Of art, craft, and acquired tastes

A friend who is an art historian lamented that even his most attentive students could not share his enthusiasm for modern art and that even those who understand the context in which it arose still dislike it.

One of the issues I have with much of what passes for modern “art” is that it is 99% concept (the more pretentious and preachy, the better) and 1% about execution. I am reminded of how in Dutch, “kunst” (art) comes from the same root as “kunde” (ability, skill, knowledge). It’s hard to see any “kunde” in making cans labeled “Merde d’Artiste” [sh-t of artist/sh-tty artist] (Piero Manzoni); in displaying one’s unmade bed as an art installation; dripping paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock); making stains of various bodily fluids (Andres Serrano — this work of “art” was used by Metallica for two album covers); and the like. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has been blogging up a storm about this poseurism, and the neo-figurative “Stuckist”  and “Remodern” movement that arose against this “stuck on stupid”.

What much of modern “art” really amounts to is a rejection of “craft” in favor of “concept”. I cannot help being reminded of a similar trend in literature.

Now you could call me an artistic philistine who is stuck on Renoir, and maybe you have a point — but I’m much more conversant with music than with any visual art, and yet we see something similar there: contemporary classical music has, for the most part, become a sterile exercise in intellectual and ideological peacocking by academic musicians for academic musicians and snobbish hangers-on.

Another friend asked in response whether this was a matter of acquired taste. After all, people who are not chocoholics or wine connoisseurs cannot truly appreciate “the good stuff” for how good it is?

Perhaps, but here’s the thing: even the person who would like the cheap chocolate from the dollar store as well as the rare gourmet stuff still has no trouble recognizing the latter as chocolate — they just would miss the added value. To use a musical analogy: consider listening to a Bach fugue.  Knowing formal counterpoint will make you realize just how much of a genius Bach was to do what he did, but you don’t need to know any music theory to hear it’s music — and if it’s well played, an attentive listener — even without any formal training — will realize it’s a tapestry of independent voices in a harmonious conversation, even if you don’t know any of the “rules of order” that govern it (which is what classical counterpoint really is, a “Roberts’ Rules” for polyphonic music).

 

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False dichotomies and art education

In Hyrum, Utah, an art teacher at an elementary school has been fired for showing two artworks featuring female nudity to fifth- and sixth-graders. The artworks in question (images somewhat unsafe in some workplaces) are “Odalisque” by François Boucher (a partial nude) and “Female Nude” (a.k.a. Iris Tree) by Amedeo Modigliani (which features full frontal nudity).

I am torn here. On the one hand, I do not consider artistic, tasteful classical nude paintings to be offensive at all and have even written a long blog post about Renoir’s models. On the other hand, know your audience: it would not occur to me to display this type of painting to elementary schoolers in a very religious community, be it LDS or Orthodox Jewish—and the teacher ought to have displayed better judgment. On the third hand, the school’s reaction — firing the teacher where a friendly admonition would have done the job just fine been quite adequate — is a classic example of “shooting mosquitos with a cannon”. Especially since the material came from the school’s own library collection.

derp to full potato

There are those who try to present the treatment of sexual matters as a false dichotomy: either Old Order Amish or Teen Vogue’s “teenage girl’s guide to [back door breaking and entering” (barf). Those of us who seek a sensible middle ground will be called libertines by one side and prudes by the other. Be it as it may: false dichotomies are a beloved cheap trick of propagandists everywhere.

If you believe (as I do) that sex is something beautiful to be shared and enjoyed between people who love each other; that pleasuring your partner is a skill worth acquiring for your partner’s sake as well as your own; but that sexuality is not something to be “hung out in public”  in and out of season; then you will run afoul of jaded hedonist “sophisticates” and neo-Puritans alike. As the Iron Lady put it: being in the middle of the road means you will get hit by the traffic from both sides.

This polarization extends to fiction, by the way. “Contemporary romances” increasingly are either very explicit for the sake of being explicit (if those same books were marketed as erotica, this would at least be “truth in advertising”) or (for certain religious markets) squeaky-clean at a level where even a kiss on the mouth is considered too racy. I personally do not mind even very graphic scenes if they move the story forward or deepen the characters, but in most situations, I do believe that it is best to leave something to the imagination, that usually “less is more”, and that usually off-camera, or at most soft-focus are as effective as technicolor, or indeed more so. As for how “spicy” to paint an amorous relationship in fiction: I would go by what feels authentic for the characters and their environment. A romance in which two students at a Northeastern liberal arts college spend four years hand-holding and kissing each other on the cheek until their wedding day would generally be very implausible unless you came up with a very convincing backstory. At the same time, in some very religious milieus, a couple getting physical on their first meeting would be equally preposterous. “Don’t throw the reader out of the story” applies to these matters as well.

 

If it keeps on raining…

 

 

The other day I heard a strange and wonderful cover of a blues classic, performed by Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s second band.

A delta blues purist might get an even bigger stroke than they would from Led Zeppelin’s famous version. But precisely because of the change of context, and Maynard’s emotional yet understated delivery, the song hit me like a hammer.

The original was written about the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood, the most destructive river flood in the history of the USA, which made hundreds of thousands homeless. Many of those were black, and joined the Great Migration from the agricultural South to the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

But the metaphor of a levee about to break speaks to me on a number of levels.

There is the general sense that insanity and inanity in the political system and the popular culture have reached a level where the rest of us feel like we are drowning in derp and d-baggery. Exhibit, well, T: My Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s article on the left’s long post-election tantrum.

At another level, the Harvey Weinstein scandal (and another shoe about to drop) show that the depravity of some beacons of popular culture has risen to such levels that even with the help of a fawning, compliant press it can no longer be contained. “When the levee breaks, you’ll have no place to stay.” Not that it came as a great surprise to anyone familiar with the inner workings of certain industries.

My friend “masgramondou” comments here on the peculiar “bootlegger and Baptist coalition” (or is that a CAT coalition: cads and Tumblristas?) that has arisen in an attempt to change the subject. (Mayim Bialik learned the hard way what happens when you deviate from the party line.)

At a third level, one sees something more hopeful. The ever-increasing shrillness of the would-be opinion makers and virtue signalers in politics, media (but I repeat myself), academia, and popular culture are causing ever more of us to “cut the cord” and tune them out entirely. Too many alternatives are available nowadays, and if none are to our liking, the entry barriers to creating our own have never been lower. (The flip side, of course, is the ever greater challenge to stand out from the crowd of creators.)

Are we at a tipping point, and is a return to sanity near? “And grace and good sense will be found in the eyes of G-d and man” (ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני א׳ ואדם), as it says in the Grace After Meals. May it happen speedily and in our days.

The women of Renoir: models, muses, and partners

[Updated November 1, 2015 with information from Dictionary of Artists’ Models by Jill Berk Jiminez]
After all the “spin” and “strangeness” of the last days, time for a bit of charm.
While I’m primarily a words-numbers-and-music kind of guy, I do have visual arts preferences. One painter that has always had a very special place in my heart happens to be Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Renoir is usually pigeonholed as an impressionist, but in truth his work ranges from the impressionistic to the classically figurative.
This post is inspired by Sarah Hoyt’s post on PJMedia about appreciating the female form — something Renoir was one of the greatest masters in history of.  Aside from the many commissioned portraits of women and young girls he painted, below are the brief stories of his principal models, muses, and “women in his life”.
Click “more” for the whole article. “Trigger warning”: some tasteful, exquisitely artistic, female nude paintings.

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