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The world is not black and white, but until fairly recently, photography was. For most of its history, the art was an art of silver on paper, spread from inky blacks through velvety grays into pristine whites. 

There had been attempts to add color, either by painting on top of the monochrome image, or by various experimental techniques to capture the color directly. But even after the commercially successful introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, photography as a museum-approved art continued to be primarily in black and white. 

(In cinema, Technicolor predated Kodachrome by about a decade, but that process was essentially three different black and white negatives overlapped through color filters to create the effect. It was an expensive and difficult process and relatively few films, percentage-wise, were made with the process until after the commercial success of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939.)

I have been a photographer for at least 50 years. I have had shows and my work has been published. But for most of that time, I worked in monochrome. I “saw” in black and white. My photographic heroes worked in B&W, the techniques I mastered were silver techniques. I became an excellent printer. But I seldom used color film. It seemed an unnecessary noise to bring to the purity of the medium. 

I was hardly alone in this. When I was younger, even museums shied away from color photography. It was seen as not “permanent.” It’s images faded over time (I’m sure you all have old family snapshots turned rather magenta with age). The real artist-photographers used silver or platinum and made glorious images. 

Back then, art in general was seen with more precious eyes. We thought of “archival processing,” and even paintings were carefully preserved and curators looked down on some artists — such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko — who used non-archival pigments or unprepared canvases and whose works, therefore, had begun to deteriorate. 

In current times, few artists or galleries worry much about such things. Art can be made on newsprint, or can even purposely self-destruct. Concern for the permanence of an artwork is seen as elitist. After all, no matter how careful you are, the art is going to be gone eventually, even if it lasts till the sun explodes. 

And besides, color is now no more or less permanent than black and white: Now they are both nothing but ones and zeros. Silver is dead; long live digital. 

Yet there is still a difference between color photography and black and white. It is a difference not simply of technique, but of thought. Thinking in color is different from thinking in black and white. 

The part of vision that deals in color is processed in a different area of the brain than the part that concerns itself with darks and lights. (Vision is ridiculously more complicated neurologically than you might think — the information on the retina is broken down into many separate components, processed by differing regions of the brain and then re-coordinated as a gestalt.)

And so, some people pay closer attention to the hue, others to the forms they see. 

The fact is, black-and-white photography and color photography are two different art forms. To be successful in both requires a kind of bilingualism. Most of us have brains that function best either in seeing forms and shades, or in seeing hues. The two photographies emphasize those different talents.

One has only to consider the work of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Most of their meaning comes through the color. Take one of Eggleston’s best-known images and suck the color out. What have you got?

He made this photo of a ceiling and light bulb. The red is overwhelming. But imagine it as a black and white image.

He also made a similar image of a brothel ceiling painted blue. Also overwhelming. The two are nearly the same image, but with very different emotional and sensuous meanings.

But if we make them both black and white, they very nearly merge into the same thing. 

Color can by itself separate forms. Here are four squares in four colors; as distinct as can be. But the exact image, unaltered except for the draining of all color from it, leaves a confused mess, barely a separation between grays. 

Black and white photography requires the separation of parts not by hue, but by contrast: Lights agains darks. It’s what makes great silver prints sing. Where color photographs separate forms primarily by hue, black and white shapes form with contrast.

I am not saying a color photograph has to be garish. Far from it. But the color will carry a good deal of the meaning and emotional resonance of the image. Even in a color photo that has hardly any color in it.

Many years ago, I tried an experiment. Like so many others, I loved the waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. But I wondered if they would make as much sense in black and white. Is there a structure holding the pictures together, a design or composition, that didn’t depend solely on the rich color. 

So, I began making photographs in black and white of water lilies. 

The most successful of them clearly relied on bright highlights and strong shadows. The shapes made the picture.

If I tried an overall design, like Monet’s the picture lost its strength. 

I did the same experiment with one of Monet’s paintings, rephotographing it in black and white. 

Did it hold up? It is certainly a very different beast. 

