Herman Studios Home

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Four ducks

A painter's style

Thinking with Google

The Vulture's Throat

Tortures of the Damned

Memory & self

Hinduism & me

The Barber

Glasgow Smile


False advertising


Govandhan pooja

Mean Streets


Back in New Delhi


Science & Philosophy

Happiness & Theory of the Mind

Boat races in Sarasota

Would you kill yourself to go on living?

More Happiness

Theo Jansen's kinetic sculpture

ebooks & writers

Arthur Ganson

Thai politics



Googling our minds

Knowledge transfer



A study in ideal form


The Ant & the Grasshopper

Conceptual Art

The importance of punctuation

California, first impressions


Conspiracy theories

I love you; thanks’; you’re welcome



Egon & the other animals

A note about price:size ratio in paintings

Strange tales

P'sMW- page 2
Christ’s devil


Life's funnel


Moon Myth

How chaos was subdued in the Japanese genesis myth

Noah Lukeman & the murky world of today’s book publishing

Morality and religion

Music and Love

Temeris Mortis

The Dream


God's Tick

Old Man (short story)


Curious Fact

P'sMW- page 3
Photos of the spring fair in Sevilla in a new window

Why Humans prefer other Humans to be like themselves

A letter to painters

Why do people talk?

The Painter's Eye

I'bn al Alhí's treasure (short story)

Associative Personality Disorder

Love poems, death poems

The Golem

Elitism in Art

Theory of the Mind

Shorter of breath, one day closer to death

Politics II

Rock & Roll

Words II- more words


P'sMW- page 4


How to steal from gullible artists

Priests behaving badly

How to make a painting

Oats & history

A note about signatures on paintings

Bob Dylan

Number of atheists among scientists

Theoretical physics & me

Faust & Mephistopheles

Children's reading habits

How to get good photos of fireworks

The 20th century

Further Dialogue on the 20th Century article (above) with comments by Bobby Porter

Love is


Martial Art as sport

Blind Boy Fuller

Becoming an artist

Insomniac notes



José Tomás

Black Adder

This is not a Blog

P'sMW- page 5
Chivalric ethics


Shibumi: Comments by Bobby Porter

The artist’s relationship to his work

Bobby's response
to The artist's relationship to his work



Memories of my father II

P'sMW- page 6
Men & Women

Girls: come closer & I'll tell you a secret about men

Catholic Spain

Art is

Bad luck

Dogs are the Best People

Tough Love

Dense, intense and condensed: a short love story.

Cubans, Norwegians & me

From the Guggenheim to Santiago's tomb

Memories of my Father

Ecco il uomo

Divorce & maturity

Arcos de la Frontera

Inspiration & process

Bulls & men

P'sMW- page 7
Why do artists paint?

A Monk's Funeral

Pet theory

The Bicycle Thieves

Stories from here & there

Truth & beauty

Bugs as food

What is art? part II- Is modern art, art?

A painter’s thoughts about self-portraits

The Piraha of the Amazon jungle

Thailand: stories

P'sMW- page 8
We'd be better off without Religion

East Meets West

Thoughts on Memory


Frank Zappa

Art & Dreams by Ilene Skeen


Rush to change names in Isaan

The Artist & Emotion

The art critic

What is Art? Part I

Note of introduction added to the Masculine-
feminine article

Rebuttal to Raymond S Kraft

P'sMW- page 9
I'm back!

Masculine versus feminine, Muslim versus Buddhist.

Driving with Muslims or Buddhists

Peter Feldstein & Stephen G Bloom's Oxford project

How to argue

On 'happiness', in answer to Ivan's comments.

Thoughts on Happiness

The birth of Chiang Mai

War Story

Happiness Versus Suffering

Cogitations upon observing the life of an ant, from its birth to its death by old age, while I lay in a bathtub.

Scopes II pg 1 of 11

At the beginning of what the media began calling the ‘Scopes II’ trial I thought it would become more polemical than it turned out. I began collecting media reports, commentary, cartoons, defences & attacks published here & there by some of our leading scientists -- I started at the very beginning & continued for about four months.

*  I collected everything from science & Church to morality, philosophy, etymology, politics, poetry & parody, like the clever & funny web-site called the Spaghetti Monster. Also a bit of history, historical quotes on the subject & transcriptions of interviews & debates with Richard Dawkins & the like.

