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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.)