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May 13, 2005

Donald Pittenger on Flair in Art, Part One

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Our friend Donald Pittenger's recent posting on illustration and fine art elicited a lot of interest as well as many interesting comments -- all of which has prompted Donald to do some musing about a classic art-question: what's the role of skill in art? I'm pleased that Donald has pulled together his thoughts on the topic. Here's Part One.

Skill and Flair in Painting, Part One
by Donald Pittenger

In a previous post I perhaps rashly suggested that skill and flair were important factors in artistic quality. For example, whereas I found Norman Rockwell a technically accomplished painter, I couldn't categorize his work as being truly first-rate because it lacked what I called "flair." These notions of skill and flair inspired several comments to my article. The present post is an attempt to respond to these comments by dealing with the concepts in more detail.

By Norman Rockwell

What some commenters said.

Billy Tantra noted:

I've got a professor who says that it's only insecure people who want an obvious sign of 'skill' in the art they look at. According to him, people who are in the know have no need for that.
pollack-convergence.jpg By Jackson Pollack

Miss Grundy states:

Okay, as a total ignoramus about art, I'll bite -- if we're not appreciating some measure of skill, then what are we appreciating? Or are we somehow divorcing "art" or "artistry" from "skill"? (You see how ignorant I am.) … This is what the evidently insecure, unwashed masses fix on when they scorn modern painting, right? "I could have done that!" "My three-year-old could have done that!" And then are able to dismiss Painting as a complete hoax -- "at least drawing and illustration shows some skill" … "Someone help me understand this. I look at a Jackson Pollack and *do* see skill/artistry, because I know if I dripped paint on a canvas, in a million years, it would never look like his."
By Edward Hopper

Benjamin Hemric observed:

I've always loved Norman Rockwell. In a way I'm surprised that he wasn't more popular with modernists because he seems to me to be a supreme "symbol" maker and creator of iconographic images (something that I imagine the modernists value highly). In my opinion, his paintings went beyond realism. They captured and communicated an "essence" (and were therefore similar to another favorite artist of mine, Edward Hopper). I think if his message had been more obscure (like, to an extent, Edward Hopper's), popular among fewer people (more elite) and had been a leftist one (rather than an establishment one), modernists would have hailed him as one of the great artists of our time … I'm surprised that people feel that Rockwell lacked "flair." Are there examples to show what is meant by "flair"? Or, using another approach, how might his illustrations have been done differently if he had done them with more flair?

I apologize to the commenters for leaving sometimes substantial parts out due to limited space; interested readers should go to the archived post to read everything.

Is skill a subordinate quality?

Let's begin with Billy Tantra's professor's contention that manifest artistic skill is unnecessary for art (although it might be present). I won't get into the perhaps impossible task of defining art; a more productive approach is to study how different people choose to define what art and artistic quality are.

Tantra's professor seems to be a Modernist or Post-Modernist. I'll speculate that he believes a quality work of art possesses one or more of the following traits:

  • (1) The artist who made the art was "creative", that is, he did something that had non-trivial new aspects compared to previous art. Moreover, creativity is the most important artistic consideration: think Picasso.
  • (2) The artist put "heart" or emotion into the creation of the work, and the quality of that emotion is more important to the success of the work than whatever skill might have been used: think Van Gogh. Note that similar arguments are used in the Pop Music world, for example 1960-ish commentary on the singing style of Louis Armstrong as opposed to that of more technically-accomplished singers such as, say, Perry Como.
  • (3) The work of art has intrinsic aspects that determine its quality; examples are color usage, composition, the manner that paint was applied, etc. Whether this was due the skill of the artist or was simply accidental is irrelevant.
  • (4) The artist was making a courageous statement about [insert name of political cause, victim group, power relationship, etc.] and this courage merits our honor regardless of the appearance of the work itself. Related to this are didactic art of all stripes and the matter of how well the artist carried off the point he was trying to make. No doubt there are other possibilities, but these should be enough to set the scene.

I won't go so far as to say that such considerations don't matter when a painting is assessed (let me stick to painting in this article), but I think they are secondary to skill or craftsmanship. Of course I'm making the object itself the primary focus and not some external context or narrative related to that object (see Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word" regarding the relationship between intrinsic qualities and intellectualized context).

