This is an important distinction, and the art world has placed so much more value on information than texture over the last century that texture has been banished to the periphery when discussing art. I recently watched a video about Kara Walker’s monument, Fons Americanus, and while the narrator analyzed how it quotes and challenges history, and what this and that symbolized, he never addressed whether the sculpture was sculpted well or not, if it was beautiful, or even how it was sculpted.
An authoritative article by the TATE similarly never mentions beauty, aesthetics, skill, craft, or how the monument was created other than to say that sections “appear to be made out of clay”. In both cases it’s as if it never even occurred to the authors to address what the sculpture looked like, whereas all focus was given to the information it hoped to convey about historical wrongs.
The entire sculpture is white, but the only mention of the word “white” is in connection with “white supremacy”. This is equivalent to analyzing the lyrics of a song, and never mentioning what it sounds like. It’s like elaborating the ingredients of a recipe in an article about cuisine, but leaving out what the dish tastes like, or even if it tastes good. I’m not saying the sculpture doesn’t look good (it seems OK-ish]: I’m saying the question isn’t even asked.
By “texture” I mean the aesthetics of a piece, and here “information” alludes to the ideas that can be put into words either about the literal content, or from a more conceptual standpoint how the piece functions in society.
Songs provide a very direct example. The information is what the lyrics of the song are about, and the texture is the way it is sung. Consider the ever popular song “Scarborough Fair” (1968) by Simon & Garfunkel. Here are the first lines of the song.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
If you know the song, you probably can’t read it without to a degree singing it, at least in your head. It’s a traditional song with a long history, and the singing duo updated it by interspersing anti-war lyrics into it, such as, “Generals order their soldiers to kill”. The lyrics have been analyzed in great detail, and it’s safe to say that for all of my life I misinterpreted it as longing for a lost love. Y’know, some sort of sorrow about “she once was a true love of mine”. No, not really. The song has its roots in a traditional ballad about an evil elf who threatens to abduct a young woman and make her his lover unless she can accomplish certain impossible deeds, such as making a “cambric shirt” but “without any seam or needlework”, or as in the pop duo’s version “without no seams nor needlework”.
There are the lyrics, and then there is the music. We may say both are essential and complimentary, that you can’t have one without the other (though you certainly could have just the poetry or words or just the notes). In this particular case, it’s the beauty of the song that carries it, though the lyrics “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” are as unforgettable as they are just a grocery list of herbs.
Note that this song is extremely popular in Thailand, where I can guarantee few people have any idea what the lyrics say at all. Also consider that there are Thai country songs that I can hardly make out what they are about, even though I can read and write Thai, and which I enjoy entirely because of the music.
I always point this out, but, here it is again: we are a lot less confused about music than we are about visual art. Everyone knows it matters deeply how a song is sung. Is it screamed? Does it matter how Nina Simone sang the final lines of “Four Women”?
My skin is brown.
My manner is tough.
I’ll kill the first mother’ I see.
My life has been rough.
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves.
What do they call me
My name is
If you don’t know this remarkable song, it builds in emotion and volume until she screams the name “Peaches”. The piano, the percussion, and the flute all contribute to the texture of the song. And while I will generally argue that texture is more important than information, some of my absolute favorite all-time songs are overtly, passionately political.
But I am not the one giving an either/or proposition. I am arguing that texture has been largely eliminated in discussions of visual art. Part of this stems from conceptual art and the namesake focus on the concept behind the art; and the other major player is today’s ubiquitous focus on the political ramifications of the art, especially in relation to the race, gender, and sexual orientation of the creator. This is the case with Kara Walker’s monument, but even in a very general way “beauty” has become a bad word in art.
Of course beauty is not the same thing at all as pretty, and to confuse the two in art is awkwardly unsophisticated. Anyone who can appreciate a painting by Francis Bacon, or even a late self-portrait with bulbous nose by Rembrandt, can understand that how something is painted, regardless of subject matter, can be aesthetically compelling even if the subject itself is not so easy on the eyes.
