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Lesson Seventeen – Art

Artemisia and Zeuxis are sitting inside Arte’s house. They enjoy a nice but dark view on the garden. It is raining outside. A heavy rain pours down and the skies are all clogged up and closed. Summer is past. Winds soar, and autumn has come to rest the flowers and bushes and trees. Leaves have fallen, covering Arte’s garden with the brown colour of dead leaves. Arte looks at the brown and deep red colours scattered over her green lawn. She remains pensive and thinks of the departure of Zeuxis.

Zeuxis: Are you ready, Arte, for a lesson on art and not really anymore a lesson on the design of pictures?

Arte: Sure, Zeuxis, go ahead. Please be slow.

Zeuxis, surprised: Are you tired? Shall I come back later?

Arte: Oh no, Zeuxis. Go ahead.

Zeuxis: The visual arts are a system of communication. We can analyse this system using the terminology of communication theory. This analysis then, can clarify the processes that govern the appreciation of art.

Arte: That is quite a solemn statement, Zeuxis! I remember you mentioning Tolstoy, who also said that art was communication. Please explain.

Zeuxis: In communication systems the elements that create and govern the processes are the sender, the message, the medium of communication and the receiver. In the visual arts considered as a communication system, the sender is the artist. He or she produces a work, which is his or her message. The means of transmission of the message is the exhibition of the work in galleries of museums, or in any other place where a public of people can see it. The form, the medium of the message is painting.

Zeuxis draws plate 94 to explain visually to Arte the elements of a communication system.

Arte: I read a book once in which a painter wrote that this talk about communication was all bullshit. He seemed to argue that the artist usually does not think of his work as "communication" and that he or she just works for fun, for money, or for his or her own pleasure of creation. Are you sure that painting is really communication, and what then do you mean by "communication"?

Zeuxis: Painting is definitely communication, Arte. In all my centuries I have not seen yet an artist who did not believe and want to be appreciated dearly, to be liked and to be approved, to be applauded for his work. The artists go a long way to evoke reactions in viewers. Man is a very social animal. Artists all aim to please, to inspire, to be loved or even to be feared for their work. Artists have their fellow- humans always very much on their minds when they create. And that statement is true even in their anti-reactions, when they brag that art and creation exists only for the expression of the artist’s feelings and most individual emotions. Even then they seek eagerly the reaction of their public. Refusal by that public leads them into deep depressions.

Zeuxis: Since you asked the question I have to modulate however, my definition of a communication system, and at this point already. The information contained in a message can be measured. It can be measured in terms of the number of questions to be answered by "yes" or "no" that can be asked to determine the contents of the message. For pictures that could be an impressive number of questions, but that number would be the total information expressed in "bits", elements that can take the value zero or one, two states, according to the answer "yes" or "no".

Arte: Hold on a minute, Zeuxis. I asked about communication and you talk about information. Information as I understand it, is something told, knowledge. Paintings do not bring me knowledge, do not teach me something I did not know before. Moreover, more than often I may find in a painting something quite else than what the painter may have put in it. The painter means something, but how am I to know always what he or she has meant? I am more than puzzled now. Some paintings may of course hold content and present a narrative, and that may learn me something I did not know before. But many others hold no content. How in the world can you talk about information when it comes to paintings?

Zeuxis: Right, Arte. All however depends indeed on the definition of information. I define information as a change of the state of the mind in the receiver. A painting evokes feelings, emotions, and these change the state of mind of the viewer. This transition of state of mind can be expressed in bits. You are in one state of mind, look at a painting, and that look changes your state of mind. I call that "information".

Arte: I feel hungry, Zeuxis. So I eat a biscuit, and that changes my state of mind because I was in a state of mind of being hungry before, and after having eaten the biscuit I am not hungry anymore. So that is information? Zeuxis, where are you leading me? Isn’t this absurd? Do you want me to give you other such examples of that absurdity?

Zeuxis: We are talking about a system, Arte, in which there is a sender, the artist. In your example there is no sender, so no system. Still, if you are hungry, another communication system is working. Some of your organs sense the hunger and send that information over your neurons to your head. When you eat, the same organs send a signal of satisfaction to your head, and that information is treated there. I would say that yes, in that example also, the cause of the change of the state of mind is information, or the immediate result of the message or signal. In the same way, a painting that is presented to you changes your feelings, bringing you emotions, changing your state of mind, and I define that as information. In the strictest sense of information being new knowledge, of something you did not know before, your state of mind also changes from ignorance to knowledge. That change is also a transition of the state of mind. And the cause of that can be measured in bits. You might even say that one transition is one bit, but also the quality of the emotion would have to be expressed in bits, which could be a not so difficult task. Now of course, you do not have to follow me in that definition of information, which is mine only. The most important is that there is exchange in a system, however you call that system. My best word for it is "communication".

Arte: All right, all right, Zeuxis. So the artist sends me a painting and whatever he or she has felt while making the picture does not even matter much. It changes my state of mind and since the artist exposes the picture it enters the "communication" system anyhow, if we call the system you talk of by that word. All right, I am willing to follow you with that name. So let’s continue to talk of "information" and of a "communication" system; but you are stretching my imagination!

Zeuxis: Stretching your imagination is what I am after, Arte, all along. To completely stay within information and communication theory, I might introduce you to the notion of noise.

Arte: Oh Zeuxis, what the hell can sounds have to do with paintings?

