Hemming the Schism between Nature and Abstraction

In my day art education was still caught up in a bit of a double bind. Formal figurative studies had been reassessed and reintroduced into the fold while formal modernist tangents (which had once spent quite a bit of time and energy denouncing the representational approaches) still held their relevance. This meant that I could easily take classes from either clique but they were often infected with contempt for some sinister “other.”

I’ve long tried my best to be open to ideas and examples from both sides of this fence, but I would be lying if I pretended that there weren’t times when I struggled with the tedium of it all. While most of this collective wrangling has long since worked itself out, this paper is an attempt to share some of the ideas which helped me get over the dissidence. Something to bear in mind though: I’m not a philosopher, historian or critic. What I am is a painter of pictures and it’s from this rather loose yet pragmatic perspective that I approach the subjects herein.

Forming Oppositions
This is a story about a war, which means that in order to properly tell it, we must first pretend that two things exist where there’s really only one.

"The arbitrary division of painting into representative and decorative has put composition in the background and brought forward nature imitation as a substitute. The picture-painter is led to think of likeness to nature as the most desirable quality for his work, and the designer talks of conventionalizing: both judging their work by a standard of “realism” rather than beauty."
-- A. W. Dow

Even before the da Vinci days, western theories of artistic classification regarding the stylized and the natural were being formed. Starting with some of the very first guilds, art based endeavors were basically divided into two separate schools: representative (a naturalistic-realism approach) and decorative (a design-based approach).[1]

The first school belonged more to the painters of this time. Subjected mostly to the patronage of the church, royalty and various dynastic merchants, these artists were expected to produce vibrant lifelike renditions of their majestic and religious subjects. With this task in mind, it was no wonder that the emphasis of their studies would focus on being able to accurately represent the rich splendor of the natural world which surrounded them.

The second school belonged more to the designers and architects. Though accountable to the same patronage as the painters, it was the responsibility of these artists (or artisans) to pair-down nature to her fundamentals of line, patterns and form. This was necessary in order to create structures, interior-environments and wares that were capable of evoking emotion through more subtle and less imagistic means. [2]

At the time this division really didn’t seem to present much of a problem. It was definitely a pragmatic approach to the work of the day. What’s more, both sides respectfully understood their place in society as fellow craftsmen and thus maintained an influential and harmonious dialogue with one another. [3] Nonetheless, as time and social revolutions went on the patronage of the arts was allowed to shift more and more away from the church and their affiliated ruling classes to an increasingly individualistic and private marketplace. [4] This shift in economic policy would undoubtedly make for repercussions, some good, some bad.

The good side was that artists and artisans were now free to stretch their aesthetic wings past the confines of timeworn academia. The backing of some guild, church or royal subject was no longer an absolute necessity for financial success.

However, this abandonment of precepts would also mean that artists were now open to the inherent risks of self-direction (i.e. the less formal one is towards one’s training, the more likely one is to lose sight of that which is truly valuable to their interests). And because of this, art in the west now contained all the ingredients for a massive stumble. No other time witnessed the fate and truth of this circumstance more than the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

By 1848, many heavyweights in the world of art and philosophy were assertively opening themselves up to new markets while simultaneously dismissing what they felt were the confines of artistic academia. Starting with movements like the PRB, the publishing of The Germ, The Vienna Secession and of course the insurgency of Impressionism, bold exoduses from predictable studio life had now begun. Artistic styles and attitudes quickly broke away from their traditional roots as the hazy forest of Fontainebleau and public venues of leisure, many of which propagated the more taboo side of contemporary life, became places where fashionable artists flocked to honestly and instantaneously capture not so much the face of nature, but how the eye interprets nature. [5]

Continuing with the Cubists and their experiments with the multi-sidedness of the human visual experience, which fell very much in line with William James’ ideas on consciousness, questions that sought to challenge time honored norms only grew more complex. Questions like: Is referencing nature even necessary when it comes to creating moving and lasting art? Can we delve into the tenets of the decorative non-figure school and produce paintings that actually display abstract concepts like emotion and causation, instead of trying to evoke these things with a quaint painting of lovers and flowers? [6]

Additionally, movements like Dadaism, Expressionism and Surrealism soon arose only to further dismantle the foundations of conventional beliefs; some even going as far as to question the relevance of any and all artistic academia to-date, especially when it came to the task of copying nature with a paint brush. Of course many of the traditionalists at the time equated this revolt with artistic blasphemy; while some even resorted to fanaticism and violence to keep these “degenerate” uprisings at bay. [7] A declaration of war had officially been made.

