Tag Archives: critique

Art in historical/social context: The Stolen Kiss

The Stolen Kiss

Is she really having such a good time?

Do you ever read a critique of a painting that you don’t agree with? Of course we all do. A recent review of The Stolen Kiss by Jean Honore Fragonard in the UK’s Independent bothered me.

So, The Stolen Kiss: I think not.

The painter is trapped within the ways of his time and produced infantile paintings designed to delight. But in historical context, they reveal attitudes of mind in play at the time.  Observing the behaviours of his time, this painting depicts a forceful male act against an unwilling woman disguised in the coded social language of the day.

It is his kiss, not hers, and by stolen in the (English) title, clearly not something he is entitled to.

Her posture is clear: she is off balance, not balanced, find her left foot, and it seems she is actually being pulled. Indeed, he has obviously stepped into the room as she opened the door or moved in his direction, since his left foot is stepping on her hem. More evidence of control? I suspect her right leg is bent and braced against his pull.

She has also been interrupted in what she was doing as she has not let go of her handiwork and apparently intends not to, which one would have done if one were going to greet the visitor willingly — he is a known person, but an intruder nonetheless.

Her right arm suggests she is searching for a place to put it, to steady herself against his force as he is gripping this arm with both his hands; more control.

Her mouth is pursed and eyes are averted — I don’t think she is having any fun.

There are people in the other room but she is not part of that crowd, preferring to sit quietly in a separate room  — perhaps they are discussing whether she should be matched with the man, gossip around the card table and he, emboldened by the discussion,  has decided to invade her private space.

She is hardly heroic. There is no sexual furnace in the middle of this painting only the flash of male fantasy, of hidden delights and the need to use force over persuasion.

She just wishes he’d be gone. There is no moral ambiguity here.

Physics Envy: or why art theory isn’t

The September issue of Frieze art magazine is all about ‘theory’ or what appears to pass for theory in the art world.  The whole issue reads like some undergraduate magazine or

Confucius 02

He understood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

papers prepared by graduate students with too much time on their hands; political polemic blends with obscure language, which even core Frankfurt-school-istas would find hard to follow.  All this is to be regretted, as underlying this enterprise is an important problem, namely what are the theoretical, as opposed to philosophical, underpinnings of art itself.  Unfortunately, what might have been an informative examination of the problems of theory and art is really just another barrage of intemperate criticism.  But is anyone listening or is this just so much solipsism?  What’s an intellectual to do?

Physics envy is the desire to have the theoretical rigour that characterises physics.  Many will reject this in the art world, but why else would they confuse theory with philosophy if they didn’t see theory as bestowing rigour, logic, structure, and deep meaning?  The whole issue of Frieze waffled back and forth between the two terms, citing as theorists people who wouldn’t recognise the word, and citing theorists whose theories lack any basis for verification or falsification.  The leap from philosophy to theory is a big one, taken by science years ago when it ceased to be called ‘natural philosophy’.  Politics got rebranded ‘political science’,  and economics has always had ‘physics envy’.  What now for art?

The other distressing theme running through the issue is the Western-centric mind-set; they are still fighting the tiresome battle between Continental philosophy and Anglo (sic) analytical philosophy.  In this myopic battle they miss wider philosophical progress. Readers may enjoy the challenges ranging from Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature to VS Ramachandran & William Hirstein, The Science of Art: a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7, 1999):15-51.

What we have is something vaguely called “critical theory” even more vaguely a “theory of artists’ minds”; I guess the word ‘critical’ suggests serious self-reflection when it really is quite empty. The ‘theory’ it ain’t.

But perhaps cultural studies sounds more scientific, (physics envy?) and less, well, less philosophical, and its practitioners more legitimate (in the sense Habermas would use it).

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Tu m’: me pense que…

Tu m’” by Marcel Duchamp is a good example of how this artist played with our sensibilities.  Karl Gerstner, in his Puzzle Upon Puzzle, which examines Tu m’ in exquisite

detail is an example of an analytical critique that may just miss the point.

I read this book through with great interest, as the author constructs page by page, the Tu m’ layer by layer.

However, from an artist who disdained art itself, we find a game being played with the viewer.  My guess is that this painting is, partly as Gerstner suggests, about perception.  But the real analysis must be done in 3D — we actually should think of this like a blueprint for an object.  The clue I think actually lies in the bolt in the middle.  If you get this misoriented in space, all is wrong.  It is not flat to the painting plan as G. suggests.  Indeed, if the painting is perspective-neutral, then no one fixed point of reference is available to the viewer.  Excitingly, of course, this is the point that relativity makes about the relativity of frames of reference.

The painting was designed for a specific location on a wall, hence its size, and that suggests it may have been intended to be a projection into the room space itself.  That there are shadows from outside the frame of the painting hint that they are ‘in’ the room.  A projecting 3D object would naturally interact with objects in the room in this way.

Or perhaps it is an anamorph of sorts (Craig Adcock has commented on this)?  Keeping in mind the period of the painting (1918) and the scientific zeitgeist of the period, this may be seen as a play on the same scientific roots of cubism, that is, of course, relativity theory.

