The Relevance of Abstraction

Written by Gerd Elise Mørland

(Translated from Norwegian by Eirik Torsteinson)


Does the increased popularity of abstract art expressions allow seeing abstraction as a relevant response strategy for the times we live in? Is this tendency a sign that private agents in the market of contemporary art have seized the power of definition in the contemporary arts field? Or is it rather so that artists use abstraction as a means to connect with a long tradition, with history, in a time when looking forward seems meaningless? There is no obvious answer, but I am comparatively sure that the sense behind the concepts used about abstract art, in addition to the primacy of the arts market and its repetition of abstract artistic expressions, may be an obstacle in seeing the relevance in abstraction today.


I

There are several reasons why speaking about abstract art made by current young contemporary artists is difficult. For a start because the language we use is determined by history.[1] In art history abstraction is linked to the relationship between the visually observable and experienced world, and the work of art’s formal expression. The history of abstract art is often read along a development curve marked by a progressively weaker relationship to the visually observable world: a development from figurative, through semi-figurative to non-figurative, or total abstraction. The concept’s original reference to “abstracting” a visually observable reality was thus central. But is it in our day possible to talk about abstraction independently of that history? Picasso’s famous quote about abstract art may point to the fact that something has changed: "There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something”.[2] Abstract art, in this sense, is no longer produced, and the abstraction of the visually observable is often not the key concern of younger artists working with an abstract formal language.

Should we attempt to replace the concepts’ earlier denotations with new content, it would lead to new problems. Because, is it at all possible to talk about “abstraction” as something unique and delimited with a universal validity? Such a step is in itself associated with modernism and its ideas. And with an interest in making art independent of time and place. This is something that in today’s context defined field of contemporary art does not enjoy much relevance.

Today, a third problem is that the meaning in many abstract expressions is often invisible, since they visually tend to approach the resemblance of modernist artwork. Younger contemporary artists tend to repeat and copy formal expressions from earlier artworks. But strategies and goals differ. And the reference to history is a point in itself. Abstract art expressions have today acquired the reverse value of earlier. Abstraction, from being something aiming forward and representing the new and provident in modernism, points today mainly to the archive; to something historical and bygone. For this reason the difference between contemporary and modern abstraction resides in the obvious: Contemporary abstraction relates to various forms of earlier abstraction. To history and modernism. Achieved indirectly, through formal language, choice of materials, compositions and relationship between the forms and those systemic ideas they once represented. But also directly, such as in Ida Ekblad’s paintings, which refer to Asger Jorn and the CoBrA-group’s expressive abstraction, or in Anders Sletvold Moe’s Black Letters, in which he echoes forms taken from known abstract works of art.

That history may overshadow how we perceive present-day abstract art expression, was made particularly clear to me when I read a review, written by Stian Gabrielsen, about Emma Ilija Wyller. Gabrielsen mentions that he increasingly often comes across practices such as that of Wyller “where materials are combined mutely, preferably through a meticulous process, but without a conceptualised intention”.[3] Abstract artworks can be silent and without a language, and in the void that follows it is easier to express what the artworks are not about, rather than the opposite. Wyller’s art for instance is not about radical political ideologies (despite the formal similarity to the Russian avant-garde), or about the Arts and Craft movement, which wanted to restore the esthetical qualities of the craft, or about cultivating the oil painting as a medium (a goal defined by Clement Greenberg under high modernism). The artwork appears through negativa.

A final problem is how often and how much we are exposed to expressions of abstract art. From being a marginal formal language at the beginning of the 20th Century, abstract art now dominates everything from Ikea, private decorations and the contemporary art market. The same forms are repeated indefinitely. They may rapidly be in danger of becoming serial and boring. But perhaps we should change our focus. The Swedish philosopher Cecilia Sjöholm is of the opinion that artistry that succeeds, both in the market for contemporary art and in the larger public room, is in general portrayed in a way that diminishes the projects.[4] The commercialisation of artwork leads to frequent use, and to a repetition of the expression. This prevents us from visualising the original projects. Using Cindy Sherman as an example, Sjöholm points at how we today no longer see Sherman’s challenge of the role of women, her interest for queer identities, or the abject. Rather, we see a never-ending line of repetitions of self-portraits – a gesture encircling itself.

 

II

In the text "Exhaustion & Exuberance - Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform", Jan Verwoert uses the following question and answer to describe the causes of disease in our high performance culture: "Are you ready? As ready as I'll ever be". [5] He writes about how we today are characterised by the demand to always produce, to always say yes to things, even if we lack the time or the energy. He goes on to ask what it would mean if we opposed such a practice, and whether we can imagine a reality other than the one involving a yes-or-no answer? An alternative set of actions in today’s reality which demand that we continuously deliver? [6]

I received Jan Verwoert’s text from Marte Johnslien after I curated her exhibition Forms of Protest in 2014.[7] The project engages in a seeming paradox: we live in a world that asks us to act against oppression, injustice and climate changes, all the while more and more people prioritise joining meditation and mindfulness classes. It inspired Johnslien to look at meditation and mindfulness as a response and as an active action, rather than a withdrawal from the world around us. At the same time she considered it meaningful to work with an abstract formal language, not as an “act of withdrawal”, but as a way of connecting to the world. While working with her exhibition, we searched for modes in which to describe her work.[8] We searched for a language that related to historical abstraction, but which also freed itself from this tradition. We looked for ways of describing abstract art as a potent and dynamic response strategy, years after people had given up on abstract art as something politically and socially relevant.


