Nonrepresentational art has never succeeded in obliterating the art of interpreting the visible and imagined realities of our existence: man, his objects and actions, his dreams, and the natural world in which he lives, but it has entrenched itself as though never to be dislodged; it is now as normal a part of artistic routine as mathematical perspective used to be, and a glance at airports, office buildings, and bars proves that it has become downright popular. Historians of later ages, whether they choose to call it a culmination or an aberration, will certainly pick it as the most distinctive manifestation of artistic life in our century. Never”theless, the ideology of abstract art continues to be challenged. Dissident artists attack it most effectively by working under other standards. Those of us who merely reflect help as best we can with theoretical considerations—one or two of which I submit in what follows.
To impeach nonrepresentational art, the gravest charge against it must be its failure to engage what I shall deliberately and even ostentatiously call the moral interest. For the best part of a century, intellectuals have been speaking, writing, and acting as if their sophisticated aesthetic perceptions were quite uninfluenced by moral considerations, and as if moral considerations were a sort of mental function suitable only for right-wing patriots. But have we not by now travelled far enough from the 19th century to take the ineradicable realities of our moral life—the moral life even of a disabused art critic—back into the aesthetic arena? Modern criticism has closed its eyes to the moral element in our aesthetic response simply because so very few serious works of art offend the moral persuasions of modern critics. If we were flooded with ambitious art-works (pictorial or literary) favoring the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazi revival, a return to fundamentalist Christianity, or even laissez-faire capitalism, most of our critics would instantly show their true colors, clamber down from their cool critical summits (is not “cool” the proper word for modern criticism today?) and man the barricades of Moral Passion. In short, whether we know it or not, overtly or covertly, we are always moralizing, moralizing in life, and moralizing in art, even when we think we are responding only to masses, rhythms, and colors.
The operating principle to which I make my appeal (and to which I have made a similar appeal in writing about literature) is that in art, the function of the moral judgment is aesthetic. Our distance from the 19th century enables us to dissociate this principle from what may be called, by contrast, the principle of moralism, which is the idea that a work of art has the obligation to turn us into better or more intelligent human beings, howsoever “better” or “more intelligent” happen to be defined. Not that I deny the validity of this idea. It should not be dismissed on the too easy ground that it has been misused and misapplied by “Philistines.” But the principle of moralism is not the issue here. I am confining my observations to the pleasure or displeasure we receive from the moral judgment which we inevitably bring to bear on the recognizable subjects of a painting or sculpture as arranged and interpreted by the artist.
The latter part of this clause—”as arranged and interpreted by the artist”—draws us into the formal sphere of the work of art, all the techniques of color, line, composition, texture, light and shade, angles of vision, and other devices which “manufacture” the artist’s peculiar vision of his subject. Suppose that the raw subject is a cathedral. One painter succeeds in conveying suggestions of religious fervor to an unlettered citizenry through certain applications of pink and brown. But he disgusts the elite, who regard his vision as sentimental. Another painter manages to delight that same elite through a sense of glorious luminosity, and to antagonize the common gawkers, who see only a muddle that spoils reality. Thus the formal elements of painting (and sculpture) play a decisive role in shaping the moral tendency of the work. At the same time, however, the raw subject carries its own preliminary moral weight. It is always the cathedral that is being glorified or spoiled. No one—butcher or aesthete—can rid himself (thank God) of the thousand-and-one associations he brings along as mental baggage even before he stands in front of the painted cathedral. The difference between a canvas full of shimmering colors and a canvas of a cathedral rendered in shimmering colors is immense, and this difference is produced by our moral life.
Moral judgments are of many kinds, but they all lie on the axis of sympathy and antipathy with regard both to the subject in the raw (before the painter has touched it) and to the subject as manifested to us by the artist. Included in this conception of moral judgment are whatever political passions that animate us. Furthermore, I place even intellectual judgment in the same arena, for the truth or error, and the intelligence or stupidity, which we impute to a work of art arouse our admiration or contempt, and these are once again moral judgments. Truth and intelligence are good; error and stupidity are evil. An aesthetic theory which is offended by the presence of these passions in the act of appreciation simply preaches in a vacuum not inhabited by human beings.
