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« Politicized Religion Revisited: Some Data | Main | Green Tea »

May 07, 2007

Landscapes and Modernism

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This is the second posting in an occasional series dealing with the practical limits of Modernism and what the future might bring should it and various "post" mini-movements drive into the ditch.

My first post, Portraits and Modernism, introduced itself as follows:

A theme I've been edging up to and that I plan to pursue from time to time in the coming months is the question of the future of painting assuming that Modernism and its spawn prove to be an aberration in the long-term history of art. The validity of that assumption can be left for discussion at another time... For now, I simply want to use it as a peg for a series of blog posts.

One way of examining this is to look at subject-matter that is comparatively impervious to Modernism and see how artists have been dealing with it.

My main conclusion?

The lesson to be drawn from this is that portraiture, in any reasonable sense, cannot stray very far from representation in the direction of Modernism without becoming something other than portraiture.

The same holds for landscape painting. And for still life painting, historical painting, religious painting -- for any kind of painting that requires some kind of representation. While it's possible for an artist to dash off an abstract painting and title it, say, "View of Toledo (Ohio)" hardly anyone could guess it was a "landscape" absent the title.

Let's look at landscape painting to see how it weathered the Modernist movement.

Gallery

Rembrandt%20-%20The%20Stone%20Bridge.jpg
The Stone Bridge - Rembrandt van Rijn
Let's start with one by Da Man. Yes, he's especially noted for portraits, but I can't resist a classical Dutch landscape showing ... lotsa sky.

Holman%20Hunt%20-%20Our%20English%20Coasts%20-%201852.jpg
English Coasts - Holman Hunt, 1852
This is a Pre-Raphaelite work crammed with carefully-rendered detail. If this reproduction is halfway valid, the detailing doesn't descend to the level of hard-edge visual sterility all too common even today.

Pissarro%20-%20The%20Red%20Roofs%20-%201877.jpg
The Red Roofs - Camille Pissarro, 1877
I suppose I should have used a Monet landscape rather than this Pissarro to illustrate Impressionism. Monet and some other Impressionists used highly visible, discrete brush strokes of fairly pure colors to cover their canvasses. Pissarro went over to such a style later in his career, but I've always found that kind of painting too ephemeral. I like more structure and solidity -- as in the Pissarro shown here. You can see some harbingers of Modernism, most noteworthy the flattening of depth and the "designed" composition.

Cezanne%20-%20Mont%20Sainte-Victoire%20-%201904-06.jpg
Mont Sainte-Victoire - Paul Cézanne, 1904
This is one of Cézanne's last paintings of one of his favorite subjects. The color blocks and flat brush strokes hint at the Cubism that was to appear a few years later.

Vlaminck%20-%20Landscape%20With%20Red%20Trees%20-%201906.jpg
Landscape With Red Trees - Maurice de Vlaminck, 1906
Sketchy, flattened, almost poster-like (in the French manner). Colors are simplified and mildly Fauvist, being not quite what one really sees in nature.

Marin%20-%20The%20Sea%2C%20Maine%20-%201921.jpg
The Sea, Maine - John Marin, 1922
This Marin represents something close to the limits of recognition. Absent a title, a viewer might figure out that the blue, wavey stuff could represent waves and the brown area below it might be a beach or something.

Wood%20-%20Young%20Corn%20-%201931.jpg
Young Corn - Grant Wood, 1931
Rather than go almost-abstract as Marin did ten years before, Wood (an "American Regionalist" if one insists on a label) chose to make nature somewhat geometric in quasi-Art Deco fashion. Sure, you can tell it's a landscape. But it's not quite like any landscape you're ever likely to witness.

Fuchs.jpg
Illustration by Bernie Fuchs, circa 1980s
Fuchs is one of my favorite artists. I'm including this picture to show what skilled contemporary artists can do when tackling landscapes. In March I chanced upon recent Fuchs landscapes at a Carmel-by-the-Sea gallery, but could find no examples to post here. What he's doing is using highly-thinned oil paints (possibly rubbed with a rag in places) to underly slightly more thickly-painted detail-work. Earlier paintings in this technique are shown in my post about him here. Scroll down to the last three or so pictures to see what I'm talking about.

Richard%20Schmid%20-%20Telluride%20-%201993.jpg
Telluride - Richard Schmid, 1993
This is another example of a landscape by a highly-skilled contemporary artist. Note the echoes of Impressionism that firmly place it post-1870. At the same time, it is clearly composed and there is a sense of depth, not the flattening so beloved by many 20th century art theorists. I find it a satisfying work.

Modernist mini-movements often allow a certain degree of representationalism, though in "transgressive," "ironic" or "edgy" ways. At some point I'll probably address how these mesh with traditional subject-types.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at May 7, 2007




Comments

Non-representational paintings can't be instances of any of the genres you mention -- historical pictures, religious pictures, etc. -- because ... they aren't pictures! A picture is by definition of something, hence a representation. BTW, thanks for the informative post. I had never heard of Schmid or Fuchs.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on May 7, 2007 10:59 PM



Well, I can't fathom how I could disagree with you more regarding modernism and landscapes. To my eye, landscapes are particularly suited to certain modernist techniques. Again, to each his own.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 8, 2007 10:52 AM



And, as I began my first comment on the Modernism and Portraits thread; "Ah, another pitched battle in the War of False Dichotomies. Once more into the fray!!!"

The fatal flaw in both your argument and those of "manifesto" oriented theorists of modernism is the notion that there must be some singular approach to art that is, by definition, the best, most valid approach. Furthermore, there seems to be an assumption that art "progresses" along a timeline with styles of art being introduced, flourishing then being overtaken by a newer approach. In my view, it just does NOT work this way. Rather, each artist follows his or her own path, taking inspiration from the art of the past and the present, not to mention an infinite number of other sources of inspiration.

