Journal: Friday, November 22

classroomOn a whim yesterday I wasted twenty minutes on a quiz on the Christian Science Monitor website: it was a condensed version of a test that 8th graders in a Kentucky school district had to take in 1912 to determine whether they were fit to proceed to high school.

How hard could this be, right? This is test aimed at kids who are — what? Thirteen? In Kentucky, in 1912.

It was a humbling experience.

The only area in which I can say I excelled was geography; everything else was a struggle. Math? I produced pages of meandering calculations resulting in lame guesses. English? I didn’t know my adverbs from my adenoids. American history? You would have thought I was born and raised in Latvia. (I know that the Civil War took place somewhere in between the War of 1812 and World War One, but questions about individual battles? Individual generals? Forget about it.)

A study presented at an American Heart Association conference last Tuesday suggests that kids are less physically capable than their parents were at that age: slower, weaker, less agile. This comes as no real surprise to most people, since we’ve long been aware that children are becoming more sedentary as video games and the internet — coupled with more parental anxiety about allowing kids to run around outside — replace bicycles and baseball. The question of intellectual achievement, however, has always been measured between and among groups of children contemporary with each other: we worry that American students don’t perform as well on math tests as Korean students, or on geography as well as German kids, but we aren’t comparing American students of 2013 with their American counterparts of a century ago, possibly because we know that it’s a contest they can’t win.

I’m a long way from the eight grade. At my age there is a certain “I’m sure I used to know this, but …” factor, but that’s a slim excuse at best. I should be able to compete with my grandfather as a child — I’ve had more time to forget, true, but I’ve also had more time to learn.

Another excuse we often hear is that there is just so much more to know now than in previous generations. This also is a pretty weak argument: yes, we have things like the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the personal computer to keep up with, but our ancestors in 1912 were coping with the invention of the telephone and motion pictures, the electrification of the cities, the arrival of the automobile, and with the collapse of the Ottoman and Hapsburg and British Empires. Keeping up with current events was no easy task then, either.

I scored 86% on the test — not bad, but hardly stellar. The average score for visitors to the CSM website? In the mid fifties, a definite failing grade.

What does all this mean? Are conservatives right when they tell us that the more sophisticated curricula and powerful teachers’ unions of today are diluting the value of education? Or is it that we aren’t going far enough to empower teachers and upgrade materials, as progressives insist?

I certainly don’t know the answer, but after struggling through that test yesterday, I’m definitely thinking more about the question.


Journal: Sunday, November 17

"Niobe" - mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

“Niobe” – mixed media, 7 x 9 inches (17.5 x 22.5 cm)

Some time back I wrote a  journal post here in which I bemoaned the fact that a couple of pieces of artwork that I had just completed seemed to be falling flat with my usual public. In retrospect, I realize that I may have sounded petulant, and perhaps even just a tiny bit snobbish.

What’s changed since then, you may ask? Last week a total stranger walked into the shop where those particular works were on display and purchased one of the pieces in question — by far the more challenging of the two — “Niobe/The Immaculate Heart”. This was not a friend or relative browbeaten into making the purchase just to shut me up, but someone I didn’t know, an out-of-towner who just happened to be in the market for art.

In fact, “Niobe” only hung on the wall for a couple of months before finding a home. Like all artists, I can get a bit needy sometimes, looking for some sort of approbation or validation for my work from the people around me — these squirrelly little objects are like children to me, and it’s all too easy to interpret an apparent lack of enthusiasm from the public as rejection. In the grand scheme of things, however, two months to find a purchaser for something as intense as “Niobe” is pretty darned good: the weakness was not in the public, nor in the art, but in me, in my own confidence. It was me who didn’t appreciate the value of the art, not the public.

Consider me chastened.

Sales are still slow, and I realize that some pieces will probably end their lives packed away in my basement, or cannibalized for parts, or devoured by wild beasts — and some of them probably deserve such a fate — but but what matters is that I am making a connection, at least part of the time. It’s still worth doing.

I may know a lot about art and books and Bugs Bunny and the history of the Byzantine Empire, but I can see that I still have some things to learn about having a bit of faith.


See what you made me do…

Not my fault! The devil made me do it!

The devil made me buy this dress …

The thing that I find most disturbing about Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s ongoing meltdown is not the crack smoking, or showing up stoned at a charity function for wounded soldiers, or calling a south-Asian taxi driver “Paki”, or threatening — on video — to grab an automatic weapon and slaughter his political opponents. What shocks me most are his constant expressions of outrage and wounded pride at being called to account for his actions.

So many elected officials — not just here in the US, mind you, but even in the sedate world of Canadian politics — seem to reach a certain point in their careers at which they feel that they are beyond the need for apologies, beyond accountability, beyond all personal responsibility. When the shit hits the fan, they blame the fan for the mess that ensues.

Perhaps this is simply an extension of the cult of celebrity that surrounds many elected leaders today: they are described as “media darlings”, “rising stars”, “shining lights” — the same sorts of expressions that might be applied to a pop singer or a professional athlete. Intelligence, hard work, and dedication may be there, but those don’t make very compelling news copy: we’re far more interested in how quickly the individual has risen to prominence, or in whose company, or on the back of what theatrical rhetoric. When faced with this sort of deification day after day, who wouldn’t begin to feel as though he (or more rarely she) is somehow beyond the ordinary rules of right and wrong?

  • Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, called to account recently for a string of obvious and egregious plagiarisms in his public speeches and writings, has made it clear that the skunk in the woodpile is not the high-profile political figure who steals from others, but the press and pundits who keep catching him at it.
  • Former US Representative Anthony Weiner, when caught sending sexually explicit text messages and photos to a series of young women around the country, offered a somewhat half-hearted apology then turned on the media for “persecuting” him — after which he continued to send sexually suggestive messages to women, still complaining all the while of his mistreatment by the press.

In centuries past, public officials viewed bribery and extortion as a perquisite of the job. Why else would anyone subject themselves to the aggravations of holding office? “Baksheesh”, a Persian word that became widespread in the days of the Ottoman Turkish empire, could mean a tip, a contribution, or a bribe, interchangeably; today we pretend that these things are actually separate and distinct, but in politics, little has changed. The line between a campaign contribution and a bribe is drawn with a very light pencil; “personal time with friends” can mean anything from a weekend of golf courtesy of the Koch brothers to a drug-addled rampage in a suburban crack den.

Marion Barry, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Kwame Kilpatrick: the list is depressingly long. In so many cases, the individuals involved had no prior history of corruption or sexual misadventures or substance abuse: only after achieving positions of power and prominence did the imp of the perverse take control. (Admittedly, until these men became important, the mainstream press was hardly likely to be interested in their pecadilloes, but given the microscopic scrutiny that politicians must undergo during the endless cycles of campaigning and politicking, it seems unlikely that ongoing problems of such severity would have escaped notice.) More importantly, once caught with their hands in the cookie jar (or down their boxer-briefs) they are invariably shocked — shocked — that people might hold them responsible for their own actions.

According to British historian Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1834–1902): “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” This is a phenomenon that is not difficult to understand, even by those of us who have never had the opportunity to wield — or abuse — power. What Lord Acton doesn’t mention is the inability of powerful men to accept the blame for their own sins, which I personally find much harder to accept. We all make mistakes, but not all of us have thousands, even millions, of other people depending on our honesty and integrity, trusting us to do the right thing — and when in the wrong, to ‘fess up, to make amends, and to make a real and sincere effort to do better in the future.

Whenever Geraldine Jones — frisky alter-ego of funnyman Flip Wilson in the early 1970s — would find herself caught in an indiscretion, she didn’t lash out at her accusers: she generally had the good grace to admit her mistakes, and her excuse — “the devil made me do it!” — was certainly as good as any I’ve heard lately.


Taking a line for a walk

"The Precocious Whispering of Desires", mixed media, 20 x 12 in.

“The Precocious Whispering of Desires”, mixed media, 20 x 12 in. ©David Lee Holcomb, 2013

I just completed a piece of artwork that is both a departure and a return to basics for me. It’s essentially a drawing, scribbles of glue and black ink in layers, each layer painted over with off-white gesso and sanded, then elaborated with textural passages in black ink and red, sepia, and brown watercolor, accented by areas covered in pure white acrylic.

Described like that it sounds pretty mechanical, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

I generally avoid doing art that might be described as “abstract”.  Although I enjoy such work by others, for myself I prefer to remain grounded in the material world whenever possible. A piece like this, however, is about process, rather than an image of something: the mechanical, physical acts involved in creating the thing provide the driving force, rather than some predetermined theme or subject.

Dribbling paint (or ink, or glue, or tar, or whatever) onto a flat surface and then working with the result is hardly a new concept. When Andre Breton, the godfather of the Surrealism movement, finally accepted visual artists into his exclusive little club, one of the techniques that he regarded as most valid was “automatism”, in which random processes — rather than conscious, planned decisions — guided the painter’s hand. In practice, of course, this is impossible, since even if the painter is relying on something as supposedly “random” as dribbling paint, he is still guiding the dribbles onto the canvas instead of the floor, toward or away from each other, toward or away from the edges, etc. — not to mention deciding when to stop.

So is my picture abstract? That’s a word that we use an awful lot in describing art, usually any time we find ourselves unable to see something familiar, concrete. Mirriam Webster defines “abstract” as “relating to or involving general ideas or qualities rather than specific people, objects, or actions”. When something is “abstract”, it is unreal, unbounded by physical reality: “beauty” is abstract, a beautiful woman is not; “nature” is abstract, the tree outside your window is not; “death” is abstract, the departure of a loved one is not.

When we slap paint or tar or glue or whatever onto a surface, we are already moving away from true abstraction: the surface and the medium applied to it are solid physical materials, defined by physical laws that affect what the artist is able to do with them, grounded in the “real”, phenomenological, world.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)", circa 1506

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)”, circa 1506

“We should remember that a picture — before being a war horse, a nude woman, or telling some other story — is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a particular pattern.”
— Maurice Denis, Definition of Neotraditionism. Originally published in Art et Critique in Paris, 23 & 30 August 1890

But now we have a problem: if we view the concept of abstraction by this strict interpretation, no plastic art (meaning art created with physical materials, as opposed to singing a song, or playing Hamlet) can be considered truly abstract, and we’ve just lost a century’s worth of art terminology. So let’s unclench a little, close the dictionary, and look at some of the common terms.