* Unfortunately the trials weren’t as amusing as they might have been if the Intelligent Design camp had better arguments & more credible support but in the end I think I have compiled a fascinating & entertaining document.

* It covers both sides thoroughly &, I hope, with a minimum of repetition (& includes links to further reference).

* I have added my two cents here & there in red. It is chronological with dates noted.  I originally saved it to a very large (260 page) Word.doc which I have converted to 11 pages of web site weighing between 30 & 130 or so kbs each.

Scopes II pg 1 of 11

Self portrait Sept 09. oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

Self portrait May 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm)

Self-portrait Jan 31, 09. Oils on panel 10 x 8 inches

Self-portrait May 2008

Self-portrait 1994. Oils on canvas on board 100 x 50 cm

Self portrait 2

Self portrait 4

Self-portrait 2004. Oils on gold ground on panel. 45 x 45 cm

Self portrait 5

Self portrait 6

Self portrait 7

Self-portrait 2007

Oil sketch. Oils on panel

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Last updated- 19th of April 2007

Self-portrait bald, 2004

In the voice of a feminine, divine power, from the Nag Hammadi papyri (Gospel according to Thomas) beginning 2nd century:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honoured one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin....
I am the barren one, and many are her sons....
I am the silence that is incomprehensible....
I am the utterance of my name.

Faith is believing even though you know it a'int so.

Click here to try Paul's fun & challenging:
Art-Q Quiz!
pg1 - pg2 - pg3

Mental Workshop- pg 1 | pg 2 | pg 3 | pg 4 | pg 5 | pg 6 | pg 7 | pg 8 | pg 9 |

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page 8

Thursday April 19, 2007

We'd be better off without Religion. (930 words)

There was a young man from Maldavia
Who couldn’t believe in the saviour
So he erected instead
With himself as the head
The religion of decorous behaviour

I listened to the debate that took place at London's Westminster Central Hall the 27th of last month for an audience of more than 2000 people. The debate was over the proposal by three eminent atheists: Richard Dawkins the evolutionary Biologist & celebrity author, Christopher Hitchens- Author & journalist & AC Grayling, professor of philosophy & author. Together they proposed: "We'd be better off without Religion" & debated the issue with three prominent religious authorities, a Catholic, a Jew & an Anglican.

The religious authorities compared favourably with the rabid & ranting creationists who fought the so-called Scopes II trials, indeed, none of the three attempted to debate from the platform of the undeniable existence of a supreme being, in other words: on the grounds of truth versus falsehood, but rather more modestly in terms of a pseudo-Kantian innate morality, the small quotidian consolation religion provides to the moderately religious (while disavowing extremists or even the truly convinced) & the transcendental satisfaction of believing in a purpose for human life.

The atheists gave intelligent & irrefutable arguments chosen from a long list of possibilities & weren’t, in fact, refuted. All six participants limited themselves to their prepared speeches & did not actually debate one another’s points but I am not writing a review nor do I want to go over the tired & well-known arguments. Instead, I would like to share my observations & ruminations on the process & sentiments of these six humans who, despite their differences, share one feeling common to people everywhere: fear of death- abhorrence of their own extinction…

But before I get to the point I want to make, let’s take a moment to examine this fear, so universal it has probably accompanied man since his first moments of self-awareness.  The only methods any of us have to either overcome or learn to live with the reality of our death, is either finding a way to believe in what I affirm is an innate feeling shared by all humans: that they, we, I, am immortal.  The alternative to finding a way to avoid the evidence & believe in the feeling, is to ignore the fact during most of our introspective lives.  During the moments the thought of death, our own death, intrudes on our consciousness we are reduced either to a metaphoric whistling in the dark or genuine despair & anguish.  The third alternative some might suggest is accepting the fact demurely or- maturely.  But I don’t accept the third option & believe any man who loves life but convinces himself he can view his own extinction with equanimity, will realize the fraudulence of his psychology in his last moments.

