#56. David Sweet writes on “Undivided Attention: Getting around ‘aboutery’.”

Gillian Wearing, “Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper”.

This isn’t really a review of Art Rethought; the Social Practices of Art, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a book by a philosopher about art, with no illustrations. To do that properly I would have to summarise its central arguments and insights, offering comments and analysis, pointing out its limits or achievements. I think I could write a review, because it isn’t that obscure, but I don’t want to. Yet I’ve read it, and did want to say something based on that reading, relating it to the problems of criticism in the area of abstraction that this site supports.

I want to start with a question the book does not raise; ‘Why make abstract paintings?’ This is a different question from, ‘Why make abstract paintings now?’ Pictorial abstraction is a genre with a long history and painters have had their reasons for choosing to work within its constraints. To justify this choice some have offered explanations as to what their work ‘means’, which varied from the theosophical, to the political, psychological, mythological, Kantian, etc. Abstract Expressionist paintings produced the heaviest concentration of meaning claims focussing on highly abstract concepts like the sublime or existentialism that seemed to fit with the ‘abstract’ pictorial structures and methodologies they devised. Then Frank Stella came along. He more or less said his painting didn’t mean anything. So escaping from meaning appears to be Stella’s reason for making abstract paintings. This might have seemed understandable in the period when Abstract Expressionism had lost its lustre, but it might also be a good reason for making abstract paintings now.

The central exhibit of a new show at the National Portrait Gallery is by Gillian Wearing and called Rock ‘n’ Roll 70 Wallpaper. It consists of a set of large photographs arranged in a grid containing images of the artist, who is in her fifties, digitally manipulated to depict her in various stages of ageing. No doubting what it ‘means’. Of course it’s about ‘exploring issues which affect us all…around ageing, memento mori, the transience of life,’ and ‘themes around gender, masquerade, performance and the idea of the self.’ But what if these sociological ‘meanings’ were deleted? With the images gone something that looked like a high modernist painting would remain, a large multi coloured grid, in which a certain amount of chromatic interplay was happening. We would still age, life would still be transient; we would still ponder the idea of the self. We knew about all that before we got to the gallery. What would be missing is the ‘aboutery’.

In ‘Art Rethought’ Wolterstorff quotes Arthur Danto’s response to a 1964 exhibition of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes. Danto was convinced they were art, even though they looked pretty much like the Brillo boxes back in the warehouse that weren’t art. He decided that the boxes in the gallery were art because they ‘had meaning’, they were ‘about’ something and they embodied this meaning. The packs in the warehouse weren’t about anything. ‘Aboutery’ is therefore, according to Danto, the essence of art, and this is what Warhol’s piece revealed to him.

This view holds good for a remarkably large proportion of exhibited art. It may be that such examples break many rules and conventions, challenging our notions of what’s what, but their riddles can always be unlocked once we know what they are about. When we have this information our critical response may run to questioning if the work successfully ‘embodies’ its advertised meaning. But we may also change our minds on the matter of what a work can be about. We do not perhaps now consider that Newman’s and Still’s painting could have been about the sufferings of Christ or the sublime, notwithstanding what the artists said at the time. This leads to doubting the manner in which they sought to ‘embody’ pictorially meanings that now lack credibility, leaving the paintings themselves in a peculiar condition.

Stella liberated abstract painting from meanings of the sort that preoccupied Newman and Still. The viewer was similarly free to experience the works without searching for any occult significance and instead could pay undivided attention to what was right there. Stella doesn’t get much credit for his stance, which echoes the radical views on art Ad Reinhardt had espoused. In fact he’s often criticised on the grounds that his work isn’t about anything, and this is a fault he shares with Olitski, Louis, Noland and the later exponents of colour field painting.

I’ve been making abstract paintings for fifty years and I don’t think they’re about anything. That’s what attracted me to abstraction in the first place, anything to get away from ‘the human condition’ painting exemplified by Francis Bacon. In front of Gillian Wearing the appeal of an alternative to aboutery may become overwhelming and perhaps that might lead someone just starting out to see abstraction as worth pursuing under contemporary conditions. One can find an intellectual justification for such a move in Wolterstorff’s book. Although this involves dealing with his ideas in more detail, it may help answer the question; ‘Why make abstract paintings now?’

Wolterstorff wants to show that the ‘grand narrative’, the standard account of the developments of the fine arts from the 18th century, which concentrates on one mode of engagement with art, that of ‘disinterested attention’, does not cover the experience of art after Fountain. He calls the sort of art that Duchamp pioneered ‘art-reflexive art’, giving two other examples, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and a work by Sherrie Levine. What he is interested is the ‘social practice meaning’ of these examples, which do not fulfil the usual aesthetic requirements previously deemed essential to the acceptance of an object into an art institution.