Whether the title itself is solipsistic, or self-referential, usually adding a verb so the title to become “you bore me” or something else, is another matter, unless the ‘you’ is art, and the painting is the anti-painting made form.  But there are many ways of forming a sentence in French in ways that use this partial construction.  Perhaps the verb is more about the passing of a form of perception than an attitude itself.  For the period, too, the personal use of ‘tu’ suggests intimacy with the perceptions involved, so they must be ‘mine’ in some form.  It could also be “tu m’appelles”, avoiding the cynicism and embracing the possibility that this is less a rejection than a hinge-point for Duchamp. The ultimate label.  Or perhaps ‘tu’ is the patron of the work, and Duchamp is saying that she “gets it”.

As Fermat might say, the rest is left for the reader to work out.

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End of Kodachrome and a way of seeing the world

English: Kodachrome 200 reversal film package,...

Gone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kodak has announed the end of production of Kodachrome film.  Those who still use film will know Kodachrome film for the quality of the colour and indeed I suspect many of us used Kodachrome as our reference film for documenting the world around us.

Film tracked the industrial revolution, documenting virtually all of the past 150-odd years of history.  The information revolution we are now in is less sentimental, images are chopped and cropped mercilessly in computers all over the world, and for many film is in the too-difficult box, while digital is almost trivial.

Is digital an art form?  Who knows, but film certainly produced enduring images over the years.

A worthy history lesson is to look at the photography books produced in 1920s-30s for sheer tour-de-force black and while images, and the discovery of colour itself producing excitement and experimentation — kids with new toys — look for books published by Kodak, in particular a short-lived series on applied photography in the early 1930s, with images that while dated still resonate.  Think of O Winston Links trains from the 1950s, and then look at product photographs of farm machinery taken at night.  Makes some advertising today look positively primitive.  Browse back copies of Vogue for the cutting edge of fashion photography, and then marvel at the Magnum’s photojournalism — still going strong.

End of an era, and perhaps an end of a way of seeing, too.

And on the way out, let us remember Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome.

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What is ‘altermodernism’?

Tagging: Maldives Style
Image by nattu via Flickr

The inmates have escaped again and flooded the world with another wind egg.  Called ‘altermodernism’, a term as ugly as its definition, we are now to be persuaded that a new improved artistic sentimentality has burst upon the scene.  Some people really do have far too much free time.

Coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, who is occupying space at the Tate in London, we should not be surprised, given his past association with Flash Art.  Perhaps the term will take a clue from the magazine and be merely a flash in the pan; but oh dear, perhaps that itself will be evidence of altermodernism?  Such self-referential nonsense is hardly helpful and perhaps premature.  But Bourriaud seems to be in the business of naming, having brought us relationism, too, but someone’s got to do it. (Relational art is perhaps just the art ones finds juxtaposed in, wait for it, art galleries, where people and artists relate, but perhaps not….).

My view is that the term describes the breathless arguments put forward by those advocating globalisation, better defined through economics than culture.  Despite this, we will continue to live in small worlds, and with the recession we are now enjoying thanks in part to globalisation, enjoy a new localism, live more compactly, more locally.  In that respect, his argument for creolisation is misguided; the counterargument from NB would be that I am simply trapped in my own binary world, but I’ve worked in too many cultures to fall for that.

But we must recognise that some global context is emerging as people connect to each other through the simplifying technologies of YouTube, and Facebook; these may lead more to superficiality, than depth and in the end be less emotionally satisfying.

Perhaps the faddism that seems to characterise Bourriaud’s thinking reflects a surface grasp of the world, seen from a helicopter, rather than lived in its earthy reality? Certainly the works assembled to illustrate altermodernism were superficial and vacuous, art for the Twitter generation?

NB has said: “It is an idea that was actually the core of Relational Aesthetics already, the Marxist idea that there is no stable “essence” of humankind, which is nothing but the transitory result of what human beings do at a certain moment of history. I think this might be the cornerstone of all my writings, in a way.”

That does seem to be his point.

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The arrow of time & art

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...
Image via Wikipedia

Should we see art history as linear, with the phases, fads and movements embedded in the moment, or can we continue to learn from them, revisit them over time.  Indeed, can all of art exist simultaneously?

There is a bias toward linearity in art history, but it is tiring and probably unhelpful in the end as it suggests constant endings and beginnings, transitory moments of insight. From a structural perspective, it sees previous art as being a foundation for what follows (was that the point of post-modernism, with or without the hyphen?).  This view traps us within the arrow of time view of … time.  That what is past is past, and we move forward in some way, through the present.  Just when you thought you understood something, it morphs into something else, and then that has its day and we all move one.

What was exciting about cubism was its efforts to understand relativity theory, and the new understanding of the physical world that emerged at the same time.  Did Picasso and Einstein ever have coffee together?  But today, few artists have come to grips with the quantum nature of the world, and the possibility that time may not even exist.  That of course doesn’t mean that history doesn’t exist, but it does suggest that a temporal view of historical learning may not make much real sense.  From an art history perspective, it suggests that we might grow more artistically if art were seen simultaneously rather than in periods.  Yes, we have evolved new tools and ways of seeing, but that confuses the technologies of art with the insights that artists bring.  That styles change reflects sensibilities and the economics of art.  Some art requires electricity, some big walls.

McLuhan did say there was a difference between the medium and the message.  Perhaps we have become confused.

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