Christopher Foyle, British owner of Foyle’s Bookshops, has recently published Foyle’s Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words. In it he defines arcane English words currently dropped or seldom used. Among them “Dentiloquy” (speaking through clenched teeth) and “Latrability” (the ability to bark). Many words have sly connections with art. One in particular needs to be returned to mainline usage:
“Kalopsia” is the condition in which things appear more beautiful than they really are. It’s like where girls (and boys) in bars, for example, tend to look more attractive nearer to closing time. For example: “At 11pm the bar was high on kalopsia.”
Kalopsia also applies to regular people and self-deluding artists who just can’t see how bad certain art really is. As in the bar, there are pressures to overlook problems in the name of expediency. In the real world, artists with a high degree of kalopsia can remain wallflowers unless they go for the cure.
When self-esteem is low, artists tend to give themselves a premature pat on the back. We all know of artists who are forever in a state of euphoric bliss about their essentially crummy art. These folks may rationalize that joy itself is enough, but it isn’t. Pleasing yourself is loaded with potential self-deceit. The problem is compounded when an occasional observer says it’s good stuff. Worse still, people can start to believe in the delusion of a perpetrator — a widespread, contagious human condition.
What’s the cure? It certainly helps to know how truly excellent work can be. Seeing, appreciating and understanding competence sets higher personal goals and spurs both imagination and facility. A sense of experimentation in the studio and the application of honest doubt are healthy for growth and mastery. Good enough is never good enough. Putting in that extra thought and effort — without overworking — is key. Further, it’s important not to get derailed by trend, story or hype. Everyone, particularly artists, should remember that no matter how good the story, quality still counts. The world is fully loaded with folks who are content with mediocrity. Evolved artists simply won’t let themselves be one of them.
PS: “A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.” (Demosthenes)
Esoterica: Art dealers and gallerists are not immune to kalopsia. In good times, when customer bases swell and sales are readily available, dealers may bring in lower quality work to fill the gaps. In poorer times dealers may feature cheaper work to fill in lower price points. While cheap work does not necessarily mean poor work, it often does. Dealers, the general public and the artist in particular have to keep a clear eye. Working, winning and keeping that clear eye is everybody’s good business. Here’s another one of Foyle’s unusual words: “Resipiscence” (recognition of past mistakes and the desire to do better in the future). Not so arcane, wouldn’t you say?
A good kind of kalopsia
by Jada Rowland, New York, NY, USA
When it comes to subject matter I may ‘suffer’ from kalopsia. I became aware of this when my husband wanted to see the location of a particular plein air piece of mine. When we got to the site, a sort of urban ‘meadow’ in the midst of Cambridge, UK, he took one look and said he would never have seen the beauty in the place. I had seen the beauty and replicated it in my painting. This kind of kalopsia is, I believe, an important part of the artist’s right to select what belongs in a particular piece of art. It isn’t so much that I don’t see what is ‘unattractive’ but, rather, that I see the beauty which most people miss; a good kind of kalopsia.
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
It seems to me that children rarely suffer from Kalopsia. I have worked with young children and I find that they will not praise something that doesn’t please them, and they are not afraid to say what they don’t like about it. Nor do they hesitate to express how excited they are by colour, line or implied narrative, though of course not in those terms. And I love this! I wish we could all go back to that child-like freedom of seeing before our perspectives became clouded by worldly pressures and our attitudes became jaded by daily struggles. Children may not know (or care) what the world considers to be great or classic art, but they will always see things that we’ve forgotten to and there’s great beauty in that.
Only the better artists survive
by Judy Phlegar, Greensboro, GA, USA
This was certainly an interesting article. I agree that there are “established” artists who are not nearly as good as they think they are and there are also “un-established” artists who are much better than they think. Isn’t the beauty of a piece truly “in the eyes of the beholder”? Art is one of the most subjective venues out there. I believe the artists who are truly bad at what they do won’t be earning enough to survive. Therefore, it is only the true artist who has staying power to last through time and appeal to the multitudes.
Process of correction
by George Tanner, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Now I know what to call the process I’ve noticed has been occurring more frequently in my work. I will “finish” a painting and happily sign it only to return and be shocked by its awfulness the next day or even weeks later. I have actually had paintings framed and hung on the wall that I’ve taken down and re-worked to correct some aspect that had been bothering me. Always the re-visiting of the work has resulted in improvements and sometimes significant ones. I remember reading that Joseph Stella would often take old works out of storage, make minor corrections and re-sign them. He was apparently another artist afflicted with kalopsia.
