’s delightful circle of wine-producing hills, can still successfully identify these in pictures. But more than this: without any idea where Nußdorf is or what it looks like, a spectator can still see a well-defined if anonymous village replete with church spire in the picture. The picture is not wholly without meaning simply because the spectator cannot put a name to it or connect it to a referent in the world. Similarly, a picture of a person can be recognised as such and even quite arresting even if that person remains anonymous to us.

Blick über Nußdorf und Heiligenstadt (c) Carl Moll

Nanay (2016: 55) describes this knowledge-deficiency in terms of perception. To the spectator uninitiated in the wine- and wandering-oriented recreation offered by the Viennese hills, C (Nußdorf itself) remains both unperceived and unrepresented. For the Viennese who does recognise those particular hills, Nußdorf is represented, though not immediately before his eyes. The final step, explains Nanay (2016: 55) is this: while gazing upon the hushed horizon of the painting, Nußdorf itself is ‘quasi-perceptually represented.’ The two experiences of seeing (one of what is there: the paint; one of what is not there: Nußdorf) comprise two simultaneous perceptual states and their overlap, says Nanay (2016: 57), is what the distinct phenomenology of recognising what a picture represents amounts to. Recognition is not necessary for representation to succeed, but when it does occur Nanay argues that it is possible to account for it perceptually.

Not so for Budd (2012: 204), who insists that ‘whatever a picture depicts, you would not see it as a depiction of that thing if you were unaware of what that thing looks like from the point of view from which it has been depicted.’ Representation completely falls apart for him when the unlucky spectator has a particular gap in his knowledge. And yet, the hazy scene through Nußdorf and Heiligenstadt and on to the hills retains its representational charm, not dissolving entirely into a completely impenetrable textured abstraction. Representation proves more robust than this.

View on the Nussberg toward Heiligenstadt (c) Carl Moll (1905)

Indeed, should the uninitiated spectator succumb to the lure of the hills that Moll irresistibly conveys and travel to Vienna, he might gaze out at the real thing and note with some amazement that the hills do in fact possess certain qualities that he gathered from the paintings. That sometimes they are a deep, violet-blue with crisp edges, and other times they dissolve, pale and silvery, into a husky purple sky. Something of the sleepy wine-drenched atmosphere soaks the pictures in a way that is more honest than the real thing, and not entirely absent from the real thing.

Budd considers it an unjustifiable extravagance to turn to phenomenology and posit a new species of seeing. As we have considered, his account of representation remains rooted in language, and reexamining the experience of looking at a painting is an attractive alternative if one finds this kind of substitution-based interpretive meaning inadequate when it comes to painting. I would suggest that Wollheim’s move is far from extravagant, and could be extended further. Looking at a painting, at its variegated surface and its carefully conceived relationships, is very different from looking at whatever it ‘depicts,’ and not only because of the mysteriousness of seeing the three-dimensional in the two-dimensional. It is as though one is granted access to the perceptual experience of another, the artist. The artist is able to show far more about her perceptual experience by her deliberate selection, construction, augmentation and handling of the what. She is able to show something of how she experiences the hills, tinged with memory and longing, spiked with intense heat or blistering cold, as a solitary thinker or basking in delightful company. Painting, by its very nature, offers us perceptual experiences far beyond our ordinary visual encounters, specifically by merging it with the horizonal structures encountered by others: painters.

Obersdorf

 

Budd, Malcolm. 2012. Aesthetic Essays. Oxford University: Oxford.

Gombrich, Ernst. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An approach to a theory of symbols. Hackett: Indianapolis.

Nanay, Bence. 2016. Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception. Oxford University: Oxford.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an art. Thames and Hudson: London.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. 2008 [1952]. Notebooks. Oxford: Oxford.

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Lernen & Lehren

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have begun to teach drawing. It’s a dizzying experience: a job for which I have full responsibility—in the content, the delivery, the managing of people, organisation, physical premises, money and the division of time. It’s a careful balance to pull everything together. I am a performer, I set the tone. It’s humbling to see people trust my guidance, trust in what I do. I see, plötzlich, how my own teachers felt falsely idolised when they knew the limitations of their own work. But I also see a logical way to lay out the learnings I have gathered from many places over several years, a systematic way to present them to others, to share the discoveries that blew my mind.

