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Vol. 7, No. 2, 2008

 
     
 
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ABSTRACT art IS NOT ART

by
ROBERT J. LEWIS

_____________________

We are in a diseased state
because we mix up art
with a respectful attitude
towards decoration. Le Cobusier

 

Is it art, is the question now being asked of abstract painting? In his brilliant The Voices of Silence André Malraux characterizes abstract art as something about nothing, and then laments that the word ‘art’ is used when referring to both good and bad art.

In 1989, the National Gallery of Canada purchased Barnett Newman’s "Voice of Fire" for 1.8 million. It’s a work comprised of 3 vertical stripes. For many, myself among them, this purchase and others like it constitute overwhelming proof that our most esteemed curators -- the first-world’s elite untouchables -- dwell in catastrophic hebetude. They are complicit in a century deep fraud distinguished by highly inventive art criticism that is typically more substantial than the vacuous artwork itself. Among the rush of critics who have shown themselves incapable of distinguishing between decoration and art, I mention Toronto’s John Bentley Mays in his salivations over Agnes Martin; Robert Fulford in his waxations over Mr. Newman; the late Anne Duncan in her extolations of Yves Gaucher and Guido Molinari; and Henry Lehman for whom relativism in the visual arts is not a symptom of cultural suicide but a point of departure. No less responsible than the artist for bringing the visual arts to its nadir, their serene pronouncements would not have been possible without the constancy of unbonfired vanity, and illusions of grandeur that come from being able to program the content of the spaces we set aside for art.

The very best that has been said about abstract painting is found in two seminal essays written by Meyer Schapiro in 1937 and again in 1957. His aim was to articulate the principles and motivation underlying abstract’s fresh approach to painting, but he may have inadvertently provided the best arguments against it as a serious art form. From his essay entitled "Recent Abstract Painting":

“In abstraction . . . are endless tangles and irregular curves, self-involved lines which impress us as possessing the qualities not so much of things as impulses, of excited movements emerging and changing before our eyes.” The genre introduced “chance” and “randomness” that “corresponds in turn to a feeling of freedom, an unconstrained activity at every point . . . painting, by becoming abstract and giving up its representational function, has achieved a state in which communication seems to be deliberately prevented.”

In trying to get a critical handle on an art that is opaque and self-referential, Schapiro introduces the notions of “mastery of the formless and accidental,” and “impulsively scribbled forms.”

One cannot help but notice that all of the above could be used to describe the method and art of the child.

What is perhaps most telling – code for disconcerting -- as it concerns the genrefication of abstract art, is that for the first time in the history of the visual arts there need not be a consensus on what an individual painting means. What can we say about the word ‘book’ if for someone it means egg, for another ice and for another sub-atomic particle? In order for a word to become meaningful, to enter the stream of language, there must be a consensus on what it means. For meaning to be meaningful, it must be shared. The red traffic light at the corner of Sherbrooke and Atwater is meaningful because it means ‘stop’ to those who encounter it.

Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” is meaningful precisely because it gathers to it a consensus of meaning. Art critics and layman alike encounter unhappy as opposed to happy faces, deprivation instead of plenitude. The work stands and endures as art because it evokes a consensus of meaning that transcends both the passage of time and unlike cultures. It is a landmark in its depiction of poverty and deprivation and fills a gap in an idiom where previously there had been none.

Like a broken off satellite component no longer subject to gravity and drifting in outer space, abstract painting represents a radical break from everything prior to it, especially since it is no longer the artist but the viewer who determines the content and meaning of the work. As a manifesto, its unspoken founding utterance can still be heard: “unskilled, unschooled painters of the world unite.”

Abstract falls roughly into four broad categories, with only the first, Cubism, worthy of mention as a serious art form. Its most distinguished and rightly celebrated players were Picasso, Braque, Léger and Duchamps, who wanted to free painting from the tyrannies of representation. Inspired by Cézanne, they fought to eliminate perspective and the foreground-background differential, but could not have foreseen what would happen to that initially brave impulse.

Finding Braque over reliant on the conventional paint brush, Mondrian turned to the ruler and introduced the world to geometric art whose volumes underscored a growing appetite for simplicity and ready-made symmetries. But those wilfully weighted geometries would not satisfy the restless spirit of Jackson Pollack, who single-handedly invented abstract expressionism. Think of the sport of baseball, but instead of a pitcher hurling a ball, Pollack is hurling paint. He was doubtlessly inspired by the sport’s colourful play by play. We speak of a pitcher’s skill in painting the corners. Pollack, despite a career that was cut short by acute alcoholism and for whom the weight, width and feel of the brush were more important than its bristle, to this day is regarded as one of the great right handers of all time. But abstract would have to wait until the advent of minimalism for its crowning hubris: from Rothke and Newman and their epigones, one-colour canvases became de rigueur and overnight the western world found itself awash in artists.

