The twentieth century was a time of change and innovation. In the history of visual art in the West it was a standard expectation that the subject of any work could be recognized by the viewer.
Something happened in the early decades of last century that opened the way for a new artistic language – the language of abstraction. With this new genre, representation became less important. What we have come to call “modern art” is characterized by deference to the “autonomy” of the artist. As one considers visual artwork of the past, it’s evident that the art that was done was embedded in a particular social setting with its values and practices.
Art was there to serve the state, the culture, the church and the individual or family patron. With the advent of modernity there was a new focus on the artist and their autonomy. Art was shaped more from the internal life of the artist than from the external world around them. There is a good deal of debate around the terms “abstract” and “representation”. The latter is the longstanding tradition that says that art is ‘mimetic’ and depicts in a more or less realistic way what we observe.
Abstract art is commonly understood to have no connection with the external world and to be instead an expression of an inner world of emotion, mood or feeling. Though this captures in broad terms the difference between the two styles, the line is too sharp since the division is much fuzzier than at first appears. Emotion and feeling do show up in representative art while representation is commonly lurking somewhere in work that is abstract.
I confess that I am drawn to abstract art. It is not easy to articulate why this is so but I find something compelling in the work of some famous abstract artists. Among those whose art I find attractive are the well-known historical figures Wassily Kandinsky,(whose abstract painting seem to be music on canvas), Paul Klee and Mark Rothko. Two within the Imago circle whose work I enjoy are Paul Fournier (December 2012 newsletter) and Janet Read featured in this issue of the newsletter. Abstract art invokes suspicion among many within Christian contexts.
We are inclined to look for the familiar, that which we have seen and experienced in the world. Abstract work leaves us unclear, uncertain and often perplexed. We want to know what it “means”. We are inclined to want to understand the work rather than experience it. Though there is no universal agreement about when abstract art begins many will point to Kandinsky (1866-1944) as the one who launches abstract art in the early twentieth century. He is author of a book titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
Kandinsky was not speaking specifically about a Christian spirituality but about a more general notion of the spiritual, in his case influenced by Theosophy. The point to be made here is that there was a longing present in those early years of the twentieth century to escape the cool logic of an industrial society dominated by analysis and measurement, and embrace the warmth of spiritual sensibility that offered a hint at least that there was more than meets the eye.
There were many like Kandinsky whose art was in one way or another, a response to a diminished spiritual presence in the culture of the time. This trend is well documented in Roger Lipsey’s book An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. Hans Rookmaaker – a key figure interpreting visual art for Christians in the 1970s and 80s expressed legitimate concern about art and the influences that shaped it. In the title of his book Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – we get a hint of where he wishes to take us in relation to artistic trends of the time. However it seems to me that things are more complex than Rookmaaker would have it.
The work of Mark Rothko is controversial to say the least, profound and deeply moving to some, bland and meaningless to others. James Elkins in his book Pictures and Tears tells us that it is likely that more people have wept before Rothko paintings than any other artist. Rothko lived much of his artistic life in New York and like others artists of the time sought to reach beyond a merely aesthetic experience to cross the boundary to a spiritual experience. Once told that his work showed him to be a colorist Rothko responded.
I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on…. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.
There is no simple formula for interpreting abstract art, nor a clear path that will disclose its meaning. What is important is that such art be allowed to speak in its own lisping stammering way. And I think that sometimes if we look attentively and listen carefully fresh discoveries are possible.
This is a topic that calls for more conversation and I hope that Imago might foster that in the days ahead. In the meantime let me note that Imago will host James Elkins for a lecture on May 23rd at the Art Gallery of Ontario in which contemporary art and religion will be the theme.