Ivo

And what is it that we teach? When I think over my own artistic education, all its variegations and approximations, all the extended drawings and prolonged investigation, all the gentle praise and gentle corrections, all the forceful criticisms and all the times someone else took my pencil and violated my page—I would have to agree with Wittgenstein about the importance of experience. Artists are constantly making judgements, and cementing them in material form. Some judge better than others, because their knowledge is deeper. And this, like the knowledge that enables one to judge ‘the genuineness of expressions of feelings,’ is certainly learned, but not ‘by taking a course in it, but through experience’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: 227).

Claudia

Drawing is ultimately about making judgements, and I firmly believe that you can make intelligent ones if you have reasons behind the judgements you make. My driving instructor used to say, ‘Driving is only a little bit about knowing how to operate a car. Driving is mostly about making decisions, and I can only show you how to begin to make those decisions for yourself.’ An experienced draughtsman draws on years of accumulated knowledge when he decisively puts a line down. The trouble is that this knowledge cannot be transmitted through words alone, even if it can be explained. Intellectual understanding of properties of prisms and spheres and cylinders, of perspective and anatomy, is not enough to be able to draw: you must constantly use this understanding, for drawing is an act. Only once your intellect and your motor skills align can you be said to have acquired this particular knowledge, and it is experience that marries the two.

Short poses

‘Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this?’ asks Wittgenstein (1953: 227). How does one go about transmitting this knowledge, about conveying these sublte things that one has collected over the years from many sources, from countless painstaking investigations? How is it that I can be so bold as to offer a course in drawing? Things that I know by sight are difficult to put into words; anatomical names fall away as I silently use the visual knowledge rather than speak about it. I hold tin cans and boxes at exaggerated angles and grasp clumsily at words to express something about an elusive three-dimensional rhythm through space, trying to argue that we can transcend reality and, through art, inject even more life into life itself—wait, what? I slow down: I can isolate tasks, and focus my students on one idea, and thus wrap their shaky hands around a steady tool, but their minds are more active than their wrists. Wittgenstein (1953: 227) remains hopeful about teaching one to recognise the genuineness of expressions of feelings, and I too remain hopeful about passing on the ability to draw:

‘Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip.—This is what ‘learning’ [Lernen] and ‘teaching’ [Lehren] are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right.’

So much is cast into the ether, so much grain scattered in the hope that one or two seeds will germinate in a fertile mind. I try to rain down tips on my students, carefully hung together tips, carefully organised and logically arranged, but I know that most will scatter like seeds and few will take root. Successful teaching, successful learning, demands the improbably fortunate meeting of a knowledgeable mind with a humble, hungry one, and even then most of the substance is lost, washing over the over-tasked student, who can actually only learn through active, sustained and repeated doing. The key is patient repetition, and providing a guided space in which to gain experience, gently corrected experience. I make my students draw as much as possible. All my clever explanations will come to nothing if they cannot discover the truths themselves through the very doing.

Copies after Bammes

Copies after Bammes

Besides smoothing the path and attempting to remove discouraging obstacles, besides dropping tips like crumbs, the best I can hope to transmit to my students is a love of drawing and for drawings. If I can invite them a little way into my private sphere where drawings and paintings work their intoxicating magic on me, I can bring them to the best teacher of all. For living in art is the firmest way to grow one’s experience; filling one’s head with it such that one’s hand can’t hold still, but itches to mimic those curves and to reproduce those shapes and in doing so to imprint the physical knowledge in one’s own body. As Rilke (2006 [1903]: 21) once urged a young poet, on recommending him his most treasured and life-changing books:

‘Leben Sie eine Weile in diesen Büchern, lernen Sie davon, was Ihnen lernenswert scheint, aber vor allem lieben Sie sie.’

‘Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all: love them.’ I will do my best to impart knowledge to my students, but more than this, I will encourage them to slowly, steadily, concentratedly build their experience, and most of all, I will try to show them what it is to love drawing. And I can only hope that tentatively inviting others into my private mental space will strengthen my own judgements and help me to stand by them with even greater conviction.

