Thursday, November 01, 2007

here and there

Over the last few days I've been hashing out some ideas about formal quality and artistic value over at Franklin Einspruch's See this post and this one. Unless you want to read nearly 200 (not necessarily relevant or readable) comments, I particularly recommend those by me, Franklin, and Opie. I'm working on a more lengthy response post, but I wanted to direct people to the discussion in the meantime. The argument appears pretty much closed, which is all the better for dissection.

To summarize in the crudest and most misleading of terms, while I am not a conceptualist and I value strictly formal appeal as central and necessary to visual art, I also consider myself a pluralist and want to remain as open as possible to the multiple forms of value that art can and does provide. I strongly suspect that hard-line formalist world-view that characterizes the culture of Franklin's site does not do this adequately. And while I value my interactions with Franklin himself very much, I'm afraid the responses of his readership leave much to be desired. In particular, there has been an an inordinate amount of harping over my choice of words. This approach is not conducive the free exchange of ideas.

This is also being discussed here.

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Blogger George said...


I wouldn't take it all that seriously. Franklin's group is dismissive of anything that doesn't fit their little definition about how it's done. In the high tech world we called it the "not invented here" glitch.

The problem is their viewpoint is 50 years old, ostensibly fighting a viewpoint that's 25 years old [pomo], and as a result it’s mostly ignoring the present. If you’re an artist under thirty, you’ve had a particular type of education and you commented using the language you would with your peers. This causes problems because members of that group have drawn battle lines you’re not allowed to cross.

Frankly, I think they’re wrong, but worse I feel they are rude with visitors who don’t agree with them. It’s not really a dialog. I’ve been arguing with them for a couple of years now, I’ve got a thick skin and I can be verbally aggressive if need be. The funny thing is that I was reading WBD in Artforum when I was your age. I ended up deciding, that while it was educational at the time, formalism was useless in the studio, either you figure out how to make a painting or you don’t.

Most artists do not understand what it really takes to make something work. There is a certain security that comes with the display of skill and talking about ‘quality’. This appeals to some of Franklin’s readers because it makes them comfortable by massaging what they already think they know. Making great art is devilishly difficult and there are no easy answers. It’s not that they’re wrong, just that they want to ignore part of the equation. In my personal opinion, it’s bad advice.

Being an artist today is vastly different than it was thirty years ago. Stick to your guns, explore what you believe and why you believe it. Everything else follows.

7:03 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

I agree with everything you say. There is a substantial gap, I think though, between Franklin himself and his reader culture. The guy is smart and a pleasure to read. From my limited experience at least, he is also fun and useful to debate with. Its just that I probably need to find somewhere other than to do so.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Frankly, I think they’re wrong, but worse I feel they are rude with visitors who don’t agree with them. It’s not really a dialog.

George has been a copious source of the rudeness on my blog. I feel no need to mention this, except that it's irritating to read my culture getting slagged by someone whom I would classify as part of the problem. At the linked post, one of my commenters took a shot at Sol Lewitt's work, so George took a shot at my commenter, prefaced with "screw you." This kind of behavior is typical of him and adds little value to my efforts. It is often difficult to distinguish between his attempts at humor, devil's advocacy, and sincerity, and when misunderstood he answers with snitty little remarks that try to pin the blame for his verbal failures on my readers. I can go on at greater length and in finer detail, but I hope your readers will treat the above comment with appropriate suspicion and that George, failing an increase in self awareness, and failing a real refutation of the ideas he disagrees with, will at least refrain from maligning my commenters' alleged motives.

As for our being wrong, that has yet to be demonstrated to my satisfaction, certainly not by George. George will likely assert that no such demonstration is possible. I'll say instead that the counterarguments I've seen to date suffer fatal inconsistencies with other kinds of creative production and my personal experience in front of many thousands of works of art. But it's not that we're wrong, as he says in the following paragraph, but that we want to ignore part of the equation. Well, which is it, man?

The formalism that I've arrived at is not the sort of formalism that declares that only abstract art and the abstract portion of non-abstract art merits discussion. I am instead trying to figure out why good art is good, and form seems to be the vast majority of the problem. This brings up related intractable problems of how goodness is being experienced or not experienced. I'm not opposed to multiple forms of value, but what is value itself? Pluralism is fine as far as it goes, but why does every form of art follow the 80/20 rule (except where it's arcing up to 95/5)? Thus far, I'm unwilling to state anything with certainty except that no particular trait of art is inherently good or bad, yet there is good and bad art.

At any rate, I'm glad you enjoy reading. The regard is mutual. Most of my commenters mean well even with the harping over word choices and acerbic tone, so I hope you'll put up with us.

1:25 AM  
Blogger arthur said...


