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Head or Heart?

Just read this quote in an SF Chron article about a contemporary operatic composer named Jake Heggie:

Heggie had been taught in school to "write from the head." Modern composers tend toward abstract, dissonant sounds, not melodies.

"I tried," Heggie says. "It's not me. It's when I took the good things from school - skills in counterpoint and harmony - and wrote from my heart that my work started to flourish."

This really resonated with me as I have been struggling recently with pinpointing the difference between so-called "abstract" and "realist" art.

I could venture into deep water really fast here, but I'm curious what other people think.

Is so-called "Expressionism", art after 1910-ish, for lack of a term, "art from the head"? (That would explain those long complicated artist statements).

Is so-called "Realism", both pre-1900 and current movements, "art from the heart"? (That would explain why contemporary realist art is derided as sentimental so often.)

Our difficulty with terminology for these movements is indication of our problems conceptualizing them. But most people know immediately if they are looking at "modern art", and think of it as sharply distinct from "old masters art".

Is Expressionism more emotional than representational work? It's supposed to be pure feeling, right, pure expression abstracted/taken out of the eye's understanding of the world? But isn't Realism more sentimental - therefore more "emotional"? Abstractionists would say realism is a false sentiment. And realists would say abstractionists are cynical. And round and round.

Is one the work of the mind, the other the work of the eye?

A class I took about the science of visual perception in college has stayed with me these 15 years, I think about it all the time. The class taught me that what we call "seeing" involves much more than simply the light that hits our retina. The light rays our eyes perceive are processed at many levels of the brain, from simply noticing movement or flashing lights, up through recognizing the illusion of space and form on a flat surface.

Is abstract art just another level of this, art that is produced in a different area of the brain than representational art? Maybe an "abstract" level of the brain it took Freud and the horrors of the World Wars to make us aware of? Maybe a more word-oriented, idea-oriented part of the brain? I find I discuss theory with my abstract artist friends and I discuss technique and history with my realist artist friends.

I am scouring my art books these days for explanations of the moment when interpreting what hit our retina switched to expressing what hit our mind's eye.

Interpretive versus Expressive? Is that an accurate delineation? Expressing what? Is our experience of witnessing an emotional scene understood by our brains in an abstract or literal way?

Can we trigger emotions like awe and distress with abstract art? Does representational art now fail to trigger these feelings in many people, ever since our former concepts of "self" and "humanity" were destroyed by industrialization and world war?

Is art about feeling? 20,000 years of humans representing the physical and visual world have been recorded. Is art control over our experience of an uncontrollable environment?

Surely 20th/21st century life is equally traumatic and fulfilling as it was when we huddled around fires 20,000 years ago? Our lives are no longer "ugly, brutish and short", but is our despair deeper?

I've also been thinking about that blog post I linked to last week, and what has stayed with me is the author's frustration at having to defend the validity of a now-100 year old art form over and over. And I realized feeling attacked and misunderstood is also part of the abstract artist's experience. We realists have to deal with being called sentimental which gets old - and we get tired of having to defend the validity of a 1500 year old art form over and over....

Anyway, more posts with pictures coming soon. I've finished the underpainting and am waiting for it to dry another couple days. In the meantime I'm sketching from Ye Olde Master paintings. (I'm more in love with Guido Reni every day.)

Will post the results of both soon.

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Reader Comments (21)

I think great art is ineffable. In Mikhail Bulgakov's biography of Moliere, there is this bit where Racin or some other contemporary is criticized for not following Aristotelian structure in his plays, and Moliere, via the narrator, reflects on this and thinks that in writing plays, there is only one prescription and that is to write them with talent.

My own motto is that there are no rules, but there are tools. An artist should put many things into her work - the heart, the imagination AND the intellect. I think where I see a split in art these days is art as visual storytelling vs. art as... a thing that sits there, being important. Artists are all different creatures with different temperament, character and vision, and of course some will make work that is more emotional and others more cerebral.

But I don't think realism or abstraction owns any particular spot along this continuum. I find Rothko's work very provoking, and I can't look at some of his darker paintings because they make me feel immediately and horribly depressed. And I look at a lot of other abstract and expressionist works and feel nothing. Except mild irritation maybe. Then I look at Vermeer and feel 17 shades of different things. And then I look at Ingres, and feel further irritated nothing.

