Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Abstract Art - A Personal View

This post is perhaps something of a work in progress. My opinions are subject to change, and the content of articles like this may be subject to comments, changes of opinion, editing out of errors or daft statements, etc. Also, I am not a trained art historian; these are personal meditations and need not be taken desperately seriously.

I decided to write this little piece of dubious philosophy after seeing essentially the same question asked over and over on Quora: What is the big deal with abstract art? How on earth could works that look like random blotches be worth more than the most finely painted representations of real things? In short, how could stuff like this:


Jackson Pollock - Nr. 31

or this:


Mark Rothko - No 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953

possibly be considered to be more valuable than, say, this:

Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Black Poet (1888)

Ask the learned art experts, and they are likely to cover you in reams of verbiage as to why this is precisely how things should be; ask almost anyone else, and they'll casually dismiss abstract art as blatant garbage. Before long, fistfights break out (which is why it is a good thing that debates rage mostly on the web, where at least the contestants can't do physical harm to one another). 

I am going to attempt to find a middle way, thereby turning myself into the enemy of both of the above-mentioned groups. 

First of all, what exactly is abstract art? In a sense, just about all art is abstract, because even a painting such as the Gérôme above, is an abstraction of reality. Apart from such things as very well done trompe l'oeil painting or mat paintings used as background in films, no one would confuse a painting with reality. Even when it is well executed, this sort of thing will only fool you for a moment:

Sidewalk painting - I don't know who the artist is

For this reason, one should perhaps rather talk about non-representational painting, but I don't mind using the two terms interchangeably. Let us say that abstract or non-representational art is such art that does not seem to represent or mimic any real things. It seems a reasonable enough definition, though we'll soon run into some interesting difficulties with it!

Let me first debunk two myths: firstly, contrary to popular opinion, abstract art is not a modern phenomenon. In fact, it is likely that humanity's very first artistic attempts were abstract, and abstraction has enjoyed popularity ever since. Secondly, abstraction isn't, by definition, useless garbage. 

Consider the following examples:

Maori tattoos:

Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926) - Tamati Waka Nene (detail)

Abstract patterning on clothing and other fabrics, as in this Inca tunic (but of course quite ubiquitous, throughout the ages):


Celtic knot work decorating a cross:


Tiles:

Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Black Poet [1888] 145cm (detail)

Marbled paper, very popular in the 19th century as decoration for the end papers of books:


Now we are already running into a bit of trouble with our definition of abstract art: if you make a well observed, realistic painting of tiles or abstract tattoos (as in two of the above examples), is it abstract art or realism? Perhaps a somewhat academic question, which I will not go into here.

Here's another issue: imagine for a moment that you grew up indoors, and have never heard of the sky or ocean, nor ever seen them nor even photographs or pictures of them. What would you make of this picture:


José Salis y Camino (1863-1926) - Effect of the moon on the sea

Would you recognize it as a picture of something? A meaningless jumble of colours? Would you like it? It seems whether we experience something as abstract depends to some extent on our own background and cultural context. 

Natural and man made things offer plenty more examples of abstract patterns, a feature often exploited by photographers. Consider these photos (not very artistic; I have only a point-and-shoot, and I am not exactly a professional photographer, but they'll illustrate the point):














In all the above photographs, we can recognize the objects for what they are, but it is also clear that there is some sort of "abstraction" going on here; the main point of these photos is attractive pattern rather than to serve as illustrations. 

Now let's go a step further and consider this photo:


Without some training in biology, you may well have no idea what it is. What if someone made a realistic painting based on this photo? Would you experience it as abstraction or realism? Would you find it beautiful?

For those who don't know, it is a cross section through a plant stem, seen through a microscope. Whether we experience something as abstraction can to some extent be a matter on how far we zoom in! And thus we can see that my original definition is actually a bit problematic. 

Let us look at the issue from a historic point of view: in the second half of the 19th century, artists began wildly experimenting with various styles, their work became more and more stylized, and many began to become more interested in the abstract patterns to be found around them then in depicting the objects in a recognizable way. And thus, there is a lot of work out there that is semi-abstract; we can recognize the subject matter, but it is greatly simplified or distorted or painted in non-natural colours. This process gradually led to complete abstraction, when some artists no longer felt any need for a picture to be a picture of something. 

Consider, for example, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944), who became famous (or perhaps somewhat infamous?) for paintings that consisted of geometric lines and shapes in mostly primary colours. Perhaps a bit too minimalist for most tastes! 

