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two old men

Which of these portraits is more realistic?

One is a photograph and the other a Roman portrait bust. One might choose either one over the other, although I suppose most people would choose the photo. But in what sense are either of these “realistic?”

(For the purposes of this argument, you should imagine an actual photograph, on paper, held in your hand, not the digital image you see on your screen — for which there is a whole different set of problems. And the portrait bust, think of as the real stone sculpture, on a plinth in a museum.)

The photograph is in black and white; reality is in color. The photograph is flat; reality is rounded. If you walked around to the back of the photograph, you would not find the back of this man’s head; in reality, you would.

Further, the photograph is rectangular and framed by its edges; reality has no such frame. Looking at a photograph, we hardly notice the frame.

The sculpture is three-dimensional, which might give it a leg up on the photo, but the sculpture is also monochromatic. Worse, it has no pupils in the eyes, which makes it a little eerie. True, you can walk around to its back and see the rest of its tonsure, but that hair is stone, which is unlike real hair, except during the ’50s, when hairspray lacquered the head down into something brittle. Take its temperature, and it will not be 98.6, but room temperature.

Neither the photo nor the bust has a body attached, which would be  very uncomfortable in real life.

The fact is, that both forms of art are highly conventionalized. We take them as “realistic,” when, in fact, they are merely conventional. We tend to let our conventions fall invisible; we hardly notice them.

picasso self portraitThe photograph might be an 8X10 glossy, but the head in the photo would be miniature compared to the man’s real head. How is a tiny figure on a flat piece of paper said to be realistic? You can fit a whole city on an 8X10 glossy; try that with the real Philadelphia. The only way to do that is to accept the conventions and then let the disappear.

You can go on listing unrealities: The photo and bust are motionless. The men portrayed most certainly were not. They also made sounds — I’m sure they they each spoke to their portraitists while they were being immortalized. And they probably had characteristic smells about them. More, they each had thoughts that cannot be read in the images.

Yet, compared to a Picasso painting, we take these as realistic images. We ignore all the counter-indications and lock on to the few things we wish to accept.

duane hansonEven a Duane Hanson sculpture, which might fool us as we first enter the gallery, eventually gives itself away by never moving.

Every culture has these conventions. Consider the standard ancient Egyptian figure, turned into contortions so that we see both arms and both feet, yet the head turns profile because we need to know the nose sticks out from the face. Somehow, though, the eye is drawn as if head-on. The convention insists on things we know — like two arms and two legs — rather than things we see — like foreshortening and overlapping. To an Egyptian in the Middle Kingdom, a foreshortened figure would simply be “not true,” since it would obscure facts we know — like two arms and two legs.

ukiyo e mie pose actor pictureOr consider a cultural convention that seems to Western eyes truly bizarre — or at least comic. In the Japanese woodblock print, images of popular actors were often portrayed in the Mie Pose, which means giving them crossed eyes. To us, crossed eyes are silly, but in the Ukiyo-e tradition, they express extreme emotion. Those images were hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries — the equivalent of the Farrah poster from the 1970s, with its own conventional gesture and hairdo.

There are the conventions of Precolumbian cultures and the wonderful circle-and-dot conventions of Northwest Coast Native American cultures.

Each is a way of transposing the living, breathing world into a two- or three-dimensional image that can be understood to embody some version of that world. For us to accept the black-and-white photograph as a realistic depiction of our world, we have to accept and then forget the many conventions behind it.

clock 1But it is not merely art that conventionalizes our sense of the world. Many of the things we take for granted are not rooted in reality or necessity, but are purely conventional. Twenty-four hours in a day? Seven days in a week? There is no good reason, other than convention, that the clock and calendar could not be decimalized, like so many other measurements we now know. A 10-hour day just requires a clock notched out in a new way. Give those extended hours 100 minutes each. Fine. There is nothing about time that requires the division of the day and night into 24. Or a 10-day week, leaving us with a year of 36-and-a-half weeks.

Nor is there reason to add days into weeks, or weeks into months. We could subdivide them entirely differently, say into sub-weeks, or bi-weeks and cut the 36-week year into 9-week divisions, subdivided into 3-week “months.”

There is a lunar and sidereal cycle, but our current conventions don’t actually match up to them, so convention trumps astronomy on the calendar.

I am not suggesting we change our clocks and calendars; convention works just fine. But I am saying we should recognize them merely as conventions. If Ramadan moves around our Julian calendar like a slipped clutch, that’s fine: It’s merely another convention.

We are used to seeing North at the top of a map. How disorienting it can be to see a Medieval map which puts South at the top.

