Picasso, The Early YearsI am currently reading Picasso: The Early Years (1892-1906), by Marilyn McCully. I haven’t had time to dive into it yet. Eh, other creative endeavors, life, etc. In the mean time, I’ll leave you with another response to Picasso.


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Sirens (2009) Pastel and charcoal on watercolor paper, 18″ x 24″

I was reading The Ultimate Picasso, by Brigitte Leal, et. al. and I had just finished the section on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, including the studies leading up to it. I was also very moved by the section on the Blue Period, which preceded the one on Les Demoiselles d”Avignon. After drawing an outline in pencil and before applying the pastel, I had to decide on a color scheme. I considered one that was similar to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (sienna/beige/brick red), but it was ugly. I made one or two more sketches and settled on the above.

Note: I would not recommend using pastel on watercolor paper. It slides off very easily. I had to soften the pastel before applying it like a paste. Fortunately, and I discovered this by accident, if you let the pastel dry a little, it won’t move around as much. After the first day, I found that I could go over the previous day’s work and smooth out the surface and/or the line between two colors. It took me four to five days, two to four hours each day. It really should not have taken so long.

This was in February of 2009.

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Sirens II (2010) Pencil on watercolor paper, 18″ x 24″

Eight months later, I was unhappy with the original composition. I didn’t like the fact that I used black charcoal to make outlines and color in the eyes. It felt a little like cheating. So I made a carbon copy, thinking I would do the same version over again. In the zone, I ended up experimenting with the line work.

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Sirens II b (2011) Pencil on watercolor paper, 18″ x 24″

A year later, after watching a biopic on Modigliani, starring Andy Garcia, I realized I could indeed make another version of the original but color in the eyes with a pale blue-gray. I took out both versions, because I keep them stored in the same place, and ended up “editing” the second version by making some of the lines darker, which made it look, you could say, more focused.

I’d now like to make a third version which is like the second but colored in. In my head, it’ll be a cubist water color painting… but I may be getting ahead of myself. I have another book, Picasso and Braque Pioneering Cubism, by William Rubin, which I’d like to get into, before thinking of my own approach to anything “cubist.”

First Impressions of Picasso

The first works by Picasso I considered were from his Cubist paintings, but the only response I could muster was one of intrigue accompanied by very few words. The first works which elicited some opinion of what I was seeing were paintings from his Blue Period, which was much more straightforward and obvious. It is this obviousness which I found myself thinking of.

Marker on drawing paper. From my sketchbook (2009) After Picasso’s  The Soup (1902-1903)

I was intrigued by how the body language of the figures were exaggerated, making the gestures very explicit. They reminded me of religious iconography from the Italian Renaissance. By presenting humans emoting in the same way as how the divine were emoting, these pieces elevate our humanity; only instead of their being glorious and holy, they’re sad and human; bringing a viewer, possibly, to associate the grand gestures of a church mural (along with its extraordinary significance to our very existence) with very common, lowly human life.
Indeed, it goes beyond abstract symbolism. Picasso carefully chose the body language he would employ in each piece – body language which creates tension with the context in which it is employed.

Marker on drawing paper. From my sketchbook (2009) After Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker (1902)

The Old Guitarist is not only an image of an old man with his guitar. It is a dual image of financial poverty and emotional nourishment. Two women sitting at a bar (or Prostitutes at a bar), with the figures’ backs turned toward us, is an expression of not only a desire but a demand for privacy. This seems to contradict their extraordinary openness with strangers as a way to make a living, and more importantly, by giving us a glimpse of them while not acting as prostitutes, Picasso invites us to wonder about them as human beings. By not showing us their faces, we might wonder what they look like, and by presenting them together as a pair, we might wonder what they’re talking about, if anything.

This tension engages a viewer emotionally and intellectually, while associations with religious iconography engages us, at least on a subconscious level, spiritually. There is also, of course, all these pieces being cast in blue. Indeed, the color scheme of any of these pieces can make a fair claim to being the main feature, because (a) by overwhelming us with its color, the monochromatic blue can color one’s perspective of the scene, and (b) it’s a series of scenes – a world of blue — which Picasso was observing and giving back to his contemporaries. You might say he added something to what was not intrinsically apart of what he was observing. On the other hand, you might say what he was observing was the social atmosphere of a given time and place as seen through the prism of his own life and the emotional import of a piece was indeed intrinsic to his interpretation of those times.

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Pen on drawing paper. From my sketchbook (2009) After Picasso’s Dance of the Veils (1907) 

Dance of the Veils (1907) was painted during Picasso’s African Period, which is just beyond his Blue Period, but I include it here because it’s an example of how the use of exaggerate body language can be seen throughout his works.