Aside from the possibility that a fine painting resulted from sheer accident, I can't see how artistic skill (or its lack) can be separated from the appearance of the finished work. A painting is a creation. It is made by somebody who has a concept of what the completed work might look like and who tries his best to succeed in realizing that concept. A failed painting can be the result of a flawed concept, a lack of skill required to realize the concept, or bad concept and poor execution. I'm leaving aside questions of artistic fashions and the historical-developmental era when the work was created.

Consider as a counter-example the not-so-farfetched possibility that an artist's concept is to make a painting that is "a gawdawful ugly piece of junk that scandalizes those establishment prudes while exposing their capitalist-imperialist hypocrisy regarding the true struggle of artistic genius." In creating the painting that realizes this concept, the artist will necessarily be exercising conscious intellectual and physical control even in the task of producing ugliness. Furthermore, the attempt to consciously create ugliness backhandedly honors the concepts of artistic beauty and the ability to create it.

So skill, craft, whatever word one chooses, is intrinsic to painting and cannot be ignored or dismissed. Obviously it is not the only criterion for evaluation, and I agree with the professor on this. But the professor seems to be using the concept of "skill" as a stand-in for representational art. So in slyly slamming representational art and those who like it he downplays its importance, holding that there exists an enlightened elite who know better than to consider such foolishness.

Basically, if Tantra's paraphrase captures the professor's meaning, then the professor strikes me as being the insecure one, grasping at sophistry and snottiness to maintain his PoMo status and death-grip on the untenable.

Skill and non-representational and semi-representational painting

Miss Grundy's point regarding Jackson Pollack is well-taken. I've never attempted a drip-painting, but I suspect that creating an interestingly composed and colored drip painting isn't easy. Plus, some of Pollack's paintings were huge, and he had the unusual artistic problem of not stepping on fresh paint while working. Pollack's essential drip-painting skills included

  • (1) color selection,
  • (2) compositional sense, and
  • (3) the physical coordination needed to produce a desired drip-effect.

The first two points are common to all painting and the third was peculiar to his sub-species of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, perhaps neither Miss Grundy nor I nor her imaginary art-show gawkers would be able to execute a decent drip-painting. At first. But factors (1) and (2) can be taught to many people, and the third is to a large degree a matter of practice, as is any skill.

Abstract painting of the non-drip variety deals with the same factors as Pollack's work except that for (3), skill at brush-work can normally be substituted for skill at dripping from paint cans or mixing sticks or whatever.

Now let's step back from abstraction towards the direction of representational painting -- but not all the way. And to make it fair, I'll leave aside the sometimes cartoony-looking PoMo stuff and instead deal with the likes of acknowledged masters Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani.

By Pablo Picasso
By Henri Matisse
By Amadeo Modigliani

Full-disclosure time: I never much liked the work of Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani. When I was in my teens and twenties, I was receptive to the idea of liking them, but never was able to pull it off. (Please don't try to persuade me to like their "archetypical" paintings: the task is hopeless. I can appreciate what they were trying to accomplish along with their roles in the history of art, but that's as far as it goes. Understanding does not always lead to liking.)

The first thing I need to do is acknowledge that they were "inventive" or "creative" or even perhaps "cunning" in raising apparently crudely-drawn images of people and objects to the level of Fine Art. As I mentioned in previous Blowhards posts, creativity had become the Holy Grail of art-school training in my undergraduate days (in the late '50s) at the expense of technical training.

Given that we know what female nudes by Matisse and Modigliani look like, just how hard is it to paint a female nude in the general style they used? I contend it is fairly easy for someone with moderate talent, a little art training, and modest artistic skills to do so. Painting a convincing representational female nude posed against an elaborate background (not just a drop-sheet) requires far more knowledge and skill. Why do I claim this?

In the first place, classic Matisse and Modigliani paintings are essentially color compositions using comparatively "flat" painting -- achieving a three-dimensional look was either a secondary consideration or was consciously avoided. (This gets into the debate about whether painters should even try to achieve a three-dimensional effect on a two-dimensional surface or instead "honor" the two-dimensionality of the painting surface. This long ago became an art-ideology matter, and I will say no more about it here -– perhaps I’ll deal with it another time.)

By eliminating depth, it isn't necessary to deal with the effects of light and shade on the surface of the nude or her setting (though light and shade might be hinted at or loosely treated). But if one does try to create a 3-D effect, the depiction of realistic light and shade effects requires a good deal of specialized training, experience and thought -- all of which are unnecessary in a flat painting which in its essence requires attention to only composition and color.