I was not aware of the full extent of George's inclination to be "verbally aggressive". Please understand that I while I read your posts regularly, I typically ignore or merely skim the accompanying comments. Even in the case of comment sections in which I am participating, it becomes onerous to read every single last bit. The behavior you mention does indeed sound bad. I don't want to condone it.

That said, I find his comments above quite plausible. I believe that he meant morally or practically wrong rather than factually so (he also says "it’s not that they’re wrong..."). I understand your formalism to be nuanced and that you aren't denying other forms of value and significance flat out. I appreciate that. But the fact is that it is difficult, especially for outsiders, to bring up such things in acceptable terms.

There seems to be a gap between you and much of your readership, a gap of credibility and readability. As I've said, I think your posts are great (and it would be unrealistic to expect other contributors to regularly match that). But in all honesty, I find the tone of many of your regular commenters to be shrill and unresponsive. I don't have to name names, but really, just read over the last exchange. Why is this sort of thing condoned?

I will, of course, keep reading your posts. Whether or not I will see fit to leave argumentative comments is an open question.

8:15 AM  
Blogger arthur said...

This brings up related intractable problems

Thus far, I'm unwilling to state anything with certainty

Good, you're willing to doubt yourself (and to admit it). If only this were so of Opie, et al. I agree that trying to explain art is maddeningly slippery. No doubt this skepticism helps explain your modesty and equipoise in dealing with differing viewpoints. I wish you could convey this to your readers. I believe that this doubt calls for some degree of open-mindedness.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Sunil said...

Agree with your views. It was an interesting discussion though...

8:46 AM  
Blogger arthur said...

And I'm not against formalism as a tool for making or understanding art. I just don't think it represents the scientific truth.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous McFawn said...


Based on your comments and take on things, you might be interested in the prompts section of my site, The full Freud quote is there as is a fascinating quote about beauty (perhaps off the discussion, but you still might be interested.)

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Unless you want to read nearly 200 (not necessarily relevant or readable) comments..."

Just over 100, actually. Counting is hard: luckily, Franklin's site does it for us.

"In particular, there has been an an inordinate amount of harping over my choice of words."

Your poor word choice, like your poor number choice, is 'harped' on because accuracy matters. Words have meanings, and when they are used sloppily, clear communication suffers, or even becomes impossible.

Pick the right word (or the right number) to accurately describe what you're talking about, or simply admit you don't know what your talking about, or just don't know how to put it into words. Those are the options.

All else is bullshit.

12:11 PM  
Blogger arthur said...


I linked to two posts. At the time of my writing, there were a total of 199 comments.

My choice of words was fine. Not flawless, but certainly above the level of many of the surrounding comments. You might object to either my style or my substance, but unless you explain why (even just briefly) I have no reason whatsoever to pay attention to you.

4:02 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

All else is slander.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Skanky Jane said...

(LMAO @ 'not invented here' - have to borrow that one!)

Just stepped over from simpleposie.

Glad I did, not only because of this great blog but because of the comment exchange here. So glad to read that Franklin struggles with "value" and "quality" too - as now see that I wasn't as out of my depth as I thought I might have been.

I do not want to harp over word choices and quite take your point on that Arthur, however I am curious, when you say "I value strictly formal appeal" - I take it that you do not mean to say you value ONLY the formal aspects of an art work but that you feel formal appeal is very important?

This comment by Arthur, some up my feelings on this matter pretty well: "I just don't think it represents the scientific truth."

Yes, the question of value is a slippery one indeed and, for me, it is slippery because, (among other things) of it's tendency to relate itself to that damned word "truth".

SJ xx

4:30 PM  
Blogger Skanky Jane said...

some up my feelings X
I meant:
sums up my feelings

4:34 PM  
Blogger arthur said...


Thanks for the compliment.

I take it that you do not mean to say you value ONLY the formal aspects of an art work but that you feel formal appeal is very important?

Yes, me and Franklin both believe this more or less. This gives our argument (or our aborted attempt to have one) something of a nit-picking quality.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous June said...

I'm slow to get to this, but what is left out here are the actual artifacts (ie art works) that are being discussed.

I don't know what Franklin means by form (I don't read Franklin unless Arthur points me at him). I have a better sense of what Arthur means by "form" because he writes reviews which show art. In other words, I have a context.

My familiarity with form is more literary than visual, but in literature, my training was all in formalistic criticism (yep, 50 years old is about right). And formalistic criticism is clearly inadequate to deal with most literature outside a commonly held culture. Much of what is identified as "form" in the literature that I studied has western European (male)formal/historical attributes. But once the game is widened, it becomes clear that without context, the form becomes mere game, style, manner, fashion. It loses its power when it's unattached.

The Venus of Willendorf is a clear example of this point, it seems to me.

12:34 AM  

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