Art essays

Concerning the Political in Art, part II

The paradox encountered by political artists is that the visual arts exhibit two seemingly contradictory modes simultaneously. The visual arts, uniquely among the various arts, can be both representational and sensorial. That is, a painting can be both the material thing painted and its content (which is inexactly called subject matter). The visual arts span a wide range between two extremes of “meaning.” One  is literature, pure symbolic expression, the one art that possesses virtually no central, essential, informing sensorial quality. There is nothing tangible that is absolutely necessary to the content of a story. A book can be hand- or typewritten, it can be a cheap paperback or a lavish leather-bound volume. Its beauty and fineness of presentation do not alter its content, which still refers to the same things.

Not so the other arts. Music needs—is defined by—physical sound heard by someone. Dance requires a moving body. Music does not refer to some other thing, but refers to and presents only itself. Likewise, dance does not point to other things, but to the organization and presentation of itself. But the visual arts can be both representational or referential, as in literature, and sensuous, as in music.

It is this singular capacity to be both that ultimately works against the political purposes of art. How are we simultaneously to keep our attention on these two different modes of the work? The dilemma of all representational art is this: one mode has to be dominant over the other, and that mode is the sensuous, not the propositional.

Our experience has shown us that, when all is said and done, when time has passed, the formal properties and elements in a work of visual art dominate our appreciation and our aesthetic judgment of the work. We marvel at the consummate skill of Rubens, we are gripped by the dramatic lighting of Caravaggio, and we are perplexed at the vast talent of Bouguereau trivialized on salacious themes. The classical pleasure of delecto derives from the application of the paint, the richness of the marble, the suppleness of the dancer’s body, the timbre of the instrument, as much as it does from the represented subject.

There is a large body of analysis and criticism that argues forcefully against subject matter and the consequent captive sentiment in pictures, and for the formal and material properties of art. This is the position of formalist and Modernist criticism, and is largely a twentieth century idea. Oppositely, the greater part of preceding art theory and criticism placed a strong emphasis on subject matter. Diderot’s promotion of Greuze and similar moralizing painters in the eighteenth century, for example, rested on just this point. The moral tone of Neo-classicism, Romanticism, and Realism relied on the subject to provide the significant component of representation, that is, an action or event that was the work’s moral locus. Even Impressionism claimed to be more relevant than academic painting, and purposely chose as its subject matter la vie moderne.

Without a personal commitment to the particular issue, we view Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios with the same aloof interest as we do one of his Arabian horsemen or The Death of Sardanapalus. For me, in a similar way, I have little spontaneous response to the political agenda of Goya’s court paintings or The Fourth of May. (But I do feel a strong response to Saturn Devouring One of His Sons.) This suggests to me that certain representations provoke such a visceral response as to remove them from a the ambit of classical aesthetics. This happens in response to the referential subject matter, and only few such subjects and their treatment summon forth such strong reactions.

Inevitably all representations (which music, for example, is not) refer to the world of experience. In that world, our actions are guided by some set of moral or ethical principles. Our decisions are based on consequences. But in art, there is the contemplative sensorial element, there is the capacity to apprehend the works in themselves without recourse to the accuracy of the depictions. (This, in fact, is the conclusion Herbert Marcuse arrived at after seeing Picasso’s Guernica.) The timelessness of Shakespeare or Sophocles is said to come from the universality of their themes. (We need glosses to help explain the political references in their plays, but we need no interpretative notes to explicate Falstaff’s “What is honor” speech.)

The roots of political art

Every action and artifact has at least a minimal “political” component. This is particularly so of representations, because as such, they are intentionally edited and shaped by the artist or author to coincide with an end purpose. Art has always served a political purpose, originally by magnifying the ruler or deities and by honoring and sustaining the privileged class and its institutions. This occurred in a different social system—one of an artisan class or craft guild economically dependent on a patron class—and usually took the form of officially sanctioned and commissioned art (that is, most of the art that is studied in art history).

But there occurred a marked changed of attitude that began with the Protestant Reformation, gained a widespread support with the revolutions of the eighteenth century, and was hurried along by industrialized capitalism and mass communications.

That attitude exalted individualism and personal opinions and set the individual in an adversarial relationship with such authoritarian institutions as government and Church. By the end of the nineteenth century, the very decision to be an artist included the decision to be either an exiled avant garde artist or a traditional artist.

There are several roots of “political” art. One is found in the hierarchy of genres promulgated in the latter seventeenth century by the French Academy to rank the seriousness of works of art. At the top was history painting, so-called because the subjects portrayed moral action or events taken from classical literature or Biblical stories. The lesser genres included portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. In the French Academy’s formulation, such paintings were inferior because they were merely reportorial pictures without moral force or artistic imagination. In the eighteenth century, Diderot advanced the cause of moralizing art when he championed the bathetic portrayals of Greuze and others. Such pictorial exhorting reached its most exalted status in the French Revolution, when David’s Neo-classical civic lessons were annexed to the purposes of the Revolution.

The American and French Revolutions themselves are representative of another source for the “political” in art, that is, the decline of the aristocracy and rise of popular democracies and mass education. Liberal democratic government in Western industrial societies was premised upon the involvement of the great numbers of people previously unenfranchised. As education spread, social and political counselors and essayists promoted the merits of an informed electorate.

Implicit in the concept of an informed and educated electorate, and enhanced by the doctrine of a personal rather than authoritative interpretation of moral precepts, was the impetus to political activism By the middle of the nineteenth century, Marxist theory proposed that all of industrial capitalism would face an on-going proletarian revolution until the vindication of socialism. Social reformers of the last century, like Saint-Simon and Fournier, saw a restructuring of society along socialist lines and led by artists, engineers, and scientists. Romanticism, which theoretically was based on the same fundamentals as the democratic revolutions of America and France, placed a great emphasis on the concept of artistic genius and the uniqueness of artistic sensitivity. This was absorbed into the socialist proposals of the last centuries, and artists were thought to be possessed of a particular temperament or insight that made them especially well suited as social critics and managers. This attitude persisted into the twentieth century, propagated by artists and non-artists alike. There was a supposed special sensitivity to matters of the heart or human relations that artists possessed which other mortals do not have. It is this self-delusion of the artistic community about the nature of artistic sensitivity that has led artists to exile themselves from society and to critique it, and simultaneously to claim to be the visionaries who can right society’s wrongs.

Yet another source for the “political” component of art can be found in the development of the portable easel painting. Once the work of art (more accurately a painting) was liberated from its site and the meaning of its location, the messages of pictures became interchangeable commodities. This interchangeability allowed for the rise of the museum, the institution of meta-meaning, in which artworks qua art and artistic value existed in isolation from their cultural context. The museum in turn reciprocally created  conditions that greatly magnified the independent value of the artist as maker, and thus elevated the value of the artist’s genius and sensitivity embodied in the work. And so, it is in a museum that Picasso’s Guernica is shown, not in the rubble of a Basque town.

