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Friday, April 25, 2003

Kamhi: On Keeping An Open Perspective

By Michelle Kamhi

Though more than a month has passed since Kirk Hughey posted his latest letter (March 16) regarding the merits of abstract art, it was so gracious in tone, achieving such a welcome level of civility, that it would be rude of me not to reply. At the same time, he raised some interesting points that are worth clarifying.

Mr. Hughey urges me to maintain an "open perspective," and laments that my theory "blocks [my] view," causing me to miss "much of beauty and understanding." He seems to imply that the theory came first and my responses to abstract work are predicated on the theory. The reverse was the case. In fact, as an art history student at Hunter College in New York in the 1960s, long before I had heard of Rand’s theory of art, I had ample exposure to nonobjective painting and sculpture—alongside the classical, medieval, and Renaissance work that my studies focused on. Try as I might, I could not regard the modernist work in the same light as all that had come before. The claims made for its value by instructors I took courses with invariably rang hollow for me. Rand’s theory later helped me to understand why my response was a perfectly reasonable one; why it is, in fact, impossible to understand abstract work—if, by "understanding," one means gaining at least an approximate idea of the artist’s intention.

In Mr. Hughey’s view, "Mimetic art concerns itself with interpretations of the apparent and abstract art with underlying perceptual principles." I am not entirely sure what he means by the latter proposition, but it seems to imply that (as I’ve argued) abstract art does not involve conceptual content—that is, ideas about human life, values, and so on. If this is what Mr. Hughey means, then he has already conceded the case. At any rate, I am sure that his first proposition is mistaken, or at least poorly formulated. Mimetic art worth its salt never concerns itself solely with "interpretations of the apparent," or the mere surface appearance of things; it is always concerned with underlying conceptual principles (to echo Mr. Hughey’s term)—that is, with the ideas about human life, values, and so on, I’ve just alluded to.

When we respond differently to two different mimetic interpretations of the same subject, therefore, we are not (contrary to Mr. Hughey’s claim) responding merely to the particular use of of abstract formal "elements that have evocative power in themselves." We are responding, more importantly, to the mimetically expressive character of the image—and to the deeper ideas it suggests or implies.

If we are moved by Rembrandt’s portrait of An Old Jew , for example, or by a Velazquez portrait of a court dwarf , it is because we gain insight into a human soul—into its suffering, endurance, pride, dignity, defiance, and so on — through the artist’s selective depiction of visible phenomena such as facial expression, pose, and gesture.

Mr. Hughey suggests that abstract forms are no less referentially meaningful than words, which are themselves entirely abstract. He misses a fundamental distinction here, however. The referents of linguistic abstractions are quite narrowly defined by social custom and convention. (Some ambiguity does exist, since most words refer to a number of different concepts; yet the context of discourse tends to indicate which sense is intended.) In contrast, the referential meaning of the various formal elements of abstract art—lines, shapes, and colors—is not defined by social custom or convention. Work that depends exclusively on such elements is therefore opaque to understanding.

Finally, Mr. Hughey cannot understand "why appreciation for one form of art must exclude appreciation for all others." The question at issue, of course, is what sort of art and what sort of appreciation are we talking about? I have no objection to treating abstract work as essentially decorative, or to appreciating some of it as attractive, or even beautiful, in abstract formal terms. I have the impression that Mr. Hughey would not be satisfied with that level of appreciation. He has not persuaded me that there is solid ground for any deeper appreciation, however.

An experience I had at the annual convention of the National Art Education Association in Minneapolis earlier this month is relevant here. In one of the sessions, an earnest young elementary school teacher, offering suggestions for helping youngsters appreciate abstract art, spoke of the problem of dealing with the child who says "I don’t get it." I suggested that such a child might have a valid point, that his question implies a quite reasonable belief that art should be intelligibly meaningful. I then asked the teacher how she would respond, what she would say an abstract work is about.

She replied, "I’d say it’s about lines and shapes and colors." Unlike the teacher, who has swallowed whole the artworld’s dubious notions, the child knows enough to expect something more from a painting than that. It remains to be seen, of course, whether his own good sense will in time prevail against the claims of teachers, curators, and others purportedly better informed than he regarding the value of abstract work.

Michelle Kamhi

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