Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Abstract Art is Art

Franz Klein Mahoning 1956
Oil on canvas, 203.2 x 254 cm
Convincing people that full abstraction is reasonable art can be a difficult challenge, even though we are coming up on a full century in which abstraction has been a major component of painting. A while back, I set myself a challenge to write an essay for Zen Throw Down that might persuade 'non-believers' to consider abstract painting as art rather than automatically rejecting it. I've been letting the subject marinate in my had for some time, and I think I have something that's reached a form in which it can be shared.

In my experience, the main obstacle in persuading someone to accept an abstract painting like Franz Klein's Mahoning as art is the knee-jerk reaction to say it is "meaningless" or (even more often) that it is "something anyone could do".  So perhaps this is a good place to start. If we can get a person past this initial, visceral "aw, heeeeell no!" reaction, then there is a better chance to convince them to consider each painting individually and give it a chance, rather than simply writing off dozens of great artists and thousands of paintings for no reason except that they are abstract. To attempt more than this is probably not realistic since, as with any art movement, abstract art has its share of crap to dig through in order to find to the good stuff. So I'm not trying to convince anyone that all abstract painting is art, only that it can be art.

So let's start with the "anyone can do it" objection. To deal with it, we need to understand its subtext. When someone raises this objection, what I think they are saying is that they - and all of us in general should - expect an 'artist' to exhibit a technical ability or talent in portraying physical objects or people that sets their work above that of a non-artist. In short, they need to see evidence of talent. This is totally reasonable. To think otherwise would be to believe that masterpieces are no better than random bird droppings on a sidewalk. [As an aside, there are people in the art world who would say this is in fact true. However, such a position is not tenable since it would be foolish to create or buy art while claiming it doesn't exist.]

Despite it being reasonable on the surface, the problem with the "anyone can do it" position is that technical ability (of any kind) is not the most important thing in determining how good a painting is. In fact, it's not the most important factor for determining quality in any branch of the arts. While technical ability is certainly one avenue to judge the quality of a painting or an artist, there are plenty of technically proficient artists out there whose paintings are dull and uninteresting. Similarly, just because someone can write grammatically perfect sentences does not mean that we automatically assume they are capable of writing a novel anyone would want to read.

To illustrate this point more deeply, let's draw an extended analogy in music. A person can be taught to read music, play scales, and understand tempo. However, such technical ability does not bring emotion, relevance, meaning, or individual flair to anything that person might compose or perform. It doesn't make you a good musician. For example, there is nothing technically complex about early Elvis Presley music, the opening bars of "Stairway to Heaven" are fairly easy to play, and Ice Cube's gangsta rap doesn't require the ability to read music. Technical proficiency isn't what sent Elvis Presley into the stratosphere. Technical proficiency isn't the main reason "Stairway to Heaven" remains one of the great rock songs of all time. Technical proficiency isn't the reason rap music captured the imagination of a generation. What Presley, Zeppelin, Ice Cube and other great performers brought to their performances - their personal vision - is a critical part of what sets their work (and them) apart. Many people would argue it's the most important ingredient. In other words, 'you ain't got a thing, if you ain't got that zing.' For a true artist, whatever technical ability they possess supports their artistic vision, not the other way around.

Joan Mitchell Beauvais 1986
oil on canvas diptych, 110 x 157.5"
The same is true in modern art. It is wrong to dismiss abstract art as "something anyone could do" because - as in the music examples above - the best measure of a painting is not its technical execution. [As an aside, it must be pointed out that abstract paintings are - even from a technical angle - not "something anyone could do". Works such as Beauvais by Joan Mitchell require technical abilities related to working with oil, applying paint, and an understanding of color that not any random person picking up a brush possesses.]

So artists can display technical ability whether they are painting a landscape, a portrait, or something abstract. However, it is ultimately the quality of the artistic vision that an artist brings to the painting that distinguishes real art (abstract or representational) from trash.

