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December 19, 2002

One Size Doesn't Fit All


Going through the deluge of comments on my recent posting on Photography and Painting, what struck me most, other than the degree of passion aroused by the discussion, was the way in which many of the comments restated the drawing vs. color debates of the French Academy of the 18th and 19th centuries.

(To ultra-briefly recapitulate the war of the Rubenistes and the Poussinistes: does color make a shoddy appeal to our base, sensual natures while drawing speaks to our nobler, intellectual selves, or is color a critical artistic means of avoiding our overly rational intellects and communicating directly with our deeper emotions? In actuality, this discussion was by no means new even three hundred years ago: I recall a remark by Tintoretto to his son in the 16th century: “While beautiful color may sell paintings down by the Grand Canal, great art is made by strong drawing, which can only be learned by laboring deep into the night.”)

It was one of those great controversies that can go on forever—and will, because both positions are right, or can be for different people.

There is a line of dialogue from Pulp Fiction which goes (more or less): “Which do you like better, Elvis or the Beatles? A lot of people like both, but nobody ever liked them exactly the same.” In the film two people who had been thrown together were using this distinction as a useful shortcut to learn more about each other. Elvis people, in other words, are a different subspecies from Beatles people.

The same could be said about the two camps in the centuries-old Raphael vs. Michelangelo debate. I remember following one critic who was obviously intelligent, broadly knowledgeable about art and in love with the subject, and being puzzled because I never once agreed with his opinion over many years. It was all explained one day when he admitted to an instinctive preference for Raphael over Michelangelo (the reverse of my instinctive preference.) Eureka! I thought. He belongs to the other tribe of humanity!

This principle is by no means limited to art. The Myers-Briggs personality test, for example, sorts people into some 16 different categories as a result of four polarities (introvert-extrovert, sensory-intuitive, thinking-feeling, judgmental-pragmatic.) What’s interesting is exactly how different, in terms of social behavior and motivations, the people in these different categories are. One of those ideas I’ve always wanted to pursue-–but never quite got around to—was figuring out if artistic taste corresponds to these Myers-Briggs categories. (I have a sneaking suspicion that some graduate student wrote his Ph.D. thesis on this subject back in 1958, but I can dream of having an original thought, can’t I?)

It would make sense to extend this idea to politics. For a large chunk of humanity, the main motivation in their work life is a desire for security—beginning, middle and end. Others are driven to make their own ideas and thoughts (good or bad) a reality. Is it wise to have one “welfare state” for everyone? Why not a range of governmental options for people of different personality types? The “Swedish” group would pay very high taxes and get womb-to-tomb security, while the “Hong Kong” group would pay low taxes and receive far fewer governmental benefits. The one-size-fits-all approach to social policy would seem guaranteed to dis-satisfy more people than it satisfies. Come on, I say we give it a try.



posted by Friedrich at December 19, 2002


Wouldn't it be awful if artistic tastes corresponded almost exactly with personality types? On the other hand, wouldn't it be kind of wonderful, too?

Speaking of old-perennial, never-to-be-resolved art "arguments," there's also the old romantic-vs.-classic one. What do you think of Camille Paglia's case that Western art can be best understood as an ongoing discussion/argument between those two impulses (or tastes, or instincts, or preferences, or whatevers)? I kind of enjoy it -- it strikes me as a lot more useful than many other ways of viewing Western art.

I forget my Meyers/Briggs type. Damn. More a drawer than a colorist, I'm afraid -- where color's concerned, I tend to need a lot of handholding, though the ecstatic element appeals. (Partly explaining my love of Degas, I think -- he's mainly a drawing-type, but with at the same time such an exquisite color sense ... ) And more (at this point in my life, anyway) a classicism than a romanticism type.

I tend to love all these ways of slicing and dicing personality types. I spent a week not long ago playing with another scheme called the Enneagram. Fairly bullshit and New Age, but surprisingly useful too. I also love those simple 2-part folk polarities, too: "there are two kinds of people, those who ... and those who..." They can be amusing and useful too, or so I find.

How's about you? Drawing or color?

Now that I think about it, I get confused over the Raphael vs. Michaelangelo opposition. Raphael's more of a colorist, but he's also more contained, serene and sedate, which makes him more of a classicist -- not the typical combo. Where M is all drawing and turbulence and muscles. Hmm. What does it signify to prefer one to the other?

And will you still continue to be my blogging buddy if I admit I prefer Raphael?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 19, 2002 12:21 PM

I have no problem with people liking, or even preferring, Raphael to Michelangelo. After many years of looking at both of them, I can see it both ways. I just meant that it seems to say something about a person's aesthetic sense whether they instinctively go for ideated sensations of muscular activity in their art or whether they instinctively go for more purely visual pleasures like composition, color and a sense of space. One of the problems with using individuals as shorthand in these dichotomies is that great artists have a way of combining all sorts of tendencies. I mean, it's not like Rubens wasn't a terrific draftsman or that Poussin had no interest in color. And it's not like Michelangelo couldn't compose or use color emotively or Raphael couldn't do nude-in-action art. Actually, I've wondered if it would make sense to devise an visual Myers-Briggs test: show people a series of paired pictures and ask them to state their preferences. What dimensions would be worth exploring? Color? Composition? Figuration? Hmmm, suggestions anyone?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 19, 2002 2:41 PM

Nude figures vs. clothed figures?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 19, 2002 2:45 PM

I would be very very interested to skim that dissertation (no one could possible READ a dissertation about the Meyers-Briggs, could they?). I think there's something to the temperament / taste connection in art, but I'd be hard pressed to work it out myself.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler on December 20, 2002 5:19 PM

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