Why do we ‘people’ so naturally & commonly feel immortal? “It is nothing short of proof that it is true!” proposes the gnostic, but I think the explanation lies elsewhere.  To start with the obvious answer: because we only know life- we are incapable of imagining our own non-existence.  Personally I think we inconsciently run into a huge obstacle in our manner of considering our death -- life without us – we artlessly imagine our own annihilation with ourselves as witnesses to it.  I think the proof the psychology our sense of immortality relies on is illogical, is that though we share a sense of overwhelming dread at the thought of the world without us after our death, we none of us suffer wretched distress at the thought of the world without us before our respective births.

What about the man who thinks he can face the Grim Reaper with aplomb? How is it he can fool himself? Ernest Becker gives us the answer in Denial of Death (for which he was given a Pulitzer) - paraphrasing from memory: If man could expect to live much longer than he does in reality, say- instead of seventy to ninety years, barring accident or disease: seven hundred years, seven thousand or even seven hundred thousand, if he knew which would be the exact moment of his death all human psychology would undergo a profound change.  Because as fragile as a man’s hold on life may be, as weak & slippery as his grip is, he can always close his eyes with the hope of reopening them…

Under the mocking tones one always hears in atheists & scientists involved in dialogue with the faithful (especially Dawkins who is as arrogant as he is brilliant, though I would argue that that very brilliance denies the possibility of arrogance) is an undertone of pleading contempt for the theists’ inability to be more convincing. In the end the most important difference between the atheistic argument & the evangelical is that all atheists would love to be proved wrong by the believer. It would be like a man dying of a terrible disease being surprised by his Doctor with the news his death isn’t imminent after all & he will in fact live for, well, eternity. None of the religious, on the other hand, want to lose their faith- want to be convinced by the atheist there is no God or purpose to the universe & far more importantly: human life. This fact alone makes it easier to believe the atheist faces a hard truth while the theist prefers his lie.

 (Incidentally, the motion carried with almost 2000 votes cast, 1,205 in favour of the proposal & 778 against)

What H. L. Menken had to say on the subject:

     I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind - that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.     

I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

     I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty...

     I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

     I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech...


"I disagree with everything you say sir but will defend to the death your right to say it"

     I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

     I believe in the reality of progress.

     I - But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant



Tuesday April 17, 2007

East Meets West

The recently adopted (by Thailand) Santa Claus arriving at Thae Pae gate in Chiang Mai.

East meets West (click for enlargement)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thoughts on memory. (660 words)

One of the people who help me take care of this big house is Peht, a wiry & likeable 49 year old Thai man.  Without meaning any offence or denigration, & with affection besides, I must also say: he is one of the dumbest humans I’ve ever met! He hails from a very small village far from any large urbanisation & was formally educated only until 10 or 11 years old- mostly in Buddhist teachings as they do in the villages.  He does his job of washing the cars, watering the gardens & suchlike with a dull, methodical dependability & is always keen when I have an odd job for him, so I’m not sure ‘lazy’ is the right word to describe him, it is more a complete absence of ambition, I suppose.

When he has nothing else to do he immediately reverts to his natural state, usually sat on his favourite bench overlooking the little river that rushes through the back of the property & whose gurgling makes the house’s heartbeat.  I am convinced when I look at him sitting there, that there is absolutely no brain activity going on.  Indeed, if I call his name, I can almost visibly see him kick-start, taking a second or two to work through the gears to perceptual consciousness.

I have some experience of different meditation techniques I’ve tried over the years but I have never been very serious about them or regular in my practice of it.  I have known, however, many who dedicate a lot of time, effort & frustration trying, year after year, to find a way to just be, to quell reason & thought; just as Peht does every time he sits down.

I had a friend years ago high in the mountains of southern Spain, an intelligent & introspective carpenter, a refugee from an urbane background & rich Barcelona family. Besides carpentry (& jazz on his double base) he loved to plant things & every year gave away hundreds of sturdy saplings of indigenous chestnut, Holm oak & the like, to anyone who would plant them somewhere.  He also liked to meditate.  It was while watching him watch his plants grow, that the thought occurred: If time is a human construct, then a man who lives like that carpenter stretches his days by being there in the moment.  The man who rushes instead from one event to the next- feels his days whiz by. I think this is pretty common reasoning but the consequence is not: the man who stretches his days may feel he stretches his existence, while the busy man feels his life slipping away, but what is the measure of life?

