Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Making Art" by Jack Beckstrom

Frank Holme

Among the ambitious projects for this site
has been the creation of a membership bibliography

As it turns out, however,
our members have been too prolific
for me to keep up with them.

A few, like Frank Holme (1868 - 1904)
printed their own limited edition books of art.

Several others, like Carl Krafft (1884-1938) made instructional manuals.

(and more recently we have William Schneider,
Richard Schmid , and Ted Smuskiewicz

Most illustrated the books of others,
though a few illustrated their own,
like Cyrus Baldridge's "I was there with the Yanks in France" , and at least one, Oskar Hansen, wrote a a fantasy novel

But perhaps the most unusual publication of all
is the above guide to "Making Art"
recently self-published by the
Academy's current vice-president, Jack Beckstrom.

Issues of composition or “the magic”
(as Richard Schmid puts it)
are dismissed as "artsy nonsense",
and the only technique discussed
is how to digitally photograph
a model upon a rotating platform.

Leaving this to be
more like a book of art theory,
one that addresses the question of:

"How to make art that lasts"
"How to facilitate long term notoriety"

based upon the author's
interest in evolutionary biology.

(the text in color are direct quotations)

As such, it is more open to debate
than an instructional book based
upon a respected practitioner's taste and knowledge.

So let the debate begin!


"Behavioral scientists tell us that public opinions concerning ideal human forms are tied to deep seated reproductive and survival considerations."

But how do scientists account for the wide variety of idealizations? over the centuries and around the world?

Venus of Willendorf

The oldest art pieces we know of (around 20,000 years old) show round little female figures, with pendulous mid-sections and breasts; tight, patterned hair or head coverings and no facial details. These features were likely sculpted due to primitive copying skills and the fertility enhancing purposes of the little figures. It is unlikely that people of that time thought such features were the attractive female ideal of their day.

Why so unlikely? (other, of course, than the fact that they may not appeal to you)

Aren't various "enhancing purposes" involved in the creation of almost every everything people make - and why assume that the sculptor of the above piece was trying (and then failing) to copy a model?

In the center of Florence, Italy, there is a statue by Michelangelo of "David" --one of the most admired statues in history. No one can know, of course, the specifics of what the Biblical character David looked like. The anatomy of the statue strikes us as it did viewers in Michelangelo's time as (male) beautiful. This work is no small part of the sculptor's reputation as one of history's greats. In that same Florence square, a stone's throwaway, is a fountain of Neptune, a fictional god of the sea, by Ammanati. Neptune is depicted by a male figure comparable in size to the
David. There has been a lot of negative criticism of the Neptune fountain. You might well agree that it is not very "good." The male figure is rather heavy-muscled and uninspiring. I wouldn't be surprised if it looks very much like the model Ammanati used. Notice that the subject, Neptune, is mythical so the sculptor could have made the statue look like whatever. . . Had he been able to use the same model Michelangelo did it is likely Ammanati would have gotten more credit as a sculptor than he has.

But could the boyish figure of Michelangelo's "David" have expressed the cruel, relentless power of a Neptune?

And if most viewers over the centuries have disliked the Ammananti fountain -- why hasn't it been moved away from the center of Florence in 500 years?

Perhaps because the casual, ignorant opinion of the tourist or man-in-the-street has never been a deciding factor.

This might explain why the central piazzas of historic Italian cities do not resemble an American theme park.

A solid standard of measurement was lost when verisimilitude (does it look like the subject?) was increasingly ignored or discarded. Nothing solid and objective has replaced it. Much of modem art is "decorative." We can all agree on that. But that concept is about as non-objective (in the eye of each beholder) as a term can be.

But when was precisely measured verisimilitude to a model (which is the only kind that can be considered objective) ever used as a standard?

And if “virtually every adult human is an expert on the human anatomy", why are so many adults (including the author) not concerned about the excessive size of "David"'s head and hands?

Is any modem art "fine" in the sense that term was used before the 19th Century? If someone in the art world tells you he has the answer to that question, don't be taken in. No judgmental standard exists here. And, the art professionals do not have some aesthetic judgment gift that you do not. That is the truth. How do I know? How do you prove a negative? How do you prove that something is not there? If it were there, couldn't we assume that really intelligent people with healthy senses would know it?.

I cannot do better here than to refer you to the person with apparently the highest I.Q. in the world, Marilyn vos Savant. She said, in the year 2000, that experts who extol the talent of what she calls impulse artists (her example: Picasso) will one day find themselves in the position of the entire adult community which was deluded into thinking that the emperor was not naked in Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes."

What if sensitivity to the quality of art is learned through experience - just as it is to the quality of wine or coffee?

