Sunday, April 23, 2006

two art books

Two books with similar titles that I both ran across in libraries (one academic, one public) while looking for something else.

Lyle Rexer’s How to Look at Outsider Art (2005) doesn’t sound particularly promising and lives up to such unpromise. After all, doesn’t outsider art more than any other create its own terms? Not that an introduction or overview wouldn’t be useful but the primary value to Rexer’s book is as a sporadic survey. There are a few interesting artists I didn’t know about and unfamiliar bits about others I did but Rexer is far too mired in run-of-the-mill art critical thinking to help much with this art. In other words, timid and watered-down philosophy takes precedence over actually experiencing the art work. Much of his concern is exterior (outside the outsider art) even leading him to propose a taxonomy based on the mental status of the artist, an activity more appropriate to a therapist than a critic. While such information is undeniably of interest, it’s not the major point. You also wonder about most factual information when he tells us about the Borges story “Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius” which manages to have two errors in one title (it’s actually “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and the umlaut couldn’t have posed a problem considering how often Wölfli is mentioned). Elsewhere he tries to mention a Ken Grimes painting that resembles a circuit diagram as an example of outsiders gravitating to science fiction despite the obvious fact that there’s nothing remotely science fictional about this since it’s based on decades-old electrical symbols.

Though Patrick de Rynck’s How to Read a Painting: Lessons from the Old Masters (2004) seemed more promising, it’s actually of almost no value. The basic idea is to explore important elements of pre-modern painting that elude most of us nowadays. The format is two pages per painting (100 paintings in all) which each work getting a full view then enlargments of specific icons, characters or actions with accompanying text. The main problem is that the text is just too blunt and telegraphic to convey much information. On Martini & Memmi’s The Annunciation, de Rynck identifies the four Old Testament prophets but doesn’t explain why those particular four, what they’re doing there, whether that was a common design element of that genre. In short, everything that I picked up the book for (and in fact didn’t get much beyond 60 pages). A much better approach would have been eight pages for each of 25 paintings which would allow a more detailed exploration as well as background for the artist.

101 best screenplays?

A friend sent this list from the Writer's Guild of the 101 Greatest Screenplays and it's an odd statement. The overall impression isn't that screenplays were judged but that the voting members simply chose the greatest films where the screenplay was clearly the foundation. How else would you account for Citizen Kane when it's obvious that the same script filmed by anybody else but Welles wouldn't have resulted in anything remotely like what we have. Or The Wizard of Oz which owes less to the screenwriters than to the songwriters, actors, set designers and Baum. The number one choice was Casablanca, a routine 40s Warner melodrama that's inexplicably come to be considered A Great Film but which again owes whatever strengths it has to something other than the script. (It probably helps that respected nitwit Robert McKee has praised this particular script, or again the resulting film since it's not clear that he or any of the voters actually read the script.) Being the result of industry voting, the list really just shows writers patting each other on the back. That's why there are no silent films and almost nothing from outside Hollywood.