Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: art

What we need is a new sort of paintbrush

There aren’t any explanatory cards at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London. This doesn’t mean that the viewer is forced to confront the painting on a barren field, with nothing to helpfully and patronisingly mediate between the gaze and the pure image. Instead, there’s a little booklet, in which all the works are listed according to their catalogue number, along with their prices. For those who object to such things, this could be read as a despicable commodification of culture; the work is swallowed whole by its exchange-value, the exhibition is less an art show than a degenerated flea market. As I tend to think art and money are joined at the hip, I found that it could actually be turned into a quite diverting game. This composition in red and black, with the gooseflesh ghost of a human form shimmering unsteadily in one corner – that’s £9,000; you were quite right to like it. On the other hand, this painting, acrylically abstract, its overlapping shapes looking like something you could make in five minutes on MS Paint – it costs £12,000, and you’ve lost this round. Better luck next time.

It’s a favourite pastime of art critics to snobbishly denigrate the Summer Exhibition’s supposed conservatism – even arch-traditionalist Brian Sewell is getting in on the act. It’s true that while many of the works on display are perfectly pleasant, none of them have the force of a punch in the gut, the sudden violence that marks out great art. Instead, wall after wall is crammed with pastiche. Shades of late Picasso, Miró, and Kandinsky dominate. Not that there’s anything wrong with Picasso, Miró, or Kandinsky, and some of these imitations are very well executed – but by being repeated their styles ossify and lose all sense of motion; revolutionary artists are turned into reactionaries. Heidegger thought that art could constitute an opening to the future; but in the Summer Exhibition it seems hopelessly mired in its own past. The saving grace of the exhibition is supposedly Greyson Perry’s series of tapestries. Here there’s more pastiche, this time of Hogarth (in fact, I hazily remember being made to ‘update’ the Rake’s Progress for GCSE Art); the ‘class satire’ is meanwhile very self-consciously clever but depressingly toothless. There’s no better demonstration of the enfeebled nature of pseudosatirical pastiche than the concentration of people hanging round the tapestry that depicts the middle classes, cooing with the joy of an infant looking at itself in the mirror. Yes, we do all read the Guardian, don’t we? And all our food is organic and fairtrade, and we all have therapists; isn’t it brilliant? All this is hardly the fault of the curators, though. Across the river, at the (unstuffy, unconservative) Tate Modern, you can see a grey felt-covered cuboid hanging on a wall with a little card next to it that breathlessly expounds the significance of this ‘box-like object’ – as if a box-like object could be, in the final analysis, anything other than a box. Outside the dust-heavy air of the museum, the best-known British artist is probably – for fuck’s sake – Banksy. Our young revolutionaries are, if anything, even more pathetic than our conservatives; at least our conservatives are aping something genuinely radical.

Not that the situation is hopeless. A small sculpture stood in a room of lithographs. I don’t know its name or that of the artists; it had no red dot or accompanying number; I couldn’t find it in the catalogue. It was as if some gang of guerillas had infiltrated Burlington House at night and left the thing there. A stylised donkey sits on a wooden table, holding a pencil. Turn the wheel: there’s a carefully calibrated creak as its hinges and pistons grate against each other, and it draws another stylised donkey. The pencil shudders along the same route, over and over again. It’s art as artistic criticism: self-portraiture is revealed as a blind mechanical mimesis, the compulsion of made things to repeat their own making. The prints and paintings that surround it are revealed for what they are: they become so many crude pencil sketches of so many mechanical donkeys.

