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By PAUL HENRICKSON ©
Ernest Gombrich begins his revelatory article “The Tyranny of Abstract Art” which appeared in the April 1958 issue of “The Atlantic Monthly” with the confession that he and his art historian colleagues were, perhaps unintentionally, responsible for having misled the public by the use of language which failed to adequately describe the facts of creative artistic production. In consequence, the metaphoric language employed may have seduced the reader. Although Gombrich refers to art historians specifically and not to art critics, it is, I have found the art critic who is more likely to be guilty of a seductive use of language than is the art historian. After all, it is the job of the historian, at least nominally so, to deal with the sequence of artistic events. The function of the critic goes beyond that by hypothesizing the reasons certain artists selected approaches to their craft that distinguished them from other artists and what the meanings of those changes in direction have meant or might mean. Both the art historian and the art critic might respond to the formal characteristics of a work of art, the historian as a means of determining the proper chronology of the piece and the critic as evidence of the motivation which gave issue to the change. In this regard the social environment out of which the works have been produced is of some importance, but, in addition, so are the more personal and, perhaps more hidden, reasons why a particular change was adopted over some other. It is this last which borders on the personal psychology of the artist involved. In short, the main job of the art historian is to establish what the historical facts might be. The art critic’s responsibility is more complex and more variable and controversial in its results. Additionally, the art critic’s ability to express himself in comprehensible language is of prime importance since often what he may be expected to convey are the non-verbal meanings inherent in a mute object. This is tricky. Exactly how
tricky it is, is probably one of the major reasons why Gombrich wrote what he wrote. In his second paragraph Gombrich lays before us yet another challenge to the reader by reminding us that there are critics who believe that painting in this last century became too easy, “a mere splashing of colors.”
Kirk Hughey: “Grey”
Kirk Hughey: “Abstraction”
Kirk Hughey: Teal Rider
Constance Counter: untitled Well, it would be possible for me to assert that the belief is not mistaken for there are painters whose works give testimony to support that belief. Yet I feel impelled to point out that great works of art are neither conceived nor created, necessarily, out of painstaking effort or physical strain. Edvard Munch records the story of the banker who had commissioned him to do a family portrait and who after the thirty minutes it took Munch to complete the work the banker complained that the painter hadn’t spent enough time on the work to warrant the large sum of money he was asking. Much is said to have responded that it had taken him thirty years to be able to expertly paint the work in thirty minutes. This seems like a very good reply and, in this case, quite probably honest. The banker’s observation is, in a limited way, justified at least from the amount of evidence he had available at the time, but Munch’s argument is stronger. It is not infrequently reported that a work of art “just flowed” from the artist’s brush, the writer’s pen or the sculptor’s warm wax. It can be rightly assumed, however, that such fluidity of artistic expression does come from a lengthy period of effort during which the artist does, at least metaphorically, sweat blood. The development of an expert technique does take not only physical energy but a great deal of critical mental evaluation as well. A handyman and gardener whom I had employed who had just seen me produce a painted wooden panel using stencils and spray cans of paint in about ten minutes exclaim in near disbelief, “you really are an artist”, once astounded me! I was stunned not because this very basic personality had uttered an aesthetic judgment but that the judgment seemed
to carry with it the idea that an artist is someone who can perform at will and with ease. I am still stunned by the comment because it seems to resist analysis. The apparent ease comes only with concentration and intelligent selection. It is also the result of long periods of trial and effort as well as painful peer criticism and difficult-to-bare self-analysis. It is probably this sort of experience that accounts for some of the unconventional social behavior of many artists. An artists’ audience often has difficulty in relating to the person of the artist because the audience has little understanding and no sympathy for what the artist has had to go through in order to reach what he has reached. It is this sort of thing that may explain why Peter Paul Rubens is less an artist than, say, Michelangelo Buonarotti, El Greco, or Caravaggio.
El Greco: “Toledo”
Caravaggio: “Crucifixion of Peter” Gombrich reminds us that one of the more frustrating experiences is to be entirely free to do what one wishes, free from any restrictions or constraints. This seems to suggest that the individual is motivated primarily by rebellion. Thorndyck’s stimulus response theories of learning may dovetail this concept nicely, but there seems to be an important item missing in this theory and that might be the role of curiosity, simple, bald curiosity. A curiosity so demanding of satisfaction at times that some individuals have been known to so without food, sleep and companionship. If one takes, by way example, Ludwig Beethoven, who was deaf, totally deaf, was largely forgetful of other of life’s amenities in order to focus on the composition of music…music that he would never get to hear except, perhaps, in his mind, one might well wonder if there had not been an extremely compelling reason for him to concentrate on the development of a talent that had been so victimized by the situation of his birth from a syphilitic mother. There is evidence in the work of Carravagio that suggests that he, too, may have been driven into producing a large amount of work in a short period of time as a result of his having been aware of fate have dealt him a joker card.