Art that challenges the prevailing ideology of the art world, and therefore changes that ideology has become relatively commonplace. Anyone who has read Joseph Kosuth’s ‘Art after Philosophy’ texts will be reminded of his idea of work that brings into question and extends the ‘concept of Art’, by being about Art. But if, according to Danto, Warhol’s boxes, by being offered for exhibition, showed the limitations of the art world’s ideology of the time, a new formulation has to succeed it which accommodates the challenge. As part of this reformulation, inspired by the boxes, Danto then defines art as something that is about something and whose meaning is embodied within new work. It follows that if artists now want to challenge that orthodoxy then they should be interested in making art that isn’t about anything, namely abstract painting.

Wolterstorff emphasises the practice of ‘attentive viewing’, which he distinguishes from the mode of ‘disinterested attention’ deployed in encounters with artworks presented as aesthetic entities within the ‘grand narrative’. Faced with something that is about something else, however, surely the viewer’s attention will be divided, part focussing on dealing with meaning and the other part engaging with the appearance of the work. In front of Gillian Wearing’s wallpaper the business of viewing splits in two, with much disproportionately focussed on the ‘ageing’ narrative. The interaction of colour within the grid will receive only a small share of attention, and even this will be partly taken up with working out if it was there only to contribute to the embodiment of the work’s overtly sociological theme.

If, instead of getting a short sermon on the theme of ageing, or the human condition, visitors were told that the work in the gallery wasn’t about anything, would they give it their undivided attention? They might when at a fashion show or exhibition of actual wallpaper, but with art, consciousness of ‘aboutery’ is hard to get around. Paradoxically, Fountain has received an enormous amount of attention but almost none has been devoted to its appearance. It didn’t get into the American Society for Independent Artists exhibition, though it was submitted, then it disappeared, so it is both legendary and practically invisible. We have Stieglitz’s photograph, but the work itself was never the subject of ‘attentive viewing’. That hasn’t harmed its reputation of course with many of the citizens of the art world, who rate it as the most influential work of the 20th century, far outnumbering that vanishingly small, embittered minority who think Duchamp was just taking the piss.

Danto’s definition of art as being about something is so entrenched it is hard for the counterexample of abstract painting to be appropriately appreciated. It’s difficult for a contemporary audience, used to looking for signs of meaning, and its embodiment, to recalibrate their habits and subject such work to a suitably optimised version of viewing. They may not take Newman’s and Still paintings seriously because they no longer believe in what they are about. Stella and other colour field painters suffer a similar fate because they never claimed their work was about anything in the first place. This loss is compounded by the falling out of favour of a kind of criticism which systematically ignored what paintings were about, the modernist sort, practised by Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried and early on Rosalind Krauss. What they brought to looking at painting was simply their undivided attention.

In Wolterstorff’s scheme undivided attention may echo the traditional aesthetic attitude of ‘disinterestedness’, which belongs to the now defunct grand narrative. He is surely right about the prevalence of post-aesthetic works of art in the public domain that the viewer can find baffling, and require theoretical support and explanatory texts to provide access. Such items are offered not for criticism, but for ‘interpretation’, which depends on the development of a social practice within the art world, that can be linked to the work. He cites the interest in the philosophers of Frankfurt School amongst New York art-orientated intellectuals in the late seventies and the emergence of postmodernism in terms of understanding the photographs of Sherrie Levine.

One can understand the need for ‘interpretation’ in work where the audience may not be clear as to what it’s about. Even the artist may not know, inviting the viewer to offer an explanation of their own which might be as good as the answer they had in mind. ‘Interpretation’ adds a layer to aboutery so more viewing time is taken up with the pursuit of ‘meaning’ than in a situation where, like with Gillian Wearing’s wallpaper, the meaning is graphically obvious. In both cases however the viewer’s attention is always divided with a large proportion assigned to the issue of what the art is about. When faced with an abstract painting the audience may feel cheated of the pleasures of interpretation. Instead of deferring the moment when what’s actually there has to be confronted, with abstract art the tricky business of looking starts in earnest straight away.

Emphasising what art is about tends to downplay the role of the medium while abstraction, especially modernist abstraction of course, sets a lot of store on medium specificity. The connection between abstract painting and painting’s self-definition is always seen as central part of Greenbergian doctrine, an extension of the grand narrative’s account of the arts ‘coming into their own’ in the 18th and 19th centuries which Wolterstorff describes. However, unlike the effect of the pursuit of meaning, consideration of the medium does not create a cognitive distraction that divides the attention. Indeed recognising that something is a painting (for example) gives a starting point to the process of fully attending to what’s there. Of course there is the complication of seeing a painting and seeing something as a painting, which I’ll leave to one side.

In contemporary terms, a strong attachment to a particular medium, together with an interest in its past, present and future, is rarer than it was. The perception of media as instruments or technologies, as means to various ends, is more common. Discipline-specific criticism, of the sort which often appears on this site, has a different, narrower focus than general art criticism and this shows up when the practitioners of the art form take on the critic’s role. This practitioner writing contains general art observations but more importantly, proprietorial insight into the practical business of carrying out the tasks related to the discipline. I think to perform this latter function effectively the practitioner’s discipline has to be treated as if it were a craft.

