Fracticality

Too much of some things and not enough of others. Why do we lose the feel for and sight of the sensations we hold most dear? Are we misusing the words and concepts? The battle for our own personal attention spans, for example, in which to play is to lose, doesn’t do anyone much good. What do those words even mean that we allow this ‘span’ (do we need an attention suspension bridge?) to be up for grabs The degree to which we allow almost anything to pass into our heads, refusing to rule and watch over this domain as we might a plot of land where our children sleep, contributes to the loss. As well, connectivity; we’ve bought lock-and-stock the idea that we should never (much less need to) be out of the reach of electronic beeps and chirps. Then there’s the wireless scourge. Harmless and helpful on its own, though at essence and by definition opposed to any efforts at moderation. So, how do you pan out, and if we manage, how do we make sense of what see?

One place to start making sense again, this essay on the misunderstandings of art and science by James Elkins, The Drunken Conversation of Chaos and Painting

Within mathematics, there is no question of the importance of the new discoveries. The “new geometry”
knows itself to be fundamental: “Euclid,” Benoit Mandelbrot announces in The Fractal Geometry
of Nature, will be “used in this work to denote all of standard geometry.” The unexpected efflorescence
of geometry, so difficult to follow through its growing associations with physics, biology, astronomy,
geology, medicine, and economics, already has wide experimental support and applications as diverse
as the threebody problem, population dynamics, the neurobiology of hearing, and the contractions
of heart muscle. It has, in addition, serious philosophic and experimental implications for the scientific
method itself.
In this context the “new geometry” is most interesting because it knows itself to be beautiful,
though the nature and extent of that knowledge are open to question. Mandelbrot quotes an article in Science
that makes a parallel between cubism, atonal music and modern mathematics beginning with “Cantor’s
set theory and Peano’s spacefilling curves.” He sees a rococo phase in mathematics before the modern
era, followed by a visual austerity. When it comes to art, he makes a poorly articulated and unconvincing
historical and aesthetic reading of his own fractal inventions, according to which the extravagant,
ebullient forms he has visualized are “minimalist art”—a most unlikely identification. There is also an
unwillingness on Mandelbrot’s part to mix art and science: when computer printouts are to be judged aesthetically,
he gives them selfparodistic titles such as “The Computer ‘bug’ as artist, Opus 1,” thereby publishing
aesthetic results as mistakes, “bugs” in programs. Part of the meaning of such titles resides in
Mandelbrot’s mimicry of contempory painting styles; “Opus 2” is like an angular Clifford Still or Franz
Kline. He also thinks his polychromic computer printouts are “austere.” The reason is they have simple
mathematics behind them, and so his misidentification with minimalism is an example of non-visual
thinking—what a mathematician would call “analytic” rather than “synthetic” reasoning. More plausibly,
he thinks a Mies van der Rohe building is a “scalebound” throwback to “Euclid” since it has only certain
classes of forms, while—in a particularly strange juxtaposition of cultures—“a high period Beaux Arts
building is rich in fractal aspects.”

Download and the read the whole thing. On purpose.

Open your art books to page…

A reminder that there are all shades of green, some of them not Eco at all. Via, this little meditation on, faced with school budget cutbacks that always, ALWAYS, get aimed at the art curriculum first, how we should teach art instead of history.

This general scenario matches up with other stories I’ve seen. But why should art be on the chopping block before history class? I believe we romanticize history, making it seem practically and ideally more important than it is. People defend history in the gauzy language of citizenship, with appeals that rarely rise above aphorism. “Those who don’t history are bound to repeat it”. This doesn’t hold up in a practical sense though. There’s a reason the phrase isn’t “those who have history as a significant part of their high school curriculum are bound to repeat it”. Being taught history doesn’t make you better voters unless you remember that history. I’m not going to go down the litany of things that huge percentage of Americans incorrectly believe about history, instead I’ll just give one prominent example. How many hundreds of millions of dollars to we spend each year teaching kids about the Civil War, and still 42% of people don’t know we fought it over slavery?

