Painting questions

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Painting questions

Post by Ike » Tue Aug 26, 2014 6:00 pm

Since there has been a dearth of discussion about anything right about now. I wanted to use this time to talk about painting questions. The central thesis of the upcoming argument is that 1.) Painting tossups have used too many clues about figures in the painting without context, and 2.) I would like to see a lot more contextual clues in painting tossups.

I am by no means an art history expert, but I did take 3 art history classes at my university. Some of them weren’t quality, but they all discussed art in the context of the intellectual traditions of the time. Even if we were to spend a whole lecture on details in 2-3 paintings, it would always be situated within the context of the tradition that the painting grew out of. For the most part, I personally feel quizbowl painting tossups have failed to incorporate context details. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but I think players and writers can enrich their intellectual lives by incorporating more contextual clues since so few of us are actually concerned about the world of a painting or about creating paintings ourselves. Also, if the writer is incompetent enough, they will often only look superficially for visual clues and create a tossup that isn’t very good.

So what do I mean by context clues? It can be a lot of things. It can be unique facts about the materials and techniques of creation. It can be the artist’s own words about the painting, or his inspiration for the painting. It can be the history of the painting as a physical object, or the social and political pressures that led to the iconography of the painting. Basically, it is any piece of information about the painting that doesn’t come from the world within the painting itself.

To illustrate this, let's look at two tossups:
Joel Pelletier created a version of this painting entitled American Fundamentalists. One figure in this painting wears a black conical hat and has a pudgy white face and is standing behind a bald man with a green face. Emile Littre is shown holding a baton in this work, while at the right a man in a blue suit wearing a white sash is standing on a green platform. Another figure in this painting wears a tophat with a large green stripe and has a skeletal face. A large red banner reading Vive la Sociale hangs above the crowd in this work, and the artist drew himself as the title figure at the center of the painting riding a donkey. This painting was originally rejected for exhibition with the Twenty, and it shows a Mardi Gras parade. For 10 points, name this painting by James Ensor depicting a religious figure walking into a European capital.
ANSWER: Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1889 [or Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889]
I’ll be honest, my first reaction to this tossup while playing it was “Are you kidding me? The question writer was that lazy?” Even if I accept that the lead-in is actually interesting (which I don’t think it is, because it appears to be a pastiche devintartist who was googled by the question writer,) the question writer literally selects two from a sea of hundreds of people for the second clue. Furthermore, that second sentence is absolutely incorrect – that guy is wearing a mask and doesn’t have a pudgy white face. This is an example of where reading to find context about James Ensor and his life and times would help this question’s accuracy out – James Ensor was fond of clowns, masks, and the like and depicted many figures in his paintings with masks and not just “pudgy white faces.” There are many points where this tossups can use so much more context, if you add in the phrase "The positive-atheist philosopher Emile Littre" instead of just "Emile Littre" you get many more people to start thinking about the context instead of just the name. If you substitute the much more accurate phrase "Les Vingt" for the standalone phrase "The Twenty" people will recognize you're talking about the artistic group The Twenty (I guess you could also fix that by saying "the artistic group The Twenty") If we really want to be complete, the man with a skeletal face clue is also not correct - that's paint applied to the man's face (though some books dispute this apparently.) I'll add, I'm just not convinced that a player is actually buzzing on at the right a man in a blue suit wearing a white sash is standing on a green platform" unless they have "quizbowl-studied" this painting - if you take a random person who has never played quizbowl but who is knowledgable about this painting, they're probably not going to buzz on that clue because it isn't specific enough.