Bammes hands

Copies after Bammes

 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 2006. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine junge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Details about my classes are on my website.

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The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent

bookshelf

I love books, and there is a small cluster of core books that accompany me on my journey to painterly enlightenment which I would heartily recommend to other painters. These are the books I turn to again and again: reference books, philosophical books, history books and diaries which have profoundly shaped my learning and my views on art. If you need to be your own teacher for the moment, there are some wise dudes you can depend on for guidance.

Bammes

Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

This book has consumed me since I first met it, and travels the world with me. Herr Bammes, who taught in Dresden, has a clear way of describing the human body in simplified volumes and muscle groups that help one think structurally about the body. Rather than overwhelming yourself by starting out with hard-core anatomy, working through Bammes’s guide will help you ease into more complex anatomical study by giving you a broader understanding upon which to hang such knowledge. He begins with exercises on proportion and movement, setting a firm foundation of both accuracy and expressive liveliness. From here, he explains the parts of the body in greater detail, with many of his own examples reducing the forms to blocks in perspective. His diagrams on knees and feet in particular are works of teacherly genius. Bammes diagrammatically explains the mechanics of the bones and muscle groups, as well as reducing their construction to simple linear frames. Right from the beginning he gives the student a firm way of indicating a solid foot, which when rehearsed and developed only serves to cement the structural understanding.

Says Bammes (2010: 222), ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision.’ Yet he (2010: 10) never loses sight of why we demand so much of ourselves: ‘When we draw people, we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience.’

The margins of the book are peppered with a fine selection of master drawings, including those of many lesser-known German draughtsmen, while all examples are drawn by the elegant and controlled hand of Bammes himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m still working slowly through it, using it as a companion to all further anatomy study, and revisiting earlier chapters again and again.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

Goldfinger

Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

This book is an investment, but a good anatomy book is a necessary tool in your belt if you’ve any real interest in the figure. The delightfully named Goldfinger turns his Midas touch to one bone, one muscle at a time, displaying many angles and overlaps and cross-sections. The text explains function, origin and insertion and many other enlightening aspects of each part, but clear drawings illustrate most of the information. These drawings are accompanied by some photographs of an extremely ripped model, to help locate things under the often-obfuscatory surface of flesh. And several straight-lined diagrams explain difficult-to-conceptualise mechanics or simplifications to help remember the main features of a part.

Goldfinger (1991:. 64) encourages a deep understanding of the figure, not just a grasping after surface variations:

‘During complex actions, note the sequence of the contraction and relaxation of the numerous muscles that are functioning. Observe the action, visualise the skeleton deep in the body and what changes are taking place at its joints, then determine which muscles are working.’

This book is an artist’s dictionary. It will also make you sound clever at parties because you will learn a lot of scientific words.

Goldfinger, Eliot. 1991. Human anatomy for artists: The elements of form. Oxford University: Oxford.

Nelson

Robert Nelson: The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique

This book has affected me deeply. It made me appreciate how genuinely scholarly painting and drawing could be, while never losing sight of how physical and sensual it is. Nelson’s (2010: 27-28) project is an admirable one of finding a way to unite the studio and academic practice:

‘I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.’

Nelson writes knowledgeably and generously on delightfully mundane topics, validating painterly excitement at painterly preoccupations: on drawing, on composition, on edges, on shadow. Yet he is able to articulate better than most artists what it is that is so thrilling and relevant about these topics: that painting, not merely writing, may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (2010: 10); that ‘drawing, in short, is a deliberateness in seeing which declares itself and argues what it wants to define’ (2010: 55), that it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually’ (2010: 54).

Every time I pick this book up I am filled afresh with new thoughts directly related to the practice of painting, and intellectually energised as well. We can speak clearly, intelligently and unashamedly about the physical and visual aspects of our work, not just about concepts and symbols and statements. For our work does make investigations by means other than words and symbols, and we would do well to argue for the standing of our visual language.

