Thursday, September 5, 2013

A conversation with Vladimir Konečni about art, aesthetics and critics

by Joe Nalven

I left New York more than 40 years ago. Did I give up the opportunity to enjoy art?

Perhaps that is a foolish question, but we hear the recurrent claim that art appreciation is diminished in San Diego because our major newspaper no longer has an art critic.

The reader will be quick to point out that we can enjoy art without having someone, an art critic, tell us whether or not we ought to enjoy an artwork or exhibit, or how we might go about expending our psychic energy in art appreciation.

Contemplation of Art / Joe Nalven
Somehow, in the arena of 2D flat art, some believe we are isolated from the experience of art because we lack a knowledgeable overseer in San Diego. We have no art critic who is front and center in our news media. Is that important or not?  Perhaps art commentary will suffice, leaving out the arcane magic of the word "critic."

I came across an interesting article about Julia Margaret Cameron, a pioneer photographer with a penchant for soft-focus and spiritual-like portraits.

An art critic savagely commented on the self-taught Cameron at her London exhibit in 1864 that she had a "'complete absence of definition." Other faults included: negatives were poorly processed; a failure to "master the formal difficulties of posing the entire figure;" and that her images were generally focused on the top half of the body.

The article noted that Cameron's work was set off against the then reigning aesthetic of John Ruskin and pre-Raphaelite artists.

I can grasp the likely antagonism between styles of art that mark differences in aesthetic paradigms.

Even today, modern artists such as Robert Irwin rankle at the advent of postmodernists:

“Modern art took away the old framework . . . . It flattened out the established pictorial hierarchies when it destroyed the figure and the ground. I find that thrilling, but I realize it can also be alarming. . . .

"The concept of postmodernism, [Irwin] says, is pure folly: 'It used revisionist tactics to work in an old scheme of things rather than following out a set of possibilities that modern art represents.'"

Again, so what?  Can't we just agree to get along in a pluralistic world of art?

I suppose if I were investing millions of dollars in buying a painting or a sculpture that I would want the museum curators, gallery owners and art critics to validate the rightness of my purchase.

Aside from that, we come again to the question, "We don't have our own art critic - so what?"

I called on my long time friend, Vladimir Konečni, artist, playwright, and professor emeritus in psychology - someone who has written about the art experience from an empirical perspective.  See, for example, Aesthetic Trinity Theory and the Sublime.

It is difficult to anticipate how such a conversation would develop around the various aspects of art. And it would be unlikely that this would be an end point in our discussion (after all, one conversation merits another). What is important is that we have these discussions in San Diego and not feel relegated to the hinterlands.

Vladimir Konečni   Photo Credit: Mirjana Konečni 2013   
Joe Nalven:   San Diego no longer has an art critic affiliated with our major newspaper. One might ask whether this is important.

Does every city, especially a large city like San Diego with several museums and art galleries, need an art "critic"?

Vladimir Konečni:   Even though many "cognoscenti" elsewhere think of the San Diego area as a lowbrow place with regard to the arts, this has actually not been true for many years.

But one would have to agree that San Diego is generally not a cutting-edge place, except for a few isolated and modestly visited pockets.

However, nothing in these judgments points to "So what?" in response to the disappearance of an art critic affiliated with the SD Union-Tribune (UTSanDiego).

At the very least, the city needs a broadly educated person to carry out competent art reportage at a suitable level of clarity and with a minimum of pseudo-theoretical verbiage. Someone to describe new shows and events, and gently and fairly guide the public. Someone without nepotistic tendencies and with a realistic self-image.

Whether or not San Diego needs a genuine, professional art critic at the U-T is debatable.

Joe Nalven:   I sense that the art that gets put into museums and galleries is more about fashion and ideological bias — what you've called "bluff" art.

Vladimir Konečni:   Yes, that is a real problem. Let's consider "bluff art" a little further on in our discussion. Perhaps we consider what is going on in digital art — after all, that is what initially brought us together in terms of art-making.

