Art, abstract

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 24, 2024, from

5. Intellectual and expressive values in abstract art

Writers such as Arthur Danto (1981) have demonstrated how much of a worldview may be teased out of seemingly inarticulate art. Thus the brushstroke paintings of De Kooning or their effigies in Lichtenstein are shown to have, in context, a wondrous depth of implication. Arguably the effect results from otherwise inexpressive elements acquiring magnified significance given an initial limitation to minimal means, a long tradition of thought and feeling conveyed by figurative means, and the conviction that authenticity demands zero excess, in the ‘less is more’ tradition. Where these conditions are met the sparest of patterns can express Zen simplicity, as in the late works of Ad Reinhardt; and Eva Hesse’s crumpled cylinders, ragged sheets of plastic and wires wrapped in lumps can balance finely between a buoyant absurdity and pathos. Construed in this way, the game of viewing art can become one of sensitizing oneself to the merest or most idiosyncratic of signifiers.

From its inception the literature of abstraction has made much of abstract works of art conveying, reflecting, exploring, questioning or commenting upon scientific, semantical, aesthetic, or metaphysical concepts and theories. Abstract compositions are said to be creative responses to atomic or other physical theories, mathematical relationships, musical forms, laws of perception and other cognitive processes, unconscious psychological structures, conceptual or categorial truths, or to ideas and issues relating to art itself. Artists are said to engage in research in these domains. Difficulties arise, however, whenever works are presumed to do more than allude in an unspecific way to such referents and projects. To date, the specific content supposedly conveyed or the specific question posed has rarely been divulged. Mondrian, for example, repeatedly declares that art reveals and expresses ‘laws of pure plastics’ but he never enlightens us as to what these laws are or how we are to derive them from works of art. Nor do propounders of such interpretations ever raise the crucial question of whether a work misconceives or misrepresents its referent. Such reticence obviously casts a shadow over the credibility of these claims. Also, when explicit reference to intellectual content is implied by title, as it is in Georges Vantongerloo’s paintings of the 1920s and 1930s (for example, Composition 15 derived from the equation

Y = ax 2 + + bx + 18
, 1930), doubts arise as to what aesthetic sustenance the viewer can derive from the connection between design and content. Similarly, Josef Alber’s Homage to the Square series is tied to his research into colour-interaction phenomena, but the paintings themselves would be ill-served by viewers ascribing artistic merit to them because they exemplify the principles governing such phenomena.
Citing this article:
Brown, John H.. Intellectual and expressive values in abstract art. Art, abstract, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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