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The Mathematics of Art

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Well, not exactly.

The book I’m working my way through may be a slog, but it’s in the same general area as the books I’ve been reading most of the summer, and all of those book center around painting.

Don’t ask me why.  I’ve always liked looking at certain kinds of painting, and at Vassar I took one of those introduction to art history courses that lasts a year and makes you look at forty million slides and identify them.

For whatever reason, I never could quite get interesting in painting the way I was interesting in fiction and poetry.  And it’s not entirely because of the narrative aspects of writing, either. 

Medieval painting is a narrative form.  Its purpose is nearly always to tell a story, and specifically to tell a Christian story.  The elaborate formalism of Byzantine icons–which are still being painted, today, the way they were in the twelfth century; there are actually training schools for people wanting to be icon painters that teach them to do this–

Anyway, that formalism is all in aid of story, of making sure that you get the Christian story right.   The icon of a saint will include (around the central figure of the head) symbols of the saint’s life and the aspects of Christian worship with which he was most identified.

But narrative or no narrative, painting just didn’t get my attention the way writing did.   Maybe that was just a reflection of the fact that I can write (at least a little), but I can’t paint worth a damn.  I was an adult when I learned to color consistently within lines, and once, in a high school sophomore year biology class, a nun name Sister Jacob let me use the outline of a frog body to draw the internal organs in, because MY frog body was…a tree.

Okay, I have no talent at that sort of thing.

I’m also aware that I don’t so much have taste in painting as a mishmash of enthusiams that aren’t really anchored to any standard, even an individual, personal one.

I’ve posted links to some of the paintings I love on this blog.  They tend to run to the Renaissance with an emphasis in hyperrealism and lots of symbolic bits and pieces, as if I were looking for the visual equivalent of crossword puzzles.

And painting has, pretty much, fallen out of favor in the world today.  The people of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance lived with their art.  It was on the walls of their churches and their public buildings and their homes, often in such profusion it would give any modern person a headache. 

Art was not “Art,” but a natural part of life.  There were no museums, not only because there was no use for them–the stuff was everywhere–but because it wouldn’t occur to anybody to think of art as anything special and set-aside. 

The fourteenth century Sienese and the fifteenth century Florentines weren’t interested in bringing culture to the masses, or even to each other.  They bought painting the way they bought furniture–in fact, exactly the way they bought furniture.  If you wanted a chair, you went to a chairmaker. If you wanted a painting, you went to an artist’s workshop.  The master painter would do the central figure, his workers would do the rest, and the whole thing would have the emotional and intellectual force of any other kind of trade.

You first start to get artists with a capital A in the Renaissance, and then you only get them in very individual instances–and, possibly, simply because Michaelangelo was both a great artist and something of a nutcase. 

That’s the beginning, though, of thinking of artists as something special with special emotions and qualities, different from people than you and me. 

But you don’t get that full blown, and you don’t get the idea of Art as something separate and distinct, something bigger and greater than the rest of us, until the Romantic movement.  And now we’re talking the nineteenth century.

In a way, you only get the idea of art as A after painters start doing less well at painting.  There are isolated pockets of movements that produce really beautiful things–the Impressionists, for instance–but about the same time you get the idea of Art as something that belongs in a museum and the artists as the exalted connection to the True Meaning of the Universe, you also get all not only the different kinds of abstractions but “found art” and what’s his name’s urinal. 

And, at the same time, you get the idea of Art–not only painting, but also music and poetry–as completely divorced from everything else that is.  We don’t live with art any more. We go to visit it in museums, where it has nothing like the same effect it had when it was sitting in somebody’s ballroom, or up on the walls of a church where people went to learn the particulars of their religion.

We also have C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” so that there are the Sciences and mathematics over here, and the arts over there, and the two things are thought to be entirely opposed to each other.  We think that one kind of mind can’t do both.

And yet sitting over on the loveseat in the living room right under this book I’m slogging through is another book, a very small thin book, called On Painting, by Leon Battista Alberti.

Alberti was a Renaissance artist and a writer on the arts.  He is often credited with having invented the profession of architect.  Before Alberti, there were builders, period.  The idea of somebody whose job was to design the building and give the designs to workmen to execute was alien to the Middle Ages.

Which may explain how we ended up with flying buttresses.

But Alberti’s little book on painting in dotted with…geometrical diagrams. 

Not only does Alberti not think of art as entirely separate from, and different than, the sciences–he thinks of it as largely a form of applied mathematics. 

