Unreal Nature

May 25, 2015

Primal Nerve

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… Why put up with it? Because we want what only this risk has been able to give us.

This is from Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock by Kirk Varnedoe (2006):

… Beyond my liking abstract art, or your liking it, or even all of Washington DC liking it; beyond the commitments of the artists who make it; and beyond the collectors and institutions that support it, What is abstract art good for? What’s the use — for us as individuals, or for any society — of pictures of nothing? What’s the use of paintings or sculptures or prints or drawings that do not seem to show anything except themselves — big holes in the ground [see Michael Heizer‘s North, South, East, West, 1967], or huge curved pieces of steel [see Richard Serra‘s various Torqued Ellipses]?

I take this topic ultimately because it seems to me one of the most legitimate and poorly addressed questions in modern art.

Michael Heizer, North, South, East, West, 1967

… There are not any “hard” reasons why abstract art has to be. Nor any teleology that explains why it developed as it did. And it is useless to keep looking for those kinds of justifications.

This does not invalidate abstract art. The familiar arguments that abstraction is just a big hoax, a colossal version of the “emperor’s new clothes,” perpetrated on a duped public by cynical art mandarins, seem like tiresome whistling in the dark. Abstract art has been with us in one form or another for almost a century now, and has proved to be not only a long-standing crux of cultural debate, but a self-renewing, vital tradition of creativity. We know that it works, even if we’re still not sure why that’s so, or exactly what to make of that fact. To borrow the phrase of the apocryphal contemporary academic, “Okay, so it works in practice. But does it work in theory?”

… abstract art absorbs projection and generates meaning ahead of naming, establishing the form of things unknown, sui generis, in their peculiar complexities. This is one of abstraction’s singular qualities, the form of enrichment and alteration of experience denied to the fixed mimesis of known things. It reminds me of the joke about the person who invented the cure for which there was no known disease.

… the development of abstraction in the last fifty years suggests something more Alexandrian than Adamic, that is, a tradition of invention and interpretation that has become exceptionally refined and intricate, encompassing a mind-boggling range of drips, stains, blobs, blocks, bricks, and blank canvases. The woven web of abstraction is now so dense that, for its adepts, it can snare and cradle vanishingly subtle, evanescent, and slender forms of life and meaning.

… Just the same, this is risky business. Abstract art is a learned language, and not always easy to understand.

… Understanding the tradition of abstract art sharpens our experience of what we are seeing. The idea that you need to learn about abstract art to enjoy it strikes some primal nerve, arousing our anxiety about authentic versus fake experience. It offends the know-nothings, who fall back on: “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” But this cliché flies in the face of our common sense awareness, reinforced a thousand times in our life, that some of the most deep-seated pleasures of our natural selves — from sex to food on up to music — involve appetites that had to be educated. If these pleasures are rooted in crude instinct, they nonetheless grow in depth and power as we acquire hierarchies of discrimination, until second nature is nowhere separable from the first.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Yet visual art — and abstract art most particularly — remains one of the last bastions of unashamed, unrepentant ignorance, where educated experience can still be equated with phony experience. In regard to abstract art, this syndrome becomes ever more acute as the tradition gets fatter and the works get leaner. What we see gets simpler, and what we can bring to it gets more complex. So we are constantly worried that we are being played for fools by works like Flavin‘s sculpture or Marden‘s painting. What makes the anxiety even worse is the fact that this is an art that, by its very nature, willfully and knowingly flirts with absurdity and emptiness, dancing on the knife-edge of nonsense and beckoning us to come along.

Why put up with it? Because we want what only this risk has been able to give us.

To be continued.




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