The constellation of the fundamental aesthetic responses described in ATT emphasizes the continuity and timelessness of human interactions with the sublime — the sublime that is represented in the pinnacles of human and natural creativity in their respective milieux. One suspects that the current, aggressive, curatorial political agendas and the crass fads in the arts and in cultural policy will eventually, mercifully, fail.

from Aesthetic Trinity Theory and the Sublime, published in the Proceedings of the 2010 European Society for Aesthetics 2010, the general philosophy journal Philosophy Today and at the Digital Art Guild webzine.

Joe Nalven:  OK, let's start with digital art. Do you find that the artists who are drawn to “digital art” are those with a particular vision? Perhaps the effect of montage with multiple layers bleeding through each other or perhaps the non-objective art of fractals? Or the photo-manipulators?

Machu Picchu in Infrared / Joe Nalven
Vladimir Konečni:  I've noticed many different kinds of people who are drawn to digital art as having an interest in “visual art products” much as one would find in other visual arts media.

Let’s limit the classification to people with a certain amount of artistic talent (if you accept this concept as valid?!). Some have very limited technical skills in painting and film photography, and a rudimentary or nonexistent background in visual theory and art history, yet believe that talent and persistence alone are sufficient to produce high-caliber, attractive digital images.

This is occasionally possible but certainly not consistently.

Then there are those who think they can hide an absence of genuine inspiration (if you accept this concept) by seeking to create abstract images with the aid of post-production. I would note that abstraction is very difficult to achieve in film photography, especially in color.

Experiment in Color / Joe Nalven
Some of these people are masters of digital manipulation but lack inventiveness and originality. There are also those who use algorithms on a blank slate, without any particular final goal other than “I’ll stop when the image is pretty” or some such criterion, which is grossly oversimplifying things, at least in some cases. (This process is similar to some aleatoric compositional procedures in music.) And, of course, there are those whose “production of art” relies exclusively or excessively on the most faddish digital camera and software (numerous rough analogues of this have been noted in art history worldwide).

There are other groups and subgroups whose motivation, procedures, and digital products one can criticize or even mock. But they certainly do not preclude the existence of artists (including, for example, within San Diego's Digital Art Guild) who have a “particular vision,” as you put it, worthy of the attention of critics and curators. [See example of a recent Digital Art Guild exhibit: To Send Light into the Darkness]

Here is a highly subjective and laughably incomplete list of attributes that may incline artists toward digital photography and ensure that they excel at it.

1. An enormous affinity for experimentation and therefore the attraction of being able to test thematic, compositional, coloristic and other ideas fast and without end — which digitalization amply provides. (Here, however, lies one of the roots of some critics’ belief that digital images are not innovative in an intended and genuine personal sense, which is an unacknowledged side-effect of the fact that the aleatoric approach to art creation is generally regarded as passé.)

What I see, what I say / Joe Nalven
2. Serious prior work in film photography with a personal stamp (that’s why in the Digital Art Guild nearly everyone is old!).

3. An absence of fear of the fact that the technical means of visual expression change, sometimes radically. (Improve? Deteriorate? Become more exciting? Become too “common”?)

4. An artist’s “historical depth” (if you accept this concept): The desire and knowledge to view the present moment in visual expression as a minuscule part of the 50,000 years+ extension of the chain of rendering visual-art products (and possibly of the possession of visual-art thought and intention); and a reluctance to view one’s own moment as a key instance of exponential change.

Memory of Escher in Color / Joe Nalven

I have called this “the fallacy of temporal myopia related to mortality fears.”

Joe Nalven: Why has there been a comparative rejection of digital art by many art critics and curators?  You've spoken about "bluff" art and I can't imagine you were thinking of digital art at the time.  I imagine those with limited knowledge of digital art might question the validity of art created in part or whole with the computer — as if the computer itself was the artist in computer-generated art. And at the same time, those same individuals would yield to granting the validity of art that seems, at best, to be a "trick" — what conceptual art is sometimes referred to, ie. art with a trick but not much substance.

