Monday, February 3, 2014

A Failure to Communicate:
Where Abstract Art Has Gone Astray 

The purpose of art is to communicate.

    Oh, a work of art can serve other functions: it can entertain, or decorate, or simply cover a nasty stain on the wall.  But to me, these are all ancillary effects.  The cake beneath all that icing is communication.  And that’s where so many would-be abstract expressionists are getting it wrong.

    Please hear me out.

A painting of a giant prehistoric deer from the caves of Lascaux
    When primitive man first applied pigments to the wall of his cave, he drew pictures (some pretty damn good ones, too, if you ask me).  These were usually pictures of animals, presumably those he had seen and perhaps hunted.  Why did he do that?  Considering the difficulties in preparing the pigments, these were not likely to have been the doodles of a bored caveman.  More likely, according to many paleontologists, they were part of a ritual known as representational magic: drawing an image of a bison, accompanied by the proper prayers, might invoke power to bring the game close enough to be hunted, and thus feed the tribe. The pictures communicated the pleas of the hunters to whatever spirits guided the actions of the animals, in hopes of gaining their favor.

                   Paleolithic figure of a Fertility Goddess      
          Photo ©2007 Matthias Kabel
            Later on, people carved or sculpted figurines of mythical beings, or occasionally just physical representations of ideas, such as fertility or death.  These statuettes were supposedly used in rituals where they provided the worshipers something upon which to focus their supplications.  The artists who carved them were, in essence, saying to their fellow tribesmen, “This is what I (we) imagine this spirit or god might look like,” and the believers went along for the ride.

    Most of our first alphabets were derived from pictures.  Egyptian hieroglyphics are probably the best known, although even the letters I am using to type this article can trace their shapes to ancient pictographs that originally represented actual physical objects.  Though there are some exceptions, such as cuneiform, it is nevertheless clear that written language and art are quite closely linked.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics, the classic example of a pictographic language
     In fact, many of today’s popular typographic fonts are an expression of some artistic conceit that is meant to suggest one feeling or another.  An intricately swirled script might convey a sense of romance, and dripping letters would scream, “horror.”
Romance?        HORROR!

Statue of Augustus Caesar in the Vatican Museum
Photo ©2007 Till Niermann

    What about the more obvious works of art?  It is my contention that every single piece of art produced today is intended to communicate something.  That “something” may be a story, a moral, an ironic observation or a joke; it may be simply a feeling or a mood; it may even be nothing more than a way of showing how a certain character or costume might look, or that the artist has an affinity for undressed women.

    Statues and portraits may say nothing more than “This is what the guy looked like” and “His followers held him in high regard,” although certain details might convey additional information, such as his being a warrior or a businessman, a friendly soul or a driven opportunist, and so on.

     Sometimes there is more than one layer of meaning to a painting or sculpture. Francisco de Goya is famous for including social satire in his portraits of Spanish noblemen and their families.  In one hilarious example, the queen is portrayed as a humorless hag and the king himself is clearly a simpleton, totally oblivious to the fact that his son bears an uncanny resemblance to the red-haired courtier standing in the background.  But the only thing the subjects saw in the work was the finery of their clothes, inadvertently putting in place yet another stratum of significance: their own vanity.  So in this case there are several messages being sent out, each to its own intended receiver.

Charles IV of Spain and His Family  Francisco de Goya

    Today we have an entire industry built around fictional characters and fantasy settings.  This requires a considerable amount of conceptual art, as the film, game or theme park producers try to develop original characters that can be trademarked and traded upon.  On its surface, each drawing is meant to communicate how a particular character or prop might look, but deeper down we can discern a more subtle message or two: the history, style and technology of the setting, the mindset of the character and the resources at his or her disposal, the feeling of hopelessness or optimism, and so forth.  Not only do these messages have to get through to the executives who are funding the project, they must also make it through the cognitive filters of their ultimate intended audience.

    There’s no reason art and words can’t live together in harmony, though.  A tidy caption can often point out details in a piece of art that might otherwise be missed, just as a title can confer a deeper meaning or a veneer of irony. You only have to pick up a comic book or go to a movie to appreciate how effective such a marriage can be: a character’s spoken lines say one thing, but her posture and facial expression tells a radically different story. A little bit of narration can help smooth the way over great leaps in time or location, especially when the pictures are allowed to carry the bulk of the storytelling.

    On an even subtler level, the layout of a page can tell part of the story.  A series of small panels on a comic book page tends to speed up the action (especially when it’s not dragged down by a lot of dialogue), whereas a big, two-page splash panel tells the reader that this is probably the most dramatic or important event in the story. Why else devote so much space to a single image?

Two different layouts in the same comic book.  The bottom of the left page has a series of small panels showing rapid movement through a series of wormholes.  The middle panel on the right page is larger, emphasizing the importance of this moment in the story.   
From Peter Parsec, Space Cadet  ©2006 Mike Conrad

    Consider, too, the composition of a particular illustration.  A low camera angle, shooting up at the subject, puts the viewer in a subordinate or weaker position, making the subject of the picture appear larger than life, and either threatening or heroic, depending on other factors in the story. A symmetrical arrangement of massive pillars might give the scene a sense of stability, even majesty, while a jagged, free-form motif would be likely to convey flexibility, speed, or even treachery. Take a good look at your favorite animated film and notice how the designers have used the artistic principles of proportion, line, tone and color to manipulate your feelings for the various sets and characters.  