Today there is the assumption that all meaning resides in the “information” residing in a work of art, and that the texture is merely the packaging, and can be thrown out like Christmas wrapping paper that the new iPhone came in. This is backwards, because there is meaning inherent to the aesthetics themselves, it just can’t be literally translated to sentences in linguistics.
We are in a stage in visual art that is self-absorbed, revolutionary, and is rebelling against prior periods of art. Much of modern art focused almost exclusively on texture. You can probably think of the most obvious examples yourself. Allow me to trot out what is probably many people’s first choice. Enter one Jackson Pollock.
His paintings are all texture and no representational subject matter whatsoever. The texture is itself the subject. This is the same with instrumental music in general, but much less easy to pull off with literature, even poetry, because the words will always represent something external to themselves. While Simon & Garfunkel’s singing the words “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” can function as pure texture to a non-native speaker, and in my own experience works for me in that same way, it’s still a list of herbs.
People today don’t know how to discuss Jackson Pollock’s paintings. I’ve written an article addressing precisely this. They will discuss the fact that he was ostensibly the first person to make the action of painting paramount, in which case the painting is an obvious record of the physical act of painting it. [He’s not the first. He’s the first to do it very well.] They will elaborate that he painted on the floor, and talk about the flattening of the picture plane so that it is not a window into another representational world, as it had been in the past. You might even hear the ever popular, “it changes the way with think about ________”.
But it only matters if someone was the first to do something if the thing in question itself is worthwhile. And if something changes the way we think about art or painting, is that a good change? Notice here that art becomes a vehicle for what we think, rather than for what it intrinsically offers.
These are all things the paintings did or didn’t do, or why they are considered important, but these pronouncements apply equally to over 300 of his drip paintings, and don’t differentiate between any two, even between a great one and less fortunate attempt. Some of the people who will articulate why the paintings are important along these lines will also buy or sell conspicuously inferior fakes, because they can’t even tell the difference.
Similarly, I was shocked that people took the Salvator Mundi to be not only a work by the hand of Leonardo himself, but on par with his greatest accomplishments. A lot of artists and art connoisseurs felt very strongly that it, for lack of a better word, sucked. But the experts either couldn’t tell, or had an ulterior motive that had everything to do with either making big bucks, or not losing their jobs by speaking out.
You learn to appreciate painting by looking at it, not discussing it, just as you learn to appreciate music by listening to it. These days even art critics are if not visually illiterate, their visual intelligence is so compromised by their intellectual biases that they might as well be blind. It’s a red flag whenever we talk about art as “starting a conversation” or “changing the way we think”, because it makes the art itself into a mere visual aid for a lecture on a hot topic. When that topic is no longer hot, then we only consider the art at all in terms of its historical role in a social movement. That conversation that the art allegedly spurned, and which gives it its value, is the equivalent of a conversation taking place over a piece of music as evidence that the music is worth listening to in the first place. If the purpose of art were to start conversations in linguistics than it is unnecessary because an essay or documentary could achieve the goal much more effectively.
And so what can you say about a great Pollock or Rothko painting, other than mouth Art 101 mid-term talking points about ideas surrounding, but alien to, the work itself. Well, it’s going to be much more elusive and challenging to do so, because a lot of it has to do with feelings, associations, moods, and sensations.
Let me give you another musical example. When I was in high school I started to notice that certain songs for me evoked the sense of a place. It had little or nothing to do with the lyrics. The music also evoked a time, to be sure, but that was kind of obvious, because I listened to a lot of older music. I was more intrigued when music suggested a sense of place, or environment, so that I felt transported somewhere else. Most music only took me to the recording studio. I’m not saying this is the best music necessarily – I’m also attracted to rather cerebral studio music — but that it is a very curious and compelling achievement when it happens. A couple hugely popular examples of this are the albums “Who’s Next” by The Who [particularly Baba O’Riley], and “Fragile” [all of it] by Yes. If you are British, these instances might not transport you to some other place, but since I’m from Los Angeles, they did. That said, I do get a similar feeling from hits by the band “America”, most notably “Ventura Highway” which I’ve spent enough time driving on myself that any evocation of it could be merely mundane, but somehow isn’t].
