Abstract Art and the Critics

Professor of fine arts at Harvard, JAMES S. ACKERMAN did his undergraduate work at Yale and received his M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University. In the following article, Professor Ackerman discusses the problem of art criticism, particularly as it relates to modern abstract art.

FOR half a century art critics have undertaken to address not a sophisticated minority like the readers of literary magazines, but the mass of unbelievers to whom twentieth-century art is a mystery or an insult. Having made this choice, they had to defend, promote, propagandize; and so they created an atmosphere which is uncongenial to calm evaluation. Under the pressures of that atmosphere, they surrendered a vital position to the opponent in admitting that modern art has to he seen differently from the art of the past. If this were true, then every major style in history would require a different critical approach, and we should be reduced to a relativism that would make all criticism pointless.

Actually, relativism was ennobled in the last generation, especially by us historians, in the belief that we could look at the art of any past period “in its own terms.” Maybe this came from a fear of absolutes in our materialist culture; it seems so virtuous to try to see each thing in its terms rather than our own. But we have confused dogmas, which impose authoritarian judgments, with standards, which make responsible judgments possible, and without which no criticism can operate.

The public has the right to demand of the critic and historian that he possess and make explicit a philosophical structure — or call it just a point of view — that stays put as he moves from one work or one era to another. This means that the same structure must apply to the art of the past and of the present. With such a structure we should be able to narrow the gap between criticism, which needs the breadth of scope that comes from a knowledge of art in all its variety, and history, which must be competent to penetrate to qualities as well as to quantities.

I think of the experience of the work of art as a dialogue. The artist expresses something in his work, but this something cannot be communicated in a vacuum — someone has to be there to receive it. The receiver is not a sponge which absorbs an invariable signal issuing from the source, but an active agent who would see in the work of art nothing but an agglomeration of materials unless he cast upon it the formulas of what he knows from experience and what he expects to find. Without bringing our experience to bear we cannot even translate the language of unfamiliar works; we must contribute some learning to the mere communication of forms and symbols. To the more complex process that occurs when we experience with intensity and understanding the expressiveness of the work, we contribute as much feeling and knowledge as we have.

This is why I call aesthetic experience a dialogue. If we agree that art does not just radiate its powers, then it demands a disciplined and difficult creative effort from the observer, and it is the critic’s job to aid this sort of creativity; further, since the observer plays such an active role in the aesthetic event, what is communicated depends on what his experience prepares him to receive. Every age, every country, every individual may see freshly, and so there can be no definitive assessment of any work of art.

This is no argument for relativism. The fact that our judgments will not be permanent does not relieve us of the responsibility for making them; fear of that responsibility has brought us to our present crisis of values. Both the poetic critic and the scientific historian take the experience of art as a monologue. The critic silences the work in his own flood of words, which emerge not from what he finds there, but from his fantasy, or perhaps his digestive tract. The historian claims to receive signals from the work without distorting those signals by his own contribution; what really happens is that he applies standards of which he is not aware and becomes an incomplete scientist and an unwitting critic.

Our perceptions and our standards are formed largely by the culture of which we are a part. We cannot avoid looking at the past with twentieth-century eyes, and twentieth-century eyes are trained by twentieth-century art, whether or not we want it that way. The vision of the early 1900s was assaulted by the primitivist-expressionist art of Picasso, the Fauves, Kandinsky, and the Brücke. These artists helped to stimulate the resurrection of the sixteenth-century mannerism, particularly of Tintoretto and El Greco. They also played a part in diverting some attention from classic Greek toward archaic art and from Gothic toward Romanesque works. More obviously, they helped to draw primitive and prehistoric art out of dusty ethnographic collections into art museums and the homes of connoisseurs.

A second group of the same generation was equally influential, but because of its classic rigor and reserve it did not encourage such violent shifts in interest. I refer to Mondrian, Arp, Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, who must have been influential in moving Piero della Francesca and Paolo Ucello into positions formerly occupied by Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio. Mondrian, whose impact on our ways of seeing may be greater than Picasso’s, sustained interest in Vermeer and probably aided the rise of Poussin, while Gropius and Mies excited a passion — perhaps excessive — for Ledoux, Schinkel, and Gandy. Some primitive art, like Cycladic sculpture, owes its present-day vogue as much to the sophisticated simplicity of the second group as to the primitivism of the first. Since the art around us conditions our view of all art, there is all the more reason to express clearly our relation to it.

