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Saturday, February 8, 2003

Extravagant Claims For Abstract Art Unwarranted

By Michelle Kamhi

In his latest missive in defense of abstract art (February 5), Kirk Hughey is again mistaken on several counts. First, my noting that he is an abstract painter does not constitute an ad hominen argument. Nor is it irrelevant to the question at hand. As an abstract painter, he quite naturally accepts, and recites, the theoretical justifications commonly offered in its favor. Their mere recitation, however, is no proof of validity.

Second, Mr. Hughey claims that my argument is "based on ignorance." Such is not the judgment of those who have read that argument in its developed form in "What Art Is" (the book I co-authored with Louis Torres). The reviewer in Choice, for example, deemed that we demonstrate "an encyclopedic knowledge of twentieth-century art [and art theory]." And cultural historian Jacques Barzun has praised our work for its "breadth and depth" - in particular, for our "scholarly treatment of modern art." As for my being an "ideologue," the art historian who reviewed "What Art Is" in the British journal "The Art Book" wrote that it offers "a balanced critical assessment" of Ayn Rand's ideas.

Third, Mr. Hughey's appeal to the history of abstraction in cultures and times "that have no exclusive division between 'art' and 'decoration'" is misguided. The lack of a conceptual distinction is irrelevant. What matters is that, even in cultures which draw no conceptual distinction between free-standing art works and what we refer to as "decorative art," such a distinction is implicit in the nature and function of the objects themselves. Though much of what is termed "African art," for instance, comprises carved or otherwise ornamented utilitarian objects (and is therefore analogous to our decorative art), there also exist sculptures that - much like works of Western "fine art" - have a purely spiritual, or psychological, function and are more highly valued on that account.

As for the "applied abstract motifs" that Mr. Hughey suggests have "symbolic or contemplative value," the fact remains that they always existed in the context of objects that had a primarily practical, physical function. That function was often enhanced by the presence of abstract motifs; but such motifs were never deemed sufficiently powerful to stand alone - independent of any practical use, that is - before the twentieth century.

Perhaps more important, the power of abstract motifs of this kind (e.g., the prehistoric abstractions, Native American motifs, mandalas, Asian calligraphy, and Aboriginal painting cited by Mr. Hughey) was always dependent on a repertoire of symbols whose meaning was culturally shared. Such is not the case with the modern Western tradition of "abstract art" - in which it's anybody's guess what the painter or sculptor intends.

Mr. Hughey suggests that the very "multireferencial" character of abstract art is a virtue. When the viewer's references are completely at odds with the artist's intent, however - as is so often the case with abstract work (see the numerous cases cited in Chapter 8 of "What Art Is") - the purported virtue seems more like a vice.

Finally, I must object to Mr. Hughey's charge that, because I "dislike" abstract art, I aim "to narrow the field of the permissible down to [my] own personal prejudices" and "to justify eliminating it entirely" - not unlike "Hitler and Stalin's repression of abstract art." What statements of mine can he possibly point to as a basis for such grave allegations?

Unlike Hitler and Stalin, I have never suggested that abstract art should be suppressed or eliminated. Nor do I feel in any way "threatened" by it. As it happens, I even like some abstract work - for its elements of color and design. In the light of the cognitive revolution, however, I find the extravagant claims for its meaningfulness, and for its ultimate cultural value, more and more unconvincing. The widely held notion that abstract art should henceforth be immune from all criticism because totalitarian dictators attempted to obliterate it is simply a case of cock-eyed reasoning.

Michelle Kamhi

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