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Sunday, February 2, 2003

Real Abstraction - A Cognitive Disconnect

By Michelle Kamhi

Kirk Hughey’s objections to my article “Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde”  are not surprising, since he is himself an abstract painter — a fact he failed to mention. His defense of abstract art consists of false allegations about my view of art and its relationship to that held by Ayn Rand, unsupported assertions about how abstract work is perceived, misinformation about its history, and (by his own admission) ad hominen argument.

A careful, fair-minded reader of my work—both in Aristos  and in the book I co-authored, "What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand" — would discover that I go far beyond the “Randian view of art” Mr. Hughey alleges, and that neither my view nor Rand’s “begins with David and ends with Ingres.”  Nor does my view or Rand’s “proscribe any art that relies on imagination and visual sensitivity over the didactically conventional.”  For the record, I have written favorably about visual art as diverse as prehistoric cave paintings, ancient Egyptian art, Greek sculpture, Chinese and Japanese painting, the frescoes of
Giotto, the art of the Flemish and Italian Renaissance, African sculpture, Impressionist painting, and the work of Gauguin and Cézanne.

On the crucial question of whether “abstract” (nonobjective) art is intelligible, Mr. Hughey asserts  that “abstraction makes a direct appeal to the emotions and intuitions,” and that it “presents a more insightful (and modern) view of fundamental physical reality” than
some traditional art.  He also argues that we should “appreciate it for itself rather than [for] some reference or use.”  As Louis Torres and I have argued in "What Art Is", however, the philosophic and critical discourse on abstract art—as well as abundant anecdotal evidence and the growing understanding of cognitive psychology—strongly suggests that such work is fundamentally unintelligible and that it is appreciated mainly in purely sensuous and decorative terms, not as meaningful expression.

Mr. Hughey’s most serious error, however, is his claim that “abstract art did not suddenly appear a hundred years ago but has been in evidence in many cultures and periods in all of human history.”  On the contrary, free-standing works of abstract painting and sculpture were an invention of the twentieth century.  Prior to that, abstract motifs were always employed decoratively, to ornament functional objects, never as objects of pure contemplation in their own right.

As for Mr. Hughey’s parting shot lumping Rand’s rejection of abstract art with that of Stalin and Hitler, it is not worth responding to.

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