I have taught drawing and painting to undergraduates for nearly as long, and have been an abstract painter for around 25 years.
From both perspectives, I've concluded that painting, in terms of its influence on contemporary culture, continues to be marginalized.
Just 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 a single painter. In fact, among non-painters, painters and many artists alike, it's quietly acknowledged that the effect on the culture of painting is nil. Painting is viewed as an activity for a few diehards. At worst, it's considered destructively elitist, a part of the"oppressor culture" of dead white European men. The public -- attached to television films, and computers registers painting as having anything relevant to say. The only question is whether there is any audience at all for painting and, even if there is to preserve it.
This essay is a defense of abstract painting, the hardest to comprehend and irrelevant sort of painting that exists. By restricting my subject to abstract painting -- that focuses on structure and builds an entire flat reality from colour, surface, shape, traces of the hand, mistakes, and adjustments -- I can best deal with the question of why anyone should continue to make 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 iconoclastic abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, who thought that the claims of the Abstract Expressionists in'50s and the 1940s amounted to poppycock. To provide painting back its dignity, he put forth, both in his own paintings and in a series of"dogmatic" statements, what abstract painting is not. Allow me, in the spirit of Ad Reinhardt, to set forth of what abstract painting is not my list:
Abstract painting is not 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 asserts a particular social or political perspective, its effect -- in a society bombarded with books, magazines, papers, photographs, movies, tv, video, and computers -- is ridiculously tiny. The chances are even fewer with painting.
Abstract painting isn't avant-garde. It is, although it was in 1915. With regard to its capacity to shock anyone -- the rallying cry of the now-defunct avant-garde -- painting now is weak when compared with the power of the media mentioned previously.
Abstract painting hasn't been, and likely never will be popular. Yes, its leaders -- Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian held utopian hopes for its appeal, but they were demonstrated poignantly .
Finally painting cannot offer you a lot of what we call Deep Hidden Meaning, in how religion or philosophy can. Put bluntly painting can't provide a substitute for God -- the reduction of whom is the earmark of modernism. The ability of painting to move people at all is considerably weaker than that of other arts, such as theater, music, books, or poetry.
On the other hand -- to keep at a more moderate, but no less passionate spirit than that of Reinhardt -- here's what abstract painting could do:
First, it offers what I'll call Little Hidden Meaning. To a viewer who can look at a still picture (for some, a difficult prospect), and who's educated enough to place an abstract painting in the context of modern art as a whole, abstract painting provides a de facto philosophical viewpoint on life. There is a mistaken belief, coming from our own age, that abstraction is about self-expression and out of our lingering attachment to Romanticism. In the broadest sense it is, of course, but it's also about ideas -- the intricate struggle between order and chaos, for instance, or the way the flux of the natural world modifies the rigor of geometry.
Secondly, abstract painting can empower us to be quiet. From the 1989 French film The Little Thief, a character brought 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. Abstract painting makes for a room in the arts, allowing for a slow waltz.
Third art provides a counter to our society's glut of things. An abstract painting is a thing, of course, part of the material world. However, it reminds people of a planet. It suggests the old idea, now barely remembered, that there might be a hidden, underlying order, which the transience of life's things can not affect.
Artists from the birth of modernism on have substituted the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of beauty -- truth in understanding, truth in form, truth in materials. Many artists -- rightly -- are suspicious of the very idea of this gorgeous, because it so readily petrifies into a rigid standard. Once locked into place,"beauty" obliterates the wide array of subtle variations within it. In addition, politics encircles beauty, making the topic difficult to talk directly: For many, notions of the beautiful are simply"cultural constructs," used by dominant cultures to suppress"the Other."
Most problematic of all, hidden within the notion of attractiveness and folded up are values. Beauty implies an inequality from how things look. If there is beauty, there's ugliness, and everything else in between.
A fifth virtue of abstract painting is that it is not a story, especially none from the most easily accessible side of civilization, which is all tales. We're bombarded with endless stories -- in television shows, advertisements, books, movies, and virtual-reality games. We're always teaching and preaching, persuading and dissuading, by means of telling stories. Picking up on that aspect of our culture, many non-abstract painters have inserted stories, or"narratives," into their paintings. But abstract painting resists narration and presents itself all at once, as a whole or a oneness that can't, and never will, tell a story.