The common mistake is to associate the idea of moral judgment in general with a specifically Christian, or perhaps Victorian, stage in the evolution of our moral life. We treat our emancipation from Christian or Victorian moralism (to wit, the expectation that artists will depict heroic, worship-inspiring, tender, or pathetic scenes) as if it were a liberation from moral judgment altogether—as if we had reached an aesthetic plane beyond morality. But the moral life is not eternally fixed in 19th-century postures. When we leave that century, it is not to outgrow moral interference in the arts once and for all, but to give it several new features. Our contempt for the moralistic art of 19th-century academicians turns out to be itself sturdily based on the supposedly more authentic values which the majority of intellectuals share today.
The Impressionists clearly show this moral evolution at work. When they applied their technical innovations to humble, everyday, apparently trivial subjects, they were not obliterating the aesthetic role of the moral judgment. They were responding to a profound moral shift in our civilization—prefigured by the Dutch, to be sure, who had created a non-heroic “premature” civilization in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were shedding a civilization based on a religion which required a profusion of Christian representations; and they were dropping an aristocratic civilization, demanding gods and goddesses, heroic Roman personages, rulers in noble postures, and grand battle-scenes. They were exalting instead (by and large) subjects which a middle-class and even a proletarian civilization would take to its heart. Public opinion resisted for a while and then capitulated totally, wholeheartedly, above all naturally, since the new painters expressed the new values far better than the academicians did. No one paints Greek gods today, and even Crucifixions are rare. But the moral judgment has not been eliminated; it has evolved.
The “achievement” of nonrepresentational art is that it blocks out this moral component of aesthetic pleasure. Such may not be the intention (as we shall see) of any given artist; it is simply what happens. Indeed, this blocking out defines nonrepresentational art. But the result is that enormous currents of potential pleasure are shut off, for the myriad excitements connected with the visible and imagined realities of our raw existence offer the artist who refers to them so many potentially pleasure-giving elements.
But potentially offensive as well. Representational artists are compelled to take risks which never alarm their rivals. One does not shudder before an abstract painting because it is silly or stupid—as I did (an example is always useful) in 1977 at the vast Arnold Bocklin exhibit in Basel. For the sake of further illustration, I confess that I am offended by the ostentatious will-to-be-different which impels Tintoretto to exploit rather than render certain Christian subjects; and a little inclined to yawn at Poussin’s conceptions of antiquity, pagan or Christian. I do not care for the baroque convention of uplifted eyeballs, meant to denote ecstatic spirituality; for me, alas, this rotation too often suggests a condition of advanced imbecility. I am repelled by Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa because it is too operatic; fatally amused when I see Romans and Sabines fighting stark naked in David’s masterpiece; mildly nauseated by the gushing colors of the late Renoir’s dolls; cold to the triviality of Van Gogh’s obdurately negligible straw-bottomed chair. As for many of our present-day representational painters (but here I will name no names), I find them vastly more absurd than the Millais, Alma-Tademas, and Bouguereaus of another age, who so readily excite our contempt. All these artists possessed and still possess every formal skill imaginable. Their failure is purely moral and intellectual. Everyone to his own examples, for the personal illustrations I have offered are intended only to make the point that abstract painters are immune to this species of failure. A Vasarely, a Stella, a Pollock are always immaculate and irreproachable. Abstract art, in short, can never sink as low as figurative art. I need hardly finish the thought: it can never rise as high.
The abstraction from art of the moral element (referred to with misplaced scorn as “the anecdote”)—this rejection of the myriad delights to be extracted from subject matter—
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim— this rending of art from the precious fabric of human experience—strikes me as an act of voluntary self-castration unparalleled in the history of mankind. The Hebrews, the Mohammedans, certain Christian extremists were kept from representing the figure in art (at least in public places) by the command of God himself. Here was a good reason, for salvation is more important than fine paintings. The Mohammedans turned to elaborate decoration; and when we gaze at their amazing mosques and palaces, we may well reflect that abstract art is singularly well suited to architectural decoration. Why? Perhaps because a building to live, to rule, to suffer, or to pray in is already so pregnant with moral interest that the work of decorating it with human figures may seem almost supererogatory.
