The Tyranny of Abstract Art

The vogue and lure of abstraction is a burning issue in modern art. For many painters and critics, faith in abstract art is faith in the future of mankind. But, having become a faith for a few, it has also become a fashion for many, and a fashion which threatens to degrade contemporary art to a mere badge of allegiance. Born in Vienna, ERNST GOMBRICH has been a member of the Warburg Institute in. London since 1936.

LIKE all good jokes tHe drawing from Punch above on the page has its serious and even tragic side. For it would miss its point if we took it to be a crack at the expense of Dolan the artist or his dealers McGraw. The true butts, I am afraid, are we, the art historians who introduced this solemn terminology and spread the conviction that artists “enter” into periods as planets enter into constellations on some mysterious preordained course. The artist in his studio, surrounded by his unsold sub-Mondrians, cannot help it, or so he thinks. He is only the instrument, the sensitive seismograph of the “spirit of the age.” An extra bottle of whisky may have changed his universe of forms. But whatever it was, it was not he who willed it. Dolan can do nothing to divert the stream of history on which he and the owners of the McGraw galleries are both drifting, helplessly but not hopelessly, for an unexpected lide may carry them both to affluence.

Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. I mean to. But I am not, I think, inventing. There are conservative critics who think that the main trouble with modern art is that painting has become too easy, a mere splashing of colors. But the true objection to Dolan’s ideology may be that it has become impossibly difficult to be an artist in his situation.

It is a commonplace of psychology that nothing is harder to bear than complete freedom from any restraint. Add to this burden of freedom the horror of being watched, discussed, and registered, and you will see that it needs a tough mind indeed to survive the freedom of art today. Artists are rarely conspicuously tough — though they sometimes want you to believe them so. Imagine Dolan’s state of mind in front of his canvas, really facing that existentialist nightmare, the responsibility for every decision, every move, without any convention to guide him, any expectation to live up to except the one of creating something recognizably himself and yet significantly different. No wonder that he seeks to disclaim responsibility, that he looks for aesthetic creeds which place the responsibility for his work somewhere else, in his personal automatisms or the collective unconscious, in the Spirit of the Age or the Class Situation.

Trained by us, the art historians, to think historically, his public in its turn will watch most eagerly where the cat will jump, ready to label any jump as a “new movement,” and having docketed it wait sleepily for the next act. Gone are the days when you could shock the critics. Hang up an old stocking dipped in paint in your next exhibition and all you may hope is to go down in history as the inventor of trickotage. Will it catch on? And for how long? How degrading for the genuine artist ever to have to ask such a question. What an opening for Ananias the False Artist!

It was Walter Pach who, thirty years ago, coined that telling label as the title of a book in which he denounced the timidity of those in power in the world of art who wanted to play safe and bought or commissioned meretricious trash, slick, sentimental, and hollow works of art of which he illustrated a devastating series. The painting by Albert Besnard, Figure 1, commissioned by no less a city than Paris for its Town Hall to represent “Meteorology” is a fair sample of the horrors pilloried by the critic. What makes such works repellent, he rightly insisted, is their striving after fashionable effect. Besnard, to him, was an Ananias because he was less than a plodding Academic artist; he was a trickster who decked out his own emptiness with a few surface qualities borrowed from “modern art”: the deviation from ideal beauty, the show of frenzy, and the rough brushwork. Besnard is forgotten. But what about the ubiquitous Trebla Dranseb, the abstract artist? The master, if you can call him so, of Figure 2, which you will surely remember from last year’s show? Admittedly it is less unpleasant to look at than the Besnard. It lacks the pretentious pathos of the ugly nude, and that is something to be thankful for. But negative virtues are not enough; my new Ananias, of course, is none else than Albert Besnard written backwards, just as his “painting” is merely a detail of Figure 1, reversed and blown up to complete the parable.

It is not as if Walter Pach had not known of this danger. Serious critic that he was, he paused in the middle of his denunciations to consider the parable of the mote and the beam. Are those who oppose false art of one kind safe from being imposed upon by another? He knew they are not. But he thought there were two safeguards built into the modern movement which made the recurrence of such aberrations unlikely. First, there was no danger of a new Academy simply because modern artists did not teach in 1927; second, the appeal of modern art was limited to such a small minority that it would not pay an impostor to ape its accents.