Suits and ties? Convention. Lipstick? Convention. Men in pants, women in skirts? Convention. Just picture Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs standing next to Sean Connery in a kilt. Where are the bloomers and bustles of yesteryear? Conventions change.

Our version of marriage? Convention. There are other ways of organizing families. History is full of them. Patriarchy? Convention. There are perfectly successful matriarchies in the world.

The names of colors are conventional. We could divide and subdivide the spectrum in other ways. Different cultures, in fact, do divide them differently. The same way we think of pink and red as different colors, Russians think of dark and light blue, and have different names for them: Siniy and Goluboy. We could easily make a distinction between “sea green” and “leaf green” and give them distinct names.

colors

chopsticksThe musical scale is now more conventional than ever, as it has been squeezed into the well-tempered system. We now split an octave into 12 semitones; others find five tones in an octave plenty. Indian ragas may need up to 40. All conventions, taken inside their generating cultures as simply “the way things are.”

Why do we eat off round places with knives and forks? Other cultures favor square plates or chopsticks. Three meals a day? Not nutritionally determined. Four does for some; two for others. Compare the French croissant and coffee in the morning with the full English breakfast.

Zuni PuebloOur houses have front and back doors. Ancient Puebloan people did without doors altogether and clambered into their homes from their roofs down ladders.

Poems used to rhyme. Works great in Italian, with all those vowels, a bit harder in English, unknown in most cultures, which may value metrical rules over rhyme, or alliteration instead.

Driving on the right in the U.S.? On the left in the U.K.? Switching from one to the other in Sweden?

We each of us has in our mind a pattern of how we think the world is organized and constructed. Sometimes called the “Umwelt,” it is partly constructed from the ineluctable constraints of reality, such as gravity, light, day, night, hunger, thirst, the horizon and the wetness of the sea — and the rest is made up of convention. We seldom make a distinction between the two, and take the weekend for as natural a thing as we take ripening fruit.

This model of the universe does not feel learned, the way laws have to be learned, but are taken as the natural state of the world. The problem lies when we make prescriptive demands on others based on our private Umwelt. It is what feeds racism, for instance. When you have an internal model of the world that sees one race as superior or inferior, you then create laws requiring others to act according you your inner light (or lack of light). Yet, as we have seen, a good deal of this inner model is nothing but convention. It might be good to examine everything we believe with some skepticism.

pit and pendulum poster
INTRODUCTION

Art keeps changing. What is popular in one century is laughed at in the next. Victorians hated the undisciplined libidos of the Romantics; the 20th Century has found the Victorians cloying, sentimental and insincere.

But what causes these changes in taste? It is too often believed that styles change merely out of boredom, as if we got tired of one look and were attracted to the glittering novelty of the next.

And while there is certainly something to the idea of the bright, shiny and new, there is also something deeper and more meaningful.

For art history is not just a history of shifting styles, but of changing sensibilities. The transformation of one age into the next — of the Renaissance into the Baroque, of Neo-Classicism into Romanticism, of Modernism into Postmodernism — is a transformation of ideas.

cones and bullets

Making a point (or two)


I say it isn’t merely fashion, but fashion isn’t either. Perhaps you get some idea of what I mean if we look at the Maidenform bra, for instance.
dreamed i was wanted

Here it is, as hard as cardboard and pointy as a dart. It molded the female form to a rigid contour. I remember when it used to be called the “nose cone” look.

But if you consider the time that gave  birth to the nose cone, you recognize it was the Eisenhower ’50s. It wasn’t merely the bra that was rigid. Men wore starched shirts then, too. Suits and ties were required attire at the office.

Wives wore highly structured dresses, with darts and sizing, and a mask-like make up, with red lipstick and black mascara. Their hair was held stiff, too.

And what was the political climate? It was also stiff. People were expected to conform. Those who didn’t were suspect. Investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. There was a conventional idea of what the ideal was. You can see it in the TV shows of the time.

Leave It to Beaver? The Donna Reed Show? Dragnet.soft and natural

Interestingly, the ’50 lasted through the ’60s. But at the end of that decade, something happened. The rigid bra went out. So did the structured clothes. So did the stiff ideas.

These things are all connected.

The ’60s, by the way, lasted into the middle of the ’70s, when the ’80s began. Our idea of decades in this century is a little cockeyed. Still, we call the ’60s the ’60s and everyone knows what we mean, even though what we mean is the years between 1968 and 1974. That was the ’60s. All over in a flash. I remember — the flashing, that is.

