Abstract and/or Figurative: A Wrong Choice

The recent series, “Abstract Art and the Masses” by Domingo Castro de Guzman, has given rise to a number of reflections that have a bearing on the question of art and politics. Much of the attraction of his essay has presumably been in terms of the colorful vituperations and its emotional vehemence, but we choose to disallow ourselves such luxuries, indeed so fraught with hazards on the plane of the intellect as they so easily slip into the pitfalls of self-indulgence and intolerance.

To begin, we state that the categorization of figurative versus abstract is not decisive in the matter of the politics of art. In other words, the politics of art cannot be reduced to the simple equation of figurative equals progressive and abstract equals reactionary, or to modify, that the potentials for progressive lie with the figurative and those for reactionary with the abstract. For one thing, there is a danger in the simple dichotomy of progressive and reactionary, one that we sense when we move away from the black-white categories of good-bad, sheep-goats. This kind of dialectic is simplistic because it does not take into account the incipient or latent forces and energies within the categories. The danger, too, is that human beings and everything else will be victims of labelling: figurative you go to heaven, abstract you go to hell. Domingo Castro de Guzman may refuse this reduction to absurdity, but the emotionalism of his essay runs along a single track and ultimately leads to such a formulation. Another thing is that to place heavy stress on the dichotomy of figurative and abstract has the effect of isolating these two modes and considering them as self-sufficient categories in themselves, cut off from their historical dimensions in which alone they assume full meaning.

Abstract art is attacked as the enemy with such a passionate urgency, too, that we can easily imagine placards saying: If it is not Nuclear War it is Abstract Art that will blast us all, artists and non-artists alike, to Kingdom Come. It is attacked mainly because it is escapist, hence reactionary, and because, as in the example of Pollock, ugly, but then not ugly enough in an articulate way “to connect it with capitalist ugliness.” However, such a violent attack on abstract art only serves to divert the attention of the public away from the more immediate and potent effects of figurative art when used in the service of the ruling elite. The history of art will bear out the fact that the Western despotisms created and strengthened the classical Academy, as against spontaneous individualizing styles, because classical figuration supported the image of the absolute and the permanent that they wanted to project of their regime, which, through art, would obtain the sanction of venerable tradition. Examples are Jacques-Louis David’s paeans of Napoleon and propaganda tableaux meant to instill civic virtues in the new order which betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution. There are, of course, more recent examples in which the figurative style is harnessed to make glowing narrative accounts of the life and exploits of contemporary rulers, or to create myths in which the earthly powers are transported by art onto the plane of the legendary, and thereby invested with the aura of invulnerability, physical inaccessibility, and immortality. Let us remember that a lot of authoritarian art was in a conservative style of figuration. Shall we here also recall that Hitler himself did sorry academic nudes? (They bore little evidence, however, of his famed demagogic passion.) On the other hand, abstract art is not so easily serviceable to the ruling elite whose eulogies, in order to be useful for their purposes, will be rather in the figurative than in the abstract. For central to their myth-making is portraiture, and a portraiture, too, which intentionally cultivates a specific morphology of power, implicit with the ambivalence of attractiveness and inaccessibility. In terms of propaganda, whether overt or subtle and subliminal, figurative art carries more potential for conveying values because these values are within the context of a recognizable human situation. In contrast, the values that abstract art conveys are conveyed indirectly, a number of times removed from experienced reality, through the formal means of line, color, value, texture, shape, etc., in themselves. Abstract art conveys human values such as intellectual order, spontaneity, sensuousness, or pleasure in ornament, but these are not in a situational context.

