A Realist’s take on abstract art
Many, many realist painters are in profound and hostile reaction against modernist art. Just like in politics, when the pendulum swings far in any direction, the rhetoric gets ugly. Taking a look at my own work, which is so deeply enmeshed in the representational tradition, you might get the impression that I have no interest in abstract art.
I love looking at designs of any kind — as a child I used to drag the garden hose out to my sandbox and spend hours observing the patterns made by flowing water. Most of my studio neighbors are modernists, including two kindly old grandmotherly figures who do these big bold canvases. I eat it up. I regularly see abstract art and I try to learn from it. When I’m at my most open-minded (which isn’t always), I know that good painting of any kind has something valuable to teach me. I could look at Kandinsky all day long.
I tend to have a liberal definition of what constitutes art. For the most part, if the creator says it’s art, I’m pretty much willing to take him or her at their word for it. However, what drives me absolutely crazy is the overlay of a complicated, often pompous aesthetic on top of abstract art: “This piece reflects the state of humanity in the time of blah blah blah…” You know the kind of froth I’m talking about.
Now, extended discussions about form and content just bore me, so I won’t start. However, abstract art is by definition, well, abstract. It doesn’t refer to anything else but the painter’s design sense and the viewer’s appreciation for patterns.
I’m all for art making great social or human commentary, but it does it though symbols, and for a symbol to be intelligible, it has to be clear. Spikes and squiggles, while endlessly engaging to look at, are not clear symbols. Any artist who attempts to communicate such ideas through such images is being grossly inefficient, at best.
My own aesthetic is a fairly modest one; I don’t have any great commentary or message I’m attempting to convey. That may well come later in life; I recently find myself thinking along more symbolic lines from time to time. But for now, I’m simply content to make paintings that are harmonious and beautiful. In the end, that may be the deepest aesthetic of all. I doubt Chardin, when he was painting his great still lifes, thought of anything but.
In a way, this is fundamentally the abstract tenet: “Just a beautiful painting”. I don’t see why abstract painters themselves need to sully the integrity of what they do with self-important and meaningless blather. It makes the artists look foolish and it leaves the audience scratching their heads.