Artists recognized this distinction centuries ago, and they acted on it long before the radical painters of the 20th Century assertively abandoned representational art. Pinpointing precisely when this realization became an active practice is not easy, but the earliest 'earthquake' likely occurred in France during the late 1800's. Examples include Cezanne, who abandoned a strictly realistic depiction of people and objects. There are also the imaginative compositions of Van Gogh, Gaughin, and others (lumped into the catch-all category of Expressionism). Many of these paintings are not especially realistic in what they portray or how they are painted. Instead, color and form primarily serve the artist's personal vision, not the goal of depicting anything in a technically 'correct' manner.

The most widely known example is the Impressionist movement. These painters intentionally blurred colors and dissolved shapes despite this being a less technically correct means of painting. For the Impressionists, depicting how light impacts the appearance of objects was far more important than a clinical reproduction of a scene from reality. Notably, late paintings by Claude Monet (such as The Water-Lily Pond) are very close to the abstraction many people deride in 20th Century artists. To go further, it's easy to see similarities between The Water-Lily Pond and Mitchell's Beauvais. While Monet's lily pond paintings all have a well-known subject, the fact is there's only the most tenuous attempt at representation in some of these works. They are just a hair's breadth away from Mitchell's abstraction.
Claude Monet The Water-Lily Pond 1917/1920
oil on canvas, 301 x 200.5 cm

While these are the most easily recognized examples, such deviations from reality in favor of artistic vision actually extend much farther back. In many classic works of art - even something as sacrosanct as Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel - we routinely ignore that they are laid out to eschew the normal laws of physics. Some famous Sistine Chapel images are not realistic. For example, Michelangelo depicts God carried by tiny children floating in the air to touch Adam's finger. From the same period, any number of Madonna and Child paintings present the baby Jesus with an adult posture and expression. None of this is realistic; it represents a choice by the artist to deviate from reality in order to more accurately communicate or portray the desired theme or meaning. In all these cases, the deviation is acceptable to us because most of us would agree that what the artist wishes to express is more important than simply creating a slavish reproduction of an object, landscape, or person.

The reason the experiments of the Impressionists and Expressionists were so revolutionary was that they codified the deviations. Theirs was a systematic and actively pursued assertion of the artist's vision trumping displays of reality. As such, artists like Monet, Van Gogh, and Cezanne set the stage for 20th Century artists to go even further. 20th Century artists regularly wrote manifestos explaining and/or justifying the intent of their new visions for art. With such determined activity, new movements (with principle artists) sprung up all over Europe. Fauvism (Matisse), Cubism (Picasso), Surrealism (Dali), and many more openly placed artistic vision in the ascendant. Personal style trumped technique, realism was passe, and subject matter was only a means to an end.

The revolution continued (and perhaps culminated) with the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950's, which included artists such as Pollock, Rothko, Mitchell, and many, many more. A famous example of this movement is Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles. Again, as you look at this painting, think about the ways it is similar to Monet's The Water-Lily Pond. In part, Pollock is standing on Monet's (and others') shoulders and simply moving further in the same direction. The same is true for the whole abstract art movement compared to prior movements.
Jackson Pollock Blue Poles 1952
oil on canvas, 6' 11" x 15' 11"

Despite this fact, while Monet, Cezanne, and Van Gogh are deified by most people, the Abstract Expressionists and other later movements (e.g., Minimalism) are flatly rejected. Most often this rejection occurs because the works are not a painting of anything, which is ultimately the "anyone can do it" objection. The reason art geeks tend to look askance at this objection is that many people who use it to reject Abstract Expressionism accept all the experiments of all the Monets, Picassos, and Van Goghs that led up to abstraction. If you think about it, that is somewhat akin to loving the movie Star Wars but, when the Death Star is destroyed, claiming the movie has jumped the shark. How can you like all the stuff that led up to this logical conclusion and then reject the logical conclusion?