Sign me up. I would even say (but never write) that we would better off teaching (more) people about art. An example? a survey about the work of JL David will render the history of French Revolution unforgettable. And once you have The Death of Marat or The Tennis Court Oath in your head, along with the stories behind them, you’re only going to want to find out more. Moving through history on the basis of art movements is a more durable sort of engagement. Why the salons of the 1870’s happened or Goya’s dark paintings just doesn’t go away. That knowledge moves and grows into something else. Something we need.

And this is to say nothing of the benefits of people learning printmaking or drawing. It would be like mass producing the keys to critical thinking and problem solving. Then we can finally get back to that Shangra-La where no one locks their doors.

Shades of Purple

Now this is the kind of Iraqi issue I, for one, am glad to fret over:

Baghdad has weathered invasion, occupation, sectarian warfare and suicide bombers. But the latest scourge, tastelessness, may prove the toughest to overcome.

Iraqi artists and architecture critics who shudder at each new pastel building blame a range of factors for Baghdad’s slide into tackiness: including corruption and government ineptitude, as well as everyday Iraqis who are trying to banish their grim past and are unaccustomed to having the freedom to choose any color they want.

God bless ’em. Welcome to the modern world, Iraqis. But for my money, this is the pull quote:

“Right now, when I have an exhibition at my gallery nobody comes from the government, only the art students and other artists,” Mr. Sabti said. “Taking care of the look of the city has stopped because the people who have come to power were living in villages with animals. So how did they develop their taste?”

If you guys figure anything out, do tell.

Oh La Vache! and other Mercurial Inunctions

Dubuffet_The_Cow_with_a_Subtile_Nose

And if you should require more than a thousand, maybe check out The Cosmological Eye by H. Miller.

I should say that ever since the dawn of history–all through
the great civilizations, that is to say–we have been living like lice.
Once every thousand years or so a man arises who is not a louse–
and then there is even more hell to pay. When a MAN appears
he seems to get a stranglehold on the world which it takes cen-
turies to break. The sane people are cunning enough to find these
men “psychopathic.” These sane ones seem to be more interested
in the technique of the stranglehold than in applying it. That’s a
curious phenomenon, one that puzzles me, to be frank. It’s like
learning the art of wrestling in order to have the pleasure of letting
someone pin you to the mat.

What do I mean to infer? Just this–that art, the art of living,
involves the act of creation. The work of art is nothing. It is only
the tangible, visible evidence of a way of life, which, if it is not
crazy is certainly different from the accepted way of life. The dif-
ference lies in the act, in the assertion of a will, and individuality.
For the artist to attach himself to his work, or identify himself
with it, is suicidal. An artist should be able not only to spit on his
predecessor’s art, or on all works of art, but on his own too. He
should be able to be an artist all the time, and finally not be an
artist at all, but a piece of art.

Getting Perspective

Sometimes we might loose sight of the fact that what’s most wrong with what’s been done here is the misappropriation of a color, a thing that has already long been devoted to other purposes. As a reminder, this is part of an essay from the painter-turned-art historian James Elkins, called Why Art and Science Should be Allowed to Go Their Separate Ways:

The Grande Jatte Problem: What Is Science When It Is Immersed in Art?

Masaccio’s Trinità, as every textbook proclaims, is the first surviving painting in linear perspective. Does that mean, to draw the standard im- plication, that mathematics and painting were allied at that moment? Seurat’s La Grande Jatte was made with color theory in mind: But does that mean late nineteenth-century color theory and postimpressionism were linked? These aren’t straightforward questions, because on one level the answer is yes to both, but in another sense some violence is done to both color science and mathematics when they are said to be present in the paintings. It’s a longer argument than can be accommodated here; my example will be La Grande Jatte.

Even after more than one hundred years, La Grande Jatte resists those who claim to see everything in it. The painting puts up formidable obstacles to any interpretation. To begin with, it is not always easy to know what Seurat knew: The most frequently cited sources for Seurat’s scientism are near-contemporaries Félix Fénéon and Paul Signac, and Seurat is not on record unambiguously agreeing with either one.8 In addi- tion, Seurat was an uneven reader of science—some things he studied hard; others, offhandedly, and there are examples of willful misunder- standing and selective reading. It is clear that he misunderstood a great deal, and some of the theorists he misunderstood were themselves mistak- en.9 Assessing that kind of error involves studying twentieth-century color theory, which is itself a difficult subject. And aside from each of these problems, the painting itself seems unreliable, since its colors have faded unmeasurably and unevenly over time.

