Abstract Art Is Not Art and Definitely Not Abstract by Fred Ross

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Abstract Art Is Not Art and Definitely Not Abstract

by Fred Ross

Just because something causes you to have a feeling of aesthetic beauty does not make it a work of art.

A work of art is the selective recreation of reality for the purpose of communicating some aspect of what it means to be human or how we perceive the world.

The greatest works explore beauty or tragedy in life. The most profound and universal of human emotions that are timeless, and could have occurred in the ancient past and will be experienced again in the distant future. The same kind of subject matter is explored by the greatest poetry, novels, and plays. Our hopes, our dreams, our fears. Jealousy, greed, lust, ambition, traumas from prejudice, war and even just growing up. The cruelty possible to humanity — as well as its compassion and idealism.

Then take any one or more of these themes, give it expression by masterful skills forged by the finest training available, from centuries of codified knowledge of the craft. And all unified by the perfection of composition, of design, drawing, modeling, perspective, tone, color, light, atmosphere, and paint handling.

That is the description of works of art.

But, it is worth repeating, there are plenty of beautiful objects or scenes in nature that are aesthetic without being works of art in themselves: 

  • Rose petals floating in a basin.
  • Waves crashing on the shore.
  • A drop of dew on a flower.
  • A drop of blood on a white piece of paper might be pretty and momentarily interesting (like a Rothko painting).

These are all things that we might experience in reality, and that actually have an aesthetic effect. But they are not art. Art is the selective recreation of reality for the purposes of expressing an idea. The artist takes elements of reality and rearranges them in such a way that he makes perceivable an idea, a concept, an impression of the world. In other words, it is the artist, a human being, who is doing the selecting — not nature and not chance.

The scenes or objects mentioned above are tangible, and enjoyable in the here and now, and in recollection. But the real world or the natural world simply is. Our experiences in it can become the material of artworks when they are judiciously selected and arranged, with all the finesse and mastery of years of training, craftsmanship, and learning.

But isn't an "abstract" painting by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock tangible in a similar way to the examples above? Get close enough to a modernist painting and some patches of paint and blots of color are pretty to look at. Stare at them long enough you might even convince yourself that there is something meaningful in them, like a Rorschach ink blot test. But neither a blob of paint nor a Rorschach test is a work of art, and neither are they truly meaningful. They aren't meant to be interpreted as selections of reality at all. Since Clement Greenburg, modernist critics have always talked about them as "bits of" reality, as if they had their own exalted aesthetic existence.

The usual description of a modern "abstract" painting is that it is "a painting about paint itself". Its subject matter is paint, or the formal principles of painting. The first claim is nonsensical: saying a painting is about paint is like saying a poem is about the alphabet. A poem uses the alphabet to represent words, which can in turn be used to convey knowledge or express ideas. The second claim is just as banal. A painting that is "about" its formal principles is, again, like a poem that is about rhyme, about onomatopoeia, or about iambic pentameter. In other words, it is art as a jigsaw puzzle of the lowest order. An endless pseudo-intellectual game, slightly mesmerising because of its futility — like a Rubik's cube. Even fun to play occasionally — in jest — because it keeps the pattern-recognition parts of the brain occupied. By this definition, a Rubik's cube is probably the world's most successful work of modern art — it refers only to itself, it has the sacred cubic form, and it is covered with more colored squares than a Mondrian.

If art had ever been about this kind of cerebral playing with formal principles it would have died a tedious death millenia ago. But this is what modernist critics would have us understand is "abstract" art.

Folks, I want to point out that there is more than one meaning to "abstract". The modernists have tried to collapse two important senses of the term into one, to bolster their (as we saw above) ludicrous claims. For modernists, "abstract" means "non-objective" or "non-representational" or "non-figurative". For them, abstract means that which does not have any meaning outside of itself. In a very real sense "abstract" modern art is actually meaningless. From the modern critic's point of view, the more meaningless it is (the more "abstract") the better. Now, this is not to say that some "abstract" shapes or blobs of paint cannot be aesthetically pleasing. An oil slick can be pleasing to look at from the right angle — no matter whether it is in a puddle or on a prepared canvas. But they cannot say that an "abstract" modern work is meaningful in any real sense. It is whatever it is, a blob of paint or a block of color — no more and no less.

But truly, that is a fabricated meaning for the term "abstract." The real meaning of that term, which modernist critics have systematically sought to distort, is where an abstraction stands in for something — in other words, where it represents something, as a form of communication. The word "carnation" is an abstraction for a genus of botanical objects in the real world. Other words refer to places, persons, objects, colors, textures, feelings, and ideas. But no one thinks that the printed word "carnation" is the flower carnation; or the printed word "love" is the experience called love. It is an abstraction in words for those things or experiences in the real world. These abstractions are potentially meaningful because they refer to things; put enough of them together in the right order and these abstractions we call words can become scientific treatises or lyrical ballads. It is the expressive intention, the fictionalizing of reality for the purpose of giving an idea in the artist's mind a concrete reality, that makes these abstractions fit messengers for art.

