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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?

 

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