May 2003


Hilton Kramer's Misreading of Abstract Art

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

In the December 2002 issue of The New Criterion, the neoconservative journal of art and culture that he co-founded and edits, Hilton Kramer poses the question "Does abstract art have a future?" Since he is a prominent critic and has been an ardent champion of abstract painting and sculpture for half a century, his observations on the subject are of particular note. They indicate not only what he finds of value in this modernist invention but also why he thinks its future is now in jeopardy. On both counts, his views must be called into serious question.

Kramer keenly laments that "the place occupied by new developments in abstract art on the contemporary art scene . . . is now greatly diminished from what it once was." He recalls with nostalgia the 1950s and 1960s in America

when new developments in abstract art had shown themselves to have the effect of transforming our thinking about art itself. This is what Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and others accomplished in the early years of abstract art. It was what Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and others in the New York School accomplished in the 1940s and 1950s. And, for better or for worse, it was what Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and certain other Minimalists accomplished in the 1960s.

As Kramer goes on to make clear, what he misses now is not primarily the actual works produced by abstract painters and sculptors but rather their influence on esthetic theory--the "group impact on aesthetic thought, . . . not [the] individual talents." This view is astonishing in two respects. First, it appears to give greater importance to theory than to practice, to the thinking about art than to the making of art works. Second, it implies that the aesthetic thought generated by the various abstract movements--from the pioneers (Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) to Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko and Pollock to the Minimalists Stella and Judd--was of value in itself. Kramer does not bother to say what he finds estimable in the diverse ideas about abstract work. Nor, apart from the tentative qualification "for better or for worse" regarding Minimalism, does he offer any hint that theories as disparate--even contradictory--as those of the abstract pioneers, the Abstract Expressionists, and the Minimalists cannot possibly all be right. Yet one has no reason to share Kramer's regret that abstract art no longer has "the effect of transforming our thinking about art itself" if the successive transformations he alludes to have no objective value--if (as Louis Torres and I have argued at length in a chapter entitled "The Myth of 'Abstract Art'" in What Art Is) they make no sense in relation to human existence.

Kramer's failure to deal adequately with such issues is evident in the account he offers of the history of abstract art. He acknowledges that, from its inception nearly a century ago, abstract art has raised doubts about its "artistic viability." And he devotes several paragraphs to an overview of both the "good minds" and the "benighted" that have expressed such doubts. Yet he never deals with the substance of the doubts themselves, much less resolve them. Moreover, his notion that abstract painting "derives, aesthetically, from representational painting" can be understood only in purely formalist terms: referring to properties of line, shape, color, and pattern that are pleasing to the senses but convey no meaning. Though all too common, such a usage completely belies the intent of the artists who invented abstract painting, not to mention the original meaning of "aesthetic."

In the sense intended by Alexander Baumgarten, the eighteenth-century German philosopher who coined the term, die aesthetik referred to a new branch of philosophy, which he defined as "the science of perception." Baumgarten's aim in exploring this new field was to persuade his fellow philosophers that the arts contain important forms of knowledge, as worthy of serious consideration as the abstract spheres of thought with which German philosophy had previously concerned itself. On Baumgarten's view, then, "aesthetic" forms were not merely sensuously pleasing, they were meaningful as well (see my further comments on this point in "Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant-Garde"). In that light, Kramer's formalist application of the term "aesthetic" to abstract art is unwittingly ironic.

Kramer's claim that abstract work derived from representational painting is mistaken in another respect. Prior to the abstract movement, painting, however stylized and simplified in form, had always maintained a recognizable reference to the sorts of things that constitute human experience. The pioneers of abstract painting deliberately abandoned such reference. In so doing, they were neither guided nor inspired by superficially similar formal properties in representational painting, as Kramer's claim implies. They were impelled by a host of radically extreme, often daft, assumptions about the nature of reality--not least, about human nature (one idea held by Malevich, for example, was that humans might literally be able to see through solid surfaces). They were attempting to create a radically new art, and through it a radically new human nature. Since their flawed assumptions are analyzed in some detail in What Art Is, I will not elaborate on them here. I will only stress that the goal, albeit never attained, of the first abstract artists was to embody profound meaning in their work, it was not to create arrangements of color and form that were merely sensuously pleasing.

