In Walter Benjamin: an Introduction to His Work and Thoughts (2004 in German, 2010 in English), Uwe Steiner describes Benjamin’s discussion of “Critique of Pure Reason,” in which Benjamin quotes Kant to the effect, “ ... ‘that all speculative knowledge is limited to objects of experience,’ and that we can have knowledge of things only insofar as they present themselves as objects of sensory perception, that is, as tangible phenomena.”
We are participant observers in the ongoing modernization, or globalization, of world culture.
Modernism sometimes refers to an artistic style or movement that began in Europe roughly in the last third of the 19th century and continues to the present. (Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Alfred Leslie’s film The Cedar Bar.)
Modernism also refers to the period of world history (and of art history) from the late Middle Ages to the present. At the beginning of this epoch the purpose of art ceased to be to depict religious themes under the patronage of the church and aristocracy and became the arena of artists and their patrons. Hans Belting wrote about this major point of inflection in Hieronymus Bosch: Garden of Earthly Delights.
“Modernism and postmodernism are not chronological eras, but political positions in the century-long struggle between art and technology.” (The Dialects of Seeing. Susan Buck-Morss, p.359)
The above clusters of ideas and history have a bearing on the practice and understanding of art. I hope it is clear from the sense of the text which Modernism I am writing about.
Modernism makes consideration of the formal aspects of composition necessary for the aesthetic appreciation of works of art.
The painting to the right is one of many I have made based on a motif of rectilinear bands of color. Its success depends on whether I was able to harmonize the colors and proportions of the forms.
Abstract Expressionist Photograph by Aaron Suskind.
The compositional principles that apply to abstract painting, also apply to photography.
The two images below are similar in composition. However you respond to their content, or whatever meaning you might might infer them to possess, their success as works of art depends on the effectiveness, in each image, of line, form, color, and composition, in eliciting a positive aesthetic response from the viewer.
These two photographs are of different subjects. Their compositions, however, are similar. In each case, my aesthetic response to the elements of the composition was what prompted me to make the photograph. The sensory experience of perceiving their composition is essential for the success of each image.
I used a view camera to make the photographs. To control the final images, I positioned the camera and adjusted the orientation of the film plane and lens to reveal compositional imperatives that I saw in the ground glass.
Roadside trees, Marmion Way Off Ramp
This diagram, like the others in Erle Loran's book, Cézanne’s Composition: Analyses of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of his Motifs, grew out of his analysis of the differences between Cézanne’s paintings and the literal rendition of the scenes as they appeared in photographs Loran took of their motifs at the locations from which Cézanne made the paintings.
As I was making the above photograph, this diagram from Loran’s book immediately came to mind, and I used the caption in the book “Tension Between Axes” as the photograph’s title.
I excitedly showed the photograph to a colleague, an architect, who I assumed would appreciate the aesthetically complex and emotionally evocative elements that had drawn me to the site. Instead, he denounced the photograph as embodying everything he hated about Los Angeles — trash, graffiti, and ugly industrial buildings.
The Marmion Way photograph is a contact print from an 11 inch x 14 inch negative. It is arguably close to the location where the photograph “Alice and Verda in the Arroya [sic]” was taken around 1910.
These views of the setting of the Arroyo Seco Parkway illustrate the transformation of the cultural landscape of the Arroyo neighborhood that occurred between the taking of the two pictures. These considerations, and others as well, contribute to the sensory experience of perceiving them, whether individually, or considered in connection with one another.
The one hundred year old snapshot of Alice and Verda was the basis of the performance piece and video referred to in Modernism and Post Modernism. At the time I took the photograph of the Marmion Way offramp, a few years before doing the performance piece, I did not connect it to the photograph, which has been in my possession for many years.
Cézanne altered the appearance of optical reality in order to satisfy the compositional imperatives of his paintings. This was a decisive departure from representation in Western art. His work provided a foundation for subsequent innovations, including, Cubism; Surrealism; and, ultimately, Abstract Expressionism.
During the third week of October, 2018, I travelled to Aix en Provence. I visited Cézanne’s studio and grounds, the quarry at Bibimus, and other landmarks of Cézanne’s life in Aix.
Tour guides and written history in Aix characterize Cézanne as a landscape painter, and they also describe him as the bridge between realism and abstraction. This contradiction ignores the point of the spatial rearrangements he made, which replaced geometrically accurate representation with more artistically and aesthetically satisfying compositions. (cf., Loran, Compositions of Cézanne.)
Given that Cézanne rearranged the geometry of his subjects each time he painted them, there was no need for him to find new locations. Each painting was a new view, a new creation. These were not haystacks.
The link to Places will take you to Cézanne’s studio and motifs of his paintings. The link to Erle Loran will take take you to the Books Page, and a discussion of his book Cézanne's Composition.
Modernism evokes irrational passionate opposition that has little to do with the nature, let alone the merit, of the works in question.
Robert Adams, in his 1981 book Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values, referring to the sources of great artists (Cézanne, Delacroix, and Matisse, in this case), writes — in remarkably Quranic language — “each, great as he was, understood that creations out of nothing are possible only for God.” (my emphasis) (p. 88). “Art that mirrors the order in the Creation itself [has not been] the subject of the art of this [the 20th] century.” (p. 30). The author goes on to denigrate modern artworks that “have interesting shapes, etc., and are of trifling interest.”
