Friday, May 9, 2014

Abstraction and Art

It is common, among cassandras, curmudgeons, cranks, and other types given to decrying the sad decline of civilization, to use as evidence the rise of abstract art. Now I myself am as wont to opine that things were better in the old days as anyone else; but I must confess that my favorite artist since the opening of the Renaissance and the close of the Gothic period is Paul Klee.

Klee's work is not commonly encountered in this country, but his output was phenomenal, and you can pick up two monographs with hardly any overlap. His most famous piece is probably Ad Parnassum, which has a musical theme.

Ad Parnassum
He was, for a time, part of the Bauhaus, a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to introduce a medieval work-ethic into modern design. Perhaps this is neither here nor there, but I find it interesting to reflect that the immediate predecessor to the Bauhaus, in philosophy if not in style, was the Arts and Crafts Movement spearheaded by William Morris. I think it's safe to say that fantasy as a genre would be nonexistent were it not for Morris' romances. Perhaps we'll return to this point.

Anyway, I'm using Klee as my example here because I find his paintings breathtakingly beautiful. There are many abstract artists who leave me cold. Picasso generally does. So do Pollack and Diebenkorn. Everyone's taste is different, and my dislike for an artist's work doesn't preclude the possibility that there's something there to see. But Klee I can talk about. More than any artist of the twentieth century, he burrowed into the glowing heart of the beautiful.

And what is a painted picture, considered as an art of the beautiful? It is this:
A picture is a solid surface which the artist covers with colored forms whose arrangement is pleasing to the eye through the unity of the form, the harmony of the parts and the perfection of the execution.*
That's all! And, in my opinion, Klee's paintings exemplify this unity. But such unity is not enough for most people. In my experience, detractors of his kind of art generally say (or at least think) one of several things.
  • Art should be hard, not easy. His paintings look too easy. A child could do much the same.
  • Art should depict something. It should reproduce something beautiful, like a flower, or something interesting, like a historical scene. His paintings do neither.
  • Art should say something. His paintings are too obscure to read. Many of them consist of lines and blocks of color, and say nothing at all.
The first objection is probably the most common, thought not commonly voiced. Personally, I've never really understood the objection that "my kid could of done it," because some very beautiful things have come from the hands of children, and not merely by chance, either. As a matter of fact, Klee kept some of his childhood drawings and listed them in catalogs of his works.

Mozart, I suppose, made piano-playing look easy; a certain type of person, who has no ear for music but can appreciate feats of skill in a difficult playing field, would have been bored by it. A painting that took years to create, or required extreme precision or highly developed powers of observation, commands interest for that reason alone, apart from its beauty. But such paintings can be ugly; and some beautiful paintings were done in a single day. A mere squiggle drawn by someone who has perfected his art is more beautiful than an elaborate drawing by someone who has not.

The second objection is more interesting. It calls for art to look like something familiar. This involves a confusion of categories, the categories of Art and Nature; for the beauty of a flower is distinct from the beauty of a painting, even if the painting is of a flower. Georgia O'Keefe understood this when she insisted that she was an abstract artist; Andrew Wyeth said much the same thing. Of course, no painter can divorce himself from nature. But he does abstract from nature. Klee puts it thusly:
May I use a simile, the simile of the tree? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree. 
From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye. 
Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree. 
Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into his work. 
As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work. 
Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergences. 
But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion. 
And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules—he transmits. 
His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.** 
You can see this in the development of most abstract artists, this slow, cautious groping upward from the roots of physical reality, from imitative art to pure, almost geometric abstraction. Mondrian is the clearest example. Place side by side a tree-painting from his early career, his middle career, and his late career, and trace the development, the reliance on nature that becomes less and less imitative, more and more certain of its ends. Each artist must follow his own path, as Klee said, and nothing can be rushed. But the drive is in every true artist.

Der Goldfisch
The third objection is perhaps the most interesting, because this is the objection of the art critic. Our three objectors are, of course, merely different species of the genus Philistine,**** but this latter is the most difficult to detect. Nevertheless, all philistines share this inability (in critics' case, a learned inability) to appreciate a painting for its purely visual qualities.

The reason art critics tend to be philistines is quite simple: their trade consists of blather, and if a painting doesn't say something or express something then there's not much blather to be gotten out of it. A mute does not need an interpreter. So paintings are made to say things. Which, by the way, they often do; only, their beauty does not flow from the artist's opinions or expressions.

This tragic confusion of art with communication has led to the scourge of conceptual art, which is really a pretentious form of drama masquerading as art, with the artist as star. Now here we have the decline of civilization! There's nothing duller than seeing a bubbling glass bowl with glowing thingees, or stacks of clay tiles on the floor, or chains of communion wafers dangling from suspended bones, or a stuffed goat with a rubber tire around it, and thinking, okay, what's this supposed to be? And then reading the placard, and saying, oh, I see. Boring and annoying. But it keeps the anointed interpreters from starving!

I remember a piece that consisted of Pieter Brueghel's 1563 Tower of Babel printed on a curved sheet of metal with a big piece of stovepipe or dryer hose coming out. This is just as derivative and impoverished as the statues of the late Roman emperors that recycled the old bodies of gods and heroes created in times of higher cultural attainment, replacing their heads with crude new caesars' heads. But at least Constantine wasn't pretentious about it.

Abstract art, though, is not a case of the Emperor's new clothes. It is, rather, an attempt by artists to recover the essence of painting, which consists, not in trompe-l'oeil effects and topical allusions, but in being pleasing to the eye.
The extraordinary modern adventure of abstract art precisely expresses the decision, made by certain artists, to turn out works whose beauty will obviously owe nothing to that of the subject.*** 
To speak of non-representational, non-imitative or abstract painting is not to speak of an amorphous painting. No painting is more abstract than Mondrian's, but this geometric painting is also the most formal of all. Like formal logic itself, it is form without content.*
My whole point in beginning this post was to think aloud about my own art and how I view it, but I'll have to continue in another post.

* Etienne Gilson, Forms and Substances in the Arts, trans. S. Attanasio, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1966.

** Paul Klee, Paul Klee on Modern Art, trans. Paul Findlay, Faber and Faber, London, 1948.

*** Etienne Gilson, Arts of the Beautiful, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1965.

**** Gilson makes general use of this word, but stresses that he doesn't use it in a pejorative sense. For him, it means someone who cannot appreciate art as art. The same is true for me.

Updated to replace pictures with ones I liked better; some seem to have been added to Wikipedia, where these are from, or else I missed them before. Also added a footnote.

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