The art of the early twentieth century was so great because the early twentieth century was a time of revolution and possibility, in which art could shamelessly imagine its own future. Our current time is one of reaction, of the hideous mechanised logic of capitalist austerity, in which merely pointing out the mechanical nature of our subjugation passes for a radical act. No wonder, then, that the most profound work at the Summer Exhibition was itself a machine. Maybe if our art isn’t doing what it should, we need a new sort of paintbrush. For a positively articulated vision of the future, you have to look to the outer fringes of the mind. Adorno writes that ‘the sickness of the normal does not necessarily imply as its opposite the health of the sick, but the latter usually only presents, in a different way, the same disastrous pattern.’ As a counterpoint, I’d present the Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition currently running at the Hayward Gallery. Despite the name, which makes it sound like a weeknight offering from Channel 4, possibly something through which Jimmy Carr will foist himself on the nation, it’s excellent. Among the UFOlogists and selfie-obsessives avant le lettre are some genuinely revolutionary works. What unites the best of them is an overpowering sense of hope. There are few apocalypses or jeremiads; instead, these artists thought they were providing the blueprint for a better world. These worlds sometimes veer uncomfortably towards a kind of techno-fascism – William Scott envisages a day when San Francisco will be ‘cancelled’ and replaced with Praise Frisco, a city of ‘wholesome people’ and ‘wholesome encounters,’ while George Widener’s sketched cityscapes of the future are blighted by perpetual gridlock and architecture that has the faint whiff of Albert Speer about it. Still, there’s Marcel Storr, a deaf and illiterate street sweeper who would come home at night and construct impossibly detailed futuristic cityscapes in pencil and ink, looking like something between a Xanaduan pleasure-dome and Blade Runner; and Body Isek Kingelez, who builds playfully extravagant models for his vision of a new Kinshasa from scrap materials he finds around the city. Also on display is an infectious fluidity, a kind of conceptual synaesthesia, the kind of thing that is so sorely lacking at the Royal Academy. MC Ramellzee re-imagines the alphabet as a fleet of spikily armed starships mounted of skateboards, fighting to liberate letters from the tyranny of language. A.G. Rizzoli (my personal favourite) ‘symbolically sketched’ people he knew as fantastic buildings, so that the local postman becomes a sprawling Renaissance palace, and his mother a fairy-tale cathedral. All these were integrated into his masterplan for a new exhibition-city called Y.T.T.E., or Yield To Total Elation, in which the barriers between human beings and architecture would dissolve.

To call this stuff ‘outsider art’ is, I think, to miss the point entirely. Nobody today calls William Blake an ‘outsider poet’ or Friedrich Nietzsche an ‘outsider philosopher.’ Of course, many of the artists in question were mad, or suffered from developmental disabilities, but, as Adorno suggests, sickness does not exist isolated from the society that contains and creates it. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari saw schizophrenia as simultaneously being the final result of the logic of capitalism and a productive, revolutionary force that disturbs its operation. It’s not the case that in a society that has abolished its own future only the mad still dream of a better world; rather, actually hoping for anything different itself becomes madness, a madness whose limits are defined by the rigid (im)possibilities of our own impoverished existence. In other words, it’s a madness whose creativity is intrinsically bound up with the regimented sterility of late capitalism, as source and foil. Is a man who builds minutely detailed models from scrap paper and beer cans an obsessional neurotic, a holy lunatic, or a respectable architect? Surely that depends only on whether his models are shown in his own home, in an exhibition such as the Hayward’s, or in the atrium of an architectural practice. If this is insanity, it’s not the seething unreason of the id, but instead rationality made to do things that, by ‘normal’ standards, it’s not supposed to do. Alfred Jensen creates number tables in oil paints, their colours and composition influenced by Indian spirituality and the I Ching; there’s a certain ordered stillness in them not too different from that engendered by a Rothko canvas. Widener believes that in the future superintelligent machines would finally be able to decode the mathematical patterns he discerns in the calender; it’s no surprise to learn that he once worked with US military cryptographers. This is, in its own eccentric way, precisely the health of the sick.

Some critics have taken issue with the exhibition’s name. What’s being presented is not, they claim, an alternate guide to the universe, but a small introduction into another world: the private universe of the unhinged. I don’t agree. We’re being shown a possible future, but as Marx knew, every future is ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ These visions are built on the foundations of the world we all inhabit now; they are the repressed content of our life. All these worlds already exist. Rizzoli, on seeing female genitalia for the first time at the age of forty, immortalised the moment as an immense Art Deco church. So That You Too May See Something You’ve Not Seen Before, he wrote above it. So that we may experience the wonder and strangeness of something which is immanent but hidden. In art as in politics the productive forces are here; we have only to unleash them.

Thanks to Twitter user @HealthUntoDeath for inadvertently providing the title for this piece.

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Why George W Bush is the greatest living painter

Political violence is the continuation of art by other means. Wherever there are shock troops marching in the streets or big pyres of burning books or the sounds of mysterious gunfire near the parliament building at night, you can bet that behind it all flutters the soul of a sensitive young boy who always wanted to be an artist. Brutishness is easy; anyone can commit an atrocity in the right conditions. Violence requires a highly rarefied aesthetic sensibility.