Adams appears ignorant of the history of 20th Century art.
Adams takes the position that photographs – unlike paintings, drawings, and sculpture – are necessarily representational and possessed of content. He is dismissive of non-representational art: “Some of what in our time we have called art has been concerned solely and finally [with] color, shape and texture. It seems to offer real but minor pleasures (p. 30).” “Beauty is, at least in part, always tied to subject matter (p. 33).”
Adams ignores, or is unaware of, the abstract photography of Aaron Siskind. If he is ignoring Siskind’s work Adams is being intellectually dishonest. If he’s ignorant of Siskind’s work he is not qualified to comment credibly on photography. A Friends of Photography publication on Siskind’s photographs (Friends of Photography, Untitled 49, Road Trip.) is to be found on the BOOKS Page.
According to Hans Belting, “In Islam, the depiction of people, or of animals with breath and voice, is blasphemous.” (Florence and Baghdad, pages 63, 64, 109). Abstract geometric patterns and elaborate calligraphy are preferred.
In Muslim art an elaborate system of geometrical abstraction forms the basis for a non-objective art that is largely, if not entirely, foreign to Western art and the way westerners apprehend art.
Exposition of Dynamic Symmetry is one of my favorite Edward Weston photographs. Its title parodies language used to disparage abstract art.
Weston was a Modernist, his work and aesthetics, however, were grounded in traditional ideas of beauty.
The Daybooks of Edward Weston provide a firsthand account of the beginnings of his career.
California and the West, by Charis Wilson and Edward Weston, conveys a sense of Weston’s art and the context in which he worked.
The compositional principles that apply to abstract painting, and to representational work as well, also apply to photography
The ironic contrast between the Islamic view that depicting the human form is sinful, and Adams’s Christian assertion that worthwhile art must be grounded in a realistic representation of God’s creation, is striking. You’re dammed if you do, and dammed if you don’t.
Circular forms are everywhere — stray cells floating in the aqueous humor, phosphenes (images occurring along the nerve path from the cornea to the brain), portholes, plates and bowls, wheels, large disks of silver and gold at Meso-American worship sites, tic-tac-toe, the Tropic of Capricorn and all the other lines of latitude and longitude, petroglyphs, the sun, planets, moons, the hole in the roof of the Pantheon, Venus in the night sky, orbits, galaxies billions of light years on the other side of the the universe, Zen circles, rice crackers, black holes.
I completed the above circular form painting in 2017.
Hieronymous Bosch included this circular form in a painting he completed sometime before 1521.
Earth As Modified By Human Action
As an artist, a geographer, and an urban planner, I am horrified by the rapid, dramatically accelerating, and dreadfully destructive transformation of the earth during my lifetime.
Carl Sauer, Clarence Glacken, Paul Wheatley, and their colleagues and students, wrote compellingly about the appreciation of nature — from the perspectives of scientific understanding, and aesthetic apprehension of place, considered together — and about the transformation of the natural environment by human agency.
It is obvious and inevitable that human activity, which has accelerated exponentially since the beginning of the industrial revolution, is stamping out the earth’s beauty, compromising its capacity to support humanity — destroying the world as it is.
“ . . . We are approaching a time when not only will all men live in terms of the city, but urban dwellers will again be distributed more or less in accordance with regional population densities. It seems inevitable that by the end of the twenty-first century a universal city, Ecumenopolis, will have come to comprise a world-wide network of hierarchically ordered urban forms enclosing only such tracts of rural landscape as may be judged necessary for man’s survival. . . .”
Click on the link to read the complete text of the lecture. (City as Symbol, Paul Wheatley. London, 1969.)
The work of these geographers and other writers, from George Perkins Marsh to Rachel Carson, is compelling. The implications of their work are alarming.
Taking it in all at once is overwhelming, and nearly unbearable. I struggle to understand and describe the scope and devastation of the transformation. I am distressed by the deceitfulness and selfishness of the perpetrators. How can they be so greedy that they willingly consign humanity to such a miserable fate?
It is, I believe, due to the innate capacity to believe in the unverifiable — a human attribute which is evident in nearly everything people have known and have tried to understand.
Evolving from rudimentary settlements, the earliest cities throughout the world began as religious cult centers. From the outset of civilization, human society evolved in what was essentially sacred space. (cf. Wheatley, Pivot of the Four Quarters, The Places Where Men Pray. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore.)
Art, from prehistoric cave paintings to the end of the Middle Ages, has been largely devoted to providing its viewers with images of things that are based on metaphysical premises, which, by their nature, cannot be proven, nor disproven.
Human understanding of ecological principles has only partially superseded the idea of a divinely designed earth. Despite the absence of verifiable evidence to support their views, people continue to ascribe teleological explanations to the natural world.
Science is putatively fact-based. The scientific method relies on hypotheses, that is, on the expectation of scientists that the outcomes of their work will confirm what they anticipate the facts to be.
The end of the Anthropocene, if it is environmental collapse, will be protracted and grindingly miserable. If it is war games, it will be immediate, cataclysmic, and unimaginably awful — global warming, or nuclear effacement.