I have taught drawing and painting to undergraduates for nearly as long, and have been an abstract painter for about 25 years.
From both perspectives, I have concluded that painting, in terms of its influence on culture, continues to be marginalized -- it's a wallflower at 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 from the Guggenheim Museum -- included not one painter. In actuality, among non-painters, painters and many artists alike, it is quietly acknowledged that painting's effect on the culture is nil. Painting is seen as, at best, an activity for a few diehards. At worst, it is considered destructively elitist, a portion of the"oppressor culture" of dead white European men. Painting is -- hardly registered by the general public -- attached to computers, television, and movies as having anything relevant to say. The only question is if there's any audience at all for painting and, even if there is, how to preserve it.
This essay is a defense of abstract painting, the most difficult to understand and irrelevant kind of painting that exists. By limiting my subject to abstract painting -- which concentrates on structure and builds a whole flat reality from colour, surface, shape, traces of the hand, mistakes, and changes -- I can best deal with the question of why anyone should continue to create paintings, when so many more visually powerful media are available.
In defending abstract painting, I must toss overboard some excess baggage. I take the iconoclastic painter Ad Reinhardt, who thought that the claims of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and'50s 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 put of what abstract painting isn't my list forth:
First, abstract painting isn't a vehicle for political or social change, even if its pioneers thought it was. Today, even more than in Reinhardt's day, if a figurative painter paints a picture that asserts a specific social or political point of view, its effect -- in a society bombarded with books, magazines, newspapers, photos, movies, television, video, and computers -- is ridiculously small. The possibilities are fewer with painting.
Abstract painting isn't avant-garde. It isn't anymore, although it was in 1915. In terms of its ability to shock anybody -- the rallying cry of the now-defunct avant-garde -- painting now is weak in comparison to the power of the media.
Abstract painting has never been, and likely never will be, broadly popular. Yes, its pioneers -- Malevich, Kandinsky, Mondrian held utopian hopes but they have been proved poignantly wrong.
Abstract painting can't offer a lot of what we call Deep Hidden Meaning, in how philosophy or religion can. Put bluntly, abstract painting can't provide a substitute for God -- of whom is the earmark of modernism, the loss. The ability of painting to move people at all is much weaker than that of other arts, such as novels, theater, music, or poetry.
On the other hand to continue at a soul than that of Reinhardt -- here is what abstract painting could do:
First, it offers what I'll call Little Hidden Meaning. To a viewer that can look at a still image (for some, a difficult prospect), and who is knowledgeable enough to place an abstract painting in the context of contemporary art as a whole, abstract painting offers a de facto philosophical viewpoint 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 is, of course, but it's also about ideas -- that the intricate struggle between order and chaos, for example, or how the flux of the organic world modifies the rigor of geometry.
Second, abstract painting can empower us to be silent. In the 1989 French movie The Little Thief, a character brought a roomful of people dancing wildly to stone'n' roll to a standstill by bellowing at them to be quiet so that he and his wife could dance a slow waltz. Painting makes allowing for a slow waltz.
Third art offers a counter to our society's glut of items. An abstract painting is a thing, of course, a part of the material world. But it reminds people of a planet. It suggests the old concept, now barely remembered, that there may be a hidden, underlying order, which the transience of life's things can not affect.
Fourth, abstract painting is often, quite simply, beautiful -- although that assertion is subject to tremendous dispute. Artists from the arrival of modernism on have substituted the pursuit of truth for the pursuit of beauty -- truth in understanding, truth in form, truth in substances. Many artists -- rightly -- are suspicious of the very idea of this gorgeous, as it so readily petrifies into a rigid standard. Once locked into place,"beauty" obliterates the wide array of subtle variations within it.
Most baffling of all, hidden within the notion of beauty and folded up are values that are conflicting. Beauty implies an inequality in the way things look. There's everything in between, and ugliness, if there is beauty. That type of ranking offends our democratic sense of justice, because we moderns have defined justice as that which most closely approximates equality.