I would say it is memories. Who, or even what, are we without them? How could we even form into cognizant individuals without critical evaluation of previous experience? Even a dog or a worm, for that matter, is capable of modifying its behaviour through evaluation of previous experience, i.e. memory...

The thoughts I am writing were initiated & inspired by a conversation with an Australian acquaintance in his mid-forties, who spent 10 years of his life teaching meditation in an Ashram in India. When he & I were talking about these ideas, he thought a moment & said: It’s true, when I think back on those 10 years in India I have few memories, just a blur of predictability & lack of thought. 

The busy man, on the other hand, looks back on a deep & eventful history that makes his life seem longer in retrospect.

I seem to hear the word: ‘Balance’, more & more from people my age (mid-forties) while I still feel that if you take an extreme madness as example, like say- falling in love, as one of life’s high points; then balance is the last thing one wants, or at least each in its measure.  Aristotle’s maxim: “Everything in moderation” is, after all, a form of extremism.




Thursday, March 15, 2007

...What’s the ugliest

Part of your body?

Some say your nose

Some say your toes

But I think its your mind…

My darling, I think it’s your mind.


Thursday, February 15, 2007. (980 words)

A note of introduction: the interesting & original thoughts on art below, were pasted together & edited by me from various emails its author, Ilene Skeen, wrote to me in response to my article: 'The Big Question: What is Art?' (below, or click here). Among other things, Ilene is curator at the lovely old Salmagundi art club on 5th avenue, anthropologist, published writer & painter.

What is art? Your post is very comprehensive, relating to history, philosophy and aesthetics. You touched on the essential problem: that the definition of art is generally so broad that “it hardly seems to qualify as a distinct word.”

When I began my masters in anthropology, I wanted to find out what art is, and I thought I might do that by finding out why people do art. I found that anthropology adds yet another level of complexity to the discussion by introducing the cultural context. Unfortunately, there was no simple anthropological answer either. Mainstream anthropology focuses on societies and economics. The anthropology of art is a marginalized branch of this discipline.

However, it is my contention that the anthropology of art is the central, deeper question of anthropology because art in the broadest sense is a translation of concept to action, and action is required for survival.— Since all knowledge is contextual, (we are, after all, all mortal) and life is the context, I believe art has to do with survival. The survival of an individual versus the survival of a culture is only a difference of scale: survival at any level takes skill and energy.

Therefore, not finding a comprehensive definition in philosophy, history, aesthetics or anthropology, for the purpose of my thesis, I used Raymond Firth’s simplistic definition of art as referring “to almost any patterned application of skill” (1). This would subsume the widest possible usage: from fine art to craft, to the art of motorcycle maintenance or the art of the deal. Firth offered his definition as a placeholder, knowing that it was incomplete, but serviceable.

There are cultures without a tradition of visual art, but there are no cultures without a tradition of some kind of patterning i.e. music, dance, cooking, storytelling, hunting or even partying. You could argue that partying is not art in the fine art sense, and I would agree, but it is art in the anthropological sense, especially if the observer can see the pattern and appreciate it.

The question is then, why are patterns important? (As they obviously are, obvious if for no other reason than their ubiquity to all cultures). The question can be restated to ask: do patterns have survival value and if so, what? My theory is that patterns help humans respond to the world (because they make sense out of the chaos). We understand much more of what we encounter than other animals, but we pay the price—we have to integrate our knowledge into our psyches because the human ‘machine’ is made so complex by its self-consciousness. In fact, all animals use patterning, we just know we use it.

My theory about patterning is that patterning helps us to sleep and that sleep has essential survival value. After air, sleep is the next most important need of the body. You can last a number of days without water and more than a month without food, but without any sleep the mind quits, long before the body gives up. The mental survival value of sleep (in addition to the physical rest of the body) is to integrate the chaos of today so that you can react more successfully to the chaos of tomorrow. Whatever patterns your culture, family or circumstances produce, you tend to try to repeat them and integrate new events into your existing framework. When you have problems integrating the chaos, you tend to remember your dreams. I know that is not specific for ‘fine art’ as we often think of it, but that is my starting point. The importance of art is that it helps you to sleep deeply; visual art shows you a world as a fait accompli, you can accept it or reject it emotionally, but the fact that you respond to it at all is the crucial factor.

