Second Thoughts(?) on Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and Contemporary Art in General

L’art fleurit uniquement sur les problèmes intéressant l’époque, toujours dirigés vers l’inconnu. D’où le merveilleux.  La danse et l’espoir, Françoise Sullivan

Art can only flourish if it grows from problems that concern the age, and it is always pushed in the direction of the unknown.  Hence the marvellous in it.”  Dance and Hope, Françoise Sullivan (translated by Ray Ellenwood)

In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe is stirred to action when he reads in the New York Times that “In looking at a painting today ‘to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial.'”

Is it true? Is theory necessary – “crucial” to appreciating contemporary art.  Has it always been so?

Theory has long had a part in Western Art from Medieval Catholic symbolism and dogma, through the Renaissance, to Seurat and beyond.  But has it always been crucial?    Is the necessity of theory a good thing?  Can an under- or untheorized painting have value?  Is a pretty landscape painting which stirs emotions and perhaps memories less “art” than the equally hard won marks on the canvas of the post modern abstract expressionist?  does it matter if the piece only has actual, visceral meaning for the artist (if even for her)?

I look at most works of abstract expressionist art — indeed, of contemporary art generally —  and think of some of the more ornamental pieces “that would look unobjectionable or even nice in a bank or a theatre lobby, but I’ve no place for it in my home.”  And conceptual art is pretty much a creature of galleries rather than living rooms.  I do have two small Janvier pieces hanging at the top of my stairs, but Mr. Janvier’s work has personal resonances for me from a life long observation of the man’s work and from actual conversations with him.  Similarly Paddy Lamb’s work I find fascinating because I have been honoured with extended conversations about the “work”, the “process” of which the canvases are the tracks.  If my friend the butcher were to see a Lamb or a Janvier on my wall, he’d probably just be uncomfortable (he’s a little highly strung).  And, yes, he might say “my kid could do that” and I might pretentiously answer “but she didn’t!” but you know, he’d be right:  young Amy, given a canvas and some paint and asked to paint an “abstract expressionist” piece likely would produce something that would look similar to other abstract expressionist pieces — to her father!

If I may add a personal note — of course I may! This is my place!

I paint a lot of landscapes.  They’re sort of impressionistic I guess one could say and I work from a bit of theory derived from that bit of Pliny the Elder that haunts my practice. But, you know what?  I have never heard anyone say after looking at my stuff “My kid coulda done that!”  In fact, when I told Mrs. Janvier that I painted mostly kinda realistic landscapes, she replied “Oh? Don’t you find that difficult?” The fact is I can’t imagine painting abstraction.  I have huge respect for artists such as Lamb, Robert Dmytruk, Les Graff and, to me the epitome, Alex Janvier, who can pull it off.  I’ve never been able to do it.  I feel like a fake when I try.  My kid could do as well as I can!  I only seem to be able to paint pieces that people “get.”

On the other hand, unlike my butcher friend, I have studied and made art for most of my half century.  I have poured over history and theory.  When I look at a piece, no matter how unacceptable to the butcher, I can usually say at least “Okay, I see where this is headed” and that lets me make something like an informed decision on whether I like the thing or not. I’m part of the “club”. For the butcher the response will most often be “I don’t get it. I don’t like it.”

If, however, I show the butcher a Poussin or Claude or even a portrait of him working in his shop, he’ll at least be able to say “cool landscape!”, “That’s pretty!” or “You made me look like an old Chinese woman!” No need for theory.  No need to understand the pigments.  No need for mythology or mathematics. Just pretty universal points of reference making contact.

In a section titled “Soapbox” in his book The Art of Science Fiction, legendary Science Fiction illustrator Frank Kelly Freas writes:  “The essential object of a work of art is communication, regardless of the contrary opinion in fashionable intellectual circles.”  I can’t help but agree with Freas.

Venus3I’ve just finished a painting of a young woman standing on the shore of the Spray Reservoir in the mid-1970s.  I used titanium white, zinc white, red ochre, yellow ochre and Prussian blue.  I titled it Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη. I don’t know if anyone will like it, but I doubt that many who see it will respond positively only because they read Greek, understand the mythological reference, make the connection to Apelles or Pliny or even can identify the location or the (now forgotten) young lady.  Few will have any inkling of the theory.  Most will be able to connect to and respond to my Ἀφροδίτη Ἀναδυομένη in some personal way, whether they like it or not, without reliance on theory.  It will stir in them some tiny bit of “outside interest.”

