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Figurative Art, Anapostrophism - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 29, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Figurative Art, Anapostrophism

Language changes all the time, with new words being coined and new meanings assigned to old words. Pronunciations also change, and even the rules of grammar shift, usually beginning with "bad" grammar -- that is, colloquial speech by people with less prestige -- until it become pervasive and even the elites give in.

That doesn't mean, however, that I have to like all the changes the moment they occur. I remember being taken aback the first time I heard someone in the furniture business speak of a "suit" of furniture. Sure enough, the word was spelled "suite," but I was assured that in that particular trade, the French pronunciation had been abandoned.

"So lose the 'e' at the end, while you're at it," I wanted (but delicately declined) to bellow. "If you're going to say 'suit,' then write 'suit.'"

It makes perfect sense. "Suit" comes from the same French word, borrowed before the Great Vowel Shift. It means exactly the same thing -- a group of things that work together. A suit of armor. A suit of clothes. That suits me fine (in the sense that it works well with my sense of order).

"Suite" was borrowed later, an elite word tossed about by people showing off (or pretending) that they spoke French. A suite of rooms in a hotel. A suite of furniture. Pronounced exactly like "sweet."

Except in the furniture business (at least in some places, at least for a while).

Well, the same kind of abomination has happened in the world of art, with the word "figurative." When I was in college, the opposite of "abstract" art was "representational" art -- paintings and sculptures that were supposed to look like something in the real world.

If they wanted a better word, they could have gone with "mimetic art," a term from classical criticism that would make the term refer to "art that mimics reality."

But they went with "figurative," which just makes my skin crawl.

That's because I remember painstakingly memorizing my parents' careful explanation that "literal" and "figurative" were opposites. If something was "literally" true, that meant that it exactly corresponded with reality. A "figurative" statement, on the other hand, was not meant to be taken as reality.

"Figurative" meant that a statement was metaphorical or comparative -- a "figure of speech." For instance, saying that something "makes my skin crawl." My skin doesn't actually crawl. It's a figure of speech to refer to a feeling of weird unpleasantness. Nobody really believes that my skin does anything at all when I say, "It makes my skin crawl." It's "figurative" language.

So why in the world, when they needed a term for realistic, mimetic, representational art, did the art world glom onto "figurative," which already had a meaning pretty much the opposite of what they now mean when they say "figurative art"?

As now used, that term means "art with humans in it, or, when used more loosely, art that is meant to depict things pretty much as they are in reality." In other words, literal art.

I'm sure this usage came about by extending the term "figure drawing." When I was a college student, "figure drawing class" referred to the class in which art students sat around sketching human models.

Often these would be naked people -- except that I went to Brigham Young University, which in the 1970s meant that the models wore semi-transparent white leotards or tights, which compressed and deformed everything without really concealing anything. But it avoided offending people who didn't think rules of modesty should make an exception for art.

The idea of figure drawing class is that the students practice drawing literal depictions of the human figure.

Art students and art professors are, generally speaking, not very interested in language. (When I was on the editorial staff of a magazine, the general consensus, based on considerable evidence, was that illustrators and art directors could not read, or at least chose not to).

So I assume that words like "representational" and "mimetic" were not widely known in the community of artists (as opposed to art critics). Therefore, when they wanted a term to refer to art that incorporated recognizable human figures, as in figure drawing class, they grabbed the familiar-sounding word "figurative," and applied to it a meaning pretty nearly the opposite of the one that had been current up till then.

It sounded very intellectual and, well, arty, and among artists who would be hoity-toity enough to insist that it was being used improperly? Try something as pretentious as that, and they take away your palette, break your brushes, and burn your easel.

Maybe they'd let you keep your crayons.

The point is that as artists got sick of the meaningless exercise of abstract art, in which the T-square, the straightedge, the compass, and the random spatter replaced what used to be called an artist's "eye," they needed a term to refer to the old kind of art where you painted or sculpted something that even laypeople could recognize.

You couldn't just say you were going back to old-school academic art, though, because for decades that old stuff had been vilified. The impressionists and expressionists and cubists and abstractionists had done away with all that.

Contemporary artists could not admit that they were returning to what ignorant people called "real art." So they needed a new word for realistic depictions of the human figure, and "figurative" worked just fine because they didn't care how it was used in language studies.

Which brings me to the Art Renewal Center, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the preservation and restoration of all that old-school, representational, mimetic art.

The founders began with a love of the great academic painters, most notably William Adolphe Bouguereau [boog-uh-ROE]. I first ran across the ARC because I had already discovered Bouguereau for myself, and already had prints of some of my favorites of his work on various walls in my home. In looking for more, I googled my way to the ARC site.

Bouguereau is the epitome of what the ARC stands for, though by no means does he represent the boundaries of their collection. That is, they admire and collect the works of many painters whose work is either more or less realistic than Bouguereau's.