Zeuxis: I am not talking about sounds. By "noise" I mean again another concept than the concept of sounds that this word usually means. After all, I can use words for other concepts, can I not? "Noise" is what for me deters a message, the message’s content, the information. Noise diminishes the information. By noise, the meaning of the message may even be totally destroyed, as the information detained by the message is blurred more and more. I argued, Arte, that a painter, when he or she shows a picture, always has intent of communication, which is to change your state of mind, even when he or she originally made the picture for his or her own intent. When the artist offers the painting to a public, there is intent to share and hence a message, as the minds of the viewers will change states. But the painter may hide the message of the picture, or the message may be only partly understood by the viewer, or even completely misunderstood, at the receiving end, at the audience’s side. This then could be called the equivalent of noise and this "noise" may break down the information content expressed as knowledge, even though the picture still changes the state of mind of the viewers. Nevertheless, the painting and the artist, as well as the viewer, remain part of a communication system, because the painting is shown and shared with the public. You remain free to not call this system truly a "communication" system, depending on your definition of "information", but a system there certainly is, a system which – as I need to talk later of – is a system with feedback mechanisms and thus called a cybernetic system.

Zeuxis: So, "noise" is a term, a word used to give a name to the breaking down of information. Information can be broken down at the sender, during the transport of the message, and at the receiver. It is broken down at the artist’s side when the painter hides his meaning, willingly or unwillingly. The original information content can be diminished or changed when the painting is being exposed. For instance, a picture of a tree hung upside down has quite another meaning than a picture of a tree that shows the foliage at the top and the roots at the bottom. And, of course, a viewer may miss the original meaning of the picture, in which case communication breaks down at the receiver’s side. The intention and meaning of an artist is most often conveyed in the title of the painting, and the tile directs the change of the state of your mind, but also the title may be missing, have no meaning at all, or convey a false message other than the original, or the title may even have been given deliberately by the artist to hide the meaning and bring the viewer to an unintended meaning. In this case however one may ask what the real message of the work was: was it not then to deceive the viewer? That also is a kind of communication.

Zeuxis: If a painter only paints for himself and destroys his or her work before it is seen by someone else, I grant you that there is no message and hence no communication. When a painter completely hides the meaning of his painting and the emotions he or she wanted to evoke, but yet presents it an audience, then there is no communication in the sense of knowledge transmission, but there is communication in the sense that your state of mind changes anyhow. I would state that often even the fact of hiding the message is often a message by itself.

Zeuxis: So, Arte, your questions on what I meant by "communication" and "information", were very relevant.

Arte: Thank you, Zeuxis. So, let’s accept your definitions and proceed form those.

Zeuxis: Well then. Communication is the transmission of a message. The message contains information, even though the information may have been blurred or misunderstood. And the viewer’s state of mind changes by him or her looking at the painting, which I mean by information. All paintings of avant-garde art that protest against established art are very pregnant with the information of the protest. Painters that express their own feelings do exhibit and sell their work. They do not destroy it. That should be prove enough that they want to share their feelings with an audience. When paintings hold much narrative content, such as readily shown scenes form the Bible, the artists bring over the literary content of the stories and that again contains much information. It would only be difficult to talk of information exchange when the painter made an abstract work that has to be seen as an object merely. The painter then just would give pleasure to the viewer. In this case however, artists always seek effects in the viewer and evoke emotions. Such effects carry a message of respect, of wanting to pleasure the viewer, or of revolting the viewer, and so on. Yes, Arte, painting is part of a communication system. It is not just that, but it is always communication in some form and to a certain extent.

Arte: Zeuxis, for me the basic question for such a communication system is when in that system the notions of "art" and of "beauty" are created. When is a painting a work of art and what is beauty, and also who decides on these qualifications and according to what rules is it then decided what are art and beauty?

Zeuxis: The philosophy of beauty is called aesthetics. Scholars have been studying aesthetics and publishing their opinions on that subject since more than two thousand years. That may have been so because the concepts of art and beauty are so difficult to define and because the views on art and beauty have changed constantly. By analysing art as a communication system, we can situate the notions of art and beauty and present a proposal for their definition.

Arte: All that is fine, Zeuxis, but when then is art art?

Zeuxis: Donald Judd and Joseph Kosuth had a simple answer to the question of when a piece of work was art. Kosuth wrote: "A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means is a definition of art. Thus, that it is art is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that ‘if someone call it art, it’s art’)." Art is a tautology that defines itself. This is a perfectly workable statement.
An artist creates something because he or she has a need to express his or her emotions or inspirations, and a need to propose this expression to other humans in the system of communication. The artist may construct a work primarily because of the pleasure of creation, but ultimately there is always present the desire to communicate, to present the work to the appreciation by viewers. The artist decides to present his work as a work of art. He or she decides on the qualification "art".
Calling something "art" does not mean however that the entire world now should applaud the work and like it. Calling something "art" and liking a work, are two entirely different notions and the first does not cause the second. The act of liking, of appreciating a work is an act of the receiver of the communicated message, that is the viewer. In this act the artist is not physically present, can have no immediate influence and take no immediate role. The artist can try to influence the viewer, but the viewer is free to like or not the work of art. In principle, the viewer considers only the message, the work of art. When the viewer likes the painting, he or she can agree with the qualification "art", or want to reject it. But in rejecting he or she can only state his or her liking; the qualification "art" cannot really be withdrawn.

Arte: OK, Zeuxis. One can of course consider controversially this definition of the term "art" in polemics, but I will use the term stated that way, as you taught me now, Zeuxis.