Matisse, Modigliani and (depending on the period) Picasso also ignored human anatomy to a large degree. Yes, heads, arms, legs, breasts and so forth were generally placed about where they would be expected in relation to the torso, but shapes and proportions often went beyond what is found in nature. Presumably these modifications were done for reasons of composition or to create an emotional effect or just perhaps to shock viewers and generate publicity. The important point here is that detailed anatomical knowledge was neither used nor needed by these artists for the paintings I refer to (true, they undoubtedly had the knowledge, but this fact is irrelevant).

As an aside, "flat" paintings can depict anatomically correct humans and dimensionally-correct objects of other kinds. To accomplish this, light and shade effects are present at least to a minimal degree. Such art is often labeled "poster style."

So in order to paint female nudes in the manner we've been discussing, an artist needs skill in

  • (1) color selection,
  • (2) compositional sense, and perhaps
  • (3) brushwork.

This is the same as noted above for Abstract Expressionism. Therefore, from a technical standpoint, representational "flat" painting operates at about the same skill-level as Abstract Expressionism: only subject-matter differs.

Experiencing craftsmanship

I assert that humans have an innate appreciation for well-crafted objects. I offer no research to support this assertion and leave it as an exercise for interested readers with a background in psychology to unearth any competent studies on the subject.

Nevertheless, until the advent of Modernism, I believe most art recognized as being "great" or "important" was well-crafted, given the context of the era of its creation. I suspect that one reason why Impressionism and moreso Post-Impressionism met with hostility at first was because they did not appear well-crafted.

I further suspect that today's appreciation of these styles, where it isn't based on intellectualized considerations, is in the form of "Oh how pretty it looks!" Reasoning from event to cause, I suppose it's possible that skill used in making pretty objects is what's being appreciated. This is getting close to saying that if something is appreciated, it must have been well-crafted: such reasoning leads nowhere.

A better argument might be that craftsmanship is only one possible factor that can enter into an object being appreciated or made popular. It might well be that emotional responses to an object based on color, composition, subject-matter or story-telling are what sometimes trigger appreciation and popularity. In this case, craft need only be present to the extent that the response can be triggered.

I find it interesting that a number of cartoony PoMo paintings that I consider silly and would never think of buying were created using a good deal of skill in the sense that I perceive a high degree of "finish" in the result. I suspect such quality contributes to the work's credibility and salability. My point here is that a high degree of craftsmanship can overcome other defects, thus reinforcing my contention that craft is too important an artistic factor to be lightly dismissed.


We'll be back soon with part two of Donald's thoughts about skill and flair in art.

Please feel free to join in with comments, thoughts, questions and reflections. Donald has got me, for example, remembering an essay that was a favorite of mine back in college: Gregory Bateson's 1967 "Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art." In it, Bateson -- an anthropologist -- discussed the role of skill and technique in the art (ie., the making-it-and-experiencing-it) process. One of his points was that demonstrations of craft and skill serve one particular down-to-earth and useful purpose; they say to the viewer (listener, reader, whatever) something along the lines of "this piece is worth the trouble to take as art." If I remember correctly, Bateson writes that people need to feel that a skilled person is in charge in order to give over to the process of relating to a given work as "art."

Many thanks once again to Donald Pittenger.



posted by Michael at May 13, 2005


Norman Rockwell is derided for being out of touch with trends in painting, and thus not being much of an influence on subsequent painters. But that's an overly narrow conception. Rockwell was a huge influence on perhaps the most influential artist in American pop culture of the last quarter of the 20th century, Steven Spielberg, who largely paid for the Rockwell Museum.

It's probably best to think of Rockwell as a movie director who worked in stills. Indeed, he operated on a large, expensive scale more reminiscent of movie studios than contemporary painters. Rockwell employed craftsmen to build sets and he held casting calls to audition models. The obvious contemporary comparison is to Frank Capra, who certainly possessed "flair" as a storyteller.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 13, 2005 5:28 PM

"Given that we know what female nudes by Matisse and Modigliani look like, just how hard is it to paint a female nude in the general style they used?"

I'm not sure I agree with this, not being an artist, but I think a more relevant question is how hard would it be to originate the style to begin with? Because I see that as the achievement of these artists: they created a unique, instantly recognizable style.

Similarly, for a musical analogy, the lines played by Miles Davis are not admirable because they are that hard to play, but because you can hear a few notes and know it's him. There are many players of greater technical skill who are faceless technicians only.

