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A Letter by Arte – Arte’s Categories

Dear Zeuxis,

I read your letter with interest. I took it up while we were waiting to depart for France. I was in one of those moments that hang between action and expectancy of action. My mother is really an obsessive packer, and when she says we are ready it still takes her hours to re-pack and prepare, to take back things and re-shuffle everything, then add some more. I waited and waited! It was a sad morning with a dark, heavy sky. A misery rain drilled down relentlessly on the meadows. I could not even see the river banks and its trees. The rain veiled my view before it reached so far. Like Holly Golightly I had not just the blues, but also the mean reds. I let myself crawl onto the welcoming sofa in front of the window, and pondered on what you wrote about the way you looked at paintings. After a while I started to hate doing nothing, I thought of playing. So I suddenly had the idea I might do some combinations with the features of paintings.

You wrote of three stages of looking at paintings. First Impression, Discovery and Recognition were how you called them, and these corresponded also to three phases of perceived pleasure for a work of art. So, whether these pleausre phases are well present or not, to satisfaction, could be indicated by Yes or No. I know that there are all gradations of quality and pleasure possible for the features, but let us assume simply a Yes or No as first approximation. Then there are but eight combinations possible for your features of paintings, aren’t there? The combinations are YYY, YYN, YNY, YNN, NYY, NYN, NNY and NNN. Here is what I made of them, and I assigned names to the categories. Do not laugh please, I was playing!

YYY: a Singular Masterpiece or SIMA
A SIMA is a painting that strikes the feelings of the viewer instantly. It has a superb global concept that has an immediate effect on viewers. It is remarkable in its composition or colouring or detailed craftsmanship. The painter had an interesting, original idea, and the artist was in a period of his life that had a direct influence on his expression.
Among these SIMAs are masterpieces that are works of genius and that have altered the course of the evolution of the visual arts. I must call these "Singular Masterpieces that Shaped History" or SMASHes. Picasso’s "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" might be such a work, as were also Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, and some of Jackson Pollock’s works.

YYN: a Fine Masterpiece or FIMA
A FIMA is a fine painting that is visually pleasant and striking, presenting a nice concept. It is remarkable in colours and mood. It has fine lines, or is very detailed in its rendering. However, it is not particularly of an original idea, nor does it mean something extraordinary in the history of the moment or in the painter’s life.

YNY: a Rapid Masterpiece or RAMA
A RAMA is a striking painting, for which one senses that the painter had an urge to express an idea, sometimes powerfully. It evokes a sudden and strong reaction in the viewer and it may have a spontaneity that has bypassed deliberate composition in colours or lines. Also, the work means something importantly in idea or in the life of the artist at the moment the painting was made.
It may lack in painterly skill but not in inspiration and concept.

YNN: a Fine Ordinary Painting of FOPA
A FOMA is still a striking work. It inspires immediately. But it is neither deliberately designed in composition or detail, nor means anything particular in originality of ideas. It is of no special interest in the evolution of the artist.

NYY: an Interesting Academic Picture or IAPI
An IAPI does not strike a chord in a viewer immediately. So, in a way, the painting is a failure visually. Yet when the viewer analyses it, he or she will discover strong composition and/or detail. Strong design on well-known grounds is academicism, hence the name. I know some very good, even excellent paintings among these, and the ideas expressed may be original. The painter may have had a strong evolution in an extraordinary moment of his or her life, while he or she worked at such a picture. But despite all the good qualities the picture is not inspiring by concept, and hence something of a failure. The viewer may like it in a sort of intellectually satisfying way, but he or she receives no strong gut feeling about it.

NYN: a Nice Piece of Craftsmanship or NIPCA
A NIPCA cannot really move a viewer and there is no thrilling, original idea in the picture. The painting may have been well thought out by the artist, and the artist may have shown great talent in the form of the art of painting. But nothing thrills one in such a picture. Emotions are not stirred, and there is also no particular intellectual pleasure in recognising a fine person, an emotionally rich human being inside the professional.
Among the IAPIs and the NIPCAs one can find many ancient pictures. They have been conserved because of their historic interest. They have fine aspects, but they do not particularly strike contemporary viewers. They do not appeal to our senses anymore, yet we recognise their value in the history of art and in this way they do have interest for us too from an artistic viewpoint. One does admire the skills by which they may have been made. I call these NANTI or a "Nice Antiquity".