Zeuxis: Thank you, Arte. So, once the piece of art finished and presented to the viewers however, the work may be appreciated or not. The viewers may have emotions of pleasure or of interest, be pleased, surprised, and delighted by what they see. We have remarked in the previous chapters that the appreciation of the viewer who looks at a painting can take many forms, and that many different emotions may interest the viewer in the work of art. We wrote of the phases of Impression, Discovery and Recognition in the process of appreciation by a viewer, and we discussed what feelings could be evoked in the viewer at the sight of a painting. The viewer may feel very different emotions, but also intellectual interest and derive pleasure from that. This pleasure, which often contains recognition of the message of the artist, is the very aim of the work of art. Therefore, a work of art stands separate from any other aim, even though it may be used for other means, which is almost always not the case with paintings however. If the work of art will also be used in practical life it may be called artisanal work, or decoration, but it retains the quality of art.
The work of art may be moral or not; it still remains art if the artist says so. This point is one of the most controversial that has occupied philosophers of aesthetics. For most people, a work of art must serve morality and teach viewers higher aspirations of spirituality and societal values. Yet, the painter can decide on making a picture that is immoral. But even then, when an artist creates a piece of work and calls that piece "art", this qualification of course does not mean that a viewer must appreciate it. The viewer then may say that in his or her opinion the piece of work is not pleasurable, reject it on the basis of his or her own philosophic ideas, reject it on moral grounds, but the qualification "art" can still not be withdrawn, as it is the artist who decides on this.

Arte: So I decide on what is beautiful and nobody else can claim the arrogance to tell me what I should like?

Zeuxis: Right! Whether you like a painting or not is entirely your individual appreciation. Since the liking is as much decided by the evocation of emotions, and since emotions that lead to pleasure can be so manifold as there are individuals on the planet, each viewer has his or her individual and mostly intuitive set of values to decide on the fact of whether he or she likes the painting, that is how he or she derives a kind of pleasure from the contemplation of the painting. One person may like a painting and the other person may dislike it. It may become possible that no viewer at all likes the work of art, or viewers may only start to appreciate art long after the death of the artist. It is even possible that no viewer, not ever, appreciates the work of art. In this last case the work of art disappears from history, will probably be destroyed soon, and the name of the artist is forgotten in the common memory.

Arte: So I affirm my absolute, undeniable and unalienable right to interpret and to evaluate a painting according to my own judgement.

Zeuxis: True, Arte. But you also have a few duties. You must search for the real intention of the artist. It is rare for an artist to declare and fully disclose on his or her particular piece of art. Often also, the idea that a painter started with evolved during the work and the final piece of art presented may come to mean and present something entirely different from the idea of the beginning. This point is not always acknowledged by the painter. Still, the explanations given by an artist remain the closest to the real intentions of the painting, and that is more valuable than the conclusions of a viewer or a critic. But even when the intentions of the artist are known, another meaning and significance can be laid in the picture by the viewer. This evaluation is justified as much as the artist’s intention. We prefer the original intentions of the artist, of course, and will seek out this "truth", but we will allow for other meaning and significance, as expressed by viewers.
Some artists, notably Symbolist painters, have played consciously on the ambiguity of meaning and have made works that were intended by the artist to be interpreted variably by viewers. The only criterion that could be applied very broadly to an audience’s opinion is that the arguments must remain plausible and justifiable in the terms of the interpretation and evaluation of that audience.
Paintings support and evoke very different ideas, feelings, interpretations and hence evaluation. That is the fallacy, the limits but also the richness of art.

Zeuxis: Remember the notion of noise, Arte? "Noise" may distort a message so that the receiver understands something else than what the sender intended. The information contained in the picture only partially arrives at the viewer, then. The viewer utilises his or her own imagination and that imagination may modulate the original meaning of the message. The painter may even have made a picture that allows the viewer to interpret it, to have emotions of his or her own, without intention of the artist to prefer one emotion over another. Nevertheless, the communication system with sender, message, receiver and noise, still stands even then.

Zeuxis: Liking and appreciating art is a matter of emotions primarily. The intellectual interest of painting can be more or less explained so that the viewer can be assisted, can be taught in that aspect. The aspect of evoking pure emotions in a viewer at the sight of a painting cannot be entirely taught however. It seems to be an innate quality that belongs to the human nature. Emotions may well up spontaneously, and growe powerfully in an individual at the sight of a painting, whereas another person may not be moved at all by the work. The same person may be in a more receptive mood for art at one time than at another moment. Appreciating a work called art by an artist is thus a very individual affair. But even when a viewer does not like a particular work, the work remains art if an artist called it so.

Arte: The appreciation by a viewer is not on ‘beauty’ alone however, whatever the meaning of that word. You explained me in the previous lessons that appreciating a painting consists mainly of three stimuli in the viewer. The first stimulus is the amount and the force of the emotions evoked in the viewer at first Impression. When these emotions appeal to the viewer instead of being emotions of horror or of rejection, then a work of art is appreciated in the first crucial moment of learning to know the piece of art. As a second stimulus, the viewer can admire the artisanal and compositional skills of the painter in what we have called the Discovery phase. The last stimulus lies in the Recognition of the ideas and inspiration of the artist, as well as in the information about the artist’s self, his or her life and history.

