Dark and Light: Contrast and Perception

Michael Melvin

Caravaggio Saint Jerome Writing

The nature of this presentation and paper revolves around the idea of dualism and how it plays a critical role in understanding contrast: Dark and Light, Knowledge and Ignorance, and Life and Death. Through assigning contrast to art we can understand the multiple perceptions within the simulation in question. It is from this third perspective that we are fully able to take in the art and understand the duality in energy and light that brings balance or dissonance to the subject in question. By breaking the illusion and focusing on the mutual relationship between life and death, artists are able to remind the audience of reality. Once the viewers are caught in this illusion and get a taste of realism, they will always come back for more in order to understand what is considered the avant-garde. 

Through viewing Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome Writing, we are instantly hit with much symbolism. Saint Jerome is on the right donning a halo which resembles that of an angel. To the right of the glowing Saint Jerome writing, we see a skull perched upon a book in the back corner. This skull is an example of a memento mori. During the medieval European period, through the depictions of skulls in contrast to human artifacts, 15th century artists were able to create deep symbolic work. This same theme reemerged in late medieval Christian artwork and this idea of looming ephemerality was always popular and thought of as avant- garde for its time period no matter what was displayed.   

Humans have always been obsessed with the idea of escaping fate, which creates a romantic lust in most god fearing citizens. Gohr states reasons why a negative depiction could be aesthetically pleasing by stating that, “The relationship between beauty and terror, eros and death, those time honored themes of art, are presented again by the painting. Negativity, death is introduced as a theme.” Gohr, “Remarks,” n.p. (Page 129). Oddly enough the sentiment Gohr is expressing is still true today. With the rise of postmodern thought, many are looking towards the Anti- Aesthetic in order to create the avant- garde.

While we ponder the ideas of fate and death, we also cannot overlook social injustices. Luey Lippard makes a fair point stating, “Political realism is usually labeled propaganda. Yet racism, sexism, and classism are not invisible in this society.”(Luey R. Lippard, 347). Through using political realism as an artist, one can make progressive propaganda that caters to the artists ‘struggle’. In this scenario the artist is using their platform in beneficial ways that cater to the avant- garde and ‘not being a sellout’. “Foster argues that the avante- garde returns to us from the future, repositioned by innovative work in the present.”(MIT Press) The avant- garde is the reinvisioned present, which is the ideal simulation for creating the world of your own choosing.

While one may think they full understand avant- garde and its benefits to modern art, German critic Peter Bürger states, “that all its activities can be subsumed under the project to destroy the false autonomy of bourgeois art- is problematic”(Peter Bürger) I feel that this new wave of art could be representative of a new age centered on perceptual reasoning. However, I feel that the raw power of this new wave of anti aesthetic art is only programmed to get a response out of its audience.

Concept of Dualism: Yin(阴) and Yang(阳) 

But knowledge is as food, and needs no less

Her temperance over appetite, to know

In measure what the mind may well contain;

Oppresses else with surfeit, and soon turns

Wisdom to folly, as nourishment to wind.

John Milton (Bk. VII, ll. 109-130)

What follows the idea of modernity is the criticism of the manifestations. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a German critic, stated, “Postmodernity definitely presents itself as Anti Modernity.” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 1). The idea that what is modern can be redefined through the avant- garde puts pressure on artists and creators to shape the future aesthetic; the anti aesthetic. By depicting realism through a hole in the lens, artists are able to provoke feeling and thought. While the reality is still just an illusion, this re-depiction creates a strong image in people’s minds. 

This idea of creating copies was actually done by many artists in order to create collections of great value. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh states, “The repetition of the original act of depletion and the new attribution of meaning redeems the object.”(Benjamin H.D. Buchloh). Simply put, by redoing something that people already know one can get a secondary effect on the market through a similar copy. This can be used in branding and marketing. Andy Warhol is known best for this repetition of everyday items, as seen with his Campbell’s soup can prints. Through the use of copies, the utilitarianism and capitalist ‘struggles’ are fully at work with the artist. While attempting to prove the reality of a robotic lifestyle, Warhol is unironically catering to the needs of society. 

