ART OR ARTIFICE II
ROBERT J. LEWIS
Abstraction allows man
to see with his mind
what he cannot see physically with his eyes . . .
Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible,
to extract the infinite out of the finite.
It is the emancipation of the mind.
It is an exploration into unknown areas.
Abstract art: a product
of the untalented
sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.
Not the result of chiaroscuro,
nor a skilful dialectic
of light and shadow (for these are still painterly effects)
. . .
a vague physical wish to grasp things . . .
anterior to the perceptual order . . . the annihilation
of the scene and space of representation.
long day’s journey into the erudite midnight continues.
Despite enormous willingness and tenacity, I am still unable
to wrap my head around abstract art, persuaded that it doesn’t
or can’t compete with figurative or didactic art. And
yet a work of abstract, and not Van Gogh’s “Potato
Eaters,” brightens up a living room wall -- for the simple
reason it is visually very pleasing while Vincent’s verité
is downright ugly and depressing. So how do I respond to my
many accusers who insist that I am stubbornly, tendentiously
refusing to grant grade and gravitas to the beauty abstract
art undeniably elicits? Especially since there is no finessing
the precious St. Xupery thought that (paraphrasing) ‘the
time I spend with my rose is what confers its value.’
the spirit of full disclosure, I have indeed and in deed gone
to considerable pain and expense to bring myself to faraway
landscapes comprised of nothing more than a crest of dune set
against a blushing blue sky. Or when in Italy, I automatically
seek out the highest point in every town and village in order
to aim my camera at the magnificent terracotta rooftops whose
random shapes and organization suggest pure abstract painting.
To these experiences I confer the highest aesthetic value measured
by the time and effort spent in their pursuit. So why do I assign
more value to nature’s abstract beauty than the comparable
beauty elicited by abstract art? The short answer is that, however
unfairly or irrationally, I am a product of my conditioning
and cultural heritage (cognitive closure syndrome) and without
apology, I expect man to go beyond, outperform, be better than
nature. Henry James argues that art arises when the image is
superior to the thing itself. But that does not explain why
the aesthetically pleasing lines of, for example, a sea-shell
transposed to canvas should be less affecting than the actual
shell? Or why do I insist on synonymizing abstract and decorative
art, persuaded that neither attains to what is universally accepted
as high art (da Vinci, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Cezanne)?
history we have accorded the highest praise and respect to our
artisans and craftpersons, and the lasting achievements in the
decorative arts: from classical Greek vases to Persian rugs
to exquisitely wrought ivory carvings. We amaze at the workmanship
and ravish the beauty the objects command. So far so good, until
the line between decorative and abstract art blurs, when the
latter begins to compete with ‘serious art’ and
manages to claim a significant interval for itself in the history
of painting. At which point cynical or straight-jacketed viewers
rudely discover they are unable to aesthetically rationalize
Mondrian (geometric art) and Rothke (minimalism) sharing the
same page as Rembrandt and Cezanne, even though those same viewers
concede that they are equally moved by the beauty of nature
and the same transposed to canvas. Allowing for cognitive disassociation,
they embrace it under one category (decorative) and refuse it
in another (abstract). [We note that the beauty of nature is
‘never’ beauty in and of itself, but always in relation
to man: I look at a landscape and arrange it -- the sky, the
wheat field, the grain elevator -- in a certain way, another
person in another way].
art doesn’t pretend to be anything other than its shapes,
colour and design and the ephemeral aesthetic pleasures it offers.
The viewer accepts its aims and limitations on their own terms.
