2009 02 11
Recently read: Rembrandt’s Nose

Posted by in: Art, Books

Michael Taylor. Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh and Spirit in the Master’s Portraits

Recently, I had the idea that I would start reading more about visual art. The first thing I did was lug home Jansen’s massive History of Art from the library. But the thing was too daunting, and I have a bunch of other books out now. Anyway, I’m not sure that a broad historical survey is the best way into any subject. (This is why back when I was teaching I always did my best to transform any surveyish class I was responsible for into something a bit more focused, the idea being that you often get a better sense of the whole by learning a part of it in some meaningful detail. The only thing I ever got from a ram-it-down-your-throat-as-fast-as-you-can-buffet style sampler approach to a subject is that there’s a lot of the subject, perhaps even too much.)

And so I decided to begin reading about visual art at the other end of the scale of generality, with a book-length study of noses in Rembrandt. If it strikes you as funny that someone would write a book length study of noses in Rembrandt, then you probably haven’t read Rembrandt’s Nose. It’s author, Michael Taylor, is so keen on the subject, finds it so natural a spur to reflection and study, that he confesses at the outset of the book that when he first got the idea for it he was surprised that no one else had gotten there first. Lucky him. And lucky us too. It’s a delightful book, filled with close observations, insight, and warmth.

Rembrandt’s Nose is not just about noses in Rembrandt’s paintings, etchings and sketches.* It’s just that noses play a starring role in the works that Taylor discusses: the way they catch the light in Rembrandt’s portraits; the way they indicate character and experience. Taylor works more or less chronologically through a number of works of art, describing them closely, commenting on them, and filling in historical details when it matters. It should be obvious that I’m completely ignorant when it comes to this sort of thing, and so I’m not in a position to say anything about the reliability of Taylor’s scholarship. I can say, however, that Taylor’s observations helped me see things I would not otherwise have seen; and that having seen those things, I felt better equipped in general to notice more about other works of visual art. If you’re starting out the way I am, you can’t ask for much more in a book on visual art.

* I think that the title is in part an homage to Simon Schama’s influential book Rembrandt’s Eyes.

Howls of outrage (2)

2009 02 06
Recently Read: Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays

Posted by in: Art, Books, Feminism

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing got me interested in feminist art criticism so I looked around a bit, gathered the impression that Linda Nochlin was an important figure in the field, and got a hold of this collection of essays. The volume brings together seven essays, arranged in reverse chronological order, from 1988 to 1971. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s obvious to me why Nochlin matters: the essays are both ambitious and cogent. A few of the essays were studies of particular artists or themes. These were less interesting to me, since I don’t have the background in the subjects to really evaluate or challenge Nochlin’s line of argument. But a few of the essays were really exciting, in particular the title essay, “Women, Art, and Power” (1988) and the final (chronologically, the first) essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971).

“Women, Art, and Power” is about,

the ways in which representations of women in art are founded upon and serve to reproduce indisputably accepted assumptions held by society in general, artists in particular, and some artists more than others about men’s power over, superiority to, difference from, and necessary control of women, assumptions which are manifested in the visual structures as well as the thematic choices of the pictures in question. Ideology manifests itself as much by what is unspoken—unthinkable, unrepresentable—as by what is articulated in a work of art. Insofar as many of the assumptions about women presented themselves as a complex of commonsense views about the world, and were therefore assumed to be self-evident, they were relatively invisible to most contemporary viewers, as well as to the creators of the paintings. Assumptions about women’s weakness and passivity; her sexual availability for men’s needs; her defining domestic and nurturing function; her identity with the realm of nature; her existence as object rather than creator of art; the patent ridiculousness of her attempts to insert herself actively into the realm of history by means of work or engagement in political struggle—all of these notions, themselves premised on an even more general, more all-pervasive certainty about gender difference itself—all of these notions were shared, if not uncontestedly, to a greater or lesser degree by most people of our period, and as such constitute an ongoing subtext underlying almost all individual images involving women.

Yet, as Nochlin is quick to explain, the word “subtext” is potentially misleading:

It is not a deep reading I am after; this is not going to be an attempt to move behind the images into some realm of more profound truth lurking beneath the surface of the various pictorial texts.

Rather, the implications about women that Nochlin finds in visual art are there on the surface, as the plainest elements of a painting, even if we are not used to focusing our attention on them.