It should take little more than a couple of hours of scanning recent art magazines to find examples of landscape (or portrait or still life or...) paintings done in the Twenty-first century that emulate nearly every artist and style you used for examples on this post ... not to mention countless other variations. Among abstract painters the recently deceased Jules Olitski did hundreds of landscapes that both drew from his own Color Field abstract painting approach along with elements that tie to Marin, say, or Turner. He could speak about the numerous, more subtle, connections to many great painters throughout all of art history.

In short, artists, from weekend hobbyists to profoundly gifted geniuses, will no doubt continue to paint landscapes as long as there is paint and a surface to paint on, just as I expect to keep seeing abstract pictures (now THERE is a semantic argument that could fill volumes) being painted for the foreseeable future. And the problem is...?

Posted by: Chris White on May 8, 2007 12:16 PM



There's a differnce between mimicking a style and mimicking nature. Nature is not a syle.

Nobody is arguing that there is only one approach to art of any kind. Just a difference in the quality of result.

You argue that there are many ways to approach things, then conveniently forget that there are many outcomes, including failure.

We have yet to hear from any modern art advocate what constitutes the difference between a successful painting and a failure. If there is such a standard in modernism, it surely hasn't been relayed to the general public. That's why the general public is so confused about modern art. So please help us by explaining what the differences and standards are, even on a piece by piece basis.

Oh, and if you try to beg out of the question by saying it depends on the individual viewer's opinion, then tell us why these modern pieces deserve be hung next to the great realistic paintings where there is a broad and vigorous consensus about the quality of their excellence. Thanks.

Posted by: BTM on May 8, 2007 1:40 PM



Modern pieces that are hung next to traditional pieces in museums have "a broad and vigorous consensus about the quality of their excellence." Just ask a struggling modernist painter who can't get his work shown anywhere. There are many, many of these artists. Some, indeed, are failures in that the work they produce does not connect with anyone.

I'm curious to know what is the empirical criteria for determining the success or failure of a strictly representational work? Is it merely the accuracy of the rendering? I don't think so. I've seen plenty of technically accurate paintings that are completely devoid of any feeling. So what is it?

I think it's in your "broad and vigorous consensus," which the great modernist pieces have in spades, just as the great works of other styles have. The continued denial of this by those who simply don't like modernist painting baffles me.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 8, 2007 3:10 PM



patriarch just said what I was trying to formulate and say much better than I could.

What bothers me about Donald's post is that he obviously is a man with an eye for art and yet he keeps coming back to the insistence that closest to simulation of what a photograph would give us is best.

The example he gives us is Telluride by Richard Schmid. What does the painting present to us? A high level of technical proficiency. But it is instantly forgettable. Why? It is affectless. Neutral. Bland. This a problem that plagues even the best of our contemporary simulators: Rackstraw Downes and Richard Estes come to mind. The painter falls into the mechanical fallacy. With the best will in the world, the brain of the artist (breaking down what it sees and then reassembling and transferring that to the canvas -- like a camera) is not the mind.

The Pissaro, the Cezanne and, yes, the Marin, are not instantly forgettable. Why? In a word -- passion. Each painter passionately, compulsively, pursued an aspect of reality. Pisarro and Cezanne who had similar temperaments were obsessed with what Pissaro called overallness. They both wanted to build up, brick by brick, paintings that had the wall-like solidity they saw everywhere in nature. Marin, possessed of a totally different temperament, was after evanescence and the darting, un-naildownability of what he saw out there. And to the extent that these three painters succeed (and, of course, they don't always succeed) they imprint us with their cumpulsions, their obsessions: their passion.

Posted by: ricpic on May 8, 2007 4:18 PM



Is this a modernism-vs-traditionalism thread? Whee, always fun.

FWIW, in a general way I think I'm closest to Chris on this one: let a thousand landscapes bloom. History will sort it out, or won't, and then change its mind, or maybe not. So why not see what's there to enjoy?

I think I may differ from Chris so far as the sturdiness of the modernist art-canon goes -- I think it's coming apart as we speak. The old tastemakers are falling from their marble pedestals one after another. What if anything will take their place? (My guess: YouTube.) And I have my doubts about the long-term prospects for any purely abstract visual art form or genre (unless it's religiously-driven, as Islamic art is). People seem to have an inborn tendency to read figuration into visual patterns no matter what. So it seems realistic to expect image-making to always want to veer in the direction of figuration. Which is OK by me. Why fight it? I mean, unless you want to. But avant-garde play is OK by me too (except where architecture and urbanism goes). I do have my doubts about how wise it is to let the avant-garde take over the schools, the committees, and the foundations, but that's for another time ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2007 5:10 PM



Patriarch and ricpic,

The criteria for great realistic painting is both technique and emotion. Of the landscapes Donald chose to show, I like the Rembrandt and Hunt ones best, for that reason. Richard Schmid (whom I have met) is a very technically-oriented guy. I think his work is somewhat cold. Technique is his thing. He's a nice guy though.

There is no broad and vigorous consensus for a lot of the modern work in museums. Saying that there is doesn't make it so. The vast majority are there only because someone paid a lot of money for them. The general public and many artists have eschewed modernist painting. Academics and modernists love it, but they are a teeny-tiny fragment of the population, even a small minority of those who go to museums. The general public and proponents of realism say modernism is ugly and "bad painting". Many people who like modernist art would say that they are wrong. Here is an opportunity for modern art supporters to teach us what we are missing. Heck, I'd just be glad to know what distinguishes a good abstract painting from a bad one. Teach us. Plese don't dodge the question like you did in your last post. Many of us want to understand, and we want a straight answer. The appreciation of it must be teachable. We're all human, and you learned it. Help us.

Then, once we know what the criteria are for good modernist paintings, we should not be confused to see these seemingly strange and odd works next to, say, a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.

