Friday, April 30, 2010

The last couple of years I've listened to my friends express increasing dislike and confusion with Modern Art, even the ones studying Art History, and there's something wrong when even an Art History major isn't sure what Modern Art is. The problem, I feel, is that the time hasn't been taken to coherently discuss what exactly is going on. Modernism is a very messy subject, my previous English professors willingly expressed as much, and often times people who lecture about it are so caught up in the idea that they forget to explain where the idea comes from.

I consider myself lucky that my primary introduction to Modernism was through literature because, for one, literature is easy to understand because it normally has to be comprehensible for anyone to read it, and two, most of us have a fairly good understanding about what has happened in literature in the past as it's being rehashed and re-imaged by Hollywood. Let's look at The Princess Bride, for example. The film version has the story told by a grandfather to his sick grandson portrayed by Fred Savage, and every qualm Savage's character has with the story are recognizable cliches. Like how Buttercup wouldn't actually marry Prince Humperdink because she has to be saved by Westly, her one true love, and saying that she did means you're telling the story wrong. We all know that the dashing guy gets the girl, that's what we learned from past storytelling, and modern literature and films take the idea of what we know and play off of it.

The same is true for Modern Art. In order to understand what the artist is trying to say through their art, we first have to know what they're referencing. But unlike literature, art is communicated visually, not through text, so it doesn't necessarily have to be comprehensible in the way that literature has to be. An artist can throw a lot of images on their canvas in abstract ways that we can immediately recognize because we know what that image means. For example, if the image has a mixture of four legs, a long tail, small pointy ears, and whiskers, it's likely to be a cat. Literature, on the other hand, is crutched by proper grammar. The sentences have to be structured correctly for us to understand what the author is trying to tell us, so for us to know that we're supposed to be seeing a cat, the author has to tell us as much.

Cubism is generally accepted as the first movement to introduce the idea of abstraction in art and literature. One of the most notable Cubist painters is, you guessed it, Picasso.

 The Dream by Pablo Picasso. 1932. Oil on canvas.

Here we have a woman dreaming as indicated by the title of the painting. We know it's a woman because he has given her features that are normally associated with women: breasts, jewelry, red lips, and a round face. I would go so far as to say it's suggested that the woman has long blonde hair that's disappearing behind her shoulder, but the other indications of femininity overshadow the importance of length of hair determining gender.

What's abstracted in this image is the proportions of her body, the relation of space and depth between her, the chair she's sitting in, and the wall behind her. We can also see a very bold black line indicating the profile of her nose. Also note how her body has been broken down into simple shapes, as well as the background.

Okay, so Picasso has drawn a basic image of a woman sleeping, now what? What does that mean? Well, it could be a reference to the portrayal of sleeping women in previous paintings where women are typically highly sexualized in their depiction, and women lounging on couches, beds, and whatnot was a popular trend. In The Dream we can see that, despite the woman clearly wearing clothes, you can make out the full shape of her left breast and nipple because it appears that whatever she's wearing is falling off of her bust, similar to the portraits of women who, despite superfluous amounts of drapery, tend to show every bit of their body. Picasso could simply be following this tradition in his own style, or, due to the heavy criticism he and fellow Cubist often faced, could be drawing attention to the theme itself.

However, sometimes abstraction isn't noticeable in the art, but the actual idea of the art itself.

The Treachery of Images  by Rene Magritte. 1928-29. Oil on canvas.

The translation of the text is "This is not a pipe." The idea behind this is that the text, taken at a literal level, is incorrect because the painting is just an image of a pipe. The title of the painting and the text itself suggest that perhaps we tend to look at paintings on too literal of a level since most of us, including me, automatically think something is wrong with Magritte because this is obviously a pipe. When we look at art on just one level, we miss what else it could represent and what else it can say.

On the other hand, when authors try to introduce abstraction into their works, it doesn't turn it quite as well. For example, Gertrude Stein, considered part of the Cubist Movement, was a close friend of Picasso's and tried to implement the idea of abstraction in her written works and was often met with harsh criticism.


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Objects, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein. 1914.
Here Stein used the idea of refraction and abstraction by chopping up her image into these descriptive snippets. Unfortunately, they're so abstracted that it's hard to say what exactly she's trying to describe and what she wants the reader to think, other than forcing us to read literature a different way. As you can see, literature requires a certain amount of coherency in order for a message to be relayed. This is mainly due to the restrictions in writing itself as we need structure in order to understand it.

We can guess that Stein was probably writing glass in some way, but whether she's looking through the glass at another object, if the actual object is the glass, if something is shining through the glass, well...that probably requires more time to think and speculate than any of us really care to have.

Abstraction can work in literature, though. We can see this in the portrayal of Espers in the Demolished Man by Alfred Bester written in 1953. The following example is taken from Wikipedia:

Frankly                     Canapes?                       Why
   Ellery                     Thanks       delicious     yes,
      I                           Mary, they're        Tate,
       Don't                                         I'm
         Think                                   treating
           You'll          Canapes?              D'Courtney.
 We            Be                                       I
brought         Working                                Expect
  Galen           For                                     him
    along          Monarch                                   in
       to           Much   Canapes?                           town
help him celebrate     Longer.                                 shortly.
                He's      The 
          just taken his Guild
                         is   exam
                      just       and
                     about         been
                     to              classed

For some context, Espers are psychics, and they mostly communicate through thought with each other. It's explained that they can see these thoughts as if they're hanging in the air, and most often tend to play with their communications as if they're images instead of writing. Here we see that they've strung several conversations into a sort of web, where each line of words represents someone speaking, and each grouped off set of lines is likely separate conversations.

How Bester uses abstraction is to change the way words are presented to us, and initially it can be challenging for Western readers to read up and down instead of left to right, and that the order in which the words are placed is somewhat loose. However, Bester still adheres to basic grammar, acknowledging that it's necessary, even for Espers, for communication.

From these examples we can see that Modern Art doesn't necessarily function on a literal level that we're familiar with. It asks us to recognize what is being abstracted, and then recognize how it is being abstracted in order to understand the meaning behind it. I think that we often find it difficult to figure out what exactly is going on with Modern Art because we're geared into having messages conveyed to us within a certain amount of communicative coherency. In our technological age, we consume through reading and hearing snippets, and all these snippets need to be immediately recognizable and understandable from the get-go. We're so used to having information fed to us that we often don't like and perhaps don't know how to decipher information being presented to us indirectly. With this in mind, try looking at a piece of Modern Art and see if you can discern the abstract qualities of it in order to figure out what the artist is trying to say. Here's one to start with:

 Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. 1917. Urinal.


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