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Breck: The French philosopher Michel Foucault called Jacques Derrida an “obscurantisme terroriste” because he felt that Derrida’s writings on philosophy were intentionally obscure. Derrida and Foucault are postmodern philosophers. Derrida is somewhat infamous for his concept called “deconstruction,” which briefly stated, holds that it is impossible to come up with any definition of truth that people can agree on because “…a systematic approach (to perhaps anything) is broached/ruptured/held incomplete by that element which the system must exclude in order to find closure as a system and yet is necessary for the functioning of the system.”* You can kind of see what Foucault means about obscurantism by this short explanation of Derrida’s idea.

Jaques Derrida

Stephania: Can you explain deconstruction a little better for me?

Breck: It has to do with textual analysis. Derrida was writing about texts and what he felt was the impossibility of any agreement on what a text can mean. Derrida said that in any text the meaning of any words within that text are dependent upon other words -- within the text as well as in other texts. However, the meanings of the words being analyzed is going to be constantly shifting and changing, hence it is going to be impossible to come up with an agreed upon meaning for them. This process of breaking apart the language and analyzing it is called deconstruction.

Of Grammatology introduced the majority of ideas influential within deconstruction.

Stephania: So is it sort of like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? If you measure something, you change it? Or in this case, if you try to define a word, the meaning is constantly changing so you can’t measure it?

Breck: Yes. It’s also like taking a clock apart to see how it works. But once you have taken the clock apart, it is no longer able to function as a clock.

Now the ordinary language philosophers, by contrast, believe that philosophy has gotten in trouble because it takes words like truth or meaning and uses them in contexts other than those for which they were originally intended. For example, I once read a book by Heidegger called Being and Time, and in that book (granted, it was a translation), “being” was a major subject. Ordinary language philosophers would argue that “being” is a word that we would use in a sentence like, “Tom is being selfish,” rather than a word we should use to try to define existence. John Searle, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and Ludwig Wittgenstein all use ordinary language philosophy. Because of this, it can seem like ordinary language philosophers spend a lot of time taking apart the logic of other philosophers – which they do! They are just trying to show the difficulties involved in using words to talk about something like philosophy. In a way, this is what Derrida was also doing – he was just coming at it from another direction.

More directly, the ordinary language philosophers believe you can construct a sentence that has meaning, rather than having meaning be impossible to define (as Derrida and the deconstructionists say).

Derrida, on the other hand, is among the post-modern philosophers who took the relativism of the 60’s to an extreme, and probably took it to its most extreme.

I found a good compromise to these two positions in the 90s when I was reading Umberto Eco, a semiotician. Basically Eco says that a word or a sentence can have more than one meaning but there are certain things that a given word or sentence cannot and do not mean. For example, “We are writing on a wooden table.” The number of people who are writing is not specified. The writing could be symbolic for something else. The table could be symbolic for something else. (Such as, “We are writing on a wooden table” could be symbolic for how we are living our life, or the table could be symbolic for the Eucharist. The table is also wooden so it could be symbolic for impermanence.) But there are certain things that that sentence does not say, such as “The table is metal,” or “The table is plastic,” or “We are driving down the road.” So there are many things our sentence could mean but there are certain things our sentence cannot mean.

J.L. Austin

One piece of writing about ordinary language philosophy that impressed me was J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words.

Stephania: What impressed you?

Breck: The title of the book gives a sort of explanation of what he is saying. J. L. Austin said that we can make statements that do things, not just say things. He developed a theory called “speech acts”. A speech act is something that not only presents information but performs an action as well. For example, “I would like the potatoes – would you please pass them here?” is a speech act. The ordinary language philosophers believe that making a statement like, “I promise to do xyz” is best understood as doing something rather than making an assertion. They use the phrase “performative utterance” (among others) for this. There are several types of speech acts and I am horribly oversimplifying this, but I think you get the broad picture.

* Cheatham, Robert. (1986). Prologue to an interview with Jacques Derrida by Jerry Cullum in Art Papers, Vol 10, No 1, Jan/Feb: p. 8

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What is abstract art and how do you understand it? Abstract art runs a continuum from totally abstract to representational (you can tell what things are, but they are not “naturalistic”), and it has been the most common art form throughout history. To people who are used to looking at naturalistic art, abstract art may seem hard to understand. However, this need not be the case. One way to think of it is like looking at a pleasing pattern in a carpet or glaze on a vase. In some cultures, art focuses on creating pattern – such as Islamic culture, which prohibited representations of the human form in religious art. For this reason, Islamic artists created stunning designs for things like architecture, calligraphy, ceramics – everything. The patterns in Islamic art were so numerous that the French coined a word for it: they called them “arabesques.”