Both stereotypes end a meaningful discussion. Much better to say that vision and media feed off each other, and in a seemingly endless variety of ways in our pluralistic art world. 
Proof of Wyeth / Joe Nalven
Vladimir Konečni:  Rather than discussing art periods, styles and technology, let us focus on the purveyors of art knowledge. As a preliminary comment I would say that it’s generally a mistake to lump together critics and curators: Different roles imply different career-building incentives, as well as different culture-political and nepotistic arrangements.

However, at the very top international level, such as the Documenta in Kassel or the Biennale in Venice, the curators rule while the critics aspire to future curatorships.

Even the critics at the New Yorker, the International Herald Tribune, and the Financial Times generally write admiring reviews of major shows, with only occasional and harmless yapping meant to demonstrate an allegedly independent mind.

I have already alluded to some of the justified and therefore rather uninteresting reasons for the critical rejection of much digital work with inadequately motivated and executed artistic pretensions.

Joe Nalven:  That type of criticism was one of the reasons I decided to examine paradigm shifts in the history of art. I decided to track a particular image in Western art as it was remade and rethought by artists in different time periods.  I would have preferred others to have taken up this task.  But it appeared that no one else was going to take it up. I resigned myself to go it alone.

From the Baroque (17th century) to Expressionism (20th century) to Digital Art (21st century). Other art periods could have been selected but existing artwork set the limits to this discussion.

I began with the celebrated portrait, Portrait of Innocent X by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez in 1650, fast forwarded it to 1953 when Francis Bacon painted  Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (the "screaming Pope").  And then, once again, I fast forwarded to 2009  when I created a digital mixed media of this subject, Reimagining Innocent.

Imagine Velazquez using delicate paint work and then imagine Bacon using a different method to paint:

Francis Bacon achieved a singular image, mixing photography with "Brillo pads to cashmere sweaters, . . .  rags, cotton, wool, sponges, scrub brushes, garbage-can lids, paint-tube caps, the artist’s hands, and whatever else he [could] find in the studio for the application and shaping of painterly passages. . . . Thick impasto coexists with thinned washes of pigment and raw canvas, sand and dust .  .  .  ."  (From an interview with Hugh Davies, June 26, 1973 cited in Hugh Davies and Sally Yard, Francis Bacon, Abbeville Press, New York, 1986, p. 110)

Reimagining Innocent / Joe Nalven
Well, if Bacon could do and be considered as someone who excelled in "painting" as opposed to simply painting with a brush (as Velazquez), then the question is really not about pictorial methodology or technology, but about the image.  So, why not photography and computer-assisted software along with a metal substrate embellished with patinas? This further  discussion (moving the paradigm to digital art) should also be about the image rather than the means of generating it.

I crafted a detailed argument leaping across centuries to place digital art in the contemporary pluralism of art. Rare is the art critic, collector, or curator that has undertaken this task. It seems to be a lacuna in the world of art criticism. Not all, but significant enough to show that, going forward in time, that art history needs some updating.

Vladimir Konečni:  Of course, we ought to be demanding on claims to excellence — for all artists, styles and methods.

What is more interesting is why first-rate digital art is often underappreciated or rejected along with the “bathwater.”  The reasons for this are perhaps at the core of the more general problem: The difficulty of positioning digital art in the family of visual arts. And at the core of that difficulty are thorny questions such as, “What is art?” and “What is a genuine artwork?”, which are, of course, especially pertinent now that “beauty” has been thrown in the metaphorical sewer.

Pillars in Infrared / Joe Nalven

There is an enormous flood of digitally manipulated images on the internet and on television, a small minority of which (but still huge in absolute number!) are — hard as it is to admit it — aesthetically pleasing, if not positively artistic. What is an objective visual-arts critic, even one inclined to accept the new, but utterly anaesthetized by the flood of images in his daily life, to make of the images at, say, one of the Digital Art Guild shows? The difficulty of discerning worth is enormous. The risk of making a silly critical faux pas is enormous.

Joe Nalven:  Parenthetically, I would like to note the context and objectives of the Digital Art Guild. We did not position ourselves as an elite art group. We decided not to curate artists into the Guild. Rather, we believed in an open door approach with all the attendant risks of making the silly faux pas, to allow and encourage artists to develop.  So, if Picasso were alive and walked into our meetings, he would be welcomed and encouraged to develop his digital art skills. No one should stagnate.

