ab·strac·tion (with addendum)
by EAGEAGEAG on Feb 24, 2011 1:35 PM
Has abstract art ever escaped the myth of essences? If one believes that abstract art focuses on what is intrinsic about the individual artist who makes it and/or the world said artist lives in, then one must believe that there is a way of entirely escaping the material world using the intrinsically physical process of making art. If we define essence as a portion of our interiority that we value above all others or that is closer to some notion of truth than our more banal mental processes are, we must then ask, when isn’t art about essences?
Who decides what an essence is and how do we know when an abstraction is true to this essence? If defining our essence is an entirely subjective process, how can we then say that abstract art is communicative in any way? If abstract art purports to have a special connection to our interior world, why does it depend on the physical world and/or materials and objects, just like representational and narrative art does? Also, why would abstract works of art have a privileged relationship to our essence? Certainly it is not due to a superior communicative ability. Abstract art that purports to be about the formal qualities of the art making process, the limitations and strengths of the surfaces and materials the artist works with, is a fetishization of the physical. It is like saying that the materials artists use have more value than anything an artist might try to convey. Hence the plethora of boring uninspired art we are currently plagued with in the galleries.
Ambiguity can be just as intellectually bankrupt as uninspired realism or cliché narrative art. There is no form of art that is entirely mental. Even the most conceptual works of art, in any medium, exist in the context of the physical world and require some object or material, including people, to convey their meaning. So then we must agree that abstract art is always “about” objects in some way, and therefore, always has an element of representation and narrative to it, especially in the mind of the viewer. A person does not stand before or view online a work of abstract art without conjuring forth associations and parallels with specific memories, of other works of art, or anything else the visual machinery of the brain can manifest.
As long as an abstract work of art avoids being nailed down as a representation of one specific thing, is it a success? Does an abstraction fail if most people who see it say it looks like X and nothing else? Does abstract art want to avoid consensus? Abstract art has never gone beyond the overdone modernist aesthetic of ambiguity. If vagueness or fragmentation is a virtue, who besides people immersed in visual culture can get inspired by or excited about this stuff? Typically abstract art stood in opposition to pretty art, but who can say this is the case any longer? How does complexity enter the picture without the trappings of written language taking over and surpassing the experience of seeing the art itself?
Representational and abstract art have been equally co-opted by commercial artists, graphic designers, and interior decorators. Narrative art has fallen out of favor, when compared to these other modes of image making. Abstract art does not hold a superior position in terms of inherent aesthetic value. Usually we say that representational art is bad if it is poorly crafted or ingenuous. The wedding of abstract and representational imagery has resulted in many different styles, but usually this genre settles into the category of representation. Representational and abstract art can both claim to be about human essences. So is all art representational or abstract? When it comes to abstract art that is all about formal qualities, texture of materials and surfaces, tension and/or relationships between line, shape, color, picture plane, etc., and the juxtaposition of different materials, do we pretend there is no content, even though it is impossible for a viewer to experience things in this way? If the main intention of an artist who makes abstract art is to make content beside the point, then how are we to contemplate these objects, after we are done describing them? Is abstract art nothing more than a catalyst for pretentious analysis?
Addendum: My guess is that very few artists who exhibit in galleries would feel comfortable saying that their art is strictly abstract or representational. However, I think this is the case for the wrong reasons. I think there is a certain level of gullibility and much lax thinking that exists in the art world that is responsible for this false assumption that abstract art is more “real” or, by default, imbued with a spirituality that can’t be accounted for by the art itself, but entirely relies upon text to be communicated to viewers. If we are really happy with art that looks cool, or is fun, or is entertaining like mass media products, then someone should tell the academics, gallery owners and critics, because they are still busy making up stupid shit to justify their existence and to prop up art that is mostly bad. For abstract artists, making good art is no easier than it is for artists who work in a realistic vein. But unlike art that is primarily representational and/or narrative, abstract art relies on a premise that I think is false or entirely rhetorical. The small segment of the world that is aware of contemporary art and art history was alienated by and finally deified abstract art. I do not think that people view, digest, contemplate, etc., abstract art in the right way. This is because their thinking process has been tainted by years and years of reading horrible art writing, instead of living with the art, seeing where and if it takes them anywhere, and then recording their experiences in a novel and substantial and intellectually vigorous and analytical way. Of course seeing an exhibition, looking at art for a short amount of time and then having to write about the experience leads to the overuse of cliches and lazy formulations.
There are conservative people out there who dismiss abstract art. There is no doubt about that. But I think that any learned person would be hesitant to dismiss abstract art because they simply feel that it is poorly made and ill conceived. The claims of obtuseness and technical inability is not entirely wrong, and I think that the literature made within and for the art world, press releases, catalog and exhibition essays, art journalism, scholarly tomes, all make things too easy for abstract artists. I do not think that we should assume that abstract imagery is some sort of fast track to a world of essences.