Category Archives: The Other Great Debates

Who The *$&% Is An Art Expert?

I’ve had one art DVD on my wishlist for years now, but I hadn’t given it much priority until today.

Who the *$&% Is Jackson Pollock? is the 2006 documentary about 73-year-old former long-haul truck driver Teri Horton, who purchased a $5 painting from a thrift shop. The painting was supposed to be a gag gift for a friend — but now Horton believes that the painting is an original Jackson Pollock.

If the painting is by the famous abstract expressionist, it would be worth millions. What the documentary does is show the lengths this woman has gone through to try to prove the painting is a Pollock work, including fingerprint identification. But the road is not easy, as Randy Kennedy explains:

The filmmakers were initially fascinated by the science-versus-art angle of Ms. Horton’s story, about how forensics may be starting to nudge the entrenched tradition of connoisseurship from its perch in the world of art authentication. But as they spent more time with her, they began to see the movie as being about something more important than whether the painting was a real Pollock, a question left very much for the viewer to decide.

“It became, really, a story about class in America,” [director Harry Moses] said. “It’s a story of the art world looking down its collective nose at this woman with an eighth-grade education.”

The story obviously catches my attention, but it wasn’t until I read Frank Messina’s article, Nicolas Carone: Jazz, Poetry, And Jackson Pollock, in which Nicolas Carone, an expert on Pollock discusses his role in the saga of Horton’s painting, that I became motivated to move the film to the top of my wishlist:

In the film, Carone is brought in to physically inspect the painting. In a pivotal scene, Carone is asked by the film’s director, Harry Moses, whether or not the painting is authentic. Carone said he could not determine one way or the other. And with those few words, the painting remained in a cloud of mystery. After all, if Nicolas Carone couldn’t tell if it was authentic, then who could?

Relaxed in his favorite armchair in his studio, Carone spoke at length about the movie, and admitted being less than forthcoming when Harry Moses asked him about Teri Horton’s painting. “I was worried. I worried. I was advised not to tell that it is or it isn’t.” When I asked who had advised him, he ran his fingers across his lips as if closing a zipper. He then referred to a particular scene in the film when the Horton painting is compared side-by-side with an undisputed Pollock, “No. 5, 1948”, once owned by art collector Si Newhouse, chairman and CEO of Advance Publications and Conde Nast, (New Yorker Magazine, Vanity Fair), and more recently, record producer David Geffen. “The thing is, when they spliced the painting from Geffen, and they showed it with hers and they put it together like that. It looked exactly the same. That made me worry,” Carone said. I asked in what way. “In a way that it could’ve been a spliced painting. What she had, I looked at the canvas in the back. You know how you turn the painting, like this, the canvas, you turn it around,” Carone said, shaping his arms into a square. “All this on the side is still a continuation of the painting, and it’s cut there. This part is cut. I think that that painting was cut from another painting. It’s cut,” Carone said. “As if Pollock cut it?” I asked. “Yes,” he said.

And while Carone wouldn’t outright tell me whether the painting was authentic or not, he did offer a cryptic assessment when asked about the recent offer of $9,000,000 Horton received and refused for the painting. “I think if she holds out a little more—I think the Teri painting will go for more than nine million,” Carone said.

Despite this, there’s no news that Horton has received the $50 million she’s been holding out for; or that she’s even sold it at all. However, knowing Carone’s thoughts certainly adds a new layer to the story and makes me want need to see this film. In part because the story simply will not die.

Nudity In Art

Nudity: Good Or Bad?

When we were creating Ululating Undulating Ungulate, we had to come up with our policy on nudity in art; not being big into censorship, and creating a site for adults, we opted to include nudity.

Deciding what is art, or, perhaps more accurately, what are “good nudes vs. bad nudes” is highly subjective — but an important issue for all to consider.

Along with the issues raised in that article, does age of the work matter? Does it’s placement in a museum or other accreditation matter?

Image Credits: haunted by ~dysny.

Review: The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photograph

The Painted Backdrop By Jim Linderman

Have you ever thought about the painted backgrounds in antique and vintage photographs?

No?

Well, you aren’t alone.

Until I read The Painted Backdrop: Behind the Sitter in American Tintype Photography, by Jim Linderman (with an essay by Kate Bloomquist), I hadn’t either.

In fact, the story of and between 19th century painters and American photography really has never been told — or, I should say, “hasn’t been explored” until Linderman came along and looked into it via his collection of antique tintype photographs.