Ours, of course, is a quite different case. We dismissed the human and the natural all by ourselves, unbadgered by divinity and unconcerned with salvation. Nonrepresentational art was, instead, one of the radical and vehement gestures by which the artist severed himself from the Establishment, or else through which he responded when the Establishment severed itself from him. For it is no empty coincidence that the artistic self-castration I have spoken of and the divorce between “highbrow” art and society are both unprecedented events in human history. They are clearly intertwined. Turning one’s back on all subject matter and confining oneself to lines or masses is an eloquent if indirect way of saying No to all human institutions and arrangements.
Two ironies can be noted, however. The first is that this divorce, expressed by a defiantly unsocial art, was made possible by the equally unprecedented freedom men and women have been granted in the Western world since the American and French Revolutions. Bourgeois society gave the freedom, and artists took advantage of it to revile or break with bourgeois society.
But the second irony is one that I have noted before, namely that abstract art has in fact been adopted by the Establishment. The artist’s resounding No to society has succeeded only insofar as the common man laughs at nonrepresentational pictures when he sees them hanging in a museum, where he understands perfectly well that they are making claims similar to those of Raphael or Rubens. Instead, the common man (and especially that bête noire of artists, the businessman) uses abstract art to decorate his public buildings. It is his substitute for wallpaper. So this revolutionary art has been domesticated, put to work, and turned into minor public embellishment. I will suggest that for once the common man has judged not without wisdom.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the reaction of painters against the lies, sentimentalities, operatic Kitsch, and vapid heroics of 19th-century academic art took two directions, not one. The first was the radical suppression of subject matter that I have dealt with so far. Here the artists turned their backs on society and its teeming moral life. But another faction took advantage of the new freedoms offered by society to range across the entire human, technological, and natural landscape with a variety of moral and intellectual responses unsubservient to the Establishment. These phenomena are never as neat as logic would like them to be, and we must note, parenthetically, an amphibious manner which reduced recognizable objects to forms as morally inert and inexpressive as those of frank abstractions: a target, thermometer, or coathanger by Jasper Johns, for example: the objects neutralized, used only for their formal possibilities and manipulated so as to prevent the intrusion of the moral interest. A 17th-century Dutch still-life is admirably tendentious. It loves; we love. But in the works of Johns and those of many pop artists, neither love nor hatred, neither blame nor approval emanates, except when they are funny. When they are not funny, they are bores, precisely because of this moral absence. Much more could and indeed needs to be said about these amphibian darlings of the critics; but, treating them here as a parenthesis, I perceive on one side a generally fruitful modernism, namely the work of artists who continued to involve our moral lives in their creations without yielding to the facile moralism of the Establishment, and on the other a generally sterile modernism, that of artists who chose to exchange the high delights of our moral experiences for the lower pleasures of “pure” colors and shapes.
Nonrepresentational art is often described as the highly desirable logical conclusion to the process of pulverizing subject matter which the Impressionists, and before them Turner, had initiated. These artists are called precursors to abstract art, men who “prefigured,” “announced,” or “paved the way” for the annihilation of subject matter. This verbiage makes of Cézanne a serviceable John the Baptist, and of Pollock (for instance) the anointed Lord. Random expressions of disdain for subject matter are easily gleaned from the Impressionists themselves to support this farcical view of progress. But we had better attend to what artists do, not to what they say. John the Baptist is a precursor to Christ, but Napoleon I is also the precursor to Napoleon III. As for logical conclusions, they often have little more than their logic to recommend them. The logical conclusion to a good fire in the hearth may be to engulf the whole house.
We all know that the Impressionists never did give up subject matter. To the end, they played the newly won freedom of art—/ do what I will— against the authority of the thing— it is what it is. Upon the precious freedom of exploring all the dimensional, spatial, textural, coloristic, and expressive possibilities of materials old and new, the nonrepresentational artists chose to impose forms, constraints, authorities derived from that very same world of the craft itself: “laws” invented or discovered by each artist himself for “desirable” arrangements, juxtapositions, etc. Representational artists continued, instead, to wrestle with the stubborn shape of things as they appear to us when they find us at liberty from ultimate ontological questions. Let us watch Cézanne in his final bouts with Mont Ste.-Victoire. The new artistic freedom is amply displayed. A jumble (if I may dare the word) of strokes, gnashings of the brush, dints of sour unseductive patches of color. But just at the moment when the painting is about to turn into a “pure” abstract composition, and as if by virtue of a final surge of strength before extinction (death of Cézanne, demise of representational art), the mountain, the trees, the houses, space itself, and even time declare their presence: they, not an authority summoned from the craft of painting itself, hold the picture together, deflect it in the nick of time from becoming a merely intriguing lesson in rhythms, angles, and colors. The final work turns into an arena in which moral and aesthetic excitement mutually heighten one another. The new form gives the scene a tough energy unknown to Claude, Ruysdael, Constable, and Corot; but the tough energy radiates from the landscape, which is to begin with—before it is painted—a place in which our passions thrive. Sucked into the work of art, this moral excitement returns to us as aesthetic vigor.