Both decorative and abstract art argue that the art item doesn’t
have to communicate meaning to be meaningful. Instead of imitating,
copying, describing the things of the world, both art forms
are their own thing which doesn’t correspond to anything
we know or recognize. Which begs the question: is it a sufficient
condition that viewers (art critics) be moved by the beauty
of an abstract painting for it to be considered high art, to
be exhibited in the world’s most prestigious museums?
the history of art, abstract represents a radical break with
all previous art in respect to content and preparatory protocol,
best illustrated by analogy. The writer always knows what he
is going to say in advance of what he writes. The act of writing
gives shape to his thoughts and ideas which have anteriorly
come to him. The same could be said of the figurative painter
who knows in advance what he wants to paint before he picks
up his brushes and prepares his palette. What distinguishes
abstract from all other art is that for the first time in the
history of painting, which constitutes one single movement (Malraux:
Voices of Silence), is that the painter need not possess
any drawing skills, and he doesn't know what he is going to
paint until he paints it. In this sense, abstract is like jazz
or any improvisational music where a change in a single note
affects all the subsequent notes. In abstract, a colour or combination
of colours suggest a complementary response: change the colour
and volume and the other colours and volume adjust accordingly.
The combinations and permutations are infinite. As such, the
abstractor’s work is never done, until he’s done
-- and buried.
art represent a new way of seeing, a new language, one that
the viewer already knows through his experience with decorative
art. Abstract dispenses with most of the laws and principles
that previously governed painting.
best argument or defense the abstract painter or art critic
can make for abstract art -- if not for all of art after realism
-- is that the abstract artist wants painting to bring to the
visual arts what the philosophy of Martin Heidegger brings to
(his methodology) bids us to undo or let go of word concepts
in order to rediscover what is strange and evocative in words.
He wants to break through the carapace, the word-name beneath
which the thing or the entity is buried or taken for granted.
He introduces the notion of Da-sein (a being-there) so that
we may eventually speak and rediscover in its vital being the
word, man. Similarly, the abstract painter wants deconceptualize/deconstruct
the things of the world so that we may discover the world anew,
with astonished eyes, before things have been identified and
named. No less than the philosopher, he is in quest of the pre-ontological,
a primordial state of mind or being that precedes meaning. The
abstract painter wants to silence language, to silence speech,
to break the viewer of the habit of conceptualizing the world.
He wants us to experience the world like the child who beholds
it without having to assign a name or signification to whatever
it is he encounters. In this sense abstract is dumb (not dumb
as a measure of intelligence but prior to speech) and the viewer
must dumb down (or dumb up if you prefer) to appreciate it.
As Eliot says for great poetry, it communicates before it is
understood. Abstract art is a mirror into the soul of the person
looking into it: it appeals to the strictly emotive spectrum.
Its unspecified aim is to awaken those a priori aesthetic
categories of mind that allow for the discernment of beauty.
unlike the writer and philosopher who deconstruct language so
that we may eventually rediscover or respeak it with renewed
vigour, in abstract art the world is deconceptualized and there
it remains, unnamed; there is no speaking or rediscovery. There
is no landscape, or flower; the viewer remains mute, awakened
to the plenitude of his feelings aroused by the work. Reduced
to its lowest common ecstatic denominator, abstract art appeals
to beauty for beauty’s sake, and since the artist chooses
certain colours and shapes over others, it is a record of how
he felt during the act of creation. As to what those feelings
are, we can never be certain, in part because the viewer is
mixing his own palette of life experience into the work, so
the response to the work is directly related to the chemistry
that arises between the artist and viewer. Thus, for the first
time in the history of art, there need be no consensus of what
a work means: meaning is in the mind or prerogative of the beholder.
to abstract, the artist was responsible for a work’s content
and meaning; the viewer was strictly passive, captive to the
subject matter before him: Christ suffering on the cross, the
plight of a raft on heaving seas, a wind rippling through a
golden wheat field. Like no other art, abstract empowers the
viewer, who through the power of his purse facilitates the high
regard now accorded to the genre. But viewer empowerment wouldn’t
reach its apogee until installation art where the art goer literally
places himself in the midst of the art work and reconfigures
it as he moves in and about, interacting (con almádena)
the abstract artist be miffed (“I get no respect”)
that we either don’t get it or judge the genre inferior?