So, uh, clear as mud then :-D

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

That's interesting how you feel about Vermeer and Ingres... I agree Ingres is pretty cold as a painter, but especially considering your work I think you should take another look at Ingres for his draughtsmanship.

But anyway -

I agree there's a huge range of very subjective experience we get from lots of different artists of all sorts. I just think there is something that really separates representational work from abstract work, to me it "feels" very different in the brain, it tickles different keys so to speak.

So I'm trying to pinpoint what that is exactly. Sure, we all respond more or less emotionally to work in both categories... but why is it we think of them as different categories? What is the fundamental difference between them?

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

"Sure, we all respond more or less emotionally to work in both categories... but why is it we think of them as different categories? What is the fundamental difference between them?"

See, when people were explaining abstract art to me for the first time, I was 10 or so, and they framed it in terms of how abstract art portrayed something, just as non-abstract art did, only abstraction portrayed the essence of a thing, how something felt rather than necessarily how something looked. To me that suggests portraying an internal world, though not necessarily confining that exploration to emotions only.

On the other hand, I find a lot of abstract art doesn't try to portray anything at all, it's just "here is one of a myriad ways in which you could arrange paint".

I do agree that representational and abstract art are different categories. I find the latter is confined and confining somehow, less rich in narrative possibilities, because it's using fewer tools.

Is it possible to compare representational and abstract art without picking sides? I try thinking of them in a non-partisan way and always fail.

Nope, still not sold on Ingres. His mastery, the sheer skill is mindblowing, but... Every single one of his works makes me think of a smug, complacent Jabba the Hut. That's how I picture Ingres in my head when I look at them. Probably not the intended reaction, but there it is.

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

The primary difference between abstraction and representational work is your personal reaction to that work. You bring your own baggage. A Rembrandt is a Franz Kline and a Miro is an Ingres.

Why are your studied works evocative despite of or because of your interest in cold manufacturing techniques? Why are my much looser paintings also, I hope, also evocative?

Chasing down the good or bad of abstraction vs. realism is, I believe, tilting at straw men.

December 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

See, it's more than just subjective reaction. Of course some pieces affect us and some don't and it's different for everyone and there is no qualityable 'better" or "worse" I'm really not trying to make an argument for or against abstraction.

This is another way to think about it:
From Giotto to Leonardo there's a huge leap, you could say a quantuum leap.

But from Van Gogh to Kasimir Malevich there is a *trancendental* leap - and in just a few years. The distance is not quantifiable.

What is that?

December 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

"cold manufacturing techniques"

Not at all how Sadie's paintings strike me. The wax paper pieces are very *still*, but have a lot of feeling.

On the other hand, much of contemporary schmeer kunst has all kinds of wild paint handling that I would describe as unfeeling manufacturing techniques.

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

You missed my point. I wasn't suggesting that her paintings were mere manufacturing.

If you reduce painting to a systematic series of calculations (the apparent goal of classical realism), you are, in a sense, attempting to make it a science - to reduce it to a form of manufacturing where there are no surprises. This is quite clearly an "intellectual pursuit".

BUT despite this drive to do so, her paintings are evocative. So it follows that there must be something else to what makes a piece compelling.

I do, however, agree that "smart" is rarely the word that comes to mind when I think of a great piece of art.

As to any explosion in how art exists, the obvious answer is the explosion in our ability to share and build upon human experience. The step from the printing press to the telegraph wire was long. From the telegraph to the radio to the phone... to television, to a global media where ideas build upon each other in a way that can't really even be comprehended today as it happens. "Progress", good and bad, is happening at an insane and accelerating pace.

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

"Is it possible to compare representational and abstract art without picking sides? I try thinking of them in a non-partisan way and always fail."

Yes, this is what I am trying to do, compare and try to understand but not pick sides. Although clearly the path I've chosen for my own painting shows my inclination, I appreciate the work of a lot of abstract artists and I have even been moved by many abstract paintings.

But there is something in Expressionism that is an entirely different way of thinking about art. It seems to me that Expressionists very intentionally stepped off the path of the trajectory of painting, perhaps in response to the trauma of world-press-reported atrocities.

Expressionism seems to be qualitatively different than any other art movement, and I'm trying to identify what that is philosophically, without judgment.