A lifetime of looking and seeing
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
You mention “recognizing quality” and the need to put in “extra thought or effort” into making one’s work stronger. I agree. But, unless you ‘recognize quality’… ‘extra thought or effort’ might make a work look better, but it will not elevate ‘crummy art’ far beyond what it already is. The only way to recognize quality is to put extra effort into developing one’s observational skills. As Vincent van Gogh said, “Art demands constant observation.” You often recognize quality or beauty before you really know what makes it so. To see what a great painting or any other work of art actually looks like takes time. To see on a conscious level requires many revisits to look at and investigate the same work again and again and again. And this effort must be sustained over time — a life time really — because you should never think or believe that you see well enough. If you do, you are only deceiving yourself, and your work will never evolve beyond what it already is.
by Judi Foster, Newburgh, IN, USA
So the only people who should be allowed to create art are the people who have the capability to turn out masterpieces – therefore the fact that you consider yourself an artist must mean you hold yourself in very high esteem since you are not opposed to sharing your work. I guess some of the rest of us who just enjoy expressing ourselves should go crawl back under our rocks and never dream of creating anything again. You are like most of the art professors I have heard tales of, mostly from people who chose other careers. I am sorry, you have stirred something in me. I guess our early ancestors should have kept their sticks to themselves rather than expose us to their lousy art. I happen to love cave art.
(RG note) Thanks, Judi. Most of the folks who subscribe to these letters are interested in growth and improvement. While certainly subjective, knowing the difference between poorer and better art is part of the game. I also love cave art. Would you agree that some cave art is better than others?
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
I am curious as to what experience triggered this article? Sounds almost like you are venting. There is definitely a charge behind your comments. Except for technical details, how do you define what art is good and what is bad? Isn’t this very much in the eye, mind and heart of the beholder? What is ugly to one person may be beautiful to another. There does not seem to be a unified field of perception in my experience. How we perceive anything is also very colored by our moods and emotions. In general I agree that being able to be critical of one’s own work is essential to anyone, not just artists. But perception is not fixed but very fluid. That which you abhor today, you just may love tomorrow.
(RG note) Thanks, Helena. Funny you should ask that. Every day new artists send jpegs for my opinion and critique. While I do not always reply to these requests, to those I do I try to be helpful and tactful, directing them to appropriate books, workshops and other resources. The day the Kalopsia letter was written I had responded to a woman in Baltimore who was literally on her fifth and sixth painting. Most of our readers would agree she had quite a way to go. Between modest praise and encouragement I went to some length to suggest she try to develop a more critical faculty. I also told her she ought to put a few more paintings under her belt, learn a bit about colour, improve her drawing and composition, and cease and desist from copying stuff out of travel magazines. Her return email included, “Thanks so much for your wonderful encouragement. Can you recommend any of the better galleries in the Baltimore area that I might now approach?” And so it goes.
by Christopher Boghosian, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I have two questions. First, you state, “Worse still, people can start to believe in the delusion of a perpetrator — a widespread, contagious human condition.” Could you please clarify this statement? I did not understand your meaning. Second, you state, “Further, it’s important not to get derailed by trend, story or hype. Everyone, particularly artists, should remember that no matter how good the story, quality still counts.” By “story,” do you mean personal story, i.e., the story of my making art, of me the artist. Or do you mean story in the sense of a structure/plot?
(RG note) Thanks, Chris. Throughout history, persons of power and influence — poets, parsons, popes, publicists, politicians and even painters — have changed the course of human events. One of the unique features of democracy is that individuals are invited to figure things out for themselves. Unfortunately we don’t always have the capability to act on our findings. Further, “story” outwits and outdistances many more sober, valuable and beautiful endeavors. The tendency to believe nonsense is deeply rooted in human nature.
Value of a qualified critic
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
I just stopped at our local art center to pick up some work from last month’s show. A Pat Weaver workshop group was taking a lunch break so I went in to see the work and chat with participants. When I lamented that I wasn’t able to attend this workshop, one lady said something to this effect, “Pat’s workshop is the best I’ve attended. She’s extremely knowledgeable and never lets you think a bad painting is a good one.” Perhaps every artist — this one, I’m sure — needs a Pat Weaver in his or her life. When one finds a qualified critic, one is also able to recognize useful praise.
by Rick Rogers, St. Albert, AB, Canada
The problem is that we always see other artists’ work through our own lens. Determining what you like and what inspires you is easy, but others may regard those same works with disdain. Worse, finding an honest opinion is much harder than finding that well-meaning occasional observer you mentioned. And worse still, it isn’t hard to find an honest but extreme opinion that you simply shouldn’t trust. That is why I appreciate your suggestions for the cure. The message I take away is that artists must be their own doctor /psychiatrist /pastor, always working to find and root out the disease of incompetence, the delusion of kalopsia, and the emptiness of mediocrity. I’m just hoping I don’t require an operation, serious medication, or an exorcism!
