December 2013


Has the Artworld Been Kidding Itself about Abstract Art?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

One hundred years after the invention of "abstract art," many ordinary art lovers remain baffled by such work and question its value. Yet artworld insiders insist that it was an important addition to the meaningful forms that art could take. Who is right?

That question was tellingly--albeit unwittingly--answered by the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 at New York's Museum of Modern Art earlier this year. While aiming to celebrate and illuminate the beginnings of "abstract art" a century ago, the exhibition inadvertently highlighted the shortcomings of such work. Both by what it acknowledged and by what it left unsaid, Inventing Abstraction cast serious doubt on the viability of "abstract art" as a vehicle of meaning.

In addition to broadly surveying diverse currents involved in the cultural deluge that began with the first publicly exhibited "abstract" (nonobjective) paintings in 1912, the exhibition touched on tentative forays into abstraction in the two preceding years. Wide-ranging in scope, it comprised some 350 works, not only from the visual arts but also from the realms of dance, literature, and music. Its underlying premise was that the resulting transformation was an artistically and culturally fruitful one, worthy of commemoration as a "watershed moment in which art was wholly reinvented."

The show's primary theme was that this sea change in the artworld was not due to a few solitary inventors but was instead the product of a densely connected network of individuals in Europe and America. That network was graphically represented at the entrance to the show and elaborated throughout in the placement of works, as well as in the accompanying descriptions.

Center stage was of course occupied by the visual arts. Thus the key question inevitably raised was this: What led some painters and sculptors in the early years of the twentieth century to take the unprecedented step of completely "rewriting the rules of artistic production" by "shunning the depiction of objects in the world" (to borrow phrases from the exhibition catalogue)? A corollary question was, Why did some artists choose not to do so? Neither question was adequately dealt with by the exhibition's curator, Leah Dickerman.

A Glaring Omission

Dickerman's catalogue essay cites the quest for "pure painting," "absolute art," and "the expression of pure reality" that inspired the proponents of abstraction. Yet it ignores the explicitly occultist metaphysical notions that led the key figures in the movement to reject the "long-held tenet of artistic practice: that paintings describe things in a real or imaginary world." Nary a word is said about Madame Helena Blavatsky--the controversial co-founder of the occultist Theosophical movement, which numbered many leading modernists in its ranks.

Instead, Dickerman devotes half a paragraph to William Worringer's influential idea (in his book Abstraction and Empathy, first published in German in 1908) that abstraction aimed to wrest objects "out of the unending flux" of life, to approximate their "absolute value." Worringer was not dealing with "nonobjective art," however. It had not yet appeared on the scene. He was referring to work that was abstractly stylized yet retained a discernible connection to real objects. What the chief advocates of wholly "objectless art" (in particular, Mondrian and Kandinsky) were inspired by were Theosophical speculations. It was Theosophy which explicitly supported their impulse to reject the material world and their desire to create a realm of "pure spirit" in and through their art. (*)

Yet the futility of such a desire was soon recognized by the artists themselves. "An immobile abstract form does not do much of anything," one abstract painter aptly observed. Moreover, Dickerman acknowledges that when Kandinsky himself asked the crucial question "What is to replace the missing object?" he raised

the problem posed by abstraction in a nutshell, and artists and their allies betrayed a great deal of anxiety on this score. First was the fear that the art object might be seen as merely decorative, and therefore insignificant.

Faced with that fear, the proponents of abstraction, "compensated with words," Dickerman observes. Abstract paintings (she terms them "pictures," though they depict nothing)

rarely if ever existed in isolation; rather, many words circulated within their orbit--titles manifestos, statements of principle, performative declamations, discursive catalogues, explanatory lectures, and critical writing by allies.

With nearly every work came "a proliferation of text, a parallel papery world." Remarkably, rather than viewing the accompanying "torrent of words" as a telltale sign that the new art had utterly failed, Dickerman approvingly concludes that abstraction served "as a foundation" for what followed in the postmodernist artworld with the advent of such things as "text presented as image."

Dickerman's admiration for the abstract movement's "radical innovations" also prompts her to approve the manner in which social interaction between its advocates advanced the cause. But that cause seems slim indeed when one actually looks at what was produced. I doubt that many viewers beyond the artworld would share Dickerman's enthusiasm for a work such as Katarzyna Kobro's Abstract Composition [more ], for example--which was spoken of at the press preview with the excitement one might feel on finding a lost work by Michelangelo--or of this wall of paintings by Malevich, which Dickerman also rhapsodized on. While she lauds such work as the product of fruitfully interconnected creativity, others might with good reason view them as the sorry result of artworld groupthink.

Misunderstanding the Nature of Art

Most tellingly, when Dickerman considers the role photography may have played in the decline of representational painting, she reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of visual art. She notes, for example, the oft-cited claim that the mimetic role of painting was displaced by photography. Since images could now be created by the camera, the reasoning went, "painting no longer had to do mimetic work . . . [and] was liberated for other tasks." Dickerman suggests that "mechanical reproduction may also have put the artifice of mimetic representation on full display, undermining it as a source of authority, certainty, and authenticity." Such reasoning mistakenly assumes that the images created by sculptors and painters are meant to be merely literal representations, having no import beyond their obvious pictorial content.

Similarly misleading was Duchamp's claim (uncritically cited by Dickerman) that he aimed "to put painting at the service of the mind." The true art of painting had always been "at the service the mind"--by embodying ideas in imagery. It had never consisted of mere imitation for its own sake.

At the press preview, as in the exhibition itself, Dickerman made much of the fact that Picasso had briefly flirted with total abstraction but had quickly recoiled from it. When Picasso insisted that painting must remain tied to depiction of things in the world, she implied, he was simply retrograde in his thinking, unable to join in the grand new adventure taking place around him.

During the Q&A, I suggested that perhaps Picasso was right after all--given the abstract painters' persistent fear that their work would be viewed as merely decorative, and their consequent need to support it with words. To which MoMA's director, Glenn Lowry, responded that, as he sees it, Picasso's "inability" to pursue abstraction was analogous to Einstein's inability to embrace quantum theory.

Rather than press Lowry on that dubious analogy, I questioned whether the general public has ever embraced abstract work as fully as the artworld has. He replied that public resistance to modern art is mainly "generational." In his view, "today's generation has grown up with art that isn't just pictures; they have no problem with such work--as evidenced by the popularity of modern art museums." He paused for moment and then added, with a sheepish smile, "But maybe I'm kidding myself."

That possibility, extended to the whole history of the abstract movement, merits serious consideration.

* The occultist beliefs that inspired early abstract painters are discussed in "The Myth of 'Abstract Art,'" [click on cover image, then search for "credit or discredit"], Chapter 8 of Torres and Kamhi, What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (Open Court, 2000). See also "Art and Theosophy," an anonymous but generally informative article (notwithstanding any errors of detail) on one of many websites devoted to Theosophical beliefs.

Editors' note: This is a slightly revised version of the article originally posted. While the first paragraph is entirely new, the next three are only slightly edited. The rest of the article remains the same. -- January 8, 2014