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Posts Tagged ‘art history

“As long as art lives never shall I accept that men are truly dead”*…

From a self-portrait by Giorgio Vasari [source]

An appreciation of Giorgio Vasari’s seminal The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the beginning of art history as we know it

I found Giorgio Vasari through Burckhardt and Barzun. The latter writes: “Vasari, impelled by the unexampled artistic outburst of his time, divided his energies between his profession of painter and builder in Florence and biographer of the modern masters in the three great arts of design. His huge collection of Lives, which is a delight to read as well as a unique source of cultural history, was an amazing performance in an age that lacked organized means of research. […] Throughout, Vasari makes sure that his reader will appreciate the enhanced human powers shown in the works that he calls ‘good painting’ in parallel with ‘good letters’.”

Vasari was mainly a painter, but also worked as an architect. He was not the greatest artist in the world, but he had a knack for ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, so his career was quite successful. Besides painting, he also cared a lot about conservation: both the physical preservation of works and the conceptual preservation of the fame and biographies of artists. He gave a kind of immortality to many lost paintings and sculptures by describing them to us in his book.

His Lives are a collection of more than 180 biographies of Italian artists, starting with Cimabue (1240-1302) and reaching a climax with Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). They’re an invaluable resource, as there is very little information available about these people other than his book; his biography of Botticelli is 8 pages long, yet on Botticelli’s wikipedia page, Vasari is mentioned 36 times…

Giorgio Vasari was one of the earliest philosophers of progress. Petrarch (1304-1374) invented the idea of the dark ages in order to explain the deficiencies of his own time relative to the ancients, and dreamt of a better future:

My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.

To this scheme of ancient glory and medieval darkness, Vasari added a third—modern—age and gave it a name: rinascita. And within his rinascita, Vasari described an upward trajectory starting with Cimabue, and ending in a golden age beginning with eccentric Leonardo and crazed sex maniac Raphael, only to give way to the perfect Michelangelo in the end. It is a trajectory driven by the modern conception of the artist as an individual auteur, rather than a faceless craftsman.

The most benign Ruler of Heaven in His clemency turned His eyes to the earth, and, having perceived the infinite vanity of all those labours, the ardent studies without any fruit, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men, which is even further removed from truth than is darkness from light, and desiring to deliver us from such great errors, became minded to send down to earth a spirit with universal ability in every art and every profession.

This golden age was certainly no utopia, as 16th century Italy was ravaged by political turbulence, frequent plague, and incessant war. Many of the artists mentioned were at some point taken hostage by invading armies; Vasari himself had to rescue a part of Michelangelo’s David when it was broken off in the battle to expel the Medici from Florence.

And yet Vasari saw greatness in his time, and the entire book is structured around a narrative of artistic progress. He documented the spread of new technologies and techniques (such as the spread of oil painting, imported from the Low Countries), which—as an artist—he had an intimate understanding of.

This story of progress is paralleled with the rediscovery (and, ultimately, surpassing) of the ancients. It would take until the 17th century for the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes to really take off in France, but in Florence Vasari had already seen enough to decide the question in favor of his contemporaries—the essence of the Enlightenment is already present in 1550…

Art history, cultural history, tech history, the history of ideas– a review of Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by @AlvaroDeMenard.

* Giorgio Vasari

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As we frame it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that the first Cannes Film Festival opened.  It had originally been scheduled for September, 1939 as an “answer” to the Venice Film Fest, which had become a propaganda vehicle for Mussolini and Hitler; but the outbreak of World War II occasioned a delay.

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“No great artist ever sees things as they really are”*…

Tom Miller in front of his 2016 artwork, Nothing

Indeed, sometimes they see nothing at all…

Earlier this month, an Italian artist named Salvatore Garau went viral when his “immaterial sculpture”—that is, a work of art made of literally nothing—sold for €15,000 ($18,300) at auction.

Articles about the sale was shared widely, often accompanied by captions of the “I could have done that” variety. Users posted pictures of blank spaces—their own invisible sculptures which could surely be had for a fraction of Garau’s price. Many bemoaned the fact that they didn’t think of it first. 

Then there was Tom Miller, a performance artist from Gainesville, Florida, who says he actually did do it first—and now he’s filing a lawsuit against Garau to prove it.

The Florida artist says that, in 2016, he installed his own invisible sculpture in Gainesville’s Bo Diddley Community Plaza, an outdoor event space. He titled it Nothing and erected it over the course of five days with a team of workers who moved blocks of air like mimes building the Great Pyramid of Giza. Tens of people were on hand to see the opus unveiled that June. 

