Reframing non-figurative art and investigating the validity of abstraction.
Words by Mercedes Smith
One of the most common discussions I have in social situations, once people discover what I do for a living, is about the validity of abstract art. You can imagine. Some people, especially confrontational types, come at me like a heavyweight boxer on the subject. Others are genuinely interested, but sceptical, often mentioning the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ analogy.
Truthfully, it has always astonished me that people have so much trouble with abstract art. I blame schools. For many people of my generation (I am Gen X, a sun kissed, coke-float fed child of the 70s) art class was about drawing an apple, strategically placed beside a lemon. You suffered in art class – you had to be silent and observe until your eyes bled, your tongue sticking out in determined concentration. Marks were given for the accuracy with which your drawing replicated the scene. It’s no wonder people later feel affronted by six feet of plain yellow canvas with a scruffy orange square in the middle. “How much?!!” they marvel, at the extraordinary price of a Mark Rothko. “I could do that!” they say, when what they really mean is “he hasn’t suffered like I did in art class. He’s pulling my leg”. I was lucky. I had the most marvellous art teacher, Roger Charles, who managed to teach us both respect and irreverence for art in every delicious lesson.
He leapt about the room in plum cords and red Hush Puppies, waving his arms like a musical conductor to encourage us to share our every thought. In his class we spent as much time arguing about the point of art as we did putting paint to paper, and the more we argued the more he declared us “brilliant!”. I looked forward every week to the intellectual scrap of it, and have since translated that same thrill into a full time job. Consequently, I enjoy these impromptu, sometimes confrontational chats about non-figurative art, and each time I hope to inspire a genuine appreciation for Abstraction, which I regard as the greatest of all art forms. If you’re a sceptic, let me try the same thing on you.
I will start by saying that abstract art is not a trick. It is not designed to extract millions of pounds from people with more money than sense (as one of my friends puts it). The extraordinary price paid for certain works of art simply reflects the value the buyer places on the work, not the price the artist placed on it. Many famous works, now valued in the millions, were sold by the artist for a pittance when they first left the easel, so let’s not accuse the artist of ‘intent to rob’. Why, then, do buyers place such a high value on what is essentially, to quote essayist William Hazlitt, a “picture of nothing”? Well, that’s simple. Firstly, they don’t carry the idea in their heads that art should be a picture of something. They are open to the idea that mere colour, mark and concept are far more visually and intellectually stimulating than a painting of an apple next to a lemon. More importantly though, they value works of abstract art as particularly significant cultural objects, as markers in time that document the progression of human thought.
Let me clarify: if I were to value the famous Venus of Willendorf, a four-inch figurine of a naked woman held in the Natural History Museum in Vienna, as the squat, clumsily carved lump of limestone that it is (worth a fiver maybe, materially speaking), I’d be missing the point. Its value is not in the materials it is made from, nor its amateurish design (see six feet of plain yellow canvas with a scruffy orange square in the middle) but in the fact that it was made by another human being, for reasons appropriate to that moment in history. The Venus of Willendorf, created around 28,000 years ago, is an object of great rarity, thought to be a maternal goddess or fertility symbol, that tells us the way people thought at that time, what they feared and what they hoped for. Touching it would be the equivalent of brushing fingers with its maker across millennia. That makes it magical, and literally priceless.
All art is the same, from the cave paintings of Lascaux (c. 15,000 BC), with their depictions of Palaeolithic creatures, to Constable’s ‘The Haywain’ (1821), which records an idyllic scene of rural English life, to Tracy Emin’s ‘My Bed’ (1998), which illustrates a chaotic and psychologically fragile state of youth particular to life in the late 20th century (as we Gen X’ers lived it). It shows us what ‘was’, and how people viewed the world at that point in history. What makes abstract art especially valuable in this context is that it tends to be inspired not by the visual, but by the social, political and psychological – it is a peek into the things that really make society tick at any one moment.
Jackson Pollock’s mid-century ‘splatter’ works, for example, have been aligned by historians with the chaotic nature of 1950s Free Jazz, played in the studio as Pollock flung paint, as well as a defiant expression of free thinking in the age of political paranoia, or even as evidence of Pollock’s deteriorating mental state. Whichever angle you look at Pollock’s paintings from, it will tell you a lot about life in 1950s America – about mid-century music, politics and masculinity – and that’s what makes it a cultural treasure, worthy of our interest, and worth millions to collectors. Remember, Abstraction is designed to express nonvisual ideas; like music, abstract art may be experienced through your senses, but it is aiming for your soul. If it helps, after years of art ‘fandom’ I think I’ve nailed the appreciation of abstract art in three easy steps, and I invite you to follow my lead the next time you are anywhere near an exhibition of abstract art.
First, I like to start from a position of maximum ignorance regarding the artwork in front of me, avoiding interpretive wall texts and the exhibition catalogue entirely. The less I know, the purer my visceral response to the painting; here is a dazzling canvas of vivid stripes, or a neutral expanse of black and indigo. I love it. I hate it. It does absolutely nothing for me. Is it me or is it hot in here? God, it’s wondrous, I adore this work, all that colour makes my heart race. All that darkness fills me with a wicked, thrilling terror. This is what I love most about Abstraction, it is pure heroin for the heart and mind.
Later, after I’ve judged a painting on emotional response alone, I sit down to read the catalogue and educate myself on the work. Once your feeling about a work has been clarified, it is important to understand how and why the work was made, and to understand the artist’s intent, even though history shows their intent will ultimately become irrelevant. Typically, step two here is performed in a restaurant, post exhibition; art, I find, makes me hungry for pasta. Finally, over dessert, I will imagine the work at auction a hundred years from now, and this is the real test of its worth. Will it say something about ‘now’ to future collectors? About the mess the world is in? About new thinking on neurodiversity? About the rise of K-Pop? Will it have cultural value?
If I’m lucky I will get into a debate about it with valued friends at our table for eight, and that’s really the crux of it. Good art – whether you like the art or not – sparks debate, and the more ferocious the debate, the more likely the work is to make it to that lucrative Sotheby’s auction in the future.