IN CHOOSING abstract art, I do not imply that it is more deserving of attention than illusionistic art or that a work is good because it is abstract. Never in the history of art did the mere conventions of communication make good artists out of poor ones. The failure to recognize this is one of the flaws in the argument of those who now call for a return to the human figure. They have forgotten that the critic, by definition, comes after the artist; if artists had to wait for critics to discover what idiom would be acceptable, they probably would still be scratching bisons on the walls of caves. If there has been one single abstract painting that had the power to move or to inspire an observer and to affect the way he feels about life, critics are challenged to ask how it happened and struggle for an answer.

Let us recollect some paintings of the past decade, because it is simpler to discuss one art than many, and to think about the general tendency rather than about particular works or artists. I use the term “abstract” to identify works in which the subject matter is abstracted from something to the point of notably altering its familiar appearance, or works in which no familiar objects are represented. The double meaning has the advantage of admitting that the borderline between representation and nonrepresentation is indistinct.

What first impresses an unaccustomed observer in much recent painting is innovation calculated to invest technique itself with individuality: paint dripped upon the surface, squeezed on directly from a tube, collages of torn paper or cloth. A picture can become a map of the experiences and the physical movements that have gone into its making; the movements are often large, sensuous in effect, and rapid, and the painting as we see it may have been completed in a matter of moments, so that a ten-foot canvas retains the spontaneity of a small quick sketch of the past. The growth of canvases to great dimensions is in part an outcome of the primacy of action, because it permits an involvement of the whole physique that cannot be attained so long as the painter works from the wrist. But great scale is not an innovation of recent origin; certain late Renaissance and Baroque painters liked huge canvases for similar reasons.

Chance, a by-product of action, is a factor in determining form and often is exploited by the new techniques. What happens by chance obeys the laws governing the physical properties of the materials, with the result that the qualities of those materials may come to assert themselves as they did in the days of Byzantine mosaics or Limoges enamels.

In much of this painting we find no everyday objects represented, but the style cannot be defined by their absence. Many artists work on the verge of familiar imagery. Since they are not conveying entirely different values when some object does appear, we should have a way of discussing their work without becoming suspended between rigid concepts of subject and object. We need not assume that when an artist does not form images of everyday experiences he necessarily is recording traces of his inner life.

If we are to be able to read the work of art in terms that we understand, the artist must awaken in us familiar or imaginable experiences; the spark cannot be struck unless we can understand the rudiments of his language, so it cannot be just the language of his unconscious, though it may not be the everyday language of words. Psychologists work with such perceptions on a simple plane, to discover why — or if— we feel warmth in red, tensions in certain configurations of shapes, a lyric quality in a line, but these are the raw material of wallpaper designs as well as of art; what we must learn to explain is how such physiognomonic traits combine to create a meaningful expression.

The painter who works rapidly and with great physical involvement makes decisions quickly, even impetuously, but they remain decisions — in the conscious realm. Chance may play a larger part than in earlier paintings, but what is accidental is not by definition a contribution of the unconscious; it may be just a by-product of conscious activity, and it may be made expressive by carefully manipulating the pictorial context.

A similar factor of chance entered into Chinese painting in its freer moments, and Ernst Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion, recalled the English landscape painter of the eighteenth century who advised students to use accidental blotches to suggest motifs for the rendering of natural forms. In trying to solve this problem, it might help to abandon our Freudian bias; let’s take the unconscious off its pedestal and replace it with something like imagination, a favorite of the Romantics. Today’s expressionism is more Romantic than Freudian anyhow.

The images in the deeper recesses of our minds that we are able to recall are more ordinary in character than anything in abstract art. In dreams we do not see unfamiliar forms and shapes but people, trees, and houses, perhaps in odd and unstable contexts, yet unmistakably identifiable. Linked to this natural process of image and symbol making is the tendency we have to re-form unfamiliar or unarticulated shapes in terms of everyday experience. The Rorschach test, for example, is a successful diagnostic tool because nearly everyone is ready to interpret inkblots as representations of things. Apparently it is an innate human tendency, at times a need, to organize visual data in terms of images from the raw material of everyday life.

This again suggests that the key to abstract art is not to be found in the unconscious. On the contrary, it requires an extraordinary exercise of active, conscious imagination and of will to represent nothing familiar when our natural inclination is to seek comfort in the known. So, in spite of the emphasis on immediacy, abstract art is anything but primitive or simple; only a highly sophisticated culture could produce it.

