Appearance as Illusion

Over the course of working on a piece about a Swedish film director from the 70’s, I’ve been writing and thinking about the various forms of erotica, as proffered on film in this instance. On the wings of this spilling over into conversations with known associates, a friend passed this on to me. Though it’s talking about art, aren’t we always?

The connection between pornography and prostitution is witnessed by etymology. The effect of pornographic fantasy is to ‘commodify’ the object of desire, and to replace love and its vestigial sacraments with the law of the market. This is the final disenchantment of the human world. When sex becomes a commodity, the most important sanctuary of human ideals becomes a market, and value is reduced to price. That is what has happened in the last few decades, and it is the root fact of post-modern culture.

Sentimentality, like fantasy, is at war with reality. It consumes our finite emotional energies in self-regarding ways and numbs us to the world of other people. It atrophies our sympathies, by guiding them into worn and easy channels, and so destroys not only our ability to feel, but also our ability to bring help where help is needed and to take risks on behalf of higher things. It may seem to project and endorse a vision of those higher things, to take on itself some of the ennobling function which is the imagination’s proper task. But the appearance is an illusion. The object of sentimental emotion is in fact dragged down by the feeling which makes use of it, made grubby and tawdry in the game of emotional exchange. Sentimentality is another form of profanation. While pornography puts our lowest appetites on sale, sentimentality trades in love and virtue. But the effect is the same -to deprive these higher things of all reality, either by cynically denying them, or by making them insubstantial, dream-like, adrift in a never-never land where no human being can dwell. In the great works of imagination, by contrast, we are invited to enter a higher realm, in which real human motives and real human sentiments find their resolution and redemption. This higher realm is not a fantasy-product: it is not the surrogate object of base and existing desires. It is the true object of feelings which it itself engenders, and whereby it cleanses and sanctifies our lives.

It’s not long, so you should read the whole thing. Thanks, ac.

Away from the Mist

Some say you have to read Kant before you can understand Schopenhauer. Well, as one of my uncles used to tell us boys, “Can’t never could.”

This is from The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer, from the supplements to the third book, chapter xxxiv, On the Inner Nature of Art

Every work of art accordingly really aims at showing us life and the things as they are in truth, but cannot be directly discened by every one through the mist of objective and subjective contengencies. Art takes away this mist.

The works of poets, sculptors and representative artists in general contain an unacknowledged treasure of profound wisdom; just because out of them the wisdom of the nature of things itself speaks, whose utterances they merely interpret by illustrations and purer repetitions. On this account, however, every one who reads the poem or looks at the picture must certainly contribute out of his means to bring that wisdom to light; accordingly he comprehends only so much of it as his capacity and culture admit of; as in the deep sea each sailor only lets down the lead as far as the length of the line will allow. Before a picture, as before a prince, everyone must stand, waiting to see whether and what it will speak to him; and, as in the case of the prince, so here he must not himself address it, for then he would hear himself. It follows from all this that in the works of the representative arts all truth is certainly contained, yet only virtualiter or implicite; philosophy, on the other hand, endeavors to supply the same truth actualiter and explicite, and therefore, in this sense, is related to art as wine to grapes. What it promises to supply would be, as it were, an already realised and clear gain, a firm and abiding possession; while that which proceeds from the achievements and works of art is one which has constantly to be reproduced anew. Therefore, however, it makes demands, not only upon those who produce its works, but also upon those who are to enjoy them, which are discouraging and hard to comply with. Therefore its public remains small, while that of art is large.

The co-operation of the beholder, which is referred to above, as demanded for the enjoyment of the work of art, depends partly on the fact the every work of art can only produce its effect through the medium of the fancy; therefore it must excite this, and can never allow it to be left out of the play and remain inactive. This is a condition of the aesthetic effect, and therefore a fundamental law of all fine arts. But it follows from this that, through the work of art, everything must not be directly given to the senses, but rather only so much as is demanded to lead the fancy on to the right path; something, and indeed the ultimate thing, must always be left over for the fancy to do. Even the author must always leave something over for the reader to think; for Voltaire has rightly said,” Le secret d’etre ennuyeux, c’est de tout dire.” [my trans – the secret to being boring is to say everything] But besides this, in art the best of all is too spiritual to be given directly to the senses; it must be born int he imagination of the beholder, although begotten by the work of art. It depends upon this that the sketches of the great masters often effect more than their finished pictures; although another advantage certainly contributes to this, namely, that they are completed offhand in the moment of conception; while the perfected painting is only produced through continued effort, by means of skillful deliberation and persistent intention, for the inspiration cannot last till it is completed. From the fundamental aesthetical law we are speaking of, it is further to be explained why wax figures never produce an aesthetic effect, and therefore are not properly works of fine art, although it is just in them that the imitation of nature is able to reach it highest grade. For they leave nothing for the imagination to do. Sculpture gives merely the form without the color; painting gives the color, but the mere appearance of form; thus both appeal to the imagination of the beholder. The wax figure, on the other hand, gives all, form and color at once; whense arises the appearance of reality, and the imagination is left out of account. Poetry, on the contrary, appeals to the imagination alone, which it sets in action by means of mere words.

