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Nov 10, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

>it’s entirely possible that a lot of abstract contemporary art is frankly not great, because it tries to imitate Picasso’s pure linear bull without going through the intermediary bovines.

>but the best abstract art actually teases out interesting aesthetic properties and is therefore actually good.

I'm going to assume, from these two sentences, that you consider the bull to be great abstract art. But I disagree with that assessment: the bull is not just reduced to a pure linear form, it's reduced to a vague linear form. It could be a number of horned quadrupedes, with no distinctive feature. Information is lost, rather than drawn down to it's essence.

I also contest that "The people claiming these things usually don’t have a lot of knowledge about art history". As you show in the devolution of various artists, one can see abstract art as a kind of navel gazing, where the artists starts mistaking the mean of it's art with it's purpose. It's not a behaviour limited to painting either. Some theater playwright, feeling there's no more point of doing yet one more play with dialogues, characters, story or costumes, will have actors silently perform meaningless movements naked on scene for 2 hours and a half. Some programmers, bored with usefuls programming languages, will start conceiving & toying with things that read like "++++++++[>++++[>++>+++>+++>+<<<<-]>+>+>->>+[<]<-]>>.>---.+++++++..+++.>>.<-.<.+++.------.--------.>>+.>++."

I can understand why/how some people, after reaching a degree of mastery of a given field, start substituting the means to the end, and researching ever-increasing mastery of said means. But I refuse to pretend it's anything but meaningless navel gazing, or that it should be encouraged.

And finally there's also a personal, and a bit childish, dislike for the unfalsifiability of abstract art. As I was looking at an exposition with a friend who enjoy these much more than I do, all he could give, on pieces he liked, was "I like the vibe it gives". Which is probably the best way to enjoy it, relying on pure gut feeling. It also means there's no bad abstract art. For any drivel produced, hey, maybe there's someone out there that will see it and go "oh yeah that's a good feel". And if there's no bad abstract art, is there good abstract art?

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Nov 10, 2023·edited Nov 10, 2023Author

You know, it didn't even occur to me to stop and consider how much I actually like the final linear form of the bull. Having done that just now, I realize I sort of like it, but nothing more. I prefer the two or three versions that come just before the final one.

Certainly it's possible to compress information to such an extent that it loses meaning and becomes uninteresting. If Picasso had kept going and abstracted the bull into a single straight line, that would have been going too far, unless it was conceptualized in some interesting way.

And relatedly, I agree with you that artists (and programmers etc.) can eventually become too conceptual in their work and create stuff that doesn't make sense for wide audiences, but I don't see why that's necessarily bad or "navel gazing". Experimentation is a good thing. To the extent that art is a free market, experimental works that go too far will just not be very profitable anyway, unless they cater to niche interests (and if those niche interests exist, then it's good that they're catered to). If you don't have the niche interest of liking highly conceptual abstract art, then good for you, but that shouldn't really affect those who do. (Exceptions may be allowed for highly public forms of art like architecture.)

Lastly, I'm not sure why unfalsifiability should be a concern? You either have an aesthetic appreciation for a work of art, or you don't. This is sufficient to determine good and bad art at the individual level. At the collective level, some kind of measure of popularity (involving both mass appeal and niche interests) needs to be taken into account. There's no actual way of measuring it properly, but certainly it's meaningful to talk of good and bad art based on how much it appeals to people. That's true of both figurative and abstract art, and I frankly don't see how you can claim that abstract art is "unfalsifiable" or that it's never bad. There's a lot of bad abstract art! Just in this post I think the two "Untitled (1948)" Rothko paintings are pretty bad.

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Nov 14, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

>I prefer the two or three versions that come just before the final one.

That‚Äôs how I felt about most of the artists. The intermediate stages of the ‚Äėpipeline‚Äô are the best. Wine is better than grape juice, and it‚Äôs better than pure ethanol. Optimal aesthetic distillation is a U-shaped curve.

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Interesting ‚ÄĒ it varies for me, but for most of them I prefer either the early figurative works or the late super abstract works. I'm not a big fan of Kandinsky's intermediate paintings, for instance, and I prefer Mondrian's boldly red windmills and trees to the abstract compositions that came before his well-known grids.