Then I went back to one of my own color photographs of his waterlilies in Giverny, a photograph that imitated Monet’s paintings, with color, sky, reflection, shadow and lily. In color and side-by-side, in black and white. 

What I discovered shouldn’t be a surprise: Monet was much more effective in color. But I also noticed that because my photos were well-focused rather than impressionistically fuzzy, they translated better into black and white: Black and white is meant to clarify shapes. Color identifies “areas” rather than discrete textures. 

And so, while I have spent the majority of my photographic career making monochrome images, along with many others now working in digital media, I switch back and forth between color and B&W. They do, however, require different vocabularies. They are different languages. 

While I have always made visual art, I made my career in writing about art. 

As an art critic, I had the unusual need to be bilingual in an odd sort of way. As a journalist, I needed to be good with words, but in writing about art, especially visual art, I needed to know how to use my eyes.

I discovered very early on how these two talents were seldom granted to the same person. All around me were reporters who knew a gerund from a copulative, but who often seemed almost infantile when discussing pictures. They could name the subject of the image, but not go much further than that. 


A photo editor of my acquaintance once explained photojournalism this way: “I need to know it’s a house; don’t trick it up with ‘art.’” This was image as ID photo. 

But on the other side, so many artists I knew couldn’t explain themselves out of a paper bag. They effused in vague buzzwords, words that changed currency every year or so. I once taught a graduate course in writing about art for art students who needed to prepare so-called “artist statements” for their exhibits. Most of what they wrote before the course was utter blather, obscure and important-sounding without actually meaning anything. 

Words and images: Worlds seldom interpenetrable. I call the talent for riding both sides a form of bilingualism. 

I do not know if the ability to deal in multiple “languages” is something you are born with, or that you learn early on the way you acquire language before the ability to do so closes off in adolescence. But somehow, I managed to do it, at least well enough to write about it without embarrassing myself.

The mental juice necessary to process each seems walled off from the other, except in rare cases. One either runs a literary program, based on sentence and paragraph structure, linear words building a whole out of alphabetic parts; or one comprehends shapes, lines, color, size, texture, and frame as carrying the information required to convey meaning. 

This doesn’t mean that visual people are illiterate, nor that literary people can’t enjoy an art gallery, but that their primary modes of understanding vary. The squishiness of an artist’s gallery talk can drive a writer bonkers; the flatness of a word-person’s understanding of a painting can leave an artsy type scratching her head: “Can’t you see?” 

Nor does it mean that either side can’t learn, although it will remain a second language, without native understanding of idiom and customary usage. A word person can be trained to see shape and form, but it will always remain as I learned Spanish. No one will ever confuse me with a native speaker.

This split between word and image, though is only one of the bisections. Musicians can think in tone the way painters can think in pigment. Yes, there is a language that can describe the music, but for non-musicians, that language is usually impressionistic and often visual — what the music “makes you think of,” or the “pictures in your mind.” 

For the musically trained, there is also language, but it is completely opaque to the civilian: Dominant-seventh, voice-leading, timbre, reed trimming, tenor clef, Dorian mode, ritornello, de capo, circle of fifths. But even these are merely words to describe the non-verbal reality of the music itself, which can convey meaning through sound alone. The words are not the music. 

The ability to think in the terms of each mode is essential to create well in that form, and a mighty help in understanding it for the audience. If you are not in love with words, the rich cream of Gibbons or the organ tones of Milton can leave you cold. If you have no eyes for color, the nuance of Turner or the pears of Cezanne can zip past without notice. If you think of pop tunes as music, the shifting tonal centers of Schubert are inaudible, the orchestration of Mahler merely noise. 

We each have a frequency our sensibilities are tuned to, and can receive it loud and clear; we may think we understand the rest, but too often we are only fooling ourselves. Do you really inhale the contrapuntal movement of a Balanchine chorus? Do you notice the rhythm of editing in a Spielberg film? Each is a language that its practitioners and connoisseurs understand profoundly, but zip past the mass of those sitting in the cheap seats. 

It’s a different language

Click on any image to enlarge

Garden

There is a line in Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” that should be a starting point: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find.”