Considering virtually every one of the millions upon millions of tintype photographs taken indoors from 1850 to 1920, (and a good number of the few taken outside) had a painted backdrop, it is remarkable  no one has ever written a book about them. This is even more remarkable given the importance of the background in motion pictures today. As entire films are produced by computer, the role of the actor has been reduced to standing before an empty screen mouthing words only later to be placed in a digital backdrop which never existed and never will. In a way, the early painted drops used by primitive tintype photographers of the late 19th century an unreal environment in a prescient manner; the thread connecting them to big-screen computer generated hyper-worlds is real but seldom considered.

He even dares to ask the question, “Could this be because photographers, even then, were so determined to prove THEY were doing the art and not the painter they relegated to the background?”

Antique Tintype Backdrop Being Painted

The author / collector states: “This is an art book about painting and photography (or vice-versa) and how they met in a certain time and place.”   Ever since the camera arrived, the debate about the merits of photography as an art form has raged (admittedly Ansel Adams helped sway a lot of people that it is), and this book and its 75 antique tintype images certainly is part of that debate. It also raises the question about whether or not the painted backdrops used behind the people in the photographs are art, folk art, or ephemera from the photographic industry.  But  it’s that last part, “how they met in a certain time and place,” which really gets to the core of things, the thrilling things, for me.  That’s where we get to the historical cultural contexts.

The book gives a brief historical overview of photography set in the context of culture, art and commerce. There’s a near ode to daguerreotypes and a rather sneering look at ambrotypes before we settle in to accept the (lowly fragile) tintypes as having won the hearts of the masses. While tintypes lack the gleam of their forerunners, the thin tintype’s popularity mirrors how the West was won: Easy, inexpensive, mobility.  The ease of mailing tintypes not only aligns with the power of rail road transportation, but in fact, photo studios sprung up near or at nearly every train station.

Two Antique Tintypes With Same Painted Backdrops

However, Linderman doesn’t end his considerations of the development of photography there; his (rather opinionated) narrative briefly covers paper prints, the Polaroid, and digital photos too. If you find the author judgmental, he is. But his thoughts are historically and culturally sane; and when it comes to art, we all have our preferences — or at least we ought to.

In many ways, Linderman’s brief text is more glorious than the many antique images he shares. For, agree or disagree with the author’s thoughts and opinions, you are rather forced to form your own thoughts and opinions. But none of us are really left with conclusions — at least those we haven’t, in part, jumped to.  As Linderman states, there’s just too little documentation, research and investigation, into what happened to painters when the camera came along — into the subject of photographic backdrops themselves — to reach any real conclusions.

The book raises more questions, really, than it answers. At least for me. But in that most excellent of ways which rather than being too light of a snack, leaving me unsatisfied, this book whets my appetite, makes me want more, leaves me with something to chew on… Technology, commerce, art, and culture collide at a crossroads, supposed “forward progress” exposing values, leaving the role of art and artists themselves as question marks… Not at all unlike the digital situation of today.

Tintype Of Painter Working On Photographic Backdrop

The very fact that we haven’t really put any effort into exploring “what happened” is a testament to how little we value photography, art, and artists, I suppose. Yet art, and more than a few artists, have managed to survive.

Collections and books like this preserve what was — not just for us all to see and enjoy, but to force us to look at what happened and to examine for ourselves just what is all involved in such technological advances and shifts in “style.”

The Elemental Art Of Photography

In a world, a country, with dwindling art and music programs, I’m thrilled to read at History Is Elementary that students in upper elementary grades (grades 4, 5, and 6) will be taught darkroom photography and printmaking.

I’m so jealous — but mostly happy. *wink*

And I hope it starts a trend.

In the article, along with a discussion of use of photography in teaching history, there’s this:

What a terrific opportunity to teach what may be a dying art. Bob Smith, a local photographer in my neck of the woods states, “This is interesting …I guess it’s great to expose them to the way [photography] used to be done, but in ten years, they may have to buy the chemicals themselves to do the developing. I wonder what types of film will still be sold in ten years. You have to go to professional photography shops……just to buy old 120 film that went in every camera since World War II…and they have to wait on the manufacturer to produce the next allotment.”

I don’t have any statistics to back up sales of film and photography equipment, but it seems to me that film photography is on the incline. But maybe that’s just my own anecdotal experiences — which includes my 10 year old son’s intent fascination with an antique camera at our last visit at an antique shop.

Is Art In Your DNA?