Painters carry out wars of aggression. They’re in love with the image of things. Poets go for internal ethnic cleansing. The word must be properly spoken. Prose writers like revolutionary terror. The text is radically open. There have been fewer dictators from the other arts, but we could extrapolate. Photographers make good use of death squads; the gaze and the judgement are united in the click of a shutter. Sculptors are big on mass internment; the body is always already buried in the rock. Playwrights tend towards bureaucracy, musicians to exemplary massacre, film-makers to redistributive looting. Lenin and Mussolini wrote prose. Stalin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh were poets. Saddam Hussein wrote poetry alongside his anonymous novels. Churchill was a painter. Hitler was a painter, but he penned a few verses as well. George W Bush is a painter.

 This is the void. A line of detainees goes in, shackled, shuffling along in orange jumpsuits. Paintings of dogs come out. Nobody knows exactly what happens inside, or if they do, they don’t say.

George W Bush has produced fifty paintings of dogs. For every drone strike he ordered, he has produced one painting of a dog. For every round of golf he played while in the White House, he has produced two paintings of a dog. For every million Americans left unemployed at the end of his administration, he has produced five paintings of a dog. George W Bush has produced one painting of a dog for every thirteen US soldiers killed in Afghanistan during his Presidency, one painting of a dog for every hundred Palestinians killed by the IDF, and one painting of a dog for every two thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven civilians killed in Iraq since the invasion. Bush’s art teacher told reporters that he would go down in history as a great artist. I think she’s right.

There have been a couple of critical pieces on Bush’s paintings, and they all ask the same question: what do these paintings tell us about George W Bush’s inner life, or his psychology, or his presidency? They’ve all got it arse-backwards. If you follow that line you’ll only ever end up with trite reductive analogies. The running water represents Hurricane Katrina, or Bush’s need to atone for his crimes, or his fear of death; it’s a vaguely amusing parlour game, but not much more. If you want to know the truth, there’s no point looking at Bush’s self-portraits. You have to look at his paintings of dogs. The real question is: what do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about contemporary society? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about violence? What do George W Bush’s dog paintings tell us about art?

Imagine a creature from another world, something impossibly old and infinitely curious. Drifting between silent stars, she picks up a single stray transmission from an unknown planet in an uncharted backwater of the Milky Way. A picture of a dog. If our alien has eyes to see, she’ll be able to extrapolate our entire world from George W Bush’s painting of a bichon frisé on a blue background. A hierarchical class society looks out from its sad round eyes, capital accumulation can be inferred from the downwards tilt of its mouth, its outstretched paws tell you everything you need to know about the long slow decline of the nation-state. Most of all, though, our history is inscribed in the featureless blue plane on which the dog reclines. In fact, it’s swarming with tiny figures: child miners coughing dust, factory workers plunging from rooftops, women with acid scars bursting across their faces, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their dreams, people who wake up shaking from the bombs going off in their ears. A society capable of producing that shade of blue leaves a lot of bodies in its wake.

Spend enough time looking at George W Bush’s paintings of dogs and it all starts to make sense. The war in Iraq was little more than the geopolitical expression of kitschy sentimentality. Imperialist universalism is the logic of the dog painting extended to nations and peoples. Radical evil is the weaponisation of bad taste. We’ll be greeted as liberators: of course we will, we love our dogs. History is on our side: of course it is, we like nice things. Our war will usher in a new age of peace and stability in the region: of course it will, we leave bright colours in our wake. George W Bush’s paintings of dogs represent a new height in Western society’s struggle to decouple art from violence. (This is why his nude self-portraits are all in bathrooms: only in the cleansing ritual is nudity non-erotic, and eroticism is after all only another form of violence.) It’s an impossible task. Violence and art are inseparable; the more you try to scrub the canvas clean of everything not clean and pleasant, the more hideous it becomes, the heavier the rain of bombs.

That’s why George W Bush is our greatest living painter. Nothing expresses more clearly the horror of existence than the most hated man in the world’s loving portrait of his dog. More than any gloomy conceptualist, Bush gives us the truth, the undisguised omnicidal violence of the nice and friendly. His paintings of dogs point towards the one subject all other contemporary art shies away from: the final extinction of the human race. Bright eyes and wagging tails, cities in ruins and skies scorched black. Art kills.