Some very intelligent people are interested in art, others in handicapping horses. and many are just interested in themselves.

So what can we conclude? I suggest that each one of us should have unabashed confidence in our own ability to appreciate art. This is not something learned at universities or from gallery owners or "art expert" writers. If you like what you see, say so

And yet, the author finishes his book by telling us:

If you found the writing easy to read, we can thank my concentration on English literature in college and my stint as an editor of a law journal"

So why is education and experience important in the ability to write, but not to draw, paint, or sculpt?


To summarize the rest, the answer to
"how to make art that lasts"
is to make it realistic enough to satisfy
"virtually every adult human who is an expert on human anatomy regardless of formal education"
, and to use subject matter of
"near universal appeal"
that will catch attention, while avoiding
"politics and social controversy"

This man-on-the-street kind of realism,and nonchalance towards subject matter and style, accounts quite well for the author's own work, especially the piece in the Palette and Chisel's own front yard, but it doesn't go very far towards distinguishing the kinds of thing that have been cherished, collected,and protected by people who didn't make it themselves.

(the only work in the Beckstrom art museum was made by Beckstrom himself, while no other museum has yet to collect him)

The author also fails to distinguish the visual difference between a live model and a photograph of one.

Apparently that difference is as unimportant to him as the difference between the "impulse art" of Picasso and everyone else, or the difference between a passport photo
and a portrait by Rembrandt.

Laredo Taft - Charles Mulligan - Albin Polasek

The Palette and Chisel has a long tradition of satirical humor,
and hopefully "Making Art" was written in that spirit.

But otherwise, it is willfully ignorant
of the great tradition our members have studied, taught, and practiced
as exemplified by the three sculptors shown above
who led the sculpture department at the Art Institute
from its beginning until the middle of the 20th Century.

(note: Taft wasn't actually a member of the Palette and Chisel,
but since it began in his studio in 1895,
he deserves some credit for our existence.)

In addition to his many monuments.
Taft also wrote a great deal about
the history and principles of sculpture
(hint: it's not about copying a model)
some of which can read here , here , here, and here .


Blogger Molly said...


May 04, 2011  
Blogger chris miller said...

As Molly noted in an accompanying email, "I even began to wonder if everyone at the P&C had similar leanings."

And since the dismissal of style and other ideas offered in the book are so apparent in the statue that Jack put in our front yard, I wonder whether passersby assume that all of us are just as willfully ignorant of the potential of art to be profound, beautiful, and inspirational -- rather than simply an opportunity for someone to gain notoriety.

May 04, 2011  
Blogger BlackNo1 said...

**edit-this just sort of randomly spiralled from a few paragraphs into this huge rambling monstrosity for what reason, I have no the last minute before deleting it back to relevance I said "hell with it" and posted the whole thing so if it's too long and aimless, no need to read it :) **

Hi, I realize this entry is 150 years old but it was referenced in one of your more recent ones and at 3 am with insomnia, it seemed like the perfect time to comment on it. Full disclosure: I have not read the book in question. But it's great to see someone address specific issues in it point by point. I feel like I should mention one overwhelming factor that is fairly decisive on both sides of this and which neither of you addressed, which is history. The idea is this: imagine very common occurrence you will absolutely encounter if you sit on a bench at the Art Institute or wherever and listen anonymously for a day to people talking about the art. You will have collage art majors, tourists, kids on field trips to their first museum (I have in fact been all of these myself at one point). I can't recommend this highly enough, which people rarely if ever seem to do, and which I promise is as instructive in how art affects average modern everyday people than anything one will ever get in artist's circles. As always, children are very interesting to hear. I urge you to do this. You can do it while drawing but that skews the experiment in another direction. Try the Impressionist room with the Haystacks, or the touch area with the St. Joan bust.

How this relates to my point about history is, art cannot ever be extracted from its time and place. Timeless art is a contradiction in terms...what people really mean is "enduring" art, of course. People are obsessed with art as a path to immortality, or a legacy. Other artists, to many of them, are at the end of the day, competitors in the way of this snipe hunt. It's a competitive sport and you have rivals not teammates now.

September 17, 2015  
Blogger chris miller said...

I have no interest "in how art affects average modern everyday people" - but that's got to be an important issue when discussing public funding.

Regarding your firm assertion that "art cannot ever be extracted from its time and place" -- obviously some questions about original context can be answered more reliably than others - while some facts of the human condition never change (birth - death - sex - etc). So one might say that art can only be partially extracted from its origin - while nothing can be completely extracted - even if you made it yourself yesterday.

September 17, 2015  

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