“Shakespeare’s pre-eminence is of course due to his extraordinary originality; but to begin to understand his originality, we have to interpret the word correctly. It does not mean that he invented a kind of drama that was quite different from that to which his age was accustomed, or that he invented new ideas for his dramatic subjects. It means that as part of his poetic talent and his imaginative intensity he possessed an unusual critical power. This, too, must be properly defined. He left no assessments of his own or of anybody else’s work, but a great imaginative writer must use criticism to test the vitality of the literary forms of his age. He tests them, rather than invents new ones… [in order to be] continuous with the imaginative expression that nourished him…”
“In all these plays Shakespeare is not rejecting the accepted forms of theatrical tradition; he is revitalizing them by bringing them into relationship with the actualities of real experience.”
C.Gillie, Longman Companion to English Literature; The Great Age: 1590-1620; Longman.
Lucky Shakespeare, to have lived at such a time, when forms and precedents and high, ambitious, competitive achievement were strong, and the artform in question could thus properly express the deepest feelings of the age. I’m not sure in visual art we are in the midst of anything like such interesting times, but nor do I believe that we are in an age of shallow feeling that must be mirrored in the contemporary art we make. But it strikes me as something of a dilemma; we might need on the one hand to overturn all precedent in abstract art so far; yet we can’t presume to make painting or sculpture without thought or structure, about any old thing and from garbage; and so, on the other hand, sympathising with all the achievements of abstract art to date, even if we consider them only minor, we might wish to continue to attempt to make something of their precedent – but yet more real, more intense… better.
How could abstract art be better? I sometimes look at it and wonder how it could be worse. How very lame and tame it sometimes appears, in comparison even with much second rate figurative painting. Because of this, I often express opinions that rile the exponents of continuity. They are usually painters. They seem to want to make a case for painting being more continuous, from figuration, through nascent abstraction, and so to “proper” abstract art; and more so than in sculpture. We’ve debated this before, and I still don’t know the real answer. But I think if you are a painter who believes in that continuity (and I don’t personally know any sculptors who believe anything similar about sculpture), then I think you really have to make your case. By which I mean, compare yourself and your lineage with the best of painting of the past. And you have to really make a very strong critical case. I haven’t heard one yet.
Humour, sadness, elation, depression; pathos, ebullience, turbulence; love, hate, attraction, revulsion; pointing, pushing, pulling, cavorting; turning, tossing, tumbling, twisting; rock and roll, victory and defeat; all the elements, in fact, of intense human interaction and drama that were once the province of figurative art, particularly figurative painting – where they formed the pretext upon which was built a profound diversity of imaginative visual constructs – are seemingly no longer at the behest of figurative art, which languishes in states of mock-academia or faux-avant-gardism, by turns bathetic, mundane or grotesque… all that human content is now, surprisingly but necessarily, the prerogative of the abstract artist.
Of course, this is not true; not literally. But imaginatively? I think that abstract art of a high order ought to be able, through its greatest efforts at unity in diversity, to take on a sufficient depth and breadth of character in its abstract content to enable it to parallel much if not all of the manifold nature of human feeling. To say that is to invite ridicule, both from those who see the limitations of formalist abstract art as quite sufficiently expressive (a kind of minimalised affective formalism which is able already to engender all manner of “feelings”, often in the case of abstract painting, through colour), and from those who don’t see abstract art as needing to do any such thing in the first place. I think there is such a need – I see no point to an art that has no human content – but it is not one that is met by vague feelings and subjective associations. The work needs to embody these values right deep down in how it is conceived and built, right from its beginnings, and right through to its last small detail. No need for metaphor or allusion; it can happen naturally and spontaneously, as part of the development of an uncompromisingly abstract methodology. There is, though, a need to discover or invent new territory. Whether that territory is a true break or a true continuation of the recent past in abstract art, we will have to wait and see. Such change is often a mixture of both.
But once abstract art takes upon itself a full measure of human content, the counter-intuitive sense of this proposition – of abstract content as human content – inverts. Remember, we are not trying to illustrate human values, we are trying to “make” them anew. The apparent realism of the ambition is to be entirely transmuted into plastic and spatial values. This in itself is not a new idea; psychological values have always been sought in, and made concrete by, the plastic and spatial properties of art, whether figurative or not. New and advanced abstract art just takes this further, and does so without subject-matter or prejudgement.
Spontaneity is at the heart of this process. The problem is getting the spontaneity into the finished work, rather than into the processes of creating it. The latter is the stock-in-trade of the abstract artist, but it’s easy; the former is much more problematic, since a spontaneous working-method in no way leads inevitably to a spontaneous end result. Strategies are required that are anything but spontaneous in themselves, in order that known formats and tropes are dispensed with and something new is discovered with each new work.