Still, I think skill and craft absolutely neccesary in the service of creativity, to bring an idea to life and make it vivid for the audience.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on May 13, 2005 6:11 PM

"No one ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole."

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 14, 2005 12:10 AM

What an odd confluence of events. I read this lovely post and then later on while reading Drawn! come upon a post regarding large scans of Normal Rockwell paintings. This one is uncanny, given the discussion.

Given this one was painted in 1935, perhaps Rockwell should get more credit for being ahead of his time?

Posted by: lindenen on May 14, 2005 1:20 AM

Creating a "unique, instantly recognizable style" seems more like a triumph of marketing than a triumph of artistry.

Posted by: J.W. Hastings on May 14, 2005 7:07 AM

Donald Pittinger seems to be saying, or is leading up to saying in Flair In Art, Part Two, that only those artists grappling with the challenge of presenting real objects, with volume and weight (three dimensionality), in real space (with its complicating factors of the effects of variable light and distance) convincingly, are worthy of consideration as artists of the first rank.

This position should not be dismissed lightly. Mattisse, one of the artists discussed by Mr. Pittinger, wrestled with it throughout his career, and for fairly long periods (Nice in the 1920's) worked directly from the model in both artificial and natural light conditions. That Mr. Pittinger doesn't particularly like Mattisse's work doesn't change the fact that Mattisse was engaged with the problem and developed his own shorthand for presenting volume in space. But it is also true that Mattisse, like so many other modernists, often felt constrained by representation alone and in his drawing and coloring took liberties he felt were recquired to express his inner reaction to external reality. To many these distortions (Music, The Dance, The Balcony [Mattisse facing his wife, both figures in extreme simplification]) are his masterworks.

The debate is endless. Even a nominal realist like Edward Hopper wrestled with it all his life. One of his few comments on his own work (I'm paraphrasing) was, "I still don't know whether it is better to paint directly from nature or to capture what I have seen in concentrated remembrance."

The Hopper illustrated in Part One with its simplifications and eliminations may well have started with observation and drawings of architectural details but haunts us because it is a truly existential (for once the word fits) painting. I think Hopper is trying to convey something about the mystery of existence that this particular scene of a woman seen through an office building window is almost a pretext or springboard for. The something, of course, can't be put into words. Ergo the picture.

A final thought. Norman Rockwell NEVER painted an existential picture. He painted comforting cliches. Nothing wrong with that. But it ain't art.

Posted by: ricpic on May 14, 2005 4:34 PM

Thanks for a great posting, Donald -- this is fascinating to me. I've thought about the issues a lot with respect to literature, where of course the same controversies exist. But it's fun to explore them in another area of the arts. Some of the attitudes of the imagined modernist/pomo professor make me think of Romanticism -- interesting.

What makes the difference between a ho-hum art school student with extensive training in color selection and composition and Matisse? I would contend that for any accomplished artist OR illustrator, there's some spark of originality that 90% of people with all the training in the world wouldn't have; otherwise we'd all be picking up Matisse equivalents at our local street fairs every weekend. And even if Wyeth or Rockwell don't have that je-ne-sais-quoi that would elevate them to the level of art, being stuck in actual representation and all, they still have enormous talent and originality, in my opinion.

How crucial is originality? Is that what flair is? (I think I'm going back on my earlier comment that Rockwell doesn't have flair, though I'm still not sure what it is.) I agree with Todd's point that what elevates someone above the crowd is that they do something different but still appealing, given the particular time and place.

I remember having a discussion once with my husband, who is waaay into the blues, about guitarists. How is it that some are instantly recognizable, even on a song you haven't heard before? I wondered whether it was in the qualities of the particular kind of guitar they use, or how they play that guitar. In painting, I guess it would be the particular media and tools they use.

More, please.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 14, 2005 5:14 PM

I think I'm beginning to understand why depictions of windows are about the only thing that fascinates me about Matisse's work, and why an empty room by Hopper appeals more to me than most of Picasso, Matisse or Modigliani. One big reason must be Hopper's treatment of space. In fact, I suspect a special approach to spacial geometry is common to several paintings I am fond of -- The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by De Chirico (1914), The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood, Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth.

Posted by: Alexei on May 16, 2005 2:15 AM

Is there a difference between "flair" and "image-creation"? For example, if Matisse represents flair, would Magritte represents the opposite pole, the slightly stolid creator of memorable images? It's kind of like the difference between Ella Fitzgerald and Irving Berlin: the former was a singer with flair, the latter a composer with little flair but a real knack for creating catchy tunes.