This might be seen as a step backwards especially after the long struggle to get studio, as opposed to library based, Fine Art recognised as a University subject. But throughout these educational developments there was always a danger of the individual disciplines like painting and sculpture losing their characteristic identity in the process. In return they gained status and prestige, which the crafts never enjoyed in the same period. However, Wolterstorff’s account of types of critical activity that preceded the eighteenth century and ‘concentrated on practices of making’ rather than connoisseurship, offers a different view of craft. This approach is called the ‘construction model’ where writers offered practical advice to poets, musicians, painters, architects, etc. He quotes M. H. Abrams, who coined the phrase, as follows. The Greeks ‘posited a poem or any other work of art to be an opus, a thing that is made according to a techné or ars, that is, a craft, each with its requisite skills for selecting materials and shaping them into a work’. Abrams goes on; ‘From the viewpoint of the construction model, the patent differences between the materials and practical skills of a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a musician or an architect would keep these diverse occupations and products from being classified together in any systematic fashion, and for other than limited purposes’.

The construction model chimes with the notion of media specificity but also implies that the writer should have a measure of practical understanding of the ‘diverse occupations and products’ in question. In the eighteenth century, the construction model was replaced by the ‘contemplation model’, the focus shifting from those who made the work to the public, who engaged with it. From what I know of the way contemporary painters function, I’d say typically they retain a commitment to the construction model, and pay particular attention to how a painting is working and how its working can be improved and directed. But they also do a certain amount of contemplating in pursuit of that aim, fusing the roles of maker and what Fried calls ‘the first beholder’ and retaining a critical space in their practice that goes beyond the requirements of craft.

On Danto’s definition of art, abstract painting which is not about anything is a de facto challenge, a ‘counterexample’, in Wolterstorff’s terminology, to the current ideology, as revolutionary as Duchamp’s challenge to the concept of Art prevailing in 1917. Alas it will not change that ideology. In terms of revolutionary effect Fountain had enormous leverage but it was a relatively fragile intervention. It benefited from the smallness and vulnerability of the art world that it targeted. Since then the population and GDP of that world has grown so much that nothing can exert a comparable pressure and hope to bring about anything like a comparable ideological shift. A vast, international, cultural industry, too big to fail, has evolved, devoted to explaining what art is about, maximising interpretation and expanding exegesis, and implicitly commissioning art works that answer to those interests.

Surely, all that’s the perfect reason for making abstract paintings now, and giving them our undivided attention.

 

References

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art Rethought; The Social Practices of Art, 2015

Gillian Wearing & Claude Cahun, Behind the Mask, another Mask, National Portrait Gallery, 9 March – 29th May

M.H. Abrams, Doing Things with Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory, 1989.

30 comments

  1. “He calls the sort of art that Duchamp pioneered ‘art-reflexive art’, giving two other examples, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and a work by Sherrie Levine. What he is interested is the ‘social practice meaning’ of these examples, which do not fulfil the usual aesthetic requirements previously deemed essential to the acceptance of an object into an art institution.”

    Why should we care about acceptance of an object into “an art institution”? Does acceptance into an art institution constitute or affect the criteria for what counts as a work of art?

    “Art that challenges the prevailing ideology of the art world, and therefore changes that ideology has become relatively commonplace….But if, according to Danto, Warhol’s boxes, by being offered for exhibition, showed the limitations of the art world’s ideology of the time, a new formulation has to succeed it which accommodates the challenge.”

    So someone should provide a “new formulation” that accommodates Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s boxes. Formulation of what? -An “ideology”. Why should someone interested in art care about “ideology”? It’s not self-evident that art has any relationship to ideology and the case would have to be made.

    “Fountain” is said to be “revolutionary” because … why? Well, Duchamp “challenged the prevailing ideology of the art world,” by “offering it for exhibition”, that is, by presenting a urinal as “art.”

    Why is that revolutionary to exhibit a urinal as art? Why should the mode of exhibition affect the thing’s identity in any way? One might say that it must be revolutionary because no one before Duchamp had done it. But perhaps nobody did it before because nobody before thought it worth doing.

    A revolutionary change in the nature of art would have to alter those conventions that allow something to count as art at any given time and place. But altering the conventions that constitute a particular art means altering the medium of that art, and logically that is something that could only be done from within those conventions, meaning, by someone who cares about and is committed to the art in question. Conventions are not altered from the outside. If I decide to play a game using chess pieces on a chessboard, and in my game I allow any piece to move anywhere on the board, I have not altered the game of chess but rather shown that I don’t know how to play chess – and this is true even if some marketing genius figures out how to package the new game and sell it as “post-chess”.