Posted by: BTM on May 8, 2007 5:13 PM



"We're all human, and you learned it. Help us.

Then, once we know what the criteria are for good modernist paintings, we should not be confused to see these seemingly strange and odd works next to, say, a Rembrandt or a Vermeer."

You've given your own answer right there. I enjoy much (not ALL, and that should be stated here) modernist work because...I don't know. It speaks to me. It affects me emotionally. It stays with me. Some of it has to do with color selection and juxtaposition, some of it with boldness of stroke, some of it with the ingeniousness of the context a subject is placed in. It really depends on the piece.

I don't have a criteria beyond those I just stated. And I should say, those also apply to representational work, which I equally enjoy. But, and this is the main point of this comment, I didn't "learn it." I don't think anyone does. They just enjoy what they enjoy. Some people who have some education and/or aptitude in art can speak to their preferences with more authority than those who don't (I'm in the latter), but beyond that, I don't think you can teach someone to enjoy one artform or another.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 8, 2007 5:50 PM



Whatwhathwathwathwhat! What are they painting! Joyce: Is a finely made chair tragic or comic?

Posted by: Brian Hadd on May 8, 2007 6:03 PM



This debate is a bit skewed by the fact that Donald has chosen two painting genres, landscape and portraiture, which are not expected to communicate much symbolic, literary or narrative content. The fact that representational painting has given up on trying to communicate symbolic, literary or narrative content(that is, it has largely given up on trying to create "history painting" or its lower-class cousin, "genre" painting) since roughly 1910 or so is very much linked to the existence of abstract art. That is, since roughly that date, painting, whether representational or abstract, has been unable to tap into broadly distributed narrative or symbolic structures (usually some kind of religion) to make its visual statements meaningful. It wasn't an accident that the major examples of attempts at meaningful representational painting in the 20th century were inspired by various quasi-religions. These were surrealism, which was inspired by psychoanalysis, and pop art, which was inspired by consumerism and pop culture. Of course, on the other side of the aisle, most canonical abstract painting of the early 20th century was inspired by another quasi-religion, Theosophy. So it seems to me that the real story of art over the past 100 or so years isn't a battle between realist and abstract art, but example after example of artists fumbling around, trying to cope with not possessing what Classical, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque painters all had easily at hand: systems of religous symbolism that could bind artist and viewer into a common mental and emotional understanding.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 8, 2007 6:17 PM



Each time this topic arises we end up in the same old ruts. If one attempts to defend modernism or abstraction with various factual metrics (auction prices, museum, influence on other artists, etc.) we're told this is immaterial and only due to the undue influence of "Academics and modernists... a teeny-tiny fragment of the population, even a small minority of those who go to museums. The general public and proponents of realism say modernism is ugly and "bad painting". I've given up offering anecdotes from more than 35 years of experience that refutes this. It is somewhat like trying to point out that when Reagan was first elected in 1980 with 50.7% of the popular vote it was not the unambiguous "landslide" that his 489 to 49 electoral victory would indicate. And while we can only elect one President, there is absolutely no limit to the number of artists we can enjoy.

Whatever might be said to answer the question of "what distinguishes a good abstract painting from a bad one" is bound to be both inadequate and fundamentally distorted. If one tries to set forth "rules" to govern what constitutes good painting, regardless of whether we're talking about modernist abstraction or traditional landscapes, the next day some artist will see if they can make a great painting by breaking the rules. If they are talented enough, they'll succeed. A mediocre painter following the rules will make mediocre paintings. Composition, color, paint handling ... the list of attributes for a great abstract painting are essentially the same as for a representational painting.

To return to the core topic, about ten years ago I curated an exhibition with six painters, three who described themselves as "landscape" painters and three "abstract" painters who drew inspiration from nature. All the artists respected and admired each other's work and the paintings hung well together. I just don't see them as being in opposition.

Posted by: Chris White on May 8, 2007 7:39 PM



I'm with Chris on this stuff. So much of the argument comes down to urban/rural or east/west coast or some other dichotomy that depends on where one is standing. Here in Montana a person can celebrate the abstract over in Missoula, but fagettaboutit in Havre or Great Falls. A portrait done in Browning at Indian Days had better be recognizable, but a portrait done in Bozeman can look any way it wants to.

I'm aware of reciprocal criticism between an immigrating artist who paints lodges (tipis) as icons and an indigenous artist whose paintings of lodges are full of historical information. They're both fine -- just different. I don't see why there's any need for confrontation.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 8, 2007 11:12 PM



I think the Grant Wood is wonderful, because of the way it picks up on and heightens the strangely rigid and geometric quality of so much American agricultural land, especially of course in the Midwest. It is a great example of the way abstraction, verging on caricature in this case, heightens and expresses a genuinely present quality in the landscape. If you emphasize realism too much, you lose that and get flat and boring representation.

Posted by: MQ on May 9, 2007 3:49 AM



Fredrich-There are quite a number of representational painters who paint historical, religious, and philisophical paintings. You won't hear much about them though, as the modernists use their positions in various institutions to bury them. See our own american illustrators for that.

Pariarch-Okay, you like to keep it mysterious and magical-you like being surprised. Fair enough. But since I paint I don't have that luxury.

Chris White-If, after 35 years of looking at modern painting, you can't distinguish between what makes a modernist painting good or bad, that says a lot. No one came through on my challenge! I'm now still hopelessly lost. But its interesting to know that so much talk about quality in modernist painting lacks any vocabulary. Then what's all the modern ruckus about?

We come back to the same old rut because we actually have reached the crux of the issue. Also, I'm sure many painters have social skills, but what they think in private and what they pursue in their own works says more than polite conversation. The work does the talkin'. Auction records tell us nothing about quality. If you think they do, you should see the price of John Lennon's old underwear! On the one hand you offer up money transfers and some people's opinion as objective proof, and then on the other you say its all un-pin-downable. Which is it? I'm not telling people HOW to do anything. I just want to know what are the criteria for evaluating something as good or bad, just like any other form of art.