The other objection to abstract paintings like Blue Poles and Beauvais is that they are "meaningless". But this objection doesn't really hold water either. And for the same reason: lack of consistency. After all, what is the meaning of The Water-Lily Pond? What is the meaning of a Van Gogh sunflower still life? We accept many works of art as masterpieces knowing full well they have no intrinsic prosaic "meaning". We love them because they represent the artist's unique vision/style and/or because they speak to us on some level. The thing is that accepting a painting as art for this reason is ultimately the point of Abstract Expressionism. If prior artists could express themselves when ditching form (Monet), single perspective (Picasso), realistic use of color (Matisse), or even reality itself (Dali), then why can't a Pollock, Mitchell, or Rothko express themselves without the use of subject matter? In a very real sense, the move to full abstraction is the Death Star blowing up at the end of a Star Wars movie that began with Cezanne, Van Gogh, and the Impressionists.

Mark Rothko No. 14 1960
oil on canvas, 291 x 268 cm
The other, and far more damning, problem with the "meaningless"argument is that it assumes the only possible meaning a painting can have is one the artist intends or portrays through the objects he paints. This doesn't make any sense. What is often the case - in poetry, music, literature, and painting - is that the meaning of a piece is something of our own. something we bring to the painting/song/poem. It's our interpretation that gives the work meaning.

For example, for me, the meaning of Rothko paintings (such as No. 14) is that they visually represent the correct mind state achieved in Zen Buddhism. The simple composition of No. 14 suggests to me a Zen altar; the colors bring to mind the experience I have have during zazen. The colors and shapes in his paintings vary and, with each variation, they suggest a different kind of meditative state to me: euphoria, early morning quiet, even a seasonality at times. So, for me, there is a Zen Buddhist spirituality in Rothko's paintings. This makes these painting deeply meaningful to me.

I have no idea if my interpretation matches Rothko's intended meaning (or if Rothko had an intended meaning). I have not read much about Rothko as a man. But it really doesn't matter. Whether Rothko intended this meaning or not, this is what his paintings mean to me, and they have this meaning despite the fact that they are not paintings of anything. Abstract art can have profound meaning, especially when we bring something to the table.

Now I don't mean to suggest that we can never say something produced by an artist is meaningless without being accused of not bringing anything to the table. That would be giving a blank check to every hack painter on the face of the Earth. However, I will say that dismissing an entire movement of art and decades of output based on a knee-jerk response/dislike of abstraction is narrow-minded and lazy.

So with the "anyone can do it" argument  and the "meaningless" argument demolished, there really isn't a logical reason to dismiss abstract art as a whole. Of course, this doesn't diminish any ones right to their subjective taste. People have the right to dislike any painting or painter. Sometimes we just don't like something. Period. That's a legitimate reaction to any piece of artistic output. My purpose in this essay is to attempt a persuasive argument against using the knee-jerk anti-abstraction response as a legitimate assessment of a movement. To say that we can't dismiss abstract art as a whole for these reasons.

Image: Petra Tornado
To conclude, I'd like to share a quote from a brilliant thinker: Guillaume Apollinaire. Apollinaire was a poet, activist, critic, celebrity, and free spirit who knew and was allied with Picasso and other great modern artists to be in Paris during the early 20th Century. He saw the greatness of many of these artists before most anyone else and, in some cases, is heavily responsible for us knowing about them at all. He even is credited with inventing the word 'surrealism'. He wrote extensively about modern art and, in his awesome essay 'On the Subject of Modern Painting' (written in 1912), he does the best job I've ever read of explaining why modern art and by extension, abstract art, is legitimate.
"If the aim of painting has remained what it always was - namely, to give pleasure to the eye - the works of the new painters require the viewer to find in them a different kind of pleasure from the one he can just as easily find in the spectacle of nature...In listening to a concert, the music-lover experiences a joy qualitatively different from that he experiences in listening to natural sounds, such as the murmur of a stream, the rushing of a torrent, the whistling of the wind in the forest, or to the harmonies of a human language founded on reason and not on aesthetics. Similarly, the new painters provide their admirers with artistic sensations due exclusively to the harmony of lights and shades and independent of the subject depicted in the picture."

Excellent food for thought. Thanks Guillaume!

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