Inevitably, it is in a culture and society that puts portable and interchangeable art on its sanctuary walls that the utter ineffectiveness and irrelevance of “political” art is demonstrated. The “political” in art is ineffective because consumer capitalism neutralizes its message. The museum or gallery is driven by cultural interests that themselves are driven by economic interests. We hear not infrequently of a museum’s refusal to part with, say, a section of an altarpiece in order that the whole altarpiece be restored intact, because of the museum’s claimed commitment to presenting a wide diversity of art to its constituency. The museum shows itself impervious to the original meaning and import of works of art. Because it is trivialized in the gallery, “political” art is ineffective, and because it is ineffective, it is irrelevant. What political good is something that does not work? Besides, who cares? The disseminators of propaganda or advertising care enough to carry through: the army will feed and clothe and pay the soldier it recruits, the store will sell the customer the product, and the church will take in and succor its lost souls. Will an artist who makes political art, such as Sue Coe, do as much?


© 1998

Concerning the Political in Art, part I

Artist frequently-at least in the last two hundred years-have used art to proclaim social or political beliefs, often in forceful and emphatic fashion. Goya and Hogarth, Millet, Courbet, and Daumier, Kollwitz, Groz, and others in this century–visual art, especially painting and graphics, has provided us with a powerful voice of moral declamation. In modern American art, virtually every school or movement has claimed to achieve an exalted degree of “truth” unequaled or lost by its contemporaries. From the realism of Homer and the paintings of the Ashcan School, from American Scene and Regionalist paintings and the social realism of the 1930’s, to Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and other movements of the post-War era, artists have announced that each new style embodied the greater truth of representational fidelity (e.g., Sloane), transcendental good (e.g., Rothko), or authenticity and sincerity (e.g., Dubuffet).

The City Gallery of Contemporary Art in Raleigh presented an exhibition of works by Sue Coe in 1990. A very striking painting portrayed a barroom gang rape in New Bedford, Massachusetts; many drawings dealt with the slaughter of animals and their use as experimental targets in Pentagon research; and a few paintings opposed the official U.S. policies toward the conflict in Central America. The larger paintings were done in a vigorously expressionistic manner, using painted labels or captions, and were restricted in color to virtual monochromes of red or black

It was Coe’s stated purpose to grab the viewer and proselytize, to push very specific messages by a garrulous style and by the startling impact of the subject matter. That is well and good, it is appropriate since art has the capacity to be both aesthetically pleasurable and also referential.

But invariably, artworks presented for viewing as art, in a gallery, will always be seen first as aesthetic. They will become subjected to the rule of taste and connoisseurship and will become detached in an important way from their actual, denoted subject matter (as in this case). They are seen as things made within the conventions of art and aesthetics. Moreover, one profound by-product of an exhibition–whether it’s of Hockney or Fischl or Rameses or Monet, whomever–is that the various pieces lose their individual identities. Each becomes yet another painting of California pools, or another scene of ennui, etc. Their relation to each other and to other works of art is as important as–if not more than–their represented subjects. They become more an exhibition of the artist’s choices and style than of her subject. This, of course, is the fate of any art exhibition.

This repetitiveness, I think, takes a relatively large toll on Coe’s paintings, drains much of their impact, and causes them to be perceived in terms of an oeuvre. Her voluble alarms about these topics are muted. (By analogy, think of the enervating monotony of the political conventions and the dulling effect of speech after speech calling us to this agenda or that.) This has happened here: we had come primarily to view a show, and this show was unfortunately stifled by a hyperbolic and redundant mannerism and an unremittingly belabored polemic. The attitude of viewers when they enter the gallery, I suspect, is an anticipation of viewing artworks. What Coe herself wants is to make us think about these very specific events, and (I guess) to do something about them.

Because of the dulling effect of gallery exhibitions on the hortatory intent of these paintings, it seems that Coe’s political purposes are better served when she writes and illustrates on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. There her forum is predetermined as one of political dialogue and advocacy. In a sense, these paintings and drawings may more properly be considered as journalism (as she encourages us to acknowledge). A couple of years ago, Knight-Ridder newspapers ran an advertisement which showed a photograph of a man carrying an injured woman from a helicopter. The headline and copy read, “Why do they have to show things like this in a newspaper? Yes, this is a grisly picture. But in a glance readers understood the enormity of what happened to the White City [it was destroyed by a volcano in Colombia]. No amount of words could equal this image and those that came with it. . . .” From what I can tell, this is precisely what Coe intends, and what she does. A pertinent questions to ask is why the City Gallery chose to exhibit these works. Did it have an ulterior purpose? Indeed, [an animals’ rights group] solicited and underwrote this show. Did the gallery agree with Coe and support her political beliefs? If so, how? By simply showing the paintings? How would that help? Who is for rape?

Another social topic of great concern to Sue Coe is the plight of the homeless in this country, and a large portion of her works deal with this issue. If the gallery mounted the show because it concurred with Coe’s opinions, then it might have demonstrated it by allowing the homeless people of the park across the street to sleep in the gallery (now that the Raleigh city council has contrived to get rid of them from 5 p.m to 7 a.m.). Since this did not happen, does it mean that the gallery aligned itself with the property owners who want to guarantee the gentrification of that area of the city by hustling the bums elsewhere (in which case, we can easily see that exhibiting political art such as Coe’s in a setting such as the City Gallery is truly pointless)? If the gallery does not open its doors to the homeless because of worry about damage and theft, insurance liability, or some such problem, we can see that the material values of ownership, commodity, status, and perhaps name association with a nationally known artist supersede the ostensible political values enunciated in Coe’s works.

I do not say this merely to be churlish, but to emphasize the mutual antagonism between the purposes of social action (i.e., political) art and the essentially mercantile, elitist, and culturally refined purposes of a gallery. Can one say that the City Gallery offers a neutral site for the presentation of various types of exhibitions? Probably not because it imposes certain values on its exhibits. The gallery is in fact not neutral but rather a biased structure which wraps an aestheticizing frame of reference over an ersatz pluralism, which thereby renders differences irrelevant and vitiates political messages. Thus, Coe’s works cannot avoid a different kind of perception, the inevitable dual demands to admire the “beauty” or aesthetic properties of the works and simultaneously to be provoked to action by their subject matter. This, I believe, exemplifies the difficulty and inherent contradictions in “political” art made for presentation (read, consumption) in a society such as ours.