THESE observations apply only to truly creative artists. The mass of abstract art is boring; so is the mass of Renaissance art. Masterpieces of any age surpass convention, either by infusing new life into existing forms or by fashioning new forms. But new forms, even when they are the product of superhuman effort and genius, can become conventions and be repeated by mere technicians. The discovery of rationalized linear perspective is one of the great intellectual triumphs of the Renaissance; it was beyond the reach even of such a master as Giotto; but today a practical approximation of it can be taught in grade school.

It is the same with abstract painting: the independence of art from physical objects in the world about us was won earnestly in the course of two generations of exploration. The new vision found form in unfamiliar techniques and materials, but the substance does not reside in the innovations, which, as usual, readily became conventions. It is curious that I should describe as convention what appears to many people to be irresponsible abandon. But the rules of abandon are taught in the academies, and beginners, who usually start by handling their tools in a rigid way, have to work hard to learn how to cut loose. Most of those who accuse abstract artists of technical incompetence confuse the issue; they find technical precision in an abstraction no more gratifying than the effects of chance, because it is the message and not the grammar that really bothers them. The technical command in some welded abstract sculpture, for example, does not ingratiate it with those who are horrified by dripped paint.

It is not only the technique that arouses opposition in the observer of abstract art, but the suspicion of aimlessness; he is annoyed at being frustrated in his habitual faculty of forming image perceptions out of visual sensations. The message of the work of art happens to be conveyed in a language he cannot understand, because it lacks reference to everyday objects; the language is not difficult or esoteric, but the observer must exert a little effort to command it. No language can be learned without application. There are many people for whom abstract paintings are everyday objects and are easier to read and to understand than some photographs. We learn to read the paintings from paintings, not from nature. The ability to interpret what is going on in a Greek vase painting or a Gothic sculptured portal depends on a knowledge of the language of those styles — its conventions and its limits. It is the conventions and the limits in abstract art that make it possible for us to understand it. If it were as licentious as it looks to its antagonists, it could not communicate any more than gibberish.

WE EASILY overrate both the importance of objects for artists in the past and the freedom gained today by abandoning objects. Throughout the history of art we find evidence that a painter’s models are as often paintings as the world around him. In the early academies it was thought dangerous to allow students to draw from nature before they had studied ancient art, and when I went to art school we still started with plaster casts from antique sculpture. An abstract painter is more on his own, but he cannot be alone with his canvas; his mind is bound to harbor images of what abstract paintings look like, images as definite as Renaissance painters had when asked to produce an enthroned Madonna — after all, nobody ever saw an enthroned Madonna except in pictures. This helps to explain the behavior of style — how it happens that in any given age artists express themselves in similar ways. And it explains how abstract art, for all its attempt to record the inner spirit of each artist, is as much a communal style as impressionism, the masters of which sought the opposite — to be impersonal lenses filtering light. More, I should say; today, for the first time, it would be possible to mistake a Japanese or an African painting for an American or English one.

There is bound to be academic abstract art, but this is not, as is sometimes said, because the style prevents the artist from getting ideas simply by looking around him. Since human beings see in terms of fixed preconceptions, the mere act of looking does not necessarily change art much. Byzantine mosaicists can have found no more usable inspiration in the streets of Ravenna than abstract artists get from gazing about New York or Milan. There were schemes for the Byzantines as there are schemes for abstractions, and when they were altered it was by some commanding conception in which keen observation may or may not have played a part. Wherever the conventions of abstract art are too confining, the fault is with the artist, not with the absence of conventional subject matter. The rise of a great art never was the result simply of a shift in symbolism.

If certain outstanding artists had not demonstrated how powerful an expression could be achieved within the abstract idiom, there would have been no style, but only some abortive private experiments. These artists were not trapped in schemes, but this is not to say that they lacked direction. Leading abstract painters, like their predecessors, attained their style by discipline and consistency of purpose.

When I suggested that abstract artists have in mind an image of abstract art as they work, the reader may have wondered what the first one did in the days when there was no art without familiar images. The easiest answer is that he was a genius who overcame existing conventions to achieve independence from the physical world. This trailblazer is the popular archetype of the twentiethcentury artist, an archetype fashioned by critics, dealers, and museums with their cult of the avantgarde, and by historians with their emphasis on the role of trailblazers in the past.