Notwithstanding the above arguably tendentious summary, is there any evidence or principles we can adduce to make the claim that is overwhelmingly self-evident to even the least trained eye that abstract painting isn’t art? To make what I think is an obvious, theoremetic point, is that if I -- who would be hard pressed to deliver a circle with the aid of a digital compass -- can do it (or copy it), it’s not art. It’s as simple as that. The doubters among you are invited to examine the works below and decide which one answers best to the criteria of art and which one to decoration. And if you find yourself in a Sophie’s Choice quandary, you should by no means be discouraged from taking aim at the defective mind reflected in the mirror, but rest assured you possess the necessary qualifications for the position of museum curator.

In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “True originality is never something sought after . . . it is a quality belonging to something touched in the dark and brought back as a tentative question.” Since great art has always been singled out for its uniqueness and inimitability, the issue of whether or not abstract painting is art has already been solved because we are all capable of producing paintings that, citing Schapiro, are “formless, random and accidental.” And when this style of work pleases us, which it often does, it has every right to be recognized for what it is: decorative. In this sense, abstract deserves to be ranked with the likes of wall paper, computer graphics, laquered wood, hanging rugs and any number of pleasing shapes and designs we use to decorate our living and working spaces.

The controversial career of Andy Warhol, American entrepreneur par excellence, is not unrelated to the institutional depravity that continues to allow for what is trite and banal in painting to masquerade as art. Besides wanting to make an easy buck, Warhol wanted to prove that the American purchaser of art was the least discerning on the planet. He made his case by cajoling the collector to consider as art its very opposite: the mass produced. He removed the wrap-around label from a Campbell’s soup can, blew it up to 10 times the original size and sold it as an artwork for thousands of dollars – an event that was roundly praised by America’s major art critics who, in that same bankrupt spirit, raised to spectacular eminence the polarizing Pop art movement.

The best that can be said about decorative is that it reveals nothing beyond its colours, materials and textures and that its meaning is as arbitrary and ephemeral as April’s first flowers whose intrinsic value is roughly commensurate to the price fetched at the market place. Which makes the decision, underwritten by the nation’s most esteemed art critics and curators, to dispense millions of tax payers dollars on canvases comprised of a couple of stripes or pencil lines an indictable offense.

To finally right this most reprehensible wrong, I propose that effective immediately all abstract painting be reclassified as decorative until it demonstrably meets the criteria of high art. If painting is to be restored to its former high standing and distinction, it must dedicate itself to weeding out all pretenders and wanna-be artists who have convinced themselves that an original or outrageous work will transform their God-given mediocrity into an enduring truth. Since a writer, to be considered as such, must possess writing skills, is it asking too much that an artist be required to demonstrate the ability to draw?

As a final consideration, you’re invited to inspect an untitled abstract by the Canadian painter Roberto Romei Rotondo and ask yourself if what you see is mere decoration -- or art for the rock of ages?

 

Related Articles:
INSTALLATION ART OR ARTIFICE
SAVING THE VISUAL ARTS

COMMENTS

lklement-reddit
I disagree strongly with the sentiment but I up vote you for posting it here.

oilslickrickrubin-reddit
I think it's more about saturation of the market with an influx of people that think that taking an hour to smear paint on a canvas makes them an artist

ocdy1001-reddit
This website doesn't look that good to my eyes, terribly ugly even. And you speak about the "degraded state of visual arts". Had to look at some Mondriaan before my eyes burned out of my skull.

holybatjunk-reddit
Writer sounds old and out of touch even taking that into account. Crowing against abstract expressionism is very dated and the contemporary art world has long moved on. I doubt this author thinks most folk art is art, or that indigenous art is art. I get the attitude, from the emotional standpoint, that if I can do it then it's not art, but that smacks of hubris. I'd like to see the author actually try it. I used to feel like that when I watched some amateur dance performances, until I realized that the more you practice an art the more the goal post moves, so that standard is terribly solipsistic, and also it makes you sound like a complete dick.Standing in front of a Rothko, in real life, is also a completely different experience than looking at a print or an image on line.Now, if you wanna complain about Damien Hirst, that's also dated but I'd dog pile on because I personally still think he's a hack.

user-submission@feedback.com
I love how the people going against the author are saying simple, almost childish comebacks, like "you're wrong", "you're simple minded", "you have no idea what its all about", without actually giving a concrete form of rebuttal; almost as if they're bigotting themselves by further emphasizing the lack of creativity, concreteness, and objectivity in abstract art. It is sad that these people believe that their work has any meaning. They could honestly learn to actually draw or paint, like say a tree in an empty field would have been a lot more brain-working than just a slab of paint or a streak of pee onto a canvas. Tell me I'm wrong, boys.

motawfik81@gmail.com
Master artists and painters of the highest order are high level souls that are accomplishing their final practice and rehearsals in arts in order to move forward to a far sophisticated artistic experience; is contributing in the creation of the nature on earth …

By injecting and forcing “Abstract practices” on earth is a part of the devilish plan to destroy the planet earth or in other words delaying planet earth progress toward a higher degree of development by vanishing the visual art and natural drawing talents, so by the time earth will look like "Abstract Arts."