Dali

Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

The diaries of artists are pure gold. Sometimes they divulge their painting secrets, or elaborate on what, specifically, drives them wild about Rubens, or, as in the case of Dali, bestow an entire philosophy upon you. ‘The uniform is essential in order to conquer,’ Dali (1966: 53) proclaims (Dali only makes proclamations. This is in itself a lesson). ‘Throughout my life, the occasions are very rare when I have abased myself to civilian clothes. I am always dressed in the uniform of Dali.’ And to a young man who is willing to accept the sort of despicable, filthy, poverty-stricken life an artist is expected to lead he admonishes with devilish wisdom (1966: 53-4):

‘If you want to eat beans and bread every day, it will be very expensive. You must earn it by working very hard. On the other hand, if you can get used to living on caviar and champagne, it doesn’t cost a thing.’

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

‘Caviar and champagne are things that are offered you free by certain very distinguished ladies, wonderfully perfumed and surrounded by the most beautiful furniture in the world. But to get them, you must be quite different from the you who comes to see Dali with dirty fingernails, while I have received you in uniform.’

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.

Gombrich

Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

When you find this ubiquitous book for a couple of quid in a charity shop, buy it immediately. The Viennese-born, Oxford-dwelling, self-professed non-art-historian wrote this book as honestly and clearly as he could, intending it to avoid the hormonal scorn of the teenage audience for whom it was written, and to whom the book intends to introduce art. The premise of this book is that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (1972: 4) and that a history of artists thus reveals a saga of cosmically different aims and forces. Gombrich trips lightly and eagerly over his words, ever able to see merit in the visual works of humankind. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for and appreciation of our varied collective efforts. Everything has its place–and time, rather than linearly measuring our progress, merely greets us with different demands. Learn to truly appreciate art, to discover the joy of paintings and sculpture and architecture, and instantly become ten times smarter.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Dewey

John Dewey: Art as experience

This surprising book throws heavy punches. It clearly expresses the things about art that make you angry and explains why they should go away. It could only hurt your foes more if you socked them in the face with it.

First of all, Dewey discusses the mysteriousness of art—its detachment from life, its artificial isolation in museums, its role of showcasing imperial conquests. Rather than being removed from our experience, he argues, art should be in the thick of it: it should be the very substance of our lives. ‘The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations,’ he argues (1934: 6), ‘are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.’ If we live in a world of cheap thrills and throwaway entertainment, it is because we have been told we can’t have nice things, locking them away as mysterious artefacts of Art.

Dewey also addresses the strange introspective tendencies of contemporary artists. Not only has art been excluded from ordinary experience, but ‘because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest’ (1934: 9). The non-integrated modern artist is forced to turn to ‘a peculiar esthetic “individualism”’—relying on ever more obscure ‘self-expression’ (1934: 9). Art becomes even more foreign to ordinary experience. Seriously, is anyone reading this book?

And in case you were willing to defend art’s reincarnation as ‘self-expression,’ Dewey has a few sucker-punches lined up for thoughtless paint-spilling, which he considers little more than ‘discharge’ (1934: 62):

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

Dewey demands serious and honest thought from artists, and sees their intellectual processes as differing only in emphasis from that of the scientist (1934: 15). The main difference between the intelligent artist and the scientist is her medium: rather than working in abstracted symbols, ‘the artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it’ (1934: 16).

The only question left to ask is, how did art fester into the hideous mess presently molesting our eyes while this book has been kicking around for eighty years?

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Galenson

David Galensen: Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity

If you are discouraged at not yet being famous, this soberly-written book ought to give you a good dose of optimism and dispel a lot of silly ideas about creativity and inspiration. Instead of resorting to wild speculation, Galenson has spent years doing research into the way artists work and describes two broad approaches. He calls them the ‘conceptual’ (or deductive) and the ‘experimental’ (inductive). In identifying whether you are good at quickly synthesising ideas and conceiving entirely new ones out of them, or whether you are consumed by a single idea which drives all your investigations, or rather somewhere along this spectrum, you will free yourself from expectations and judgements that don’t actually apply to you. And that means you can just get down to work instead of taping brazen Picasso quotes to your wall.

‘Aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ (2006: 166).