It is this curiosity and intense involvement in something which some have described as “play” which needs a more subtle explanation. The word “play” seems to disregard the very serious nature of the involvement. I suspect that the word “play” may have been initially chosen simply to distinguish it from the idea of “work” which carried with it the idea of an exterior force pressuring the individual to produce and the concept of their being an interior pressure compelling one to produce was not yet ready for consideration. It is now, however. Such an intense concentration of energy on the production of a creative work of art can be more fatiguing than an eight-hour day of straight labor. It has also been noted that once the fever of creation has taken hold of an individual that that individual may work until he drops. The physical body, it seems at such times, can hardly keep pace with the flow of images. This had been described as the “fire of creation”. I do not fully understand why the image of fire in connection with creation should be so meaningful except that destructive fires often precede creative reconstruction. Gombrich is such a fertile writer. I cannot get past the third paragraph before a third rich idea is expressed. Gombrich describes the state of the artist as he stands in front of his canvas “facing the existential nightmare, the responsibility for every decision, every move, without any convention to guide him, any expectation to live up to except the one of creating something recognizably himself.” The emphasis is mine because it is this that is the artist’s major, if not his only, responsibility. What else can the artist honestly do but to create from what he is able and willing to create from what he has been given or developed. Now, the key word in that sentence is “honestly”.
Paul Shapiro: “Tap Root”
(The reader is invited to consider the meaning of the above text in the light of the graphic evidence offered by Hughey, Counter and Shapiro.)
I realize that such a claim can be and has frequently been used to trivialize the artistic effort generally and to legitimize the culturally destructive efforts of dilettantes who seek the patronage of bored, unintelligent, wealthy sources which seek out the opportunities that will allow their egos to ride the crests of fashion. Such are the fatuous. The effort the creative artist makes to reach into that depth of being where the deposit of universal prime evil soulknowledge resides is awesome and exhausting, at least for the one who achieves it. For the observer who is able to participate in this moment of sharing it is an ennobling experience. Not many works of art achieve that level. As for examples that do achieve it I would include the following: Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”, Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” and Mestrovic’s “Job”.
Michelangelo: “The Last Judgment”
August Rodin: “Burghers of Calais”
Ivan Mestrovic: “Job” Now, if the truth were told, I dislike the phrasing in the foregoing paragraph. It carries with it much too much of the elegant language of the Victorians, too much of the tone of the
romantic, the mysterious and the ambivalent. Why, it might well be asked, doesn’t one just say what is “good” and what is “bad”, and get the job done? One doesn’t do that because one cannot do that and also it should not be done because it is not certain, given the various natures of human beings, that language can convey what it is intended to convey. Why does a woman ask a man if he loves her and then when he tells her she doesn’t believe him…and it makes no difference what his answer is she will still not believe him? Also, I resent having to submit to the weak resolution that there are some things that are ineffable, so I, and others, keep trying. In addition to all that, language also is not static, it is very mutable indeed. Matisse is supposed to have stated that he wanted to create art for the common man who, when he came home from work he would not be confronted by an item that demanded his concentration, attention and accumulated knowledge to be appreciated. If one were to judge Matisse’s success by his stated aim we would have to conclude that he failed…indeed he failed utterly. There is not point of view that would grant him the luxury of claiming success. He is a colossal failure.
Henri Matisse: “
Matisse: “Woman before a Window” Not only could one not ever, except by some unbelievable accident, find a Matisse in a common man’s house. In fact, it is highly doubtful that one could find a common man who would want a Matisse in his house. If his house held any paintings at all, they would be Rembrandts and something or other from the Pre-Raphaelites and then they wouldn’t be originals, but cheap prints.
Rembrandt van Rijn: “self portrait”
Burne-Jones: “The Sea Depths” Referring to Walter Pach, Gombrich asks an awesome question; “Are those who oppose a false art of one kind safe from being imposed upon by another?” Gombrich, in that paragraph at least, escapes from being compelled to answer the question by diverting our attention from the primary issue and calling us to consider the fact that there were few economic incentives for a copyist to focus his attention where there was no significant market for those images. The real issue, it seems to me, is not whether there might be an economic incentive, but why is it that the images seem of more value than the work, the original work itself, which supports the image. How else might I put this?
I think it necessary to firstly separate the idea of an “image” being a “shown subject” such as a still life or a figure from the more basic idea of an image being the structure of the work. We must include the possibility that an “image” might also simply be the way something, anything, “looks”. The “look” of a Hans Hoffmann, for example, which is the ”image” the Hoffmann offers us, is as valid a “look” or “image” as an Ingres’ “look” or “image”.
