Reflecting on Abstract Art

29 Mar
2012

Abstract art isn’t about the same levels of drawing, perspective, practice, control. It is about pushing these boundaries and standards…

by Lorette C. Luzajic

It’s a question that has vexed me for decades now, but I’ve come to I accept it won’t be answered. If you are an artist or an art aficionado, it has probably plagued you, too: “Why am I profoundly drawn to some works of abstract art, and not at all to others?”

Planetary Chaos 2012 – Lorette C. Luzajic

This cannot be answered with the usual platitudes about pleasing composition and masterful use of colour. These may play into our responses, but the way we experience abstract art is more visceral than this. Art is always subjective, and despite centuries of scholarship and millions of pages and countless brilliant, creative minds,  the answer to why some people like some art and others don’t and vice versa remains elusive. Still, what we like and dislike about abstract art is itself abstract. “I like the colours/textures/lines/patterns” becomes meaningless when another piece with similar favourite colours or patterns falls completely flat.

In Understanding Abstract Art, Frank Whitford talks about judging abstract work. “…Pollock, far from relying only on chance while painting his pictures, exercised a high degree of control.” By contrast, he argues, the work of a monkey named Congo  featured only “daubs.” This work showed, “a monotony about the kind of mark he made and a lack of discrimination about the colours he used which reveal a lack of intelligence. Pollock’s works by contrast are carefully considered.”

Painting by Congo the Chimp

I’ve always been mildly irritated by Jackson Pollock’s work. I find them monotonous and unchallenging and they lack pleasing symmetries and the colour combinations don’t work for me. Clearly, many disagree, some enough to pay millions of dollars. I didn’t mind Congo’s creation and did not find a “monotony of mark.” I found a pleasing, positive energy.  I don’t believe that Congo “carefully considered” his work. Thing is, I don’t think Jackson Pollock did either.

Those who are moved by his art cite its dynamism and high paced action. His work is physical; it is flinging, pouring, moving. That energetic quality is interesting or exhilarating. It’s not remotely similar to the detailed, meticulous work that marvels in scenic watercolours or oil portraits. It’s powerful for other reasons.

The Weight of Secret – Lorette C. Luzajic

Still, the question remains- why don’t  other highly original, energetic pieces appeal in the same way? And why do I prefer the gestural strokes of Franz Kline over the constellations of paint that Pollock created? Arguments that some applications of abstract work are more controlled, more sophisticated in skill level, more considered and careful, are sometimes  preposterous and usually miss the point- that the imagination, emotion, experiment and the tactile elements engage the viewer. The audience participates, it could be said, with the paint and other materials. It is true that anyone can make an abstract painting, and anyone who says otherwise is also missing the point. But it is also true that whether or not anyone likes it is a precarious blend of emotion, attraction, and being in the right place at the right time.

The infamous experiments that occasionally resurface use monkeys or children  to create artworks; then, the images are judged blindly by some combination of random population, art intellectuals, artists, etc. Sometimes school kids’ work has been submitted to juried competitions, etc. The point of such experiments is to prove the accusation often leveled at artists and critics along the lines of, “even my five year old can do that!”

Time and time again, the art world is caught with its pants down, so to speak. For me, it is futile to try to prove that there is a specific, measurable answer to what makes abstract art good or bad art. Feigning elite skill sets rather than exuberant (or vicious) creativity sets us up for these embarrassments. Abstract art isn’t about the same levels of drawing, perspective, practice, control. It is about pushing these boundaries and standards to the side in favour of play, in favour of temper tantrums, in favour of dance, gesture and movement. Abstract is about creativity, emotion, and purely subjective aesthetics. Acknowledging these things and not trying to puff phony academic life into the purity of abstraction would be a wiser strategy. The popularity of abstract art speaks for itself. A better defense came from pop artist Iaian Greenson, who was once challenged with the old “anybody can do it” line. Yes, anybody can do it, but they didn’t. This simple acknowledgement captures the essence of abstract art- the doing. It may well be that only an idiot would buy it, and it may well be that the work is given way too much emphasis and analysis in art theory. But those are separate concerns from the making and the audience response. Make your own- it’s fun, you’ll see.

At a recent Salon for Artists, a meetup I’ve started hosting in my neighbourhood, we talked about an abstract piece on the cover of a local art magazine. It consisted of two pieces of cardboard box, each painted with only one small red circle, created by Micah Lexier. An art professor at the discussion suggested that the artist may have laboured for hours considering at what exact point he should place the circle. This, he argued, might require as much consideration as studying to play the flute, for example. One of the attendees was a very accomplished musician in classical music as a flutist.

Things Exist – Micah Lexier

I didn’t think there’s any comparison- painting a red dot versus learning a sophisticated symphony. Not all efforts are equal. For me, this was too much like denying that everybody can be an artist, when clearly, anyone can put paint on canvas and open themselves to this liberating, cathartic world of imagination. The difference, as Greenson wryly stated, is that some do and some don’t. As an artist, I know that not every dot I lay down is a skill or stroke of genius- and that hardly matters in the context of abstract. Art is also about imagination, invention, aesthetics, and the about the audience itself.

If it did take him hours to place that circle, I felt, it shouldn’t have! Curiously, though I didn’t think this work should cost anything or that it merited making the cover, in truth I really liked it.