But is it art? (Part 3)

Continued from But is it art? (Part 2)

Freeland, But is it artArt and Money

With the evaluation of art comes an implied hierarchy. We not only see it in the buying and selling of art but in museums as well. This draws up the question, What makes “good art?” What accounts for the differences in value?

Freeland does not try to answer the question, What is “good art?” She focuses instead on the history of the relationship between money and museums and how it has had an impact on the relationship between art and the public. From the beginning, museums have aspired to educate the public about what is good art; on the other hand, they require funding and find themselves in the arena of money and politics as well.

Today, large corporations may fund an exhibit in an attempt to redeem themselves in the public eye. Foreign corporations may fund an exhibit for the sake of international relations and/or commerce. The very experience of going to a museum is evolving as they find themselves competing with other cultural experiences. And then there are the sale of individual works for extraordinary amounts at auction houses, etc.

Artists have responded by treating the issue of money in their work or bypassing the market altogether by creating installations or otherwise time-sensitive work that can not be easily packaged and sold as objects.

Freeland offers a surprising statistic, that no more than 22% of the population in Europe and North America go to museums and those who do go tend to be educated and have higher than average incomes. (93) Museums and this demographic seem to go hand in hand, but is it a matter of taste or of culture?

Let’s go back to Kant and Hume. They both believed some art was better than others, but “good taste” seemed subjective. In order to address this problem. Kant focused on form and the idea of Beauty, while Hume focused on education and experience. Hume  believed that taste can be developed, and that those who are educated will eventually agree on a consensus, from which we can develop standards for evaluating all art.

Critics today now wonder if one’s education can create bias in determining which works of art are of high standard. In response to this, museums now include art from a wider variety of cultures. But what about low-brow art, which you do not see in a museum? What about other indicators of value, like popular demand? Is monetary value a good indicator of overall value, in high or low art?

I remember I went through a phase where I wanted to collect cobalt blue vases. I didn’t have the money, but I loved making lists. When I searched for them, I discovered Google was ready to offer a myriad of images posted on a variety of websites and social media outlets. Apparently, it’s a thing. Just as collecting jade sculptures is a thing or designer toys and/or stationary or lacquered boxes. The material mattered but it didn’t matter as much as I thought it would. It’s the scarcity vis-a-vis the demand. It’s Economics 101.

I am tempted to dismiss this — monetary value/demand as an indicator of overall value — by attributing it to psychological considerations, like how I would pay more money for designer stationary which I recognize from my childhood than for stationary which is new; or how some people are so drawn to the color, cobalt blue, that they would pay more money for something in that color than in any other color.

And then what about an antique whose value is based almost solely on provenance. For example, when people collect vintage movie posters, do they value the posters as works of art or as artifacts which evoke a feeling of nostalgia, which one can only appreciate in light of the full context from which they were created? I  want to say that the posters were never intended to be fine art and those collecting them are not even calling them fine art but see them as something that can bring one back to an earlier time, which requires one not to keep one’s distance but to get swept up in an idea that resides outside the work itself.

But there I go again. I want to keep my distance, as I find myself towing some line between the art of the object and the art of living. It makes me wonder if all art can be attributed to one’s psychology, or if it is something more, something that resides outside of oneself.

Back to Art and Politics

The question of what is “good art” is a complicated one. With modern technology we have access to images of “art” from all over the world, and new ideas and discussions make us use the word, “art,” differently. But this isn’t just semantics and the idea of art is not just being challenged on a linguistic level.

The issue of when “art” is applicable is being played out in the political arena, where art from minority groups, as well as the avant garde, are fighting to be included and taken as seriously as traditionally accepted art; and in the face of monetary pressures.

In the past, we have turned to philosophy, but how do you philosophize about something which has a meaning that can evolve? Is it all history and culture and politics — products of one’s circumstances? How can we judge something fairly when we are prone to bias? Is there a true hierarchy or are all traditional standards products of some form of politics?

Freeland focuses on the politics…and culture and history. She is looking at art as a critic, and although the phrase, “good art” is in the book, she seems to deliberately stay away from the question. The goal of her approach is to interpret and not to evaluate, per se; and she describes “interpretations” as “explanations of how a work functions to communicate thoughts, emotions, and ideas. A good interpretation must be grounded in reasons and evidence, and should provide a rich, complex, and illuminating way to comprehend a work of art.” (150)

Throughout the book, she is illustrating how diverse art has been, so the very definition of “art” becomes a challenge. In her conclusion, she passes along two definitions of what art can be from Richard Anderson, who said art is, “culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium” (206); and from Robert Irwin, who described art as “a continuous expansion of our awareness of the world around us.” (207) The first is an anthropologist and the second an environmental artist.