    From your summary, it appears that the late Arthur Danto believed that in order to “have meaning”, a work of art must be “about” something. “He decided that the boxes in the gallery were art because they ‘had meaning’, they were ‘about’ something and they embodied this meaning. The packs in the warehouse weren’t about anything. ‘Aboutery’ is therefore, according to Danto, the essence of art, and this is what Warhol’s piece revealed to him.”

    But being “about something” is an extraordinarily narrow and limited conception of how people do things that have meaning. Suppose that you and I are standing in the Louvre looking at “Mona Lisa.” Suddenly I say: “That picture was painted by Leonardo. This room as benches. The floor on which we are standing is solid. This building was here yesterday and the day before that.”

    Each of these statements is about something – the painting, the room, the benches, the floor, the building. Each is also a true statement. But each of them is completely pointless and therefore without meaning. Conversely, suppose that we are walking in Times Square and I suddenly point at a disturbance in a northerly direction. No doubt that my gesture has meaning, but what is it “about”? Suppose an old flame walks up to you and embraces you with a kiss. Meaningful yes, but about something? If so, what?

    So meaning something has very little to do with being “about” something. What are Warhol’s Brillo boxes “about”? Maybe he was “saying” that we have lost touch with reality in the sense of nature, that what is real to us now is not nature but advertisements, packages, slogans, platitudes, and so on. That seems to be the case, much more now than in the 1960s. But if that fact is worth noticing it ought to be disturbing, and if so why contribute to the distress by making advertisements, packages, slogans and platitudes into art?

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  2. “We do not perhaps now consider that Newman’s and Still’s painting could have been about the sufferings of Christ or the sublime, notwithstanding what the artists said at the time. This leads to doubting the manner in which they sought to ‘embody’ pictorially meanings that now lack credibility, leaving the paintings themselves in a peculiar condition.”

    Why assume that what Still and Newman said about the meaning of their paintings, about what they intended, determine what these paintings mean?

    In ordinary life our intentions are characteristically not realized or are realized other than how we intend, and they produce consequences that we do not intend. This is why we excuses available in moral life – sometimes they mitigate or free of responsibilities that are not ours, and in this way excuses, if accepted, can determine what we actually did. (If circumstances show that my action was coerced, or that it was affected by forces beyond my control, these circumstances will provide an alternative description of my action, one in which my responsibility for doing it is limited or even non-existent.)

    One notable difference between the action of making a painting and ordinary actions is that in the former the artist is responsible for everything that appears in the finished painting. This implies that excuses are not available. (If your choice of colors is poor or mistaken, it is aesthetically irrelevant that you ran out of cadmium red and couldn’t afford to re-supply.) This is why art-making, and the experience of viewing art, provides a kind of freedom that is missing elsewhere from our lives – and that’s the particular value of art, but also the sometimes unbearable burden of being an artist.

    But to say that an artist is fully responsible for everything that appears in the final work (which is why the artist’s decision the work is finished is so consequential) is to say that its meaning is not necessarily limited to what the artist had in mind or specifically intended to do, or said or didn’t say about the meaning of the work. (This is not “my” interpretation; it is part of the logic of aesthetic experience.) So what Newman or Still said may or not be relevant to interpreting their paintings and it is certainly not the final word. Similarly, Frank Stella may or may not have said that his works have no meaning. (He did say that “what you see is what you see” – which is entirely different from not having meaning.)

    But that doesn’t imply that his early works aren’t meant. It seems to me that Stella’s early paintings in series provide instances of how the meaning of a work may consist entirely and completely in its being meant – because each instance of the series is and must be an absolute realization of the format of which it is an instance. Everything about it is essential and the only thing contingent about it is that it exists at all. These works provide the ultimate realization of my earlier observation that the artist is responsible for literally everything that appears in the finished work, so that sense of its meaning is completely exhausted in the fact of its being meant, and this would be something like the direct opposite of lacking meaning.

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    1. What a tangled web you weave. Stella’s formulaic early works in series are surely an instance where your apparant definintion of meaning (that’s assuming I have the right end of the stick, which I am by no means sure about) is meaningless.And far from being “essential”, all the parts in such works are more or less redundant.

      Whether or not you can say the artist is responsible for everything in the work, and that everything is “meant”, is neither here nor there. What about accident? What if the artist is not sure if something is finished, or is unable to finish? It makes no difference. To misquote Stella, “What you can see is the meaning”.

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  3. I did not provide a “definition” of meaning. I merely provided examples that are undeniable, indicating that meaning need not be “defined” but rather seen and discovered. The obvious and undeniable point is that the idea about being “about” something does not exhaust the concept of meaning and to see this all you need to do is pay attention to what you yourself (or anyone) does everyday. If we in our day to day lives communicate meaning without talking “about” things, it is not surprising that this happens in art as well.