As to the allegation that abstract art is escapist, a kind of self-indulgent, lotus-eating experience, this does not hold true in all cases. It may be true for decorative or purely sensuous abstraction, but the viewer is very rarely placed in a condition that he is continually saturated in a sensuous visual experience to the point of mental torpor, for, on the whole, these spells are only temporary pauses in a strenuous existence. Then, too, given the depth and breadth of human complexity, surely an occasional purely sensuous response to art as to nature and physical reality, while on the level of the senses and hence superficial, would not by itself constitute political culpability. It is, in fact, not possible, nor psychologically sound, to reject any mode of visual experience. We recall that non-figurative art did exist in various forms before the modern period, as in the Celtic Book of Kells. A great deal of Islamic art is non-figurative because of religious injunctions.

But relevant to the charge of escapism is the fact that many works in the figurative mode are no less escapist than forms of abstract art which may be considered as such. Under this would fall tourist art with their imagery of abundance, truly escapist fantasies in these lean times, while they propagate the illusion that all this bounty is still within the reach of all. In fact, these are all the more insidious in effect than abstract art because they perpetuate myths of reality in the service of ruling class interests. Figurative works of pure visual delectation without any more solid ideational basis are those which typify the epitome of “bourgeois art” especially since they do not pose any intellectual or aesthetic challenge.

On the other hand, it may well be possible that a state may encourage a hermetic art confining itself within the circumscribed perimeters of aesthetic concerns and denying socio-historical relevance and meaning while claiming a supra-historical character. Such can take the form of a tautological diversion, with little or no contribution to aesthetics, because no issues are raised and the use of materials and techniques is not shaped by an intelligible intellectual structure. And if there is at all, the structure may be lacking in originality, because it is second-hand or borrowed, and hence does not possess the dynamics to develop into a total aesthetics and situate itself within the coordinates of society and history. The state espousal of such art can proceed from the concealed motive of defusing the strong political potential of art in a society in the throes of change. But this is a specific situation with its particular vocabulary and politics, and as such does not make abstract art reprehensible per se.

Another attack mounted on abstract art is on its formal qualities. The work of Pollock, for instance, is cited as a “monotonous wormy ugliness” with its technique of splattering and “splurging.” By attacking the work of Pollock on the basis of its formal qualities, one easily falls into the snares of formalism which one has eschewed as an unsatisfactory approach to art. For the issues raised in a work of art may far exceed its importance as a singular object: aesthetics thus shifts from the approach based on a limited formal and strictly empirical analysis to a dynamic investigation of the issues raised and these situated within their historical framework of time and place. The work of Pollock, which was a reaction against formal abstraction typified by Neo-Platonism, posits the values of the spontaneous and personal gesture, the physical energy and kineticism of the individual artist. The Chinese, for one, appreciated these very qualities in their calligraphy as a personal mark apart from the meaning of the characters themselves. Pollock’s works are visual statements which assert the dimensions of the visual field as an arena enveloping and drawing in the viewer, reject traditional central focusing and the compartmentalization of space, refuse the traditional role of line as defining form, and deny the absolute finality of the work. Now, there is the famous story of one unfortunate monkey, who, given a brush and a canvas, was purportedly able to produce something that resembled the painting of Pollock, but a monkey does not have the capacity to conceptualize and raise aesthetic issues and neither does it have the consciousness of reacting to preceding art traditions. And while some may choose to dismiss Pollock’s work as formalistically unimportant, still it is impossible to lightly ignore the far-reaching influence of the abstract expressionists and Pollock on succeeding art.

Needless to say, much of the uglifying thrust in modern art constitutes an aggressive reaction [against] the notion of art for pure sensuous pleasure, a value so easily co-opted by the bourgeois establishment, as well as [against] persisting vestiges of the classical criteria of beauty and art which are no longer relevant to our times, and which are moreover aristocratic in politics. The ugly woman images of de Kooning, also gestural in approach, demolish the common expectations of the beautiful in art. Doubtless, they pose an aggressive challenge to the prevailing expectations of the ordinary art public and must be given due credit for courage. These images seen in the context of the brutality and brashness of American capitalist society, which has exceeded the economic reach of the Old World.