Zeuxis: In all these descriptions of the appreciation of a work of art I have not used the word "beauty", as the word appeals in various and many ways to viewers, in ways that have nothing to do with possible aspects of "beauty". It is perfectly possible for a viewer to like and feel pleasure at a picture that looks "ugly" at first sight. How then can we define that word "beauty"?
"Beauty" is a quality of the appreciation by the viewer of a piece of art. It is linked to the viewer, and to the individual viewer alone. Every individual person can define his or her concepts of beauty, and mostly, these concepts come intuitively.
One person can define beauty as the quality of a work of art that is created by the gentle harmony of the lines and shapes of a painting, by the harmony of the composition and the use of colours more or less according to Chevreul’s findings on harmonies of colour, even though we know that the appreciation of colours remains extremely individual. For that same person, beauty means also that the content of the picture might be either absent – in abstract art – or nice and sweetly pictoresque. Beauty then often is a general term used to indicate impressions of joy, cheerfulness, brightness of hues, lyrical moods, and, for instance, to qualify the detailed rendering of natural landscapes.
Very beautiful - or sublime- could mean that the picture has a high moral content and inspires ideas of heroism, of power or of spiritual transcendence. That could be my own definition. But you, Arte, may have another and better definition for yourself. Every individual may use different criteria in the definition of beauty. Art is what the artist says is art and viewers may like a picture or not, but "beauty", certainly not in the sense of "sweetness", is not a conditio sine qua non neither for the qualification of what is to be "art" nor for the necessity of liking by the viewer.
"Beauty", as defined here, takes a secondary place in the general appreciation of art. When people like art, many more feelings and impressions may grasp the viewer than the mere prettiness of the representation. Beauty in harmony is but one possible reason why a viewer can like and appreciate a work of art. By principle, there are no definite rules for appreciating art. The definition of the word "art" lies at the sender’s side in the communication system (so, with the artist). The liking or appreciation only lies at the receiver’s end (with the viewer). And the one cannot be imposed by the other.

Viewing as a collective Act

Zeuxis: In the past lessons, I attempted to define art and beauty for you, Arte, as the individual viewer perceives it. I stated that art was independent from the viewer’s opinion. Let us now relativise this statement. Not just one sole viewer looks at art. Viewing is a collective act. And since many viewers look at the work of art, there is information exchange among viewers of their individual experience.
Viewers talk among each other about their act of appreciation. The exchange of information can be a private or a public act. The interactions gradually converge to a collective opinion and this opinion interferes in subtle and in overt ways with the act of appreciation by the individual viewer. More importantly, the appreciation can be sent back to the artist (as a new message, sent in the reverse direction) and interfere with the artist’s views on his or her art. This then is a feedback process towards the artist of the appreciation of the viewers, which may influence the artist and have an affect on his or her production. Such feedback processes are common in human and more generally in all organic processes, which become by the feedback regulated processes that evolve towards stable systems instead of towards changing, revolutionising, perpetually innovating systems of interaction.
So in the system of communication that we analyse, exchanges of information take place between artists and viewers, between viewers and other viewers. Information exchange also goes back and forth between the viewers and the artists. These information exchanges influence the artist and thus shape his or her art. They can be analysed for their consequences on the evolution of styles in painting. By virtue of the feedback, the communication system can become a sort of regulated process, which is called in systems theory a cybernetic process.

Zeuxis draws plate 95 for Arte to illustrate the mutual influences between artists and viewers.

Zeuxis: We first look more closely at the information exchange between viewers.
Some of the viewers will express themselves publicly and explain in writings, and also verbally, why they like a work of art or why not. When such viewers receive credibility in a society, we call them art critics.
All art critics build their own individual set of criteria, of values, of rules by which they appreciate art. These criteria are subjective and personal, but the art critic will openly expose them in publications. They may become so generally accepted in a society, through their acceptance by a public eager to be taught, that these rules may grow to become the rules. Although individuals of the society may feel otherwise than the art critics, the public may openly accept the opinion of the art critics as their own. Art critics are teachers and as such they can have a very positive influence. They can propose to the painters means for augmenting their message. They can explain to the painter why – in their opinion – he or she may have lacked in skill. They can show the painter why his or her work is not appreciated. Art critics can applaud the work and in doing so bring the piece of art to the attention of the public. Art critics have an important role in the process of appreciation of art.
By using the communication media, critics try to persuade their audience of the validity of their arguments. Formulating critic is also a mode of communication, directed always at an audience. A critic’s inherent aim is to state his or her opinion on a work of art, to judge it, and to convince others of the points made. By persuasion, even if the critics would deny the statement, critics try to force upon an audience a certain attitude towards a work of art. But we know that there are no universal criteria for aesthetic judgements. So the critic must persuade by other means to press his views on an audience.

Arte: Is then criticism only persuasion?

Zeuxis: An audience cannot just be persuaded by any statement. The statements must be plausible, and the more statements feel right, the more forceful will be the judgement of the critic. As Anne Sheppard formulated it, "The question is not what the individual pieces of evidence a critic appeals to but his total web of evidence.” G107. Still, no universally agreed upon set of rules exist to define the web of evidence. But in the face of much plausible evidence it is more difficult for an audience to resist to the compelling arguments.
I plead of course for the formulation of opinions without influence on each individual taste, without that element of force, but the power of the communication media and the power of humans to aspire to a common understanding are great and compelling. The public hears itself in interaction among peers, and it hears the opinions of the art critics. The art critics however reach a very broad public; their opinion is broadcasted in books, by radio or television so that their influence is much higher than the influence of the common, individual viewer in the interaction of appreciation. All these interactions among the viewers of the public gradually build a consensus on the criteria for liking an art style or for rejecting it.
We may deplore this coming to a consensus opinion, but it is a fact throughout the history of centuries, as the processes of mutual influences are part od our nature. Every individual should learn as much as possible about the elements of the form of painting. But every viewer should ideally establish his or her personal criteria and be proud of that. If these match the values of the art critic, then that is all the better. There will always be subtle influence while the art critic teaches every viewer new ways to appreciate works of art, to open up new views on the form of painting. Instead of this ideal, we cannot but remark that societies of individuals converge to a common appreciation of art.

