I have been an abstract painter for about 25 years, and have taught drawing and painting to undergraduates for almost as long.
From both perspectives, I have concluded that painting, in terms of its influence on contemporary culture, has been marginalized -- it's a wallflower in the postmodern art party.
Take a prominent example of painting's situation as we approach the 21st century: The lists of last year's finalists for the contemporary art world's two Oscar-like awards -- the Turner Prize, in Britain, and the Hugo Boss Prize, handed out by the Guggenheim Museum -- included not one painter. In fact, among painters, many artists and non-painters alike, it's quietly acknowledged that the impact on the culture of painting is nil. Painting is viewed as, at best, an esoteric activity for a few diehards. At worst, it's considered destructively elitist, a portion of the"oppressor culture" of dead white European men. The general public -- attached to films, television, and computers -- barely registers painting as having anything relevant to say. The only question left is whether there is any audience at all for painting and, if there is to preserve it.
This essay is a defense of abstract painting, painting's seemingly irrelevant and hardest to understand sort that exists. By restricting my topic to abstract painting -- that concentrates on structure and builds a whole flat reality from color, surface, shape, traces of the hand, mistakes, and adjustments -- I can best address the question of why anybody should continue to create paintings, when so many more visually powerful media are available.
In defending abstract painting, I need to first toss overboard some excess baggage. I take as my model the abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, who believed that the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and'50s' claims amounted to poppycock. To provide painting back its dignity, he put forth, both in his own paintings and at a series of"dogmatic" statements, what abstract painting isn't. Allow me, in the spirit of Ad Reinhardt, to set forth my list of what painting isn't:
First painting isn't a vehicle for social or political change, even though its leaders believed it was. Today, even more than in Reinhardt's day, if even a figurative painter paints a picture that argues a specific social or political point of view, its impact -- in a society flooded with books, magazines, newspapers, photos, movies, tv, video, and computers -- is ridiculously small. The chances are even fewer with painting.
Second painting is not avant-garde. It isn't anymore, although it was in 1915. In terms of its ability to shock anyone -- the rallying cry of the now-defunct avant-garde -- painting now is weak in comparison to the ability of the media mentioned above.
Third, abstract painting hasn't been, and likely never will be popular. Yes, its leaders -- Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian -- all held utopian hopes for its universal appeal, but they have been demonstrated .
Finally, abstract painting cannot offer you much of what we call Deep Hidden Meaning, in how religion or philosophy can. Put bluntly, abstract painting cannot provide a substitute for God -- the loss of whom is the earmark of modernism. Indeed, the ability of abstract painting to move people is much poorer than that of other arts, such as theater, music, novels, or poetry.
To continue at a spirit than that of Reinhardt -- here's what painting could do:
First, it provides what I'll call Small Hidden Meaning. To a viewer who can look at a still image (for some, a tricky prospect), and who's educated enough to put an abstract painting in the context of contemporary art as a whole, abstract painting provides a de facto philosophical point of view on life. A notion is, coming from our own narcissistic age, that abstraction is about self-expression and from our lingering attachment to Romanticism. In the broadest sense it's, of course, but it is also about ideas -- that the intricate battle between order and chaos, for instance, or how the flux of the natural world modifies the rigor of geometry.
Second painting can empower us to be silent. In the 1989 French movie The Little Thief, a character attracted a roomful of people dancing wildly to rock'n' roster to a standstill by bellowing at them to be quiet so that he and his wife could dance a slow waltz. Painting makes for a room in the arts, allowing for a slow waltz.
Abstract art provides a counter to our society's glut of things. An abstract painting is part of the material world, itself a thing, of course. But it reminds people of a planet. It suggests the old idea, now hardly remembered, that there might be a hidden, underlying order, which the transience of life's items can not affect.
Artists from the birth of modernism on have substituted the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of beauty -- reality in perception, truth in form, truth in substances. Many artists -- rightly -- are leery of the very idea of the gorgeous, because it so readily petrifies into some rigid standard. Once locked into place,"attractiveness" obliterates the wide selection of subtle variations within it.
Most baffling of all, hidden within the notion of attractiveness and folded up are values that are conflicting. Beauty implies an inequality from how things look. If there's beauty, there's ugliness, and everything else in between.