A fifth virtue of abstract painting is that it's not a story, especially none from the most easily accessible facet of culture, which is all tales. We are bombarded by 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 civilization, many non-abstract painters have inserted stories, or"narratives," into their paintings.
A last virtue of painting is its very uncamera-like nature. The camera is so powerful that lots of people have reached the point where they can see the world only photographically or cinematically, and have lost the ability to see it in other ways.
What abstract painting provides us in the end of the 20th century is, in sum, a futile non-story, a non-blinking"thereness," without reference to anything other than itself and its own heritage. It defies translation to data, information, entertainment, rational image, or any type of narrative. In the midst of a world in which everything we see is morphing into something else, abstract painting is among the few things left that allow us to see the possibility 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 art? It will not do to begin listing all of the abstract painters around, since the point is that few people pay much attention to them, compared with either figurative artists in general, or new-media artists working with video and sound installations. Yes, abstract painters still exist, however they are an aging lot, for the most part ignored. More worrisome is the seeming absence of a new generation of youthful and passionate abstract painters. How is it that abstract painting, a significant player in most of 20th-century artwork, has arrived at this sorry point, where it is barely a contender?
And how can it be that painting in general, not just abstract painting, has arrived now?
I suggest that the answer is rooted in two irrevocable changes that took place in the 19th century: First, the invention of photography, in 1839, and second, the general upheaval in doctrine. The invention of photography enabled anybody, even someone who had no drawing or painting skills, to resolve a picture of the real world onto a level surface quickly and correctly. The painter suddenly seemed slow and insignificant in his way of replicating the appearance of reality.
More significant, photography threw into question the entire raison d'etre of painting. For if the camera was recording the world through light rays bouncing off objects, then painting, in contrast, looked subjective, even fictive. If painters could not compete with the camera in mimicking reality, they would assert an alternative objective reality: All individual perceptions are accurate -- at least 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 eyesight that was objectively true.
It was a change from aesthetic impact, which relied on artifice -- that is, faking, telling lies -- to intent, which relied on telling the truth, as being sincere, understood original abstract art by artists.
After Freud and Darwin, themselves did not concern with beauty , except as a byproduct, or an aside, as they manipulated and played with form. It would protect beauty by separating it from destructive scientific investigation, and leave it alone as a"subjective" judgment. Philosophy yielded its primary position as interpreter of the world to science. Science then broke leaving everything behind, including doctrine that was poor, as rubble. That rubble reconstituted itself as relativism's substance -- the notion that moral and aesthetic judgments are subject to flux. Relativism had been around at least since Plato, of course, but the modern age marked the success of the position.
The relativist reply to practically any pretension to universal truth, beauty, or authority is, in effect,"Oh, yeah?" The hatchet man of relativism is irony. To condense an awful lot of the history of 20th-century artwork into one sentence: The past 80 years have consisted basically of a battle 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 contemporary visual language. To put it differently, it's been Duchamp versus Mondrian. And Duchamp is the winner -- although forfeit.
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 reputation; at there, Pop Art sprouted from the smart, witty seed that Duchamp had implanted a half-century earlier. By simultaneously mocking and celebrating the modern culture of"stuff," Pop made the abstract painter's self-absorbed retreat look equally elitist and silly. Pop Art consisted of paintings on canvas to be certain. But they were self-destructive. Painting had always been centered on the artist's signature, but now painting concerned the content or picture.
Since World War II, our culture has steadily evolved into what we recognize as"mass culture" -- one where millions of people's interests are concurrently and gratified through popular music, films, sports, and celebrities. Fewer and fewer people care about the slow action called painting. Beginning in early'70s and the late'60s , young musicians, drawn to the new art forms of video art, and installation, performance, abandoned painting in droves. They had grown up with TV and rock'n' roll; they were hip, smart, and eloquent; they knew and embraced the seductiveness and power of popular culture, and they wanted in on it.
We reclusive and out-of-it and trendy on the one hand, have now arrived at a branch in the art world: hip on the other. How do continue in the face of that?
