“The role of artist has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.” – Adolph Gottlieb
Sight is one of the earliest of our senses to be active. For much of our childhood images are explained for us. We come to call these explanations traditions.
The image is not always accurate. The brain works on a library of previous experience which is why we often recognize shapes in the misshapen – we delight in seeing shapes in clouds. We are, as has been said by others, inveterate pattern makers.
Interpretation comes along later with our conscious effort to ‘think’ about what we see. It is a fact that a huge amount of what is visually open to us is hidden – like looking into a forest – we only see the first line of trees not every tree at once. The world comes to us in bits and pieces and we assume the next bits to come to us will nonetheless, make sense and be consecutive to those we have already seen.
We have evolved, so we would expect our senses to have empathy with the rest of the natural world. An empathy, we now realise, that informs our instinctive ideas of aesthetics.
The brain is reaching for unifying standards in all visual images. The Theosophy of abstract artists since Hilma af Klint, regarded as the first pioneer artist of abstract art, set in place much activity of twentieth century painting, of which some worked and others did not. All dependent upon the individual taste of the artist. We have had the same size brains for 150 thousand years – it is unlikely our instinctive aesthetics have changed in that time. Partly the reason Gottlieb’s pictographs are highly iconized with primitive symbols. Kandinsky also appreciated the primitive. Abstract delights in the reduction of reality.
But Gottlieb’s mention of ‘neurosis’, a word unused before modern times, could be a key to understanding Modern Abstract Art. Perhaps even the whole of Modern Art. We are, all of us, as all before, trapped in history. We cannot forget in Europe and across the world millions of men and women were slaughtered in two world wars, mighty revolutions and genocidal nationalism. We have only sketchy information on those artists who died young. Repeating the ravages of history from the ancient world until today. It doesn’t matter – the art world has been dictated by those who survived one way or another but when we look back at Greek and Roman history we know some of the names we do not have, some of the works we do not have. History will always ask the question of the twentieth century and we need the courage to meet it – we may have many in the canon who would have been second or third tier had others survived.
When history looks and finds so few and casts aside those we have held high and wonders what might have been, we can anticipate the same. We do so on the basis that ‘anything can be art’ (a twentieth century proposition only) is obviously a philosophy of convenience. It is not true. The videos of the dead being bulldozed into mass graves in Auschwitz is not, and never could be, an art video but certainly a documentary. Not everything can be or is, art. But everything can be sold.
Much post-1914 abstract art could be categorised as self-medicating in the same way Ted Hughes writings are for his black depression. It is not unusual for academics to use words to self-medicate in this way. Artists have also done the same. Rothko, whose demons and the greed of the New York art system killed him, and were no comfort to Jackson Pollock.
The abstract is brilliant at this for it can be anything. It can be the art of those who cannot draw. It can be the art for those who do not want to be reminded of the world or remind the viewer of anything but the pure sense of art unfettered from the horror of history. Except that is a delusion. As Gottlieb says “our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil.” Truly ‘different times’ but one which gave everyone the excuse to be artists. We are all artistic. We are not all artists.
Abstraction was the only place for many artists after 1914 to go in the face of industrialized warfare. It is our aesthetic looking for an explanation as to why butchery springs out of us. Why nationalism speaks so strongly to us. Why war is our most ardent child. It is an endless series of experiments towards the unrealized art work.
It has become a cowards way out.
Volume 30 number 1 August / September 2015 pp 10-11