I would also add the complaint of the "technicians" who made Ang Lee's The Life of Pi. The computer graphics artist, the FX artist, the digital compositor, the digital painter - all digital artists - are often thought of as mere technicians to the greater art work of the 21st century. But, aren't they on the same plane, perhaps higher, as the impresario who says do this without having a clue to doing that?

"Neither Ang nor his winning cinematographer, Claudio Miranda felt they needed to thank or even mention the VFX artists who made the sky, the ocean, the ship, the island, the meerkats and oh yeah … the tiger. Ang thanked the crew, the actors, his agent, his lawyer and the entire country of Taiwan right down to the team that built the wave-pool on the soundstage where Pi was shot. But failed to mention 100s of artists who made not only the main character of the tiger, but replaced that pool, making it look like a real ocean for 80% of his movie."  Bruce Branit, a visual effects artist.

This is part of the flood of digital images. One needs to cull out the creative at each point in the history of art.  Commercialism is ramped up by the very technology (computers, the internet, etc.) that I exploit as well — that I exploit as an artist.

Memory of My Other Self / Joe Nalven
Vladimir Konečni:  Let's look at yet another aspect of this digital flood that we should not ignore: the channeling of this flood of imagery through art with an agenda.

My sense is that the politically-correct agendas have almost completely replaced “art” and “aesthetics” in curatorial choices and management of major, or at least big, shows. In this context, it seems foolish to disregard the general digital flood as an important contributor to the exclusion of digital art from the contents of such shows. Along with the emphasis on “developed concept” and “sustained project,” there is a proliferation of the gigantesque and of the obscenely expensive to produce — with which the hung, small, digital images cannot compete.

To compete with giant installations, digital images have perhaps to be projected on entire buildings, and many of them simultaneously, as an executed concept. This has, of course, already been done in many cities, but is basically just an ephemeral cry for attention in the wilderness.

The importance of large size in our short-attention-span, over-stimulated, everything-goes “culture” cannot be overestimated. Large size appears innovative even without any subtlety and it can shock by itself, even without shocking content.

Joe Nalven: Perhaps we can now come full circle and look at contemporary non-digital examples. Maybe even find a few that ought to be labelled as "bluff" art.

Vladimir Konečni:  Since a substantial amount of my attention has been drawn to the artwork stimulus, let's look at the psychophysical, with its most prominent member large size or physical grandeur, an attribute usedvpainstakingly by artists and craftsmen since antiquity to honor gods and kings. The present age of high technology and easy money has changed the methods and the themes.

The Modern Portrait as Digitype (Tintype) / Joe Nalven

Three illustrative examples of works from the preceding decade that rely on the property of gigantism are the “artificial sun” of Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project (in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London, 2003) and, even more so, Richard Serra's stupendous abstract metal forms (The Matter of Time, 2005) that somehow seem to dwarf even Frank Gehry's entire Bilbao Guggenheim structure into which they were placed. Serra's huge steel shapes certainly dwarf Damien Hirst's Charity, the seven-meter-high, six-ton sculpture of a girl in leg irons holding a broken and empty collection box.

The second class of relevant properties is substantively statistical, with members such as rarity and complexity. With regard to rarity, Hirst certainly outdid all competitors (including those using elephant dung on paintings) with his For the Love of God (at the White Cube gallery, London, 2007) — a human scull recreated in platinum and encrusted with over 8,500 diamonds.

Hirst is also the clear leader in the use of the third, ecological (or classical-conditioning), stimulus property, which is defined in terms of positive and negative reinforcements associated with works of art. While Jeff Koons's thirteen-meter high Puppy (a floral sculpture of a cute West Highland terrier) may be a favorite on the positive-reinforcement side, Hirst wins on the negative side, the biologically noxious, with pickled shark, butchered animals in formaldehyde, and especially his A Thousand Years, in which maggots hatch in a closed glass vitrine, become flies, feed on a severed, bloody cow's head, and try to continue their life cycle — although many are sadly executed by a Hirst-patented “insect-o-cutor.” New York City public health officials, in a characteristically vigilant pre-emptive move, banned Hirst's Two F***ing and Two Watching (featuring rotting cow, bull, and calves) allegedly to avoid vomiting by visitors.

