And then she said, "That's not a tautology, it's a vacuous set!" Ha ha hahahahahahah!

Information. That’s what I want to talk about today: the artist’s obligation to give the people some information. Something. Anything. But something.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote what I think is a very sophisticated (all the more so for being 29 words long) critique of Jackson Pollack, whose stuff he did not like “except possibly as textile designs.” The problem with Pollack’s dribbles, Kurt (may I call you Kurt, Mr. Vonnegut?) wrote was:

They show me no horizon. I can easily do without information in a painting except for one fact, which my nervous system insists on knowing: where the horizon is.

 It’s very moving to me that Kurt knows himself so well that he knows what information he needs from an artist. But how many artist’s know that? Huh?

When I looked up the Game Theory story that I thought would be useful here (it involved the Game Theorist genius Johnny von Neuman and the famous topologist S. M. Ulam) I discovered that I had totally mis-remembered it. Now, jokes amongst genius mathematicians are like fois gras:  not to everyone’s taste. These are the people, after all, who sneer at Einstein’s special theory of relativity, calling it “nothing but a technically trivial quadratic equation and a few consequences“. They don’t laugh at stuff that you or I laugh at, but we can laugh at the stuff they laugh at just because they laugh at it. I, for one, find that statement about the special theory of relativity hilarious.

But I digress. What I took from my mis-remembrance of a certain Game Theory joke was the fact that it is possible to amuse oneself, during very boring social interactions (such as cocktail parties [during the rare times when one isn't drinking alone] and intra-office banter, by rating the dull chit-chat on a scale of Emptiness from 1 to 5.

For example, consider this remark which, ever since I first heard it about 15 years ago, has never EVER been beaten by anything Emptier. I was at a little dinner party with some people who had just returned from a trip to Russia. The wife, a brassy dim wit who I’ve never really liked, was asked, “How was St. Petersburg?”  And ,after a deep inhale of breath (as if to collect her thoughts, to rally her nouns and verbs to the service of her profound opinion) she enunciated carefully and loudly:

Oh. My. God. It was. Beyond beyond!!”

I think that on a scale of 1-5, that’s a 10.

One day, when someone I worked in an office with, started telling me how much he was like Hawkeye Pierce on M.A.S.H. (both of them being so witty and all) I thought that was a 9, the closest anyone had ever come to the brain-damaging nothing-ness of “Beyond beyond“.

Vacations in Disneyland, the cute things the 3-year old in your life has said, and anything about Sarah Palin:  all solid 5s.

No, wait. I’m getting confused. About the difference between Emptiness and Fascinating Boredom. I love Endless Drivel and [not so much] the people what talk it.

Again, I digress. And I’m getting long winded. So let me show you what I mean by giving information in a work of art. (Again, in discussing my work, I use the term “art” loosely.)

This is the first crappy illustration for something I wanted to do about breakfast in Paris for That Damn France Book.

It was unacceptable to me because, as you see, there is very, very little information here. Regardless of the French text, you ask yourself, where the hell is this cup of tea? Did someone leave it by the side of the road? Is it even potable? (It certainly doesn’t look it. Don’t bring that cup of tea near me, no sirree.)  So I took another stab at it:

See? See the spoon, and the sugar cube? Now you know that it’s a cup of tea that’s maybe already been stirred, maybe it’s still a little too hot to taste because there’s that cube of sugar waiting there, in case it’s needed. There’s the implied presence of a person there, whose hand put the spoon on the saucer, who might like her tea very sweet. Maybe you’d like to join her? And the French text: I added “bonne” to it, to make it a good cup of tea, the kind of tea we all like, and I made the lettering kind of sassy. 

But nah. There still wasn’t enough information there. I knew it was a lazy illustration, like the ones from the lady who sells her paintings of  Paris on the interwebs, who always puts a freaking poodle in her pictures. Poodles in a picture of Paris is a lazy-ass way to signify Yoo Hoo! This is a picture of Paris! Am I clever or what?

I will never, ever resort to lame gimmicks like that. No, I had to dig deeper and make my picture stand on its own two feet and announce to the world: Yo. This here is a picture of Breakfast in Paris for my Damn France Book.      This is how I did it:

See? See the shadow from the strong morning sunshine? See the French handwriting I searched all over the interwebs to get, from an actual nursery school primer on the French alphabets courtesy of the Lyon school district (which, for some reason, has its penmanship lessons on the interwebs)? I don’t exaggerate when I say it took me days to paint this last damn cup of tea, and all the while I am cursing myself that if i keep going at this nit-picking rate it will take me ten years to finish That Damn France Book. Why can’t I just slap a poodle on it and call it done? Why?

Because I’d rather say it with croissants.

So if I were to teach an art journaling class, I’d have to set up a scale of Somethingness. And then I’d have to demandrequest that your stuff contain at least a 3 on the scale of Somethingness.

I might drive you crazy. Like I drive me.