I think people tend to believe humans have three basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. Then they add the need for art, relationships, et. al. in whatever order dictated by the forces to which they subscribe. What they don’t think of is the two needs which go without saying: air and sleep.

The reason man is compelled to create art (patterned and applied skill) is that it is helpful to dreaming, and dreaming helps integrate the chaos...and thus increases the chances of survival. Think of infants getting lullabies, children getting bedtime stories, adults watching TV to prepare for sleep. In an emotional sense art’s function both for its creator and observer is to summarize or order the chaos. Using bedtime here is a simplistic example. Art encountered any time during one’s day, either as creator, observer or owner can record an emotional reaction within us that creates an important memory (another aspect of patterning).

In his book about the St. Louis, MO art market, anthropologist Stuart Plattner wrote “the nominal criterion for high art is some meaningful contribution that advances our cultural vision”(2)

The importance of “cultural vision” to a society is enormous – the survival of the culture depends on it. Cultural functions are founded on biological functions. The biological function of art, therefore, of aiding our sleep brings us back to its elemental importance as survival tool. When the creator of art makes order from chaos, it can be truly said that the artist is God of the page.

PS: Non- artists will automatically think that this polemic is against ‘modern’ art, i.e. Jackson Pollock. It is not – there is order there, as there is in many problematic and difficult pieces. It is patterning that the observer may accept, reject or miss entirely.

Ilene Skeen, February 2007

(1) (Art and Anthropology. In Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton, eds. pp 15-39. New York: Oxford University Press. 1992).
(2) (High Art Down Home: An Economic Ethnography of a Local Art Market. University of Chicago Press. 1996). 



Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Indoctrination. (235 words)

When I look at the moon-


I see the 'man in the moon'-


Is that right? Is that the way you see it? Though it is a bit of a reach I never doubted the interpretation, probably bashed into my head by my well-meaning mother before I was cognitively cogent enough to reason for myself (can't blame her, poor thing, she was probably a victim to her own mother's brainwashing).

Well, I was walking down the street at night with a Thai person when she said something about the rabbit in the moon... I began to ask what she meant but at the same time lifted my eyes to the moon & answered my own question: there it was, a rabbit as big as life & more obvious. When I asked her, in turn, if she could see the man's face she thought it was the funniest thing she had ever heard!- I haven't been able to see anything but the rabbit since...

I even wonder if my 'man in the moon' matched other people's or if each of us, in his struggle to resolve the image our mother's (in whom we trusted so implicitly) fervent explanations & vague gesturing toward the distant object enjoined us to see, actually made up highly individual choices about what that face looks like. Which darknesses on the resplendent orb made up the features of the face...?




Saturday, January 20, 2007. (205 words)

The article from the Nation, one of Thailand's national papers, reproduced below, reminded me of Spain. I keep finding chance to marvel at the similarity in attitude between Thai people & Spanish despite their disparity of culture, distance & lack of mutual history.

When I lived on the southern, sunny, side of the Sierra Nevada in the south of Spain, the winter olymipcs were planned one year for the cold northern side of the same mountain range. The route up to the peaks for skiing is peppered with old villages that have turned themselves over to the tourist economy produced by the traffic flow of skiers. The year of the olympics included much anticipatory investment in hotels & property investment in general. When it refused to snow that year, however, the mayor of the biggest village officially proposed the town's saint be paraded through the streets in hopes the prayers for snow by the villagers that follow it, might propitiate its fall. (At the last moment the olympic competition was relocated).

Isaan is the poor & arid area of northeastern Thailand, undistinguished by Thai people from Laos despite the political border, (in-fact 'Laos' means: northeast). With the Chinese year of the pig about to commence:

Click for larger version- Nation, Bangkok


Thursday, January 11, 2007

The artist & emotion. (840 words)

I have developed & maintained a theory about happiness that few I have engaged in the conversation agree with, indeed, I would say, few understand.  I have suggested that the pursuit of happiness is a not only a fallacy but a self-defeating approach to life.  In the excerpts from my book, below, as well as an article I wrote on the subject (also below) some of the feedback I’ve had agrees with the evanescent quality of happiness, the common experience that once achieved, its ability to give happiness disappears but that is only part of my point, the real point is that happiness only makes up a part of the satisfying whole that is the experience of life.

