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.
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.