Freeland seems to be making observations, as opposed to arguing a particular point, and her approach to art seems to be in line with what looks like a shift in focus (in the art world in general) from value (seen in standards and heirarchies) to meaning (which can be found in the works itself in light of the context it was created in).

I find myself asking, Where does the philosophy begin? When do we get out of the realm of observing people and into evaluating an aesthetic? When can we see something not as an artifact but as a work of art? I think it begins somewhere after claiming it as art and before one’s interpretation of a given work of art. It is half anthropology and half philosophy. On the one hand, we must choose to broaden our scope of what art can be by observing why/how people have classified certain things/activities as art; on the other hand, the value (or meaning) of a piece is not entirely arbitrary, as we pay heed to standards based on how one might interpret an artists’ intentions and precedence (if any) in judging specific aspects; such as form and materials.

When looking at work from other cultures, Freeland uses the word, “significance,” which I see as meaning that has value and thus, is appreciated in a hierarchy of value, because value is relative. This leads me to consider the artist’s perspective and the notion of doing something “well,” which requires one to believe that one’s work can be better than another; when looking at one’s own work as well as others for inspiration and experience. It is also necessary when receiving feedback from others, in the form of peer review, workshops  mentorship and even those deciding to display (or not) your work in a gallery.

I have not taken a workshop before in the visual arts, but I have in creative writing. I don’t know how different or similar the experiences can be, but I imagine they have something in common; and that is to judge a given work “on its own terms,” although, given its own terms, the question remains, whether or not a given work is succeeding. Also, if it is trying to do what others have successfully done before, its success will be compared to the success of those earlier works.

If it’s intended to comment on something, then it’ll be judged on how compelling/persuasive it is and/or how much it makes us think, regardless of whether or not we agree. Its formal features can help a given work be more compelling.

Maybe, in a visual arts workshop, no given work of art is evaluated but interpreted; in which case, it is up to the artist alone to decide how well one is succeeding in one’s own work.


For such a small book, the author gave me a lot to think about. She looks at “art” from a very wide angle, as she moves through a long and complicated history of the idea and our relationship to it, across eras and cultures. She also discusses issues which continue to challenge us today and which blur the definition of “art” even further.

For a more in-depth look at these issues, she offers a list of works for further reading for each chapter.

N.B. I glossed over whole sections, as I sought answers to my own questions, and because, at times, my response was limited to paraphrasing what she already says in her book. I offer summaries of her explanations for Kant and Hume and the public’s relationship to museums in order to give some context to my responses to them. I was also not always responding to the book but to the art world in general.

But is it art? (Part 2)

Freeland, But is it art

The following is a long and meandering book response to But is it art? (2002) by Cynthia Freeland. 256 pages. I’ve read this book once. 

The title is a rhetorical question. It is a challenge, and Freeland answers the challenge by illustrating how the very definition of “art” varies between eras and cultures, and thus, shows us why and how our modern day art world embraces a pluralistic approach to appreciating art.

This is in the first two chapters, which gave me pause. My primary goal is to have a healthy relationship with art, and upon a healthy does of self-reflection, I have to admit that maybe I was looking for Beauty and not “good art,” per se. It is not a reflection of some change in taste, but a shift in perspective. I like what I like, while the meaning of “good art” takes a little more consideration.

In the first two chapters, there is an unstated problem, and that is how art philosophy is not traced back to pure logic but to actual art. She quotes the philosopher, Arthur Danto, as saying, “In a way, the philosophy of art has really only been art criticism,” (57) while she is observing how Danto has been weary of giving art too narrow of a definition, but she leaves the question, “Is art philosophy only art criticism?” unanswered.

This leads me back to one of the concerns I mentioned in my last post, and that is how the study of art seems to be in the purview of anthropologists as well as philosophers. Where does the philosophy begin? [When it comes to philosophy, I like to remind myself that all logic must begin somewhere. These beginnings may not be as clear as science, which begins with observations of a subject in a controlled environment, but the beginnings to any philosophy is accessible to us, or it should be. I see anthropology as somewhere in between.]

The book is asking us to not consider a given work in a vacuum but in a larger cultural/historical context. The appreciation of a piece begins with the title of this book, along with, How is it art? Why am I standing here looking at this thing? What is the value of this experience? Sometimes it is easy to answer these questions, but often it is not; and when it is not, you might call it “difficult art.”


As I journey with Freeland through the history of art, I find myself open to approaching my earlier questions differently. As I said, I am asked to make a shift in perspective.

As I travel — at lightning speed — it seems the definition of art has changed according to how it has been used; IE, what role it has played in a given community at large. It has been used to further ideas in religion (EG, paintings depicting scenes from the Bible in churches and cathedrals throughout Europe). It has been used in rituals, as a way to appreciate and engage in ideas a community of people already agree on (EG, getting closer to one’s god in seeing or partaking in dance and/or other  performative acts). It has been used to further ideas in politics (EG, the grandiosity of Versailles, to demonstrate what King Louis XIV owns and is capable of). It has been used to imitate, celebrate and lament specific aspects of life, from the tragic, to the beautiful and even the shocking and/or horrific.

