The Laws of Nature

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mile Three ...

I liked Sheila's idea of a cyber-fireside chat, so here we are! And, if you're not in the picture, please join us :)
My existential journey continues as we all gaze into the fire and contemplate the fuzz in our navels. For those of you who are just now joining us, I'm looking into the roots of Western art theory in order to better understand the influences on my own thoughts and work so that I can examine them, evaluate them, and advance to improve my work. So far, we've covered the Ancients, Medieval art, and part of the Renaissance. The "map" for my journey is the book Art Theory: An Historical Introduction by Robert Williams. Someone, please put another log on the fire and pass the wine ...
When I last wrote, Alberti had laid the foundation for modern art theory way back in 1435 A.D. Now, there's a man with a vision! For today's post, I'll finish the Renaissance. Obviously, I'm leaving out a great deal of Williams' facts and ideas from his book to cherry-pick what is relevant to influences on my art.
This brings us to Leonardo daVinci (1452 - 1519 A.D.). He extended Alberti's theories to elevate the status of painting to a "science." By that, he meant a philosophical activity that combines inductive and deductive reasoning. This was a big deal, because, prior to this time, the status of painters was beneath that of poets and philosophers. As the late, great Rodney Dangerfield would say, those artists "don't get not respect!" Leonardo claimed that painting could arrive at "truth" - which is something that philosphers had claimed that only philosophy could do. Don't we think that way today? Don't we believe that painting reveals a "truth" and that artists should be held in high regard? We have Leonardo to thank for that.
Then, along came Humanism - the cultivation of universal values inspired by the study of classical antiquity. Among the Humanists was an Italian named Giorgio Vasari, who published the book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550. In it, Vasari demonstrated that the progress of art up to that point includes increasing naturalism, increasing beauty, more persuasive storytelling, and greater expression of abstract ideas. He concluded that DESIGN is what unites the visual arts and makes them unique to all other disciplines. His contribution to us through this work is to formalize and contextualize the history of art which elevates its status even more. So, it looks like we artists today are standing on a pretty good foundation. But, these are only the first few stones.
Another Italian named Giavanni Paolo Lomazzo published a book entitled Treatise on Painting in 1584 that further defined and formalized art. He divided painting into seven elements:
  • proportion
  • motion
  • color
  • light
  • perspective
  • composition
  • form
Sound familiar?? Yup, even today we consider these elements important when we construct a work of art.
All this came from Humanism. According to Williams: Humanism gave art the tools with which to extend its reach into and over culture as a whole, to establish itself as the necessary and uniquely privileged activity it has remained. The genie was out of the bottle.
So, what is the natural outcome of all this? The artistic academy! This formalized way of teaching art sprung up in the early 16th Century in Europe, and exerted a powerful iinfluence over artistic life for centuries. These academies were the most important means by which artists were able to win widespread recognition for themselves as professionals and intellectuals rather than craftsmen. We got respect! Academies were also a means for the standardization and internationalization of artistic culture, spreading a system of theoretical values that remained remarkably uniform until into the 19th Century. Oh ... this is definitely a part of my roots!
I won't go into the long history of how academies got started and spread throughout Europe, but it's interesting if you ever want to read about it. However, there was a down side to the academy: student work became formulaic. So, there were many attempts throughout this period to reform artistic education in order to eliminate the problem. These efforts weren't entirely successful.
I should mention the grandest of all academies: the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris (est. 1648). This academy marked the transition from Italian-dominated art theory to French, although the French art theory was derived from the Italians. The Acadamie actually created a hierarchy of the various genres of painting. I'll list them from the most "important" (top of list) to the least (bottom):
  • histoire - paintings dealing with historical scenes
  • portraiture - the human form
  • everyday life - a.k.a. "genre"
  • landscapes
  • still life
Here's a question for you: does this hierarchy still stand today? Is there a hierarchy?
So, I'll end the Renaissance here. I've definitely identified some influences on my own work from that time. Next ... the Enlightenment!


M said...