Hans Hofmann: “Golden Wall”
Ingres: “Pauline de Bearn” Let me try another way. A woman has hired a gardener to work in the garden. At about mid-morning on an increasingly hot day he comes to the back door looking sweaty, a wet shirt under the arms and in the middle of the back and asks for ice water. In the early afternoon he returns wearing only his under shorts and sandals to ask for more ice water. Now the woman sees that the man is handsomely built and wonders how much warmer it might get in a few more hours. The point of this little anecdote is this. What is important to the woman is the structure of the man. What should be of importance to the art critic and the art historian is the structure of the work. Some of us are more practiced than others in seeing the figure hidden by the clothing but a good critic is able to accomplish this. This is one reason why it may be dangerous for them to appear in public for there are some people who feel something when they are being undressed and inspected for how they are really composed. If one of these paintings has a degree of virtue greater than the other it may be the Hofmann because there is little doubt in the mind of the viewer as to what it is he is looking at. The average viewer may ask the question “But what is it?” We are
sympathetic with that frustration which arises out of a centuries old inculcated expectation that a painting must be a painting OF something or it does not properly belong in the seventh heaven of works of genius. The value of Hofmann over Ingres is that Hofmann the work he shows us is showing is only the work he shows us, whereas Ingres, with all due respect for his excellence draughtsmanship and control over the medium is presenting a disguised painting in the form of a beautiful two-dimensional woman. I suspect that were the painterly elements existing in the Ingres portrait were disattatched from the subject matter they describe and allowed to exist on their own they might be as valuable an aesthetic experience as is the Hofmann. So, one may argue: ” But that is what art is all about…that is, artifice!” And one counters with the argument: “but that is what other artists are trying to change, to free the creative spirit from the slavery of having to represent an image of something other than itself. In addition, to show that such an approach has as much, if not more, validity in its attempt to inform the human soul of values existing elsewhere as does the work of highly talented illustrators.” My reaction to both Gombrich and Pach in this regard is that while I concur with their descriptions I do not think them complete. For a further understanding of the participant influences we must, I believe, consider the nature of the readiness to receive, and understand, the message of the image. If one has ever talked with a five year old about what his drawing represents it might have been noticed that frequently, so long as there is not much of a time lapse between when the drawing was done and the questioning about it, the child is quite ready to tell you the meaning of nearly every mark that he had made. Too much of a time laps and he probably wouldn’t understand what you meant by the question. The relationship, then, between the marks made and their meaning seems very intimately connected with the actual motor performance. Sometimes even adult actors have a problem in answering questions of that sort not too long after having left the stage. They will, however, be able to answer the question given time to reconstruct what they know intellectually about
the role and to be able to recollect the experience of playing it in front of the foot lights. If a researcher has ever asked a long practicing artist whether or not an early work was indeed his they, may also have noticed some significant hesitation in responding to the question. What this speaks to, I believe, is a state of mind, during the period of creation, which is quite close to being a trance where the interrelationships between events have a logical relationship all their own quite other than such relationships occurring during normal relationship periods. It is quite another universe, indeed. As a middle teenager, in my case it was a longer than usual period, I failed utterly to notice the semi-turgid male members on Breughel’s painting “The Peasant Dance” whereas, at about the same period in my life they were immediately obvious in the work of Paul Cadmus. Readiness for the experience seems to play a significant role in one’s understanding of it.