On one hand there is the visual image intentionally committed to persuasion and exhortation. Newspaper and television photographs, advertisements, posters, etc., all are judged by whether they “accurately” describe or imitate life, and consequently by whether they move people to some kind of action. On the other hand, there is the vogue image appreciated as a thing, the fashionable record of a photographer’s looking at “political” subjects with something of a studied pose. The French philosopher Walter Benjamin noted this practice over fifty years ago. He said of what he called the “New Matter-of-Fact” photography, “It has succeeded in making abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionably perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment.” What Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans did as documentation changed into a certain kind of réportage, as in Diane Arbus’s photographs, which are little more than an aesthetic colonialism which patronizes its bathetic subject. Her photographs are prized as records of her taking them, rather than for the people photographed. (Who says, “I have a book of photographs of odd people”? They say, “I have a book of Arbus photographs.”) Photography cannot escape from self-consciousness, from the fundamental fact that the photographer chooses and by choosing imprints the ostensible subject with the greater importance of the photographer’s stance.

The great trap into which photography inevitably falls is the aestheticizing of subjects indifferently given to the lens. A similar shift in appreciation happens with Coe’s pictures. As a method of description, the expressionism of Coe’s paintings seems obvious and unnecessarily tendentious. Expressionism as a style (in the general understanding of the term) can be very apt for representing a mental state, which patently cannot be described by visual mimesis. As a style for portraying a highly emotionally charged scene, expressionism can be altogether too histrionic and trite. Consider, for example, how “easy” is the temptation to fall into an academic realism when painting a portrait. Is it any different with expressionism? More to the point, a bland, banal, straightforward verbal report of these scenes—such as Nancy Spero does in her accounts of beatings of women—would have been far more horrifying and alarming.

Nothing in these painting can augment the baseness of the actual barroom rape. No amount of expressionism could have exacerbated my reaction to the slaughterhouse killing of animals. The more detached, deliberate realism of the animal experiment pictures had a greater effect on me than the de rigeur expressionism of the others. The rape picture can be understood in uncomplicated terms of personal revulsion and moral outrage. The scenes of slaughterhouses and animal experiments begin to become less clear in their moral argument: society needs to feed its people (the argument here is against, not the eating of animals, but the dehumanizing of the people who work in the abattoirs). The Pentagon pictures are more stunning, I suspect, because we never give any thought to the fact that people study the effects of gunshot wounds and take measures to increase protection from the other side’s bullets or to increase the destructiveness of our bullets.

The Central America paintings are less forceful still because they advance an unequivocally and extrinsically political point of view. In their subject matter, these Nicaragua paintings do not share that unambiguous moral character that can be seen in the other pictures. The conflict in Central America is two-sided, it is already politically debated, and it has reasonable arguments in defense of both sides. Effective propaganda, ineffective “political” art When we hear the term propaganda, we probably think of Socialist Realism, Nazi posters, and World War II support-the-boys movies—at least I generally do. We think of them as so completely committed to the promotion of a message that we regard their “aesthetic” properties, their “art,” as secondary and surely vitiated by concupiscence. We have little difficulty recognizing these as propaganda, probably for the reason that they were made for a nationalistic purpose by a national government. We also recognize, perhaps without the label but with the same pejorative connotation, the fact that advertising art is propaganda and captive to an ulterior motive. Whatever the decisions made about the looks of an advertisement are determined, not by some essential aesthetic concern, but by how effective it will be in making people buy the product.

A salient feature of propaganda—what makes it so effective—is its calculated use of popular styles and imagery. Propaganda is more political than “political” art because it readily uses a popular idiom and does not sneer at the masses. Many artists, from Kandinsky to Mondrian to Brecht, proposed that there could be found new art forms which could cut through the pretensions of well-bred society and the dictates of the ruling classes and speak directly to the people in the lower classes. The problem with this, though, as Clement Greenberg has pointed out, is that the masses in industrial society do not want high culture, but its simulacrum kitsch.

Since World War II an affluent “middlebrow” class, as Greenberg named it, has arisen and has blurred the distinction between culture of high taste and culture of popular tastes. This middlebrow class, however, seems to accept readily the propagandizing of consumer advertising, consumer television and television news, and the ultimate mediating by them of our knowledge and experience of events of our daily and political life.

One way by which art tried to be genuinely politically viable was by rejecting art altogether and substituting the act and gesture. Political action as art got its start in Dada exhibitions. To be sure, there had been political action by artists earlier than the Dada manifestations. Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism in 1855 is just such an example. But it was the Dada members who conceived of the action itself as art. More accurately, they attempted to replace the artwork with an political action. In their condemnation of bourgeois society, they rejected society’s art of beauty and mounted an assault on all the elements of aestheticism. The sine qua non became the outrageous event, R. Mutt’s Fountain, Tinguely’s self-destroying machine, Duchamp’s eventual rejection of art for chess.

Neo-Dada attitudes, transmitted through Surrealism, had a great impact in the 1940s and 1950s on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his work, Jackson Pollock claimed to replace the classical emphasis on beauty and reference to outside events with an art of total action, an art fully equivalent with the life and action of the artist (Pollock) as he made the work. The politically active 1960s advanced the popularity of political action art.and established the conditions for calling a wide array of activity “art” which previously was viewed as something else. Ephemeral art, guerilla art, performance art, installations, and documented transitory events all fell into the category of art.

The work of Hans Haake is explained in this context, and exemplifies another kind of wholly political art. Haake’s exhibits of corporate cupidity and morally ambivalent or malevolent policies are only tangentially art: what he gives us is completely a propositional argument presented in a rather engaging fashion. For example, his time-lines of the provenance of a painting, its owners, and the prices paid seem more similar to annual sales charts at a corporate meeting, or history pure and simple, or courtroom evidence, than they do to other works of art. Whether or not he is right is determined, not by the quality of his exhibits, but by the moral force of his statements and argument. That it is done in an art space, within the art community, about institutions connected to the art world, does not make it less political and philosophical and more artistic.

The works of Nancy Spero and Barbara Kruger offer an illuminating contrast to Coe’s and Haake’s.

Spero’s works, typically a series of quotes or excerpts from press accounts of brutalizations of women and children pictorialized by stamped silhouettes of human figures, eschew traditional design and elements of visual beauty in favor of a predominantly verbal presentation. Without an ornate panoply of exaggerated representations, her works command our attention and reflection by the force of the Word: she makes us reflect on what she says by saying it. As a proposition to be considered, her works take on the form which is best fitted to intellectual and moral consideration, and that is verbal. In Barbara Kruger’s works, she combines cryptic statements with photographic images. The imperative tone of the words and the stark black and white pictures speak about the way in which the mass media communicate their messages. Her works are well conceived, then, because they mimic the forms they criticize. Spero and Kruger find appropriate forms for their works’ intent; Coe relies on the handy convention of exaggeration and expressionist caricature; and Haake’s is documentation and chart-making.

