Monday, August 13, 2007

On Non-Representational Art

[hauled up from the depths of my web page]

Most of my hobbyist ventures into the graphic arts are abstract or non-representational. This seems to be one of the topics that sf readers and fans get mighty vocal about at times, and I seldom pass up a chance to get myself into trouble on controversial topics, so I think I’ll express a few opinions about the subject.

Let me start out in left field with a nod to the book City of Truth by James Morrow. It’s a political satire, which automatically puts it in the line of fire, and I’ve read various interviews with Morrow, and he seems to be a decently thoughtful fellow, so I’ll stipulate that I’m being unfair in picking on this one point, but there you go. One takes one’s examples where they show themselves.

City of Truth concerns itself with the city Veritas, a place where the citizens have been subjected to a treatment that makes them always tell the truth and abjure lies. Sort of. Actually, the “truth” that they tell is that sort of harsh candor that many people think of as truth (as Cordelia Chase says in a Buffy episode, “Tact is just not saying things that are true”). So elevators have warning signs that say, “This elevator has been serviced by people who hate their jobs,” and birthday cards say "Roses drop dead, / Violets do too, / with each day life gets shorter, / Happy birthday to you."

The protagonist’s job is “art deconstruction,” in its literal sense. His job is to destroy art from the “age of lies.” This takes out all non-representational art and all representational art that shows things that don’t exist, like winged Nike, Santa Claus, and so forth.
I did a brief web search, and the only comment that I found that noted a problem with this was David Kennedy, who wrote:

In addition, I felt that there was a confusion between Truth and Objectivity. People cannot lie, people find it uncomfortable listening to lies. People respond badly to artwork like Dali's clocks... but why must Nike be smashed? Why couldn't a Vertisian stand there and think, "That is a statue from the Age of Lies. It purports to resemble one of their gods, who of course does not exist. I do not believe in that god, but I recognise that this statue is only a statue. Perhaps I even find it nice to look at."?

In fact, the problem is much deeper. A stone statue of a horse is no more a horse than a stone statue of a winged horse is a winged horse. So why is one a “lie” and the other “true?” In fact, both are “lies” in the sense of trying to be something other than what they are.

La Trahison des Images (Rene Magritte)

This is not Rene Magritte's painting La Trahison des Images (The Treason of Images), since it is only a jpeg image of that painting. Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe ("This is Not a Pipe") would also seem to be obvious. It is a painting of a pipe, not the pipe itself. So why would an image of a pipe be "true" while an image of Santa Claus be a lie? Both purport to be what they are not. By contrast, a Pollack action painting never purports to be anything but a painting. Why isn't the Pollack considered more true than a "realistic" portrait?

(Above) Enchanted Forest, 1947. Oil on canvas, 221.3 x 114.6 cm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection. 76.2553 PG 151. Jackson Pollock © 2003 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Yet it is easy to see how Morrow's description could work out. If people think that representational art is "true" then it would pass their conditioning, in the same way that readers who agree with the sentiment have no problem with the idea. Indeed, I've heard opinions of similar nature expressed by sf fans (and plenty of people other than sf fans, of course), that "modern art" is a scam, a con job, fit only for birdcage bottoms and fishwrap. What gives?

Well, truth is beauty and beauty truth, eh? That's not true, otherwise "ugly truths" and "pretty lies" would be oxymorons, and they are not, but we'd like for it to be true. Moreover, people tend to like comforting images over those that disturb, or are difficult to understand, or (worst of all) those images that seem to encapsulate the mockery that intellectual snobs (such as myself) bring to the table.

I have some sympathy for this view, especially the distaste for intellectual snobbery (I may be an intellectual snob, but that doesn't mean that I'm in favor of the philosophical stance), but also the desire to have graphic art that serves the purpose of storytelling in venues where storytelling is important. No disagreement there. It's the other aspects that get me into trouble.

I once was having dinner with some friends and acquaintances, and was talking to one of them about graphic illustration and book covers (something that I've personal interest in from time to time). I mentioned one (fairly well-known) artist with some disdain, as having a reputation somewhat greater than the craft he brought to bear on his assignments. Look, I said, it's not that difficult to do those realistic covers; he uses photographs for reference, probably in conjunction with an opaque projector. There's nothing wrong with that, but when he combines images, he often doesn't bother to match the shadows, so you'll get one figure that came from overhead lighting, while another has shadows that look more slant lit. It's just sloppy work.

The other fellow got very huffy. I learned later that he and said artist were good friends, though the person who told me this (another artist) suggested that they weren't such good friends as to have my acquaintance over to the artist's studio, where he kept his opaque projector and photo reference files. Still, tact lies in not saying things that are true, and I was tactless. Besides, it's not the lack of hard work that bothers me about photo reference art. I'm in favor of any shortcut that works. I think that what really bothers me is the larger issue, that there is a creeping sameness at work in sf art in recent times, plus a bit of beligerant knownothingism on the part of fans.

When I first began reading science fiction, the shared culture of the 1950s had not yet broken down under the pressure of the 1960s. Everything seemed to come in threes: Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the magazines; Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke were the writers; Powers, Emsh, and Freas were the artists. Of the big three artists, my favorite was Richard Powers, who was strongly influenced by the Surrealist artist Yves Tanguy.

Richard Powers' Illustration for Those Idiots from Earth (1957) .

Yves Tanguy, "The Absent Lady" (1942)

Powers was practically the art director of Ballantine Books, and his "look" defined an aesthetic sensibility. Ed Emshwiller was the most frequent and memorable cover artist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and while his art was somewhat more representational than Powers, he was hardly a photorealist. With his trademark (and often hidden) "Emsh" in every illo, he was a middle-class suburban white boy's delight.

Ed Emshwiller, illustrating Lieber's "The Secret Songs"cover for Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Kelly Freas, illustrating Budry's "Who?" for Astounding

Frank Kelly Freas was the Norman Rockwell of sf illustration, and I mean that in the best possible way. He had a clean and easily recognizable style that could tell a story by itself if he needed it to. And, like Rockwell, he was very aware of the breadth of the artistic language and used that breadth when it served the needs of the gig. Rockwell, for example, once did a Pollack-esque action painting in order to incorporate it into his painting "The Connoisseur." Likewise, while I don't know for a fact that Freas drew inspiration from Indian sand paintings for the background to "Who?" above, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he had.

Moreover, while Freas' style was representational, what was being represented was extraordinary. It was anything but photographic. Consider the illustration above, and, for the sake of argument, imagine trying to use a photoreference technique in its production. How much would that have saved? Precious little. The background would still require design; the mechanical arm is from whole cloth. Trying to get this image from a photoshoot would take more time than the artwork did. Similarly, Freas drew aliens such that his designs could be used by makeup artists, so the design flow would be from art to realism, rather than the other way around.

So, okay, I'm an old fart who thinks that the stuff of his childhood was better than the swill available now. Except that there was plenty of realist art available when I was young; I don't mind it per se. It's just the steady diet of it that I find boring.

That said, I suspect that the hostility to "modern art" (in quotes, since we're talking about styles that have been around for more than a century in some cases), come from the belief that it's a trick, a swindle perpetrated by snobs to justify sneering at the uninitiated. So let me simple say this. This isn't a test. There is no right answer in the back of the book. It doesn't have to be "about" anything, or about any one thing. If it looks like something, if it reminds you of something else, well and good. If not, maybe it just looks good. If you don't like the looks of any given work of art, move on to the next piece. There's plenty of all sorts of art around, enough for everyone, really.

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