Mar 06

What’s the deal with Abstract Expressionism?

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At the Chicago Art Institute, standing in front of Greyed Rainbow, a 1953 painting by Jackson Pollock, I overheard a middle aged man say to his female companion, “I think Emma’s made better fingerpaintings than this one.” Greyed Rainbow appeared unperturbed by their judgment. Why should it? Jackson Pollock’s huge messy canvases that look uncannily like the work of a 4 year old have been celebrated by critics and art history professors since the day Jackson drunkenly dripped them into existence. They’ve been maligned by the Aunt Gladyses of the world for the same length of time. For decades, the art elites have praised the same things that average working people have found ugly and ridiculous. The fact that the opposing assessments are finally starting to lose some of their edge feels slightly disappointing: the longstanding refusal of average people to embrace abstract expressionism seems eminently sane to me.

How did the art world find itself championing 50 foot long canvases that look like different kinds of walls? Walls with fresh and even paint, walls with multiple layers of paint chipping off in places, walls covered in illegible graffiti, walls cracking and crumbling, walls pasted with layers upon layers of colorful posters. Walls covered by tangled vines. The traditional narrative, the one I learned in school, is very simple and familiar. It goes something like this:

Humans have made art since the dawn of history. The first artists made prints of their hands on cave walls and little statuettes of big breasted women. Over time, artists learned more and more about how to depict things realistically, but it took thousands of years. In the Renaissance, the laws of perspective allowed artists to practice art in a more rigorous way, culminating in masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. With the invention of photography, artists were freed up from the task of depicting reality for the first time. By the 1940s, abstract expressionism rose as the dominant school of art, a triumphant culmination of its history up to this point. The artist’s field of creative expression has been blown wide open into infinity.

This heroic narrative is as stupid as it is widespread. The basic idea seems to be that art has paralleled the rest of human history in its climb from obscure beginnings to its triumphant present state. This alone should give us pause, since the notion that humanity is now at its zenith is already being tested by all the horrible consequences of our hubris and short-sightedness, from environmental catastrophe to the human effects of globalized capitalism. But this linear narrative of art hides and obfuscates much more than that.

Ancient artists drawing on the walls of caves were really, really good. Their images of different animals are spot on, anatomically and dynamically sensitive and accurate, but more importantly, they are extremely effective images in the sense that they seem to capture and convey the essence of the animals they depict. From the beginnings of human history, artists used art as a means of communication, and as such were aware that some ways of depiction communicate more effectively than others.

Much early art is perfect in this sense, which is amazing when one considers that all early artists were technically amateurs, in today’s terminology. You’d think at least some of the ancient art we find would be crappy, the work of a novice not yet in full command of the expressive possibilities of his or her medium. At the very beginning we were already as good as we would ever be at making art. Sure, we’ve invented new art forms, and some people made really big artworks, but nothing we’ve done between Lascaux and the latest Venice Biennale has surpassed the effectiveness with which the earliest artists practiced their craft to communicate with their audience.

The notion that the arts have developed linearly over time is ridiculous. Linear progress is a very important idea for purveyors of fascist ideologies of all stripes, but the truth is that the only cases of such development in the history of art are to be found within individual civilizations or societies, and even then only if one also considers the development to continue after the high water mark into decadence and deterioration.

I passively learned this narrative from Gardner’s History of Art just like everybody else. But then I saw an exhibition of Ancient Near Eastern art at the Met: the 4000 year old bronze sculptures of people were as good as anything ever made! They were sensitively observed, accurately depicted, and just awesome to imagine doing whatever it is they did for Sumerians or whatever who used them.

In 1943, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote about Pollock’s art, “I took one look at it and I thought, “Now that’s great art,’ and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country has produced.”

Really?

It’s too much. Better than Sargent? Hopper? Frederick Church? Grant Wood? Thomas Hart Benton? Whistler? The above mentioned stone-age artists? Greenberg’s comment is above all revealing of the contempt in which he held American painters, American art. It’s hard to understand Clement Greenberg’s attitude without understanding the power of the narrative of human progress, and how mid-century Americans perceived themselves in relation to it.