The avant-garde artists initially were political or social outsiders, by the mutual consent of the artists and of bourgeois society. But in this century, as the middlebrow culture has expanded to absorb the apparent avant garde, “political” art has become almost coextensive with political dissent, with the lampooning of bourgeois culture, and with confrontational or reformist ideas, usually from the Left (because the Right ususally has been in power). Coe’s works are shown at a (relatively) elite place (the City Gallery) that is frequented by people who are already prepared for its conceptual and rhetorical frameworks (gallery as meta-meaning and leftist, generally). Such works, as a rule, get comparatively little public exposure, whereas genuine propaganda, the effective political art, gets a very widespread showing.

“Political” art seems clearly to be ineffective in front of capitalism which so effectively neutralizes its message. It seems to me that as long as the visual arts are practiced as they are today—made by artists in the isolation of their studios, consigned as commodities to galleries and museums, and made intentionally as artworks, as the kinds of things which the artworld deals in—then the effectiveness of art as “political” is at best only nominal. The “political” topics in art today are exactly the kind of topics that do not jeopardize the artworld. The artworld is resilient enough to assimilate John Cage, and Duchamp has become, as he said he would, an equivalent part of the history of art (which his work was aimed at thwarting). As long as the artworld continues in its present structure, “political” art will be irrelevant and impotent. And the corrective is not to be found in speaking out within the current mode. Capitalism will absorb all differences. The corrective is to change the whole value system which reduces everything—adults, children, animals, emotions, necessities, languages, ethnic groups, nations, everything—to things to be made productive.


© 1998

Art, Mere Things, and Truth Requirements

In his book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Arthur C. Danto describes an art exhibition in which some eight identical red square canvases are displayed, each being a different “kind” of representation. One, for example, purports to show the Red Sea after it has closed over the Egyptians as they pursued the Israelites, while another is a depiction of the center of the Kremlin, and another is a Minimalist geometric painting, while yet another is merely a canvas grounded in red lead by the master Giorgione, etc.

Danto asks what makes them works of art–or more exactly, what makes us understand them as works of art. He goes on to reject the so-called Institutional Theory, which claims that anything brought within the precinct of the world of art is an art work. Duchamp made a urinal into a work of art, and by the same mechanism anything displayed as a work of art in the setting under which we recognize works of art becomes one.

Danto is dissatisfied with this definition of a work of art and proposes another means to comprehend art, which is that a work of art is “about” something, it refers to something not itself.

Art and Truth

I offer a counter example: What is the difference between a police crime-scene photograph and a photograph by, say, Diane Arbus of a crime scene? Both depict the disarray and artifacts of the place where a crime was committed. Both, presumably, are a bit gritty, a bit austere, alienated, aloof.

Before I consider the answer, let us redescribe the two photographs. The first, taken by a police photographer, in all likelihood will be shot with available light, or if that is not sufficient, with an electronic flash unit fixed to the hand-held camera. The objects in the photo will not be repositioned, but rather the photographer will move about to get clearer pictures.

In a similar vein, Arbus’s crime photo will be shot in black and white; but only after the police photographer and crime scene analysts have finished their work and left. Or maybe not. Maybe Arbus used one of her sideways looking cameras and “sneaked” pictures of the stressed out people working over the room.

But before we go on, let us imagine several more representations of the same crime scene. One is a series of three photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, which he set up in his own studio after he saw Arbus’s pictrues from the actual scene. Against a flat backdrop, he has arranged the important and salient items, viz., the bed and bedsheets all pulled aside, the sidetable with the half-finished whiskey, a stubbed-out cigarette, a man’s pajama top, a dogeared novel, and a crucifix over the headboard. In Mapplethorpe’s pictures, he has set up studio lights and used colored gels to allow him to recreate the mood of the cheap apartment, and he has discarded all of the truly inessential elements like the bottlecap on the sidetable, a piece of dental floss on the pillow (which he has moved to the right about a foot), and a cheap ballpoint pen.

When George Segal saw Mapplethorpe’s photos, he constructed a tableau of the same scene. By the time he completed his sculpture, the trial has occurred, and so he had access to the information about the two men who lived there and their lovers’ quarrel, and how one person died. Segal chose to show one of the figures standing over the dead body draped over the edge of the bed, and taking a cue from some colorful remarks by the defendant in his disputed confession, he painted the standing plaster figure green and the corpse a cinnamon brown on a very dark navy blue bed. The rest of the tableau was painted flat black (he left out the lamp on the side table)

Are these four portrayals works of art? What do these have in common? What not?

Danto would argue that they are all art because they are all “about” the crime. The ways in which they convey their “about”-ness differ, it is true, but they all are not the crime in themselves, but only representations of it.


Truth conditions

We must readily acknowledge that Mapplethorpe’s and Segal’s efforts are the most clearly artistic representations. Most of us would say that Arbus’s pictures are also art, but probably the police photographer’s pictures are not.


All four are tangible, physical objects that are said to represent something besides themselves. All four exhibit “aesthetic properties,” at least to the extent that any representation does. It is easier to see these properties in the tableau and studio photographs, and by the habit of regarding photographs as aesthetic creations, we readily accept Arbus’s as art. Most of us would only grudgingly agree that the crime-scene photographs are aesthetic items, because we accept the premise that the overriding value is contained in their documentary transcription of the sights of that night, not in the quality of their presentation.

What kinds of statements may be said about these works? Some may say that Segal’s work is “engaging” or “evocative” or maybe just “pretty.” Some may say that Mapplethorpe’s pictures are “compelling” or “haunting” or “profound.” And some may say that Arbus’s are “disturbing” or “intrusive” or “stark.” Comments like these concern the responses the pictures elicit from the viewer. Some may conclude that Arbus’s are the most “truthful” because they show the actual scene with little or no prettifying veneer; others may say that Mapplethorpe’s are the most “truthful” because they embody the seductiveness of his photographic style to set up a severe contrast with the scene depicted and thereby dramatically increase the horror even as the photo distances us viewers; and some may say that Segal’s bare tableau has stripped away all of the inessentials, discarding even those that Mapplethorpe retained, and has shown us the quintessential “truth” of the scene, the killer and the killed.

In each of these three examples, the “truth” of the representation is predicated in the manner of analogy. All three are mediated truths, so to speak. The “truth” of Arbus’s pictures is the “truth” of ostensibly documentary photographs in the world of other, staged photographs. Hers are not so much staged as they are “snatched” from the scene. The presence of the photographer at the actual scene lends credence and veracity to these pictures, but the picutres themselves propound their truthfulness not by protraying the actual scene so much as by having been taken at the actual scene. Their “truth” refers to their having been made in a certain way. Mapplethorpe’s have a more evident mediation. By using arbitrary lighting and arbitrary editing of surrogate items in a surrogate scene, Mapplethorpe’s pictures propose a “truth” that refers only to a conclusion manifested by the dramatized staging. Segal’s goes one step further and mediates the “truth” by means of sculpturally embodying what he understands to be the “essential” elements of the scene and then focuses the viewer’s attention on his conclusions which he presents by means of painted colors, plaster casts, etc.