It was a retreat from what seemed like inauthentic artifice into what seemed at the time to be authentic naturalness. “Natural” became the adjective of the decade. I remember one shampoo that advertised “100 percent all natural natural ingredients,” which, of course, promised only that whatever natural ingredients made it into the bottle, were actually natural.nipple bra

Black America began wearing a hairstyle they called the “Natural.”

And we had the “braless” look. Even bras offered the braless look.

If the ’60s seemed like a reaction to the stuffy ’50s, it was. But it was a wide shift in sensibility. The art changed; the music changed; the politics changed; the philosophy changed.

Artifice vs. artlessness

Before there was stiff underwear, in the 1920s, when things were looser mentally, emotionally and morally, underwear was looser, too.1920s lingerie 2

And we can see the reassertion of the artificial, parodied by Madonna in the 80s.

Like the change that occurred at the time of the Reformation, more emphasis was placed on individual freedom of thought and less on the authority of power. Martin Luther wanted everyone to be able to read the Bible, and not have the book only interpreted by a priestly class. Abbie Hoffman (admittedly a lesser intellect, although I don’t think that insults Hoffman) wanted to make up his own mind about the Vietnam War instead of taking Lyndon Johnson’s interpretation of it.Abbie Hoffman 1

I can recall hearing over and over from our elders at the time that “Johnson has facts we don’t know; we have to trust him.” Well, it turned out he was as clueless as anyone. We of my generation thought we’d never make that mistake again.

Over the centuries, each definable age is a reaction to the one that went before. The Renaissance reacted to the Middle Ages. The Romantic Age to the Neo Classical age before it. Victorianism to the Romanticism and Modernism in the 20th Century to the Victorianism which it hated.

But what underlies these changes is a curious series of pendulums.

“Meta-pendulums”

yinyang colorYou know how you keep hearing that the pendulum only swings so far before reversing direction — so that the Sexual Revolution is replaced by the New Chastity — or so we’re told. The swing to the political left is slowed and eventually we swing back to the right. Hello Mitch McConnell.

These swings are, in fact, the very stuff of cultural change and we can see them through the art that embodies them.flaxman 1

When we see the change from Winckelmann’s exulted Classicism to Delacroix’s exotic Moorish women, we are seeing a change in ideas.Women of Algiers

What is curious is that these same pendulum swings keep recurring.

There are a bunch of them, and their “swing cycle” is irregular, so that the same ideas don’t occur at the same time: Some ideas have a longer cycle, some a quick turnaround. They never all line up quite the same way twice, which is why the various “romantic” periods in art — the Gothic, the Baroque, the Romantic — are not at all identical.

What I want to do is to take a look at a few of these swinging pendulums to get a feel for the changes they bring. And perhaps narrow them down to a few “metapendulums.” Those larger ideas that hold the smaller ones like melon balls in a hollowed out melon half.

An endless list

I made a list of some of these oppositions. My notebook went on for three pages. I stopped at 63 pairs of recurring ideas when I realized I could really go on for days adding to the list.

Here’s one example: How the middle of the 19th Century in France valued the historical (and religious and mythological) painting, like this David version of the death of Socrates. It was noble, formal, elevating. It taught the moral lessons that thoughtful people believed should be taught.death of socrates

But there was a reaction to it. That reaction gave us Impressionism, which gave up the past for the everyday present, like this barmaid in Manet’s painting.manet

I said these shifts recur. In the 1950s, for instance, the serious minded Abstract Expressionists, like Mark Rothko, expected their paintings to be morally and spiritually elevating.

What followed? The everyday present, like Warhol’s soup cans.rothko-warhol pair

The whole history of art keeps running back and forth through these issues, over and over, but never quite the same way — because other pendulums are also swinging back and forth at the same time, and their combined periods never quite in synch, so that the change from David to Manet is also a shift from a hard-edged style to a soft, fuzzy edged style, and between Rothko and Warhol comes the swing from abstract to realistic.

Among those 63 pairs of ideas — oppositions you might call them — are familiar ones. Here are a few of them:

Interest in the universal — Interest in the particular

Intellect primary — Emotion primary

Clarity — Complexity

Unity — Diversity

Religious — Secular

Edification — Entertainment

Reinforce ethos — Challenge ethos

Style — Content

Artificial — Natural

Social — Cosmic

Codification — Exploration

Stasis — Energy

Embrace past — Ignore Past

Internationalism — Nationalism

Emblematic (allegorical) — Mythic (symbolic)

Incarnation — Transcendence

Scientific realism — Emotional realism (“Truthiness”)

Nature as a desert — Nature as a cathedral

Vocation — Inspiration

Single creator — Atelier

Talent — Genius

Epic — Miniature

Dramatic — Lyric

Old form — New form

Irony — Sincerity

Discrete disciplines — Mix and match art forms

Depiction of emotion — Expression of emotion

There are many more. I’m sure you can come up with a bunch. But I don’t want to merely make a list.Dionysos pediment Parthenon

The general and the particular

 Because, as I was listing, I noticed that these ideas began to fall into larger patterns. They tend to group together, though some of the items in my list overlap, one category turning up as an item in another category.

