Kalopsia

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Dear Artist,

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.

Best regards,

Robert

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

 

Church across the street oil painting by Jada Rowland

“Church across the street”
oil painting by Jada Rowland

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.

 

 

 

Childhood honesty
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada

 

Ashley's guitar acrylic on glass painting by Jamie McDonald Gray

“Ashley’s guitar”
acrylic on glass painting
by Jamie McDonald Gray

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

 

What Are You Looking At? digital photograph by Judy Phlegar

“What Are You Looking At?”
digital photograph by Judy Phlegar

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

 

Fairweather Camper original painting by George Tanner

“Fairweather Camper”
original painting by George Tanner

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

 

Wilhelm Barns #2 acrylic painting by Tiit Raid

“Wilhelm Barns #2”
acrylic painting by Tiit Raid

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.

 

Stirred up
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?

 

Personal perception
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA

 

Avocados on the Table watercolor painting by Helena Tiainen

“Avocados on the Table”
watercolor painting
by Helena Tiainen

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.

 

Textual questions
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

 

Timid oil painting by Martha Faires

“Timid”
oil painting by Martha Faires

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.

 

Operation needed?
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.

 

Stop now?
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.

 

 

World of Art Featured artist Pat Weaver, Dade City, FL, USA  

'Untitled by Pat Weaver, Dade City, FL, USA

Untitled

watercolour painting by
Pat Weaver, Dade City, FL, USA

 

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.

 

 

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Kalopsia

 

 

From: Suzette Fram — May 06, 2008

Who decides what is good art and what is bad art? Is there even such a thing a bad art? I have seen paintings in magazines that make me shudder and leave me completely puzzled and incredulous and yet, someone obviously thought they were worthy of being featured in a magazine. It’s all very subjective and it all changes over time as standards and trends change.

I say everyone should paint who wants to. Why not? Who are they hurting? Obviously if their art is not very good, it won’t sell. Still, they’re not hurting anyone. There is a pleasure and a satisfaction in the act of creating, of accomplishing something, even if it’s not very good. There is value in the doing, regardless of the results.

From: Anonymous — May 06, 2008

Well said Suzette!!

From: Mary K — May 06, 2008
From: Alenius — May 06, 2008

Thank you Robert Genn for the emails – I love them. I’m an artist in training and am having fun. Enjoy the emails immensely. You are a man of many words.

From: Rick Rotante — May 06, 2008

From where I’m sitting there is kalopsia in these statements. People have to get real about what is really good and what is bad art. Now I have no qualm with artists creating it or even getting it published or sold. As P.T. Barnum said, ” There is a sucker born every day”, and I repeat that with all due respect. If everyone puts their kalopsiac ego aside, all will admit to bad art being created even by me and every artist out there. The difference is I try and recognize it and do something about. I burn it, wipe it off, or put it in my “I love my work no matter who thinks otherwise” file never to be seen by anyone but me. But to jump all over poor Robert and dare to say there is no bad art is super kalopsia extraordinaire. Art has many levels from “professional, well trained” people to “novices” to the completely “uninspired.” All might get viewing at one time or another. But when all is said and done some art WILL BE BAD no matter if someone buys it or publishes it. It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses.

From: Valerie Norberry — May 06, 2008

Now, about klutzyopia, that’s when your glasses are so thick that when carrying paintings down the stairs they suddenly become “found object collages”. I love to play with words. Try this: Put your first name and last name together with no space (the name people commonly call you) and then with quotes around it, put it in google, and see what you come up with. Mind came up with “valnery” which means healing properties. Hmmm… not bad for free.

From: N. Hyde — May 06, 2008

*groan* This letter came right as I was asking for a sign from the universe on whether or not I should just pack it in. The stubborn side of me says “no way — keep going!” while the other side of me just wants to hide under the bed.

All melodrama aside, the letter is certainly food for thought.

From: Mikolean — May 06, 2008

I just read the excerpts from previous letter. My stomach hurts so much from laughing. Tears are running down my face. I love the human race.

From: Janet Mohler — May 06, 2008
From: Linden Morris — May 06, 2008

Yes, a brilliant topic. From the comments here and the “clickback” above it’s quite obvious that what makes “good art” strikes a chord with many of us who call ourselves artists. (myself included)

I agree, delusion is not useful nor growth oriented, which for myself has led to a lifetime (at least so far) of stringent examination (on all fronts) of my own unique human condition. Conversely, altho I seldom experience art-making contained in the swaddling cloak of “joy” (nor do I seek it as motivation to create art) I understand that there are many that do. Some days I wish there was an entrance exam into the art world and that I would be the one charged with giving out admission tickets. There is certain folly in that too tho! Who am I to ordain what is good or bad, qualitacious or not?

I judge all art I see/experience based on my own personal bias and preferences. Who doesn’t?

In the end…I’m just another shlub who, some days, really thinks that I have something important to say artistically. The rest of the time I struggle with the age old questions that all people who create struggle with to varying degrees.

I think that that is really what I signed up for in the beginning anyways and in an ironic way my art making has become sublimated to the more important process of how I am defining and evolving myself as a human being.

…such a great topic!