Arte: Thus, inside a society and due to the information exchange between its people, a consensus on criteria for the liking of works of art develops, not only by a few forerunners that speak out on art, but also by many other persons from that same public. The artists of course have an equally important role in this process, as they also speak out, write about their work and about their inspirations.

Zeuxis: The consensus about what kind of art pleases in a society depends upon many factors. Individuals can be powerful actors by their charisma, but also the social, economic and political situation can exert a strong influence. I have shown to you, Arte, how the various elements of form have evolved in styles. Each style, especially in the first centuries of the history of painting, lasted for many decades or even centuries. This then was the period of stability when consensus had developed and reigned. We will not analyse, even though we will give some indications, due to which reasons and forces the art forms changed from one style to another. That is of course another interesting subject for art historians.

Arte: But Zeuxis, do not viewers also influence artists?

Zeuxis: In the process of mutual influences, another type of influence is indeed between the viewers and the artists. Viewers act in essentially two ways on artists and these two ways have the same basis.
A common consensus develops among viewers, due to the expressed opinions of the people that speak out on art. Artists, as members of the same society, are usually very sensitive to how viewers react upon their works. The artists created their work as a means of appealing to viewers and as a means of communication. Rejection of that communication by viewers is hard to take for any human (the artist) who naturally is inclined to be accepted, understood and even loved by his or her countrymen. As the viewers collectively and individually develop their criteria of appreciation, the artists take more – or less – of these opinions into account. In the history of the past centuries there have been periods in which artists fully developed their art and delivered work that conformed to the generally accepted views of the public. Academies of art were established by governments in which the common criteria and values of the form of painting were taught and most painters worked indeed according to these as these were the schools in which they could learn the basic of their artisanal skills. Or as Ernst H. Gombrich expressed this, "A style, like a culture or climate of opinion, sets up a horizon of expectation, a mental set, which registers durations and modifications with exaggerated sensitivity". G106 . In other, transitional, periods of history, artists deliberately revolted against such influences and tried to evolve their art independently. If many artists take such a course, the artistic revolt becomes the norm. Then the artists themselves influence society in their turn most powerfully, as they break the established consensus views.
Artists have consistently tried to evolve views of art. They tried to be original and innovating in form, which usually simply meant that the artists proposed new forms of art, new styles, and new inspirations. When these do not conform to established consensus, and all change and innovation means exactly that by definition, then the artists are commonly called the "avant-garde". Avant-garde is always a synonym for a transition in art. It means dissatisfaction with the art form that existed and the desire to innovate and to change. "Avant-garde" is therefore a word that cannot only be applied to certain East-European and West-European painters of the years between 1910 and 1930. Avant-garde artists have lived and worked in any century.

Zeuxis: Humans generally do not like change. Humans build around them a cocoon of beliefs and of views of the world. When that cocoon is shaken, when forces try to break up the cocoon and modify its shape, then the human goes through a period of stress. People do not like stress. Most humans are by their nature conservative; they desire to preserve their cocoon. They do not like to be changed. They can change, and will, but then they prefer to do so exclusively by their own initiative. In that way they keep their freedom and the control over their cocoon. Avant-garde artists shake up existing cocoons of beliefs, and to the humans of a society that represents an external force. The public generally resists such force unless it is a force of the public itself. Such periods, in which avant-garde artists led a process of change, are transitional periods of tension in art and in society. Avant-garde artists receive support only if society desires to change and then perceive the avant-garde only as the forerunners of that change. Even when an avant-garde is revolutionary, the transitional waves that pass through society will damp out, and a public may slowly adopt the avant-garde views.
Avant-garde ideas may become so strong that they are adapted by the society. The avant-garde art then becomes the modernism of the epoch, after the transitional period has passed. All art forms that we have presented with examples in our lessons have been avant-garde art and then, with time, these modernisms became established art forms. In their turn, each evolved further through the actions of a new avant-garde. Tintoretto and Caravaggio were the avant-garde painter of Baroque art; Kasimir Malevich, Frantisek Kupka and Giacomo Balla were the avant-garde of radical abstract art, and so were Giotto di Bondone and Masaccio for Renaissance art.

Arte: Can one predict when a change in style is imminent?

Zeuxis: Sudden transitions in art and also in culture are often the results of individual work, of one artist breaking with accepted continuity and creating new visions that are more or less rapidly and more or less enthusiastically taken up by other artists, critics, and then the society as a whole. It may happen, and has happened, that several artists propose alternative changes, several roads to different directions, among which only one is chosen and becomes successful in the history of art and society. The reasons why a particular direction is chosen communally by many artists, and why a particular artist or group of artists are followed, lie in the tensions that have built up in the culture of the society at the moment that the artist or artists start to show their work. It is often easy, especially in hindsight, to point out these tensions, but it is usually extremely difficult to prove, even in hindsight, why such and such tension in society and in art could bring forth in an inexorable, decided way, such and such new direction. Still, a few historians and art critics have attempted in certain instances to provide explorations.
Erwin Panofsky explained how scholastic thought of the Middle Ages, at the beginning of the twelfth century, engendered Gothic art. He also showed how, of course, Abbot Suger of Saint Denis was the actor of change in the art. Panofsky could explain how all the elements of medieval thinking found their realisation in Suger’s suggestions for the building of his cathedral, which later led to the development of ever more splendid and monumental churches that culminated in the flamboyant International Gothic style, also in miniatures and in painting.