Freeland begins with Kant and Hume, who she calls the fathers of aesthetics, who emphasized the formal aspects of a given work, along with the idea that one should keep a certain distance from any given art, or a level of “disinterestedness,” in order to appreciate its beauty. This holds until we get to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, which the author calls “philosophical art.”

As I said earlier, the idea of art seems to be based on what we have called art. It is not arbitrary but it is also not some idea that resides somewhere in the clouds, like Plato’s perfect ideas or even Kant’s Critique of Judgment. It is based on actual work.

Warhol made exact replicas of the Brillo boxes he might’ve seen in a supermarket. Immediately, we must ask, What qualifies his Brillo Boxes as art? Does their being in a gallery make them art? The philosopher, George Dickie, said yes. Freeland’s quote uses more words, but basically that’s about it. It seems arbitrary.

Well, Arthur Danto, another philosopher, says it’s more than that. When an artist exhibits something as art, he/she does so in a given theoretical context. It is art because it prompts an audience to consider ideas it is ready to consider and not just because it’s in a gallery. It is philosophical.

My own response: Brillo Boxes is a great demonstration of Warhol’s sense of humor. It is fighting for its own interests in the form of Brillo boxes. It may seem light-hearted and self-serving; but it also works in the service of a much larger campaign and that is for freedom of expression. A work which is well-received and displayed in a public setting is made accessible and has a chance of being found and considered as art.

When Brillo Boxes was displayed at the Stabler gallery, art philosophers such as George Dickie and Arthur Danto were asked to think about the idea of art in a new way.

I catch myself wondering about Kant’s idea of disinterestedness or keeping one’s distance. Kant was weary of allowing one’s political or religious or otherwise personal biases to taint one’s aesthetic response to a given work of art, because it would interfere with one’s “free play of the imagination.” How do you know if it’s beautiful or if you just think what it expresses is beautiful?

These are fair questions. However, modern art often not only rests in the meaning of a work, the work is commenting or trying to persuade/influence its audience in some way. When we are asked to engage with the meaning of a work, how are we to keep our distance? Brillo Boxes is the artistic equivalent of a wry smile. However, what about art that is intended to shock and/or horrify? When you don’t respond in such a way, the work has not successfully expressed its full meaning.

Art and Politics

Here is another shift in perspective. If Art is from Life, and apart of life is political, then a part of Art is political.¹

Why the fuss then? It’s because politics + art (often) = propaganda. We can get into the history of propaganda, but it would be a hug digression. However, if you google art as propaganda, you will get a lot of leads into the question of whether or not propaganda can or has been seen as art.

On the flip side, what if we begin with Art and add politics? Is is just one person expressing one’s opinion? Well, IMHO, when you want to influence others with your art, you are wanting your art to have a political dimension, because influence is a form of power. When your art does influence others, it does have a political dimension.

The obvious danger of propaganda: With pressure from large institutions, which have the power to influence in multiple ways, people may stop asking if a work is truthful and only ask if it works in favor of whatever the institution wants. The problem, when it comes to art, is not that art can be a means to another end. The problem is that once you stop asking Art² to do what it can do — speak for itself — you get into territory that can be arbitrary or, worse, false and disharmonious to how one actually feels and/or thinks.

The perceived danger of art is that we may forget to keep our distance and get swept up in a work’s influence without thinking about how it’s having an influence on us, false or no.

The reality is a little more complicated. This perceived danger is addressed by the art community when it draws some sort of consensus on a given work of art. It is why we have discussions about art, because the value of a given work is given only when it has meaning and has been given an interpretation.

Art is a social phenomenon, which requires that we engage with it because the greatest thing that can undermine Art is silence. It is up to us to call it “good art” or “bad art.” It is up to us to argue for or against it or dismiss it altogether.

Art and Money

With the evaluation of art comes an implied hierarchy of art. We not only see it in their being bought and sold for relative amounts, which vary widely, but in museums as well. This draws up the question, What makes “good art?” What accounts for the difference in values?

To be continued… 


1 Politics is defined as the management of power. Power can take on many forms: physical, intellectual, authoritative (having authority); even social, as any social dynamic between two living beings can have a political dimension.

Think of a parent-child relationship or one friend going to another friend for advice more than vice versa. Politics is in our everyday lives. All art, therefore has a political dimension.

2 By Art, in this instance, I mean the art of conveying an idea. If it’s a powerful idea, it should be reflected in one’s art. If it is a weak idea, art which revolves on such an idea will be that much more weak.