It was pretty much taken for granted in the first half of the twentieth century that the human experience has been one of ever greater achievements, and that contemporary civilization was the pinnacle of human achievement up to that point. Coming out of World War II, the United States was widely seen as the very crown on that pinnacle. While the rest of the industrially developed nations had been literally bombed to the stone age, the U.S. was not only unscathed but at the height of its economic power, turning out the majority of the world’s industrial output, setting the standard for all other nations in every field of human endeavor.

Every field except one. While the whole world may have thought of the U.S. as number one in every way, cultured Europeans found the entire thing vulgar, the way old money shames the new. America may be an industrial giant and a purveyor of everything anyone the world over could possibly want, from bubble gum to Hollywood Westerns, but that’s all low culture, the boorish attempts of an upstart society to look cool. To some in the American cultural establishment, this perception really rankled.

The painting which prompted Clement Greenberg to call Jackson Pollock the “the greatest painter this country has produced” is Mural, a 1943 commission from Peggy Guggenheim. It is a canvas 8 feet tall and 20 feet long, intended for the foyer of her new home. Mural is not yet made with the “drip technique” which made Pollack famous, but it looks pretty much the same as his latter work, maybe slightly less boring. (Jackson Pollock started making his paintings by dripping paint over them on the floor after he saw the work of Janet Sobel at Peggy Guggenheim’s The Art of This Century Gallery; Sobel was the first to do the “drip” thing.) In any case, one can easily see what Clement Greenberg saw in what Peggy Guggenheim saw in this yet unknown artist: the balls on this guy! He’s making giant pictures (well, he wasn’t before, but Peggy set him straight) which fit perfectly into the narrative of artistic progress, and look like nothing anyone’s made before! I can see the dollar signs in Peggy’s and Clement’s eyes…

The relationship forming between Greenberg, Guggenheim, and Pollock would prove to be the legendary foundation of American dominance of high culture. It would also set in motion profound changes for the world of art. Most importantly to them, perhaps, the capitol of culture will no longer be tied to a place with lots and lots of culture, like Paris—it will now be New York, the financial capitol of the world. For many years, figurative art will literally be considered outmoded; anyone who stubbornly persists making images of people and things, like the ones people enjoy looking at, will be a pariah in the art world, unable to exhibit their work seriously. Paintings smaller than a barn door will also not be taken seriously.

Most important to me, the changes set in motion by the Abstract Expressionist “revolution” will also reinforce the worst possible aspects of certain damaging ideologies. We’ve already talked about the narrative of human progress. Clement Greenberg may not have spent much time thinking about that one because at the time it seemed so self-evident to everyone. But he did spill much ink over his art theories, many of which have remained with us to this day. Greenberg believed that progress in the arts is in the direction of always less content. In the bad old days, someone who intended to make a picture had to make it be about something— Jesus, a basket of fruit, a pretty landscape, a bunch of drunk randy peasants. But art was never about the things depicted in the pictures, that was simply the price artists had to pay to do what they really liked doing: plopping gobs of paint on surfaces, dripping it on, smearing it around with their stubby fingers like kindergartners to their heart’s content.

Greenberg would create an entire theory around this idea that paintings should be about nothing, depict nothing, say nothing, and it really caught on for a very long time. Even many figurative painters who came once the ban on figuration was finally lifted, people like Chuck Close, Philip Pearlstein, and Lucian Freud, felt compelled to make their figures inscrutable, their paintings devoid of narrative. To Greenberg, painting is about the paint caking the two dimensional surface of the support.

For a long time, average “uncultured” people convulsed at the sight of abstract art while art critics and other art-world personalities thought it was just great. Today, I’m afraid the decades of pimping huge abstract canvases have paid off, and more and more people believe that abstract painting is good. Visual art is different from music, theater, or literature, insofar as it’s not always obvious what is good and what is bad. With music, it’s clearcut: if you hear an amateur or just shitty musician, pretty much everyone knows they’re no good immediately. Even the shallow, cliché stuff they pipe to us over the radio must meet certain basic standards of quality to be found acceptable, even if that minimum quality is often the work of producers armed with autotune. Not so in the visual arts: terrible paintings are adorning the walls of every coffeeshop across the country, and no one is clued in to their crappiness. At the highest levels of the art world it’s much the same thing: once Picasso opened up the doors to crappy art, there’s been no closing them. It’s incomprehensible to me how careers have been made painting the same blank canvas over and over, when not fifty years before a quality painting was still scrutinized for it’s message and the skill with which it was made.