Art, money, beauty, shit, representation, the communal

א In Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Martin Heidegger attempts to account for and justify the phenomenon of modern art. While maintaining his own somewhat conservative tastes, he claims that modern art possesses autonomous value – despite its production requiring no evident skill or virtuosity, despite its challenge to conventional aesthetics pushing it into the realm of outright ugliness, despite its lack of any identifiable object of representation, despite it being entirely counter to the prevailing contemporary sensibility. This is, he concludes, because it contains an element of aletheia: clearing, or unconcealment; it is unpopular in the present because it speaks to the future; it has its origin in its own future. We are now in Heidegger’s future – Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes was first published in 1950 – and his prediction seems to have manifested itself. The challenges of modernism have become the dogmas of postmodernism; what was revolutionary has become institutionalised; what was vital has ossified. Artists parade an unending succession of mundane objects in front of us – is this art? Is this art? How about this? – and with every degree of separation from Duchamp the question steadily loses its power. Art has become solipsistic. And while Heidegger could see an unknowable future prefigured in art’s setting-into-work of Truth, the postmodern bonfire of the metanarratives has obliterated the future, replacing it with a terminal self-reference. Something, somewhere, has been lost.

1.1 There’s a simple answer to Heidegger: he’s ignored the position of art in the commodity market. Contemporary art is given value not because of its intrinsic qualities but precisely because anything that calls itself art is a good store for value. Art is an excellent investment, its use-value hovering in a zone of indistinction between infinity and zero, its exchange-value untouched by the turbulence of the market. Unlike oil or wheat or subprime mortgage derivatives, the price of art is invulnerable to fluctuations in supply and demand. Some of the greatest works of art ever produced lie unseen in safety deposit boxes; meanwhile, subjecting art to the cold logic of the commodity, corporate investors ensure the production of facile, anodyne artworks of ever-increasing value and ever-decreasing worth.

1.2 I find this line of argument entirely unconvincing. Before the age of corporate-funded art, it was financed by usurers and robber barons; before that by monarchs and aristocrats, before that by the Church, before that by the temple-State complex. Shakespeare called his group of actors the King’s Men for his patron, James I. Virgil’s Aeneid was a paean to Augustus. (While in Broch’s The Death of Virgil his dying command to burn the manuscript is the basis for a denunciation of State art, there’s little to suggest that such concerns were particularly prevalent at any time before the 19th Century, let alone the classical period.) Because the work of art tries to touch on something essential and immutable outside of the relations of production, because  its value is distinct from that of the money-economy, it is always forced to parasite itself off the exploiters of those same social relations.

1.2 Art and money are more than just joined at the hip: they’re joined at the anus. Freud famously formulated the equation money = shit, with miserliness being a mature manifestation of infantile anal eroticism; meanwhile, the production of shit is the first expression of creativity, the first instance of the subject creating something external to themselves to be admired. The anus is a Deleuzian machine, channeling and cutting off a single flow: a flow that appears as money on one side of the anus-machine and as art on the other.

1.3 The intimate connection between art and money is demonstrated by their shared origin. Marx notes that the currency-form has its root in ‘the sensuous splendor of precious metals.’ It is from this sensuousness that money develops the fetishistic power to transform ‘imagination to life, imagined being into real being’ – in Heideggerian terms, to effect the self-disclosure of Being. In other words, money performs the exact same function as art. Wherever the currency-form arises, the money-commodity is always something possessing a sensuous beauty: gold and silver, cowrie shells, beads, brass rods, sandalwood. It’s not just their value was seen to inhere because of their beauty: the money-commodity was always that which was used to adorn the body – a practice universal in human cultures and unique to them. Here is where the rupture between money and art can be found: the raw material of money is spectacular and beautiful, while art, by contrast, is built out of the base and the mundane. Early painters used pigments made from mud, blood, and shit. Sculptors used rock, earth, and bone. Poets and playwrights, mere words. Heidegger is correct when he identifies as an essential element of the work of art its thingliness, its grounding in the Earth, its existence as an object known to ‘cargo-carriers or cleaning ladies in the museum.’ The work of art is not the beautiful object; it never has been. Money is that which is used for adornment and enjoyment, the foundational purpose of art is entirely distinct from any sense of the aesthetic. In producing art that contradicted the prevailing sense of the beautiful, the Modernists weren’t defying art’s conventions but reaching back to its roots.  Money with its baseness doesn’t disturb the spirituality of art; rather with its spirituality it disturbs art’s baseness.

2.1 If art isn’t the beautiful, if the beautiful is disruptive to art, what differentiates it? It could be argued that the purpose of art is to be a ‘mirror held up to nature’; that the present condition has its roots in the movement of the Impressionists away from a truthful representation of the thing as it is towards the thing as it is perceived. A piece of art that doesn’t form an image of something isn’t an artwork at all. It’s just pigment of a canvas or a heap of atoms, as useless as it is meaningless.