There is a factor of exaggeration in the creation of this figure, which draws attention away from significant values and toward inventions, devices. It was not the invention of nonobjective painting that made such an impact on our time, but the utilization of its principles in a powerful and authoritative manner. We are not even sure who invented it, and it does not matter much. Delaunay, Kandinsky, and the almost forgotten Kupka were working independently away from objects in 1911-1912; the invention was, so to speak, in the air, formed as much by the milieu as by the individual. We are also uncertain who started the expressionist (“action” or “Tachiste”) phase of abstract art in the late 1940s, or even where. It is not hard to find a number of likely models among pictures with just a whiff of subject matter, especially in the late work of Cézanne and of Monet. And this brings us back to the continuity of art from the past to the present.

A similar situation can be found four hundred years ago, when artists first began to paint landscapes and still lifes. These new genres were destined to exert an extraordinary influence on the history of art, but we cannot discover who invented them. Landscape just gradually happened: Leonardo and Dürer sketched the countryside, but still did not think of doing a whole painting of it; Giorgione painted stories in which the narrative is almost overwhelmed by the natural setting. Finally, by 1550, many pure landscapes were being painted, but soon they became frozen within a fixed convention which the genre might never have survived if it had not been for the injection of a fresh vision by the Bolognese in Italy and by the Dutch in the north. So the invention of pure landscape itself was not a notable event, and furthermore, it led to nothing important until a group of artists of rare distinction, from Annibale Carracci to Rembrandt, proved that it could be made a vehicle of compelling force. Soon after, Claude Lorrain’s landscapes were to speak with such authority that for generations painters scarcely ventured out of doors; they painted Claudes, and, as Gombrich has suggested, travelers who wanted to commune with nature sought out the spots where they could see Claudes in real life. What, after all, makes the countryside picturesque unless it be pictures?

At the time when landscape came to be popular, two other kinds of painting also appeared for the first time since antiquity: genre, or the painting of everyday lile, especially in its most common form; and still life. The three types of subject matter have in common the characteristic that their source is not to be found in books. Though all three might be linked with ennobling themes and with allegory, they represent a reaction against intellectualism in painting. For this reason they were demoted by the learned academies to positions far below the rank of biblical, mythological, allegorical, and historical painting.

We may call this rejection of the book a first step along the road to abstract art. In a landscape or still life the object is of no precise significance until the artist comes to endow it with a special meaning, whereas the message of a Crucifixion or Rape of Europa is more or less defined by theologians or poets before the artist starts to work. In time, the interpretation of religious, poetic, or historical themes ceased to be the primary concern of great artists. Most of the strongest statements of nineteenth-century painting were made in the younger disciplines: landscape, as in Turner, the impressionists, Van Gogh; genre, as in Courbet, Daumier, Degas. Still life, which was too impersonal for the Romantic era, retired to the periphery from Chardin’s time to Cézanne’s, and its impersonality made it the perfect vessel for cubism.

Indeed, it was suited so well to the needs of the early twentieth century that it was used more widely than it had been in its prime three hundred years before. Perhaps still fife was destined to become a bridge from figurative to nonfigurative art. Around 1600 still life was often symbolic; it represented the vanity of earthly luxuries; but shortly after, the symbolism began to drop away. Chardin’s eighteenth-century pots and pans are not vanities; nor do they appear to imply an exaltation of the simple life. They must have been chosen chiefly because they were large and simple shapes of an appealing color and texture, and perhaps because, of all the objects in the house, they were the least likely — as objects — to excite an emotional response. It is significant, too, that the pots are arbitrarily arranged into a context in which they do not play their normal role.

At this moment, when the artist chooses his subjects for their form alone and invents ways to distract our attention from the everyday meaning of his subjects, a major crisis occurs in the history of the work of art as a symbol. In a still life by Chardin or by Cézanne, after him, we are twice removed from the world as we know it. First, the artist has fashioned an artificial arrangement out of objects at hand — pots, apples, and the like; second, he makes a painting which represents his first arrangement. To the degree that his subject was an invention, Chardin was closer to abstract painting than to Leonardo and Raphael.

The history of still life reminds us that we have been accustomed for centuries to reading pictures in which narrative is a minimal factor. A still fife tells no story, and we may suppose that artists are interested in pots and apples not as cooking utensils and comestibles but as forms of a certain color and texture.

That brings us to the brink of abstract art, but subject matter is not irrelevant; the juicy taste may be gone from Cézanne’s apples, but the sphericality remains, and we still think of them in terms of apples we have known. A little later, in a still life by Braque or Picasso, taste and third dimension both are gone, and in addition, we cannot be sure they are apples — pears, maybe, or just a round area of paint or a piece cut out of Le Journal and pasted on the surface. The painting is charged with vigorous feeling, but feeling rather remote from dining-room associations. Abstract art arrives not, it appears, as a shattering revolution, but as another step in the process of divorcing invention from illusion.