NNY: a Tragedy or TRAG
Such a picture does not move the viewer, and it obviously has no interest by its composition, sense of detail, or sense of the form of the art of painting. The painter may have tried so hard to express an idea, but he or she has not succeeded in bringing over the idea. The picture is just a nice idea, but the idea is expressed to no effect on the viewer, and thus the work was to no avail. This is the kind of work that must be a sort of tragedy for the artist.
When I wrote these lines above I assumed that the aim of the artist was to create a piece of art that would appeal to the viewer by its honest intentions to produce a fine work. I might modulate this view by two subdivisions of the category.
I call JOI or "Just an Original Idea", a work of art for which the conceiver has discovered a special idea and presents that idea to the viewer without much afterthought of "fine arts". Much of pop-art is a JOI or a joy, to be appreciated because of its wittiness or wildly imaginative ideas.
On the other hand, the conceiver might have had no other intention but to shock the viewer. He or she might have depicted an amoral or horror scene or subject. This of course must be a figurative painting. I absolutely abhor such pictures, and do not find the intentions of the conceiver then honest and true. So I call these JUSE or "Just a Shocking Experience". I am now more thinking of contraptions or sculptures than of paintings, but such items do exist. I believe their place is in the trash bin.

NNN: a Non Entity or NONEN
The picture exists, it has been created and it is there, before the viewer, but there is no quality whatsoever in it. It does not move one, expresses no original idea, shows no particular craftsmanship and when one studies the life of the person who made it there is really nothing exciting in that period of his or her life. It is a non-entoty. Throw it away!

So, Zeuxis, there are essentially SIMA, FIMA, RAMA, FOPA, IAPI, NIPCA, TRAG and NONEN paintings. I added a few more categories that I found useful. I opened many art books and looked at tens of paintings. I tried to assign one of the names above to each individual picture and thus discovered the categories. I had a few surprises!

The analysis taught me something new again. The one, most important feature that I found to be necessary for what I would call great art, the Smashes, the Simas and Fimas, was the feature or pleasure you called "first impression". The global concept of the work that had to appeal instantly to me. If that feature was present, if I felt an immediate thrill, I knew I had very probably a masterpiece at hand, and if I then read the commentaries in the books, most of the times I saw that yes, that particular work was universally accepted as a masterpiece. My intuition was at work, but do not ask me to define what that intuition could be. I cannot express why I immediately like a picture or not. I was so helpless, even though I tried to find for myself for what reasons I might like a picture. If I had not that first feeling, it took me quite some time to really love a painting, and I grew very suspicious when that feature was not present: rarely could I find paintings that still appealed to me. I guess that must be the magic of art.

Are there also SIMA, FIMA, RAMA, and so on painters – instead of paintings? Well, I was looking at all those pictures before me, so much so that I had a real mess of open books all around me on the floor. When my mom came in, finally with bags in hand, she had more than a fit.
I then discovered a new surprise! The greatest masters made works of any of these qualities. The probability of finding NONENs painted by Michelangelo I found to be low but not zero, but to my surprise with very prolific artists like Picasso I found NONENs to be rather common. I learned to recognise good paintings from less good ones, and I think I learned not to judge paintings anymore merely by the name of the painter. That was my judgement only; I guess other persons would judge otherwise.

Here is an overview of my categories, Arte’s categories of works of art:

SMASH : Singular masterpieces that shaped history
SIMA : Singular masterpieces
FIMA : Fine masterpieces
RAMA : Rapid masterpieces
FOPA : Fine ordinary paintings
IAPI : Interesting academic pictures
NANTI : Nice antiquities
NIPCA : Nice pieces of craftsmanship
TRAG : Tragedies
JOI : Just an original idea
JUSE : Just a shocking experience
NONEN : Non entities

I have a dozen categories, Zeuxis. It is a real joy to assign a name, and thus a qualification, to a painting. I realise this is just my playful and oh so very personal naming. I suppose other people would assign other names and qualities.

There are two other interesting corollaries on this subject.
The books I had been looking at were all on the greatest museums of the world.
Which paintings should museum directors present to the public? Only Smashes, Simas and Fimas? How about Trags?
How would a museum director know whether a work would be considered a Nonen by everybody?
I feel that a museum director has a duty to show a bit of everything. I personally would never show a Juse, of course. That would be dishonesty, even considering that other (sick?) people might like such pictures; but then also, I am not a curator, so I can state these harsh words and get away with them.
I also wondered how art critics judged a painting. I now will read art critics with more discernment. After all, critics are just writing their own personal opinion, and only that! They cannot have an unwavering intuition, and they certainly cannot and do not have the right to speak for everybody! I wonder whether they also have such categories pinned down for themselves.

My morning passed not into nothing after all!



Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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