How cosy we all look around the fire. It's always great to feel part of a group. I'm gaining so much from your writing on this blog that I'm beginning to feel like I should send you a workshop fee! Thanks for taking the time to share your journey with us.

I had no idea we have Leonardo to thank for elevating the status of painting to a philosophical activity that could explore or expose truth. I would like to think artists are held in high regard in society today, but this is not always the case. Many people have an odd perception of artists and this stereotype is pervasive. For example I lead a fairly conventional, middle class life, and I do not fit the stereotype of artist. I was told , " You can't be an artist, You're not weird enough." I'm curious to hear what other people have to say about that the status of artists in society.

Yea Humanists! Thank you, but I'm glad I don't have to deal with the Academies. I realize they had an important role to play in the development of more standardized learning opportunities but this is negated somewhat by the need for artists to conform to what was considered correct at the time. As for the hierarchy of painting - very interesting. I seem to remember reading about this in the last month or so and felt for some people that a hierarchy of subject matter still holds true today. I don't think it is the same as the one listed here, but there are value judgments made about subject matter, e.g. floral subject matter, and media used, e.g., watercolour are both near the bottom of the barrel.
I'm looking forward to reading other responses to this question.

The Artist Within Us said...

Being on the road and only with very limited Internet access, I shall only comment on the picture of us all around the fire.

Since my trip has been a mental strain these last few days, this post could not have come at a better time. I needed a good light hearted humour to bring about some much needed distraction. So please know that it worked, there is a big, no make that huge smile across my face followed by a roar of laughter.

As mentioned, I need to return and read the post before commenting on anything else, but in regards to Leonardo, there are two notebooks of his published by Dover and still available. They are worth reading.

Warmest regards

-Don said...

First, I'm going to elbow in a little closer to the fire...brrr.... there, that's better...

I'm glad the acadamies had so much to do with the garnering of influence and respect for artists. But, as is so often the case, what started out as useful organizations soon enough turned into a huge, powerful, self-serving beasts. I realized several years ago that all of my favorite art movements were reactions against these academies (and more recently, any other established "way of doing things") - a couple obvious examples being the Realists and the Impressionists. Oops, I think I may have just jumped ahead...sorry...

Margaret brings up a good point in your question about hierarchy, there does seem to be a hierarchy - or prejudice - associated with the media used to create paintings. Oils sit way up high on the list and then everything else falls into place below it. As you know, my media of choice is acrylic. Not long ago I had someone fall in love with one of my paintings. They kept coming back to check it out. They finally decided that they would not buy it because they were disappointed that it was not in oil. I did not allow my dismay to show on my face or in my voice, but my inner voice was saying things that should not be repeated!

As for genre's, I notice that abstract - something not even listed by the Acadamie - would be high on today's list. I wonder where your and my work would even fall in the Acadamie's list???


Mark Sheeky said...

Another riviting discussion. Thanks for taking the time to post. I've just finished watching an excellent BBC documentary by philosopher Roger Scruton about beauty in art (PS. I accidentally lied in an earlier post, I think my latest book was Modern Philosophy by him). Anyway to cut a long story short he argued the the purpose of art was to elevate humanity to a higher moral and spiritual plane through beauty; to transcend the normal and reinforce good feelings during good times and console and give understanding during bad times.

This reminded me of your art hieracrhies. What do they have in common? I suggest, the power to represent situations that ordinary people can identify with. "History" paintings always reflected the situations of ordinary people and can do so more powerfully than portraiture... etc.

Don... abstract is a technique not a genre of art... all paintings are abstracted to some degree. Howabout that for thought provocation! Have a virtual toasted marshmallow folks :)

-Don said...

Good point, Mark... Make that non-objective instead of abstract. Every one of the genre's listed above has some cognizant form of subject matter based on "the real world". The Academie was exclusive in its willingness to allow anything into their shows that did not fall under their definitions of the aforementioned genre's. So, with that historical context in mind, into what genre would they have placed Kathy's work? Or, mine? And - here's another doozy - would we even have been perceived as artists?

Unknown said...

Hi there, happy campers! Again, another great conversation around the campfire.

