In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« The Shock of Non-Recognition | Main | DarkoV Recommends Some Richard Thompson »

September 17, 2007

The Problem of Simplicity

Donald Pitenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

"%$^**@&%#," I say.

That's because my draft of this article in the blog queue disappeared into the Big Black Hole of Lost Blog Posts. So what follows is a stripped-down, less fancily phrased and structured version of what I had written a week or so ago. As I said, "%$^**@&%#."

Part of Modernism's rejection of the 19 century was the introduction of a dogma of Simplicity. This did not affect painting to any great degree; a Pollock drip-painting can hardly be called simple. But Simplicity did take hold to a considerable degree for sculpture and triumphed in the fields of Architecture and Industrial Design where ornament was abolished in the former and reduced to "speed strips" in the latter by 1940.

The Postmodern era has been slightly more tolerant of ornament. Geometry-based patterns are allowed on occasion as are repeated structural details that can give an ornamented appearance of sorts. Nevertheless, a small set of simplified shapes is expected to comprise the essence of the building or object.

I have nothing against simplicity. Industrial-Designed objects, if they have smooth, simple surfaces can be much easier to keep clean than objects with lots of tiny places where dust and dirt can collect. And simple objects can be seem jewel-like if placed in contrasting settings -- for example, the newly-built Lever House building on what was then pre-Modern Park Avenue in New York.

Even so, Simplicity -- if it is pervasive -- runs counter to what seems to be deep-seated, perhaps evolutionary, human visual preferences for nature-based forms. Such forms are definitely non-geometrical and tend to the complex as opposed to the simple. (Though contrasts such as rolling fields with copses of trees and background wooded areas might skew towards the simple, yet can be pleasing to view.)

Furthermore, non-simple familiar objects probably hold viewer interest longer than greatly simplified or geometrical forms. I'm thinking of human faces and bodies as well as landscape scenes. But even complicated man-built landscapes can qualify. I can imagine myself studying a panorama of Paris for just as long as I might the Grand Canyon.

To illustrate what the title of this post -- The Problem of Simplicity -- is about, consider two sculptures:


Bird on Space - Constantin Brancusi - 1923 et. seq.
This a one of my favorite sculptures. Despite its subtle forms I can pretty well assimilate visually it in two or three minutes.

Monolith - Gustav Vigeland - completed 1943
I've never been to Oslo where a park has been set aside for Vigeland's works. But, because of the large amount of human subject-matter, I imagine that Monolith would hold my interest considerably longer than Bird in Space.



posted by Donald at September 17, 2007


Dear Donald;

The main problem with 20th century aesthetics is the confusion between simplicity and emptyness. Simplicity is actually an extremely coherent complexity: one that is instantly perceivable, despite its enormous information content. Emptyness has no content, yet that is what the so-called "industrial style" tries to reproduce over and over. We have two opposites in the same conceptual slot.

Answers to these questions are necessarily dealt with in information theory, not Art, since the appropriate vocabulary is simply not there. And that is the reason why styles, dogmas, and the cult of emptyness tend to perpetuate themselves. There is no way out of the confusion as long as one keeps trying to explain human reactions to structures (Art, Architecture, and Urbanism) by ignoring human physiology and information processing.

Of course, many people in responsible positions are happy to encourage this confusion, since it keeps them in their job. It is also impossible for them to question accepted 20th-century dogma. For example, the way out of a dead emptyness is not a form's destruction, but instead a return towards a complex coherence. Understanding form in this manner shows the path to a living Art and Architecture.This reasoning is treated in my books on architecture, and the models of complexity presented there try to help understand the problem in a scientific manner.

Best wishes

Posted by: nikos salingaros on September 18, 2007 1:03 PM

"This (simplicity) did not affect painting to any great degree ... "

Depending on how one defines modernism ... whether one sees virtually everything done since 1900 that doesn't follow traditional representational conventions as "modernist" or whether one sees a wide array of various "isms" ... will effect how one discusses these issues. Certainly there was a wing of modernism that ran with the idea of simplicity. In painting the simplicity line runs from Mondrian through Reinhardt and on to Ellsworth Kelly. There were a significant number of painters who simplified their paintings to the point of creating monochrome works, some with no discernable brushstroke texture. For those who do see distinct aesthetics rather than a monolithic "modernism" this became known as Minimalism and, unsurprisingly, it holds (held?) within its own aesthetic logic an eventual endpoint. Sculpturally Carl Andre defined the minimalist endpoint with his pieces composed of various industrial materials (pieces of 4 x 4 cedar lumber, sheets of steel, copper, etc,) arranged in stacks or grids.

Context is important. Scale is important. A table top scale sculpture, meant to be seen indoors in either a gallery or home environment, created in the rising euphoria of the post war 1920s is about very different concerns than a monumental scale work done for a public park at the height of World War II honoring the lives being ravaged by that war. A better comparison might be to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I can imagine many hours of pleasure contemplating the Brancussi standing on a table in my living room.

