Painting - Diminishing Returns by Frank O'Connor


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DimReturns.jpg

Diminishing Returns by Frank O'Connor

What was going on here? I like this painting, but it sure looks a lot more like surrealism than romantic realism to me.

How did Ayn Rand's theory of art apply to her own husband's work?

Does anyone know the story behind this painting?

Kat

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I think many Objecitivists have been hypnotized by Rand into believing everything she wrote about art. So they're convinced that a painting of an astronomer by Vermeer must be a typical example of "bleak kitchen naturalism", while a primitive painting by Frank O'Connor of a wooden mannikin clumsily trying to juggle some christmas balls and breaking them is no doubt an example of "romantic realism" and "a heroic sense of life".

But what do we really see when we take an unprejudiced look at it, trying to forget that it's a painting by Rand's husband? A rather "wooden" painting, an amateurish technique, a cloud that reminds us of the Challenger disaster and seems to have swallowed a christmas ball (like a big pearl in an oyster) and at the same time seems to be attached to a balloon, which is probably another christmas ball. Is this now an example of a rational universe? I think I could as well argue that this is the expression of a malevolent sense of life, irrationality, futility and doom (not that I really believe in such simplistic interpretations).

Come on folks, wake up and open your eyes! This emperor really has no clothes. Nothing against Frank O'Connor of course, but one shouldn't try to push him as a great artist, Objectivist or otherwise. One should also avoid the simplistic characterizations of art works in terms of sense of life that Rand was prone to, and which are a form of artistic armchair psychologizing.

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"...a cloud that reminds us [sic] of the Challenger disaster..."?

Oh, wow. I never thought of the Challenger disaster in connection to that cloud, and now that you've suggested the image, I probably won't be able to forget the suggestion. Thanks. ;-)

Frank, of course, would have had to be prescient had he been thinking of the Challeger disaster, which didn't happen until years after his death.

Speaking of the armchair psychologizing re sense of life so often engaged in by Objectivists, here's an interesting comment by Ayn Rand (from Ayn Rand Answers) which was posted on the SOLOPassion list by Joe Maurone, with the heading "Rand's Request," 2005-12-26 21:57:

QUOTE--

"187

"Speaking of one’s ability to know another’s sense of life, now might be a good time to make a request: Please don’t send me records or recommend music. You have no way of knowing my sense of life, although you have a better way of knowing mine than I have of knowing yours, since you’ve read my books, and my sense of life is on every page. You would have some grasp of it-but I hate to think how little. I hate the painful embarrassment I feel when somebody sends me music they know I’d love-and my reaction is the opposite: It’s impossible music. I feel completely misunderstood, yet the person’s intentions were good. Nobody but my husband can give me works of art and know infallibly, as he does, that I’ll like them. So please don’t try it. It’s no reflection on you or on me. It’s simply that sense of life is very private.

END QUOTE--

You see how inconsistent that is with her own rampant psychologizing of various artists, and of other people's "senses of life" on the basis of their esthetic tastes.

Reverting to "Diminishing Returns" -- also to "kitchen naturalism." I like the painting, for what it is. In the apartment I had for a number of years in Philadelphia, it was hung in a nook in the kitchen. I thought it was "cute" there. These days it's in a nook in our storage room; again, it looks "cute" there.

Ellen

PS: Happy Holidays, folks.

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Oh, wow. I never thought of the Challenger disaster in connection to that cloud, and now that you've suggested the image, I probably won't be able to forget the suggestion. Thanks. ;-)

You're welcome... Of course I meant this only as a characterization of the weird look of that cloud, not impying that Frank would have been prescient of the Challenger disaster. I could also have suggested some rocket or fireworks.

You see how inconsistent that is with her own rampant psychologizing of various artists, and of other people's "senses of life" on the basis of their esthetic tastes.

Obviously Rand didn't always practice what she preached.

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It might be.... it could be... it is...

BUZZ LIGHTYEAR OF STAR COMMAND!!!

(or perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster) :)

When it comes to judging people's "sense of life" and that type of armchair psychologizing based solely upon their tastes in art, I can't take it very seriously. It's pure snobbery. People's tastes in art, music and literature do give some insight to the person's character or emotions at the time, but certainly is not enough to judge someone's character or create a psychological profile on them. I accept Ayn Rand's views on aesthetic philosophy as being written in pencil rather than etched in stone. I accept it as her opinion based on her tastes rather than truth based on objective reality. Could you imagine if this type of nonsense extended to your tastes in food, television, movies, clothing, etc. If one is expected to swallow Rand whole in order to be considered an Objectvist, no one would be acceptable! Probably not even Rand.