It’s easier to understand how a song can illicit an emotional response. “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks can bring tears to my eyes. So can “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. The first case is the most obvious because it’s sung from the perspective a boy singing about dying, and all the things he’ll miss. Of course it makes me sad. Chapin’s song is about a son who is neglected by his father because he’s too busy with his career, and then the tables turn and when the son is working age he’s too busy with his career to spend time with his father. It’s not even just the stories, but the delivery is also poignant. The same could be said of “Killing Me Softly” as covered by Aretha Franklin. Songs can be beautiful and sophisticated in a number of ways, but that one’s haunted and can stop people in their tracks like the benevolent version of the singing of a siren.
But when a song conjured a place, I had to wonder how it did that. The songs weren’t literally describing places. It was just a feeling. The point here is it was all texture, and had nothing to do with information or ideas that could be put into words. It was far too elusive, but also powerful.
It’s inordinately difficult to nail down, or then convey, what really works in a piece of art, and why. The art speaks for itself and in its own language, that is not linguistics, no matter how hard people want to reduce anything and everything to text they can tuck away in their back pocket and forget about.
There’s a story about the Buddha that I always go back to. I have no idea how true it is. I wasn’t there. But the story goes that someone asked the Buddha if there is life after death. He would not answer that question, because whatever he said would just be accepted as a conclusion, in words, converted into an un-examined conviction, shelved away, and made meaningless. And so it is with art, that discussing a piece over-much is killing it by talking over it. Nothing I can tell you about “Scarborough Fair” replaces even one listen.
What is the difference between a good Rothko and a not so great one? What is the difference between a good and bad guitar solo? It’s how it’s done. How does it hold together. Is it cliched? Does it somehow evoke a mood? In order to make a good guitar solo you need to have heard a lot of other ones and appreciated them; you need to care; you need to have dedicated yourself to learning an instrument; and more importantly you need to have a strong sense in general of what it means to be alive. Your solo can’t just be empty noodling: playing scales and arpeggios at breakneck speed. For it to really capture our imagination, for it to resonate with us, the musician needs to be very sensitive about music and reality and somehow be able to fix the latter into the former like a prehistoric insect is preserved in amber. This is a language unto itself which we can only learn to appreciate through the exposure of repeated listening.
And if you can capture that essence of what it means to be alive without literally addressing it, or making a pertinent political argument, it can be not only more moving, but more centering than reams of text articulating very specific meanings. Information in and of itself does not matter unless we care about it, and if we care it’s probably to do with our feelings and emotions. And if those feelings and emotions are real, they aren’t reducible to text. They are experiential. The ideas in a lot of these songs are vague, confusing, or in and of themselves rather superficial. They don’t necessarily reflect an accurate picture of the sociological landscape, and any analysis they present may be biased or skewed. If art is not the best, or second best avenue for explaining important social or political information, why is that currently held as it’s inherent and most important objective?
For a brief thought experiment, assuming you are familiar with the musical examples I shared, or can easily come up with your own, imagine that in the dawn of the 20th century someone who was committed to anti-music sought to flush a toilet as a musical composition in an open concert where contemporary composers were performing their latest works. Initially, the concert’s organizers rejected the toilet-flushing as a worthy musical composition partly because it mocked and trivialized the other works by Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, etc. [I know about John Cage’s piano concerto where the pianist just sat there, but few consider it really that important, and nobody listens to it more than once.] However, history came to herald the flushed-toilet as a musical composition on par with Beethoven’s best work; declared that it checkmated all more traditional approaches to music; and it was honored as the most important and influential musical achievement of the 20th century. [Further, you need to imagine that the rock and pop songs I mentioned never materialized, because no equivalent in the visual arts ever did.]