Over at The Emerging Times, Michael Ferrare has written The ‘Picture Painting’ Gene, an article on Thomas Harrison’s book, Instinct:

In the book Instinct, Thomas Harrison describes many ways to leverage who you are (using your DNA) to promote success in business and in life. Of the many natural genes he mentions, one gene that may be hidden inside of you is the “Picture Painting” gene—a natural desire or way to create an evolving picture of yourself.

While Harrison, a corporate CEO, has written the book to explore the connections between DNA and entrepreneurial success, the author’s message is that “no matter who you are, there are learned success secrets you can put in place to compensate for what you inherited in ‘your’ genetic lottery.” According to the author, it’s a matter of “inborn traits that have to be ‘switched on’ to create the personalized winning scenario that’s right for you.”

Simply put, it’s a matter of visualization; the old sports dealio, where you see the basketball going in the hoop. Or, for those who fear they are talentless but wish for greater ability to create, you unlock the talent within your DNA by seeing your future as a more creative type or a successful artist (which surely is entrepreneurial).

Surely most of us could use a little more faith in our creative abilities. And if entrepreneurialism is an art, or some sort of talent, certainly other arts and talents can be so unlocked.

Ferrare, in his post, uses an example of a friend who uses the “picture painting” to leave a corporate ad agency for a more creative career in writing — and sums up the trickiest part of the process, post visualization techniques:

When you share your picture with a friend, get ready for a comment like “Hold on, don’t get ahead of yourself.” Don’t let their comments, or cynicism diminish your vision. Instead, remember that that’s the point—getting ahead of yourself.

I’m imagining that perhaps it’s best to paint a picture of your friends and family being supportive of your picture-painted-perfect future before you share it.

Image Credits: via Amazon.

Is Focusing Your Creativity Important?

At first glance, this cartoon by Emily Flake (originally published in The New Yorker) provides amusing, yet sage, advice:

Maybe if your creativity had fewer outlets, it would come out of you with more force.

But when I think about it, I don’t find such sentiments amusing or wise…

Many people, following the old adage of “practice makes perfect,” think that specializing in one medium or artistic pursuit will make for a greater proficiency. But creativity and art are not necessarily like surgery.

Art does not require perfection. So-called mistakes, even those acknowledged by the artist, do not hurt anyone. But more importantly, creativity is about expression — and the joy of creating.

And joy, like big wet kisses, can be sloppy. (Some people even prefer their art — and kisses — sloppy.)

I think one of the problems people have creating things is this fear of not being perfect. It holds us back, keeps us from expressing ourselves, keeps us from the joy of making.

So does thinking that if we’d only focus on one medium or form of art that we’d get better — because when we do and the “creativity doesn’t come out with better force,” we feel inadequate, talentless.

This expectation of perfection doesn’t inspire us to try another medium, form, or style; it leaves us saying, “Forget it.” But we shouldn’t forget it, we shouldn’t give up on art. We should forget about the expectations of perfection in creating, of any notions of pleasing others with our art.

Even though we know we’d never get past Simon Cowell if we auditioned on Idol, we still enjoy singing in the car or with friends — so why do we limit ourselves when it comes to art?

To answer the titular question of this post, “Is focusing your creativity important?” I say, “Not really.”

At least not the way most folks mean to focus.

I think you should focus on being creative, not so much on the end result — or it’s meeting the standards of others. Just focus on the expression and the joy of making something.

What’s Kitsch?

In order to discuss the meaning of kitsch, you first need to know it’s definition. So I grabbed my copy of Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles (with contributions by John McHale, Karl Pawek, Ludwig Giesz, Lotte H. Eisner, Ugo Volli, Vittorio Gregotti, and Aleksa Celebonovic; and essays by Hermann Broch and Clement Greenberg). In the book kitsch is defined as follows:

The word kitsch could derive etymologically from the English ‘sketch’ or, according to the other opinions, from the German verb ‘verkitschen (‘to make cheap’). According to Giesz (Ludwig Giesz: ‘Phanomenologie des Kitsches’ …1960) which is without doubt the most complete work on the subject, the word kitsch could approximately be said to mean ‘artistic rubbish.’

However, “artistic rubbish” is as “I know it when I see it” as porn is. To simply define something as “bad” without considering the pure subjectivity involved is nearly nonsensical.

While Dorfles et all go on at great length about how they arrive at the wrinkling of their noses, the definitions are less than satisfactory — especially as they point to a real case of monetary snobbery.

For example, posters of the great art classics are considered to be kitsch. Translation: Unless you can afford an actual Rembrandt or other Master, your taste, however classy, will be defined as bad and kitsch by virtue of simply having a thin wallet.