Most people enjoy a wide variety of art and music and like to see, hear or read different things at different times. People tastes are purely subjective, based on what they have been exposed to and what appeals to them for whatever reason... or maybe no reason at all. My exposure to classical music doesn't go much deeper than seeing Fantasia. If someone has issues with the fact that I like rock instead of opera or also enjoy the work of some modern artists, I will not force my tastes upon them. They are free to ignore it and indulge in something more suitable to their own tastes. (As long as it's not rap... ugh!)

Kat

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I certainly consider myself an objectivist, but I never go around trying to interpret an artist sense of life(I'm speaking of the visual arts, or music) from their works. I think it can become fairly easy to interpret a persons sense of life when they tell you WHY THEY like a particular work of art. They're basically handing their sense of life to you on a silver platter at that point. Likewise, if an artists tells you why he did a particular work, or works. Otherwise, I don't see a painting as some mystical horoscope that tells you what the artist is fundamentally about.

As for the O'Conner work. Never liked it at all, but I have no idea what his sense of life was.

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In regard to that quote from the Q and A book which I copied earlier (posted by Joe Maurone on SOLOPassion): Does anyone here have the book? If so, what was the date and occasion cited? I seem to remember having been there when she said that and having been struck at the time by the contradiction with other things she'd said, and with her frequent way of acting toward persons who didn't share her esthetic tastes. But I'm not getting a recall of place and circumstance (only the sense of her heavy Russian accent saying those words).

Ellen

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Ellen, I looked up the statement. It's from Peikoff"s Philosophy of Objectivism course, Lecture 12, 1976.

Hmm, then maybe I did hear her say it, but I'm not certain. I was so overworked on my editing job at the time when then course was running, I missed most of it. But I did attend two or three of the lectures, and maybe #12 was one I attended. The quote does seem familiar. If I didn't actually hear it live, either I must have heard about it from a friend or I've read it someplace before.

Ellen

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I think Objectivists really shoot the movement in the foot when they reduce a work of art to the artist's sense of life. Art, if it's any good at all, "puts the mirror up to nature" which means that good art is bound to reflect reality in some meaningful way. So, if Objectivism really is the truth about reality, then great works of art should be consistent with Oism, don't you think? And knowing artists as I do, I think a lot of the best art is great in spite of what the artist consciously intended. Great art is bound to transcend the artist's conscious intentions and reflect in its honesty and it's courage at least, some basic truths about the human experience.

I think Objectivists would be served much better seeking to discover the Objectivist meaning in as many works of art as possible. Just look at how far Marx and his minions have gotten interpreting all art as class struggle, until all of academia believes it; can't Oists do the same for the struggle of the individual? Which of Shakespeare's plays have the strongest Objectivist overtones, for instance? Is there a discernable "Objectivist spirit" running through western art? What are it's strongest examples?

Robert Davison's recent article about A Christmas Carol over at ROR is an excellent example of Oist principles being found in the most unlikely places. Dickens' moral judgement always falls upon the individual and in his novel it is always individual choice that means the difference between a good man and a bad.

I'm reminded of George Orwell's infamous essay critisizing Dickens for not being a socialist; for not making the collectivist arguments so dear to Orwell's heart. Anyway, not saying that Charles Dickens is Ayn Rand's spiritual father or anything. I just find this kind of thinking and rethinking a lot more interesting than the armchair psychologizing.

So much of what passes for art criticism that isn't simple critical narcissism, is still only prejudice and propaganda. Rather than try to guess what Mr. O'Connor's sense of life was when he painted that picture, perhaps we would be better served by meditating on what meaning we the viewers find in the thing.

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  • 2 months later...

Does anyone have any more paintings of Frank O'Connor that they could post? What seems odd about these pictures is that they don't seem like they are trying to be 'Objectivist', more like someone trying to find their own voice. The Brandens have some paintings of his, correct? Thanks!

David

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  • 5 months later...
fount.gifThe inset painting is by Frank O'Connor.

In later editions this painting is no longer there, and in another post I read that the reference to that painting in Rand's foreword also has disappeared (I understand that this happened while Rand was still alive). I find this intriguing. Was it her own choice, or did the publisher persuade her to remove it? It just seems rather out of character for her.

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Mary Ann Sures gave her course on esthetics in DC in 1968. She was asked a question about Diminishing Returns. She said that the painting was not sur-realist but was a light hearted fantasy. She also noted that are self-portraits of Frank in the Christmas balls. I hope this clears some things up.