None of these three could be offered in court, as could the police photos, because they cannot claim two things: that there is a definite one-to-one correspondence between a represented item and its actual correlate and that the police photographs are offered exclusively for the corroboration of that correlation. Not even Arbus’s picyures can do that (although they may in fact be able to).

Ultimately, the difference between the artistic representations and the other representation is that, for the artworks, the “truth” of their portrayals does not depend on someone else being able to verify it in every particular. We say, for example, that the fictional story in this movie or that book is “true to life” because it “captures” or “expresses” the “way things actually happen,” or that it “shows the nature” of this or that relationship. Literature, and art generally, is about generality and generalized truths, whereas nonart representations are always about particularized truth. Does the crime scene photograph actually and accurately show the way the bed clothes were strewn around? Does Segal’s sculpture, by contrast, show the disarray typically caused when a lover is murdered and clearly understood by the viewer?

Consider this corollary question: Is your driver’s license photograph a work of art? Why do we not expect to see a portrait by Alice Neel or David Hockney on a driver’s license?

The answer, I submit, is that the degree of accuracy to actual appearances is the paramount virtue of a driver’s license picture, and the means of verifying its truth–to wit, to compare the photo and its owner–is its only test of goodness.

Consider this other corollary: Is a piece of driftwood in the uncanny shape of President Kennedy a work of art? For that matter, can it be submitted to the same truth criteria as the police photo? In both cases, we can answer no. But let us note that we would generally deny the driftwood status as art because we would decide that there was no intention to make it into a likeness, and so while Ripley’s Believe It or Not may be intrigued by this curio, it would not be considered art because it wasn’t meant to be art. Nor is it productive to test its truth as we would test the police photo, for the simple reason that we are surprised and intrigued that the forces of nature affected the wood in such an amazing way that we recognize any likeness at all. We would give great latitude when we compare features, so that we may allow the ears to be too big, and the smile crooked, and the annoying fact that all in all, it looks more like someone else but it bears a sufficient resemblance to a famous person that we prefer to marvel at that particular quantum of similarity.

Consider a further corollary: After seeing the Kennedy Driftwood likeness in a local art store, someone goes out and assembles a lot of driftwood into an abstract arrangement. This we would clearly agree is a work of art, partly by virtue of the Institutional definition, that is, the maker intended that it be art; and partly by virtue of the actual making of it into something that is not functional or otherwise useful. In this example, by the way, the piece of driftwood abstraction would not be “about” anything (at least nothing more than the fact that it is–and therefore is “about”–its own abstraction).

Art and Design: What’s the Big Difference?

From time to time, you hear people refer to art and to design interchangeably, as if they were synonyms. Or they use the term “art” to add a bit of glory to design work. Most of the time this happens in casual conversation, but it does tend to confuse the two terms unnecessarily because, basically, they aren’t the same. What is the difference between art and design? Are they closely related just because they use a lot of the same techniques and appeal to the same aesthetic sense? Or are they essentially different?

Well, art and design are different. The differences between art and design lie not so much in how they look as in what they do: They have different purposes, they are made differently, they are judged by different criteria, and they have different audiences.


In a 1974 interview, Milton Glaser noted that whereas a design must convey a given body of information, the “essential function” of art is to “intensify one’s perception of reality.” Sometimes, he said, these functions coincide, as in a medieval stained glass window, but in modern times they have diverged.

Design is utilitarian in a way that art is not. Design is the how of a thing: how to order the parts, how to serve the client’s interests, how to convey the information. Art, on the other hand, is its own end. It isn’t utilitarian. It subordinates ordinary usefulness to its own purposes. It doesn’t concern itself with description the way illustration does, nor with the desires of the buyer as does fashion, nor the tastes of the public as does style

We have already accepted this model in both its parts–it’s settled law. Since the Renaissance, artists have aspired to the status of philosophers. And beginning the mid-1800s, many artists chose to stand apart from worldly life in order to critique it, to forsake the programs of patrons in order to set their own programs, to discard the public moral code to promote a different code. Although many artists claim to address their art to the world, their method has been to take from the world only on their terms and give back as they see fit. This is definitely not the way of design, which considers the world’s purpose first and fits the work to that end.

How they are made

If the ends of art and design are different, so too are the means of getting there. Most of us think, correctly, of the artist standing before the blank canvas, pondering the beginning and the end of the painting all at once. The artist usually has an end in mind–something as mundane as a portrait or landscape, or as grand as the outrage of Picasso’s Guernica or the vastness of Christo’s Running Fence. But at the outset, all the options are available without precondition.

On the other hand, the designer typically begins with more than a blank canvas or lump of clay from which anything may emerge. Many of the components may already exist, such as the text, photographs, production formats, and even the basic colors. The designer consults the client on the end use, the audience, the size and scale, and other factors. The designer’s role is to envision how these various aspects should come together in a tangible thing and to bring aesthetic sensibility, taste, and technical skills to bear on the production of the job. To put it bluntly, the designer arranges the ingredients.

Artists generally have assumed that the work is a product of their mind and spirit first, and only secondarily serves the intent of the commission (to edify, to stimulate, to delight, or simply to decorate). A notable example is the 1884 commission of a memorial sculpture, The Burghers of Calais, for which Rodin made a striking group of six austere figures. But when the city fathers saw it, they rejected it: to them it was ugly, indecorous, unceremonial, and insulting to their notion of a heroic civic monument. Rodin had conceived it with his artistic genius, but they refused it out of hand because it appalled their sense of honor.

Making judgments

In 1820, Keats wrote, ” ‘Beauty is truth,truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Older still is the motto, “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Art strives to achieve beauty, which is truth, which is a noble thing more enduring that life itself. At least, that’s the party line. In this century art has emphasized moral purpose, visionary truthfulness, and inward-looking integrity. Art is judged in terms of beauty and truth, of insight and revelation, of almost prophetic clairvoyance—when it isn’t being judged as text, subtexts, and social constructs. Utility doesn’t fit this mindset. Practical success is not the hallmark of art, as the example of Van Gogh attests.

Design is judged another way: “Beauty is as beauty does.” If it doesn’t get the job done, the design is considered not good, or worse, not successful. Does the design serve the product? Does it accomplish an end—does it sell, inform, persuade, direct, or entertain? Typically, lack of success in these ways (often described statistically or quantitatively) is considered a defect in the design. Ultimately, a design must fulfill its primary job of packaging or illustration or instruction, and no amount of aesthetic glamour will substitute for its failure to do so.

The audience

The audiences for art and design expect different things. The audience for art wants to look at the artwork or listen to the composition—perhaps to contemplate and reflect, perhaps to be transported by the power of the aesthetic experience or the scene portrayed—whereas a design’s audience wants to use the information to find their subway station or select a product.