These are two primary foci for our existence: There is the world and there is our mind working on the world. Mind and world, the face and the mirror. The central problem is that the world is incomprehensible, multifarious, immense and unimaginably complicated, self-entwined and raw, while our minds, however brilliant, are puny organizers and pattern-finders. What we believe of the world is what we have been able to make of it, and we are simply not humble enough to recognize the insufficiency.

bee blossomTake something as basic as sight. We look upon the world and take what we see as something “real,” something actually “out there.” Yet, we know that visible light is such a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, that our human vision is essentially nothing more than the chink of Pyramus and Thisbe, the slat of a Venetian blind lifted to see a wedge of the  world outside the window. Other animals are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum, and for them, the world is a different world: The bee sees not the daisy that you or I see.

We know this because human ingenuity has given us instruments that can measure those portions of the wavelengths that we cannot apprehend directly, and proves their existence. But we cannot know them directly: We are too limited. For that matter, so are the instruments.

Also limited are the odors we can smell, the sounds we can hear, the tastes we can enjoy or revile, or, for that matter, the languages we can understand or the names we have for the emotions we feel. And yet, somehow we feel we can say we know the world.

I am constantly amazed at human arrogance in the face of the vast ignorance we daily confront. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have faith in our senses and our minds, that we believe what we have learned of the world is the way the world in actuality, is. It takes an act of imagination to escape our shortsightedness.

And it is not only the world beyond our skins that escapes us: The conscious mind — that part of ourselves we generally consider to be “us” — is such a small part of what our brains do for us. We are not consciously aware of our guts squeezing the chyme along our bowel, not aware of our capillaries constricting, our irises expanding, our hearts beating faster or slower, depending on the unconscious monitoring of our inner bodily needs. Consider yourself at this very second, sitting or standing. Are you fingers curled? Are you tapping them? Is your head tilted slightly? Are you yawning? Have you sneezed? Did you “decide” to do any of those things? Your body seems to work quite autonomously, and your administration has delegated authority to its constituent parts to act on their own. Let’s face it, you would die if you had to will each heartbeat, each breath, each eye blink: Keeping track of it all would be impossible.

And yet, we have faith in that little voice in our heads that seems to be in charge: It blithely makes assumptions that cannot be justified.

This is not to toss out the little voice: We could not operate in the world if we did not simplify it to our purpose; we would be overwhelmed. We make schemas and function within those schemas quite happily, but are seldom aware of their artificiality.

tres riches heuresA good deal of trouble is caused by our unawareness. In politics, for instance, one side believes in pure capitalism, the other in socialism, but each view is only a schema, and takes not into account the great variability of human want, need, ability, and the inevitability of change, both historical and social. Remember feudalism? Monarchy and aristocracy? These were earlier schema, and sustained over centuries, even millennia. One thing might work better at some point, while its opposite might be more functional at another, neither perfectly, while all are always mere band-aids. No human reality can be encompassed by an ideology. They are all simplifications to the point of absurdity.

take outRepublicans who now believe things diametrically opposed to what they had once believed, think that if they can finally pass the laws they want, everything will work like a well-oiled machine from thence onward. Conservatives, who once championed strong central power, now believe the least government is best. (In reality, they believe in whatever will best preserve their own hegemony and wealth and if that changes, so will their ideal of proper government). But in practice, nothing is ideal, nothing is unchanging and perfect: Politics is always ad hoc. It doesn’t fit into cardboard pint containers like so much chop suey.

Religions, political ideologies, psychologies, even science are all such partial schemata and none can be said to encompass all of existence. It isn’t that we should trash all of them, but rather that we should recognize their agendas. And beyond that we should embrace, enjoy and revel in all that is not contained therein. The universe is vast, it contains multitudes. It is this plenitude and fecundity that ultimately sustains us. No system is enough.

Largest ever galaxy portrait - stunning HD image of Pinwheel GalWhat wakes us to the complexity is experience: travel, reading, learning other languages, meeting other people (as a “thou” not an “it”), education, and most of all, the exercise and strengthening of imagination, which all the previous foster. Openness to the world rather than stricture according to ideology or schema. Pulling our turtle heads into the shells of our small perceptions is nothing but retreat.