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About "Man Also Rises," which graced the cover of The Fountainhead for a while...

I've never heard why it got pulled. Publishers do periodically fiddle with covers, of course. And you can see where she might think the reference to the painting, in the introduction, might mystify new readers once the cover changed.

I was standing near her once when someone was brought to her and introduced to her this way: "This is so and so, his favorite painting is 'Man Also Rises.'" She lit up with the 100-watt smile and said something like "Then we have something important in common." (Horribly inexact quotes, 30 years later.)

As for "Diminishing Returns," when it was being sold as a print it was described as playful. There was said to be a set of images of the artist reflected in the ornaments, but the last ornament held no reflection because the artist had finished the painting and left the room. The wispy cloud overhead has stolen some of the ornaments. In other words, it's just some inanimate objects having a darn good time, with a little self-referential reflection.

I'm not insisting on this interpretation, just relaying it.

John

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Michael; I'm not sure what you're refering to. What painting was refering to by Objectivists as death-primised? I'm trying to tell what Mrs Sures offered as her explanation of the painting Diminishing Returns.

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You can easily spin a tale about "Diminishing Returns" that goes like this:

Forbidding, malevolent landscape devoid of life. Man reduced to a wooden figurine manipulated by outside forces. His nihilistic amusement of breaking Christmas ornaments - an outrageous attack on the holiday of benevolence. A truly mystical defiance of causality, endowing a cloud, mere water vapor, with godlike attributes. In sum a surrealistic attack on all values - it should be called Diminishing Life.

You could easily do something similar with her all-time favorite painting, which was by Dali, and involved a crucifixion.

Some of her followers have done a lot of stuff like this, with great self-assurance of the objectivity of their interpretations. Some of them fixed on Maxfield Parrish as the great benevolent painter, and were disappointed when she, curiously enough, dismissed Parrish as "trash."

I'm not sure that Rand ever spent much time interpreting paintings in print - with the exception of her appreciative discussion of Capuletti.

I actually think her taste in painting remains somewhat unanalyzed.

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Chris,

I was not criticizing you. I always found Rand's ideas about painting food for much thought, but ultimately I found myself at odds with many of them. I have also encountered some inconsistencies between her stated views and Frank's art and I find the attempt by her and the orthodoxy to maintain an "unblemished" image of him (and of her, for that matter) leading to some rather forced evaluations. For instance, Dali's surrealism is "revoltingly evil" because of his subject matter but Frank's surrealism is "playful" because of the same. When I look at Diminishing Returns in comparison to several Dali paintings I have seen, it just doesn't add up that way to me.

Here are some Rand quotes. (Just trying to be "playful"... :) )

Here is what Rand thought of surrealism before Frank became a painter. The following is from her notes on Toohey (The Journals of Ayn Rand, p 107-108):

He is the defender and publicizer for Gertrude Stein in literature, the "surrealists" in painting, the cacophony of "new" music, and the factory-made standardized modern house in architecture. He knows, half-subconsciously, that all these phony fakes are easy for anyone and deny the true originality, genius and rarity of great artists.

Rand's opinion of Dali (The Romantic Manifesto, "Art and Sense of Life")

As an example: Salvador Dali, whose style projects the luminous clarity of a rational psycho-epistemology, while most (though not all) of his subjects project an irrational and revoltingly evil metaphysics.

Rand's opinion of the technique of impressionism (The Romantic Manifesto, "Art and Cognition"):

(Compare the radiant austerity of Vermeer's work to the silliness of the dots-and-dashes Impressionists who allegedly intended to paint pure light. He raised perception to the conceptual level; they attempted to disintegrate perception into sense data.)

Rand on painting mundane subjects (The Romantic Manifesto, "The Goal of My Writing"):

There is no dichotomy, no necessary conflict between ends and means. The end does not justify the means—neither in ethics nor in esthetics. And neither do the means justify the end: there is no esthetic justification for the spectacle of Rembrandt's great artistic skill employed to portray a side of beef.

That particular painting may be taken as a symbol of everything I am opposed to in art and in literature. At the age of seven, I could not understand why anyone should wish to paint or to admire pictures of dead fish, garbage cans or fat peasant women with triple chins. Today, I understand the psychological causes of such esthetic phenomena—and the more I understand, the more I oppose them.