I agree with you on the U-shaped curve, but I don't think any of the artists here went "too far". Then again, there's a selection bias: these five artists were chosen precisely because their abstract art is famous.

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Nov 10, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

The claim that abstract art is "navel gazing" seems to be predicated on the idea that abstraction is without content, or is only about form for the sake of form. That's true for some abstract art, but it ignores the evidence that artists very often turn to abstraction to explore otherwise unrepresentable ideas related to the self, the divine, or other formless concepts. Spiritualism, especially, is all over abstraction (Kandinksy, af Klint, and Mondrian, from the early 20th century, and plenty of religious artists globally before then). Brancusi's Bird in Space wasn't meant to look like a bird, but to represent the essence of flight itself. How else to do that but through abstraction?

As for whether or not one can distinguish between good and bad abstract art, your friend (who might be made of straw?) may enjoy abstraction but that doesn't mean that he's a sophisticated judge of it. If artists are exploring formal questions through their work, sophisticated viewers (particularly other artists) can perceive whether they're doing so in interesting and productive ways, or if they're just farting around. If artists are trying to explore other concepts in abstraction, then it is possible to ask whether they represent those concepts well or poorly, just as we might ask how fine a job a representational artist has done in portraying a narrative moment or a landscape.

That's not to say that folks should or shouldn't enjoy art they intuitively like. There's no accounting for taste, after all. But taste is not critique, and just because its possible to have feelings about abstract art doesn't mean that it's impossible to critique it.

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Nov 10, 2023¬∑edited Nov 10, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

>How else to do that but through abstraction?

You don't, because you can't. And neither does Brancusi's Bird in space. Not without either a notice telling you it does (and therefore failing at the task of representing the unrepresentable. Which shouldn't be a surprise, it's in the name), or with your gut feeling telling you it does, which is fine, but imo validate my other point.

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Nov 10, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

The implication that you should be able to understand what an abstract artwork is about without reference to a title or other information is an ironically formalist claim. It's not a standard we hold representational art to: if you don't know what the Annunciation is, you're not going to be able to make any sense of a representation of it. Almost every artwork requires‚Äďor is at least clarified or enriched by‚Äďsome kind of outside information.

As for whether or not Bird in Space represents flight: it is possible to defend that claim through a careful analysis of the form of the piece, drawing on visual tactics used in both representational and abstract art. But I've got other things to do, and I'm doubtful it'd be worth the effort here, since you sound utterly opposed to the idea that abstract art has any validity. Your loss.

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I can't speak for TasDeBoisVert, but I for one would be interested in hearing more about your thoughts on Bird in Space.

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Nov 13, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

TasDeBoisVert would be interested only to mine it for tidbits that he could pithily dismiss. This is going to sound disingenuous, but it’s true: I’d love to indulge in this but have to many papers to mark and other things that I’ve promised to write to make the time for this. A rough sketch would be that the contours of the sculpture, the reflective quality of the surface (in the bronze version), and the transformation of the material from earthbound to delicate all contribute to the feeling of flight. The truncation at the top is crucial: flight is temporary, and imperfect.

I’d love to play this all out, but just can’t muster the time right now - sorry.

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Fair enough, and I think I can see what you're getting at. I'm unemployed so I've got more time right now than I know what to do with. If you ever do find a minute to go over this in more detail, not necessarily today but maybe in a week or a month or two, I'm all ears.

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I agree that total understanding of figurative art may require a varying cultural background. But:

-The minimum starts at nil: landscape paintings, for instance, are pretty much self-explanatory. Knowing it's depicting Flanders or Italy in the 17th or 18th is pretty much irrelevant: brain see pretty hills, brain happy.

-Even for something like the annunciation, not having any background still allows you to identify something in it: "there's an angel talking to a woman". What meaning do you derive from, again, Bird in Space? None if you don't have the background to perform "a careful analysis of the form of the piece, drawing on visual tactics used in both representational and abstract art". And even then, apparently, the thing is too tiring to even bother with it.

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There are a lot of basic visual cues that trigger similar effects. "Brain see contrasting primary colors, brain happy" is about as true as your hill example.

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Then I'll admit I've never experienced it.

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I like this so much. Well said.

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Not discussed: artists very seriously asking questions in their work. That is not "navel gazing." You must not be an artist.

