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Qualities of Memorable Art

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"Love of beauty is Taste. The creation of beauty is Art." Ralph Waldo Emerson

For those who create art, beauty is not just a theoretical question. If there is such a thing as beauty, it must be recognizable. A sense of what is in good taste is needed to make lasting and memorable art. Instead of treating beauty as an airy abstraction, to be either blathered about or avoided depending on how one feels about airy abstractions, consider a practical question: how is outstanding art created?

If you mention taste nowadays, a lot of people will tell you that "taste is subjective." They believe this because it really feels that way to them. When they like something, they have no idea why. It could be because it's beautiful or because someone else has said it is beautiful. Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it's not true. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone's is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that's it.

Relativism is fashionable at the moment; however, it is surprising to know that different disciplines' ideas of beauty have much in common. The same principles of good design crop up again and again.

And so, memorable paintings have qualities of excellence in purpose and design.

Excellent design is simple. You hear this from math to painting. In math it means that a shorter proof tends to be a better one. For architects and designers it means that beauty should depend on a few carefully chosen structural elements rather than a profusion of superficial ornament. (Ornament is not in itself bad, only when it is camouflage on insipid form.) Similarly, in painting, a still life of a few carefully observed and solidly modeled objects will tend to be more interesting than a stretch of flashy but mindlessly repetitive painting. It seems strange to have to emphasize simplicity. You'd think simple would be the default. Ornate is more work. When you're forced to be simple, you're forced to face the real problem. When you can't deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.

Excellent design is timeless. Aiming at timelessness is a way to find the best answer: if you can imagine someone surpassing you, you should do it yourself. Some of the greatest masters did this so well that they left little room for those who came after. Every engraver since Durer has had to live in his shadow.

Aiming at timelessness is also a way to evade the grip of fashion. Fashions by definition change with time, so if you can make something that will still look good far into the future, then its appeal must derive more from merit and less from fashion.

Strangely enough, something that will appeal to future generations, will also appeal to past generations.

Excellent design is suggestive. Jane Austen's novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself. Likewise, a painting that suggests is usually more engaging than one that tells. Everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa.

Excellent design is often vaguely humorous. This one may not always be true. But Durer's engravings and the Pantheon all seem to me slightly funny.

I think it's because humor is related to strength. To have a sense of humor is to be strong: to keep one's sense of humor is to shrug off misfortunes, and to lose one's sense of humor is to be wounded by them. And so the prerogative of strength is not to take oneself too seriously. The confident will often seem to be making fun of the whole process, as Bruegel in his paintings or Shakespeare, for that matter.

Excellent design is hard. If you look at the people who've done great work, one thing they all seem to have in common is that they worked very hard. Hard problems call for great efforts, e.g. the Sistine Chapel.

In art, the highest place has traditionally been given to paintings of people. There is something to this tradition, and not just because pictures of faces get to press buttons in our brains that other pictures don't. We are so good at looking at faces that we force anyone who draws them to work hard to satisfy us.

Excellent design looks easy. Some Leonardo heads are just a few lines. You look at them and you think, all you have to do is get eight or ten lines in the right place and you've made this beautiful portrait. Well, yes, but you have to get them in exactly the right place. The slightest error will make the whole thing collapse.

Line drawings are in fact the most difficult visual medium, because they demand near perfection.

Excellent design uses symmetry. Compositional symmetry yields some of the most memorable paintings, especially when two halves react to one another, as in the Creation of Adam or American Gothic.

Excellent design resembles nature.

Excellent design is redesign. In Leonardo's drawings there are often five or six attempts to get a line right. Leonardo more or less invented the sketch, as a way to make drawing bear a greater weight of exploration.

When oil paint replaced tempera in the fifteenth century, it helped painters to deal with difficult subjects like the human figure



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