But his work gives us some insight into how abstraction evolved from realism. He was trained in the classical tradition and could produce realistic pictures as well as any, as can be seen from this self-portrait:


But he was soon influenced by the modern trends around him, and in this more or less chronological series of paintings, we can see how his work became ever further removed from the real world:















Perhaps he overdid it a bit? Point is, abstraction in modern art did not happen overnight, or in a vacuum. And once some artists established that a painting can be beautiful (to at least some eyes!) without necessarily representing anything in the real world, lots of artists followed the new trend. Hence the Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko paintings that I started with. 

Does any of this stuff have any real artistic value, to anyone other than learned professors of art? It does actually, to virtually everyone. They just don't always realize it. Consider Mondrian, for example - his work has become hugely influential in design circles, and is often seen in unexpected places:




Let me demonstrate to you that people are actually not as vehemently opposed to abstraction as we might suppose. Consider again the two works by Pollock and Rothko at the beginning of the article. Compare them with this:

Dress with banded pattern


Granite counter top

Whether it be natural or man made abstraction, people love it. Perhaps a fascination with the intricate patterns of nature led to people incorporating it into art? I have no idea. 

But now consider that the designs on such articles as dresses, T-shirts, coffee mugs and so on do not fall from the sky. The companies who produce these things employ designers to come up with designs. Somewhere, someone sits and decides what colour your shirt or curtains will be, and what kind of patterns should be on it. You pay for the item, and the designer is paid a salary. Ergo, whether or not you think you like abstract art, you have in fact paid an artist for it. And the same goes for previous centuries: whenever some Victorian gentleman bought a book (say, a book about the alarming artistic trends going on at the time) with attractive end papers, he was indirectly paying some or other artisan for abstract marbling designs.

So now we have seen that:
1) our definition of what exactly abstraction is, is perhaps a bit fuzzy and problematic; but
2) abstraction as such is by no means anything new and most people actually rather enjoy it, or at least feel more or less neutral towards it.

And now we have to ask ourselves: why then the vehement opposition to abstract art? Why would someone who chose his T-shirt and coffee mug based on the attractive abstract patterns on them sit around telling you what meaningless drivel abstract art is, and how he hates it? And let us not even mention the prices paid for some of those paintings! A Pollock or Rothko or Mondrian might well set you back millions. 

I think there are several different things at work here, and I'll discuss some of them below.

1. It doesn't look like it's difficult to do.We all know the indignant objection: "But my four year-old niece could do that!" That objection somewhat overstates the point - both informal and more controlled experiments suggest that when people are confronted with both child art and that of professional abstract artists, they mostly have little difficulty distinguishing the two (though not in all cases!) Artists and people with a lot of experience in viewing art, have even less difficulty in making the distinction.

On the other hand, the test itself is a bit loaded. It is, for example, not difficult to distinguish between a passage handwritten by a child and the same passage written by an adult. Why? Because it is not too difficult to distinguish between the fine motor skills of a child and an adult. 

The real question is not whether a child could produce a good abstract work, but whether an untrained adult could. And if he couldn't, how about if he received a month-long crash course in art? I don't know if this sort of experiment has ever been performed. People have in fact been fooled into expressing great admiration (and forking out top dollars) for the work of children or indeed even chimpanzees.

I found an interesting article about the issue online:


In short, the research found that for the most part, people could distinguish between the art of toddlers and that of professional expressionist painters, and generally like the work of the latter more as well. But the research, if you ask me, lacked some crucial controls - for example, they should have checked whether people could distinguish between the work of toddlers and that of untrained or minimally trained adults, and they should perhaps also have had pairs of works by toddlers alone, to see how many people would recognize that both works are by toddlers. 

That brings us back to the fuzzy world of aesthetics. In general, the art of adults can be distinguished from that of children, but does that automatically render the adult work better? 

Consider the following two works:

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) - Untitled (1970)


Vika Sycheva (age 8) - Planet with Five Suns

Which one do you prefer? I'll leave it to the reader to make that decision. 

In short, as to the accusation that "any child could do that," the answer is, probably not really. But I'm not sure that makes any difference. The word "masterpiece" conjures up an image of something that not just anyone could have done. It suggests you need a high level of talent and years of training and experience to be able to do it. If even reasonably knowledgeable adults are sometimes unable to distinguish between the work of untrained children and masters of art, one has to wonder just how masterful those masters really are. We have established that they are better than toddlers, but that hardly tells us much, does it?

2. Abstract art itself might be nothing new, but never until recently has it been presented as being the same kind of thing as fine art, in the form of paintings to be hung on walls and seriously discussed.