If we are to speak of logical conclusions at all, I suggest that we turn to the splendid explorations of new subject matters, and new realizations of old subject matters, which have given modern art the exuberance I mentioned before. As always, there are precursors—Bosch, Steen, Goya, and the like. But it is still possible to say that the most logical line (of all possible logical lines) leads from the Impressionists, with their vision of railway stations, chimney stacks, tired slatterns, and low guinguettes, to the “horrors” of Egon Schiele and, in our own day, Francis Bacon. In the 19th century, Ruskin could safely write, upon seeing Raphael’s Massacre of the Innocents, that “all subjects of the kind, all human misery, slaughter, famine, plague, peril, and crime, are better in the main avoided, as of unprofitable and hardening influence,” unless (he added) qualities such as “eternal enduring or fortitude and affection, mercy and self-devotion” were introduced into the painting to offset the images of horror. Today the artist proceeds boldly without these mitigations and consolations. He plays with moral fire, so to speak, by infusing effects of horror, outrage, and nausea into the aesthetic mix, and doing this without the humor of a Van Ostade, the operatic exoticism of Delacroix, or the religious consolation in The Martyrdom of St. Erasmus by Dieric Bouts (where we see the poor gentleman’s gut being rolled out on a spit). Nor does the typical modern artist attract us through purely formal means—say, the cool rigidity and brilliant colors in Gérard David’s Flaying of Sisamnes. A low-level parallel to this uncompromising horror is the thrill we seek when we ride a particularly frightening roller-coaster. The modern artist ventures to “tear us to pieces” and to give us full aesthetic satisfaction. It is a dangerous teetering on the brink (aesthetically speaking)—but I look upon this species of moral extremism as the valid sequel to the experiments of the late 19th century.
Another logical line, the ancient one of oneiric artists, culminates in the captivating suggestions of surrealism. Still another proceeds from still-lifes to renovative presentations of everyday objects, including the more joyous products of pop art. This does not mean—I have said so already—that we are to admire anything that representational artists happen to produce. Hordes of mediocrities inevitably compete for the attention of promoters in our ultra-competitive epoch. I am merely asserting that our representational artists have chosen at any rate the right direction for their “logical conclusions.”
Not all abstract painters, and not all their learned apologists, accept the judgment that nonrepresentational art is empty of moral interest. After a few sarcasms aimed at “what people are pleased to call objective reality,” at “the oppression of the subject,” “the figurative obsession,” “the dead weight of the object,” many modern artists will tell us that they are committed to history and to ethics. Their three patches of round items on a background of squirms merely avoid “outward appearance” to dwell on “the underlying significance of reality.” This is sometimes capped by an allusion to modern physics, which is supposed to have demonstrated that a chair no longer looks like a chair. One is almost ashamed to remind these painters and critics that the inadequacy of the senses was a topic familiar to antiquity, and that Kant said all we still know about the inability of human senses to reach the thing-in-itself. The physics and metaphysics needed to support nonfigurative art have lain at hand for many centuries, and the appeals to Planck and Einstein are transparent rationalizations. Meantime, when two criss-crossing scratches suffice to “portray the inner existential tensions of our age,” any blob can be the Summa, and a wiggle becomes The Decline of the West. Large claims, after all, are as inexpensive as small ones.