Leprechauns notwithstanding.

Two forms of sacrilege

When we live as though certain things do not matter, we should not be surprised at the result. What do you have to learn from beauty? From the essay by Roger Scruton:

Those thoughts return us to my earlier argument. We can see the modernist revolution in the arts in Greenberg’s terms: art rebels against the old conventions, just as soon as they become colonised by kitsch. For art cannot live in the world of kitsch, which is a world of commodities to be consumed, rather than icons to be revered. True art is an appeal to our higher nature, an attempt to affirm that other kingdom in which moral and spiritual order prevails. Others exist in this realm not as compliant dolls but as spiritual beings, whose claims on us are endless and unavoidable. For us who live in the aftermath of the kitsch epidemic, therefore, art has acquired a new importance. It is the real presence of our spiritual ideals. That is why art matters. Without the conscious pursuit of beauty we risk falling into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.

The paradox, however, is that the relentless pursuit of artistic innovation leads to a cult of nihilism. The attempt to defend beauty from pre-modernist kitsch has exposed it to postmodernist desecration. We seem to be caught between two forms of sacrilege, the one dealing in sugary dreams, the other in savage fantasies. Both are forms of falsehood, ways of reducing and demeaning our humanity. Both involve a retreat from the higher life, and a rejection of its principal sign, which is beauty. But both point to the real difficulty, in modern conditions, of leading a life in which beauty has a central place.

Read the whole thing, especially the bit between the lines. Unfortunately, kitsch represents the ultimate in sustainability. Fortunately, remedies abound.

Thanks, Andy.

The Art of Decision Making

This is going to annoy or excite you, likely depending on your one-free-cup-of-misanthropy card and how many holes it’s punched with.

NYT magazine yesterday has a long piece contextualizing the disconnect between believing the planet is in imminent peril and the willingness to do anything about it. Academic research behind the science of decision-making is explored in depth; I don’t believe any animals were permanently harmed in the gathering of data points for this article, but toward the end there was some heinous screeching. Maybe that was me:

Over the past few years, it has become fashionable to describe this kind of focused communication as having the proper frame. In our haste to mix jargon into everyday conversation, frames have sometimes been confused with nudges, a term made popular in a recent book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein when they were academics at the University of Chicago. (Sunstein later moved to Harvard Law School and has since been nominated as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.) Frames and nudges are not precisely the same; frames are just one way to nudge people by using sophisticated messages, mined from decision-science research, that resonate with particular audiences or that take advantage of our cognitive biases (like informing us that an urgent operation has an 80 percent survival rate). Nudges, more broadly, structure choices so that our natural cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err. Ideally, nudges direct us, gently, toward actions that are in our long-term interest, like an automated retirement savings plan that circumvents our typical inertia. Thaler and Sunstein explain in their book that nudges can take advantage of technology like home meters, which have been shown to reduce electricity usage by making constant feedback available. These appeal to our desire for short-term satisfaction and being rewarded for improvement. Or a nudge might be as simple as a sensor installed in our home by a utility that automatically turns off all unnecessary power once we leave for the day — a technology, in effect, that doesn’t even require us to use our brains. “I think the potential there is huge,” Thaler told me recently, when I asked him about environmental nudges. “And I think we can use a whole bag of tricks.”

Ouch. This is the con behind the con, something I’ve touched on many times, on which this site is more than nominally based. Having the subject laid bare academically could make you see that we’re still merely in the marketing phase of project self-preservation. We’re testing the waters – pondering survival, if you can call it that. Perhaps we could speed things up if we go ahead and ask whether life would be worth living without the ability to consume and waste vast amounts of resources, without the freedom of our corporate sponsors to find new ways to poison us and indebt us. As nothing quite solid has panned out yet, we’ll continue feeling around for just that perfect thing (‘nudge’) that will convince us to do something about what we know. The preference for a ‘Pearl Harbor’ climate incident to galvanize attention is noted. And stupid.

