Politics, Religion and Abstract Art

Albrecht Dürer, “Hare”, 1502. Watercolour and gouache, brush, heightened with white gouache. © Albertina, Vienna
Photo © Albertina Museum

Author’s Disclaimer:

As a practicing sculptor I spend a fair amount of time involved in what can only be described as “donkey work” and while I have to pay attention to what I’m doing as a safety precaution, there’s a lot of time for random speculation. The “information” presented in this musing should not be regarded as TRUTH, merely odd and only loosely related thoughts.

The annotations in red are a literary shortcut, I would have to write volumes in order to validate my opinions in any scholarly manner. This is a rather abbreviated version of years of speculative thoughts. Further, it is meant to be directed to “consumers” of art rather than practitioners, they should have their own thoughts.

“Politics, Religion, and Abstract Art” – A defense for non-objective images & other things.

Abstract thinking, about anything, can ask questions that don’t have a ready answer; abstract art directly questions the viewer about the object they are presented with rather than present a known “fact”. Each piece of abstract art can be considered a “thought experiment” that requires that the viewer create their own answer rather than apprehending an answer that is presented to them. This can be a facet of representational art as well, but, at the same time, representation does not require the same level of difficulty from the viewer since the representation of an image that is presented has the comfort of known reality, however exquisitely or crudely executed.

Abstract thinking can be anything from lustful day dreams (my favorite) to speculation about sub-atomic particle physics (drastically above my pay grade), the common denominator is a postulated “what if” concept that differs from the presently known reality. It involves the ability to imagine a different reality, the stuff of all the arts. The further from the “known reality”, the more difficult it can be. Critic Dave Hickey describes his approach as trying to imagine what the world would be like if the object he’s looking at were the epitome of art. Then evaluating whether that world has any congruence to his. It’s as good a method as any other.

Neither method is particularly more correct; the choice of representational images requires a different mode of interpretation that begins with a “given” point that the viewer apprehends and subsequent interpretation is guided by that given towards the artist’s intended interpretation. For instance, imagine an image of a rabbit. Is it an allegory or a symbol? a “stand in” for the viewer in a larger story or is it the story in & of itself? Does it speak to the oft attributed timidity of the creature, it’s fecundity, or is it addressing it’s speed?

Factual representation seems to ground the imagination, sort of like trying to walk in a straight line with one shoe nailed to the floor. In order to get anywhere, you have to take off the shoe.

Barry Flanagan’s work ‘Large Leaping Hare’, 1982, exhibited at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo

Many artists have used this image; I have a reproduction of an Albrecht Dürer depiction of a seated rabbit where each and every hair of the rabbit’s coat is carefully delineated and I have seen sculptor Barry Flannigan‘s bronze rabbit that presents the rabbit in “mid jump” of running. Each image speaks to an attribute of the condition of “rabbit-ness”, but asks very different questions of the viewer, partially informed by the relative societies the artist lives in. Durer reflects his society’s investigation of the natural world that surrounds them, it is posed in a posture that suggests that the action of flight may be imminent; but, attention is focused on the surface texture and a minimal depiction of the surroundings where we might find a rabbit in the natural world. Flannigan’s rabbit, which has the three dimensional potential to recreate a more “realistic” image, is  abstracted and less “realistic”, focusing on the gestural point  when a rabbit has all four feet off the ground while it is running full tilt.

Durer didn’t have the advantage of “stop motion” photography (350 years in the future) to inform him about the way quadrupeds actually run; probably he was working from a freshly dead rabbit. Flannigan had Muybridge’s 19th century investigations of animal locomotion to show him what the actual movement looked like.

Both are depictions of a rabbit, but what are they asking of the viewer? Dürer seems to have two intentions in his drawing; the personal one is to demonstrate how well he can depict the form and surface of the creature, a not inconsiderable feat, and concurrently, an investigation of the natural world, a reflection of the Renaissance shift from the earlier Gothic period’s preoccupation with religious salvation. Flannigan depicts the gesture of running, without an indication of whether it is running towards or away from something. Both images have existential connotations, but from widely divergent points of view.