I concluded earlier that traditional paintings and sculptures, regardless of their content and form, do not reach far enough into the mental associations and memory systems of the viewer to induce genuine emotions such as anger, sadness, and joy.

Installations, even those that skillfully utilize all three of the stimulus properties described above, are also unlikely to be powerful, versatile, and sophisticated enough to connect with the viewers' respective associative networks and induce genuine psychobiological emotions.

It is not enough to shock — the spectator is always safe. And even though some of Hirst's works address profound issues, their execution is simultaneously too profane and too sterile to produce anything but disgust — and many psychobiologists, for good reason, do not consider disgust to be a genuine emotion, because it is a reflex-like visual, olfactory and gustatory response.

Joe Nalven:  Yes, I'd like to leave the olfactory response to cooking and not to such things as Hirst's A Thousand Years and Two F***ing and Two Watching.

Two Leaning Towers? / Joe Nalven

However, I must admit to my own dalliance with conceptual art - though a much drier illustration. I took a class on creativity at Columbia University in the Philosophy Department. Sometime in 1964-ish years. The class had one text, Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation that had recently been published.

The undergraduate paper I wrote had one image, but multiple interpretations. The image was a single vertical line running down the canvas.  It could be viewed as the number one, a tree seen through snow goggles on a snowscape, and the like. I saw myself mapping the limits of human conceptualization — a phenomenological approach.

I've gone back to that discussion several times, continually adding to possible interpretations. You can find a more elaborate version in Going Digital: The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists (2005) or perhaps more easily at my art website under the menu item, THOUGHTS.

I would hope that the premise of that essay would be read as philosophically interesting (I would hope). But, at the same time, the perspective of that essay is one that prospers best in a closed room. However, I came upon a different perspective in my graduate education. I followed the path of a cultural anthropologist. I left that closed room and wandered outdoors where there is color, emotion and reason, a jumbling of ritual and belief splashed together in ways I had not anticipated, unusual foods and buildings, and the like. Going outdoors, so to speak, was a turning point for me. It became wedded to my development as an artist, notably by taking up Photoshop — becoming a digital artist.

This is where I left the interesting but locked door of "pure" concept and sought out the interaction of media, vision, audience, presentation — entering the out-of-door realities occupied by the vast majority of humanity. One perspective is not "better" than the other, but represent different pathways to follow.  Neither subsumes the other.

Waiting for the Water / Joe Nalven (1975)

As I continue my education about art, art-making and art enjoyment, partly through conversations with others, I can bring myself into focus. I can also understand in a more precise way how claims about art can go haywire, and how these haywire notions of art can be salvaged by having sufficient monied interests to make a bluff at being art. I imagine that others seeing my art might make the opposite claim: I would enjoy reading their article about the subjects in this conversation. 

And what about an art critic for San Diego?

My fear is that the desire for an art critic will be a limiting mindset, perhaps one who is an ardent follower of Duchamp or more recent conceptual artists, or self-centered modernists and post-modernists to the exclusion of the actual pluralism in art styles, visions and techniques.

More importantly, do we really want an art critic who situates him- or her-self in that anti-rational and cult of the ugly tradition?

Of Duchamp:  "The artist is a not great creator — Duchamp went shopping at a plumbing store. The artwork is not a special object — it was mass-produced in a factory. The experience of art is not exciting and ennobling — at best it is puzzling and mostly leaves one with a sense of distaste. But over and above that, Duchamp did not select just any ready-made object to display. In selecting the urinal, his message was clear: Art is something you piss on." Stephen Hicks.


Biting into Space and Time / Joe Nalven


  1. I applaud Joe for writing in such a sustained away about a topic he is so passionate about. I applaud myself for reading all the way to the end of it!

  2. So in all reality who gets to judge and say what really is art? For some reason i thought art was expressed in different shapes and forms for different people. I had some art from my elementary school days that i kept around because i really did think some day it would be worth something.