    Regarding accidents, suppose someone looks at one of your sculptures and says, “that element doesn’t belong…” You agree. It would be of no use to defend your work by saying, “oh, that’s an accident.” So what? Unlike ordinary life, you remain responsible and it’s a valid criticism of the work. That fact would seem to prove my point.

    The fact that you cannot decide whether it’s finished or not does not relieve you of the requirement that a decision be reached – and that’s why it’s important.

    To say that the elements of an instance in a series like Stella’s are “more or less redundant” is to miss the entire point, which is that if you altered any element you would create an entirely different work (as shown by the fact that one instance may different from another in the alteration of only one element). That means that every detail is essential to what it is.

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    1. And what if somebody looks at my work and says “that part works in such and such a way and is meaningful” about something I hadn’t previously seen (as often happens)?

      In work as complex as mine, quite a lot is accidental, though that doesn’t stop it being meaningful. It would be absurd to try to “intend” it all, or “mean” it all. In any case, what would I be “meaning” (see my next essay!) beforehand?

      To be sure, if you altered an element in a Stella stripe painting, you would really upset things and create a different painting. Might be better, therefore more meaningful! How can repetitive redundancy be essential, unless the intent is boredom – which I rather think it was in Stella’s case.

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      1. Oh, and by the way, regarding “content”, character and “unveiling”, todays Guardian has an article on Michael Puett, reinterpreter of Chinese philosophy, and I quote: “…there is no self…The idea that we should look within, discover our true nature and act accordingly is, according to Confucius, nonsense… you overcome the self, you break the self. You should not be happy with who you are.”
        Still listening, Alan?

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  4. “…so that sense of its meaning is completely exhausted in the fact of its being meant.”
    This sounds somewhat similar to what I was trying to convey about Heribert Heindl’s painting. (Ms. Knee, a while back).
    It seems to me to be something quite appropriate to a small handmade work, maybe to a series of small works. But for me the inhuman scale, hard-edge perfection and endless repetition of Stella’s works (all “meant” in the same way) count against their artistic quality, compared to something like Heindl’s more humble offering.
    “Acknowledging the frame” in exactly the same way, over and over again on a huge scale, with a perfect, unmodulated surface is not just boring, it vitiates the quality of “meantness” inherent in the acknowledgment of the frame by suggesting some kind of arbitrary industrial process rather than human agency.
    Why convey this tiny point in such a repetitive, impersonal and space-consuming way?

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  5. Perhaps it is possible to be responsible for “literally everything that appears in the finished work”, when the artist puts so little into it in the first place. It seems to me that the requirement to finish the work is more a concern for big time celebrity minimal artists who have projects and deadlines to work to. For those toiling away in obscurity, which is just about all of us, that decision is almost always less than clear. You might make that decision on a number of occasions with one work, and always end up doing something to it a few days later. There may come a time when you don’t feel any need to do anything else to it, or you may not own it any more, and so perhaps the decision to finish is made whether we like it or not. But to stress the importance of that decision seems a little (not completely) misrepresentative of the actual experience of making art, or at least my experience. I say not completely, because the very act of making art must be driven at some level by an aspiration to complete the undertaking. But I would agree that the artist’s being responsible for everything in the work is only a literal responsibility. This doesn’t mean that the artist can recognise what is going on, and pointing out bits that were accidental is not in any way an attempt to shirk that responsibility, but perhaps points to an approach that encourages a bit of risk taking. Feeling responsible for everything in the work might encourage the very opposite. It might just explain the conservatism of minimal art.

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    1. I am thinking (without really having thought through) about the importance of finishing as the importance of giving the work over to the world, letting it be autonomous – which means, exposing it to the risk of being seen as an object of some kind, or not. It’s not a matter of how much work goes into the making of it but of the necessity at some point to declare that the work is done. The example of Stella shows that in the modernist situation (leaving aside the question of whether that situation has now irretrievably past), what matters is less how it is made than the artist’s responsibility for making it (or having made it).

      This seems to me no less true of cubist paintings or Mondrian’s or Pollock’s but in Stella’s early serial paintings the responsibility is made absolute. Nothing – no physical or literal impediment – comes between the idea and its realization. This suggests why these works are made in series. Nothing better expresses the coincidence of idea and realization than the absolute connection between each instance and the absolute disjunction as well – the fact that each instance eclipses every other instance and each instance is as complete an realization of the conception as every other. (None of this implies that Stella’s paintings are superior to anything else, only that they clarify issues that are elsewhere only implicit. Nor do my comments purport to describe what it’s actually like for an artist to create paintings. I am simply trying to understand the logic of this kind of art.)

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      1. Re: Stella’s early stripe paintings, I can kind of imagine Stella’s thinking… ticking them off, one by one: “another one finished… next…”
        It’s facile!
        As Carl says, “the fact that each instance eclipses every other instance and each instance is as complete a realization of the conception as every other” signifies to me that they are very close to conceptual art, and that one is no better than the other, and that the first one wasn’t up to much anyway if what it is saying is so easily repeatable… I could go on, but it all amounts to the same thing, which is that the modernist situation is indeed “irretrievably past”. Thank goodness.