On the other hand, this other tossup pretty much captures everything that I would want in a painting tossup:
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth argues a woman in red staring directly at the viewer in this painting represents the “Reign of Terror” which cannot be forgotten in her book about the artist titled Necklines. A horseman sheathing his blade on the right is based on a figure from Flaxman's Fight for the Body of Patroclus. It was first displayed in the old architecture firm of the Louvre across from a mirror so viewers could see themselves as participants. The men are depicted naked while the women are clothed in this work that was inspired when the artist’s estranged wife visited him while he was imprisoned in the Luxemburg Palace. The Tarpeian Rock is visible in the upper left hand corner of this painting, whose central scene shows Titus Tatius holding his shield up on the left while Hersilia holds back her husband Romulus from throwing his spear at him. Imagined as a successor to Poussin’s depiction of a rape, for 10 points, name this painting showing the titular ladies separating two warring classical tribes, a work by Jacques-Louis David.
ANSWER: Intervention of the Sabine Women
This tossup is fantastic and I’m going to praise it. In my Romantic art class, we read Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s article on the Intervention of the Sabine Women, so that lead-in is definitely buzzable. The lead-in also uses a clue that tells you “this is some painting involved with the French Revolution,” which is great context. The second clue is also great - John Flaxman was someone whom David studied a lot. That third clue is another very juicy clue about the original display of the painting that I also encountered in class and found interesting – if you’re super perceptive you can also see that it tells you it’s definitely an Enlightenment era or beyond painting because it would only be in the Enlightenment that you would want to make viewers feels as if they were part of the painting. The fourth sentence about David’s imprisonment in Luxembourg Palace is another contextual clue that makes this question buzzable for anyone who may not know about this painting in particular, but they know about David’s life. The rest of the clues are also good, even if they are of the inner-directed kind that permeate many tossups – but, what I do like is that they actually name the figures of this painting as if this question writer has studied the painting instead of just searching for this painting on Wikipedia, looking at it, and transcirbing “A figure in white holds her arms out in this painting.”

Hopefully, anyone reading this post can see why tossup 2 is inherently more interesting and playable than tossup 1, and I encourage the quizbowl community to start writing more questions like tossup 2. It may seem that writing a question in the style of tossup 2 takes a lot of work – but to be honest, it really doesn’t: 80% of the clues from that 2nd tossup can be found by just picking up a Romantic art / French revolutionary art general survey at your local university library. Even if you can't find the time to get one of these books from your local university library, you can just google books it (like I did here with Ensor: http://books.google.com/books?id=9wMQBo ... ls&f=false) to find a good source of contextual information.

Let me just clarify a couple of points: 1.) You don’t need to find that super-cool scholarly article to cite (even though this tossup does it); all I'm really asking for is to provide that background information about each painting. 2.) There is no need to suppress detail clues at all. In fact, if tossups existed on Christ's entry into brussels that used accurate, and memorable clues about the world of the painting, I would have no issue with that question in of itself, but I do think I would want some percentage of a tournament's questions to be include contextual information.

So if you’re an editor or a writer, and you’re going to write / edit that next Eduard Manet tossup for a tournament, please take the time to go and get an Impressionism / general survey art history book from your local university library and write some of the clues for your tossup out of there. You will enjoy the process much, much more, you will learn infinitely more than just by looking at his bizarre paintings, and you’ll find that players who are knowledgable about art will be more likely to love, and not just like your question.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by gyre and gimble » Wed Aug 27, 2014 2:05 am

I agree with Ike's post, and I think working against the problem that Ike outlines might be why Ted's painting questions at nationals were so well-received this year. I've actually been thinking about this stuff a lot while writing my visual art tournament, and basically I think it comes down to 1) how unambiguously and 2) how relevantly you can describe a painting. The reason why "a man in red stands next to a man in blue next to another man in red who looks at a man in blue wearing a black belt" doesn't work is because it fails to stimulate the memory; a player shouldn't have to scan through all the paintings they've every seen to find a particular combination of details that are not notable or interesting. Which leads to point 2: details that are pointed out should be memorable. That doesn't mean that every clue needs to describe something that's been discussed in a hundred publications, but it should do its best to describe things that uniquely identify the work. For example, if your altarpiece has St. Jerome in the right wing, how is he distinguishable from other St. Jeromes in right wings, or even other St. Jeromes in general?

I'd also like to raise a suggestion for visual art questions. I think it would add a layer of depth (that vis-art in quizbowl seems to lack currently) if we shift toward "art history" rather than just "art." This shift means doing the things Ike supports (more context clues, etc.) but I want to emphasize in particular the dialogue that exists between artists, both contemporaneous and across time periods. One of the things that was emphasized in art history classes that I took was how, for example, Twombly couldn't exist without Mondrian having existed before him. It cheapens the study of art a bit when we write clues that reward looking at paintings and memorizing unnecessary details over learning the importance of the painting in its immediate context and in the context of all (art) history.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by Lagotto Romagnolo » Wed Aug 27, 2014 1:44 pm