On the other hand Abstract Arts considered being one of the best candidates for money laundry and bribery serving the dominating practices on Earth now days.

Pressure and stress, health problems on earth is mainly due to the selfishness energy that is dominating Earth, that makes lots of art lovers switched to “Abstract Drawings” it gives a sort of energy relieve and it requires only a simple study on how to match colors or simply they can cheat color matching from the nature using the exact colors with respect to proportions like looking to a colorful bird and cheat his patterns and color mixing into a stretched canvas or any painting material.

I wish I can help and contribute in presenting a better Art model that makes the current model obsolete. Please let me know what kind of activities I can join and Help.

Sorry for my poor English writings, I did my best to describe what I know.

Mohamed Tawfik
from: Cairo – Egypt

user-submission@feedback.com
Hello. I myself am working on a painting but as an known artist I feel no matter how grand or beautiful my art work is it will be worthless, now Jackson Pollack for instance will draw three lines on a canvas and it will reach millions of dollars in the Christie's auction house by looking around the art markets today I get very discouraged to start at all as I feel my work will be for nothing and years lost I appreciate the detail of the old masters eg, William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
It just makes me angry that this beautiful detail will be lost one day and left only in museums as a memory even in architecture this abstract form is reshaping our society ,are we becoming more intelligent or are we going backwards Rothko's orange on canvas went for tens of millions of dollars I guess we have to except every form of art work and different cultures but I believe that we shouldn't reject the beauty of natural painting and not to lessen its value.

from Lydia Schrufer, Arts Editor
As Arts Editor of Arts & Opinion, I want to put on the record my disagreement with my editor and author of the essay "Abstract Art Isn’t Art." I find his views uninformed, if not ignorant, and at best, very narrow minded. If he were to pick up a brush, he would discover just how difficult it is to produce an abstract painting he assumes himself capable of. I will grant that there is a great deal of pseudo, bad art on the market, but a blanket statement isn't helpful.

He goes on to suggest that Newman, Gaucher, Molinari et al, spent their entire careers pulling the wool over the public’s eye, that they were not interested in advancing a new concept and shaking up the status quo.

Looking at Lewis’s argument from the perspective of music, one could make the same blanket statement about contemporary jazz which many people consider noise. There’s much in music between Cage and Marsalis that listeners find offensive, but these artists felt compelled to push the envelope despite public opinion. Artists have always been driven by the zeitgeist of their environments; at times their creative efforts succeed, sometimes not, but it's important to applaud their efforts. I am not against honest criticism, but it should be educated and authoritative. The fact of the matter is that most museum and gallery visitors spend mere seconds in front of a works before passing judgment, and usually in front of works that are traditional. They then take their habits of viewing to more complex, demanding works and are disappointed. Before one can develop an appreciation of complex music, one must listen and listen again; the same applies to the visual arts.

And let’s not forget that the impressionists were the pariahs of their time and now we revere their bravado and innovation.

from Neila Mezynski:
Having painted abstractly for 18 years I have some energy on the subject. The Eastern painters give as much importance to what is not on the canvas as to what is, some Zen philosophy there, I suppose. The painter’s choices are defining and revealing. What is on the canvas and what is not is all about the individual’s life experiences and how he wants to “discuss” it through his work. The hard core abstract painter spends years developing a “language”, if you will, and sometimes that language is in the form of drips and dabs and marks, mixed media, collage, you name it. The most surprising thing is that the painter is looking for something that only he/she can recognize as working or making sense. Robert Motherwell, a great abstract painter of the 20th century, called it “the shock of recognition.” If one is going to dismiss this sophisticated and intelligent painter’s entire body of work as nothing, or not art then I guess you would have to dismiss the whole person and the whole movement of modernism. Warhol and Duchamp rattled our cages and knocked “art” off its gold encrusted pedestal and showed us that great art is not any one thing. That would be too easy!

user-submission@feedback.com
Any argument that relies on an appeal to a definition's self-evidence is begging the question. Art is not self-evident, which is the entire point of much abstract art: attempting to discover the answer through experimentation. Difficulty or skill is irrelevant, and you have the burden of proof to establish that it is.

user-submission@feedback.com
Crock of shit. No talent, a poser and a bum.

alexandriaesparza18@yahoo.com
Who are you and what scholarly backup do you have to be able to say such ignorant things?

user-submission@feedback.com
Abstract art is not real art, to me it's considered childlike and more like a background to a soon to be awesome piece but its missing the actual painting.

user-submission@feedback.com
You are joking I hope. Otherwise you need help.

 

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