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Can you give an example of a visual artist asking a question in their work? I don't understand what is meant by this.

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Baudrillard (in 1996):

'What could miraculously reassure us about the essence of art today? Art is simply what is discussed in the art world, in the artistic community that frantically stares at itself. Even the ‚Äúcreative‚ÄĚ act replicates itself to become nothing more than the sign of its own operation‚ÄĒthe true subject of a painter is no longer what he or she paints but the very fact that he or she paints. The painter paints the fact that he or she paints. In that way, at least, the idea of art is saved.'

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Tom Wolfe put forth something like the same argument (and with far more style) 25 years earlier. Both critics seem to be defining "the art world" only by a small coterie of tastemakers whom they don't like. It's easily demonstrable that the art world is much, much bigger than a few curators, gallerists, and artists in NYC, LA, and London.

But, really, the institutional theory of art that Baudrillard is alluding to has been pretty seriously undermined over the years, including by Arthur Danto, its principal architect.

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Nov 10, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I loved this post! The irrational anger that some people feel about abstract art has always struck me as a sign of a lack of empathy and imagination. Abstract art isn't everyone's thing, no big deal. But the absolute venom some people have towards it is a red flag to me.

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It's weird especially considering that a lot of other art forms are often abstract. Music, when it has no lyrics, doesn't usually try to represent real things, and nobody makes a big deal out of it.

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Feb 1Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I enjoy the read! What really resonates with me personally is the artists' synesthetic concept of drawing. I know artists such as Kandinsky perceive sounds/chords when seeing different colors. Artists like Mondrian, Beckmann, and Klint purposefully assign mysticism and spiritual significance to each color, and they view the process of creating abstract drawings as a way to achieve a higher form of spirituality.

I'm not sure if they are synesthetes, but I find it incredible. Personally, I particularly think that the works of Kandinsky and Klint convey an audio quality, very much like the colors I see when I listen to Scriabin's piano music.

In that sense, it's definitely not just randomly dropping paints! I think the drawing process and the color scheme actually convey much significance to the artists themselves---the drawing process itself is like a ritual mapping color/shape to spiritual significance!

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Jan 28Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I think Pollock's random canvases are kind of experiments: "if I, artist, do this, will it be art?". He (and many other artists) tried to discover what art is. Now we understand that art is a cluster without strict formal definition, but they lived many years in the past when this idea wasn't so obvious.

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Yeah that's a great point. The whole emergence of abstract art seems to be a society-wide experimentation with what art actually means

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Dec 2, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

This post was a great excuse to look at some excellent art, thank you! I feel like abstract catches more flak than other styles mostly because it doesn't have much to fall back on? Abstraction is at its best when it 'captures' the viewer while using far less than a viewer could ever expect to be captured by. It's weird that a network of squiggles, or a grid with three colored squares could ever create an emotion or add a palpable, unique aesthetic to a painting, but they definitely can. Trouble is that when they don't, then all you've got is a weird, comparatively simple painting, touting itself as high art. Once it fails to woo them, abstract art doesn't give people excuses to think it's still great, the way that, say, the Mona Lisa does.

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That seems right. When a figurative work fails to elicit aesthetic appreciation, it can still at least be seen as documentary material about the time period or something. Though if we're concerned with aesthetics, that isn't that much of a consolation!

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Nov 30, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

Thank you, really good, lots of excellent examples. My most recent review was of an abstract artist in Malta, her work reflects on the local environment and, as you say, seeing it in the flesh is quite a different world to a digitalised version because the materials and the treatment of them is what it’s about rather than the replication of an image. She and her agent encounter the hesitancy about abstract art in spades which is a shame as it’s really great stuff. Perhaps they’re pioneers of change!

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Nov 19, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

Children start to draw abstract lines/figures that we call in french ¬ę¬†gribouillis¬†¬Ľ and, then, they get to draw figuratives pictures that represent what they see. I think, as a parent, we are very happy when our child start drawing humanoid body with the house and the sun. ¬ę¬†Abstract art to figurative art pipeline¬†¬Ľ ;) I am not calling what every children do ¬ę¬†art¬†¬Ľ, I just find the brain development amazing. I am sure many neuropsychologist study brain development and drawing.

Hyperealist painting is that the absolute goal of our brain? I think it is not the only one. We like poems, not only bibliographies.