Zeuxis: Clement Greenberg exposed in a more general way that when a society in the course of its development is not anymore capable to justify the necessity of its particular forms, it breaks with the traditional modes of representation on which artists rely to communicate with their public. The artist is then not capable anymore to predict the reaction of the public on the symbols and references that he or she uses. Greenberg wrote that an artist could avoid controversy on the really important questions of art and hide in virtuosity, in the splendid handling of formal details, in academicism. This hiding continued until an actor of change proposed to break with accepted ways, with tradition, and proposed a way out. What or who then occasioned the change, the tensions in society or in the individual artist, is difficult to discern, more so since society may have no notion of what direction to go to.
Now that I mentioned Greenberg, there is another idea of his that I would like to comment upon! He called "avant-garde" in an article written in 1939, the transition to abstract painting of the art of the beginning of the twentieth century. This avant-garde evolved to considering a painting as an object in itself, rejecting the idea that a painting should represent objects or a narration. Greenberg used the name "avant-garde" only to this movement. I argue here that there have been many avant-garde transitions, of which Greenberg’s was only one.
Greenberg wrote furthermore that whenever there was an avant-garde there existed also an "arrière-garde", a rear guard. In his original paper, the rear guard was academicism. He called this kind of work "kitsch". And there was nothing in between. Greenberg later revised his radical categorisation of the works of painting just in these two classes. I do not believe that there is just in a certain period avant-garde and kitsch. The avant-garde represents the new art that in the future may become the established art. The established art is the art that is most easily appreciated by the public of the times, even if only by the public of the art critics and the more enlightened viewers. In established art wonderful works may be made that have as much if not higher value than some or most of the avant-garde work. While Russian avant-garde was being born, Ilia Repine made fine paintings. Kitsch then is the worthless imitation of established – or of avant-garde - art, without original inspiration. But fine art reproduced in large quantities is not kitsch, simply reproduction of fine images.

Zeuxis continues: The power of the artist to propose alternatives is so great, that he or she shapes the new directions. These directions are sometimes taken up in a blind way, whereby society accepts eagerly any direction or transition in its avidity of innovation. In some periods of history however, we can observe how several paths are proposed and how gradually only that one emerged, which corresponded best to the aspirations of society, or which was proposed by the more powerful artist. The power of the artist lies not only, however, in his or her strength to propose a new style, a new way of representation in the pictorial arts. The power of the artist also lies in the means of communication he or she has with society. If the style of Michelangelo led to Mannerism, the great movement that evolved from the Renaissance, and not -or less - Jacopo Pontormo’s visions, it was as much due to the power of Michelangelo’s artistic genius as to the status he had gained in his connections with the Medici and the Popes, as well as with other grandees of Italy. The continuous feedback process of communication, influences and interaction between artist and society was then strongly at work.

Arte: Zeuxis, there is a very simple way of influencing that viewers have. They can buy or refuse to buy works of art!