Hence the odd titles we see on nonrepresentational paintings. One piece of abstract impressionism, post-cubism, constructivism, neoplasticism, or action-painting may be called, reasonably enough, Composition No.7. Its neighbor, executed in a style as similar to it as one medieval madonna is to another, is called St. Francis Xavier in the Indies; another, The Harvest; another, Anything Else But Love; another, Calvary; another, Jazz City; and the last, returning to honesty, Yellow, Purple, and Blue Rhythms. A painting by Robert Motherwell (I take these examples at random) which ought to be called “Oval and longitudinal black shapes against strips of various colors” wins from his generous pen the title, Elegy to the Spanish Republic. One critic goes so far as to speak of “the tragic implications of reds and greens which jar on one another” in the work of Franz Kline. Mr. Motherwell, by the way, is quoted as saying that “without ethical consciousness a painter is only a decorator.” If, however, lines, colors, and surfaces express ethical consciousness, then there is nothing in this world that does not, and we might as well give up speech for burps.
But what about the titles of musical compositions: Harold in Italy or A Hero’s Life or The Painter Mathis? I am afraid that they are not without a dash of humbug either, but composers could enter a modest defense, pointing out that while instrumental music cannot, by its very nature, portray the wanderings of Harold, the painter has at least a choice: he can paint a handsome youth or he can paint colored dots. This gives him an advantage and perhaps a small addition of responsibility.
The analogies and differences between painting and music are worth a longer inspection, for abstract art is often defended by reference to music. Music has always been nonrepresentational; that is to say its sounds are human inventions even “purer” than the signs of a Kandinsky or an Arp— sounds radically disconnected from the sounds of the landscape; and yet no art is so touching, so powerful, so evocative. And where is the difference? To begin with, music, the visual arts, and literature can be placed one, two, three, like attendants responding to different needs, and serving different possibilities, of mankind. Music, unless it is contaminated by literature (as in songs, masses, and operas), is inventively nonimitative; the visual arts can be nonimitative (arabesques, Greek geometric vase patterns, abstract art) or imitative (from cave days to our own); literature, unless it is contaminated by music (meaningless syllables), is entirely imitative— language always pointing to moral or physical states. Each form of art declares its own normal range and purpose, its own entelechy.
But we can move closer to an answer. First, the sounds of nature are relatively difficult to imitate, while the forms of nature are relatively easy to imitate. I do not mean that an Egyptian tomb-painting is objectively as accurate as a hyperrealist oil—or a billboard—of our own day. But astonishing feats of accuracy were performed in the remotest ages of prehistoric man. With respect to the intellectual and motor skills needed to draw or carve after nature, there was little of the primitive in primitive man. But in the second place, besides the skill, he also had the strong desire to imitate (or caricature) natural shapes, whereas he utterly lacked in the beginning, and continues to lack, anything like a similar desire to copy the sounds of nature. No need, I think, to dwell on the occasional usefulness of imitating an animal during the hunt, suggesting a thunderstorm on a drum, or making one’s friends laugh by parroting an ass. For man, nature produces not only literally fewer sounds than sights, but, more important, the sounds which it does produce are less beautiful, less interesting, less significant on the whole than the sights. How many natural sounds strike us as intrinsically beautiful or important? The songs of birds, so often praised, are not really beautiful; they have been made beautiful by the visual, tactile, and affective associations of bright plumage, springtime, freedom, and grace of flight. The trickling of a little stream over its pebbles is not a disagreeable sound; but does not its appeal come once more from our visual associations, themselves connected with happy peaceful times in the countryside? If anyone insists that the song of birds is in itself delightful, let him think of the handsome dog with his shocking bark, the caterwauling of the lissome cat, the uninspiring neigh of the horse—we could go on and on. Nor are the street and sky sounds made by our manufactured objects as fine or as interesting as their forms: compare, to go no further, the shape of an airplane with its noise. As for human speech, that of course is as fascinating to us as any sight we know, but literature has taken it as its province. Neither painting nor music is the art which imitates language.
Relatively few sounds; and these hard to imitate and not of major interest. An immense range of sights; and these comparatively easy to imitate and of overwhelming interest. Here, in brief, we have compelling reasons why the invention of “pure” sounds proved so fruitful—why man was all but driven to create an astonishing range of unnatural sounds to amuse, bemuse, and shake the soul—and why the invention of shapes is proving so barren. The relative lack of moral interest in natural sounds, and the relative presence of moral interest in natural shapes, determined the rightful functions and resources of either art. Compared to nature, the abstract painter can only stammer; compared to nature, the composer sings like an angel.