It is sure that abstract art is more complexe than the gribouillis of a child. But, are they letting the child in them come back?

Or being able to do abstract art you need the capacity of abstraction and that is something we get in adolescence? I dont know

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Nov 16, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I just have one problem with your otherwise wonderful piece here. It seems like the implicatin and your defense of these artists (and are they the "top" abstract artists? No women? I can think of several....) is that they were figurists first. I do not think that is a great defense of abstract art, nor that it has to come first. Do you feel artists need to prove something? How do we judge these abstract works on their own? Do people have to know art history to do so? Many of us do, but I do not think that is a great criterion or requirement.

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Nov 16, 2023·edited Nov 16, 2023Author

I did get the list from an AI in part to avoid subjectively selecting artists myself. It's not devoid of bias, but at least it probably does represent some kind of aggregate top 5 that a lot of people would more or less agree with. It'd be easy otherwise to select a few artists to prove any point you wanted. I suppose a fuller exploration of my main point would require building a comprehensive dataset of artists and how abstract their work was over time, but I'm not sure that's doable or worthwhile.

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Sorry, that is a ridiculous, lazy excuse plus a condemnation of AI. I am not going to read people who explore art ideas but do so in a shallow way.

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I'll admit I'm confused as to why you think so. How would you rather I came up with a top 5 list while avoiding my own subjectivity as much as possible? One method would be to google "top abstract artists" and just take whatever the first link says. I just did that, and the first result was: https://www.timeout.com/newyork/art/best-abstract-artists-of-all-time. It turns out my top 5 artists all appear in that article's top 6 ‚ÄĒ and roughly in the same order. The main difference is that artist #4 in that list is Lyubov Popova, a woman. Maybe I should have used that list.

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Nov 16, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I think you‚Äôve set up a bit of a straw man here, in using the examples of early abstract art as representative, when in actuality more criticism is put toward post-60s art, which indeed ‚Äúcould be done by my kid.‚ÄĚ I‚Äôm talking about minimalism, conceptual art, etc.

Abstract is also way too broad a label here and I wouldn’t put Kandinsky and Rothko in the same category, in terms of types of art laypeople critique. Rothko gets much more criticism than Kandinsky, and justly.

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I don't think it's exactly a strawman, since there are people actually arguing against abstract art, or saying they don't get it, etc., but I'll readily admit that I did "select my opponent," so to speak. I also suspect that the origins of the later art movements you point to trace their origins in the development of modern abstract art, so that seems relevant anyway. But I'd be happy to discuss conceptual art or minimalism or other contemporary-ish art further.

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Nov 16, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

Yes, I suppose I'm just being critical of this vague "person who criticizes abstract art and says their kids could make that" as a largely fictitious entity.

I think it's not so much that they mean "abstract art" in the art history sense of the term, which you're using here, but rather as a catch-all for art that doesn't obviously require technical skill and/or is deliberately conceptual or going against the traditional concept of what an "artistic" object should be.

This is partially their fault, of course, for lacking knowledge about a complex topic, but I also think a basic emotional reaction of "I don't like this" is valid in its own way, even if the terms used are inaccurate or confused.

Hope that wasn't too harsh! I just dislike this strawman, as I put it, of the person who says "my kid could do that", as I think this person exists more in contemporary art criticism/apologetics than in real life.

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That's totally fair criticism. I guess I do believe I've encountered that person in real life several times, including here in the comments. I agree that it's not "wrong" for them to feel that way, as long as, like I wrote, they don't dismiss the feelings of people who do like it. Which, again, is something I've occasionally witnessed and, in my opinion, deserves to be criticized.

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Nov 13, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

Interesting and well put, thank you. But, as you point out, this was culturally specific - an early 20th century thing. It's not something that we see in the career of, say, Rubens. No doubt it was inspired, at least in part, by various other things going on at that time eg: the rise of photography (in the field of representational art or 'art'), changes in architectural and musical styles (note that both architecture and music are always 'abstract' art) and experiments in literature. Not only was there a zeitgeist that helped, but there was also an educated audience for these new experiments - and moreover the artists had earned the trust of their audience by having developed over time (as you have shown). But all of that has changed now, surely? Modern music has tunes; modern writing is not Ulysses, it's pretty conventional; architecture has become post-modern. People doing abstract art *now* are (perhaps?) like people writing serialist music now: dabbling in a outdated form that was regarded as a bit of dead end. Or else, perhaps the sceptics have a point?