Given that they are the first painters in the long and distinguished
history of painting who bring themselves to the blank canvas
without a game plan, without a vision other than to bring what
they have started to completion, I’m tempted to conclude
that their upset reveals a major short supply of empathy. What
they are asking of the viewer is that he learn an entirely new
visual language, like asking a lover of hip-hop to learn the
language of Bach, an undertaking that under ideal condition
coupled with preternatural perseverance might take years –
if not an entire lifetime.
we don’t get it, I propose it’s because abstract
art has failed to articulate its founding principles, to make
explicit an epistemology that would ground and legitimize it,
and set in motion the rationale for its genrification. Consequent
to this dereliction, some of abstract’s greatest exemplars
have unwittingly contradicted the very essence of the genre,
which is to deconstruct the visual world through a brave new
visual language that speaks non-verbally, pre-ontologically.
How do we account for painters inexplicably titling their non-conceptual
art with recognizable names (concepts)?
the title hadn’t been thrust upon us, we wouldn’t
have any notion what Gerhard Richter had in mind in “Ice
1-4” (1989). Just as we wouldn’t have a clue as
to what de Stael’s “Nice” (1954) or “Le
Ciel Rouge” (1952) refer to if he hadn’t named them
as such. The works mentioned are pure abstracts; they have no
objective correlative in the real world. It’s almost as
if the artists themselves aren’t sure of why and what
they are doing, leaving the genre with the thankless task of
trying to find its way without a mission statement – a
sure recipe for hit and miss that throws the entire credibility
of the movement into question. On the one hand, they endeavour
to deconstruct concepts, and with the other hand, substituting
Bic for brush, they assign concepts to works that have been
totally deconceptualized. Small wonder abstract art divides
its viewers into two radically opposed camps: one that views
it as high art, the other on par with decorative art.
or prioritizing a state of mind that is prior to or antecedent
to meaning is risky business, and not just in the visual arts
but in life, especially if we are convinced that what vouchsafes
our humanity is the uniquely human capacity of nomination, the
assigning or affixing of names (concepts) to that which we find
meaningful. Who would think of not naming a new born child?
abstract art aspires to the pre-ontological -- a suspended state
of wonder that characterizes the mind-set of the child -- it
could be argued that it shares the same mystical end-game as
Zen’s no-mind, or transcendental Buddhism, or trance,
or OM, or dervish ecstasy. They all speak to a common goal;
the circumventing of the brain’s neo-cortical functions.
it be that we are attracted to abstract art like we are attracted
to the drone in OM, or the mono-tonality in Rap, or anything
or activity that facilitates the temporary shutting down of
the mind? The music critic Jacob Siskind observed: “In
a day when intellectual activity is looked upon with suspicion,
something that reaches directly to the automatic nervous system
and short-circuits the mind is certain to have
an immediate response.” Et voila, Barnett Newman’s
3-striped “Voices of Fire,” purchased by Canada’s
National Gallery at a cost of 1.7 million.
abstract art expects to enjoy a wide consensus among its viewers,
it must assume responsibility for the controversy it engenders
and dedicate itself to finding a consensus among its practitioners
on what it is about, its goals and how to get there. If its
initial aim was to get real, to extricate itself from the prison
of 3-dimensional painting which on a 2-dimensional canvas is
illusory, it mistook that beginning for an end to the effect
that far too many of its major players are confused and conflicted,
and by extension, too many critics and curators.
a mission statement, without guidance and articulate leadership
from the top down, works of dubious merit will continue to be
exhibited while legitimate abstract art -- and there are many
instances of it out there -- may never get its due. Until abstract
art decides on what it wants to be, it will be anything and
everything that pleases the eye, and whether or not the affecting
agency is a one-coloured canvas or a de Stael is moot since
the effect is what matters.
a private correspondence, a painter friend, defending abstract