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  6. The business of finishing a work is very much bound up in my mind with “wholeness”, and that is a concept coming under a great deal of pressure at the moment, mostly it seems from the desire to make things “more abstract”. So I can’t really take on board what Carl is saying about this, which seems linked up with his defence of all things modernist. Harry seems to pitch it about right. I think there are more questions around than answers at the moment, and that’s probably healthy, because I think things are shifting somewhat in how we might decide something is “whole”. A big part of this is the falling away of all things geometric, regular, grid-like, repetitive, formatted and “boxed-in” – things which in the past might have provided footholds for a familiar and literal kind of wholeness.

    This John Bunker on show at the moment, for example, gives pause for thought on these issues:

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  7. As Carl says, “the fact that each instance eclipses every other instance and each instance is as complete a realization of the conception as every other” signifies to me that they are very close to conceptual art, and that one is no better than the other, and that the first one wasn’t up to much anyway if what it is saying is so easily repeatable… I could go on, but it all amounts to the same thing, which is that the modernist situation is indeed “irretrievably past”. Thank goodness.”

    I do not agree at all; in modernism the work itself, the thing there in front of you, is the only thing that matters whereas in conceptional art (insofar as I know what it is, never having paid it any attention) the work doesn’t matter at all. Also disagree with everything else you wrote.

    I don’t know that modernism is passed because for that to happen something else would have to happen after it and I don’t know what that is. (In my view, post-modernism doesn’t matter as art enough to count artistically even if it fetches lots of attention, high prices, etc.) Something would have to happen that isn’t a regression. My eyes are open, for what it’s worth.

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    1. OK – but if the only thing that matters is “the thing there in front of you”, surely it’s important, vital, that that thing is not repetitive, redundant, boring and crude, to name a few of the adjectives one might reasonably apply to Stella’s early work (don’t you agree?). And so any justification of it must surely have to pay more specific attention to its actual visual qualities (or lack of them) than your blanket attribution of responsibility for “finish”.

      This is a bit like a circular argument I had with Robert Linsley on abstractcritical a few years back. He insisted that all his paintings had without fail an organic wholeness (he was also a big Stella fan). I never understood his argument fully, but yours feels similar in applying an arbitrary quality (finish) to everything modernist you can lay claim to, as a justification for… well, what? Certainly it can’t be about value or visual quality, can it? There’s still some kind of “moral” thing lurking… Not that I’m against morality, but the rights and wrongs of visual art are bound unbreakably with what is actually visible.

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      1. Hello again Robin. What strikes me about your comments is their invariably polemical character. I am merely trying to comprehend and explain the “logic” of Stella’s early paintings – meaning, why they are the way they are (parallel colored stripes mirroring the shape of the support reiterated in various variations on a specific pattern), and what that tells us about art-making the historical conditions under which they were made. Why Stella felt compelled to make paintings in this way – e.g., paintings that consist in little more than the generation of instances of a series, and the significance of the series coming into being and then being done. Whereas you seem to see my comments as an argument that these works are better than something else, and you disagree, and see them as merely boring, crude, and so on.

        I recall being in rooms with some of the copper and purple pictures when I was in graduate school back in the 1980s and finding the experience pretty powerful and very engaging. For example, the ideas of “style” and “manner” are obviously irrelevant. These ideas are also irrelevant in viewing a painting by Pollock or Louis, and I think in looking at cubist paintings as well (e.g., Picasso’s and Braque’s pictures were for a while deliberately indistinguishable). Perhaps they being to become irrelevant in Impressionism. Why should that happen and why is it important? Those questions interest me a lot more than judging the work as “good” or “bad.” They are certainly “boring” to anyone who (like you, presumably) isn’t interested in why they are the way they are and that is deliberate as well. It’s not as if Stella was trying and failing to do something other than what he in fact did – e.g., appeal to the sensibilities of an audience interested in content and style and manner – so being told that the pictures are boring is of little interest to me.

        My comments are in part inspired by your idea of “abstract content” which genuinely interests me. I try to elaborate this idea with reference to Morris Louis, Noland or Stella. We should not be at odds in that regard. What does it mean for a work of art that isn’t “about” anything to nonetheless communicate human content? Just saying it isn’t enough (for me); I need to understand how it happens.

        When I look at any of Stella’s copper pictures I see an absolute realization of its format or conception, which is articulated by the existence of the series itself and by each of its instances individually. Everything about any instance is essential to what it is; the only contingent fact about is the fact that it exists in time and space. This strikes me as also true (philosophically) about the world itself. When the series is done and finished, it is absolutely gone; it will not generate further instances, nor will its style or manner have any “influence”. (I think this is one reason for Stella’s choice of perfectly bland colors for these pictures, bland yet luminous.) Each picture is essentially related to every other in the same series but equally each instance eclipses every other because each is an absolute realization of the conception.