Nor are they genre snobs. They honor -- and give cash prizes to -- the works of some of the finest illustrators working today, because the ARC recognizes that for many years, artists who wanted to do mimetic art had no home except on the covers of books.

Book covers required that artists have mastery of precisely the techniques of realistic depiction of human figures that were so despised in academia.

The analogy with the world of music is nearly perfect: As atonal (i.e., "ugly") music came to dominate college music departments, composers who wanted to follow in the classical or romantic tradition found that the only place where their skills and interests were valued was in the world of movies.

That's right -- they couldn't get a commission from a university or a professional orchestra or opera company, but they could sometimes get paid by a film studio to create what amounted to program music to accompany the various moods and events of a movie.

The music academics looked down on film scores exactly the way art academics despised illustration. "That's not a composition, it's movie background music," they would say with the same contempt that art snobs would use to say, "That's not art, it's illustration."

But those who loved to create paintings that depicted believable people, art that could tell stories or speak emotionally to a much wider public than a few art critics, had nowhere else to go but to illustration. They could make a living using their hard-to-acquire skills, and if art directors forced them to create awkward compositions or to depict cliched or banal scenes, at least parts of the illustration could be well-executed.

Even, now and then, beautiful.

There were a few other outlets. Roger Dean's album covers for the band Yes were collected into a book as far back as the 1970s, and there were galleries and collectors that specialized in originals -- and prints -- depicting certain subject matters. Western art. Wildlife art. Religious art.

You could make a living. You just couldn't make a reputation among the lofty.

Well, the ARC was founded in order to provide encouragement, training, and public honor for artists who still thought depiction of objects and people in the real world was the best use, or at least one valid use, of art.

Now the ARC website is the home of thousands of paintings by hundreds of artists (and photographs of sculptures as well), and you can look at them for free.

The ARC also offers fine-quality prints of those pieces that are in the public domain. You pick the work you want a copy of, and you can choose the size of the paper or canvas reproduction you want. (Hint: never select a print size larger than the size of the original. Paintings reduce well, but blow-ups get steadily worse in quality.)

The print quality is generally good -- though never better than the original they photographed, so often the deterioration of the original shows up in the print. That simply can't be helped. During the long years when museums would not deign to show the old mimetic artwork, many of them suffered from ill treatment in private collections or museum basements.

Beyond the ARC museum, however, there is their annual "Salon," an art contest that awards prizes to some wonderful pieces by established and up-and-coming artists alike. The winners of the 2013-2014 ARC Salon have just been put on display at: Art Renewal Center

The movement championed by the ARC has now spread widely enough that various art magazines join with the ARC in offering prizes.

The Best in Show prize this year went to the haunting-yet-sentimental "Adrift" by Jeremy Lipking -- a painting of a girl in a white dress floating face-up on the surface of a pool edged with autumn leaves.

Plein Air Magazine gave their prize, unsurprisingly, to a landscape painting by John Pototschnik called "Brisk Evening," a snowy scene beside a stream, with houses in the background.

American Fine Art Magazine gave their Award of Excellence to a painting reminiscent of the Hudson River School, "Evening in the Yosemite Valley," by Erik Koeppel.

And the International Artist Magazine Award of Excellence went to Jonathan Ahn's "Maiden in White," a gorgeously mimetic depiction of a fair-skinned woman wearing white and reclining on white cloth, so that it becomes almost abstract in its effect while remaining true to the Bouguereau tradition of ethereally beautiful skin tones and poses that reflect or evoke emotions.

Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine gave their award to what may be my favorite painting in the Salon: Stephen Bauman's "When I Was Young," depicting a slightly windblown girl holding up an index finger that gives off light like a candle. Her clothing is simple; she has a halo that evokes the traditions of Christian art; but most powerful is the expression on her face, something unavailable to abstract artists.

It's a painting that would make me want to write a story -- if I thought I could invent one that would be worthy of the quality of the painting.

"When I Was Young" also won first prize in the "Imaginative Realism Category" -- the genre that includes all those sci-fi and fantasy book covers, as well as inventive magic-realism pieces like this one. (It's also where they put religious art, of which there are some fine examples.)

The category now absurdly called "figurative art" has room for paintings like Volkan Baga's "Dritte Melodie," in which a flute-playing man represents the dryad inside the tree, and the person transported -- literally elevated -- by his music is, contrary to the classical tradition, a woman.

It is exactly the kind of art that stirs the heart and the imagination -- and which would have been dismissed a decade or two ago as "mere illustration" by those who fancied themselves the arbiters of taste in art.

But the ARC is part of the movement that is taking mimetic art -- including human-centered "figurative art" -- directly to the people. It is a movement that speaks to those who know and love many great traditions from art history -- and to those who know nothing of art history but merely respond to the images and the superb technical achievements of the best practitioners.

There's a "Landscape Category" (my favorite, by the longtime master John Buxton, won second place); a "Still Life Category" that includes some pieces that approach abstraction in their use of color and space; and sculptures, monochromatic drawings, and animal art.