That this perfectly childish scenario is somehow normal, because we have a non-trivial percentage of our citizens and leaders who believe that a warming planet won’t be their problem and so shouldn’t merit their worry, is merely accepted as one among a workable array of factors and an insult to children everywhere. The contrived pull and yaw of doing/not doing anything can continue indefinitely.

So in terms of policy, it may not be the actual tax mechanism that some people object to; it’s the way a “trivial semantic difference,” as Hardisty put it, can lead a group to muster powerful negative associations before they have a chance to consider any benefits. Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a kind of elder statesman among decision scientists, told me he’s fairly convinced a carbon tax could be made superior to cap and trade in terms of human palatability. “I think there’s an attractive version of the carbon tax if somebody thought about its design,” Fischhoff told me, adding that it’s a fundamental principle of decision research that if you’re going to get people to pay a cost, it’s better to do it in a simple manner (like a tax) than a complex one (like in cap and trade). Fischoff sketched out for me a possible research endeavor — the careful design of a tax instrument and the sophisticated collection of behavioral responses to it — that he thought would be necessary for a tax proposal to gather support. “But I don’t think the politicians are that informed about the realm of the possible,” he added. “Opinion polls are not all that one needs.”

Careful we don’t do anything to confuse or depress or worry people into changing the way we live. You wouldn’t want to cause a stampeed among so fragile a population… better to slip it in a like a suggestive value menu item.

I know there’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the way we follow leaders who think so little of us, but it’s not a closed loop. As this useful article makes implicit, there are plenty of ways of  breaking the spell, even if we must get psychological about it. We would proably relax if we could be sure that the next steps would merely be dangerous. And interesting.

Hughes You Can Use

Krugman is on his game today (who knew a banal term like securitization was Orwell-ifiable?); Obama has been on his game all week. But today I want to turn to another connection, by way of an ongoing conversation around my house and among near associates. Green also means inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears, and our general lack of critical acumen and ability is not unrelated to the tumultuous economic straits in which we presently tread, much less the ecological shoals upon which we are likely to founder.

The Australian art critic Robert Hughes has cut his widest swath using the cudgel of Time magazine, believe it or not. Books and films by and about him are easy to find and you should find and devour them, notably his collection of essays, Nothing if Not Critical. Below is a speech he gave in England in 2004, ostensibly about the Royal Academy, but by implication it is most certainly also a transposition of the ‘royal’ as in We.

Many years ago, when I was still cutting my first pearly fangs as an art critic, one thing used to be taken for granted by me and practically everyone I knew in what is so optimistically termed the “art world”.

That thing was that all Academies were bad, the enemies of progress – and though nobody knew how to define that slippery notion of progress in the arts, we were all in favour of it, that went without saying.

What, you didn’t like progress? You and Sir Alfred Munnings, fella. And the Royal Academy excited our particular scorn. It seemed to stand for everything that was most retrograde and irrelevant. No serious artist could gain anything from having the tarnished letters RA tacked on to their name, so redolent of boardroom portraits, cockle-gatherers at work or sunny views of Ascot.

Now, historically, this was an odd situation. For, as it was originally set up in 1768, the Royal Academy was only one of a number in Europe: unlike those in Paris, Madrid and elsewhere, it was probably the least official, a product of the English genius for structured informality.

Despite its name, it did not get subventions from the monarch. It enjoyed no government support and no guarantees of private patronage. It supported itself with annual shows, from whose sales it took a modest commission. These shows, which started in 1769, were for many years the chief artistic events in London.

Burlington House was not in any real sense the arm of a cultural establishment, as the French Academy was under the iron thumb of Le Brun. It attracted most of the most gifted and advanced artists then working in England. Nobody could say that a society that counted geniuses of the order of John Constable, JMW Turner or Henry Fuseli among its members was an enemy of inspired art. The counter-example always given is William Blake, who resented Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses and his own tastes in painting, which ran towards Rubens and Rembrandt as well as Michelangelo. This created the idea, which many people still hold, that Reynolds hated Blake and was determined to repress him for his visionary genius.

There is no truth in this. It is one of the pious legends of modernism, a fiction of holy martyrdom. Blake certainly disliked Reynolds, and wrote a number of fierce epigrams to show it. “When Sir Joshua Reynolds died/All Nature was degraded/The King dropt a tear into the Queen’s ear,/And all his pictures faded.” Blake was not the only genius to be intolerant and slightly paranoid. But in fact the Academy didn’t do so badly by Blake, and he continued to exhibit at it throughout most of his life. And there were a number of issues, such as the need for an art of high spiritual and historical seriousness, on which the two men certainly agreed, though they had different ideas on how to create it.