But it is this very “outside interest” which has been to be avoided in modern art for more than a century:

Perhaps we should avoid the term ‘abstract,’ because it is so often taken to mean that the artist has analyzed and simplified the shapes of visible reality (compare Cézanne’s dictum that all natural forms are based on the cone, spere, and cylinder). This was not the method of Kandinsky.  Whatever traces of representation his work contains are quite involuntary — his aim was to charge form and color with a purely spiritual meaning (as he put it) by eliminating all resemblance to the physical world.  Whistler, too, had spoken of “divesting the picture from any outside sort of interest”

— Jansen, History of Art,  p. 651

But, is there not a danger of divesting the painting of any interest at all?  When I consider Kandinsky’s works, and Mondrian’s even more so, I can’t help but feel that we’ve crossed the line from interest to ornament.  But when I consider an abstract artist such as Paddy Lamb, who actively engages with his landscape and the society that dwells there, I find myself interested, even if knowledge of the theory is necessary to find anything other than a diffuse sense of mysterious foreboding. As I write elsewhere of Lamb’s work:

The fullest, most satisfying appreciation comes through viewing a series of these developing images, the tracks of the artist’s progress.

A surprising result of this process of gradual and preserved abstraction is that, when examined leisurely, the images of decayed human structures at times become anthropomorphic. There is an allusiveness to both human beauty and human violence.  Hooded figures converse with each other in whispers, faces peek from the darkness, the empty landscape is repopulated with shadows, ghosts, sometimes ominous revenants of memory.

But is there not also a joy in things simple to apprehend?  I remember a Christmas season years ago when a friend and I went to see a production of The Second Shepherds’ Play at a downtown Edmonton church.  The Second Shepherds’ Play is a pretty uncomplicated medieval drama originally intended to be staged by amateurs in the village square for the ordinary villagers.  It is as simple as the society that produced it.  As we left the church that evening, my friend seemed troubled and perplexed.  “It was a little simple, wasn’t it?” he said in apparent disappointment.  Expectations of complexity and obscurity can sometimes be detriments to enjoyment it would seem.

What do we – artists and non-artists – want from art?

John Ralston Saul mentions in Voltaire’s Bastards that “Almost no one travels today to see the future” (p. 485) Can the same be said of much contemporary art? Is it not an artifact, an imprint of past actions? Is there a futurity to it? Do we approach art as a living conversation, a continuing creation of our future?  Is art created as a question to the future? or is it just muddy footprints of dinosaurs long passed?

I wonder what the goals of artists are with their art.  I can’t help but think that ultimately getting the stuff sold must be a goal.  If that is the case, then theory may really be marketing.  After all, what is the “Artist’s Statement” if not advertising copy?  I wonder if artists are willing to admit that.

As I mentioned at the beginning, some theory has always been a part of art, if only to ground the universal references.  But if theory is necessary to any appreciation of a work of art, the criticism levelled by Wolfe in The Painted Word, is this not just elitism? How much of a market can there really be?  It seems like theory is a barrier.  Who is the gatekeeper? Why do we want barriers? Do we want barriers? Is the point simply an ambition to corner a small market made up of exceedingly wealthy individuals with a dilettante urge to keep up with the Jones-Mueller-St.Jean-Smythes?

It just seems like the canvas on the wall or the sculpture in the gallery is no longer really the point of the work.  And engagement with regular people of society at large is most definitely not the point.  Art has become about the artist and the process, and the obect itself is inscrutable and largely meaningless, often unattractive, and, understandably of little value in the estimation of all but the most wealthy and “cultured” (if even to them).

Or is it a time thing?  Does History have to judge before the common people can?  Can it be that today’s art will be easily appreciated tomorrow?  After all, art which shocked contemporary audiences in previous era’s  is popularly appreciated and loved today.  But Rothko and Pollock, for example, are still waiting after half a century, for their day in the popular sun.  Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire continues to draw scornful rage from Canadians of all sorts.  Will non-representational art ever be popular art?

Do we want art to be popular?

I think we should and most probably do.  But, I suppose, we don’t want to compromise our visions or, perhaps more today than ever in history, our theories.  And why make representational art in the age of photography and Photoshop?  What’s the point?  And wasn’t the perfect painted image made back in 1512 or something?  Is abstraction a rebellion against the uncompromising reality of photography and the achievements of the Renaissance?  I don’t know.  But people still buy representational paintings and reproductions of such paintings to hang on their living room walls. People seem to want pictures of something. Do photos have the same draw as something made by a human hand?  Is not the knowledge that someone’s hand made each of those marks more moving than the impersonal technical perfection of the photographic process?  And here we come back to process.  The process has become paramount in Abstract Expressionism and too often, I think, invisible to the uninitiated.  Contrary to some early intentions, art has turned away from the ambition to kinship with music – accessibility without mediation – viscerally moving regardless of experience.