A virtue of painting is its very uncamera-like, uncomputer-like nature.
It defies translation into information, information, entertainment, rational image, or any kind of narrative. It presents an ineffable balance of sensation, experience, and knowledge. In the middle of a world in which 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 staying constant.
If what I'm saying about the virtues of abstract painting is true, then why isn't there more interest in this artwork? It won't 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 sound and video installations. Yes, abstract painters still exist, but they're an aging bunch, for the most part ignored. More worrisome is the seeming absence of a new generation of young and enthusiastic abstract painters. How can it be that abstract painting, a significant player in most of 20th-century art, has arrived at this sorry point, where it's barely a contender?
I suggest the answer is rooted in two irrevocable changes that happened in the 19th century: First, the invention of photography, in 1839, and second, the general upheaval in philosophy. The invention of photography enabled anyone, even someone who had no painting or drawing skills, to resolve a picture of the real world on a level surface quickly and accurately. The painter suddenly seemed slow and insignificant in his method of replicating the look of reality.
More significant, photography threw into question the entire raison d'etre of painting. For if the camera was recording the world objectively through light rays bouncing off objects, then painting, in contrast, looked subjective, even fictive. If painters couldn't compete with the camera in mimicking reality, they would argue an alternative objective truth: All individual perceptions are accurate -- to the perceiver -- and therefore equally valid. Impressionist artists in the 1870s and 1880s, for all their stylistic differences, shared the conviction that it was the individual artist's vision that was true.
Telling the truth about human perception (Impressionism) quickly broadened to become telling the truth about human feelings (Expressionism), reaffirming the fact that a significant shift had occurred. It was a change that is, faking, telling to aesthetic intent, which relied on telling the truth, as being sincere understood by artists.
But what -- in this kaleidoscope of individual"truths" -- would become of beauty? After Darwin and Freud, artists did not concern themselves with beauty anymore, except as a byproduct, or an aside, as they manipulated and played with form. Philosophy yielded its primary position as objective interpreter of the world to science. Science then broke loose, leaving everything else behind, including doctrine, as rubble that was abstract. This rubble reconstituted itself as relativism's substance -- the notion that moral and aesthetic judgments are subject to flux. Relativism was around at least since Plato, of course, but the age marked the success of the relativist position.
The hatchet man of relativism is irony. To condense an awful lot of the history of 20th-century art into a single sentence: The past 80 years have consisted basically of a struggle between the ironists, who have reveled in the impossibility of universal truths, and the holdout universalists, who have tried to reconstruct classical philosophical truths in a modern visual language. To put it differently, it's been Duchamp versus Mondrian. And Duchamp is the winner -- although sacrifice than by knockout.
It required Duchamp some time to win -- until the 1960s. Until then, when Pop Art burst Abstract Expressionism's bubble, it had been coasting on its inflated standing; at there, Pop Art sprouted in the smart, witty seed which Duchamp had planted a half-century earlier. By simultaneously mocking and celebrating the modern culture of"stuff," Pop made the abstract painter's self-absorbed escape look both elitist and silly. Pop Art consisted of paintings on canvas to be certain. However, they were self-destructive. Pop Art's implied message was that it was the appropriated images that counted -- the Campbell's soup cans, Marilyn Monroe -- and not the way in which paint was put on the canvas. Painting had been centered on the artist's touch, but now painting worried the content or image.
Since World War II, our civilization has steadily evolved to what we identify as"mass culture" -- one in which millions of people's interests are simultaneously and gratified through popular music, films, sports, and celebrities. Fewer and fewer people care any longer about the slow activity. Starting abstract art painting gallery in early'70s and the late'60s artists, attracted to the art forms of installation, performance, and video art, abandoned painting in droves. They had grown up with TV and rock'n' roll; they were stylish, smart, and eloquent; they knew and embraced the seductiveness and power of popular culture, and they wanted in on it.