But when you reach the bottom of the winners page, please take the time to click on some of the Other Awards in each category. These images are small -- almost thumbnails -- but if you click on the art, you'll get a markedly larger image. A full tour can take an hour or more, and there are pieces you'll happily return to.

Just like visiting a first-rate museum in the material world.

Some pieces seem to come from another era -- or from a time that never existed. Some are so up-to-the-moment that they sometimes cross over into satire.

What matters is that these artists are not just talking to each other -- though they are definitely part of the worldwide conversation of Art across space and time. They are also talking to us -- regular people who want their art to be about something other than itself.

There is far more variety inside mimetic art than there is outside it. Let the college-trained abstractionists and collagists create works whose best use is as political slogans or motel couch art. The mimetic artists are letting us in on the conversation.

Some of the pieces cross over the line into excessive sentimentality -- as I define it. But you may not draw that line in the same place I do. And often the very same artist will have pieces that are jarringly, powerfully expressive and others that are cloyingly sweet. Why not?

We aren't required to like every piece equally in order to recognize and appreciate an artist's vision and skill.

Some artists will reach out to grab you, with individual pieces or with their astonishing range. The painter of lush scenery will turn out to be one of the best in the figurative category.

These are all defiant creators who refused to submit to the strictures imposed on them in college or art school. They have their own relationship to the art that has gone before; they are asserting their own subject matter and manner of presentation, and you are welcome to accept their choices ... or turn away from them.

For instance, when Terese Rogers calls her painting "Peter's Denial of Christ," we have certain expectations -- but my guess is that few of us will expect to see a despondent man with a walking stick, wearing modern cargo shorts and red sneakers.

But this is completely within the tradition of Christian art, because in every period, artists would depict biblical figures in the costume of their own time and space. If we can accept biblical figures looking like Dutch burghers or Florentine potentates, why not see Peter looking like a man you might meet on any hiking trail?

Some viewers may also be bothered by the occasional nudity. This is well within the ancient tradition of the Greeks and most artists since then, who celebrated the human body, draped and un-. I could rhapsodize about how there's nothing indecent in celebrating a shape formed in the image of God, but instead I'll just admit that a lot depends on what you're used to, and what an artwork makes you feel.

Fortunately, in the ARC Salon most pieces are small, and if something annoys you, don't click on it and then you won't have to see it in detail. If you linger to study an "offensive" work, that's your own choice.

For most who appreciate mimetic art, the ARC Salon is a once-a-year extravaganza. And, as an added bonus, you can preorder the book that will preserve these works in printed form, so you don't have to sit at a computer to enjoy them.


Even though I complain about some language changes, there are others I'd like to make. I think we have way too many needless apostrophes. I dont think our contractions need them anymore. Im sure you wouldnt be confused if there were never another apostrophe in cant or wasnt or werent or hadnt.

Its merely the obvious next step in the way we handle contractions. Jane Austen had no handy apostrophe-of-elision -- she wrote out the phrases, having people say "Do not you think so?" when in fact everyone in her day, as in ours, would have said "Don't you think so?" which I now think we should write as "Dont you think so?"

If there were no apostrophe in "its" (meaning "it is" or "it has"), then maybe we could get rid of the hopelessly wrong apostrophe that keeps showing up in the possessive "its," meaning "belonging to it." People constantly stick that apostrophe in where its most unwelcome. Lets just lose it altogether, in the possessive and the contraction alike.

And while Im de-apostrophizing, let me also point out that there is almost never an apostrophe in plurals. When you pluralize a name, you add the extra "es" or "s" as in "the Smiths are coming over" or "lets stop by and visit the Joneses." That is, we speak the plural "s" or "z" sound, and we write it, too -- but there's never an apostrophe in it.

Im so radical on this that Id happily lose the apostrophes in possessives, too. If I speak of Marys book, are you confused because I didnt write it as Mary's? Wed get used to the lack of apostrophes in about fifteen minutes. In fact, have you even noticed how many apostrophes Ive left out of the preceding paragraphs?

Some annoyed you -- but some annoyed you less.

Of course, my word processor did notice, and tried to autocorrect me repeatedly. But we can train our computers, too, if we just change those awkward rules. I think English could easily survive as an anapostrophic language.

Even if the word "anapostrophic" had to be coined for the occasion ...

And if you think its ludicrous for someone to object to "figurative" meaning "art with human figures in it" but then seek to eliminate contractional apostrophes, I agree completely. I have no commitment to consistency. Like most people, Im radical about some things, conservative about others. Agree or disagree with me as you will.

Just remember that, until I change my mind, my opinions are the correct ones. Then my new opinions become correct. Just like yours, only more so.

(And, for the few of you preparing to write me an outraged letter: That last paragraph was ironic. Self-mocking, in fact. Even if also true.)


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