Kramer, however, thinks of "aesthetic" value only in such formalist terms, not in relation to meaningful representations. This is clear from his objections to recent exhibitions of twentieth-century art. In his view, the series of MoMA 2000 shows (at New York's Museum of Modern Art), for example, fell short because the numerous examples of abstract art "were in every case presented to the public on the basis of . . . their so-called 'content,' and not on the basis of their abstract aesthetic." So, too, he is critical of the Tate Modern in London for its "discernible hostility to all aesthetic considerations," a hostility evidenced by the fact that "painting and sculpture of every persuasion [have been] similarly presented to the public on the basis of their thematic 'content.'"

The implicit opposition of aesthetic form to content in such remarks reveals Kramer's profound misunderstanding of the nature of art. As Baumgarten's early treatises on aesthetics suggested (and other writers have also argued), form and content are inextricably linked in works of art. Perceptually graspable forms are the means by which content (meaning) is conveyed in visual art. Form without intelligible meaning or content does not constitute a work of art; nor can there be content in the absence of identifiable forms. And by "identifiable forms" I do not mean abstract shapes such as circles, squares, or stripes; I mean visual representations of persons, places, things, and events (whether real or imagined), representations that are meaningful in relation to human experience.

Contrary to Kramer's view, the entire history of twentieth-century avant-garde movements, beginning with abstraction, can be understood as a series of misguided attempts to do away with either or both of these essential attributes. While the abstract pioneers earnestly sought to create meaningful work, they made the mistake of dispensing with the familiar forms of perceptual experience through which meaning is conveyed in painting and sculpture. And the sorts of occult metaphysical concepts they were attempting to convey may in any case simply not have lent themselves to visual embodiment at all. Later influential advocates of abstract art--most notably, Alfred Barr (the founding director of MoMA) and the critic Clement Greenberg--completely ignored the pioneers' intent, treating their work as if it were not meant to convey ideas, and evaluating it instead in purely formalist terms. Kramer largely subscribes to their formalist notions of esthetic value with respect to abstract work.

Kramer also offers a dubious analysis of postmodernism in the visual arts--which he aptly characterizes as the "fateful shift of priorities away from the aesthetics of painting, both abstract and representational, in favor of a political, sexual, and sociological interest in art-making activities." First, he claims that the emergence of the Minimalist movement "went so far in diminishing the aesthetic scope and resources of abstraction that it may in some respects be said to have marked a terminal point in its aesthetic development." Lurking beneath this verbiage is an apparent misunderstanding of the actual nature and intent of Minimalism, however. Despite the superficial resemblance between some Minimalist paintings and those of early abstract painters such as Malevich, their work is worlds apart in intention--so much so that Minimalism should not even be considered an instance of abstraction. Kramer correctly notes that, like the Pop Art of Andy Warhol and others, Minimalism "constituted a programmatic assault . . . on the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School." But he mistakenly claims that this was also an assault "on the entire pictorial tradition of which the New York School was seen to be a culmination."

Abstract Expressionism was decidedly not a culmination of the pictorial tradition of Western painting (though in their reaction against it the postmodernists appeared to act as if it were)--since, prior to the twentieth century, that tradition had always involved depiction, or representation, as the very term pictorial implies. In any case, the Minimalists in effect rejected all prior tradition and practice, whether abstract or representational. Purporting to create an art that dispensed with both content and aesthetic form, they simply presented things, or objects, for what they are, mainly by exhibiting arrangements of the most banal of industrial materials, such as bricks, paving materials, and cubes or slabs, or (in painting) by presenting shapes as mere shapes, as two-dimensional objects having no further reference or significance. "Eschewing representation, illusion, and expressive form, Minimal objects aspired to the ontological status of furniture or other real things, but without practicality or function"--to quote the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. There was no intention to represent or express anything--to abstract (in the proper sense of that term) any meaning or emotion from reality. "What you see is what you see," as Frank Stella put it. Of course, the crucial question ignored by Kramer and other critics is, What (if anything) makes such objects art? It is a question that neither the Minimalists nor anyone else has ever adequately answered. Indeed, their work prompted Clement Greenberg to observe: "[I]t would seem that a kind of art nearer the condition of non-art could not be envisaged." I would argue that Minimalist work, like other postmodernist genres, is non-art, that it is, moreover, a type of anti-art, since it springs from a deliberate rejection of essential attributes of art.