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There is still a lot abstract art in contemporary visual arts. Certainly some of it may be poor emulation of early 20th century styles, but I see no reason to think that abstract art is less popular now than it used to be or that its influence is waning. We also have to remember that we currently live in the era with the most artistic diversity ever seen. Abstract art may (or may not) be a smaller share of the total (however you want to compute that) today, but the total is much greater than 100 years ago, and there's much more space for wildly different styles to coexist.

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Nov 13, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

That may be true. I suppose the point I'm getting at is that your piece is meant as an answer to the (reasonably widespread) thought that there is something 'bad faith' about abstract art, that it's a con of some kind, "my 3 year old could do that", "why's that worth X million?" etc - and I think there is a good basis for that thought as things stand now (even if there wasn't in, say, 1950). The audience that 'grew up' on Picasso etc is not there any more; the high prices and cultural cachet are still there, but where's the life in the genre. Eg, do people who paint for fun do much abstract art? Do people who sell art by the side of the road or in holiday-resort type art galleries stock much of it? It just seems to have separated from the mainstream of art-as-produced-&-enjoyed to be a self-contained high-value world with little connection to what is current in adjacent fields (e.g. in moving pictures, film & TV), in a way that was not the case. As I say, architecture & (instrumental) music are inherently abstract yet don't excite this reaction, so there is *something* still there to explain.

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I think you may be overrating the popularity of abstract modern art throughout the 20th century. I doubt it ever went "mainstream" in the ways you describe; my understanding is that it was always something of a sophisticated niche market, and I'd be very surprised if it didn't cause the same skeptical reactions back then as it does today. If I'm right, then there isn't any decline to explain. It would take an actual art historian to answer this properly, I think.

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Nov 13, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

Fair point. I might have a romantic view of the past! Thanks for replying.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I don't claim anything even near expertise, but I wonder why Miro gets no mention in the article or as far as I've seen in the comments. I'll be glad to be enlightened.

I visited the Miro retrospective at the Guggenheim in the '80s with an open mind neither aligned favorably or not with regards to abstraction. I left favorably inclined, but the painting that made the largest, longest lasting impression on me was the first piece in the show - The Farm, which would be a perfect way to begin with using him as an example in line with your top five. I don't appreciate all abstract art that bears the title "great", but I have found that the works which I most appreciate have certain similarities to each other.

Thanks for a truly great essay and lesson.

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I love Miró and the only reason he's not in this article is that Claude didn't mention it in its list somehow :) You're correct that he'd fit right in, and also that The Farm (which I didn't know about) is a great painting. His work that made the greatest impression on my is his triptych of large, abstract blue paintings (Bleu I, II, III), which I'm glad to have seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. (https://www.centrepompidou.fr/fr/exposition-miro-vr-bleu-i)

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

The transition from figurative to abstract art was certainly more of a gradual evolution than a sudden replacement. It's sad that so many people don't realize this, and can't appreciate any value in abstract art.

Still, this is one area where I'm inclined to have some sympathy for the philistines, especially if we're talking about modern and contemporary art overall rather than strictly abstract art. A couple thoughts, not necessarily in order:

-What was bold and inventive at the time is not necessarily so today. Basic one point perspective was a world changing, mind blowing innovation when Brunelleschi did it, then it became commonplace, and then eventually it became in some sense obsolete once photography was invented. So while it makes perfect sense that by the turn of the 20th century people were ready for something different, something that did away with realism or even the entire third dimension, I also wonder if in the 21st century it's healthy for people to feel a similar fatigue with abstract art, a similar hunger for something new. Malevich's later work is interesting to think about in this regard. Those colorful geometric shapes are fascinating, but they're also pretty similar to images the average person can make themselves now in Google Docs or GIMP and things like that, not to mention pieces of modern artwork they've already seen.

-Related to the above, I also wonder if the people producing and enjoying abstract art today are really on par with Picasso. There isn't the same risk, the same novelty, and as the post mentions, it's possible that training in more traditional art is actually a necessary step to creating truly good abstract art. I mean, can you look at Maurizio Cattelan or Pierre Brassau, and then tell me they're really as good as Picasso? That nothing has gone wrong whatsoever in modern art? And, I haven't looked into this much, but there is some money laundering going on too, right?