Islamic Arabesques

Some people, especially non-art specialists – or where I teach, non-art majors – like to say that art is whatever you think it is. That’s ok if it helps you appreciate the piece, but there is a sense in which that is not totally accurate. You might look at an abstract painting of a man’s face and say, “Oh, look, down in the lower right corner -- that little squiggle of pigment looks like a bear.” That may be what you see, but that may not be what that painting is about. For example, Kandinsky started painting some of the first totally abstract paintings of the 20th century. If somebody walked into his studio and said, “Oh, that looks like an elephant up there,” Kandinsky would go over and paint it out. He did not want his paintings to resemble anything in the natural world. So, you can say art is whatever you think it is and that’s ok if that helps you to appreciate abstract art, but it is possible to go beyond that in your appreciation of art.

Altarbild Improvisation 9

Hilma Klimt Wassily Kandinsky

Also, the artist may have some intention of communicating something. Intention can be problematic. Previously I have said that a work is successful if it communicates what the artist intended, but a work can be successful without that, too. One thing I try to be open to as an artist are serendipitous occurrences while I’m making an artwork. These are things that happen that may or may not have anything to do with my intentions, but they are chance happenings that make the piece better. By that I mean that they balanced the composition in some way or they introduced a new element into the artwork and I try to be open to that when I’m working. You can argue that being open to those chance occurrences is part of the intention of the artist. That in a way might be a good definition of how an artwork is made.

For example, when I did After the Monsoons (right, collection of the Greenville, NC Museum of Art), I started out by painting the entire canvas a salmon color. Then I added some dark grey strokes. I decided to try scraping the whole thing with a palette knife. After I did that, I stepped back, looked at it, and realized it was done.

I have sometimes told my students in the past that when they feel like they are beginning to get close to the end of a painting, they need to start stepping back from the painting and looking at it more and more frequently. This is because very often a painting will complete itself before you thought it was going to. I’ve had students laugh at me when I’ve said that and say, “Yeah, right, a painting is not going to complete itself,” but they misunderstood what I was saying. When you’re making a painting it’s like you’re having a dialogue with it. You put a color on the canvas, stand back and look at it, and wait to see what the painting calls for next. Ideally you keep doing this until the painting completes itself. The conversation is complete.

"Very often a painting will complete itself before you thought it was going to." -- Breck Smith

"It's all in the release." Peter Agostini

Completed conversations are similar to something that my old teacher, Peter Agostini, used to talk about when he said somewhat mysteriously, “It’s all in the release.” Of course, he was talking about how you release the paint off the brush onto the canvas or how you release the clay onto the sculpture, but he was also talking about how and when you release the artwork into the world. The artwork is ready when it says it’s ready. It is unfortunately a too common occurrence for a young painter to be so intent on putting that last little detail into the painting that they thought at the outset was essential to the painting’s completion that they will totally miss the fact that the painting was actually finished about 20 minutes before that.

I think people often believe that abstract art is exotic or scary and that it is very new. The opposite is actually the case. For most cultures, even Western, the dominant art form has been abstract. If you look at Western culture, some of the prehistoric cave paintings of animals (radiocarbon dated at 30,000 years BC) are fairly naturalistic. And then you don’t get to naturalism again until you get to the Amarna period in Egyptian art, which only lasted about 10 years. (The Amarna period occurred from 1346 to 1336 BC). After this art began to get somewhat naturalistic, but it didn’t begin to get as naturalistic as we are used to now until you get to 5th century BC Greek art. Think of things like the statue of Venus and the statues of the human form that decorated temples. It remained naturalistic through the 3rd or 4th century AD under the Romans. After that it began to get somewhat abstract again and it stayed that way during the Medieval period (5th to late 15th century AD) until the Gothic period (12th to 16th century AD), when sculpture began to get more naturalistic. Painting became more naturalistic in the 15th century AD in Italy and Northern Europe. That ushered in the Renaissance, and so art was more naturalistic from the Renaissance through the late 19th cent. Hence, the dominant art form in Western art was naturalism for 500 years after the start of the Renaissance, but in the last century abstract art has again come to predominate. Andre Malraux, the French Minister of Culture under DeGaulle, computed the relative time for both Western and non-Western art. When you look at time when naturalistic vs. abstract has been the dominant form, the period of time for naturalistic is just tiny compared to time for abstract. Malraux also wrote about naturalism vs. abstraction in religious art. He said, “In all parts of the world and in every age the styles of sacred art declined to imitate life and insisted on transforming or transcending it.”