Pietre Breughel: “The Wedding Dance”
Paul Cadmus: “The Fleet’s In” Recently a friend who delights in revealing the number of facets of meaning he sees in nearly every gem of a thought goes on, literally non-stop for two hours, without interruption, polishing all the facets of the gem and usually ending up with a mildly sardonic quip. He will get up to leave after a few musical notes emerge from his trouser’s groinal pocket and he gets called home for supper and very seriously extend his gratitude to his listener for a very interesting conversation indeed. But the spousal reminder is only partially successful and he launches into a new aspect of the subject with as much enthusiasm as he had two hours previously. Actually, the effects of his contribution linger on for several hours after he leaves in the form of remembered aesthetic experiences and surprises. All in all this fellow is, among other things, a performer, but his audience is necessarily limited to a cultured, literate and intellectually involved group of people. There may actually be more of such people than it might appear at first glance and the reason we fail to meet them is because they have learned it is safer to be silent than witty. I recall that as a late teenager it had taken me months of daily contact with one Monet landscape before I suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, experienced the visual meaning of all those green and blue dots. The dots had been on that particular canvas for at least three generations before I experienced
them. I had not been able to make sense out of that visual chaos because my expectations for the making of symbolic representations had been linear and focused on the contour of an object and not eidetically trained to focus on light rather than the object. It was not the dots that shifted, it was my mental focus. One must be ready to receive the meaning before the process of meaningful communication can take place. These sorts of experiences continue and can be the source of considerable humor if the manner of cultural conflict is not too severe. These sorts of things are a matter of cultural exposure and there are many cultures with smaller populations within what one generally considers to be a national one. What my talkative friend mentioned before he left and strongly indicated that he wouldn’t be able to complete all he had to say had to do with the matter of semiotics. It was fully 20 minutes before he did leave, but it was all-worthwhile. I, too, had for some time, wondered about the academics’ interest in semiotics and wondered what they might have in mind to do with it. The subject is very wide, including such things as directional signs for traffic, comfort stations for men or women, internationally packaged cooking instructions, the facial and body movements which, generally, only an initiate can understand and frequently lead to serious misinterpretation. The ways of miming “no” and “yes” would take one around the world and be worth a liberal education. A series of silent films of men and women in various cultures arguing with each other would be a treasure trove for any choreographer researching the meaning of movement. In short, and without doubt, there exists a language of aesthetics and it is not to man’s credit that he has ignored researching and developing this aspect of communication. In sum, then, it will be helpful to remember that the ”goodness” or the badness” of a work of art can only be appropriately judged by the effectiveness of the signals that are transferred from the creator of the work to the receptor. I realize that this notion may be found offensive by those who may have a more structured idea of achievement, but in all fairness to ourselves and to the many faceted aspects of the environment in which we live all things are not everything to
all people. This statement should not be construed as a willingness to accept everything and anything, but rather, that before a judgment is made, we delay decisions until we have checked more out than what we thought we needed to do. Extend the parameters of the discipline and make them as flexible as an amoeba. Gombrich additionally discusses Pach’s idea of “snobbism” and tells us that the society to which Pach had reference allowed entrance into “noble” circles by virtue of some intellectual refinement. Gombrich observes that the word “snobbism” implies the existence of a nobility and that of a hierarchical society. Such a society does exist. In fact, many of them exist simultaneously and it isn’t at all certain that a member of one noble group would wish to associate with another noble group. The existence of such elitist groups within a largely “democratic” society needs to be explored along with the distinct possibility that it may be one or more of the elitist groups which may be the seminal causes for the society as a whole to develop. The very notions of democracy any society may possess may be the root cause for the suppression of elitist groups needed for the continued expansion of democratic ideals. However, the preferential treatment of some groups in the theory that past disadvantages must be balanced out in order to level the contemporary playing field will fail in its objective by demoralizing one of the most treasured qualities of social ambition…consensual agreement as to worth. The maker has to believe he has done well and the society must understand what he has done. Reward on the basis of something other than real achievement has the same effect as a leaky car battery; it corrodes everything with which it comes into contact. After a well-explored history of his frustration Gombrich, seemingly out of patience, states that the much applauded exploration and experiment in the visual arts tolerated at the time of his writing must come to an end as we develop “standards for success and failure”. I, in part, agree with him, but I personally need room in which to change my mind in the event of the appearance of new evidence. One very important “new evidence” is not, as Gombrich assumes that abstract art is the same as non-objective art. They are not the same, but as Gombrich implies even the
intellectual elite has broadly accepted this intellectual error of which Gombrich is a part. It is my understanding that much of what irritates Gombrich is a result of this intolerable intellectual misunderstanding. The verb “abstract” means to take from, to draw from, or to separate from much as one does when one produces a summary or a précis of a written document. There is no editorializing involved. There are NO alternatives available. The sense and the meaning of the document may not be altered. No argument is possible, none are permitted. Contrary-wise, in the area of the graphic and plastic arts any departure from the visual reality was labeled an abstraction. To my knowledge there has never been an objection made concerning the questionable issue of whether all persons see the same object in the same “real” way, but even if we accept the gross generalization that “reality is reality and everyone agrees on that” there will still remain the fact that, by proper definition, anything that re-presents that reality has departed from the process of abstraction and started on the course of personal selection and editorializing. At that point it is the job of the art critic to determine, as best he can, the inspirational sources be they art historical, psychological, mercenary or whatever. It is further the critic’s job to assess the value of these changes. Gombrich laments the passing of a framework of convention that had been built up prior to the twentieth century and feels its passing has castrated the traditional function of the critic which was to comment on how well, or how badly, an artist had adhered to these conventions. It has been another generation and a half since Gombrich made these statements and, today, he may have felt obligated to add a few comments. Be that as it may, it can be safely said that while the function of the graphic and plastic arts have changed so have the responsibilities and opportunities of the critic in regard to them and since both the critic and the artist are in a position to alter the environment in which we all live it would be in the best interest of the rest of the populations to start to take an active and informed interest in their futures.
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