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Clark

Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

I am steadily drawing my way through this book. Not all nudes were created alike, and as you progress through this book you will gain an appreciation for the subtleties of purpose that the bared human form has risen to meet. ‘The English language, with its elaborate generosity,’ Clark (1985: 1) gushes at the outset, ‘distinguishes between the naked and the nude.’ From the outset, he is at pains to emphasise that the nude, rather than being the very essence of art, is ‘an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in 17th-century Italy’ (1985: 3).

Our artistic tradition is heavily shaped by the elegant foundation laid by the Greeks, and not just through their mythology. I have been amazed, however, at how the gods and goddesses effortlessly step from one role into another—with lion-skin-wearing Hercules transforming into the honey-eating-from-inside-the-lion Samson, with Apollo and David interchangeable youthful heroes in the mind of Michelangelo. But beneath the stories themselves lies the earthy Greek philosophy which embodies every idea and passion in human form (1985: 20; 21):

‘The Greeks attached great importance to their nakedness. … It implies the conquest of an inhibition which oppresses all but the most backward people; it is like a denial of original sin.’

Of course, the other half of our heritage is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the nude suffers painfully under the Christian worldview, disrupted though never entirely abandoned (1985: 203): ‘While the Greek nude began with the heroic body proudly displaying itself on the palestra, the Christian nude began with the huddled body cowering in consciousness of sin.’ The awkwardness of our artistic tradition seems to rest on this unhappy marriage of earthy and heavenly philosophies.

Don’t expect a dry historical account of statues, though. Clark winds back and forth, attending in turn to Apollo and Venus, energy and pathos, ecstasy and the grotesque. The book is full of pictures to copy in the absence of life models, and will open your eyes when you return to the gallery to dutifully copy from the antique.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Sketchbook

Sketchbook

Words, words, words. Time to draw.

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Heightened vitality

Museumsinsel, Berlin

Museumsinsel, Berlin

I was so smiled upon by fortune that I lived, for the month of November, in Berlin, with someone very dear to me. Our life was a flurry of activity, of love and painting, chilled grey days and toasty croissant breakfasts, U-Bahn trips populated by the most curious characters, endless halls of incredible paintings, evenings of Aktzeichnen and steaming blueberry wine and hot cherry beer out of terracotta mugs. We were quickly absorbed into this energetic city.

Liebe

We gladly sought out labyrinthine artist studio complexes during open studio and exhibition evenings. These were odd experiences, as I generally found myself at a loss when trying to speak with other artists. While physicists might be expected to find some common language with other physicists, artists seem to lack much overlap in either practice or ideas: each is trying to do something in an entirely unconventional way, and each is an artist and –. An artist and a faux-physicist. An artist and a nutritionist. An artist and a geographer. Being an artist who works with paint, not with stale cheese, torn up posters, or contour maps, and lacking a sound understanding of quantum physics (though I suspect, so too was my new artist acquaintance), I was able to have neither intellectual nor practice-based conversation with my apparent colleagues. We are a confused constellation of makers with no true common field. ‘Art’ truly has no meaning; it is not a discipline.

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The ever-thoughtful Gombrich (1972: 4) once wrote, ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ And a similar impulse drives me to investigate just what makes one an artist, for perhaps by coming at it this way we can better appreciate what good art consists in. Since in these volatile times anything may be branded art, it becomes harder and harder to engage with art, much less appreciate it or gain anything by it. I want to contend that artists need to take a long, hard look at what their job is. My own intuition is that the artist is not an activist, contrary to common opinion. Yet I am certain that artists could strip back all the pseudo-philosophy, tenuous threads with string-theory and shameless narcissism and establish just what makes art a distinct discipline rather than an embarrassing parasite in the bowels of society. I would like to propose a place to start.

