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Thursday, May 28, 2020


When we react to a piece of art, our feelings arise from a whole bunch of different places. Some of those places are "measurable" and some are not, some are from inside of us, or from some sort of contextual information we happen to have, and which we inflict upon the thing. There are no straight lines here, there are great swirling masses of interacting ideas, facts, falsehoods, and more feelings, all smashing in to one another and producing more of the same.

There's a bunch of things a piano player can do to interpret a piece of music. They can play it fast, loud, they can play individual notes more or less quietly. They can fool around with tempo, they can "swing" the music, and so on. All these things are measurable, which is not to suggest that we ought to measure them. These are audible effects. Some piano players also do things that don't affect the sound, at least not directly. Pressing keys "deep into the keybed" has no effect on the sound, although it may affect the player and thereby alter the interpretation in audible ways somewhere else.

Other things, though, affect the way a piece of piano music takes us. If the player is very pretty, or known to be very talented, if the hall is elegant or shabby. If the stereo system we're listening to the recording through has solid gold speaker cables, and so on. None of these things are audible, but they nevertheless change the way we hear the music.

I do not care to deny anyone their "open soundstage" or their "three-dimensional print," these are real sensations that happen not to arise from anything that is actually present.

There is one important point to be made, though: these feelings which arise from externalities are not transferable. If you don't happen to know a priori that platinum prints, well made, can appear to glow, then when you see one you won't feel the glow. Measurable, the property so disdained by the aficionado, is not the point. Transferability is. The two happen to overlap, perhaps even be exactly the same, but nobody is going to take a densiometer to your print and nobody is going to measure your ridiculous stereo's output.

If I, as a would-be critic, want to tell you, an unknown reader, about a piece of art I cannot be nattering on about non-transferable things. I cannot be telling you about properties of the print, or the painting, or the performance which you cannot perceive unless you've been prepared properly. Critical understandings of Art need to stick to what is in the piece of art and a few details and facts that reasonably surround it. Can I talk about the artist a bit? Sure. Can I talk about the artist's mother? Maybe. Can I talk about the bacon the artist ate the morning before she took the picture? Probably not. The line is a bit blurry, the area is grey.

The region of legitimate discourse may have somewhat fuzzy edges, but it is constrained, and really needs to be mostly about the work at hand.

What I really can't do is talk about things only cultists perceive. I can't talk about the way an ambrotype seems to have such depth because that phrase doesn't mean anything, and it refers to a feeling that only people who like to talk about how ambrotypes have such depth perceive.

Indeed, by introducing such a phrase to the uninitiated, I am likely to do harm. A phrase like such depth might well mean something to the tyro, they might with a bit of struggle invent their own imaginary sensation to fit the phrase. Likely it will not match the feeling it describes to the aficionados, and now the tyro is not only perceiving things that are not actually present, but they're the wrong things.

If I tell someone willy nilly about cat piss flavor notes in wine they might well roll a bit of wine around, imagine they have found it, and then start tasting cat piss in all the wines that the experts agree don't have that note.

Now, not only have I made all wine taste like piss for this poor blighter, I have probably embarrassed him in front of his wiser friends.

To cast it in earlier terms, much of the mystification surrounding, say, photographic prints properly lies with the personal reading, and in that position is a wonderful and rewarding thing. These things do not, however, belong in the critical reading for the simple reason that there's an entire category of people (the uninitiated) who won't include it in their personal reading.

The critical reading seeks to understand the world of possible personal reads, and therefore properly hews to the transferable, or measurable.


  1. Regarding 'depth':
    A few years ago I had an opportunity to get up close to Vermeer's 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' and study it for a bit. The girl's cheek didn't seem to be painted on the surface but to glow *through* the surface, which disappeared entirely (sorta like airbrush or even a hologram). At the time it seemed a personal discovery.
    Since then I have always interpreted that 'depth' or '3-D' thing to mean that effect. But I don't see it in platinum prints particularly, or in much of anything else really. Obviously there are degrees of transferability; for example, my description of the painting above might mean something to you or not. It's a challenge to describe art things and our reactions to them honestly.
    Um, I guess that's what you're saying.

    1. Who knows what I'd see if I looked up close at her cheek! Maybe it would transfer? Holograms do exist, although I can't see how Vermeer could have made one with oils. Painters are a subtle bunch, though, and produce effects that are frankly impossible in anything resembling a straight photograph.

      My experience with paintings is generally the opposite, that the illusion falls away when one gets in close. I recall a Sargent, a full length portrait, which I inspected closely. There was a buckle on the man's shoe which was utterly convincing as a shiny brass buckle with a specular highlight.

      Going in close it became clear that it was, essentially, a blotch. Sargent loaded up a big fat brush with the blobs of globby oil paint and went DOINK and there was the buckle. The man could go DOINK with incredible results, but you have to be 10 feet back to really see it.

      The highlight, note, was far more convincing than in a photo, because he was playing subtle games with local contrast. The buckle-blob was much actually much darker than it appeared, so the pure white bit he'd somehow inserted into his blotch looked Very Bright Indeed.

      Photographers try the same things, but to my eye don't much succeed. You can tell it's supposed to be a specular highlight, and if you're in the zone you can "see" it, but it doesn't really *look* like one. Sargent's didn't either, not *really*, but it was to my eye a more convincing simulation than you see in photographs.

      I dunno!

    2. At the Vermeer house in Delft they have an exhibit showing how he did that gleaming-pearl-with-a-dab-of-paint thing, as well as many other examples of how light plays with things. The old masters had to study how light reflected off stuff in great detail. I wonder if they had been able to photograph things, where the spectral highlights can't keep up with the medium, they might have totally missed the real miracle.

    3. By overlaying very fine layers of transparent colors a different translucent 'depth' is acheived than say premixing the same colors and painting on the surface in one go. It's measurable I thinkm when placed side by side. Don't know how that could be done in photography, some other illusionary printing technique? Or does it need to have that effect? The 'depth' of a translucent evening blue sky, loses it's magic in photography, what coud you do, say it in the caption. Photography just has a different set of devices.

      Larry Poons gives a cool artists talk - refusing to show is paintings in a slideshow - and by way of explanation plays music to the audience instead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ni8T5TgDSD0

  2. I got back into photography because the stress of the weekly painting classes took the fun out of it.
    I recall being told off for laying down too much paint on the underpainting, thus destroying the glow the underpainting created. Was the effect real? Yes. Could it be measured? I doubt it, at least not in any way that would make sense.
    There are a lot of things that destroy our response to “art”. I find getting the physical, intellectual, and emotional distance right sometimes a challenge. Though once I minutely examined the basket in a Constable oil painting and was overcome by wonder.
    Photography is what it is, and comparisons with other forms of representation are as old as photography itself, and have got us nowhere. There's enough codswallop as it is. I know some folk who claim they can tell the focal length of the lens used, or whether the image has been uprezzed. Maybe they can.
    Still, up their nose with a rubber hose.