I have shown that abstract art has been pretty ubiquitous throughout history, but there is one difference between modern times and the past: before the 20th century, abstract art has never been seen as much more than decoration, and the province of "mere" artisans. To make grand points about life, the universe and everything, artists painted actual pictures, with subject matter. Thus, part of the shock of abstract art perhaps lie in the fact that it is presented not as "mere" decoration, but as serious work with some point to it. Which brings us to the next, and related, point:

3. Learned "experts" read all manner of profound meaning into it, that the work itself cannot possibly contain. 

Here, as in the issue raised in point #1 above, the anti-abstract folks somewhat overstate their point. Even abstract art can, to some extent, convey meaning. In her book Drawing on the Artist Within, Betty Edwards describes experiments she did with her own students, in which she asked them to express such abstract concepts as happiness, fury, energy, calmness, etc. in purely non-representational manner, i.e. to express, say, energy, they were not allowed to draw pictures of anything, like rockets being launched or people running. They could use only purely non-representational means. 

She found that almost all her students tended to come up with remarkably similar abstract pictures: jagged, jumping lines express energy, while even, horizontal ones express calmness, etc. And indeed, whether consciously or not, representational artists will often use these very same principles to express ideas and feelings: lots of horizontal lines for quiet landscapes, for example, and lots of jumping and jagged ones for battles or party scenes. 

Thus, abstract work is not necessarily devoid of any meaning whatever. But it should be perfectly clear that it cannot possibly express more than such basic feelings. People who look at abstract art and tell you say see a brilliant juxtaposition of the duality of conservative values and post-industrial feminism are bamboozling you, or themselves, or both. In fairness, such very specific notions are usually not read into abstract work by critics, but very often, their comments on such art seem to say more about themselves than about the art. 

Of course, anyone is welcome to read things into pictures. It can be a fun game, and in a sense art criticism is an art form in its own right, perhaps more akin to literature than visual art. Still, there seems to be something almost dishonest in making statements about abstract art in a form that make them look like statements of fact, when in fact they are pure subjective opinion. If anyone can read whatever they like into art, then why exactly is the opinion of a learned art critic more valuable than that of the teenaged pothead next door?

4. The seemingly absurd prices paid for it.

This point is the one that perhaps causes the most outrage. "Why is modern art that looks meaningless and simple worth millions?" (As one person put it on Quora, and I will here reproduce a somewhat edited version of the answer I gave there):

It’s peculiar how often this question comes up. It is also peculiar how, every time, we have armies of people trying to justify the blatantly nonsensical on aesthetic grounds. Not only do we hear that something like this:


Carl Andre - Trabum

is way better than something like, say, this:

Michael Naples - Two Shots


but that it is so much better that it justifies a price thousands to hundreds of thousands of times as much. I.e. the first work of art is, by implication, thousands or hundreds of thousands times better. How can this possibly be?
Short answer: it can’t.
Conclusion: the price of works of art simply isn’t determined by how good they are. One is tempted to think that it is simply a case of rich idiots not knowing what to do with their money, and no doubt this factor plays a role.
On the other hand, society is replete with things that have little intrinsic value, but that have value simply because lots of people agree that they do. For example, consider this weird little picture:



It has a value of one dollar, despite being about as dreary and boring a thing as you can imagine. You can exchange it for this, if you like:




A good exchange too, if you ask me - the second one is clearly prettier! Until not so long ago, you could exchange either for a lump of gold of a specific weight.
All very strange, considering that neither the two pieces of paper, nor a lump of gold, have much intrinsic value. They have value for two reasons: they are widely agreed to be valuable, and in all three cases, there is a limited supply.
Pretty much the same goes for works of art. There is only one Carl Andre, and he can produce only so much work that carries his name. Thus, there is a limited supply. That his work is valuable is simply something that is widely agreed on, for whatever crazy reasons people come up with. (In a sense, his work is more valuable than gold, because we can continue to mine gold, but when Carl Andre croaks, the supply of original works by Carl Andre stops, which is why the art market is so obsessed with authenticity.)
A currency can very suddenly become devalued, if the country’s economy goes down the tubes, or its government gets crazy enough to print too much of it (so that the supply isn’t as limited anymore). Thus it is not a bad idea to invest in other things as well. Some people choose gold, some choose property, some choose art, and so on. Many will choose more than one alternative. It’s a way to not put all your eggs in one basket. What’s more, in many cases the value of such investments will not only keep up with inflation, but actually go up much more.
Art is a somewhat risky investment, but you can also do very well with it. There is now a well established art market, and however idiotic the objects themselves may be, there is a good chance that their monetary value will keep going up for the foreseeable future. Personally, I think there is a substantial risk for the bubble to completely collapse, after which the purchasers will be left with heaps of junk. But then, few people invest so much in art that it is likely to hurt them much if it becomes devalued.
One could of course also invest in visually attractive art, but the supply of it is quite large, and thus the prices will tend to remain low (though I think such investments may also be safer, even if their potential return is more limited). And here too, there is an irrational element at work: a Van Gogh is worth way more than a Michael Naples, out of all proportion. Yes, Van Gogh’s work is good, but is it a million times as good? Probably not really.
Now one may argue that some artists are more important from a historical point of view simply because they had more influence (whether we think the influence was a good or a bad thing) by inventing whole new styles and techniques. This is true, but once again, why should this make their works any better? It doesn’t - when you buy their work, you are paying for their signatures more than their paintings. It is widely agreed that Van Gogh’s paintings are worth more than Michael Naples’ , and that agreement has zilch to do with the actual aesthetic merits of their work. It may be true that Van Gogh displayed more originality, or that his work is better, but is it literally a million times better? How does one determine that? During the infamous “Dutch tulip mania” of the 17th century, there were also tulip experts who could explain to you why one tulip was a million times more beautiful than another (or a rose for that matter).
No, the prices of works of art are primarily determined by economic factors, and the opinion of self-styled “art experts”, whose opinions are widely agreed to be better than anyone else’s for no particular reason. The art market is utterly irrational, but in fact not really more irrational than much of the rest of the market. The prices of shares on the stock market are often determined in pretty much the same way, and the experts and talking heads in that market have no better clue of what they are talking about than the supposed art experts in the art market.
Something we may legitimately wonder about is why the currently valuable works seem to be so uniquely ugly and meaningless. It might actually just be something of a fad. Once you start an investment bubble, it will tend to grow and grow as ever more bold investors make ever increasingly risky bets - with great risk, there is a potential for very great return. But of course it is also, well, risky. Sooner or later the bubble collapses and a few people lose a lot of money. But clearly, the actual intrinsic worth of the object has little bearing on this - during the IT bubble, lots of people invested money in companies they knew full well would never produce anything of value.
Of course, the vanity of the rich (or, to be fair, some rich) also plays a role: if you buy art simply to show other people how rich you are, you have to buy whatever is currently expensive. And then, to look like you’re clever and educated to boot, you get an “art expert” to explain to you and everyone who will listen why your choice of art work is a good one.
Perhaps some of the buyers genuinely like the work they are buying, and buy it because they can afford it. I have this feeling that such buyers are a minority, mind you...
Who is this Michael Naples guy I use as example above? I chose him more or less at random. He’s a successful but relatively obscure art blogger whose work I happen to like. 

*     *     *     *     *

And now, after this long, rambling story, I have still not really expressed any personal views. I have tried to stick mostly to what I hope to be facts; now I'll share my personal opinions. 

Personally, I mostly prefer representational art to complete abstraction. But what bothers me about abstract art is not so much the art itself (some of which can be quite beautiful) as the reams of nonsense that get written and talked about it. I am not convinced that abstract art can do much else than to serve as decoration. In some kinds of interior spaces, it does this very well, and there is nothing wrong with decoration. 

But there simply cannot really be much more to it than meets the eye; the abstract language of art is not sophisticated enough to convey complex ideas. And thus, there is a bit of a con game going on when people see "deep" meanings in it. Such comments do not tell you much about the art.

I may have come across as a bit too harsh on the learned art critics, so I hasten to say, they are people who spent a lot of time looking at a lot of art, and in the process have developed a refined eye and a sophisticated taste. We should by all means look over their comments, but I don't think one should take any of it too seriously (including one's own opinions!)

The arts are there to be enjoyed. They are the one sphere of life where we can freely suspend disbelief, and indulge in fantasy. We do not go see a Harry Potter movie and then complain that there isn't really a Hogwarts School of Magic and Wizardry. By the same token, if you stand in front of a Jackson Pollock painting and find yourself deeply moved, so be it - you don't really owe anyone a justification for you own personal taste. 

In summary:

1. Abstract art is an own old and venerable art form, perhaps to some extent based on our fascination with the seemingly abstract forms in nature itself.

2. Whether we experience something as abstract depends to some extent on ourselves, and the meanings we attach to art often tell us more about ourselves than about the art. But this does not require of us to refrain from playing the game. 

3. The prices of works of art are largely determined by economic factors, and have little to do with the intrinsic value of the works. One cannot justify the prices on purely aesthetic grounds, and those who try to do so are engaging in a bit of a con game, albeit a mostly harmless one. 

Now I really need to shut up. 

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