IN THE early days of nonobjective art, most paintings adhered, like Picasso’s or Braque’s still life, to contours which defined forms of a given color or range. They were not recognizable objects, but things that could be described as easily as objects — a red disk (Delaunay) or a blue rectangle (Mondrian). But nowadays such distinctions often are dissolved; the things take shapes for which we have no names, or what seems to be mass is intermingled with what seems to be void in an ambiguous and complex relationship.

I think there was a corresponding change in the attitude of the artists. The pioneers of abstraction were intellectuals who were anxious to communicate what they were doing in words. They were eager writers of books; Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, Le Corbusier developed aesthetic systems that command attention. They thought of themselves as being in the mainstream of Western humanism, and, insofar as their ideas became enshrined in the program of the Bauhaus and other schools, they were to become a powerful influence in education on an international scale, founders of a new academy in the old sense of the word. Most of the present generation of artists have refused to accept the mantle of pedagogy and intellectuality. Their response to the pioneers has been sympathetic, but they express themselves in action rather than in philosophical principles; many of them are anti-intellectual. The manifestos stopped once the Renaissance demon had been exorcised.

In the process, criticism lost its customary props — the everyday world, the clear reference to historical tradition, and finally, even a statement of purpose from the artist. Four hundred years ago, the original academies faced a similar but less acute problem. Venetian painting had stirred up a controversy between disegno (drawing and composition) and colorito (color and painting). The academicians preferred the former, partly, I think, because pictures that are strictly drawn and organized are easier to translate into words; there is something about painterly ones that escapes the categories of language. The French academy almost fell apart in the critical struggle over the sensuous color and texture of Rubens.

Antagonists of contemporary art assume that a structure for which there are no verbal equivalents is not really a structure. But the change from nameable to unnameable forms has not made art more difficult to perceive visually; it merely has made the limitations of discourse more apparent. As I struggle to convey the quality of an abstract painting, I am aware more fully of the basic problems of criticism than ever before; the independence of the painting from the world of discourse forces me either to deal with the problem of expressiveness or keep quiet. When I talk about Titian I can hide behind a vast inventory of describable stuff— landscape, perspective. Satyrs, symmetry, triangular grouping. But it all can be a screen to obscure the difficulty of conveying the genius of Titian, which lurks in qualities that resist verbalization, just as those of the abstract painter do. I mean to say that it is easier to talk about Renaissance painting, but not easier to convey its expressiveness properly. The difficulties we find in abstract painting are in all painting, and it is a virtue of abstract art to have brought this out.

In urging critics to see how much abstract art relates to its forebears, I do not want to leave the impression that there is no difference. The formalist critics of the last generation believed that they were aiding the understanding of modern art by discussing Titian as if his figures, landscape, and story were irrelevant or literary. Titian really intended to impart ideas and feelings about those things, and we could not think them away even if we were misguided enough to believe we should. His story, the wealth of associations that it evokes, the luxury of his landscape — these are absent from the art of our time, just as Shakespeare’s poetics and variety of characterization are absent from Samuel Beckett, Beethoven’s majesty from Schönberg, and so on. When we seek the more serene and the more specific messages of the Renaissance, we can find them in Renaissance art. The art of our time, whether abstract or figurative, offers different rewards — an irony, an openness of form, a factor of unpredictability — which echo everyday life in our world. As an exploration of the human condition, it rewards attention as much as the art of other times; as a particular statement of our own culture, its challenge to the critic, and to every observer, is a call to self-knowledge.

If abstract art, or any other art, finds us at a loss for words, it is because there is no ready vocabulary to express the fundamental values that are peculiarly those of the visual arts, and we cannot make one. The critic can hope only to infuse extraordinary connotations into ordinary words, and this requires a gift, perhaps a genius, which cannot be taught in ready formulas and which is found no more frequently among critics than genius among painters. Since he is most likely to be inspired by the finest art, the critic should be thought of as an affirmative rather than a negative voice. Rarely in the history of criticism has negative evaluation penetrated deeply. But we may demand that his respect for the object he chooses should fasten his attention more on that object than upon the private fantasies it generates in him. There is no simple solution to the problems of criticism except to ask of the critic a solemn sense of responsibility to the artist and to the reader, and sound convictions that can be applied alike to the art of the past and of the present.