But some people can not help their"elitist," or meritocratic, impulses when it comes to aesthetics, and are struck dumb by how utterly amazing an abstract painting can be.
A fifth virtue of abstract painting is that it is not a story, particularly none from the most easily accessible side of culture, which is all tales. We are bombarded with endless tales -- in television shows, advertisements, books, movies, and virtual-reality games. By way of telling stories, We're always teaching and preaching, persuading and dissuading. Picking up on that aspect of our civilization, many non-abstract painters have added stories, or"narratives," in their paintings.
A final virtue of painting is its very uncomputer-like nature. Before long, people will see the world only digitally.
What abstract painting provides us at the end of the 20th century is, in sum, a useless non-story, a non-blinking"thereness," with reference to anything other than itself and its own tradition. It defies translation to data, information, entertainment, rational image, or any type of narrative. It presents an ineffable equilibrium of sensation, experience, and knowledge. In the midst of a world where everything we see is morphing into something else, abstract painting is among the few things left that enable us to see the prospect of something's remaining constant.
If what I'm saying about the virtues of abstract painting is true, then why isn't there more interest in this art? It will not do to start listing all of the abstract painters around, since the point is that few people pay much attention to them, compared with figurative artists in general, or new-media artists working with video and sound installations. Yes, abstract painters still exist, however they're an aging bunch, for the most part ignored. More worrisome is the seeming absence of a new generation of young and passionate abstract painters. How is it that abstract painting, a significant player in most of 20th-century art, has arrived at this sorry point, where it is barely a contender?
And how is it that painting in general, not just abstract painting, has arrived at this point?
The invention of photography allowed anyone, even someone who had no painting or drawing skills, to resolve an image of the real world onto a level surface quickly and accurately. The painter suddenly seemed irrelevant and slow in his way of replicating the appearance of reality.
More significant, photography threw into question the whole raison d'etre of painting. For if the camera has been recording the world objectively through light rays bouncing off objects, then painting, by comparison, looked subjective, even fictive. If painters could not compete with the camera in mimicking reality, they would assert an alternative objective truth: All individual perceptions are true -- to the perceiver -- and therefore equally valid.
It was a shift from effect, which depended on artifice -- which is, faking, telling lies -- to aesthetic intent, which depended on telling the truth, as being true understood by artists.
After Freud and Darwin, artists didn't concern themselves with beauty , except as an aside, or a byproduct, as they played and manipulated with form. Philosophy yielded its position as objective interpreter of the world. Science then broke loose, leaving everything else behind, as rubble that was abstract, including doctrine. That rubble reconstituted itself as relativism's substance -- the notion that aesthetic and moral judgments are subject to flux. Relativism was around at least since Plato, of course, but the age marked the victory of the position.
The relativist reply to any pretension to universal truth, beauty, or authority is, in effect,"Oh, yeah?" Relativism's hatchet man is irony. To condense an awful lot of the background of 20th-century art into one sentence: The past 80 years have consisted essentially of a struggle between the ironists, who have reveled in the impossibility of universal truths, and the holdout universalists, who've tried to rebuild classical philosophical truths in a contemporary visual language. To put it differently, it's been Duchamp versus Mondrian. Although more by sacrifice -- and Duchamp is the winner.
It required Duchamp a while to win. Until then, when Pop Art burst Abstract Expressionism's bubble, it had been coasting on its inflated reputation; at that point, Pop Art sprouted from the smart, witty seed that Duchamp had implanted a half-century earlier. To be sure, Pop Art consisted mainly of paintings on canvas. But they were self-destructive. Painting had always been profoundly centered on the artist's signature, but painting concerned the content or image.
Since World War II, our culture has steadily evolved to what we identify as"mass culture" -- one where millions of people's interests are concurrently and speedily gratified through popular music, films, sports, and celebrities. Fewer and fewer people care about the strange action. Beginning in early'70s and the late'60s musicians, attracted to the new art forms of installation, performance, and video art, abandoned painting in droves. They had grown up with TV and stone'n' roster; they were hip, smart, and eloquent; they knew and embraced the seductiveness and power of popular culture, and they wanted in on it.
We have now arrived at a division in the art world: fashionable and trendy on the one hand, reclusive and out-of-it on the other. How do abstract painters who want to have an effect on their culture continue in the face of that?