Kramer makes the further astonishing claim that for the militant Minimalist Donald Judd, "art itself had become a utopian project," as Judd was attempting to "sever all ties to the cultural past." A careful reading of the interview with Judd which Kramer cites (by Bruce Glaser in Art News) reveals the hollowness of that claim. Whereas the notion of a utopian project implies an ideal scheme generally applicable to others, Judd clearly stated that his vision was more narrow. Rather than conceiving a universal new art of the future, he was, as he put it, "just talking about what my art will be and what I imagine a few other people's art that I like might be." Moreover, it is clear that his rejection of the whole Western tradition of visual representation ultimately stemmed not from any utopian idealism but (as in the case of many other avant-gardists) from his own inadequacy in the face of daunting precedents. Referring to that tradition as "this painterly thing," Judd was candidly explicit: "I can't do anything with it. It's been fully exploited." He then added, almost peevishly, "and I don't see why [it] exclusively should stand for art." Why, in other words, should art be something he wasn't capable of creating?

The connection Kramer posits between Judd and utopianism was inspired by analogy with a passage he cites from an essay by Lionel Trilling, regarding an earlier utopian vision--which I quote here only in part:

[T]he world is an aesthetic object, to be delighted in and not speculated about or investigated. . . . [I]n Morris's vision of the future, the judgment having once been made that grandiosity in art is not conformable with happiness . . . , the race has settled upon a style for all its artifacts that is simple and modestly elegant, and no one undertakes to surprise or shock or impress by stylistic invention.

Never mind, Kramer advises, that Trilling's context was entirely different: he was writing about a work of utopian fiction, William Morris's News from Nowhere. Kramer further ignores that Trilling characterized Morris's fiction as a vision of "an achieved perfection of human existence"--which, as I've suggested, has nothing in common with Judd's Minimalist project--and that Minimalism never aimed at the sort of aesthetic delight alluded to by Trilling. Ignoring so much makes it easy for Kramer to assert that Trilling's comment "neatly defines the spirit that came to govern [Judd's] utopian project and so much else in the Minimalist movement." On top of his vacuous utopian analogy, Kramer's reference to stylistic invention in relation to Judd's work adds yet another layer of error. To speak of style in regard to Judd's Minimalism is inane, since his work involved no attempt at either communication, expression, or practical function, and no tranforming employment of a true medium--the sorts of contexts in which the concept of style is applicable.

According to Kramer, the second major factor contributing to the art world we know today was that the 1960s counterculture, which included Pop Art, "left all prior distinctions between high art and pop culture more or less stripped of their authority." As Louis Torres and I suggest in What Art Is, however, the main factor in postmodernism was not a breakdown of distinctions between "high art" and "pop culture" (as Kramer terms them) but, more fundamentally, between art and non-art. Abstract work had itself initiated this breakdown by severing the crucial connection between art and intelligible meaning-- and that, by the way, is why it should have no future. In its superficial, trivializing way, Pop Art was an attempt to re-introduce recognizable subject-matter into painting and sculpture, just as "conceptual art" constituted another perverse postmodernist approach to putting content back into visual art.

In the epigraph of his article, Kramer quotes this observation by Frank Stella: "It is hard to tell if abstract painting actually got worse [after the 1960s], if it merely stagnated, or if it simply looked bad in comparison to the hopes its own accomplishments had raised." In truth, all abstract art suffers much the same lack of a standard of comparison and evaluation. By contrast, representational art, however stylized, can always be judged in relation to what the viewer knows or feels about life and the world--judged not in the crude sense of determining how photographically realistic a work seems, but in the deeper sense of considering how effectively it conveys something significant about human concerns and interests. Since the meaning-content of abstract painting and sculpture is inscrutable, a work can be judged only by completely subjective means, without appeal to any objective standard or criterion. Critical assessments of abstract work generally boil down to "It's good (or bad) because I like (or dislike) it." And the liking or disliking depends on an idiosyncratic gut response to mere color and form, rather than to any sense of how compellingly the artist conveyed an idea or feeling relevant to human life. To the editor of a journal pointedly entitled The New Criterion, that lack of an objective criterion for judging abstract work, whose cultural value he is so insistent upon, should present a troubling contradiction.