And whenever possible — and this is the biggest lesson I have swallowed in 68 years on this round, bubbly planet — to love the things of this world. All of it, helter-skelter, unapologetic and enthusiastic, chaotic, overwhelming, incomprehensible and glorious. And recognize our smallness, our ignorance, in the face of it.

falling into blue 1It was a doozie.

My wife and don’t often fight. We’ve been married over 30 years and I know few marriages better balanced. But she is no pushover. I’ve always maintained that a good marriage must be based on having a “worthy opponent.” It’s no fair if you can overwhelm your spouse, or be overwhelmed. My wife can walk through walls.

But she does see many things differently. The basic difference is that I made my living writing prose, and she is a poet (her book, “Rust Sings,” was published last year.)

Anyway, this one fight we had was memorable. We never fought over the normal stupid things that bring friction to a marriage. No, we never came to words over money or brothers-in-law or politics. Our biggest fight went on for three days — three days in which we got no sleep. We argued all day and all night, with a fervor and focus usually used to keep an armed kidnapper talking instead of shooting.

And what did we argue about? The color blue.

It started innocently enough. She saw something — I don’t remember what it was: a dress, a painting, a photograph — and said to me, “Couldn’t you fall into that blue?”falling into blue 2

I took the bait. “What do you mean, ‘fall into’?”

“It’s a blue you can dive into and drown in,” she said.

“Oh, you mean metaphorically.”

“No, I mean you can fall into it.”

And we were off. I was pigheaded and literal, she was insistent that she didn’t mean what she said figuratively, but literally. Her “literal” was different from mine. I said you can’t actually drown in a color. It’s a hard surface. I poked it, whatever it was. My finger couldn’t break the surface tension.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. She looked disgustedly at me for my failure to understand what seemed so simple to her.

That’s when I lit the fuse. “Well, then,” I said, “you have to define your terms.”

“No I don’t.”

“If you don’t, I can’t argue with you, I can’t understand what you mean. You use words so loosely.”

“It’s simple,” she said, getting more impatient. “Let yourself down into that blue and swim in it.”

“How can I? It isn’t liquid.”

“Yes it is,” she said.

“No, it’s not.”

It should be obvious by now, we were not talking about the same thing at all. But deep in the discussion, it wasn’t apparent to either of us. We were both stuck to our umwelt, and her’s was liquid. Mine was lumpen.night sky window

“You know how at night, the dark blue sky can slip in under the window sash? The night is a blue liquid that wants to drown you.”

“No, I don’t know that. Night is merely the absence of daylight. It’s dark because there’s no sun up in the sky.”

“But you have to know the dark is a thing itself.”

She described how when she was a year or two old, she was out playing in front of the house and when night fell, she thought it was a dark fluid that would drown her. It scared her and she ran inside.

But inside, the dark could seep in under the window and fill her room.

“The night is a man, paper thin, like a cutout, that can just fit under the window frame.”

I shook my head. This made no sense to me, logical positivist that I was.

“All well and good,” I said, “as poetry. But scientifically, the dark is just the earth turning away from the sun for 12 hours. So, I still don’t get what you mean when you say you can fall into blue.”

“Not any blue, but that blue,” she said.

I can in no wise reproduce what transpired for the next 36 or 40 hours, but it only got more intense. I stupidly dug in my heels about the need for clear language and vocabulary, and she dug in her heels just as stubbornly.

“Why are you yelling at me?”

“I’m not yelling.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not. This is my normal voice; I’m just from New Jersey.”

I was yelling. But she only made me angrier, because her response was not to raise her voice, but to lower it to a level almost inaudible. She played the “calm” card. She wasn’t calm: It was a ploy. But it wound me up.

We tried going to bed the first night, but we couldn’t stop talking and the next thing we knew, it was dawn and we were still arguing. It continued all the next day. We didn’t even stop to eat. And into the second night. In the end, it came to a conclusion the way all such things do: The husband gives up.

