Acrylic and oil bars on canvas
Below there's an edited version of something I wrote originally a couple of years ago on abstraction.
In favour of abstraction
The arguments made by those who do not like abstract art cover a wide range. They range from the less well-argued “It’s shit, anyone can do it” to the smug argument that it was a movement invented by American art-dealers and galleries who needed a quick turnover of paintings, somewhere in the middle of this is the argument that “it’s finished” , played out.
In 1940, as the second world war was in full swing and the world was just becoming aware of the horrors of the holocaust, Wyndham Lewis argued that abstract art had “died of boredom”. This is a an anti-abstract quote often thrown out by those who like to attack abstract art, whilst noting and citing Lewis’ early abstract work to back up their argument. But it is no coincidence that Wyndham Lewis was politically to the far right. So far to the right in fact he had written the book ‘Hitler’ in 1931, portraying Hitler as a great man. It is also no coincidence that at this point in time artistically he was heading towards the end of his career (he was blind by 1950) and his days as a modernist and a vorticist were far behind him in his pre-first world war days.
So, given the political and personal contexts, can his view be taken seriously? Wyndham Lewis was siding with Hitler, who derided abstraction as ‘decadent’, and with the establishment in arguing that abstraction was over, and ‘nature has won’.
Art for Art’s sake
Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of art history can see that ideas of what is accepted as ‘a work of art’ have changed continually for hundreds of years. Look up ‘What is Art?’ on the internet, and you are certain to come across the following statement: “Both the notion of "art" and the idea of the "artist" are relatively modern terms.”
it is unsure upon what this widely reproduced statement is based. The assertion seems to intimate that the caveman who did the best pictures on the walls of his cave was not appreciated by his contemporaries. But this seems to be contrary to our common experiences of human behaviour, and contrary to reported behaviour of ‘primitive’ communities, who highly value and prize their musicians, dancers, story-tellers, and decorative artists. The concept of the ‘artist’ – the prized member of the community who has the ability to create something appreciated by others in that community, has existed as long as man has been able to create.
It is sure that the desire for these ‘artists’ (let’s call them that) to create something new and original has existed for just as long. (A) society recognises the talent of someone who can reproduce something pleasing, but really prizes the talents of the artist who can create something new. Whether it be a painting, a song, a poem, a novel or a movie: the artist that creates something original and good is highly prized and often lauded as a genius. Such as Picasso, the Beatles, TS Eliot or Orson Welles.
For almost as long as there have been artists there have been art critics. Thousands of years ago they would have been the caveman who said “hey, go and look at Ug’s paintings in cave 4, they’re really cool”, (or something like that) and their role has become more important as years (and generations) have gone by. One of their key roles has been as the art establishment: the people who decide what is good, and what is good ‘now’. For example, advisers to the Medicis in 16th century Italy, or the people who chose the exhibitions at the salons in Paris in the 19th century and earlier.
But whilst there the art establishment existed the practicing artist has had a problem: to survive, to earn a living as an artist, an artist needs to create for the establishment – whether it’s a portrait of the queen, or a new pop song performed by Kylie. But to be a REALLY successful artist-genius, a Picasso, an Eliot, a Lennon or McCartney, the artist knows they have to create something NEW.
Historically, when artists (usually younger artists) have found their new works being stopped and stifled by the establishment, they have grouped together (in a human tribal way) and formed a movement, or a group. In music terms this has lead to movements such as Jazz or Punk, in the visual arts this has lead to impressionism, vorticism (hi there Wyndham), da da-ism – and of course abstraction and its many sub-genres: abstract expressionism, cubism, etc.
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In his 1891 essay "The Soul of Man Under Socialism", Oscar Wilde wrote: “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”
Abstract expressionism stemmed from the desire to completely remove nature from art. From a desire to completely rethink the visual world, to remove entirely the link with the natural world. After two world wars which had killed tens of millions of people, many artists began to feel the ‘natural’ world could not provide them with the visual inspiration they needed to paint.
Painters like De Kooning and Pollock in the USA (the new centre of culture – and everything else) created paintings that had no natural visual reference at all. They were paintings about ideas, emotions, colours, space. And the natural extension of this: they were paintings, sometimes, about painting.
For example, Jackson Pollock wanted an end to the viewer's search for representational elements in his paintings, and so he abandoned titles and started numbering the paintings instead. Of this, Pollock commented: "...look passively and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for." Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, said Pollock "used to give his pictures conventional titles... but now he simply numbers them. Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is - pure painting."