-I think there's something of a false dichotomy between abstract and figurative art here. Not everyone who criticizes abstract or modern art believes all art should represent something real, or that it should be drawn in traditional styles. Almost everyone has had an aesthetic reaction to an image, even if that's something not exactly three dimensional, like a rug for example. (I mean rugs have three dimensions obviously, but they don't usually depict any realism or perspective.) Or something that is fully three dimensional, but not considered art, like a car, a pair of socks, or a bong. I think part of the problem with modern art is that it's often not evoking a unique aesthetic or emotional reaction in its viewers, and people naturally have a tendency to get resentful when this failure is blamed entirely on themselves rather than on the artist. I think really a bigger cause of strife here than the figurative-abstract dichotomy, which is kind of a distraction in my view, is the dichotomy between fine art and decorative art. To analogize a little, people don't care if a song is abstract or not but they do care if it sounds good, so overly experimental music which subverts common aesthetic standards or ignores normal time keeping rules is going to rub people the wrong way, and likewise, they don't care if a building is realistic, they just want it to look good. The common people aren't clamoring for architecture parlante, or for lifelike murals on every wall, or for every pillar to be a caryatid, do you see what I mean? Now there's a fine line to walk here, since if we did away with all experimental or difficult art, leaving only what was palatable to the least cultured, we might be left in a world with nothing but tacky knick knacks and Thomas Kinkade paintings, which is almost too bleak to contemplate, but it seems to me that we're currently moving too far in the opposite direction, where the surest way for an artist to be taken seriously and make money is to produce art which is designed to confuse and repel the average person.

-I think there's something to what TasDeBoisVert said about abstract art being navel gazing. Not that it's necessarily all true (I wouldn't put it in nearly such strong terms myself), but I think it's a plausible claim to an extent because I've noticed a general tendency towards artistic communities of any sort to grow more self referential and deconstructive over time, not necessarily in a good way, and certainly not necessarily limited to high art, or even art at all. Even boards for fan fiction, memes, or anime discussion follow a similar pattern, where people who overindulge in a certain form of entertainment end up prizing novelty over quality, and start to resonate more with art that comments on art than with art that comments on life. You can see something similar even on Twitter (excuse me, it goes by X now) where over time more and more people start talking about "ratios," referencing older tweets (oops, I mean xeets), commenting on meta dynamics of twitter (sorry, x), and other things absolutely baffling and irrelevant to those not already addicted to twitter (ok I give up, I'm just gonna call it twitter from now on). I think it's possible in theory and likely true in reality to some degree that the art world could be vulnerable to similar issues. As for the bulls, I think they're best around the middle of the sequence, when simplification has highlighted the most essential aspects, but before oversimplification has destroyed them. Maybe art as a whole is heading down the same path?

So to summarize, I think it's important to educate people about the origins of abstract art, and I think this post is a great place to direct people with certain basic misconceptions, but I also think that there are bigger, more interesting questions beyond this.

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Thanks, great comment. I'm in agreement with most of what you wrote, but to respond to a few points:

- Certainly a lot, if not all, of abstract / modern / weird / contemporary art has value because it is a reaction to its own context. I agree that somebody making a black square on a white canvas today would be unlikely to be very interesting. Likewise for someone taping a banana to a wall 30 years either before or after Cattelan did. Doesn't mean either of those is a sign of something having gone wrong ‚ÄĒ¬†on the contrary, the fact that they make people react to them is a sign of thing going right. Eliciting reactions is the whole point!

- The money laundering aspect is fascinating in its own right. A few months ago there was a viral tweet about this, and it seemed that almost 50% of commenters were saying "this is nonsense, it's super hard to launder money with art and basically doesn't happen" while the other 50% said "yeah obviously this is happening all the time". I don't really know, but my intuition is that money laundering is pretty rare, and it's a much more parsimonious explanation to assume the high sums paid for some artworks are genuinely due to their aesthetic value (to the buyers).