Well, not so simple. The husband — in this case, me — comes to recognize that the way of understanding the world I was born into is not the only way of understanding the world. I had to enlarge my psyche to take in her way of expressing herself, and not think so literally. Maybe defining one’s terms is really only a way of cutting off conversation.

But it also defined for me the essential difference between my prose and her poetry, between prose per se, and poetry in general.hopper van gogh

My “literal” was based on the assumption that the outside world was the essential reality, and that my perception is merely the intake of that reality into my brain. Her “literal” was the experience of her mind as it takes in the things of the world. If you posit reality outside the brain, you think one way; if you place it inside the skull, you get a whole nother ballgame. “All things exist as they are perceived,” wrote Percy Shelley, “at least in relation to the percipient.”

I had an unexamined faith that the world is a thing in itself; she had no such faith, but never doubted her experience of the world. It is the only thing, she says, that she knows is true. If it can be tagged onto something measurable by a thermometer or geiger counter, fine, but that is not what is real: The only “real” is its experience. And blue, QED, is something she can fall into.

This three-day argument happened more than 25 years ago, and it has in some ways come to define our marriage, and my appreciation of my wife’s different way of understanding the world. It is why she can write poetry with no calculation — it just flows out of her. Or, rather, comes to her. “You just make your chest wet,” she says, “and it will stick.”

And it is why I can write prose. Clarity, exactitude, structure, rewriting and testing. No ambiguous pronouns, no duplicitous definitions.

But as one gets older, one either grows or fossilizes. I have tried to learn as much as I can from my wife. There is much there to learn from. She continues to astonish me.

cun 18th century

What does the midday sun look like?

That may sound like a simple question, but it’s not. You can’t really look at the sun: If you try, the result is sensory overload, like the distortion of loud music on cheap speakers. You can even go blind, rather quickly.

Yet, everyone thinks he knows what the sun looks like. It’s everywhere in art, beginning with the tempera paintings kids make in elementary school: They so often put a wedge of sun in the corner of the painting, with rays spread out below like sea urchin spines.

kid turtle

But the sun doesn’t look like that: The child’s version of the sun is a symbolic representation of the solar disk.

But then, so are all adult representations.

So we also recognize the gilt centrifugal rays of Louis XIV’s Sun King symbol and the terra cotta sun face of Mexico and the red ball and rays of the World War II Japanese “Rising Sun” naval ensign.

sunmosaic

The sun is the paradigm of art problems, because it can never be portrayed accurately as it looks. Paint cannot be so bright.

But that doesn’t stop artists from attempting it. Van Gogh painted the solar disk over and over in his landscapes. Usually, the sun is a yellow circle surrounded by concentric brushstrokes in a darker ocher. The only way he could make the sun seem bright was by making the sky unnaturally dark.

vangoghsun1

 

Ansel Adams had a photograph he called The Black Sun, in which a long exposure caused the image of the sun to solarize, making it a dark dot in the picture, surrounded by a halo of rays. It looks almost like an eclipse photo.

 

Ansel Adams' "Black Sun"

Ansel Adams’ “Black Sun”

In Picasso’s Guernica, the sun is an edgy elliptical disk with spiked rays, in the middle of which is a light bulb.

guernica detail

Each of these is an attempt to portray something that cannot be portrayed.

On a piece of paper or a canvas, the brightest white is no more than 40 times brighter than the deepest black. In the Arizona summer, the sun is thousands of times brighter than the shadow under a mesquite. A canvas just cannot accommodate that brightness range. We compress that range and accept it.

But the emotional effect of the sun’s brightness is just as hard to portray. When artists attempt it, they have to leave the realm of naturalism and create a fiction, a symbol for the sun instead of its snapshot.

So, what does the world look like? The sun is only one minor example of the complexity of this question. It is a question that has been at the core of art for 30,000 years and has still not been answered in any finality.

The problem in formulating an answer is that human perception is both so complex — scientists keep finding more astonishing whirligigs in the brain’s apparatus — and at the same time, so universally believed simple. We all have eyes; and seeing, after all, is believing.