Abstract painting can be about anything. The key thing about abstract painting (this should be obvious) is that it isn’t representational – although it is amazing the amount of things people see within a painting that is not consciously put there (or maybe it is) by the artist. Abstract painting opens the door to endless possibilities: and it is this that causes problems. It causes problems for those who like representational work exclusively, because the abstract painting challenges their boundaries, whilst conversely it challenges the ‘post-modernist’ who believes abstract painting is ‘played out’ and offers nothing new.
It is not enough for an artist to defend abstract work by attacking the viewer, however. It is not the viewer’s ‘fault’ (necessarily) if they don’t “get it”. Abstract painting is not “tabsaco spilled over mustard.. voila” , otherwise the criticism would be correct: your five year old child COULD do it. What’s difficult about abstract painting is not the paintings themselves, but the idea of the paintings: the idea: why do they work? Why is a Jackson Pollock painting so much better than a lot of splodges on a canvas created by a five year old? (At this point those who don’t agree with that statement should leave the room). I can only surmise that there is a connection to those simple, easy to recognize issues in representational art: talent and skill. An artist like Pollock understands use of colour, texture, space – his/her training and natural talent enables them to make and reject choices in creation that the five year old simply cannot.
If you reject this thesis on the basis “it’s all crap”, I can’t argue with you – I can merely encourage you to be patient, open-minded and spend some time looking at some of the greatest abstract works. If you can get to MOMA in New York, that might help. Also, stop looking for things, as Pollock asked: just look at the painting for what it is: a painting.
If you reject this thesis because “it’s out of date” I can offer a different argument: a different perspective. An artist recently told me that there had been no new art movement in the last 30 years, and that everything that was being done now was a re-hash of everything done before. In some ways this is true: but does it make it less valid? If one removes the flashy-tinted spectacles of fashion, it remains a fact: what is good is good. To reject art out of hand simply because it is ‘old’ is ridiculous – and is to put oneself in a cultural vacuum. Further to reject all art because “it has all been done before” is again short, or maybe narrow, sighted. It is true that there is nothing particularly new about any art now being created. Nothing being created in art schools now is radically different from what was being made 30 years ago. But does it make it less valid? Not if it’s good: and the same goes for art influenced by work created 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, 500 years ago – or whenever.
Something new will come along, but in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with exploring what we have, and what we have got, and what we can do? Has every abstract painting been done? Has every pop song been written? Has every horror film been made? Abstract painting is a genre that still survives, and still leaves room for exploration and development. Whether it is done on canvas, on paper, on wood, or on giant tents: there’s still room for development and progress within that one genre: and still validity. To suggest it is ‘finished’, or ‘boring’ intimates a position adopted for a purpose, rather than an aesthetic appreciation or criticism.
In the 1950s and 60s the critic Clement Greenberg and his cohorts in New York’, promoted and exhibited (and sold) abstract expressionist artists’ works. Their views were (and often still are) considered vitally important in the development of this movement. And it is this that has led to modern day criticism: “The galleries like abstract impressionism because artists can churn them out”. But this critique surely comes from the same home as that originally occupied by the abstract expressionists themselves – the home of protest and of whatever new “modernism” there is. Even “post-modernism” now seems old hat.
We are now in a time of such fast technological, social and cultural change it is clear that the “art world” (such as it is) doesn’t know how to react. Things move so fast culturally that the next “new thing” is part of the mainstream before you can blink. Indeed, it is the mainstream that is demanding “the next new thing”. The commercial art world that has dominated the establishment for the last 20 or so years likes to think of itself as at the head of any artistic movement: which by definition it can’t be.
Let me explain: when you think of the most modern of modern art – performances, situations, sharks cut in half or whatever – where do you see it? Is it in a little gallery in the back end of beyond that someone might stumble upon? No – it’s at Saatchi’s or at the Tate. The establishment is dominating modern art development to the point where the place for hip art critics to hang out is the degree show at the Royal College of Art, where nothing new seems to have been noticed for 25 years. The art establishment is eating itself, striving only to be new, and to be hip – completely missing some of the key points about where we are now in this development of art, and where (you knew we’d get there) where abstract art fits in with this.
“Abstract art’s appeal is intellectual rather than intuitive” Conrad Keely
In June 1970, the French writer Jean Clay observed: "It is clear that we are witnessing the death throes of the cultural system maintained by the bourgeoisie in its galleries and its museums."
So after all that, all that matters is - is it any good?