Mary-I couldn't disagree with you more. Its an anonymous forum (for some of us, anyway) so I don't see what the problem is with hashing it out.

First of all, I think anybody can like anything they want to. I'm not going to restrict that. My larger and more important point is how do we reach some kind of general consensus about things, as in which works are important and which ones aren't, and which ones are exhibited in important places and lauded as good, and which ones are not, and what do we pass on to the next generation as important. I think these are good questions.

Speaking of false dichotomies, I think its kind of funny when someone says they prefer realistic painting, and then the next guy says, "oh, I can't tell you how many realistic paintigs I've seen that are dull, lifeless reproductions!", as if all representational painting is about making dull, lifeless reproductions. Same thing goes for the criticisms of modernism, right? Both sides engage in caricature (to a point). So why continue with that line?

I'll tell you what, I'll grant you that modernism can be emotional work (though I think its far more intellectual and emotion is in short supply, but I'll take your word for it). And I will still prove that realism is better. Read on.

Now that the modernists have admitted that realism can be emotionally moving, and so can modernism, they believe that they have evened the score. But that is only true if the only criteria for artistic merit is emotional content or communication. But its not. As undesirable as it may seem, to many people, craftsmanship and a fidelity to nature are important too. Being as inclusive and open-minded as you are, and also owing to the huge number of people who believe this, I can't see for the life of me why their standards should be discarded, can you? That's not very open-minded, is it? I didn't think so.

So tell me, how can a painting (or any other form of art, for that matter) which excels in several areas not be better than one which only excels in one? Why shouldn't the former be judged as superior to the latter? Please don't come back with the argument of emotional content alone-we already agreed that that is not the sole criteria, didn't we? Are you saying that all art can only excel in one direction, or that only one thing makes a piece of art great? That doesn't sound right to me. Insisting on it seems rather dictatorial and undemocratic, don't you think?

Modernism is reductionist and atomizing. That is the key.

Also, since many of the modern art proponents on this board have admitted to liking great representational art, while few realistic painting fans have embraced modernism, this seems to underscore a previous point that great realism has a broader appeal than modernism. What did I miss?

What are the criteria for distinguishing a good modernist painting from a bad one?

Why shouldn't a painting that excels in many different aspects be considered superior to a painting that excels in only one?

Why should the preferences and tastes of a broad spectrum of the public, both educated and not, be disregarded over something as non-essential as a painting? Who decides the criteria and why?

I've been thinking about painting and modernism in general for quite a while now. I have a lot more to say, but that's enough for now. It would be nice to have someone knowledgable answer my questions, because I think they are very good ones. Perhaps we can finally move out of the rut, eh? I look forward to hearing your answers.

Posted by: BTM on May 10, 2007 1:20 AM



BTM, I did indeed come through on your challenge, right here:

"Some of it has to do with color selection and juxtaposition, some of it with boldness of stroke, some of it with the ingeniousness of the context a subject is placed in. It really depends on the piece."

I don't think those criteria are "mysterious and magical," as you say. I think the only thing you would add to them in your criteria for a good representational painting would be accuracy of the rendering. You can disagree with my criteria, but you cannot say I did not present any.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 10, 2007 1:10 PM



Also, this:

Speaking of false dichotomies, I think its kind of funny when someone says they prefer realistic painting, and then the next guy says, "oh, I can't tell you how many realistic paintigs I've seen that are dull, lifeless reproductions!", as if all representational painting is about making dull, lifeless reproductions. Same thing goes for the criticisms of modernism, right? Both sides engage in caricature (to a point). So why continue with that line?

I brought that up because it seems to me the main gripe you, and many others, have with modernist work is that it does not depict the subject in a realistic manner, and so my argument is that a work does not have to be photo-realistic to have artistic value; in fact, there are many work that are realistic that I find lifeless and boring. I did not bring it up out of a reaction to you simply stating that you prefer representational work.

Again, you can disagree with that argument, but it is a valid argument, not a "false dichotomy."

Posted by: the patriarch on May 10, 2007 1:15 PM



Ahh! More:

As undesirable as it may seem, to many people, craftsmanship and a fidelity to nature are important too. Being as inclusive and open-minded as you are, and also owing to the huge number of people who believe this, I can't see for the life of me why their standards should be discarded, can you?

Who on this thread ever said representational craftsmanship should be discarded? No one. In fact, many of us modernist lovers appreciate greatly the craftsmanship of many realist painters. Working in a modern tradition is not inherently discarding anything. It's not denying the excellence of realist painters at all, it's simply choosing to work in another style. You can dislike the style and say it's crap, sure.

Also, since many of the modern art proponents on this board have admitted to liking great representational art, while few realistic painting fans have embraced modernism, this seems to underscore a previous point that great realism has a broader appeal than modernism. What did I miss?

To this I can only say: no shit, Sherlock. So what? Mass appeal automatically means quality?

What are the criteria for distinguishing a good modernist painting from a bad one?

I've given you mine. What are your criteria for distinguishing a good realist painting from a bad one? Accuracy of rendering can't be the sole criterion, so it then moves on to squishy things like emotion and color, no? The same criteria I gave for modernist paintings.

These are all concrete answers to some of your questions. Disagree with them, yes, but please don't continue to falsely state that we are being vauge or evasive.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 10, 2007 1:24 PM



Sorry, one more thing I just thought of. One of the aspects of modernist painting I really enjoy is the way a good modernist painter can simply hint at a subject, give a faint outline of form, perhaps, and yet still convey information. The mind of the viewer fills in the rest. It's a subtle approach that isn't as obvious as a representational approach, and one that takes real skill to pull off.