But I want to look at the larger movements.sc000358.jpg

The first category is the rivalry between the universal and the particular. In some ages, we have wanted our art idealized. If we are going to paint a madonna, she should look like a woman, or better yet like all women, that is like Woman with a capital W. Especially if we harbor religious feelings about it, we don’t want our Madonna to look like Eleanor Roosevelt.

The 18th Century was one that believed in the importance of universalizing their art.

Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750 that “Poetry cannot dwell upon the minuter distinctions, by which one species differs from another, without departing from that simplicity of grandeur which fills the imagination.”

Or, in another place, “All the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind by the mention of particulars is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that which the illustration is drawn than that to which it is applied.”

Nothing in real life is perfect, wrote painter Joshua Reynolds in his famous Discourses. The artist must never attempt to imitate real life too closely, he says, but rather, “he learns to design naturally by drawing his figures unlike to any one object. This idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artist calls the ideal beauty, is the great leading principle by which works of genius are conducted.”caravaggio madonna

Only 30 years later, English artist and poet William Blake wrote in the margins of his copy of Reynold’s Discourses

“To generalize is to be an idiot.”

He goes on to say: “To particularize is the alone distinction of merit. General knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess.

“What is general nature? Is there such a thing? What is general knowledge? Is there such a thing? Strictly speaking, all knowledge is particular.

“Distinct general form cannot exist. Distinctness is particular, not general.”

Reynolds, if he painted a Madonna, would make sure she didn’t look like any live human being, but like the idea we have of the perfect form.

Blake, painting a Madonna, would certainly have made her look, if not like Eleanor Roosevelt, at least like some living, breathing woman he could see with his actual eyes.

And this is despite the fact that Reynolds is mainly a portraitist, making pictures of individuals — which he idealized in his paintings. And despite the fact that Blake makes mythological pictures of gods and spirits — which he meant to look like distinct personalities.

This issue between general and specific, universal and particular, recurs like all these ideas.laocoon

Hellenic and Hellenistic

It is the first major shift in Western art one sees, not counting the prehistoric art (which also follow most of these patterns). But beginning with the art of ancient Greece, we can see it reaching its height in the 4th Century, with such sculptures as the Elgin marbles and the frieze carvings of various temples.Belvedere Apollo

The Classical Greeks believed in idealized beauty, in the general and universal, as you can see in these lithe, stripped down figures.

But after the Macedonian invasion, under the reign of Alexander the Great, in the period we call Hellenistic, the main shift is in the naturalness of the art. The statues take on a movement and individuality unheard of in earlier Athens.

You can see the distinct face of the wrestler with his broken nose or the boy pulling a thorn from his foot. (You can also see the shift, mentioned above, from the morally elevating tone of the Classical period, to the everyday activities depicted in the Hellenistic).laocoon head

But just look at the faces, the Classical impassiveness and idealization,

and the Hellenistic warts and all portrait.

You can see the pendulum go back and forth, with early Roman art tending to imitate the Classic Greek, and Imperial Roman art again embracing the particular. Once you have seen a Roman portrait bust, there is not doubt you could pick its model out of a police lineup of a crowd at a bus station. They are so distinct.Roman portraits

In the Middle ages, first in the declining Roman period and the Romanesque, individuality is downplayed and figures, especially in the growing Christian church, tend to be generalized. But in the great Gothic period that flowered in the 11th and 12th centuries, the figures again become individualized. So much so, that the hundreds of figures carved into the side of, say, Chartres Cathedral, are as distinctive as movie stars’ faces.

During the Renaissance, figures are once more idealized. In the Baroque, they are individualized. In the Rococco, generalized, in the Romantic era, individualized. In the Academic painting that followed, they were again generalized. Impressionism put back their individual character. Modern art simplified the figures and generalized them — all of Modigliani’s figures seem interchangeable, for instance, or Brancusi’s idealized women. But particularity and distinct figures reappear with Pop and the following Postmodernism.

Back and forth the pendulum goes.

I have dwelt on this one pair of opposites rather a long time, just to get the feel of what I mean.

But, I also want to point out the subset of ideas that follow the fight between the universal and particular.

NEXT: Part 2 — More pendulums