The claim that the shapes and colors of abstract art belong to the ethical world is flimsy enough. But there is another claim in behalf of abstract art that is made at least as often as the claim of ethical commitment—to wit, the assertion that nonrepresentational painters are exploring an inner reality as it has never been explored before.”Let us learn to look around us less and to look more within ourselves,” writes Roger Bissiere. Bissiere’s inside apparently consists of little squarish colored surfaces. This is no more objectionable than the consciousness of other painters, where the shapes are more angular, or the spaces more open, or the masses more sooty, or the dashes more tremulous. All are supposedly pregnant with spiritual meaning. Of Elegy to the Spanish Republic it may be asserted that while of course it does not depict the subject as Goya might have gone about it, it renders ever so poignantly the inner reality of the matter, or the painter’s authentic consciousness of it. The trouble is that we experience no shock of recognition in ourselves; no sudden clarification either of ourselves or of the world. We confess that if another title were substituted, we would not know the difference. What inner reality, what truth of consciousness, can be called indifferently Elegy to the Spanish Republic or Ambitious Artist?
To be candid, I do not know how a man is to set himself painting the “inner reality” of events or situations any more than I know how a composer is to depict Harold in Italy on a viola. In music as in painting, the only suggestions of the inner life, and to the inner life, are of imprecise moods. For ex ample, some abstract paintings seem light and gay (one thinks of certain charming trifles from the late period of Matisse), some are somber and menacing (Soulages), others dry and ascetic (Nicholson). These and other feelings can be suggested, partly no doubt because of physical resemblances (a storm, our gestures in a rage, giddiness), partly because of traditional associations (as black for mourning). Here painters seize their justification. If, for example, severity can be suggested by form and color, the subject of a severe abstraction can be any severe situation the painter happens to think about. He is then in a position to tell us, with an equal measure of truth, that his limited, carefully outlined, pale-colored composition represents the “inner reality” of St. Jerome—or A Spinster Placing a Dime in the Bank. That way lies chaos, and, as we know only too well, the charlatan’s hoax.
In the first excitement of the color explosion which occurred in the latter half of the 19th century, some extravagant claims were made with regard to the specificity of affective, ethical, and even metaphysical messages carried by colors and combinations of colors. Very little could come of this. Colors need the ballista of a subject matter to reach a specific emotional, ethical, or intellectual target. Colors abstracted from subject matter do usually carry a rudimentary moral suggestion because of the associations I have already mentioned, but basically they continue to be merely aesthetically striking and satisfying on a level very near the automatic responses one finds in many animals and in the human infant. The human response to colors is subject to innumerable modifications due to moral and cognitive associations, but it remains chiefly a product of our pre-moral and pre-intellectual organic being.
It turns out, therefore, that when nonrepresentational art claims the power to reach the depths of human consciousness, the spirit of sobriety must translate into homelier terms. Indeed, if the intellectual atmosphere of the 20th century had been less heavy, more relaxed, abstract artists might well have hit on playfulness as the true character of their art. But our age demands weight, and so, when Joan Miro came to paint his masterpiece, pure breezy delight, he needs must call it Tryptich of the Hope of a Man Sentenced to Death. The date here is 1974. Nothing has been learned.
Unfortunately, the narrower the possibilities of nonrepresentational art, the grander the claims, the more irrepressible the language. Here is a typical critic speaking: “What Johns has done is to manifest an organizing process at work, which he claims is an effort to articulate the space of the painting by a growth pattern. I would hazard that the extended narrative weave of correspondences represents a dialectical relation between structure and process: a laying out of fundamental principles. I suppose him to be speculating on the origin of things, elaborating a “code” for the unfolding of a world-order, a skeletal ontological framework that serves as a metaphor for the unity and density of the world.” Sometimes pure dithyramb takes over.”The symbol,” chants a typical nonrepresentational artist about his own work, “has safely guided my course into the unknown realm of experience. The traveler is just a pilgrim. Sometimes he knows a little more, often a little less, because values change with each voyage. Sometimes one gets a glimpse of the bridge to eternity before it disappears like a rainbow. Somewhere between exultation and despair lies the answer. In one sense my work gives structure and dimension to thought in time.” And so forth. As every reader of art criticism knows, these two “analyses” are characteristic: the less there is to say about a painting, the more is the shop talk of its authors and admirers likely to bristle with frightening anagogical verbiage. And why not? If I start with the assumption that the blob of color does have meaning, I am likely to take advantage of its arbitrary and uncontrollable character to make the largest statements for my painting that I can put into words. Who can prove me wrong? And who can tell the self-deluded innocent from the conscious charlatan?
