Throwing up on Kokoschka

March 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Throwing up on Kokoschka:  I don’t know whether the notion is Yasmine Reza’s or Roman Polanski’s, but it is precious: I want to every time I see it. (In Carnage).



Seven not nice reflections on an art show

January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment


Last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:

“Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”

Now: note that among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.



Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).


A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.


Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.


Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease.  But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.


This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma:  is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable.  The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.

But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains.  Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most.  Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.


Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.

A very short history of ugliness (2)

June 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

Nineteenth-century’s adventure with ugliness may have begun with Goya — not a terribly talented painter (a euphemism), but one who felicitously did in the end find a fit outlet for his “ungifts” — in the Horrors of War.

(Ugly is rather good for horror.  Goya wasn’t exactly inventing its use for the purpose:  Donatello already did that with his Mary Magdalene.  But spare a thought for poor artists:  it is difficult to do something truly original in any field of life:  it’s all mostly been done).

Although one wishes Goya had been more immediately successful in finding an appropriate employment for his skills — and had spared us his Mayas (equally ugly whether dressed or undressed); and all those portraits of frightened little people against threatening, dirty nondescript backgrounds; for all that, one is happy for him to have arrived home in the end.

And even, to a small degree, for himself:  can now walk into a room with the Horrors of War, spend three minutes there shuddering, and then promptly leave relieved that the experience is over.

It is difficult to be happy for Delacroix, however. He seems to have never found a home for his special “gifts” since even when he paints horrors of war (e.g. Chios) they aren’t especially horrific, just ugly. One can only conclude that ugliness suited his psyche; that he was — in terms of our simile — a little perverse. That he actually liked what he painted. And that those who liked his work were perverse also.  And why not.  I am a liberal fellow and people turned on by ugliness do not shock me anymore than gays do. De perversibus non est disputandum.

Incidentally, Delacroix worshiped Goya. (Figures).

He also promoted Courbet.

It was Courbet who raised ugliness to the status of aesthetic principle.  He did so consciously and, I believe, out of calculation. Courbet was a master of the technique of success de scandale; quite possibly its inventor. He realized that nothing scandalized people like ugliness and he painted with the intention to be ugly. There are paintings by him which suggest that the problem was not congenital — that he was in fact capable of perceiving and painting pretty things prettily — only chose not to. There was simply more fame and more money in ugly: this was his aesthetic catechism.

Why there should be money in it is in itself interesting: art historians note correctly that there was a socio-economic dimension to this strategy: the wholesale rise of the nouveaux riches — the Don Calogeros — that’s Don Calogero Sedara to you — who recognized themselves in Courbet’s paintings and who accepted that merely being painted — no matter how — elevated them to equality with Old Money. (“A painting is a painting is a painting.”)

Some philosophers today like to argue that this new aesthetic was not ugly, just differently-beautiful, and that the support given Courbet in effect an aesthetic claim that “we find this beautiful, no matter what you old snobs think”. I think the view is mistaken: a practical race, unaffected by useless notions of ought, the nouvris didn’t mind to be painted as they were.  Why, there probably was a pride in that: :I have made my way in the world by virtue of what I am; what I am therefore must be worth admiring. So what if I have short legs, bad breath, and my wife’s hands are red?”

There is a pride in the ugly body parts despite their ugliness; indeed, because of it. (“I have made it despite my disadvantages”).  This attitude denies neither the existence nor nature of ugliness, but takes pride, why, glories in it.

Next:  After Courbet, deluge

A brief outline of the history of ugliness (1)

May 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ugliness as an uncontrolled experiment

One possible interpretation of the history of European Art in the nineteenth century forces itself upon you as you read its various histories (and look at the illustrations):  that it was an experiment with the aesthetic of ugliness; and that the experiment has gone horribly wrong.

The simile might be to an innocent child learning to stimulate its anus for sexual pleasure.  Just as gentle stroking of the anus can indeed be pleasurable, so limited use of mild ugliness can be effective in art, not perhaps so much for the shudder it gives, but for the way it makes following beauty stand out even more. Some things — like mountain-climbing, or being mercilessly scrubbed down in a Turkish hamam — feel best when they stop; and sometimes, the experience of having them stop is worth having them in the first place:  spending half an hour with Goya’s Horrors of War becomes deeply rewarding the instant we walk out of the room.

But, unchecked, daring experiments develop according to their own dynamic; and some uncontrolled dynamics, like the dynamic of a speeding driverless car on a winding mountain road, can only end one way.  In our metaphor:  gentle stroking leads to probing, probing to penetration, and, before you know it we’re into incontinence, piles, and colonic cancer.  (I.e. start out with a little ugliness in Goya and end up with nothing but in Schiele and Munch).

To guard against the disastrous consequences of uncontrolled experiments, the divine Pythius Lycegenes gave us the commandment μηδέν άγαν:  nothing in excess.  Alas, the nineteenth century, like a bunch of high-schoolers going on strike, embraced Rousseau flattering dicta, and refused to read the classics for instruction.  They went for self-discovery instead.

And there’s the rub:  any discovery is only as valuable as the thing it throws up.  Given the nature of human nature, self-discovery throws up mostly nastiness.  It is perhaps not ignorant but self-knowing of the human race to avoid any closer brush with… self-knowledge.

Next:  The three prophets of ugliness:  Goya, Delacroix, Courbet

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