Again, let me reassure you, because I know you modernist haters are a sensitive lot, that this does not mean I am discarding or denying the realist tradition. I'm simply saying I appreciate this subtle approach IN ADDITION to my appreciation of good realist art.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 10, 2007 1:32 PM



Well, the patriarch beat me to it. I heartily concur with his comments. For myself, let me add a few other thoughts.

First, the obvious, painting is a VISUAL expression. Perhaps one of the difficulties that many have with abstraction is that abstract painters do not integrate literary content with their visual art. One of the abstract painters I know titled a painting and later an exhibition "More Than I Can Say" as a comment on this.

Next, and connected intimately to the first, is in response to the notion that I "can't distinguish between what makes a modernist painting good or bad." This (once again) distorts the underlying point I was making in my previous comment. That point was this, no list of attributes can tell you whether a given painting will be good, better, or best (or bad, lousy, or horrid). Take a realist painter you admire, make a list of the attributes that his or her work embodies. I strongly suspect that if you look at a fifty paintings by that artist, all displaying those attributes, some works will stand out as gems and others will be failures, despite all sharing the same attributes. Thus, a laundry list of traits can never tell you whether a specific painting or painter will be great or lousy. The attributes that describe Vermeer's work might also be used to describe certain photo realists for example, yet I can't think of a photo realist who rises to the level of Vermeer. If asked, "Why?" the only real answer is "Just look."

Another anecdote; at an exhibition of a particular group of abstract painters one was complaining that his pieces were not getting the positive reaction he thought they deserved. He then went through a list of attributes the curator was espousing as the hallmarks of excellence, "they have high texture, bold color, optically active pigments..." and on he went through the list. The only response was, "Dude, stop using a list of required traits and just paint the best painting you can." For the record, among the dozen or so artists ALL shared the attributes the curator was seeking. I found half of the artists decorative or "okay" at best, while among the other half there were works I thought were powerful and excellent.

When the issue of craftsmanship is connected to fidelity to nature you run into problems. The first problem is not being able to see or accept craftsmanship that is NOT in the service of fidelity to nature. Also, if fidelity to nature is your trump card, than we'd need to accept the idea that, among the artists illustrating this post, Bernie Fuchs is better than any of the other artist shown with Schmid next, then Rembrandt. Hardly a proposition I'm willing to go along with. Are you?

Posted by: Chris White on May 10, 2007 8:04 PM



I asked three simple questions and got no real answers.

1) What distinguishes a good modern painting from a bad one? What are the criteria?

I wasn't even trying to go into the old modernist/realist debate with this one. In response to this simple question, I got the airy non-response of "Well, we don't really know. We look at modernist painting all the time, but we have no idea what makes a good modernist painting good, and a bad modernist painting bad". Even 35 years of experience can't help, I am told. If anybody has worked for 35 years in any field, and can't tell what the difference is between a good job and a bad job, what the hell does all that experience account for? Nothing, so it seems. That's not a personal knock either. You seem like a smart guy. But there are obviously no standards present. If you don't know, why not consult the gallery owner? I'm sure he/she rejects painters all the time who would like to show in the gallery. What criteria are used? Or maybe and art historian, or critic? They act like they know a lot. Somebody maybe? Something?

I can tell you why a good realistic painting works, but modernists can't even compare two paintings by any given modernist painter and tell me why one works and the other one doesn't. The question is twisted into the standard response of a modernist to the fan or realism as trying to dictate style and method. I never said a word about them!

So, one more time, on its own terms, what makes one modernist painting good in comparison to another modernist painting? What are the criteria?

2) Why shouldn't a painting that excels in more than one respect be considered superior to a painting that excels in only one respect?

I got no response to this one. I know modernist proponents have no answer to this question. If you talk to them about quality, the only response you get is that the painting in question "moves them". Again, emotional content and communication are the only way they evaluate a painting. If one argues against modernism, the false dichotomy is set up that realistic painting, though technically superior, is often dull and lifeless, so as long as modernism is not dull and lifeless, it is the equal or superior to realism. Of course, this argument falls flat on its face when you show them realistic work that is indeed powerful and moving. Then, when you bring up other cirtieria besides emotion, such as craftsmanship and a love for and fidelity to nature, they discard it, or suppress it somehow, as if it were not important. But to the vast majority of people it is (painting is visual, and the natural world is their visual language). Now modernism is revealed to be the art form that is restrictive and exclusionary, rather than realism! The tables have been turned! The formerly democratic approach that modernism seemed to offer (if you like it, then its Art!) has now morphed into a sort of dictatorship where naturalistic depiction and craftsmanship cannot be the criteria by which to judge a modernist painting. Its not what the audience has in mind anymore (if you like it, then its Art!), its what the artist has in mind! Or the academic, or the critic! Your preferences can't be used to judge the work! Only ours! We could use your criteria, Mr. Average, if you weren't such a dumb-ass! My my my, how the worm finally comes out of the apple!

Why can't criteria other than emotion be used? In every other art form, craftmanship is also admired and respected, and if it serves in conjunction with emotion, the work is deemed superior. Pick any art form--music, dance, movies, theater, spinning pots--it doesn't matter.

So again, why shouldn't a painting that excels in two (or more) respects be considered superior to a painting that excels in only one? Even if that other respect is subordinate to the main one of emotion, it still doesn't invalidate the question. Nor does it invalidate the obvious answer.

3) Why shouldn't the views and preferences of the vast majority of the public be considered as serious criteria for the evaluation of any given painting? Why are their views and preferences excluded when evaluating the quality of modernist art? Whenever I ask this, the topic is switched to the personal. Then if a person (or lots and lots of persons) doesn't like it, it is switched to the artist or somebody else who prefers modernism. That's called a dodge.

Again, you and I can like anything we want. But that is not the question here.