Another comic book page with the central scene shot from a low angle to highlight the immensity and power of the villain. 
Peter Parsec, Space Cadet  ©2006 Mike Conrad

A demonstration of how composition can manipulate the viewer’s emotions.
From Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis, Viking Press, New York 1947

    Abstract art, on the other hand, has a big problem.  In the effort to transcend the traditional representational art of the past, modern artists too often break so far from convention that their meaning (assuming there ever was a meaning to a given work) is lost.  It is commonly left to the viewer to decide what the artwork means, which to me is as much of a cop-out as leaving a piece untitled.  If your creativity is so limited that you can’t think of a name for your work, then what does that say about your work in general?

Amorpha, Fugue en deux couleurs (Fugue in Two Colors)
Frantisek Kupka,1912 

    To be sure, even in abstract art, some form of communication is occurring.  But how much of that is intentional is a matter of debate.  To one art patron, a canvas covered with what appear to be random splashes of color might convey a mood (red could evoke anger or urgency, for example); to another, it may say nothing more than that the artist does not know how to draw.  Another may just see a piece that perfectly matches the color of her sofa, and thus a sale is made.

Windows Open Simultaneously (First Part, Third Motif)   Robert Delaunay, 1912 
    But if the artist does indeed have a more precise message to broadcast, he may find his efforts frustrated by the viewer’s lack of sophistication.  This is where the art critic or gallery docent comes into play, helpfully elucidating an interpretation that makes the work sound as if it were the last word in the cosmic dialogue.  The viewer then feels like a fool for not seeing right away what a genius the artist is, even though he still may not understand the convoluted language of the interpreter.

Picture with a Circle,   Wassily Kandinsky,  1911
     Or you might be putting across a message that you did not intend.  If most people look at your painting and the strongest response it evokes is, “$20,000 dollars for that piece of random paint splatters? My cat could do a better job!” then maybe you ought to rethink it.

    To be sure, some abstract artists are actually trying to communicate, and have set themselves a 
challenge by limiting their art to non-representational expression.  Perhaps the artist is attempting to convey a mood or a feeling, in hopes that the viewer will feel the same emotion. But it doesn’t always work, and it’s not just that people aren’t smart enough to crack the code. Lots of folks are smart enough; they just look at things in a different way. 

    It happens with representational art, too. Years ago, I did a story painting of an alchemist who had grown old searching for the secret formula that would turn things into gold. Then one night, his cats were romping around on the shelves in his lab and just happened to knock over two jars, the contents of which mixed in mid-air to produce the magic potion he was seeking.  Everything it touched was instantly transformed into gold: the brass bowl it spilled into, the cork from one of the jars, even the hand of the wizard.  He was both elated and horrified, because at this point, he did not know how far the transmutation would progress – would he be able to capitalize on his serendipitous discovery, or just become a golden statue? 

The Catalyst,  Mike Conrad ©1995

    I thought it was a fairly easy story to glean from the painting, but when I showed it in a gallery I asked one interested patron what she thought it was all about.  “Oh, I’ll tell you what it’s about,” she said.  “He’s just gotten divorced, and he’s going to boil her cats to get even with his ex.”  Her interpretation of the work said far more about her own state of mind, or perhaps where she was in life, than it did about the story I had been trying to communicate. And that was with recognizable objects and characters!

    I have to consider this painting a failure.  Even though it has won some awards and I’ve managed to sell the original and quite a few prints to boot, I think that’s mostly because people like the colors and the imagery and in some cases, they just like cats or wizards.  But for people to understand the story, they generally have to depend on a verbal description of my intent.  As a medium for communicating the narrative, the image just doesn’t cut it.

    A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if you need all those words to tell people what they are looking at, then what is the picture for? As I have said, the purpose of art to be communication, and in this, most abstract artists are failures.  If you need an outside interpreter to get your message across, then there’s something wrong.

    There is a corollary to the old adage, by the way.  Sometimes just a few words can evoke an immensely complex image – especially one that is already well known.  Just say “Times Square” and you can immediately plant an image of flashing video images over a crowded urban intersection, sometimes even including the smells of automobiles and hot dog stands. 
Times Square in New York City   Photo ©2009 Terabass

   This is the Hollywood version of creativity known as “high concept.” A director pitches an idea for a movie as a mash-up of two known quantities, and the executives can see right away what they are getting at: “It’s Batman meets Braveheart” and the like.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a few conceptual drawings on hand to show how it might actually look, which puts these would-be auteurs in the same boat as their prehistoric ancestors, producing a wall full of images in hopes of attracting enough game to feed their families.  The art has to communicate effectively what the director has in mind, or the studio is not likely to greenlight the production, and innocent little children will starve (or, more likely, have to get by without a brand-new Porsche). 

    Now, imagine trying to do that with some random splashes of paint.

©2014  Mike Conrad

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