        Viewing the picture requires me to acknowledge something about my own existence – that I exist in time and therefore at one place at any time, namely here (wherever I am). And each moment – like each instance of Stella’s series – eclipses every other moment past or future and each moment is absolutely gone in the instant it occurs, to be replaced by another as long as I am here (on earth). In other words my existence consists in my presentness, my willingness to make myself present to the moment. But then this is pretty much what I get out of looking at any strong work of visual art, why I bother to do it, why I make time for it despite being most of the time distracted by things like the need to earn a living, eat and sleep and so on. That, to me, is “content”, and it’s an aspiration of the highest art since the cave paintings in Lascaux.

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  8. Hello again Carl.

    Why did Stella make paintings that way? No big deal; it was to be a bit different and original (in his terms) and react against what went on just before him (Ab-Ex) and supposedly get closer to what he thought was some kind of default “reality” or truth about painting – simple flatness. And I think your philosophising and contextualising after the fact can be used to justify anything you like, really, including your “in my body, in my time” experiences, because the work itself makes so few demands upon you. What’s in your experiences for me? What can we share of that? Maybe you were mistaken or misled. I don’t think your experience says anything about the work. I can’t of course deny it, because you experienced it, but I can certainly question its significance to art.

    You duck the question of quality – are the Stellas any good? – but that is the critical (if extremely difficult) question. What do they do? And as soon as you start to compare them to anything approaching an achievement of visual art, they look ridiculously meagre and trivial. This is not polemics, this is an attempt to be more objective about minimalism and the lesser strands of modernism that have come to assume such an ingrained acceptance over the years, and which Po-Mo attempted to de-bunk without having a clue what to put in its place apart from pastiche, piss-taking and irony.

    And you keep talking about the “realization of the conception”, which is anathema to me. That’s not how to make abstract art. Ideas, “conceptions”, are two-a-penny. The exciting thing now is to leave all that behind, get way beyond having ideas and then illustrating them. That’s all kid’s stuff – that’s what the Stellas are, puerile. The “abstract sublime” by way of simplification is all a vanity. So now we have to put the work in, put the content in, really make things happen.

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    1. The irony is that for all your portentous references to “content” and “abstract content”, and “putting content in”, you have yet to provide even a single concrete hint of what that content actually amounts to – while disparaging each and every one of my actual, substantive characterizations of the content of abstract paintings and sculptures as “philosophising and contextualising after the fact can be used to justify anything you like”. (Of course it’s “after the fact” – what else could it possibly be?)

      Yes, Stella’s early work is a real achievement and I have explained rather precisely why I believe that, although I do not believe that it’s comparable to that of several others artists from the same era. Among other things it clarified the kinds of challenges that more accomplished artists had to overcome and remains important for that reason alone.

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      1. My “content” is before the fact – what the artist puts in, not what the viewer may or may not, rightly or wrongly, experience. If you want to see the content of new abstract art talked around and about, in as objective a manner as perhaps it is possible at the moment, its all over Brancaster Chronicles. Perhaps not as spectacular as an existential experience, and it might bore the pants off you, but its the real thing, and you cannot pin it down or characterise it, because it has manifold forms and is specific to each artist, and indeed to each of their individual works.

        Unlike Stella.

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  9. “My “content” is before the fact – what the artist puts in, not what the viewer may or may not, rightly or wrongly, experience.”

    The word “content” used in connection with a work of art refers whatever it is about the thing that solicits one’s interest and draws one’s attention to the work. This is what gives the work artistic value – “artistic” value being different from any other kind of value. This is always the focus of my comments here – what makes a work different from other kinds of objects. If your idea of “content” refers to something before the thing is finished – that is, before it becomes a work of art – then you are using the word in a way that is completely idiosyncratic and private. You can use words any way you like but when you’re talking with other people you are expected to speak intelligibly.

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    1. Wooh, get you! My definition of content is by far the more straightforward. The contents of a letter, a recipe, a box, are what you put in it, not what your interpretation of the end result is. So what we talk about on Brancaster is exactly that – an attempt to determine what has or has not been put in by the artist, intentionally or accidentally. We don’t go much on existential interpretations, you will have noticed.

      You say: “This is always the focus of my comments here – what makes a work different from other kinds of objects.” So what makes one Stella stripe painting different from another, since you seem to have suggested already they are all identical in content. If they are all the same, what exactly is the point of more than one?

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      1. And before you say “That’s not what I meant”, I dispute your whole ponderous justification for why modernist art objects are different from ordinary everyday objects. Much of it is not different at all, and Stella is a good example of an artist who makes quite literal and banal work, nothing extraordinary about it.

