The color of the sky

Is the sky blue? That’s in the eye of the beholder.

Midsummer, by Carol L. Douglas
The sky, by convention, is blue, but it’s not an even sheet of blue like a recently-painted wall. On a clear day, it’s more turquoise at the horizon, more violet at the zenith. Except when a line of gold or pink sits offshore, or it’s full of moisture and a solid blue-grey. The sky, like the ocean, is big enough to do anything it wants.
Anyone who hangs around with kids has learned the scientific explanation of why the sky is blue. Our sun produces yellow light because its surface temperature is 5,500°C. Still, we don’t have a yellow sky, for the most part. Sunlight reaches Earth’s atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by the gases and particles in the air. Blue light is scattered more than the other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. There’s a lot of that going on, which is a good thing, because it means our planet home is protecting us from deadly high-energy radiation. That’s a nice, pat explanation and it certainly satisfied me when I was little.
A prism refracting and reflecting an incoming beam of uniform white light, after Newton, courtesy Wikipedia. It’s violet, not blue, that’s at the bottom.
It wasn’t until recently that I noticed that this doesn’t match what Isaac Newton discovered about the visible light spectrum back in 1665. Blue is not the shortest wavelength in the visible spectrum; indigo and violet are shorter. So why isn’t our sky violet? For that matter, how do I know that it isn’t violet? Do I believe it is blue because people tell me that?
In reality, the spectrum of skylight, when analyzed, is about equal parts violet and blue. While daylight is actually a complex spectrum, it’s dominated by the color range that falls between 400 nanometers (violet) and 450 nanometers (blue). That falls neatly into the human eye’s response range, which is about 380 to 740 nanometers. So why have we all decided the sky is blue?
Off Ogunquit, by Carol L. Douglas
We have cones in our eyes for detecting color. There are three kinds. Long cones detect yellow at 570 nanometers, medium detect green at 543 nanometers, and short cones detect blue-violet at 570 nanometers. But we perceive up to 10 million colors, because these cones fire off in combination to distinguish the subtleties of color. (This is all happening in our eyeballs, not our brains, by the way.) Blue-plus-violet is perceived by the eye as blue plus an admixture of all colors, or pure white light.
Other animals must see the sky very differently from humans. Most of them only have two types of eye cones. Some birds and honeybees have receptors for ultraviolet light.
Sea Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
More importantly, humans do not always see colors the same. Beyond the obvious issues of colorblindness, some tend to see less blue altogether. But mostly, it’s a question of paying attention.
Next time you go out on a beautiful day, pay attention to how many different shades of blue there are in the sky, depending on where you look. If you don’t feel that violet thrum deep down in your soul, I’ll be surprised.

Yes, art is a business

The problem with worshiping genius is that for every Albert Einstein, there’s an Adolf Hitler.
Aristocratic Heads on Pikes, authorship unknown

Yesterday, a reader sent me an interview with painter Larry Poons. It was in The Art Newspaper as part of the run-up to the release of The Price of Everything on HBO.

Larry Poons is an abstract painter who currently teaches at the Art Students League in New York. He had valuable things to say, but this struck me as absolutely wrong:
“Success is in the studio. That’s the only success there is. The only other type of success is business: it’s not art. There’s nothing wrong with business and there’s nothing wrong with art but they’re two separate things. If you define success as being able to sell something to pay the rent, then that means you’re successful at paying your rent. It doesn’t mean that your art is any good or not.”
Napoleon on his Imperial throne, 1806, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy MusĂ©e de l’ArmĂ©e
I sympathize with his frustration with the high-end art market, but his attitude, shared by many of his peers, is part of the problem. This is the Cult of Genius that has beleaguered art since the Enlightenment—the idea that artists are above the struggles that drive mere mortal men. Prior to the 18th century, artists were considered craftsmen. While they may have been very successful and well-paid, they had no intellectual pretensions.
The Enlightenment asked artists to talk about civics and politics instead of religious values. This raised their status to that of intellectuals, almost gentlemen, in fact. Their training moved from the old apprenticeship/atelier model to formal art schools. For example, the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768. Its mission was to raise the professional status of the artist by establishing a sound system of training. Along with these formal schools came the idea that artists were intellectuals.
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, 1704, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, courtesy National Portrait Gallery
The idea of genius was born in the Enlightenment. It was the age of Newton and Napoleon, and it created a curious dichotomy. While governments were being formed on the idea that all men were created equal, certain men—geniuses—were growing ever more more equal than others.
More and more, these geniuses, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, began to operate outside the norms of society. The Cult of Genius brought us some great art, but it also ushered in a dreadful time in Europe. This included Robespierre’sReign of Terror in France, the genius cult of the Nazis, and Stalin’s Cult of Personality. All were possible because Great Men were more influential than unyielding values.
Self Portrait (dressed as an academic, not a craftsman), 1776, Sir Joshua Reynolds, courtesy Uffizi Gallery
As counterintuitive as it seems, in the end this has landed us in the modern dilemma of having so much banal, boorish, casual and ultimately meaningless material foisted on us as art. The genius doesn’t communicate; he proclaims. That means he doesn’t have to listen.
Ultimately, a person who is above money is completely out of touch with almost everyone else. In the end, that kind of attitude is what’s given artists such a terrible reputation in modern America, and why parents don’t believe their kids can make livings in the arts.