Zeuxis: So true indeed, Arte, and that was a remark that your society certainly understands well. The most direct way by which a society, which means for the art of painting the society of viewers, enacts on artists, is by economic means, which is by its purchasing behaviour. Painters need to sell their work in order to be able to create. They may have independent means, as was the case for some of the Impressionist painters, but artists from wealthy families remain the exception. The exceptions also have remained those artists that had other paid activities, a job in society, next to painting, and who created art despite other occupancies, other paid activities. Most artists need to sell their work in order to live. Selling works of own-created art is a very normal way of production and retribution. But art can only thrive plentiful where the money is, and where painters can find a market for their work. Until the twentieth century therefore, art thrived in centres of wealth, and these centres can be easily determined.
The Flemish Primitive painters of the fifteenth century concentrated on Bruges, because Bruges was then the richest city in Western Europe. Very few of these painters were actually born in Bruges. But here they found a market, buyers for their work, and thus here was formed an "Association of Saint Lucas" of master-painters where students could learn the art. Renaissance art thrived in Florence and Venice because these were the richest regions of the Mediterranean. Baroque art reached its apogee in Rome because the Popes concentrated funds from the Catholic Church in the Vatican. Genoa, Naples and Venice were other centres of wealth and thus of art. In the North, Antwerp became the new centre of art in the sixteenth century because Antwerp had taken over the role of most important sea-port of Western Europe from Bruges, as the sea-bay to Bruges silted in so that it became ever more difficult for ships to reach the town. In the nineteenth, and much more so in the twentieth centuries, the art markets spread over the entire world. A painter could now work anywhere in the world and try to sell his paintings in any market. Of course, money and art-lovers still need to be present. It is not enough to have a centre of capital to have a market. But art-lovers in impoverished regions of our earth cannot buy even if they would want to, so markets cannot develop there. Markets only develop in centres of economic wealth.
It is by the buying process that viewers influence most directly painters. Painters will to some extent deliver what has success in a market, and that means generally the established, stable art, the art of the societal consensus. Avant garde art sells usually badly in the beginning, and then painters remain paupers. We remarked time and time again however that painters were able to withstand economic pressure. These painters produced avant-garde work and continued to do so persistently.
The first Impressionist painters like Camille Pissarro, and even at the beginning Claude Monet, as well as many others, were willing to live in dire poverty to realise their ideals and their proper views on art. Such character among artists is not an exception and it is of course through this spirit of perseverance and sheer obsession of the avant-garde that art advances and transmutes. These artists had the steadfastness of personal commitment to their new visions of art, which in the end brings forth new movements in art, in confrontations with established views. The first Impressionists thus were banned from government sponsored official art exhibitions, and art critics generally mocked their new ways of representation. So, although it is a truism to state that the public, that is the viewers and buyers as well as the art critics, generally influence artists, it is also true that such influence must be relativised.
This kind of influence has been strong in the early centuries of the art in Europe. Gothic, Renaissance and even Baroque painters worked mostly on commissions. These artists had to deliver what was asked and expected of them. Their incentive for innovation was real, but these artists could only innovate as far as they might expect that the commissioner would accept. If he or she could only just have the commissioner accept this, a painter might add a nice landscape in a portrait, even though before his time landscapes were rare in portraits. But the artist could not have it accepted to use un-conventional, hard colours, and paint not straightforwardly nice features in the faces of his figures if that was not the consensus of the moment. Rosso Fiorentino tried just that in Florence, Rome and Venice in the sixteenth century, and even though times were changing and the Renaissance was in need of innovation, his paintings were refused. Rosso Fiorentino did not meet with success and he had to leave Italy for France, where King Francis I was either more open to innovation or simply too eager to take in any Italian artist, whatever the latter's reputation.
It has happened in history that regulated society, for instance in political dictatorships, have directly influenced to completely control the art production of a culture. An example of this was the Socialist Realist art imposed by the Russian regime under Stalin. The Russian Communist government took direct control of the artists’ associations and condemned avant-garde art. The National Socialist party in Germany after 1935, under Hitler’s dictatorship took the same kind of control, as suffocating for artists that wanted to innovate in art, as the control of the Stalinist government. These are examples of the most direct influence, which evolved simply to total control, of part of the "receivers" of the messages of art, that is the viewers, on the "senders", that is the artists. In the end, the society of all viewers, as well as the artists, protested against this control, since it was a fundamental restriction of freedom of appreciation.

Zeuxis: The exact contrary of such art fully controlled by the forces of society, also happened in history. During the nineteenth century in France and Germany, artists indeed imposed their individuality and the emphasis of the value of art for art’s sake. The Romantic period of the middle of the nineteenth century was a breakthrough period in this respect, as its artists emphasised their proper creativity and their independence in that creation from any influence whatsoever. Romantic artists considered freedom in expression a virtue for their art. The artist isolated himself or herself from society, and created a mystic symbiosis with nature. Later, the Symbolists, at the end of the century, evolved this even further so that the artist was, as one poet wrote, a "God in the depth of his own thoughts".
In our twentieth century, innovation became almost more appreciated than established art. It was the avant-garde that was praised and bought. This may well be one of the reasons of the recent diversification in art that we have seen especially since the 1970s.These points of view have since been fully accepted in societies, notwithstanding what we have stated earlier on the process of a collective appreciation on art and the accompanying unavoidable influence. The refusal of influence can become the norm, and the accepted consensus of expression of a society too. This is probably also why, in the last decades of the twentieth century, the forms of painterly expression have been so varied.
Avant-garde revolutions are transitional periods. We analysed previously the processes of influences that return to the artists. The feedback of information, the purchasing behaviour, and the other controls, all succeed in building the consensus that leads to a period of a maturing, socially accepted art style. During this period, academies thrive, and master painters teach students the style of the moment. Little innovation then takes place; painters and viewers complacently appreciate a particular style of painting. Genius artists can work during this time. Genius does not mean avant-garde necessarily. The period of stability lasts until a new avant-garde arises, or until society itself detects the need for change because its own ideas of living are in need of evolution. Artists have been very sensitive to capturing this need for change of society, and we find often artists creating a new avant-garde in the very beginning of a mutating society.

Zeuxis draws a new picture for Arte, in plate 96.

Zeuxis: My previous analysis can be represented in a schematic way. The schema shows the influence of the artist on the collective and individual appreciation by his/her work and writings.

Zeuxis: The analysis of art as a communication system with feedback in the exchange between artists and viewers thus exposes the processes of evolution of art. Now we will have to concentrate our attention on the elements of the art of painting that are evolved. We will look at what means the artists have used to evolve their art, and of course these means are the original subject of our lessons, Arte.

Styles in the Art of Painting

Zeuxis: In our first lessons we have seen that paintings consist of lines, shapes, and composition in areas. Colour, content and illusion of volume and perspective are other dominant elements. Western painters have expressed their inspiration and the way they reacted to their society, or wanted to change their society, by using all these elements in various ways. I presented some of the styles in my letters, without being exhaustive, and in approximately chronological order.

Arte: I read you letters on the various styles, Zeuxis, but you have not reached my own times yet in your writings!

Zeuxis: I will come to that, Arte. First, we need to look back at what you have learnt. The following synthesis necessarily remains very sketchy and high-level. It would be easy to find many counter-examples for this kind of categorisation of styles. Many if not most painters regularly transgressed the art style of their times and experimented with other ways of representation.

