Thursday, June 11, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 2)

Picking up from where we left off...

(III) Admonishing his audience about "truth" and "shadows," Ruskin advises the artist not to let his passion for his creative endeavors and their results displace his interest and love for the subjects his art depicts—which Ruskin hopes to assume will be mountain scenes, meadows, marine vistas, and so on, or at the very least, real things in the world. If he ever countenanced the idea that the beloved objects an artist mirrors in her work might be images produced by other artists, he would have dismissed it toute de suite. Though he disliked Whistler's work enough to pen a scathing review, Ruskin probably wouldn't even condescend to comment on the CalArts style. (The joke's on him, of course: how many millions more people living right now care more about Adventure Time and Steven Universe than the Pre-Raphaelites or J.M.W. Turner?)

I don't suppose there's any feasible way of sifting through all the content uploaded to DeviantArt (it still exists!), Tumblr (ditto), Twitter, Instagram, etc. to determine how much more activity and enthusiasm surrounds "illustration" than, say, charcoal renders of models, studies of landscapes or urban structures, and other such efforts to represent real entities and places—but it's safe to say that an artist is far more likely to earn recognition and praise for producing and sharing She-Ra and the Princesses of Power fan content than pencil sketches of the objects sitting on her desk.

The artist sharing pictures of his in-universe Avatar: The Last Airbender or Sonic the Hedgehog OC is striving to imitate a style: I don't think we malign him in observing that he draws from art, not from life.¹ With a little introspection, we can easily infer the factors implicated in the young artist's being more inspired to draw what he fondly recognizes from a crisp, glowing screen than what he encounters in his day-to-day existence milling back and forth from rented home to alien workplace (or simply remaining at home) in the impersonal tristesse of our rudely mechanical century.

Much of the digital art I see adheres to one of a small number of predominant styles. From my vantage point, the CalArts look and its offshoots remain ubiquitous throughout webcomics, zines, and indie animation. Lately I've been seeing a lot material in a style that I can't put a name to (though its detractors identify it with "SJWs" and Tumblr); some of the concept art for the New Warriors reboot is a pretty good example. The influence of Invader Zim endures here and there, and the fursona avatars I occasionally encounter still have the "Disney's Robin Hood through beer goggles" vibe I remember from two decades ago.

But no contemporary illustration (or animation) style can compete with the distinctive look of anime and manga in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of its influence.

I hardly watch anime anymore; I don't follow any artists, and I'm not subscribed to any hashtags. But I see a lot of anime art by dint of friends' likes and retweets. Here are a few such images I scrolled past while drafting these posts:

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

John Ruskin, abstraction, anime, & effie (pt 1)

Decades ago, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown in Philadelphia (such simpler times those were, way back then), I went out for a bike ride after staying indoors for several days, and sat around Fairmount Park with a small stack of books. One was the Oxford World Classics volume of John Ruskin's selected writings, which I periodically enjoy leafing through, and is a fine read for a sunny spring day when the magnolias are in bloom. I dogeared a page excerpted from The Eagle's Nest, the text of a series of lectures Ruskin gave at Oxford in 1872, and reread it once or twice since then. Today I'd like to trace some of the contrails from the flight of imagination the passage inspired.

It reads:

That is Shakespeare’s judgment of his own art. And by strange coincidence, he has put the words into the mouth of the hero whose shadow, or semblance in marble, is admittedly the most ideal and heroic we possess, of man; yet, I need not ask you, whether of the two, if it were granted you to see the statue by Phidias, or the hero Theseus himself, you would choose rather to see the carved stone, or the living King. Do you recollect how Shakespeare’s Theseus concludes his sentence, spoken of the poor tradesmen’s kindly offered art, in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream”?

“The best in this kind are but shadows: and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.”

It will not burden your memories painfully, I hope, though it may not advance you materially in the class list, if you will learn this entire sentence by heart, being, as it is, a faultless and complete epitome of the laws of mimetic art.

“But Shadows!” Make them as beautiful as you can; use them only to enable you to remember and love what they are cast by. If ever you prefer the skill of them to the simplicity of the truth, or the pleasure of them to the power of the truth, you have fallen into that vice of folly, (whether you call her κακία or μωρία,) which concludes the subtle description of her given by Prodicus, that she might be seen continually εἰς τὴν ἑαυτης σκιὰν ἀποβλέπειν
—to look with love, and exclusive wonder, at her own shadow.
There is nothing that I tell you with more eager desire that you should believe—nothing with wider ground in my experience for requiring you to believe, than this, that you never will love art well, till you love what she mirrors better.
It is the widest, as the clearest experience I have to give you; for the beginning of all my own right art work in life, (and it may not be unprofitable that I should tell you this,) depended not on my love of art, but of mountains and sea. All boys with any good in them are fond of boats, and of course I liked the mountains best when they had lakes at the bottom; and I used to walk always in the middle of the loosest gravel I could find in the roads of the midland counties, that I might hear, as I trod on it, something like the sound of the pebbles on sea-beach. No chance occurred for some time to develop what gift of drawing I had; but I would pass entire days in rambling on the Cumberland hill-sides, or staring at the lines of surf on a low sand; and when I was taken annually to the Water-colour Exhibition, I used to get hold of a catalogue before-hand, mark all the Robsons, which I knew would be of purple mountains, and all the Copley Fieldings, which I knew would be of lakes or sea; and then go deliberately round the room to these, for the sake, observe, not of the pictures, in any wise, but only of the things painted.

And through the whole of following life, whatever power of judgment I have obtained, in art, which I am now confident and happy in using, or communicating, has depended on my steady habit of always looking for the subject principally, and for the art, only as the means of expressing it.
Well: what do we think of this?

(I) Though Ruskin's prose evinces his erudition and passion, his ideas about art are so old-fashioned as to seem rather quaint to the modern aesthete. He was a traditionalist, of course: given his reaction to Whistler's Nocturne paintings ("[I] never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face"), we don't even have to guess how he'd have reacted to cubism or geometric abstraction had he lived another fifteen years to see it.

John Ruskin, Stone Pines at Sestri (1845)

Let's assume Ruskin intuits an actual fact in his remark that one "can never love art well" until she better loves the objects represented in/by it. To be a first-rate artist then (according to Ruskin), one must be more invested in and enamored of the subject she views than in the object she produces as the result of her study and scrutiny.

Where would that leave somebody like Kandinsky? Could anyone today seriously accuse him of not loving art well, or of being a second-rate painter? Doubtful.