It seems silly to tell artists not to do something they want to do, but I will do that anyway. I think artists are as confused as anyone else, by the heroic narrative of progress, by the rock star treatment given to drunk hacks like Jackson Pollock, by the continued promotion of abstract art by galleries and critics. But the truth is that abstract painting sucks. It’s not challenging to create. It is limited compared to figurative, narrative painting. There is almost nothing abstract painting can do that can’t be done better by figurative work. In fact, there are great figurative paintings that work in part precisely because they are also great abstract paintings, like some Manets or Turners, but the opposite is never true. It is essentially a cop out from learning to paint. The people who buy it like it precisely because it’s safe and not challenging, a good match for their couch. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine, but I think we should call it what it is—a sell out, a lower order of art, or hold it to the same standards as figurative painting.

The notion upon which abstract art is based, that form can be divorced from content, is false. An abstract painting still has content—that’s why there are great abstract paintings. Did you think it was because of the “technical mastery of shape, color, and line” exhibited by the artist? The notion that we can appreciate technical expertise devoid of any subject is absurd. The splotches of color which dissolve into “ugly” brushstrokes as you get close to them in a Sargent painting, they are beautiful because when you step away again, they come together to describe a gorgeously rendered figure. They are nothing but ugly brushstrokes free of that figure. To use an example from another artform, Kafka is considered the premier stylist in the history of writing. But not even his impressive literary technique will convince anyone to read the insurance reports he filed at his job as a bureaucrat. Simply, form doesn’t exist separate from content, they are the two halves of the yin and the yang, each impossible without the other.

Abstract painting still has content, it is still representational. There is no non-representational painting because as long as you intend for your painting to be seen by others, you are representing something to them with it, if only your own confusion. Shit, I forgot about “art for art’s sake,” the idea that art is made purely for the sake of making art, rather than to communicate, or dazzle, or share a feeling. Do I even need to discuss this one? It’s also not true, is laughable. Unfortunately, the content of most abstract paintings is usually only the ancient story of decadence, delusion, and shirking responsibility, although in theory there is nothing preventing someone from loading a non-figurative piece with information and beauty, feeling and mood. Many have.

With figurative art, the responsibility is mandatory. Every time someone paints two figures, they are endowing them with a story of some kind. Mostly, this will be a pretty boring story since most people aren’t that interesting or creative. But by creating a story, the artist takes responsibility for something, opens themselves up for judgment, not just by the art critics but by anyone who will ever look at their picture.

If abstract paintings have no content and only form, the only criterion by which they can be judged is whether one looks different enough from all other abstract paintings or not. That’s just ridiculous. With such criteria, we’re literally just checking off boxes: the early arrivals got to enter history simply by painting blank canvases, circles, rectangles, squiggles. With these niches occupied, the next group had to be slightly more creative in choosing their “unique” look, but it was still wide open and not hard to find. As fewer and fewer yet undone gimmicks remain, artists are forced to be ever craftier and more sneaky, but eventually nothing anyone could do will look sufficiently different from what’s already been done. I’m pretty sure this point has already been reached, hopefully. Maybe now we can go back to the old way, where the standards by which a work of art is judged are how well it communicates what it has to say, which is almost always a factor of the skill the artist brings to their craft, which is something that comes from practice and tradition.

The politics of abstract expressionism serve as an interesting sidenote. The Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-funded organization created to promote American culture and values, sponsored exhibitions of Pollock’s work. But despite the decidedly unrevolutionary nature of the project embarked on by Peggy Guggenheim, Clement Greenberg, and the rest of the American cultural establishment, most of the artists who were associated with Abstract Expressionism held far left of center views. I’ve seen it written that the large size of the canvases used by many of these artists was an attempt at making them too big for the museum and the gallery. I know, it’s absurd. In any case, I don’t believe any of the radical artists made rich and famous by Peggy and Clement’s art world coup complained about it or tried to return the money, although I understand that Jackson himself was tormented by his fame and whatnot. Then again he was tormented before he was made famous too.