But though he underrated the danger, he diagnosed it correctly: “Without the school-taught ability to copy nature, without even the academic formula for design and color, the counterfeit art of the modernist camp followers is about the poorest thing in the whole scale. It usually avoids cheap sentiment, but cheap aesthetics is just as futile. Its one chance for acceptance lies in the ‘snobbism’ that swallows the rubbish of the so-called moderns because it looks different from the bad things of the old school. One more chance for Ananias to mislead artists and public!”

How times have changed since these words were written! Today Walter Pach’s scourge has chased the old Ananias out of the temple of art. Only in some backwater may a worthy town councilor still make welcome copy by preferring Besnard to Dranseb. But how long will even he have the courage to own up to this compromising preference?

TO EXPLAIN this dramatic reversal of fortunes, Walter Pach’s analysis will have to be amplified. Perhaps when he spoke of “snobbism” he still thought in terms of a vanishing society. In that society a snob was a man who aspired to enter into noble circles by the reality or show of intellectual refinement.

But the very term “snobbism” implies the existence of a nobility, that is of a hierarchical society, and these conditions, with all their failings, also limited the scope of the snob. The oldfashioned squire who endangered his prestige with the ladies of Bath because he preferred Hogarth to Romney still remained a squire in his own right. His self-respect was scarcely affected by any such gaffe. Our own social pigeonholes are much less secure. On the one hand social mobility has immeasurably increased the rewards for the right accent, taste, or creed as a passport into the selfappointed elite; on the other hand its position is never static; “advanced” views, the feeling of being in the van of history, are among the few rewards offered by society to the struggling intellectual.

There is so much one welcomes in the tide of equality that one almost hesitates to point to a less desirable side effect. I see it in the increasing power of negative rules. Our education starts with DON’TS; we first learn what to avoid if we are not to disgrace ourselves in society. For it is not only primitive society that is based on taboos. Certain things are not mentioned, not done, not believed. These prohibitions are fairly easily learned and will secure to those who observe them an entry into the group, even if they do not make him a full member.

In matters of behavior this is as it should be. In matters of art it is surely not. An art of protest, such as modern art had been, offers some obvious DONT’S which are easily picked up. Anyone can learn without much trouble that a picture must no longer be photographic, anecdotal, or “chocolate-boxy.” A Dranseb is always safe in this respect. Remove that compromising print of a pretty girl from your wall. Pin-ups are vulgar. Put an abstract into your room and you have proclaimed your allegiance to the right kind of thing. If you don’t like it yet, it may be your fault; and after all, what can one not make oneself like if only one tries hard enough and if the reward of enhanced self-respect beckons at the end of the arduous road?

Admittedly there is a brighter side to this situation. In a society where art has lost so many of its former functions, it might not be the worst if it retained at least this use as a badge. After all, it is not the badge of a bad allegiance. In the complex constellations of this world of ours the room with these abstracts is likely to witness and encourage the most stimulating conversations, least trammeled by prejudice and intolerance. It will invite exploration, experiment, and that tolerance for nonconformist views which is the most precious heirloom of the Western world. As long as both the extreme Right and the extreme Left attacked it, one felt in honor bound to stand by it.

What is loosely called modern art sprang from a protest against the lie in the soul, a revulsion against false values. The cheap vulgarity that stifled our cities and choked our drawing rooms, the sentimental trash which was taken for Great Art at the time of the industrial expansion, when new classes of patrons acquired unexpected wealth and were bent on ostentation, sickened the heart of the true artists who went on their lonely and perilous way in the face of public neglect and derision. This, at least, is the treasured legend of the modern movement, and there is a sufficient element of historical truth in it to silence criticism before the shrines of its martyrs. No one, perhaps, has described more feelingly than André Malraux this element of almost religious abnegation, of a proud resistance to the temptations of success which made an artistic movement a moral force in society. No wonder that the movement looks back with genuine nostalgia to these days of purity and persecution and likes to picture itself still in the catacombs. The Futurists live in the past.

THERE appeared in 1956 a beautiful volume under the title The New Landscape in Art and Science, edited by Gyorgy Kepes and sponsored by M.I.T. The list of contributors and supporters makes impressive reading. On its glossy and costly pages we read the following quotation, written in 1953 by André Masson, a survivor of the old vanguard who was born in 1896:

. . . that which goes contrary to the prevailing taste is, for me, the most precious of things . . . whatever is scorned, despised or not understood by the society in which one lives has prospects for the future.