Art should be a reflection of society during the time of creation. Due to the fact that art is noble in practice, many great artists have to receive funding in order to stay afloat financially. Due to the relationship between artist and art purveyor it can be difficult for an artist to create large expository pieces due to legalities and money. While the struggle within every artist is to fight for what they believe in as an individual Jurgen Habermas explains ‘the struggle’ as, “[The struggle] takes form of exposing every manifestation… drawing the connection between modernism and nihilism… between the Left generally and terrorism, anti- semitism, and fascism”-(Jurgen Habermas, 6) Basically this quote states that the artist struggle is to navigate the world as it is without giving up personal values. However, through looking into the contrast between two conceptually different ideas, we are able to see that perception plays a huge role in determining whether the struggle is applicable at the moment.


Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real. MIT Press, 2009. 

Wallis, Brian. Art after Modernism Rethinking Representation. New Museum of Contemporary Art U.a., 1999. 

R. H. Fuchs, Anselm Feifer (Venice: Edizioni “La Biennale di Venezia,” 1980) 

Gohr, “Remarks,” n.p. (Page 129)

Foster, Hal. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. New Press, 1998. 

Glasses Cover Eyes: Duality, Knowledge,etc.

Giorgio de Chirico. Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (Bildnis des Guillaume Apolinaire), 1914. Oil on canvas, 32(⅛)x25(½)” (81.5 x 65cm). Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre National d’Art et Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris

Heartfeild Portrays Hope That Baby Will Grow Up Strong

John Heartfeild. Hurrah, die Butter ist alle!, 1935. Photomontage in A-!-Z(December 19, 1935). Text reads: “Hurrah, the butter is gone! Goering in his Hamburg speech: ‘Iron has always made a country strong; butter and lard have at most made people fat.’”

Duality Between Ignorance and Cruelty

Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge. Work in Progress, 1980- 1981. Color photograph, 16 x 20” (40.6 x 50.8 cm). From a series of eight

Christy Rutt: Comment on City Hygienics(New York’s Banksy?) 

Christy Rupp. Making Visible During the Day Something Which is Nocturnal(formerly Rat Patrol), 1979. Posters: offset printing on paper, each 6 x 18” (15.4 x 46.2 cm). Various site in New York City

Duality of Future; Hope and Fear

Victor Burgin, Zoo 78

Duality Between History and Present

Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 1981-83

Distressed; Duality of Face

Richard Misrach, Playboy #38 (Warhol), 1989-91.

Duality in Nature

Tony Smith, Die, 1962.

Andy Warhol Finds Hope in Form of illusion

“Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” -Jean Baudrillard

Window display with paintings by Andy Warhol, Bonwit Teller, New York, 1961.

Vito Acconcis’ Trademark Highlights Transience of life

Vito Acconci, Trademarks, 1970.

Dark Within Light: Racist Indoctrination of Youth Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum, 1992, details of carriage and KKK hood, Maryland Historical Society

Perspective; Outside view on Duality

Barbara Kruger, 1981

Utilitarianism and Capitalism

Utilitarianism and Capitalism

Andy Warhol. Campbells Soup Cans 1962

Life and Death; Transience of Life

Vanitas By Antonio de Pereda

Postmodern Anti Aesthetic

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Memento Mori as Kitsch

Lindsay Lohan wearing Marc Jacobs V-Neck Cardigan Chocolate/Argent, Alexander McQueen Skull Scarf

Banksy paints London Underground train with sneezing rat not wearing face mask. The Arts Newspaper.

Minimalism and the Anti- Aesthetic

Buyers of Maurizio Cattelan’s $120,000 Banana Defend the Work as ‘the Unicorn of the Art World,’ Comparing It to Warhol’s Soup Cans. Artnet.com

Kaws and Transience of Life

Steve Aoki Kaws

Published by execfunctioning

Michael Melvin is a Writer, Musician, and Advocate. While attending Syracuse University he has been an active member on campus even holding positions in Greek Life and Clubs/Activities on campus. He has recently gained notoriety for his performance at the Wescott Theater, where he played music in a simulacrum which commented on the lack of discourse during the pandemic. Through a global pandemic, Melvin has come out as a resilient persona who questions modern conventions and looks for oppurtunites to adapt to newfound successes.

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