Measured judgements

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Measured judgements

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Greg Scheckler wrote: But as you know by the 1960's and 1970's a post-Bauhaus set of formalist terms replaced a lot of classical thinking in art schools in America. The formalist agenda attempted to remove as much philosophy from the discussion of art techniques as possible, with hopes of creating a sort of art language that teachers and students could use for any artwork. Removing the context for the techniques, however, lost the underlying value systems. So today a lot of art students go through school hearing about vague ideas like Paul Klee's "line quality" without also learning larger goals like how putting lines together is supposed to lead to compelling imagery and reflections of the human experience that combines both real experiences and conceptions of the world. Most of the drawing textbooks available today, as well as hobbyists' art books are extremely thin on these points and full instead of bland formalism.

Early on I think that there was at least some honest hope that the arts could be approached through a "reductionist" technique analogous to the approaches that had been used with such success in the sciences. In the sciences, there were a lot of advances made by asking the question "What is the most simple and fundamental thing going on here?" or "How can I purify this down to just one underlying element that makes it up (or do the same to its parts)?". That worked out great because it turned out that there were simple fundamental physical processes underlying the more complex ones we were familiar with. In the arts though, taking apart the art works is like peeling an onion and once you peel away all the layers there's nothing at all left. The essence is in what is put together and how, not in the residue that is left when you take away all the things you recognize.

Many artists have noted that what we know and have observed about the world today is very different than what ancient Greeks thought – that randomness does exist and is an important part of how the world works (and even of how we experience the world), that there are non- euclidean, non-pythagorean ways of dealing with number, geometry and physics that are really useful (fractals, hypercubes, quantum physics and so on).

Actually, I don't think I have ever met an artist with anything more than a shallow understanding of any of these subjects, and darn few who had even mastered calculus let alone more advanced mathematical subjects. The standard interpretations of these subjects among modernist artists, humanities professors, and so on really don't have much relation to the actual scientific facts.

In other words there are many patterns and relationships not borne out of whole measures, where the ancient notion of symmetria doesn't work. Many artists thought maybe they don't need the classical sources of measure, and can perhaps use newer tools and ideas when they need to.

If that's the case then why don't they bother to take classes in calculus, information theory, numerical analysis, and so on? They aren't interested in understanding these subjects. They are interested in associating their prejudices with fancy-sounding ideas.

But that doesn't mean that these newer art methods are not art or not good art, only that they are not classically-minded.

My point is that those "methods" are in no significant way relevant to what these artists are doing.

--Brian