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Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Meaning In Abstraction - The Debate Continues

By Kirk Hughey

Does the fact that I am an abstract painter have any bearing on the substance
of this discussion?  Of course not.  Obviously, Ms. Kamhi is willing to
in an ad hominem argument  when it suits her purposes.

The history of abstraction is not crucial to its defense but the presence of  abstraction in other cultures and times does, at least, create some interesting questions. The introduction of the term "free-standing" can be something of a red herring used to disqualify art from cultures that have no exclusive division between "art" and "decoration".  Does this mean that applied abstract motifs had no symbolic or contemplative value to those cultures - and that they should be viewed in the same terms as we use to dismiss decoration as "meaningful"?  I think a closer study of forms like the prehistoric engraved abstractions,  Native American motifs, mandalas, Asian calligraphy and Aboriginal painting could be fruitful.

Piri Halasz has developed an approach to understanding abstraction as "multireferencial" that is of great benefit to anyone genuinely concerned with the topic.  The essential point here is that abstraction, rather than having no reference, actually refers to qualities common to more than one reference or phenomena.   In this sense it is not dissimilar to scientific propositions that relate common characteristics of otherwise disparate events and/or explore forces and relationships that would otherwise remain formless and hidden.

It is possible, in fact, that abstract art became more appropriate as scientific insights became more inclusive and abstract since the two disciplines often work in complimentary accord. Of course, I have no illusion that Ms. Kamhi will consider any alternative to her view, even a "multi-mimetic" one, - it is a characteristic of ideologues to ignore all differences from their one true way.

It doesn't bother me greatly whether someone likes or dislikes abstract art - the way should always be open for any individual response and never confined to any single dictate or definition.  What does bother me though, is the tendency of people like Ms. Kamhi to narrow the field of the permissible down to their own personal prejudices.   It is one thing to find something "unintelligible" and quite another to use one's ignorance or incomprehension to justify eliminating it entirely.  Denial based on ignorance is the reflex of totalitarian minds.  Ms. Kamhi may not like my reference to Hitler and Stalin's repression of abstract art but it remains an undeniable fact - and a persistent question about motives as well. 

Paradoxically, the actions of those two abysmal tyrants should put to rest one of the most common objections to abstract art;  surely no-one would consider it so threatening if it were only decorative.

Kirk Hughey

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