Recently I shared an image of a painting with my youngest sister that was executed by a mid-century abstract artist whose works sell for very handsome prices at the top international auction houses. After struggling to make some sense of it, her response was, “What!? Any idiot could do that!”
I did not ask her if her concerns regarding idiocy extended to me for having bought this painting. Because I get it. I understand why someone might think that any "idiot" can create abstract works of art that sell for what seem like preposterous amounts of money. I share similar astonishment about many post-modern art pieces. But if you share this same sentiment about vintage 20th century abstract art, I am sharing my views on this topic in this blog post to explain that while my sister is just being honest, I think she is mistaken.
As you may know, it was the invention of photography in the mid-19th century that many art historians believe ignited the creative fires of the early Modernists. These artists' goals were to paint more than mere reproductions of the subjects they observed. The thought was why attempt to do something that this new machine could always do better. Can painting even be considered one of the fine arts if the result is merely a replica of the subject of the painting? If so, this would be the equivalent of the highest forms of music being reduced to the sounds of birds chirping in the morning. Pleasant perhaps--but would that be considered high art?
(We will leave for a future blog post--one which I hope I will never have to write--if 21st century artists of all kinds will be forced to address a variation of this same issue soon, as “art” generated by artificially intelligent software becomes the latest post-modern fad in music, literature, or fine art.)
This means that while Modern era artists selected subjects for their paintings that they observed in day-to-day life--or in the case of surrealists, possibly originating as dreams--these works of art were never intended to be faithful reproductions of the chosen subject. Instead, Modern art captures what the artist subjectively senses or feels about the subject of a painting. Thus, this era in Western art is imbued with the emotion, spirit, and personality of the artist, thereby representing more than what meets the naked eye.
The logical conclusion of this fundamental foundation of Modern art--which started with Manet and Monet, then progressed to van Gogh and Matisse, and next to Munch and ultimately to Pollock--is that Modern art should never be judged by how accurately it depicts its subject. Nor that it even depicts an identifiable object at all. That’s the role of a camera. What matters most is how well the artist has expressed the subjective impressions and views of that image, vision, or dream in color, line, or form. And has the artist done so in a manner that no machine or mechanical process could ever reproduce as well.
This means our only hope for enjoying non-objective abstract art is to free ourselves from the common discussion I often overhear in modern art museums: “Don’t you see [this or that] object or figure right there?” Often this discussion is taking place about a painting that is completely non-objective that not even the most discerning art historian or collector could ever detect a figure within--even if the artist intended to include one. Yet if the observer can’t latch onto anything figurative, the observer walks away disappointed and confused. This could even lead to the expression of the same feelings my sister was blunt enough to express to me. Thus, the lesson for those who don’t “get” abstract art is to stop trying to see something that is very likely not there. Simply observe and enjoy the art for what it is.
To help you with that transition, think of the uniqueness of every sunset you have ever had the good fortune to observe. While the core subject is always the same, the end result is often a brilliant combination of abstract colors, form, and light. Who cares if a sunset never looks like anything figurative. The glory of a sunset is its variation in rich colors and unique form, not that it looks like anything. And no two sunsets ever look the same.
Instead, the magnificence of a sunset is how it makes you feel at a deep, emotional level that I’m not sure anyone can truly explain. Some believe it is primordial. But it’s definitely not because the sunset looks like any recognizable object or figure.
Once you can free yourself from the same struggle to find an objective figure in the non-objective genres of 20th century fine art (culminating in abstract expressionism), you will discover art that may delight you the same way a sunset does. The key difference is that your delight from such imagery will be available to you forever. It will not simply disappear once night falls and the light creating your sunset “masterpiece” fades away.
Can any idiot create imaginative, emotionally evocative, and inspiring images that might rival a sunset in delighting you? I don’t think so. Because it takes a rare, artistic talent to be able to do so consistently.
But for those who think I am wrong, perhaps you are the next Mark Rothko or Helen Frankenthaler and should try. Because let’s all agree on at least one thing (even if we can’t agree on the grandeur of well-executed abstract paintings). Our world has enough lawyers, accountants, and bankers. We can never have enough artists who inspire us.
Director, Wesley Barrett Fine Arts