Even so, these are only preliminary obstacles. They allow us to say—and this is the emerging consensus in recent scholarship—that Seurat was a poor scientist, confused even in comparison to the popular science writers of his day, so that La Grande Jatte is not, in this respect, “a definitive formulation of the technique, method, and theory of Neo- Impressionism.”10 It may be true that Seurat’s “earnest convictions . . . provided both the justification and motivation for artistic projects more ambitious than he might otherwise have undertaken,” but that does not explain what the projects were.11 If pseudoscience was a catalyst to Seurat’s creation, what did it allow him to get on with?

It needs to be said clearly that Seurat had no reason to paint any of the color effects he had been studying, because if they were accurate rec- ords of our subjective experience, they would be produced for us by any painting or natural scene. There is no reason to paint the world in dots in order to simulate the surfaces of the world, and there is no reason to paint simultaneous contrast, halos, iridescence or Mach bands, chiaroscuro, gradation, or any of the other phenomena since they would be reproduced in the act of perception. That is the fundamental stumbling block to call- ing Seurat “scientific,” and it is striking that Seurat himself copied a warn- ing to this effect directly from Michel Eugenè Chevreul.12 Seurat read Chevreul fairly loosely, and it is at least possible that his interest in depict- ing simultaneous contrast was sparked by the fact that Chevreul had a large color illustration of it printed in his book.13 On the other hand Her- mann von Helmholtz’s essay on painting and science, which Seurat appar- ently did not read, would have given him a reason to reproduce certain effects. When pigments cannot match the intensities of outdoor lighting, Helmholtz says, then painters might resort to subjective phenomena in

order to remind viewers of the original conditions. But even if Seurat had seen that essay, it would not have any bearing on his project in La Grande Jatte, because the phenomena he studied are also effects of less intense illumination.14

Seurat’s “science” mixes empiricism and idealism in a manner that is at once specific and opaque to any single explanation: To adapt a phrase of Martin Kemp’s, it is neither science, pseudoscience, nonscience, nor non- sense. It is not entirely “specious in its theoretical formulation . . . applied with an indifference to any critical appraisal,” but neither is it “a definitive formulation of the technique, method, and theory of Neo-Impressionism.”15 The problem is initially a matter of finding out how Seurat conceived sci- ence, empiricism, logic, and self-consistency; but ultimately, the difficulty is finding any way to construct a responsible account of the picture. No matter which scientific theories we may decide to accept and which rules of application or irrelevancy we may adopt, the painting refuses to play along. La Grande Jatte is not an example of any theory, mistaken or otherwise.

As we know from Seurat’s writings and from his friends, theory is what got his pictures started: He imagined theories as their underpin- nings, their raisons d’être, and their necessary and sufficient explanations. But his imagining was flawed. Science and painting do not get along in the La Grande Jatte—they do not speak for one another, and they do not exemplify or signify one another. Their mutual disregard is uneven and sometimes—as in the “dots” that Joris-Karl Huysmans so brilliantly called “running fleas”—destructive.

John Gage concluded that Seurat was indeed “scientific,” because of his “experimentalism,”16 and years before Robert Herbert had said the same thing. To Herbert, Seurat was scientific because he studied ephem- eral phenomena of vision.17 “Science” in Herbert’s and Gage’s texts is an activity involving hypothesis, experiment, and falsification, and those are efficient and common characterizations of the scientific project. But two things stand in the way of enlisting Seurat’s painting as science, as thus defined. First it would have to be shown how La Grande Jatte is an in- stance of any experiment, or a consistent application of some coherent hypothesis. But then, even if La Grande Jatte embodies an experiment, it would have to be shown that the experiment had relevance to contempo- rary color science. To say his work is “experimentalist” is to say it borrows the idea of experiment from science, not that it is an example of a scientific

experiment. It engages popular notions of science and translates them, unscientifically, into paint.