As for the worshiping of "loose" in contrast to the anathema against "tight", I think I have a whole other post in me for that one :)

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Scott, I understood what you meant, although I also understood why it came across as it did to Spatula. (Just for the record, I've known Scott for over 15 years and we were art students together and we've had these conversations before, so that gives his comment a bit more context :)

As for this:
"If you reduce painting to a systematic series of calculations (the apparent goal of classical realism), you are, in a sense, attempting to make it a science - to reduce it to a form of manufacturing where there are no surprises. This is quite clearly an "intellectual pursuit"."

That's a pretty loaded way to describe realism, you have to admit, Scott ;)

Even with a more "loose" approach you well know how frustrating it can be to make the painting have the feeling you want to convey.

It all takes careful analysis and a careful breaking down and processing of the visual experience.

And for your last paragraph, I think my cross-posted point is in stark disagreement with this. I don't see Expressionism as merely the most recent albeit accelerated development of painting, parallel to the path of the telegram to the telephone etc.

I think expressionistic painting was a deliberate, conscious attempt to break with everything we learned about painting before 1900, more than any other art movement, because with the industrialed era came a need for a different function for art.

And therefore Expressionism requires a different mental/emotional approach to create and viewers have a different reaction to it and it is qualitatively fundamentally fulfilling a different human need than that of all previous painting.

And I'm wondering why? What was so traumatic for us as humans that a new need in art was born, one never seen before? And why did it come along with such a violent break from the past?

December 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

I don't see expressionism as markedly different from Goya or Rembrandt or Michelangelo or a cave painting of a bison. The techniques may shift, but the impetus is the same. Careful analysis is exactly what none of them were up to. As Saturn rips apart his son, Goya isn't measuring his whites and contemplating what will produce the perfect blacks. He's F-ing painting. This is the stuff of art, not deliberative mincing science.

I'm feeling a little feisty. :)

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

Hm, interesting choice of word:

(of the gait, speech, behavior, etc.) affectedly dainty, nice, or elegant.

Maybe we **are** talking about gender differences here.

What exactly is your point? That real art is made by "F-ing painting"? Which is also interestingly gendered language.

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

damn blogger ate my comment.

You're claiming that there was a hard break with expressionism from the artistic past. I'm saying you're wrong. There was certainly an evolution, just as there has always been an evolution. But just as the impressionists weren't the bolt of lightning the children's books would tell us, neither was expressionism (or any other -ism).

Tell me how a Rembrandt drawing is different from a Franz Klein. Tell me what careful analysis took place in the rapid movement of his pen as he danced his eye through a landscape.

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

You really don't think of representational art as fundamentally different than purely abstract art?

Technique or linework or brushstrokes can have the same impetus and excitement whether abstract or representational, I'm not disputing that.

I;m saying I think there is a different thought process behind drawing an expression of something inspired by out internal eye, versus drawing something informed by our physical eye. I don't think that's very controversial. I'm not saying one is better than the other, just that the thought process/need fufilled is different.

I also think the expressionism's worlds disdain for and discouragement of representational work has made a landscape of art that has not fulfilled another human need. That there is a need in the world for representational art, in a range of styles.

Surely you felt that you had to defend yourself as a representational painter? That if you went to grad school you would have been encouraged to paint purely abstractly? That you have had to justify your desire to have some fundamental representational drawing as a structure for your brush exploration?

Why aren't you and abstract painter?

I'm not an abstract painter because personally it's not satisfying for me to create purely from my mind's eye. It's not what I am pulled to do.

So from my own experience I think creating abstract work takes a different frame of mind, and fulfills a different need.

Is that really controversial?

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

I see a stronger line, though harder to define with words, between good and bad art, not between representational work and abstract work. While there is the obvious "this looks more like a thing from regular life", there is nothing, ultimately, real about some smudges of paint on a canvas. The degree of abstraction may vary but it's all abstract. Degas is more abstract than Ingres, Matisse more than Degas. Twombly than Matisse. And so on.

There isn't a difference in the approach so much as there's a difference in the amount of success. We are sensory creatures living in a tangible world. It is a rare artist that can create abstract work that is both compelling and doesn't resonate with some notion of that tangible world. Klein and DeKooning, for example, made pieces with space and form. The more pure abstraction is rarer and less apt to success - as at that point it falls prey to cold intellectualism, technique and reason above impulse and choice (the same problem the dry 19th century salon painters suffered from).