Posted by: Chris White on September 18, 2007 1:41 PM

Another in a long series of attempts to classify one's personal aesthetic preferences as "deep-seated, perhaps evolutionary, human visual preferences." As CW mentions, it's all about context and also, about how successful the piece is within its style constraints. I've seen pieces with god-awful complexity and pieces with astounding, profound simplicity. And of course, vice versa.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 18, 2007 2:25 PM

patriarch -- Alas, I don't have a big, fat research grant so that I could survey 60 college sophomores and find the truth regarding aesthetic preferences. So I'm reduced to using phrases such as "seems to be" and linking to my take on things based upon what I observe and read: you are free to do the same.

I make no secret that I think Modernism in its various guises was an interesting, but essentially failed, experiment that I suspect is being propped up by what I call the "Art Establishment" for a variety of reasons. My hypothesis is that some sort of counter-narrative to the Museum of Modern Art art history narrative and its ilk is needed. That's because Modernist apologists have claimed the intellectual high ground for many decades and this dominance can only be challenged by alternative intellectual efforts.

Unfortunately for my cause, I'm not much of an intellectual because (1) I'm not super-smart and (2) I'm temperamentally too impatient and unsystematic to cobble together a new Grand Theory. So I toss out my thoughts to add to the ideas and opinions of other anti-Modernists in the hope that something good will come of it.

I don't write with the intent that readers are supposed to slavishly agree with what I say. I have a point of view, of course, but I fondly think I'm using it to entertain readers and provoke some thought and conversation.

And by the way -- I never said that Simplicity was a bad thing. I suggested that it was deficient as an attention-holder. And I didn't really get into the matter of ornamentation, but should have. Well, perhaps I did in the original version of the post that inconveniently disappeared on me. I can't remember all the details of the piece.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 18, 2007 3:55 PM

It seems that you're comparing two totally different things with those pictures, and then again something entirely different when you're talking about architecture.

I find the Brancusi sculpture very beautiful. But keep in mind that this is a small object that you go to a special place, a gallery, to look at for a while and then go. It is not trying to create a total environment; you aren't expected to live in a house shaped like it, or surround yourself with things like it. You could have one in your house, I guess, but then it would be one visual detail among many in your house, and the charge of over-simplicity would make no sense.

The monolith on the other hand seems to have a political message. Is it an anti-war memorial? Even if it is not overtly political, it is certainly unsettling, and obviously intended to be so. And I can certainly see how it could hold your interest longer; there are more details to look at. But you certainly wouldn't want to live in it, or be surrounded by things like it.

It seems to me, to use your language, that both speak to deep-seated, possibly evolutionary, needs. Sometimes we are drawn to the visual interest and energy of decoration and sometimes we are drawn to stillness and simplicity.

Posted by: BP on September 18, 2007 5:11 PM

To stick to your two examples: you say that the Vigelund would hold your interest longer than the Brancusi would. Then again, the Vigelund would not likely lift you to an AHA moment whereas the whole point and purpose of the Brancusi is to transport you to AHA. Why? The Vigelund, though full of visual information, is ugly. The Brancusi is simple -- and beautiful. Doesn't matter that Vigelund labored away for ten years to raise his tower of chaos. Doesn't matter that the image of Bird In Space almost certainly came to Brancusi in a nanosecond and the working out of it was a matter of weeks at most. The one is ugly. The other is beautiful. Case closed. That's art. An aristocracy. Brancusi was. Vigelund wasn't. So unfair.

Posted by: ricpic on September 18, 2007 7:27 PM


Did you ever get to Oslo to see Vigelund's sculpture park? It's quite intriguing (as well as a display of public support any artist might well envy: Vigelund's works are the only works in a good sized outdoor park.)

The artistic point of reference for Vigelund's column, of course, is Michelangelo's Last Judgment, which also could be accurately described as ugly. While Vigelund's column isn't, in my opinion, as moving as Michelangelo's fresco, both are quite radical works, which deliberately and boldly plow into "ugliness" as a way of approaching a certain religious consciousness.

It's obviously a dicey strategy. I believe the elderly Michelangelo, on his last visit to the Sistine Chapel, some 20 years after painting "The Last Judgment" paused to look at his work, shook his head and muttered, "What horrors it will lead to!"

I rather doubt Brancusi's work caused him similar unease...which of course might possibly imply that it wasn't equivalently ambitious in conception, however graceful.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 19, 2007 1:25 AM

Nikos is aiming in the right direction. There are some beautiful traditional art forms that are simple and elegant, Ikebana comes to mind, and yet are also rich.
Modern isn't just simple it's blank.

Posted by: TW on September 19, 2007 5:28 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?