P.S. Saying "a swoosh here, and a dab there" is really saying nothing. No doubt that any work of art contains personal decisions and a certain amount of inspiration to be successful. It also takes skill, experience, and craftsmanship, as any other art form does. Ask any professional.

I don't think this is a very hard question. If you were to ask me what the differences are between a beginning student's work and a Sargent, for example, I could point out many. And they would be quite specific too. I could even tell you why some Sargent's work and others don't. You should be able to do the same with modernism.

There must be some kind of criteria. Otherwise, how can we confidently place the BEST of modernism in museums for all the world to see its splendor? How might the proponents of modernism rest easy, when perhaps a Genius lurks and goes unrecognized? I would think that this would be an extremely unpleasant thought for any real art lover. Best to develop some criteria so such tragedies are prevented.

Posted by: BTM on May 10, 2007 10:32 PM



When I did run a gallery I had many artists show me their work, asking for my opinion or if I would show their art. I did not pull out a checklist with a set of criteria; I looked at their work and talked with them about what they were interested in expressing as an artist. I showed both realism and abstraction that I found to be of high quality. That said, in painting I look for (among other things) technical facility, color, composition, craftsmanship and originality. These can be placed in the service of highly accurate rendering of the natural world ... or an imaginary world ... or in the service of a stylized, personal, view of nature ... or have little or no connection to any identifiable image. Again, if your argument is, at it seems to be, that craftsmanship can only be determined by whether the artist successfully depicts nature, then I must disagree. We then, by that reasoning, get back to Fuchs and Schmid being better artists than CÚzanne or Wood or Pissarro, which I don't buy for a minute ... and doubt you do either.

I have no doubt that we could have an interesting and perhaps even delightful conversation standing in front of a student's work and a Sargent and comparing them. No doubt we would say things like, " this red on the cheeks is too dark..." or "the way Sargent gets us to fill in the details of her necklace by just hinting at them with that little dab of green is fabulous..." There is, however, no way to discuss how or why a hypothetical student is better or worse than an unidentified Sargent. In other words, since paintings are a visual art form, you cannot simply write about what makes for a good painting except in generalities that may or may not make sense when looking at a given painting.

No one has said emotion is the only, or even the best, determination for judging the quality of art, regardless of whether it is painting or music or poetry. But, let's take music for a moment to make a point. The tastes of the "vast majority of the general public" do not run toward Beethoven or Bach, but rather toward the Beatles or Dolly Parton. Now, I have eclectic taste and love all four of these musical artists. I do not, however, try to judge them with identical criteria, even though it is all music. Still, I suspect that Ludwig and J.S. have little to fear in terms of being knocked off their pedestals by the Fab Four or Dolly.

My argument is, was and will be that no style or genre of visual art is inherently superior. Each style or genre, hell, each artist, may produce good, better, best work or perhaps downright crap. And furthermore, that different people have different aesthetics and I'm willing to let the long arc of history sort it out as different eras admire different artists.

Posted by: Chris White on May 11, 2007 12:22 AM



"I can tell you why a good realistic painting works..."

Then tell us! Please! I'm serious, you haven't yet, unless you mean "fidelity to nature," in which case, fine. But is that it? If so, see Chris White's example of placing Fuchs above Rembrandt. At this point, I can't tell if you're just messing with us, because both Mr. White and I have given you concrete criteria for what we look for in a modernist painting. I can type it out one more time for you:


  • composition

  • use of color

  • boldness of stroke

  • ingenious contextual placement of subject

  • insightful juxtaposition

  • subtle hinting of form

  • emotional power

  • expert use of line

A good modernist painting can have one, some or all of those qualities. And hey, a good realist painting can have one, some of all of those qualities as well, in addition to fidelity to nature, if that was the artist's intention. It is at this point you seem to argue that because a realist painting "succeeds" in one more quality than an abstract painting, then it "wins." Yet if fidelity to nature was never the intention of the artist, then a lack of fidelity to nature can hardly be seen as a failure. That is my answer to your question #2 in your most recent comment. Let the record stand that once again, I have answered a question of yours, maybe with something you disagree with, but still, I have answered it in a very real, representational, non-abstract manner, and with a fidelity to the nature of debate that is striking in its boldness.

"Why shouldn't the views and preferences of the vast majority of the public be considered as serious criteria for the evaluation of any given painting? Why are their views and preferences excluded when evaluating the quality of modernist art?"

They views of the "public" are not being excluded in discussion of modernist art. As a card-carrying member of the "public" myself, I often find that my views are considered, then either agreed with or disagreed with, depending on who I'm having the discussion with. Your position here is a false one. I could just as easily ask why YOU are excluding my views and preferences when discussing modernist art. But the truth is, you aren't. You merely disagree with me. That's not the same thing.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 11, 2007 11:13 AM



Michael, for some reason my last comment is showing in the recent comment section, but the actual comment is not in this post. Perhaps this one will pop it up? We shall see...

Posted by: the patriarch on May 11, 2007 12:21 PM



Working now?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 11, 2007 12:25 PM



Yes, thanks. This is important stuff. Ha.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 11, 2007 12:35 PM



"My argument is, was and will be that no style or genre of visual art is inherently superior. Each style or genre, hell, each artist, may produce good, better, best work or perhaps downright crap."

I never argued for a genre. I asked why should a painting that excels in many ways not be considered superior to a painting that excels in only one way (or not at all). And both of you agreed with me:

"That said, in painting I look for (among other things) technical facility, color, composition, craftsmanship and originality."

"I can type it out one more time for you: composition, use of color, boldness of stroke, ingenious contextual placement of subject, insightful juxtaposition, subtle hinting of form, emotional power, and expert use of line"

Now, that's a lot better than:

"Whatever might be said to answer the question of "what distinguishes a good abstract painting from a bad one" is bound to be both inadequate and fundamentally distorted."