Note that I'm not saying that more abstract art is better, I'm saying it's far harder to do well. As Tom Sgourus used to say, "What an artist does is determined by what they can't do." I paint the paintings that I'd like to paint, that, I hope, are most natural to me. The more that they are, the more they resonate with me and the viewers. This, I believe, is also true of you. I've seen your work, as you mentioned, for fast approaching 20 years. You've always leaned towards slower more specific work. You've embraced it and these latest paintings are beautiful, the best I've seen you make. The important piece of the puzzle wasn't technique, it was you getting over yourself and just painting your paintings. What was that Miles Davis quote? "Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself."

One difficulty I believe you (we?) are having is that the terms we toss around are incredibly broad and come with a huge amount of baggage.

Lastly, as to defending my work, no, I haven't had to. If anything, I've been pleasantly surprised that those people that would supposedly be the ones to attack representational work have welcomed it.

Thank you for the conversation. I hope I wasn't too testy. Dinner isn't sitting well. :)

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterscott

Hi Scott -

I agree, it's hard to talk about this with all the big undefined terms, without first building an agreed-upon glossary :)

I realized I used "expressionism" really intending to talk about "abstraction". So as you have realized, I wasn't talking about loose versus tight, but representational versus non-representational.

As to good and bad art - I see the value of identifying what resonates, but I stay away from qualifications of good and bad. I really feel like art is purely subjective and doesn't really have anything to do with whether it is "good" or even successful, only whether it resonates with ME. This difference between our basic views I think also has been a stumbling block in the conversation.

I think also maybe we've been mixing up a discussion of technique with a discussion of content.

In any event it's been much food for thought. I've been thinking a lot today about plotting the artists you and I like on a spectrum of "classical/expressionistic": say the classical right end of Raphael/Poussin/David, all the way over to Goya/Rembrandt/Kline on the left. I realized most the artists I like - Rubens, Velazquez, Turner, Delacroix, (and even Mike and Leo) are left of pure classicism, but not so far left as Goya or even Rembrandt (for both of them I like their painting, but not so much the drawing structure underlying their brushwork). I also like some Ingres as I mentioned before, but that's as far as I go on the classical end.

I also realized that the "classical" end can be seen as having more of a focus on drawing - flat paint and clear lines - and the other end of the spectrum is less about drawing and more about paint.

So looking at it that way, I can see how you would say that abstract expressionism is a logical evolution of the path of "pure paint", the drips literally freed from the object. That I totally agree with and I think is what you meant?

The different way I am looking at it is: in the process of discarding the recognizable object from the drips, has one of the initial fundamental reasons for painting also been discarded?

If something important in us has been satisfied by the drips, is there yet something else in us that yearns for the recognizable object? I'd say yes.

Also, the painters I imagine we both like of the 20th century - deKooning, Giacommetti, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Franz Kilne, Diebenkorn - the panter's painters - were more about paint than the "cold" abstraction of Mondrian and Malevich, even Klee, Magritte and Picasso (who again is more of a colored draughtsman of ideas than a drippy painter). So you could theoretically divide the 20th century along the classical/formal/drawing end versus the warm/painting/visceral end. Although many would roll in the grave to see Malevich grouped as a "classicist"... (considering I believe he was the one who proclaimed painting "dead" somewhere around 1910?).

As for how I got to my recent paintings, I agree with you it's been about committing to the direction I'm truly interested in, more than simply learning technique. But I could not have done it without finding a supportive realist community. The art school/art market of the early 90's was not the place for me, and I didn't know about the so-called neo-classical realists who were finding each other back then.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful last comment, sorry you weren't feeling well today.

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

Wow, what a fascinating conversation. I had a horrible day from hell at my day job, and can't think straight, but this one stuck out at me: "As Saturn rips apart his son, Goya isn't measuring his whites and contemplating what will produce the perfect blacks. He's F-ing painting."

Ooph, where do I start?? Of course he's measuring his lights and darks. That is an integral part of the process of F-ing painting, as you describe it. By the time Goya painted Saturn, he was so well-practiced in working with value as a narrative tool that the process was most likely totally unconscious, so he was free to ride his catharsis without too much frustration over his technical ability to express it.

I honestly don't understand why realism and emotion, technique and passion are mutually exclusive. Technique, realist or otherwise, is just a tool with which the artist expresses herself. The depth of feeling that winds up on the canvas is half what she has to say and half how well she can use the language of form, colour, line, composition, value, paint handling and visual narrative to say it.