However, the concern of this essay really isn’t the politics of modern vs. conventional art or otherwise. Rather, the focal point here is how two once cooperative idioms of the visual artistic process, specifically when it comes to painting, became brutal enemies and what we can do about it today. Yet, before we discuss the benefits of gluing Humpty D. back together again we should first consider his fall. A good place to start is to observe some of those who, in the very midst of this war, did their best not to separate the yolk from the white; then look at what happened to some of them when they tried to do just that.

* * *

Regionalism & Modernism
"Conflict teaches us not to love our enemies, but to hate our allies."
-- W. L. George

Even while this war was well underway there were those who had sincere reservations about the fight. As a matter of fact, some very big names in the major post-impressionist movements such as: Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, even Picasso and Braque would all come forward during their careers with legitimate concerns about attitudes of disregard when it came to representing the natural world in art, attitudes which they themselves had helped to foster. [8]

Cézanne summed up some of his sentiments best when he declared his goal, “to do Poussin again, from nature,” basically meaning that he desired to balance the best of the new schools with those of the old. [9] Nevertheless, reasonable slants like this would not hold a candle to the budding forest fire that was soon to be called abstract art and its fashionably rhetorical position that all representational imagery should be blackballed from painting. [10]

But these post-impressionist painters would not be the last to issue a forewarning, and some 40-50 years later the attitude of merging classical naturalism with expressive design would again be presented as an alternative to the abstract absolutism which Modern art would wholeheartedly proselytize. The artists I’m now referring to were a small band known simply as: “Regionalists.”

Though seen as connected with wider movements like: “The American Scene,” and “Neue Sachlichkiet,” and of course portraits of dentists holding hayforks notwithstanding, artists like Benton and Wood constructed some of the most original and influential compositions of the twentieth century. And they did this, not by jumping on board the modernist’s bandwagon, but not by completely ignoring it either. Whether they were openly willing to admit it or not, these painters maintained a neutral position by pioneering what are now leading-edge principles of design: The Savanna Preference, Contour Bias, Storytelling etc., and thus creating triumphant comprehensive images by harmonizing (not polarizing) realism with modern emotive strategies. [11]

Nevertheless, while the Regionalists were keeping busy as some of the last 20th century artists to explore the possibilities of an appealing synthesis, opposing criticism, from both sides of the art debate, was unavoidably nipping at their heels. This fact would have profound consequences on the fate of these painters, finally coercing them to a point where they felt the need to take sides.

Oddly enough, the first negative criticism the Regionalists received came from the traditional/imitative camp. Apparently their use of composition and feeling to exaggerate and idealize nature proved to be too much for the ardent social realists of the day. Brushing it off, they forged ahead to achieve a remarkable amount of success for their time. Yet, they were soon chastised again only this time by the Modernists. Not so much directly, but more through oratorical implications from a popular lobby which was against anything that appeared too overtly sentimental or 3-dimensionally naturalistic when it came to judging a worthwhile painting. [12]

No one can cite the Regionalists’ motives for certain; maybe they felt bitter about having to defend themselves against both camps. Maybe they were affectedly emboldened by their newly found fame. Maybe they felt that the laissez-faire attitude of the modernists what too much for their folksy identity-politics… maybe it was a little of all three. Whatever the reason, Benton and Wood decided to publicly position themselves, not with the realist camp per-sé, but definitely against Modernism.[13] This was a rash decision by which the major damaging fallout would be compounded threefold:

First, they took their side of the argument to sympathetic national and international news outlets. This would bring this war out of the mostly sequestered classrooms, museums and barrooms, which had hitherto been the primary arenas of debate, and thrust it wholeheartedly into the public eye. Second, taken out of context, a lot of their stump-boasting felt eerily similar to that of the NSDAP and its intolerable sentiments toward modern art. [14] Finally, and in my opinion by far the worst, much of the magic in the work of the Regionalists was not autonomous of, but dependent on the expressive principles of modern painting. By positioning themselves in this manner they only managed to bite a feeding hand and literally paint themselves into a corner.