Today we regard visual art as a mere transparent vehicle for conveying important information – if not “starting a conversation” than “drawing attention” to some issue – and we judge it by the information according to our foregone conclusions and the prevailing belief system. Art is reduced to an idea, and its value is determined by ideology. The pendulum has swung all the way to one side, and is collecting dust on the edge of a shelf dedicated to radical politics, postmodern and linguistic theories.
Today’s aspiring artists, art theorists, and art critics believe it’s more important to spend time reading texts about semiotics than it is to spend time with a book of art propped in your lap studying the pictures. It is surely considered infinitely more important that young artists are politically and socially aware – as it were from a far left perspective – than it is that they know anything at all about art prior to Duchamp, or have even seen it. Let me just save you a lot of trouble, young artist. I studied postmodernism, linguistics, semiotics, and radical sociopolitical critical theory in art school through a Master’s degree. I aced my contemporary art theory class. Save your time and money. You need none of that to be an artist, and I dare say it may do far more damage than good, depending on what kind of art you make and why. It can take decades to completely unravel the conditioning, if one ever succeeds in reprogramming oneself. Whole generations of painters – what would have been visual art’s equivalent to rock and pop stars – were extinguished because of the belief, spawned from anti-art, that art had moved on, painting was dead, and any serious artist needed to make conceptual art. That is why there is no visual equivalent to the enormous outpouring of rock and pop music between the late 60’s to early 70’s.
Art becomes a mute object that one studies as a subject, rather than a language that one assimilates directly and gains nourishment from.
When it comes to which side of the spectrum I’m on, I definitely fall into the territory of texture being more important to me than information, which I can get elsewhere much more clearly and succinctly. But this is not to say that information isn’t important, as even the purely instrumental composer or the fully non-representational painter needs to have something to communicate, no matter how broad or vague. We used to think artists needed to suffer to make quality art. I reject that on the face of it because it’s just a justification to rip off artists and otherwise make their lives difficult, but in a more fundamental sense it’s true. Artists need to be cognizant of what it means to be alive, to participate in the human condition, and this doesn’t happen in a secluded bubble of privilege where one can avoid ever getting one’s proverbial hands dirty. But as I said, this breadth and depth of understanding can be conveyed in aesthetics alone, such as in purely instrumental music. Beethoven’s piano sonata N° 23 ‘Appassionata’ comes to mind. That one knocks my socks off. To place notes in time at all, pace them, juxtapose, contrast, overlap, and interrelate them so magnificently requires the composer understands the nature of time, of lives intertwining, of long and short term exchanges, of joy, tragedy, loss, strength and vulnerability. To conjure this in pure music takes much more understanding than to articulate the correct political argument in text.
What is the information in the Appassionata? By today’s standards we must dismiss it as utterly meaningless. Instead we can discuss how and when Beethoven composed it, where it was played, and whether or not he was a womanizer. If you want a somewhat less cliched example of classical music, how about the Concerto for piano and orchestra no. 1 by Béla Bartók?
Many of Van Gogh’s best paintings are not of anything that I would find inherently interesting. Poplar trees, a wheat field, sunflowers, or irises. It’s all about how he painted it. But if we are going to talk about his work today, than we will focus on something like the fact that he was influenced by Japanese wood prints, because this implies that his innovations were actually simply borrowed from another culture. In reality, it’s just one of his many influences, and his vision is uniquely his own. Completely unrelated and opposite to the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints (fine as they are), and more conspicuous, is the thick impasto brushstrokes he used. The way he painted a sunflower says more about him than it does about sunflowers. His canvases are marriages of opposites. He fused his inner vision with external reality to produce something simultaneously representative and abstracted. They are thickly encrusted and yet luminous. Similarly, the perspective is flattened, and yet the colors suggest depth while the surface is richly textured. The subjects are humble and yet the depiction is ecstatic. He was able to portray reality the way he perceived it, or at least conceived it, with everything moving in rhythms of clear and intense energy.