There is however, another angle not to be overlooked. Out of the Federal Arts Project of the Roosevelt administration which sought to restore a viable economy after the Crash of Wall Street, two groups of artists emerged: the abstract expressionists and social realists. The abstract expressionists of the New York School eventually enjoyed massive critical support from such influential quarters as Thomas Hess of Artforum, while the artists of social comment often rate so much less corresponding space in discussions of American art. These latter are, in fact, largely neglected and art students are generally left unaware of the vital figurative side of American art, enriched by such artists as Philip Evergood, Ben Shahn, George Tooker, etc. With their themes of trade unionism and class inequalities, they were likely victims of the hysterical witch-hunting of the McCarthy period because of the strong social implications of their art.

As we have earlier said, we do not wish to stress the figurative and abstract dichotomy, but prefer to view the development of modernism within its historical perspective. Now there was, with the Industrial Revolution, a conscious rupture between the 19th century Academy and the rising modernists as seen in the defiant Salons de Refuses from Manet to the impressionists. One battlecry of the new art was enunciated by Maurice Denis who declared that before a painting was a beautiful nude or a battlehorse, it was, first of all, a canvas covered with colored pigments. This statement with its implications for abstraction, was a position articulated against 19th century academism in France, which, like elsewhere, was burdened with antiquated and anecdotal subject matter colored by bourgeois sentimentality. To reject the Academy, therefore, was to make a strong opposing position. It was likewise a position which affirmed what Janet Wolff calls the “specificity of art,” its own formal language as distinct from the other human disciplines, at a time when it faced the danger of collapsing into the literary and the didactic. It was, likewise, a necessary repositioning of art in the context of the rapid socio-economic change ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. And one premise in this refocusing of art dealt with asserting its autonomy, relative however, to historical and social coordinates, as all distinct human activities and specializations are viewed within the socio-historical perspective.

Thus, what happens is that the development of modernism had to do with exploring and extending the limits of the unique language of art. The thematic concern for space, for the relationship of figure and ground, for instance, which is, of course, in the realm of the aesthetic, parallels Einstein’s relativity theory in its new interpretation of the universe and reality as against the static and mechanistic concepts of Euclid and Newton. The idea of the relative movements of the universe of which man is a part, the notion of the living organism and organic evolution are implicit concepts, for instance, in the works of Paul Klee.

The abstract artists are to be carefully distinguished in their philosophies. Mondrian’s art was based on Neo-Platonism in which he sought, by limiting his means to the primary colors and to the horizontal and vertical axes, to create visual reminders of the underlying harmony of the universe, one based on mathematical relationships even as the classical Greeks apprehended God as the Great Geometer—a political conservatism which is anchored to the idea of an immutable and absolute order underlying the universe from which erring man but temporarily strays. In Russia arose two opposing artistic responses to industrialization: suprematism and constructivism, two antagonistic groups. The suprematist Malevich asserted that art was meant to be useless and had no bearing on society whatsoever. His White on White was supposed to mean final emancipation, a state of nirvana where man’s will sheds its materiality and merges with infinity. He refused any cooperation possible between artist and scientist-engineer. His position thus clearly typifies the ivory tower artist who insists on art as a purely hermetic exercise without any socio-historical dimension and outside the larger arena of human experience. By so removing from art any links with reality, and hence any potency for modifying, influencing, or changing reality through the conveying of values in ways direct or extremely refined, conscious or unconscious, he served the interests of a politics based on the static and immutable, and finally the ineffable and metaphysical which man can neither know or affect. In contrast, the constructivists, likewise working in the abstract, upheld a progressive politics which gave full support to the revolution, although their innovations and artistic program were not understood, being beyond the current levels of aesthetic and technological development. The abstract art of the constructivists, more active in sculpture and in architecture than in painting, aimed to redesign the modern environment that would reflect the modern technology and at the same time create a truly human space. Their art, as it later became disseminated in the Bauhaus, was based on design along a thorough understanding of materials and techniques, to advance their aims of environmental renewal in social and technological terms, with the cooperation of artist, architect, and scientist-engineer. While abstract, this art was, indeed far from being escapist and apolitical as it believed in the socialization of art, with the aim to “meet the material needs, to express the aspirations of the revolutionary proletariat.” In painting, Ed Lissitzky invented a new medium of propaganda through the use of geometric symbols. What all this goes to show is that abstract art ranges within a political spectrum. Present aesthetic demands that one go beyond the merely formal and descriptive qualities of the individual works to the issues involved and thus to comprehend the range of politics underlying the varieties of abstract art.