Friday: Cats. All cats. Cute things my cats have done lately. And answering your Comments (hey– did somebody call me inhumane???).

11 comments to And then she said, "That's not a tautology, it's a vacuous set!" Ha ha hahahahahahah!

  • Deborah

    Just seeing the title of this entry made me laugh.

    And yesterday I found myself walking down the aisle of the grocery store, thinking, “Oooh! That would make a nice-sized painting!” when I saw the Kraft singles. Grocery shopping will never be the same (thank goodness!)

    If you have a journaling workshop, I think you should have a pre-workshop program devoted to paint chips. The secret of the universe is in the paint chip names, see, and we have to decode it. Neil deGrasse Tyson would be very interested in this.

  • There is so much good information about painting
    AND journaling in this one cup of tea ! More than I’ve ever learned in any painting class. I like it better before it joined the croissants- not that I don’t like the croissants but it was a beautiful little painting all by itself–not that I’m any expert.

  • gurgling laughter here.
    on a scale of 1-5 nothingness, huh? Ok, the Sandra Bullock movie, All About Steve? Let’s call that a 12. I made it exactly 18 minutes and 48 seconds in before I screamed DRIVEL at the DVD player and yanked it out. Only this was maybe a case of too MUCH information (overload) as opposed to not enough (nothing) so on the scale, would that then make it a -12?

  • Jackie

    Traveling. From San Juan Islands to Oregon to visit family and friends. Am bursting with birthday bliss and full tilt January SUNSHINE for my “antiquarian” (70th) birthday.
    My cake was not blue….but, PINK….and shared with my Ackquarian sons (47) son-in-law, and great grandson whose birth I attended 1 year ago. I also loved the bouquet of PINK hyacinth on the back of toilet in New Season’s market restroom. I had a card picked out for you vivian before I left my island….”what if it is her birthday I wondered”…..so, another winter’s child! Happy Belated Birthday to you.

  • Sarah

    I am hoping the alive when alive is not comparable to beyond the beyond. Yikes. I just found you, don’t want to be banished for boorishness!

  • Susun

    OMG…truly teach an art journaling class? I’m salivating! So much to learn from you! What in the world do you use to achieve those perfectly luscious colors in your paintings? Maybe THAT would make me a credible creative? Ha ha…

  • Janet

    Hearing your take on providing information in any form of art — or conversation — and seeing how you placed me smack dab in a sidewalk cafe at a table on Rue du Street (sorry, couldn’t help myself) with your evolving tea cup illustration prompts this observation about your work. It’s remarkable for its sophisticated simplicity. Like any professional, you make it look easy. When you show the process of how you take an idea and create something out of nothing, we see the real talent behind it. Your final tea cup sells the experience and the mood of a petit dejeuner one sunny morning, and we are there with you without giving a second thought to how we got there. Obviously, it’s because you’ve spent days to find a way to make it real. I hadn’t really thought about the power of composition, color, shadows, etc. in the context of providing layered information, but I see exactly how it works thanks to your explanation.

    I agree with the comment from a couple of days ago. It’s rare to find someone who has multiple ways of communicating as well as you do as both a writer and illustrator. I believe what makes you an artist is the combination. If “artist” is a label you aren’t sure fits, I think you’re selling yourself short. Art takes us places, explains things, lifts us up, acknowledges us, inspires, consoles, delights, etc, etc. Whether we get there with paint pictures or word pictures or music or whatever, you’re right: the artist gives us SOMETHING. You’re a good hander-outer of somethings because of how you both show and tell. And all of us are better off for it because you work at it, perfect it and probably make yourself a little nuts about it.

    Reminds me of that stupid joke when someone asks “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and the answer is “Practice, practice, practice.” Some things may be simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy.

  • I am on my way to Florida to visit a friend (and avoid the next snow storm!!) and coach her on her new novel. I’ve made us each *very* simple journals, spiral-bound drawing paper (okay, I covered the ugly words on the front and inside cover with pretty, inspiring paper). On each page, a single paint chip, chosen for both its color and evocative name. Since I can’t take art supplies on a plane (or much of anything, these days), we’ll just make lists, draw, whatever.

    Get that class together. I need it!

  • Oh, how I laughed at this! As Janet said, you make it look effortless, so it was a real ‘eye opener’ to have a glimpse of all the time and effort you put into that cup of tea. And thanks for keeping the teabag there ….

  • Wow…the word “tautology”, a Vonnegut reference, Game Theory, your process in giving your readers a whole lot of “somethingness” and croissants all in one post. Pure gold. :-)

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  • G2

    “it took me days to paint this last damn cup of tea, and all the while I am cursing myself that if i keep going at this nit-picking rate it will take me ten years to finish That Damn France Book. Why can’t I just slap a poodle on it and call it done? Why?”

    Because doing this creates a book that enchants, informs and inspires. Because you’re creating a book readers will come back to again and again. In other words, a book that won’t find it’s way into thrift shops – no matter how wonderful they are – anytime soon!

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