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      2. That last point is a small one, but nonetheless one that has always intrigued me. The same applies to many artists who make works that are essentially an illustration (or perhaps a fairer word would be a manifestation- or even reification) of a kind of ontological ‘point’; each painting makes the same ‘point’ in essentially the same way, they are reiterations of themselves.
        Once the adequate form has been found to make this point, what is added by introducing variations of it? If one follows the ‘rules of engagement’, there can be no significant difference in the experience of looking at one rather than another- if there was, the painting would have brought in some extraneous ‘content’, which would make it a failure by its own criteria.
        The answer must surely lie in economics, rather than anything else. Which is a shame, because we all need to conserve resources wherever possible.

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      3. “Wooh, get you! My definition of content is by far the more straightforward. The contents of a letter, a recipe, a box, are what you put in it, not what your interpretation of the end result is.”

        You might put a letter or a recipe in a box but if it isn’t there when (“after the fact”) someone opens the box, the question is not what’s in the box (nothing) but what happened to it. You might put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into making a sculpture or you might not; you might fill it with memories of the past or hopes for the future, but if it’s not discernable in the finished work, it’s not “content”, meaning, not part of the meaning of the work that is communicated to viewers. It is part of the grammar of the word “sculpture” that a sculpture exists in order to be viewed.

        “So what makes one Stella stripe painting different from another, since you seem to have suggested already they are all identical in content. If they are all the same, what exactly is the point of more than one?”

        What makes one Stella stripe painting different from another is often a slight difference in configuration – the fact that it is another instance of the same series which is defined by its format, close enough to all others to be part of the same series but different enough to be a different instance.

        So they aren’t “all the same” because each is an instance rather than a replica. But they are sufficiently similar to be part of the same series. So the question is: why does someone make paintings that exist only as instances of a series? The answer is: Because only in this way can each instance fully and seamlessly and completely embody its conception. Why does this matter – or why did it matter in the early 1960s? Answer: Because only in this way could it be purged of all significance other than the mere fact of existing in the first place.

        Why did a painting have to declare the mere fact that it is, rather than the qualities that make it what it is? Answer: Because the history of western painting had at that time been declared to be over, ended, finished, implying that there really is no difference between a work of art and any other object in the world. You might say that in order to survive, painting had to end, and that means that each painting had to take upon itself full responsibility and justification for existing at all, and this turns out to mean, existing as an abstraction. All ways of representing the world have shown themselves to be manipulations, rhetoric, postures, appeals to discredited ideals, protests, whining or arrogant assertions. How can anyone make paintings after that? Stella’s early work gives us not the only but one answer.

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  10. Who was it declared the history of Western painting was over?

    “All ways of representing the world have shown themselves to be manipulations, rhetoric, postures, appeals to discredited ideals, protests, whining or arrogant assertions. ” This is crazy. I presume you don’t think this. I’m sure even Stella didn’t.

    And your cast iron logic for the necessity of making boring modernist paintings is crazy too, because its based upon these crazy assertions. If your interest is in justifying and perpetuating stupid, dumb paintings, then I say enough. I give up.

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    1. …and John Holland has the right idea. Big Stellas are a waste of paint and canvas, and he continues even now to be a monumentally irrelevant artist. If he ever had an inkling of what is of value in art, abstract or representational, he would not be doing the crap he is now.

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  11. “Who was it declared the history of Western painting was over?”

    Before Stella, Rauschenberg’s “White Painting” was made in 1951, and “Erased de Kooning” in 1953. After Stella, minimalists and post-modernists. Is there an audience for painting today? Does the art of painting exist without an audience?

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    1. There has always been wacky stuff. They were doing it in the Middle Ages.
      Yes there is an audience for painting today..
      Yes it exists without an audience, just as Van Gogh’s and Pissarro’s did.

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    2. Sorry to butt in again on your discussion, but I’ve always been intrigued and confused by the particular art historical paradigm that you’re reiterating here.
      It is a very particular, teleological conception of cultural history; the idea that something such as painting can be “declared….over”, not as an individual’s point of view, or as a cultural assumption of the time, but as a kind of performative act that changes the nature of things. When Rauschenberg erased that drawing, it did not change anything in and of itself, because if it had been done by someone else, or done at a different time, it would have been ignored. It was a reification of an idea that certain critics and cultural arbiters already held. It’s also a “declaration” that Rauschenberg was perfectly able to pretty much ignore for the rest of his career.
      So what intrigues me is why the discovery that “all ways of representing the world have shown themselves to be manipulations, rhetoric, postures, etc., “- which is of course wholly obvious to anyone over ten years old- should mean that painting is “over”, rather than performance, photography, film, and, in fact, all forms of conceptual art too. And why, if anyone does take this awful decleration to heart, do they feel the need to continue painting at all?
      Why did painting need to “survive”, if the cost was so great? What was it about the mere arbitrary fact of pigment on canvas that made its continued existence worth such negation of the medium’s possibilities? Why didn’t Stella just do something else entirely? Had he just invested in a vast amount of canvas?

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