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Distinct from musicians, distinct from writers, visual artists are presumably offering something visual to the world. Before we can produce something to be gazed upon, we must ourselves partake in a vast amount of looking. We live in a highly literate society, yet nonetheless one that increasingly relies on visual cues and shortcuts. The artist, in my view, is a person with a distinct ability with the visual: they notice sights that slip under the very noses of those who have important reports to contend with or a head constantly interpreting the world through calculations. Rather than being inward-looking, the artist turns her eyes upon the physical world, appreciating fortuitous arrangements of shape, of space, of colour. Appreciating individuality in appearance, noting cloud formations, watching shadows fade and flicker. Being amazed by the contrast in hue from one plane of a building to another; being absorbed in the mood a hushed evening light casts over a park. Artists are physical creatures, living thoroughly in their bodies, alive to every spark of sensation. This somewhat eccentric revelling in the sheer delight of having a body, of physically intersecting with the world, is what gives artists insights that others often miss. The same sensations are available to all of us, but some of us need more help to notice them. This is where the attentive artist finds herself needed.

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The artist is, as John Dewey would phrase it, grounded in experience. The artist’s engagement with the world is not, he argues, qualitatively different from that of the scientist’s; rather, ‘the difference between the esthetic and the intellectual is … one of the place where emphasis falls in the constant rhythm that marks the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings’ (1934: 15). Dewey considers the artistic and scientific modes of thought to differ merely in tempo: the scientist does not have a monopoly on thought, and the artist does not hold exclusive rights to meaning and elusive poetic insights. ‘The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs’ (1934: 16).

kunstlerbedarf

Rainbow of thoughts

 

Not only are artists equipped with a particular penchant for observation, for a certain ability to be drenched in the present, but their very thoughts are often visual rather than linguistic or even symbolic. The language of an artist is composed of forms, colours, volumes, shapes, tones, textures. The language itself is very physical, can be moulded with one’s hands in a way that other languages cannot. ‘The artist,’ as Dewey (1934: 16) describes it, ‘does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in.’

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

The significance of the physicality of art, of its grounding in perception and experience, is extremely non-trivial. This is an understanding that undermines much contemporary art and its preoccupation with self-expression, shameless self-adoration and cults of personality. For the ‘heightened vitality’ of experience is anything but autobiographical: ‘Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’ (1934: 19).

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

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Reality and Nudity

Today I tried out walking around the house naked. It felt strange at first – then I could almost forget that I had no clothes. I wrote, read, played guitar. Then I got a bit cold so I put my clothes back on.

It’s funny how everything is an anticlimax. Even things that aren’t, are. You think I’m being obtuse, but what I mean is that even when something is amazing and excellent, everything you hoped and dreamed, the actual experience of it is always somehow lessened by its own reality.

When you conceive of it in your mind, you conceive of the act in a pure form, just it, nothing else. When you experience the event, reality imposes on you a myriad of other secondary experiences, little things that you wouldn’t have imagined, things that don’t add to the event but are just there, detracting from the event by distracting from it. Reality is not a single experience but a compound one, and we do not experience a single idea in pure form, but the whole reality of it, the idea dressed in the dirty clothes of practical existence.

Then, long afterwards, our memories lose grip on those unimportant details and preserve only the relevant thing, being the pure event, and we are back to viewing it as an ideal form, although now it is better because it actually happened. A dream makes an event possible, then the event is realized, which makes it ugly, but then it is dressed up again for posterity, by our memories, dressed up in the beautifying shroud of time, like makeup on a corpse.

Oops – isn’t that too morbid a metaphor? No, I’m going to leave it there. Aren’t memories corpses after all? The dream of the event is like the dream of a child in a mother’s mind. The life not yet lived is a pure, ideal, beautiful life. The event itself, experienced in the present moment, is ugly and rough. It happens however it happens. The world accommodates a life, the living of it is approximate to the dream, closer to a comedy of errors, striving to touch perfection but always having the perfect edges splintered off by the restrictions of the truth. Then when time is up, the event shifts into memory, no longer able to exist and change and be imperfect, but preserved in a cloudy amber that becomes more cloudy with time, softening the errors and the splinters until the vague image left in the mind is the same as that which would have been left by the perfect event, and we choose to remember it as such.

Perfection is death, because death is the returning of imperfect life to the void from which it came, and the void is nothing, and nothing is perfect. I thought it would be great to be naked. I got naked, and it was okay, but a bit cold, so I put my clothes on. Now I remember the event with fondness, as a great experience. I recommend it to all of you.

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