Conceding to an extreme case of what Robert Clagett would probably call a, “not invented here complex," these obviously cosmopolitan painters rhetorically isolated themselves from any sort of cosmopolitan venue -- hence the moniker Regionalism. [15] Strictly fixing the breath of their sights on America’s rural parts, they would continue their freethinking experiments with nature and composition only to increasingly find themselves compromised and stifled by one-sided statements regarding localism, artistic direction and culture in general; even worse they pulled other realists, who weren’t even part of their bucolic assertions, along with them. [16]

Swept under high-art’s rug of impracticality and nostalgia by many of his colleagues and peers, Wood ultimately felt challenged enough by these negative repercussions that he found it difficult to carry on with his former unselfconscious strength. Just before he died (at age 50) he confided in Benton that he was considering a fresh start in a completely new style; a proposition that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to this particular artist but telling nonetheless. [17] Benton would live out the rest of his days teaching and painting his way. But, there seemed to be a perpetual aura of bitterness about him as he wasted much of his precious energy and time in fruitless back-and-forths with the ascending Nuevo-art crowd. [18]

Adding insult to injury, Benton’s own pupil, Pollock, would rebelliously go on to achieve great heights within the opposition, not by casting aside the clumsy idioms of the Regionalists and rediscovering their initial harmonious tactics, but instead by shackling himself to the chic ultimatums of the then winning nonrepresentational camp. Eventually he would become the poster-boy for both Abstract-Expressionism and America’s campaign to outshine Europe as the new venue for all things arty.

However, this adamant stance would take its toll on Pollock as well, both in regards to his health and his admittedly fruitless struggle to reintroduce the recognizable to his nonfigurative art. [19] Unable to continue painting, he would die a tragic depressive death (at age 44) only to have his mojo soon eclipsed by the next big thing: a flashy non-painterly style of populist appropriation that didn’t believe in bad taste and poetically prophesized that everyone would soon be briefly famous. [20]

* * *

Finding a Way Out
"It is only through extremes that mankind can arrive at the middle path of wisdom and virtue."
--Wilhelm von Humboldt

As you can see, this story isn’t a very functional one and from here it only got worse. With no end in sight to the bickering, heartache and limitation, aesthetic interests and even the craft of painting itself became hesitant and embarrassingly antiquated. [21] While some of the most recognized post-mod artists went on to subject each other to a tedious gauntlet of idea mongering and licentious one-upping. [22] But, the most puzzling part of all is that the impetus behind the original conflict, which ultimately lead to this post-mod questioning and near abandonment of painting, was based on a charade devoid of any and all pragmatism.

I have interviewed hundreds of artists from all over the world, Realist, Impressionist, Surreal, Abstract/Mod, Pop, Minimal/Conceptual, Post-Mod, Installation, Performance, Photo/Vid, Graffiti, Pop-Surreal, artists who hate paintings but love sculpture, artists who love color but hate tone, artists from the country, artists from the city… the list of diversity goes on and on. And when the chips were down, not one of them could ever look me in the eye and say: “My art has improved so much now that I’ve decided to omit any semblance of the figurative wonders of nature.” Or: “I just created the most brilliant thing and it’s all because I cast the abstractions of design and composition to the wind.”

The experiential world possesses an unbroken formless potential for form just as much as it does a form filled potential for formlessness. We tend to find meaning and enhancement in our visual environments by representing the former through abstract design and the later through figurative simulation. However, our endeavor to emotively communicate with shapes and abstract signifiers has never been unproblematic; there is no universal color for laughter, figure for sorrow or pattern for apathy.

The effort to pit compositional design and figurative-naturalism against each other (in painting or any other form of artistic expression) certainly didn’t make the adventure any easier though. Actually, I think it’s safe to say that this attempted disunion may have been one of the biggest cultural hindrances of the twentieth century; the snares of which still haven’t been fully understood or disabled. [23] These two elements have been, and always will be, symbiotic counterparts – friends not enemies. And those who still tell you otherwise are likely to be misleading you or themselves.  

What’s high culture and what’s low culture is a debate which has been going on for a pretty long time. And, our all too human tendency to search out and detain artifacts that support our values and ideals when it comes to these squabbles certainly doesn’t relax things any.[24] In many ways the wounds of our previous century’s aesthetic battles are really just a continuing reflection of this compounded situation. Why these arguments persist and to what practicality do they serve? These are questions only you can answer for yourself. Just know that whatever conclusions you may come to, if they stand in the way of honesty quiddity and the general achievement of what is humanly possible, you’re liable to be moving in the wrong direction.

Nonetheless, when we examine many of the late 20th and current 21st century painterly factions now underway, it’s plain to see that more than a few are willing to re-calibrate their compasses and cast aside any remainders of doubt and opposition; even if some of the institutions that are supposed to help guide them won’t. [25] Painters usually heal quicker than mulish academics and critics; they have to because they’re the ones who are actually making stuff. And when the last remaining stalwarts of this “art war” finally find the wisdom and character to confess the sins of the past century, they’re going to discover that a whole bunch of initiators, at the beginning of this century, already did it for them… and that makes me smile.