III

In Vinduet 4/2014, Kaja Schjerven Mollerin describes how being close to the world seemed easier before; the space for sensuousness was greater, there was a different kind of intimacy to things:

It is easy for the contemporary person to think that everything used to be better before. I do it myself, too often. I will catch myself longing for a time where society was closer and time slower, where you had time for reflection, time to concentrate, and space for sensuousness, a different kind of intimacy to things: a time where you had to get out and about the world to fetch the newspaper, leaf through the pages in order to be updated about the news, breathe inn the smell from the paper, getting ink on your hands.[9]

It is not easy to say whether this description is an expression for something tangible, or rather bound to nostalgia, in a time where we feel everything is moving faster. But the text verbalises an obvious fact: the sensual interaction with the world has changed in many ways. To be served content through a computer is experienced as different from receiving it through a newspaper, radio or TV.

This may explain why the American sociologist Richard Sennett’s ideas about work and crafts has provoked a great deal of debate lately, especially among artists.[10] In The Craftsman he discusses how good craftsmanship is a fundamental and sustained impulse in man, who is characterised by the desire to work for his own sake.[11] There is an intrinsic value to this. Sennett is of the opinion that issues around how we do and make things, originate from a deep shift in how work is viewed in today’s society. In the book The Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences Of Work In the New Capitalism, Sennett describes the transition from old capitalism to new capitalism, where the act of working is no longer synonymous with being in one place. Instead of being at work, you are in work.[12]

Hence, for Sennett, the actual execution of a craft has great value. We accomplish a deep inner gratification that stems from making something good in terms of craftsmanship, for its own sake. He goes on to say that without the craft we lose a space for freedom, where we can experiment with ideas and techniques, hazarding errors and detours: "This is a condition for which people will have to fight in modern society".[13]

Craftsmanship is based on a close relation between head and hand. This requires a dialogue between tangible practices and thinking. When Sennett talks about craftsmanship it often attains similarities with meditation and being present where you are. It represents a wish where work is not just a practical, mundane project, but also a place where a profounder and distinctive value arises. By immersing oneself in “simple” work activities, new meaning and experience arises. If we in some occasions can talk about abstraction as a craft, it leads us towards experiences in forms and expressions seemingly not containing more than what we see right in front of us. Most people know much they cannot explain, but only show by doing it. There is perhaps also something that should not be explained, but still shown. This should be the realm of abstraction.


VI

I dream of a mental holiday. A sort of abstract desert of images, movement and sound.

–Tori Wrånes about the project Your Next Vacation is Calling (2014)

To produce and observe abstract art today can be a resistor against the easily purchased and the productive. What is expressed often forces us to linger and marvel – it is often completely static. But it can still be the result of intense action. Art projects such as the scenography of the theatre group Verk’s latest production, Paradise Now (2014), and Tori Wrånes’ performance Your Next Vacation is Calling, use abstraction to fixate on a state. And a standstill. A concentrated existence. Sometimes it is comfortable. Sometimes it is repulsive. It is a condition lacking a language, but acutely present. It is depicted with intensity and it is marked by fluid chaos without words and logic. It seems as if abstraction is used as an attempt to make fleeting life moments lasting. They represent the opposite to a quick fix; in a time where more and more is being reduced to the commercials’ simple sentences, clear message and over-explanatory language. It is an opposite to gaining a lot of response in the shortest possible time, and a counterargument to an arts milieu where pop culture has attained the status of big brother. They remain in a dialogue with our time.

It is perhaps here that we can rephrase the expectation deposited in abstract art and what showed itself to be empty promises about abstractions possibilities to change the world. Maybe it is all about pointing out conditions, and in certain contexts reclaim the world’s presence. In such a light it may give meaning to talk about abstraction as a response strategy, especially in a time when abstract expressions tend to take the role of hard currency in a red-hot market for contemporary art.

 


[1] It was Marte Johnslien who made me aware of our lack of a language to discuss abstract art today, when I curated her exhibition Forms of Protest at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. See Hansen/Mørland (ed.), pp. 7-16. The collaboration with Marte Johnslien is the starting point for this essay and theme.

[2] http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit1-24-06.asp. Viewed 23.12.2014.

[3] Stian Gabrielsen. "Mat for maleriet". Published 20.12. 2013. Kunstkritikk.no. http://www.kunstkritikk.no/kritikk/mat-for-maleriet/. Viewed 23.12.14

[4] "Beyond the Era of the Object – Aesthetics Against Commodification", lecture at the Henie-Onstad Art Centre during the workshop Curating and Politics – In Theory, 05.04.14.

[5]. In the exhibition pamphlet: Sheffield 08: Yes and No and other Options. http://www.cortneyandrews.com/site/JanVerwoert_Exhaustion_Exhuberance.pdf. 01.02.2015. pp. 98

[6] Ibid. p. 91-92.

[7] Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. 13.11.14-01.03.2015.

[8] Marte Johnslien, Former av Protest (Henie Onstad Kunstsenter: 2014), in Hansen/Mørland (ed.), pp. 7-16.

[9] Kaja Schjerven Mollerin, "Flaggskipet". Vinduet 4/2014, p. 14.

[10] Richard Sennett, "Intimitetstyraniet: et tilbakeblikk". Samtiden 4/14, p. 68.

[11] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman. (Yale University Press: 2008).

[12] Richard Sennett, Det fleksible mennesket. Personlige konsekvenser av å arbeide i den nye kapitalismen. (Fagbokforlaget:2006).

[13] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman. (Yale University Press: 2008).

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