Miller even made a short film about the work, a mockumentary that features fake artists and curators as talking heads. He compares his respective take on nothingness to John Cage’s “4′33″ and Seinfeld

“All I can say personally is that Nothing is very important to me,” Miller told Artnet News in an email. “I should be credited with Nothing (specifically the idea of Nothing fashioned into sculpture form), and Gainesville, Florida—not Italy—is where Nothing happened first.”

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that immaterial art has a long history stretching back to the 20th century. Yves Klein exhibited an empty gallery space in 1958 and envisioned an “architecture of air” a couple of years later. Tom Friedman installed an invisible object atop a plinth in 1992—and it sold for £22,325 nine years later.

Miller may have even more competition than he realizes. Since Artnet News first published an article about Garau’s work, numerous other artists have written to me about their own invisible sculpture practices. It turns out it’s hard to get noticed when you’re an artist who makes… nothing.

Tom Miller, who says he made an invisible sculpture in 2016, is demanding visibility: “A Florida Man Is Threatening to Sue an Artist Whose Invisible Sculpture Sold for $18,000, Saying He Came Up With the Idea First”; from Taylor Dafoe (@tddafoe) in @artnet

* Oscar Wilde

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As we muse on the missing, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1989 that Northrop Grumman did its best to make something all-too-tangible disappear: it first flew what became the B-2 Spirit— better known as the Stealth Bomber.

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“What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture”*…

Nyan Cat meme, sold for $590,000 as an NFT (non-fungible token)

Before Christmas, the only uncertain-times-era art world innovations I could think of were online art fairs and anonymous Instagram callout accounts. Now more innovation has arrived, and it’s come from outside, from the spheres of online culture and cryptocurrency speculation. Crypto has its origins in a mistrust of authority in various forms, from government-backed fiat, to the banking system, to the financial industry. Now it’s also challenging art world elites…

Cryptocurrency’s exploding again. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in particular. The Nyan Cat meme goes for $590,000. The “ape in a fedora” CryptoPunk goes for $1.54 million. An animated gif of Trump’s bloated, naked corpse by someone called “Beeple” goes for $6.6 million, setting a new record for any Millennial artist, dead or alive. Christie’s launches a two-week sale of one of his works. It closes tomorrow and has already broken the record again. Current bid: $9,750,000…

The old gatekeepers have been losing their power for a while now. In his New York Times profile of KAWS (Brian Donnelly), who’s just opened a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, Michael H. Miller writes, “One art reporter told me … that certain directors at Gagosian, the largest and most profitable gallery in the world, would automatically move anyone known to own a KAWS down on their waiting list to buy something.” Nevertheless KAWS is unstoppable. He has his career-defining homecoming museum show, his Peter Schjeldahl writeup, his many pages of coverage, his giant sculptures looming over Manhattan’s Park Avenue and Brooklyn’s Greenpoint waterfront, and, a couple years back, in 2019, he shocked the art establishment when his painting The Kaws Album (2005), a remake of The Simpsons’ remake of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $14.8 million. Images and sculptures are accruing value in new ways: KAWS came up making street art and toy collectibles, and Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) made his name through Instagram and concert visuals. They symbolise the return of populism to the arts. I recently wrote for the Spectator about the trend of bad figurative painting that occupies the bardo between content and art: paintings that are easy to enjoy, and also to post. With NFTs, we’ve made another leap from art that’s easy to post, to art that simply is the post.

The old ways of valuing an object at auction (backdoor dealings, price fixing, and clandestine, corrupt practices) are coming up against the new ways (wild speculative mania and hyperstition) and falling short, for now. Beeple and KAWS, who have dominated the year’s artistic discourse, are outsiders that made it to the top. But it’s a very boring sort of outsider art, made by nerds for other nerds…

So much of today’s culture is a poor-quality remake of something better and more compelling. KAWS bootlegs pop-cultural staples like Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Peanuts, and SpongeBob in his own depressive comic style, while Beeple takes Mickey, again, Pokémon and Shrek, plus politicians like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Kim Jong-un, and composites them into dystopian CGI montages. There are two paths for the golden-age American cartoon star: to be withdrawn, like the lascivious skunk Pepé le Pew, or, worse, to be reimagined as bad art, as childish and nostalgic art for those that don’t like ideas, or beauty…