The figurative and abstract modes in art are, moreover, not irreconcilable poles of an antagonistic relationship. Most of the finest works of figurative art have an underlying abstract framework. One thinks, for instance, of the admirable Dutch interiors of Vermeer and the 17th century Dutch petits-maîtres, with their geometric structures that interplay with the delicate light-and-shade. We can only surmise how much these interiors with their precision and clarity provided the basis for Mondrian’s balances. The best figurative art grapples with elements of line, value, color, texture, shape, and spatial disposition in abstract relationships in order to arrive at greater coherence and expressiveness.

From impressionism in the later 19th century to cubism and futurism before the First World War, to dadaism and orphism between the wars, art moved irresistibly towards abstraction in an unrelenting exploration of the formal vocabulary and specific language of art in its potentialities for expression. Serene and classical beauty had become an anachronism in the context of the violence and anguish which attended the events of our century. In its stead was expressiveness, as well as a new role of art as challenger of traditions petrifying into academisms. The School of Paris is more than half a century and two world wars away through which time we have gone beyond the original isms that created the range of modern art. We have transcended the labels of the isms because so much has occurred in the history of art and human history since then and these events call for new means of expression. We have likewise gone beyond positing the dichotomies of abstract and figurative, because the new art, after abstraction had been reached, is an art, neo-figurative, perhaps, which has learned and enriched itself immensely from the resources of abstraction.

Thus the furor about abstract art is rather belated—it is no longer a relevant and burning issue. In the context of art history, it has enriched the language of art and its varieties show how artists have expressed their philosophy and worldview through the formal language of painting and sculpture. But since art continually evolves, there are always redefinitions and syntheses, as new aesthetic issues are raised which at the same time convey values of direct or indirect political import. There could in fact be a conservative abstraction, grown petrified and academic, because reduced to stylistic mannerisms. The political positions of contemporary artists make up an entire spectrum of persuasion which has to be delicately sifted and discerned. The mode, whether essentially abstract or figurative, does not per se determine the politics of art. What one has to reckon with are the philosophies and ideational structures often supported by statements, manifestoes, or personal records, and of which the works are visual conveyors.

In contemporary art, then, abstraction will always be a component of the aesthetic language. In the case of agitprop for the masses in response to topical issues, it is expected to be figurative—illustrative, in fact, with the values of directness and clarity. Posters, for instance, are a common vehicle for political agitprop. But even posters do not support the dichotomy of figurative vs. abstract. Many Cuban posters, visually exciting for their original approach, verge on abstraction, if they are not actually abstract. While addressing the large population, they are able to use sophisticated means effectively, being able to convey, through largely formal resources, notions of absence, rupture, conflict, solidarity, etc., with an admirable emotional range and subtlety. Another example is the mass media which learns much from formal resources to convey concise and graphic value-laden images. The very potency of much of present art arises from the contributions of abstraction.

In this particular period of art history, co-extensive with the history of human events and cultural expressions, we have exposed false categories and demystified myths that were impositions of the academe: painting and sculpture as separate categories, or abstract and figurative as unrelated modes. Art has expanded greatly in terms of materials, techniques, styles, and the artist, enjoying artistic freedom, is heir to these rich resources discovered, explored, and elaborated on by his precedents. With these resources, however, there rests for him the crucial matter of political choice and standpoint: an art caught in the toils of the bourgeois establishment or an art in search of a new liberating order.

WHO, 24 August 1983, 30–2.

From Frisson: The Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo. Download the complete book here.