From: Theresa Bayer — May 06, 2008

In the world of ceramics there is a saying: It takes seven years to make a potter. Perhaps that’s true of other kinds of art, as well.

From: Lawrence Humphrey — May 06, 2008

Jean-Léon Gérôme knew crummy art when he saw it. It was everything created by the Impressionists. Draw your own conclusions.

From: LuAnn S, Colorado — May 06, 2008

Though this has touched a sore spot in a lot of people, I think there is a lot of value in it. Maybe it boils down to not taking ourselves so seriously. For me, the joy of creating a painting makes me love it at first. Later, I sometimes hate it, and sometimes I’m surprised at how pleasing it is to my eyes.

From: Tim Adams — May 07, 2008

Bad paintings? They do exist. I have made a lot of them. But then there are a few that shine through, when all of your work and development comes together to make something worth showing. Don’t ever stop because you’ve created something bad. Learn from it and move on. Thoughts unspoken die unborn. The same goes for your paintings. If the desire lies within you, paint your heart out! But above all, keep developing because that’s where real life begins.

From: Wendy — May 07, 2008

I recognize excellence and mediocrity. Good enough is never good enough. Thanks for bringing that up.

From: Mikolean M. Longacre — May 07, 2008

I think you hit another nerve. Why do artists, of all types, screech like a stuck pig when there is ever an inference that not everything you put out there is worthy of being viewed? It always seems to come back to, “art is in the eye of the beholder” So everything should be beheld. “There is a difference between “free to be me so I paint for enjoyment”. If this is true, why do you insist on sharing it with others? If it is really your enjoyment, why the need for approval? Making true art is this dire need to make and create that something fundamental beyond the ego and approval. It is a yearning, an unrelinquished craving to touch the ineffable. In that, nothing matters than finding a way to do it, improving your technique to do it and finding others who are on the same search. After the first initial rush of ego of the beginner (as a child), “where all must see what I have done”; you come to a place where the real ebb and flow of the search is the meaning and your work will show it. It is those rare moments when we as artists express the inexpressible and somehow it touches others that it becomes worthy to be viewed.

From: D F Gray — May 08, 2008

The burn is very satisfying, once or twice a year, when alone I set up the camera with the ego button, get the fire going then record the 20 or 30 as they go up in flames, always a good exercise.

From: Deanna Johnson — May 08, 2008

I have known of Pat Weaver for some time and hope to take a workshop from her as she frequently does so in the areas near where I live. I would agree, a truthful critic is the best and it takes big shoulders to accept the truth.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — May 09, 2008

Re: Janet Mohler’s comment- The Dust Pan/Wisk Broom is a Claus Oldenburg- and absolutely wonderful- and the new wing of the Denver Art Museum- designed by Daniel Libeskind- is- as far as I’m concerned- one of the most extraordinary buildings on the face of this planet. It’s interior initially gave some people vertigo- walking up the staircase- which I also thought was great. I love that- so I had no problem with it at all. I encourage anyone visiting Denver to visit the Art Museum- as it is an experience- individually judged good or bad- that is still uniquely memorable. Right now the Gee’s Bend traveling art quilt show is hanging along with a show of Clifford Still’s work- previewing the opening of the Clifford Still Museum- a few years hence.

From: Kells Mooty — May 10, 2008

There certainly is ‘bad art’. My trash can gets a number of pieces thrown into it. The only difference is, I do not have an investor waiting to snap up my trash and call it ‘marvelous’ like so many from the past have had. After nearly 60 years of art, I have thrown away more rubbish than most artists. However, my satisfaction comes from the creating and the satisfaction I get from admirers. Money is secondary for me.

From: Helena Tiainen — May 14, 2008

Thank you, Robert. Your response to my letter explained a lot. It must be very interesting but difficult to have so many people asking for your feedback and guidance. It can also be very irritating when people cannot hear what you are really saying even though you feel like you made it perfectly clear. But on the other hand maybe they need to hear what they hear. You know the old saying about taking the horse to the water but not being able to make it drink. I think any artist who has completed less than 100 pieces of art (in whatever media) in their life should consider themselves a novice. Sometimes it is the total novice who is most naive in regards to what it takes to succeed and some novices have grandiose ideas in regards to themselves and their talents and abilities. More life experience tends to teach us all, even the ones living in kalopsia.

From: Bobbi — May 14, 2008

I think you have just helped me name my studio. Kalopsia is a great word and a gentle reminder NOT to settle.

From: Jancke-Christoff Combrinck — May 14, 2008

Thank you for your interesting, informative and amusing letters. If life is art, and art is life, it is surely the informed, thinking and expressive person that can take in all that life offers, feed it until the contents germinate, add personal flavor and then re-present it to the world as creative work (in thought and in visual product). You are an asset to the thinking, philosophical segment of the artist’s world.

From: Gail — May 14, 2008

I think we need to have a little focus here, remember the “Wild Beasts” of yesteryear, mostly everyone thought their work sucked until maybe half a century passed and look at that, they’re in the history books… Van Gogh was pretty hungry most of his life… I do think we can overanalyze too, and I think we need all the cogs in the wheel, even if they seem menial…. P.S. I love words, thanks for unburying these ones…

 

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