  Many consider life more successful according to the quantity & quality of happiness that can be stuffed into the minutes that make up the affair of life, while I consider the more difficult emotional states such as melancholy or rage just as important to that successful experience.  A good example is love; I think anyone who has experienced the mad state of falling in love agrees it holds a heightened awareness that is unique to that predicament.  And yet, many who have tasted the god-like quality of being in love eschew the possibility of its repetition once they have tasted the fall from glory which is the pain & dejection of having one’s heart broken because of it.  A good example of putting a greater importance on happiness than the possibilities offered by the range of emotion available to humans brave enough to feel it all.

I have read Jamison’s Touched with Fire whose impressively deep research into the connection between manic depression & art in such subjects as Lord Byron, Virginia Woolfe & Van Gogh point to a clear correlation.  Her attitude however, is the common one & therefore illuminated some of my own thoughts without shedding new light on my ruminations.  I am excited for this reason to discover the work of a Harvard professor called: Dr. Schildkraut who began his studies (in 1959) into the suicidal & famously gloomy abstract expressionists, Miro, Pollock, Rothko among others & the question of depression among artists as an ailment common to artists but ended with a sense that: “…depression was not a weakness but simply “one of the things that humans happen to be capable of experiencing.” It had its uses. “Depression turns you inward,” he explained. “In some senses the artistic calling becomes easier with a depressive illness.”

If there was a bright side to depression, Dr. Schildkraut saw it. “Depression in the artist,” he noted, “may be of adaptive value to society at large” — meaning it could inspire great paintings, symphonies and novels. That’s a controversial idea, insofar as it raises a moral dilemma: does treatment, while benefiting the patient, come at a cost to culture?

A victim of manic depressive syndrome is actually a bipolar personality meaning that as sad as the darkness through which no light can filter is, it is accompanied by it’s opposite: bouts of joy that a healthier, more stable, generally understood as ‘more realistic’ personality cannot imagine.  Is one more ‘true’ than another? Is something in the middle, without the experience of either extreme, better? Or is it mere mediocrity? Dr Jamison pointed out a behavioural trait of victims of this emotional instability I found very interesting, self-medication with a drug such as cocaine is not used by a depressive as cure to depression but rather by the hippomanic (or the manic depressive in a state of hypomania) as an attempt to extend the sense of ecstasy.  

My mother who is an art restorer, or as they are known nowadays: an art conservator, once had twenty or so coloured pencil drawings done by Jackson Pollock while in therapy.  She was cleaning them in preparation for their sale (later stopped by court order of the Krassner foundation on the grounds of patient/doctor confidentiality) by the psychiatrist in whose office they were done.  Apparently, in moments when old Jack the dripper was unable to express himself with words he drew instead. Dr Schildkraut discovered, & based all his later groundbreaking research on the fact he noticed that depressives who didn’t respond to talk therapy often came to life after taking certain drugs. A groundbreaking paper that he published in 1965 suggested that naturally occurring chemical imbalances in the brain must account for mood swings, which pharmaceuticals could correct, a hypothesis that proved to be correct.

So, should the artist who suffers with his questions “into direct and lonely confrontation with the ultimate existential question, whether to live or to die,” (1) he wrote, “depression may have put them in touch with the inexplicable mystery at the very heart of the tragic and timeless art that they aspired to produce.” Be content with his bargain? Creative expression for personal torment? Or chemical balance & ignorance of his existential plight?

(1) For a most lucid account of the struggle with this conundrum I recommend Tolstoy's 'Religious Confessions'


Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Art Critic

The Art Critic


Wednesday, December 20, 2006. (1870 words)

The big question: What is art?

Part I

As a painter I have had a thousand conversations that begin with the question: What is art? Why is that art? Or: Why isn’t that art? And a dozen other variations that all mean the same thing.  Sometimes the conversation is with someone without education in the arts who is genuinely looking to me for an answer; sometimes it takes the form of debate with another artist or cognoscenti.  But however naïve the person I’m speaking with is, they always have a vague if distorted view of what ‘art’ is, even if only garnered from Charlton Heston & Anthony Quinn movies on television.  But it is easy to forget that the Orient has other ideas & here in Thailand no tradition of visual arts whatever.  I began thinking about what I intend to write as a result of an earnest request by a Thai person to explain this strange Occidental concept of ‘art’ to her.