Focusing our attention on these implications is easier said than done—at least for this culturally obtuse dude, it is. I’m a feminist, and I’ve spent some time thinking about feminism and feminist issues. Even so, the plain meaning of a painting, the set of obvious implications suggested by different elements in it, is often extremely difficult to take in, whether we’re talking about gender in particular or other kinds of social relations. This is partly because of my own limitations as a viewer. But it’s also because seeing this sort of thing clearly is just an inherently difficult thing to do. Art has all kinds of functions, but it performs its ideological function, as Nochlin points out, by making certain highly contingent assumptions seem highly natural. What makes a book like this so exciting, for me at least, is the promise it holds of teaching how to see things in a fresh way. With a bit of practice, gradually what seems natural and ordinary—say, certain conventional treatments of women in painting—can be re-viewed as contingent and peculiar. Nochlin, of course, gives us more than theory. She walks through a number of examples, setting out and arguing for her interpretation of them.

The standard complaint here is that this approach to art turns it into an occasion for harping on your favourite ideological preoccupations, rather than treating art on its own terms, whatever that means, exactly. Berger faced much the same criticism in response to his own Marxist-influenced approach to art. “We are accused of being obsessed with property,” he wrote.

The truth is the other way round. It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed. Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized for what it is. The relation between property and art in European culture appears natural to that culture, and consequently if somebody demonstrates the extent of the property interest in a given cultural field, it is said to be a demonstration of his obsession.

The depiction of women as subordinate in visual art is pervasive, and although the fixation on this subordination often isn’t conscious, it’s nevertheless very deeply ingrained in the Western tradition. So it seems to me that the criticism of a feminist approach to art criticism mentioned above is especially perverse. It’s the tradition that is shot through with sexist assumptions, to the extent that it would be completely unrecognizable without them, and feminist art criticism is only pointing that out.

Nochlin’s essay “Why are there no Great Women Artists?” is also good. Nochlin surveys a few of the standard responses to this question, dismisses them, and then launches into an investigation of the shared characteristics of most of the artists in the last few hundred years who are considered great. Practically none of them, Nochlin notes, came from the aristocracy, in spite of the fact that aristocrats often had encouragement and some amateur instruction at painting. Very few people ask “Why are there no Great Aristocratic Artists?” Once we do ask the question, the answer is reasonably clear: Aristocrats lived according to, and within, a set of social expectations and restrictions that made the sort of intensive, early, full-time training necessary for serious accomplishment extremely difficult, if not impossible, to acquire. (No one worries, of course, that aristocrats might be born with little natural facility for art.)

Women, aristocratic or not, had a whole other set of burdens, social expectations and restrictions to deal with. Nochlin illustrates this by singling out one such factor for scrunity: the availability of nude studies for aspiring woman painters. Extensive work on such studies was considered an absolutely essential precondition for serious accomplishment in the most respected areas of visual art for much of the last few hundred years of Western visual art. Unsurprisingly, the opportunities for such studies for women were highly restricted (at times there were no such opportunities; other times, they were extremely limited). Nochlin’s meditation on this theme circles a number of times around the notion of greatness, teasing apart the assumptions that go into the question, as well as possible responses to her question.

Anyway, this is good stuff. I imagine the general reader would have roughly the same experience that I had with some of the essays in this collection (that is, might find them a little too specialized). But a few of the essays I would certainly recommend for anyone with any interest in visual art.

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2009 01 27
Recently read: Ways of Seeing

Posted by in: Art, Books

John Berger.* Ways of Seeing

This book is based on a BBC television series that originally aired in 1972.** It contains seven essays, three of which are entirely pictorial. The first essay develops a few ideas about the influence of modern mechanical reproduction on visual art – ideas that, we are told (and I had to be told, since I haven’t read him yet), are due to Walter Benjamin. Other essays take up the tradition of nude painting and subject it to feminist criticism; explore the distinctive features of European oil painting; and then compare the tradition of European oil painting with modern advertising.

Berger develops these themes in interesting and provocative ways. Regarding the female nude, Berger stresses the way in which the unnatural poses so often adopted by women in paintings is related to the viewer’s gaze. The female nude twists, often unnaturally, toward the viewers gaze (and often unnaturally away from the gaze of the male subject in the painting, when she has company) in ways that would be entirely unnatural for a male subject. The supine posture of the female nude in the European tradition is not only impossible to find in depictions of men within the same tradition. As Berger points out, it is also absent in non-European traditions of depicting nakedness. All this might be obvious to you, but Berger’s discussion was very helpful at getting me to notice things I tend to miss otherwise.