Don’t understand the letter
by Bruce Ervin Wood, Rockville, MD, USA
I agree to disagree. Does “Art” have a universally agreed upon standard of quality or content? For instance, regarding pornography, someone in the legal world once noted, “I know pornography when I see it.” Clearly there are works in which quality is commonly recognized. When I create something that speaks to the essence of who I am, it is a work of Art. When I free myself to fully channel the energy available to me, regardless of how others experience the outcome, beauty comes alive for me. A mentor once asked me how I would respond if someone said my work was garbage. “In humility and uncertainty,” I mumbled. With her characteristic resolve, she said she’d tell the critic that the comment reminded her of the last time she accidentally stepped on a dog turd. Given the subjective nature of art, she said, “The worst, valid art critique anyone can give you is, ‘I don’t understand it.” Thanks for your letters. Many are inspiring. Regarding this one, I don’t understand it.
The limitations of joy
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
I have heard often enough… “I paint for the joy of it” or “As long as you are getting joy out of your painting…” I have always been totally puzzled by these statements. I think of a concert pianist who practiced the scales over and over and over again… I think this must not have been overly joyful. I thought of the actor pacing her room trying to learn tomorrow’s lines, practicing her reactions, and timing. It did not seem to me to be overly joyful at 4am. I thought of an architect trying to figure out how to build a structure that would stand on sandy soil as they had to puzzle through in Boston and Chicago. Certainly these moments are far from joyous.
Total joy in one’s art might be kalopsia. (I am leaving room for those people who really do find absolute joy in everything. I don’t know you but it is possible you exist.) But in my mind kalopsia might be more aptly explained as kidding yourself. The moments of joy in painting are simply breathtaking, wondrous, and worth every single time I scrape something out to do it better. But I don’t kid myself. Scraping paint is not joyful. It is necessary if I am to progress, and any consistent progress is indeed joyful.
by Ralph Giannattasio, Wyndmoor, PA, USA
Your email suggests I put “extra thought and effort” into my work. Well, I suppose that no matter how much thought and effort I put into my work it will always be judged “bad.” I suppose I just don’t have enough talent to create what you deem to be “good” no matter how much or how hard I try. I am rather new to oil painting and while I see my work improving I don’t see it as good and I fear that no matter how much I improve the best I can hope for is to reach a level of just plain “bad” rather than “very poor.” Would you suggest I just stop now before I bring more bad art into this world?
(RG note) Thanks, Ralph. There is nothing to prevent a very bad golfer from going onto the links every day. On the other hand, surgeons who don’t know what they’re doing are soon barred from the operating room. Art is halfway between those two situations.
Enjoy the past comments below for Kalopsia…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who submitted a Salvador Dali quote: “Oh, Salvador, Now you know the truth; if you act the genius you will be one.”
And also Dana who wrote, “Really Robert. You know that the words humans utter reveal far more about the speaker than anything else.”
And also Richard Harrison of Venice, FL, USA who wrote,”A friend, who shall remain nameless, added another term related to “Closing time Kalopsia,” to describe the rude awakening that may follow: “Coyote Ugly” is when, in the morning, you discover the partner asleep on your arm is so homely you’ll willingly chew it off to keep from waking her up so you can escape. There are art works like that and we’ve all created them at one time or another.”
And also Peter Vassilopoulos of Delta, BC, Canada who wrote, “The word kalopsia is derived from the Greek word Kalos (good).
And also InaRae Ussack of Port Angeles, WA, USA who wrote, “I have an honorary degree in Lexicology. When the word I want won’t come to me I make one up. Usually (to me at least) it is more appropriate than the one I was trying to recall.” (RG note) Thanks, InaRae. I, too often prefer to conglotomize my own.
And also Laudine Borges of Ventura, CA, USA who wrote, “Did you send that message to me personally or is that just your normal twice a week message?” (RG note) Thanks, Laudine. There is more fun stuff that people have written about the twice-weekly letters here.