ABSTRACTION AND REALISM SINCE 1850 by Paul Henrickson

©1959

tm. © 2007

Teachers of art, or other publicly recognized experts on art such as historians and art critics, are frequently involved in unrewarding dialogues with the intellectually curious, but ill-informed and often misled members of the community on the matter and the meaning of the term “abstract art”. The term has the status of common currency throughout the population, cutting across several levels of cultural sophistication and involving many professional orientations. I hope that this short essay will change the bad intellectual habits of two centuries and be the source for a restructuring of academic thought and public discourse. The matter is important not merely for the reasons of being correct, but because the redefining of the term should eliminate the confusion that exists and make it easier for the intellectual community to progress in its job of clarifying meaning. One view of this phenomenon of a history of bad labeling separates the most attitudes into two groups. The first of these generally regards what they call abstract art as an embodiment of foolish, futile, and unreasonable behavior, which, in its extreme, is an insult to the intelligence of the observer. The second of these groups may include those who may or may not admit to not understanding “abstract art”, but who, due to their liberal and humanitarian biases, defend its existence by reference to either ethical values attached to the freedom of expression, which is sometime thought to provide therapeutic benefits to the creator, or to the hedonistic abandonment of pleasure experienced by the observer. While all these responses may be valid they do not approach in beneficial yield what is to be gained by proper labeling. These positions cannot explain anything about abstraction or realism beyond how certain individuals respond to such works and, for the most part, this is all that has been attempted and it is insufficient. Ordinarily, the circumstances, which surround the public appearance of these questions, defeat the expert right at the start. The situation is not unlike a verbal exchange with a parrot with an extensive vocabulary but has no idea what he’s talking about. The “expert” being questioned is unable to respond in any adequate way because he is, and can only be, uncertain what the questioner means by the term “abstract art”, and the questioner cannot help the expert because of the very limited amount of common ground available to them. If the questioner is uncertain what he means by the term the expert can hardly know how to answer him and neither of them can be certain they know what is going on. Frequently the question is asked in an environment poorly suited to any serious discussion, and

especially one, which requires an understanding of definitions. The pressure of such questioning is sometimes so great that some socially conforming experts will admit the hopelessness and respond by emitting some polite noise which has no meaning beyond intending to make the questioner feel intelligent, but the real result is that both stupidity and ignorance prevail. The questioner is left with the feeling he is able to maintain an upright intellectual position, which has its limited benefits, but the expert is left helpless, stripped and adrift. On the other hand if the expert chooses to accept the challenge and take the question and the questioner seriously and provides the necessary reconstructed definition of terms he will likely be considered a bore and not be invited back. The invitation to return would not be missed, but the reputation of being rude, uncooperative, and “too smart for his own good” is sometimes hard to bear. The above description is concerned with only one of the factors perpetuating a very unfortunate state of intellectual affairs. For another and, perhaps, an even more important factor, one need not travel outside the circle of the purely intellectual life. We have outlined above the difficulties, which exist between those who know and those who seem to want to know. It is even more difficult and disastrous when those who should know and think they do know what they are talking about have become accustomed to using the terms “abstract” and “realistic” in the synthetic ways that have become standard and find themselves in a bind in written or oral discourse. Even as eminent a scholar as Sir Herbert Read has, on occasion, argued himself into an awkward corner. A review of the literature reveals that many who use the term “abstract” do so in a variety of ways but generally do so to designate a product that lacks qualities of “realism”. In short, the term “abstract” is used to designate something that is not “realistic”. This dichotomy should not exist in intelligent discourse. Additionally, the terms refer to an idea that is inadequate as an intellectual tool for it tells us what something isn’t, not what it is, I realize that there are those intereste in operational semantics maintain that a word means what the person using it means it to mean. This argument is an argument in favor of discord and intellectual anarchy. I hold that it is the responsibility of those who use language as a disciplined means of communication to protect the specialized uses for which their tools were designed. Disassociated from any particular reference, the word “abstract” means: “drawn away”, “derived”, “removed”, and “separated”. There is some suggestion to the effect that the term might also include the idea of “forming”, e.g., “abstract notions”. It is at just such a point that intellectual discipline should caution a consideration as to whether the word tool “abstract” should include not only the idea of taking away, but of “forming” since these are two very separate actions. To use the term in these two ways only adds to the confusion. To “abstract” describes an act of separation, to “form” describes an act of bringing together elements, which were once separate. To further distinguish the idea, it is not possible linguistically to “form an abstraction” but it is possible to “reform” an