We see with our eyes, most people think. The world looks the way a photograph makes it look.

But of course, we don’t see with our eyes, but with our brains – and even more difficult, with our minds, which means we see through the haze of emotions, culture and individual life experience. We so thoroughly process the data that our eyes collect that the final result barely matches the patterns on the tickled retina.

Seeing doesn’t just happen; it is a complex mental process. And it is a learned process, as any of hundreds of studies have confirmed. One of the ways it is learned is through art — or, to use the more modern term, through media.

Which is why, until the Modernist revolution in this century, artists concerned themselves with attempting to accurately depict the world around them.

It was to this end that such men as Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi attempted in the 15th century to devise a mathematical formula for creating the illusion of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas. The linear perspective they created became the mother tongue of European painting for four centuries.

But perspective wasn’t the only question: We’ve all seen the obsessive drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, attempting to get down on paper the swirl of water in motion.

leonardowater

Or Michelangelo’s attempts to show every anatomical muscle under the marble skin of his statuary.

The Italian Renaissance was so thorough in its quest for realism, and so successful, in contrast to the Romanesque and Gothic art that came before it, that we have on some level considered the question answered ever since: This is what the world looks like.

Yet, it isn’t so. There are gross distortions built into perspective: Its grid of parallel lines is pure fiction. Leonardo’s water looks more like masonry than fluid, and Michelangelo’s muscles are a little too manic to be visually true.

Yet, the schematic system of image-making they came up with was so persuasive that we still accept the look of it.

Photographs, for instance, which are often taken for the ultimate in realism, are actually made through lenses carefully designed to mimic Renaissance perspective. Rectilinear imagery doesn’t happen naturally.

No art is ultimately realistic. What we tend to call realistic art, whether it is 200 years old and hanging on a museum wall, or hanging in the “starving artist” corner of your shopping mall, is more properly called ”conventional” art. It partakes of the conventions of art that we have, for the moment, accepted.

But those conventions are just as stylized – just as unrealistic – as the ”King Tut” angular figures on an Egyptian frieze, or the misty landscapes on Chinese scrolls.

Take any so-called realistic piece of art and ask just how like life it might be.

When a British cleric, Dr. Thomas Church, visited Rome in 1816, he sat to have his portrait drawn by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, one of the leading French artists of the time. The 6- by 8-inch pencil drawing Ingres made is now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is a drawing almost everyone would call a realistic likeness. Certainly, if you knew the drawing, you could have picked out Church from a police lineup.

Ingres' Dr. Thomas Church

Ingres’ Dr. Thomas Church

Yet, the drawing is realistic in only a conventional sense; we are so used to those conventions, we don’t even think about them. We are fish, the conventions are water. It almost seems silly if I point them out. But it isn’t silly; it is profoundly important for us to think about them.

First of all, I doubt the good reverend was only 15 inches tall, as he is in the drawing, or would be if he stood up and his legs hadn’t been cut off by the edge of the paper. We have no trouble believing that a small likeness is realistic, any more than we have trouble with Georgia O’Keeffe’s larger-than-life flowers.

Second, Church probably had a little more color in his cheeks than in this monochrome drawing. We accept black and white as realistic.

We even accept his high-collared coat as black because we know such coats, even though in the drawing, it is the same blank-paper color as his nose and cheek.

Third, the real doctor was three-dimensional; the drawing is not. We could walk around the real person and see his back; the verso of the drawing is just blank paper.

Then, too, the real person moved and the drawing is frozen still.

The real person moved through time, too. It should also be noted that the drawing still exists; the same cannot be said for the good cleric. Ars longa, vita brevis.

The real person made noise — I cannot imagine such a cleric not talking constantly, even prattling. The only noise the drawing can make is a crinkling sound if you were to crush it in your hands — a sound to draw the immediate attention of the museum guard, no doubt, but not exactly conversation.

The drawing also has no odor of humanity about it. Then, too, the drawing is made up of pencil lines. Examine as you will the world around you, you will not discover lines in it that outline the borders of objects. The use of line in drawing is one of the most persistent, and least realistic conventions.

