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Subjectivity and Objectivity in Art


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#81 Tony Watkins

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Posted 02 October 2006 - 03:23 PM

QUOTE(mrmando @ Oct 2 2006, 08:44 PM) View Post

QUOTE(Tony Watkins @ Oct 2 2006, 03:17 PM) View Post

You seem to be using the term within the confines of music

Well, of course. Why should music be judged according to the principles of another art form? One doesn't judge theatre by the standards of film and vice versa.

This is where the difficulty has arisen (and it's turned into one of those occasions where I wish I hand't joined the conversation in order to try to clarify when two other people seemed to be talking past each other sad.gif ). I understood the discussion to be about art in general - including music and visual arts. I don't think it was a question of judging music according to the principles of another art form but of looking at the whole sweep of art - in that context all art forms are being discussed (not judged) according to some general principles. What got us into this, remember, was someone claiming that there was an immutable objective heirarchy to the arts.
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In music, there is not much representation (what there is is pimarily connotative, not denotative - a crucial point I think) and what is called abstract in my experience tends to be music which has jettisoned more established and shared forms. But that is an oddity of definition within the world of music.

Again, what's wrong with that? Let's use musical standards/terms to judge music.

Nothing is wrong with that. Why are you inferring that I am attacking music in some way? I am probably more passionate about music than film. My point is simply that outside of the confines of the musical world itself, the word 'abstract' is semantically equivalent to non-representative. If someone is using the term in a narrowly musical sense they are likely to confuse others who understand it in the broader, more everyday sense. And therefore to avoid confusion, it's best to define terms carefully - and if, as here, 'abstract' turns out to have connotations that people stumble over, then maybe it's better to use some other term.
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- '[/i]A work of music can be abstract only if doesn't adhere to any particular musical form'. But that's not what the definition that has been offered is saying. 'Intrinsic form' does not 'mean that the work does not have strong similarities in form to other works', but that it is form that characterises the work rather than representation.

The definition I proffered says "only intrinsic form" -- i.e., an adverb plus an adjective modifying the word "form." In other words, whatever "form" an abstract work has is intrinsic to the work itself, and is not a property the work shares with other works.

We're reading the same words and understanding them to imply different things. It's not going to help us to keep debating the semantics of 'only intrinsic form'.


#82 David Smedberg

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Posted 02 October 2006 - 04:08 PM

I can't make any real reply at this point, I've got to head out. But I'd just like to note that I've found this discussion very thought-provoking, and I hope that others have as well. I'd also hope that we can keep trying to move forward, because as Tony says we're tending to talk past each other. I'll try, when I find the time to post next, to address the question at hand in as fair a way as possible, and that's all I ask of anyone else. smile.gif

#83 mrmando

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Posted 02 October 2006 - 05:42 PM

Well, there may certainly be more than one sense of the term "abstract." If we want to look for a macro-level definition that applies to all the arts, we can certainly do that. But we have to accept that there will be some limits on its usefulness -- particularly if it leads us to the conclusion that nearly all instrumental music is abstract. There may be some benefit in thinking about music that way, but we are doing ourselves a real disservice if we do not also ask ourselves whether abstraction means something entirely different on a "micro" or "granular" level within the field of music.

And music may, in fact, be a good deal more representational than the average listener realizes. A composer may say to himself, "This theme represents how I feel about Clara Schumann," or "This theme represents how I feel about being kicked out of my college fraternity because I'm homosexual," or "This theme represents how I feel about what Stalin has said about my work," and then work that theme into a composition. The resulting piece is certainly representational from the composer's point of view, whether anyone else understands it or not. In the third instance, musicologists still don't entirely agree on exactly what Shostakovich meant by his Fifth Symphony, but it clearly does mean something. In his biography of Mozart, Maynard Solomon finds the composer's suppressed rage at his father welling up in the left-hand part of a piano sonata, and explains it so clearly that you can see it, right there in the notes on the page.