abstraction, but then, the abstraction ceases to be an abstraction and becomes something formed. By way of another clarifying example, when a legal clerk is asked to prepare a legal abstract of a case he will extract from the whole mass of material those items which factually describe the nature of the case. It is not his function to change any material fact. In the case of “modern” art, more than in anything else, the degree of change is what determines I what determines whether it is labeled “abstract” or not. The more change there is the more “abstract” the work is, at least according to the prevailing use of the term. This schizophrenic development has led to some serious intellectual sins and prevented an intelligent understanding of not only the creative process itself but its role in one of this civilizations more important contributions to human awareness…the richly varied world of the visual arts. Under particular circumstances the act of forming is related to the act of abstracting, certainly in the sense that one act follows the other, and, it is more than likely that at that moment in time when abstraction ceases and forming begins is a fraction of an instant in time, but it is vitally important that we, on the conceptual level, keep these two actions separate both mentally and physically separate. To carry over the use of the word “abstract” when describing the act of changing may be a convenient rhetorical device to avoid straining the attention of one’s audience but it does contribute to sloppy thinking on the art of both speaker and audience. It is, partly, to this phenomenon that we may credit what appear to be a very confused state of affairs in the area of art instruction, criticism, and history. In terms of art historical analysis, the field has hardly moved in a truly significant fashion out of the arena of analyzing Art as a sociological phenomenon and into the area of aesthetics. As an area of philosophical discourse aesthetics has been hampered by the bias that aesthetics is the science of the beautiful. This prejudice has kept many generations from a full life of aesthetic experience, an experience that can also include the ugly and the painful. The Baroness Hilla Rebay, I understand, suggested the term “absolute”, but for such art forms I would prefer “non-objective” as a more appropriate term in the face of Sir Herbert Read’s correct observation that the cube and the sphere are a part of nature, which they are, of course, even though not a predominant nor very obvious part—except, and a very important exception it is, that as soon as a no-objective work of art begins to be manifested physically it becomes a part of our environmental nature. Werner Hartman astutely observed “an unexpected conclusion resulting from the impact of science on art is that realism and geometric abstraction stand on the same side of the question, even though all trends of abstract art generally tend to see themselves as antipodes of realism”. Well, it is true, it seems, that most practitioners of what Hartman, Read, and Gombrich refer to as “abstract” art do see their efforts as being opposite to what most refer to as “realistic”. The problem lies in the fact that these people use inappropriate reference points and have accepted misnamed labeling and an unreal dichotomy.

Someone, somewhere along the line got the rest of the world to think in the terms that the aim of the graphic arts in the western world was to represent visual reality, and I think some emphasis must be placed on the word “represent” as opposed to their recognizing that these “representations’ were not, in fact, representations, but facts existing in the real world. This subtle difference becomes important when, in considering their evolutionary structure, the emphasis is placed on visual exactness when there are many other exactnesses available to represent, such as “movement”, “sound”, “attitude’ and the like and had these alternatives been given creative attention the realization that a work of art has a valid reality of its own without referencing any other might have served to broaden our concepts of art and enriched our experience of it and have advanced the sophistication of our artistic production far beyond where it is at present. Much of this point of view seems to have gone unnoticed except for a few very astute individuals such as Madame de Stael. What understanding this does for us is to help us better see the word “abstract” has an important limitation placed upon its use. The word “abstract” properly refers to a process and not a product. The product of the process is a part of the objective real world. This means, in effect, that a work by Mondrian, for example, is improperly called “an abstraction” because it is measurably real, but it is certainly a product of abstraction, as is a landscape by Constable. With this concept firmly in mind our understanding of Western Art especially from about 1850 onward will, I believe, be freed of the burden of a language that has hobbled our understanding and crippled our ability to perceive. Where Sir Herbert Read is willing to claim all art to be abstract because it “departs from an exact representation of the objective world”, I wish to call all art abstract because it proclaims its relationship to the objective world and I would include as a part of that world all possible visual experiences. The process of abstraction is a continuing process of selection and this is all that it is. What many seem to refer to when using this word is something beyond the process of abstraction, which appears to be willful change, alteration, or adjustment. These other behaviors are just as vital, if not more vital, to the creation of a work of art as is abstraction but they are different from it. The responsibility is ours that we make certain we make these distinctions whenever we engage in serious dialogue. What happens in so many instances of this type may be happening right now, that the further one pushes the edges of meanings the ore the original thought see to take on characteristics of its opposite. Hans Arp had led us in this direction when he explained that he could understand how a cubist painting could be called abstract, but he felt that a painting or a sculpture that had no object for a model was as tacitly real as a leaf or a stone. This statement is provocative for two reasons, Arp seems to have overlooked the idea that the word “abstract” has a generic meaning, and has fallen into the pitfall of accepting (perhaps only for argument’s