And maybe Renaissance men were Renaissance men not because there was less to know then, or something, but because they expected all branches of knowledge to be connected at a very fundamental level, and went looking for that, instead of for signs that those other people there were space aliens.

Okay.  And it’s only Saturday.

I’m usually not this incoherent until Sunday.

Written by janeh

August 28th, 2010 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Mathematics of Art'

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  1. Interesting–and may show the defects in my own education. (1) I’d have backed off the romantics a bit. Isn’t SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER late 18th? And in SENSE & SENSIBILITY, Marianne’s mother is one of the type as well. David is romantic to the core.
    (2) I saw the 19th Century as the last time great painting was respectable. This is a century that begins with David and ends with Pyle and Remington, with Butler, the pre-Raphaelites and the Salon School along the way. It’s true there are the impressionists–very odd, since corrective lenses had been known for centuries–but the only sign of real rottenness I know of is Klimt. But after all, pre-War Vienna, with its mature Freud and young Hitler, is breeding a lot of future ills.

    Leading to (3) As I understood it, the break was the First World War and the rise of dada–and, more importantly, critics and academics who took it seriously. After that, “so real you can touch it” painting continues, but it graces magazines and paperback covers almost exclusively. My shelves are full of Frazetta, Steranko, Rockwell and Frank Kelly Freas. Kunstler does a land office business, but the museums and the critical studies belong to urinals and dung madonnas.

    There’s an old movie in which someone observes that “there’s no law west of the Brazos, and no God west of the Pecos.” John Wayne–you saw this coming, didn’t you?–replies that it isn’t so. “Where people come, they bring the law. And after a while, they find out God has been there all along.” And so it is. People use art to assert that the world makes sense and can be understood, and to set themselves examples. Art that says otherwise is a dead end. And when the art critics and museums get tired of rotting sharks and photographs of sexual acts, they’ll find that real painting has continued without them.


    28 Aug 10 at 9:42 am

  2. I know nothing about art – but isn’t it often claimed that WW I was so much more horrific than earlier wars that it convinced whole swathes of society that there was no meaning of life, no reality other than the worst evils we can inflict on each other?


    28 Aug 10 at 10:02 am

  3. Yes, Cheryl, but that needn’t lead to bad art. It didn’t lead to bad poetry, anyway. I don’t think so, anyway–there’s Yeats.


    28 Aug 10 at 11:37 am

  4. I”m sorry, I absolutely disagree that we don’t live with art. In fact, it’s far more present in our lives than in those of peasants in the Renaissance who might encounter it only in church, or in seeing public buildings (if they weren’t rural and never got to a city), but rarely would have seen anything beautiful made by human hands outside of that in their entire lives.

    Today, much art is called “design” or even advertising. We live with it constantly in our faces, under our bums and all around us. Yes, much of it is awful. Some of it is sublime. New media brings new forms of art, including graffiti, digital art built of nothing but pixels and light, and interactive acts of art such as flash crowds that could never have happened in an older world.

    If the second use of any new medium is to transmit porn, the third use has to be art. Commercial art is no less art for being commercial, in fact, it’s in the grand tradition of Leonardo trying to get paid for the Cistene ceiling. Advertisers have learned that not only does sex sell, but solid attention-attracting design sells. These days, even Target recognizes that getting a designer in to spiff up their lines of merchandise is profitable.

    Anyway, my point is that everything human-made has been designed. Some things poorly, some things with elegant functionality, some for purely artistic purposes. We have many more *things* than even a rich person used to have back in the “days of art” you seem to be talking about, and so we have many more opportunities to integrate good art into our lives. Good art doesn’t have to cost, nor does it have to hang on the wall. Ask the Shakers. They made art out of the simplest of materials and a way of life.

    And as Robert points out, the realistic artists are still there, and now more available than ever to those who seek them out. Museums will *always* be about yesterday’s art. Which is not a bad thing, otherwise I never would have been able to visit personally with Rembrandts, Renoirs, Vermeers and Donatellos.

    I point you to Kyle Lambert, an artist who does what I’d call hyper-realistic portraits digitally, and remarkably, on the iPad.
    http://kyle-lambert.blogspot.com/ He posts videos of his process, much speeded up, totally astonishing to watch from the first few swipes of a sketch to a portrait you would swear was photographic.

    He has potential audience of millions, and I found him from a post on Facebook. No, art isn’t farther away from us today than formerly. We swim in art. We just have to learn to see it.


    28 Aug 10 at 4:21 pm

  5. Thank you, Lymaree!


    28 Aug 10 at 9:31 pm

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