Dedicated to my friend Aaron.
A century of abstraction and still the Art is as divisive as always, well we don’t generally go as far as to call it “Entartet” anymore but certainly the world is still split between artistic progressives and their conservative counterparts. And it is quite sobering how far the discourse has gotten, that is to say, not very. In some ways I would even posit that maybe we have retreated too far from the times of Loos in which we could lambaste ornamentation in favor of the rational. Admittedly it was wrong, but at least we were able to be bold, avantgarde. And now instead? We hear of re-enchantings of all sorts, as if we could simply return modernity with a “no thanks”. And this all has deep implications of all sorts: political, social, spiritual, artistic. But today I want to talk only of the latter. Let us return to the contemporary discourse by asking: How does the modern progressive defend abstraction? Let us imagine a conversation between the two characters, and as a note I take abstract art to mean fully abstract art, such as a Pollock painting.
Conservative: I do not enjoy abstract art, it lacks beauty, is meaningless, it says nothing.
Progressive: Well beauty is simply a matter of taste, I enjoy abstract art, it holds value because of that. And of course it is not meaningless, it expresses emotions! Look at the Pollock, how nervous and energetic it is!
C: But anyone can make it, even my child could. Besides, you can have nervous paintings that are also great (naturalistic) masterpieces, it’s that mastery that makes them high art.
P: Perhaps, but you didn’t make it. They show great originality, especially after the invention of photography. And abstraction can also be part of masterpieces, do you not enjoy van Gogh?
C: Well, yes.. But then there should be balance between naturalism and abstraction, not just shapes and colors.
And here I will cut the conversation off before I continue. I am purposefully avoiding the discussion around Art as a category (what is art?) as well as the question of beauty because both deserve their own time. I only want to insinuate for the latter that brushing aside beauty simply as a matter of taste not worth investigating, rather than viewing those tastes as ideological, psychological and ethical is vulgar. But we also see the weakness of the Progressive’s defense. A merely empathetic view to start is of course lacking the intellectual considerations of the artist neither of which are very convincing to the conservative of course because the painting lacks a clear hermeneutic. Further, novelty is posited as the source of value. But this is particularly laughable because if novelty is all there is then each subsequent abstraction is worth less until one arrives at nothing. Was, to return to Pollock, his second action painting worth nothing just because he did the same thing, fundamentally? No this is no defense of Abstract Art but of a pure avantgardism, new is good and once we abstracted everything away and simply put a nail into a museum wall without even a canvas then we were done. And then what? Do we go back to painting Mary and the baby Jesus?
Some caveats, the Progressive could of course answer in different ways, he might emphasize, as Hodge does, the intellectual merit of a painting, but that is in my experience a rarity even when discussing art with artists. And I would also not want us to go back to the utopian times of Loos, some sort of balance is needed, the conservative is right on that front.
But let’s move on from caveats and to what I have in mind. Abstract Art is technical. In fact it is highly technical and romantic at the same time. Simply put, great Abstract Art is (or should be?) an elaboration on texture, form, colour and composition freed from constraints but also given the handicap of lacking things that we find so naturally attractive. There are no bosoms or stories we know from when we were children. And let us remember that lack makes inventive. Only with black boxes on white canvas the artist creates chaos or order, or for a more tangible example let me show Rothko’s No. 6.
Now, me? I am a known Rothko hater, I hear you have to “be there” to get it but I don’t trust such statements. But even I have to admit that the gradients, the way the color shines through the top square with it’s very unique shade of lavender(?) is quite attractive. And this is, among other things, the beauty of Abstract Art. The elaboration on color, probably plucked out of the world, is by no means unskilled or lacking in beauty. It is not hard to imagine the Pollock as a study for Klimt’s Apple Tree.
Being technical with generally no clear hermeneutic, Abstract Art becomes like a well also, it does not necessarily invite the viewer to interpret in the same way as a figurative painting, but also allows infinite projection if one so desires. It is not without reason that Abstract Art is so successful as decoration both hung on the walls of the rich but also if we’re honest throughout time in the form of ornamentation. It does not distract since it doesn’t ask for attention, but should one be bored it’s loops or corners can offer a pleasant distraction given that one is open.
I sincerely do not envy the conservative that must walk by so much of the world’s beauty unfazed. That does not see a painting by Twombly, thinking back fondly of bathroom writings at a great concert, this is of course their romantic aspect. And with that it is no longer a mystery why abstract art is not interesting to more people. For intellectuals (potentially in air quotes) they can project as much as they want. And when it is so technical then it is of natural interest to artists. Certainly we don’t expect a banker to be interested in the technical details of a truck in the same way a mechanic is? But, art being as important to humans as it is I might see a possible out of the stumped conservative, that despite my insulting tone maybe, is starting to become interested in this new seeing?
Two ingredients are necessary I believe, and I will add a third in a future article I hope. The first is looking deeply into the things he already loves. One of my favorite flowers is the cornflower, an explosion of blue amongst green, with it’s gradients and shades and fan-like leaves. Is not each aspect of it beautiful and worthy of refinement? Think of your favorite person, is not everything about them worthy of love? The second ingredient is more negative, for something to be good, something bad is needed. Not all abstract art can be equally good without it’s quality being cheapened. My thesis is that, generally (though exceptions can be made when a piece works particularly well on empathetic, intellectual or perhaps other terms), a great Abstract painting should be a grand elaboration on one of the aforementioned aspects of art, such as color or a combination of them. Despite using Pollock extensively as an example I also do not like his paintings too much, that said we might agree that his paintings rely greatly on a number of these aspects, form, color and contrast are all present. Blue Poles are not only a romantic ideal of high school art class, but we are also shown a piercing of this net of paint that is perhaps more measurable than the highly subjective romantic ideations one might have.
At the very least I would implore even the most stubborn conservative to consider Abstract Art as study for the aspects of art. If nothing else then by creating these works we allow artists to be inspired through the colors or forms they see. At least in that way the activity is dignified not only because it is enjoyable but also because it is useful.
A small addendum:
It should be noted that non-intellectual abstraction, the kind that occurs in ornamentation is by no means worth less. An interesting theory posits that, because ornaments are made without much thought, their styles encompass the unconscious mind of an artistic generation that we can use to find clues to the thought and spirit of a time.