- Speaking of tweets, I'm of the strong opinion that "Twitter" is the correct way to refer to the social network despite the company, its branding and its owner saying otherwise. :)

- I agree that the abstract-figurative distinction isn't necessarily the most relevant or interesting in a discussion on aesthetic standards, but it certainly is one that people argue about all the time. I'm not making up the existence of abstract art non-believers. And I did restrict the discussion to "paintings", in the sense of high-status fine art made for its own sake, on purpose, because that's what the non-believers react to. Decorative arts are often abstract (and have been for thousands of years, e.g. geometric Greek vases) and nobody bats an eye. Which is really interesting too! It seems that what the non-believers hate / misunderstand is abstract art for its own sake.

- "the surest way for an artist to be taken seriously and make money is to produce art which is designed to confuse and repel the average person." I think this is strictly false for the money part and mostly false for the taken seriously part. I expect that weird experimental art or music very rarely makes money, and that it has to be unusually good in some way to have any chance at all, or be the output of someone who is already popular. To be taken seriously, I think what you have to do is innovate somehow, which is difficult and almost necessarily requires experimentation. I agree that some might go too far in their experimentation and produce confusing / repellent output, but that's fine, those people won't "win" on the free market unless they get lucky and become popular in a niche subculture.

- Which by the way is also fine! The existence of many niche subcultures with their own self-referential, deconstructed customs is a good thing. If the customs of one of those subcultures start influencing the broader culture, then either that's because the broader culture wants that in some sense, or another artistic community somewhere could disrupt it by providing something the broader culture wants more of.

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Nov 12, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I think I'm taking things a little far from the original point of the post, so thank you for indulging me. It's just a little hard to wrap my head around the concept that there are significant numbers of people who think abstract art literally shouldn't exist, or that these people are worth responding to, but I have plenty of firsthand experience with the frustration of people insisting on substituting the idea you're actually attacking with a stronger and more interesting, but fundamentally irrelevant, version of it. Kind of the opposite of "strawmanning," what some people have taken to calling "steelmanning," and it can be just as annoying.

I may be wrong by the way about the best way to be taken seriously and especially to make money. I mean, my bank account would certainly suggest that's the case, so I'm not going to argue there.

I think the crux of my disagreement is really this idea that's taken root over the last century or two, and really become entrenched over the last few decades, the idea that, like you said, "eliciting reactions is the whole point," because I'm just not sure that's enough, especially when the culture around painting is blurred with performance art and celebrity. By that standard, couldn't we basically say the best artist of the 21st century is someone like Christian/Christine Chandler? Maybe even Donald Trump or Osama bin Laden? This is where I think TasDeBoisVert was somewhat on the right track earlier. I'd like to have a modern standard for judging art which is a little more specific and stringent. With Picasso, there's definitely a reaction in me that goes far beyond "hey that's kind of unusual, and a lot of people are talking about it so it must be important." His work fascinates me on a deeper level, a level that Cattelan's rarely approaches. Plus I feel that the Pierre Brassau situation, and the CIA's role in promoting Jackson Pollock, both cast contemporary art in a rather bad light, even if they aren't necessarily the damning evidence some people want them to be.

(The political aspects of artistic style are pretty interesting too. Last decade there were a few rather rather bad traditional portraits of the governor of Louisiana, around the same time as there was, in my opinion, a more avant-garde but also rather bad portrait of the president, and the bad traditional portraits proved to be the bigger political liability. It's hard to disentangle to what extent establishment power exploits the value of modern art for its own ends, and to what extent it actually creates that value itself. There was of course the same conundrum with more traditional styles of art, especially back in the days of the royal academies and whatnot, and the Pope's commissions.)

Anyway, to get back to somewhere remotely in the general vicinity of the point, another interesting angle to look at this from is, instead of going forward from what would traditionally be considered the peak of art, which would be somewhere between the Renaissance and the Romantic period, no matter precisely where, we work backwards from it. Now the typical philistine who doesn't believe in abstract art would consider this almost pointless, since as art loses qualities like realism and perspective, it also loses his interest. So I'm still quite far from the original point of your post, and I apologize for that, but still I think it's an interesting direction in its own right. Because, to me, much of this "pre-good" art has qualities often lacking in contemporary art, and I think this demonstrates the need for a standard neither as pointlessly narrow as "it has to be a realistic painting of a real thing, preferably a landscape," nor as loose as "it elicits a reaction and makes people talk." I want a standard that could ideally both encompass all art and provide a basis for productive discussions of it. Now I'm not sure what exactly that standard would be or whether it's even possible, but it's something I'd very much like to exist.