sake) the misleading use of the term, and his statement is provocative as well because he seems to insist on our recognizing the “reality” of non-objective works, which is not at all a problem for me, but may be for others. Our habits of using the terms “abstract” and “realistic” incorrectly have become so ingrained that that it is a real conceptual struggle to come to grips with the notions that what we had thought was abstract is really real and that what we had thought was realistic was really abstract. At this point it becomes necessary to determine the uses of the words “real”, “realism”, and “realistic”. It is consistent with my point of view that what is real is measurable. There are objective techniques which are able to measure aspects of phenomena and these measurements are considered valid for determining the reality of those phenomena. What is realistic, that is, “like real” is illusory and “realism” refers to an aesthetic attitude which might be related to what is real or what is realistic. Our use of language sometimes presents a problem in our comprehension and it may be worthwhile for us to investigate it. Restricting, for the moment, our discussion to the world of the visual arts let is consider the “real”, that is, the “measurable” world. Almost without exception any discussion of art, particularly western art involves us with ideas of reality for it is difficult for most people, whether sophisticated in the art world or not, to divorce themselves from the idea that a painting is a painting of something. With this extraneous ideational baggage hampering discussion, it may be to our best advantage to dispose of its influence as quickly as possible. If we start from the point that defines the function of an artist as one where he is to engage in an activity designed to transpose visual appearances from the objective world to the two-dimensional world of the canvas or the paper we then may relate the idea of realism to the artist’s function, that is what the artist is supposed to do, some say. As was mentioned earlier “realism” is a term that defines an aesthetic attitude. An artist using oil paint as a medium to transpose the visual appearance of the visual world to the twodimensional world has two sets of very complicated data with which to deal. In the first place he has all the multiplicity of visual data the human eye allows him to see and secondly he has a palette of several dozen intermixable colors so that the possible final number of mutations is extravagant. The artists imply doesn’t use all the possible combinations available to him, or, if he does, he is probably not conscious o what he is doing. What governs the selection of what is used or not used is probably this very important variable I am attempting to define, that is, the aesthetic attitude. It is probably this illusive characteristic, which assists the artist I selecting the appropriate pant symbols to express the appropriate visual data from the external world. There can never be a one to one relationship for there is always transformation that takes place. The transformational control of raw sensual data into painted visual phenomena is what I would call the realistic attitude. The practitioner knows that there is no exact equivalence in his operations and that his aim is illusion. The only thing that is real is the end product itself.

The qualities of reality are more numerous than most of us customarily think. Many different things may govern what we perceive of reality. For example, the condition of our eyesight, whether we are near or far sighted, astigmatic, or whatever, whether we have had extensive training, say, at looking through a microscope, or deciding what should be seen by an audience looking at a stage performance, whether we have been encouraged to compose what we see, or feel free to eliminate what we don’t want. Our psychological state may also determine what is real for us and what is not as we filter the data from the objective world. The distortions effected by any one or combination of factors may not be distortions at all but accurate representations of reality, as a reality. When we admit this host of possibilities into our discussion of reality we have, to a great extent, destroyed the effectiveness of the usual dictionary definition of reality and given license to the individual interpretations of reality as affected by circumstances which is the appropriate province of fine art as expression as opposed to art as a record of an object extracted from its environment. Most art products are, in terms of what might be called realistic, distortions of reality, because the artist leaves out so many of realistic details, the grossest of which, normally, are those other qualities of reality such as size odor, texture, sound, all these, because o the nature of the medium must be excluded, and having been excluded from the end product the end-product is this that much less realistic. That is a great deal of data to exclude and in this discussion about the reality of the art product must be considered as not being a part of the reality of the work, therefore, the work has a particular reality and that particular reality is its actual size, color, chemical make-up and total measurable composition not least among which is the manner in which the materials of been manipulated. It is the manipulation of all those qualities, the measurable and present qualities that constitutes the work of art. Having now, focused out attention not on the subject matter of a work of art but on how the materials of its composition are manipulated we can address the central creative efforts of the artist and eliminate ads an ultimate goal the artist’s ability at producing some verisimilitude. While some artists are extremely adept at presenting images that seem faithfully to represent objective reality and, in the case of Andre Wyeth to add convincing psychological dimensions as well, the observer would not be well-served in coming to the conclusion that such an end product is the ultimate goal of the art form. In summary, I would like to emphasize the necessity of not restricting the application of the word “reality” when discussing the visual arts to include only those data which the normal, unaltered machinery of seeing allows us to perceive. The word “realistic” may be used to define those products which come closest to translating this visual data, but because there may be aspects of realty which have been ignored by the artist it is best to qualify the description. The mutability of the term “realistic” can cause us problems in trying to say what we mean. Since in its capacity as an aesthetic measure “realism” is a subjective quality of mind and as such can accept, reject, alter, shift, or, in short, behave in a will-o-the wisp fashion,

creating or destroying values its use in our language should reflect this quality. A realistic attitude can recognize as a factor of the real world a glob of paint on a van Gogh painting, or, in some cases the subtle transitions in a David nude. It may have been the recognition of something like this that prompted Picasso to say “we must always begin with something…” That “something” implies existence and, therefore, reality, as well as a point of view related to that reality. The mental position of “realism” allows us to select what for that particular moment and the particular artist is significant enough to be “real”.
A note to the reader: the original essay was written in 1968 but had never been published. It has been altered somewhat for this electronic publication.

Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World”

Lidicoatite: a sample of geometry from the natural world.

John Constable: “The Hay Wain”

Piet Mondrian: “Composition with Color”

Hans Arp: “Composition”

Vincent Van Gogh: “Starry Night”