In a high school age conversation with my father about Einstein and relativity, my father, who was alive when Einstein published his theory, maintained that the mathematical equations that exposed the problem were fairly well known in the scientific community of the time. There is a certain amount of evidence  to the veracity of this in the paintings of Paul Cezanne, who altered and “bent” the spatial relationships of the objects depicted in his paintings. Not to say that Cezanne got there first, only to indicate that it was a concern of the society of the time.

 In contrast, an “abstract or non-representational” image allows, even demands, that  the viewer find their meaning from the possible multiple interpretations that can happen. Years ago, I was walking towards an exhibit opening close by a couple who were heading towards the same opening, one was recounting a visit to a previous exhibit where he had been “deconstructing like crazy” the works in the exhibit. I would maintain that he was constructing the exhibit, finding his answers to the questions the work presented.

So why did I refer to this musing as Politics, Religion & Abstract Art? Because in my previous existence as an academic I found that there is a streak of intellectual sloth in America where agreeing with another’s answer is easier than having an original opinion, with the fear that it might be incorrect. People want answers in their life and ask politics, religion, and art critics for those answers, and this  allows for the rise of “leaders”, in religion, politics, or art, who tell us what to think.

Art criticism had its beginnings during the Renaissance with the writings of Giorgio Vasari, it became blatant advocacy of individual artists in the early 19th century, more theoretical at the end of the 1800′s, and strident advocacy in pursuit of the individual’s critical prominence in mid 20th century. I leave politics and religion to someone else.

One of the functions of the religious establishment is to give a behavioral and moral guide for human interdependence, and one of the historical functions of the visual arts has been to illustrate a religion’s behavioral and moral precepts. Similarly, we look to politicians to set societal priorities and norms, leading the society in one direction or another. Political activity (i.e. elections or governance) have always used visual images to help elucidate, reinforce, or denigrate the particular politician’s choice of  societal direction. Almost always these images have been “expository” towards an objective, rather than “interrogatory”, asking a question of the viewer.

The clerical use of visual art is pretty obvious in the millions of images of religious icons. The political use is best illustrated by the use of “radical design” by the Bolshevik revolution in early 20th century Russia.  It is interesting that, once the revolution became the establishment, progressive design was suppressed in favor of Soviet “social realism” and, “mediation” in politics was brought to prominence in the rise of Fascism shortly afterwards.

People’s discomfort with contemporary abstract art is often because it asks questions that the viewer has to answer, rather than give them an answer to contemplate. Marcel Duchamp regarded this “viewer responsibility” as the completion of the work of art and this completion of the art process by the beholder is a wonderful opportunity for the viewer, rather than an onerous responsibility. You, the viewer, can tell the story and give it meaning and relevance to your life. It may or may not, and perhaps should not, have any correlation with the original intent by the artist and that is profoundly appropriate, since more often than artists admit, they don’t absolutely know the why of the piece they made, only the how.

A feature that art shares with religion and politics.

Marcel Duchamp’s importance as both a practitioner and theorist in the visual arts cannot be emphasized enough, his speculations about the “art process” continue to influence artists today. There can be a certain amount of correlation between Duchamp’s paradoxes and quantum physic’s “uncertainties”.

And, anecdotally:

Two accomplished artist friends, Don Gahr (Minneapolis) and the late Virgil Grotfeldt (Houston) frequently made comments that apply to the uncertainty of artistic intention. Gahr was fond of saying, “Artists lie a lot.” And when asked about the meaning of his paintings, Virgil would say, “I did too many drugs when I was young, I don’t know.” Knowing both of them for many years, I’m fairly certain that they had a specific intent for every piece they made, but it was so nebulous that it was in-expressible outside of the visual object, in effect unknowable.



also by Meredith Jack

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One response to “Politics, Religion and Abstract Art”

  1. This is wonderful. Nevertheless, isn’t the known fact of full abstraction the form. Given the above I don’t understand where you arrive at the conclusion that abstraction is inherently more interrogative. Nor do I think in, a general sense, does it make more demands on the viewer. Abstraction is equally well known. My statement isn’t for or against. I’m rather arguing that no such dichotomy exists. Durer hasn’t re-made the rabbit.

    As well, socialist realism and social realism are two very different things. The distinction is important.

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