Abstraction or realism: a false dichotomy?

August 31, 2020

I think any artist functioning in the twentieth/twenty first century has had (at least self-reflexively) to address the apparent dichotomies of approach between abstraction and/or realism. Are they really as separated as they might at first appear? Personally, I don’t think so. If anything, it’s more of a sliding scale, a question of perspective.

About forty five years ago, during my art school days, while viewing a Rembrandt self portrait in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I had a sudden flash of insight. I realised that if you took a square inch (or two) of that painting and expanded it exponentially you could have a modern piece of art. Place it on the wall and voila! Just like that. But that wouldn’t work for just any painter. It would only work for someone who was a master of their craft; someone whose play of light and shadow did not ignore visual interest or luminosity in any part of the image’s value range; someone whose sense of colour and texture appealed to the senses in a magical way; someone who left enough hints on the painting’s surface such that you, through your act of perceiving, could be left guessing, sure of your own experience, less sure of its conceptual meaning.

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

I took that insight and dove directly into learning about the materials artists have traditionally used to create paintings. I figured then, as I do now, “it ain’t what you paint but the way how you paint it”. Thus, rather than create a number of paintings based on one particular image (or a series of related ones) but interpreted in different techniques, I took one strong central image, cut it into identical parts and rendered each one separately. Each part was intended to function as a painting independently yet also to contribute to the unity of the whole. That, at least, was the theory, which worked out relatively well at the time (see image to the left and fuller description here). Yet of course becoming a master of one’s materials is not an overnight process, it’s much less dependent on a flash of insight than it is upon years of experimentation, dedication, hard work and synchronistic luck (can’t discount that!). Ultimately that means you guide the materials (including those happy accidents) but they – neither the materials nor the accidents – control you. For in whatever you are creating there’s always a selection process.

Fast forward forty five years and I can now say that I have learned a few things about what makes a painting, any painting, a good painting. One, it is not about the subject matter, it never is and never has been, that’s secondary. That’s not to say that the subject matter may inspire the artist. It can, but that doesn’t make it art. What makes it art is the ability of the artist to communicate his or her feeling-experience to you the perceiver in such a way so that you can feel it too. Note, the emphasis on two words, “communication” and “feeling”. Which brings us to the second point about what art actually is. I would now say that art (including any good painting) is an aesthetic unity created by or through the feeling-intelligence of the artist in such way so that it can then be directly perceived by the feeling-intelligence of the perceiver. Full stop. Concepts may follow but they are entirely secondary. In that sense then, realism and/or abstraction present a false dichotomy.

One possible reason that such a definition has been lacking up until now is that Western philosophy has been slow to recognise that there is a universal feeling-intelligence which reveals itself subjectively in the inherent feeling-intelligence capacity of the human being. So, stay tuned for Aesthetics Part II: Gevoelsmatig-Bewustzijn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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