Shades of Violet

image003
The Green Blouse, 1919, Pierre Bonnard
“Vermillion in the orange shadows, on a cold, fine day,” Pierre Bonnard wrote in a sketchbook on one of his daily walks near his home, at Le Cannet, north of Cannes. Born in 1867 in a suburb of Paris, he settled in the South of France in 1926 with his reclusive wife, Marthe, remaining until his death in 1947. Such atmospheric observations infused the paintings that dominated the artist’s last three decades: window-framed landscapes and radiant domestic scenes depicting his wife going about her day. “The late interiors give you an understanding of how truly modernist he was,” says Dita Amory, a curator with theMetropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who has organized the first exhibition devoted to these works, opening January 27. “Shadow is never gray or black. It’s violet or purple.”

Bonnard made his mark early as part of the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew), the self-named group, including Maurice DenisÉdouard Vuillard and Paul Sérusier, that met at the Académie Julian, in Paris, in the late 1880s and experimented with suppressing perspective by using decorative pattern and flat areas of color. In the first decade of the 20th century, Bonnard struck out on his own. Dividing his time between the city and the country, he painted active street scenes in Paris and worked with professional models. By 1912 — when he bought a small house in Vernonnet, near Giverny, and his life with Marthe became more secluded — he had forged a distinctive technique, using oppositional hues that vibrated across his spatial fields.

Taking Sides

The New Year is as good a divide to consider this question as any. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Albert Camus gave an interview, which is included in his collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. This question and his answer are included under the sub-head, The Intellectual Must Take Sides:

3) If the contrary is true, what can the intellectual do today? Does he have a duty, in each and every circumstance, to express his feeling and opinion publicly and to anyone at all? Or else, because of the seriousness of events and the lack of valid political forces, do you feel that one can do no better than to carry on one’s own work as well as one can?

It is better for the intellectual not to talk all the time. To begin with, it would exhaust him, and, above all, it would keep him from thinking. He must create if he can, first and foremost, especially if his creation does not sidestep the problems of his time. But in certain exceptional circumstances (Spanish civil war, Hilterian prosecutions and concentration camps, Hungarian war) he must leave no room for doubt as to the side he takes; he must be very careful not to let his choice be clouded by wily distinctions or discreet balancing tricks, and to leave no question as to his personal determination to defend liberty. Groupings of intellectuals can, in certain cases, and particularly when the liberty of the masses and of the spirit is mortally threatened, constitute a strength and exert an influence; Hungarian intellectuals have just proved this. However, it should be pointed out for our own guidance in the West that the continual signing of manifestoes and protests is one of the surest ways of undermining the efficacy and dignity of the intellectual. There exists a permanent blackmail we all know and that we must have the often solitary courage to resist.

Subject to these reservations, we must hope for a common rallying. But first our Leftist intellectuals, who have swallowed so many insults and may well have to begin doing so again, would have to undertake a critique of the reasonings and ideologies to which they have wreaked the havoc they have seen in our most recent history. That will be the hardest thing. We must admit today conformity is on the Left. To be sure, the Right is not brilliant. But the left is in complete decadence, a prisoner of words, caught in its own vocabulary, capable merely of stereotyped replies, constantly at a loss when faced with the truth, from which it nevertheless claimed to derive its laws. The Left is schizophrenic and needs doctoring through pitiless self-criticism, exercise of the heart, close reasoning, and a little modesty. Until such an effort at re-examination is well under way, any rallying will be useless and even harmful. Meanwhile, the intellectual’s role will be to say that the king is naked when he is, and not to go into raptures at his imaginary trappings.

In order to strike a constructive tone, however, I shall propose as one of the preliminaries to any future gathering the unqualified acceptance of the following principle: none of the evils that totalitarianism (defined by the single party and the suppression of all opposition) claims to remedy is worse than totalitarianism itself.

In conclusion, I believe (as people say: I believe in God, creator of heaven and earth) that the indispensable conditions for intellectual creation and historical justice are liberty and the free confronting of differences. Without freedom, not art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others. But without freedom, no socialism either, except the socialism of the gallows.

DEMAIN, 21-27 February 1957

Translation by Justin O’Brien.