For an example of what I'm talking about, I've been absolutely transfixed lately by the monastery wall paintings in places like Ladakh and Xinjiang. In terms of realism and perspective, they're comparable to pre-Cimabue Christian art, and to some of what you'll still find in some Orthodox churches, but what makes them unique and fascinating is the use of color and form, the compositions themselves, irrespective of the figurative elements. So in a sense they're extremely similar to abstract and contemporary art, but in another sense they're drastically different, because their purpose had little to do with evoking a reaction or moving art and culture forward, since I don't think monks tended to see themselves as part of any type of ongoing conversation in the art world or even necessarily in the physical world at all. But what if that's exactly what made their art so brilliant?

I also wonder if maybe art designed to elicit a reaction or to make people think/talk might be failing even by its own standards. Maybe so many people turning against the art of the last entire century is driven by their sense that it hasn't arrived at anything worthwhile? Matthew 7:16 comes to mind. The art hater might be thinking something along of the lines of "well ok so realistic art led to impressionism and stuff, which led to abstract which led to some clown getting paid 100K to tape a banana to the wall, so maybe the whole thing was a waste of time." Perhaps if you keep asking the question "what is art" people will eventually start asking in return "why should I care"? Now again I'm probably giving these people much more credit than they deserve, and definitely derailing your topic, and for that I apologize again. But still, I think there's something to this line of questioning.

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I like to think we're neither strawmanning nor steelmanning, but goldmanning! https://etiennefd.substack.com/p/the-gold-plated-man

It seems you're arguing that there should exist some kind of widely-agreed artistic standard with some degree of stringency. I'm not sure I'd agree with that. I think it's sufficient that the main standard for good art is simply "it's interesting in a way that I like". This works at an individual level, and can be aggregated in some difficult sense at the collective level, like I alluded to in another comment somewhere. The interestingness may come from any number of sources, including e.g. color choices or other basic properties of the artwork / performance; or from the story around it; or from the reactions it elicits.

In fact I think any other standard will be self-defeating over time, because it's always potentially interesting to go against standards. If "good art" is clearly delineated, then eventually the people hunger for art that goes beyond that. And then many things can happen, like the development of a new style, or some bizarre iconoclastic provocation such as a urinal or taped banana presented as art. (Note that such things, whether you call them art or not, can only happen as a reaction to an existing state; they didn't get copycats or found new genres; people do not in fact want to decorate their homes with urinals or taped bananas.)

I understand your desire for a standard to exist. I encourage you to make your own, if you haven't already ‚ÄĒ which is the same as developing your taste. But myself, I think it's reassuring that the only logically possible standard is interestingness. Because that means we'll never run out of reasons to make art.

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Sorry for the extra deleted reply, by the way. Technical issues.

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Nov 11, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

A very good post, thank you.

I just recently saw "The Old Fisherman" by Picasso (it is in the Montserrat Museum near Barcelona). It is a very, very good classical painting. It is probably as good as many masterpieces of old. Google it to see what I mean. But he painted it when he was 14! At 14, he had already reached the peak of what realism could give him as an artist. No wonder he went exploring and looking for new, crazy lands in this ocean of art.

Plus, the whole deal with photography, of course.

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Nov 11, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

Good Modern Art presentation.

It shows when a person is trying to represent something without ever having experienced it. This applies to painting, writing, music, and lots of things.

As a student of art, way back, I totally got Picasso. Mondrian, not so much, but have to admit that his New York City jumps around, just like the real place.

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Nov 11, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

What an interesting article! I’m fond of abstract art, in person, but had no idea that so many of the early practitioners had previously worked in a representational style. I enjoyed reading.

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Nov 11, 2023Liked by √Čtienne Fortier-Dubois

I totally agree with what you’ve written and I love the artists you chose to represent. I love Kandinsky and I had no idea about pollock’s early work. It seems to me that every movement...for example mannerism or Impressionism...can be seen as artists growing tired of the current thing and longing to put their own spin on it. Artists are always trying to innovate. Thank you for the insightful, thought provoking read!

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