For the sake of brevity I’m going to leave sculpture, installation, film, and so on out of the discussion now and focus on painting alone:  If we take as given that a painting must be physical at some level, or in some degree, most pictures separates out into some basic categories (or sometimes combinations of more than one):

Illusionary — this is a painting that offers what appears to be a window into a three-dimensional space, occupied by physical objects. When we look at the Mona Lisa, we interpret the picture as a woman, sitting in a chair in front of a window or parapet — which is, of course, nonsense: what we’re looking at is nothing more than a thin piece of canvas covered with little smears of colored matter, but with a little effort we have no difficulty suspending our disbelief and recognizing the woman, the chair, and the landscape beyond.

Cubist — this is also illusion, but intellectual, rather than purely visual. While still creating an illusionary three-dimensional space, cubist painting is extremely aware of the flat surface of the canvas, and incorporates that plane into the overall work. The 3-D illusion is never very strong, and the “fake” space depicted is very shallow, never far from the skin of the canvas. In a cubist painting, the representation of the space is more important than the objects that occupy it; it may even be impossible to determine what exactly the artist was looking at — all we see is a kind of schematic of space and volume.

Geometric — here, both objects and the space they occupy have been abandoned. Geometric art depicts mathematical concepts like the square, the circle, and the line, without any effort to provide a visual — illusory — narrative tying the picture to some scene or object existing under “real-world” conditions. We can all agree that pure mathematics are abstract, but what about painting based on math? Well, there’s the rub: a picture of an abstract mathematical form is still a picture of something, so — yes, a circle is an abstract concept, but is a picture of a circle?

Abstract expressionist — this category is a bit of a hybrid of a number of things, a sort of convenient umbrella of the kind popular with art critics that doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal to the artist. At its heart, however, the idea is that the abstract expressionist painting is attempting to depict an emotional or philosophical state — “nature”, “beauty”, “truth”, etc. — without relying on any illusion whatever. Here, the surface of the canvas is embraced, the materials exist as themselves — the paint is simply paint, not part of an apple, or a woman, or a tree — and if the viewer wants the picture to tell a story, he has to come up with it himself. In a sense, an abstract expressionist painting is the least abstract of all: one of Jackson Pollock’s classic “drip” paintings is a picture of paint, and of the process of getting paint onto the surface; no naked women, no bowls of fruit. The paint is there, physical and obvious, not pretending to be a chair or an eyebrow — just paint. If we see something more than that, it’s coming from us, not the artist. [I should mention that many abstract expressionist work do have evocative titles, like “Autumn Rhythm”, or “Vir Heroicus Sublimis”, but these are arbitrary, they label the picture without describing its content.]

Mark Tobey "Night Celebration", 1971

Mark Tobey “Night Celebration”, 1971

Color/Energy field — here is another term that means more to people who write about art than to people who do it. “Color field” painting relies on large, usually featureless, areas of pure color, sometimes alone, sometimes a few colors grouped on a single canvas.  Drama is introduced by placing particular colors next to each other, or by dividing areas of color with simple linear boundaries, but the colors themselves are the subject of the painting. In “energy field” painting, even color becomes unimportant, and the surface becomes animated by patterns or strokes or squiggles that cover the entire surface, without a single focal point and sometimes without a clear recognition of the edge of the canvas. Energy field painting is usually saved from becoming little more than wallpaper by introducing a certain amount of randomness in the patterning or the type of marks used, so that some areas appear slightly more dense or less dense, like poppy seeds sprinkled onto a piece of paper. While an abstract expressionist may create a painting about the artist’s emotional state while in the process of painting, a color field artist is creating paintings about color and an energy field artist is creating a painting about distributing marks on a surface, again without narrative, without illusion.

So. What about my picture (remember where we started?) Is it really abstract?

The word “doodle” is actually a bit of slang, dating from the Great Depression, probably coined in the American Midwest in imitation of a word used by German immigrants, dudeltopf, a simpleton or fool, a “dawdler”. German-Swiss artist Paul Klee spoke of his artistic process as “taking a line for a walk”, which I think is a great definition of a doodle.

I’m going to call it a doodle. The word itself sounds a bit silly, so we tend to shy away from using it to describe a serious work — and the doodle I opened this essay with is, I believe, serious work — but it’s a good word, and it works. A doodle is universal: anyone can do it, we all understand the process; it also adapts itself to a wide range of artistic techniques and styles. You can doodle with color, with line, with shapes; you can create illusions, or avoid them; you can fill up the available space, or wander around in it, drifting over the edges of the page or canvas, or shying away from them. So again: is it abstract? I think it is — there is no overriding concept or visual intention in a doodle, it is its own reason, its own purpose. There’s no attempt to fool the viewer into believing something that isn’t true. Even if there are recognizable images scattered here and there, they have no concrete meaning, they’re just — well, doodles within the doodle.

Is it art? This question I’ll leave for you to decide for yourself.