Margaret - well, what is weird?? I guess if I have to ask that then I AM weird. I think there's this popular misconception that artists are out of their minds and act like lunatics most of the time. Not so at all - that's just affected behavior. Artists are creative. You don't have to walk around with a lampshade on your head to be creative :) And...I agree with the hierarchy you list. It's been my experience, too.

Egmont - I'm sooo delighted that this picture cheered you up! We ARE a circle of cyber-friends and it's great that we can both engage in intellectual discussions and provide encouragement. Safe travels.

Don - yes ... you make a good point about the rebellion against the academies. I'll be getting to that verrrrry soon. Your story about the acrylic painting is, sadly, a true reflection of the medium hierarchy. I think Margaret's correct in placing watercolor below acrylic on the bottom rung. I've caved in a little bit to this bias. Although I still paint in w/c, the show I'm preparing for June is in oils for the very reason you stated. I'll defer to Mark's statement about abstracts. I agree with him.

Mark - I'll put down my marshmallow long enough to reply :) Scruton's philosophy about beauty and art is a small twist on the ancient philosophy. Just shows how long an idea can hang around! Good observation about the commonality between the hierarchical tiers. I must think about that for awhile, since there's a primal psychological response to all art forms by humans, anyway, so wouldn't we select to create that which we can relate to? I think the hierarchy as it's presented was based on Greek philosophy ... contrived notions of thoughts that elevate the human condition. But, I'm no expert and I'll keep thinking about this. Oh no!... smoke is coming out of my ears!

Unknown said...

Don ... I understand. I suspect that non-objective work wouldn't have even been considered. It didn't match the philosophical ideas of the time. Although your work is clearly superior, Don, I doubt that either of us would have been taken seriously at that time. Heck ... it's hard enough being taken seriously even now!

Anonymous said...
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Carolyn Abrams said...

I love this little campfire! Having spent many years in front of the campfire i can tell you the conversations have never been so interesting! I thoroughly enjoy all your comments and learn each day from them. Having never had a formal art education i have had many people tell me i am lucky to not have had the "formulazation" (is that a word?) of my art, but i have felt that in teaching myself and learning from books and workshops that i have missed something. That there was a hole in my education that i could not fill until now, learning with Kathy and now all of you in this way is awesome!! I'm going to refill my wine glass, throw another log on the fire and re-read all your comments! Chaoi! You've got to love those Italians!

Unknown said...

Hi PAMO and Carolyn, thanks so much and glad you're with us around the fire! And ... yes I DO love those Italians! I did my field research in Italy for five years, and the one summer I couldn't get back there I made up for it by marrying an Italian! Ciao.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm trying to remember whether I was weird first, then arty or vice versa. It's that chicken or egg question again. I was caught off guard a few years ago when a friend from high school asked if my kids were normal (and I thought I was passing for "normal" until I was in my forties). I blame it on being the middle child, the only daughter, a redhead, and a preacher's kid with a lot of questions--and I hung out with the smart kids in school.

I have to study and think about these these last two posts--too many marshmallows.

The Artist Within Us said...

I do not know if this sits into the discussion, but when I think of contemporary academics, I cannot help see the 'white ivory towers' from which their views are forced upon us and that of the collector.

Take for example the American publication 'New American Paintings', a publication in which the art is juried.

Yet what I find within the majority of the pages, it contains their views what they think is the next style of art collectors should be purchasing and we should be painting.

I once had high regards for this publication but no longer!

Singling out 'New American Paintings' is not faIr, for there are always two sides to everything. We artist are also to blame for the state of things today.

From the MIddle Ages until the Impressionists, artist worked for the church and wealthy patrons. When the Impressionists surfaced, they rebelled against the establish and the Salon and the Royal Academy that only permitted to feature art that was in line with their standards and political views.

Since then artists have been free agents which is all well and good, so where am I heading?

Media and money have created a few superstars at the cost of the majority of other artists. In today's art market we have a warped perspective and galleries wanting to take back some of the control by requiring artists have an academic education, regardless of the work.