Perhaps these are noble sentiments, but by now, and in this context, they are also silly. They imply that the “new landscape” must be bad because it does, in fact, appeal to prevailing taste. What is scorned by the enlightened sponsors of the book — reaction, Philistinism, slums, and vulgarity — holds prospects for a future which, I hope, we need not live to see.

“In this world there are only two tragedies,”said Oscar Wilde. “One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” The unexpected prestige acquired by an art of defiance when it became the badge of progress has turned the first tragedy into the second. The professional iconoclast who has run out of his favorite icons is a sad sight. Since Albert Besnard has ceased to matter, the Trebla Dranseb has also lost its point.

We older people are apt to overlook this elementary fact, but luckily the young generation is there to remind us. Several months ago I was asked by a group of young science graduates to address them on problems of modern art. I went there with a set of slides and explained to the best of my ability what was the driving power behind Expressionism and Cubism, Surrealism and Constructivism. When I had finished, the chairman of the group reminded me tactfully that I had really missed my subject. I had talked about history. All these movements lay far back in the century. Born, as these young scientists were, in the nineteen-thirties, they scarcely remembered the war, let alone the mood of the pre-war years and the fight against a bygone Ananias. It was not that these scientists were Philistines. They were as open-minded as befits those who work on the frontiers of knowledge. But they were interested in the task at hand, the solution of scientific and artistic problems here and now; and the emotionalism and self-pity of many of the works I had shown struck them as sentimental.

Art will have to adjust to this new world of sober empiricism. The terms “progressive” and “reactionary” once derived their meaning from the hopes and dreams of the French Revolution, when parties first arrayed themselves in that political spectrum from Right to Left which we were brought up to take for granted. But as soon as we cease to imagine ourselves drifting on a vast stream of history, it is we who have to pick our course on the uncharted ocean of time. Ultimately this breakdown of an oversimplified view of human destiny may prove a blessing to art. The fear of being found in the wrong camp when criticizing certain aspects of art has vitiated rational discussion for too long. And, paradoxical though it may sound, this reluctance has threatened to atrophy what is most vital in the Western tradition, the spirit of experiment.

This assertion may need a word of explanation. When we speak of “experiments” in science we mean something very well defined and clearly circumscribed: the arrangement, that is, of tests to confirm or refute a scientific theory about the nature of things. They serve progress in that welldefined meaning of the term which is implied in the progress of science even where it expresses itself only in bigger and better motor cars, bombs, or spaceships. What matters is, of course, that there are public standards by which success or failure of experiments can be rationally discussed.

If words like “exploration” or “experiment” are to be more than vague prestige words in art, which are to surround the studio with a spurious aura of the laboratory, we have to find some standard of success or failure. Obviously such standards cannot be quite as clear-cut as they are in science. Obviously, also, the success of an experiment cannot be equated with public acclaim. But I can see no other way to discuss theories of art, if they are to have any value at all, than by submitting them to the test of experiment and such rational discussion as is possible, to establish whether the theory works.

ABSTRACT or nonobjective art provides perhaps the most obvious example. The theory on which its experiments were originally based is much older than is generally realized. It is more than ninety years since the English critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton reported on a curious tendency which was gaining ground among the extreme classicists of Paris. “They are beginning to express contempt for all art which in any way depends on the interest of the subject.” Such interest, Hamerton reported in 1867, is felt to be as degrading and as extraneous as the premiums in the form of free books which French newspapers offer to their subscribers:

Painting, like journalism, should in their view offer nothing but its own merchandise. And the especial merchandise of painting they hold to be the visible melodies and harmonies — a kind of visible music — meaning as much and narrating as much as the music which is heard in the ears and nothing whatever more . . . when they paint a woman they do not take the slightest interest in her personally, she is merely, for them, a certain beautiful and fortunate arrangement of forms, an impersonal harmony and melody, melody in harmony, seen instead of being heard. It may seem impossible to many readers that men should ever arrive at such a state of mind as this and come to live in the innermost sanctuary of artistic abstraction, seeing the outer world merely as a vision of shapes; but there is no exaggeration in the preceding sentences, they are simply true, and true of men now living.

Reading the words of the half-forgotten Victorian critic, one is surprised that the experiments of abstract art were not made earlier than they were; that they were delayed till the first decade of the twentieth century, it is of course right that they were made. We owe it to the spirit of the modern movement that artists dared to explore the potentialities of shapes and colors with greater boldness than their Victorian ancestors. But how are we to decide whether the experiment w as a success or a failure?

