The Great Abstraction
By Robert Giannetti and Tom Trainor
I think it’s remarkable to note that the visual art of prior times, or I should say prior to the time of dominant abstraction, gave us a picture of what everyday life was like in the time and milieu in which it was created. I’m thinking especially of Dutch art of the 17th century where the black and white flooring tiles appear, the small leaded glass window panes with shafts of light streaming into the tidy rooms, the dress of the people — women in white starched bonnets, the men with tall black pointed hats, and so many other little details that can be easily recognized, even recreated in cinema to give a verisimilitude to the setting and action of a narrative. I think it will be difficult in times forward, as we move more and more to virtuality in life and extreme abstraction in art, to re-create the real world look and feel of our fast moving times.
Tomorrow’s art may surrender entirely the look and feel of the real world to the glut of random and uncurated photography so characteristic of the ephemeral postings on the Internet, which tell artlessly the story of a material culture as evanescent as the packaging that takes consumer goods from place to place and is then discarded and forgotten.
In Bob’s comments above he talks about the evolution of art as moving from a “realistic” basis toward an “abstract” one and also toward the telling of an “artless story of a material culture”. I’ll first address the contention that art is becoming ever more abstract.
If “abstract” is defined as art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colors, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect (from the Tate Gallery website) then my only comment is that an embrace or rejection of it is a matter of personal taste. I think it’s hard to say that extreme abstraction is the inevitable outcome of all current art trends. If however abstraction is meant to say that art can now be created in or delivered by a media that is not always “organic” or “analog” then I’d certainly agree. There are many new ways to make art of all sorts and to distribute these in new, inexpensive (and often digital) ways. If the “abstract” description means that the new art is somehow no longer closely related to human experience then I’d completely disagree.
Bob mentions the paintings of the 17th Century, but one has to remember that the canvas did not become an acceptable media for art until the 16th Century. Prior to that, DaVinci sketched on paper and cave people on stone walls. Nobody could reasonably argue that works in these media are not also legitimate art. The same can be said for cinema which was a technological innovation unimaginable to Rembrandt. The new media of the digital realm and the “DIY” ethos that now pervades art and music have afforded access for everyone. So many artists of the epoch that Bob described needed benefactors. And thus their primary audiences weren’t often the hoi polloi.
Bob also talks about “virtuality” and this march from the cave to the canvas to the computer is surely leading there. This can’t be stopped and it’s not right or wrong: it’s a natural evolution. We can think of Augmented Reality in which a free cell phone application allows us to animate “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” or digital tools that can assist people with visual impairments to fully appreciate a range of artworks. Virtual Reality, or the ability to create entire new worlds from digital content will offer a currently inconceivable realm of experiences for the masses. We are in the nascent stages of this but it’s embraced as legitimate by such venerable institutions as our local Albright Knox Art Gallery and NYC’s Museum of Modern Art. If you like abstract art…touring The Factory with a virtual Andy Warhol or looking over Jackson Pollack’s shoulder as he spatters paint in a Long Island barn…these experiences will soon be tailored for you alone. You might even spend an afternoon watching the sun stream through leaded glass windows in the tiled Dutch room that Bob describes.
In his last paragraph Bob makes a logical leap that I can’t. To wit: that this natural technological progression will “artlessly” deliver "evanescent” consumer goods, services and culture. Implied here is that these would be ethereal, vacuous and lacking the substance to endure. I disagree. I think that art (and in particular great art) will do what it has done for centuries regardless of the means of production or of delivery: to illuminate and share the full range of the human condition.
robert m. giannetti
Robert M. Giannetti, former owner of Bob’s Olde Books in Lewiston, New York, received his B.A. from Niagara University and a Ph.D. in Renaissance English literature from Duquesne University. After several teaching assignments, foundation work, and business ventures around the country he returned to Western New York in 2006 to focus on writing, bookselling, and collaborative work with artists and musicians.