The elusive answer is of considerable interest to me & I have therefore studied the conclusions other artists in history have come to, listened to those of my contemporaries & been particularly curious about the reasons given by philosophers.  Why would I place more weight on the opinion of philosophers than artists? Because the answer to the question lies in the realm of theory while the act of painting is in the thoroughly distinct realm of practice. 

Although I was shown early on by some art appreciation teacher how neatly Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling can be divided up into graceful compositional triangles, I believe it only came out that way because the Maestro’s instincts bade it & not because he consciously designed the figural placement according to a geometric formulisation.  In this case at least, theory follows practice.

I have a good friend who is a talented & dedicated artist whose work I respect; indeed, I like his paintings so well that I have bought several over the years.  (The only real compliment one can offer an artist!).  He, however, has an entirely different approach to mine & paints ideas.  In other words, his inspiration is the idea the painting illustrates.  To me this approach is just that: illustration instead of art.  But it is also a good example of where theory & practice diverge since, as an artist, I don’t agree with his approach but find his paintings are none-the-less, often beautiful.

Let’s start by defining terms- dictionary/encyclopaedia descriptions & etymology:

A definition so broad it hardly seems to qualify as a distinct word, since it essentially allows anything to be labelled as art & anyone to self-designate as artist. 

Any philistine can recognise the beauty of a sunset but it takes a Goya to show us the beauty in nightmares.  Goya said: Ugliness can be beautiful while prettiness cannot.

I am long accustomed to the response: "Me too", from a great variety of people when they first discover I am an artist.  I remember one time, however, when someone I met followed his ‘me too’ with: "I’m a Garbologist!" To the uncomprehending look on my face he explained “A garbage man, that’s my art”.  I laughed at what I took to be a joke but as he produced a business card confirming what he claimed, I noted a serious-peeved look, engendered, no doubt, by what he must have taken as a distasteful elitist arrogance on my part.

The archetypical example of the confusion between theory & practice, between novelty & originality, is Duchamp’s urinal proclaimed art by the very right of the artist who recognizes it as such.  A brilliant argument, an original & deep aesthetic philosophy but to me entirely separate from the undeniable fact that though it may even be argued the object has innate beauty in its graceful curves, the urinal remains to me, very simply, a urinal.  Dadaism & Duchamp’s elegant language caught the imagination & the idea influenced all art of the rest of the twentieth century & yet he himself didn’t appear to take the object-as-art as seriously as the idea, when he signed it with a tongue-in-cheek pseudonym that made play (in French) on the name of a company that built sewers.  

I believe that since the aforementioned influences, WWI, photography & Freud confusing everyone, art’s democratization has meant the little training most receive in its study, is neutralised by teachers afraid to state any opinion at all in their teaching. In classes on actual technique at university I even found teachers who refused to answer simple questions about processes like colour theory, for fear of sabotaging my ‘innate natural expression’.  I believe that even if there were such a thing as ‘natural expression’ as opposed to a progressive refining of the eye to a sophistication in seeing the beauty in front of it, accompanied by the tools to present them in such a manner that others are surprised & moved to have this hidden beauty pointed out to them, I would still need the tools to express the natural expression!

As far as the aspect of political obligation on the artist’s part, I mean in the sense of making social statement, I think if it happens to coincide with expressive beauty like Picasso’s greatest work: Guernica or any of Kathe Kollwitz’s body of work, that is fine; what am I saying? It is wonderful, wondrous even, like any real inspiration.  But making such statements through art should not be a pre-requisite or justification.   This, I think, must be true if for no other reason than that we know it doesn’t take great men to make great art.  Many are guilty of far worse than absence of social conscience, like the ultimate painter’s painter, Rembrandt Van Rijnwho had his second (common-law) wife locked up in an insane-asylum in order to be able to collect on his first wife's inheritance.  Or the brilliant Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio who was protected by the Neopolitan city-state from the Roman city-state, where he was wanted for murder.  What importance could one little murder have when compared to his divine canvases? He died in a Roman back-alley at 39, in a knife fight.