2.2 I don’t think this is the case either. Modernism’s deliberate abstraction and rejection of the representational isn’t really anything new at all. When medieval artists depicted soldiers standing as tall as the walls they laid siege to, when they placed human figures in a spatial field without regard for pose or perspective, when they depicted Christ being crucified by Roman soldiers in knightly armour, it wasn’t from any lack of knowledge or skill. Much of the fiercely naturalistic art and sculpture of the classical period was still around: medieval art is deliberately stylised, its ultimate point of reference being not the external world but artistic conventions. Medieval art abounds in mise en abyme, representations of the work of art within the work of art itself, generally in a highly stylised form: artists of the period might not have produced works that were directly representative, but they were keenly aware of the question of representation and its problems and opportunities.

2.3 In fact, art itself implies self-reference. Pure representation has always had a magical quality to it: early drawings of animals were believed to summon the game to the hunting-grounds or functioned as objects of worship. In monotheism, the act of representation, as a sort of second-order creation, is a blasphemy. The image always threatens to come alive: it is for this reason that the God of the Old Testament forbids the creation of ‘any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ Only when the image is tempered with self-reference and self-consciousness of its position as a piece of art does this magical power dissipate. Pure abstraction is not therefore the antithesis of art, but art in the fullest sense.

3.1 This primordial magical quality is essential, however, if art is to find its way out of its current situation. In a sense, Plato’s assertion that art is a second-order imitation is correct, but it’s not the natural world that art refers to. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the theatre of ancient Greece has its origins in Dionysian rites later softened by the influence of the Apollonian Kunsttrieb. This principle holds true for all forms of art: sculpture and painting originally provided objects of ecstatic religious veneration, music and song were used to induce frenzy. The art of today is a shadow of these practices, but some of its power is retained. Schopenhauer’s belief in the power of art to suspend the rotation of the wheel of Ixion is well-founded, but this requires not individual contemplation but communal transcendence. It is precisely this quality that is missing in contemporary art. To reinvigorate art it is not necessary to reintroduce standards of aesthetic beauty, nor to return to the principle of artistic self-expression (as I discuss here), nor to reconnect it with the natural world as opposed to the artistic milieu. Art needs to return in some way to the communal.

3.2 As for how this is to be done, we’ll have to wait and see.

On self-expression

Check this out:

My world is falling, crumbling apart, life is meaningless & that’s just the start
My hearts so sore, I can feel it breaking & I swear to god it leaves me shaking
Late at night till early in the morning, lying in bed eyes wide open. Didn’t sleep last night, like all the others, instead I just lie crying in the covers
Quick, wipe away all the tears before they come near. must hide this depression & the feelings of fear
For all they know I’m happy & always smiling, but deep inside my soul is dying
I can feel it rotting, it wants to scream, but I won’t let it… not for the time being
I can never tell them how I feel cause the happiness I wear to them is real
For them to hear that I wish I was dead… it would kill them, they’d be filled with dread
So I’ll try my best no to be selfish, I’ll keep my secret hidden & just let them rest
but god I can’t take it much longer… I’ll probably be dead before they even wonder.

The teenage author of this poem, as much as they might object, is not really taking off the mask of their day-to-day ‘false’ persona and letting their real unique self shine through in all its tortured tragedy. They are, in fact, simply putting on another mask: their ‘true’ ‘hidden’ self is as much a construct as the face they show to those around them, and this constructed identity is constituted of all manner of external influences: the hegemonic image of the ‘teenager’, music, cinema, television, and, not least, other poems like this one, which are speckled about the Internet like chewing gum and bird shit on a pavement. This example is just one of a brimming ocean of such poems: all employing the same metaphors, using the same key words, expressing the same sentiments. The hormonal turbulence of adolescence and the alienation that pervades society is not enough to account for the sheer homogeneity on display. They are all fundamentally intertextual, in constant dialogue with each other and with other forms of art, creating between them a holographic projection of decentralised teenagerhood. In writing, the author of this piece is adopting the conventions of depression, moulding herself into a particular archetype. It’s not that the depression felt is somehow unreal, but in its articulation it undergoes a culturally informed metamorphosis. Her poem is not an example of art as a form of self-expression, but of the self as something produced by art.