So where does it leave a considerable majority of artists who did not graduate with an masters in art yet their work is comparable to that of the graduate?

I know this is all an over simplification and both sides have valid points in their arguments. I just feel there needs to be more of a balance and that art in general should be more inclusive and not exclusive.

Warmest regards to all

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy and all around the fire! What a wonderful picture! Very creative!

The fireside discussions of the past few days, and on this blog in general, remind me of the descriptions of the Friday night discussions I’ve read about in NYC during the 40s and 50s. Lead by some of the greats of the day, art students and masters used to discuss art philosophies well into the night, or so I’ve been told. I, unfortunately, don’t remember which book I read it in. I can only imagine there was plenty of wine available.

It also reminds me of something I read from Robert Henri I believe...something about being in the company of all the artists who’ve gone before. I like trying to touch their ideas.

I sort of think of things as cyclic, or spiraling. Cyclic because we rebel against the over-stifling academies. Eventually the new ideas of the rebels become the established. And, the cycle or spiral continues when someone else comes along to rebel. I like spiraling better than cyclic because I don’t think we ever arrive at exactly the same spot we were before. Each time we grow a bit, synthesize, and see things in new context.

I struggle with conformity and non conformity all the time. I feel I should conform and learn to draw in the traditional it’s a rite of passage as an artist. This last for a few days until the urge to rebel is overwhelming. But, each notch on the Kathy’s spiral helix, helps me grow and learn.

I like reading about how the greats thought and within the context of their time. It helps me understand our current philosophies as well as appreciate the art of previous times. I grew up loving the art of Cubism, El Greco, Cezanne and Van Gogh and the drawings of Leonardo. I’ve had to learn how to see and enjoy some of the other masters like Carravagio, Vermeer, Raphael. I passed Velasquez at the Prado to get to Goya...both are great but now I get Velasquez.

Speaking of hierarchy, pencil, whether graphite or colored pencil, is below watercolor. It’s sad that hierarchies must exist. No doubt the passion and love for art exists regardless of medium or subject.

Camp fires brings out the urge to discuss ideas! Thanks!

Unknown said...

Looks like I have to hand my marshmallow on a stick to Egmont because he's closer to the fire.

In answering your question about the hierarchy still standing today, I think genre (everyday) life has or should be bumped up a few notches because the first two (history and portraiture) has been adequately supplemented by photography and film.

-Don said...

Good point, Sheila!

The last historical scene painting that I can think of that made an impact was Picasso's "Guernica". Can anyone think of a more current one?


Unknown said...

Egmont - I agree! I abhor exclusivity and feel that the problem can be assigned to a variety of sectors. Certainly, the secretive usiness arrangements that occur between gallery dealers and museum curators are another problem. And, as you say, "credentials" is another unfair barrier. We need to change all that.

Unknown said...

Peggy - great thoughts! I think we are becoming the cyber version of "The Artists' Club" in New York City around the 1940's, as it was known. Abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rothko, Hofman, deKooning, etc. met at the Waldorf Cafeteria in Greenwich Village and later at other places. Thanks for mentioning this! And, I also like the idea of a "spiral" of art theory and influence. Great!!
Yes, sadly, I think graphite pencil ranks below w/c. Oh, dear!

Unknown said...

Sheila, I agree. This is a good observation. Don, I'm trying to think of a painting since "Guernica" and there may be several, but I just can't think of them. Anyone else??

Mark Sheeky said...

After Guernica? Hmm. I noticed at my last art exhibition that there were almost no historical paintings, whether ancient subjects or recent social commentary. They're more out of fashion than oil paintings of copper pots (which seem eternally popular).

I'm not sure that watercolours rank lowest in stature. The artists I speak to all admire the skill of watercolourists. The problem is that too many hobbyists use watercolours to paint flowers and twee landscapes. Perhaps it's not the medium as much as the subjects associated with it.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark,
In the USA, watercolorists produce the same range of subject matter and styles as the oil painters. The problem is, we can't get the same price for these paintings as for oils. There's a stigma attached to w/c painting as a less serious venture.