First, they have to aggressively separate themselves rather than try to be players. They must reargue the case for art -- an art requiring a subtle, sensitive, experienced, and even exceptional viewer. Artists are currently creating paintings that cannot be understood by everybody. They need to admit that to find meaning in painting takes some aid, and even some work.
And painters need to celebrate loudly, rather than apologize for, the convention-bound character of the art. These artists work within a rectangle, they use paint on canvas, and they follow a century of traditions of abstract painting. The revolution itself -- the second that invented abstraction -- must have been electrifying, but that moment is forever over. For abstract painters and their viewers, the experience is profoundly different from what it had been due to their forebears. Abstract art is a pleasure rather than a thrill. The conventions are created, as in baseball, and to derive pleasure from abstraction requires accepting its rules rather than deconstructing them.
Yes, abstract art is elitist, and artists should be upfront about that. But you don't need to stop loving The X-Files or the struggles to understand and enjoy abstract art. Nor do you need to be a white male of European blood. Yes, it is a product of European culture, but so are computers planes, penicillin, and this essay. There are patrons of painting, and abstract Virtosu Art Gallery gallery of abstract oil painting painters, of all races and both sexes.
Many, if not most, young artists hoping to get up a rung on the art-world ladder don't care one whit about painting or its own tradition in history, today. The issue for them is much more identity than aesthetics, although many non-white artists really refer to their heritage in their art. The point is, most young musicians (whatever their race or sex) prefer to see history, especially art history, as a massive quantity of information that sometimes is useful for rummaging around in for ironic references, but which largely is a pain in the neck and best left ignored.
One premise: It is history, used that separates us from the lives of dogs, cats, and cows can be taken from him by us, if we pull back from the abyss of Nietzsche's image of our condition. But what, exactly, is the use of history? People today distrust it. Since they're convinced that understanding is a smokescreen for electricity, they want to know why and who is doing the telling.
Unfortunately it's only when the non-ironic use of visual history is coupled with the desire that is particular to produce images that the artist, in particular, can learn the visual language of abstract painting's meaning and painted images. No matter what, some people -- even some artists -- will never"get" abstract painting, for reasons that vary in their belief that all art is political for their poor visual aptitude. In the end, abstract painting will attract an audience more likely than to see Sarah McLachlan on MTV to read the Aeneid.
But small as its audience could be painting can say something. Abstract painters don't start their paintings in a vacuum. Rather, they build on the foundation of abstraction. Paintings are the result of an accumulation of wrong turns, mistakes, corrections, and resolutions. Abstract painters paint the way we lead our lives -- rebelling against the givens and the options, the actions that are purposeful and the injuries and building on. An abstract painting, then, offers the perfect metaphor for life.
George Orwell said that each and every guy at 50 has the face he deserves. In space and time, there's absolutely not any 50-year-old face. Everything is a toggle option that wipes out the previous smiles or frowns and obliterates"bad" or"wrong" choices. Since all evidence of it is concurrently destroyable and retrievable in a computer image, of course, there exists the concept of a mistake. The image does not have any wrinkles when we take away the ability to make a error in art, one which can not be wiped out. It carries a thin, stiff veneer, such as the continuously stretched faces of 65-year-old Park Avenue matrons. In a glance, those women look fine. But a look yields that are longer blankness. It is through our errors and, indeed, our sins, both in art and in life, we get the capacity for improvisation and redemption.
Before modernism, painting was the noise in the culture, since it attracted attention. Now, the culture is the noise, and painting -- notably abstract painting -- attracts little attention in the art world or in the culture at large. Today painting's saving virtue is that it provides us quiet, not sound. A cultural catastrophe is at the end of the 20th century: the continuous flux of everything, and the passing of stillness. Our culture cans not alter, but neither may installation art, computer art, nor new-media attempts at appropriation, no matter how savvy and smart they are. Those art forms that the media that is appropriate are doomed to look worse, or forever pale in comparison to them, to be squeezed down to their black hole that is vast. Abstract painting's power is this: it's a world superbly separate from our postmodern, materialistic ironic, age that is stylish.
Laurie Fendrich is an associate professor of fine arts at Hofstra University.
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