And the last thing I’ll mention: There is a frame, an edge of the picture that cuts off the bottom half of the good reverend. Real experience does not come with a frame line.

All these things we look right past and accept the drawing as an accurate rendering of reality. I’m sure you can come up with a dozen other hidden conventions I have passed over. But that is the power of convention. And it is all the more reason we should be concerned with the question: What does the world look like?

A century of Modernism has taught us not to ask such a question, and we have largely bought into the propaganda. Instead of asking the question, “What does the world look like, from the time of Cezanne on, art has primarily asked, ”What does art look like?” When a visitor looked at one of Jackson Pollock’s swirls of paint drippings, he asked, wondering what the picture’s subject might be, ”What is it?” Pollock answered, ”A painting.” He wasn’t just being cute. All of art critical theory at the time asked us to consider the effects of colors against other colors, forms against form, line against line.

But as great as some of the century’s art is, the overall effect is of a mirror held up to a mirror. It is intentionally mute: ”Music can express nothing,” said the arch-Modernist composer Igor Stravinsky. He was wrong, but he summed up this century’s own unacknowledged provincialism.

Art must regain its connection with the life we live. There is no better way to do this than attempt to answer the basic question about the appearance of the world.

For seeing is active, not passive. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. Each generation must keep up this dialogue with the world.

It is still a noble goal of art: to discover the difference between the schematic and the mimetic, between convention and experience — between what is and what has to be.

To parse it all out.

What is called Postmodernism doesn’t effectively do this. If Modernism is a mirror looking at a mirror, what has followed is a TV set looking at a TV set.

nam june paik1

A generation of media-savvy savants has created an art that is self-referential, and its main reference is The Brady Bunch.

I am certainly not calling for artists to imitate the look of Norman Rockwell. I hope I have made clear that Rockwell is not realistic.

I am calling for artists to take a really close look at the world around them — actually, I am calling for them to love the world, to caress the things of the world with their eyes.

The most effective way of doing that is to draw. Not until you have drawn something have you really seen it, felt its texture in your mind, tasted its color on front and back of tongue, known its shape and the shape of the air around it.

You can see this in Ingres’ drawing again. The coat, the pose, the chair arm — they are all merely conventional. But look at the eyes. They fairly swell with life, there is a softness to the bags underneath, a bristliness to the eyebrows and a live intensity to their gaze. The eyes are the animated center of the drawing, a jewel in a supportive setting.

In the coat, one sees the artist’s training; in the eyes, his connection with the world. There is no doubt which is more important.

So I ask the question of artists, what does the world look like?

Take take just one of those issues: motion, for instance. In the early Renaissance, it was not unusual to repeat a figure several times in a painting, depicting action as it is shown in the frames of a comic strip – showing the same figure in different parts of the frame at different moments in the action.

salome

One depicts Salome dancing in one part of the picture and John the Baptist in his cell in another. Another corner of the picture shows John bent over the block with an executioner’s ax raised over his head and a final portion has Salome watching John’s head on a platter.

Even God appears twice, from front and back, in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Creation.

An entire century of art grappled with this problem as Baroque artists painted violent action at its most unstable point in time, suggesting the motion even when the figures are still as statuary.

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is an attempt to portray the motion itself.

nudedescendingstair

Jackson Pollock’s action paintings are visually active with the result of the painter’s own motion.

Jean Tinguely created kinetic sculpture that actually did move.

Which of these is most “realistic”?

The depiction of visual reality is only one of the purposes of art, but it is a great and noble purpose that has been in eclipse as artists have been seduced by the cleverness of conceptual art.

As though the problem of mimesis in art had somehow been solved, freeing us for other endeavors.

But every time an artist picks up a pencil and tries to get the proportions of a figure right, every time an artist mixes a rose madder with an alizarin crimson to match the color of a landscape, she is tackling the biggest and most intractable question of art.

Looking is hard work, worthy work for an artist.

The sun streams in through the window, I go to it, look out at the world beyond and wonder what it looks like.

Astonish us.