Agreeing with Ike and Stephen above. And I think this point merits further expansion:
gyre and gimble wrote:I think it would add a layer of depth (that vis-art in quizbowl seems to lack currently) if we shift toward "art history" rather than just "art."
There's been a lot of discussion this year about rewarding "primary engagement" with material, both in literature and fine arts. In the ICT discussion thread, the community made clear that -in the case of literature - it prefers questions that reward reading the original works of fiction, poetry, and drama. This was contrasted with ICT's approach, which emphasized literary history, criticism, and overall secondary knowledge too much for many players' tastes. Now, these topics are certainly important and merit a place in the distribution. Still, most (but not all) literature specialists seem happiest when a tossup describes a memorable plot event from a novel or a memorable line from a poem, because that tells the player "you have been rewarded for reading this text - and the primary reason this text was created was to be read, or rather, so that it's language could be read." In the case where a tossup clues a line from a poem, the player is effectively repeating the act of reading (or rather "taking in" the poem) when they buzz, although in a quizbowl setting this takes place orally instead of visually.

By contrast, paintings are of course created primarily for people to look at. If we apply the same reasoning that we did for literature, then the ideal painting tossup is one that tells the player "you have been rewarded for looking at this painting and internalizing its details." But here's the problem: literature is written in human language, while painting is not. If a buzz on a poetry tossup is in some way a repeat of the act of reading, then the analogue for an art tossup would be buzzing on a visual image in front of the player's eyes - in other words, the format Mike Bentley uses for Eyes that Do Not See. But currently, quizbowl does not mix verbal questions with visual ones, so it needs to approximate the visual essence of paintings, whereas literature needs few such approximations, because it is already in human language - the same language in which questions are written. Likewise, art history books are written in human language, so the subject of art history doesn't need approximations either. It's perfectly suited for our verbal questions. When a player buzzes in on an art history clue, it tells them "you have been rewarded for reading that art history textbook - in human language - by answering this question - in human language."

On some fundamental level, verbal questions can never truly convey the visual experience of looking at a painting, or the auditory experience of listening to music. They can't exactly emulate the experience of reading books either, but much like books, they flow from one sentence to the next and they are written in the same language.

Most of what I've said so far is pretty obvious and redundant. But my basic point is: there is a double standard in quizbowl between literature and the arts, and that is not inherently a bad thing. I believe that most people are fine with literature questions that focus almost entirely on the primary texts, because those texts are a natural fit for our format, and the clues are so ready-made. In the case of painting, adaptation into quizbowl questions requires some compromise. Painting tossups drawn entirely from "internal clues" are far more likely to fall flat. Compromise would be just as necessary in other hypothetical quiz formats (e.g. imagine trying to put "art history" clues into Eyes that Do Not See. Would one take a screenshot of a textbook?).

I would encourage writers to avoid making "purity" your ideal. By purity, I mean questions whose guiding principle is: "in order to buzz earlier, you must have looked at this painting longer and harder. To buzz on the lead-in you must have stared at it for X amount of time." People engage with painting through all kinds of avenues. A black hat, frozen in time in a painting, may become more beautiful the longer you stare at it. It may even symbolize something. But the man in the black hat doesn't speak human language as you turn pages. And God knows there are plenty of black hats out there.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by at your pleasure » Wed Aug 27, 2014 2:54 pm

gyre and gimble wrote:I

I'd also like to raise a suggestion for visual art questions. I think it would add a layer of depth (that vis-art in quizbowl seems to lack currently) if we shift toward "art history" rather than just "art." This shift means doing the things Ike supports (more context clues, etc.) but I want to emphasize in particular the dialogue that exists between artists, both contemporaneous and across time periods. One of the things that was emphasized in art history classes that I took was how, for example, Twombly couldn't exist without Mondrian having existed before him. It cheapens the study of art a bit when we write clues that reward looking at paintings and memorizing unnecessary details over learning the importance of the painting in its immediate context and in the context of all (art) history.
Also the dialogue between artists and their cultural contexts both long and short term. To build off Stephen's example; knowing that an altarpiece shows Jerome in the right panel is not very useful, but knowing why it was specifically chosen to have Jerome in the right panel can be very useful if for example it was commissioned for a specific church dedicated to Jerome or if it was commissioned for a specific individual both makes it more specifically gettable. I can't buzz off "This artist painted Jerome with a lion and some random semi-generic things in the right-hand panel" but "This artist painted St. Jerome in an altarpiece for ____ church" or "This artist painted St. Jerome with ____ symbols relating to the patron" is both quite usefully specific and builds off things people learn when they read about art involving patronage practices, how altarpieces were created for specific liturgical contexts and so on or how conversely they could articulate certain non-religious claims.