Later, the art teacher was thumbing through my book. He came across an ancient piece, an abstract with rhythmic scribbles on a red background. Behind the lines, just a bit blurred from view until one focuses, it reads “fuck you people.” When he said, “You have made the same painting as this cardboard and dot,” I was instantly able to understand what he saw in Lexier’s work, and why it appealed to him enough to defend as he had.

But this gets tricky, too, because we don’t know if the artist’s intention was “fuck you” since it’s not clear- it’s abstract. We don’t even know if the artist’s intention is “open to audience interpretation.” For all we know, the piece might be about communism, or menstruation.

Exposure – Doug Trump

Rollicking debates abound all the time on the merits of even the great geniuses of all time- Shakespeare, Michael Jackson, Tolstoy, Van Gogh. In this little list, there is one I worship who blows me away, one I’ve always loved, one whom I respect with every fibre of my being but find boring unless I have help, and one I find tedious and think is a jerk. You too, have your ideas about each one. If such magnitude of talent and oeuvre is received with inexplicable subjectivity, how indeed can we hope to pin down an abstraction?

Art theory is filled with phony intellectualism and I abhor the kind of academia that purports to a deeper understanding but is actually a bunch of lofty bs. There are many who purport to an answer; critics who will find it obvious that someone who doesn’t like or “get” Rothko knows nothing about art. Of course, this is just a conceit, since along comes a spider- some Ivy Leaguer who expounds on why critic A is an uneducated fool.

Scarecrow – Clark Mitchell

We also know about science and reason, how symmetry and ratios make appeal scientific. This is what artists refer to when they talk about the Golden Mean.  It’s evident of course in human biology, the hourglass woman and triangular male torso and the fact that most people find people with more symmetrical faces more attractive or trustworthy than people with other kinds of faces.

But even here, this doesn’t account for the constant variations in taste. There are thankfully a few men who prefer chubby women, and lucky for me, some of them are wonderful or hot and some are even both. Even a miniscule variant in percentage for taste yields countless numbers who disband from the majority. Why am I obsessed with Adrien Brody, for example, who is gangly and all nose? The Freud in me says it’s probably because some of my earliest “special feelings” in adolescence were for, ahem, Barbra Streisand. But there are literally millions who hanker for Brody while millions more prefer the more scientific prototype of Brad Pitt. I highly doubt they shared my early awakenings via Funny Girl.

Untitled – Monique Mouton

So the mathematics and proportion of symmetry and composition certainly play a big part in how we respond to abstract art. But it still can’t explain why its very opposites are often more appealing, or why we might suddenly like the use of green even though we usually dislike green, or why we like Harold Town’s abstracts more than Walter Yarwood’s. And it can’t explain why the dull graphics of Jack Bush are always a wise investment.

One thing I notice in my own response is that money and market change for me the meaning of the work, and I have to keep the banking distinct from aesthetic. I don’t mean some things aren’t worth selling- I want all artists to sell anything they can. Sell what you want, buy what you want. To any artist who can earn income from applying paint to a paper or canvas (or glue or pastel or ink or whatever), I cheerlead you for living happy and for making space for me. What I mean is that I have to judge, for example, the cardboard dot piece separately from its price. If this kind of thing, or a giant “red” canvas or something, is billions of dollars, then I feel the whole thing is a joke. Most certainly I can make my own polka-dotted cardboard box and avoid going bankrupt.

Leap on Blue  - Jack Bush

But if money isn’t discussed, I judge work not on whether someone would or should pay but on whether I like the aesthetic or emotion. Maybe I love a giant red square and think it would look great on a white wall or in a modernist room.

Of course, this opens new philosophical paths. What’s a reasonable price? And is using a red square to furnish a room “art” or just decorating? I don’t think decorating is a bad use of art, either- but I don’t think wallpapering or painting a wall is “art.” Yet, the imagery on wallpaper might be art, no? And if I throw paint at the wall, like Pollock did on his canvas, would it then be art? And would the answer depend on whether I liked how it turned out or not?

There are many answers I could close with, since you want to know what I discovered about taste and subjective attraction and the appeal or lack thereof of art to various individuals. The Golden Mean, the “consideration” of Pollock which Congo lacked, the symmetry of biology, the seduction of beautiful.  All of these answers are true, but they are all dishonest. Why are some lines and dots more beautiful than others? And why does that conclusion change between two people of similar background or even the same genetics, with one finding your beautiful ugly?

Alas, there are no answers. The best I can come up with over my lifetime as, like George Costanza, an art adorer, and also as an artist, is that I’ve accepted that there is no answer but that these discussions are still worth their ink and oxygen.

That’s because reflection and lively conversations and rigorous disagreements are invigorating and they change the way we see things. Mulling over art and the meaning of life has constantly inspired both personal expansion and societal revolution throughout history.

It’s sometimes hard to share with someone an elusive thought- words may fail, or maybe words are to no avail because you both speak a different language. Pictures help convey what we see, and in turn, we can look at how another sees. Art, abstract art, and talking about it literally helps us to “see eye to eye.”

It also helps us “get in touch with ourselves.”  In still another abstraction, I think that abstract art helps us accept our own taste, to come to terms with our quirks and peculiarities and embrace them. It helps us grow to trust ourselves, to believe its okay to tune out some claptrap about “subtle brushstrokes” and dismiss something, or to respond positively to something unpopular because it evokes emotions that we cherish.

Maybe there’s little point to waxing poetic about such things, but every time I view art with a friend or stranger, I come away knowing so much more about both of us.

Lorette C. Luzajic

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