Rand on a style I find hard to visualize, but one I believe she might have tried to impose on Frank from looking at his style (The Romantic Manifesto, "Art and Cognition"):

In this connection, I should like to relate, without comment, a personal incident. At the age of 16, for one summer, I joined a drawing class given by a man who would have become a great artist had he survived, which I doubt (this was in Russia); his paintings were magnificent, even then. He forbade the class ever to draw a curved line: he taught us that every curve must be broken into facets of intersecting straight lines. I fell in love with this style; I still am. Today, I know the reason fully. What I felt then (and still do) was not: "This is for me," but: "This is me."

I am including an observation by Rand on suitibility of theme and subject size for the hell of it simply because I found it charming (The Art of Nonfiction, "Choosing a Subject and Theme," p. 13):

Noteworthy here is a cover from an early issue of The New Yorker. It pictured the wall of a museum, upon which hung a large painting of a very savage caveman. He is running through the jungle carrying a naked woman, who is screaming. He is leering ferociously, and obviously intends to rape her. As he runs through the jungle, he is breaking the branches he encounters, and doves fly off to avoid him. In the museum, in front of this painting, sits a little old lady with an easel, copying the painting. But out of all of this violent subject matter, she chooses to copy only the flight of doves. This is a good visual example of selecting a theme too small for the subject.

Michael

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John, your "tale" about "Diminishing Returns" is brilliant. One could "prove" about almost any painting -- by the use of wildly floating abstractions -- that it is benevolent and malevolent, pro-life and anti-life, rational and irrational, virtuous and evil. Perhaps the moral of the story is that art is not so easily reduced to morality.

Barbara

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On the other hand, considering what the Brandens, especially Barbara, related about Frank's depression and alcoholism, perhaps the malevolent or at least dark sense of life some people see in the painting has some basis. When was Diminishing Returns painted?

The title makes me think of the phrase, "...and many happy returns." Which would give the painting a dark twist. The Christmas balls breaking or floating off from the wooden doll left alone. I appreciate that Frank was often a delightful man. And I can see the other side of him in this painting without looking too hard.

Having taken Rand's analysis of art to heart, I became so sensitive for a period lasting 2-3 months that I rarely failed to choose a highly (at least 2nd rate) romantic, inspiring movie based on just its box in the video store. Given all the garbage out there, that's got to count for something.

On the OTHER hand, I must be a peasant because I love Parrish. Maybe it is my tiddlywink painting. Or maybe she had a severe seriousness addiction. ;)

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I own a print of this painting. I've always liked the playfulness and that it was painted by Frank O'Connor. It was the only one of his represented to the public I had a strong liking for. While I appreciate Dragonfly's critical comments I don't analyse things I like out of existence and am not much of an art critic in any case. I went to his Web site and D. has tremendous competence in his own work. It is obvious that his own craftsmanship is first rate.

I have a number of brochures from NBI with various paintings of Frank's that were for sale in print form. I believe they were reproduced by the "Aronson Method." Someone once told me that they tended to fade or change colors over the years. I don't know. Sunlight will surely fade a print or painting, for instance. The print I own was reproduced in another way.

If anybody wants one of these brochures send me your mailing address and I'll send them out until I run out.

--Brant

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I have always loved Maxfield Parrish’s work. When I lived in a small town for many years back in the 1970s, the town’s tax collector had a print of Dawn (not the more famous Daybreak) in the pride of place in her dining room. This painting has one female figure in classical robes, alone, reaching her arms up to the day’s first light.

This tax collector was an old widow who is now long-gone. Most people paid their town taxes by mail, but you could make an appointment to pay at her house. The first time I went there and saw the Parrish print, I raved about it and we talked for a long time about how much we liked his work. This print of hers had been a wedding gift that her parents had received, and her mother made sure she got it before she passed on.

So I made it a yearly ritual. At tax time, I would make an appointment and visit her instead of mailing my payment. We would sit at her dining room table and do the tax business. Then, when that was finished, we would stand up and walk over to the Parrish print on the wall. After several years, we hardly had to say anything. We would just stand there for a long time and then nod our heads and smile. She never said it outright, but I know that she was very happy that someone shared her regard for this painting.

I finally moved out of that town and never saw her again. I miss her and our yearly homage to a favorite work of art.

-Ross Barlow.

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Where would I find Rand's comments on Maxfield Parrish?

Personally, I see Parrish much in the same way that I see Rockwell. Their narratives are usually cute and sweet, sometimes too much so for my tastes, but their rendering skills and their tastes in abstract composition, color schemes, etc, are so powerful that they more than make up for the times that they cross the line into sugary sentimentality (and, hell, sometimes I really crave sugar).

My favorite Parrish is Reveries:

http://www.tragsnart.co.uk/arthub/parrish/parris04.jpg

J

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