There's also room here to consider to a certain extent historiography and reception history. For example, Panofsky's arguments about the Merode Altarpiece or Arnolfini Wedding have not really held as much ground as we like to think they have but Panofsky's methods and approaches are still an important part of how the field developed even if he's nowhere near the last word on the Merode Altarpiece and nobody would seriously claim that understanding Renaissance art is about checking off the list of esoteric literary symbols present-just as for example in history Fernand Braudel did much to shape the field's development even though nobody would outright imitate him today. Obviously this doesn't mean we need to write tossups on Erwin Panofsky or write questions on artworks using only clues on what people have said about them(that would be a terrible idea!) but it does mean that it may be helpful to consider how certain details or aspects of paintings are discussed both to understand the specific painting better, to understand other paintings better, or to defend certain ways of talking about paintings or classes of paintings and in turn consider what details are actually significant(or more exactly, what details people defend as significant) in paintings.

In addition to what Stephen says, I think shifting in a more "art history" direction will make it a lot easier to make painting and visual arts generally less of a very narrowly hyperfocused category by shifting away from a writing style that only works for "western oil on canvas paintings from 1400 on or so" and making it possible to write good clues on a lot of things that have very rich cultural and artistic contexts but don't have a wealth of minor details to stuff into questions.
imagine trying to put "art history" clues into Eyes that Do Not See. Would one take a screenshot of a textbook
If you told me to do this, I'd probably do something like quickly skim some essays/research/syllabi/anything about a painting and pick details or passages that make a prominent appearance in the discussion, the lit review-y bits(which are conveniently usually at the beginning of anything) or the arguments. But that would be kinda time-consuming.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by Adventure Temple Trail » Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:04 pm

gyre and gimble wrote:working against the problem that Ike outlines might be why Ted's painting questions at nationals were so well-received this year..
Discounting the ones that were just super-hard...


In general, I think these suggestions are good ones for higher-difficulty events, where people are likely to take interest in art history as a subject. To some extent Ike underplays that this is happening already -- in order to even try tossing up many abstract/contemporary artists, you have to use context clues or "art history" to distinguish them from the other 100 guys who painted colored blobs or squares or what have you, and we do hear about the chapels/museums things are in, Vasari biographies, gallery showings, Salon des Refuses gatherings, etc. in the world we have now. The big potential space to open up is actual academic work about art; just as history and literature questions have had clues from criticism/academic work for years now, there's no reason why visual art questions can't take a similar tack more often. I also agree with Ike where he says there's also no reason why visual art questions must now include secondary-style clues every tossup, if specific, precise descriptions of stuff you can look at are doing their job for a given question.

I do worry that, just like non-primary source clues in other disciplines, they can be quite difficult if not handled well and researched to assess their real importance beyond the first few hits on JSTOR. Writers at difficulties below ACF Regionals especially should not stretch to fit scholarship/art-history/background clues in their questions if they find that doing so makes them harder than they should be.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by at your pleasure » Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:39 pm

Matthew Jackson wrote:
gyre and gimble wrote:working against the problem that Ike outlines might be why Ted's painting questions at nationals were so well-received this year..
Discounting the ones that were just super-hard...

The big potential space to open up is actual academic work about art; just as history and literature questions have had clues from criticism/academic work for years now, there's no reason why visual art questions can't take a similar tack more often. I also agree with Ike where he says there's also no reason why visual art questions must now include secondary-style clues every tossup, if specific, precise descriptions of stuff you can look at are doing their job for a given question.