The myth of Reynolds’ opposition to Blake fitted in nicely with a much later idea of the Academy as enemy of the new: but this really took hold in the first half of the 20th century, during which the Academy elected a series of ever-more conservative presidents, a process that reached a climax of sorts in the late 1940s when Sir Alfred Munnings – a brilliant horse-painter in his better moments but a paranoid blimp of a man – set out to use his presidency as a stick with which to beat Picasso, Matisse and assorted other Frogs, Wops, Huns and other denizens of that despicable place, Abroad.

Since Munnings raucously hated everything that Hitler had just been trying to wipe out as Degenerate Jewish Art, his timing was distinctly off. The Royal Academy, it seemed, had shot itself in the foot so dramatically that it no longer had even the stump of a leg to stand on.

By the time I first came to live in England, and for years thereafter, the obsoleteness of the Royal Academy as a benign factor in the life of contemporary art was simply assumed as a fact. I never heard any of the artists I knew at the end of the 60s mention it, let alone talk about some desire to join it. Nevertheless, one went to its shows, which were sometimes complete eye-openers. I will never forget the impact that the great Bonnard exhibition of 1966 had on me, or more recently, the 1987 show of British art in the 20th century. The chance to see shows like that, I realised, was one reason why I had wanted to leave Australia in the first place.

Anyway, as the years wore on, it began to seem a bit absurd to bear the Academy ill-will for things that happened in Burlington House when you were less than 10-years-old, or even not yet born. The rhetoric of Modernism had tried very hard, desperately hard, to separate itself from the Academic. It was as though the Academy were a kind of Medusa’s head, whose gaze could turn talent to stone. The very term had been made into a dirty word, a word of abuse. But could that be the whole story? Looking back, I do not think so. As we know from Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, if we take the trouble to read them – which practically no one does – the Royal Academy once had very pronounced views on what constituted the great and the good in art. These views are now so out of currency that no one holds them. The idea that a revived Academy would or could clamp an iron fist of conformity on English painting and sculpture is simply absurd. It did not do that even in the 18th century. But there are quite clear and to me convincing reasons why we need such a revival today. And they have nothing to do with the elaboration of rules and conventions.

First of all, the idea of a democratised institution run by artists is an extremely valuable one. It was valuable in the 18th century and it is still today. And the good it can do for art cannot be replaced by either the commercial dealing system or by the national museums. I don’t want to disparage dealers, collectors or museum directors, by the way. But I don’t think there is any doubt that the present commercialisation of the art world, at its top end, is a cultural obscenity. When you have the super-rich paying $104m for an immature Rose Period Picasso – close to the GNP of some Caribbean or African states – something is very rotten. Such gestures do no honour to art: they debase it by making the desire for it pathological. As Picasso’s biographer John Richardson said to a reporter on that night of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, no painting is worth a hundred million dollars.

An institution like the Royal Academy, precisely because it is not commercial, can be a powerful counterweight to the degrading market hysteria we have seen too much of in recent years. I have never been against new art as such; some of it is good, much is crap, most is somewhere in between, and what else is news? I know, as most of us do in our hearts, that the term “avant-garde” has lost every last vestige of its meaning in a culture where anything and everything goes. Art does not evolve from lower states to higher. The scientific metaphors, like “research” and “experiment”, that were so popular half a century ago, do not apply to art. And when everything is included in the game, there is no game to be ahead of. A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velásquez can be as radical as the shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames. More radical, actually.

But I have always been suspicious of the effects of speculation in art, and after 30 years in New York I have seen a lot of the damage it can do: the sudden puffing of reputations, the throwing of eggs in the air to admire their short grace of flight, the tyranny of fashion. It is fair that collectors should have influence: some of them really deserve to have it, although these are often the ones who care least about the power trip of wielding it – one thinks of those great benefactors the Sainsburys, for instance. But it is ridiculous that some of them should have the amount of influence they do merely because the tax laws enable them to use museums as megaphones for their own sometimes-debatable taste. Now England is far ahead of the US in such matters. I don’t know of one major American museum that has an artist on its board of trustees, as the Tate, the National Gallery, and others here do. But you should go further. I believe it’s not just desirable but culturally necessary that England should have a great institution through which the opinions of artists about artistic value can be crystallised and seen, there on the wall, unpressured by market politics: and the best existing candidate for such an institution is a revitalised Royal Academy, which always was dedicated to contemporary art.