When you look at a painting and you can recognize that it shows a group of cows in a field, then you know it is not abstract, it is a pastoral landscape. If it's a decent painting you can find variations or differences among the cows that were put there intentionally by the artist. If it's a really good painting, you might even be able to infer some kind of narrative from what certain cows appear to be doing or looking at. If you hear a piece of music and you can recognize that a certain theme is repeating and overlapping itself at various points within a given harmonic structure, then you know it is not abstract, it is a fugue. If it's a decent fugue, you can hear variation and development. If it's a Bach fugue, you can hear reharmonization, secondary themes, transposition, tension and relaxation all arranged in a way that flows very much like a narrative. You can learn to recognize these components, just as surely as you can learn to recognize a cow, or even distinguish one breed of cow from another.

...

Later, after some thought, a Guinness, and some fish and chips:

I'm afraid I must reject the macro-definition of "abstract art" as "non-representational." All art represents something, for crying out loud, whether it's a wheelbarrow, or the King of France, or your fear of aging, or your frustration with being an alcoholic, or the joy of getting your first commission from a major orchestra. Just because a work of art represents something we can't see or touch doesn't mean it is "non-representational." Then again, there's at least a sense in which every work of art exists unto itself. Prints of Persistence of Memory and Starry Night are on my wall right now, not just because they represent the sky or melting watches or the ravages of time, but because I have always appreciated the works themselves. One can enjoy Pictures at an Exhibition without having seen any of the drawings that inspired it ... and in fact, the drawings look pretty drab next to the music. So even a representational work of art also functions non-representationally. Some poets are notably sensitive about this, and insist that their work ought to be appreciated for what it is rather than what it stands for.

We might find a way forward by refining the general definition somewhat, and proposing that the degree of abstraction in a work of art corresponds to the degree to which it represents abstract concepts i.e., anything beyond the five senses. In visual art, almost every work of quality will have a measure of abstraction, since even photorealistic images can function as symbols for abstract concepts. So the Dali and Van Gogh prints on my wall are partially abstract, whereas the Yeats print upstairs is entirely abstract. Each of these paintings is both representational and non-representational in the senses described in the previous paragraph. What makes them more or less abstract is WHAT they represent. In this sense, a Bach fugue can represent God's glory or his ordered and harmonious creation, follow a set of rules, have a "narrative" structure, and still be at least somewhat "abstract," since what it represents is beyond the senses. Note that form and harmony and theme and all that are NOT beyond the senses, so there's still room for quite a spectrum of abstraction within music. Some of John Cage's work would be a lot more abstract than Bach's, just as Pollock or Rothko would be more abstract than Sargent or Gainsborough.

Speaking of Cage, by this definition his famous 4'33" is both entirely non-representational and entirely non-abstract. It was intended to be "performed" outdoors in a wooded setting, and the audience was expected to spend the duration of the "composition" listening to whatever natural sounds might be going on in the environment -- birds singing, elk bugling, what have ya. Instead of representing those things, the work lets you listen to the things themselves. If the work is about anything, it's about whatever you can hear when you are silent, and that's not an abstraction.

...

And, since I now appear to be talking to myself: Tony pointed out that the term "narrative," when applied to the way a composer develops a theme, is merely analogous to the way we usually understand the term. It occurs to me that we make a similar analogy when we say a painting has "narrative," or even when we say a film has "narrative" (unless the film has an annoying voice-over narration). We are merely more accustomed to making these latter analogies.

Edited by mrmando, 04 October 2006 - 01:05 AM.


#84 David Smedberg

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Posted 07 October 2006 - 08:02 PM

Gosh. That's a great post, mrmando, and there's only a few things, maybe just nitpicky things, to disagree with. But first to express my agreement with the central point:
QUOTE(mrmando @ Oct 2 2006, 06:42 PM) View Post
We might find a way forward by refining the general definition somewhat, and proposing that the degree of abstraction in a work of art corresponds to the degree to which it represents abstract concepts i.e., anything beyond the five senses.