After dismissing the frantic attempt to find meaning where it is not, we remain with the fact that abstract art can be beautiful in the oldest sense of this word; beautiful without the slightest reference to pretty girls, flowers, gods, any object or event whatever, beautiful only through the sheerest manipulation of formal elements. Our notions of beauty have changed much less than is sometimes thought, for, like our love of color, they are firmly rooted in our physiological character. It would be interesting in this connection, but beyond my scope, to examine nonrepresentational paintings which have adhered to known “territories” of beauty, those which have explored new grounds of beauty available but hitherto ignored, and those (by far in the majority) which have snubbed beauty altogether as something obsolete, and exploited other areas—brute power, for instance. But insofar as nonrepresentational artists have produced masterworks of sheer beauty, they have, in my opinion, unwittingly demonstrated a principle that worshippers of beauty in the past could hardly surmise for want of examples—namely that we can obtain but a limited delight from pure, unmixed, unreferential beauty. The supremely satisfying beauty of a Greek temple, a Raphael, or a Fragonard is due to their “impure” traffic with a moral element. Let me hastily repeat that I am still speaking of the aesthetic function of the moral element. Whether a Raphael subdues the beast in us better than a Barbara Hepworth, or whether art civilizes us at all, remain open questions.
Nonrepresentational art stands firm only when it forgets the moral and intellectual dimension—when it drops its allusions to inner realities caught by this and that mixture of tones or shapes or textures—and asserts that it is deliberately noninvolved: a red dash is a red dash. It is not a perfectly pure art, as we have seen, since any line, shape, and color is bound to suggest by inevitable associations some unfocused psychological state to which a moral interest is attached. I omit from consideration the adventitious associations of a more specific character (“It reminds me of a fish!”) which occasionally obtrude themselves on an abstract picture. Not perfectly pure, then; but nonrepresentational art can pride itself on coming as close to perfect nonmoral autonomy as music.
True, these artifacts are all products of living human beings, and therefore they are expressions (like a person’s handwriting) of their creators’ mind and history. But this fact is of interest only to the psychologist and biographer, not to the viewer and critic. The biographer may tell us why Mark Tobey chose to call one of his paintings Broadway and another very much like it Harvest. But in themselves, as works of art, such paintings elicit solely, or rather almost solely, our “animal” capability of being pleasantly aroused by color, animated goings-on, and order (which is the beginning of beauty). When nonrepresentational artists write essays or use titles which implicate our moral interest, they are attempting to steal apples, so to speak, from an orchard they themselves have sold. At best, they show a curious lack of comprehension concerning the fundamental nature of their own work.
The achievements of nonrepresentational art are worthy of respect and admiration without these illegitimate claims. Unshackled by the it is what it is of subject matter, artists are able to “splash about” exuberantly with every material and tool which their ingenuity can wrest from the universe. There is a technical explosion here worthy of the industrial age. In effect, the subject of art becomes art. Instead of inventing a thousand new ways of looking at a hill or a woman, the artist, having said No to society, finds a thousand new ways of using paint, wood, metal, cloth, paper, neon, amplifiers, glass, and so on and so on and so on. But when we come to the pleasure this art can impart, we see that the technical explosion in itself can only provide more shapes, more lines, more textures, more colors, all nonreferential. The exclusion of the moral interest persists ex hypothesi. The greatest emotional intensities are denied—not to fellow-artists or critics, of course, since they are fascinated by techniques (“shoptalk”)—but to the public.
Nonrepresentational art, inventive, surprising, carnivalesque, is therefore minor art, and some of its wittier adepts have a point when they positively oblige their works to self-destruct: an authentic “logical conclusion” for a change! Doing minor work is simply the price these artists pay for working within a zone purged of the excitements of the moral interest. Since minor art has its perfections too—and castrati can be good men—all is not lost, and the rational spectator of the sublunar comedy will ask only that the claims made for abstract art match the modesty of its achievements.