Part of the Academy’s mission was to teach. It still should be. In that regard, the Academy has to be exemplary: not a kindergarten, but a place that upholds the primacy of difficult and demanding skills that leak from a culture and are lost unless they are incessantly taught to those who want to have them. And those people are always in a minority. Necessarily. Exceptions have to be.

In the 45 years that I’ve been writing criticism there has been a tragic depreciation in the traditional skills of painting and drawing, the nuts and bolts of the profession. In part it has been caused by the assumption that it’s photography and its cognate media – film and TV – that tell the most truth about the visual.

It’s not true. The camera, if it’s lucky, may tell a different truth to drawing – but not a truer one. Drawing brings us into a different, a deeper and more fully experienced relation to the object. A good drawing says: “not so fast, buster”. We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media. For no spiritually authentic art can beat mass media at their own game. This was not a problem when the Academy was founded, because in 1769 such media were embryonic or non-existent. A quarter of a millennium later, things are different. But drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies – the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about – is apparently immortal. And that, too, is why we need the Royal Academy: perhaps even more now than 50 or 100 years ago. May it live as long as history allows.


If we were truly the musical people that we think we are, there would be a growing discography based on the notion of a people who gorge themselves endlessly, yet are profoundly undernourished. But invariably, time from time someone leaves a door unlatched and a few bars or whole measure drifts out that is recognizable – how we have conditioned ourselves to think that we’re open to different ideas when that isn’t actually the case at all; that we’re already overtaxed with things to do and think about when we actually ask quite little of ourselves; how ‘the whole thing’ (whatever it is) is just too complicated when it’s often quite simple and only the onus of our choices which we find too troublesome to delve into.

The column this week touched on this idea in a very indirect way, via a coincidental example of an eco-themed art show. It’s greatly true that if you just keep in mind what it is that you’re doing, most situations tend to be navigable, that one included. In a timely NYT follow up (kidding), this article presents much the same take on a coincidental example, a review of a show by the recipient of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize.

When an artist uses her art to advance a political cause, how are we to judge the result? Should we evaluate the project by applying artistic standards or on the basis of its political or moral argument?

Consider Emily Jacir, who employs conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art to call attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.

This particular example of her work has a tertiary component that makes it even more suspect, but the point holds that even and especially with sympathetic subject matter, the basic premise of ‘art as means’ remains problematic.

However tragic and deplorable Mr. Zuaiter’s story may be, Ms. Jacir’s exhibition does not bring him to life sufficiently enough to elicit a strong emotional response. You may agree or disagree with her political goals and her use of the art exhibition system to further them. But the problem is with her unexceptional artistry, not her politics.

Just so.

Eco Hustle

New Flagpole column is up (on a snazzy new Flagpole website, btw) wherein I recommit myself and my proclivities for overreach to reading the entrails of early 21st century eco-enlightment before they dry. Our po-po-mo motto (what is the heart, anyway, if not two facing question marks?): “How can it be dead yet if we didn’t kill it?”

Citizen Green USA

Lots of discussions this week about art (imagine that), so I thought it might be a good time to share this site, built by a friend of mine. She’s showing some of the green things you can do in your own life, home and work, and it’s all pretty nifty. In fact, LK’s pretty nifty herself.

She’s adamant about referring to herself as a graphic artist, as though the term artist held some other, reserved connotations (imagine that). She’s a painter, who works by hand – politely sidestepping the term artist while elevating your/her experience. It brings to mind how people throw things around, including that word, so carelessly. But judge for yourself. What she calls graphic design blurs into fine art so seamlessly, you wouldn’t think there is even a difference. No gimmicks necessary. It’s the opposite of the decorations many people attempt to pass off, that hold all the wonder of road signs to blah.

Her Citizen Green antics are only an extension of this, like everything else in her life. Enjoy.


The USGS is a great source for old pictures of a changing world, like this one from Death Valley National Park, California. Fluted badlands in the area of Zabriskie Point. Panamint Mountains in the background. April 1974.

Photo by Harold E. Malde, United States Geological Survey


On another planet, French president Sarkozy announced that admission to all national museums and monuments would be free to those under 25. It’s weird but the French actually connect their art to their national heritage (“le patrimoine”) and think they can attract more visitors by eliminating the entry fee.

At the same time they proposed spending 100 million euros on the renovation of le patrimoine, they also proposed four free nights at the Louvre, the Orsay, the Pompidou and Quai Branly for people 18-25. That was part of an experiment in the first half of 2008 that opened up the permanent collections in 14 national museums totally free.

Why would you want more people going to museums? Who knows? Go figure.

The Painter’s Studio – a Real Allegory by Gustave Courbet, 1855 Musee Orsay