I entirely agree, and I realize how foolish a lot of what I said before will now seem when I read back over it. Especially the thing about non-verbal music with this new understanding I don't think any art could be completely abstract. Art is always sensory, and thus even if the sensory concept being represented is merely "a broad thick brushmark of red paint" or "a C-major scale played quietly on a piano", that concept (or theme, or symbol, or whatever) is the fundamental building block for all the other concepts. (I'm not sure, then, what you mean when you say that your Yeats print is entirely abstract perhaps you could clarify.)

It's worth noting that this new understanding of "abstract", while valid, is moving past ordinary usage - I mean, heck, even you've contrasted the word "abstract" with the word "representational here, when you said:
QUOTE(http://stillion.com/martin/Brooks.htm)
Brooks' style is hard to peg it's a carefree blend of expressionism and realism, neither completely abstract nor fully representational.
That's the kind of usage most people would be comfortable with, I think.

I especially appreciate the discussion of the fugue, since it's been my sticking point since the beginning. I'm still not certain, though, if I can agree with you when you say that
QUOTE(mrmando @ Oct 2 2006, 06:42 PM) View Post
. . . form and harmony and theme and all that are NOT beyond the senses.

Isn't there a sense in which form is undetectable by the senses? My first understanding of "form" is the union of all a thing's parts into a whole. Thus, an artwork's form would mean the same thing as its intent. (Not its practical intent, like "I will sell this to a rich man to hang on his wall so that I can feed myself for a month", but its intellectual intent, i.e. what concepts it embodies.) If we accept that an artist's idea in making his art was his elation at being commissioned for the first time, then that idea is what he formed his artwork around. Now, we most definitely can tell that the artwork carries the imprint of that idea, but not by direct, sensory means, but by a process of deduction from the available evidence.

This understanding is very different from "form" as a distinguishable type or genre, like a fugue versus a minuet or a chorale. This is probably not a disagreement but just another ambiguity in this language of ours. And it's certainly a tangent from the main thrust of the discussion, which I think you've neatly cleared up.

Edited by David Smedberg, 07 October 2006 - 08:05 PM.


#85 mrmando

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Posted 08 October 2006 - 06:15 PM

QUOTE(David Smedberg @ Oct 7 2006, 09:02 PM) View Post

It's worth noting that this new understanding of "abstract", while valid, is moving past ordinary usage - I mean, heck, even you've contrasted the word "abstract" with the word "representational here, when you said:
QUOTE(http://stillion.com/martin/Brooks.htm)
Brooks' style is hard to peg it's a carefree blend of expressionism and realism, neither completely abstract nor fully representational.
That's the kind of usage most people would be comfortable with, I think.

Sure, that's "abstract" in the conventional sense as applied to painting, specifically. The Jack Yeats print I have in mind is Grief (1951) -- I saw the painting at the National Gallery of Ireland and bought the print there. I just meant that it's an abstract painting in this conventional sense ... I don't think there are any recognizable people or objects or animals or landscape or whatnot in it.

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I especially appreciate the discussion of the fugue, since it's been my sticking point since the beginning. I'm still not certain, though, if I can agree with you when you say that
QUOTE(mrmando @ Oct 2 2006, 06:42 PM) View Post
. . . form and harmony and theme and all that are NOT beyond the senses.

Isn't there a sense in which form is undetectable by the senses? My first understanding of "form" is the union of all a thing's parts into a whole. Thus, an artwork's form would mean the same thing as its intent. (Not its practical intent, like "I will sell this to a rich man to hang on his wall so that I can feed myself for a month", but its intellectual intent, i.e. what concepts it embodies.) If we accept that an artist's idea in making his art was his elation at being commissioned for the first time, then that idea is what he formed his artwork around. Now, we most definitely can tell that the artwork carries the imprint of that idea, but not by direct, sensory means, but by a process of deduction from the available evidence.

This understanding is very different from "form" as a distinguishable type or genre, like a fugue versus a minuet or a chorale. This is probably not a disagreement but just another ambiguity in this language of ours. And it's certainly a tangent from the main thrust of the discussion, which I think you've neatly cleared up.

