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 states 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 art lovers such as myself discover
they are unable to aesthetically rationalize Mondrian (geometric
art) and Rothke (minimalism) sharing the same page as Rembrandt
art doesn’t pretend to be anything other than its shapes,
colour and design and the ephemeral aesthetic pleasure 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 or art critics need only be moved by
the beauty of a work for it to be considered high art, to be
exhibited in the world’s most prestigious galleries and
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 brush 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
art represents a new language, or new way of seeing, albeit
one the viewer is already familiar with through his experience
with decorative art. It dispenses with most of the laws and
principles that previously governed painting.
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 (being) that precedes meaning.
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 T. S. 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 judgment 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 bowl of fruit; 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, a development that reaches its apogee with 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) with it.
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, not unlike 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 is 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 1-2
(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 is 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
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 broad consensus among its viewers,
it must assume responsibility for the controversy it engenders
and dedicate itself to articulating its goals 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.
Without 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 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, an artist friend defending abstract