"I don't know. It speaks to me. It affects me emotionally. It stays with me. Some of it has to do with color selection and juxtaposition, some of it with boldness of stroke, some of it with the ingeniousness of the context a subject is placed in. It really depends on the piece."

which are both rather light and fluffy!

But while both of you, being members of the general public, came up with a list of criteria that should be considered in evaluating a work of art, you couldn't quite extend that invitation to your (I'm guessing stupid, right?) neighbors:

"Mass appeal automatically means quality?"

Just like I said, if they general public chooses a criteria you don't like, you just thow the criteria out (only the artist counts now!):

"Yet if fidelity to nature was never the intention of the artist, then a lack of fidelity to nature can hardly be seen as a failure."

You see, we must protect and shield our cherished modernists from public judgement by discarding it. At some point in time, like a movie or book, the poor dear's work hits the open and gets judged. Its like the debut of a movie which flops, but instead of acknowledging the flop, we say it doesn't matter because you can't judge the quality of the movie by whether the audience likes it or not! It only matters that the director wanted to make a good movie. And if the public doesn't like it, they're stupid. This works great unless you're one of the general public that hated the movie. No movie would ever get that kind of pass, yet its okay for paintings!

And yet more false dichotomies:

"if your argument is, at it seems to be, that craftsmanship can ONLY be determined by whether the artist successfully depicts nature, then I must disagree."

Sorry Chris, that's not what I said at all, and you know it. And some inappropriate analogies:

"The tastes of the "vast majority of the general public" do not run toward Beethoven or Bach, but rather toward the Beatles or Dolly Parton...still, I suspect that Ludwig and J.S. have little to fear in terms of being knocked off their pedestals by the Fab Four or Dolly."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the consensus view on Beethoven and Bach are that they are the far superior technicians, and great musicians. But in your analogy, they are the less popular ones. The exact opposite is what we are discussing here. And its good to know that you agree that their music excels the others and should be considered better, even though all the artists you listed are enjoyable.

And perhaps the most grossly false statement in reply:

"There is, however, no way to discuss how or why a hypothetical student is better or worse than an unidentified Sargent."

You know better than that!

Now that you guys coughed up some criteria, I'm going to add some of my own, and I don't see why I can't. I'm just as good as you, right? I'm the audience, and I get to judge, right?

There is not one quality you can name that is displayed in modernist painting that is not also displayed in realist painting. I challenge you to point one out! And if a dedication to naturalism and realistic depiction pleases me, and it pleases the vast majority of the public, and modernist painting doesn't do it as well as realism, why should modernist art be considered the equal of realism? Realism excels it in one quality that the public, both educated and uneucated, has indicated again and again that it likes and finds important to the aestheitc enjoyment of the piece--realistic depiction and a fidelity to nature.

And just like Bach and Beethoven, art that excels in many areas is superior to art which excels in fewer. It should also have little to fear from being knocked off its pedestal.

Modernist art proponents can only argue equality to realism by denying this innate love of naturalism is a valid criteria for judgement. In all regards, it suppreses it, insults it, and disregards it.

If you include it, my point about excellence becomes valid and they know it. Then they would have to argue that paintings (or any other art forms) which excel in fewer ways are superior or equal to paintings which excel in more--in other words, make an arument for atomization and decadence. And that is exactly what modern art is.

You can like whatever you want. Artists can paint any way they want. But at some point, the work hits the street and gets judged. And its gets judged by the public. The artists, critics, and academics do not get to dictate to us how we judge the work. We get to decide. And in overwhelming numbers, we find it wanting. There is absolutely now way to argue that the best modernism is equal to or superior to the best realism, unless you limit the criteria and strangle and distort the debate. And I think I just proved that.

Posted by: BTM on May 11, 2007 10:22 PM



On the one hand auction prices, inclusion in museum collections, books written, etc. would indicate that many modernist painters (Mondrian, Pollock, Picasso...) are considered significant artists whose work is also sufficiently popular to sell at those prices, draw those museum visitors and sell those books. But we're told, no, this must be the result of a conspiracy of venal academic elitists bilking rich fools. Why impressive auction prices and so forth for works by Rembrandt or Wyeth or (insert name of favorite realist painter here) would prove something different escapes me.

To use BTM's movie analogy, every year cinema buffs will be happy to give you a long list of films they deem better than whatever popular movies broke box office records or won Oscars. And usually, they are correct. I suspect that, in the grand scheme of things, Kurosawa will be thought off as a BETTER filmmaker than Ron Howard, although Howard certainly does better at the box office and makes films more people find accessible and enjoyable.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but the consensus view on Beethoven and Bach are that they are the far superior technicians, and great musicians. But in your analogy, they are the less popular ones. The exact opposite is what we are discussing here. And its good to know that you agree that their music excels the others and should be considered better, even though all the artists you listed are enjoyable."

Perhaps I should have been more clear or used better examples to make my point. My point was that popularity is not necessarily an indicator of quality per se. I was also attempting to point out that classical symphonic compositions are judged by different criteria than pop or country songs. Lennon and McCartney wrote better pop songs than Beethoven, Bach better fugues than Parton, but what does that prove?

If I'm wrong about there being "no way to discuss how or why a hypothetical student is better or worse than an unidentified Sargent..." let's have at it. Student clearly shows her superiority to Sargent in this self-portrait because she is surrounded by a fully realized and detailed depiction of her garden, whereas Sargent merely gives us some daubs and swooshes in the background, hides the sitter's hands and even neglects to show many detail at all in the sitter's clothing. Care to refute this?

Each time BTM's argument returns to the same points, popularity and fidelity to nature. I note that BTM has twice sidestepped the issue of why Fuchs and Schmid should not be considered superior to Rembrandt or Pissarro by dint of their closer fidelity to nature. How about Norman Rockwell? He displays both greater popularity and closer fidelity to nature than Rembrandt, Pissarro or Sargent; is it therefore logical to conclude that he is the best painter among this particular quartet?