Ah, well, as applied to music, this second sense of "form" is what I meant. A fugue is a distinct form of musical composition, as opposed to a sonata or gavotte or waltz or minuet or what-have-you. Perhaps we need subscripts for words like "form" and "abstract" so that we can keep straight which senses of those words are in play in a given sentence.

Edited by mrmando, 09 October 2006 - 12:14 AM.


#86 mrmando

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Posted 09 October 2006 - 12:03 AM

QUOTE(nardis @ Oct 8 2006, 08:38 PM) View Post

But - most "abstract" art is based on real-life forms and shapes (often subjects), whether they're natural or man-made. Even Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings. (For the Pollock thing, see the NGA's feature on his "Autumn Rhythm".

[::sprints out back door::]

I would think Rorschach's work proves there's no getting around this! Another reason I think it's useful to think of abstraction in art as a spectrum rather than a line in the sand. (Hm... line in the sand... sounds like something Goldsworthy might do.)

#87 KCAQT

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Posted 14 October 2006 - 01:29 PM

I'm speaking as a documentary producer, and you may be surprised that my own opinion is that story is important but not necessarily the most important element - in terms of connecting directly with the viewer. Has anyone seen Kooyanisquatsi (I'm probably not spelling that right). If you haven't, rent it. Here's a magnificent visual/aural journey with absolutely no story or narrative that nonetheless delivers a very powerful message about the state of the world.

#88 mrmando

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Posted 14 October 2006 - 03:04 PM

Spam, spam, spam, spam! Reported to moderator.

Edited by mrmando, 14 October 2006 - 03:05 PM.


#89 Chashab

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Posted 10 November 2006 - 11:16 AM

NPR had a wondeful spot on taste and aesthetics yesterday. A brief synopsis on my blog.

#90 opus

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Posted 10 November 2006 - 12:00 PM

QUOTE(Chashab @ Nov 10 2006, 10:16 AM) View Post
NPR had a wondeful spot on taste and aesthetics yesterday. A brief synopsis on my blog.

I heard this on my way home from work last night and thought it was fascinating.


#91 Chashab

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Posted 11 November 2006 - 10:14 AM

QUOTE(nardis @ Nov 10 2006, 03:10 PM) View Post

I listened to this segment and thought the commentator made some very good points, though I think you can only push this kind of psychological analysis so far without starting to misjudge.

Really, I often think that people (including me) like certain things simply because they like them. smile.gif (Like spaghetti, compact cars or dogs vs. cats.)

Very true. Throughout the piece I kept thinking, "Well what about me? My own tastes have been a combination of minimalism and more ornate and decorative stuff for years now. Am I just all messed up?" wink.gif

I would guess that De Botton would admit that these are generalizations to some degree, maybe to a large degree. Nonetheless, it was still a fun piece. And I still think it's a good point when he says "The two great dogmas of aesthetics that there only one acceptable style, or that all styles are equally valid are both equally preposterous."

and also

"Or consider people who favor the rustic, pretending to be a simple country folk. De Botton postulates that the excessive modernity and ubiquitous technology in our life leave us longing for qualities of the old and rural."

#92 jfutral

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 04:31 PM

QUOTE(nardis @ Nov 10 2006, 04:10 PM) View Post

Really, I often think that people (including me) like certain things simply because they like them. smile.gif (Like spaghetti, compact cars or dogs vs. cats.)

[Taking break from work]
From this point of view I don't even want to think of the potential implications of liking spaghetti. I would prefer to, like you, simply like the things I like.

[Late to this conversation] Just to add to your post about "abstract", Rothko, apparently, did not consider his later work (the more known works of colour) as abstract. He considerd himself working with pure colour. Where as artists like Klee and Kandinsky both seem to consider some importance to abstracting from natural or recognizable forms. All three considered what they were doing to be working toward or inspired from what music achieves "without the help of representation" (to touch lightly on another thread).

I don't know where any of this fits into or implications to this discussion, but what I've read here about abstract made me think of some of the things I've been reading lately and I thought I'd share.

[/back to work]
Joe