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’.