We have arrived at a division in the art world: fashionable and trendy on the one hand, reclusive and out-of-it on the other. How can painters who need to have an effect on their culture remain at the face of that?
They have to aggressively separate themselves rather than strive to become players. They have to reargue the case for art -- an art requiring a viewer that is subtle, sensitive, experienced, and even exceptional. Abstract artists are making . They need to admit that to find meaning in abstract painting requires some work, and even some help.
And abstract painters need to celebrate loudly, rather than apologize for, the convention-bound character of their artwork. These artists work within a rectangle, they use paint on canvas, and they follow a century of developed traditions of painting. That moment is over, although the revolution itself -- the early-modern moment that invented abstraction -- must have been electrifying. For abstract painters and their viewers, the experience is profoundly different from what it was due to their revolutionary forebears. Art is a quiet pleasure as opposed to a thrill. The conventions are created, as in baseball, and to derive pleasure from abstraction requires accepting its rules rather than always deconstructing them.
Yes art is elitist, and artists must be up-front about that. However, 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 royal blood. Yes, it's a product of European culture, but so are penicillin, computers, planes, and this essay. There are patrons of painting, and abstract painters, of both genders and all races.
Today, many, if not most, young artists trying to get a rung up on the art-world ladder don't care one whit about painting or its heritage in history. In actuality, aside from the fashion for finding one's"roots," they are not interested in seeing history as something to belong to, or to be a part of, or to carry forward. The problem for them is much more identity than aesthetics although many young artists refer to their racial heritage in their art. The point is, most young artists (whatever their race or gender ) prefer to view history, especially art history, as a enormous 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 viable premise: It's history, used correctly can be taken from him by us, if we pull back from the abyss of Nietzsche's picture of our modern condition. But what is the right use of history? People today distrust it. They wish to know and who is doing the telling, since they're convinced that knowledge is a smokescreen for power.
Unfortunately it is only when the non-ironic use of history is coupled with the desire to produce images that the artist, in particular, can learn the language of the meaning of abstract painting and painted abstract images. Regardless of what, some people -- even some artists -- will not"get" abstract painting, for reasons that range in their belief that all art is political to their inferior visual aptitude. In the end painting will attract an audience more likely than to watch Sarah McLachlan on MTV, to read the Aeneid in Latin.
But small because its audience could be painting can say something about contemporary culture. As a colleague of mine from Hofstra University, the late Michael Gordon (himself a painter), often contended, it sets up a strong moral parallel to the way in which we lead our lives. Painters do not begin their paintings . They build on the foundation of abstraction. Individual paintings are caused by an accumulation of wrong turns mistakes, corrections, and settlements. Abstract painters paint the way all of us lead our lives -- building on and rebelling against the givens and the choices, the purposeful actions and the injuries. An abstract painting, then, offers the perfect metaphor for life.
George Orwell said that each and every guy at 50 has. In space and virtual time, there's absolutely not any 50-year-old face. In a computer image, of course, there no longer exists even the concept of a mistake, because all evidence of it is destroyable and retrievable. The last image has no wrinkles, when we take away the ability to make a error in art, one which can't be wiped out. It carries only a veneer, like the continuously lifted, stretched faces of Park Avenue matrons. In a glance, those women look quite nice. But a longer look yields blankness. It is through our sins our mistakes and, indeed, both in art and in life, we get the capacity for redemption and improvisation.
Painting was the noise in the culture, because it attracted attention. Now, the culture is the sound, and painting -- notably abstract painting -- attracts little attention, either in the art world or in the culture at large. Abstract painting's saving virtue is that it offers us quiet, not noise today. There's indeed the continuous flux of everything a catastrophe at the end of the century, and the passing of stillness. Painting can not alter our culture, but neither can setup art nor attempts at appropriation, no matter how informed and smart they are. Those art forms that the popular media that is appropriate are doomed to look worse, or pale compared to them, to be squeezed down to their black hole. The power of abstract painting is this: It is a world beautifully separate from our postmodern, materialistic, morphing, ironic, hip age.
Laurie Fendrich is an associate professor of fine arts at Hofstra University.