* * *

[1] “Composition: Understanding Line, Notan & Color,” Dow, J.M. Bowles Publishing, Boston, 1899, pgs. 4 & 44.
[2] “The Story of Art,” E.H. Gombrich, Phaidon Press, 1995, pgs. 248-252.
[3] “I, Michelangelo”, Illetschko, Prestel, 2004. pgs. 109-125.
“History of Art,” Janson, Harry Abrams Inc. 2001, pg. 258.
[4] “The Story of Art,” E.H. Gombrich, Phaidon Press, 1995, pgs. 409-533.
[5] “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists,” Chilvers, Oxford Press, 1990, pg. 373.
“The Impressionists With Tim Marlow,” (documentary film) Written By: Marlow, Directed by: Grabsky, Distributed by: Seventh-Art, 2009.
[6] “The Story of Art,” E.H. Gombrich, Phaidon Press, 1995, Pg. 574.
“History of Art,” Janson, Harry Abrams Inc. 2001, pg. 776.
“The Principals of Psychology,” James, 1890, Harvard University Press, 1983.
[7] “The Rape of Europa,” (documentary film) Written By: Berge & Nicholas, Directed by: Berge & Cohen, Distributed by: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2007.
[8] “The Shock of the New,” Hughes, Random House Inc., 1980, pgs. 112-163.
[9] “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists,” Chilvers, Oxford Press, 1990, pg. 87.
[10] Avant-Garde & Kitsch, Greenberg, Partisan Review, 1939. “Benton, Pollock & The politics of Modernism,” Doss, University of Chicago Press, 1991, pgs. 311-358.
[11]“The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists,” Chilvers, Oxford Press, 1990, pg. 385. “Grant Wood, An American Master Revealed,” Roberts, Dennis, Horns & Parkin, Pomegranate Artbooks, 1995, pg. 19
“Universal Principles of Design,” Lidwell, Holden & Butler, Rockport Inc. 2003, pgs. 62, 212, 230.
[12] “The Definition of Neo-Traditionalism,” Maurice Denis, 1890. “Parnassus,” Volume XII - Number 8, Longman, 1940.
[13] “Grant Wood, A Study in American Art & Culture,” Dennis, University of Missouri Press, 1975, pg. 144.
Time Magazine (cover story) “U.S. Scene,” Christmas Eve, 1934.
[14] “Renegade Regionalists,” Dennis, University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, pgs. 69-89. “Grant Wood, A Study in American Art & Culture,” Dennis, University of Missouri Press, 1975, pg. 10. “The Rape of Europa,” (documentary film) Written By: Berge & Nicholas, Directed by: Berge & Cohen, Distributed by: Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2007.
[15] “Grant Wood, A Study in American Art & Culture,” Dennis, University of Missouri Press, 1975, pg. 150.
[16] “Grant Wood, A Study in American Art & Culture,” Dennis, University of Missouri Press, 1975, pg. 146.
[17] “Grant Wood’s Studio,” Milosch, Prestel, 2005, pg. 29 “A Short History of American Painting,” Flexner, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950, pg.99.
[18] “Ken Burns' America: Thomas Hart Benton,” (documentary film) Written & Directed By: Ken Burns, Distributed by: Public Broadcasting System, 1988.
[19] “History of Art,” Janson, Harry Abrams Inc. 2001, pg. 814.
“To A Violent Grave,” Potter, Putnam Publishing Inc., 1985 pg. 225.
[20] ]“The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art & Artists,” Chilvers, Oxford Press, 1990, pg. 367.
“American Art, a Cultural History,”Bjelac, Harry Abrams Inc.,2001, pgs. 367-372.
[21] Baldessari’s Commissioned Paintings, 1969, Molly Barnes& Richard Feigen Galleries.
[22] “The Shock of the New,” Hughes, Random House Inc., 1980, pgs. 385-387.
[23], posted January 5, 2012. "Carmen Tisch Charged With Criminal Mischief After Punching, Urinating Next To A $30 Million Clyfford Still Painting".
[24] “The Epic of Gilgamesh: A Spiritual Biography,” Thackara, Sunrise magazine, October 1999–February 2000, Theosophical University Press.
[25] “Art Talk,”, posted July 21, 2012, “Should Art Schools Ignore the Art Market,” Edward Goldman.