Consider Jansen on Picasso’s Demoiselles and the slightly later portrait of Ambroise Vollard.  With a certain dissatisfaction Jansen says of the material of Les Demoiselles that it is “hard to describe with any precision. But the portrait of Vollard  is embraced with a certain critical joy as having “the balance and refinement of a fully mature style.”  Here is something the critic can get his theoretical teeth into!  But I think the theory tried after the fact to describe Les Demoiselles and then the artist painted Vollard to the theory.  This willing yoking of oneself to theory is a common artistic habit.  Having a template to work from/to is comforting, but too often, I think, is narrowing and in the end, isolating and ossifying.  I can’t help but feel that this very trend has been damaging to contemporary art through the Twentieth Century.  The object, as I have mentioned, is no longer the point of the artist’s practice — the practice is the point.  Why then, I ask, do we have galleries?  Visual artists have become performance artists, but no one is allowed to go to the show.  We are presented only with the empty stage and theatre after the curtain falls.  How far can that go?  How long will it last? How many people want an empty stage on their living room wall?

As fascinating as I find the process of many contemporary artists once it is explained I have doubts as to the sustainability of this sort of art.  And, do we really, really want our art to be unsustainable?

Refreshingly in “Landmarks on a Studio Wall”, a current exhibition at the Gallery@501 in Sherwood Park, Robert Dmytruk, Les Graff and Paddy Lamb try to show their process on the walls of the Gallery.  But oddly, they have presented the gallery-goer with an almost textless accompanying book.  The audience is given a few extra clues to the meaning and theory of the show, but the actors have left the stage and we can’t even read the program!  There is a tension between the necessity of theory to understanding and the desire for the art to function unmediated. I’m not sure how successful the communication would be with the uninitiated.

When I look at contemporary art and its apparent disengagement from the audience, I worry about what John Ralston Saul, echoing the Montreal Automatistes, terms “refusing society”:

So much of what was happening to the image in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first forty of this century was apparently new.  Certainly these changes seemed to carry the optimism of newness and of great excitement. Invention was felt everywhere. Barriers were being crossed. Not only was the image finding new forms at the time, but those pictures still have the shock of newness when seen today.

And yet all the revelry of that period was less a celebration than a shattering.  The Cubists, the Surrealists, the Expressionists, the frenzies of obscure lines, the slabs of raw paint or raw steel, the lumps of stone — what was it all, except a dance of death? Brilliant, overwhelming and evocative of man’s discomfort with his own rational civilization.  But the dance of what death: On one level, of the image. More important, it was the death of a certain expectation from the image.  In terms of art history, each of these schools deserves great attention.  In terms of civilization’s relationship to art, they were part of a single demonstration that the image was no longer a pillar of society, as it had been in the Middle Ages; nor a constructive critic, as it had often been during the romantic rise of the ego; nor even a servant of power.  The new image neither reflected nor criticized the rational, structured world that man was creating.  Instead it exploded in turmoil, off on a separate plane, as if it had no place in this new world.  For the first time in history, the image was
refusing society.  John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, pp. 475-6

But what Saul is calling for in Voltaire’s Bastards, and what Paul-Émile Borduas called for in 1948, is not the refusal of humanity. On the contrary, the Refus Global is the fundamental criticism of the inhuman system of our society.  Borduas’ words are even more relevant today:

La méthode introduit les progrès imminents dans le limité. La décadence se fait aimable et nécessaire: elle favorise la naissance de nos souples machines au déplacement vertigineux, elle permet de passer la camisole de force à nos rivières tumultueuses en attendant la désintégration à volonté de la planète. Nos instruments scientifiques nous donnent d’extraordinaires moyens d’investigation, de contrôle des trop petits, trop rapides, trop vibrants, trop lents ou trop grands pour nous. Notre raison permet l’envahissement du monde, mais d’un monde où nous avons perdu notre unité.”  Refuse Global, Paul-Émile Borduas

“Scientific method showed us that progress was imminent in the short term.  Decadence became pleasant and necessary, encouraging the birth of versatile machines capable of dizzying speeds.  It allowed us to straight-jacket mighty rivers as a prelude to the wilful destruction of our planet.  Our scientific instruments gave us astonishing ways of investigating and controlling things that were too small, too fast, too vibrant, too slow or too immense for us. Reason allowed us to conquer the world; a world in which we have lost our unity.” Total Refusal, Paul-Émile Borduas translated by Ray Ellenwood

I very much wish more contemporary artists would use their work to be what Saul names “faithful witnesses” to people — all people — about the uncomfortable, difficult facts of our collective life:

The faithful witness, like Solon and Socrates, Voltaire and Swift, even Christ himself, is at his best when he concentrates on questioning and clarifying and avoids the specialist’s obsession with solutions.  He betrays society when he is silent or impenetrable, or worst of all, when he blithely reassures.  He is true to himself and to the people when his clarity causes disquiet. Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, p. 620.

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