Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Art sits back, licking its chops and waiting for the next fool who believes art can be explained rationally.

I've never been that kind of fool. As far as I'm concerned, the quality of art can't be determined by the accuracy of an image or the chemical composition of the pigment. The poet W. H. Auden identified a far more reliable test:

In times of joy, all of us wish we possessed a tail we could wag.
All of this goes to say that my current diversion into the darkest depths of abstract art is not an attempt to find objective criteria for judging abstract art.

However, my personal view is that abstract art and representational illustration-- despite their obvious differences-- both deal at their core with the creation of form, and can both be judged by what
Peter Behrens called "the fundamental principles of all form creating work." These principles enable us to place all visual art on the same continuum. They give us a standard by which even abstract art can be measured. With representational art, we often achieve aesthetic qualities by starting with subjects from nature that embody these qualities, while with good abstract art the challenge is to distill these principles one additional level, to their essence.

Where do aesthetic principles come from, and how do we apply them?

Aesthetic principles such as beauty, balance, harmony and proportion don't simply spring forth on butterfly wings. They are derived from our daily interaction with the world. Our experience of nature is the fundamental starting point from which we come to understand what colors "go" well together, or how we experience effective compositions or which designs elicit certain reactions.

Not only that, but the vocabulary of value in art is the vocabulary of morality. Terms such as "beauty" and "harmony" are terms by which we order our lives as well as our paintings. These words don't offer mathematical certainty. They are subjective and imprecise, but they are central to the most important aspects of our humanity so we agree to tolerate a little ambiguity.

Some of you will object that illustration is very different from abstract or nonrepresentational art at the philosophical / political / biological / metaphysical / sexual / or religious level. Yes, all of those elements may play a role in art, but they are always embodied in aesthetic form. Only the form is essential to art.

Some of you are very irritated that abstract or nonrepresentational art is overrun with talentless pretenders who rushed to fill the vacuum when objective standards departed. This is certainly true. Only recently the New York Times published a favorable review of conceptual artist Sherrie Lansing who practices "appropriation art." Explains the review:

She re-photographed Walker Evans photographs and presented the copies as her own to question what labels like "original" and "classic"' meant, and why they were always applied to men.
To this I can only respond that an artistic theory can't be held responsible for all the clowns who subscribe to it.

Finally, some of you will object that abstract art "cheats" because there is no external point of reference by which to judge the success of the work. Non-representational artists never have to struggle to get that arm right or to solve that problem with perspective. But this only makes the job easier for bad abstract artists. The lack of an external reference point makes it harder for a good artist (and for the audience) to determine when a picture is right.

I think the abstract art that I offered before is "true" applying the standards above. It confidently applies the same kinds of form creating principles that God applied in designing the world, and it gets the images right. It creates visual images that obviously did not come from nature and yet seem organically at home in the world. It is deceptively hard to apply the aesthetic principles described above. For me, 99 percent of abstract art falls far to the left or right of the mark, but when it works, I find it credible and important and valuable.

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