Design may indeed arrest the attention and engage the emotions of a viewer, but at some point, as Beatrice Warde said, the goblet of design must become transparent, allowing viewers to gather the intended information, rather than to be absorbed by the designer’s layout.

Art draws attention to itself deliberately. Its very form is the means to intensify our perception. If a visitor to the Sistine Chapel marvels at the economy of the scene of God separating the light from the dark, she is responding to the Michelangelo’s conception, his artistic free creation. But if she is moved by the Last Judgment because of the profound theological truth it expresses, she is responding to the Pope’s purpose. That is, she treats it as information design, as an illustration of doctrine.


Art and design differ significantly in their use materials. Typically, the ultimate work is not made from the same materials as those used during the design process (the paste-up or, these days, the on-screen stuff) but of its manufacturing materials. A book is not actually “made” until it is manufactured from paper, ink, and binding. Another kind of design product, the digital document, doesn’t actually exist apart from its temporary manifestation on a computer, where its appearance varies from one browser or platform than on another, depending on the monitor, operating system, and color display tables. By contrast, a work of art makes a point of reveling in its materials. Certain physical qualities are seen as critically significant, such as de Kooning’s “painterliness,” Pollock’s drips, the encaustic of Johns’s Three Flags, Murray’s metal ribbons, or Schnabel’s broken plates. Size itself is important in an artwork, whether it’s a large Frankenthaler or Kiefer or a tiny Klee or Cornell, but in a way that differs from design. Perhaps it is better to distinguish between scale, that is, the perception of sheer size (even smallness) in a work of art, and production dimensions in a printed piece, which are very often a function of the budget, the kind of product, the size of press, and other external factors. (And for video, web pages, compter graphics, etc., size is a user-defined parameter.)

The difference between art and design is in the way we look at them. Design is meant to be looked away from and art to be looked at and into. Design graces our lives with the aesthetic presentation of useful and beneficial things, and art graces us with representations of things to ponder and perceive. Art and design are closely related but nonetheless separate. It is a good thing to keep them straight.

©1998 Michael Brady. First published in Critique Magazine, 1998.

Beauty and Passivity

In moral philosophy, the will is understood to be directed toward the good (for the individual), whereas the intellect is directed toward the true.

Desire is an impulse toward a thing, an urge to acquire or attain it, and thus is a manifestation or expression of the will. It is active.

Beauty, on the other hand, is passive. It is an analytical formulation of sensory experience, and thus beauty is a virtue of the intellect. Nothing in nature is beautiful. Or ugly. No natural event is good or bad. Spiders and slugs and shit are all alike in being neither beautiful or ugly. A lion eating a gazelle, a fire consuming animals in the trees, crustaceans crushed by the waves, all of these events are neither good nor bad. And because beauty is a perception that occurs at a distance, it is not a quality that inheres in things in the world but is a human (moral) conclusion about their appearances.

Beauty and Nature

Is there beauty “in Nature” (out there, objectively, in the world, etc.)? If so, is there also ugly?

And if there is ugly in nature, what things are ugly . . . in Nature? Creepy crawling things? Slimy things? Dull dun brown stuff? Why would those things (or whatever one might call “ugly”)—why would those things be ugly?

As far as I can discern, there are no ugly colors. Nor are there any ugly beasts, or plants, or landscapes, or textures. Can something be ugly in smell? or sound? or touch? or taste? Is ugly, and concomitantly beauty, only a property of vision?

Can there be beauty without ugly? Isn’t that like light (luminance), which is only perceived by comparison with dark?

Beauty is a property of things perceived by humans, who can judge and evaluate abstractly. And since beauty is considered to be a culmination or perfection of specific qualities or characteristics, there is also ugly, the deficiency of those qualities. But these qualities are socially valued. Remember: there are no ugly things in Nature.

Artworks embody, make concrete in one way or another, these qualities of beauty and thus isolate them, as it were, from the demands of utility, so that beauty, grace, radiance, quiddity even, can be contemplated. That’s what Aristotle means by catharsis and vicarious violence.

Because artworks do not need to be denotatively truthful—because works of art are fictions, because they do not have to have a utilitarian purpose, because they are free creations—the maker can concentrate on the accidental qualities of appearances, in order to manipulate the degree to which beauty or formal wholeness or another property can exhibit itself.

Art moralizes nature. The artist takes the material qualities of things and forms and arranges them in such a way to produce an order to these qualities. Canons and rules and guidelines and other prescriptions are the socializing of the raw, unordered, un-beauty and un-ugly of nature, the making of preferences for and against ways of perceiving these qualities. Art is a social endeavor, and by being social, it subjects its materials (the stuff of Nature) to the mores of the group, of the society. Art moralizes nature, imposing preferences on colors and shapes and forms that, in the wild, occur for other reasons and purposes.

And Nature, which precedes art, is indifferent to these moral rules of Art. From time to time, Nature rebuffs art, Nature supersedes art, Nature is superabundantly more than art, defeating the rules of art: There are no binding canons of portrayal in Nature. Ultimately, Nature demoralizes art–i.e., Nature de-moralizes art.

Art moralizes Nature.
Nature demoralizes Art.

Mapping and Representation

We use many different kinds of representations—from maps as such (i.e., drawings that graphically depict terrain features) to drawings that depict objects, to ad hoc maps (e.g., using the salt and pepper shakers and a knife to represent a street and two buildings). In all of these, one component of the representation is understood to correspond to a specific part of the referent: this curved line corresponds to a person’s shoulder, this curved line corresponds to a road.

Language does not work in this way, like a map, but in a different way, as a process of symbolizing and then manipulating symbols according to rules of syntax and grammar and other aspects of usage. Gestures are different, too, ranging from largely unambiguous signs (pointing) to more elaborately abstracted gestures, like wiggling your open hand as you say “iffy,” or undulating your hands and arms as you describe a melody, or simply shrugging your shoulders.

Perhaps there is a form of “existential graphing” that describes what I am interested in, some formalized way of establishing discrete correlations between different concepts, A for a, B for b, C for c, etc. Analogies and metaphors break down under the stress of correlating all the elements of one part with the other part, but they are forms of concept mapping, just as the salt and pepper shakers are crude forms of physical mapping. (The term “existential graphing” comes  from Charles Peirce and its parallel with this topic was suggested to me by a student of Peircian philosophy and semantics.)

There is a wide range of degrees of “realism” in pictures, from the “highly realistic”—say, a painting by Estes or Bouguereau or any of the many tromp l’oeil paintings, all of which show a great degree of accuracy in emulating the retinal effects of the subject—to the “very abstract”—say, a drawing by Schiele, which is extremely convincing but clearly not “naturalistically” detailed.