Upper Left: Lascaux Cave Painting Upper Right: Amarna Period Sculpture

Lower Left: Ancient Greek Sculpture Lower Right: Ancient Roman Sculpture: Bust

of Galerius (?)

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Updated: Dec 5, 2020

“Why buy art?” was the initial impetus for this article. But researching it, I found many articles on the subject and thought I’d turn it around and look at what it would be like to NOT have art. So, drawing on the research of other bloggers and my own expertise, what would the world be like without visual art?

The economic impact might be larger than people realize. There is the direct income to a local economy from the income/spending and taxes of artists themselves. Beyond this, art is a draw for businesses to locate in a community, so with no art business growth could be curtailed. Art stores, galleries, and museums would disappear, so there would be fewer businesses to again provide income/spending and taxes in the community, as well as less entertainment. Also, tourism would be reduced, so business income to the hospitality/leisure industries would be lowered. Some individuals purchase art as an investment, hoping for it to appreciate in value. This income would be lost.

Education would be impacted. The teaching of art is correlated with improvements in creativity and performance in other fields. Some teaching jobs would be lost. Art can lead us to look at the world in a different way. It inspires both children and adults to think, ask questions and seek answers. This is central to the learning process.

Mental and physical health could be impacted. According to, stroke survivors who like art have a higher quality of life and recover better from their strokes than non-art lovers (Wixforth, 2019). Research in neurobiology from the University College, London reports that looking at art increases dopamine and activity in the brain’s frontal cortex, which produces pleasure not unlike being in love or taking recreational drugs (The Bomway blog, 2018). According to research at the University of Western Australia, art improves your mental health. Art is used as part of therapy for the treatment of dementia, depression, and other mental illnesses (The Bomway blog, 2018). Arts improve everyone’s emotional well-being by lowering stress and anxiety in addition to fighting depression (Drica Lobo blog, 2019). Art on the walls can brighten a room and lift your mood, or calm a space (Wixforth, 2019). Art can also humanize otherwise depersonalized spaces, like institutions or offices. (Katz and Wood, 2017)

Individually and interpersonally there would also be costs to a loss of visual arts. Both the production of art and the purchase and display of art reflect an individual’s personality, history, and values. For some, showing their art is a way of sharing themselves. Artist themselves would suffer tremendously individually. With no outlet for their creative expressions, they would be stifled. With no patrons or art sales, they would lose hope of ever having art careers, so they might have higher rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Art is also a conversation starter and topic. Art galleries, exhibition openings, and museums are gathering places where you can meet new people. With no art, life might be duller, like the emptier walls of buildings.

There are social costs to having no visual art as well. Art often captures the history, culture, and politics of a particular time. Think, for example, of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” posters of Barack Obama during the 2008 elections. David Hockney painted many landscapes of his native Yorkshire that portray its natural splendor. Frederick Remington painted iconic landscapes of the US West. Art reflects and inspires political movements and politics of the day (think of the political cartoons in the newspaper or in magazines). With no artists to satirize, demonize, or deify politicians or political stances, how effectively would these people or views communicate themselves? And finally, art is beautiful. It improves the appearance of our environment and communities. No art = less beauty in the environment.

Art enriches life in so many ways. There is the joy of supporting a growing artist. The personal investment in oneself of purchasing an original artwork. The sharing of art among friends. The gifting of art. The pleasure of living in a cheerful living space. Many of the articles I read noted that people are often afraid to purchase art because they think they don’t know enough or that it will be too expensive or that they will be stuck with it forever. I liked what one author talked about (Drica Lobo, 2019). She said that we are often willing to drop several hundred dollars on a trip to Target or a special dinner out with friends. Why not spend some of our money on something that will last longer? Think also of the expensive phones, tablets, and techie toys we purchase. Those will be out of date and not usable in a few years. Art lasts a lifetime – or longer. On the other hand, you don’t have to live with it and never change it. You replace cars, TVs, and Leboutins and paint your house, right? So you can switch the art in your home, too. My opinion is that it is always best when you base your art purchases on your own personal needs and tastes. Critics and trends don’t matter. If you want art to match your couch, go for it. If you want art to create a particular mood, great. But remember this: if no one buys original art, we won’t have any more of it.

The Art League (April 19, 2013). Five Reasons to Buy Art.

The Bomway (Jan 18, 2018). 5 Reasons Why You Should Buy Art.

Jovic, Milaca (Nov 3, 2019). Why You Should Buy Art from Living Artists.

Katz, Lisa D., and Wood, Shira (June 6, 2014; updated June 16, 2017). Ten Reasons to Buy Art.

Wixforth, Janine (Sept 30, 2019). Why Buy Original Art?

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