I do worry that, just like non-primary source clues in other disciplines, they can be quite difficult if not handled well and researched to assess their real importance beyond the first few hits on JSTOR. Writers at difficulties below ACF Regionals especially should not stretch to fit scholarship/art-history/background clues in their questions if they find that doing so makes them harder than they should be.
Right; this is why it is probably advisable to look at a syllabus or two, either for an undergrad survey class(certain articles, book chapters, and essays tend to get assigned quite regularly in survey classes especially; for example "Olympia's Choice" is as far as I can tell a staple of 19th century art classes and most medieval art classes have something by Meyer Schapiro about romanesque art on the syllabus) or for a undergrad "Theory and method" class(there being about a half-dozen/dozen art historians that show up in pretty much all of these classes). There are also several very good anthologies of art history and theory writing that give a good idea of what anyone in the discipline is liable to run into at some point.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by Ike » Wed Aug 27, 2014 4:45 pm

To some extent Ike underplays that this is happening already -- in order to even try tossing up many abstract/contemporary artists, you have to use context clues or "art history" to distinguish them from the other 100 guys who painted colored blobs or squares or what have you, and we do hear about the chapels/museums things are in, Vasari biographies, gallery showings, Salon des Refuses gatherings, etc. in the world we have now.
If this is a problem that has been fixed in recent tournaments I apologize. Of course, I did write some of the ICT, and CO art questions and I made sure to include these kinds of clues in the questions that I wrote - especially in that Yves Klein one.
I do worry that, just like non-primary source clues in other disciplines, they can be quite difficult if not handled well and researched to assess their real importance beyond the first few hits on JSTOR. Writers at difficulties below ACF Regionals especially should not stretch to fit scholarship/art-history/background clues in their questions if they find that doing so makes them harder than they should be.
I agree that digging through JSTOR articles can be challenging and should not be done for questions below ACF Regionals. In fact, I want to doubly stress that I'm not necessarily advocating for a higher usage of "criticism clues" but rather just "context clues." So for a low level tournament like ACF Fall, I don't understand why a lot of it cannot be written / edited out of Janson (not necessarily this text, but just an example of an art survey book that provides context), much in the same way that a lot ACF Fall's biology is probably written out of Campbell.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by Magister Ludi » Sun Sep 07, 2014 3:10 pm

Matthew Jackson wrote:
gyre and gimble wrote:working against the problem that Ike outlines might be why Ted's painting questions at nationals were so well-received this year..
Discounting the ones that were just super-hard...\ .
I've been meaning to write a guide/manifesto on writing painting questions, but I do want to respond to this dismissive remark. I would encourage you to judge the philosophy behind the painting questions I wrote for ACF Nats by looking at the whole distribution rather than fixating on the one or two intentionally difficult individual questions. In fact, my favorite question in the whole set was a tossup on the Mona Lisa (whose text appears below), but unfortunately it ended up appearing in the tiebreaker round so almost no one played it. To me it seemed far more bold to have a tossup at ACF Nats on the Mona Lisa than the Braque Triptych, yet the tournament's painting distribution will be remembered for the latter rather than the former. (This is especially ironic because the Braque Triptych was the first tossup on my rewrite list—if I had time I was planning to rewrite it as a tossup on Van Der Weyden triptychs.) But I'm always frustrated by this attitude that discounts the larger philosophical/technical innovations a writer is trying to explore in a tournament and cravenly clings to a couple outlier questions as the set's legacy.

The other more general reason why I tried to pioneer this brand of question is that quizbowl painting clues privileges paintings that are easily summarized. This skews the quizbowl distribution away from many of the most important artists and genres in art history (like Lnardo's portraits, Picasso's Cubist works, Cezanne's still lifes, Renaissance Madonnas) and favors paintings with a lot of shit appearing on the canvas (i.e. allegorical, mythological, and history paintings that are filled with easily described details). In terms of actual importance there should be a hundred questions—frankly closer to a thousand—on Leonardo da Vinci for every Ford Maddox Brown question. The fact people know The Awakening Conscience but not Ginevra de' Benci would give most art history professors a heart attack.
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Re: Painting questions

Post by Adventure Temple Trail » Sun Sep 07, 2014 4:05 pm

I, judging the philosophical/technical innovations of your painting questions, at length, favorably, just as you wish more people would, and on points similar to those in this thread, just five months ago in the nats doscussion wrote:The contemporary visual art at this tournament skewed VERY hard. Despite that: I liked the focus on actual "art history" clues in questions such as The Dance and O'Keeffe's cow skulls, which lets writers toss up important works of art which don't have a lot of salient details within the frame itself. Now, I found that a lot of these clues were very hard, but I also happen to know almost nothing about art history per se which I can't glean by looking directly at paintings (or high-res images of paintings, much to Plato's chagrin), so I think it's kind of cool that quizbowl is opening up this new sphere of clues for future use, and encouraging feebs like me to hit the books again to keep our edge.
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