I believe that the degree of naturalism in a painting expedites the mental interpretation that immediately follows seeing the painting, and to the extent that the naturalistic qualities vary in different works, the viewer’s interpretation relies more and more on using a kind of “language” in which the lines and shapes are “read” to “depict” the details of the subject. Thus, on one end of the continuum are the highly mimetic images; in the middle is a large category of pictures that are not “naturalistic” in the manner of tromp l’oeil, but are readily recognized as realistic pictures (Renaissance frescoes, Breughel, American colonial portraits, e.g.); and at the other end are the representational pictures whose forms of portrayal do not rely on close correlation to the subject (Gaugin, for example, or German Expressionist paintings). I believe we “read” paintings, especially the less “realistic” ones, in a  manner of correlating signs more than we see them as some kind of natural-looking proxy or miniature or surrogate image.

I am fascinated by how cartoons and caricatures work, how we see and read them and parse our way through the unrealistic nature of cartoons. I am especially intrigued by the way we recognize public figures in political cartoons, particularly how we can recognize the president or other prominent person in cartoons by different artists. The study of how caricature works comes all the way around and touches again on the idea of “reading” pictures, almost as if they were composed of letters, because the cartoonist relies on repeated set-piece forms, from Obama’s big ears to Bush’s upper lip with its pointed septum to Clinton’s chubby cheeks and bulbous nose, etc.

Two Stages of Representation

I respond to all writing in some degree in an aesthetic way. Writing is representation in a two-stage process: The first stage begins with the writer’s vague and indeterminate ideation, which becomes mental images and words. The second stage occurs when the mental ideations are transformed into written words. The reader experiences these two stages in reverse order, first by perceiving the written symbols and interpreting them as words, and then by constructing the words as ideas.

A fundamental aspect of this process is that the representation (picture, mental ideation, word) is not the thing represented. The two are distinctly different. More than that, the representation cannot fully capture or manifest, depict or portray the thing represented. It is less than the referent. As such, the maker of the representation chooses the degree and mode of abbreviating the referent. The maker arbitrarily declares that all of X in the referent is contained in X’ in the representation. The representation, in fact, serves as a map to the referent.

The representation stands independently and can be apprehended as a thing in itself. The very components of a representation can be appreciated for themselves as aesthetic objects.

The critic’s words provoke aesthetic reactions. I suppose for many, the provocation and response occur well below the limbic horizon, until perhaps the writer turns a particularly vivid phrase.

Why do some political speakers so catch the public’s attention? (I’m thinking of Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama, mainly, and perhaps Reagan. Throw in Cuomo and a few others.) I believe the answer is that, besides the ideas and topics covered, the aesthetic properties of their speeches are so overabundant and evident. Now consider the clumsy and plodding speakers (almost all the rest) and note their lack of the theatrical and textual achievements. Regardless of their poor qualities, their speeches also have an “aesthetic experience”: it is a properly called “dreary.”

But beyond delivery and presentation, the words and the way they are written are themselves aesthetic. Turgid writing is “aesthetic” too, aesthetically bad, whether it’s in a novel or an essay of art criticism.

Sensate objects evoke aesthetic responses, and we actively engage them. We look or listen to the thing out there, and then we engage our mental and physical awareness (which is a response that may occur almost instantaneously).

I believe that the interior “aesthetic experience” (as it is often called) points to an action on the perceiver’s part independent of the “art status” of the stimulus. I believe that the term art designates a type of (usually) representational human artifact that does not depend on exact and specific external correlation and truthfulness. A work of art is completely free of the necessity to be truthful. In other words, calling something a work of art does not point to a minimum, threshold degree of quality in a thing, but rather to its manner of representation and expectation of verification.

Thus: anything can be experienced aesthetically; lack of awareness of one’s aesthetic response does not mean that the object did not evoke any response; nonfiction writing in itself can be aesthetcially pleasing; and designating something by the term “art” does not depend on its “aesthetic properties,” which it and everything else has.

Norms, canons, grammars, rules

Perhaps it’s like this:

aesthetics : canon : art :: rhetoric : grammar : language

Both pictorial art and language are “free creative” acts, that is, each of them forms and shapes its products (images, words) completely separately from the things pointed at. Over time and within a relatively contiguous community of recipients, norms of how these forms should look or sound arise and are endorsed and retained—canons, standards, conventions, grammars, preferred pronunciations, and ultimately the cultural phenomenon of taste.

Consider how often, and how unnoticed, it is that certain constructions are almost entirely conventional, not truly imitative or “representative,” yet they do not arrest our attention. Outlines themselves are an invisible convention; hatch marks for shading are sometimes an invisible convention. In language (I’ll use English, which I’m most familiar with), structural words (prepositions, conjunctions, etc.) tend to remain invisible until, through repetition, odd locution, or misuse, the reader or listener becomes aware of them.

Rules and guidelines eventually develop to describe how images or language work, why certain forms or presentations can appear to be defective and others quite extraordinary. I suspect the rules were developed as teaching aids to instruct the student how to work efficiently and what to avoid, as practical lore and folk wisdom based on previous success or failure. That’s how the warning against splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition takes root as hard and fast prohibitions. They were introduced as guide for students, who observed the injunctions with deep reverence, but eventually the wise advice became linguistic fetishes enforced with the power of taboo. Curiously, mastery of technical details, and especially prescriptive rules, has become more highly regarded than true expressive excellence: a cursory review of many academic and policy texts will demonstrate that fact.

We are at the 25,000th year of a long history of teaching and refining techniques—and absorbing new modes and practices from elsewhere—about making and using art and language in society, and the guidelines have become very detailed, extensive, and complicated. Knowledge of them has taken on the trappings of esoteric learning, and adepts are honored publicly.

I’ve often run into the situation that a non-artist really likes one of my paintings that I think is poor because of this and that—blemishes or clumsiness or poor technique or other things I can easily see but that the other person just isn’t attuned to. The other person isn’t schooled in the conventions, and thus is less aware of departures from a norm, from those guidelines that form part of the foundations of taste and aesthetics.

Fixed fuzziness and the precision of flux

When you attend carefully to things in motion or in flux, like spoken language, you’ll observe that at any discrete moment, the image or sound or feeling is indistinct, lacks a precise edge or boundary, is seemingly incomplete. But when it’s taken in the greater flow, in the flux and motion, you easily process and coalesce the whole stream of perceptions and impose an organization so that it seems distinct and precise. Listen to the way people speak: slurred consonants, mushy vowels, missing syllables, warbling pitch, but their utterances seem complete and coherent to you. Likewise, the fuzzy brushmarks in the painting, the brutal chip marks in the stone, the peripatetic vowels in the song.

