Sunday, September 27, 2009


Here's how it goes:

There are details that hum and details that sing. There are details that accumulate like silt when the artist isn't paying enough attention, and smother the picture.

Then there are details where artists with impeccable technique find refuge from questions of meaning and purpose.


There are details that are diamantiferous...


all the way down to the subatomic level....

Then there are details so insanely disproportionate that we can only attribute them to the addiction to drawing (an addiction that has so far bested every methadone program offered by art schools).


Of course, we are supposed to forgive the excessive details in Renaissance art; those details were created in an era of new enthusiasm for empirical facts and the physical world, after artists awakened from the long medieval obsession with the next world. Renaissance artists were entitled to their painstaking focus on the natural world, but you'd better have an equally good excuse if you want to get away with the same thing today.


There are details which are just a playground for scamps.


Then there are sly details, the ones that seduce the artist with his own skill. Be on your guard, for these are the most dangerous details of all!


There are details that envelop you in a warm bath, and there are details that shimmer like phosphorescence in the sea at night and swirl around you, drawing you deeper into the picture to the place where mermaids whisper that answers do exist.

On those rare occasions when an artist exercises restraint, the few carefully selected details can acquire supernatural power. The single line of a stocking can inspire you to leave a bookstore and go looking for your wife.

Sometimes detail gets lucky and is given a starring role in a picture, as when an artist merges the background with the foreground, making the center of the picture everywhere at once.


Once upon a time, laborious detail was the cheapest and safest way to make sure a viewer valued a picture. Even if the art was no good, viewers were subconsciously flattered that the artist was willing to invest so many hours of his life to entertain them. But the muse became indignant that so many of her supplicants were abandoning her for the god of manual labor, so she invented photoshop. Now even the lure of cheap flattery is gone.


Scientists report that fully 17% of the artistic details in the known universe are attributable to cowardice; there are artists who add detail to hedge their bets, believing that it is safer to draw lots of little lines than one big one. But artists who believe they can escape accountability by blurring their choices with three or four lines where one would have sufficed are wrong. The fatal flaw with their theory is what the economists call diminishing marginal utility: with each additional superfluous line the artist invests a little less thought or judgment (and adds less value to the picture).

So many lines-- hundreds of millions of them throughout history-- are conceived in hope, only to end up as part of an endurance test for crow quill pens. One can only ponder the wasted potential, the disappointed ambitions of these lines whose lives were stripped of individuality, personality, and any other trait that might have redeemed them. It is, my friends, a holocaust of mind numbing proportions. But who will hear their cry?