I once read some bits of the New Testament freshly translated from the original fragmentary papyri written in Aramaic.  I think there are but few Aramaic scholars in the world but this book claimed to be the most accurate & literal translation published to date.  Boy, it was a tough read, dull & dry lists of rules & events written, apparently, by a hand ill-accustomed to writing.  This led me to a curiosity about the King James’ version of the bible & the discovery of Lancelot Andrewes who led the team that translated the 9th century Masoretic Hebrew into gorgeous poetry, or lyrical prose, that became arguably, the greatest piece of literature written in the English language.  The fluidity of style points to the fact it belongs to Andrewes personally, rather than any of the many who made up his team.  A work greater than any by Shakespeare, Lancelot’s contemporary, at least in the range & breadth of its inspirational impact.  I would contend he might epitomise the role of great artist according to my definition: He found the beauty & showed it to everyone else.

Comments | What is art? Part II


RBP said:

What is Art? The answer to that question is complicated, not only because it is highly subjective but also because of Art's abstract nature. The definitions that you have quoted give some idea but none of them really convey the deeper meanings. The concept does not lend itself to succinct definition and perhaps could be better explained by metaphors or concrete examples.

The creation and appreciation of Art seems to be something that is inherent to our humanness, it predates civilization and is present in some form in almost all societies (though as you mention Art for its own sake is something that has developed out of western thinking).

  Nowadays the definition is even more difficult to articulate because the concept has become so much more encompassing (just yesterday I saw a mover's truck from a major moving company with the slogan "the art of moving", not to mention your artist/garbologist). This has added to the overall confusion.

  Art could be said to be a way of interpreting the world and supplying context for our lives and experiences, but even this does not explain the magic of it- its power, its influence and its transcendence. It can only be experienced first hand.

  Notice how many of the definitions you have quoted mention 'skill' as a prerequisite for creating Art. I think this is important and it is something that has been somewhat lost sight of. Art can only be created by those who not only have innate talent but also are dedicated to creating it, those who are willing to make the effort to acquire the necessary skills. Not only is there the need to master the materials (the craft skills) but also to master the skill of correct observation, the skill of interpreting those observations and the skill of inviting inspiration based on observation (perhaps the most vital skill for turning craft into Art). By observation I don't mean only the visual look of objects, people, animals and environments but also observations of interactions, emotions, abstract thoughts and whatever else may cross the artist's path.

  While on the subject of inspiration I must take exception (as you know I would) to your dismissal of the painting of ideas as a valid inspiration for Art. None of the definitions preclude this, including your own definition as surely there is much beauty to be found in ideas; there are innumerable examples of masterpieces that have been produced this way. This leads to the notion that it is not so much a question of what you paint but how you paint it that constitutes Art; or to put it another way: Art is what artists make, but that leads to a whole other discussion- what constitutes or defines an artist? Perhaps worthy of another blog-post.

I have always liked the definition I read many years ago: "Art is a lie that reveals a truth"

11th of January

Paul responds:

You missed my point, I didn't dismiss 'painting ideas' at all, or at least didn't mean to. Each artist finds his own inspiration & one can't judge another's work on those grounds. I find I don't concentrate well in my studio if I have money problems, it distracts my inspiration. My father, on the other hand, did his best work in the most desperate moments- when he had no money to feed & shelter his family for instance. While painting ideas may not work for me it obviously works for you; I did say I thought your paintings "often beautiful"!

P.S.- It was Picasso who said art was a lie that reveals the truth.

Tomas said:
December 23rd, 2006 at 3:08 pm (Tomas is Lithuanian & struggles a bit with English!)

I must confess I had known what the art is some time ago, but recently I became used to question this…

I was searching for the hot discussions, musings-or how could I name the alive fellowship rightly in English? But currently the traditional “Do you like it?” wants to appear more and more frequently. .. I question myself not what is the art, but am I the artist. And I know just one for sure. We can either talk about the love or to love.

So the artists become the writers and the same questions repeat themselves. What is a literature? Am I the writer or the man? Is it not a story without an end? So to say, to be or not to be in current modernization: who am I?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006. (1315 words)