They must distinguish themselves rather than try to become bit players. They have to reargue the case for high art -- an art requiring a subtle, sensitive, experienced, and even exceptional viewer. Abstract artists are making . They need to admit this to find meaning in painting requires some work, and even some help.
And abstract painters need to observe loudly, rather than apologize for, the convention-bound nature of the art. These artists work within a rectangle, they use paint on canvas, and they follow a century of developed traditions of abstract painting. The revolution itself -- the early-modern moment that invented abstraction -- must have been electrifying, but that moment is forever over. For abstract painters and their audiences, the experience is profoundly different from what it had been for their forebears. Abstract art is a pleasure as opposed to a dizzying thrill. The conventions are established, just as in baseball, and to derive pleasure from abstraction requires accepting its rules rather than deconstructing them.
Yes art is elitist, and artists should be up-front about that. But like and you don't need to stop loving the struggles or The X-Files to understand art. Nor do you have to be a white male of European blood. Yes, it's a product of culture, but are penicillin, computers, planes, and this essay. There are painters, and patrons of painting, of both sexes and all races.
Many, if not most artists hoping to get a rung up on the art-world ladder don't care one whit about painting or its own tradition in history, today. In actuality, aside from the fashion for discovering one's"roots," that they aren't interested in seeing history as something to belong to, or to be a part of, or to proceed. The issue for them is identity than aesthetics although young artists indeed refer to their own racial heritage in their artwork. The point is, most young musicians (whatever their race or sex) prefer to see history, especially art history, as a enormous amount of information that at times is useful for rummaging around in for ironic references, but which mostly is a pain in the neck and best left ignored.
One viable premise: It is history, used properly can be taken from him by us, if we pull back from the abyss of Nietzsche's image of our condition. But what is the right use of history? People today distrust it. Because they are convinced that knowledge is a smokescreen for electricity they want to know and who is doing the telling.
Unfortunately, however, it's only when the non-ironic use of history is coupled with the desire to produce images that the young artist, in particular, can learn painted abstract graphics and the meaning of painting's language. Regardless of what, some people -- even some artists -- will never"get" abstract painting, for reasons that range in their belief that all art is political to their inferior visual aptitude. In the end, abstract painting is going to attract an audience more likely than to watch Sarah McLachlan on MTV, to read the Aeneid in Latin.
But small as its audience may be, abstract painting can say something. As a colleague of mine from Hofstra University, the late Michael Gordon (himself a painter), frequently argued, it sets up a powerful moral parallel to the way in which we lead our lives. Painters do not start their paintings . They build on the foundation of abstraction that is historical. Individual paintings are the result of an accumulation of wrong turns mistakes, corrections, and settlements. Abstract painters paint the way rebelling against the options and the givens, the actions that are purposeful and the injuries and building on. An abstract painting, then, offers the perfect visual metaphor for life.
George Orwell said that each and every guy at 50 has. In space and virtual time, there is 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. In a computer picture, of course, there no longer exists the concept of a mistake, because all evidence of it is retrievable and destroyable. The last image has no wrinkles, when we take away the ability to make a real error in art, one which can't be wiped out. It carries a thin, stiff veneer, such as the continuously stretched faces of Park Avenue matrons. At a glance, those ladies look fine. But a look yields that are longer blankness. It is through our mistakes and, indeed, our sins, both in life and in art, we gain the capacity for redemption that is possible and innovative improvisation.
Because it attracted attention, painting was the noise in the culture. The culture is the noise, and painting -- especially abstract painting -- attracts little attention, either in the art world or in the culture at large. The saving virtue of abstract painting is that it provides us silent, not noise today. There's indeed a cultural crisis at the end of the 20th century: the continuous level of everything, and the death of stillness. Abstract painting cannot alter our culture, but neither can setup art, computer art, nor new-media attempts at appropriation, no matter how savvy and smart they are. Those art forms that the popular media that is appropriate are doomed to look worse, or pale in comparison to them, to be squeezed down to their enormous hole. The ability of abstract painting is this: It is a world beautifully separate from our postmodern, materialistic, morphing, ironic, age that is hip.