But what information do we take away from it today? Well, we will probably skip over his paintings and talk about biographical elements. His paintings become not vessels of artistic communication, but mute collector’s items of a tragic retroactive celebrity: locks of hair once belonging to Elvis.
While Van Gogh was able to transmit his own reality into paint on canvas, today’s artist looks to postmodernism, linguistics, critical theory, and recent interpretations of history and politics for information to repackage as art for the public (and the sponsorship of moneyed institutions). When we judge art by the information it relays, we should remember that the information in question is quite often second hand at best, even in the case of the old masters.
The one thing I would want people to take away from this essay is that the meaning in art – its real content – is not found primarily in the information it relays that could be conveyed better in words – but rather in the texture of the art, within the language of aesthetics.
I am not saying anything radical or extreme here. I’m merely stating the obvious, which we have learned to dismiss in favor of the obscure and the counter-intuitive. When I was an undergrad in art school I was disappointed to discover that the art my instructors wanted us to admire and emulate was the most dreary, threadbare, uninteresting, and overall terminally banal art I’d ever seen. Best if there was no skill involved, no aesthetics whatsoever, no emotion, no feeling, nothing remotely cool, and instead a dry-ass, nihilist rejection of art itself and anything ancillary I might find remotely interesting. If it wasn’t Duchamp’s urinal, it was Malevich’s all black square painting, Warhol’s Brillo Box, or Joseph Kosuth’s chair + a dictionary description of a chair + a photo of the same chair. Even after I “got” the art, which wasn’t all the heroic mental leap it’s cracked up to be, it still bored the living crap out of me. That was precisely because it gave me absolutely nothing to look at. The real language of art is aesthetics itself, and yet the art that was heralded was either anti-aesthetic, or less visually interesting than looking at the floor, the wall, or the ceiling. Imagine going to music school, and then being escorted into the inner sanctum where you would hear a recording of a toilet flushing; a one-note organ solo; a cover of a Brillo Pad jingle; and a plastic whistle + the sound of a whistle + the dictionary definition of a whistle. You might find yourself starved for music within the vaunted institution of music.
It’s safe to say that I tried to be a part of the contemporary art world and to embrace the various radical ideas of art. I did get an A in my art theory class, and remember being very disappointed when a friend wouldn’t lend me a book of theoretical essays on art she had in her possession. I did some performance art, installation art, and conceptual pieces. I even got a big fellowship as an undergrad which was awarded only to one student per year, based on a juried exhibition. But ultimately the graft didn’t take, and it’s simply because that kind of art didn’t really interest me that much. If anyone had asked me if I preferred John Lennon’s music or Yoko Ono’s performance and conceptual art (or her music), I’d have admitted it was the former by a landslide, and I knew it had better be the latter (though I prefer her art to his drawings).
For me personally, anti-art and its derivatives are a curiosity, and I prefer that the art world includes them, but I don’t want them to be the main course of my art diet.
And so the contemporary art world at large is convinced that aesthetics are either irrelevant or the mere vessel the idea comes packaged in. Worse, beauty is anathema to real art. But that’s just being fashionably and stubbornly arbitrary, and insisting a patent falsehood is unalloyed reality. How about this fancy notion: art is only as important as it is good. According to a Google search I’m the only person to ever have strung those 9 words together, or 8 if I take out “only”. But I’m sure it’s not an original thought. Rather, it’s just making an obvious point that gets thoroughly eschewed by the supremacy of radically contrarian anti-art ideas about art. I might as well have just said the best art is the best art (which also gets zero hits on Google).
The patently obvious is invisible, folks, and that’s totally appropriate when we flatly deny the role of aesthetics in art, which is the language of art itself, and where the true meaning of art resides.
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