There’s just too much of everything. There are too many different Oreos. 65 flavours in 8 years is too many. Too many Hot Chicken Wing Oreos, Waffle & Syrup Oreos, Jelly Donut Oreos, Supreme Oreos. There’s too much content that appears different but is the same. Too many identities are available to us. Too many manias. Too many hysterias. Examine nearly any aspect of society and you can see it’s gone too far. The reason so many flavours of Oreos are invented, according to the cookie’s brand director, is that this overabundance of choice reminds us of and drives us back to the original. It reminds us of how much we like the old Oreo, the Platonic ideal of the Oreos of childhood, the Proustian Oreo with the glass of cold milk. When there’s too much of everything however, at some point the original is lost, the memory is lost, and all that remains are faded, flat, hollowed-out derivatives…

The most popular series of NFT collectibles are algorithmically generated. And what they reveal, compared to the rest of culture, is a broader and more prevalent trend of art and entertainment that has the uncanny feeling of having been made by algorithm, even though it wasn’t. A painter and performance artist once told me, in the brutalist basement of the old Met Breuer, that Future had destroyed the future. Trap music has taken over the world, and it all sounds more or less the same now. It might be amazing, but it sounds the same. It’s supposed to sound the same. That’s the idea, what makes it so powerful. A talented producer can make a song in ten minutes on a live stream. A talented producer can make a song in less time than it takes to listen to. It’s never been quicker to write a song than now. Songs keep getting shorter and shorter. Records keep getting shorter and shorter. It’s a numbers game. I can write these columns pretty quickly now. This is an age of great speed and competition. We’re all looking for more popularity, new ways to find an edge; and yet, all this competition only seems to lead to blandness and mediocrity, rather than breakthroughs. Nor does it lead to collapse; even accelerationism doesn’t work. We want too much content, too fast, and it just leads to this endless algorithmic churning, this paint-by-numbers effect. You see it in art. In Netflix documentaries. Spotify playlists. Op-ed pages. The news. The latest manufactured outrage. Well-reviewed first-person novels about nothing. All so dreadfully banal and repetitive. This is what results when everything is forged in economies of dollars, of ether, of attention. Most culture now has the feeling of having been made by algorithm; and the reason for this, is that humans have begun to act like algorithms…

What non-fungible (which is to say, unique) tokens show us, is the absolute fungibility of culture today: its hazy, interchangeable meaninglessness. How it all belongs on a blockchain. How it all belongs on an infinite self-generating playlist ouroboros. It all belongs on a streaming service that slowly steals the hours and the heartbeats from inside you. When you look at the Discover Page Hotties, you look back into your own soul through a clouded mirror. “Online,” a mysterious anonymous cipher writes to you, “so much is dependent on an algorithmic matrix of mined data that the user’s identity is distilled so accurately that you can’t breach the identity that’s fed back to you via the screen. So no chance encounters, just a recurrent overlap of what you already are.” If life was once about chasing after a dream, it’s now about running away from the comfortable, hypnagogic lifestyles prescribed to you by the culture we create together, reflexively and imitatively. You’re living inside other people’s dreams; and these are not good dreams. So much of modern life is algorithmically scripted so as to exclude surprise or chance, and you must try to break free of this script every day. Rejecting all this post-death culture is a good place to begin…

The art world, disrupted by crypto: Dean Kissick (@deankissick) on why that’s a sad thing: “The Downward Spiral: Popular Things.”

See also “NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This,” by Anil Dash, the co-creator of the NFT; further to which, this thread from Jonathan Zittrain.

And finally (as a cap on what’s turned out to be a trio of posts about scarcity, post-scarcity, and what matters in our economy; earlier here and here), “Red Bull, Elon Musk, and Matt Gaetz“… “post-scarcity is just another way of saying decadence.”

* Robert Hughes, writing presciently in 1989

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As we appraise art, we might spare a thought for an artist who, roughly a century ago, played an outsized role in revolutionizing the art world of his time, Pablo Picasso; he died on this date in 1973. Picasso is universally regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century; he is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, for the invention of constructed sculpture, for the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore.