I really don't know if the language of abstraction is a new one. Seems to me it's used world over, just usually in objects meant for utilitarian use rather than sheer contemplation. As a graphic designer, I see a lot of overlap between what I do in that job and what abstract artists do. Maybe the emergence of abstraction as a Western *art* form has more to do with the peculiarity of the 20th century art market than anything else?

December 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSpatula

I've been following this discussion and finally just had to check out NCBI for articles related to the question.

But before that, I had to look up every artist mentioned. I think there was something wrong with Ingres. I would love to read more about his process and life. The textiles are amazing, but the faces seem relatively undeveloped and their expressions are all the same annoyed sneer. I don't think he connected with people or something.

But about the fundamental difference:

December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKristin


December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterThis is the link.

Hi Kristen, thanks for the link. It makes sense that artwork with visual imagery stimulates lots of areas of the brains as we "match" what we are seeing to all our previous visual associations.

I'm not sure it means anything less happens in the brain when viewing abstract art, certainly many people feel "moved" or stimulated by abstract art. If they didn't I imagine the whole experiment would have petered out quickly. But it would be interesting to really know exactly what is being stimulated. (Especially that geometric illusion stuff, I don't get why that's art and not just a fun optical illusion.)

About Ingres - he's on the classical end of he spectrum, which means he's following formal rules for the figure. Strict classicism is not about the individual or the specific, it's about the ideal and the general.

You can see like the faces all the forms are generalized, too - all the little substructures - say "bumps" of a shoulder - have been "smoothed out".

And since he is painting an ideal that is outdated, we see the heavy-lidded, serious gaze and think everyone looks sneering, when it wasn't seen that way at the time. His portraits are definitely weird. But I imagine our contemporary barbie-doll movie starlet face probably would look grotesque and bizarre in another era, not at all beautiful.

That's why the more realist paintings look so shockingly individual they could be contemporary people looking out from the canvas at you - Velazquez is a good example. These people could be walking down the street today.

But still, the lines of an Ingres back I find amazing in their ability to show a symphony of gently turning form; slightly compressed, slightly stretched, slightly turned, balancing on the far edge of being self-sustaining but still convincing as barely-solid breathing life.

Not that I want to draw like Ingres, but there are lesson to be learned there.

December 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri

I'm not even sure to begin with this topic, as there's a lot to be said and I'm having trouble organizing it in my head enough to say something coherent. In any event, I'm sure one could assign "too academic and intellectual" or "too emotional and lacking in structure and technical competency" to either category of work, depending on one's inherent inclination or disinclination toward one or the other...
For some reason, though, this whole discussion is reminding me of Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word" which actually *does* raise some interesting points, depsite what one might feel about Tom Wolfe in general! Check it out -

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Feissel

Thanks Diane, you reminded me of an article I just read about a new book just written on that topic, Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

Here's the URL to the review - sorry for the ugly url, I don't know how to post the pretty link like Kristen did :)

But it's almost too easy if you want to "skewer" either site - like you said Diane, both are easily criticized if your intention is to be "right".

Trying to understand the Other is always a better path to self development.

Spatula, I meant to respond earlier, I think you bring up an interesting question about how the relationship of the rise of abstraction as Fine Art is related to the art market. Buying and selling art only became Big Business once there was lots of abstract paintings to sell.

About your comment of abstraction, I'm surprised you think of graphic design as abstract? It's non-figurative, but it has a utilitarian focus (I was a designer, too, I say "utilitarian" in a good way). Utilitarian seems to me completely contrary to the goals of abstract expressionism. Why do you see them as similar?

I agree abstraction as pattern and design was not new before 1910, but I think there's a big leap between making a pattern in a garment, and suddenly putting that pattern up on a canvas in a gallery. And abstraction seems to be mainly about a rejection of a pleasing aesthetic, it wants to go beyond decorative.

I think the move towards abstraction in painting was a leap of self-awareness that maybe was only possible with the new philosophical ideas of selfhood and the importance of the individual, and the new theories of psychology.

The inner life suddenly got way more interesting and mysterious in the early 20th century than it had ever been before. Hm, and the boom in self help books in the 80's coincided with that art boom...

That's my basic point throughout, that abstract expressionism fills a newly-discovered human need to explore an inner landscape, and is therefore fundamentally necessary but also fundamentally different from representational art.

But the older human need to also make and see representational art is still within us, and the rise of so-called neo-realism could be seen as a response to this need.

December 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSadie Jernigan Valeri
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