Alexander Semionov, smashing lazy assumptions about socialist realism like Chuck Norris with a paintbrush. I’m not actually going to talk about this painting but I think it’s pretty good

I point all this out because the teenage angst-poem is held to be a paradigm case of art-as-self-expression, and it is in fact nothing of the sort. Writers and artists do not produce their works in a vacuum. A work of art does not emerge from some cloistered part of the soul in which Pure Emotion quivers, unseen by the rest of the world. Artists are not nexuses of infinite subjectivity. They are conduits through which the fabric of ideas and aesthetics that surrounds them achieves its self-actualisation. Art is composed of references and reactions to tradition or the prevailing conventions of the time (sometimes along with outright theft). This holds true for every facet of art: the teenager’s work above is as much informed by cultural norms and the pre-existing canon as Eliot’s frenzied patchwork-poetry. The function of art has never been unadulterated self-expression but always communication. A work of art is a dialogue between creator and viewer; it is at the point of interaction between the two that the actual creation of art takes place. Good art doesn’t just look nice: it is a palimpsest, a space of continual reinscription. A painting locked up in a safety deposit box is not art, it’s just a bunch of chemicals smeared on a canvas. For something to be art it must be engaged with.

Against this, however, we have the Cult of the Artist, which continues to insist that we must know about Van Gogh’s ear to understand his paintings, which situates the Timeless Artist outside his milieu, which upholds individual self-expression as the ultimate source of all art. This obsession has had its opponents from Keats to Barthes, but still it persists: discredited in academia, it hangs on in galleries and auction houses, it dominates the way art is taught in schools, and forms the underlying narrative for the presentation of art to the public.

We don’t always blindly follow the Cult of the Artist, however. When it comes to artefacts from ‘ethnic’ or aboriginal cultures (usually those we Westerners pushed to the edge of extinction and are now equally intent on preserving in some kind of cultural stasis) there’s no consideration for individual artistry or for self-expression. In the popular examination of such works, an emphasis is placed on social function that is unseen in the criticism of contemporary and Western pieces. Art is seen as being representative not of an individual but of an entire culture, as if every member of the tribe gets together to make bone-carvings or tapestries as a commune. This is the case even in instances when such works are exercises in bragging, monuments to shamanistic prowess like the Mojave Desert petroglyph pictured above.

This distinction encodes the idea that ‘our’ art doesn’t actually fulfil any social function. What happens, though, when artists themselves start to buy into their own cult? What happens when, conscious of the existing traditions, they nonetheless attempt to express their Sovereign Indivisible Self? You get asemic awfulness like abstract expressionism, works that sell for millions but that have no discernible aesthetic or semiotic qualities, shit like this:

Jackson Pollock, Aftermath of a Marathon Masturbation Session, oil on canvas, 1950

Here we find the artist so engrossed with the idea that they must be expressing themselves and their hidden inner feelings through art that they forget to actually express anything, let alone communicate. This work induces no emotional response and has no intellectual content; any meaning it might have contained is intelligible only to its creator. If I’m picking on Jackson Pollock here it’s simply because he was by far the worst of the bunch, allowing his vaunted apolitical self-expression to be used as an ideological weapon by the CIA, who believed his series of overpriced squiggles to embody the personal freedom that can (of course) only be realised through the market economy. In a way, they were right: individualism suffuses the work; it’s self-expression for its own sake, empty and meaningless.

I’m not trying to argue against abstraction itself. There are plenty of artworks even within the expressionist school that are communicative rather than simply expressionistic; but there remains a distressing trend in contemporary art for pieces so wrapped up in their self-expressive qualities that they make any attempt at hermeneutics impossible. As a counter-example, take a work by Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of abstraction:

Wassily Kandinsky, Now That’s How You Fucking Do It, oil on canvas, 1923

In contrast to Pollock, Kandinsky’s abstraction (and even his expressionism) opens up a space for interpretation rather than snuffing it out. We are not commanded to stoke the painter’s ego by trying to imagine how he was feeling as he slapped pigment against parchment. The frozen explosion of lines and colours by themselves communicate a sense of unrestrained exaltation, an emotion not just felt by the artist but induced in the viewer; around its edges we find shapes that could almost be recognisable objects but that stop short of actual representation; in the interplay of organic and geometric forms a strange harmony emerges.

The Futurists of the early 20th Century wanted to burn all the galleries and destroy all the cluttering art of the past (it’s a cruel irony that futurism is now just one of the many aesthetic modes for contemporary art to draw influence from). Perhaps it would be better to leave all the art of the past centuries exactly where it is, but rip the informational labels from gallery walls, blot out the name of the author on every book jacket, to encourage expression, but without the self.

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