It is in such a concrete case that the dangers of the religion of progress to the progress of art become most easily demonstrable. What Hamerton called the innermost sanctuary of artistic abstraction is thronged with worshipers, exhorted by guest lecturers to prostrate themselves before its cult images. But there is an old German saying that “pious images are often bad paintings.” The appeal to extraneous issues has proved as vitiating to art as was the “premium” of subject matter. It makes it hard to discuss the success of the abstract experiment in rational terms.

To me it seems that there are works of color music, canvases by Kandinsky which are really pleasing, just as there are fugues of shapes by Mondrian or Nicolson which command respect and interest. Many of them are quite obviously better, more interesting, and more ingenious than the works of Dranseb or Dolan (whether of the earlier or the new period) shown in the drawing from Punch; and even among those some are less inane than others. But when I seriously compare my reactions to the best abstract canvas with some work of great music that has meant something to me, it fades into the sphere of the merely demonstrative or decorative.

It should not be hard to account for this relative failure of the experiment. Music is more than a configuration of sounds. Something happens to the motif. It undergoes a series of transformations and vicissitudes; it returns triumphantly enriched by its passage through various keys and rhythms. Painting, of course, lacks the dimension of time. In lairness, therefore, its combinations of shapes and colors should not be compared to a symphony but to a chord. There are thrilling chords in music and empty ones; chords which sound like elementary exercises from a textbook played by a student on an old upright and captivating combinations enhanced by colorful or witty orchestration. But how good is the best chord in isolation? Not even the laconic Anton Webern ever reduced his musical meditations to one simultaneous sounding of tones, which is all the painter can give us within the four sides of his frame.

It may be argued that what subject matter imparts to painting is not so much an extraneous interest as another dimension for the development of relationships. Whatever Mr. Hamerton’s classicists have felt, something happens to the motif, the nude, or the still life, as it is transposed into shapes and colors, transfigured or distorted, and this event — as Picasso and Klee never ceased to realize — is part of the complex structure we call a painting.

A FAIR trial between music and pure shapes could only be made if shapes were allowed to develop in the dimension of time, for instance in the medium of the film. Perhaps it is a pity that Walt Disney’s Fantasia has partly discredited this rivalry of the arts by trivializing it prematurely, and that other experiments are so rarely seen in public. There may be films in which shapes undergo destinies comparable to the themes of a symphony, rearing up here into unexpected brightness, shrinking there into gloom. Such an art might even gradually build up a framework of conventions like the one which made Western music possible — that system of expectations within which the musician creates, even where he defies it. How shall we know when these experiments are successful? Only when we enjoy them for their own sake, regardless of our historical interest; as we enjoy Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. The notorious tag “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like” is habitually held up to ridicule in books on art appreciation. It may yet become the cornerstone on which a new art can be built.

I have chosen the musical theory of nonobjective art not because it is the only one that has been put forward but because it is both the oldest and the clearest. That there are others, I know: the graphological one, for instance, which is based on the expressive character of marks and traces; or the culinary one, which relies on the sensuous appeal of pigment. All these contain a measure of truth and even a measure of triviality. They deserve to be tested; sometimes, perhaps, even in laboratory experiments, to see how far they can take us. For why should we perpetuate that facile opposition between science and art which gives to art only what is murky, instinctive, and by definition inaccessible to rational discussion? This is the kind of “cheap aesthetics” denounced by Walter Pach. It finds no warrant in either psychology or history. Many scientists have testified to the role which creative dreams have played in their work, dreams that were hammered into rational theories by hard and inspired work; many artists, on the other hand, use the power of intellect with a lucidity and concentration that rivals that of the scientific pioneer. The cult of art as pure emotional abreaction or expression is a debased form of the Romantic belief in inspiration.

Two thousand years ago St. Paul was confronted with a similar debasement. Members of the first Christian congregations experienced strange seizures when they were “speaking with tongues,” uttering what sounded like inspired gibberish. The words of the apostle in the First Epistle to the Corinthians should be pondered by all critics who feel the urge to speak with tongues about artists similarly afflicted:

. . . except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.

What would have happened, one wonders, if these words had never been written to check the growing prestige of revivalist non-sense? Would it still have been possible to salvage the heritage of Greek rational thought through the Dark Ages, or would it all have been swept away by the unreasoning tides of history?