Zeuxis: In all the styles I taught you about, individual paintings can emphasise just one of the style elements or apply them all.
We can find paintings that use only vertical or horizontal lines.
There are paintings that consist of primarily simple, large coloured areas.
There are paintings in which we see only the basic shapes like circles, squares and rectangles clearly shown in simple colours, combined in surprising images.
Most Tuscan pictures of the Renaissance are all about line and design, about clear forms and clear, balanced composition. In fresco art also lines had to be drawn so that the areas could be filled in with colour easily.
Other art styles proned the dominance of colour, and of areas that smoothly passed from one colour hue into another.
Later in evolution, painters emphasised only colour to express their emotions.
Painters can use the flat canvas and stick to that medium, or enhance the texture of the paint.
Pictures can be categorised in figurative and abstract art, according to whether they contain subject matter or not. Emotions of violence, of love, of surprise, of admiration are sometimes easily obtained from paintings that show known scenes to viewers. We know how content always enhances a picture in the mind, but pictures without subject matter can induce rich emotions too.
Abstract art first analysed natural forms in its elementary shapes. Then, colours and shapes vaguely gave an impression of mind-images of the natural objects. Later still, abstract art evolved the painting to an object that could be admired for itself and not anymore for its imitation of nature or of objects.

Arte: Such variety could have been not reached at once, Zeuxis! The variation must have grown over time, as new means must have been discovered to enrich the arts.

Zeuxis: So right, Arte, and it is a fascinating story to follow this evolution to ever-richer means evolved, how generation after generation added a new aspect, whether it was knowledge or art. This happened sometimes in a slowly progressing way, sometimes in a rapid, revolutionary vision by the insight of a few geniuses or of one genius, which we have called the avant-garde.

Zeuxis: I have proposed you an overview of the various arts styles and tendencies that have succeeded each other in the history of art. We have used generally accepted definitions and names of the styles. We indicated which style elements changed in the period or movement. If you have been attentive, you could look over this evolution in order to better understand the trends in art, and you may have remarked how each evolution was an evolution in one or more of the elements of painting as we analysed them in the first chapters of this text.

Zeuxis: The styles that appeared, I presented illustrated by one or a few paintings. The choice of these pictures is always difficult. It is a vain effort to represent in a few pictures thousands of paintings that were made more or less to a coherent set of style elements, but only more or less. In using a typical example for a style we would negate the individuality of the artist. Rare are the painters that entirely applied form according to the reasoned and defined styles as recognised by art historians. Historians have sought in their categorisation the common characteristics of paintings whereas it is individuality that must be lauded. I have preferred often to show paintings that were at the fringe of the movements, to denote the variations within a style and to show evolutions to the particular style. I also preferred sometimes to show paintings of lesser artists. Indeed, many paintings of the most famous artists are very well known and documented in elaborate detail in many works.
Furthermore, it needs to be recognised that the style trends overlap and interplay, and that should be very apparent in the many examples.

Arte: I remarked that, Zeuxis. But you have not finished teaching me the modern styles! I remarked also that the new styles always seemed to want to be cataclysmic new, not just a slow and easy evolution.

Zeuxis: Edward Lucie-Smith wrote at the occasion of an exhibition on Neo-Academicism B22 : “Patterns of innovation do not on the whole evolve smoothly … they tend to progress in a series of violent jerks.”
Transitions can be thus usually traced back to one or a few artists who better than others could grasp the end of an era and dramatically, in obvious ways, point to new roads in art. This has been the avant-garde of the period, the innovators, and the revolutionaries of art. We will pass briefly over the transitions initiated by this avant-garde from one style and school to another. These transitions have to some extent already been hinted at in the previous explanation of the various styles. I explain here further how each new art form evolved one of the elements of painting, evolved in line, in forms, in composition of forms, in colour, in coping with the illusion of volume and in space and content. We will illustrate the evolution in art with examples and analyse these works according to the process proposed in this book, by separating the aspects of the work and our reaction to it by Impression, Discovery and Recognition.

Zeuxis: In the lessons on the design of paintings we talked about pictures. I hoped that I also have let the paintings talk, Arte! Each painting has a fascinating story to tell.

Zeuxis stops talking and looks expectantly at Arte.

Arte: That is then how our lessons continue, Zeuxis? You want me now to learn by myself from the pictures alone?

Zeuxis: Well, Arte, there is still a lot to read about art and about paintings. But yes: we are at the end of the road. I shall teach you no more.

Arte: Oh, Zeuxis, do not go like that! You have become my friend, have you not? Why should you leave? We can continue to go on discussing art! I long to talk to you about the pictures. I want to travel to all the cities where I can find museums and discover so many works, and be surprised and delighted, not alone, but together with you!

Zeuxis: You can travel, Arte, but do try to paint and search for your talent, like the other girl called Artemisia did. Bliss is in the searching. Your life will be easier – at least I hope and believe so. Life is a flux, in which things come and go. I need to leave because you want me too. Your mind wants to learn other subjects but painting. It wants to learn life and I need to make place. But I will never forget your patience, your inquisitive mind, and your love of having stayed with me. I go now, Arte, but I still have a few chapters to write to you: indeed, the story of the art of the last century up until the present time. Bye! Think of me! Think of me in every painting you see!

Arte: Bye, oh, bye, Zeuxis! I love you truly!

Zeuxis disappears and the last letters appear on Arte’s table. She cries a little, but she takes the papers and reads for the last time the words of Zeuxis the painter.

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