In fact, Dorfles really, really, not only dislikes copies or reproductions of any sort, but is not exactly happy with any sort of consumerism (he would hate today’s art museum gift shops). Nor does he limit himself only to the visual arts; along with film literature and music are judged, their medium and means of consumer acts equally under attack.

Dorfles is not an complete idiot, however; he senses the reader’s potential ire:

If anyone is not satisfied with our choice and finds some of the images artistic which we will present as pseudo-artistic, un-artistic, too bad! To us at least it will mean that our reader is really a ‘kitsch-man’ of the first water; and that the psychological test has worked properly.

What Dorfles (and anyone else who uses insulting as a judgmental intimidation tactic) fails to recognize here in such a confirmed stance of absolutes, is that a kitsch-woman of the first water (me!) will find his awareness of discord and dispute wins him no favor intellectually. The gloves are now off. Any potential shield of ignorance leaves him standing naked before me, facing a battle to the inevitable intellectual death.

If all this seems to imply that Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste is a book to avoid, please do not misunderstand. I love a good book I can sink my teeth into — even if that means I’m growling when I do it. (And I’ll likely visit this book often for argumental posts.)

But if Dorfles brings us closer to a true understanding of what kitsch really is, it is purely by accident.

This book was published in 1969 — and contains essays written up to three decades earlier. Viewed with the benefit of time, or hindsight, I find a great contextual definition of kitsch. Or maybe I should say, a definition of kitsch as a defensive reaction to the preservation of Art.

Some love this book for opening “your eyes to the avalanche of junk that makes up popular culture” and others loath it for failing to recognize the “the signifigance of the narrowing gap between high and low art,” but both sides miss the real point. Defining art as high-brow or low-brow, dismissing popular culture and ourselves as collectively low-brow, isn’t just an over-simplification; it’s a poor assessment.

Art as a form of human expression is not a static thing. It changes. Like everything else. Even removing the individual voices and processes of the creators, artworks are offered to a public which changes. Not only did we once love Rubenesque women, but Ruben himself; now, meh, not-so-much for either of them. What we value, and how we value it, changes. The conversations we have, the issues we explore, change. And, perhaps most dramatically, the ability to produce, show, and critique art has changed.

If low-barrier equals low-entry equals low-brow is the math being used, people need to reconsider. The converse certainly does not hold true. And those who, like Dorfles does with machines, blame technology for the copious amounts of kitsch ought to remember the battles for freedom of access for all. And the remarkable artworks we’ve had, strides taken, as a result.

I don’t want to be equally guilty of passing judgment on those who are quick to condemn popular culture, kitsch, etc., but the very people who “feel overwhelmed by the tasteless tides of popular culture” are not only, as they whine, so afflicted by it, but they are employing it. It’s obvious they are digging such pop culture adventures as publishing sans gatekeeper with a big spoon. Self-publishing their high-brow opinions is a low-brow, kitsch activity.

But back to the book.

Contextually, this book of essays stands as a defense against Modernism and those art movements after it which reject tradition. It’s the defensive posturing of an establishment wishing to retain authority, to rally the museums, galleys, and wealthy who must guard the integrity of Art. It’s not that these people have better taste with which to form the definitions and standards of Art, or even the right to do so; but they do have a reason to try. For you see, what they truly hope to guard so zealously are their investments in it.

But you can’t insulate your investments in art. Art is part of a living, breathing, culture which, as stated, changes. As the cultural values change, so do the monetary values of art. Not always in the art investor’s favor.

And no desperate debates designed to keep the established art status quo can thwart it.

So, the definition of kitsch…

On one hand, kitsch is purely subjective in the sense that each of us knows it when we see it and we ascribe different attributes to it. “Bad,” “atrocious,” “so bad it’s grand,” “funny,” “too funny,” “cheap,” etc. Which is why kitsch rather defies a classification. (What pleases or amuses one, insults another).

But kitsch, as it is often used in the art world, often has quite a different distinction. I see it as more than a slur, but an actual means to limit and control the art market, if not the art world.

Image credits: As all images are scanned from Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles. Presented in order placed in the post, with author comments, if any.

Vintage ad, found on page 177: “An example of facile and grotesque copyfitting in this attempt to identify the inimitable blue of a painting by Cezanne with the blue of a man’s sportshirt.”

Film still, found on page 195: “The depiction of a famous painter on the screen is painful even in the hands of a director with taste. Vincente Minnelli’s film about van Gogh, Lust For Life (1956).”

Mona Lisa “kitsch,” found on page 21: “10. The Mona Lisa myth appears once more against the tiles of a shower. 11. A spectacles-case”