Words are spoken in long strings of sounds that aggregate and blend together. But because we can move small sections of the sounds around—what we call words—we disaggregate the whole stream. Orthography has followed suit: word spaces were introduced into writing long after entire sentences and thoughts were inscribed on monuments in an unbroken parade of marks. Nowadays, we hear separate words with the reinforcement of having seen the words written as separate entities. (I’m sure you’ve had the experience of not being able to figure out what the song lyric says until you read the words on the album cover. Then you can “hear” the sung words as meaningful, rather than as a muddle of unfathomable sounds.)

Somehow, our attentive faculties enable us to perceive things clearly as they blur by. But when those transient things are made to be static, when the passage is halted, what we perceive undergoes a metamorphosis. Things in flux become like a snapshot of a friend that makes him look odd or funny, because his face is frozen with one eye squinted and the tip of the tongue sticking out of his lips. We don’t see those small details when he speaks, but the photograph records the instantaneous transformations between one stable pose and another. News photographs are particularly susceptible to this kind of freeze-frame exhibitionism. (On opinion and commentary sites, it’s very common to see a photograph of an opponent taken at an unflattering moment and a much more complimentary photograph of a favored person, used for rhetorical effect.)

Sounds, by the way, are harder to stop in a “freeze-frame” manner because we hear them across a span of time. If we halt a sound recording at a specific instant, we will hear a continuous, unvarying tone without any way to construct a full context. In a photograph, despite the interruption to the motion, the full visual field is preserved and we can form a complete context for it.

We construct clarity and precision out of fuzziness every day.

Art objects and other objects

What kinds of “aesthetic” can be attributed to the feelings provoked by (a) a well-thrown and caught pass; (b) a painting; (c) a tasty cake; (d) a dog; (e) the proverbial sunset.

I believe they are all different in their kind, and the painting (b) stands out because it is not contingent, it is a free experience.

(a) The particularly remarkable sporting feat can only have one response (for each viewer, for each viewing) on a single continuum from very bad to very good, and the quality of the feat (and thus the cause of the “aesthetic” part of the experience) is foreordained by the history and rules of the game. If you know how football is played, you can appreciate the difficult long pass; if you don’t know much about football, you may not be able to adequately value the pleasure of what you witness.

(c) The tastiness, and thus the basis for the “aesthetic” experience of the cake, is grounded in the physical appetite of eating, conditioned by the eater’s experiences and food and flavor preferences, and is again limited to a scope of responses from nauseating to addictive, or some such range. Again, it’s a contingent experience, and it’s restricted by culinary history and cultural rules.

(d) The “aesthetic” feeling for a domestic animal is similar to the “aesthetic” feeling of looking at human beauty, heavily conditioned by the anatomical limits of the creature, its specific and generic limits, one’s own experiences of dogs, etc. More than that, the aesthetic experience is also contingent on the fact that a dog cannot not be a dog.

(e) Likewise with the sunset, with dramatic clouds blowing past, with the sublime landscapes, etc.

All of these, and many many more things in our daily life that are routinely called “aesthetic” and whose disciplines are often called “art,” are prescribed, they are contingent on how they are made, used, found, etc. in social use. These things cannot be something else without ceasing to be what they are.

Works of art are made from the outset as fictions, as proposals and probationary things. That is, they are made from the outset to be what they are (painting, song, dance, story, etc.), but what they embody or represent is probationary, tentative, a rehearsal.  I know that when I try to “look away” and disregard the connotations and references of the depicted subjects, what is at play is specifically the non-contingent quality of a work of art.

A painting or other work of art can be anything. A football pass can only be that, and when someone proposes changing the convention so that a dropped pass is as good as a caught pass, most people would slough it off as a way to circumvent skill (or as a pointless intellectual exercise in the vein of a Calvin and Hobbes game). If a dog looks or behaves differently, we generally think something is wrong; and when humans train animals to behave it ways that don’t seem natural to them, many consider that harmful treatment. Dogs can (should) only be dogs. Sunsets? Every sunset is natural, for one thing, and it will always be red at the western horizon and blue at the eastern sky. To make it otherwise is something that can happen only in a work of art, which is free from the contingencies of actual existence and can be anything.

The sine qua non of a work of art is its fictitiousness, not its aesthetic qualities. Those qualities and the feelings they provoke come from the fictitious work, they don’t precede it or inform it.

© 2008 by Michael Brady

Art moralizes Nature; Nature demoralizes Art.

There is no harmony, no discord, no visual balance, no fugual order, no split complementaries in Nature. There is just what is there. The small bits of red flowers against the broad swaths of green foliage are not ‘arranged’ for pleasing effect.

The ‘babbling’ brook doesn’t offer ‘soothing’ sounds, but just water sounds. The disparities in size between elephant and eland don’t demonstrate an assymetrical equilbrium. They are just the facts of life on the savannah.

The density or sparseness of trees, of raindrops on the slate slab, of whitecap waves on the water are all random and have nothing to do with evenness, texture, tension or pull.

Aesthetic properties are all human inventions that describe relationships that are considered pleasing or unpleasing, approved or disapproved, sought for or repudiated. Harmony is one such aesthetic property.

Because aesthetic properties are disembodied, are abstracted, are removed from their original “context,” they are entirely arbitrary. We assert their value by fiat: “This is good. That is not good. This is to be cherished. That is to be avoided.” In this, aesthetic properties share a lot with moral declarations, which tell us which behavior is approved and which is disapproved. (In actual life, moral values are very important criteria to guide choices and behaviors. By analogy, aesthetic values propose criteria that can guide choices of sensorial delight.)

Thus, aesthetic claims of harmony are fundamentally one of the ways Art moralizes Nature. From the fields and streams, we abstract relationships of sound and sight, and we establish an order and canon in which we describe these relationships. We thereby ‘moralize’ Nature, we confer judgments on natural forms and combinations of appearances, but in Nature, none of these relationships occurs intentionally.

But perversely, Nature demoralizes Art. For every image or sound that has been carefully refined according to the laws of aesthetics, Nature dispassionately ignores it. No sound is unpleasant; no smell is discordant; no combination of colors is unwelcome; no surface touch is out of place in Nature. And the combinations of these things, unexpected as they may seem, shows us that for Nature, there is no moralizing. Nature de-moralizes Art.

© 2005 by Michael Brady

Neue Orthogonals

Here is a very interesting image, which I call “Neue Orthogonals.” It’’s a satellite image of the earth, one of those Google things.

Notice the road that crosses from left to right and divides the image into two sections, top and bottom. Look very carefully at the large buildings to the north of that road. Now look at the road that bisects the image from top to bottom. Observe the buildings to the left and right of that road, south of the horizontal road. In each of those three parts of the image (northern half, southwest quadrant, and southeast quadrant), the buildings are seen from different angles (because the photo is composed of several different images taken by the satellite on different orbits, on slightly different orbital paths).

Perspective. It’s all in how you look at it!