The same is true of Berger’s discussion of the tradition of oil painting, which I can hardly do justice to here. Berger, developing a basically Marxist insight, is interested in the way that the tradition fits into the interests of successive ruling classes over several hundred years. He thinks that what is really distinctive about oil painting is its ability to depict objects in an exceptionally realistic and lifelike way. He suggests that in oil painting, “a way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil paintings, and could not have found it in any other visual art.” Is this true? I have no idea, but Berger at least discusses obvious counterexamples (some great paintings) and classes of counterexamples (landscape painting, for example).

I think Ways of Seeing is the first book on art that I have ever read. It turns out to have been a great place to start. My first impression of the book, however, wasn’t as favourable as my opinion when I turned the last page. Berger is given to the oracular mode, which is always annoying, but most of all when you’re being told something dubious or false. Here we are, for example, close to the very beginning of the book, and getting ready to think about ways of seeing:

To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it. (Close your eyes, move round the room and notice how the faculty of touch is like a static, limited form of sight.

The first sentence here is a pretty mundane observation, decked out in pretentious language. The second sentence strikes me as false, silly, or trivial, depending on how exactly we load up the “like” with meaning—and Berger moves on from this point without suggesting how we might do that.

The book might rub other readers the wrong way for being unapologetically indebted to a Marxist perspective in its cultural criticism. (I’ve got no beef with this in particular. Indeed Marx seems a potentially rich source of insight on all sorts of cultural matters.) Here’s a nice example:

Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged an individual right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.

I’m not sure whether that’s true, or what ways exactly that it’s true and false, but it’s not the sort of passage you’d expect to run across in a popular and influential book published today—especially the casual reference to the “overthrow of capitalism.”

But wait! Come back! This is really a remarkable book, both stimulating and provocative. Berger had me looking at, and thinking about looking at, visual art in ways that I never had before. This may be partly a reflection of where I’m starting from —with very little natural aptitude in this area or experience appreciating visual art—but I doubt that’s the whole story. So: recommended.

* John Berger gets his name on the cover, as the principal author and thinker behind both the series and the book, but an unsigned “Note to the Reader” at the beginning of the book distributes authorship more broadly among five contributors. I couldn’t find their names anywhere in the book. Wikipedia has them, of course, but references the very book in which I couldn’t find any mention of them. Oh well.

** I haven’t seen it and, sadly, it’s not on Netflix. (As of this writing, the phrase “not on Netflix” has only 1,740 occurrences on Google. “Sadly, it’s not on Netflix” has 5 hits.)

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 03 02
Have you heard?

Posted by in: Art

I think this might be the only thing funnier than the article Anne recently linked to.

Click. Watch. Laugh….Love.

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2008 02 01
Bleg, or, phleg: Aristotle, catharsis, porn

It’s a philosophy-bleg!

My colleague is teaching Aristotle on catharsis this afternoon. The cartoon view of catharsis is that drama (or just? mainly? tragedy) is useful because it allows us to purge our harmful emotions by getting emotionally wrought over a fictional situation. My colleague is wondering whether Aristotle could say pornography is useful for purging the bad emotion (or, excess emotion?) of lust, or whether Aristotle would be required to say that porn is bad because it forms bad habits. So, Aristotle: for or against porn?

I told him I knew the man for this job, and then I thought other people might be interested too so I’m posting this rather than emailing you, CY.

Howls of outrage (9)

2008 01 29
History comix

From Spencer, by way of Wondermark, artist Kate Beaton has made short comics about 20 historical figures. They’re great and you should go look at them.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 04 10
Rowan Atkinson, what are you doing with your hand in that fruit bowl?

Posted by in: Art

At Cat and Girl today, a nice lesson about classical art. The comic is good, but look below it at the note from 4/10, and be sure to click on the links to see the paintings.

I’m striving, but unable, to come up with a good alternate title for my favorite Caravaggio. Any thoughts?

Howls of outrage (5)

2007 01 20
Ron Mueck

Posted by in: Art, Sculpture

The other day, Yoon and I went to see the Ron Mueck exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Very impressive. At first, it’s difficult to notice anything about Mueck’s sculptures beyond their sheer technical brilliance. But once you start to get used to that, you can move on to appreciate their sensitivity and their perceptiveness. A wonderful show, and it’s over Feb. 4th, 2007.

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2005 03 12
Le Corbusier

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Art

Last night, I went to a Very Rich Person’s apartment in Manhattan and sat in an original Corbusier chair. It was extremely comfy, but who can relax in a $15,000 chair? Not me, it turns out.

Update: OK, now that I think about it, the owners of the apartment really weren’t that rich, by Manhattan standards. They were just very rich compared to me.

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