Words are both abstractions in this sense, and also representations. Indeed, the very activity of representing something is a process of abstraction. The question is what is the meaning or the value of the representation. A poem that is "about" rhyming nonsense words is not a great contribution to culture. Similarly in painting, real art is when a painter can take a flat canvas, and with paint and brushes create abstracted recreations of reality, shaped by consummate craftsmanship and a poetic soul. Real art communicates or expresses compelling stories about the odyssey of human life; all the leagues it has travelled, all the lands it has visited — some lands strange and exotic, others in our own gardens and fields. Although the artist is a creator, and his worlds are painted or sculpted dreams, he dwells within nature, and dreams of her, and hopes that from his hand something of her beauty will be captured.

The chances of an artist forming a successful abstraction (or representation) are greatly improved if he has some knowledge and understanding of the things he turns his eye to. Any artist who rejects the aid of anatomical study, cast drawing, or careful research from the living form in hundreds of charcoal studies, is not unlike the poet who takes up an epic theme like the siege of Troy, or the Fall, while shirking all the reading in history, mythology, and observation of human nature required to produce something durable. A modernist might declare that none of this extensive reading or thinking is really necessary — the poet can just intuit the whole thing, conjure it up from his imagination. But the imagination does not work ex nihilo, from nothing. Like our dreams, it is made on the stuff of life: our histories, our actions, our passions, treacheries, sacrifices, acts of love and acts of malice. Our imaginations are pregnant with abstractions — but these abstractions come from the real world, from humanity, from nature.

Therefore, there are no more successful abstractions in art than those dreams on canvas conjured by Michelangelo , Botticelli , Titian , Rembrandt , Rubens , Vermeer , William Bouguereau , John William Waterhouse , or Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema .

All of those Old Masters successfully took highly trained skills and a mature mental vision, and used oils, pigments, canvas and brushes to conceive concepts about human life, composed and designed numerous elements drawn from tangible, concrete objects from the real world. They placed them in juxtaposition so as to express their ideas, and used consummately developed skills to draw, model, paint with color, tone, light, and atmosphere using their materials to recreate an imagined scene from reality (or dreams or fantasy or myth) that they successfully abstract in a stone block or piece of stretched canvas.

The people who are splashing paint on a canvas in pretty patterns, or brushing it on in aesthetically pleasing color combinations, are not doing anything abstract. They are merely depositing little tangible blobs of paint that do not stand in for anything at all.

I genuinely believe that people have derived a sense of aesthetic pleasure from some of their creations. But they are not in fact works of art. The most beautiful of their color fields cannot compare to a field of primroses. They are not works of art, no matter how beautiful, because there are no real abstractions in them, there are no meaningful selections from nature, no great activity of mind. They may mix colors prettily as they please (most of them aim for ugliness) but without selection based on knowledge of the forms of the real world they do not make works of art — and they are not artists.

At best they are craftsmen, with shoddy skills and unmethodical training. Ask yourself with an unbiased mind: What Rothko nebula or Pollock drip painting is more beautiful than a fine Persian rug, a Fabergé egg, or even a finely carved picture frame? The artificers of these three objects are craftsmen — but even they are not fine artists. Where do the legions of modernist smudgers, smearers, and splatterers rank?

The intense public relations and educational indoctrination by people with BAs, MAs, or PhDs after their names creates an intense human compulsion to just go along. All of these authorities tell us that these drips and drabs are great works of art. We are all vulnerable, especially during youth, to being intimidated by prestige. For a time, some of us can come to believe that it is our duty to accept the proclamations of these authorities. If we do not understand, we blame our own ignorance — the alternative for many is too sickening to think about.

So we try hard to see what we are told to see. And pretty soon, like Polonius, we see the camel, the weasel, and the whale all in the same cloud.

Once hooked into parroting the verbiage we are embarrassed into "seeing," we soon start to find the "better" or "worse" versions of those splatters and dribbles that we can say are wonderful — so as not to be humiliated or snubbed by this group of our peers or teachers.

Are there others in the crowd faking it? Or are they not faking it because they have come to really believe what they are saying? People tend to fiercely protect their beliefs just when they have stopped questioning. They become ego-invested in them. If we have "seen the light" with Picasso and Pollock and DeKooning and Hoffman, and have praised them many times, it becomes difficult to reject what we acquiesced to in the past. We give up our power of independent thought to the taste-makers: the chic critics and curators in the modernist art world.

Eventually, our beliefs about modern art can even become symbols of our way of life. Like a national flag or a religious icon, the mere sound of the name "Picasso" or "Matisse" conjures up an aura of high Art and culture. They become religious icons whose actual value we have long since blinded ourselves to, and who act as symbols of a culture that must be defended at all costs. Now, defending a belief is noble, but only when the belief is based in reality. Modernism is all about undermining those very objective standards by which we might judge and test our beliefs against. Fighting for modernism as a cause is not revolutionary, avant-garde, or progressive. It is simply cutting the philosophical branch from under your feet. It is putting your arguments and your beliefs outside of an arena where they can be objectively measured, discussed, or evaluated.

Where within this story you or others may fit when you look at a Rothko or Pollock, I cannot say. But it is not likely that if you can remove the blindfold of ego-investment, that you will not eventually come to see that even the best Rothko, using the most wonderful color combinations, can ever begin to hold a candle to Rembrandt . And you will realize that the real masterpieces of "abstract" art are not by Rothko, Pollock, or DeKooning — they are by history's finest masters of traditional realism.

Founder and Chairman of the Art Renewal Center, Ross is the leading authority on William Bouguereau and co author of the recently published Catalogue Raisonné William Bouguereau: His Life and Works.