I continue to find this a false dichotomy. I do not buy the notion that there is a single, universal, set of criteria by which all paintings must be judged. I do not buy the notion that if one painting can be said to succeed in seventeen areas while another does not have anything to do with four of those areas the second must be inferior by mathematical proof. I do not buy the idea that this is a Zero Sum equation wherein any modernist abstract painting that gets into a museum or sells for a high price or is enjoyed by someone must somehow demean or diminish realism. I do not buy that abstraction has in any way detracted from a continued interest in excellent landscape paintings.

So, Donald, having set this in motion, do you have any thoughts you'd like to share?

Posted by: Chris White on May 12, 2007 2:29 PM



Chris White,

Here's my last post on this topic.

The contention of modernist art proponents is that modernist art cannot be judged by the same criteria that realistc painting is. I know that's a lot of baloney, but everytime the realism/modernism debate comes up, that's what the argument is. Modernists run like hell from the issue of quality, because they know they don't have an argument.

So in order to break through that stonewall, I just ask how a modernist judges one modernist work against another. They can't all be good. If they refuse to answer the question, then I ridicule their inability to distinguish a good modernist painting from a bad one--if they are such experts at reading artwork, then why can't they answer a simple question? This eats at them mighty hard. The minute the modernist fan gives me any criteria, I've won the debate, because there is not one quality or criteria that they come up with that cannot also be used to judge a realist work, and I know it. So the idea that modernist work has a language all its own is a lie, created to keep modernism from being judged by people who don't like it.

Of course, if modernist work can be judged by the same criteria that realist work is, why can't a naturalistic depiction of nature be one of them? Today is a bright, sunny, warm day in May where I'm at, and people are out and about in droves. Gee, I wonder why? The real world, the subtle qualities of human face, the moods of nature, a person's eyes, their mouth, the gesture of a hand, etc, all of it carries real weight. To ignore that power in visual communication for a perversion of human intellect run amok is ridiculous. But for the sake of "progess" we the public must make the sacrifice of our natural preferences for those of the artist. The artist gets to dictate to us how we are supposed to judge his work? Sorry, not gonna happen. We get to judge by whatever criteria we find appropriate.

And of course, every time we try to assert this right, we are told that we cannot, or that we are stupid, or that with this type of Extra Special Art, we are not allowed. But if those personal criteria support modernism why, good on ya man! You're a member of the club, you Get It! Its all so ridiculous.

Of course, the nail in the coffin is that of heralding works as equal which are good in fewer and fewer ways than their competition. This is a classic argument for decadence. First, you have the argument that a work that excels in 2 ways is just as good as a work that excels in 3 ways, then its down to work which excels in one way, and finally, its work that excels in no way at all. That's where you get the introduction of politics and a bunch of other ancillary nonsense inserted as a substitute for some kind of mastery. Does that sound familiar? Nobody in their right mind would argue that a movie which only had great performances, but a mediocre story, script, cinematography , etc., was as good as one with great performances, script, cinematography, story, etc. But that's what we are now supposed to believe. You say, well, its only painting. But its the need for popular support which is insulating other forms of art from this kind of decadence. You can see the decadents coming for literary fiction too, since few people read that much anymore. The march of the decadents is relentless. Talent is in short supply. People wanting to push themselves to the forefront are not.

Mr. White, you can comfort yourself with high auction prices, or books written by academics for academics. But you will never argue value by popular support. I noticed you saw the danger of admitting to a set of values and backed away from it mighty quick when you saw that it undermined your position. I'll take that as a compliment.

You can continue to set up all the false dichotomies you want to try to salvage your position, and you can try to censor me or ignore me if you want. But I know what modernism is and I can pull away the curtain too. You're not fooling me.

In the end, anybody can like whatever they want. I'm sure modernism has some sort of qualites a select portion of the general public finds redeemable, although I am at a loss to name any myself. But the best realism has all of that and more. It is without question the best our culture has been able to offer. And I see no reason why it should be given equal billing with its poor cousin, modernism. And most people agree with.

Its been nice chatting with you. It interesting to note that you have no criteria at your disposal to distinguish between a Rothko or Picasso and some anonymous canvas at the bottom of landfill. I'll be outside, enjoying the nice weather while it lasts. Poor stupid me! If I were smarter, I'd stay inside all day, staring at a Rubik's cube. But old habits are hard to break. I'm such a dumb-ass!

Posted by: BTM on May 13, 2007 4:27 PM



BTM, I just one thing. When I typed this:

"Mass appeal automatically means quality?"

it was in response to your assertion that realism is enjoyed by more people than modernism, therefore realism is better. I merely stated that popularity does not AUTOMATICALLY mean quality, that i cannot be used as a criterion for judging quality. I do not believe the "public" to be stupid. As I said, I'm a member of the public myself. You keep throwing up strawmen. If I don't like a painting or style that a very large number of people seem to like, it means I disagree with them.

And you really seem to have an inferiority complex. No one here has called you stupid or even implied that your love of realist painting is anything but a genuine and valid passion, nor have we said that your disdain for modernist painting is due to lack of brain cells. Speaking for myself, I really don't care what you like or dislike, I'm merely defending a style of art that I happen to enjoy from arguments I believe are unfounded. Specifically your arguments that modernist painting is empirically lesser than realist painting, and that hardly anyone enjoys modernist painting. I'm not trying to convince you that modernist painting is good and/or better than realist painting, or prove somehow that because you don't like modernist painting, you are somehow less intelligent. I don't believe either of those things. YOU are the one dismissing en masse an entire school of art and the people who enjoy it.

Posted by: the patriarch on May 14, 2007 10:24 AM






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