Picasso in 1908

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 8, 2021 at 1:01 am

“In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.”*…

Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”

When Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” sold at Christie’s in New York for $179 million dollars in May 2015, it was only the 36th time in the past 315 years that a world auction record had been set, and the sale raised questions well beyond the art world. How could a single painting be worth so much? Why is art so important to wealthy households? What economic and social factors could lead to enshrining Picasso’s colourful near-abstract portrait as the most valuable picture in the history of the modern world?…

Three economists offer an an explanation based on an analysis of art auctions dating back to 1701: “A History of the Art Market in 35 Record-Breaking Sales.”

* Jean Baudrillard

In this sense, therefore, inasmuch as we have access to neither the beautiful nor the ugly, and are incapable of judging, we are condemned to indifference. Beyond this indifference, however, another kind of fascination emerges, a fascination which replaces aesthetic pleasure. For, once liberated from their respective constraints, the beautiful and the ugly, in a sense, multiply: they become more beautiful than beautiful, more ugly than ugly.

Thus painting currently cultivates, if not ugliness exactly – which remains an aesthetic value – then the uglier-than-ugly (the ‘bad’, the ‘worse’, kitsch), an ugliness raised to the second power because it is liberated from any relationship with its opposite. Once freed from the ‘true’ Mondrian, we are at liberty to ‘out-Mondrian Mondrian’; freed from the true naifs, we can paint in a way that is ‘more naif than naif’, and so on. And once freed from reality, we can produce the ‘realer than real’ – hyperrealism. It was in fact with hyperrealism and pop art that everything began, that everyday life was raised to the ironic power of photographic realism. Today this escalation has caught up every form of art, every style; and all, without discrimination, have entered the transaesthetic world of simulation.

There is a parallel to this escalation in the art market itself. Here too, because an end has been put to any deference to the law of value, to the logic of commodities, everything has become ‘more expensive than expensive’ – expensive, as it were, squared. Prices are exorbitant – the bidding has gone through the roof. Just as the abandonment of all aesthetic ground rules provokes a kind of brush fire of aesthetic values, so the loss of all reference to the laws of exchange means that the market hurtles into unrestrained speculation.

The frenzy, the folly, the sheer excess are the same. The promotional ignition of art is directly linked to the impossibility of all aesthetic evaluation.

In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.

There are two art markets today. One is still regulated by a hierarchy of values, even if these are already of a speculative kind. The other resembles nothing so much as floating and uncontrollable capital in the financial market: it is pure speculation, movement for movement’s sake, with no apparent purpose other than to defy the law of value. This second art market has much in common with poker or potlatch – it is a kind of space opera in the hyperspace of value. Should we be scandalized? No. There is nothing immoral here. Just as present-day art is beyond beautiful and ugly, the market, for its part, is beyond good and evil.

The Transparency of Evil: Essays in Extreme Phenomena

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As we appreciate appreciating art, we might recall that it was on this date in 1862 that (in order to create liquidity to finance the Civil War) the U.S. government issued its first official paper money. “Demand Notes,” the first federal issues of the Civil War, were immediately exchangeable in gold or silver “on demand” at seven banks spread across the country. They were quickly replaced by very similar-looking “legal tender” notes that could not be readily converted to specie. These issues were notable for the bright, dark green imprints on their backs, and ever since then American paper currency has been familiarly nicknamed “greenbacks.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 10, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Immigrants, we get the job done”*…

When the Piccirilli Brothers arrived in New York from Italy in 1888, they brought with them skill, artistry, and passion for stone-carving unrivaled in the United States. At their studio at 467 East 142nd Street, in the Mott Haven Section of the Bronx, the brothers turned monumental slabs of marble into some of the nation’s recognizable icons, including the senate pediment of the US Capitol Building and the statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits resolutely in the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

The Piccirillis not only helped set our national narrative in stone but they also left an indelible mark on New York City. They carved hundreds of commissions around the five boroughs, including the 11 figures in the pediment of the New York Stock exchange, the “four continents” adorning the Customs House at Bowling Green, the two stately lions that guard the New York Public Library, both statues of George Washington for the Arch at Washington Square, and upwards of 500 individual carvings at Riverside Church…

The remarkable story of a remarkable family: “How six Italian immigrants from the South Bronx carved some of the nation’s most iconic sculptures.” 

* Lin-Manuel Miranda (as Hamilton, to Lafayette in Hamilton)

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As we celebrate sculpture, we might wish a grateful Happy Birthday to another son of Italy, Galileo Galilei, the physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who, with Francis Bacon, pioneered the Scientific Method; he was born on this date in 1564.  It was Galileo’s observations that gave conclusive support to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system.

Tintoretto’s portrait of Galileo

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