If that makes sense, then I would group Rockwell with Magritte as one of the 20th Century's top creators of memorable images.

(By the way, I recall that back in the mid-1970s attending an almost empty exhibition of Magritte's work and then attending another in 1993 that was jam-packed. Magritte's reputation with the art-crowd had soared in the intervening years.)

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 16, 2005 4:04 PM

Apologies for being a couple days late on my replies to comments, but I was off to Reno to take in a Maxfield Parrish exhibit along with a look at what remains of the Harrah automobile collection.

Steve -- I'll have more on Rockwell in the second part of this post. Your remarks are interesting. I visited the Rockwell museum last July, and it was impressive (fine country setting, Robert A.M. Stern architecture, etc.) and I recall semi-musing about where they came up with the bucks to build the thing; Spielberg-as-angel never would have occurred to me. The previous locale was a smallish old building in Stockbridge a short ways across and down the street from Rockwell's house and studio, so the jump to the present museum was quantum.

Todd -- I agree that coming up with a new style of art of any sort isn't trivial. The point I tried to make was -- GIVEN that the styles of Matisse and Modigliani exist, then it isn't terrible hard for someone with average painting skills to do something pretty similar. IMPLICIT in this idea (I should have made it explicit) is that it's a LOT HARDER to do a similar riff on, say, Rembrandt.

Lindenen -- Thanks for the heads-up on the site -- they seem to have interesting stuff. As noted above, more on Rockwell is on the way.

J.W. Hastings -- The business (taken in nearly all of its definitions) of style in art is worth several posts. After a while most artists evolve into a style (or succession of same) tied to personality, experience, skill-level and so forth. If an artist becomes "known" and his work "recognizable", then he has a franchise that is both a help in earning a living and perhaps a kind of prison (in the same sense that Arthur Conan Doyle felt trapped by his Sherlock Holmes character). The dirty secret under the contemporary fine-arts rug is that a professional artist needs to be promoted -- by himself or others -- to survive, and his style is a key ingredient. I can't off-hand think of a successful chameleon-artist: even Picasso had his Periods.

Ricpic -- Actually, I don't claim that an artist has to do representationl painting to have flair, though my discussion is in the context of representationalism. I think the best (in my judgment) abstract expressionists has flair, a good example being Franz Klein.

As for artists being torn between observed reality and some sort of internal view of reality, I'm perpetually perplexed. Unless this is a matter of failing to come up with the most apt word or phrase, I just don't understand what artists mean when they speak of their personal intrepretation of what they see, as you note regarding Matisse. I suppose it's simply a lack of imagination on my part, but I NEVER think in such terms. Instead, I'm more likely to think "Gee, if I take what I see and do thus-and-so to it (alter colors a bit, move objects to improve the composition, simplify something, lean a little towards the style of some other artists, etc.), that might be kinda neat." I could be wrong or cynical, but I suspect famous artists think this way too and then phrase it in some high-minded fashion in order to win profundity points.

Miss Grundy -- It can be hard to sort out "flair", "originality/creativity" and "personal style" -- concepts found here and there in the main post and the comments. I tend to downplay the "originality/creativity" notion, perhaps in reaction to the stress laid on these in the atmosphere of my art school days. Setting that aside, we are left with style and flair. If the style is strong and done with a dab of dash and drama, then we have something that might be like the qualities of the music your husband likes. I suppose the concept "uniquely personal" is what we're dealing with at this point. (Shoulda thought of this while writing the second part of the main posting.) If this is the case, then "originality" in the sense of something new under the sun ought to be replaced by "uniqueness" in reference to the personal blending of various elements (color selection, paint application, guitar-string picking motion, sentence-structuring) by the artist.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 16, 2005 8:20 PM

As the 2blowhards have shown us throughout their blog -- the great modernist sin is the view that originality and cleverness always trump the conventional. If we view all of modernism in the arts, writing and music through this lens, the defects of modernism are obvious. If we further add to this the desire to avoid anything that pleases the bourgeoisie, that undermines our standard gut reactions, and throw in a little bit of Marxist twaddle, we have the entire theory of modernism.

Posted by: jn on May 18, 2005 7:10 PM

(just an aside, Yahmdallah: it's "Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole")

Posted by: MDS Chill on May 22, 2005 7:43 PM

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